Chinese writer Yan Lianke won the Kafka Prize in 2014. He is the first Chinese author to win the prize, and the second Asian writer to win the honor after Haruki Murakami, who won it in 2006. As one of the requirements to win the prize, an author's work has to have been translated and published in Czech, which give you an idea of how many language’s Yan’s work has been published in. According to the Global Times: “Yan's works are seen as excelling at describing the bottom level of society in a magical realist style. A winner of the Lu Xun Literature Prize and the Lao She Literature Prize in China, Yan was also a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International prize. Yan's fiction has been translated into more than 20 languages, including . eight works published in French. [Source:Global Times, May 29, 2014]
Yan Lianke is known for his satire, wit, humor and vivid sex scenes and is regarded as the most prolific serious writer in China as well as one of its most prominent avant-gardists. He is an author whose literary works have enjoyed an enormous readership and have caught much critical attention not only in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan but also in many other countries around the world. Some of works touch on subjects that are usually off limits to writers who want their work published in the mainland and as a result some of his works are banned there.
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “Yan is routinely referred to as China’s most controversial novelist, thanks to his scandalous satires about the brutalities of its Communist past and the moral nullity of its market-driven transformation. In “Serve the People!” (2005), set during the Cultural Revolution, a commander’s wife and her young lover become aroused smashing statuettes of Mao and urinating on his books. Since 2016, almost all of Yan’s work — to date, seventeen novels, as well as short stories, novellas, and volumes of essays — has been subject to an unofficial ban. But his international reputation has grown. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and is often mentioned as a likely recipient of the Nobel. Yan’s style is experimental and surreal, and he is credited with developing a strain of absurdism that he terms “mythorealism.” As he puts it, “The reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders realism inert.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
The Guardian has described Yan Lianke as "one of China's most interesting writers and a master of imaginative satire". Veteran literary critic Chen Xiaoming at Peking University told the China Daily Yan is hugely popular among foreign readers, especially the French, who value "his wild imagination and artistry". "You may have the impression that his writing is rustic and tough. But Yan is really a highly talented writer whose works deserve multiple of reading," Chen says. “Yan was trained in an army school, and his early writing was mainly about army life. "Believe it or not, I'm the originator of so-called politically right propaganda literature," he jokes. "I wrote anti-corruption novels in the 1970s." He then shifted to rural topics. [Source: China Daily, March 11, 2014]
Yan Lianke's "The Four Books", one of the few Chinese novels to tackle the Great Famine of the 1950s and '60s, was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. His "Dream of Ding Village" made the shortlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. Yan won the 2021 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. Eric Abrahamsen, a juro for that award said: Yan’s writing does for the Chinese heartland what John Steinbeck did for the American West, or Thomas Hardy for Southwest England…he remains vitally invested in the ethical responsibility of the author. Though it has been demonstrated to him again and again that his explorations of China’s historical trauma are not welcome, he seems not to take the hint, and persists in laying bare what he sees as the original sins of modern Chinese society…His stubbornness, and the perpetual freshness of his sorrow over historical tragedy, are worthy of respect.”
Yan Lianke’s Life
Yan Lianke now lives in Beijing with his wife and son. He told the China Daily he is happiest when he goes into his study and watches National Basketball Association games on TV or reads Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka or Albert Camus. As of the mid 2010s he was te writer-on-campus at Renmin University in Beijing, one of China’s most prestigious universities. He reads a lot of criticism and foreign literature, but avoids biographies.
This is a far cry from his early life. He was born during the Great Leap Forward in a remote village in Henan. Henan suffered greatly during three-year famine from 1959 to 1961 that followed the Great Leap Forward. Many people starved to death in there, Yan helped the family grow crops and herd cattle when he was young. He dropped out of high school.
