The Four Books by Yan Lianke (Man Booker International Prize long list)




“The higher-ups also said, This is good. Let them labor; that way they can be commended and reformed. Let them labor day and night, so that they may thereby be reformed and remade. Regardless of where they were originally located – in the capital, the south, in the provincial seat, or in a local area – and regardless of whether they were originally professors, cadres, scholars, teachers, or painters, they all must come here to work and create, to educate and become a new people. They will remain here for two, three, five, or eight years, or even their entire lives.”

Almost immediately we are thrust into the heart of the story which takes place in a Re-Ed camp, the ninety-ninth district, in which peoples such as the Author, the Scholar, the Theologian, the Musician, the Technician, and the Physician are all led by the Child. They are there to be “re-educated” for something they have done has upset the government during the period in China from 1958-1962.

The Author is promised a special reward if he writes an account of all that goes on. “The higher-ups have proposed a title, which is Criminal Records. They say that each chapter should be fifty pages long, and ask that whenever you finish fifty pages you turn them in and they will give you another fifty blank sheets of paper. They say that as long as you finish 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 the leader of the country’s writers.” And so it is his pages that we are reading, some which he writes for the government, some which he keeps for himself.

Parts of it reads like a joke. The Child, who is partly wise, but mostly naïve, comes up with a reward system like one would find in an elementary school. “Beginning today, we will implement a Red Blossom and a Pentagonal Star system. If you earn an award, we will also issue you a small red blossom. If your receive a blossom, you should post it over your bed, and every month you will be evaluated. Once you have five small blossoms, we will award you a medium-sized one, and once you have five medium-sized blossoms, we will award you a large pentagonal star. Once you have five stars, you will be permitted to return to your family, your work unit, and your lecturn. You’ll return to your laboratory and your library, and won’t ever have to come back here to be re-educated with the other criminals.” The result of this proclamation is that everyone scurried around looking for people to tattle on.

There is no endeavor held out by the higher-ups that the Child will not accept. First he is determined to smelt 100 tons of steel from black sand, a plan devised not by him, but by one of the “criminals” within the camp.  When he gets the workers to accomplish this near impossible task , because perhaps 20, 30 or even 40 of them will be permitted to return home for reward, he is told next that he must make a piece of high quality steel.

But when the Child presents a red star at the provincial seat, it is deemed second best to an inferior steel star imprinted with the word Loyalty. Now he must produce a “ten-thousand-jin-per-mu” field of wheat with grains as big as ears of corn.

The Author promised that he could make such a thing possible, and in his attempt discovered that drops of his own blood, mixed with water, caused the grains of wheat to grow larger than peas or peanuts. When everyone saw this, they believed that blood could produce extraordinary crops. “That autumn, the entire district was full of the smell of blood.”

Will it ever be enough?

Fragments of Christianity are thrown in these pages, such as: “The name Jesus means savior…and a savior refers to someone who will always, always go into adversity to rescue others.” But, no one is a rescuer in this novel, especially when the country is later consumed by famine. Lianke references mythology to tell the story of the crisis which happened in China during these years.

We are left with the idea that punishment becomes an ordinary condition, and is therefore no longer considered God’s punishment for our transgressions. But, by becoming accustomed to  punishment, we come to accept absurdity and hardship, fearful of a new and worse punishment. It is a graphic picture of a horrible government which makes me shudder in how un-myth-like it all is.

Find another revier here at ANZ Litlover’s blog, here at Stu‘s and at Clare‘s, here at Grant‘s, and here at Tony‘s.



9 thoughts on “The Four Books by Yan Lianke (Man Booker International Prize long list)”

    1. I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished it a few days ago. Do you remember The Dark Road by Ma Jian we read a few years ago? This has the same kind of dark power I will never forget.


    1. I agree, even though I haven’t read them all yet (ha, I’ve only read a few!) I don’t see how this can escape the short list. It’s far too powerful a novel, which even though it depicts a time from roughly fifty years ago is still pertinent today. At least in my opinion. Looking forward to discussing this with you and Gary; Tony already left a comment or two on Twitter regarding it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps all of us teachers have employed one reward system or another. But, the elaborateness of this one (perfect word choice!) makes it wobble on the brink of ludicrous. If it wasn’t so tragic that all the ‘criminals’ work so hard for one little paper star which means so much to them in its promise of a return home.


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