When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths. In the preface, Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s longtime translator and advocate, reported that it had provoked anger on the mainland among ideologues for humanising the Japanese soldiers who invaded Manchuria, though there can’t have been very much anger because the novel wasn’t banned, or even expurgated. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post praised Mo Yan for having ‘spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism’. Here was a liberal voice in repressive China. ‘The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics,’ he concluded, ‘might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.’
Last year the Academy did indeed give Mo Yan the prize. But this time the Nobel’s literature-politics mix came out all wrong. Rather than taking it as a targeted affront, as it had with the Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo two years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party was ecstatic. Li Changchun, minister of propaganda, wrote to congratulate Mo Yan on a victory that ‘reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China’. Mo Yan’s dissident reputation in the West, it turned out, was false. He was an established figure in Chinese literary officialdom. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1979. He was vice chairman of the China Writers’ Association. He had participated in a public ceremony in which he copied out several Chinese characters from Mao’s Zhdanovite ‘Talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’, a text which declared the subservience of literature to the class struggle. And in Stockholm before receiving the prize, Mo Yan spoke up in favour of censorship: it was, he said, a bit like airport security. The cadres were already moving swiftly to turn his ancestral village into a literary theme park.
Among the self-appointed guardians of free speech, it was clear enough that Mo Yan’s prize had sent no message to the Party, except maybe one of affirmation. The outcry that followed the announcement seemed to come from another time, recalling debates over Soviet literature during the Cold War. Ai Weiwei called Mo Yan a ‘sellout’, while an earlier laureate and former dweller under state socialism, Herta Müller, called the choice ‘a catastrophe’. On Facebook, Salman Rushdie said Mo Yan was like ‘Mikhail Sholokhov, a patsy of the regime’ (Rushdie perhaps wasn’t aware that Sholokhov is Mo Yan’s favourite Russian writer). Only Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Guardian, took a different tack. He asked why writers under authoritarian regimes were always being called to account for their complicity while writers in liberal democracies were rarely charged with the same: Rushdie himself was a proponent of a ‘liberal case’ for the American adventure in Iraq. Rushdie’s chatty and voluble Twitter avatar described the remark as ‘Mishra’s latest garbage’.
The few critics who actually read the novels all asked the same question: did Mo Yan forthrightly condemn the atrocities of the regime? He did not, they said. On the contrary: he avoided any mention of them. Perry Link, a scholar of modern Chinese literature, argued that Mo Yan disguised atrocities like the famine of the Great Leap Forward with comic episodes: he made jokes about peasants having to eat strange foods but didn’t say that thirty million died of starvation. Anna Sun in the Kenyon Review suggested that Mo Yan’s very language was ‘diseased’ by Maoism, as much Chinese writing after 1949 inevitably was: even Ma Jian, an exile whose novels take on such taboo topics as the one-child policy (in The Dark Road) and the Tiananmen protests (in Beijing Coma), has been infected with Maospeak. (The only pure writer under this rubric was Ha Jin, who, Link said, ‘writes only in English, in part to be sure that even subconscious influences do not affect his expression’.)
Mo Yan’s defenders have long claimed that his political intent can’t be captured by talk of dissidence; nor does he go in for realistic depictions of Chinese history. Charles Laughlin, another Chinese literature scholar, responded to Link by arguing that Mo Yan’s jokey provocations were part of his inventiveness and operated as satire. The principal claim for Mo Yan’s significance, on this view, isn’t whether he challenges or colludes with the regime, but rather the caution-to-the-wind boldness of his narration. ‘Hallucinatory realism’ was the phrase the Nobel committee used in its citation (the Kenyon Review less hospitably called it a ‘jumble of words’). A boundless disregard of tone is indeed Mo Yan’s signature: evidence, for his defenders, of his subversive intent. In every one of his books, and increasingly in the later, longer novels, Mo Yan’s characteristic turn is to undercut solemnity with gross-out humour, and to overlay episodes of sexual passion with lurid violence. He luxuriates in similes, extending them as far as they can seemingly go, then taking them further. In The Republic of Wine: ‘Ding Gou’er could see the man’s nose hairs, arching upward like swallowtails. An evil, black swallow must be hiding in his head, where it has built a nest, laid its eggs, and raised its hatchlings. Taking aim at the swallow, he pulled the trigger. Pulled the trigger. The trigger. Pow – pow – pow!’ Mo Yan mentions Faulkner and García Márquez as writers who inspired him but he admits to having ‘read little of their work’, a confession which there is little reason to doubt. His debts to Chinese literature – Pu Songling’s magic and animal-ridden 17th-century Strange Tales of Liaozhai, the rambling bandit narratives embedded in Shi Nai’an’s 14th-century Water Margin, the picaresque of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century Journey to the West – are more apparent. All these tactics and influences constitute his self-described ‘peasant’ writing.
