The Museum of Innocence: The Great Leap Forward
and Famine, Yan Lianke, and Four Books

By Chien-hsin Tsai

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2011)

Where Writing Begins

At the end of the 1950s, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward. Under the Great Helmsman’s leadership, the communist government encouraged people to “quickly and sufficiently strengthen socialism” (多快好省地建設社會主義), and the Chinese masses were intensely focused on industrialization and modernization. The sky seemed to be the limit, a utopian idealism expressed in the slogan: “There is nothing you can’t do, only things you can’t think of” (沒有做不到的,只有想不到的). No one and nothing were immune from the nation-building project. Even the stones and bricks of beautiful ancient buildings were reused to build backyard furnaces for steel production. Everyone had to serve the “general of steel and iron” (鋼鐵元帥). And to feed blast furnaces, peasants were forced to surrender their farming and cooking utensils.

Book cover for Four Books

Yan Lianke. Sishu (Four books). Taipei: Maitian, 2011. (paperback)

But the audacity of hope fell short, and despite the enthusiasm, nature did not comply, and the Chinese people paid a steep price for all their efforts. The devotion to industrialization also took a heavy toll on the environment. In addition, with unequal distribution of harvested crops, China experienced a horrible famine, officially referred to as the “Three-Year Period of Hardship” (三年困難時期). From 1959 to 1961, China lost, according to some estimates, some forty million people to wrongheaded policies. At the height of the Great Leap Forward, “militia went from house to house searching for hidden grain as if it were a weapon of insurrection, breaking through walls, prodding the floor of hidden holes, digging up cellars, often taking down part or all of the building as compensation” (Dikötter 2010: 169).

The Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine clearly are more complex than any historical record can do justice. Descriptions such as mine above fail to reflect the lingering pain and haunting trauma of the events. The writer Yan Lianke’s (閻連科) latest novel Four Books (四書), however, has something profoundly important to contribute to unearthing this trauma. But how does Yan recount the trauma? Can he convey it at all? When Mao was in power, of course, the Great Famine was a historical vacuum. Even today, in the more liberal climate of the market-reform era, the issue of “uncommon deaths” (非正常死亡) during the famine remains politically sensitive.

Trauma has been a popular topic among contemporary Chinese writers. Whereas many have provided insights into the trauma related to the Cultural Revolution, only a very few have attempted to narrate the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine. Mo Yan and Yu Hua, for example, have made references to them, but because their references are indirect, almost masterfully hidden, their stories have evaded state sanction. Four Books is the first full-length fictional inquiry into this censored part of Chinese history. With this novel, Yan forcefully confronts the Chinese Communist Party with a topic that he surely knows, especially given the fact that a few of his previous novels have incurred state censorship, is sensitive, if not taboo. Can we read Four Books as Yan’s attempt to tame the monster that is history? Is he offering a fictional requiem or catharsis?

In the beginning of his career, Yan focused on stories about military life. It was not until the 1990s, when he turned his attention to his native Henan, that his stories began to truly win over critics and readers. In his stories about peasants, Yan is reminiscent of A Cheng, Can Xue, and Yu Hua. As in stories by Can Xue and Yu Hua, grotesque characters and wild episodes stand out in Yan’s novels. And like the natural storyteller A Cheng, both Yan and his characters are unadorned and very down-to-earth. Yan’s “Heavenly Songs of Balou” (耙耬天歌) and “Years, Months, Days” (年月日) strike me as something of an amalgam of the three writers, respectfully blending their signature voices and turning them into Yan’s own.

“Heavenly Songs of Balou” unhurriedly unrolls a scroll of grotesque cannibalism. The story is Yan’s provocative and ironic response to Lu Xun’s call, at the end of “Diary of a Madman,” to “save the children” from a man-eating society. In Yan’s story, a mother takes extreme measures to try to cure her children from a psychiatric illness. First, she feeds them a medicinal soup made from the bones of her dead husband. When she runs out of the bones, she finds a way to dismember herself. To save the children, cannibalism is the only resort. “Years, Months, Days” is a sobering story about an old man and his cornfield. To prevent his crops from withering away during a drought, the old man uses his very own body as fertilizer. Not only do crops not die, they double in size. When the villagers eventually find the old man’s body, his cranium has become inextricably linked to the roots of the corn plants.

These sorts of cannibalistic and grotesque images find their way into Four Books, which is more than a recycling of earlier dramatic moments. Recontextualized, the bedeviling acts of self-sacrifice create for this hardcore realist novel with a true historical base an otherwise unreal or even surreal ambience. The closed alternative reality—District 99, the center stage of the novel—with unbelievable events from real life is an example of what Yan terms “mythrealism” (神實主義).

