“With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright-red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your unfilial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health.”
Land is an altruistic asset. It belongs to no one; neither to its possessor nor to the ruthless capturer and not even to the industrious farmer who survives on its souvenirs; apathetic to worldly narcissism, does it shines in its benevolent vitality. If the land could speak it would spin tales of worship and treachery; if it could cry it would wail for the corpses cuddled in its core and one day, the red sorghum would desists from transforming into a fiery liquid, shying away, fearing the stark resemblance of the scarlet wine to the gory mayhem on its very land.
“Start skinning! Fuck your ancestors and skin him!” shouted the interpreter.” The Japanese commander says to skin him. If you don’t do a good job of it, he’ll have his dog tear your heart out”. The knife in the lonesome butcher Sun Five’s hand trembled as he begged Uncle Arhat’s forgiveness for cleaning his blood soaked body with cold water ; skinning the man alive like a cattle suspended on a hook. Sun Five breathed his last humanly air while he pierced the shining blade in Arhat’s moist dermis and somewhere between heart wrenching screams and primitiveness of exposed tissue; Sun entered sadistic chambers of hell. Killing and getting killed became a way of life to the citizens of Gaomi Township. Families slaughtered, men skinned alive, women raped, employed as sex slaves; it was a hemorrhaging mockery of the very land that took pride in its humanity. Death completes human suffering. Love and hate amalgamates into a vaporizing sensation dissolving the final string of civilization; life is overwhelmingly frightening. Was Arhat heroic for enduring horrendous tortures for being a faithful servant to his birthing land?
The elongated sorghum stalks clapped through the swirling air welcoming the young, beautiful bride with the most exquisite golden lotuses (lily-feet) as the sedan braved the bronzed sweaty shoulders of its dancing carriers. Dai Fenglian was all of sixteen when her father married her of to Shan Bianlang , a rumored leper for couple of mules. As she traveled though the black soil of the sorghum field, the Northeastern Gaomi Township waited for its mistress. A quintessentially docile daughter like many other Chinese girls;Dai endured the agonizing foot-binding ritual – a cultural norm during feudalism, primed herself for a marriageable suitor and lived a sheltered life. Dai was a fearless soul defying the authoritative patriarchal society. She dared to love Yu Zhan’ao- the young sedan carrier; took over the wine distillery after Shan’s death, tricked Spotted Neck-a local bandit from raping her and solely inspired the vengeance of Arhat’s death by pledging to the God of Wine. She gave her life a rebellious possibility charting its own consequences and eccentricities. Was she heroic after all in her succinct existence? Did her pleading to the heavens for her life make her any less a victor?
“Is this death? Will I have never again see this sky, this earth, this sorghum, this son, this lover who has led this troops into battle? My heaven you gave me riches, you gave me thirty years of life as robust as red sorghum. Heaven since you gave me all don’t take it back now. Forgive me, let me go. Have I sinned? Would it have been right to share my pillow with a leper and produce a misshapen, putrid monster to contaminate this beautiful world? What is chastity then? What is the correct path? What is goodness? What is evil? You never told me, so I had to decide on my own. I loved happiness, I loved strength, I loved beauty; it was my body, and I used it as I thought fitting. Sin doesn’t frighten me, nor does punishment. I’m not afraid of your eighteen levels of hell. I did what I had to do, I managed as I thought proper. I fear nothing.”
Dai saw the sorghum grow in her fields frolicking in the sun, standing tall in the rain and yielding the fiery scarlet wine after its harvest. Were the chaste crimson sorghum stalks Gaomi’s heroes?
“The glorious history of man is filled with legends of dogs and memories of dogs; despicable dogs, fearful dogs, pitiful dogs”.
Yu Zhan’ao was a man of many traits; a gambler, murderer, adulterer, a lover, a father and eventually a hero in the anti-Japanese revolution. A bastard that he was dearly loved Douguan’s mother and stepmother. Yu Zhan’ao was a man of integrity. He obeyed Dai like a diligent soldier in the 1939 Black River Massacare to avenge the death of many of his people. Yu was the triumphant idol now, one who lived like a pitiful dog nevertheless, fought like a ferocious animal claiming victories on his perished land. But, the nakedness of his vacant heart froze his heroic endeavors in the frosty graves of his loved ones.
Mo Yan’s metaphorical saga nostalgically maps heroic virtues through the landscape of his hometown of Northeastern Gaomi Township; a paradoxical ground that once flourished in prosperity of human grit and kindness was now a cauldron of heinous crimes howling at the ill-fated blackened cinders. Gaomi was plagued just like its former resident Shan Bianlang perishing in its own pitiful existence.
“At one time the site had been a wasteland covered with brambles, underbrush and reeds; it became a paradise for foxes and rabbits. Then a few huts appeared and it became a haven for escaped murderers, drunks, gamblers, who built home, cultivated the land and turned it into a paradise for humans driving away the foxes and wild rabbits, who set howls of protest on the eve of their departure. Now the village lay in ruins; man created it and man had destroyed it. It was now a sorrowful paradise, a monument to both grief and joy, built upon ruins.”
