on Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

For English readers around the world, for the past decade, Yan Lianke’s novels have become integral texts that help the West reconcile China’s tumultuous past with its rise as one of the world’s modern superpowers. Lianke’s savage, fabulist satires of Chinese society span Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the country’s decades of take-no-prisoners economic growth. Much of Lianke’s work has been banned in China, which has only increased interest in his oeuvre overseas. He is now perennially mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Julia Lovell, whose translation of the canonical nineteenth-century novel Monkey King was recently published by Penguin Classics, first brought Lianke’s work to English readers with Serve the People! in 2008. Since then, Carlos Rojas has translated four of Lianke’s last five novels into English, including The Four Books (2015), which is set in a labor camp during the Great Famine, and The Explosion Chronicles (2016), which satirizes China’s transition from socialism to hypercapitalism through the prism of a village named Explosion, which becomes a massive global city almost overnight. Rojas has now translated Lianke’s Hard Like Water, which, like Serve the People!, skewers the madness of the Cultural Revolution. 

Hard Like Water is a testimony to the value of novelists returning to familiar ground as they mature. Centered on an allegorical love affair between a young soldier and a married woman, Hard Like Water has a similar premise and shares a setting with Serve the People!, but is a far superior book that is as chilling as it is hilarious, highlighting in broad brushstrokes the calamities caused by China’s constant state of Communist revolution during the second half of the twentieth century. 

While Serve the People! is told from the third-person perspective of a passive and inarticulate narrator, Hard Like Water is told in first-person, taking us fully inside the psychosis of the protagonist, and by proxy, that of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lianke channels various texts by Mao, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Engels, and others to create the voice of his unforgettable main character, Gao Aijin, whose name literally means “loves the army.” Nearly all of Gao’s internal monologues are written in the language of revolution, as exemplified by this passage:

Only revolutionary love could bring about revolutionary strength. Only proletarian love could permit revolutionaries to soar through the sky . . . I began to sing songs, like “Beijing Has a Golden Sun,” “I Love Beijing’s Tiananmen,” “The Core Strength That Leads Our Industry Is the Communist Party,” as well as “Unity Is Power,” and “The Giant Blade Chops Off the Devil’s Head.”

Gao’s narrations often begin with simple Maoist sloganeering before devolving into thoughts of violence. The list of songs above starts peacefully but ends with a beheading. Compare that passage to this one in Serve the People!, which is similarly absurd, but far less disturbing as it keeps the reader at a distance:

Wu Dawang was, in short, a man greedy for laurels, an exceptional soldier fixated on promotion. And it was after one particularly exhilarating performance at a Mass Theory and Practice of Frontline Logistics Competition—in which Wu had recited, word-perfect, 286 quotations and three classic essays (“Serve the People,” “Commemorating Norman Bethune” and “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains”) by Chairman Mao . . . that the Division Commander had selected him as his full-time orderly and cook.

Just as Success, a lesser-known early novel by Martin Amis, introduced the author’s interest in examining masculinity through dueling, diametrically opposed male perspectives, which he then used to great acclaim in his London Trilogy (Money, London Fields, and The Information), Lianke appears to be doing something similar by expanding on his archetype of the striving army soldier, which gives the individual greater edge, agency, and therefore complicity in how murderous Mao’s Cultural Revolution became.

In Hard Like Water, when Gao returns home to his mountain village after four years of digging ditches and railroad tunnels, he feels like a proud hero, but also believes he has more to give. He’s married, but to an “ugly” woman he chose out of expedience. He fathers two children, whose existences he barely registers because his mind is constantly on revolution. 

Like Wu Dawang in Serve the People!, Gao begins a torrid affair with a beautiful married woman. Xia Hongmei happens to be as enthusiastic about revolution as Gao is, and together, they plot to take over their town of Chenggang. Gao devises a gossip campaign of flyering and putting up large-character posters about the village’s officials. The wildly implausible rumors include a family being burned alive, a teacher whose eyes are plucked out, and a village branch secretary who is attacked by a mob for accidentally dropping his copy of Chairman Mao’s Quotations in a cesspool. 

Gao’s rumor-mongering whips the residents into a terrified frenzy, allowing him to step forward, restore order, and become Chenggang’s de facto spokesperson. Reflecting on his own success, Gao cannot hide his Machiavellian intentions:

Without revolution there is no power—because power is the object of revolution, and revolution is the means to achieve power. All of the revolution’s power is itself the product of power. At the same time, the revolution’s initial success demonstrates the need for struggle and self-sacrifice. It is common for people to lose their lives, and while some deaths are as weighty as Mount Tai, others are as light as a feather. If one dies for the sake of revolution, then one’s death is as weighty as Mount Tai; but if one dies for oneself, one’s death is lighter than a feather.

