Tag Archive | Mo Yan

Radish: (China Penguin Special) – Mo Yan

Radish: China Penguin Special

 

The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

The chorus of a bare back fills the barren land,
Dew laden leaves recite lore of a superhuman,
The blistered belly nestled near a dimly lit fire,
Bare-chested and barefooted, he was detached,
Crisp voice descending in silence, apathy his attire,
In waves of a lush reverie, a respite he seeks,
Nature’s feeble lullaby, in harshness of his life.

The auburn ducks snicker, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!
The auburn ducks snicker, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!

Witnesses the fertile soil, long miseries of a boy,
Bears the purple sweet potatoes, the pinch of hunger,
Crouched between tossed radishes, a fallen fingernail,
The guilt of theft, abandoned in the burning coals,
In tongues of fires, melancholic arias prevail,
The old blacksmith’s song pushing chords of joy,
Resting on the anvil, the golden radish, radiates,
Mysteries of life scattered in slivers of faith.

The vegetable patch whisper,” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The vegetable patch whisper,” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

Agriculture without its irrigation, a motherless child,
A mother’s breast with no milk, a deadly fright,
Hundreds of labourers toil, chisels hastens,
The allegorical mother claiming loyal lives,
In the obscure womb lie the Commune’s whims,
Opened floodgates dragging the human plight,

The cold white stones hum, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The cold white stones hum, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

In glory of socialism, the man eats,
In glory of socialism, the man marches,
In glory of socialism, the man barters,
Human virtue, an imperfect bastard child,
Immorality surges, in human sacrifices,
In glory of socialism, the graves reek,
In glory of socialism, mankind gets bartered.

Ardently Mo Yan pens, ” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
Ardently Mo Yan pens, ” Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

A mason, a woman and a blacksmith,
Lust of love indebted to the fallen irises,
Hungered the red jacket, the scent of a crimson scarf
Youthful love, caressing kisses, hearts writhe,
In a meadowlark call, the secret alarms,
Bleeding love redeemed in a sunlit radish.

The two bloody gouges scream, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”
The two bloody gouges scream, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!”

Swan-like, he stretched his neck, standing,
The hem of his coat touching the wiry thighs,
Like a fat-headed catfish on feet, he strolled,
On the banks of the river, golden rainbow afloat,
Desires of a sunlit radish, sown in hazy sighs,
The falling rays of the autumn sun, verbalize,
A doleful tale of a fragile heart in a benumbed abode.

The golden radish chimes, “Hei-hai!! Hei-hai!!
The golden radish chimes, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!

Only if,
He had the warmth of a mother’s breast
Love had not perished in the black earth,
Had not the radish lie hid in the river mists
Had not the hammer been his inheritance,
Had not humanity sprout callous tentacles,
Had humanity sheltered his naked fears,
Had childhood walked the a euphoric path,
The rustling leaves wiping the trickling tears

The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!”
The silken jute stalks sing, “Hei-hai !! Hei-hai!!”

4/5 ****

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 ****

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out – Mo Yan

 Lifeand Death are Wearing Me Out
Rides the fierce Lord Yama( God of death) to his somber destination, robustly plopped on the back of a water buffalo, waiting to pick the departed soul from the face of the earth. In the quest between Heaven and Hell, the soul lingers in the probability of its verdict. The shimmering blue skin contrasting the black hide of the animal becomes a petrifying vision. “Pray, pray from the heart, so the soul finds a place in heaven.”. The words of my grandfather keep ringing in my ears as I see Ximen Nao pleading in front of Lord Yama. A silent prayer subconsciously leaves my mouth at the sight of every passing funeral, even today, always. But, will my heartfelt words truly expunge the “sins” of the departed stranger on the final journey? Reincarnation, does the concept even find a genuine standing beyond its mythical realms? Heaven and Hell; does it even exist? If there is such a thing as “God of Death”, then why do tyrannical humans play the coveted role with such panache? Hell is right here on this very earth that at times makes death seem heavenly. Heaven is right here, residing within the tapered corners of a hellish life. Was my grandfather unaware of this perception when he used to tell me tales of reincarnation and the mortal sins that human souls are compelled to compensate? Or was his aware of it? The cawing of the crow becomes louder barging in my stream of thoughts. I angrily shoo it away, only to realize that later this year there will come a day on which I will be gazing deep into the crow’s eyes to question the proof of my grandparent’s soul residing within the bird, while it pecks into the 5-course meal that I shall offer on my window sill.

