Similarly, those of Mo Yan’s generation believed they were the vanguard of a world-changing revolution. Mo has described this deep faith as one of his reasons for becoming a writer:
It was a time of intense political passions, when starving citizens tightened their belts and followed the Party in its Communist experiment. We may have been famished at the time, but we considered ourselves to be the luckiest people in the world. Two-thirds of the world’s people, we believed, were living in dire misery, and it was our sacred duty to rescue them from the sea of suffering in which they were drowning.
The writer’s sacred duty had to be carried out within rigid constraints when Mo began writing in the late 1970s. During the Mao Zedong era (roughly from Mao’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum” to his death in 1976), socialist-realist fiction demanded portrayals of heroic workers, soldiers and peasants overcoming corrupt landlords and capitalists. In stark contrast to such black-and-white portrayals, Mo writes fantastical realism, sometimes grotesque, often full of black humor, and sometimes in a style the Swedish Academy praised as “hallucinatory realism.” By using the artistic liberties of magical realism to challenge the political status quo, Mo and many fellow avant-garde writers continue the tradition of European surrealists and Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez.
Mo is best known for his historical novels depicting the brutal Japanese invasion that preceded World War II. In these works he joins other post-Mao writers to exhume China’s collective traumatic memories. His magisterial Red Sorghum (1987) consists of five novellas in which the narrator imagines his grandparents’ experiences as the Japanese invade their village. Full of graphic violence, rape and even a butcher skinning a prisoner alive, the novel chronicles horrors commonly viewed in China as the epitome of twentieth-century cruelties. This historical setting—safely before the culmination of the Chinese Revolution in 1949—adroitly sidesteps the party’s sensitivities and thus flies underneath the censors’ radar. But perceptive readers may find that such novels also evoke the horrors that Chinese citizens inflicted on one another during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976.
Sandalwood Death (2001) could elicit a similar interpretation. But, whereas the butcher in Red Sorghum is forced by the Japanese, here Mo depicts a willing Chinese executioner, which perhaps explains his use of a setting even more removed in time. The torture of the protagonist, an opera singer turned rebel during the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901), may be the most horrific scene I’ve ever read. The executioner skewers the prisoner alive with a sandalwood shaft, then feeds him ginseng soup to forestall his death and prolong his torture until the opening of the German-constructed railroad.
Writing in the so-called gray zone entails much more political risk in works set in the Mao Zedong period and contemporary times. As far back as The Garlic Ballads (1988), Mo depicted a 1987 peasant riot against official corruption and malfeasance in the transition to a market economy. Mo wrote The Republic of Wine (1992) in the years just following the June 1989 massacre of prodemocracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, so one can read as allegory the plot about its detective investigating a rumor that local officials were eating human babies. Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) met with such harsh criticism over its depiction of merciless Communist revolutionaries that Mo’s superiors prevailed upon him to write a letter asking the publisher to discontinue it. In his prize-winning novel Frog (2009), Mo’s account of a village obstetrician exposes the corruption and cruelty of officials enforcing the one-child policy.
Although less acclaimed than Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Mo’s real masterpiece of historical fiction is the more explicitly critical Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006). The novel begins in purgatory in 1950, where the landowner Ximen Nao has suffered two years of torture after his execution by Communist militiamen in the chaos of the revolution. Ximen argues that his decency should win him a reprieve, and the lord of the underworld grants him a series of reincarnations, first as a donkey, then as an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey and finally as a big-headed human child. This tragicomic parody of the Buddhist six realms is but one of several narrative devices Mo employs to convey the complexity of history. Through his animal reincarnations, Ximen observes the land-reform movement, the Cultural Revolution and the headlong embrace of market capitalism in the 1990s.
Much of the modern Chinese history chronicled in Life and Death is also the history Mo Yan has witnessed. “Big-head,” the wise survivor of so many campaigns and so much death, has seen history’s horrors, seen death itself, and survived. He has the power of memory but is no more empowered than a child.
