This is an important book. But it's also a little annoying.

The Four Books by Lianke, Yan (2015) Hardcover - Yan Lianke

So it came to pass. . . 


that in the 1950s, China began their Re-education by Labor Program, in which they sent their professors and teachers and scientists and politicos and intellectuals and religious and dissidents and revolutionaries and many others who did not fit their definition of proper citizens to prison camps where they were punished, humiliated, beaten, and mistreated until such time that they became "new men" and "new women" and were deemed worthy of re-entry into society.  


In addition to the human atrocity, the people in power also took the opportunity to purge national treasures in the form of art and literature, architecture, and religious icons.  Most Chinese people consider it to be a tragedy.


If it crossed my mind at all, here in my sheltered state of living with guarantees of freedom and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I would have thought that Chinese work camps were a thing of the past.


imagine my amazement when I went to google the history and found that these places still exist.  It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people may have lived in these places until they were either killed or died.  As late as 2012, people were still being sent away to re-education camps for crimes against the state.  


This is the current news story that caught my attention: One woman was sent to such a place because she dared to protest about the too-lenient sentences given to the men who had abducted her eleven-year-old daughter, and used her as a prostitute in the child-sex-slave trade for three months before she could be located and rescued.  The mother's protests were inconvenient to the police force, and when she became too strident to be ignored anymore, they sent her away.  Because they can.


Amid expressions of outrage from bloggers, humanitarian organizations and the media from all over the world, for this example and countless others, China finally agreed to shut down the camps.  Here's the result:


"'You just change the sign at the entrance of the camp and instead of being called labor camp it is called drug rehabilitation center,' the expert said." Here's the link: 



So, yes, it's an important book.  It points out the historical abuses, and reminds us that abuse is still occurring.  The author, who is Chinese, has had his share of run-ins with the state, and with censorship of his writings.  I'm sure he knows his subject.




Things I don't want to hear any more about:

    Catching up with England and surpassing America

    The ardent steel-smelting campaign

    Production targets.

    Red Blossom and Pentagonal Star System

    Fields of wheat with ears even larger than ears of corn and with kernels as large as  

          grapes or dates.


See, the thing is, it's called The Four Books for a reason.

The Author (a character in the story, not Yan Lianke), is writing two of them: the one he is writing at the behest of the government as a means of letting the higher-ups know who is following the rules and who is not (a secret from his fellow inmates); and the one he is secretly writing for himself, which he intends to publish once he returns home.  

The leader of the camp, known as The Child, has a book, and the character known as the Scholar has another.  

Four books.  So, we get to hear points of view of any given scenario from all four of these aspects.  It's a bit much.  

And yet I get why Lianke did it.  You soon grow tired of hearing all the reiterations about the minutia of the production of steel and the production of wheat, and the concern about the acquiring of red blossoms (the system for reward and punishment), but also, it brings home the impact that all these subjects had on the lives of the prisoners, on their day-to-day health and well-being.  It's really all they had to think about, unless they chose to dwell on nothing but the miserable conditions of their existence.


Be prepared for excruciating detail and redundant repetition.


". . . they all struggled every day to earn even more red blossoms."  You will not believe the importance attached to red blossoms.   It takes five small red blossoms to attain five medium blossoms, and it takes five medium blossoms to attain a five-pointed star, and it takes five five-pointed stars before you earn the right to leave this place and become a new man  or new woman and reclaim your place in society.  The greatest emphasis is on acquiring blossoms, although the rules for receiving them are arbitrary and frivolous, and the reasons to take them away are the same.  There are punishments for stealing blossoms from others, and it is impossible to forge the blossoms because they are made from special paper.  The blossoms are posted on the wall in a public place with the names of the prisoners attributed to their blossoms.  Every day, everybody looks at the wall to see how many red blossoms they have and how many red blossoms everybody else has, and to estimate, given the amount of red blossoms each has now, what will it take to earn the rest of the red blossoms needed to reach the requisite one hundred and twenty-five small red blossoms, and  to calculate how many days/weeks/months before they will be able to leave this hated place and return to their homes and families.  The Child uses the red blossoms as a reward for people who inform on other people, so if someone suddenly has new red blossoms by their name when there is no other cause for them to have red blossoms, then it is very likely that that person will be looked upon with suspicion by the other inmates.  