Difficult as his mythrealist style is to pin down, Yan is an engaging storyteller. He is also one of the hardest working writers in China today, and he tries to bring something fresh into each of his novels in terms of language, style, and topic. Yet his humanistic concern remains constant through his writing, in particular his five most well known novels, which I briefly introduce here. Streams of Light and Time (日光流年) is the Chinese Chronicle of A Death Foretold, narrating events in a series of flashbacks. In this novel, the townsfolk struggle with a hereditary laryngospasmic disease, which prevents all from living beyond the age of forty. If the disease is fatal, its fatality is delayed or even reversed because the story is told in flashback, with the characters moving forward to the past. Streams of Light and Time has perhaps the most complex narrative structure of all of Yan’s fiction.

promotional flier Hard as Water (堅硬如水) is completely different. With melodramatic and farcical elements, it deals not with disease but with sex. Focusing on an illicit relationship between two revolutionaries, the story highlights the unlikely relation revolution has to sex. Revolutionary slogans ironically become a passionate endorsement of antirevolutionary love and lovemaking. Serve the People (為人民服務), Yan’s next novel, may be read as a continuation of Hard as Water in terms of blurring the fine line between revolution and antirevolution. In this novella, which was banned soon after its publication, Yan calls into question the somatic foundation of China by making the two married revolutionaries not only engage in adultery but destroy Mao memorabilia to enhance their sexual gratification. This iconoclasm is also a symbolic patricide, which the state censor seems to have found problematic. This may not be Yan’s best work, but with its titillating sexual description and “banned” status, it became his most popular.

In Pleasure (受活), sex is nowhere to be found. Centering on a troupe of performers exploiting their disabled bodies to raise money to purchase Lenin’s corpse to support the promotion of “red tourism” in their village, the novel brings to relief the mutual definition of and the ongoing conflicts between capitalist practices and socialist ideals. The most chilling and most stinging moment in the novel is when a child with polio, in his public performance, squeezes his foot into a bottle, turns a somersault, and then deliberately breaks the bottle and stands on the shards to win applause and money.

Book cover for Dream of Ding VillageYan’s critical reflection on the spectacular performances of disabled bodies as such might have helped the novel win a coveted literary prize. In his next novel Dream of Ding Village (丁莊夢), he moves to yet another topic: AIDS villages. The novel construes HIV/AIDS as metaphor, a narrative strategy of which Susan Sontag might disapprove. In an interview, Yan admits that he bowdlerized his own text, excising things he thought were too touchy for the state censor. But it seems that any topic related to the so-called “AIDS villages” would catch the censor’s attention. The novel perhaps would not have been banned if Yan had not linked the immunological disease to unregulated and government-promoted blood selling in rural Henan. Nonetheless, Dream of Ding Village is not so much an exposure of a tragedy as it is a reflection on how the unregulated commoditization of blood disrupts (the notion of) kinship based on blood.

In Book of Songs (風雅頌), Yan presents a different type of spiritual malady. The beginning of the novel is reminiscent of the late-Qing Exposure of Officialdom (官場現形記), except that Yan’s protagonist—a college professor at Qingyan University (a portmanteau of Qinghua and Yanjing universities)—is not as ruthless as Wu Woyao’s protagonist in revealing social evils. The college professor Yang Ke sheepishly apologizes to his wife and her lover, his boss, when he discovers their love affair, and is later denied promotion and sent to a psychiatric hospital where he gives lectures on the Book of Songs. Yang Ke manages to escape the hospital and becomes a teacher again; only this time he teaches the Book of Songs to a group of child prostitutes in his home province. The reader may spin an allegorical reading and make a case for how Yan Lianke and Yang Ke overlap in terms of the similarity of their given names, the abusive authority they face, and the absurdity of the politics to which they fall victim. However, amid these busy plot spasms, the novel is most sentimental in its coming to terms with the desire to return home. And perhaps nothing is more “homey” for a writer like Yan than returning to Book of Songs (詩經), China’s earliest compilation of lyric poems. Yang Ke’s journey home is, in this respect, an archaeology of emotion. The reader finds out that Yang Ke, the specialist in Book of Songs, eventually discovers in his hometown many lost poems from this poetic gem.

Scars and Memory

The nominal contrast and connection between Book of Songs (one of the “five classics”) and Yan’s Four Books are not difficult to see. Furthermore, the two novels are comparable in their overarching theme of homecoming. As early as in Pleasure, also a story about homecoming, Yan mentions the Great Leap Forward, but only in passing; that part of Chinese history is inconsequential to the plot. Four Books, on the other hand, confronts directly the traumatic and politically sensitive topic.

