Novels from China’s Moral Abyss

Modern China was built on the nearly thirty ruthless years of Mao’s rule. The country’s elite—the “literati” of educated small landowners who held the empire together at the local level—was brutally eliminated. Almost everyone’s personal life was destroyed: homes searched for incriminating books, thoughts remolded by struggle sessions, and streets inundated by the din of tinny propaganda. People still loved and lived, but their futures depended on a capricious and brutal state that tolerated no competitors. After the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death 40 years ago last fall, the private sphere was partly restored along with many traditions, but society remains unmoored. With so many of the old rules, standards, and ties gone—and nothing convincing to replace them—China is like a sailboat moving wildly across the water.

One way to see this is to look at the country’s chaotic social media scene. Every so often, people’s privacy is violated in a nasty, humiliating fashion. A video showing a couple making love in a changing room is posted online, along with photos of their identity cards, causing the couple to be arrested. As punishment for being someone’s mistress, a woman has her blouse and bra ripped off in a subway car, and pictures of her (and the passive bystanders) make the rounds. Or one of China’s most famous Buddhist monks is accused of having an affair—not a crime, actually, but the personal details of both parties are posted online in clinical detail.

What makes such violations remarkable is that most are mob-like attacks, eruptions of a feral glee in destroying the private lives of others. The Internet has brought new channels of information to millions of Chinese, causing optimists to see in it a tool to erode state control over society. But for many Chinese, the result is a widespread sense of disquiet, a loss of trust in others, and an uneasy feeling that every selfie-snapper is feeding into a primordial chaos of images and information that others use for their malicious pleasures.

These events came to mind while reading three recent novels by two of China’s leading authors: Yan Lianke’s historical novel The Four Books, his madcap parody The Explosion Chronicles, and Yu Hua’s dreamlike The Seventh Day. Taken together, these disturbing works describe the causes and effects of China’s moral vacuum. They do so allegorically or through exaggerated storytelling, but in unmistakably pointed ways, their tales rooted in the happenings of half a century ago.

The most ambitious of the three and the earliest chronologically is The Four Books. Shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize, it describes the Great Famine between 1958 and 1961, when more than 30 million people died because of government policies. Largely ignored in official history and culture, this tragedy has started gaining attention from artists and writers. Yan’s novel is a powerful addition to this trend.

Set in a 1950s reeducation camp near the Yellow River, The Four Books revolves around a group of faceless archetypes named after their former professions: Author, Musician, Technician, Scholar, Linguist. All have been incarcerated for unnamed political offenses. Their overlord is named the Child, who is the camp’s commandant but also a stand-in for the party-state. The inmates love and respect the Child, constantly trying to curry favor, which he doles out in the form of red flowers and stars. When they get enough of these Communist trinkets, they can leave, or so he promises.



Stranger Than Fiction

Zhang Xiaoran
In the short twenty years since Yu Hua, a fifty-three-year-old former dentist, has been writing, China has undergone change enough for many lifetimes. His country’s transformations and what they leave in their wake have become the central theme of...

The book’s title echoes the “four books” of the Confucian classics, or even the four gospels, but more directly refers to the novel’s intriguing structure. It is told in the form of excerpts from four books, each of which is given its own backstory. One is Heaven’s Child, which relates the story of the labor camp in a sweeping, allegorical style. The book had been published by the (fictive) Ancient Books and Records Press and was “purchased” (presumably by the nameless collator of the materials) in a secondhand bookstore in Beijing.

Two other books were written by the character called “the Author.” One is Criminal Records, which is an account of the inmates’ misdeeds that he compiled in order to curry favor with the authorities in hopes of an early release. It is said to have been “published in the 1980s as a collection of historical documents.” The Author, though, had a guilty conscience and also wrote a more honest account of the camp called Old Course, which refers to the Yellow River’s occasional changes of course—cataclysmic events that killed millions throughout Chinese history. This book was said to have been published in 2002, “by which time circumstances had changed to the point that it was greeted with almost complete silence.” The fourth book is A New Myth of Sisyphus, which retells the Greek myth as an allegorical recapitulation of these educated prisoners’ experiences.

The first three books are juxtaposed chronologically as fragmented excerpts that give us three different takes on the unfolding disaster of the famine, while the myth of Sisyphus is presented at the end of the novel in one chunk. Yan adopts different voices for each of these books, and his capable translator, Carlos Rojas of Duke University, has managed to keep the tones separate. Rojas also coined new phrases, such as “Re-Ed,” for the camps—a very effective rendering of the Chinese term yuxin, short for yupei xinren, or educating and cultivating new people, giving a sense of how language was warped in the Mao era.

Most memorable is the sweeping, soaring language Yan uses in Heaven’s Child, which adopts an omniscient, biblical tone. Rojas renders one early section as:

The doors of Re-Ed opened. The Child whistled, and as the sound echoed across the land, people began arriving one after another. God said, Between the water, there shall be air. He created air, and divided the water below and above the air into two regions. So it came to pass.