When talking about himself, Mo Yan routinely emphasises his own guilelessness, his uncompromised innocence when it comes to literary form: all the result of a hard childhood, in which he was deprived of education but was instilled with a respect for village traditions of oral storytelling. Growing up in rural northeastern China – in Gaomi Township, the setting for much of his fiction – Guan Moye (Mo Yan is a pen name that means ‘don’t speak’) endured long bouts of hunger during the famine of the late 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution he was booted from elementary school for a prank (because he came from a middle-class landowning family, he wasn’t allowed back in) and entered the workforce. Images of starvation – as well as their moral opposite, gluttony – are rife in his work, and despite Link’s claims there are a number of references in his writings to the terrible costs of the Great Leap Forward. In the story ‘Iron Child’, for example, the young protagonists, for lack of anything else to eat, learn to enjoy munching on metal bars and screws. A turning point for Mo Yan came when he joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1976, the year Mao died, and was subsequently admitted to the PLA Art College, where in the more open climate of the 1980s he heard lectures from famous writers. ‘I gained a lot during that semester,’ he has written. ‘Not until then did I know what “literature” meant.’ And yet by his own account he seems not fully to have learned. Though he went on to get an MA in writing from Beijing Normal University, he continued to profess his ignorance of ‘theory’. ‘I am a writer with no theoretical training,’ he writes, ‘but I possess a fertile imagination … I may be ignorant of high-flown literary concepts, but I do know how to spin a bewitching tale, something I learned as a child from my grandfather, my grandmother and a variety of village storytellers. Critics who base their views of literature on scientific theories of one sort or another don’t think much of me. But let’s see them write a story that captures a reader’s imagination.’ All of Mo Yan’s carefully managed persona is in these sentences: the wounded defensiveness about his storytelling capabilities and peasant origins, combined with a slight arrogance about his lack of cultivation and childlikeness. His message seems designed to pre-empt even the possibility of critical interpretation.
When his first significant work of fiction, the novella Red Sorghum, was published in the magazine People’s Literature in 1986, it was very well received in China. A saga of a Gaomi family resisting the invading Japanese in the 1930s, it had some modernist flourishes, with sudden shifts back and forth in chronology. But its chief attractions were its sensationalist violence and its flouting of thematic conventions. The ‘revolutionary historical novel’ (geming lishi xiaoshuo) about heroic resistance to the Japanese, was de rigueur during the Cultural Revolution, but the standard heroes were austere Communist partisans rather than the bandits and outlaws who populated Red Sorghum. Mo Yan’s characters succumb to magical forces: in one section a character is possessed by the spirit of a weasel. Unlike the heroic Communists, they were not sternly celibate and appeared to have weirdly ethereal sex: ‘Her soul fluttered as she gazed at his bare torso … she was trembling from head to toe, a redolent yellow ball of fire crackled and sizzled before her eyes … They ploughed the clouds and scattered rain in the field, adding a patina of lustrous red to the rich and varied history of Northeast Gaomi Township.’ Sentence to sentence, this scene is a difficult mix: that fluttering soul and ‘bare torso’ thud like stock lines from a romance novel; the ‘redolent’ fireball, with its curious synaesthesia, is a space oddity; the ‘rich and varied history of Northeast Gaomi Township’ would suit a guidebook. Mo Yan is best when violence is involved, as when a man is bayoneted by the Japanese on a frozen swamp, and ‘the blood from his wounds pitted the ice beneath him with its heat.’ The rest of the time, his interest in the soil manifests itself in his attention to the ubiquitous stalks of sorghum, their stiffness and redness making for a symbol with a surplus of obviousness: at one point the sorghum stalks ‘are laughing heartily, they are crying pitifully. Their tears are raindrops beating against the desolate sandbar of her heart.’