Yan was born in a one-room mud hut near Luoyang, about 500 kilometers south of Beijing in Henan, which is regarded as both an arid backwater and the heart of the Yellow River Basin, it one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “Yan doesn’t know when he was born. It was only when he was joining the Army and had to fill out a registration form that he needed to find out. When he asked his mother, who didn’t know his birthday or her own, she turned to other villagers for help. Maybe it was that summer when the sweet potatoes grew particularly well, someone suggested; good harvests were rare enough to be memorable. That was how they settled on a year: 1958. A local clerk picked a month and a day. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
“The year 1958 marked the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s catastrophic industrialization campaign, which caused the Great Famine. Some thirty million people died, and Henan was among the provinces hit the hardest. Yan remembers feeling, before he had the words to express it, that his hunger was an appendage, a huge tormenting tail that you couldn’t cut off. His mother taught him to recognize the most edible kinds of bark and clay. When all the trees had been stripped and there was no more clay, he learned that lumps of coal could appease the devil in his stomach, at least for a little while. As we discussed the famine, I happened to call it the Three Years of Natural Disasters, the government-approved term that I had learned growing up. It was the only time that Yan corrected me in our days together. “Language matters,” he admonished.
“Early on, language divided the world Yan was born into from the one he wished to inhabit. He told me, “In the villages, nobody calls life the city word for life, shenghuo, but rizi” — ri means “sun” — “so if you were a villager your life was nothing but a handful of sunrises to be endured.” For Yan, whose preternatural gift for metaphor spills out of him unbidden, this made sense. “The country has always been the husk that provides nourishment to that precious seed, the city,” he notes. When he was ten or so, during the Cultural Revolution, educated teen-agers from cities arrived in the village, having been sent to the countryside for reëducation. A few of these “sent-down youth” were billeted at his family’s home, and Yan watched his mother feed them the best of what was available, while her own children went hungry.
“When he was fourteen, he got a part-time job hauling cement at a factory in Luoyang. It was the first time he had seen street lights and paved roads and buildings that rose three stories — sights that inspired in him an almost religious awe. Around the same time, an uncle who worked at a nearby factory came to the village sporting a white polyester shirt. No one had seen any fabric except cotton before, and the material attracted open admiration. The uncle sensed Yan’s longing and gave him the garment, which Yan wore six days a week, washing it in the evenings and hanging it to dry overnight. “Wearing that white shirt at fourteen gave me the first inkling of what it might be like to carry the mark of the city on your body,” he told me.
“In his teens, Yan discovered reading. His eldest sister suffered from a painful bone disease and spent much of her teens bedridden. The villagers lent books, a scarce commodity, to keep her occupied. As Yan put it, “Her tragedy was one of the greatest pieces of luck in my life.” At sixteen, he got a rare copy of the great eighteenth-century novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a book that he now describes as “my first lover.” The book that Yan claims to owe his career to is a largely forgotten novel, “Boundary Line,” by Zhang Kangkang; he read in an afterword that its publication, in 1975, had secured Zhang a transfer from a farm in rural Heilongjiang to the city of Harbin. “I did not begin writing out of principle or passion,” Yan likes to say. “I saw the pen as a means of escape.” (He couldn’t have known then that Zhang was from a family of intellectuals and had been sent to the farm for reëducation.) While working sixteen-hour days at the factory, Yan stayed up nights to write his own novel, a four-hundred-page manuscript about the Cultural Revolution, which his mother later used for kindling.
Yan Lianke in the Army
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1978, at the age of twenty, Yan enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. On his first night of training, the canteen served pork buns, and, for the first time in his life, he knew what it was like to eat meat until he was full. To the consternation of his commanding officer, he wolfed down eighteen buns in twenty minutes. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
“Yan adapted well to Army life, and, after a year, he joined the Communist Party. His literary talent earned him a place in the propaganda department, and, during the next twenty-five years, he worked his way up to the rank of colonel. The Army transformed his life: he got a degree in political science and, later, one in writing; he was able to arrange for his father, already chronically sick, to be treated at the Army hospital. He has never forgotten the look in his father’s eyes when he arrived at the compound, along with the whole family, after several days of gruelling travel. At the entrance, his father stopped and addressed them solemnly: “All my life, I’ve never been to a proper hospital, and here we are, at the best hospital, an Army hospital. We have no money, so they have no reason to treat us, but we’ve travelled for hundreds of miles to be here. If they refuse to receive us, I want everyone to get on their knees. I will kneel, too. We will put our heads to the floor to beg.” His father spent two weeks in the hospital, hooked up to an oxygen tank, and Yan is sure that they were the happiest of his life.
