Sandalwood Death – Mo Yan

Sandalwood Death

Palpitation! The word itself brims with mystifying sounds. The flip-flopping of the heart muscle attuned to the ambience of the twelve tone symphony, fingers smoothly gliding over the chromatic keys of a piano, the steady tempo of the inherent music fluctuating within the irregularities of variable frequency of the cardiac rhythm, the fleeting pause descending into the pentatonic scales of a violin finding its way into the emptiness of a skipped heartbeat, synchronize the tingling of a body. The words of the heart coiled into the tremulous effect of rapid repetitions coursing through incessant throbbing. The forbearance of the heart melting away in the furnace of lawful decree. Yama, the King of Hell pacifying the cries of Little Insect. The bearded goat at the mercy of the white snake. The seduction of the white snake pitying the fool of the tiger. The pigs and dogs scrambling out of the fear of armed wolves. Amid snarling jackrabbits, the vicious panther pounces on the white tigers; the magical tiger’s whiskers drenched in the reverberations of an anxious heart. The black cat singing melodic, heartbreaking elegies, the feline cries swirling in bereaved hearts. The strings of mao hu(cat fiddle) birthing the opera of life and death, the stubborn ox designing the aesthetic antiquity of death; a rooster crowing at the sight of twin leather straps. The extravagant vocal arias of “….sandal—wood—death, a term with a rough exterior but an aesthetic core, displaying the patina and aura of antiquity”, overriding the myth of humans being reincarnated from animals, the animalistic demeanour of humans dishonourably indulgent than their primal rebirthing mammal souls. Man being worst than animals.


….what is known as “execution” is an art, one that a good man will not do and anyone who is not a good man cannot do. Executioner is an occupation that represents the heart and soul of the Imperial Court. When the calling flourishes, the Imperial Court prospers. But when it languishes, the Imperial Court nears its fated end.

Mo Yan’s graphically meticulous illustration of the execution acts signifies the central stance of the death penalty and the concurrent gory sentencing in China’s Imperial (1900s) political sphere. The piece of blood soaked human flesh quivering in the executioner’s malodorous palm acquaints the reader with the cruel method employed by the codes of criminal law to inflict maximum amount of suffering. Mo Yan’s embellished prose may at times be a graphical hyperbole yet; the elucidated display of harsh rule to install fear of retribution, certainly does not underplay the archives of reality. “The Plenipotentiary wants to know how long the condemned can live after he’s cut in half”. Executions being made more enjoyable than a stage play. ‘Loyalty’, the mocking sentiment only adhering to the bearing of the subordinates confirms the nauseating truth of the burden of law lying solely on the shoulders of a common man.

Is an executioner the dregs of the society? A man at the bottom of the heap? Mo Yan debates the societal hierarchy, grading human existence by classifying stereotypic standards of rank, academia and vocation. The reckless mind-set of the hierarchical superiors towards the lives of those thriving on the margins of the society mapping the foundation of savage reality of societal absurdity pertaining to obsolete-lowly profession at variance with the aristocracy of heritable titles. If there was no executioner to culminate the penalty, then who would carry out the dire job of decapitation? If there was no butcher, then who would put a perfectly cut slice of meat on a decorated plate? If there were no daily workforce, then who would construct the railroads? No job is menial; no job is disgraceful, for all jobs are done by humans meant for their utmost survival. And every trade has its master, its zhuangyuan.

….he was neither a laotaiye nor a yuanwailang—he was the preeminent executioner in the Board of Punishments, a magician with the knife, a peerless decapitator, a man capable of inflicting the cruelest punishments, including some of his own design, a true creative genius…

Zhao Jia was a survivor grabbing every opportune circumstance, the zhuangyuan of the executioners serving for more than four decades at the Board of Punishments. A debt of gratitude released from the humble butcher’s abode, the craft singing the soliloquy of the sandalwood death.


Maoqiang, otherwise known as Cat Opera, is an operatic genre created and developed in Northeast Gaomi Township. The arias are exquisite, the staging unique, the ambience magical; in short, it is the ideal portrayal of life in the township

Meow..Meow…Life’s last opera enthralling the audience with the pomposity of death. A nation in peril, the citizens of Northeast Gaomi forever in revolt, paying the price of being heroic. The commanding policy of Kaiser Wilhelm, the autocracy of Von Ketteler , the operatic songs of mutiny drenched in bloodbaths , Sun Bing , the inheritor of the Maoqiang Opera tradition, a man of prestige among his peers, chose vengeance over the overbeaten virtue of forbearance. Sun Bing, a master performer and a rebellious reformer, rebelled against the German supremacy in China ,the railroads swarmed with the mutinous Boxer Rebellion. Mo Yan depiction of Sun Bing amalgamates the vibrant grandeur of the Opera and the humility of a single erhu retelling the tales of societal subjugation and familial fidelity, chasing the sound and the image of perspicacity and crazed laughter, questioning the validity of the undertaken rebellion. Mo Yan opens each chapter with a sombre aria staging lyrical segments of villain and heroes caught in a lifelong revolutionary opera reciting a resplendent narrative to eager listeners. Sun Bing who acted on the operas stage for most of his life became the spectacular drama himself.

