Five Elements (五行) in Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles

By Brian Haman

Review of The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke

In a 2013 interview with Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, Yan Lianke described the need to escape the shadow of magic realism as being the most urgent task facing Chinese writers. When asked about their most difficult problem, he noted an inability amongst his contemporaries to “write the realities of our country into fiction and make them real.” Whether self-consciously or otherwise that same year Yan managed to address both issues successfully in his imaginatively satirical novel The Explosion Chronicles (炸裂志, 2013). With Carlos Rojas’s 2016 English translation for publisher Chatto & Windus, Yan's novel joined the burgeoning ranks of works by Chinese authors in translation, a not insubstantial space within the landscape of world literature today. An English-language readership should be familiar with the style and subject matter of Yan's fiction, particularly the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Four Books (四书, 2011) and 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize longlisted Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦, 2006). Similarly, The Explosion Chronicles has met with widespread acclaim, having been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Born in Song County, Henan Province, in 1958, Yan joined the army twenty years later. In 1985 he graduated from Henan University with a degree in politics and education and then in 1991 from the People’s Liberation Army Art Institute with a degree in Literature.

The plot of The Explosion Chronicles is straightforward enough: an account of the breathless transformation of a rural village near the Balou Mountains called “Explosion” into a teeming metropolis with tens of millions of inhabitants. In this respect, Yan's story of Explosion is a metonym for China’s breakneck growth, with Explosion’s innumerable issues indicative of the substantial social, environmental, and political challenges and contradictions facing Chinese society as it transforms itself in a manner and speed unseen in human history. However familiar the broad brushstrokes of the story may be, the artistry is in the telling and Yan's epic narrative, which spans some four hundred and fifty pages, recounts the fortunes and pitfalls of three families in particular, the Kong, Zhu, and Cheng clans, whose intertwined fates determine Explosion’s future as well as their own. After the old village chief Zhu Qingfang drowns in the villagers’ spittle, the Kong family assumes power as brother Kong Mingliang (one of four) becomes the new chief. In an unholy alliance, Mingliang eventually marries Qingfang’s daughter, the resourceful Zhu Ying, a former prostitute. Infidelity, neglect, and outright hostility ensue between the two, even amidst increasing affluence and esteem, as Mingliang oversees Explosion’s transformation from rural backwater to pulsating megacity (to say nothing of his promotion from village chief to city mayor). Nepotism and corruption are rife, which translate into opportunities for his three brothers, Mingguang, Minghui, and Mingyao. With each stage in Explosion’s growth comes increasing levels of fiscal irregularity, widening political and familial intrigues, and greater environmental damage until an eventual correction at the end of the novel blunts the city’s (and families’) prosperity.

Structurally, the actual novel (i.e. the story of Explosion) is framed by a fictional preface and postface by a fictional author named Yan, who describes the actual process of writing the chronicle of Explosion. In other words, the novel’s plot treats the history of Explosion, while the frame surrounding it deals with the actual writing of that history by the fictional author. Both the real-life Yan and his counterpart are Chinese writers writing on China and living in Beijing.

The structure is complicated still further by the translator’s introduction as well as Yan's afterword, which act as another frame or layer. Thus, there exists a metanarrative within this work of metafiction. Additionally, as Rojas (a Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University and previous translator of Yan's fiction) points out in his introduction, Yan employs two interrelated historiographic genres, namely dynastic histories and local gazetteers, as narrative models for his novel. Perhaps more importantly, the crucial concept of “mythorealism” emerges in the real-life Yan's afterword. According to Yan, China’s transformation has yielded “a sort of unrealistic reality, a non-existence, an impossible possibility – in short, it has come to possess an invisible and intangible set of rules and regulations.” He continues: “China’s new reality is currently driving the creation of what could be called a mythorealist literary practice – which is to say, a literature that uses an innovative set of techniques to reveal an otherwise invisible region beneath perceivable reality.” Yan's conception of the “mythoreal” holds the promise of a countervailing force against the sway of magic realism in contemporary Chinese literature, one rooted in acausality and a general lack of logic combined with elements of fantasy, satire, and even the absurd.