Human Chronicles


“This is not a personal hatred. This is class hatred.”

Man. Woman. Society prevails. Rich. Poor. Caste. Class. Societal segregation. Is it worth, the divisive techniques of human cataloging? To be born in higher or lower class is not a felony; the pre-meditated crime committed on the powerless is punishable. The hurricane of simmering wrath that brings along the arrogance of the newly anointed masters sweeping away grievances, does it then halt to classify between the good and the bad? The fine line trembling between in the roaring domains of justice and injustice is ruthlessly crushed in the race to gain “class martyrdom”. Ironically, humans corrupt freedom in the course of gaining autonomy. The dreams of a narcissistic egalitarianism are nurtured on the tombs of genuine ones. In the game of the oppressor becoming the oppressed and vice-versa, where does true martyrdom lies and in whose mausoleum? Fates are altered; dreams are disseminated from the communicative daises to create a fair and just society. To kill in order to gain, is this a fair and just society? And who eventually decides its staunch verdict? To be born with a silver spoon in a landlord class was Ximen Nao’s sin. Having two concubines and several impoverished peasants working under him his grave offense. Ximen Nao was neither a saint nor a sinner. Ximen Nao was a human being wrongly prosecuted. His only blunder was that he did not recognize the beginning and end of the love and hate cycle. Ximen Nao was a stranger to a world beyond riches. The Agrarian Land Reform (1950) prosecuted more thousands of landlords and as the burgeoning class war reached to its highest magnitude, it awarded the peasants back their land and animals while annihilating the class of landlord. The ideology of class hatred brought along with it viciousness and stringent prejudices that were carried through decade-long angst , eventually seeped into the lives of Lan Lian, Ximen Bai, Yingchun , Wu Qiuxiang and the Ximen progenies ; agonizing their already troubled lives. The revolution bequeathed the power to slaughter the discarded. With the onset of Communism as Hong Taiyue became a revolutionary martyr, the melodious sounds of an ox bone became louder and Lan Lian’s blue birthmark a shade darker.


“I’ve said it before. The only way I’ll join the commune is if Mao Zedong orders me too.”

Lan Lian, the inimitable “white crow” was not only China’s sole independent farmer but also the country’s lone hero. Submerged in the Communist mantra of “mine is yours and yours in mine”, the commune overpowered the very freedom of ownership that it once bestowed its beloved ‘peasant classes’. In the war of collectivism v/s independent, Lan Lian stood tall battling against every argumentative vulgarity and irrationality that was thrown at him by his comrades and family members. The hypocritical luminosity of the national and county bureaucracy glowed brighter than the gloomy moonlight that saw an obstinate yet, heroic man toil on his meager 1.6 acres land with his beloved “Blackie”, blissful in the fruits of his true ownership. The screams of joining the Commune deafened amid the dense sorghum stalks. To truthfully own a piece of land during the reign of People’s Commune was more precious than the virility quintessence within the horns of an ox.


“We are youth born in the era of Mao Zedong and though we have no choice in who we are born as, we do have a choice in which path to take.”

Ximen Jinlong in his survival through China’s most turbulent historical times becomes the momentous caricature of every child born and every adolescent that grew amongst the political upheaval that span for several decades. Jinlong’s predicament of adhering to the Lan v/s Ximen class battle was a reservoir for his futuristic incalculably ambitious goals. Over the course of the five-decade long socio-political pandemonium, China’s youth that births in various discordant circumstances become victims to their very own creations. Then be it Jiefang’s poignant persuasive ideologies in the battle between collectivism and independence, Kaifang, Ximen Huan and Fenghuang’s muddled lives or the irremediable anguish of Huzhu that bled more profusely than the throbbing capillaries in Hezuo’s fleshy long hair. The children of Mao’s era were forever lost in the hostilities of love and hate, disintegrating not only under their individual internal conflicts, but also those that were passed along through their parental and societal lineage. The proposal of a surrogate love was as susceptible as the prosthetic leg, for in the end both would be ravaged by famished stomachs amid a humanity drought.