Are you tired of hearing about red blossoms yet?  This is only a very small portion of the amount you will get to read about.  



I don't know what a jin or a mu is; suffice it to say that they are units of measurement, and you will get to hear a lot about them too.  It was the stated intention throughout the story that production must equal and surpass the production of the countries of Western Europe, and especially surpass the production of England and the United States.


"If fifty Jin of seeds can yield two hundred jin of grain per mu, wouldn't one hundred and fifty jin of seeds yield six hundred jin of grain?"


"He did not manage to produce the fifteen thousand jin of grains per mu that he had promised the year before. In their experimental field, they had sowed more than a thousand jin of wheat seeds, and if you calculate that each seed would produce an ear of wheat, and each ear would have thirty grains, then the field should have yielded more than thirty thousand jin of wheat. Even if each ear produced only twenty grains, the field should still have yielded twenty thousand jin. If each ear produced ten grains, that would still have yielded ten thousand jin. But when has there ever been an ear with only ten grains? . . .

He had always assumed that it would be very straightforward to produce ten thousand jin per mu . . .  but by the time they were knee-high a thunderstorm knocked them all down, and they never again straightened up enough to grow taller than a man's waist."


And next year, the crop flooded, so there was no grain, and the next year there was a drought, so there was no grain.  It was critical to convince the highest of the higher-ups that the camp had produced the promised thirty thousand jin of grain.  

They resorted to trickery.    

They filled many bags with the red sand from the river, and they filled the storage buildings with the bags of red sand.  Then they caused a few bags to be filled with grains of wheat and they placed these bags in front of and on top of the bags of red sand, so that the bags filled with grains of wheat were the ones that were visible, and the ones filled with red sand from river were not easy to reach.  When the highest of the higher-ups came to oversee the production of the camp, they used a knife to rip open the bags of grain, and grains of wheat spilled onto the floor.  The higher-ups were amazed.


Part of the story is written as a fable; part of it is allegory; some of it is satirical;  parts of it seem like farce.


The camp was responsible not only for agriculture but also for iron-smelting.


"God said, there is a sign for the covenant I made with all of you and with every living creature on earth, which is a rainbow I placed in the clouds. Light is like the rainbow, and fire is like light. The fire in the furnace burns continuously day after day and night after night, warming this cold and desolate land and illuminating the dark and cold night."

"For a hundred jin of steel, you would need a hundred and fifty jin of black sand. For a thousand jin of steel, you would need fifteen hundred jin of black sand. And for a ton of steel you would need three thousand jin of black sand. If you have twenty furnaces, each of which on average can smelt three hundred jin of steel, then together they will be able to smelt six thousand kilos of steel. Therefore, each furnace must smelt thirty-five furnaces worth of steel in order for you to end up with one hundred and five tons. If it takes five days and five nights to smelt one furnace-worth, then it will take approximately a hundred and seventy-five days, which is to say half a year, in order to smelt thirty-five furnaces-worth of steel, which is to say a hundred tons. . . .
'If we need two or three days to smelt a single furnace-worth of steel, and each furnace on average can handle five to eight hundred kilos of steel, then if we build two more furnaces, won't we be able to smelt a hundred tons of steel by the end of the year?'
The Child's face was illuminated by a red glow.
The ground was also illuminated by a red glow.
In this way, everything came to pass."



It took only a couple of years for the irresponsible land management to take a toll on the ecology. 

"In the blink of an eye, the black sand steel-smelting technology had spread not only to both sides of the river but also through the country, and even the entire world. . . the number of steel-smelting furnaces on the riverbank increased steadily. During the day there was the continuous sound of trees being felled, as the water from the river continued to wash up onto the bank. At night time, the flames from thousands of furnaces eliminated the riverbank, making the river look like a headless flaming dragon."


it is easy to see why corruption and thievery is rampant; it is encouraged by the government and all the people in power.  Now I understand how Chinese exporters apparently think it is okay to sell poisoned infant formula and dog food. (Sorry -- my editorial opinion, and not one where I've yet seen enough evidence to the contrary  to support changing my mind.)


