'The Four Books' a Chilling Historical Portrait

"The Four Books" by Yan Lianke (Grove Press)

Yan Lianke’s “The Four Books” is set in The Three Years of Great Chinese Famine, when Mao Zedong’s unrealistic goals for economic growth led to the devastation of natural resources and agricultural produce and the starvation of millions. Despite the fact that significant literary works on this history exist, notably “Woman from Shanghai,” it remains a sensitive topic for Chinese authors. In fact, “The Four Books” is not published in its home country. Like many of his recent novels, it was banned by the Chinese censors for being too politically satirical. However, contrary to what readers might expect, Yan Lianke does not focus on making accusations over what happened during the Great Leap Forward. By blurring his novel’s historical context and adding religious elements, Yan creates a harrowing work that addresses the more universal topic of collective human madness.

Yan’s book, to that end, is full of absurd, surreal, and often disturbing plots and figures. His main characters are nameless, referred to only by their original profession—Writer, Scholar, Musician, Theologian—and clearly meant to represent social types. They labor in the 99th Re-Education district, a self-sustained community where people from around the country have been sent to work, and a cold-hearted ruler called the Child presides over them. As his name suggests, the Child uses power crudely. Instead of intimidating his workers by threatening to kill them, he constantly asks his inferiors to kill him whenever they dispute with him. Of course, they never do.

The book employs a lot of religious references, often giving the absent central government the sense of an omnipotent yet incompetent god. This is definitely a brave approach for a writer in Yan’s situation. It is easy to just exploit the historical events that always come in handy, but it is more challenging for the author to abstract them and create another dimension of reality by himself. In this regard alone, “The Four Books” should be celebrated for its originality.

Yan not only takes a novel approach to his topic but also builds upon a delicate and imaginative structure. The book actually consists of four fictional “books,” each of which recounts the events in the Re-Education district differently. “Heaven’s Child” is a third-person narrative that mainly focuses on the Child, “Past Course” is a journal kept by the Writer in the district, “Criminal Record” is a report of misbehaviors in the district that the Writer was asked to write, and “A New Myth of Sisyphus” is an essay by the Scholar. “Heaven’s Child” largely employs a Biblical style that puts the Child in juxtaposition with the Christian God. Its opening is a great example of this: “The great earth and the mortal path returned together…… The houses in the Re-Education district parted the heavens and split the earth.” Soon the Child arrives to announce “ten commandments, the tenth of which is Thou shalt not flee, Thou shalt follow the rules and regulations, and those who flee will receive a certificate.” This touch of religious elements both emphasizes the absolute power of the Child and compares the blinded Great Leap Forward movement to a radical, almost incomprehensible religious craze, giving a frightening sense of absurdity, similar to that found in Franz Kafka’s writings. Yan himself calls this “mythological realism.” He abandons apparent logical and sequential relationships, effectively using myths, dreams, and projects to explore the terrible reality which exists not only in the physical world of China but also in the soul of man.

“Past Course,” the second “book,” is particularly maddening in its detached, realistic style of reporting horrors. Yan paints vivid portraits of workers in the Re-Education district, both victims of and active participants in the movement. They report false reports of agricultural produce and go out at night in search of couples secretly engaged in trysts. Hoping to report the couples and get rewards, swarms of people prowl in the dark. Towards the end, they even start to eat one another. In contrast to that of “Heaven’s Child,” the tone in this “book” is extremely calm and objective. This actually amplifies the effect of the story, because it leaves more space for readers to imagine all the horrors, especially given the fact that many events in the book actually took place in history. In 1957, the Chinese government started “people's communes,” which were essentially the same with the Re-Educational district in “The Four Books.” To meet the ridiculous objective assigned by the government, many communes gave hugely exaggerated reports of their produce, requisitioned pots and pans to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces, or handed in peasants’ food rations as their “grain production”. The Writer critically narrates these insanities in "Past Course," but he himself, in the following section “Criminal Records,” tries to fawn to higher-ups by making groundless accusations.


Although this unique structure of “The Four Books” magnifies the power of its story, it is not without its problems. Dividing a book into four smaller ones can look like a stunt to make the story seemingly more complex than it is, and Yan’s transitions between different books are not always smooth. Additionally, the religious language in "Heaven’s Child" is often overwrought and distracting. For instance, the expression “so it came to pass,” which appears five times in the first four pages of the book, is definitely more of an obstacle for reading than a stylistic accomplishment. Notably, this problem is actually more marked in the original Chinese text than the English translation, since Yan’s original writing has a lot of incomplete or highly condensed sentences that resonate with the style of the old Chinese translation of the Bible.

“The Four Books” takes an fascinating approach to a daring and interesting subject. Despite some imperfections that come along with its challenging structure, it provides readers with a chance to both revisit a horrible page of Chinese history and a meditation on universal human madness.


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