Some people spend their entire lives in their own home, village, or city, while others spend their lives elsewhere. There are also some people who end up constantly traveling back and forth between home and another place.
When I was twenty, I left home to join the army. This was the first time I took a train, the first time I watched television, the first time I heard about Chinese women’s volleyball, and the first time I had the chance to eat limitless amounts of dumplings and meat buns. It was also the first time I learned that there were three categories of fiction: short stories, novellas, and novels. It was also back in 1978, while I was living in the military barracks, that I became enthralled by the solemnity and even the smell of China’s literary journals, People’s Literature and Liberation Army Literature and Arts. It was around this time that I happened to see, on the cover of a book in the city library, a picture of the blue-eyed Vivien Leigh. I was shocked by her beauty, and for several minutes I stared dumbfounded at the picture. I couldn’t believe that foreigners looked like this, that there could be people in this world who appeared so different from us. So I checked out all three volumes of the Chinese edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, each of which had a cover with a picture of Leigh from the film adaptation, and over the course of three nights I finished the entire thing. I had assumed that the rest of the world’s fiction was identical to the revolutionary stories and the Red Classics that I had read, and this was how I came to realize how limited and warped my understanding of literature was.
I began excitedly reading works by Western authors such as Tolstoy, Balzac, and Stendhal. While reading Hugo’s Les Misérables, I felt my palms grow sweaty, thinking that Jean Valjean might step out from the book’s pages, a thought that was so disturbing that I frequently had to close the volume and crack my knuckles just to distract myself. Similarly, while reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I would wake up in the middle of the night and go out to the military drill grounds, and only after running a lap in the frigid cold would I return to my dormitory and continue devouring the novel. But it was Margaret Mitchell who truly transported me to another world, a casually dressed maid leading me into a solemn church.
It was at this time that I began to commit myself to reading and writing, and even submitted manuscripts for publication. In 1979 I published my first short story, which unfortunately is now lost. For that work, I received eight yuan, which made me more excited than an 800,000 yuan payment would today. I used two yuan to buy candy and cigarettes for my company and platoon leaders, as well as my fellow soldiers. Then I pooled the remaining six yuan with the earnings I’d saved up from the preceding three months, leaving me with a total of twenty yuan, which I mailed home to help pay for my father’s medicine. Over the next few years I managed to publish one or two stories a year, from which I earned between a dozen and several dozen yuan. I sent almost all of my payments home, and my mother or elder sister would give the money to the town pharmacy or hospital for my father’s medicine and treatment. Eventually I was promoted to cadre and got married, but I secretly still dreamed that one day I might be able to become an author. If I did, my father would feel that I had truly succeeded in establishing both a career and a family—meaning that he could now depart from this life.
The same way that a tree can bear fruit, and the fruit can decay, die, or yield a new fruit tree, over time, a single household can grow into a village. Everything is merely a repetition or a reenactment of this same basic process of growth. Regardless of whether you spend your entire life on a single plot of land or leave home and seek your fortune elsewhere, it is impossible to escape your destiny.
I never stop to ponder things beyond fate, because accepting fate is my only way of approaching the world. When my father told me to go seek my fortune, I began struggling to achieve that “fortune.” When Margaret Mitchell showed me a new world, I began exploring it. I set about reading and writing, establishing my career and earning money, and when I was tired I would return to my family home and chat with my mother and my siblings, and do what I could to help out the other villagers. After recovering my strength I would leave again, only to return when I was tired. I believe that this process of traveling to and from the village is a trajectory arranged for me by heaven.
In 1985, my son was born, and my mother moved from our hometown in the countryside to the old city of Kaifeng, to help with the baby. That also happened to be the same year that I published my first novella in the now-defunct journal Kunlun. Running just under forty thousand Chinese characters, the novella earned me almost 800 yuan, and our family was almost more excited to receive this vast sum than we had been by the birth of our son. To celebrate, the entire family went to a restaurant and wolfed down a meal, and we also purchased an eighteen-inch television set. From the 1979 publication of my first short story to the 1985 publication of my first novella, I had endured six years of hardship and toil, and my family understood how this was bittersweet. My mother, however, took that thick copy of Kunlun and leafed through the twenty-odd pages containing my story, then remarked, “You were able to earn 800 yuan for such a short piece? This is much better than a peasant farming the land. If this is the deal, then you should spend the rest of your life writing!”
