Contemporary Chinese writer and government critic Liao Yiwu first began writing his memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison, in 1993, three years after he was imprisoned for composing the incendiary poem “Massacre,” a response to the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square. He spent three years of his four-year sentence at the Song Mountain Investigation Center before being transferred to a labor camp in Sichuan Province.

At Song Mountain, Liao endured frequent abuse not only at the hands of the center’s guards and interrogators but also from within: the center relied on a rigid inmate hierarchy to enforce order in the cells. For punishment, Liao writes, an inmate would be forced to pick a “dish” from the Song Mountain “menu,” which included such delicacies as “Stewed Ox Nose: The enforcer rams two fingers up the inmate’s nose until it bleeds,” among 108 dishes.

Once at the labor camp, Liao would write by night “crouched on my bunker bed like a hen hatching eggs, scribbling furiously on scraps of papers.” Despite his efforts to hide his manuscript, it was confiscated repeatedly; it has taken Liao over 18 years to complete and publish For a Song and a Hundred Songs.

When Liao was released from prison in 1994, his wife left him, taking his daughter, who had been born shortly after his arrest, with her. He lived for a time as a homeless street musician before escaping to Germany in 2011, where he now resides. Liao is an exile from his home country; all his writing is currently banned in China.

The excerpt that follows was taken from the last chapter of his memoir, in which he recounts the story of the Buddhist monk Sima, whose jailbird flute lessons helped Liao to maintain his sanity in the brutal world of the Chinese prison system.

—Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor 

A Lesson of Weightlessness, 2009.
A Lesson of Weightlessness, 2009.

As my secret writing progressed, my work status also improved. A few days later, without any explanation, the authorities promoted me and assigned me to work at the central control office. With the new job, I no longer needed to get up in the predawn hours.

My daily duty ended after lunch was delivered. One afternoon, as I came back to the empty building, a gust of cold wind swept the sun away. I shivered with cold. I dashed into the dormitory and climbed up to my warm bed to start my writing.

As I was trying to organize my thoughts, my ears picked up the almost imperceptible sounds of weeping on the breeze that came through the tiny window of my second-floor cell. I rose from the bed—it was not weeping, but a flute playing music unlike anything I had ever heard in concert halls.

I took a half carton of cheap cigarettes from my locker and went down to the courtyard, where I bribed the guard to tell me where the music was coming from. “The clinic,” he said gruffly, and he tucked the cigarettes inside his jacket. Through an archway off the courtyard, I followed a long corridor that, after three turns, led me to an open space. To the right was the entrance to the prison clinic. I winced at the smell of pungent antiseptic mixed with the stench of a nearby ditch of excrement.

I found the flautist leaning against a steep wall topped by tendrils of barbed wire and ivy reaching into the sky. His big round bald head sat atop an emaciated body. He seemed oblivious to my presence, and as he blew, his shoulders heaved up and down inside his blue cotton-padded uniform jacket. The tune meandered like a mountain stream, its volume surging in parts, then trickling away to become almost inaudible, drying up to virtually nothing. I could see him playing but I could not hear any sound. What I heard on that day was actually a short tune, but it seemed to linger on and on, unrushed, as if it would take a lifetime to finish.

Time glided by, and soon I felt the dampness from the frozen ground travel up through my body and seep into my bones. My knees began shaking, my teeth chattering. Though the upper half of the prison walls was bathed in sunlight and several sparrows perched quietly on the barbed wire, the space around us was shaded and cold, and a sharp wind blew.

The old man wiped away tears from the cold wind or raw emotion, I could not tell which, and wrapped his flute in a ragged piece of worn cloth. He raised his head and smiled at me, an idiotic young man, shivering but happy. I smiled back. I guess it was karma.

“You want to learn how to play?” he asked. I nodded.

“You need to find a decent flute,” he said, then turned and hurried away.

The flautist’s name was Sima, a former Buddhist monk and the prison’s oldest inmate. He was 84 and had a janitorial job at the clinic. For more than a decade he was seen holding either a broom or a flute with eight holes. His sweeping was precise and measured. During breaks he would sit out in the courtyard and play his flute, as though emptying himself of desolation and loneliness. The sadness that emanated from that hollow bamboo stick seemed out of character for someone who was, or at least had been, a Buddhist monk supposedly detached from worldly suffering. One prisoner who heard me talk about Monk Sima mocked him as an illiterate. “That old monk doesn’t know how to read, so he thinks if he plays his flute it will make up for not studying scripture.” 