The accentuated elegiac impression of the appalling devastation, reeks of imperialist nihilism; irony of human ambitions. We construct houses; raise our families merely to see them being annihilated by outsiders sheltering their own. Yu Zha’ao questioning the dying Japanese combatant about the existence of his family and whether he loved them, and if so why would he guiltlessly slaughter their ( the Chinese populace) kin ;cites the anguish of two men – one on his death bed and the other fretting his own death; slamming bullets in his wounded chest. Mo Yan’s symbolism of life and death surpasses the familiar grounds of human hostilities delineating the sarcasm of the rising red sun flying high on the Japanese flag whilst it eclipses bleeding the Chinese frontiers. The red sorghum wine that once got its peculiar scrumptious taste from Yu’s urine, now, seeps into the ground serenading its distillers. Mo Yan bleeds his deepest sorrows through the verses blurring the lines between the past and present depicting the end of feudalism and the rise of Japanese imperialist incursion. The laudable tale chronicled by Dai Fenglian’s third generation embarks on the end of the Japanese invasion during WWII following an anti-Japanese ambush by Commander Yu. It spans from the 1929- the first year of Republic wandering all the way through the Cultural Revolution; witnessing inhumane crimes of rape, slaughter and numerous horrendous war crimes. Mo Yan underplays the political aspects of the Japanese-Sino war putting human life on a valuable didactic dais. He diligently scripts history through the eyes of his villagers and their kin; the desolation of loss and the emptiness that chases a rewarded vengeance. The veneration of the ancestors, as every descendant has a generation that endured darkness darker than hell. The idea of colonial power – act of imperialist pursuit of a nation, itself is a cowardly act. Slaughtering the fearless and ambushing agricultural lands; how can one take pride in destroying lives while trying to improvise their own? And in the end, the acquisition of land is futile if all it gives are the graves of blameless souls.
The concluding passage of the novel delineates the narrator’s resentment of importing “hybrid sorghum” into the Gaomi’s fields spoiling the authenticity- undesirable outsiders. I speculate whether the Hainan sorghum stalks was an allegory to Japanese establishing naval bases on Hainan islands in South China Sea; blocking outside communication in China necessary of arms import and related materials or was it to signify that bastard children of Japanese descents were undesirable in China. The disdain of the vulgarity in hypocritical affection by the urban societal dogma shows the loss of harmony in acknowledging noble sacrifices.
“Heroes are born, not made. Heroic qualities flow through a person’s veins like an undercurrent ready to be translated into action.”
Yan’s heroes are not Mao’s preferred comrades but ordinary people who fight for their survival in most corrupt yet heroic ways. They are unconventional, passionate, rebellious and brave; they may not have inherited monetary affluences, but demonstrated mutinous arrogance and undying grit.
“This was a great victory….. China has 400 million people. Japan has 100 million. If 100 million of us fought them to death they’d be wiped out, but there’s still 300 million of us.”
Dai- who dared to love a bastard and stand up for her rights, Yu Zhan’ao- who never let his pitiful surrounding hamper his audacity, Passion- who braved the horrendous sex crime, Douguan – for being an honorable at a young age, Douguan’s wife- who got her first period while hiding in a cave embracing her death brother, Uncle Arhat- for being loyal to his kin and enduring the agonizing torture, Sun Five – for sacrificing his human existence for sullied lunacy and numerous other citizens of Gaomi Townships and above all the very earth where the deep-rooted sorghum still bow to blazing sun; all of them are heroes. They rebelled against feudalism, poverty, love, abhorrence, imperialism and most of all human greed. Approximating the demeanor of the bold sorghum stalks, they stood tall and when autumn befell they sacrificed their world saluting the heroic spirit of Gaomi Township.
“….The yang of White Horse Mountain and the yin of the Black Water River, there is also a stalk of pure-red sorghum which you much sacrifice…wield it high as you re-enter a world of dense brambles and wild predators. It is your talisman, as well as you family’s glorious totem and a symbol of the heroic spirit of Northeast Gaomi Township!”
Yan’s characters are not judged by their individual demeanor but by their cohesive valor. Therefore, I chose to do the same. I let go of all those prejudices of several Goami’s residents and recognized the obvious. The text is bounded by nameless heroes who drank their wines and never kowtowed to the Emperor in Japan’s holy war.
New wine on the ninth of ninth
Good wine from our labour, good wine!
If you drink our wine,
You’ll breathe well, you won’t cough.
If you drink our wine,
You’ll be well, your breath won’t smell.
If you drink our wine,
You’ll dare go through Qingsha Kou alone.
If you drink our wine,
You won’t kowtow to the emperor
On the ninth of ninth you’ll go with me
Good wine, good wine, good wine!
**(the song taken from the namesake film by Zhang Yimou)
Every now and then when reading a remarkable book it becomes crucial to pen copious notes; precious to be wasted on an epigrammatic appraisal, making it even harder to articulate the treasured sentiments. So, without thinking much, I decided to pour my heart out, just as Mo Yan.