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.”