The Writer Mo Yan: His Life and Most Important Works

The writer Mo Yan

Mo Yan Life

Mo Yan (莫言), which literally means “nothing to say”, is the pseudonym for Guan Moye (管谟业), an affirmed writer and essayist known worldwide, especially for having won a Nobel prize for literature in 2012 thanks to his ability to merge popular stories, history and modernism with a strong hallucinatory realism. During his infancy, Mo Yan would usually listen to stories of popular tradition and folklore narrated by his grandmother.

Ever since, Mo Yan has over the years gifted to the world a copious amount of works. His pseudonym when extrapolated from the context might seem a bit contradictory, since he has lots of things to say; and Mo Yan himself recounts that during that period it was a real necessity to have one, since otherwise you could incur problems.

The choice of “nothing to say” was from a reminder from his parents who told him not to speak during the Cultural Revolution or risk running into trouble thanks to his loose talkativeness: not everyone knows that during that decade, an out of place word could cost one their freedom or even their life.

Mo Yan tells us that when he was little he was small and poor, a rascal whose cleverness always turned against him; in fact, when he wrote a story entitled Big Mouth, the child protagonist was modeled after himself.

Mo Yan was born into a family of peasants on February 2, 1955 in Gaomi (高密), a small little Chinese city located in the eastern part of Shandong where the writer set several of his novels and stories.

Gaomi appears as a microcosm of rural China, extremely poor and full of trying circumstances; despite this, the bond between Mo Yan and his land is very strong: in his stories there are long and vivid descriptions of farming life and nature, not to mention a series of metaphors that came from his country life.

Mo Yan described Gaomi as: “found in the extreme southeast of the region, inhabited by just a dozen families, a few houses with mud walls and straw roofs spread among the arms of the Jiao River. Although small, the village is crossed by a wide road of yellow earth along whose sides grew willows, cypresses, and lots of other trees that nobody knows the name of and whose foliage in the Autumn are filled with golden leaves.

While young, only ten/eleven years old, due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he had to prematurely abandon his studies to dedicate himself to pasture farming, and then at about eighteen years old he worked in the manufacturing of cotton. Even though he was a simple worker at the local cotton mill, Mo Yan always had great ambitions and big dreams, so much so that he spent his entire salary on white gloves like those of divas in the cinema.

Between 1975 and 1976, Mo Yan enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army, ending up in a remote unit to cultivate the fields and to dream about dying in the War in Vietnam; in 1979, still in the People’s Liberation Army, he was admitted into the cultural and literary department from which he graduated in 1986 and where he would work until the time of his release in 1999. It was actually during this period that he produced some of his masterpieces.

Unlike many of his contemporary writers who were raised in cultured environments, Mo Yan is a writer of true peasant background, formed in the heart of the army where he personally lived through the difficult and not at all pleasant experiences that life brought him.

His first literary success came in 1981 with the publication of the story 透明的红萝卜 (touming de hongluobo), “The Clear Radish”: a story about an innocent young man who is completely indifferent to everything that surrounds him.

Mo Yan manages to gift the reader the image of a China that no longer exists, the China that smells of the “Orient” and of mystery; one not yet contaminated by globalization that sadly eliminates diversity. Among the writers that most influenced him are Gabriel García Márquez and Faulkner.

Mo Yan’s most distinctive works

Hong Gaoliang jiazu 红高粱家族 “Red Sorghum”

Red Sorghum, literally “The Red Sorghum Clan”, is one of the novels that’s most distinctive of Mo Yan, originally published in five parts between 1985 and 1986, to then be published in a single text in 1988. With realistic writing that also recalls the magical and bizarre, the book tells the story of a family from the Gaomi district over the course of time: from the banditry of the Twenties to the Japanese invasions of the Thirties and Forties, up to the time of the Cultural Revolution. The narration is through the eyes of a young child.

Mo Yan is able to evoke the fear of simple people, the rage of the peasants, the blood of the martyrs with the same redness as the fields of sorghum in bloom, with an unequaled vivid description. The fields of red sorghum form the backdrop of the entire story: in Autumn, as Mo Yan writes, these fields of sorghum sparkle like a sea of blood.