That Door is Often Kept Closed, 2009.
That Door is Often Kept Closed, 2009.

Monk Sima’s past was a mystery to me and to the others, although there was much speculation. One version had the ring of truth: when he was the abbot at a nearby temple, he was accused by the government of belonging to a huidaomen—a superstitious sect. Thehuidaomen were declared illegal as subversive cults after the Communists took over China in 1949, but many were rumored to be still active in parts of the countryside. When Monk Sima’s case reached police attention in 1982, investigators initially doubted a venerated abbot could be a cultist. But under interrogation Sima refused to speak, so he was deprived of sleep and tortured. After a month, he gave his interrogators just three profound sentences: “I have committed sins. So have you. We are all sinful.” The court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

After I met the monk, his bamboo flute danced in my mind. In the following week, I drew it on a piece of paper with some instructions and mailed it with a letter to my mother. Fortunately, it reached her unimpeded, and she said she ran around the city for several days, managing to find five flutes of different designs, which she brought with her on her next visit.

But the fruits of my mother’s efforts did not meet muster with the monk. “None of these will work,” he said, barely glancing at them. A month later, my mother came back with five more. The monk examined each of them carefully and selected one he said might make a “half-decent” sound. He had me soak the flute in water for seven days, scrape the paint and ornaments from the surface, and bury it in the snow for a couple more days before letting it dry out in the wind.

On a sunny day following a big winter storm, we began our lessons. I was in my cell and Sima stood outside, near the window. I put my hands in front of my chest, palm to palm, and prayed silently. When I opened my eyes again, I saw my teacher raise his flute to his lips. “Breathe . . . ,” he instructed. I needed to take the air I inhaled and direct it to my dantian, a place beneath my lower abdomen, and then gradually let it out. The process, well-paced and controlled, would transform the air inside my lungs into an energy flow that would circulate through my body and heart. Seduced by music, I put aside my writing.

At the beginning, the bamboo flute was stubborn; no matter how hard I blew into it, no sound came out. When I finally managed to produce some awkward notes, they reminded me of the noise of the bellows that villagers use to fan the flames in the cooking stove. Even so, the noise brought me hope and encouraged me to blow harder. Soon I felt a pain in my chest. My head was about to explode. The monk counseled from outside my window, “Control your breathing.” I grew despondent. I was focusing on my flute when my cellmates from the night shift swarmed in. As they disrobed and lay down on their bunk beds to sleep, it was made clear that I should leave. I took my flute and went down to the courtyard where, looking directly at the dazzling sun, I saw seven or eight images of my teacher within the blinding fireball. The cold, unceasing wind battered his face.

That night an inmate I knew as Crazy Wino was jogging around the courtyard, his feet pounding on the snow-covered ground. He ran year-round, always wearing the same cotton-padded hat with earflaps and a scarf. Everyone compared him to Hua Ziliang, a character in a well-known revolutionary novel.

In the book, Hua was imprisoned by the Kuomintang but refused to betray his comrades. To protect himself he feigned insanity by jogging up and down the courtyard all day long in all weather.

I wondered what Crazy Wino was up to and decided to join him. Carrying my flute, I easily outpaced him and then began lapping him around the courtyard. We soon drew a crowd. “Wow, there is another crazy hero here, an iron man!” They applauded every time I gained a lap on him. I was basking in their attention when Crazy Wino turned around and began running toward me.

Before I knew what was happening, a row of yellow teeth flashed in front of my eyes and sank into my forehead. Crazy Wino was angry as a rabbit gone wild. We fell down in a writhing mass on top of a pile of snow. A roar went up from the crowd as they egged us on. It took several of my fellow ’89ers to break up the fight. Crazy Wino wore a mad smile on his face, his protruding teeth showing traces of my blood.

