In “The Day the Sun Died,” Violent Sleepwalkers Terrorize a Town

Yan Lianke discusses his newly-translated novel and the dark side of dreams

Silhouetted crowd of people
Photo by Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash

Reading a Yan Lianke novel is disorienting. His plots are both surreal and absurd, presented in a manner that never reaches the pitch of coy irony. Instead, readers are often subjected to discomfort and dissonance, leaving one to wonder: what exactly did this all mean?

The winner of the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, and twice short-listed for the Man Booker International, Yan Lianke is one of the most well-known — and most controversial — writers in China. Much of his work is overtly political, exploring devastating events in modern China’s history and its subsequent rapid development with pointed enough satire that several of his works have been banned in his country.

The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke

In Yan Lianke’s The Day the Sun Died, recently translated into English by Carlos Rojas (who also generously translated this interview), a young adolescent boy watches as his town descends into madness caused by “dreamwalking.” At first benign, the dreamwalkers grow more and more violent throughout the evening, and the narrator, Niannian, is one of the few who remains awake. He and his father, a funeral parlor owner, work through the night to try to help their neighbors.

Several English language reviews have interpreted the book as Yan’s critique of optimism behind “the Chinese Dream,” an ideal of national glory and collective prosperity coined by China’s current leader, Xi Jinping. But I wondered if Western readers — with our biases in our understanding of China — were conditioned to read a scathing indictment of the country, when in reality Yan’s intentions were more complicated. Over email, I asked Yan about critique and nuance, the nature of “dreams” and his views of humanity, and why he put a version of himself into this novel.

Karissa Chen: First of all, I wanted to let you know how much I admire your work. It’s characterized by its delicious strangeness, eeriness, and inventiveness, and this book is no exception. My first question for you is surrounding this word, “dream.” Of course, dreams play front and center in the book — the characters are seized by literal dreamwalking, but in the process they also enact other versions of dreams, from the dreams of wishful thinking and hopes to nightmares. Which type of dream was the seed of the book? Were you consciously exploring the many layers of meaning behind what a dream can be when you sat down to write this book?

Yan Lianke: Thank you so much for your thoughtful reading of my novel. With respect to your questions about daydreams, nightmares, and dreams-within-dreams, in The Day the Sun Died I was, of course, deliberately exploring the development and multifaceted nature of dreams. I wanted to use dreams to help develop a new understanding of humanity, reality, and of the world, and I sought to use dreams to find a new entry point into history. My starting point in writing about dreams, however, was actually not the dreams themselves, but rather reality. That is to say, I took inspiration from the sorts of daydreams that people have in real life. A daydream is a special term that can be used to describe China’s encounter with reality, and can also be used to refer to the way in which China, historically, has struggled and sacrificed in its quest for a utopia. Because people have daydreams, there will also be writings about dreams and dreamwalking; and it is precisely through the writing of dreams and dreamwalking that I hope to create a storytelling space for literature and writing.

I sought to use dreams to find a new entry point into history.

KC: Some reviewers and readers, particularly in the West, have read into the book a critique of this concept of “the Chinese Dream”; however, I found the book to be a greater indictment of any society driven by capitalism (America — and most of the world — included!), and how an extreme desire for material wealth can unravel a community. The first dreamwalkers harvest their grain while sleeping or prepare more funerary paper cuttings — these people are industrious even in their sleep. But as the night goes on, the dreamwalkers begin to steal from stores and beat people for their wares, eventually leading to murder and widespread battles. The chicken seems to feed the egg here — as people become more focused upon their own selfish, greedy desires, they become less caring about their neighbors, therefore leading to a more chaotic society, feeding more selfishness. (It’s interesting that the only time people band together is to fight against outsiders threatening to steal from them — an accurate portrayal of tribalism.) However, I don’t think it’s entirely clear which is the chicken and which is the egg — whether people are simply inherently selfish and greedy or whether it’s the society that influences to become this way. Perhaps it’s muddy the way the world is muddy, but I wondered if you might talk to this a bit.

YL: Thank you for using the paradox of the chicken and the egg to understand The Day the Sun Died. The first thing I want to say, however, is that the novel actually has no connection whatsoever with the Chinese Dream—for the simple reason that when I first came up with the idea for this story, the beautiful phrase China Dream had not yet been coined. At the time, Chinese society was still positioned in that era that the rest of the world found very recognizable and familiar. In other words, six or seven years ago, China’s highest power remained concentrated in the hands of another leader, and it was at that time that I first came up with the idea for The Day the Sun Died. Even after I finished the novel, it still didn’t occur to me that this work might be connected in any way to the Chinese Dream. It was only after it was published in English, meanwhile, that some critics began linking it to the Chinese Dream, and it was only then that I finally began thinking about this question.

Of course, after a novel is disseminated and enters the hands of its readers, those readers are free to interpret however they wish. However, what concerned me was how to make it such that this novel, despite being set in China, could address only China’s reality and its people, but also transcends these provincial limits and speaks more broadly to the world and humanity itself.