From among the stems of sorghum unfolds the story of Yu Zhan’Ao, the narrator’s grandfather and his beloved, Dai Fengliang, and their participation in the resistance to the Japanese occupation. Yu Zhan’Ao was an outlaw while the woman came from a wealthy family.

The story narrates the heroic resistance of the peasants against the Japanese enemy; even though the actions of the commoners were essentially heroic, the heroism isn’t the only thing that’s highlighted. It also brings to light the misery, desperation and violence that characterized their living conditions.

For this reason, this novel was also viewed as being critical and complaining. There are lots of characters in this novel: peasants, soldiers, Buddhist monks, suspected Daoist wizards.

As he did with the novel To live as Yu Hua, the great filmmaker Zhang Yimou made a film of this novel, which went on to win the “Golden Bear” award at the Berlin Festival of 1988.

Tangxiang Xing 檀香刑 “Sandalwood Death”

Sandalwood Death is my favorite of Mo Yan’s writings. A novel published in 2001, many consider it to be a typical story: it’s set in China of the 1900’s at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers were a rebellion raised in China by a large number of popular Chinese organizations and a good number of schools for martial arts against the foreign invaders, which started in the Shandong region.

The novel’s protagonists are Sun Bing, a rebel who by chance finds himself leading a peasants’ revolt alongside the Boxers, and Zhao Jia, an expert on torture. These two masters will face off in the book, each with their own art, seeking to finish their own “work”.

Mo Yan is able to mix together the historical rebellion, a love story and terrible torture (the torture of the wooden sandal); the setting is once again historical: China has entered the Nineteen Hundreds at war with foreign powers and thrown into the political chaos that preceded the downfall of the Chinese Millennial Empire.

Mo Yan also includes a series of supernatural phenomenon in the book, legends from oral traditions passed on by the commoners. In particular, the job of executioner is described as if it were one of the most honorable jobs in the world: initially the executioner had to carry out his torture in front of the public as a warning to others not to commit any crimes; later, this work becomes an art, to the point that executioners are acclaimed as actual artists.

The book was written with all of Mo Yan’s mastery, so much so that some parts are vividly described in great detail (see the torture of five hundred cuts!) which will not allow you to read through quickly.

Shengsi pilao 生死疲劳 “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out”

Shengsi pilao, literally “The Trouble of Living and Dying”, translated into various languages as “The Six Reincarnations of Ximen Nao”, is a novel that was published in 2006. Just like The Torture of the Wooden Sandal, this too is a historical novel that recounts China’s affairs in the second half of the Twentieth Century through the eyes of a landowner, one Ximen Nao 西门闹, who is executed (unfairly, according to him) by peasants during the Revolution.

Once executed, he ends up in the Kingdom of the Hereafter, where the great King Yama is waiting for him – (you might remember him from Dragon Ball!) – Lord of the Dead, who allows him to be reincarnated six times just because he’s sick of him.

Convinced that he’s been granted a pardon, Ximen Nao is instead deceived by King Yama: in fact he is reincarnated first as a donkey, then in order, a bull, a pig, a dog, a monkey and lastly a baby.

Ximen Nao, before returning to the land of the living, refuses to drink a concoction that would allow him not to remember what happened. Because of this, when Ximen Nao returns to the land of the living as something else, he remembers what he was in the previous life and sees everything as a series of things that absolutely can’t keep him down: all the animals that he is reincarnated as have ties to people that were part of Ximen Nao’s life. I’ll leave you to imagine what poor Ximen Nao discovers!

In the end Ximen Nao is reincarnated as a child, Lan Qiansui (Lan Thousand Years): it is actually this child with a small skinny body, unusually large head, excellent memory and silver tongue who starts telling this story…
The story covers a period of fifty years, during which Ximen Nao manages to free himself from all resentment and every desire for revenge on those who “disrespected him”.

