“The Four Books” by Yan Lianke [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Monica Carter, former BTBA judge and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, Writers Tribe Review, and other publications. She is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in World Literature Today, Black Clock and Foreword Reviews. She is the Project Coördinator for Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools. She is currently working on her novel. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.


The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

“I left some portions of the document in my drawer, and handed over others. The parts I handed over described my contribution and loyalty to Re-Ed, while the ones I left behind in my drawer contained material I hoped to use for a novel after I succeeded becoming a new man. I didn’t know which of these was more important to me, just as I didn’t know which is more important – the life of an author, or his works.”


Yan Lianke is a distinguished novelist not quite recognized as he should be in his own native China despite having been nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning the Franz Kafka Prize, which is based on an author’s oeuvre to date. He is revered in China although most of his works have been banned there, including Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village (a run was published but then recalled) and his current work, The Four Books, which never found a mainland publisher. Political dissension doesn’t make a literary work great, but a continual effort to challenge bureaucratic revisionist history of one’s own government provides a strong foundation for honest, compelling, exemplary work especially in the face of reprobation. The Four Books is morbidly farcical, a literary feat that few authors can achieve, but more importantly stuns with its complexity that appears simple, its messages that seem to be reductive reboots of communist propaganda and its styles varied yet fluid enough to be utterly readable.

This is not an “entertaining” book, although it entertains. It is a book of importance and by the fact that it is banned in the author’s homeland; it no doubt will be included one day in the canon of great Chinese literature.

The Four Books chronicles the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and also sardonically includes the use of red blossoms as rewards for good deeds based on Mao Zedong Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) that promoted open expression of the regime in order to let intellectual ideas flourish. Of course, Mao did a quick turnabout deciding that those intellectuals who took advantage of that freedom should be imprisoned for their counterrevolutionary ideas. As part of Mao’s economic initiative to reign victorious in grain and steel production over the West, where the “United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany and Italy are cock, balls and feces,” he collectivized farming in rural areas and established Re-Education districts for rebellious criminals.

The novel opens with the setting of the ninety-ninth district located on the embankment of the Yellow River where the goal was to assign each criminal “a number and re-educate them through hard labor.” The characters that figure prominently in this district are the Child, a low level leader in the Party whose ideology is based on an adolescent viewpoint of the world, Communism and the concept of reward and punishment, followed by intellectuals only referred to by their former profession: the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and most importantly, the Author. Almost a character itself, Chinese color symbolism imbues each page using red, white, yellow and black often and effectively to represent traditional interpretations ranging from beauty to imperial power to Communism.

Lianke shrewdly structures the book with alternating excerpts from four books. Translator Carlos Rojas stylistically creates fluidity and vibrancy throughout the novel with his language and interpretative choices. It opens with Heaven’s Child, an anonymous book written in holy language borrowed from a pastiche of religious texts including the Bible and The Four Books of Confucius. Then he alternates with excerpts from Criminal Records in which the Author records the infractions of his fellow district criminals and is promised by the “higher-ups” “that as long as you finish the this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be a leader of the country’s writers.” With the rationed ink and paper he is given, the Author also begins his memoir, Old Course, an intimate first person account of his thoughts, his gradual devolvement from witness of the ninety-ninth to a gradual obsession with growing wheat bigger than an ear of corn. The fourth book is also the final chapter that is the Scholar’s partial version of The New Myth of Sisyphus. The Scholar’s unfinished philosophical text about what he has learned from living in the Re-Ed District states that once humans become acclimated to the conditions of punishment, humiliation and debasement, harsher forms must be introduced make them understand the idea of hardship and challenge. Lianke turns up Camus’s myth into a futile exercise that involves the draconian task of not only rolling the rock up the hill, but down it as well.