In an attempt to uncover the hidden logic of Yan's innovative new concept of mythorealism, the following review will employ the ancient Chinese theory of “Five Elements” (wuxing 五行). With roots in Chinese cosmology, the theory was developed by Zou Yan around 325 BCE and its elements are comprised of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Briefly, the theory of these five elements permeates virtually all aspects of Chinese life, ranging from traditional medicine to the arrangement of one’s living and workspaces, and holds that the physical processes of the universe are governed by the self-generated interaction between each element. Rather than existing in isolation, the elements are interdependent and to a certain extent fluid in their interactions and cycles. Although they possess a certain logic outside of human experience, the five elements nevertheless shape human behavior and can correspond to seasons, numbers, directions, colors, tastes, and smells, among other things. In addition, they can be generative and productive or harmful and destructive both for the individual and indeed nature based on a state of harmony or imbalance. Significantly, the Five Elements Theory was employed during the Song dynasty, the period in which Explosion village was founded, and, later, in military texts. Incidentally, we might recall that Yan himself worked for two decades as a propaganda writer for the military before turning his pen to fiction. Whether implicitly a part of Yan's worldview as a Chinese writer, or self-consciously infused into his text, the imprint of the Five Elements Theory can be found throughout The Explosion Chronicles and will provide the conceptual framework for engaging with the novel. Moreover, given Yan's insistence on the interdependency between Chinese and Western culture, each element (save the final one) will be followed by a quotation from a Western theorist or author in an attempt to establish an intercultural “dialogue,” the selfsame process of exchange and influence that continues to shape Yan's approach to reading and writing. 


Wood ()

“The binary opposition between fiction and fact is no longer relevant: in any differential system, it is the assertion of the space between the entities that matters.” - Paul de Man The Resistance to Theory

Paulownia, apricot, pomegranate, willow, elm, palm, ingot, scholar, peach, cycas, cherry, pear, chinaberry, persimmon – the history of Explosion is written in its trees, which bloom and blossom and relinquish their leaves according to the natural and man-made rhythms of the world. Whereas Yan's realism grants trees their traditional purposes of shelter and shade, his mythorealism endows them with the ability to bloom in winter or become barren in summer, variously reflecting the extent to which the natural world remains in or out of synch with the fortunes of Explosion. When Explosion is designated a model village, for example, “all the trees in the courtyards, along the village streets, and in the fields outside the village had burst into bloom and were sprouting new growth. The entire world was peach, red and lily white.” When Explosion’s status is upgraded from town to village, the sheets of paper on which the directive is written cause a dried-up desk fern to blossom, a stunted evergreen bonsai to produce white flowers, a cycas tree, which had been dead for three years, to yield summer corn amongst its branches, “making the village chief’s three-room office resemble a greenhouse.” Even once- barren paulownia trees reveal fiery red blossoms under an austere winter sky. Yan's mythorealism eschews the predictable logic of causality in order to challenge his readers’ assumptions about the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world. He offers his readers instead an unpredictable liminal space, a mythoreal borderland between fact and fiction in which the “unrealistic reality” of contemporary China is reflected in Explosion’s striking juxtapositions that contain their own logic.

Paper directives, paper permits, cigarette rolling paper, and the paper upon which Explosion’s history is chronicled all create a complex web of interconnections within Yan's poetic mythorealist Explosion. Having been upgraded to a city, Explosion’s residents resort to bribery in order to obtain their new residency permits expeditiously. Physically forced out of his office for lack of space, Minghui has the gifts taken to the civil administration bureau’s courtyard, “but the cigarette smoke stained the tree leaves yellow, so that the old elm became addicted to nicotine.” As the fictional Yan writes, “For years afterward, someone would need to periodically open a packet of cigarettes and place it under the tree. Without the cigarette smoke, the tree leaves would curl up and die.” Early in the novel when Mingyao fires his pistol into the air in order to sway the upcoming village election in favor of his brother, Mingliang, “the tree leaves all fell to the ground and the grass dried up” and the trees eventually wilt. Increasingly responsive to human weaknesses, nature comes to experience fear, addiction, and dependency as the deleterious effects of human actions signal manmade imbalances in the natural world. Ultimately, Yan leaves us deep within the tangled forest of contemporary China’s “reality and history, absurdity, disorder, chaos, and incomprehensibility” and we as readers must grope about in the darkness in search of “the wild roots growing under the soil of reality.”