The backdrop of Ximen Nao’s story are the big and little changes that shook China in the arc of this half century: the agricultural reforms of the Great Leap Forward, to the Popular Communes of the Cultural Revolution, to the death of Mao Zedong and everything that took place up until 2000.

This novel was nominated for the Newman Prize for Chinese literature in 2009 by its English translator, Howard Goldblatt.

Wa 蛙 “Frog”

Frog is a novel published in 2009; the title is a phonetic play on words between two Chinese words that are distinguished only by a different tone: wa 蛙 “frog” and wa 娃 “children”.

This novel intends to denounce the one child policy, especially in the countryside: many people, in order to avoid the negative consequences for not respecting the one child policy had to carry out barbaric acts to cause abortions in women, even after 6/7 months of pregnancy.

The novel centers around the figure of Wan Xin 万心 (literally “Ten Thousand Hearts”), the midwife of Gaomi (birthplace of Mo Yan) who, before the one child policy had helped bring into the world all the children of the town thanks to her experience. The whole novel is narrated from Wan Zu’s 万足 (literally “Ten Thousand Feet”) point of view, who is Wan Xin’s grandson. Wan Zu was also born thanks to the abilities of Grandmother Wan Xin, who was practically venerated as the goddess of fertility, Songzi Niangniang 送子娘娘.

Halfway through the Sixties, Wan Xin is tasked with enforcing the one child policy and thereby has to severely control the number of births. So she starts practicing abortions and vasectomies with the same care and seriousness as when she helped give birth to babies.

Wan Xin couldn’t refuse this task because she was a presumed “suspect” in the eyes of the Party, so this was her chance to redeem herself in some way: you can say that she went from one extreme to the other. Over the years, in view of the policy, the campaign to control the number of births takes on a barbarous and violent nature to which the old midwife Wan Xin adapts to all too easily.

After years of barbarism, one night while on her way home Wan Xin hears the croaking of frogs which reminds her of the crying of newborn babies (in Chinese, the onomatopoeic sound to indicate a baby’s cry is actually “wa” just like the croaking!) and causes her to rethink her life. Sadly, even Wan Xin’s dear one must pay the consequences of her life choices.

Tiantang suantai zhi ge 天堂蒜薹之歌 “The Garlic Ballads”

This novel, published in 1988 and set the year before, centers around Tiantang 天堂 (literally “Paradise”), an imaginary place in China where a group of peasants are obligated by the Chinese Communist Party to cultivate garlic due to a completely failing agricultural plan that collapses the sale of garlic, leaving the peasants high and dry.

Reduced to hunger and exasperated, the peasants in this imaginary place (which should be located to the northeast of Gaomi) rebel and set off to storm the Party’s headquarters: they break into various offices and destroy all that they can get their hands on; among them are the protagonists, Gao Ma and Jinju who have to fight against very ancient practices such as arranged marriage in order to stay together.

Jinju was promised in marriage to an old sick man. When these two poor ones fall in love, Gao Ma and Jinju wind up being locked up and forced to undergo violence; unfortunately this is not only the destiny for Gao Ma and Jinju: many other families are unjustly imprisoned and forced into madness in filthy cells where hope does not exist.

Sadly, this novel doesn’t have a happy ending: many of the characters end up being brutally killed and others continue living worse off than they were before.

This too is a novel of criticism and complaint: in fact all the disorder stems from the indifference and abuses of the proponents of the Party. Mo Yan describes the rotting of the Party by comparing it to the garlic that rots under the sun, giving off the stench of putrefaction.

The title comes from the songs of the blind Zhang Kou, a local storyteller, which start each chapter as in classic popular literature (but you’ll also think of the novel of The Three Kingdoms).

Jiuguo 酒国 “The Republic of Wine”

The Republic of Wine is a satirical novel published in 1993 about the relationship the Chinese have with food and alcohol, as well as the corruption of government officials and excesses. The novel follows two narrative threads: one part is sort of like detective fiction; in the other we have a correspondence of letters between Mo Yan in person and an aspiring writer who says that they’re a big fan of his work, a certain Lidou, who has written a story about cannibalism.

