Idiom as Instrument: On Yan Lianke’s “Hard Like Water”

Thomas Chen reviews Yan Lianke’s “Hard Like Water,” translated by Carlos Rojas.

By Thomas ChenAugust 31, 2021

Idiom as Instrument: On Yan Lianke’s “Hard Like Water”

Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke. Grove Press. 384 pages.

PROLIFIC AND PROVOCATIVE, the Chinese author Yan Lianke is known in the Anglophone world as a rebel. His first two books available in English — Serve the People!, translated by Julia Lovell, in which a couple is erotically aroused by the desecration of Maoist objects, and Dream of Ding Village, translated by Cindy Carter, about the rural spread of AIDS — were both banned in China. Since then, a steady stream of English translations has appeared, owing single-handedly to the prodigious efforts of Carlos Rojas. The latest is Hard Like Water.

Arguably the most important of Yan’s earlier novels, Hard Like Water, was published — and not banned — in 2001. On the surface, it bears a resemblance to Serve the People! Both are set in the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–’76), with a plot driven by a torrid affair. What separates the two, however, is that in Serve the People! the protagonists are turned on by profaning the sacred, while in Hard Like Water they are turned on by the sacred itself. Not sacrilege but the ardor of the revolution serves as the aphrodisiac.

Yan’s background provides an entry into Hard Like Water. He was born in 1958 in Henan Province. At 20, he joined the military, where he started to write in earnest. He worked in the army, including its propaganda department, for over 25 years until the publication of Lenin’s Kisses (2004) forced him to leave — the novel portrays the efforts of disabled peasants to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse with money raised from a touring talent show in order to boost the local tourism industry. Subsequently, seemingly every other novel of Yan’s is edgy enough to be publishable only outside of mainland China, in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Yet the writer himself proceeds not from exile but, in fact, from the center. He continues to live in China and even teaches at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. He belongs to that select group of gadflies like Fang Fang and Yang Jisheng who, because of their fame or relationships, are still allowed to practice their craft, however uneasily.

Like its author 20 years ago, Hard Like Water’s Gao Aijun is a peasant-soldier. The story takes place in Henan, the setting of nearly all Yan’s fiction. Narrating his past from the present of an execution ground, a demobilized Gao brings Maoist fervor from the army to his hometown of Chenggang. How exactly? Through words. Yan depicts the Cultural Revolution as a campaign launched by words and carried out with words. Mao Zedong’s poems, lines from model operas, Marxist dictums, and Party songs and slogans abound in this satire, leading various Chinese critics to call the book (not always approvingly) a “dictionary” and “museum” of revolutionary language. Through speech of this kind Gao Aijun mobilizes residents into instituting a new order in the backwater town, which since the Song dynasty had been a stronghold of Confucianism, being in fact the birthplace of the two Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao (1032–1085) and Cheng Yi (1033–1107), founders of the Neo-Confucian rationalist school of thought. In the ensuing battle, one corpus replaces another. When Gao becomes a village-level official, he removes all signs of the Sage and adorns every home, field, and school with quotations from the Chairman. Near the end of the narrative, he blows up a repository of the Cheng brothers’ texts, and he and his lover, Xia Hongmei, have wild sex on a bed sheeted with Neo-Confucian manuscripts.

In Hard Like Water, the formulaic language of the Cultural Revolution insinuates itself into the minds and mouths of the characters. A typical exchange in Chenggang goes like this:

When one person met another, he would first declare, “Fight selfishness and criticize revisionism — Have you eaten yet?” The other person would respond, “Economize in carrying out the revolution — Yes, I’ve eaten.” The first person would say, “We must overcome selfishness and foster public spirit — What did you have?” The second person would answer, “There can be no construction without destruction — I had the same as always, sweet-potato soup.”

Such schizophrenic dialogue is rent by the dictates of what Geremie Barmé calls New China Newspeak. How to render in English this stilted, allusive language? Translator Carlos Rojas’s prudent solution is to sometimes italicize the stock phrases, as seen above. As he explains in a postface, it would be impractical to gloss the intertextuality, and the Chinese original did not. Two decades after the initial publication, one wonders if the resonance of Yan’s layered language might thin out even among Chinese readers, new generations of whom would also find the style arcane. In this sense, the novel will indeed serve as a dictionary or museum preserving the Maoist era’s carnival of cant.

The stock phrases more than permeate daily life in Hard Like Water. They accrue into an inviolable semiology. A town chief gets his legs broken for dropping a copy of the Little Red Book in the latrine, and a projector operator is punished after an image of state leaders is exhibited upside down. There are even official sayings on candy wrappers, which Gao Aijun warns his son not to throw away for fear of reprisal.

