Heart Sutra

Yan Lianke

Heart Sutra

‘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

At the Religious Training Centre of Beijing’s National Politics University, disciples of China’s five main religions—Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam—gather for a year of study and training. They live in dormitories, eat in the cafeteria, and attend lectures to learn about their own religion while also sharing in the lessons other faiths can bring. In this hallowed yet jovial atmosphere, the institute’s two youngest disciples—Yahui, a Buddhist jade nun, and Gu Mingzheng, a Daoist master—fall into a fast friendship that might bloom into something more.

The worldly Director Gong has organised tug-of-war competitions between the religions. The fervour of competition offers excitement for the disciples, as well as a lucrative source of fundraising, but Yahui looks on the games with distrust: her mentor, Jueyu Shifu, collapsed after witnessing one of these competitions. Gu Mingzheng, meanwhile, has his own mission, centring on his search for his unknown father. Soon it becomes clear that corruption is seeping deeply into the foundation of the institute, and Yahui and Gu Mingzheng will need to ask themselves whether it is better to stay committed to an increasingly fraught faith or to return to secular life forever—and nothing less than the fate of the gods itself is at stake.

Illustrated throughout with beautiful papercuts, animated by an incisive sense of humour, and peopled by an unforgettable cast of mortals and deities alike, HEART SUTRA is a stunning addition to Yan Lianke’s oeuvre that highlights the best and worst in mankind and interrogates the costs of division.

‘Subversive satire of the collision of bureaucracy, academia and religion… Picaresque, but with serious matters of faith, love, and political wrangling at its fast-beating heart.’ Kirkus, starred review

‘With beautiful papercut illustrations, satirical humour and allegorical prose, Lianke’s brilliantly reimagined campus novel showcases the author’s masterful storytelling, which uses realism and fantasy to explore the intersection between religious and secular beliefs.’ Booklist


  • Kawade Shobo Shinsha Japan
  • Editions Philippe Picquier France
  • Grove Atlantic USA
  • Text Australia
  • Chatto & Windus UK
  • City University of Hong Kong Press
  • Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy Poland