Red Sorghum is a conservative book: it demolishes one tradition about the resistance only to uphold a more primitive one. It’s a panegyric to stalwart, lusty peasant types, and a lament for the degeneration of Chinese men. The young men of the narrator’s grandfather’s generation were as ‘sturdy as Northeast Gaomi sorghum’, he says, ‘which is more than can be said about us weaklings who succeeded them’. Despite the casual violence of rural life, Mo Yan never ceases to celebrate the essential goodness of the peasant, or to condemn the feminising evils of modernity and urbanisation: ‘Now I stood before Second Grandma’s grave, affecting the hypocritical display of affection I had learned from high society, with a body immersed so long in the filth of urban life that a foul stench oozed from my pores.’ Anxiously hopeful discussions about the prospects for a Chinese ‘modernism’ (xiandai pai) had proliferated in the early 1980s and literature took on a correspondingly utopian aspect. By the second half of the decade, with urban reforms faltering and corruption spreading in the Party bureaucracy, many self-conscious attempts to create a Chinese modernism struck critics as false: they came to be condemned as ‘pseudomodernism’. A return-to-roots impulse – the xungen movement – took hold. But Red Sorghum was addled enough to be seen as synthesising both concerns. It seemed modernist, in the way One Hundred Years of Solitude (published in Chinese in 1984) was modernist; but in praising the unassailable heartiness of China’s peasants, it also searched for the roots of a simpler past before Communism. Mo Yan himself didn’t seem to know which mode he was pursuing, and not for the last time his naivety helped his book become a success.
The novel that followed, The Garlic Ballads (1988), was straightforwardly political, a work of protest, an anomaly. Its plot was inspired by a real incident: in Shandong province, corrupt officials made the farmers grow garlic, but then forced them to let the harvest rot instead of selling it on the market. The farmers responded by attacking the local Party headquarters and burning them to the ground. A number of the arsonists were imprisoned. Mo Yan filled out the tale with characters, added a love story and relocated it to Gaomi; he wrote the novel in a month, in a fit of rage. The images of suffering go deeper than before. In one instance, a protester is handcuffed to a tree and gnaws ‘frantically on the bark, which rubbed his lips raw until the tree was spotted with his blood … He swallowed the bitter mixture of saliva and bark juice, which brought a remarkable coolness to his throat.’ Bark-eating was one of the common images from the famine (‘No trees in the world ever suffered as much as those in our village,’ Mo Yan has written of his childhood), and he makes it plain here that the era of reform hasn’t changed the oppression of the peasantry. But his political moment didn’t last long. He entered Beijing’s Normal University in 1988, at a time – following the Party’s expulsion of the reformer Hu Yaobang in 1986 – when a student movement was beginning to grow. In his otherwise evasive memoir, Change, Mo Yan lets slip that ‘with tensions mounting daily … few of us felt like going to class.’ What role he played in the movement beyond that is unclear. After the crackdown of 1989, The Garlic Ballads was temporarily banned. But unlike many of the protesters Mo Yan was still free, and at work on a new, wholly different novel.
