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The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

Often real life is more horrific than anything that could be dreamed up. Liao Yiwu risked his life to bring stories from post-Cultural Revolution China and has been jailed for his truth-seeking, which led to a mental breakdown. At times he had to commit the information he gleaned from interviews to memory, so he wouldn’t be caught with the evidence on his person.

The Corpse Walker is a collection of these interviews, which Yiwu has smuggled out of the country in bits and pieces to be put up on the Internet because of the censorship laws in China. It’s a heartbreaking collection. During the famine in China from 1958 to 1961, one interview subject recounts his life in the mountains of China and how children went missing, especially girl children. The villagers were turning into cannibals because of starvation, and girls were deemed less valuable because of Chairman Mao’s one-child-per-family rule.

Another thing some of the people did to stave off hunger pains is eat bricks made of clay. There was no nutritional value in them, but they did keep the belly full for awhile. One unfortunate consequence of eating the bricks was very bad constipation, and an interview subject describes in detail coming upon a scene where oil enemas are being given.

One story that particularly got to me is of two brothers. Before Mao rose to power, the brothers inherited their father’s land and accumulated wealth. One brother squandered his fortune on opium and women, becoming a drug addict. The other worked his land and saved and scrimped to raise his family in comfortable circumstances. After Mao declared landowners evil, this hardworking brother is reduced to the most miserable circumstances, forced into poverty and shunned by his community. His drug addict brother rises to a prominent position within the party and tells his brother essentially, “You should have been like me–all your hard work has come to nothing.”

All of these interviews expose a system where the undeserving are rewarded, and those whose values would be lauded in the Western world (honesty, perseverance, loyalty)–well, those people are punished and forced to shoulder unimaginable burdens.

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