Yan spent 26 years, mostly as a writer in the army. “By the mid-nineties, Yan was writing shows for the Army’s TV-production unit, simple stories designed to foster responsibility and idealism, while working on fiction in his spare time.” His early successful novels were published while he was in the army. ““For years, Yan maintained cordial relationships within the Army, and, even while his books were being censored or banned, some government censors praised them, occasionally asking for signed copies.
Yan Lianke as a Writer
Yan like to write in the mornings and writes all of his work by hand. He told the China Daily when he sent his novel “The Chronicle of Zhalie , to a typist's company, the boss gave the task to two "better educated" typists. "I was surprised when I got the text back because it was totally changed from sentence to sentence," Yan says. “Yan's unconventional usage of words and phrases confused the two typists: They changed all the "grammar mistakes" and "incoherent" expressions. "But I still paid them," he says. [Source: Mei Jia, China Daily, March 11, 2014]
Even though his books can be quite funny in a bleak way, Yan insists that he is the least humorous writer in China. He told the French writer and journalist Renaud de Spens at Institut Francais de Chine in Beijing:"I never try to be humorous either in writing or in speaking. For me, everything is tragic, survival, lives or life. Especially in this land, there is far more tragedy than humor. But this is the cultural difference between East and the West," says Yan in a dialogue with [Source:China Daily, December 23, 2015]
"We say that the reality we represent in our works is a great tragedy, but people in the West regard it as satire and humor. When I wrote Serve the People!: A Novel, my heart was full of sorrow. They all say that Yan Lianke is the most humorous Chinese writer, but I think I am the most boring and the least humorous. Reading my novels is not a pleasant experience. I understand that readers may hate me after reading them, but they will remember me."
According to the China Daily: Yan says that writing is also torture for him. At home in Beijing, Yan sits down at a desk at half past 7 or 8 in the morning, and works for two hours to write about 2,000 characters. "I know writers like Wang Anyi say that writing is a happy thing, but for me it's very painful. After writing 2,000 characters, I do not talk to anyone.
“Yan says that if he had not become a writer, he would have been a construction contractor because he had mastered the skills to build walls before joining the army at 20. The memory of his early hard life gives Yan a lot of inspiration, urging him to think about the situation of his people in the process of social development, represent the reality in China, and describe how people live and suffer, and to reflect their restless souls. Yan says he can never forget the three-year famine but he seldom found any important writer wasting ink about it.
In 2001, Yan received anonymous mail about the "AIDS village" in Henan. Yan says he then pretended to be the assistant of an anthropologist from Peking University and entered the village to tell people how to prevent and treat HIV and how to live once infected. "I never wrote any diary, took any photo or interviewed people about the disease. I just went to villagers' homes, sat down and ate together with them. They would tell you everything," he says. Based on this experience, Yan wrote the novel Dream of Ding Village.
“Yan emphasizes that he did not go there to record anything like a journalist, or to gain experience for his writing. "I think writers should not work like journalists or deliberately go to experience a hard life to write. Writers should use their imaginations to write what they feel. I don't write for anyone. I write just for myself, my heart," he says. "The greatest thing about his fiction is that he accurately describes the confusion and restlessness people face in life," he says. "It seems that Chinese people are happy. Reading An Isolated Village, you will find it's full of absurd jokes. We seem to get used to these things. These days, when the smog is thick, it's like we have nothing to talk about but the smog. I know every person in Beijing is anxious but feels helpless-a feeling which you can find in Dostoevsky's fiction."
