Home » China » Yan Lianke » 堅硬如水 (Hard Like Water)

Yan Lianke: 堅硬如水 (Hard Like Water)

There is nothing in the world that is softer and weaker than water, and yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that can take precedence over it. This quote from the Tao Te Ching opens the book. However, as this book is by Yan Lianke, it is said somewhat with tongue in cheek for the hardness mentioned more often than not refers to the erection of our hero, Gao Aijun. Aijun is from the village of Chenggang in the Balou Mountains, a remote village. He was born the day his father died. His father had been out looking for a midwife for his wife but was killed by a Japanese soldier before he could find one.

Unlike most people in the village, our hero’s last name is Gao. Eighty-nine percent of the residents of Chenggang were surnamed Cheng and were direct descendants of the Cheng Brothers. There is a temple dedicated to them at the entrance to the village which the people of the village revere, though this book is set in the Cultural Revolution.

At the beginning of the book. Aijun is about to be executed. We do not know why. Prior to his execution, he tells us his story. He is married to Guizhi, daughter of Cheng Tianqing, the village chief. In 1964, when he was twenty-two Aijun joined the army, not to fight the evil Americans and Russians but to build large-scale capital projects. This meant leaving Guizhi and their son for a long while. While he was away, Guizhi turned up one day at the camp. They were allowed a private room and, after a certain amount of fumbling, their daughter was conceived.

The regiment is eventually demobilised and they are sent home. Aijun has to stop at the county seat en route and there he sees a young woman sitting by the tracks. He is immediately smitten and even more so when she shows him first her feet and legs and then her breasts. She then walks off.

Aijun makes his way home and is determined to be revolutionary, having seen signs of revolutionary fervour in the county seat. However, there is no fervour in Chenggang. His father-in-law had promised to make him a village cadre but is now reluctant to do so. However, to his surprise, he sees the woman whom he had seen in the county seat. We and he learn that her name is Hongmei. Though she is married (to a former classmate of his, now a teacher), the pair start an affair.

The theme now involves the couple mixing revolutionary fervour with sexual fervour. Our author has great fun mocking both the revolutionary activity of the pair, mixing it with their sexual passion and the continual search for somewhere to have sex in private as well as the old guard reaction to them.

Aijun wants to tear down the temple, as it is a symbol of reaction, though realises this might not go down well with the majority of the inhabitants. He wants to make Chenggang a revolutionary hub. He wants to replace his father-in-law as village chief. However, above all, he wants to have sex with Hongmei (My revolutionary spirit was in unresolvable conflict with my desire for Hongmei’s body) and, of course complications ensue as he tries to do all of these things.

His initial attempts at revolution are thwarted, not least by his mother but also by the old guard. Before the revolution even had a chance to mature, it had been smothered in its cradle by feudalism. However, our two heroes persevere in their attempt to to bring revolution to Chenggang and in their equally frequent attempts to make mad passionate love.

There are, of course, stumbling blocks and the fact that we see him at the beginning of the novel about to be executed, shows that all does not go smoothly. However, we were not only a pair of great revolutionaries but also a pair of abject adulterers. We were not only a pair of enlightened individuals but also a pair of unwitting decadents.

Yan Lianke has great fun mocking Mao worship, revolutionary slogans (Revolution is not a dinner party), education (all you had to do to pass was to recite fifty Mao quotations), the old guard, the standard texts not only of Mao but also Marx, Engels and Stalin, the peasants’ myopia and narrow-mindedness, misguided revolutionary fervour and, above all, mingling unbridled sexual passion with unbridled revolutionary passion.

This is certainly a very funny book and obviously one not likely to be approved of by the Communist authorities. It does show that the Chinese can have a sense of humour just as much as anyone else and that something as serious and, indeed, as deadly as the Cultural Revolution can now be a source of fun.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Chang jiang wen yi chu ban she
First English translation in 2021 by Grove Press
Translated by Carlos Rojas