Animal Chronicles


“When I was reborn as a donkey, I was reminded of Ximen Nao’s grievances and when I was reborn as an ox I was reminded of the injustice he suffered.”

Holding on to his inbred aggression and suffering without which his long lost earth would be worthless, Ximen Nao , once the revered landlord finds himself on a journey through several birthing canals of a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey as he travels through each of his chosen ranks of the animal kingdom moving closer with each step to the human territory . The enlightening expedition that witnesses Ximen Nao going through series of animal reincarnation, spans over 50 years commencing from the primitive bucolic landscape to the industrial new age rising on the periphery of a celebratory millennium. Through the humble eyes of the donkey, Ximen Nao excruciatingly views the aftermath of the crimes stemming from his lineage. He discovers the true meaning of love, but not without paying a bitter price for it. Through the trauma and the miseries of his loved ones, Ximen Nao concludes that the injustice he suffered as a human refuse to give in even to his woes of an animal. Life is inequitable and if humans are blinded by supremacy and hold on to fraudulent paths in torturing their own species, who would give a damn to those lowly animals. Through the strength of an ox, Ximen Nao stood by his most devoted “adoptive” son (Lan Lian) and the moralistic dignity that he seemed to have overlooked as human, implements through the heartbreaking yet laudable existence of an ox. Along with Lan Lian, Ximen Donkey and Ximen Ox become glowing symbols of integrity and loyalty in a place where betrayal and egocentricity was universal.


“Every pig born is a cannon shell fired into the stronghold of the imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries. . . .”

“Mate for the revolutions”; “Bring benefits to people” slogans painted while alcoholic pigs paraded on the stage for the glorious dream of the Ximen Village Production Brigade Apricot Garden Pig Farm –a flourishing enterprise of New China. Pigs were essential in combat for if war ever came they would rescue the hungry soldiers with their meat. Ximen Pig, Diao Xiaosan and the numerous residences of the ‘Apricot Garden Pig Farm’ were a profitable business model to appease the whims and fancies of the most honoured revolutionaries of Gaomi County. No matter how much a pig rebels, ultimately in the battle against human v/s. scourge of pigs, the latter becomes a decaying carcass thrown by a filled stomach because even with the grandiose preferential treatment, a pig is still a pig and Ximen Pig a filthy and shameful part of the society. Why do animals strike people? Why do they rebel in their own obstinate ways? Have you ever wondered? Did Xu Bao envision the excruciating pain of the animal when he delightfully enjoyed his meal of freshly cut gonads? How would humans feel if they were castrated? How would humans feel if their faces were painted, bodies dowsed with tinted slogans and paraded on the stage as a combat enterprise for the betterment of the revolution? Oh, wait! Humans were no less than animals too. They were humiliated when their dignity and spirit of survival was castrated by the prejudicial soldiers of Commune. Their faces were indeed dowsed with red paint when they rebelled against the present authorities. Akin to the piglets that were used for gastronomic purposes, the minds of naive children were butchered by tyrannical “revolutionaries”. In the process of creating structure to humankind, man had turned animalistic. And they thought that the mongrel did not know any better, when Ximen Dog was dancing and singing at the Tianhua Square.


“The enemy is in the light, we’re in the dark. We see what we want to see, we can see them, but they can’t see us.”

Class warfare has been a constant sight in the existence of any boisterous civilization. The venom of class conflict and prejudices has trickled into the animal kingdom. The donkey having an aversion to the ostracized bastard mules , the pinkish Ximen Pig’s dismissal of the scrawny black boar and the acceptance by Ximen Dog for being a mere mongrel are striking examples that exhibits societal discrimination and the suffrage for being on the weaker end of the meted differential treatment. Albeit the societal class-strata, one is compelled to ask, how come when humans boasts of their species being of the highest order in evolution and degrade the lifestyles of mere animals, they themselves resort to their primal aggressiveness and animalistic traits making the rhesus monkey appear much more civilized than the very humans who tarnish their own civilization?