The detective fiction thread follows the affairs of a 48 year old investigation inspector, Ding Gou’Er, who was sent into an area of rural China (The Land of Alcohol, in fact) to look into alleged acts of cannibalism: in the story it would seem that some select restaurants offer their clients the meat of newborns.

Inspector Ding Gou’Er is regularly invited by local authorities to huge banquets, and mesmerized by the fumes of alcohol, he can’t figure out if the meat being served as actually human flesh or a presentation to that effect. In short, reality and fiction knowingly mix in this work, and as was the case in Red Sorghum with the constant presence of sorghum, in Songs of Garlic with its continuous presence of garlic, in this piece wine is omnipresent.

Mo Yan has said that he wrote this novel as a result of a burst of anger after the events of Tian’An Men Square, almost to denounce the corruption that bogged China down in that time period.

Yang mao zhuanyehu 养猫专业户 “The Man Who Raised Cats and Other Stories”

The stories in this collection have a close relationship, both linguistically and thematically to Red Sorghum. This is why the setting of many of these stories are sorghum fields that give birth to wonders and a mysterious world of swarms of divine ducks, white colors, grass fish that came out of who knows where that dart among the green stems of sorghum, foxes that light up like trails of fire to indicate the way to those who are lost, and so on.

This is a landscape that, as we’ve already mentioned, is so beloved by Mo Yan: a rural and farming civilization far from globalization where misery and the difficulties of human affairs dominate, and a life of hardship, trouble and unrecognized effort are imposed.

Well, it’s an image of a China that sadly no longer exists, being supplanted by skyscrapers that get lost in the heavens and metros that shoot out at 300 kilometers an hour. For this love Mo Yan has toward the rural micro-world many scholars have defined him as a “writer of the roots”.

In this collection of stories, the protagonists are kids that see reality in different ways: all you have to do is close your eyes and even the most miserable stories become legends. Here are the titles contained in this work: The Old Rifle; The Dry River; The Dog and the Swing; Explosions; The Abandoned Newborn; The Tornado; The Blow; Popular Music; The Main Who Raised Cats.

Fengru feitun 丰乳肥臀 “Big Breasts & Wide Hips”

In 1995 Mo Yan published a novel that dealt with the story of a family called “Big Breasts & Wide Hips”. In this novel which is together a hymn to his mother, land and people, Mo Yan vividly describes in a neorealist style life in Shandong during the Thirties. The story gravitates around a woman and her eight daughters and one son, the Shangguan 上官 family.

Throughout the novel this family faces the joys and pains brought about by an extremely primordial rural land where doing anything is complicated. From a historical point of view, this novel retraces the events from the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), up until the period of opening reforms (1978).

Even though Mo Yan seeks to complain, in this novel he also expresses his deep respect and love for women. As a novel that immediately brought down the ire of censorship, it deserves to be read from the first to the last page, despite its great length. Mo Yan expressed himself this way: 你可以不看我所有的作品,但你如果要了解我,应该看我的《丰乳肥臀》 “you might not read everything I’ve written, but if you want to understand me, you have to read “Big Breasts, Large Hips”.

Other works

The following are other titles of works written by Mo Yan, and I’ll leave it up to you to do the pleasant task of reading them and discovering what they are about: 十三步 (shi san bu) “Thirteen Steps”; 食草家族 (shi cao jiazu) “The Herbivorous Family”; 红树林 (hong shulin) “Red Forest”; 四十一炮 (si shi yi pao) “Pow!”; 怀抱鲜花的女人 (huaibao xianhua de nv ren) “The Woman with Flowers”; 师傅越来越幽默 (shifu yue lai yue youmo) “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh”; 欢乐 (huanle) “Joy”; 与大师约会 (yu dashi yuehui) “Meeting the Masters”; 我们的荆轲 (women de jingke) “Our Jing Ke”; 碎语文学 (sui yuwenxue) “ Broken Philosophy”; 用耳朵阅读 (yong erduo yuedu) “Ears to Read”; 会唱歌的墙 (hui changge de qiang) “The Wall Can Sing”.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Sorghum Seed Heads by Melinda Young Stuart

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