Henan — Yan Lianke’s Home Province — the Setting for His Stories
Henan — Yan Lianke’s home province — serves as the setting for many of his stories. He speaks with a thick Henan province accent and often his character speak the same way as him. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “Henan is ground zero for Yan’s mordant imagination, and in his fiction it becomes a world of remorseless venality — of corrupt local officials, amoral entrepreneurs, and peasants with get-rich-quick schemes that prey on desperation and run on an engine of betrayal. “Some of the most memorable events in history happened here, but, during my lifetime, it’s become one of the poorest places in the country,” he told me. “There is no dignity left, and because of that the people of Henan have felt a deep sense of loss and bitterness.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
“Yan does not exempt himself from his critique; his books often feature an alter ego, also named Yan Lianke, a hack writer who periodically goes back home to gather material. In “The Day the Sun Died,” he writes, “For Yan, this town and this village functioned the way that a bank did for a thief — offering him an inexhaustible warehouse full of goods.” Throughout our trip [in Henan], I noticed him unobtrusively harvesting details for his next book: Who built this recreational center? Where does the funding come from? More often than not, people ended up telling him slightly more than they should.
“The complex where we were staying, a gleaming replica of ancient China built for profit, might easily have appeared in Yan’s novel “The Explosion Chronicles,” in which an unscrupulous village head transforms his community into an environmentally destructive megacity, and enlists its population as thieves and prostitutes. Our host, Zhang Guo, who was in charge of the complex, was an old friend of Yan’s. Previously, he’d been a director of Luoyang tourism, and at the dinner in Yan’s honor he groused about the difficulties of being caught between the expectations of locals and the indifference of officials in Beijing.
Yan Lianke and Censorship
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: In practice, the mechanics of censorship in China are opaque. The ban on Yan’s work is de facto rather than official, and his less tendentious titles remain somewhat available. The state has prohibited publishers from printing new copies, but some bookstores reprint old editions, claiming that the reprints come from their inventory. Pirated copies circulate on the black market and on the Internet, and Yan devotees will travel to Hong Kong or to Taiwan for new titles. A young man who showed up at a reading Yan recently gave said that he had been detained for seven days after arguing with customs officers who found two of Yan’s novels in his suitcase. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
““I’m lucky, because I don’t have to worry about not having a domestic publisher,” Yan told me. More potent than state censorship is self-censorship. “If you are young and obscure, you are likely unwilling to write anything controversial, because publishers will avoid you.” Yan is not exactly a political dissident, and he remains a member of the Communist Party — a club that’s much easier to join than to leave. Over the years, he has honed an instinct for self-preservation through pliancy, deflection, and bemused forbearance. Yan used to joke that the day he managed to learn ten words of English he would move abroad, but he suspects that he wouldn’t feel the same urgency in his work if he left China. “It’s ironic,” he told me. “There is so much anxiety about writing within Chinese borders, but that anxiety is also what I write from.”