In 1992, he published The Republic of Wine, still his most ambitious book. It first appeared in Taiwan before finding a publisher on the mainland. Howard Goldblatt suggests that this fact reveals how ‘extremely subversive’ the novel was thought to be – a tendentious claim, since the authorities on the mainland might easily have suppressed the novel had they found it actually subversive. Whatever protest Mo Yan aims to lodge against his society in The Republic of Wine he thoroughly drowns in new tactics: proliferating scatological jokes, arduous metafictional conceits, endless allusions to classical Chinese and Communist rhetoric. Drowning is an important motif and plot point: the protagonist, Ding Gou’er, an official investigator sent to the mythical province of Liquorland (jiuguo) to investigate charges of organised commercial cannibalism by the local cadres, ends the novel ignominiously, smothered in a vat of vomit and excrement as he shouts: ‘I protest, I pro—.’ The Republic of Wine is split between its main plot, a detective story pastiche, and a second metanarrative in which ‘Mo Yan’, an author living in Beijing, corresponds with Li Yidou, a PhD student in ‘Liquor Studies’ in Liquorland. The first plot follows Mo Yan’s habitual narrative of male decline. Ding Gou’er fails almost immediately to accomplish his task: he allows himself to get drunk at a banquet held by Diamond Jin, the official he is supposed to be investigating, and doesn’t refrain from eating what appears to be a baby served to him by Jin (the novel deliberately withholds any firm evidence of whether cannibalism is actually taking place); he loses himself in an affair with a woman who seems to be a truck driver but turns out to be an agent of the Liquorland officials; and on the cusp of catching the cannibals red-handed, he drowns in shit. In every other chapter, Li Yidou discusses the craft of fiction with ‘Mo Yan’, while also plying him with short stories, each of which appears embedded in the novel. The early stories are deliberately bad, digressive rants, though over time they turn into slightly better stories about cannibalism, veiled allegories for man’s descent into barbarism. In the final section, ‘Mo Yan’ arrives in Liquorland and drinks himself into a stupor, his narration slurring into a long, unpunctuated Molly Bloomesque monologue (a reference he couldn’t bring himself to omit: ‘Damn some will say I’m obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I’m drunk.’)
With its constant, abrupt shifts between levels of narration and its surplus of fart jokes, the novel is a slog. Partly about a glutted bureaucracy living at the expense of a poor peasantry, but more thoroughly about the decadence of an entire society, The Republic of Wine exudes a fatness, exhaustion and decay of its own. The book is full of internal repetition: lines that appear the first time as satire return either as recondite metafictional jokes, stripped of their satiric intent, or simply as failures. So Ding Gou’er thinks to himself (in a somewhat ironised use of Communist rhetoric) that ‘the long history of men and women … was actually very much like the history of class struggle: sometimes the men are victorious, sometimes the women, but in the end the victor is also the vanquished.’ But in a Li Yidou metastory a handful of pages later the difference between the narrator’s wife and mother-in-law ‘naturally reminded one of the struggle between the classes’. In nine separate instances, Ding’s growing awareness of his situation is compared to a butterfly crawling out of a cocoon. The image doesn’t become more fascinating on reacquaintance. If the book was intended to be ‘extremely subversive’, Mo Yan’s pleonasms and repetitions nicely cover it up.
Yet The Republic of Wine had a catalysing effect on Mo Yan’s career. It made him believe that he could write large, ambitious novels of the sort that many in his generation – Yu Hua, Su Tong, Wang Anyi – would write in the 1990s and 2000s. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a family saga that runs from the turn of the 20th century up to the early post-Mao period, confirms that this capacity was beyond him. Rather than evading death and atrocity, as Mo Yan’s critics claim, the novel is overburdened by them. Filled, like a classical Chinese novel, with a huge network of characters from many families, Big Breasts and Wide Hips gets into narrative difficulty keeping up with them all against the churning historical background. The novel starts jettisoning people early on; more characters constantly arrive like temp workers to keep up the momentum as others are dispatched. In one instance, after the narrator’s mother is gang-raped, the narrator’s father, a Swedish pastor, flings himself from a bell tower, plummeting ‘like a gigantic bird with broken wings, splattering his brains like so much bird shit when he hit the street below’. Mo Yan envisioned the novel as a paean to motherhood, and in another one of his reaching prefaces Goldblatt calls it a critique of ‘failed patriarchy’. But Mo Yan’s path to the philogynist epic of his imagination is typically roundabout: his narrator is a man, Shangguan Jintong, whose fatal flaw is a fixation with women’s breasts, and an inability to wean himself from them, even in adulthood. This is clearly supposed to be a complicated indication of the narrator’s arrested development, a stand-in for a whole nation’s immaturity: the drama of China’s withered manhood played out yet again. But in practice, it simply means pages of breasts, ‘pert’, ‘arching’ and ‘perky’:
As her body moved up and down, those two full gourds on her chest bounced around, summoning me, passing me a secret sign. Sometimes they threw the two datelike heads together, as if kissing or whispering to one another. But most of the time they were bouncing up and down, bouncing and calling out, like a pair of white happy doves.
