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.

‘Darkly exhilarating and daring.’ The New York Times

‘Books are seldom brave. Most pass into the world unnoticed; many are destined to be read by only a small (if admiring) audience. Yan Lianke’s novels are different.’ The Telegraph

‘HEART SUTRA has startling pleasures. In Lianke’s prose simile is a kind of rhythm; they are sharp, synaesthetic and anchored in the lives of the characters. So sunlight “resembled red paper immersed in clear water”, tea tastes like “a thread being sown through your tongue”, and “time passed like smoke”.’ Irish Independent

‘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

‘Yan packs a lot of events into HEART SUTRA, aided by his authoritative narrative style and easy ability to skip through time. His lack of constraint lets the novel lope easily through difficult territory, readily drawing the connections between religion, sex, and corruption that most of us sense exist, but might struggle to pin down. It also makes even the toughest parts of HEART SUTRA entertaining. Not much ends well here, and yet Yan’s storytelling has a luminous, irrepressible quality. In an author’s note, he writes of hoping this would be a “light novel about the kisses and secret love that appear in that instant when holiness and secularity meet.” Light it is not but, in its darkness, it shines.’ NPR (Public Radio) review

‘If novels such as THE FOUR BOOKS and DREAM OF DING VILLAGE gave a voice to the individuals who remembered the horrors but were made to remain silent, then HEART SUTRA expresses concern over the prospect of amnesia. What happens, it seems to ask, when religious belief is perverted by political influence, when faith remains, but the gods no longer remember us?’ Financial Times


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

Material: Chinese language pdf and full English MS (409pp)