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City of Death

Written by Liao Yiwu and first published in 1987. Translated into English by Michael Day and reprinted by kind permission of the author and translator.

Read in Chinese here.

Translator’s Note:

The only published text which also features the symbols included here, and in Liao’s original manuscript, can be found in the combined 1987 1+2 edition of People’s Literature Monthly (人民文学月刊). (The following ‘introduction’ has never been officially published in the PRC.)
- Michael M. Day 05/05/2004


Written before the gates of THE CITY OF DEATH

And now let us enter the City of Death.

Don’t ask stupid questions like who Allah Fahweh is, when he died, or what the relationship between the bull, god and the people is. If you enter early into the year 6891 and discover your true “home”, if you are brutally lashed to the wheel of time --- turning head over feet hitting the ground, whatever you do, don't cry out in despair: This is the city of death, no one will save you.

Future, present, past; past, present future --- the environment where you exist has changed completely. Who knows when history has it’s beginning? You think some names sound familiar: Jiang He, Bei Dao, Gu Cheng[1], Zhang Chunqiao, Li Weidong[2], and so on --- naturally you only remember the era in which you lived. Your deepest overall impressions are always of the Chinese faction fight that broke out in 1966. Fluttering ranks of red cloth incited all to struggle against each other, to hunt down and slaughter the bull of illusion. Have you ever heard the string of crisp popping sounds made when gonads are smashed?

That sound kept me terrorized for thousands of years. You have to believe me, believe the lonely craftsman who built the <City of Death>. I can recite my name, age and place of birth fairly accurately to you to prove that I have never gone mad.

I can fairly accurately knock on the door of each acquaintance and little by little insinuate my solitude into their bodies, fomenting the madness hidden by the soul. No matter how pretty the mask, the force of instinct flows on forever from a far-off source. The task of art is to resist convention, to build an opposite world on top of the strict, scientific order, to satisfy absolutely free, frenzied imaginings, to let the material and spiritual reach relative balance.

My task is simply to save the imaginative character of mankind’s childhood from base reality. It stands detached above time and space, above feelings of mother-love and fond remembrances of times past. It includes creative blasphemy (like the angelic look of pleasure on a child's face who pisses on a whole city off the top of a tall building) and profane procreation (like a child poking a stick into the crotch of Nü Wa’s statue[3] and imagining her riding his “flying horse”). Often children are seen casually abandoning their painstakingly constructed sand castles.

This [activity] is obviously a far cry removed from rational and lofty human nature. However, an artist’s sincerity is found in that he doesn’t take pleasure from this world, in that he willfully searches out the entire developing story of a people or even all of mankind. He jabs at its fatal weakness’ and at the cost of his life sounds a warning signal: He reveals the roots of the collective sickness which under the domination of primal, supra-natural forces causes people to mutilate and kill themselves and each other.

[Manifestations of] anxiety, crisis, despair and rebellion ensure this City of Death won’t receive a ready welcome, and Liao Yiwu’s value lies precisely in this fact. Once a poet achieves universal public acclaim, his artistic life is done.

The City of Death

6891 AD, a giant bull circles the

brown [Sichuan] basin. Near death,

Allah Faweh, prophet of Ba People

Village, points to the ground and says:

“This city will hem you in, no matter

whether god is dead or alive.”

You’ve crossed this threshold. Such graceful footsteps, daylight crackles like a large burning candle. Cow’s milk everywhere. Nudging forward, spear grass shining like curved horns. A hole is hacked into your instep. You howl three times, hooves burst out of your lower limbs. What a miraculous bull you are now! The light of the setting sun shudders and goes out. Leaving behind a large pool of wax. I saw you dissolve in thick milk. Become a puff of smoke

Night of thunder. After the clash of the cattle horns. A cracked sky, bovine eyes

flooded with tears. One pops out at some girl’s belly

I come bawling into the world. Become your indirect seed. I clearly remember you crossed this threshold. And telling me that you weren’t coming back this time. Daddy of my imaginings! Me, sitting all day on my own at the edge of the stairs. Drooling. Smiling stupidly at green-faced long-distance travellers. Who am I begging for news of you? Behind, the hunchback who bore me stands out clearly

Fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The traditional ghost festival. The graveyard is really hopping. Like a large pier. Boats on the river Styx all dock here. You’re sculling. The oar blade smashes the knee caps of the spirit worshippers. A tumult of grandmotherly voices rises in drunken madness. Unclear who is ghost and who human, I want to cry out. A troop of frogs leaps up and scurries into my mouth. A hellish wind gushes up, suddenly. The hunchback throws himself on the ground and becomes a stone turtle. I snuggle up against it. Like a woman I lavish a terminal tenderness on it. I dig out what’s in my mouth. Drag out coils of my own intestine. Out of the corner of my eye I see you cut a person in half at the waist and make the lower half hop in front of me and ask:

“Allah Fahweh. Where are my trousers?”

I remember your bloody hands. Leaping over rows of white walls. The faint sound of chickens clucking. The fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Gravestones flood the city like a rolling tide. Stand facing the human houses

Through a screen I watch mourners move off into the distance. I finish burning paper money and make my way out of the mountain cliffs. A snake-bite draws my attention, the Styx has vanished. Trails of smoke like a path scarcely travelled. Stretching out, peacefully. When the silver-scaled snake climbs onto a branch, the black spots just now journeying on into the distance turn right around immediately and come back. Come toward me and slip away into my heart

I am an empty city sunk inside another empty city. A spacious world. I am -the room from which tragic laughter bursts forth each night. An owl is in full bloom like a black spring flower on a railing. Wild vines conceal masks that come out and sink in the windows. The mourners’ cries linger in my ears. The roots of my hair are soaked with the stench of death

Ghosts are everywhere. People are sunk in the pleasures of pillow and bedclothes. Suspended in mid-air the waste land grows. Grass roots plunge into the earth of dreams. You cross every threshold on the way to the bell tower. Time is controlled by a revolving sword. Is that the icon over the land of freedom?

Summer sea of 1986. Mankind's ferry is still tossing. The steam whistle blows. Frightening flocks of birds with dazzling scales and shells. Inspired by these birds my dry land slowly emerges. Like an earthen jar with blue algae climbing over it. The dull setting sun just covers its mouth. Constructs a city of golden jade. Winding coral. Seahorses frolic. pillars of waves form overlapping ranks like the postures of dancing shark folk. Gemstone necklaces are left behind on the sea

The wind at dusk is a vast copper column flattening the water. A booming sound reverberates from antiquity. Seizes the muddy, cold and dense wandering whirl of time. I hear urgent footsteps rise up from the undersea. In the distance I see countless men and women, there a dragon’s tail sculling. Battalions of people bow down to pray toward the new city. The temple of prayer is constantly scorching them like a solid flame. Holy lord Jesus squats on the temple top leading the dirges. Voices and tears of blood. The sky above, the sea below. Riding a white horse, the bride is as changeable as the clouds

The multitude follows the lead. The gentle black face of gauze descends. Nietzsche, the sacrifice, is torn limb from limb by teary-eyed disciples. His smoking remains slither toward the city walls. Scrutinize the posted notice made from his skin:

“God is dead ... … Are we now headed into that distant place?

….. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …”

The sounds of music linger on. Jesus died first. Several great dictators argue softly over something on the pillar of punishment-by-fire. Suddenly police sirens scream. Large bridges collapse. Freeways crash into dizzying ravines. Lines of able-bodied men answer the call and enter the palace. Tearing at each other like marionettes. Like paper towers in children’s crotches tall buildings shrivel. Shreds of paper fly about. Can’t distinguish if they are peach

blossoms, human heads or leaflets inciting holy wars. After a frenzied bombardment my land is sinking. All that remains sighing among the turbid waves is half a lion’s leg. Winter of 1966. Chang E[4] elopes with an infidel. An angry Hou Yi[5] shoots ten suns blind. The civilization of this people of illusions is committed completely to the flames. Some poet wrote:

“When the wisdom of man attempts to surpass the wisdom of the creator

their day of judgment is at hand


Those lines in the tongue of tadpoles enchant me: god is dead. Who will manipulate the chess pieces hanging in the air? A ferocious echo. I'm devoured by my own voice. Like worn clothing, the flesh and skin pealed off my bones of their own accord. My brain itches. The ants go in and out. Summer sea of 1986. Gloomy world of man. Nietzsche returns from his tour of the Milky Way. A sacrificial Liao Yiwu is just about to immolate himself in front of the mob. Policemen carry him from dreamland to the insane asylum

I clutch the bed sheets tightly. The end of the corridor. An opening and closing, tear-jerking rose. Sleepwalkers shrink into pistil-sucking insects. I listen closely to the slow advance of feet trampling petals. Again. And again. Nü Wa’s face flashes past the iron-barred window. A stethoscope is poked through the wall. You drift into awareness.

Crescent-shaped cattle horns. Live fish nudging upward obscured below the abdomen. From the shape of you I’ve recovered childhood. Roe are gently teasing my penis there are always mothers who uncross their legs lie supine on the beach use exquisite egg-shaped pebbles steeped in blood. Against the current I hauled in the baby crab’s home. Shared a meal of sand worms. Several seamen swim through my armpits. Fan-like cacti fold and unfold. Grains of sand join infectiously in singing red folk songs. I come across Gu Cheng drinking his fill from Lorca’s brook. Voices of greeting rise up through a crack. French, Inca, Hebrew

And what language do you speak? Where does your stethoscope want to lead me? An orchard of peach trees. A couple of doctors called Jiang He are off in pursuit of Nü Wa. Kua Fu[6], Xing Tian[7], Qu Yuan[8], Zhuang Zhou[9], organs of crazed ancestors have all been slashed off. The senseless butchering peach-blossom village I managed to escape and following you forced my way into the tumultuous square. I performed for all the lunatics: turned all the self-absorbed Third Generation[10] madmen into hogs with poems dangling at their waists

Beasts everywhere. Foreshadowing my fate. A red wolf stares at me until saliva drips from his mouth. I try repeatedly to flee from the palm of your hand. Dark images wedge into surrounding walls. Like mutant spawn of dinosaurs. In the age of space flight I flex my talons. A gold-quilled hedgehog quivers. A feathered arrow sprouts from between my lips. Come here, you --- demon. Mankind. Pistols and necromancy! I’d rather die in all-absorbing mortal combat! See the moon’s spider winding roll on roll of iron netting wire. Escaped prisoners dangle by their feet from the net…..

Pitiful escapees! Their bloodied clothing is stripped away by others of their ilk. Art is hung in the great exhibition hall treated like totems --- look. Ladies and gentlemen arrive. Clip, clop of heels. Walking sticks point out empty sleeves. I ride a toy train travelling back and forth between the asylum and the grave. Travellers are forever getting on and off. Absentminded faces. Heads of people and corpses indistinguishable. I witness medicine made from their brains being sold at each train station to cure the mad ravings

But those stars high in the sky look so much like crystal umbrellas! Where is my wife waiting? Can I phone beyond time?

One bitter laugh from you is enough to reduce everything to nothing. There’s a path aside from heaven’s. But my only option is to be liquidated here! The wings of the nine-headed bird[11] are a dimly discernible ladder. Rungs mount up toward a longer cavern. An iron hand of lightening reaches out from inside. Gouges out the channels of five rivers. From inside me five fissures ooze out. Come, you -- doctors. Impostors. Reality. Slaughter houses. I myself rip off and give you my thundering genitals!

