Where to start with Yan Lianke

Yan Lianke’s literary career has been one of impressive breadth and versatility. Whether you’ve already read some of his writing or you’re new to his work, this is our essential guide on which of his books to pick up next.

Boyd Tonkin
A flatlay of Yan Lianke book jackets on a red background.

Yan Lianke’s fearlessly inventive fiction has won awards and acclaim around the world. Over Yan’s lifetime (he was born in 1958), China has undergone a series of epoch-making transformations at a pace without precedent in human history. A new global superpower has arisen; hi-tech cities incubate world-leading technology; the ranks of business billionaires swell. At the same time, scores of millions of peasants still toil for a basic livelihood. From the remotest rice-paddy to the shiniest new-tech hub, China’s present encompasses a bewildering range of contradictory realities. Over more than two decades of his varied and prolific output, Yan’s novels, stories and essays have sought to find a style and voice to match, and to understand, his nation’s zigzag stampede into modernity – a storm of change that will resonate all around a world that now moves at dizzying speed. ‘China is a great environment for an author,’ he has remarked, ‘because such implausible things happen in everyday life.’

Yan still speaks with a pronounced Henan accent and fills his writing with Henan dialect. He insists on keeping faith with the outlook and values of the farming community from which he sprang. Versions of country and small-town life in his home region anchor his fiction, however far it travels to evoke the dramatic journey of his nation over the past half-century. Yan yearned to become a writer as soon as he discovered the eighteenth-century classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber. The military, though, offered a more practical way to expand his opportunities. Yan became a copywriter for the People’s Liberation Army before branching out as a professional author in the early 2000s. He holds university posts, teaches creative-writing classes, and has never chosen exile or the limiting label of ‘dissident’ writer, although his books pull few punches about corruption, exploitation and the abuse of power. He believes that, for Chinese literature, liberty has to begin in the mind and on the page: ‘The most chilling thing is the way we censor ourselves. We need to acquire a degree of inner freedom.’

Above all, Yan wants always to speak to as many Chinese readers as he can. To do so, he wields an armoury of fictional tools with extraordinary audacity. Satire, fantasy, dream, farce, romance and down-and-dirty realism all play a part in his imaginative reckoning with China’s great upheavals. He calls his method ‘mythorealism’ and aims to capture the ‘hidden internal logic’ behind the country’s waves of change. To carry such exuberant, even explosive, forms of writing into English successfully takes unusual talent and boldness in itself. We are lucky that Carlos Rojas, his most regular translator, has created a shelf of English-language works that give such vivid access to Yan’s vision of China – that unique landscape of miracles, dreams, horrors, absurdities and simple human struggle. 

Boyd Tonkin was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal for career achievement in 2020. He currently writes on arts and literature for international media including the Financial TimesThe Economist and the Wall Street Journal, and was previously Literary Editor and Senior Writer for The Independent. He chaired the Man Booker International Prize jury in 2016 and his reader’s guide to global fiction, The 100 Best Novels in Translation, was published in 2018.

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