Fire (火)

 “It was a pleasure to burn.” - Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451

The origins of Explosion and the chronicle of its history are bound inextricably with the dual nature of fire, which promises at once the optimistic joys of rebirth along with the nihilism of destruction. At the beginning of the novel, Yan reveals that Explosion emerged from the fires of a volcanic eruption during the Northern Song dynasty a thousand years ago, while the history that he has written by novel’s end is set alight by an infuriated Mayor Mingliang: “the mayor took out a lighter and held it up to the manuscript, then set it on fire. As the fire was about to singe his hand, he threw the manuscript down, then kicked it until the pages were reduced to ashes and all that remained was the original spine and some burning embers.” A preponderance of fire, reflected here in the Mayor’s destruction of the manuscript, reveals an explosive personality that bends too easily to the demands of impetuous emotions. Fire also completes the cycle of (meta)physical life and death, simultaneously serving as a catalyst for the development of historical events whilst ensuring the erasure of that narrative through the extinguishment of Yan's chronicle. In one of the more fantastical plotlines involving Explosion’s ballooning city borders, a group of soldiers led by Mingyao erect a crematorium in the middle of a European-style residential complex that houses Americans. Mingyao and his cadre of soldiers are incensed about the preferential treatment afforded to foreigners, who are motivated strictly by the cold flame of the profit motive. There only reason for visiting China is to set up a Ford factory cheaply and therefore profitably, and they even waver between choosing Explosion or a Vietnamese city. In response the soldiers cremate Chinese corpses made to look like the bodies of the Clinton family (Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea) whilst burning the American flag and chanting “Overturn American Imperialism!” and “Kick the Americans Out of Explosion!”. Ironically, the Americans respond by praising the Chinese for their tolerance of free speech. The absurdist plotline has a mirroring effect, reflecting American values to an American audience, one which has grown immune to the grotesquerie of violence given its ubiquity in American culture. Conversely, Yan offers an absurdist parody of the contradictions within contemporary Chinese society in which the relentless pursuit of prosperity obscures the alienating effects of capitalist exploitation.

However, Yan's broader project of intertextuality enables his text to exist within and beyond the boundaries of literature, which is one of the hallmarks of what Linda Hutcheon has termed “historiographic metafiction.” Yan-as-author and his text-as-fiction reveal a self-conscious awareness of history and the writing of that history as human constructs. In his afterword in which he considers literary non-causality, Yan cites a number of Kafka’s works (The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle). He praises Kafka for being “able to discover (or even create) within literature an extra-realistic ‘acausality,’ in which there is effect without cause, and result without reason.” (We might well recall that Yan was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014.) Of course, Kafka himself had ordered his literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all of his unpublished manuscripts. Despite not mentioning Borges specifically, Yan read his works during a two-year period of convalescence and will surely have encountered Borges’s three-page story The Wall and the Books. In it Borges’s narrator writes: “I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was the first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned.” Like so much of postmodern art, Yan's writing attests to the notion that the past cannot be destroyed but rather necessitates rewriting and renewal. In this respect, Yan's “mythorealist literary practice” blazes new fictional trails by illuminating “the invisible region beneath perceivable reality [...] in order to explode reality’s facade.”


Earth (土)

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis

In the most elemental of ways, the transformation of the earth is at the heart of Yan's chronicle. A pre-industrialized although not-quite-arcadian village becomes buried under the deadening weight of tons of steel, glass, and concrete as subsistence farming eventually cedes to the forces of industrialization unleashed by the body politic on the body of the earth. At one point Mingliang gazes down on Explosion town from his mountain vantage point, but he is surprised

     that buildings had suddenly sprouted up everywhere, and the streets were bustling with  

     activity that was quite different from the rustic excitement that the town had enjoyed when it

     was a mere village. Streetlamps now lined the streets like chopsticks, and each house’s

     chimney spat out thick smoke like clouds on an overcast day. Everywhere, the ground had

     been opened up and resealed, like a patient randomly cut up by a surgeon, and things were

     vibrant but also covered in scars. 