Gao’s bloodlust leads to the inevitable: murder. Despite Gao spending three years digging a thirty-meter tunnel underground to Xia’s home so they can meet up and have their trysts, Xia’s husband eventually discovers their affair, and while being chased, Gao beheads him with a shovel. Together, Gao and Xia bury her husband in their tunnel and simply report him missing. In the immediate aftermath of the homicide, rather than feeling even a scintilla of remorse, Gao muses about the role of contradictions in the universe:

The arrival of a total contradiction is abrupt. As soon as one contradiction has been resolved, another is created, the latter often coming unexpectedly. We may think that the latter contradiction is completely without basis, but in reality, even as we are resolving the first contradiction, we are already establishing the foundation for the second. 

Gao’s musings about contradictions mirror the topsy-turvy world of Mao’s China. Before the Cultural Revolution, which aimed to purge capitalist thought, there was the Great Leap Forward, which aimed to transform China into an economic power larger than any nation in the West—essentially an attempt to out-capitalize capitalism with more communism. Each revolution contradicted the previous one. 

In Serve the People!, Lianke’s main character is mainly driven by his libido and the prospects of becoming a party official. In Hard Like Water, however, Gao is a full-on megalomaniac. Even his affair with Xia and Party recognition are subordinate to his desire to be an extension of Mao—someone who can make the dictator’s worldview a reality.

For most of the novel, in keeping with Lianke’s satire of the Cultural Revolution, the more depraved and sociopathic Gao and Xia behave, the bigger their successes. Once Gao becomes deputy mayor of Chenggang, he and Xia target Mayor Wang, posing as county cadres to gather kompromat from those close to Wang. When they discover that the mayor secretly distributed land to local families rather than equally among the village’s residents, Gao and Xia gain the attentions of the secretary of the prefectural Party committee, which ironically leads to their downfall. As with many players in the Cultural Revolution, today’s hero becomes tomorrow’s treasonous class enemy. Gao and Xia’s story eventually and inevitably, Lianke might argue, follows this path. 

Like those of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, Gao’s narrational delusions of grandeur can get dense and repetitive, in this case with Lianke’s gleeful and comprehensive lampooning of Maoist ideas. As in his other novels, Lianke can get sidetracked by lengthy, bawdy, intentionally ridiculous sex scenes. Gao and Xia seem to only get it on in strange places and situations, often underground in tombs and tunnels, and finally and most bizarrely, in front of Xia’s bound and gagged father-in-law.

Lianke’s portrayal of female characters is also lacking. Xia is rarely more than a gendered mirror of Gao, willing to be used and viewed entirely as a sex object at every turn. Despite Gao’s obvious unreliability as a narrator, it’s Xia’s mistake that ultimately leads to their arrest.

Despite its flaws, Hard Like Water is an ambitious novel that will not disappoint Lianke’s fans. He shows in no uncertain terms that beneath the fancy words and high-mindedness of Mao’s China was a brutality to which the populace became captive and amplified to catastrophic effect.

And yet, despite all the anti-Communist, anti-Mao subtext, Lianke leaves it somewhat unclear where his Bonnie and Clyde stand on the Cultural Revolution. To the very end, Gao is defiant, positing that revolution is ongoing, perpetual, and necessary. Even after it’s clear that Gao is an enemy in the eyes of the party, he continues to wax on about the revolution’s greatness:

The revolution is an ocean, and we are a wave. Just as a fish cannot survive without water, if we leave the revolution we will become reduced to rust. Just as horses cannot leave the fields, we cannot leave the revolution without losing our lives. Just as spring cannot exist without the sun, we cannot leave the rain and dew of the revolution. Revolution cannot proceed without flags and banners, and we are the banner bearers. Progress cannot be made without bugles, and we are the buglers . . . We long to pursue revolution. We want to raise the revolutionary banner and let the call to advance resonate over the enemies’ hilltops. Life will not rest, the battle won’t cease, running water will not stagnate, and rolling wheels won’t rust.

On the surface, given the chaos and wreckage they’ve created, Gao and Xia’s grim fates seem earned. Lianke portrays their end as a tragedy, which may be so in the deeply troubled minds of his characters, but readers will likely be rooting for them to be held to account for their savagery.


Hard Like Water. By Yan Lianke. Translated by Carlos Rojas. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2021. 432 pp. $27.00.


Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (C&R Press, 2019). His work has been covered in Buzzfeed, The Paris Review, VICE, and elsewhere, and has appeared in publications such as NPR, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. The founder of the indie press 7.13 Books, he lives in Los Angeles.