Three Brothers: Memories of My Family by Yan Lianke

Insight into life in China is particularly relevant in these times.

Yan Lianke is one of China’s most notable contemporary writers. Amongst his awards, he has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. His literary memoir, Three Brothers: Memories of My Family is translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Text Publishing.

Yan writes about his life and family and their land. Born in 1958, Yan describes his upbringing in an extended peasant family in rural Henan Province. “I grew up in a household full of poverty and warmth … goodness was the foundation”.

With a background encompassing the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao and the Three Years of Natural Disasters, Yan focuses on the lives of his father, First Uncle and Fourth Uncle, as well as his own experiences.

First Uncle had many children. His primary aim in life was to ensure that they were able to establish their own families. In unforgettable scenes, First Uncle and his children worked through bitter winters carrying stones across the frozen river to build a house. They sold the excess to pay for other materials. First Uncle would strip to his underwear and shirt and ford the unfrozen mid-section of the river. He and the children would wade into the water at temperatures nearing twenty degrees below zero.

Although an illiterate peasant who gambled and attempted suicide, Yan regarded First Uncle as the “essence of dignity”.

Yan left school and went to work with Fourth Uncle in the cement factory. Fourth Uncle seemed successful but had hidden problems. He was caught in the dichotomy between city and country existence.

Yan’s own father sacrificed his life to build houses for his children. The effect of worry from war, as well as asthma, led to his early death.

Yan recognises his own innate selfishness, particularly when young. He accepted sweets from his uncle and gifts from his father without sharing. He didn’t care for his father in tangible ways and joined the army to escape the land and his obligations. He ultimately feels responsible for his father’s death.

Death is a lingering refrain throughout the memoir. Death has an “invisible shadow” and rushes towards some people. “The elderly have no choice but to take a first step on behalf of the next generation.” In the cycle of life, people feel young until they become the oldest generation.

Yan‘s story is unique because, now a distinguished author from a poor Chinese background, he is able to write with understanding and facility about the life of a peasant family. He has succeeded in his early resolve to escape the land by writing and is able to ruminate on philosophical ideas about happiness, existence, life and living.  

In Three Brothers: Memories of My Family, Yan Lianke shares intimate, searing truths about a seemingly commonplace but highly significant time and place in history.

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