In China Behind the Wall

by    /  November 26, 2014  / No comments

German dissident musician Wolf Biermann. Photo provided by the author.

With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, singer Wolf Biermann’s music draws parallels between Germany’s past and China’s present.

This past November 9, Germans celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, the wall completed its notorious mission. After 28 years, jubilant people from both sides of the wall tore it down. Many forces were responsible for the historic miracle: the wise decision of Chairman Gorbachev, the “failure” of East Germany’s bureaucrats, and the will of the people to end the dictatorship.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Wolf Biermann – poet, singer, and civil rights activist – represents the living history of the divided and reunited Germany. Born in 1936 in Hamburg, he was strongly influenced by his mother, a communist, and his Jewish father, who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the age of 17, when many people fled east to west to escape from the communist regime, the idealistic young Wolf left the free world in West Germany and joined the communist East Germany. After completing school and beginning to perform as a songwriter and singer, he became disillusioned with the communist state, which was not the paradise of which he had dreamed. Consequently his songs sharply criticized the SED (Socialist Unity Party of East Germany) and Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Somehow, Biermann enjoyed special status under the authoritarian regime; in the mid 1960s, he performed and published his album in West Germany. Yet, Biermann’s irrepressible character and acrimonious criticism of the regime soon made him a thorn in the regime’s side. The authorities in East Germany decided to exile him from the “People’s Republic.” During his authorized 1976 tour in West Germany, he was expatriated from East Germany and lost his citizenship. He remained in the West.

After a two-decade odyssey in communism, Biermann woke up and became a steady supporter of freedom and democracy. For the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Parliament invited him to sing a song from his 1968 album, Ermutigung (Encouragement). Biermann used the opportunity to criticize Die Linke, the Left Party. In his eyes, this party is an extension of the former SED. Calling himself a dragon slayer, Biermann described the members of parliament as “dragon spawn” and the “miserable dregs” of the old communist regime. Smiling, the parliament chairman Dr. Lammert reminded him that he was invited to sing not to speak. He is only allowed to speak if he runs for and is successfully elected to parliament. But that did not stop Biermann’s short and sharp speech, which was followed by him singing his famous song “Ermutigung”:

Encouragement

My friend, don’t let yourself become hardened
in these hard times.
Those, who are too hard, will break
Those, who are too pointed, will sting
and break off immediately.

My friend, don’t let yourself become embittered
in these bitter times.
The rulers will shiver
– once you are behind bars –
but not because of your suffering.

My friend, don’t let yourself be horrified
in these times of horror.
That’s what they want to achieve,
that we lay down our arms
even before the great struggle.

My friend, don’t let yourself be used up,
use your time.
You can’t hide,
you need us and we need
just your merryness.

We don’t want to be silent about it
in this time of silence.
The green is sprouting from the twigs,
we want to show it to everyone,
then they will be informed

Biermann also appeared with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck at the Brandenburger Gate. The two highest politicians from East Germany are now the most popular statesmen in united Germany.

Observing the events of this November 9 created a bitter feeling in China. Germany’s miserable divided past is China’s present reality. The Berlin Wall has fallen, yet the Great Wall still holds its citizens hostage. Forty years ago, Biermann saw the truth of China’s situation under a dictatorship. His famous 1973 elegy, “In China hinter der Mauer”( In China behind the wall), remains the best snapshot of China today.

Observing the events of this November 9 created a bitter feeling in China. Germany’s miserable divided past is China’s present reality. The Berlin Wall has fallen, yet the Great Wall still holds its citizens hostage. Forty years ago, Biermann saw the truth of China’s situation under a dictatorship. His famous 1973 elegy, “In China hinter der Mauer”( In China behind the wall), remains the best snapshot of China today:

In China behind the wall
Like cattle where the people
Are ruled
Stultified, places under disability
Neutered
Slaved and parried
Hide in ambush
The Bureaucrats’ security-club
Detaining the good communists
Should they not loudly shout hallelujah
In China! In China!
In China behind the wall…

Say just one true sentence
You got no pardon even in dribble bibs
A dead sparrow is the freedom
Rotten in birdcage
And where, my friend, will you be
Ousted
Has a spy watched out
Where will you be rotten
Behind bars?

In China! In China!
In China behind the wall…

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

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