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The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up Paperback – May 5, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this rich, often harrowing oral history, Chinese writer (and notorious target of censors) Liao travels to the margins of Chinese society, interviewing 27 outsiders from China's forgotten classes. The book contains an incredible cast of characters: a grave robber, a composer, a leper, a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals, a human trafficker and a delusional peasant who has anointed himself emperor. These conversations, largely recorded from memory, showcase Liao's empathy for his subjects and a particular talent for getting into tight situations; on one occasion, the author is forced to leap out of a three-story building when he fears the Communist government is targeting him for talking to a Falun Gong supporter. Liao's research took 11 years, and his final product is a stunning series of portraits of a generation and class of individuals ignored in history books and unacknowledged in the accounts of the new China. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Poet and novelist Liao, imprisoned for four years by the Chinese government for his poem condemning the massacre at Tiananmen Square, offers intimate portraits of ordinary people in China. Using interviews with hundreds of villagers whose lives have not benefited from the astounding economic growth of the new China, he offers oral histories of their lives lived day to day. Among his interview subjects are professional mourners, a former Red Guard, a trafficker in women, a grave robber, and a former political prisoner. Liao talked to people in villages where traditions have changed little as well as those where the old ways have clashed with the Revolution. A man recounts how fear of leprosy and evil dragons prompted villagers to burn his wife alive. The shocked husband was then obligated to feed them at a festival afterward. A retired government official recounts the hardships during the Cultural Revolution, the passion of the villagers and the hypocrisy of leaders, and the need for an honest assessment and apology. Liao offers rich detail about people who live well outside the spotlight trained on China. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (May 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307388379
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307388377
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This collection of short stories is easy to read and never boring. It gives the reader a picture of life in China that is very different from the propaganda we get from the governments in China and in the United States. If anyone wants to know about a culture or a country, observing the bottom of society is much more enlightening and accurate than looking at the society from the top. I suspect that most of us, in China and the rest of the world, are much closer to the bottom of our societies than we are to the leaders of those societies. I thank the author for braving the wrath of his government to show us a glimpse of real life in the real China. It makes me think that the more different we appear to be, the more we are all the same.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book after reading a review in the Financial Times. And I couldn't put it down. There is so much being written about China but nothing out there presents such a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who are out of view in all the talk about the economic power.
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Format: Hardcover
I read this book after seeing a positive review in the Chicago Tribune and it did not disappoint. Each story of everyday Chinese citizens and their struggles was very memorable, touching and thought-provoking. As an American, I also found it very enlightening, and thought the stories were so important that I recommended the book to family and friends.

The Corpse Walker is the kind of book you will think about long after you've finished reading it!
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Format: Paperback
Overall, this book is very good for all the reasons the other reviewers mentioned.

However, it feels like it's only half the story. After reading 12 interviews, I realized that I had yet to read a single interview with a woman. There are 28 interviews and only three of them are about women! Calling this book stories of "China from the Bottom Up" and then ignoring half its population makes very clear the low opinion they have of women and women's lives. It makes it look like they don't even rate to be considered the "bottom" of society. There is an interview with a human trafficker but no interview with a female he sold into marriage or a prostitute? There's an interview with a Tiananmen Square victim's father but no interview with the amazing mother who has spent her life trying to organize all the parents of victims? I wanted to hear her story! I also wanted to hear the stories of the sisters who were ignored when the parents in the book focused all their attention on their favorite sons. Where are all the female teachers and migrant workers and students? Where are the farmer's wives, the officials' wives, and the old grandmothers who have lived through 80+ years of upheaval? I wish I could read a book about them too.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating and engrossing book that provides 27 glimpses into lives that have not faired so well in China. The author, Liao Yiwu, is a poet who has drawn upon his own life to conduct interviews with people from the bottom of society. This extremely well-done English translation draws upon 27 interviews from the 60 in the original Chinese book. The people range from the occupation from which the book draws the title - an ancient method of transporting dead bodies for burial - to a 103 year-old Buddhist abbot to a rest room manager to a blind street erhu player. Liao is by no means an objective interviewer; he does not let the Human Trafficker (already in jail) of easily. Each chapter is titled by the role or occupation of the interviewee. These are people who have suffered under the various deprivations of revolutionary communism, the cultural revolution, or the newest era of capitalist communism. Liao brings a harsh light to many of the sufferings of the past. However, despite the accumulated human misery, this is not a depressing book. Many of the people interviewed, as the original Chinese title describes "Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society", are not the wildly successful, they often have come to accept their lot in life, and they have a quiet dignity the perfuses their words. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to see a very different view of life in China.
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