The title of Four Books is fitting. It is a suite of four different stories connected by repeated motifs of falling and drowning, laboring and failing, imprisonment and escape. The four books in the novel are: “Old Path” (故道), “Son of Heaven” (天的孩子­), “Account of Sinners” (罪人錄) and “A New Myth of Sisyphus” (新西緒弗神話). Excluding “A New Myth of Sisyphus,” which is metafiction in which Yan ventures to explain in metaphors his calling as a writer and his struggle with the state censor-machine, the first three installments describe the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine from three different perspectives. At this level of narrative form, the distance between Yan Lianke and the Japanese modernist Akutagawa Ryunosuke is short. The testimonials with divergent viewpoints recall the reader of none other than Akutagawa’s celebrated piece, “In the Grove” (Yabu no naka 薮の中), which is told from the perspective of seven different narrators. In fact, Yan is more ambitious than Akutagawa because he makes the three voices speak by turns, interweaving them into a web of cross reference.

In the beginning, the alternating voices may seem confusing because the dialogues and characterizations do not seem to describe the same event. To make matters worse, the characters have no names; they are only referred to by codes related to their previous careers: Music, Religion, Laboratory and Writer. Before the reader can realize what is taking place through the three distinct voices, the events are already unfolding rapidly. The reader can only rely on the different narrative and linguistic styles to distinguish one account from another and piece together the various shards of history. “Old Path” is a first-person autobiographical account by the protagonist, the “Writer,” of his life in the commune. Its author unknown, “Son of Heaven” is a rhapsodic account of the leader of the commune, the Child. With alternating rhythms and rhymes, its language is Yan’s most experimental to date. “Account of Sinners” is an exposé commissioned by the Child in which the Writer observes and reports the antirevolutionary doings of other commune members. “A New Myth of Sisyphus,” by an anonymous narrator, concludes Four Books. Yan, nonetheless, leaves room for varied interpretations of a writer’s calling as he compares the task of the storytellers in Four Books to the endless Sisyphean labor.

The Chinese Sisyphuses are “sinners” working in a fictional space called “District 99.” About forty li south of the Yellow River, it is the “district for the reformation of sinners” (罪人育新區), which resembles a People’s Commune. In District 99, nothing else but labor gives meaning to existence. A synecdoche of China during the Great Leap Forward and Great Famine, District 99 is mobilized to “catch up with and surpass England and America” (超英趕美) by way of industrialization. One of the impetuses to catch up was the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik I and Sputnik II in 1957. A report in People’s Daily on June 8, 1958 first appropriated “satellite” (衛星) as a metaphor for high agricultural yields. The dynamic imagery was soon employed in various production estimates and reports: to “launch satellites” meant to report high crop yields. Quickly, provinces in China were competing to set new records for the highest rice yield, and the reports rocketed to some one hundred thousand pounds per acre. The numbers were, of course, fantastic and the promises empty. In retrospective, those were satellites of fruits of bitterness.

The Child, the leader of District 99, has launched a production satellite that is too unrealistic to be realized. In the meantime, he also removes his laborers from the fields and sends them to smelt steel following instructions from government officials. Even with exceedingly abundant harvests, the production goals set by the satellites can never be met, so much more so now that the fields are left unattended. To make matters worse, backyard metallurgy wastes precious resources only to produce great quantities of unusable pig iron. As represented in the novel, the Chinese Communist Party’s eagerness to industrialize and modernize China is unfruitful and disastrous. Mao’s strategy of “walking on two legs” (兩條腿走路)—merging agricultural and industrial advancements—tragically amounts to burning the candle at both ends. His campaign of “guaranteed food, guaranteed steel” (一個糧食,一個鋼鐵) guarantees nothing in the end. And when the time for District 99 to turn in the harvest arrives, the Child can only lie. As Writer details in his “Old Path,” the Child orders the sinners to fill some barrels with the inedible and hide them behind the façade of real food stuff, which creates the illusion of cornucopia.

Episodes of folly and sporadic moments of awe characterize the first half of the novel. In the larger scheme, they are but ominous foreshadows of impending suffering and death. Yan is rather controlled in his depiction of the absurdity of the rural steel industry, but he becomes more descriptive when his attentions turn to the Great Famine, beginning with chapter thirteen. Frank Dikötter (2010: x) is right to say that the term “Great Famine” does not “capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivization. The blithe use of the term ‘famine’ also lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs.” Dikötter does not hesitate to argue that the systematic violence used during the period was not so different from mass killings. The historian Yu Xiguang 余習廣, whose Great Leap Forward: A Collection of Letters about the Tough Days (大躍進: 苦日子上書集) is steeped in blood and tears, would no doubt agree with Dikötter.

