In the ninety-ninth district of a re-education compound, freethinking artists and academics are detained to strengthen their loyalty to Communist ideologies. Here, the Musician and her lover, the Scholar, along with the Author and the Theologian, are subjected to grinding physical labor. They are also encouraged to inform on each other’s dissident behavior—for the prize of a chance at freedom.
Their preadolescent supervisor, the Child, delights in reward systems and excessive punishments. But when agricultural and industrial production quotas are raised to an unattainable level, the ninety-ninth district dissolves into lawlessness. As inclement weather and famine set in, the people are abandoned by the regime and left alone to survive.
Set inside a labor camp during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Booklist calls The Four Books a “rich and complex novel,” from “China’s most heralded and censored modern writer” (The South China Morning Post).
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1. Heaven's Child, pp. 13–16
The great earth and the mortal path returned together.
After autumn, the vast wilderness was leveled, and the people appeared small and insignificant. A black star began to grow. The houses in the Re-Education district parted the heavens and split the earth. People settled down there. So it came to pass. Together, the great earth and the mortal path returned. The golden sun began to set. So it came to pass. The light was thick and heavy, and each beam weighed seven or eight liang. There was one beam after another, creating a dense forest. The Child danced in the light of the setting sun. The warm air painfully pressed down on his feet, on his chest, and on his back. His body pushed against the warm air, and the warm air bore down on his body. The houses of the Re-Ed district were all made from old tiles and bricks, and they were shrouded in a light from a primordial chaos. In the vast wilderness, the heavens parted and the earth split open. People settled down here, and so it came to pass. The light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. He called the light day, and the darkness night. Now there was morning and evening. The period just before darkness was called dusk. Dusk was good. The chickens went to roost, the sheep returned to their pens, and the oxen were released from their plows. Everyone put away their work.
The Child returned, following along the mortal path. The doors of ReEd opened. The Child whistled, and as the sound echoed across the land, people began arriving one after another. God said, Between the water, there shall be air. He created air, and divided the water below and above the air into two regions. So it came to pass. The region above the air was called the heavens, and the region below was called the earth. The earth supported the people, who arrived one after another.
The Child said, "I have just returned from town, and will now announce the ten commandments."
Then he proceeded to read the commandments. They were ten prohibitions, including:
1. When resting, thou shalt not work unnecessarily;
2. When working, thou shalt not speak unnecessarily;
3. When plowing, thou shalt compete to see who harvests the most, for which there will be prizes and punishment;
4. Thou shalt help one another avoid lasciviousness, which will not go unpunished;
5. All books and ink shall be collected. Thou shalt not read or write unnecessarily, nor think unnecessarily;
6. Thou shalt not gossip or slander.
Altogether, there were ten commandments, with the final one being "Thou shalt not flee, and thou shalt follow the rules and regulations. Those who flee will receive a certificate." Before nightfall, dusk began to darken the land. In Re-Ed, new houses were built in the wilderness. There were rows upon rows of houses, in front of which there were courtyards and elm trees. There were birds in the trees. God said, Let there be living creatures of all kinds, including livestock, vermin, animals, and birds. There were also poultry, of all kinds, as well as insects, of all kinds. He saw that this was good, and said, We shall create man in Our own image, and grant them dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and the animals that walk the earth. He said, Look, I have given the people seed-bearing and fruit-bearing plants, so that they may eat. As for the animals that walk the lands and the birds that soar through the skies, together with all other living things on earth, I have given them green grass to eat. With this, everything is complete. He saw that everything He had created was good. There was variety. There was order. There was a smile on His face.
The Child said, "There are ten commandments, the tenth of which is Thou shalt not flee, Thou shalt follow the rules and regulations, and those who flee will receive a certificate." The Child took out his certificate, which was printed on white paper with a red border. At the top of the certificate there appeared the nation's flag and the word certificate. There was an empty space where text ordinarily would have been, containing only a picture of a bullet — a golden bullet. "I went into town, and have now returned," the Child said. "The higher-ups asked me to distribute this to you, which I am now doing. The higher-ups said that anyone who tries to flee will receive not only this certificate but also a real bullet."
So it came to pass.
The Child handed out the certificates one after another, asking everyone to either post them above their bed or tuck them under their pillow, and commit them to memory. Night fell, and the dusk was good. The chickens went to roost, the sheep returned to their pens, and the oxen were untethered from their plows. Everyone put away their work, and then the Child said, "In late autumn everyone must sow the fields. Everyone will be given at least three or five ITLμITL of land. On average, peasants can produce about two hundred jin of wheat per mu, but all of you have cultural ability and therefore I ask that you produce at least five hundred jin per mu. As the higher-ups have noted, the nation controls everything under heaven. The United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany, and Italy are cocks, balls, and feces. In two or three years, heaven and earth will be overturned as we catch up with England and even surpass the United States. The higher-ups said that you should plant wheat and smelt steel. Everyone must smelt an average of a furnace-worth of steel every month. Given that each of you has cultural ability, you therefore cannot produce less than the peasants."