In the process of writing their own history, the inhabitants of Explosion scar the earth, disfiguring and re-configuring it at will and, initially at least, without consequence. Contrary to the mythorealist language of nature, Yan does not anthropomorphize the landscape of factories and their toxic by-products. Describing Explosion, he writes: “Every day, the sky was filled with the black smoke from the factories’ smokestacks, producing a burning stench that you could smell in the air and taste in the water.” The traumas inflicted on the earth by industrialization inevitably begin to imperil human health, and the slow violence of capitalism’s logic of unbridled consumption is laid bare.

And yet Yan's strikingly imaginative mythorealism allows for the radical possibility of de-industrializing the landscape. Following a divorce and unsuccessful affair, Mingguang lies mute and listless before his father and the affairs of men are soon supplanted by the invisible logic of the mythorealist world:

     The sound of the sun pierced through the noise of the nearby factories and mines, producing a

     sound like that of flowing blood. But afterward, this was drowned out by loud thunder [...]

     The birds in the courtyard were all watching the father and son while they sat on the house,

     the wall, and the tree. Their feathers fell to the ground and cracked open the cement floor, and

     even shattered one of the stones supporting the courtyard wall’.

Yan is acutely aware of how we represent the world through language. If we can upend the language of representation by shifting associations between signs and their signification, then we can create new systems of representation and thereby new realities. Such an approach is, incidentally, at the heart of poetic language, which is one reason that Yan's imagery can be so visually arresting. When Minghui attempts to unstick the pages of his almanac one evening, for example, he gathers shards of moonlight from the courtyard outside and proceeds to construct a house of moonlight to cover his book. Rather than submitting to the conformity of language, Yan's mythorealism challenges and reconfigures language and the signs of nature, and thereby produces striking new meanings, associations, and insights.


Metal (金)

“Every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There is the paradox: how to become a modern and to return to sources.” - Paul Ricoeur History and Truth 

If Explosion’s genesis was forged in the dying embers of volcanic ash, then its explosive growth from village to town is fuelled by advances in metallurgy. Slow-moving trains weighed down with coke and coal provide rich pickings for villagers, who surreptitiously “unload” but never “steal” (the villagers are forbidden from using the word). Here Yan underscores the manner in which the sanctions of prescriptive language upend accepted meanings and cultural values in much the same way that his poetic use of highly imaginative imagery taps into our innate creative capacity for meaning-making. The extreme pace of technological innovation and change allows for greater prosperity, but at the expense of sanctioning immorality and the erosion of deep-rooted cultural values and norms of acceptable behaviour. Moreover, industrialization yields greater economic growth, but it also fuels modern warfare and Yan unabashedly highlights American atrocities in Vietnam as well as the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Predictably, the latter ignites an extreme form of militaristic jingoism in Mingyao, who eventually morphs into a born-again soldier. The shock of civilization renders the deaths of innocents as collateral damage thereby demonstrating how the consequences of technology can shape, form, and indeed alter people’s understanding and reactions to geopolitical events. As Yan writes in his afterword, “The world is transforming the nation, even as the nation is simultaneously transforming the world.” The logic of globalization contains within it the preconditions both for mutual exchange and confrontation based on misunderstanding.

