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

‘The new masterpiece by eminent Chinese writer Yan Lianke . . . two revolutionaries take matters disastrously into their own hands while conducting a crazed affair’ Margaret Atwood

‘In Yan’s imaginative world, each of us bears at least partial burden for our words, even and especially when we are parroting those from on high.’ LA Review of Books

‘In true Yan Lianke style, the more absurd the story, the more realistic it is, with humour masking a deadly seriousness. Another layered and insightful novel from this world-class literary figure.’ Irish Times

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.

‘The novel, a parody, sets itself up as a kind of Maoist “Anna Karenina” when Aijun arrives home and spots a beautiful young woman at the train station, portending a conclusion just as disastrous and physically gruesome as Tolstoy’s. Seeing her, Aijun recalls the chairman’s superficially feminist dictum that “women hold up half the sky,” but tweaks its original meaning, as he will frequently do throughout the novel when faced with counterrevolutionary impulses. “It must have been precisely in order to wait for me,” he tells himself, “that she had been sitting there holding up half the sky all day.” … Sexually charged political satire is nothing new to Yan… At its core, “Hard Like Water” seeks to make a mockery of claims to political purity. As Hongmei and Aijun arouse each other with propaganda slogans and revolutionary citations, the novel pokes fun at how easily an ideology can be contorted to satisfy individual desires.’ The New York Times

‘Yan’s signature biting wit creates another indelible work of bittersweet humor and sociopolitical insight.’ Booklist

‘A gritty, memorable story of love in a time of cholerYan’s study of power and class struggle becomes, in the end, a near-classic tragedy with the subtlest of nods to his version of magical realism. Admirers of Yan’s work won’t be disappointed with this turn to straightforward narrative.’ Kirkus Review

‘Yan probes the darkness and absurdity of Chinese society and history with a sexy satirical tale of the Cultural Revolution as wrought in a small village. Yan studs the book with revolutionary slogans and references to Chinese opera and literature, and the couple engages in a long-running “revolutionary verbal battle” involving wordplay that often leads to sex; the play with language makes the satire distinctive and punchy. Yan’s exuberant and unflinching tragicomedy is undeniably appealing.’ Publisher’s Weekly

‘Yan lets us share the aphrodisiac high of revolutionary madness even as he skewers the tyranny of narcissism — and the narcissism of tyranny. Book-burnings, ritual degradations, the arrogant conceit of vanguard youth: his Red Guard era feels both far away and oddly close to home. “Everyone will be assessed and judged,” Aijun warns. Now, even in the west, that note of vengeful purity sounds again.’ Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

‘Jonathan Swift said satire is a mirror in which we see everyone’s features but our own. Some will be eager to see the faces of their ideological foes in the brainwashed features of the star-crossed revolutionaries – their pitiless self-advancement and disregard for those who stand in their way. It’s easy to look at insanity and see everyone else. Yan’s challenge, to his samizdat readers in China and those beyond, is to look into the murky glass of ambition and self-deception and find the face that resembles their own.’ John Phipps, The Times

‘Yan Lianke is widely regarded as one of China’s greatest contemporary writers and Hard Like Water, which hits shelves in June, is predicted to become a new future classic. Following the love affair of Ajun and Hongmei during China’s Cultural Revolution, this is a powerful, multi-faceted book that questions everything from marriage to sexual desire, power and the dangers of hubris.’ Buro247 ‘Best new books for summer 2021’

‘Gao Aijun, the narrator of this boisterous novel, set during the Cultural Revolution, finds his life charmless: his village is like “a pool of stagnant water,” and his wife makes him feel “a clump of cotton” in his throat. Then he meets a beautiful woman, also married, and, to attract her, sets out to lead the “revolution” in their village. In speech larded with Mao quotes and traditional maxims, Gao reveals how their romance, fuelled by the feverish political climate, pitches the village into ever-escalating extremism—a years-long parade of self-advancing schemes culminating in an unthinkable end.The New Yorker

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
  • Jaum Moum Korea
  • Taodanbooks Vietnam
  • Kawade Shobo Shinsha Japan
  • Matthes & Seitz Berlin Germany
  • Automatica Spain
  • Leda Czech