Heart Sutraby Yan Lianke Translated from Chinese by Carlos Rojas
From “China’s foremost literary satirist” (Financial Times) comes a captivating new novel set at a religious training center in Beijing
Unable to be published in his native China, Yan Lianke’s latest novel is a wryly humorous and deeply moving story of modernity, tradition, and the struggle for expression. 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. 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 an uneasy acquaintance that might bloom into something more.
Meanwhile, the worldly Director Gong has a project of his own: he has organized tug-of-war competitions between the religions. 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 collapsed after witnessing one of these competitions. In addition to his studies, Gu Mingzheng is also intent on discovering the identity of his unknown father. As the two young disciples grow closer and fall in love, it soon becomes clear that corruption is seeping ever more deeply into the foundation of the institute under Director Gong’s watch. 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 together 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 Yan Lianke’s characteristically incisive sense of humor, Heart Sutra is a stunning and timely novel that highlights the best and worst in mankind and interrogates the costs of division.
Winner of a PEN Translates Award
Named a Best Translated Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews
“A warm-hearted, if not gentle, satire that skewers religious institutions without mocking faith itself . . . Heart Sutra starts out seeming like a romantic comedy; by its end, it has moved through absurdity, darkness, and body horror into a strange and flickering form of hope. All this variety lets Yan, a career-long satirist, avoid the trap most common to his chosen form. Satirical novels too often start and end on the same note, which effectively guarantees a loss of momentum. Not true in Heart Sutra. Guessing its next development is no likelier than guessing who will win the next Nobel — and it is a deeply satisfying read as a result . . . Yan’s storytelling has a luminous, irrepressible quality.”—Lily Meyer, NPR
“A Bildungsroman wrapped in a fable wrapped in a morality play. In the spirit of the Buddhist text that shares its name, Heart Sutra (which first appeared in Chinese in 2020) embraces paradox, impermanence and the ways in which the human and divine realms mutually constitute each other.”—Rhoda Feng, Times Literary Supplement
“[A] riff on the traditional campus novel . . . Plotlines jostle for space in this eclectic ‘mythorealist’ work, which the author himself has described as ‘a combination of solemnity and vulgarity’ . . . Heart Sutra expresses concern over the prospect of amnesia. What happens, it seems to ask, when religious belief is perverted by political influence, when faith remains, but the gods no longer remember us?”—Financial Times
“Two-time Booker Prize finalist Yan Lianke expertly meshes the whimsical and the mystical in Heart Sutra, a beautifully illustrated novel in which the disciples of China’s five main religions gather for a year-long intensive study and a religious—and literal—tug-of-war.”—Sloane Crosley, Departures Magazine
“A book of many faces . . . Has startling pleasures . . . In Lianke’s hands, similes are sharp, synaesthetic and anchored in the lives of the characters.”—Frank Lawton, Telegraph
“Subversive satire of the collision of Chinese state bureaucracy, academia, and religion . . . Picaresque, but with serious matters of faith, love, and political wrangling at its fast-beating heart.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“With beautiful papercut illustrations, satirical humor, and allegorical prose, Lianke’s brilliantly reimagined campus novel showcases the author’s masterful storytelling, which uses realism and fantasy to explore the intersection between religious and secular beliefs.”—Booklist
“Open up to the first page of any Yan Lianke novel, beautifully translated by Carlos Rojas, and you’ll feel confident that you’re in the hands of an assured and timeless storyteller. There’s always something deeply psychological about his books—like he’s probing at a desperate part of the psyche that most prefer to leave alone.”—Katie Yee, Literary Hub
“Intriguing . . . Plenty to admire.”—Publishers Weekly
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
Excerpted from Heart Sutra © 2020 by Yan Lianke. English translation © 2023 by Carlos Rojas. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Buddha has as much faith in fate as the Boddhisatva has in the power of her own finger.
Yahui, however, suspected that mortal affairs were not necessarily determined by fate. Take, for example, tug-of-war, where it is assumed that there will always be winners and losers, the same way that there will always be black and white. However, when two of China’s five major religions compete in a tug-of-war, they cannot simply be divided into winners and losers. In a competition between teams composed of Buddhists, Daoists, Protestants, Catholics, and Muslim peoples from China’s northwestern Ningxia and Gansu Provinces, the losers will always be the competitors, while the winners will always be those who organized the competition itself—the same way that there are casinos everywhere, where gamblers experience excitement and frustration around the clock, but at the end of the day all the money goes into the pockets of the casino owners.