Yan Lianke’s Works
“Summer Sunset” (1993) was the first of Yan novels to get him in trouble. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: It was quickly banned, and he was ordered to write self-criticism for six months. Yan maintains that he didn’t realize he had crossed a line. The plot centers on the suicide of a young Army cook; two military heroes blame each other for having treated him harshly and become bitter enemies, but eventually a suicide note is found, in which the man says that he suffered from depression and that no one was to blame. The dénouement could have come from one of Yan’s TV scripts, but his unvarnished view of Army life was more than enough to make the book unacceptable. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
“Serve the People” was published in China in 2005. The English version, translated by Julia Lovell, was published in 2010 by Black Cat/Grove. It is a novella about a young soldier having an affair with his commander’s wife who get rocks off by smashing and desecrating the words and images of Chairman Mao. The novel contains vivid and colorful sex scenes. The story was featured in 2005 in the Chinese magazine "Flower City". The Chinese government ordered the publisher to stop the release of 30,000 copies of the magazine, which in turn created huge demand for the novel, which had been banned. [Source: Wikipedia]
“Lenin's Kisses” (2003) is a bleakly humorous novel that revolves around the story of buying the corpse of Vladimir Lenin to build a monument in a village. The villagers collect funds for their project, envision large profits, but finally the project consumes the village and the solidarity of the villagers. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian: “The book details the ordeal of villagers in the Maoist era, and their suffering as greed and consumerism replace political imperatives. Its redoubtable heroine realises her community is better off outside both official control and heartless modern capitalism. Its absurd plot is oddly plausible to anyone familiar with the grand schemes and great scandals of Chinese officialdom. An ambitious, narcissistic cadre organises disabled villagers into a travelling freak show, raising money to buy Lenin's embalmed corpse and turn his county into a tourist destination. "Chinese people probably would buy Lenin's body, or even the dead body of a minister from England," Yan said. "As long as it's for development, everything is reasonable and could happen in China, such as forced demolitions of people's homes [which happened to Yan] ... Corruption also looks reasonable in Chinese eyes." [Source:Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 6, 2013]
“Eulogy and Academe” (2008) is a satire of university intellectuals and academic circles. A professor of classical Chinese literature threatens his vice-principal, who is also his wife's lover, for money to publish his research. Yan was rebuked by intellectuals for this fictional publication. “My Father's Generation and I” (2009) is a memoir about Yan's family and his hometown in Henan province. The book, which touched the hearts of many, is an attempt to trace his roots. [Source: China Daily, March 11, 2014]
“Discovering Novel” (2011) is a collection of essays that reflects Yan's thoughts on literary theories besides creating novels. Yan believes many ideas in the novel are guidelines for him to write and for the readers to understand his works better. He brings up the theories of "inner truth" and "deity realism" in the book. The Chronicle of Zhalie, his latest novel, is said to be a perfect example of the theory. “"I abandon the logical connections on the surface. What I really care about is not the swirls on the surface of a river, but the physiognomy of the river bed," Yan says.
“Beijing, The Last Memory” (2012), to Yan, is a pastoral eulogy of his lost "garden" - his former residence in Fengtai district in Beijing. Courtyard No 711 was where he grew vegetables and developed his writing. The book, with detailed narration on the plants and animals and Yan's life in the house, is hailed as China's Walden, a classic by transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
“The Explosion Chronicles” (2016) was translated Carlos Rojas, who has translated many of his works and published by Grove. According to The New Yorker: Explosion City — the fictional town at the heart of this satire of Chinese corruption since the Communist Revolution — was named for nearby volcanoes. In the present day, the name has come to reflect its boomtown ways. The plot hinges on a prophecy about four brothers, which throws them into a frenzy of competitive self-enrichment — through train robbery, prostitution, and, eventually, American industry. Charting the arc from unprincipled Communism to lawless capitalism, Yan employs hyperbolic touches that facetiously evoke legend: applause at a rally lasts “for eight and a half hours, and many villagers clapped so hard their hands bled”; a critic of the new prosperity drowns in his neighbors’ spittle. [Source: The New Yorker, November 28, 2016]
Ding Village and The Day the Sun Died
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: Advised to tone things down, Yan tried to comply in “Dream of Ding Village” (2006), but it was a hopeless enterprise, given his topic — the aids crisis that ravaged Henan in the late nineties, after the government encouraged people to sell their blood to replenish hospital supplies. Small-time entrepreneurs set themselves up as middlemen, known as “bloodheads,” buying blood from villagers and selling it on, but they heedlessly reused needles and failed to screen the blood. The novel is a nightmare of profit-seeking rapacity: once the blood business starts to fail, because so many are dead, the village bloodhead diversifies into selling caskets. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]
““Ding Village” cemented Yan’s reputation as a dauntless critic of Chinese society, and, by then, he’d been asked to leave the Army. In 2008, he got a job as a literature professor at Renmin University, in Beijing, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. A few years later, he started teaching one semester a year at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. This, too, seemed like an act of escape: Yan experienced what it was like to scale China’s digital firewall and gaze out at a world filled with information and books banned by his motherland.