Life and Death Wears me Out


“Everything that comes from the earth shall return to it….”

Mo Yan is back with his self-depreciating mockery. But, unlike in The Republic of Wine, Mo Yan here is supposedly an ugly reincarnation of Lord Yama’s secretary whose obnoxious and prying demeanor makes him one of the worst Ximen Village citizens. Nevertheless don’t be fooled by this buffoonery as this is one of Mo Yan’s powerful works. Akin to his character’s proficiency of being a supreme wordsmith, Mo Yan artistically weaves a five decade political and historical panoramic view of the Chinese society through its trials and tribulations in the course of the Mao and post-Mao era. Every living being, be it human or animal or even the reddish-orange leaves of the Apricot tree, comes alive in this postmodernist folk-lore that spins a alluring web of magical realism encompassing metaphysical elements with satire, absurdity , simplicity , fantasy , yet keeping the essence of an hellish actuality that a country witnessed with valour. The citizen of Ximen Village thrive in their own insecurities overshadowing their survival; some come out of the sickly sweet abyss only to fall back again and then there are some like Hong Taiyue and Xu Bao who drown in their insanities. Once again, Mo Yan staying true to his literary spectacle carves heroes, cowards, loyalists and revolutionaries from the soil of Gaomi County; sycophancy and integrity oscillating between the pastoral and industrial juggernaut and the people of a metamorphosing China fail to remember where love ends and hatred begins and vice-versa. The cherished “little red flowers” that prided in the heroic chests they were pinned on, returned to the earth from where they had come.


“People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid of their own shadows, in the 1980s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions and in the 1990s they were simply evil.”

In a place, at a time when the vast distance between the extremities of life and death were lessened by human fragility and scornful society; the journey between dawn and dusk was marred by hyper-realistic hotchpotch of heaven and hell. As my eyes were transfixed on to each inked word, my mind wandered through the streets of Ximen Village. Through the rustling of leaves over the Apricot Pig Farm, it searched for Ximen Pig and Diao Xiaosan; the ecstasy of love between Huahua and Naonao; Jinlong’s ambitious words, Hong’s musical ox bone; the moonlight’s ardent follower- Lan Lian,the coquettish triumphs of Qiuxiang , the scrumptious sound of Huzhu frying fitters which would send shivers down Ximen Nao; Huang Hezuo’s miraculous hair; Xu Bao’s bloody hands clutching fresh gonads; the valiant ox and while Jiefang cried for Yingchun, my nomadic mind finally reached in my courtyard. Reincarnation, is it really more than a spiritual myth? I may not believe in its institution, but if I was allowed to be reincarnated who would I come back as? The annoying crow is back and this time I share my piece of succulent watermelon with it and smirk at that cawing bird. While I ponder on my thought, somewhere in Ximen Village , Lan Qiansui gazed into Jiefang’s misty eyes and said:-

“My story begins on January 1, 1950…..”

5/5*****

The Garlic Ballads – Mo Yan

The Garlic Ballads
It’s 3am and there is nothing but darkness around me. Every living soul has slipped into a deep slumber and all there is to hear is the murmur of my breathing. The pillow doesn’t seem to listen to the calls of my weary neck and the tang of crisp garlic slowly creeps into the room as I recollect my early dinner. I never bothered about this tiny pungent bulb until last week. The half- torn smile on the vegetable vendor now bothers me too when I dismiss purchasing his wares. Now, all I can see in this darkness are the ripened blisters on Gao Yang’s feet as he digs in the clammy soil, sweat and mud making a mulch- like wax on his body. The blood that glistens as it leaves Gao Ma’s fresh wounds. I can feel Jinju’s tears and hear little Xinghua cry for her father, running to hold him for one last time. I can hear the musical notes in Zhang Kou’s ballads as the stench of the garlic grows stronger on my fingers. Did I forget to use soap or did I carry the pungent soil of Paradise County to my bed? “I’m not crying…..I’m not crying”, Gao Yang’s words resonate loudly disturbing the silent night.


