Like many Chinese who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Liao was more or less self-educated in literature, although he received a grounding in the Chinese classics from his father, a schoolteacher. His memoir is sprinkled with the names of Western writers—Orwell, Kundera, Proust—some of whose works penetrated even the prison walls in Chongqing. Among them, amazingly, was Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In Liao’s words, “On the page was an imaginary prison, while all around me was the real thing.” Unlike his friend Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Prize-winning critic and a writer with strong political convictions, Liao never wished to stick his neck out. He describes himself as an artist who simply wanted to be free to write in any way he liked. As recently as 2011, he told the journalist Ian Johnson, “I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me.” But, in 1989, he put himself “on a self-destructive path” by performing his poem in bars and dance clubs, howling and chanting in the traditional manner of Chinese mourning.
more from Ian Buruma at The New Yorker here.