“The Day the Sun Died”, published in in the U.S. in December, 2018, takes place during a single evening and night, when a village called Gaotian is stricken by an outbreak of somnambulism, or “dreamwalking”: The dreamwalkers appeared as impassive as bricks. While dreamwalking, a dreamwalker could see everything he could possibly imagine, but was unable to see anything from Gaotian and the world outside his dream. He was unable to see a tree or a shrub, unless that tree or that shrub had also appeared in his dream.
“The night unfolds in an escalating series of calamities — suicide, murder, opportunistic looting — as dreamwalking unleashes buried impulses. Yan told me that he intended to probe the inherent falsity of life in China. Communism, he believes, made it impossible to express true feelings in conscious life, and therefore Chinese people are not in the habit of doing so. Because information is so tightly controlled, generations of Chinese have been dreamwalking through life without realizing it, becoming zombies primed to live in accordance with state dictates. Waking up is unimaginable, because living in reality would require one to confront the atrocities of Chinese history, and to understand the catastrophe that the Party has visited on the country. To be Chinese, then, is to live under enforced amnesia, a medicated slumber of propaganda.
“Yan is currently writing a novel about religion. Its working title is “Heart Sutra,” and it centers on five visiting scholars at a university, theologians in China’s leading faiths: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity (one Catholic, one Protestant). Yan does not believe in God, but religion interests him, because he considers it a mirror of society, of what animates us. It is also, inevitably, a controversial subject in China. The Communist state is officially atheist, and though religious adherence is burgeoning, there has been a crackdown on its expression since the recent consolidation of Xi Jinping’s authority.
Chronicle of Zhalie
“Chronicle of Zhalie’ is about the growth of fictional Zhalie village in Henan, from the home of 100 villagers to a super metropolis with a population of 30 million. Mei Jia wrote in the China Daily: “The dramatic expansion came on a wave of money accumulated from men being ruffians and women being sex workers. "It's an astonishing novel with continual tides of astonishing climaxes," one critic said. "It's true about part of the Chinese social reality in the past 30 years, but Yan depicts the truth to an extreme extent that turns out to be absurdly true and powerful." [Source:Mei Jia, China Daily, March 11, 2014]
“One of the "juicy" urban legends that circulated in the 1980s and 1990s, Yan recalls, was about the origin of overnight wealth gained in the southern cities when China just spread its wings for the reform and development. "People went to the south and returned home rich. Rumors flew in the home villages, saying they traded morality for money," Yan says. He intended to write about his pessimism over the loss of moral order and beautiful ideals some 15 years ago. But it wasn't until 2012 that he found his way to tell the story when he was visiting Shenzhen, a city at the forefront of the country's economic transformation in Guangdong province. "Chinese society and its changes offer an incessant source for the writers. Instead of locating stories, I'm searching for the right way to tell the stories," he says.
“He got the name of the growing town Zhalie from a classroom poster he saw in a Korean school. He was inspired to write a chronicle after reading similar books in Hong Kong. "I researched how a nonfictional chronicle covers all aspects - history, geography, famous people, plants and animals - about a single town or city, and then the work is more like assembling small parts to form a giant roaring machine," he says.
“The result is a vivid story told in a strictly nonfictional shell. One night all the villagers have the same dream. In that dream, the first thing one comes across will define that person's whole life. After the dream, the four brothers from the Kong family set off to change the world in their own ways. A young woman from the rival Zhu family is to marry the second-oldest Kong brother and help him develop the town into a metropolis, though she hates him. Finally the third Kong brother takes all the villagers to sail to the United States in thousands of small boats.
“In Yan's novel, a plant can bloom if an administrative paper is put in front of it. A building can be built overnight, by itself, only upon a shout by the powerful Kong brothers. "Wow" is the reaction of many when they read the book, including writers Ge Liang and Jiang Fangzhou. "I think readers need courage to finish this marvelous novel," Ge says. "It's the truth behind those so-called truths," Jiang says. Yan coins a term "inner truth" in his literary theories he occasionally writes.