I picked up my flute and walked away, tending to the wound on my forehead, but felt nothing of what should have been searing pain. Of course, the fight got me into trouble with the prison authorities. “A country is governed by law and the prison is managed by rules,” the warden told the assembled prisoners soon after the courtyard incident. “Liao is a political prisoner, but he should be subjected to the same punishment accorded a common criminal.”

Amid thunderous applause, two inmates came forward, shackled my hands and feet, and escorted me from the well-lit common areas of the prison to a section shrouded in darkness. I was pushed tottering along a corridor that reeked of mildew and urine.

At the end of the corridor a door clanked open and in I went. My head hit the low, damp ceiling, sending cold shivers down my spine, and as I reached up to touch it drops of water ran like a slimy snake into my sleeve. I was trembling. “Hello? Anybody in here?”

The door clanged shut, and after the sound of footsteps was gone there was nothing but silence and emptiness. I felt around me and touched a stone bed. I sat still. I could hear rats squealing and running around, and as I swept the floor with my foot, the shackles around my leg caught a metal toilet container, knocking it over onto the floor. I was immediately returned mentally to my days at the squalid detention center.

Several hours must have passed. The rancid air was stifling. Bugs bit me all over my body, and my scratching became incessant. I grew as hungry as the insects.

I was fed twice a day—a small bowl of rotten rice—and the hunger gnawed at my stomach. I wrapped myself in a quilt, assumed the lotus position, and took to meditating. “Breathe,” I imagined I heard the monk whisper in my ear. I inhaled, trying to push the air down deep, and then carefully exhaled. Again. Again. Again. Cold sweat trickled down my spine, and the bugs droned around me. I suppressed the urge to gag at the stench as I held my imaginary flute, fingers pressed to the holes, and began to play. The world was reduced again to nothing.

Between my exertions I lay down on the stone bed, at rest like a pool of still water hidden inside a deep, dark cave. Inside this big stomach called the universe, the earth was only a tiny pearl of undigested grain, human beings merely the grain’s molecules. Breathe, I ordered myself, and drifted into unconsciousness. I spent two weeks this way, in the dark. Outside, my fellow ’89ers staged a hunger strike to protest against my punishment, similar to the one for Lei [a fellow inmate and dissident]. When I emerged, like a veteran soldier returning from the battlefield, I was given a warm welcome, with my fellow inmates piling on my bed the food they had saved for me from their daily rations. “We will always act as one,” Lei assured me.

Fortunately, I was able to gain back my old job at the central control office. Each day, after I delivered lunches of rice and soup to my fellow inmates, I would return and devote the rest of my time to the flute. Sometimes I directed my attention to the courtyard outside. Everything seemed so familiar: the tall, drab walls, the entangled barbed wire, the stern-looking guards and their patrol dogs. Once, just for a moment, I saw the back of a woman flash by. It had been so long and I was tortured with desire. Slapping myself, I took up my flute to the sound of a weepy tune I heard in the distance. “Teacher,” I called out.

It took three months, but I learned to master the flow of air and energy inside my body. If nothing else, my circulation improved and my face glowed with new health. Every few days, Sima would appear outside my window, gesture some brief instructions, and then leave. Not long after, I would hear a tune rising from the place where I first saw him. I would listen, trying to appreciate and absorb the essence of the piece.

One day, when my younger sister, Xiao Fei, came to visit, bringing packages of food, she told me before saying good-bye, “Mum and Dad hope you don’t give up your writing.”

Yu Tian, a poet friend, also showed up unexpectedly, arguing and begging his way past the guards. He told them I was his cousin. “Your cousin is doing pretty well here,” the friend was told. “He plays the flute every day, like a free-spirited deity.”

I hadn’t seen my friend for many years, and his visit brought back a flood of memories. While he filled me in on the news and gossip he had learned of our former poet friends, I must have looked bored; these memories had long since vanished for me. Yu Tian went on, “Hey, how come you act so indifferently to everything now?”

“All the things you just told me . . . don’t seem to have anything to do with me anymore,” I stammered. “I feel like I have no past.”

“No past?” he snapped. “You are in jail because of your past.”

I took in his disheveled hair, his tired, bloodshot eyes, not knowing how to respond. He had traveled thousands of miles to see me, a disgraced poet, who used to be like him. How disappointed he must have been to hear me dismiss my past in this way!