Making the head of the labor camp a child might seem perverse, but Yan has several goals in mind. One is to show the infantilization of life under Mao’s Communist Party. Like many officials, the Child believes in what he is doing and faithfully reports up to the officials. When he meets them, they tousle his hair and praise him.

To the inmates, the Child is optimistic and believable, just like the Party was early on to many people. But as the novel proceeds, his likability is slowly eroded since he is incapable of getting a rational response out of the government. This turns on its head the idea still common among many Chinese that local officials are to blame for problems, while the central government is full of decent people. Here, the local Party leader is a charismatic youth; it’s the people above him who are insane.

More broadly, Yan wants to show how China’s educated classes are to blame for their predicament. They obsequiously follow authority, hoping the Child will dole out more stars, but among one another they rape, rob, and steal. All the while, the Child offers them the chance to kill him if they want to. But they refuse, and follow him to his end.

Yan’s bifurcated view of China’s educated elite is reinforced by the figure of the Author. He is at once the most damaging informant among the inmates, writing up their misdeeds in Criminal Records. But he is also the only teller of the truth in his Old Course. At first, the Author makes himself into a hero. He warns the Scholar and the Musician that another inmate is aware that they are having an illicit love affair and is eager to catch them in the act. This warning allows the couple to escape being caught. But later they are still caught and publicly humiliated. Eventually, the Author admits in Old Course that he was the one who informed on the couple.

The fate of these books—forgotten works randomly found and excerpted by an unnamed editor—parallels the hidden history that underlies Yan’s work. This was the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957–1959, which sent hundreds of thousands of educated people to labor camps for taking Mao up on his offer to criticize the Communist Party. (Mao thought he had to make some gesture of toleration in the wake of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, although in the end he could not tolerate the eruption of criticism.)

This was followed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The goal was for China to overtake Western countries, but not by the Soviet Union’s method of exploiting the countryside and plowing the accumulated capital into heavy industry and science. Instead, Mao and his lieutenants came up with the irrational idea of obtaining record harvests by planting crops very closely together, and of setting up “backyard steel furnaces” that were to compensate for China’s lack of an industrial base by melting down steel implements to meet astronomical steel production targets. Predictably to everyone except Mao and his acolytes, the close planting killed the crops, while the furnaces smelted existing steel products (most tragically, agricultural tools). Eager to placate their superiors, officials raided storehouses for seed grain. The ensuing famine is often reckoned to be the worst manmade disaster outside of war.

In Yan’s novel, inmates dupe Party inspectors (who are eager to be duped) into thinking that record harvests and steel production have been obtained. They forge steel stars out of scythes that are sent up to the county seat, then the provincial capital, and finally to Beijing. Eventually, the famine sets in and cannibalism follows. The Child refuses to hear reports of this, preferring instead to read a picture book of biblical stories.

The only beauty in this tale is the love between the Scholar and the Musician, but inmates soon turn it into a hideous spectacle. After the couple are caught and taken away, they return to the camp as broken people. Eventually, the Musician prostitutes herself to a government official for handfuls of fried soybeans, which she secretly gives the Scholar. He, meanwhile, labors fanatically to win enough red flowers so she can be released early.

All through this, the Child continues to obey the higher-ups. In the provincial capital, the governor tells him that if he can achieve a ridiculously high grain yield from local crops, he can visit the central leadership compound in Zhongnanhai. In the soaring, increasingly maniacal and sarcastic language used in Heaven’s Child: “The Child’s eyes opened wide, and he saw that the entire room was full of light. He saw countless angels floating in the air, and heard beautiful music and hymns.”

What to make of such passages? Besides being ponderously allegorical, these exaggerations undercut the veracity of events. If we are in a madhouse, how much of this actually happened?

Clearly Yan is trying to recreate an atmosphere rather than give an accurate accounting. This is legitimate, and yet I felt that Yan’s style also reflects modern Chinese fiction’s love of absurd exaggeration (not to mention love of excrement and bodily fluids). It is almost as if the author does not trust the factual record or basic human reactions to horror, and instead feels obliged to imagine scenes that go beyond the grotesque. The Musician, for example, chokes to death after stuffing her mouth with fried soybeans while on all fours as a cadre penetrates her from behind. It is in this position, and in fact in even more gory detail, that the Author finds her—an image that sounds so contrived that it undermines the story.

An Honest Writer Survives in China

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to...

Still, The Four Books is impressive and important. It is the first major work by a famous author on the famine, part of a trend that has gained momentum over the past decade. Besides Yang Jisheng’s nonfictional Tombstone (first published in Hong Kong in 2008),1 other works detailing the Great Leap Forward and its famine include Hungry Mountain Village by Wang Zhiliang, as well as several poems, translated and published in 2007 by Renditions, a Hong Kong–based literary magazine. Also of strong interest is Yang Xianhui’s novel Chronicles of Jiabiangou, which was translated and published in 2009 as Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp. The filmmaker Hu Jie has also portrayed the Great Famine in his 2013 documentary Spark.2

Although most of these works are banned in China, the French Sinologist Sebastian Veg has argued convincingly that they still contribute to a growing national discourse because they circulate in abridged form domestically or in unabridged Taiwanese or Hong Kong editions.3 Veg writes that even though earlier writers, such as Zhang Xianliang, mentioned the famine, they always did so obliquely.4 He cites the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and literary critic Liu Xiaobo, who pointed out in his 1986 essay “Crisis!” that many of these works ultimately echo the Party line: the victims rehabilitate their thinking and learn to appreciate the honest peasant life. Today, this sort of loyalist romanticism seems embarrassingly passé.