Twenty-eight arms hold me from behind. Twenty-eight voices take turns telling me to SHUT UP! Dejectedly I fall to the ground. Wearily seek to come to grips with my uprooting. Silently I count the green hands shooting up from my roots. From one to a hundred

Boundless lines of my palm spread out to the plain. I sink down into them. Don’t even know which are my own. I just feel the voices of the sons grow old in the all-encompassing haze. Peaks and ridges are settled down like cows. Prophets clutching secrets to success swim out of udders

I just feel that the world of man is so lonely. The land within the Great Wall is filled by kneeling stone statues with broken right arms. Tears accumulate into Yellow River sand. The hot-spring building crowds close to the mountain wall. Stinking hot water slithers down spiral stairs. Pouring into the entrance of a towering vault. Buses rust before the door. Wind chimes whimper. Foam breasts conceal

daggers. Two large worms burrow out of a man’s nostrils, entwine and copulate

Silently I count the inns I’ve overnighted in during my life. From one to a hundred. Remote ancestors. Progenitors. Great-grandfathers. Mothers. The made-up opera faces of each dynasty all flash through my mind. At the end I discover Allah Fahweh, the prophet of Ba People Village, showing his green hand. Disguised as a customer groping his way into an underground brothel




















The soil has been tilled my girl your entire body drunkenly limp ovaries and seed in turmoil I say I love you I love you I love you until I suddenly recognize you as my mother until I lift away your ninth layer of skin and discover Nü Wa sobbing hiding within the eardrum-shattering thunder I seize the filthy genealogy and howl wildly I desperately thrash my lower torso like a swarm of angry bees the curse of eighty-eight generations of forefathers stings me. I shout: “Allah Fahweh! You seducing thief!”

The prophet falls back slipping into the inner room. Flashing a green hand

6891 AD, the sale witness dies. Only in the black leather book, The Master Craftsman’s Fall, is this crime recorded;

1937 AD, the Second World War breaks out. Japanese planes bomb the Yangtse river basin, the Ba People Village’s records archive is reduced to ashes, the whereabouts of The Master Craftsman’s Fall is not known;

1944 AD, the Chinese army leaves for the South Asia front, along the way I mistakenly enter an empty house, The Master Craftsman’s Fall is recovered. While I read I eat three packages of magic cookies, from then on I was mute for five thousand years.

When this all ended, my hair was already white

my face covered with dust. All night I sit alone on a park bench

watching the wind break off the nearly dead brittle branches

I shift the left-over stump of the leg

hold my breath as I endure last night, this night...again the dawn breaks

I am expecting a beggar to hop out from behind the bench,

fierce-voiced, and take all my life savings

including the medal that cost me the shank of my leg

He can relieve the pain of my wounds. Any enemy

can use perfect means of revenge

to relieve the pain of my wounds

You too, settle old scores, pour poisoned liquor down my throat

Even though you wear an elegant top hat

I still know there's a bull's horn in the back of your head

Dull-witted childhood is such a joy!

You turned into a bull then, taunted me

Later we taunted each other

Both suffered

until I sat alone all night on a park bench

watching the city of death north south east west indistinguishable

When this all ended

you’d not revealed yourself

No one showed their faces

I can just stare at the worn threshold beneath the hill of the rock garden opposite

It seems so like my old home’s

At the edge of the stairs to my childhood

an old woman sits north facing south

Sadly she plucks out a tongue the size of an egg-plant

she gazes fixedly by the light of the moon

Carved on it are your sins

and the history of a famous city

When she stuffs it hack in her mouth

from beyond the high walls comes the poet’s wild song

the day is breaking



[1] Three well-known poets who gained prominence in the early 1980s.

[2] Two prominent political figures during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

[3] Chinese goddess said to have created humanity from clay and to have cleared the earth of threats to the same.

[4] Chinese goddess of the moon.

[5] Legendary figure who shot down nine of ten suns with arrows.

[6] Legendary figure who pursued the sun.

[7] Legendary figure cast from heaven after losing in battle with the emperor of heaven – caused to have breasts for eyes and a belly button for a mouth.

[8] A famous poet of China’s antiquity (ca. 339-ca. 278 B.C.E.).

[9] A famous Daoist philosopher of China’s antiquity, also known as Zhuangzi (ca. 369-ca. 286 B.C.E.).

[10] A reference to young poets who gained prominence during the mid-1980s, and, more specifically, Li Yawei, Ma Song and other poets of the Macho Men(Manghan) tendency in Sichuan.

[11] A red duck-like bird of Chinese legends, said to be very unlucky. Originally ten-headed, a dog bit off the tenth head and anyone splashed with its blood will suffer catastrophe.