The Four Books


Yan Lianke

Winner of The Kafka Prize
Shortlisted for The FT/Oppenheimerfunds Emerging Voices Award 2016
Finalist for The Man Booker International Prize 2016
Nominated for The Prix Femina Etranger
Shortlisted for The Terzani Prize Italy

The Four Books

‘One of the masters of modern Chinese literature, Yan Lianke gives all the pleasures one gets from reading. He can extract humour from the bleakest situation. I whole-heartedly recommend this latest book’ Jung Chang

‘It’s a Chinese novel hailed across the planet as a masterpiece, and I’m normally the first to resist such an imposition before I’ve even opened the thing – but for once, the hype doesn’t go far enough… a devastating, brilliant slice of history’ The Times

‘Arch and playful… [Yan Lianke] deploys offbeat humour, anarchic set pieces and surreal imagery to shed new light on dark episodes from modern Chinese history… brave, brilliant novel’ Financial Times

‘A rightly lauded masterpiece… an extraordinary book.’ Irish Times

‘A biting satire about Chinese re-education camps during the Great Leap Forward that’s as haunting as it is eye-opening… Yan has created a complex, epic tale rife with allusion. He effortlessly moves from Eastern to Western references, and even readers without a background in Chinese history and culture will find his story fascinating and immersive. The novel is a stinging indictment of the illogic of bureaucracy and tyranny, but the literary structure is tight and the prose incredibly accessible. Readers will have difficulty putting this down.’ Publishers Weekly

‘An Orwellian satire… Richly rewarding. As a reader you close the book with a profound sense of how ideology has permeated and changed every sector of collective human life, from trivial daily matters to the great ruptures of history.’ Guardian

From master storyteller Yan Lianke, winner of the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, The Four Books is a powerful, daring novel of the dog-eat-dog psychology inside a labor camp for intellectuals during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A renowned author in China, and among its most censored, Yan portrays the absurdity and grotesquerie of this devastating political movement that led to the Great Famine, a controversial subject for nearly half a century.

In the ninety-ninth subdivision of a sprawling re-education compound, free-thinking artists and academics are detained in order to strengthen and affirm their loyalty to Communist ideologies. Here, in this isolated part of Henan province, the Musician and her lover the Scholar—along with the Author and the Theologian—are forced to carry out grueling physical work and are encouraged to inform on their campmates for dissident behavior. The prize: winning political favor and the chance at freedom. They’re overseen by a preadolescent supervisor, the Child, who delights in draconian rules, reward systems, and excessive punishments, such as confiscating treasured books.

But when the “higher-ups” raise the agricultural and industrial production quotas to an unattainable level, the camp dissolves into lawlessness while the intellectuals exhaust themselves to meet their goals, even attempting to increase wheat growth by fertilizing the crop with their own blood. And then, as inclement weather and famine set in, they are abandoned by the regime and left alone to survive.

With his characteristically incisive, lyrical prose, Yan Lianke melds political satire and allegory in this riveting, formidable novel. Divided into four narratives—echoing the four texts of Confucianism and the four Gospels of the New Testament—Yan’s mythical, sometimes surreal tale cuts to the bone in its portrayal of the struggle between authoritarian power and man’s will to prevail against the darkest odds through camaraderie, love, and faith.

‘Yan Lianke is one of the best contemporary Chinese writers.’ Independent

‘A searing, allegorical view of Chinese society during some of the darkest moments of the Mao era… Yan cements his reputation as one of China’s most important—and certainly most fearless—living writers.’ Kirkus

‘A powerful satire on ideology, veering between the grotesque and the horrific.’ Financial Times Recommended Summer Read

‘One of China’s eminent and most controversial novelists and satirists.’ Chicago Tribune

‘Yan Lianke well deserves to be in the Pantheon of great writers. He has no equal at attacking societal issues or the great Maoist myths in order to turn them into novels so breathtakingly powerful, shot through with black, often desperate, humor.’ Le Monde Diplomatique

‘Bleak but powerful, disturbing yet compelling’ The National

‘Yan Lianke has produced one of contemporary Chinese literature’s richest, wittiest, most seductive and powerful novels.’ The Saturday Paper

‘A scathingly effective satire.’ The Thousands

‘Regarded as one of China’s most acclaimed yet controversial writers, Yan is known for his poignant satire and piercing language in covering China’s darkest history… while he is highly critical of the characters’ flaws and weaknesses, he treats them with love, sympathy and understanding.’ South China Morning Post

‘A writer whose work has shown a constant commitment to honesty… The novel’s fascinating narrative structure, its ugly events and allegorical characters make for a thought-provoking read, but – above all – it is this honesty of intent that is Yan’s most remarkable achievement.’ Litro

‘Lianke shows how a few forgotten and even banal lives can reach the heights and depths of suffering and emancipation. The result is a rich and multi-layered novel, a novel whose narrative prowess is rivalled only by its grandness of vision.’ Express Tribune

‘No other writer in today’s China has so consistently explored, dissected and mocked the past six and a half decades of Chinese communist rule… . An extraordinary novel, one that both commemorates the state’s victims and defies China’s state-sponsored amnesia.’ Guardian

‘Stupendous and unforgettable … a devastating, brilliant slice of living history.’ The Times

‘A brilliant historical novel’ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

‘Astonishing… Structurally and stylistically Yan Lianke’s most accomplished work’ Tages-Anzeiger


  • Rye Field Press Taiwan
  • Ming Pao Publishing Hong Kong
  • Chatto & Windus UK
  • Editions Philippe Picquier France
  • Grove Atlantic USA
  • Brilliance Audio North America
  • Audible UK & Commonwealth ex Canada
  • Text Australia
  • Font Forlag Norway
  • Verzone Czech Republic
  • Tiderne Skifter/Gyldendal Denmark
  • Eichborn Verlag Germany
  • Natur och Kultur/Atlantis Sweden
  • Nottetempo Italy
  • Galaxia Gutenberg Spain
  • Taodanbooks Vietnam
  • Iwanami Shoten Japan
  • Jaum Moum Korea
  • Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy Poland
  • Ithaki Turkey
  • Relogio d’Agua Editores Portugal
  • Arka en Noes Albania
  • WSOY Finland
  • Polyandria No Age Russia
  • Polirom Romania

Material: Chinese and French edition, English editions (338pp)