His writings - both novel and short stories show him an extremely original narrator. Yan remains a serving officer in the People's Liberation Army, while writing apparently subversive literature. His novel The Garlic Ballads was banned in China and the great irony is that he is today known all over the world as the author of mainly these two great novels - Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads.
Howard Goldblatt's translation introduced him to the readers of the West. Yan prefaces The Garlic Ballads with a quotation from Stalin: “Novelists are forever trying to distance themselves from politics, but the novel itself closes in on politics. Novelists are so concerned with man's fate that they tend to lose sight of their own fate. Therein lies their tragedy.”
In both these novels, Yan is the novelist of the countryside and may be called the Hardy of China. But while Hardy in his Wessex avoids politics, nearly all the eleven novels of Yan are highly political. He depicts the violent and haunting picture of the rural society. The most important aspect in Yan's writings is the vulnerability of the poor peasants in the face of corrupt and incompetent officials. The picture of corruption co-exists with the picture of heroic fight of the peasants with the tameless soil and natural adversities.
In The Garlic Ballads, the peasants brave the ruin and fight back the arrogant administrators when the staunch smell of rotting garlic becomes unbearable to them. What is heart touching is the tragic melody of the blind musicians who give vent to the sorrows of the peasants in their ballads. The Garlic Ballads which is the Chinese equivalent of The Sound and the Fury or Hundred Years of Solitude are chiefly about the plight of the farmer and the destitute.
The Garlic Ballads tells the tale of a group of Chinese peasants whose lives are dependent upon selling their garlic crop; when harvests exceed governmental estimates, officials curb the amount of garlic that can be brought to market, setting off a violent chain of events. Against this backdrop, Yan weaves three stories: that of two lovers, which dominates the novel, as well as a familial conflict and the relationship between two friends.
Set in rural China, The Garlic Ballads explores the misfortune of ordinary Chinese farmers during the post revolutionary period. The very title which focuses on the word 'Ballads' reveals that it is a love story in particular spiced by magic realism. The harrowing experiences make the stuff of the novel. The small dramas of the Gao and Yang families, set against a slightly larger but nonetheless miniscule backdrop of rural corruption gets steadily deeper as it progresses. There are two boys and one girl in the Fang family. The elder son is crippled and it has therefore been impossible to find him a wife, although marriage is still an imperative for everyone in the Chinese countryside.
Moreover, marriage for the younger son is inappropriate while his elder brother remains single. Yan focuses on the paradoxes of modern China and the unchanging demands of love, family, and duty. There are also other heterogeneous elements - an arranged marriage, a botched directive from central agricultural planners, a drunk driver with government connections. All are woven into a coherent whole through the poetic vision of Yan who easily peddles in realism. A brave defence offered by a young army officer who perhaps represents the author's voice of reason, the ringleaders are sentenced to terms in a labour camp.