I similarly felt that this line of work was much better than being a peasant. I didn’t have to endure adverse weather, and had the opportunity to attain a degree of power and fame. This was definitely something to which I could devote my whole life. When I had left home, my father had exhorted me to go seek my fortune, and my mother was now recommending that I continue writing—so what reason did I have to stop? Later, during the golden age of contemporary Chinese literature, a television series for which I had written the screenplay was broadcast on CCTV at prime time for three years, and royalties for this script were larger than the ones I received for my fiction. I was able to send my mother so much money every month that she felt she wouldn’t be able to spend it all even if she ate meat every day. Furthermore, every New Year the town mayor, county mayor, and county party secretary would come to our house to offer us their greetings, and consequently all the other villagers realized I had become famous enough for the county mayor to visit me and invite me out to eat. It was as though a household had, in the blink of an eye, succeeded in becoming not merely a village but an entire city, and during that period our home’s appearance and spirit were like the arrival of spring after a bitterly cold winter. Even the calls of the sparrows on the tree branches and the house’s eaves sounded different from before.
In 1994 one of my novellas ran into trouble, and consequently I had to spend six months penning self-criticisms. During this period I spent all day writing self-criticisms and all night working on my own fiction, until in the end my lumbago and spinal arthritis began flaring up. Eventually my health deteriorated to the point that I had to write while lying flat on my back in bed. I even needed someone to bring me food and put it right in my hand. During this period, my mother, elder brother, and elder sister came to the barracks to visit me. When my mother saw that I was unable to walk or even sit up, and instead was lying flat on my back on a stretcher the Federation for Disabled Persons had built specifically for me, with a movable board positioned directly above my head so I could still write, she exclaimed, “Have you driven yourself insane with your writing? Have you taken a perfectly good person, and transformed him into a disabled one?” My elder brother looked at the stretcher and the frame holding my writing board, and asked, “Why bother with all of this? … Isn’t living well ultimately more important than these things you want to write?” Meanwhile, my sisters both said the same thing: “We are already living quite comfortably now, so there is no need for you to lie here every day and continue writing these things people don’t like.”
There was a period of silence, after which my family began urging me to stop writing, adding that if I felt I really had to continue, I should at least focus on things people like—such as screenplays for television series on CCTV. Thinking back, I realize that these were not merely my family’s own words, but were the voice and the sentiment of the entire village. At the time, however, I couldn’t understand this collective voice and spirit and, instead, nodded as earnestly and piously as if I were writing a self-criticism. After my family left, I continued lying on that stretcher, writing my novel Streams of Time. After Streams of Time, I wrote the novella The Years, Months, Days, as well as the novels Hard Like Water and Lenin’s Kisses. After the publication of Lenin’s Kisses, however, I was forced to leave the army and find a new employer, following which I wrote two more novels that incited even greater consternation. During that year’s Lunar New Year festival, our county’s mayor called me up and announced, “Lianke, I want to tell you something undeniably true: you are now our county’s most unwelcome resident!”
Upon hearing this, I abruptly realized what kind of transformation my relationship with that region had undergone. It was as though an ox had accidentally trod on the body of the farmer charged with looking after it.
After I learned that I was our region’s most unwelcome resident, three days passed without my leaving the house. I didn’t find the mayor’s remark humorous, nor did I see it as a drunken rambling. Instead, it was an articulation of the region’s attitudes and positions, given in the local accent. At this point I began to ponder the relationship between my writing and this land. I noticed that while the land could very easily do without me, I couldn’t survive without the land. Without me, the land would just follow its current trajectory. The sun would continue to rise and set, and life would go on as it had for more than a thousand years. However, without that land, I would no longer be myself. Without that village, I would be nothing. I reflected that perhaps I had strayed too far from that land, that I had forgotten the color of the soil. I had eaten and drunk my fill from that land, and then had taken enough food and essentials to move forward for a long time without looking back. This is how I ended up straying so far afield, to the point that I almost forgot where I was born and had grown up. Even the relatives still living on that land didn’t believe that I still had any close ties there.
I had to return again to that land.
When I came home for the New Year celebration in 2012, I was prepared to ignore the people disparaging, critiquing, and cursing my family. But as it happened that year our family enjoyed an unusually peaceful and congenial holiday period. When I went to visit my relatives, I heard the flowing river, which reminded me of how I would sing exuberantly in the fields when I was a child. Together with my mother, sisters, and sister-in-law, I watched the television series My Fair Princess and ate New Year dumplings and stir-fried dishes. That entire visit, until I left home on day five of the new year, I didn’t hear a single critique of me or my writing. But, after the festivities had concluded and I was about to depart, my elder brother smiled bitterly and said, “When you go back, perhaps you could write other sorts of things? You could write something different!” And as I was driving back to Beijing, the nephew escorting me murmured, “Uncle, my grandmother asked me to speak to you on her behalf, and tell you that it is still possible to live a good life without writing. There is no need for you to hang yourself from this tree of writing … ”
I really was going to hang myself from this tree of writing.