In his exquisite literary pieces, Mo Yan’s treatment to his women protagonist is commendable. Mo Yan’s women irrespective to their muddled sentimentalities and promiscuous play of feminine charm are a potent mixture of fearlessness and empathy.

Having lived up till then among a performing troupe, Meiniang knew all the acrobatic moves for the opera stage, and she had never been schooled in the traditional feminine imperatives of “three obediences”—first to father, then to husband, and finally to son—and the “four virtues” of fidelity, physical charm, propriety, and fine needlework.

Sun Meiniang‘s scheming ways of using her feminine beauty for personal gain, erases the proverbial notion of “happiness” as a spotless sentiment. In a savage land, the virtuous emotion of contentment is soiled by the specks of duplicity. Meiniang’s definition of happiness strikes a balance between physical promiscuity, her undying love for her dieh(father) and the desire to have had the beauty of “lotus feet”. A true gratification in fated circumstance with no moral strings attached.


“Suffering is the road to respectability; danger is the path to prominence onstage.”

In death, the sorrowful cry of the bird oscillates in the benevolence of a dying man. The ordinary citizen, the perennial ‘common man’ swallowing insults and humiliation grasping the vulnerable nonsensical pillars of forbearance and loyalty courts the disaster of annihilation when flouts the authoritative decree. Slowly but sternly, Mo Yan layers complexities of human emotion juxtaposing ironies of tangled relationship and passionate spirit for subsistence in a dramatically charged atmosphere bestowing a humane side to every penned character besieged by their incommodious circumstances and societal status. The magical surrealism of the opera overlapping the savage reality of corporeal punishments and the socio-political ambiguity steeped in the operatic act of immorality and probity. Mo Yan’s protagonists are distinctive role players vacillating in physical and emotional rhythm and rhyme of hunger, passion, desire and bravery. The intricacies of the characters are viewed through a bifocal lens mirroring within the person’s conscience, diminishing the myopic stance of ethics. Qian Ding’s drunken melancholic confession exemplifies the relevant quandary. The fierce melodic opus depicting the stimulus of life and the opulence of death swings in musicality of the modernization and traditionalism chronicles the past and the present. The sorghum rich land of Gaomi Township reeks of sweat, blood, urine, putrefying human flesh and abhorrence of humanity and yet, from these acrid stench emits the sweet fragrance of resilience, devotion, heroism and love for a dignified existence.


The dead are noble, the living worthless….

In the prophetic Maoqiang recitals, Mo Yan raises the imperative question –‘Who is the rightful owner of the titular sagacity of being a dignified individual?’ Those who let go of their virtue of forbearance to seek equitable vengeance or those who bravely accept death penalties entangled within the lawless discrepancies or those whose lives are trampled on the whims and fancies of political supremacy or then those who call themselves the benevolent righteous protectors of the law and the land. Mo Yan chronicles the historical acrobats through an operatic act like narrative configuration, highlighting crucial historical event and figures carving a political dais for an allegorical satire of life and death set during the 1900s China, coursing through the egocentric reign of Empress Dowager Cixi, the intense socio-institutional Wuxu Reform Movement and the influential anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. The political history forms a secondary stratum to this illusory musicality ; political satire infusing elements of dark humour to the problematic conundrum of corruption, Imperial tyranny and the vulnerability of individual lives. Each of the Gaomi residents misplaced a part of their identity in their will to survive. The ordinary lives that go unnoticed throughout the perfidious walks of life, find an eternal glory in the cannibalistic brutality of death. Sardonically, the mislaid beauteous solemnity of the living is ultimately found in the opulence of death.

Recounting this glorious work, Mo Yan articulates –“…it is all about the sound….it was the sound that planted the seed for the novel and drove its creation”. The historical romance of human resilience evoked in the rhythmical timbre through the inimitable chorus of Maoqiang opera; merging the mournful strains of nightly train whistles into the surrealism of enchanted fox fairies, the persistent semblance of sound perforating the consciousness amid the ocular pathways created as annotations of the sound. Subsequently, as Mo Yan plants the “seed of his sounds” in his heart, I lock my eyes onto the soaring sorghum stalks scattering the grains of a valiant Gaomi, my ears affixed on the enthralling prose, I unwearyingly immerse in the “kip..kip..kip” of the rat gnawing into the dark corner, the crackling of the tanned skin with the very first bloody incision , the sharpness of the knife puncturing the smoothness of the glistening flesh, the squeals of the pigs, the shrieks of humans, the melancholic arias piercing through societal ambiguity , the excruciating screams of the dying shuddering the bashful clatter of the living , the creaking of the Yama’s Hoop as it tightens around the chastised skull, the rustle of the blood red sandalwood flowers, the uninterrupted bubbling of the sesame oil soaking the five feet tall purple sandalwood stake, the shrill of the ripped beard, the snipping of queues, the murdering of the soul, the orgasmic happiness of Meiniang, the warm blood dripping onto death’s majestic palanquin, the plonking of the bloody knife after the 500th cut , the dramatic folk operas retelling tales of oppression , the thundering sound of gallantry and human fortitude, the galumphing of destined socio-cultural revolution and the resonance of life, as the Gaomi populace knew it. My palpitations strumming to the beat of Tan xiang xing.

4/5 ****

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