One of these tug-of-war matches took place in late September. At the religious training center on the campus of Beijing’s National Politics University, everyone felt as though they were being boiled alive, with the campus, the streets, and the entire city stewing in the heat. Today’s match was between the Protestant and Catholic teams. The Protestants had selected five disciples for the competition, as had the Catholics. The contestants were all wearing undershirts, underwear, and sneakers with a good grip. The court had a red rubber surface, which resembled a Buddhist temple cook’s fat face and was set up in the school’s badminton court, with the Catholic team positioned on one side and the Protestant team on the other. To determine which team was winning, Director Gong, the competition’s organizer, had painted a white line on the ground, and it was across this line that the competition unfolded. The members of the Protestant team were not ordinary apprentices or missionaries but rather pastors, just as the members of the Catholic team were not ordinary monks and nuns but priests. Only high-ranking religious figures like pastors and priests were qualified to attend this advanced religious research program and participate in these tug-of-war competitions. The spectators sitting around the court included Daoist masters, Buddhist abbots, Protestant pastors, and Muslim imams—all either religious masters or master candidates.
This was a competition between master and master, deity and deity, human and human, and deity and human. It was part of one of the religious training center’s classes, and consequently all the disciples were required to attend. Even Yahui, who was at the center merely as an auditor, had no choice but to attend.
But today she was late.
She was late because she had spent too much time fashioning intricate papercut images in her dormitory room’s temple, after which she had spent some additional time admiring herself in the mirror. On her way to the competition, she looked at the school’s tallest building and thought how nice it would be if this were a Buddhist convent. She looked at the school’s new library and thought how stylish and powerful it would be if this were the convent’s sutra depository. As she was thinking this, she tripped over some pieces of sandstone in the middle of the road. She looked down and thought, Yesterday these stones tripped a small child, and today they’ve tripped me. What might they do tomorrow? She resolved to move two of the stones to the side of the road, but after several attempts she found she was unable to budge them. A young Daoist came over to lend a hand, and he easily picked up the stones and moved them out of the way—but because he was afraid of crushing the grass by the side of the road, he instead placed the stones in a dusty area where there was no vegetation. When the Daoist returned, Yahui thanked him by clasping her hands together and chanting Amitabha. The Daoist didn’t reciprocate with a heart palm salute, but rather, in a very secular fashion, he simply grinned and said, “Don’t mention it. My name is Gu Mingzheng.”
Then he walked away.
Yahui was surprised that a Daoist would respond to her in such a casual fashion. She stood by the side of the road and watched him walk away as though looking at an unannotated page from a sutra. Meanwhile, at the tug-of-war court, they had already conducted the opening ceremony, and the Protestant and Catholic teams were already debating on which side of the white line the rope’s red tassel would ultimately fall. They argued until the flesh had almost fallen from their faces—as though debating who was God’s most powerful presence on earth, Jesus or the Virgin Mary.
By that point, it was already three in the afternoon and the sun was burning brightly overhead, heating everything into a murky soup. Everyone felt like they were steadily boiling alive, and after they started the competition and began huffing and puffing, it sounded as if the earth were being rocked by thunder. Yahui finally entered through a small gate on the side of the court and stood quietly behind the Buddhist team. The first thing she saw were the bald heads of the senior monks, including one whose hair had already turned gray and whose close-cropped scalp resembled wheat stubble left in a farmer’s field. Then she turned and saw the young priests and pastors divided into two groups, who glared at each other resentfully, like sports fans divided into two irreconcilable camps. Meanwhile, the Daoist and Muslim fans were casually laughing and chatting. The air was filled with shouts of “Go, go!”, though it was difficult to tell which shouts were cheers directed toward the competitors, and which were simply spectators making a commotion.
As the temperature rose, the ground began to crack open. Yahui watched for a while, until she began to feel similar cracks appearing in her own cheeks. Sweat poured out of these fissures, flowing like worms crawling down toward her chest. She was gazing up at the September sky when the shadow of a tree suddenly drifted overhead like in a myth. She turned and saw that the young Daoist master Gu Mingzheng had found a branch of an umbrella tree and was holding it over her head. With a smile, he said, “I’d like to treat you to an ice pop from that cold-drink shop.”