Jintong sees his sister Pandi with her clothes wet, ‘sticking to her skin’; he see that she too has ‘datelike nipples’, which he can ‘barely keep from rushing over to bite and fondle’. In the go-go 1980s, Jintong is at last appointed the manager of a brassière shop. ‘I’ve been a fool all these years,’ his mother cries in frustration, ‘but I finally understand that it’s better to let a child die than let him turn into a worthless creature who can’t take his mouth away from a woman’s nipple! … I want a man who stands up to piss!’ Mo Yan dedicated the novel to his mother.
The breast obsession isn’t peculiar to Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Only inchoate in Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads, Mo Yan’s fascination begins to achieve maturity in The Republic of Wine, finally blossoming in the ensuing novels (‘like a butterfly emerging’, etc). Mo Yan’s narrators are unstinting with penises too, usually those of boys, always called (in Goldblatt’s unvarying translation) ‘little pecker’. Red Sorghum: ‘With her encouragement, Beauty, who would become my mother, had aroused Father’s wounded, ugly, strange-looking little pecker.’ The Garlic Ballads: ‘So he aimed his taut little pecker skyward and shot a stream of yellow piss straight up.’ Big Breasts and Wide Hips: ‘She mussed my hair with a bony hand, then tweaked my ear, pinched my nose, and even reached down between my legs to feel my little pecker.’ In The Republic of Wine, Mo Yan finds the image of a ‘little pecker poking up like a pink wriggly silkworm chrysalis’ worthy enough to repeat in Big Breast and Wide Hips: ‘What she saw was the little pecker standing up like a silkworm chrysalis.’ In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, he gives us a combination of breasts and peckers: ‘I’ll be honest with you. When she pressed my head up against her breast, my little pecker stiffened.’
Much as his characters numbly repeat each other’s lines across his fiction, Mo Yan’s recent novels betray signs that his storytelling ‘gift’ has ceased to give. Sandalwood Death (2001), a staid historical novel Mo Yan himself describes as a ‘step backwards’ in his fiction, is set during the Boxer Rebellion. He gives over the longest episode in the book to depicting the torture of a rebel by ‘slicing death’, which requires that the executioner kill the prisoner slowly, with five hundred cuts, as a spectacle before the national magistrate. On the 51st cut, Mo Yan doesn’t neglect to describe the victim’s penis being tossed away, and how ‘a skinny, mangy dog that had come out of nowhere snatched it up and darted in amid the military formation, where it began to yelp as soldiers kicked it.’ Pow! reuses the satire of gluttony from The Republic of Wine: this narrator too has an insatiable desire for meat. Undercutting the satire is the old breast obsession: ‘I rub my slightly bulging belly as the sound of newborn foxes sucking their mother’s teats drifts in from outside. The sound of kittens nursing in the tree trunk is beyond my range of hearing, but I think I actually see them suckle. Which gives rise to a powerful urge to suckle. But where is there a tit for me?’
What he calls ‘species regression’ – a pseudo-biological concept, like something out of Zola – is for Mo Yan an idée fixe of particular rigidity. His notion of social criticism appears to require that his books exemplify the thing being criticised in one form or another, an impulse he appears to associate with his gift for telling a ‘bewitching tale’. But to see him as a political writer you have to interpret his novels’ derangement. His China is indeed a terrifying place: a land of mango-breasted women with hedgehog-mouthed nipples, surrounded by gluttonous admiring men with little peckers standing at constant attention. The land is in decline because its men are covered in the oozing filth of urban life. Half-developed, still suckling boys, unworthy of their Second Grandmothers. When not looking for a tit, they eat and drink to excess. If only they could learn to wean themselves away from women, and become strong – sturdy like the stalks of sorghum. ‘On the surface,’ he has said of his work, ‘each of these novels appear to be radically different from the others, but at their core they are very much alike; they all express a yearning for the good life by a lonely child afraid of going hungry.’ The Nobel is in hand, and the Party is behind him. The good life is his. Mo Yan is in no danger of going hungry, or of becoming anything other than a child.