How does this relate to the present? The Four Books can be seen as the prequel to Yan’s newest novel to appear in English, The Explosion Chronicles. This picks up about 15 years later, after China has gone through the Cultural Revolution. It opens with the Maoist system dead, but its decades of destruction have created the most amoral group of citizens imaginable: the residents of a village called Explosion. The hero is Kong Mingliang, the village chief who within a generation turns the village into a town, a county, a city, and finally a regional megalopolis that rivals Beijing or Shanghai.

In Yan’s sharp critique of today’s China, all of this is ill-gotten wealth. Kong initially made villagers rich by teaching them how to rob trains, while his wife taught the women to be prostitutes. The proceeds are spent on factories that pollute the ground and manufacture dangerously shoddy goods. Everything is acquired through graft, corruption, bribery, and sex. But no one is happy: “The city’s orderly chaos resembled a spinning flywheel, as the people gradually came to feel that the Explosion they had known no longer existed….”5

Yan’s fantasy spins forward ever faster toward an absurdist conclusion. One of Kong’s brothers builds a giant navy in the hills. He recruits the city’s population and they go off to conquer the world.

Like The Four Books—and many Chinese novels—this is a work heavy on structure, scope, and symbolism. Unfortunately, it is also light on character development and humor (except the zaniest, slapstick, brutalist form). In an afterword, Yan coins the word “mythoreal” to describe this technique, but at times it feels like a crutch. Like The Four Books, The Explosion Chronicles is elaborately structured—it is set up like a classic Chinese gazetteer, a form of history by the literati to describe local places and events. But the characters come across as flat and remote as a figure from a distant age, not to mention being vile and horrible.

This may be parody, but parodies work best when short, and this one is long. It is enjoyable and the critiques of society are spot-on, but at times one feels that the author is so keen to show every aspect of China’s moral abyss that he cannot resist piling it on, like a carnival showman with one more freak show to exhibit.

Less didactic and frenetic is Yu Hua’s latest novel, The Seventh Day, a fable-like account of one man’s death and his efforts to understand his aimless life. The story opens with the main character heading to a morgue, where he has been summoned for his cremation. He arrives late, and decides to leave the crematorium for a while to wander through the mists and fog of his half-dead state to understand his life and death.

As he makes his way back in time he meets many other recently deceased people, allowing Yu to survey the social failures that underlie these deaths: greed, lust, and corruption. Everyone he meets died bad deaths: killed trying to uncover corruption or trying to get ahead in a twisted society. As noted by Chinese reviewers—who savaged the book when it came out there in 2013 (it was not banned)—their stories read like the scandals that appear regularly on the Chinese Internet: a corrupt hospital casts fetuses into a river, a restaurant blows up because of a poorly maintained gas main, a woman commits suicide because her boyfriend bought her a fake iPhone.

In its eagerness to exploit current events, Yu’s novel resembles The Explosion Chronicles, or Jia Zhangke’s movie A Touch of Sin, which also came out in 2013.6 One of China’s best-known filmmakers, Jia is also interested in how information is exchanged in China, and how Chinese perceive reality in distorted ways. By retelling tabloidesque tales, both Jia and Yu hope to show the anomie of modern Chinese society. But both can be repetitive, and their stories are often fragmentary—as if they can’t escape the sense of incompleteness that often affects users of social media. The Seventh Day has one good, strong story to tell (about the hero’s sentimental but still credible relationship with his father) yet some of it feels padded. Though this is Yu’s first major work of fiction since Brothers,7 it feels rushed, as if he couldn’t escape the cascade of exposés and scandals that roil China’s social media.

But at its best, The Seventh Day touches on how many Chinese are coming to understand their history. Like the book’s main character, they are searching for their long-censored past, stumbling back into a blurry, hazy history where fact and fiction are hard to separate.

  1. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); see my review in these pages, November 22, 2012.
  2. For more on Hu’s documentary work, see my interview with him in the NYR Daily, “China’s Invisible History,” May 27, 2015.
  3. Sebastian Veg, “Creating a Literary Space to Debate the Mao Era: The Fictionalisation of the Great Leap Forward in Yan Lianke’s Four Books,” China Perspectives, No. 4 (2014).
  4. One of Zhang’s best-known books, Grass Soup (Godine, 1995), was reviewed by Jonathan Spence in these pages, August 10, 1995.
  5. Yan’s translator, Carlos Rojas, uses the idea of illness as a springboard for a sweeping and profound analysis of modern culture in his recent book, Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2015).
  6. See my review in the NYR Daily, October 25, 2013.
  7. Pantheon, 2009; see my review in these pages, October 11, 2012.