Some Dust, 2009.
Some Dust, 2009.

In April, green vines crawled over the prison walls. The sky was a clear blue. Quite alarmingly, Sima almost succumbed to an often fatal disease. I was not allowed to look after him, but I made sure he received some of the food my family sent. Returning one afternoon from my usual lunch delivery duties, I snuck into the ward to see him and was surprised to find that he was sitting outside, dozing in the sun, his flute between his knees. He woke at the sound of my approaching footsteps. I bowed, gently shook his hands, and asked about his health.

“I was about to play a tune to let you know that the illness has receded,” he said.

He struggled to his feet and raised his flute, but he seemed to lack the strength to begin. After failing several times to draw a sound, he flung the flute against his chair. “You and I have accompanied each other for decades,” he yelled at the flute. “You damn fucker. You are taunting me for getting old.”

“Teacher, don’t be too hard on yourself,” I urged.

When he tried again, the flute came to life, the jagged notes conjuring up the image of an aging warrior sharpening his rusty knife by the river. His tune, a melancholy one about autumn, wavered in the air.

The old monk sighed. “I don’t care if I live or die. I have to play a couple of tunes a day before I can rest. Oh well.” And with that, he returned to his chair, placing the flute horizontally on his lap. Teacher and student sat silently, face-to-face. I could see he had reached the autumn of his life and tried to think how to lift his spirits. “Teacher, the tune you just played was about autumn. Why not perform something for the spring?”

“What are you talking about?” he replied. “There is no season here. For the flute, it is always autumn.”

The monk dismissed me with a laugh, and I was embarrassed. Sweat beaded on my forehead.

“I play simple folk tunes, popular in the rural areas. They’ve been passed down from generation to generation; most don’t have proper names. Please preserve them and pass them on. I am a monk, but you are a man with a heart and feelings.”

“What do you mean by ‘a heart and feelings’?” I asked.

“Worldly feelings,” he answered.

I thought about what my sister and Yu Tian had said to me. I knew that I should resume my writing, but the flute prevailed. I sensed a conflict within me, a conflict between spiritual yearning and worldly ambition.

With the arrival of summer, my musical technique improved. I practiced afternoon and evening, my repetitions annoying the inmates and guards to the point that a mere note was met with loud protests. I moved my practice sessions to the latrines, where I hoped to cause less of an inconvenience. One evening, someone squatting over the pit called out mockingly for a popular romantic tune to help ease his bowel movement. I took the request seriously and played “My Home Bathed in Moonlight.” Midway through the piece the moon broke through the clouds, and those out strolling in the cool air were drawn toward the latrines on hearing my music. I was surprised by their applause.

An inmate at the urinal slapped his stomach and went about his business. A joke quickly spread about how my music “stunk.” My sessions in the latrines began to draw crowds. Someone would ask for a favorite tune and, if I knew it, I would comply; if I didn’t, I promised to learn it for the next time. It was suggested that I join some of the other musicians among the inmates—players of the guitar, the erhu, and even the suona, a type of oboe. We were the latrine madrigalists. When we were asked to rehearse a concerto and present the piece at a holiday celebration to showcase our talents and please the authorities, I abandoned whatever dignity and principles I had left and performed like an obsequious dog. Brandishing my flute, I played lighthearted tunes with vigor, gyrating like a rock musician, eyes closed and head bobbing up and down, soaking up the applause.

“Life in prison is really no different from life outside,” he said. “Here, the circle that confines you is merely smaller.”

Sima, my pure mentor, was clearly not impressed by my new self-regard and swagger. Gently, he asked me to put my flute down. “You have established quite a reputation lately.”

It was like a bucket of ice-cold water being poured over my head. “Life in prison is really no different from life outside,” he said. “Here, the circle that confines you is merely smaller.”

I stared down at the mouth of my flute. A thousand words clogged my throat, but not a single one came out.

“You can go now,” my teacher said. I turned and left. For days after, I felt lost. If the whole world is another prison, a bigger circle of confinement, what’s the point of living?