“If everyone was on top, who would hold them up at the bottom? If everybody went to town for a good time, who would stay home to plant crops? When the old man up there made people, he used different raw materials. The good stuff went for officials…..and whatever left for us peasants, you and me, we’re made up of scraps and we’re lucky to be alive…..”

Are farmers really the scraps of a society? Yes, it seems like it. Doesn’t it? While we close the curtains to prevent the sunlight from interrupting our sleep, there are groups of family members that toil barefoot under the earliest warmth of a sunbeam and when a layer of sunscreen covers our skin, the blazing sun scalds the skin of the farmers gifting them sunburns and callous feet and yet, they toil in those fertile soils to produce the grain that keep us alive. What is a loaf of bread without a grain of wheat? Where does the food on our table stands, without its crop? Then, why are those that give us the prime essence of life are discarded like a bunch of maggot infested garlic stalks? Aren’t having resources of power a pathway to bring goodness in society? Why do people make power seem so evil? Farmers are the building blocks of a country; they produce the principle food that keeps us alive. Can’t we give them the respect they deserve? Are peasants fated to be thriving in poverty? Or is ‘fate’ a silly excuse to envelop the blood-sucking ways of elite parasites. China is an agrarian society- the land of farmers. A preposterous irony as the land becomes a rare property in the farmer’s life. Gao Yang, Gao Ma, the Fang family and the people of Paradise County, even with their shortcomings and imperfections deserved every ounce of respect without being subjected to being mere puppets in the struggle between disparity of power and governmental exploitation.


“People can endure anything”…… “I’m not crying…..I’m not crying…..”

Does the height of resilience magnify when challenged by the limits of rigidity to brutal adversities? Can a naive farmer endure the torture of being a victim of circumstances? Can a young love endure the cruelty carried under a class conflict and prejudices? Can the green and white virginal garlic endure its shameless pimping through the hands of corrupt officers? Can the stomach endure the tormented platter of crawling lice and urine soaked bun?

Mo Yan in this lyrical rural saga explores the lives of ordinary peasants who are subjugated for their impoverished existence and hardships further propelling them into a violent vortex. The pitiful plight of a farmer in the hands of the caustic prevalence of lawlessness. The lives of the Paradise County’s residents solely depended upon the harvesting and selling of the garlic crop. Garlic became the desired gold bars for Paradise County promising a new home to Gao Yang, a new bride to Gao Ma, monetary happiness to the Fang family and a new life for Jinju. As Gao Ma tightly squeezed Jinju’s milky hands and Gao Yang hoped for a better future for his children, Zhang Kou’s ehru assured his neighbors about the prosperous times that would even let the fried mutton forget the onions and embrace the garlic allure. Mo Yan juxtaposes three varied sub-plots against the backdrop of a post-revolutionary era encompassing the naivety of Gao Yang, the passionate love between Gao Ma and Jinju Fang and the rise and fall of the Fang family. The prose is watertight, constantly balancing these sub-plots binding various heterogeneous elements of social mores, arranged marriage, family, love, debauchery, contractual obligation, political anarchy to one homogeneous element- ‘garlic’.


“The people’s hearts are made of steel, but the Law is forge….”

A descendant of the landlord generation, Gao Yang is now a run of the mill farmer, whose only dream is to provide a dignified living to his family and live a debt-free live. True to his name Yang( the Chinese character connotation for ‘sheep’), Gao Yang is politically naive and thus resentfully accepts the incarceration on false grounds and the subsequent police brutality ranging from electric prods and other illegal tactics. Mo Yan when scripting this particular characterization, invested in empathetic tones that views Gao Yang to be the representative of those several peasants who only want to sell their wares and bring food to the table without any external conflicts. Thus, being the primary scapegoats of a flawed governmental justice system.

On the other hand, Fourth Aunt Fang is quite a crude for a mother (ask Jinju) to the point of being tyrannical on the familial front and shamelessly adhering the norms of dishonesty. Aunt Fang becomes the picture of those who go with the flow as long their home is safe from the disastrous flood.