Antinomies of progression and regression offer endless possibilities for construction and destruction. In order to advance from city to megalopolis, Mingliang decides to construct an airport “that not only would be the largest in Asia, but must be one of the two largest in the world” along with “a one-hundred or two-hundred kilometer subway line.” With the help of his brother Mingyao the airport, subway, and a hundred buildings are constructed in a matter of days. However, the realities of the present are built on the soil of the past, and so streets leading to and from the hills are levelled by firing countless munitions at the bloody fingers, toes, and severed legs buried in the earth; trees are stabbed with soldiers’ bayonets until they release their leaves; the airport’s roads are paved with tanks and blood. Implicitly Yan understands Ricoeur’s paradox, namely how to resuscitate a dormant civilization whilst joining a universal (i.e. industrialized) one. As Yan writes, “Once Explosion had the world’s largest airport and a subway line extending in all directions, and once it had more than a hundred buildings, each of which was several stories tall, there would be no reason why Explosion should not be considered one of China’s major metropolises.” But what are the costs of such explosive growth for the individual, Chinese identity (however understood), and the past? And, perhaps more importantly, what is the underlying logic?


Water (水)

“Those who drink water should not forget who brought the water from the well; and when you drink the water, remember its source.” Yan Lianke The Explosion Chronicles 

Spit, blood, semen, rain, snow – water in one form or another cascades through the pages of The Explosion Chronicles. As word spreads of Explosion’s overnight development of its newfound prosperity, Village Chief Mingliang is visited by an observational delegation. His first act is to take them to the graves in the middle of the village square, explaining that “everyone who had died for the sake of the village’s quest for prosperity was buried here so that whenever the villagers, their children, and their grandchildren passed through, they would remember the efforts and sacrifices their ancestors made so that they themselves could have better food, clothing, and houses.” The irony, of course, is that those buried in the square had died whilst “unloading” goods from passing trains, and so the well from which the villagers drink, the very one to which they owe their prosperity, is a tainted one. If history is always written from the perspective of the victors, then Mingliang has become a storyteller, re-writing the history of the village through this fictive historical representation of it. But Yan is a writer of stories, too, and his highlighting the moral maxim to remember one’s roots undermines the village’s fictive history by ironically drawing our attention to the inauthenticity of Mingliang’s master narrative. After all, a historical narrative built on the unsteady foundation of questionable ethics requires a suppression of the real in favor of the ideal, and that suppression creates a historical fissure from which a guilt-free nostalgia is made possible. The implications are not insubstantial, least of all because the truth of the narrative recedes farther into the horizon with each successive generation until fiction has replaced fact entirely.

One of the most significant features of historiographic metafiction such as Yan's is its ability to wash away the sediment of accumulated untruths, half-truths, and outright falsities. At the very least, it urges readers to re-evaluate fossilized individual, communal, and national identities in an unprecedented age of acceleration. One consequence is a greater awareness of the fluidity of identity in which the self is negotiated and re-negotiated within different contexts and across differing periods of time. And so at the end of the novel it is quite fitting that the fictional Yan should return to a rain-soaked Beijing:

     That afternoon, I left the Explosion airport to return to Beijing, and shortly after I landed in

     the Beijing airport, an evening thunderstorm rained down. It rained continuously continuously 

     for four and a half hours, flooding the entire city and tying traffic into knots. [...] The next

     morning, I finally returned home from the airport, and when I turned on the television I

     learned that this was the largest thunderstorm Beijing had experienced in the past six hundred

     years. Thirty-seven people drowned, and countless houses and lives were inundated. With

     this, the capital’s prosperity became blunted.

At what point does the relentless drive for growth, innovation, connectivity—in a word, prosperity—within late stage capitalism become a self-defeating project? Yan's book, with its mythorealist blend of humor, satire, violence, poetry, and absurdity, aims to reflect (in his words) “the very nature, origin, and identity of Chinese reality itself.” However, the rains have also soaked New York and London, Paris and Rome, as the prosperity of Western countries becomes blunted by the restive currents of economic stagnation and increasing inequality within their own borders. Despite his stated aim of chronicling the reality of contemporary China, Yan has managed that rare feat – he has written a novel inescapably rooted in history but unmistakably of our time.

Brian Haman is an International Fellow of New Europe College, Institute of Advanced Study, in Bucharest, Romania. A former Fulbright Scholar, he completed his PhD in German Studies at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and his research has been supported by grants from the British, American, German, and Austrian governments. Practicing poet, sometime translator, avid traveller, and resident of Suzhou, his non-academic interests are numerous.