As evidence I offer this -- Advice from a high higher-up to the Child:

"First, from now on, you should no longer say that you smelted one hundred tons of steel. Instead, you should say that you smelted three hundred tons. . .
Second, I know that your star-shaped steel ingot was actually not smelted from black sand, but rather from railroad tracks, scythe blades, and cleavers. However, you should tell everyone that it was smelted from black sand. Even if 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 that this star was produced from the black sand that you found along the river bank. You must say that the furnaces are still standing, and if someone doesn't believe you, you can offer to take him there so he can see for himself how you can produce another steel ingot exactly like this one."

And promises from an underling:

"'Can you really get the wheat ears to grow larger than ears of corn?'

'At harvest time you'll see. I assure you that after the wheat has ripened, you will be able to take it to the higher-ups to see the provincial governor, and the provincial governors can escort you to the capital to present your wheat. You will be able to tour Beijing, see the sights, and have your picture taken with the nations highest higher-ups.'"



The mental trauma of living in such a constant state of stress must be unbearable.  The prisoners have enough to contend with given the burden of work, the starvation, the denial of hope.  As if all of that we're not enough, they must also put up wth The Child Leader, who appears to be more than a little emotionally unstable.


" The Child emerged with the scythe. With a bang he placed it on the ground. His lips pursed, he picked it up again, letting the blade flicker in the light.  He suddenly lay down, placing his neck under the blade. . . .And he shouted, 'Come here and slice my head off! . . . Before the nation was founded, there was a girl. When a Japanese man asked her something, she refused to respond, and so the Japanese decapitated her. After the nation was founded, she became a national hero. . .  Ever since I was little, I've dreamed of doing this! From morning to evening, I would imagine how I would take inspiration from that girl and have someone cut off my own head. I beg you, chop off my head! Chop of my head!' The child shouted again and again.

'Chop off my head!

'Chop off my head!'  

Everyone turned pale."


not a one-time deal.  For the smallest excuse, he brings out the scythe and yells exhortations to the inmates to take his head off at the neck.  And that was before he was awarded a pistol for his contributions to the state:


"The Child pulled out a black gleaming gun. . . When the Child suddenly pulled out the gun, it was like a scene  from an opera. He placed the gleaming black gun on the empty stool beside him, then started rummaging in his bag again. There was the sound of a bag being ripped open, and he pulled out a bullet. It was gold colored, but had been rubbed down to the color of lead. The Child placed the bullet next to the gun. The atmosphere in the room became very tense, as though countless ropes covering the tent had suddenly been drawn tight. . . 

 The Child looked at the Scholar with a tender and honest expression. His voice was soft and trembled slightly, as though he were begging the Scholar for something.

'So, you really won't tell me who filed inaccurate reports, and you really won't smelt anymore steel? In that case, you should just use this gun to shoot me. If you kill me, then you won't need to tell me the names of the people who filed inaccurate reports, nor will you need to continue smelting steel. . . '

As the child was saying this, he picked up the gun, awkwardly pulling out the magazine, and then, even more awkwardly, inserted the bullet. He went to considerable effort to place the bullet in the chamber. Then, he turned the handle of the gun toward the Scholar, pointing the muzzle toward himself, and said, 'If you fire this gun at me, tomorrow you won't need to smelt anymore steel. . . My only request is that you shoot me in the chest, so that I'll fall forward when I die. Please don't let me fall backward.  . . '

The Child said, I'm begging you to shoot me. Just make sure that the bullet enters my chest from the front.

'I'm begging you!'  He pleaded like a six-month-old infant crying for milk saying 'Shoot me, because if you kill me, you won't need to smelt anymore steel. Just make sure you shoot me in the chest so that I'll fall forward when I die.' 

He pushed the gun toward the Scholar, who reflexively leaned away. The Child begged the Scholar to shoot him, but as he was doing so the scholar turned pale and mumbled something as he backed out of the tent."


Yikes!  but that's not all,  he brings in all the prisoners, one at a time, and enacts the scene for them.  And later, for other reasons great and small, he pulls out the gun and offers to let them shoot him.  I must say, if it had been me in their place, I might have taken him up on it.


would you?