To what extent was such absurdity during the Cultural Revolution reality? Some details in the novel do stem from Yan’s actual experiences, such as students graduating from elementary and middle school based on the number of Mao quotes they can recite — a real-life story Yan tells in his memoir Three Brothers (2009). But Hard Like Water is realistic primarily in capturing the logorrhea and hypocrisy of the times. The Maoist injunction to “rely on the masses” takes on a sinister inflection when Gao repeats it before obtaining incriminating evidence from residents on the town chief in order to unseat him and take over his position. Similarly, the meaning of Mao’s “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” — an ancient fable that he borrowed to incite collective struggle against feudalism and imperialism — is transformed when Gao cites it in connection with his project of digging an underground tunnel from his house to Xia Hongmei’s. The voluntarism of Mao’s refashioned fable is reflected in Gao’s gargantuan task, except the latter uses it to justify his illicit relationship with the married Xia.

These overt revolutionaries and covert lovers wallow in escapades both sexual and textual after Gao hollows out a love chamber underground. There, Gao again recites the Chairman, this time verbatim from his 1966 telegram to the Labor Party of Albania:

Gazing down at her pert breast, at the nipple at its center, and at the piece of yellow earth stuck to the nipple, I said, “Albania’s heroic populace, which has become Europe’s great socialist torch, the Soviet revisionist leaders, the group of traitorous strikebreakers, and Yugoslavia’s Tito faction — compared with you, they are all just mounds of earth, while you are a cloud-piercing mountain.”

Would readers, English or Chinese, unfamiliar with the reference hear the humor of the rhapsody? This paean repurposed for Hongmei’s body may be mere (fore)play, but a later scene in the same chamber has graver implications. Hongmei’s husband, Cheng Qingdong, discovers the hideout and catches the two in the act. When Cheng turns to leave, she warns Gao that if her husband reveals their affair, “[Y]ou’ll be ruined!” Gao then relates:

This struck an alarm bell in my mind and gave me a divine inspiration. In showing this fatal contradiction, Hongmei had given me a key with which I might resolve it. I can’t remember what precisely I was thinking about at that moment (perhaps about the basis of the theory that revolution is inseparable from violence?); or maybe I wasn’t thinking anything at all; or perhaps the phrase Revolution is inseparable from violence, and sometimes violence is still the most effective form of revolution flashed through my brain. In any case, I grabbed the shovel sitting in the corner of the nuptial chamber and began advancing (with vigorous strides) toward Qingdong.

Whether revolutionary rhetoric was ringing in Gao’s head as he strode forward to kill Cheng Qingdong is not certain, and not the issue. In retelling this episode, however, Gao prefaces it with conspicuous references to Mao’s famous essay “On Contradiction.” Gao the raconteur is therefore exonerating Gao the murderer of individual guilt by citing Mao’s philosophy. In this way, his brutality is brushed away as a contradiction resolved.

But more than the ruthless logic of revolutionary discourse is at stake. The publication of Hard Like Water marked a milestone in literature about the Cultural Revolution. It constituted an original iteration of “scar literature,” a genre popular in the calamity’s wake in which, through the melodramatic recounting of trauma, victim and — frequently — victimizer alike find redemption, their roles blurred. Scar literature’s question of moral responsibility persists in Yan’s novel. He does not absolve Gao in mass hysteria but presents him as a scheming careerist with selfish motives behind a public facade, a little megalomaniac who, far from wishing to topple the existing hierarchy, strives rather to ascend that hierarchy by talking the talk of the megalomaniac-in-chief. In Yan’s imaginative world, each of us bears at least partial burden for our words, even and especially when we are parroting those from on high. For not even the person under totalitarianism can place all blame on “brainwashing” or “cult of personality.”

Crucially, however, Hard Like Water’s hero is an antihero unrepentant to the end. He may ultimately be executed, but formal justice here redeems no one. Gao suffers no regrets for his deeds, and the reader, who has hitherto followed along his first-person narration, subjected to the same lure of language and power, in the end receives no cathartic release despite the villain’s demise. Hovering over Chenggang, the spirit of Gao Aijun is a contradiction that refuses to be resolved.


Thomas Chen is an assistant professor of Chinese at Lehigh University.

LARB Contributor

Thomas Chen is an associate professor of Chinese at Lehigh University. He is the author of Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film (Columbia University Press, 2022).


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