Amid the tumult of China’s modern history, perhaps the most profound change has been the swiftness with which its towns and cities have grown. In 2012 China’s urban population exceeded the number of rural dwellers for the first time. This transformation began in 1978 with the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policies, which introduced free-market principles and signalled a decisive break with the Mao era. Yan Lianke’s satirical novel tells the story of how the fictional village of Explosion grows into a metropolis during this period, with the aim of using it as a metaphor for China’s development over the last four decades. The Explosion Chronicles is full of absurdities, exaggerations and magical realism, because, as Yan says in an afterword, ‘even the most absurd aspects of China’s history and contemporary reality contain an invisible internal truth’.
The novel takes the form of a dynastic history; chapter titles like ‘Political Power’ and ‘Integrated Economy’ are meant to suggest the formal tone of a report. But Yan also subverts these conventions: a thousand years of history are summarised in a page, while in the foreword the