At the Religious Training Center on the campus of Beijing’s National Politics University, disciples of China’s five main religions—Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam—gather for a year of intensive study and training. They live in dormitories, eat at shared tables 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.
This year, however, the worldly Director Gong has an exciting new plan: he has organized tug-of-war competitions between the religions, pitting Catholics against Protestants, and Buddhists against Muslims. The fervor of competition offers excitement for the disciples, as well as a lucrative source of fundraising, but Yahui looks on the games with distrust: her beloved mentor, Jueyu shifu, collapsed after witnessing one of these competitions. Gu Mingzheng, meanwhile, has his own mission at the institute, centering on his search for his unknown father. Soon it becomes clear that corruption is seeping ever more deeply into the foundation of the institute under Director Gong’s watch, and Yahui and Gu Mingzheng will be forced 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 original papercuts, animated by an incisive sense of humor, and peopled by an unforgettable cast of mortals and deities alike, Heart Sutra is a stunning and rich addition to Yan Lianke’s oeuvre that asks questions about the role of the state in religion and the costs of division when unity is most needed.
Praise for Yan Lianke:
Winner of a PEN Translates Award
Winner of the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature
Winner of the Franz Kafka Prize
Two-Time Finalist for the Man Booker International Prize
“Yan’s writing does for the Chinese heartland what John Steinbeck did for the American West, or Thomas Hardy for Southwest England.”—Newman Prize for Chinese Literature Citation
“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
“China’s most controversial novelist . . . [A] preternatural gift for metaphor spills out of him unbidden.”—New Yorker
“Yan’s subject is China, but he has condensed the human forces driving today’s global upheavals into a bracing, universal vision.”—New York Times Book Review
“One of China’s eminent and most controversial novelists and satirists.”—Chicago Tribune
“His talent cannot be ignored.”—New York Times
“China’s foremost literary satirist . . . He deploys offbeat humor, anarchic set pieces and surreal imagery to shed new light on dark episodes from modern Chinese history.”—Financial Times
“[Yan is] criticizing the foundations of the Chinese state and the historical narrative on which it is built, while still somehow remaining one of its most lauded writers.”—New Republic
“There is nothing magical about Yan Lianke’s realism . . . [with his] unflinching eye that nevertheless leaves you blinking with the whirling absurdities of the human condition.”—Independent
“One of China’s most important—and certainly most fearless—living writers.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The work of the Chinese author Yan Lianke reminds us that free expression is always in contention—to write is to risk the hand of power.”—Guardian