The novelist Yan Lianke is less interested than Yu or Dikötter in analyzing the sociopolitical impact the Great Leap Forward and Famine had on China, and he refrains from giving political commentary; he is a writer concerned first and foremost with the craft of storytelling. This is different from saying that Four Books is void of political significance. Its political significance comes from the fact that Yan preemptively self-bans the publication of this novel in China by not submitting it to mainland publishing houses, and thereby denies the censor any opportunity to harass him. This is another example of what I have described elsewhere as the writing of “autoimmunity” (Tsai 2011). To appropriate a high-sounding critical jargon, Four Books is also a novel of déjà disparu, one that disappears before its appearance, a strong defense of both history and reality as fiction and fiction making.

The novel is replete with memorable episodes. However sensational, they always bespeak the underestimated human costs of political struggles and ill-conceived policies. For instance, with the ignorance of the Child, sinners in District 99 suffer tremendously. Having no regular food to eat, starving peasants make “mud and grass pancakes” (泥土野草餅) to prolong their lives. This may remind the reader of Zhang Xianliang’s mordant “grass soup” experience, but Zhang’s pitiful attempt to make a bowl of grass soup last longer in the stomach pales next to Yan’s episode of constipation caused by mud pancakes. What is more unbearable than an empty stomach is an empty stomach and constipated bowels. Yan does not spare the reader scatological graphicness: he coldly depicts how his characters use chopsticks to pick the hardened fecal matter out of each others’ assholes. Reading about how the private act of defecation becomes a collective exercise premised on mutual and intrusive help, the reader would be hard pressed to not have a visceral response.

With this unspeakable yet exact image, Yan throws into question the complex negotiation between utilitarian socialism and values of self-possession. In the face of pressing matters of life and death, the novel reveals, survival must take precedence over venerable teachings on being gentle, tender, courteous, and respectful. But the reader knows that the difficulty in physiological consumption and excretion is but a taciturn acknowledgement of a greater impossibility of economic transaction between the government and its people. Historians have pointed out that the government allowed crops in storage to rot before they would consider giving them to starving people.

The second half of the novel discloses a world of starvation and abandonment in the midst of winter. Wintriness is as grating as hunger. The only positive thing about the cold is that it delays decomposition. Frozen corpses are piled up like logs in the corner of the shared bedroom. The initial fear about sleeping with the dead dissipates as cannibalism surges. Moreover, people’s condemnation of cannibalism soon gives way to a tacit agreement as the number of remains continues to decrease. On the verge of death, eating the dead is no longer prohibited.

Lu Xun suggests that the Chinese classics, in particular the four books (Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius), are in effect manuals for cannibalism. In a sense, Yan’s Four Books is a variation of the four Confucian texts, which Lu Xun vehemently attacks in his short story “Diary of the Madman.” In the spirit of Lu Xun’s madman, who may himself have unwittingly become a cannibal, Yan’s first two cannibals take their own lives as a way of pleading for absolution. The reader, nonetheless, is left to wonder if the two unintentionally turn themselves into a fresh offering of flesh for their starving compatriots.

The crescendo of cannibalism, deception, prostitution, and murder comes to a somewhat unexpected end when the Child commits suicide. Before breathing his last, the Child gives everyone permission to go home. The homebound crowd unexpectedly meets a previously reformed sinner who has persuaded his townsfolk to relocate to District 99 or what he describes as “the land of bountiful.” Almost without fail, whenever Yan writes about the peasants and their longing, he also writes about (imaginary) nostalgia and (unsuccessful) homecoming. This is especially prevalent in Book of Songs, Streams of Light and Time, and Pleasure. In Four Books, with the naming of District 99 (and its homophonic connotation of long, 久) Yan seems to suggest that the attempt to go home, the struggle to press on, and the sacrifice to leap forward are bound to be incomplete, falling just one step short of a hundred.

