Hard Like Water

(Jian ying Ru Shui)

Yan Lianke

Hard like Water

“Yan is one of those rare geniuses who finds in the peculiar absurdities of his own culture the absurdities that infect all cultures.” Washington Post

A surprising and highly entertaining story of revolutionary vigor and sexual desire, infused with the humour of Yan Lianke’s Serve the People!, Hard Like Water is an unforgettable portrait of two young revolutionaries whose forbidden love sets them against their small Henan village.

Returning to his village invigorated by success in the Army, GaoAijun sees the beautiful Xia Hongmei walking barefoot alongside the railway track in the warm afternoon sun, and is instantly smitten. Hiding their relationship from their spouses, the pair hurls themselves into the struggle to bring revolution to their backwater village, whose only point of interest is the immense Cheng Temple dedicated to ancient feudal lords. Aijun and Hongmei wait to consummate their relationship until Aijun has managed to dig a literal tunnel of love between their homes, and underneath the village their revolutionary and sexual fervor reaches boiling point. While the unsuspecting villagers sleep, they sing revolutionary songs and shout Maoist slogans to each other before making earth-moving love. But when their relationship is finally uncovered, the couple finds themselves dangerously at odds with the doctrinaire and self-disciplined ideals of party higher-ups – and even Aijun’s grandiose plan to destroy Cheng Temple is called into question. Will their great revolutionary energy save their skins, or will they too fall victim to the revolution?

Upturning the ideals of socialist realism, Hard Like Water is an operatic and surprisingly moving human drama about power’s corrupting nature and the brute force of love and desire.

HARD LIKE WATER has been awarded an English PEN grant.

“Yan’s subject is China, but he has condensed the human forces driving today’s global upheavals into a bracing, universal vision.” New York Times Book Review


  • Changjiang Literature and Art Publishing House China
  • Ryefield Press Taiwan
  • Editions Philippe Picquier France
  • Grove Atlantic USA
  • Text Australia
  • Chatto & Windus UK
  • Jaeumgwa Moeum Publishing Korea
  • Taodanbooks Vietnam
  • Kawade Shobo Shinsha Japan