Chinese Geek Show

Much of Yan Lianke’s epic novel, Lenin’s Kisses, reads as if it has been lifted from articles in current American newspapers describing social unrest and protests in remote villages of China.  In Lianke’s mind-blowing story, the village of Liven (in the Balou Mountains, in the county of Shuanghuai, in the township of Boshuzi), has for years harbored and protected physically impaired people—197 of them with various maladies: “thirty-five blind people, forty-seven deaf people, and thirty-three cripples, together with several dozen more who are missing an arm or a finger, have an extra finger, stunted growth, or some other handicap.”

They’ve been able to grow their own food and pretty much take care of themselves until one August day: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven [‘experience enjoyment, happiness, and passion’], it suddenly started snowing.  This was hot snow.  Winter returned overnight.  Or perhaps it was more that summer disappeared in the blink of an eye—and since autumn had not yet arrived, winter instead came hurrying back.  During that year’s sweltering summer, time fell out of joint.  It became insane, even downright mad.  Overnight, everything degenerated into disorder and lawlessness.  And then it began to snow.”

Seven days of snow, actually.  Crops were damaged. Wholers (outsiders with able bodies) began to taunt them.  The regional leader, Chief Liu, says that he will help them, first, by proposing a traveling show that will demonstrate the many talents of the people of Liven by raising money for the entire district.  Thus, a man with only one leg will demonstrate his flying leap; a deaf man will burst firecrackers at his ear, suffering no consequences from the noise; a one-eyed woman, her abilities for needle-threading; a boy who was a victim of polio will illustrate how he uses a bottle to assist in his walking; a deaf woman, how she can indicate where sounds come from.  In practice, after the troupe begins touring, the acts become fairly geeky: the boy with the bottle usually breaks it and then pushes the stub of his food into the glass; the deaf man explodes the firecrackers so close to his ear that the side of his head is constantly bleeding.  Other extremes of their talents are equally dangerous and bloody.

Chief’s Liu’s greater plan is to send a delegation to Moscow to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse, bring it back to Liven, where it will become a money-making tourist attraction.  This plan was devised after he read a newspaper article that stated that Lenin’s corpse may have begun deteriorating because the Russian government no longer has sufficient money for the up-keep of both the corpse and the mausoleum where it resides.  The time frame for these events begins in 1998.  Thus, with increasing funds from the special-skills troupe of performers, Chief Liu begins building the new mausoleum near Liven, on Spirit Mountain.  Soon, two troupes of entertainers begin touring the country, and the money pours in in huge quantities.  Chief Liu is convinced that Russia will sell Lenin’s body in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to cremate it.

The pipedreams and the acrobatics of the performers are described in great detail in Carlos Rojas’s skilled translation, which must have offered a major challenge.  In an informative “Translator’s Note” before the
text, Rojas provides illuminating context for some of the oddities of the story and its form.  Since Chinese believe that even numbers are inauspicious, there are no even numbered chapters or divisions in the narrative.  Thus, we move from one to three, from three to five, and so on.  There are lengthy footnotes,

flashbacks providing historical context, in addition to the lyrics of songs which are part of the narrative.  In spite of the novel’s length, the narration is so varied that scenes pass quickly almost in a blur as the novel moves towards its impressive conclusion.

All along, one of the novel’s major characters, Grandma Mao Zhi, the village’s oldest resident, has tried to convince her people to remain in Liven, in their isolated village, and not fall sway to the temptations from outside.  There are hints of difficulties in the past, while Mao was still in power, as well as Grandma Zhi’s belief that her people would be better off if they withdrew completely from society and became their own enclave with nothing to do with the rest of the country.  Chief Liu told them that once Lenin’s corpse has been purchased and moved to the shrine on Spirit Mountain, such a withdrawal will be permitted.  Events toward the end of the narrative—brutal encounters with outsiders, with wholers—further reinforce the need for Liven’s unusual people to withdraw.  These possibilities are all tied together in the novel’s denouement, incorporating satire, social and political criticism of life under Chinese Communism, as well as the limitations of capitalism—especially when the formerly oppressed become filthy rich—under such a political system.

Lenin’s Kisses provides illuminating insight into China’s cult of the dictator—not by using Chairman Mao but shifting to Lenin instead.  Yet the abuse of power (with villagers as the victims) remains the same; and the distractions of the masses (the geek show) keep them pacified, while the leaders go about their business as usual. Apparently, all of these satirical ploys were effective, because Yan Lianke (who has had earlier novels censored by Chinese authorities) sneaked Lenin’s Kisses past the censors.

Yan Lianke: Lenin’s Kisses

Trans. by Carlos Rojas

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.