Joining the Commune or Withdrawing from
the Commune: A Reading of Yan Lianke’s Shouhuo

By Jianmei Liu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 19, no. 2 (Fall 2007), pp. 1-33

In discussing Yan Lianke’s Pleasure (Shouhuo), this essay focuses on Yan Lianke’s wavering between “joining the commune” (rushe) and “withdrawing from the commune” (tuishe), or between what Chinese intellectuals used to call “entering the world” (rushi)–an action to participate in social change–and “withdrawing from the world” (chushi)–a retreat to a spontaneous, natural, and personal life. The author attempts to go beyond simply retrieving the working body (shouku ren), which Yan regards as the central theme of his works, or underscoring the issues in his social/political criticism. Instead, she discusses questions related to the tensions between social reform and collective seclusion, the modern utopian dream of a stronger country and the ancient utopian myth of a small community of withdrawal, national salvation and self-salvation. This essay not only examines the polemical bipolarities between pleasure and bitterness, handicap and health, tradition and modernization, lightness and heaviness, collective seclusion and social participation, remembering and forgetting represented in Yan Lianke’s fictional world, but also demonstrates the inner conflict of the author, who consciously and unconsciously vacillates between different literary traditions and different subjective positions. Yan’s vacillations and contradictions show how difficult it is to search for an alternative response to modern utopias and an alternative definition of literature in a rapidly commercialized society. .