The higher-ups had spoken, and so it came to pass.
"If you don't plow the fields and smelt steel, that's all right," the Child said. "And if you decide to flee, that's okay, too. In other districts, there are people who have been awarded real bullets. If you decide to flee, though, I have only one request. I will get a scythe, and if you don't want to plow the fields or smelt steel, and don't want that bullet, then you should place me under the scythe and slice me in half....
"I will cooperate with you, and if you slice me in half, then you can leave. You can go wherever you want ...
"This is my only request, that you slice me in half. Then you won't have to work the fields or smelt steel, and instead you can just leave."
Night fell. So it came to pass. As darkness arrived, the land and sky blurred together, forming a dark green mass. Everyone dispersed, carrying their certificates printed on white paper with a red border, at the top of which was the national flag and national emblem, together with the word certificate. Where there normally would have been written text, however, there was instead a picture of a bullet — an extremely large golden bullet that looked like a giant fruit. God said, In the heavens there shall be a luminous mass, which can illuminate the sky and light up the earth, while marking days and years. So it came to pass. Then God created two vast orbs of light, calling the larger one day, and the smaller one night. He also created a myriad of stars, and arrayed them throughout the night sky. He saw that all was good. The earth was created. There was morning and evening. Before nightfall there was dusk. After dusk, there was night. When nightfall approached, everything was peaceful. The earth trembled, reverberating through the land, while the grass murmured, echoing through the sky. There were sparrows returning to their nests. There was the people's depression. They were all carrying their certificates, like large flowers. But they were all silent and depressed, like flowers that begin to wither away with the arrival of autumn, wounded by the night.
So it came to pass. The Child returned to his room. Throughout the land, everything grew still. This stillness supported people's feet, as though they were floating on water.
2. Heaven's Child, pp. 19–23
The land and sky were turned upside down, the heavens parted, and the earth split.
The harvest was bountiful. The people plowed the soil and planted wheat. It was the ninth month, and the vast sky was empty, as the scent of autumn pervaded the wilderness. Wherever the sun wanted to shine, it did; and wherever it didn't want to shine, it didn't. The wind was the same way. If it wanted to blow through the treetops, the trees would sway back and forth; if it wanted to blow through people's hair, their faces would shiver; and if it wanted to blow across the land, the earth would tremble and the grass would whisper. The banks of the Yellow River were far away. You couldn't see the flowing water, and instead all you could see were the open fields lying between Re-Ed and the banks of the river. There were no villages in sight, and all you could see were crowds of people from Re-Ed.
Each of the Re-Ed districts was far from the others, and there was scarcely any communication between them.
The people plowed the earth, and spread out across the fields. As soon as they woke in the morning, they went to plow the fields. After eating breakfast, they plowed the fields. At midday, they plowed the fields. This was the ninety-ninth district. The higher-ups said, Let's designate the people, land, and crops scattered along the banks of the Yellow River as a Re-Ed region. In that way, Re-Ed came into existence. The higher-ups said, Let's assign all the people in the region a number and re-educate them through hard labor. Heaven will look after the earth, and the earth will look after the people. Let them labor. The people will be directed by others, and those others will establish a first district, a second district. ... all the way up to a ninety-ninth district. The higher-ups also said, This is good. Let them labor; that way they can be commended and reformed. Let them labor day and night, so that they may thereby be reformed and remade. Regardless of where they were originally located — in the capital, the south, in the provincial seat, or in a local area — and regardless of whether they were originally professors, cadres, scholars, teachers, or painters, they all must come here to work and create, to educate and become a new people. They will remain here for two, three, five, or eight years, or even their entire lives.
So it came to pass. This is how there came to be labor, and how there came to be Re-Ed.
Around midday, the Child arrived. People were scattered over the land like so many stars. There were birds flying in the sky. A putrid mist wafted over from the Yellow River. The recently plowed fields gleamed reddish yellow in the sun. Throughout the land there was the smell of centuries-old soil. The people were exhausted, so they squatted down to rest. When everyone saw the Child arrive, they again started working frantically. One person appeared not to notice, so the Child walked over to him and, knowing that this was an author who had written many books, said, "Your works are pure dog shit."
The Author stared in surprise, then nodded and replied, "My works are dog shit."
"Repeat that three times."