I hope this novel may function as an allegory for humanity itself.

With respect to the question of chicken and the egg, this is a paradox that describes the way that contemporary science and civilization are bringing humanity to the end of days. The inexorable development of robots and of the omnipotent internet, together with the tantalizing quest for immortality, which at times seems to be just around the corner—although these might appear to constitute the endpoint of humanity’s development, aren’t they also a force dragging humanity into a new abyss? Aren’t these developments simply a way of using human desires to control us, in the name of science and civilization?  If you think carefully, just as China is unable to rouse itself from its current daydream, isn’t humanity similarly unable to rouse itself from its collective daydream?

Everyone is both chicken and egg. Everyone is pretending to be asleep with their eyes wide open.

“We are unable to rouse the sleepers”—this statement represents my understanding of the world. How can the dreamwalkers in The Day the Sun Died not be viewed as people pretending to be asleep? Which is the chicken and which is the egg—the answer to this question is actually not very important, because in reality everyone is both chicken and egg. Everyone is pretending to be asleep with their eyes wide open.

KC: Despite my cynical read of this book, I think you’ve also woven ample room for goodness to shine through. In particular, Niannian’s father’s journey is moving. Before the somnambulism even begins, he has tried to atone for his past by storing the corpse oil. But throughout the night he continues to do good by saving his neighbors, to increasing sacrifice, even while he is dreamwalking — his unconscious desires, in contrast to many around him, are to do the right thing. Still, his good deeds don’t go unpunished. Do you view Niannian’s father as the exception to inherently selfish human nature?

YL: The behavior of Niannian’s father is not an exception to that of the other dreamwalkers. In fact, Niannian’s entire family, together with the entire town, is actually trying to awaken the dreamwalkers. Their goodness, their love, and their tireless struggle against the darkness—this represents the light that exists within humanity’s darkness and the “instinctive love” that exists within human nature. However, I believe that for people today, desire is being actively smothered by civilization under the illumination of so-called reason. We can observe some individuals’ evil desires, but we are unable to see humanity’s collective desire. For instance, our inability to abandon our ceaseless quest for immortality is precisely the crystallization of humanity’s collective desire. Meanwhile, what we have lost is not only the “necessity of death,” and even less is it “the instinct of love.” We hypothesize that in the future everything, including life itself, will be handled by robots, but then what will be the point of the instinctive love that God gave humanity?

KC: Speaking of the corpse oil — I found this to be an extremely compelling (and horrifying) detail! I read it and I found myself thinking, “Oh my god, I suppose that must be true, if you can render pig fat, then this must be true of people too….” I’m afraid to Google this, so I’ll ask you directly — is this a real thing?

YL: This was made up. But don’t forget, humanity has its own history of cannibalism! Who knows how many cases of cannibalism occurred during China’s Great Famine. Given that people are capable of eating people, why wouldn’t “human oil” also have its uses?

KC: I think one of the fascinating aspects of the book is how it is narrated by someone who is viewed by others as being simple-minded and an “idiot” (a label Niannian seems to accept himself), and yet he seems to be the most clear-eyed character of all. Was the intent to let the readers in on the possibility that Niannian may not be as simple-minded as the rest of his neighbors believe, or did you simply think that having a person less likely to overanalyze allowed the events to be viewed slightly more objectively?

The combination of idiocy and idiocy may yield the basis of wisdom.

YL: Aside from the exigencies of the story and the narrative, I described Niannian in this way in order to suggest that if humanity is controlled by smart people, then perhaps a simple “idiot” might represent a more direct shortcut to our understanding of humanity and the world. The mathematical principle that the multiplication of two negatives yields a positive suggests that, to a certain extent, the combination of idiocy and idiocy may yield the basis of wisdom. Niannian’s simplicity is also precisely humanity’s “positiveness.” Moreover, it is precisely Niannian’s simplicity that lets him narrate this story, because this simple language is all that he has.

KC: I loved the appearance that an alternate version of yourself appears in this book, and that while chaos is happening around him, his only desire and fear revolves around his ability to write (although you could argue that since this is his job, his ability to feed himself and gain wealth depends on his writing success the way the paper cutters and the farmers depend on the output of their jobs). What was behind your decision to insert a version of yourself in your book? What role do you think the writer has in our society? Do you view the writer as possibly complicit in a society’s downfall, a mostly unaffected bystander, or a victim?

YL: To a certain extent, the “Yan Lianke” who appears in the novel is not merely a character written and created by the author Yan Lianke, but rather he is in fact the real-life Yan Lianke. He is a living author, while also being simultaneously a creator and someone who is created. I believe that in today’s China—as distinct from yesterday’s China or earlier historical periods—authors are certainly complicit in society’s downfall. They are not merely bystanders, nor should they be perceived as victims deserving of people’s sympathy.

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