Exiled Chinese Writer's New Novel Penned in Secret While in Prison

Liao Yiwu's latest work uses a central metaphor of ants, as apparently powerless but ultimately strong agents of resistance against oppression.

Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu (aka Lao Wei) during the promotion of his book "In the Empire of Darkness," a testimony of four years spent in Chinese prisons, in Paris, Jan.16, 2013.

Exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, who was once jailed for writing a poem commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, has published a novel in German based on a harrowing prison memoir penned on cheap paper during four years behind bars.

"When I look at the cover of this book, I feel very intense emotions," Liao, now based in Germany with his wife and family, told reporters.

The novel's provenance is clear from the dust jacket. In the background of the title, "The Reincarnation of The Ants," is an image of the tiny Chinese characters of Liao's scrawled manuscript as he served time for calling out the ruling Chinese Communist Party on the killing of civilians by the People's Liberation Army.

The novel is only partly autobiographical, however.

The protagonist Lao Wei, an alter ego for Liao, and his family, are depicted as minute, crawling ants, an image which holds particular resonance from the Mao era of Chinese history, when uniform "blue and green ants" worked the fields and factories in a mass experiment of collectivization.

For Liao, however, the ant is also metaphor for hope for those who rebel against repression.

"For many people, an ant is a small, worthless creature," Liao said in an interview with Hamburg-based public broadcaster NDR.

"But on closer inspection ants turn out to be extremely tough and strong," he said. "If our environment is eventually destroyed, then, I think ants will survive, and promote evolution."

Written in secret

Liao, a 57-year-old former son of schoolteachers in the southwestern province of Sichuan, wrote the first part of the novel in secret during his incarceration during the early 1990s and the later parts in exile in Berlin.

He recently also had a play of his staged in a former prison run by the notorious East German Stazi secret police, where he was shown around the now-preserved jail cells by a former inmate.

Liao's play, Of Bullets and Opium, was hailed by German cultural commentators as "a moving testament to his persecution."

Liao was arrested in 1990 after publicly reciting his poem "Massacre" commemorating the victims of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown that ended weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests at the heart of the Chinese capital.

His books are all banned in China, but translations of earlier works have appeared in English, including Love in the Time of Mao and the Corpse Walker.

"My faith is freedom," Liao told NDR. "That's why I am here. I recently went for a walk in the woods with my daughter. And then I felt my freedom deeply. My faith is freedom. For this, I can give up everything."

Published in Berlin by S. Fischer as "Die Wiedergeburt der Ameisen," Liao's new novel was translated by Karin Betz.

Reported by Tian Yi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.