Figuring History

The Child is the protagonist around which the different narratives, except for that in “New Myth of Sisyphus,” pivot in Four Books. Yan develops this character by cleverly making him at once familiar (an echo of “save the children” in Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman”) and emblematic of the kind of protagonist one finds in a bildungsroman: Child develops from being childish and selfish to mature and self-sacrificing. But Yan has something greater in mind—he is recounting a parade of human misery that goes beyond the conventional parameters of the bildungsroman. Here the reader may recall David Grossman’s See Under: Love, a heavy yet exquisite account of the trauma of the Holocaust. Grossman’s child protagonist, Momik, comes from a family of survivors who avoid discussing the traumatic past. As Naomi Sokoloff (1992: 153) rightly explains, the novel’s “focus on a child’s partial understanding helps alleviate the adult narrator’s struggle with language and artistic expression, for the young character’s incomprehension serves to indicate the incomprehensibility of the catastrophe.” After Bella, a friend of Momik’s parents and also a survivor, tells him about the “Nazi Beast,” he makes up his mind to “find the Beast and tame it and make it good, and persuade it to change its ways and stop torturing people and get it to tell him what happened Over There and what it did to those people” (Grossman 1992: 13).

Indeed, there is also a beast, a monster of history, in Four Books that the Chinese Communist Party forbids the survivors to name. In a sense, Yan, like Grossman’s Momik, must combat the twofold incomprehension of the traumatic past: “First he must contend with the family silence; then he must try to grapple emotionally and intellectually with the sheer ghastliness of what he learns” (153-154). Yan may not be familiar with See Under: Love, and his novelistic design may not match Grossman’s, but he has his own remarkably thoughtful way of taming the beast. Four Books offers an opportunity to rescue humanity from history, and history from the nation (party).

Grossman once said in an interview: “From a child’s perspective, even if you are writing about history, you are more or less not going to see everything clearly. And as we face the innocent questions from children, we must also think twice about our answers. Besides, a child is a tunnel through which I return to my childhood.”[ 1 ] Truly, in the narration of nation, a child has been a popular figure, a vibrant trope that connects the past and the future since the late Qing. A number of fictional youth/children have caught our eyes: the “old youth” (老少年) in New Records of the Stone (新石頭記); Liang Qichao’s “On Youthful China” (少年中國說); Lu Xun’s alarming “save the children”; Li Dazhao’s call to “found a youthful nation with youthful people” (以青春之我創建青春之民族); and such revolutionary slogans as “shining red hearts” (閃閃的紅心), “red successors” (紅色接班人), and “morning sun” (早晨八九點鐘的太陽) during the Cultural Revolution, to say nothing of child figures in writings by Bing Xin and Feng Zikai. These are all vigorous spokesmen for politics. Four Books, like See Under: Love, is not children’s literature. If anything, it is a (fairy) tale mixing fact with fantasy that reveals adult’s unsettling desires and anxieties. The Child’s childish tones and ways of thinking corresponds with his political naïveté, on the one hand; his calculation and tyranny ironically render him a little young fascist with an old soul, on the other.

But whether or not the Child is an “old youth” or a “youthful old” does not make him any less complex a character. In fact, he is a character who walks the thin line between good and evil. As Reinhard Kuhn reminds us in Corruption in Paradise, the child figure embodies an epistemological and temporal irony. A child is both the past and the future. A Child can be angelic or demonic, a figure who leads adult followers to either blissful mountaintop or the valley of the shadow of death. Rousseau’s Émile and Confessions, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s Naomi (痴人の愛), Nabokov’s Lolita, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Li Yong-ping’s Zhu Ling in Wonderland (朱鴒漫遊仙境) and End of the Grand River (大河盡頭­) have all complicated our understanding of the ambiguity of a child figure. To be sure, these fictional children constitute the hardcore that contributes to the thickening of plots. They may not all be precocious or naïve, but they are aware of their unique charm that positions them at center stage. With “the discovery of the child,” to borrow Kojin Karatani’s phrase, writers reveal a desire to relive the past, criticize current events, or express concern for the future. Bringing together the past, the present, and the future, a child is an important anthropological figure living in the end times. A child occupies a key position in the history of the Great Leap Forward and the Famine: he is the mirror of history and a blueprint of the future; a symbol of both redemption and repentance mutually reinforcing one another.