What I had failed to grasp was that Sima had resigned himself to playing the flute. I, on the other hand, in my prime, my blood boiling inside my veins, had a choice. I realized that I could not hope to inherit his techniques and philosophy because we were on different sides of the river of age. We could build bridges to span that river, but there would be no crossing them. I began to approach my music from a different, if not opposite, direction.

“Your music radiates vitality and energy,” the old monk said when our paths crossed in the courtyard. “You must be nearly finished serving your sentence.”

“Yes, Teacher,” I said dutifully.

“What are you planning to do when you leave here?”

“Find something to do so I can make ends meet, I suppose,” I said. “Now that I have learned how to play flute from you, what else can I do?”

“You are not telling the truth.” He smiled. “Your music conveys a different story, one of more aggressive impulses.”

I was taken by surprise. “Please, offer your guidance,” I implored.

“I’m not blaming you for your worldly ambitions. You are educated and intelligent. You will preserve and pass down the tradition. With more practice, you’ll give meaning to meaningless tunes and vitality to the tired and familiar. You can be on your own now.”

I buried my head between my knees. After that, I was too embarrassed to look my teacher in the eye. Our relationship had come to an end.

Sima stopped coming to the courtyard to give instruction; I no longer heard his flute. He shut himself in his room, refusing visitors, and even my attempts to see him ended with disappointment. I practiced alone in the snow, consumed by sadness, until my energy was gone and I lay shivering in bed. As my temperature soared, my fellow inmates exchanged news of my worsening condition. Their concern was tempered by the excitement my illness injected into the tedium of prison life. “Our lunatic iron man is finally wilting,” they joked. Old Yang, the nurse, came by and prescribed herbs and antibiotics. He told LBF [the poet, activist, and performance artist Li Bifeng] to give him regular updates.

LBF stood by my side for hours at a time, like a loyal guard of the imperial army, moistening my lips with drops of water and forcing me to swallow herb tonic to make me sweat out the fever. I was covered with a heavy quilt. Several times my temperature climbed precipitously, then plunged. My undergarments were soaked and had to be changed every few hours. Finally I wrapped myself naked in the quilt and threw it off when the heat became unbearable. LBF would climb up to my bunk bed, pin me down like a slab of meat to be butchered, and wrap me up again. Soon I would be too weak to struggle and, panting for breath, would surrender.

In my delirium, I asked for my flute, which hung on the wall near my bed, and hugged it to my chest. I mistook LBF for Sima and went on and on about the song “Su Wu Herding the Sheep” and how Sima played it with dozens of variations of rhythms, making it heart-wrenching yet uplifting. He transformed the famous tune by infusing it with his own life until it was not Su Wu of the ancient legend who tended the sheep while exiled in the remote enemy land, but Sima himself.

“I’m sure it made sense to you at the time,” he chuckled later.

My fever broke, but I was very weak. When I was finally able to slide off my bunk and stand before the window, I realized seven days had passed and I had been given new insight into life. I felt transformed, and I was eager to start afresh. I tried my flute but my lungs were weak. I thought I would jog around the courtyard but gasped for air after only two circuits. I heard the familiar flute music, but it sounded empty, devoid of any worldly feeling or attachment. “The monk is only an illusion,” I said.

As my lungs recovered, I resumed my practice. Gradually I felt my music rise more and more from my heart. “A tune is like a corpse,” I told myself. “Once you blow your essence into it, it comes to life and dances at your will.” I tried my hand at the popular revolutionary song “The East Is Red.” LBF told me I had turned the Communist anthem into a funeral dirge.

On January 31, 1994, a week before the New Year, I was informed that I was being considered for early release for good behavior. In shock, I emptied my wallet, bought dried sausages and beef, and began planning a big party for my fellow ’89ers to mark the holiday. I heard nothing more until, late one evening, the guards fetched me from my cell and took me to a room packed with police. I was puzzled. “What crimes have I committed this time?”

An officer patted me on the shoulder. “No crimes; your family is here. Let’s go see them.” I feared this was a trick. “Prisoners are not allowed to step out of their cells in the evenings,” I said. Everyone laughed, and one of my guards said, “When did you start to understand the rules so well?”