As a symbol of the Communist Party, the Child is demanding, easily provoked, craves attention and wants to be constantly rewarded by the “higher ups.” The intellectuals make promises to him in order to gain paper red blossoms, which once they gain one hundred twenty-five, they will be allowed to leave and return home. He makes them swear that if they don’t mean it they say he makes childish, melodramatic demands like asking them to take a gun (placed on a platter), shoot him in the chest and make sure that he falls forward, not backwards.

Even though through raiding all the counterrevolutionary books of the intellectuals he is usually caught reading comic books emphasizing the simplistic nature of the bureaucracy as well as its lack of substantive provocative ideas. Paralleling the belief system of Christianity, even though the Theologian is forced to give up his copy of the New Testament for the Child to burn, Child’s is fascinated by a picture of Mother Mary. He ends up believing in the mythological nature of the stories of Genesis to justify the actions of the Politburo in Beijing.

Determined to earn enough red blossoms to return home, the Author goes to live by himself so he can produce wheat as big as ears of corn. At first, he encounters a feeling of freedom and renewed vitality to write but then in order to keep his promise of growing this Monsanto-esque wheat stalks, he devolves into chained slave vulnerable to the perils that threaten his wheat including bad soil, sun, and sparrows (one of animals of the Four Pests Campaign the Mao created in order to kill these pest that threatened the grain). He cuts himself to mix his own blood with water to make the stalks grow bigger. He forgoes sleeping in his hut to guard his wheat from disaster and continues bloodletting until he is pale and too dizzy to walk back to his hut. His desperation is palpable when he thinks, “Instead I wanted to crawl back, and in the process show all of the wheat plants how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children’s sympathy.”

While the “higher-ups” demand unrealistic wheat production and steel production from the labor camps, the land is barren with no hope of producing food for the Re-Ed workers and starvation results. When it is clear that the Great Chinese Famine hit the rural provinces hardest, some Re-Ed districts were faced with incidents of cannibalism. When it occurs in the ninety-ninth, the Scholar brings it up to the Child:

“The Scholar stared at the Child and said, “But at the very least we can’t permit people to eat each other, right?”

The Child open the picture book he was holding to a page near the end, and said, “Early on, there was a devastating famine, and people died throughout the land. There was also an enormous flood in which nearly everyone drowned, and only Noah’s family survived.”


The satirical nature of the Author that Lianke employs in the beginning of the book slyly progresses to horror when the he realizes survival seems unlikely for anyone:

“I retreated to the middle of the room and told the Scholar not to look. The Scholar then walked over to the corpses lying on the innermost cot. As soon as he reached the bed, I recognized the two bodies that belonged to the Theologian and a young associate professor. The Theologian originally had not been on his bunk. Feeling flustered, I went over and pulled back the sheet covering the Theologian’s body, and immediately felt a wave of nausea run through me. The body had no arms or legs, instead merely his trunk was lying there, like a corpse that has been disinterred after many years. I quickly covered him again with the sheet before the Scholar could see it and retreated from the room. I squatted in the doorway and repeatedly dry-heaved, as thought there were a clump of putrid grass wedged in my throat.”


Lianke lays out the slow burn of this genocide by insidiously eliminating basic human rights and primal needs from each character. The only expression of sexual (which is forbidden) and romantic love happens between the Scholar and the young, pretty Musician. Ultimately, after being reported by the Author, they are brutally abused for their behavior and endure degrading behavior in order to obtain food for each other.

The realization that no matter how many red blossoms they collect, they are doomed to die without dignity or recognition. Loyalty to the Party is the highest goal which none of the criminals can ever achieve when the requirements are constantly changing.

It’s not simply that The Four Books should win because Lianke continues to challenge the tragedies of China’s past and their denial in the present of those tragedies, but because he represents the curiosity of a writer who refuses to let them be ignored. The Four Books, as well written and as devastating as it is, confronts history and the roles we play in it. It’s a powerful testament to the courage Lianke renders as the obligation of a writer. Shouldn’t more writers do this with each novel they write? The Four Books should win for the voice it gives to the millions who died without recognition, without acknowledgment that they even existed.

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