In the end of both Dream of Ding Village and Four Books, the child figures become transcendent. The ending of Dream of Ding Village retells the Chinese myth of the goddess Nüwa (女媧), the creator of human beings. In his reworking of the myth, the desolate Ding Village begins its incarnation as Nüwa creates new human beings. The narrator, a young boy who has died and whose spirit narrates from the grave, reveals a promising vision where total annihilation is but a preparation for a brand new world:People and animals had been obliterated, and the plain was barren. That night there was

People and animals had been obliterated, and the plain was barren. That night there was rainstorm, a torrential downpour that transformed the plain into a vast expanse of mud. Grandpa dreamed of a woman, digging in the mud with the branch of a willow tree. With each flick of the branch, each stroke of the willow, she raised a small army of tiny mud people from the soil. Soon there were hundreds upon thousands of them, thousands upon millions, millions upon millions of tiny mud people leaping from the soil, dancing on the earth, blistering the pain like so many raindrops from the sky. Grandpa found himself at a new and teeming plain. A new world danced before his eyes. (Yan 2006: 338; Yan 2011: 341)

As the narrator tells us, AIDS unfolds an unlikely, but not unforeseen, connection between cadavers (shi 屍) and poetry (shi 詩).[ 2 ] More specifically, we wonder if Nüwa, the deus ex machina that concludes the tragedy, represents Yan’s secret wish, even for a briefest moment, that the HIV epidemic offers a catharsis, as well as an opportunity for the rebirth of an agrarian society lost in the capitalist frenzy of the time?

Is it possible for the reader to ironically apply the same logic to the Great Leap Forward and Famine (and the subsequent Cultural Revolution) and view it metaphorically as the diluvial destruction that prepares China for its later economic rebirth? In addition to the myth of creation, the Child in Four Books embodies a biblical tale—indeed words of God, or shenhua (神話). In the end, the Child turns himself into a martyr, a figure no different from Jesus Christ, in an attempt to negate all his previous wrongdoings. In the beginning of the novel, the Child collects and destroys all books unrelated to the communist party, with the exception of a book of biblical tales. None of the sinners suffering from hunger and cold would have guessed that the Child has been in fact reading stories from the Bible that would eventually reform and transform him into a savoir on the cross. Yan never reveals to the reader the background of the Child, who arrives and departs with mystery. In the end, no one could tell if there would be a second coming of the Child after he passes away. The ambiguous presence of the Child and his self-crucifixion should lend themselves to more critical discussion.

In the case of the Child as Christ, Yan’s Four Books has an uncanny relation to Lu Xun’s prose poem “Revenge (II)” (復仇其二), which Charles J. Alber (1976: 10) reads as follows:

The implied author sees Christ not as the almighty and merciful savior of mankind, but rather as a sadistic and whimsical deity who enjoys suffering on the cross, because he knows that his own anguish will cause the Israelites much greater anguish in the future. In the final analysis man is victimized by a capricious God who does not want to save the world, but to plunge it into chaos and darkness. That is why the narrator can forgive the Israelites in the final line of the poem. “Those who reek most of blood and filth are not those who crucify the son of God, but those who crucify the son of man.”

Alber’s powerfully moving interpretation of Lu Xun’s prose poem might serve as an equally perceptive reading of the Child’s death. Yan’s Child is a combination of Christ and Lucifer. On a higher plane, “Christ, the light of the world, plunges the world into darkness, and Lucifer, the soul of evil, proves more merciful than tyrannical man” (Alber 1976: 11). Yan’s ambivalence towards Great Leap Forward and Famine is adequately invested and expressed in the Child figure. The Child is the keeper of the gate of darkness. His self-crucifixion is highly ambiguous: it is both a sadistic autoeroticism and a disgraceful renunciation; it may well be a plea for absolution as well as a martyrdom motivated by true, altruist socialist ideals. Either way, in his death, he is immortalized.

The religious characterization of Child does not appear out of the blue at the end of the novel, though; in the beginning, in “Son of Heaven,” he is already cast in a Messianic light. In Four Books, “the son of heaven” is someone who receives whatever he asks for, someone no different from an emperor (天子). In the meantime, if Mao Zedong is venerated for his deity-like existence, then the Child—the son of heaven—may well be seen as a prophet. The Child, like Moses in the Bible, promulgates his very own ten commandments of reformation. The following paragraphs that begins the novel carries with it clearly a biblical voice:

The Child came home, his feet on earth. The door of the Reform Area opened to empty air. He blew his whistle. Its sound lingered. People all came, in arrays. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament: and it was so.

孩子回來,地托著腳。育新區的門,虛空敞開。他吹了哨子。哨音蕩蕩,人就都來,一片片。神說,諸水之間要有空氣。將水分為上下。造了空氣,將空氣以下、以上的水分離開來。事就這樣成了。(Yan 2011: 30)

The last few sentences clearly come from “Genesis” where God is shown brilliantly at work. As is known, the Bible is more than a heteroglossic record of history; it is a book of prophecies, an account of revelation. This is to say that “and it was so” is not merely a saying of “perfect past”; rather it should be understood as a tense of “future perfect.” Yan’s readers soon learn that the biblical phrase “and it was so” is ubiquitous in Four Books. The use of “and it was so” in a novel about the Great Leap Forward and Famine suggests two different perceptions of time/temporality in history and fiction. For the reader, the Great Leap Forward and Famine is history, but for the characters they are about to happen. Moreover, history can repeat itself in reality. The Chinese language has no tense, but with this kind of biblical language the novel reveals the multiple perspectives of history (and the multiple histories of temporality), overlapping the beginning and the end, genesis and apocalypse.