Yan Lianke’s “Three Brothers”, published in 2020, honours his family and the struggle to survive in the Great-Leap-Forward–Cultural-Revolution period. The book is more of a memoir than fiction and features Yan’s father and uncles, and himself, as central characters. Poverty, love and the luxury of happiness are central themes. James Kidd wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Yan Lianke is no stranger to writing about himself. He appeared, in subtly altered form, in his 2018 novel, The Day the Sun Died. In “Three Brothers” readers might find themselves wondering what separates Yan’s fiction from his non-fiction.” In the preface Yan said the idea for the book was a sudden realisation in 2007 “that four men in my father’s generation — which included three brothers and a cousin — had now departed this world, seeking peace and tran-quillity in another realm”. At the funeral for his “Fourth Uncle”, Yan’s sister said, “Our father’s generation have now all passed away. Why don’t you write about the three brothers?...You can also write about yourself — about your youth.” [Source: James Kidd South China Morning Post, March 8, 2020]
“This is what “Three Brothers” attempts, telling the life stories of his father, “First Uncle” and “Fourth Uncle”. Snaking through this trilogy is something like an autobiography of the artist as a young man. Yan slowly matures from a somewhat self-centered child, desperate to escape the poverty of rural life, into a somewhat self-centred man, desperate to become a writer. In many respects, the stories of the three Yan brothers are one story: of a peasant’s struggle to survive in mid-20th century China. “What kinds of things did Father, as a peasant living in this world, have to achieve before his death? What responsibilities did he have to fulfil?” Yan writes. The answer, broadly speaking, is withstand almost literally back-breaking toil, find enough food to avoid starvation and keep roofs over family heads. Such hardship can make otherwise precious virtues such as happiness and dignity appear luxuries, and even patriarchal duties like building homes, finding wives for sons and dowries for the daughters peripheral.
“This says a lot about the obstacles facing Yan’s father, which are many and serious, extending from unmanageables like the weather to unmanageables such as politics. While the ruling party often seems remote in Three Brothers, the directives that produce the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution make its presence felt. Yan wonders how “Fourth Uncle”, with his soon-to-be-illegal eight children, survived the “Three Years of Natural Disasters”. The answer includes his uncle’s ability to earn spare cash from knitting socks on his loom, and village elders who recall eating dirt and bark.
“Yan’s father worked for years making his small plot of land fertile enough to plant sweet potatoes and sprouts, only to receive an order from the central authorities to hand over his self-cultivated land to the collective. “This was in 1966,” Yan notes without further comment. Three Brothers includes lengthy meditations on fate, change, happiness and what Yan calls “life” as opposed to “living”. “Living,” he argues, “suggests a process of enduring day after day, with each day being the same, and implies a kind of monotony and boredom... Life conveys a sense of richness, of progress and the future.”
“Fourth Uncle, with his drive to escape and transcend his origins, personifies the latter. For all their admirable achievements, Yan’s father and First Uncle are resigned — or consigned — to “living”. Their triumphs seem to occur despite their surroundings (thanks to ceaseless toil, family support, intelligence and good fortune), while their defeats occur because of them: illness, lack of education, desperation, inherent powerlessness.
“What breathes life into these themes and ideas is Yan’s impressionistic form of family biography. An anecdote or passage is often triggered by his own personal and idiosyncratic memories: the knitted socks that remind him of First Uncle, or the almost absurdly glamorous polyester work shirt that Fourth Uncle donates to a grateful and suddenly cool nephew.
“By collapsing time, this almost Proustian method frequently brings both Yan and the reader face to face with himself. Three Brotherscontains valuable revelations of the writer’s formative years, the challenges he faced and overcame, and his early literary ambitions. A short passage in praise of his first teacher (“who was able to enter people’s hearts”) triggers this all-encompassing observation: “it seemed that my subsequent self-awakening — including my self-respect and my understanding of the relationship between men and women, between the city and the countryside, together with my veneration for revolution — all originated in this period.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2021