In Sickness or in Health:
Yan Lianke and the Writing of Autoimmunity

By Chien-hsin Tsai

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 77-104

For Jacques Derrida, autoimmunity indicates a state of exception where forces of self-protection and self-destruction are constantly at odds in the field of biopolitic. By writing of autoimmunity, I refer to the literary texts that inscribe the metaphor of autoimmunity into a series of internal-external contradictions that risk paralyzing both the individual and the collective. In this essay, I consider how several of Yan’s recent novels reveal and sustain themselves, in terms of characterization and plot development, on similar autoimmune reactions. Through the writing of autoimmunity, Yan casts critical light on how (post)socialist China’s efforts of self-improvement risks self-destruction.

In Hard as Water and Serve the People, autoimmunity appears as an epistemological force that repeatedly challenges the principles and guidelines that help define the Chinese Communist Party. In the two works, Yan revises political slogans to illuminate the logic of autoimmunity at the core of Maoist discourse. Meanwhile, Pleasure, Streams of Light and Time, and Dream of Ding Village manifest the logic of autoimmunity most vividly in the ongoing negotiations between the capitalist transactions and socialist instructions in various communities that struggle for survival.