In a Brutal Chinese Satire, Villagers Surrender to Their Worst Impulses | Modern Society of USA

In a Brutal Chinese Satire, Villagers Surrender to Their Worst Impulses

In a Brutal Chinese Satire, Villagers Surrender to Their Worst Impulses

By Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
342 pp. Grove Press. $26.

Shortly after Xi Jinping became China’s president, he introduced a signature catchphrase: the Chinese Dream, meaning “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Xi intends for people to experience this dream privately as well as publicly, declaring recently that its values “must be integrated into reality and integrated into life, causing people to perceive it in practice, comprehend it and accept it.” As Xi settles into the second term of his now-unlimited tenure, the Communist Party has intensified its claims on the beliefs and aspirations of China’s 1.4 billion people.

The provocative Chinese writer Yan Lianke offers a different sort of collective dream in his gripping novel “The Day the Sun Died.” During a single night, a plague of somnambulism, or “dreamwalking,” overcomes a village in central China. As the afflicted enact their suppressed fears and fantasies, the ensuing horror blasts through the cardboard rhetoric of the Chinese Dream and the brittle artifice of Chinese society. Yan is internationally acclaimed but often censored at home, and this novel, superbly translated by Carlos Rojas, is no exception: The Chinese-language version was first published in 2015 in Taiwan, and more readers are likely to encounter the book in translations than in the original.


“The Day the Sun Died” is narrated by Li Niannian, a perceptive if credulous 14-year-old dismissed as an “idiot” in his mountain town of Gaotian. His father runs a funerary shop and his uncle oversees the hated crematory, built to comply with a government prohibition on traditional burial. Niannian has a penchant for quoting a famous local writer named Yan Lianke — a metafictional device Yan frequently deploys in his novels — whose work, Niannian says, is “as odd as a peach tree full of apricot blossoms.”

Niannian evinces the baked-in pessimism of someone who doesn’t expect life to improve or even change. Then, one summer day, his world suddenly shifts. As night begins to fall, people from all strata of society inexplicably begin dreamwalking. The wealthy wander their compounds in various states of deshabillé, seeking revenge against rivals; peasants confess to past crimes and commit suicide; local officials act out a ludicrous masquerade of the old imperial court. As word spreads, neighboring villagers arrive to loot the town’s homes and shops. It takes a dramatic intervention to wake up the dreamwalkers, but when order is restored the government swiftly suppresses news of the night’s occurrences. In a pitch-perfect sendup of Communist Party rhetoric, Yan — a former army propagandist — ends the novel with official media denouncing “false rumors about large swaths of dreamwalking-related deaths and social disturbances.” Soon, Niannian muses, “it was as if nothing had happened.”

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