Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2013

Sensational Snippets: Lenin’s Kisses (2004), by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

Lenin's KissesI am reading Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke … and wondering why it wasn’t nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.  This is exactly the kind of dynamic writing that I expect such a prize to introduce to Western readers.

This is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

Lenin’s Kisses is a brilliant novel about modern China. Blind, deaf, and disfigured, the 197 citizens of the Village of Liven enjoy a peaceful lifestyle, spared from the government’s watchful eye. But when an unseasonal snowstorm wipes out the grain crops, a county official convinces the villagers to set up a travelling freak-show showcasing their disabilities. With the money, he intends to buy Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia and install it in a mausoleum in the mountains to attract tourism to the sleepy district.

Lenin’s Kisses is a rollicking tragicomedy with a cast of moving characters—a cautionary tale of the all-consuming desire for power and wealth from one of China’s most respected and celebrated writers.

I am up to the part where the mausoleum has been built, and just had to share this delicious bit of satire with you:

Strictly speaking, the only salient difference between the two structures was precisely that Mao’s mausoleum was in Beijing, while Lenin’s was located in Shuanghuai, in northern China.  Or to be more precise, Mao’s mausoleum was located in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, while Lenin’s was at the top of Spirit Mountain, in the depths of the Balou mountain region.

Mao's Mausoleum. (Source: WIkipedia) Count the columns.

Mao’s Mausoleum. (Source: Wikipedia)
Count the columns.

What other differences were there between the two halls?  None to speak of.  But some experienced people were nevertheless able to notice some interesting details.  Lenin lived to be fifty-four years old, and the stairs in front of his mausoleum had fifty-four steps, and the railing fifty-four columns.  At Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, there were four columns on either* side, for a total of sixteen, while the Lenin Mausoleum had four columns in front and ten in back, with none on either side* making fourteen in all, which is two less than sixteen.  Why is this? Educated people who had attended the country’s soc-schools and Party schools, and who always memorised their lessons, would tell you that the four columns in front of the Lenin Mausoleum and the ten in back were in recognition of Lenin’s birth date.  Under the old lunar calendar, Lenin was born on the tenth day of the fourth month of the gengwu Year of the Horse. These four and ten columns, therefore, foretold that Lenin would receive a new life in the mausoleum, and would never grow old.

In addition, there were no columns on either side of the mausoleum, but there were twelve mid-sized pine trees on the left and sixteen mid-sized cypresses on the right.  All of the trees were several dozens of feet high, and their canopies blocked out the sky.  The numbers twelve and sixteen, meanwhile correspond to the date of Lenin’s death.  Given that Lenin passed away on the sixteenth day of the twelfth month of the first year of the preceding sixty-year jiazi cycle, these twelve and sixteen trees symbolised his eternal life.  Why didn’t they plant newly sprouted saplings or, conversely why didn’t they simply transplant full-grown trees?  Full-grown trees would have completely blocked out the sun, as though they had been growing there for several centuries, or even millenia.

If the person in charge of the mausoleum happened to be a friend of yours, you might hear a masterful story about how these midsize trees were precisely the same age as Lenin when he passed away, and accordingly that they each had fifty-four growth rings.  When these trees were transplanted, they were inspected by forestry experts from the county, who drilled a hole in the trunk of each tree, from which they were able to confirm that they were all precisely fifty-four years old.  If the forestry experts determined that the age of a tree did not match Lenin’s age when he passed away, but was rather a little older or younger, then irrespective of how straight and tall the tree might be, or how dense its canopy, it would not be transplanted.  The mausoleum manager said that in order to find twelve pine trees and sixteen cypresses that were each precisely fifty-four years old, forestry experts spent half a year digging up trees on Spirit Mountain, and for each tree that was the desired age they had to dig up five others that weren’t.  Out of every hundred or so trees, therefore, there might be only one pine or cypress, and furthermore there was no telling whether or not that particular tree would prove to be precisely fifty-four years old.

After they had finished searching several mountainsides throughout the county, and had dug up several forests’ worth of trees, they finally managed to find twelve pines and sixteen cypresses that were the requisite age.

Naturally these twelve pines were called Lenin Pines, and the sixteen cypresses were called Lenin Cypresses.  Planted on either side of the Lenin Mausoleum, these trees became the structure’s masterpiece.  In order to verify the ages, a hole had been drilled in the trunk of each tree, and even after these holes were plugged with cement, sap continued to ooze like glue from around the cement ring.

There was a pungent odour of pine sap everywhere.

Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke, Text Publishing, 2012 p 321-3.

Mr Lianke is playing clever games with these numbers and the Chinese obsession with their symbolism: I have underlined the ‘satirical’ numbers with links to what they imply.

I shall remember this extract next time a tour guide is explaining about some very special aspects of an attraction…

*BTW I think that strictly speaking this should have been translated as ‘each’, not ‘either‘ and ‘either side’ should have been translated as ‘the remaining two sides’ or ‘the other two sides’.

You can read another extract on the Text Publishing website.

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: Lenin’s Kisses
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192207943
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Fishpond: Lenin’s Kisses
Or direct from Text Publishing


  1. Argh! I completely missed this – we didn’t even stock it. But I started a new job this week, and saw it in the returns pile. I shall have to pilfer a copy…


    • The returns pile? You mean it didn’t sell? That’s appalling … you and I will have to do what we can to salvage things with our blog reviews. I am just loving it, but it’s quite long and I have another 75 pages to go.


      • Yeah – ten copies sitting there waiting to go back. To be fair, the new job’s in Mosman, so maybe rich white people don’t like fiction from Chinese people.

        I’m joking. Mostly.


  2. I really want to read this. Once this year’s MAN Asian is done and dusted, it’ll be first on my list…


    • You liked Ding Village last year too?


  3. Yes, well, obviously I was overlooked for a review copy of this one – actually, I’m pretty much ignored by Aussie publishers anyway…

    I just had a look, and perhaps the recent release date indicates that it will be eligible next year? I’m never very sure how they decide these things.


    • I can send you mine if you like:)


      • It’s OK, I wasn’t fishing ;)


        • I know you weren’t. But if you’d like it, it’s no problem.


  4. Nice snippet, Lisa! Enjoyed reading it very much. The satire in Chinese literature is really wonderful! Will look forward to reading your review of this book. Happy reading!


    • Hey, VIsky, I’ve always assumed you were in Sri Lanka or thereabouts, so forgive me if I’m wrong – does Chinese Lit get much publicity where you are?


      • I am from India, Lisa. It is not very far from Srilanka and so geographically you are right :) Here people do read modern Chinese lit, like the MAN Asian literary prize winners and nominees and other contemporary Chinese literature. I lived for a few years in China and so have read Chinese lit from the early / middle 20th century too – like Lu Xun’s works – and parts of older Chinese classics like ‘Three Kingdoms’, ‘Journey to the West’ and ‘Dream of Red Mansions’.


  5. […] will know if you read my Sensational Snippet yesterday, that Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke is a terrific book. It’s destined to be […]


  6. […] will know if you read my Sensational Snippet yesterday, that Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke is a terrific book. It’s destined to be […]


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