The thing that was a little bit annoying -- The sheer over-abundance of similes -- similes that don't make sense. Or are slightly overblown. Or simply over-used. It was as if I began to dread the mere appearance of another "like" or "as though."

"turned green with envy, like freshly turned soil"

". . . their bright red shouts making the setting sun appear dim and lifeless, like a distant lighthouse enveloped in a cloud of dust."

". . . A look of confusion covered his face, like the winter fog that blankets the desolate landscape."

"His face was hard, as hard as though it were a red stone."

"The Child's face contained a warmth and a glow that were invisible to the human eye, like the river water that had been baked in thousands upon thousands of furnaces."

"The Child walked toward those clouds (of smoke), like a bird soaring through the sky. "

". . . his voice seemed to tremble. He sounded urgent, and his voice grew coarse, as though he were dragging the words out of his own throat."
". . . the bullet had been removed from the gun's chamber, and was now rolling around next to the gun like a silkworm pupa. "

". . .  so that his feverish and trembling hands could calm down, like a pair of trapped rabbits. "

 ". . . his skin seemed to have a peculiar hardness, as though a hard shell had formed over his soft flesh."

". . .  There were several very prominent wrinkles on his forehead, like ripples in boiling water. "

"Re-ed has China's most distinctive scenery and history.  It is like a scar on an old tree, which then becomes an eye through which one can see the world."

"That clear bright sound was like bamboo shoots struggling to make their way through fissures in a stone slab."

" . . . show how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children's sympathy. "

"I saw the others, who looked like a couple of dozen figures in a woodblock print."

"People collecting the sweet potatoes will look like they are collecting large stones. "

"The sound of him chewing was like a hammer pounding the floor."

"Her light red uniform was walking by the side of the road, like a glowing ember. "

 You probably get the point. But there are more. Many, many more.



There was a lot more allusion to Christianity than I would have expected to see.  There were several references to Noah; Eve and the Garden of Eden; and Mary and the virgin birth.


"So it came to pass.

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. He divided day and night. The Child said, 'The man should live over here – – and the women should live over there.' The men and women were thereby separated.

Below the Yellow River embankment, everyone cleared the underbrush and built some thatched huts, giving them somewhere to sleep. They also pitched the tent they had dragged over, giving the Child somewhere to live.

They piled up some stones and lit a fire, and in this way had somewhere to cook their food. They used the magnets to gather the black sand, and in this way they had iron to smelt.

If it was stipulated that five people were needed to dig a small furnace, then you would call for five people, and if it was agreed that ten people were needed to build a large furnace, then you would call for ten.

Everyone walked on the ground, and the great earth supported their feet as they searched for black sand."



All the people in the camp worked and worked.  They sacrificed their health, their youth, their ideals, their dignity, their worldly possessions, their very life's-blood for the benefit of the magnificence of the state, and for the capricious whims of the people in power.

 The Scholar understands the depths of depravity and greed of which they have become the victims, and he cries for the futility and the destruction and the failing of his country:


"This year these blood ears will be donated to the higher ups, and to the capital, and next year the entire country will be using blood to raise wheat, the same way they began using black sand to smelt steel."


This review is long. Too long.  But the more I think about the message of the book, the more I think of to talk about.  You may think I have said too much and that I have filled this post with spoilers to the story.  I promise you I have not.  The things I have included here merely touch the surface.  There is much left to absorb, to ponder, to treasure.  


I started out with a rating of three and a half stars because I was slightly annoyed with the redundancy and the similes.  But the more I think about it, the more I think the book verges on greatness.  I'm going to have to up the star factor.



"'The country needs you, and if you starve to death, the nation will starve as well. No matter what you must find a way to survive!'

'Go dig some wild roots,' he said. 'In the past, when we've gone hungry we've always relied on wild roots to make it through the winter.' . . . 

So the criminals continued to starve, and had no alternative but to forage for food in the wasteland. At the beginning of the 12th lunar month, one criminal finally starved to death. 

So it came to pass.

This is how things came to pass.

And then they fell apart. "