I was escorted outside, through several checkpoints and down a slope to the path that led to the outer buildings of the prison. It was a windy night and I crossed my arms tightly over my chest to hold closed my winter coat. My eyes darted among the shadows cast by the dim lights around us and I drew my head down into my collar, fearful I was being led into a death trap.

When we approached the prison administrative building, I realized that I had stopped breathing. We took the stairs to the third floor. A bright light emerged from an office like a beacon.

My relatives were not in the room. Instead, the party secretary sat behind a big desk, beckoning me forward. I was thirsty and he handed me a glass of water. I gulped it down. A film camera was set up in the corner of the room, aiming its lens at the desk. I stood before the desk. I could feel the heat of the high-powered camera lights scorching my head.

“How are things with your flute?” He had a big smile splattered across his face. He gave me no time to respond. “Do you want to spend the New Year’s holiday with your family?”

“Of course,” I said. “But I still have 46 days to go and before I leave, I want my diploma.”

“Diploma?” The party secretary looked puzzled.

“Yes, a diploma, to show I have served out my sentence. In this life, I didn’t have the chance to attend a real university. Instead, I went to prison. I’ve been here for four years. That’s equivalent to an undergraduate degree. I want my diploma.”

“You do have a good sense of humor,” the party secretary said, but his smile had vanished. He shuffled some papers on his desk. “Okay, let’s get down to some serious business. During the past four years, you have abided by the rules and done a good job in reforming yourself. Based on your good performance, the government has decided to grant you an early release. Before we proceed, we need your cooperation on a couple of things.”

“I have said before and I will repeat again: I refuse to write a confession.”

“No one is asking you to give up your previous views and opinions, but you need to express your willingness to change.”

It is easy to say one is willing to change; whether one actually does so is entirely another matter. So, standing at attention, I said smartly, and the party secretary took it as assent, “I am grateful to the government for releasing me ahead of schedule.”

“What are you planning to do after you get out of here?”

“Make a living and support myself.”

“How would you describe your life in here?”

“Better than life at the detention center.”

I don’t know how long the “interview” lasted. We were being filmed the whole time, and under the camera lights I felt like I was sitting too close to a fireplace. I glared at the cameraman, downed another glass of water, and stood up. Sweat streaming down my cheeks, I asked permission to leave. The party secretary waved his hands to say yes, and the show was over.

We didn’t return to my cell. Instead, two guards escorted me to the prison guesthouse, where I was given a single room all to myself. The next morning, I got up and went outside for my routine exercise. The guesthouse stood wedged between two parallel walls that separated the prisoners from the administrators and the outside—a world between worlds.

Two inmates delivered my things, and while the guards weren’t watching, one of them slipped me a scrap of paper. “We have moved all your writings to a safe place. Someone will deliver them to you later. Don’t worry about us. Your friend, LBF.”

I felt at once grateful and guilty. I also felt solidarity with those brought together by the Tiananmen massacre, bound by the same faith. Three days and three nights passed. I played the flute, read, and stared at the sky and at the tall walls that still held me. My mind was a jumble of prison memories so sharp and vivid that my head ached. I wondered about my mother, my wife, and my daughter. In my dreams, Sima came to me, using his flute as a walking stick. I grabbed the front of his shirt, but it changed into a long umbilical cord in a tangle of all my prison memories. Like a clam, heaven and earth sucked my being into their shell.

“Teacher!” I screamed, and I woke as if I had fallen from a great height. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before or expected to experience again, no matter how long I lived. The world outside my window resembled a mirror; the moon in a shiny glass bottle. There was frost in the air, whitening the leaves in the yard. I took up my flute, weathered with time, and wetted its mouth. It tasted salty. I sat facing the prison clinic and played a classic flute tune called “Guest.” A fat, shiny bug squirmed up an old tree. My heart danced wildly and my eardrums popped. But I heard nothing. I played “Yearning,” and sat still for 20 minutes. I wasn’t sure at first of the faint sound that reached my ears. It was unmistakable that Sima was playing. The tune floated out and over the mountain-high walls. Tears welled in my eyes.

Excerpted from For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison, by Liao Yiwu. © 2013 Liao Yiwu. Published by New Harvest June 2013. All rights reserved.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .