When the novelist Yan Lianke visits his elderly mother, which he does every two to three months, he is loath to tell anyone he’s coming. As a local boy made good, Yan is acutely aware of the hazards that accompany a publicized homecoming: having to serve as the guest of honor at interminable banquets, being the dedicatee of countless toasts. Inevitably, though, word gets out, and when, in June, I travelled with him from Beijing, where he lives with his wife and son, to Luoyang, the city nearest his ancestral village, a friend had arranged a dinner in his honor.
Luoyang, in Henan Province, is an arid backwater, but its position in the Yellow River Basin made it one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. For fifteen hundred years, from the eleventh century B.C., it was an imperial capital; on its streets, Confucius, a failed official turned itinerant sage, is said to have met Laozi, the founder of Daoism. Nowadays, Luoyang is best known for the Longmen Grottoes, where tens of thousands of Buddha statues have been carved into cliffs on the banks of the Yi River.
Little of this illustrious past was visible as we drove from the train station. Gray office towers and residential high-rises glided by, the legacy of Deng Xiaoping’s socialist market economy, along with construction sites for a new subway line and walls plastered with patriotic slogans. But soon we entered a disorienting simulacrum of the past: a labyrinth of imperial gardens, stone bridges, and pagodas with crimson eaves. A statue of Wu Zetian, the only woman in China’s history to hold the title of emperor, in the seventh century, surveyed our arrival with impassive serenity. We had come to Shangyanggong, an opulent new facsimile of Empress Wu’s palace, built on the site of the original and housing a state-controlled entertainment center for tourists. Past a lily pond and a copse of weeping willows, a group of men and women stood dressed in Tang-dynasty robes. One opened Yan’s door, bowing deeply, while another retrieved our luggage from the trunk. As we ascended the steps of the palace, the retinue so adroitly arranged itself around Yan that he resembled a revered emperor or a preëxecution prisoner, depending on your perspective.
Yan jokes that he looks exactly like what his ancestors were for generations: wheat farmers of China’s middle plain, with cheeks the ruddy color of mud houses and arms as tough as the bark of the tung trees at his childhood home. Now sixty, he is trim, with a boxy build and an abundant thatch of graying hair, which sweeps across his forehead in uneven, bristly bangs. His default expression is one of good-natured equipoise, relaxed but attuned to the minutiae of the shifting world around him.
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 won the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, 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.”
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.”
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,” which will be published in the U.S. in December, 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, 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.
A waitress entered with a large bowl of yellow broth, part of a traditional Luoyang meal called the Water Banquet. According to legend, the soup, known as the Swallow Dish, was Empress Wu’s favorite. An imitation peony, carved out of egg, floated regally on top. Zhang suggested that Yan should be writing movie scripts to make money. Yan brushed the idea aside, without mentioning that last year he published a novel in which the fictional Yan Lianke does precisely this. Hungry for fame and fortune, he sets out to write, produce, and direct a true-crime blockbuster, but finds that no one in China will give him any reliable facts and nothing the press reports is true.
After dinner, Yan said that he’d like to hear some Henanese opera; its tunes have captivated him since childhood, and the lyrics often find their way into his novels. Zhang proposed a theatre in Luoyang’s old town, which dates back three thousand years but is currently being redeveloped as yet another historical pastiche aimed at tourists. The theatre was full of businessmen and officials, well fed and tipsy. When we entered, Yan was immediately recognized, and people jumped up to offer him their seats.
Yan told me later that he was disappointed with the performance; people aren’t that interested in real Henanese opera these days, and this was more like a variety show designed to pull in a crowd. In one act, three men put all their weight behind a sword that was thrust against a fourth man’s Adam’s apple—a feat that had the audience writhing in delighted disgust.
As the curtain fell, performers and spectators alike mobbed Yan for selfies and autographs. Eventually, a man drew him aside, introducing himself as the manager of the old town’s redevelopment, and insisted on giving us a tour. As we walked past enormous pagodas whose outlines were illuminated with strings of chili-pepper lights, the man, a former district Party secretary named Wei, told us that the project would take a decade to complete, and would cost two billion dollars.
Wei tottered a bit as he walked and frequently lost his train of thought. He pulled out his phone and showed us a picture of Jiang Zemin, the former President of China, whom he’d led on a tour the month before. Periodically, like a faulty loudspeaker, Wei would chant the project’s slogan: “Preserve the old photographic image of Luoyang. Work to build its new welcome lounge!” Yan nodded graciously as the monologue continued. If he was taking mental notes, he betrayed no judgment. In China, you keep your principles elastic; a favorite proverb of Yan’s is “It’s best to live life with one eye open and the other closed.”
Steadying himself on a lamppost, Wei halted and, overcome with emotion, pronounced Yan “the pride of Henan.” He said that he was sure he’d read something of Yan’s recently in the People’s Daily—the mouthpiece of the Communist Party and perhaps the last paper on earth that his byline would appear in.
“I don’t dare to think that’s true,” Yan said, a hint of mischief creeping into his smile. Then he turned to me and whispered, “No one here has actually read anything I’ve written, or knows that my books are banned. To live in China in 2018 is to inhabit a reality that makes you question the very nature of reality.” The absurdity of the evening’s events seemed, ever so slightly, to please the author. “The people we met today, they know the name Yan Lianke and that he’s a Henanese who’s come by a bit of fame,” he said. “But, in their minds, I might as well be a character in a story.”
Yan’s mother, who is in her mid-eighties, has been getting frail, and not long ago it occurred to him that, if he wired her allowance annually, rather than in monthly installments, she would be spared many walks to the bank. His mother was horrified by the suggestion: what was the point of receiving money from a rich, filial son if the whole village didn’t witness you hobbling up the road to collect it? Yan describes her as “the most traditional countrywoman you’ll meet”—illiterate and lacking even basic arithmetic skills, but possessed of an inviolable sense of propriety. She had married into the village at the age of sixteen and understood its unwritten laws: your reputation is your worth; debts were to be repaid promptly, because you never knew what fate held. Even if you could afford to make dumplings with meat only once a year, you made sure to deliver a plate to your neighbors before the aroma alerted them to your extravagance.
These days, Yan’s mother barely needed her allowance—he already covered her biggest expenses—so the money went to her greatest indulgence: gifts for villagers who had got married, had a child, or had a death in the family. “To save face is infinitely more fulfilling for my mother than living in comfort,” Yan told me. When we arrived at her house, in Tianhu, thirty-five miles from Luoyang, the first question she asked was how many cartons of cigarettes he’d brought for the villagers.
Yan’s mother gave me a tour of the house—three rooms plus a courtyard garden, planted with tomatoes, corn, bok choy, and string beans—and her Henanese accent was so thick that I had to ask Yan to translate. We sat in the parlor, where a large portrait of Chairman Mao dominated the main wall; beneath it were ancestral tablets devoted to Yan’s father, who died more than thirty years ago, of emphysema, and a small white porcelain bodhisattva. Yan’s brother and one of his sisters were there—he is the youngest of four. The sister was kind enough to caution me against using the bathroom; it was a hole in the ground, whose contents were periodically used to fertilize the soil.
Yan’s mother filled him in on village news while he unpacked a suitcase of things he’d brought for her. When she left the room, his sister hurriedly conveyed the latest developments in a family crisis. For years, the siblings had been trying to get their mother to live with one of them, but she always refused. Eventually, they found a woman in the village who could look after her. The arrangement seemed mutually beneficial: their mother needed someone who could come at a moment’s notice, and the aide, a grandmother herself, could earn some extra cash.
But there was trouble, Yan explained to me, employing the phrase zhan pianyi (literally, “occupy small advantages”), which means to be on the sweeter end of a bargain. One legacy of Communism, he believes, is that people think the only way to get ahead is by pulling a fast one of some kind. In an unjust world, zhan pianyi becomes a private way of keeping score, so that, even when a deal seems demonstrably equitable, people are always asking themselves if they are being taken advantage of or, preferably, taking advantage of someone else. For the Chinese, Yan said, the feeling of coming out ahead produces a “skewed, misbegotten joy” that has become his mother’s most intense pleasure.
Sensing that it would be a waste not to extract full value from someone who was being paid, his mother pestered the woman constantly. The aide, meanwhile, feeling that her paltry compensation scarcely justified virtual enslavement, started helping herself to small amounts of cash that she found around the house. When Yan’s mother realized, she threatened to fire her, but Yan, doubting that a replacement could be found, secretly upped the woman’s wages. “The worst part was when my mother found that out, too,” Yan told me. What incensed her most, far more than the money itself, was that her own son should have landed her on the losing end of pianyi. Since then, she’d refused to let the woman in the house, and Yan’s sister had been forced to move in temporarily. In a Communist morality tale, Yan’s mother’s pettiness would have made her the villain. In a Yan novel, she might have been a personification of the fierceness that comes from a lifetime of economic impotence.
Yan and his brother, a retired postman, offered to show me around the village. I asked to see the one-room mud house where Yan was born, and they led me to a windowless concrete box topped with a sheet of corrugated metal. The old house was gone, Yan said, but the story of its destruction was an instructive parable. A dozen years ago, he’d wanted to buy it, but the current owner, a farmer, resisted, and the more money Yan offered the more intransigent the farmer became. One day, a neighbor saw that all the earth around the building had been dug up. Yan realized that the amounts of money he’d been offering had convinced the farmer that there must be valuables buried there. The ethic of zhan pianyi dictated that Yan must be trying to lowball him and that he’d be crazy to sell without having discovered what made an uninhabitable mud hut so desirable. The Cultural Revolution had robbed an entire generation of the concept of sentimental value.
Around that time, Italian and Japanese TV crews had come to film Yan’s birthplace. The county government became interested in turning the place into a cultural-heritage site that might attract visitors, and informed the farmer that he was obligated to sell. One night, in a vengeful rage, the farmer tore the old house down, and then erected the ugly structure that we were looking at. He’d made it as large as possible, in order to extract more compensation from the government, but he’d miscalculated: the state had no interest in buying something that wasn’t Yan’s birthplace, and the building had been abandoned ever since. The spiralling overvaluation of the site had ended up destroying what little value there was.
We continued our walk around the village, sometimes running into people Yan knew, and his Henanese accent thickened with every exchange of greetings. Signs of restless transformation were everywhere, making the village, in Yan’s words, rattle like “a pot of boiling water”: dilapidated homes with “Demolish” scrawled in white chalk on the walls; new buildings covered with white ceramic tiles; asphalt paths where before there had been only dirt. Around us, paulownia and ginkgoes swayed in the wind. There would be more of them, Yan told me, if the older trees had not been cut down in the nineteen-nineties and sold for kindling. Once one villager started doing it, no one could justify not following suit. Yan shook his head. Nobody had thought to ask, If we cut down the trees, what will protect the harvest from the sandstorms? Without the harvest, how will we live? In Yan’s novels, misfortune arrives as the consequence of an external threat, but more often than not it is abetted by shortsighted avarice, which hastens a community’s downfall.
I asked Yan’s brother if he’d read any of Yan’s books. The older man smiled sheepishly. “I’ve tried, but what’s the point?” he said, kicking at an invisible pebble. “It’s all beyond me.”
Yan patted him lightly on the shoulder in appreciation of his honesty. None of his family members read his books, and what little they know about his criticisms of the government has mostly baffled them. When Yan published “Serve the People!,” the erotic satire of the Cultural Revolution, his brother, looking embarrassed, asked, “Is it true that you have been conscripted to write porn? How hard up are you, brother?”
A few years ago, the neighborhood in Beijing where Yan lived, which had been built only five years earlier, was bulldozed for a road-widening scheme. He led a residents’ campaign to stop it, writing articles in the national and international press. For Yan, the fight wasn’t about money, though the compensation was inadequate, but about interrogating the arbitrariness of bureaucratic decisions. Yan’s siblings told him that he shouldn’t be stirring up trouble. Why couldn’t he be content with his lot? And, even if it wasn’t about the money, surely getting some compensation was better than nothing.
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.
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 Heilongjian 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.
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.
“Would you like us to put this out with sparkling, or is tap O.K.?”
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.
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. The first of his novels to land him in trouble was “Summer Sunset,” published in 1993; 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.
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. 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.
“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.
In April, Yan came to New York, to visit his American publisher, Grove Atlantic, in advance of the publication of “The Day the Sun Died.” International travel makes him apprehensive. Western food disagrees with him, so he stuffs his suitcase with dried ramen and pickled vegetables. He doesn’t speak a word of English except for “Long live Chairman Mao,” a phrase he learned in middle school. Once, he and his wife got stranded in Brussels for forty-eight hours because they couldn’t understand the transfer announcements at the airport. So he was glad to have a translator and guide. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he lingered for a long while in front of Cubist self-portraits, whose geometric exaggerations struck Yan as “beguiling and unexpectedly moving”; and to Flushing, where he was so tempted by the price of Nikes that he bought pairs for his entire family, despite not knowing anyone’s size. On a walk down Fifth Avenue, what impressed him the most was the neatness of Citi Bike racks. Beijing has a similar system, but, he lamented, “people carelessly dump the bikes on the ground with no thought to walkway obstruction or damage to the bike.” He surmised that Communism, by controlling every aspect of people’s lives, had infantilized generations of Chinese: “People’s sense of themselves as individuals atrophied, so much so that they lost commonsense ideas of how to behave ethically without strict parameters.”
At Grove Atlantic’s offices, we waited for Morgan Entrekin, the C.E.O. and publisher, who rushed in, extending his hand and apologizing for being late; he’d been at lunch with Tom Stoppard. Trying to translate, I couldn’t remember the Chinese version of the name Stoppard, so the moment passed, like so many for Yan when he’s abroad, with awkward, uncomprehending grinning on all sides.
After we’d sat down, Entrekin asked Yan about the political situation in China. Yan shook his head and responded that it was beginning to remind him of the Cultural Revolution.
Entrekin’s eyes widened. “Surely it can’t be that bad,” he said.
Yan explained that, particularly since the removal of Presidential term limits, last year, he had sensed a gradual backsliding, especially when it came to issues of free speech. Not only has he frequently been prevented from publishing new books but publishers have also suppressed his backlist: “Anything that has the name Yan Lianke is indiscriminately removed from the shelves.”
There was a brief silence.
“But you are recognized for your talent outside China!” Entrekin said, trying to rescue the mood.
“Every year, when the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, someone is sent to my home to babysit me in case I’m bombarded by international press and say something untoward,” Yan said. “The worst part is that they make a point of sending my best friend. But of course it’s a smart move: no one to better police you than the people you are closest to.”
Entrekin asked whether Yan now thought of himself as writing for the Chinese or for foreigners. Yan rubbed his chin. “In an ideal world, I want to write for my countrymen, but I know that’s not possible and likely won’t be possible in my lifetime,” he said softly. “That’s why I’m so grateful that translation has offered me a lifeline.”
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.
“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.”
“The Day the Sun Died” 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.
In Luoyang, we discussed this situation while walking to the Longmen Grottoes. Yan spoke with disdain about the commodification of the site for tourists. There were shops selling candy and hats, and golf carts ferried those who didn’t want to walk to the site’s highlights. Tour guides in colorful caps shouldered past us, waving flags for their charges to follow and broadcasting snippets of Longmen’s history through small electronic megaphones.
The construction of the grottoes began in the fifth century, when Buddhism, which originated in India, started gaining favor at the imperial court. Longmen’s grandeur lies partly in a refusal to reveal itself all at once. Tucked into the limestone cliffs are more than two thousand caves and niches, with nearly a hundred and ten thousand statues of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and arhats. As one walks closer to the rock, the statues disclose exquisite details of their faces and poses. Out of the walls emerge grids of tiny bas-relief Buddhas, so intricately carved that, from a distance, the rows look like the script of some forgotten language.
Over the centuries, some statues have been vandalized or stolen. During the Cultural Revolution, when relics were considered anti-revolutionary, many were decapitated or had their faces smashed in. Yan recalled how, when he was young, he’d see Buddha heads, the size of soccer balls, lying on the ground. In the absence of toys, children would kick them around in the dirt.
“In China, the development of religion is the best lens through which to view the health of a society,” Yan said, as we navigated a metal walkway that snaked in and out of the caves. “Every religion, when it is imported to China, is secularized. The Chinese are profoundly pragmatic. We worry about our reputation, our face, the oil, salt, and vinegar of daily life. What is absent in Chinese civilization, what we’ve always lacked, is a sense of the sacred. There is no room for higher principles when we live so firmly in the concrete. The possibility of hope and the aspiration to higher ideals are too abstract and therefore get obliterated in our dark, fierce realism.”
The rock carvings of Longmen reached their apogee during the rule of Empress Wu. For Wu, Buddhism was not only a religion but also a means of establishing political legitimacy, particularly after she seized the throne from her son, Emperor Zhongzong of Tang. Proclaiming herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, she shored up her power by imprisoning members of the Tang imperial line and had many political opponents exiled or killed. She established a secret police network, and placed spies throughout the country. In a prototype of the surveillance state, she instigated policies to encourage informants, installing metal boxes on the sides of administrative buildings for anonymous tipoffs.
We arrived at the Fengxian Temple cave, the largest of the complex, whose figures are held to be the apex of Tang-dynasty Buddhist sculpture. In the middle—flanked by bodhisattvas, heavenly kings, and thunderbolt holders—is the Vairocana Buddha, a colossal seated figure in a delicately carved rippling tunic. It is the largest statue in the complex, nearly sixty feet high, with drooping ears that are taller than the average man. Gazing up, one has the sense that this massive being could crush you. The Buddha was financed by Empress Wu, and its face is said to have been modelled on hers.
“What is an emperor but the Buddha of the mortal realm?” Yan asked with a sardonic grin. The day before, he and his friend Zhang had been discussing a powerful monk who enjoyed the patronage of a senior Party official. The monk spearheaded the construction of the Spring Temple Buddha, in central Henan. Completed in 2008, it is the tallest statue in the world. People have observed that the face of the Buddha bears a striking resemblance to that of the monk’s patron.
Before we headed back to Beijing, Yan took me to a place that he prefers to Luoyang’s more popular tourist destinations: a mausoleum that was unearthed during construction work in 2002. The burial chamber, which is now a museum, dates back to at least the third century B.C., when the city was the capital of the Zhou dynasty. To archeologists’ astonishment, the occupant of the tomb was buried with an entire fleet of chariots and seventy horses. It was late afternoon as Yan and I walked there across a park. Calligraphers, wielding enormous white-tipped brushes, glazed the concrete with characters written in water. A troupe of senior citizens practiced a dance routine to the Mao-era revolutionary song “The East Is Red,” which crackled from a loudspeaker. As we passed, Yan said, “What people don’t realize is that, for those of a certain generation, playing these propagandistic songs is more about nostalgia than politics—it’s their youth.”
Yan often thinks about how he came to embark on a path so different from the one the rest of his family took. “I’m quite certain I’m not smarter than my siblings,” Yan said as we walked. “In fact, I suspect it’s the other way around.” He told me a story about the sister I’d met. They’d started school at the same time, and she’d consistently done better than him. One day, when he was about eleven, their parents said that they could afford for only one of them to return to school. There were simply too many mouths to feed, too much land unplowed, and too few hands to spare. It was lunchtime; looking down at his food, he couldn’t bring himself to swallow. Her grades were so much better than his. “That’s when I felt the savageness of my own selfishness,” he said. “The way its flames licked at me from the inside.”
The possibility of being a prisoner to the land terrified him. “I had never felt such rage,” Yan told me. “What I wouldn’t have done to tear away from her what I knew in my heart belonged to her.” Between them, they had to make a choice, Yan’s mother instructed. He sat in the courtyard, watching the shadow of a tree grow long and then short until it was dissolved by darkness. But his sister walked far off and didn’t return until even later. She had made her decision: he should go, because he was a boy, and that was the way things worked.
Yan writes about this episode in a memoir, his most popular book in China, though as yet unavailable in English. The book, published in 2009, is called “My Father’s Generation and I,” and he told me that he wrote it out of guilt. “I realized that, in writing about my father and my uncles, I was conjuring my own alternative existence, another way my life might have turned out,” he said. “My father and his father had hard, bitter lives. Their struggles were unremarkable, but their bullheadedness—the city word for it would have been ‘perseverance,’ I suppose—is something I admire and pity.”
We descended into the tomb museum, apparently the only visitors. A viewing platform surrounded a long rectangular pit of yellow earth, and the chariots were arranged as they’d been found, in rows, the largest at the center. The horse skeletons were laid neatly on their sides next to the chariots. A guide told us that their identical poses suggested that they’d been drugged before they were sacrificed. She explained that horses were so valued in ancient China that strict laws stipulated how many were permissible for each social rank. Only the emperor was allowed to have a chariot drawn by six horses, the number that lay beside the large chariot in the middle.
Yan has always found this grave more impressive than the Terracotta Army, in Xi’an; giving this emperor what he needed in the afterlife had involved real killing. China in the Zhou era was a slave society—one horse was worth five slaves—and a human skeleton had been found here, likely that of a stable hand. There were also hunting dogs, and it seemed that no one had bothered to drug them. They were found under the chariots, and would probably have been buried alive or crushed to death. However, one dog skeleton was found not under a chariot but to the side, its front paws outstretched, hind legs braced, body bent double with effort. This dog in particular moves Yan. He imagines that it was the smartest dog of the pack, the one that realized, at the last moment, what was happening. He can’t decide whether the creature was blessed or cursed—whether it is better to be exposed to the reality of one’s circumstances or to be anesthetized by ignorance. Is there a more ferociously alive spectacle than that of beings clawing themselves out of their circumstances? It was, Yan said, as we turned to leave, “a fleeting life memorialized in its final reckoning—the refusal to submit to fate.” ♦
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