Besides the biblical language, Yan’s prose is also characteristic of alternating rhythms created by terse and vivid lines of sometimes five and sometimes seven characters:

The leader threw red flowers to the sky. Red flowers fell like rain.
People stood on stools to grab the flowers.
Everyone got one flower.
If there’s a “5000” written on the flower, people could claim 5,000 pounds of crops. Smile and go get your prizes of farming tools and rolls of fabrics. With “10,000,” you were very lucky. Your prizes would overflow the carrier. All the foreign fabric could clothe your entire family for five years. (Yan 2011: 67)

So the sun set in the back. So people went home. So the tempering began. Workers get red flowers. No work, you lose flowers. (Yan 2011: 84)



The carefully composed tune and tone of the novel renders an impressive theatrical effect. Reading is no longer silent; it requires actively restoring the textualized voices. This linguistic experiment is reminiscent of Mo Yan’s attempt at resounding the local Shangdong theater performance—cat tune—in his Sandalwood Impalement (檀香刑). Yan, of course, is more than a copycat. He is equally, if not more, successful than Mo Yan in orchestrating a cacophony of voices that bespeaks the absurdity of political bacchanalia at a time when it was impossible to separate order from disorder, utopia from dystopia. Ironically, it is in his acoustic chaos that a different if piercingly sharp way of narrating history is realized. As mentioned earlier, Four Books has three alternating narrative voices; in the beginning, the alternation among voices is confusing, but gradually they all come together to support the story.

Reading Matters, Poisonous Matters

The novel begins with “Child of Heaven” and ends with “A New Mythology of Sisyphus,” and with “Account of Sinners” and “Old Path” we have “four books.” As mentioned earlier, the four books may well be read as a variation of the Chinese four classics—at least as interpreted by Lu Xun—because they recount a number of violent and cannibalistic atrocities. Give the religious allusions in Four Books, the four titles are also not so different from the “four gospels,” the records compiled by the four prophets Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who essentially tell the same story of Christ. One reads a similar heteroglossia in Four Books. Although all four titles are, of course, written by Yan, they embody various ways of narrating the past, and constitute what Hayden White calls “metahistory.”

“A New Mythology of Sisyphus” concludes Four Books, telling anew the familiar Sisyphean failure. In the old tale, Zeus punishes Sisyphus by making him push a giant rock from the foot to the top of a mountain. The rock always rolls back down before arriving at the top, forcing Sisyphus to start the process again. In Yan’s retelling, Sisyphus would always see a “child” on his upward journey; the sight of the “child” comforts him, and he gradually takes pleasure in this endless task. Zeus notices this change in Sisyphus’s attitude and decides on a new strategy. He seemingly inverts the gravitational law and makes the rock run uphill. Sisyphus’s ordeal is now doubled. Instead of going uphill, Sisyphus now pushes the upward-moving rock downhill. And he must run uphill as the stone rolls to the top to begin another cycle of labor. As days go on, Sisyphus discovers yet another image of beauty: a peaceful scene of worldly life at the foot of the mountain. He tries hard to hide his new excitement, and this becomes something he looks forward to whenever he rolls the rock downhill.

In this ending, Four Books reveals a certain philosophical aspiration. The struggles between human and god, between individual and party, between poetics and politics, and between literature and history seem to have reached a new philosophical height as if redemption and salvation would eventually be bestowed upon all sinners through writing. However, one wonders if this is yet another response to state censorship. One wonders if this self-elaboration of the metafictionality of Four Books is related to what Wang Hui might call the Chinese Communist Party’s long practice of “auto-correct mechanism” (自我糾錯機制). What Yan’s censored novels prompt us to think about is not necessarily the ever-changing definition of taboo; rather they are reflections on the power and politics behind taboo and on how writing is not so much a confirmation and revelation as an intervention into the definition. Whether or not the unspeakability of “uncommon death” during the “three-year period of hardship” is related to the anxiety of the communist party is not the concern here. The concern is: if language (discourse) is ultimately phallocentric, a representative of male-dominated civilization, then the ordered/sanctioned unspeakable is symptomatic of a self-contradicting phallocentrism. The past and the history that the communist patriarchy forbids discussion of represents a most uncivilized time where hundreds of thousands people suffered and lost their lives. Yet the more forbidden something is, the stronger the desire to speak. The curiosity of humanity, the crumbling of humanity, and the unspeakability of atrocity all give rise to the power of and desire for fiction.

