As Studs Terkel did for American workers in "Working" and other books of oral history, so Liao does for the Chinese in this wide-ranging collection of interviews. From landowners to restroom attendants, from former Red Guards to Tiananmen parents, from professional mourners, feng shui practitioners, and fortune tellers to safecrackers and human traffickers, Liao encourages the ordinary people of China to tell their extraordinary stories.
A dissident poet and journalist who has himself been imprisoned, Liao has talked to everyone. Twin themes of incredible cruelty and quiet endurance run through the interviews. Some of the exchanges are hilarious, many of the accounts are deeply disturbing and tragic, and all of them portray the rapid changes China has undergone since the 1949 communist victory.
A Red Guard tells of torturing a school principal who had dedicated his life to the revolutionary cause, only to be accused at the start of the Cultural Revolution of forcing Western science on his students. The principal committed suicide. When asked if he ever felt he had gone too far the former Guard says:
"I was born into a family of blue-collar workers. The Cultural Revolution offered me the opportunity to finally trample on these elite. It was glorious. I couldn't get enough of it."
The human trafficker, Qian, interviewed in prison, describes how China's shortage of girls led to his success in the kidnapping and forced marriage business. He discovered the money to be made by selling his own daughters. "What do they know about happiness?" Qian responds when Liao expresses distaste. "My daughters are the children of a poor peasant."
Liao does not bother with Western journalism's objectivity. After Qian brags about his lying skills, Liao concludes the interview: "If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off."
No one has escaped China's political upheaval. The title interview, "The Corpse Walker," describes an old custom in which, back in unpaved China, people who died far from home would be taken on foot back to their families. But what starts out as a rather colorful, curious tale of an outmoded profession turns tragic as mob bloodlust and class hatred intervene.
The Cultural Revolution transformed a generation. Education was devalued, lives were blighted, torture and execution were common. The stories are heart-rending, but most of the tellers are more philosophical and fatalistic than bitter.
There is overall agreement that life in China is better these days, though many find the preoccupation with money ironic and a few lament the passing of their professions. The professional mourner describes how funeral rituals have changed, incorporating pop songs and limos. "People are not what they used to be. They don't even pretend to be sorrowful."
These very particular, individual stories breathe life into swathes of history. A Buddhist abbot describes an old woman's generosity during the widespread starvation of the 1960-61 famine, an old man tells of forsaking his bright revolutionary future for the love of a politically incompatible woman during the Cultural Revolution, a peasant matter-of-factly demonstrates the still destructive power of superstition (and the gulf between city and country) in "The Leper."
Liao's sympathetic and insightful interviews paint a complex, often breathtaking portrait of a convulsive period in a vast land.