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Fearless writing

June 21, 2012

Chinese writer Liao Yiwu has never tired of broaching the most sensitive political topics in his writing. A prominent dissident who fled China for Germany in 2011, he's been awarded the 2012 German Peace Prize.

Liao Yiwu
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Liao Yiwu's fearlessness in the face of oppression was the reason he was selected to win this year's Peace Prize by the German Book Trade association.

"Through his books and poems, Liao Yiwu gives the people on the periphery of Chinese society a literary monument," the association said in a statement on its website.

Though his works tell of atrocities and suffering, both his own and that of his countrymen, his skilled style draws in readers from other cultures and is not without humor, Herbert Wiesner, secretary general of Germany's PEN Center for persecuted writers, told DW.

"We have won a great author and can be glad that he is now among us," added Wiesner.

New book on Tiananmen Square

Liao's next book, "The Ball and the Opium - Life and Death on Tiananmen Square," is to be released in Germany at the end of the year.

The subject of violence on Tiananmen Square is not new for Liao. On June 3, 1989, he composed the poem "Massacre" about the increasing demonstrations on the infamous square. The poem, which accurately foreshadowed the brutal crackdown that would occur the very next day, led to a four-year prison sentence for Liao.

Despite the hardships he faced in prison - including disease, torture, and his own two suicide attempts - Liao was not deterred from speaking up. In 1998, he was imprisoned again after publishing an anthology of underground poems written by Chinese dissidents, entitled "The Fall of the Holy Temple."

International attention on Liao increased when his "Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society," collected in 1998, were banned in China and smuggled to Taiwan. There, they were published and later translated into English and French. In the following years, Liao was honored with a number of international prizes, including the Hellman Hammet Grant from Human Rights Watch and the Freedom to Write Award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

Liao conducted politically sensitive interviews once again for "Chronicles of the Big Earthquake," where he spoke with survivors of the deadly 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. He was then prohibited from attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, though China was the guest country, and was also unable to come to the lit.COLOGNE literature festival in 2010.

Liao Yiwu
Liao Yiwu fled China and now lives in GermanyImage: DW

Escape to Germany

He was allowed out of the country briefly in September 2010 after German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an appeal for him to attend the Berlin International Literary Festival. But another travel ban after the festival was the last straw: He escaped from China via Vietnam in late 2011 and took up residency in Germany.

Liao's German publishers held off publishing his next book, "For a Song and a Hundred Songs," until he had safely left China. He was awarded the Geschwister Scholl Prize for the book, a description of Chinese prisons and work camps, in November 2011.

At that time, Liao had said writing the book helped him regain his dignity, but at the same time he felt ashamed to have been awarded the prize: "It was named for the Scholl siblings - German national heroes who are famous everywhere. They lost their lives in the fight against fascism. I am still alive at least."

The book industry's Peace Prize and a cash award of 25,000 euros ($32,000) will be presented to Liao at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2012. Starting in September, he will be featured in an exhibition at the German Literature Archive in Marbach focusing on literature smuggled from prison.

The German Book Trade association has awarded the Peace Prize annually since 1950. Other prominent winners have included Herman Hesse, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk.

Author: Kate Bowen
Editor: Michael Lawton