The state censor has deemed a few of Yan’s novels “poisonous,” to use a term common during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps unbeknownst to the majority of Party members now and then, “poison” or du (毒) in Chinese carries another meaning. The exegesis of “du/poison” and its relation to fiction is brilliantly performed in Liang Qichao’s discussion of the teleology of “new fiction” (新小說) at the turn of the twentieth century. In his 1902 essay “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People” (論小說與群治之關係), Liang explains that fiction has four distinct powers that are “capable of shaping the world as well as establishing and nurturing the various norms of society” (in Denton 1996: 78). What is noteworthy is not so much Liang’s emphasis on the political function of fiction but his word choice of “nurturing.” “Du” is the Chinese version of the Hegelian aufheben that carries contradictory meanings of “to poison/abolish” and “to nurture/keep.” Liang’s deliberate use of the less common meaning of “du” also gives rise to a homophonic wordplay. In a sense, Liang’s new fiction predates Derrida’s reading of “Plato’s pharmacy,” the pharmakon. That is, for Liang, fiction is both a “reading matter” (duwu 讀物) and a “poisonous matter” (duwu 毒物). Lu Xun is perhaps the only May Fourth writer who truly demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of Liang’s fiction as pharmakon. In his “Postscript to The Grave” (寫在〈墳〉後面), Lu Xun (1973: 262) explicitly refers to his stories as “poisonous fruits”: “I am just afraid that my unripe fruits will poison to death those who favor my fruits.”

To return to Yan by way of the wordplay, the thesis is also the antithesis of his banned novels. The dialectal interplay between the “poisoning” and the “nurturing” powers is precisely what gives his novels their undeniable force, which the state censor (mis)recognizes as detrimental. In this regard, Four Books is another “poisonous reading matter” (以毒/讀攻毒/讀). It is also Yan’s best work since Hard as Water. Despite the brutal mistreatment of his novels by the state censor, Yan does not seem daunted and discouraged. So vivid and unsparing, Four Books is the latest poisonous food for thought that any general readers who want to know more about the different human costs of the Great Leap Forward cannot miss.

Chien-hsin Tsai
University of Texas, Austin


[1] For the interview (in Mandarin), please see (04/10/11).

[2] Here I am thinking of the famous prose poem “Epitah” (墓碣文), in which Lu Xun presents the most grotesque imagery of cannibalism in modern Chinese literature. Lu Xun’s narrator visits a dilapidated tomb and sees a dead body with both its chest and abdomen broken open and its heart and liver missing. As he studies the inscription on the tombstone, the narrator realizes that the body died a prolonged death of self-consumption. In fact, the body ate its own liver and heart. This scene of self-cannibalism à la Francisco de Goya is made all the more vivid when Lu Xun decides to contain it in a prose poem. This episode highlights a stark contrast between annihilation and creation, death and life, and by extension, cadaver and poetry.

Works Cited:

Alber, Charles. 1976. “Wild Grass, Symmetry and Parallelism in Lu Hsun’s Prose Poems.” William H. Nienhauser Jr. ed., Critical Essays on Chinese Literature. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1-20.

Dikötter, Frank. 2010. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. New York: Walker Publishing Company.

Grossman, David. 1989. See Under: Love. Tr. Betsy Rosenberg. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Liang Qichao 梁啓超. 1996. “Lun xiaoshuo yu qunzhi zhi guanxi” 論小說與群治之關係 (On the relationship between fiction and the government of the people). In Kirk Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 74-81.

Lu Xun 魯迅. 1973. “Xiezai ‘fen’ houmian” 寫在《墳》後面 (Postscript to The Grave). In Lu Xun quanji 魯迅全集 (Complete works of Lu Xun). Shanghai: Renmin wenxue, 1, 360-365.

Sokoloff, Naomi. 1992. Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tsai, Chien-hsin. 2011. “In Sickness or In Health: Yan Lianke and the Writing of Autoimmunity.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (Spring): Forthcoming.

Yan, Lianke 閻連科. 2006. Dingzhuang meng 丁莊夢 (Dream of Ding village). Taipei: Maitian.

——. 2011. Dream of Ding Village. Tr. Cindy Carter. New York: Grove Press.

——. 2011. Sishu 四書 (Four Books). Taipei: Maitian.