The Flute Teacher

A Poet's Journey through a Chinese PrisonLiao Yiwu

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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

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.”

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...

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