The Explosion Chronicles is the fourth novel I’ve read by award-winning Chinese author Yan Lianke, and once again it is a surprise that he is able to pen a fiercely political satire like this despite the Chinese censor.
That’s not to say that the book arrives unscathed: I have my doubts about the allusions to Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea. It seems to me that these allusions need more than is there on the page. Nevertheless, this satire about the Chinese economic miracle is a powerful denunciation of the human cost of economic development at any cost, and it seems angrier than the other Lianke novels I’ve read. Lianke’s humour has always been dark, but in this novel there’s not much humour at all.
As the title suggests, the novel uses the form of an ancient Chinese chronicle. In an excellent introduction, the translator Carlos Rojas explains that the predecessors of this chronicle go back to Sima Qian’s 1st century BCE ‘Records of the Historian’ which is a resentful lamentation on the rule of the Yellow Emperor. Sima Qian had been castrated for offending this emperor, so he had good reason to feel resentful and apparently he lists his personal setbacks alongside the achievements of his era. This chronicle became the model for 24 dynastic histories, each commissioned by the Imperial Court to chronicle the preceding dynasty.
Another historical genre as a source for Chinese history is the local gazetteer. These were regional histories comprising narratives, biographies and anecdotes, and Lianke binds these together in his Explosion Chronicles, along with Prefatory Material purporting to be the chronicler Yan Lianke’s Preface about his reasons for writing the chronicle and his negotiations with the character commissioning it; an end-of-book Postface purporting to be by the chronicler Yan Lianke justifying his chronicle to the outraged character who commissioned it, and an author’s note in which Lianke uses the term mythorealism to describe how literature can be used to expose the absurdity that lies at the heart of the new China. The Great Leap Forward, he says, was based on absurd decrees that people could actually reach targets like making steel or growing vast crops when they manifestly did not have the wherewithal to do it, but the Higher-ups persisted anyway. China’s growth, he says, is based on China trying to achieve in decades what Europe and the US have achieved in centuries.
This plays out in the novel in the development of the mythical village of Explosion from a village to a town, to a county and then a city, and finally a megalopolis, all over the lifetime of four brothers. This chronicle covers thousands of years, but it scampers over earlier periods, focussing squarely on the era after Mao’s death when the Opening Up and Reform movement began. Where Mao’s Collectivisation had upset the order of things by collapsing the power of agricultural landlords over peasants, the emergence of capitalism brings the rival clans of the Kong and Zhu families together when entrepreneurial initiative is unleashed.
As in old fairy tales, Kong Dongde sends his four sons out of the village to seek their fortune, so that the first thing they encounter seals their fate and their future. Kong Mingliang becomes an ambitious entrepreneur by stealing coke and coal from trains which pass by the village. Zhu Ying whose father was a reviled landlord becomes a brothel madam to service the needs of the expanding village and she marries Kong Mingliang to unite what becomes their commercial empire.
Apart from the cynicism of this marriage, other relationships fail under the pressure of rapid expansion. Little Cui is a former prostitute hired by Zhu Ying as a maid, and Kong Mingguang falls for her, abandoning his wife and his respectability as a school teacher. Little Cui demands an immediate divorce but won’t wait long enough even though Mingguang uses his connections to rush the divorce through. And it turns out that his father Kong Dongde was in love with her as well, creating a sort of incestuous relationship manipulated by Zhu Ying.
The callousness that marked Mao’s rule persists when Kong Dongde dies. Kong Mingguang is in the middle of negotiations to upgrade Explosion’s status to a county, and he’s not just too busy to attend to his filial duty at this time, he also manipulates the situation to his advantage.
Even the largest private act of heaven is not as significant as the smallest public act, and the same applies to the death of a parent. (p.205)
One of the officials he has to bribe has invested in a crematorium business, in order to comply with a decree from the Higher-ups that bodies must no longer be buried. But centuries of tradition mean that the people are very reluctant to comply. So Kong Mingguang decides to use his power, prestige and influence and cremates his father as an example of the modern way to do things (subsequently burying the urn with the ashes in a coffin, completely defeating the purpose of freeing up more space for development.)
Already, by this time, a gulf is opening up between rich and poor. The hotel where the visiting Mayor Hu is staying has an exclusive luxury floor that only the Higher-ups can access. Likewise the process for political promotion collapses when Mingguang is simply transitioned from town mayor to county mayor at the stroke of a pen rather than election. Lianke also mocks the Chinese proclivity for grandiose names when village businesses all have to change their names to something more imposing when Explosion becomes a town. A rudimentary café becomes Explosion Town Culinary Mansion.
Clocks are a potent symbol in this novel, linking the passage of time and death, but plants and flowers are more ubiquitous. This fabulist symbolism involves flowering out of season, blooming from a carelessly abandoned hairpin and lush growth in all kinds of strange places. These incongruities symbolise the distortion of nature and the way that even the climate has no choice but to change to accommodate the new reality. When Beijing decrees that the weather must improve, it does!
Brother Mingyao injects a more sinister note when he leaves the army, just at the same time as the Chinese Embassy is bombed by the US during the war that broke up the former Yugoslavia. He is outraged, perceiving the official response as craven and a humiliation that does not recognise China’s growing power and prestige. He forms a private ad-hoc militia which demonstrates forcefully to visiting American investors that there are new rules. He builds a massive set piece of theatre to stage a cremation of the Clintons and Colin Powell, leaving the Americans with no option but to meekly congratulate their hosts on achieving a democracy that allows their people to protest. Believing that his brother the Mayor has the ambition ultimately to make Explosion a nation, he builds a massive naval fleet to impress the West and support its rights in the South China Sea. He is offended that despite China’s embrace of Western capitalism, China still doesn’t have respect. Once again the death of a parent takes second place to other considerations:
When Minghui tried to find Mingyao to tell him about their mother’s death, he discovered that Mingyao was not at the mining company headquarters but rather had installed himself in some military barracks deep in the Balou Mountains. On that particular day, Mingyao was wearing his military uniform and was leading a spring training mobilisation meeting for his troops, saying that the Japanese prime minister had again gone to visit the Yasukuni war shrine, while some Rightists had landed on China’s Diaoyu Islands. Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party had already secretly drafted a new constitution in anticipation of Taiwan’s independence. Meanwhile, in an attempt to overturn the Iraqi and Afghan governments, the United States was using the most advanced and most brutal equipment available, for which it was borrowing an enormous amount of money from China – as a result the value of the RMB had skyrocketed, making Chinese people want to hurl themselves from the tops of Beijing’s skyscrapers. Germany had originally agreed to sell China weapons but now went back on its promise. Even neighbouring Vietnam, which was as tiny as a grass seed, was drilling for oil in China’s Spratly Islands. A Philippine printing company had even included China’s island on its own map, which was about to go to press. (p. 374)
That’s a long list of grievances, isn’t it?
Once again Lianke has given us a novel with a lot to think about…
Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Explosion Chronicles
Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016, first published in 2013
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: The Explosion Chronicles