Salvation nonetheless lies in preserving the memories. By recounting events from the perspective of animals, Mo can voice criticism that might be too risky coming from a human mouth. In his first reincarnation, for example, Ximen Donkey hears the Communist cadres torturing his widow and concubines to extract the whereabouts of the family’s gold, silver and jewelry. Aware that the women don’t know, Ximen Donkey rushes forth to reveal the hiding place, despite his cynical expectation that the cadres will pocket the treasure for themselves.
The novel uses black humor to convey the horrors of the murderous Cultural Revolution. Mo casts doubt on the success of the CCP’s campaign of forced land collectivization when the robust Ximen Ox enables a lone independent farmer with only a wooden plow to outstrip the Commune with its multiple teams of oxen pulling steel plows. During the winter described in the next chapter, the Commune’s impoverished peasants are hungry. Yet the party feeds them propaganda rather than food. The passage turns fantastical after a Red Guard propaganda team arrives in the village on a Soviet truck rigged with four ear-splitting loudspeakers: “The loudspeakers blared so loud a farmer’s wife had a miscarriage, a pig ran headlong into a wall and knocked itself out, a whole roost of laying hens took to the air, and local dogs barked themselves hoarse.”
The raucous propaganda stuns a flock of wild geese that drops from the sky on top of the gathered villagers. Impoverished and starving, the villagers tear apart each bird:
The bird’s wings were torn off, its legs wound up in someone else’s hands, its head and neck were torn from its body and held high in the air, dripping blood. . . . Chaos turned to tangled fighting and from there to violent battles. The final tally: seventeen people were trampled to death, an unknown number suffered injury.
This fantastical microcosm deftly conveys the hysteria and public murder of innocents during the Cultural Revolution.
THE POWER of Mo’s works lies not in his chronicling of events but in his probing stories of individual resilience in the face of relentless forces of instinct, sexuality and history. The inexorability of these pressures may recall the determinism of Tolstoy. Yet even as Mo’s characters succumb to these forces, they also make genuine choices in deciding their lives. The tenacity of human will expresses a vital life force that powers Mo’s narrative arcs.
This celebration of human will is hard-won in the face of such strong historical trajectories. Mo came of age during the high tide of socialist theory and socialist-realist literature that emphasized utopian visions of collective revolution. Perhaps in response, Mo’s works ask whether responsibility for calamities lies within individuals or in forces beyond their control. As Mo bravely gives his characters responsibility for their individual moral dilemmas and actions, the moral frameworks of his narratives not only depart from socialist certainties but also challenge many liberal and feminist pieties. He depicts instinct and lust, for example, both as frequently destructive and as potentially liberating. Mo described this “humanistic stance” in his Nobel lecture: “I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad.” In treating fate, lust and history in ways that defy easy moralizing, Mo’s works question official morality.
This questioning may be as significant as his critical portrayals of traumatic history. Against official history with its presumption of unitary truth, his insistence on moral ambiguity challenges authoritarian government. The self-questioning of his narratives is profoundly subversive in a country whose legal system convicts 99 percent of those prosecuted and where more than fifty thousand censors “harmonize” the Internet.
In Mo’s own favorite story, “White Dog and the Swing” (1985), the now-middle-aged male narrator guiltily describes an accident that disfigured a childhood friend and altered the course of her life. When he returns years later, she assuages his guilt by telling him that everything was the work of fate. Yet in a brave refusal of further resignation, the now-married mother of mute triplets pleads with the narrator to conceive a child with her: “It’s the perfect time in my cycle. . . . I want a child who can talk. . . . If you agree, you’ll save me. If you don’t agree, you’ll destroy me. There are a thousand reasons and ten thousand excuses. Please don’t give me reasons and excuses” (my translation). The story ends as the narrator faces this momentous decision. The narrator’s great empathy for his friend drives home the frightening freedom made possible by powerful emotions. A mother yearns for a child who can talk; a man yearns to repay a debt.Pullquote: Mo voices political criticism that would risk reprisal if presented overtly. But since he presents his critique on the sly, often poking fun at himself as a writer, he is allowed to pursue his truth telling.Image: Essay Types: Book Review