Liu was born in 1951 in rural Shenqiu County, Henan Province. His father was a low-ranking officer during China’s Republican period (1911-1949), something that earned his family a bad social status under the new Communist government. Liu’s father died in 1960, leaving his mother to raise six children. Poverty was a big part of Liu’s early memories.
Liu was a studious young man, but his dreams of higher education were shattered with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and its decade of shuttered universities.
In 1966, Liu joined millions of young Chinese during the Great Linkup, when Red Guards nationwide were encouraged to travel the country and spread the seeds of revolution. Like thousands of rural teens, Liu traveled to Beijing to attend the giant rally that year held by Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. It was the first time Liu had been to a city. The experience so impressed him, particularly the disparities between urban and rural life, that he became determined to move out of the countryside.
For decades, China’s hukou system of permanent residency permits restricted rural populations from moving to cities. This lack of mobility frustrated China’s rural youth, and is a recurring theme in Liu’s fiction.
After the Great Linkup period, Liu returned home to work and yearned to shed his official peasant status. In his hometown, Liu talked with the educated youth sent to his village from the city of Kaifeng, Henan, as part of another Cultural Revolution policy, the Down to the Countryside Movement. Liu secretly competed with these urban youth in how much more fiction he read. Liu’s conflicted feelings about his rural identity are written into many of his characters.
He tried to join the army in the hopes of getting a work assignment in the city afterwards, but was ineligible because of his father’s Republican past.
In 1970, 19-year-old Liu got a job at a coal mine. Two years later, he wrote his first story, “White Cotton,” about the hard life of an elderly coal miner. But since all of China’s literary journals were halted during the Cultural Revolution, Liu had to wait six years to publish it.
The mining job finally allowed Liu to get rid of his peasant status. He was now a worker at a government-run institution, a much more respectable social station at the time.
“The coal mine is on the fringes between urban and rural life,” Liu explained, “Mines are usually located near mountain areas or the countryside. People mine for coal underground and plant crops on the surface. A coal mine is like a small society - it has some things found in cities, such as kindergartens, schools and shopping. A peasant who came to the coal mine would try any means to become a regular worker and get an urban hukou.”
Liu had very little leisure time at the mine. His room was so small that he would use a chair as a writing desk. In 1978, Liu was transferred to Beijing to work as an editor in a coal industry newspaper. In 2001, the Beijing Writers’ Association recruited him as a professional writer.
Liu was among the many forever changed by China’s unprecedented urbanization and mass migrations. His fiction largely focuses on the lives of coal miners and peasants.
Many of his peasant characters work in coal mines while desperately trying to overcome the rural-urban barrier and change their social standing. These themes are central to Red Coal (2006), Liu’s novel about a young coal miner who eventually manages to marry the mine owner’s daughter. He then calls the police on his father-in-law for illegal dealings. With his father-in-law in jail, the miner eventually takes over the enterprise.