The Author said three times, "My works are dog shit."
The Child laughed and walked away.
The Author also laughed, then returned to plowing the field.
Then the Child came upon a professor, who was a scholar. He was crouched down reading a book. The Scholar didn't see the Child, but the Child saw the Scholar, stood behind him, and cleared his throat. "What are you reading?"
Startled, the Scholar stood up grasping the book to his chest. With a scornful expression, he tucked the book into his jacket, picked up his shovel, and began turning over the soil.
The sky was blue, with scattered clouds. The soil was fresh and fragrant. The people of the ninety-ninth district were organized into brigades. Those who worked the fields belonged to the masses, and were scattered to the east of the district. Everyone from the first through the third brigades worked far away, across the vast land. The cornstalks from the previous season had been left in a pile at the edge of the fields and were surrounded by a circular grove of trees. People could enter the grove to stay warm, but also to do other things. Everyone from the third brigade was there, plowing the soil. But if you looked closely, one person was missing. Upon noticing this, the Child turned toward the grove and walked deliberately toward one of the poplars at the edge of the cornfield. There he kicked the pile of cornstalks, then kicked them again and again, until someone emerged with dried leaves and grass in his hair.
When the person saw the Child, he turned pale.
"Were you relieving yourself?" the Child asked.
The person didn't respond.
The Child asked again, "Were you shitting or pissing?"
The person still didn't respond.
The Child pushed aside the cornstalks, and saw that someone had created a small hollow with a light. The light was coming from inside a tree, and hanging from the tree was a painting of Mary, Mother of God. The Child didn't recognize Mary, but saw that she was very beautiful. The painting was old and dirty, but the image itself was still quite beautiful. The Child gazed at it and smiled, then stuck a cornstalk into his mouth. His smile quickly disappeared, and he grew serious.
"Say three times in a row, 'I am a pervert!'"
The person didn't reply.
"If you don't say it, then what were you doing in there, with this foreign woman?"
The person didn't reply.
"If you say it twice, that would be fine," the Child said, offering a compromise.
The person didn't say anything.
The people working the land turned and looked in their direction, but didn't know what was happening. They just turned and watched for the longest time. The Child became somewhat impatient. He stepped forward and asked, "Are you really not going to say it? If you don't, I'm going to tear that painting down, and hang it from a wall in the district, saying that you slept with this woman here in these cornstalks."
The person didn't say anything.
The Child was left with no alternative. He kicked apart the pile of stalks, knocking down the opening to the hollow. Then he turned away from the crowd, so that he was now facing the painting. He untied his pants, as if he were going to pee on it. At that moment, the person panicked. He knelt down before the Child, saying, "I beg you, please don't do this."
"Say, 'I am a pervert.' Once is enough."
The person didn't say anything.
The Child turned again toward the painting, as though he were about to pee on it.
The person turned pale and his lips started to tremble. He then said repeatedly, "I am a pervert, I am a pervert...."
Even as he said this, there were tears in his eyes.
"That's better," the Child replied. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" He seemed to have no intention of further punishing the person. The man fell to the ground, his face as white as a cloud in a clear sky, and the Child stormed away. The Child watched the workers from the four brigades, the people plowing the fields in the distance. There he saw a woman, who was young, quiet, and had a dignified beauty, and who looked just like the woman in the painting hanging from the tree branch. He wanted to call her Sister. He moved closer, but discovered that she didn't resemble the image at all. When he looked again, however, he decided that in fact she did. Confused, he approached her. She was turning the soil, repeatedly bending over and straightening up again, and gradually moving away from him. When he approached, he realized that she had only recently been sent to the ninety-ninth. She was a new teacher from the provincial seat — a pianist who taught music. Blood and pus were oozing from a blister on her hand. He took out a handkerchief and handed it to her to wipe the blood. The handkerchief was made from coarse white cloth. It had frayed edges, but otherwise appeared clean.
She gazed at him with a look of gratitude.
3. Heaven's Child, pp. 39–43
They plowed and sowed the fields, and every district prepared to report its production targets.
The Child's demands were not very steep. Other districts had to donate five, six, or even seven hundred jin of grain per ITLμITL of land. And there were even several districts that had to donate eight hundred jin. All the Child asked was that the ninety-ninth divide into brigades, and that each brigade donate five hundred jin. That is to say, each ITLμITL of land had to produce an average of five hundred jin of grain.
After dawn, the ninety-ninth was so quiet that you could even hear the sun's rays striking the ground. Representatives from each brigade were summoned into a room for a meeting. They silently sat down, and the Child asked each brigade to report on its production targets. The representatives remained deathly silent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Four Books"
Copyright © 2010 Yan Lianke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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