Yan Lianke: A Master of Sarcasm

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  September 3, 2013  / No comments

An award-winning Chinese writer provokes and exposes the CCP, despite official bans and censorship.

Yan Lianke

Chinese author Yan Lianke. Photo: friends.sfpl via Flickr.

This year the Chinese writer Yan Lianke has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Even if we don’t know whether Yan will be on the shortlist, or become the winner, it doesn’t affect the fact that he’s a great writer who deserves acknowledgment and respect.

Yan was born in Song county, a rather poor and remote region in Henan province. Although he spent most of his life in big cities, his writing is deeply associated with this peasant origin. Many of his protagonists are peasants or people come from the countryside and the detailed and vivid description of village life plays a central role in his writing.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Like Mo Yan, last year’s Nobel Literature Prize laureate, the 56 year-old Yan Lianke has also served in the army. Later, he studied at Henan University with a second degree in Chinese literature, and graduated from the Chinese Liberation Army’s art Academy. Like Mo Yan, he is also a member of the official Chinese Writers Association, and belongs to the group of so-called “professional writers” (zhuanye zuojia) who receive their salary from the government. Although a good friend of Mo Yan, he still criticized him recently for “not taking responsibility as an intellectual and not daring to speak the truth on some important issues.”

Unlike Mo Yan, Yan Lianke has probably received more accolades than most contemporary Chinese writers—more then 20 domestic and international awards—but at the same time, he has had almost all of his books banned by the government. To this effect, Yan won China’s prestigious literary award, the Lu Xun Literary Prize twice, once for his novella Golden Cave (1995), and a second time for Year, Month, Day (1997). He is also a recipient of the Lao She Literary Prize for his novel Enjoyment, plus a repeat winner of the Hundred Flowers Award. All these are official honors, yet they did not keep Yan away from the shadow of censorship, which has been on his heels for two decades. His anti-war novel Sunset in Summer (1994) especially annoyed the authority. Being a writer who was also in the army, he was supposed to stimulate the soldiers to become fearless fighters, but instead he ruined the heroic image of the military because he wanted “the soldiers to be treated like human beings.” Consequently he had to do self-criticism for half a year.

In 2000, Hard as Water, his novel on the Cultural Revolution, was denounced by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). In 2004 the novel Enjoyment or Lenin’s Kisses (Shou hou) once again scratched the nerves of his employer, the People’s Liberation Amy, which finally kicked him out after its publication. However, Yan showed his great talent for humor and cynicism in this sarcastic novel, which describes greedy, corrupted local government officers and their absurd idea to encourage stunted villagers to buy Lenin’s corpse from Russia in the hope that showing the foreign leader’s cadaver will skyrocket tourism and increase the village’s income. All dream of imminent wealth. The impertinence of the novel exasperated the officials. The CCP’s Propaganda Department was subsequently alarmed and ordered the media to boycott the book.

An ecstasy of destruction came a year later. The novella that contained it, Serve the People, was a hard blow to the already bleeding cult of Mao. The protagonist, the young wife of an impotent high cadre, seduces an adjutant who works as cook in her house. Their relationship starts in code. When she puts the signboard that reads “serve the people” the living room table, he knows to go upstairs and do love service to her. This simple-minded young guy learns and lives the phrase “serving the boss is the same as serving the people” and grows to think that serving the boss’ wife is equal to serving the people, which meets the revolutionary requirement. With time their love and sex play become more and more sophisticated. One day, when the boss is out of town and they are alone in the large house, their erotic game escalates and subverts the conventional form. First, they cook and eat together, reciting Mao’s famous quotation “We come from all corners of the country, we come together for a common revolutionary goal.” While drinking and eating, they start to destroy the objects in room, specifically the revolutionary hallows. One smashes a plaster bust of Mao and shouts: “People, only people, are the driving force of history.” Then the woman takes the red book, the Mao bible, tears the cover page, rips some other pages, including the portrait of Mao inside, and stomps on it, all while screaming hysterically. Meanwhile, the soldier takes down a photo of Mao and Lin Biao and punches it. The glass broken, he takes out the picture and pulls out the eyes of the two greats. But their passion and excitement reaches a new height when the golden bust of Mao becomes their next victim. First the ears and nose are knocked off, then the whole statue is shattered to pieces and slowly milled to a fine powder. From floor to floor this couple goes, destroying whatever they can find. Finally, they come upon four volumes of Mao’s Selected Works. Page by page they tear the books, urinate on them, and throw the whole mess into the toilet. They jump and dance like children in the wild. So free and light as if they could fly. To the reader’s satisfaction, the escapade has a happy end. Knowingly or not, upon returning, the boss covers up the adultery, promotes the young soldier and lays off all other servants in house, so that no rumor can circulate among them. The best part of this satirical comedy is that the impotent cadre’s wife is pregnant.

The novel’s shocking effect was visible. For the first time since Deng Xiaoping’s “open- door policy,” Yan’s Serve the People was officially banned. Publishing houses and book stores received written notice not to disseminate the book. But this ban seemed to have little effect in intimidating the author. The same year, 2005, Yan presented another challenge with his famous book on AIDS, Dream of Ding Village, a fictional but very realistic novel about the fin de siècle of a rural community where AIDS contaminated villagers are deserted like lepers by the outside world. The tragedy begins when the middle-aged father of the Ding family persuades the peasants to sell their blood in accordance with the government’s plans to trade blood to pharmaceutical companies abroad. The blood does bring wealth to the village, but also the terrible epidemic and death. “What I saw was more absurd than what I could imagine,” Yan said. “No novel has ever made me feel sadder. This may not be the best piece of literature I have written, but it is the one that brought me the most pain.”

Yan Lianke has visited these kinds of AIDS villages seven times. He goes with a medical friend, both to make his observations and support people with health knowledge. He also helps them solve irrigation problems. Yan has said that what he really wants to write about “is not only the physical AIDS, but also the AIDS in peoples’ hearts.” He continues, “I write about death, but I want to write about the love that these people feel at the end of life. ”

Hate, fear, selfishness, greed on the one side, love, humanity, kindness, and altruism on the other. The author does not want to extinguish the flame of hope in this dark and cold world, but his efforts have not touched the censor’s minds. Indeed, the book’s gloomy pictures destroy the glorious image of an economic power. So, Dream of Ding Village was hardly on the market before it was forbidden in China. However, the book was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asia Literary Prize and the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Award. It has been understood as a line drawing of the abnormal development of a society eager to become rich at any price. The result is bitter.

The same thing happened to Yan’s 2008 book about intellectuals, Feng Ya Song (the title is taken from the Book of Songs a collection of lyric verse from the seventh to the tenth century) and casts a professor in a Beijing university as the main character. Before it was published, there were already disputes on all fronts. Another novel from 2012, Four Books, was banned. It was eventually released in Hong Kong.

But Yan Lianke wants his books to be read by Chinese readers. In order to avoid becoming a victim of censorship, he self-censors, yet no matter how hard he tries, his work has few chances of survival. “My greatest worry is that self-censorship has drained my passion and dulled my sharpness,” he has said.

Actually we do not have to worry; even after the self-censorship, Yan’s writing is still full of pungency and vitality. His passion and guilelessness for his home and people as well as his intellectual conscience are stronger then his survival instinct. Yan indeed is one of the greatest writers in contemporary Chinese literature.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

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