I knew I had strayed too far from the original wishes of my parents, my sisters, my elder brother and his wife, and my fellow villagers. I felt like a child who runs away from home when he is young, and when he approaches sixty and finally decides to return to his hometown and live out his old age, discovers that he can’t even find the house where he grew up. In fact, he can’t even find the village. I felt like a child who adopts a religion but then rarely encounters a church or mosque, or a Buddhist or Taoist temple, and consequently although he might have God in his heart, over time he might forget what a church or temple is, and when he returns home he might not even recognize these places of worship.
In this case, it is not the church that rejects the believer, but rather the believer who abandons the church.
Some might say that a home to which one cannot return is the only true hometown. My hometown never rejected me, and whenever I return almost everyone welcomes me and appears to be proud of me. However, I don’t dare tell them what exactly I spend my days writing. I am this region’s unfilial son, an enemy agent, and the reason everyone still smiles when I return is that they don’t know that I’m a traitor to their land.
I heard that during the War of Resistance against Japan, in a village in the Northeast there was a traitor who was able to enjoy a good life by selling out his relatives. It was said that every time he went into the city pretending to do business but actually to deliver intelligence reports to the Japanese, he would always return with many small goods that were scarce at that time, and would distribute them to his neighbors and fellow villagers. The neighbors and villagers all viewed this traitor as the most generous person in the village, and even in the entire northeast region. Even after he was executed following the end of the war, none of the locals could believe that he was an unfilial son and a traitor.
I often wonder whether it has been by betraying my land that I have managed to achieve fame and fortune, whether this is how I have managed to live a comfortable life. However, even if I completely abandon my home and my land, our family’s front door will still be open, awaiting my return. Whenever I return home, which I do sometimes several times a year, all of my relatives, neighbors, and fellow villagers know that I’ve come back, but I am the only one who knows that I have not truly returned to the home of my youth. My body may have returned, but my spirit continues to hover over the fields beyond the village. I do not want my family and neighbors to know what I have said, done, or written while I was away—the same way that that traitor from the Northeast did not want those in his village to know what he had said and done in the city. So whenever I return home, I am meek and silent with my mother, siblings, and other relatives. I smile and nod pleasantly and, regardless of what is said, always feign a look of devoted attention. Nevertheless, I know that between me and that piece of land there is a wall I have built and which only I can see.
It might appear that the world and human affairs are static, but in reality things are constantly changing. Not long ago, during the first half of 2018, I once again returned home to rest and recover my strength. After dinner, everyone sat around awkwardly, silence pressing down on us like a black haze. My father’s funeral portrait was sitting on the table staring at me, while my mother, my sisters, and my brother and his wife all remained silent and stared down at the ground. At that moment—after perhaps a few seconds, though maybe it was a few years or even centuries—my elder brother began to speak.
He said to me, “Lianke, you’re already sixty, right?”
I laughed. “Yes. From the time I left home to join the army, it has already been forty years.”
No one could believe it had already been four decades since I left home, just as even I couldn’t believe that I was already sixty. Everyone was struck by this reminder of the inexorable passage of time, like someone who is hit on the head by a club but can’t believe that the attack has occurred, though the blood seeping out through the cracks in time proves that it is true. My elder brother then adopted a tone similar to our father’s, and said, “You are already sixty, and have read many books. While you are away from home, you should do whatever you want.”
Then my mother said, “I’m already eighty-five. While you are away from home, you should write whatever you want, just as long as you return every year to visit me and this home.”
And then … and then I suddenly felt relaxed. There was silence again, the silence between people who meet again after a long separation. It was as though the physical architecture of a church had recognized a believer who had returned after a long absence, and then used its bricks and tiles, its beams and rafters, as well as the pictures and objects hanging from its walls, to embrace its lost child.
This church would welcome this person to sit in the center of the building, where he could rest, reflect, ponder, and murmur. It would say to him, “If you continue going away, and want to go even further, then this church will follow along behind you. You don’t need to worry that you’ve left the church behind, since regardless of where you go, and regardless of how far you travel, your home and your land will always be under your feet.”
—Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Yan Lianke is the author of numerous story collections and novels, including The Day the Sun Died; The Years, Months, Days; The Explosion Chronicles; The Four Books; Lenin’s Kisses; Serve the People!; and Dream of Ding Village. Among many accolades, he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, he was twice a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, and he has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Prix Femina Étranger. He has received two of China’s most prestigious literary honors, the Lu Xun Prize and the Lao She Award.
Carlos Rojas is the translator of several books by Yan Lianke. He is the author of Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Reform in Modern China; The Great Wall: A Cultural History; and The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, as well as many articles. He is a professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University.
Excerpted from Three Brothers © 2009 by Yan Lianke. English translation © 2020 by Carlos Rojas. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.