Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Four Books – A Book Review by Jonathan Mirsky

August 18, 2015

Overseen by Deng Xiaoping in 1981, the official line of the Communist Party of China remains: Mao’s greatest error was the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976.[1] Awful though that decade was, far, far worse was the great famine of 1958-1961—if not longer—in which anywhere from 25 to 50 million starved to death. The fact that this number remains debatable is a mark of its awfulness and the CPC’s determination to obscure dark facts.

Since the late 1990s, with Jasper Becker, and up to the present day, with Frank Dikötter, Zhou Xun, and Yang Jisheng, diligent scholarship has exposed both the outlines of this catastrophe and its details. Tens of millions died, and survivors sometimes ate the dead; parts of China failed to recover for years. The origin was Mao Zedong’s conviction that a revolutionary peasantry could not only vastly increase agricultural yields by still untested means, but also take up steel smelting, thus accelerating Mao’s goal to overtake Britain economically within a short time.

We are grateful for this scholarship, especially Yang Jisheng’s, whose investigations were pursued in China, and who continues to live there although his great book on the famine, “Tombstone,” could be published only outside the mainland, in Hong Kong. Yang estimated 36 million dead, plus another 40 million who failed to be born.

Now comes Yan Lianke, who accomplishes something that the authors I mention did not attempt, although it is their work that makes Yan Lianke’s believable. So The Four Books is, then, a mighty work of scholarship? Actually, not. Yan, winner of the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, is a novelist, perhaps China’s only really good one living inside its borders. So is this based on his experience during the terrible famine years? Again, no. He was born in 1958.

What we have in The Four Books is a staggering, frightening—and occasionally bleakly comical—work of the imagination, based of course on what Yan Lianke, who lives in Beijing, learned by reading and conversing. The book was first published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2010 and is now in an eloquent English translation by Carlos Rojas.

The scene is Re-Ed, a prison camp for intellectuals, or “criminals,” as they are termed, with names like the Author, the Theologian, the Professor, and the Musician, overseen by the somewhat naïve but very dangerous Child. To begin with, they do backbreaking agricultural work, which the Child rewards with occasional Red Blossoms and Stars that can earn a recipient more food or even a visit home. After some time, orders descend from Beijing—Mao is never mentioned—that hugely increasing yields are necessary, and, before long, the criminals are ordered as well to begin smelting steel. Since they live in an area where there is no iron ore they must find alternatives. As a start—this is a fact—they begin smelting down all their steel and iron implements, no matter how humble. Then they discover that the sand along the nearby Yellow River contains tiny grains of iron ore that can also be separated out and smelted.

During all this, they are constantly challenged by the Child to increase their agricultural output to stupefying yields, which, if big enough, can earn the criminals not only visits home but also release from the camp for good. This leads, of course, to plenty of lying.

All of this we know from scholarship. What Yan does is to make us sense how all this must have felt. A leader instructs the Child how to lie: “I know that your . . . ingot was actually not smelted from black sand, but from railroad tracks, scythe blades, and cleavers. However, you should tell everyone that it was melted from black sand. Even when you are speaking to a political leader and even if someone is holding a knife to your throat or a gun to your head you must still insist.”[2] A group of starving people are trudging to the fields to forage for food. “[A]s everyone was walking or crawling, someone noticed that [a] grave in the back of the compound had been dug up, and there were gaping holes in the corpse’s thigh and abdomen. . . . People were secretly eating human flesh.”[3]

After the terrible times passed, the Author wonders what will happen next. He imagines himself a kind of Sisyphus, who is growing “accustomed to this new system and even became diligent about carrying out this new punishment, not complaining and instead allowing the punishment to become part of his body and soul. As a result of this adjustment, there was a shift in the cruelty, force, deadly absurdity, not to mention exhaustion and desperation. . . .”[4]

As I was reading his unusual and fantastic novel, I sometimes felt that Yan Lianke could have shortened it substantially, but then realized that, quite rightly, he wants to expose the reader to the endless cruelty of the CPC. That ghastly realization, as the pages turn, makes one almost cry out, now, in 2015, “Will this never end?”


[1] “Comrade Mao Zedong made mistakes during the decade of the “cultural revolution” [1966-76]. In our appraisal of him and of Mao Zedong Thought, we must analyze those mistakes in the spirit of seeking truth from facts,” from “Remarks on successive drafts of the ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People's Republic of China,’” speech by Deng Xiaoping during the preparatory meeting for the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, June 22, 1981, available at:

[2] Yan Lianke, The Four Books (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 149.

[3] Ibid, 244.

[4] Ibid, 337.


© All Rights Reserved. For permission to reprint articles, please send requests to:

The Four Books
Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
Grove Press
Publication Date: February 24, 2015
Hardcover: 338 pages

About the Reviewer

Jonathan Mirsky (梅兆赞) is a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990, he was named British International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. Until 1998, he was the East Asia editor of The Times of London.

Return to CRF topic: Hong Kong