“Everywhere you turn these days someone is trying to cheat us out of something. Anyone who doesn’t cheat back is a fool. If even the government co-op is dishonest, what’s to stop us poor peasant?…….”

But, this attitude changes when at last the flood of betrayal and fatality comes knocking at Aunt Fang’s door.


I’d die for Jinju…..my Jinju…..”

Gao Ma outshines the rest of the characters in this book. Mo Yan gave him the personality of a sturdy stallion that never accepts defeat even when wounded and tries to reach the finish line with poise and valor. A man, who fears nothing but the breaking of his heart and death of his love, stands tall through all his life crises saluting the beaming significance of his name Ma (Chinese element connotation for ‘horse’).


“Is not socialism I hate, it’s you. To you socialism is a mere signboard, but to me it’s a social formation – concrete, not abstract. It’s embedded in public ownership of the means of production and in a system of distribution. Unfortunately, it’s also embodied in a corrupt life like you”……“I hate corrupt officials like you, who under the guise of the flag of the Communist Party destroy its reputation. I hate you……”

Inspired by the 1987 uprising, Mo Yan mainly focuses on the aftermath of the revolt and the events that foremost became one of the many reason of crop rebellion exposes the inadequacies of a functioning body and the tragedy of human truth. In the 1980s, the Chinese government had adapted the ‘Household- responsibility’ policies, whereby the farmers and the government/ county officials were bound under contractual obligation of producing a certain quota of sanctioned crop and the farmers would then be appropriately compensated for their harvest. This also gave the leeway to the farmers of selling their left-over produce in the free market. Although this scheme was widely successful in the agricultural domain, certain lawless element cleverly seeped in sowing the seeds of corruption. The Garlic Ballads revolve around this ideological aspect, where people of Paradise County were urged to grow garlic as their main crop. Nonetheless, their celebratory dance of prosperity was tainted by the economic glut and abundance of taxation penalties that became mandatory with every route taken to sell the crop. Money had become the autocratic king and corruption the ruthless concubine.

Mo Yan illustrates a tangential shift from his other books (Red Sorghum & Wide Hips….), investing mostly on the deplorable lives of the peasants intertwined between the acrid governmental retaliation and jumble of worship and righteousness. It is a harmonious ballad of hallucinatory realism amalgamating into the nauseating odor of decaying pungency where fated lives were trampled under the covetous tyrants emitting the “stink of suffering”.


“Paradise County once produces bold heroic men,
Now we see nothing but flaccid week-kneed cowards,
With furrowed brows and scowling faces:
They sigh and fret before their rotting garlic”

In the days gone by, music was the sole pathway of expressing sorrows and happiness because when truthful words from the mouth are severely punished and the frogs who try to croak are found belly up the very next moment, music/ballads become the only savior of a rickety soul.

The stench of rotting garlic permeated the repulsive atmosphere of anguish and inhumanity. The spicy aroma of the green and white crop infused into every aspect of the survival of the County’s inhabitants. Not only did their bodies reek of garlic but their peace was tainted by its acidity. Garlic becomes the true evil rising above every corrupt official, bloody conflicts, patriarchal tyranny, feminist reforms and above all the lives of the peasants. The braided stalks of garlic compelled a mother to disallow her child to become a part of a sadistic world, it made blindness look like a blessing of God; it criminalized love and created wars among countrymen. The ballads of love and life reeked of garlic spiraling into tragic hopelessness and rebellion mayhem, fate being the only element that scripted the entire narration.

Sleeps in the damp soil sweet as nectar, pungent and crunchy as it grows,
For pork and mutton a blessing in disguise, kowtows a steamy bun in love,
A new house, a new bride, new clothes, promise the heavenly angelic cloves,
Corruption, poverty, treachery, a pot of gold, harvest administrative hoax,
Watering the hopeless drought, broken hearts, hungry faith spewing fireballs,
Ballads of Zhang Kou , weeps the trembling earth as the frogs croak no more
The stink of suffering, bellyful of grievances, lost in threads of regal couture
From hearts of Paradise County garlic, streams the blood of a peasant’s soul.

4/5****

Red Sorghum – Mo Yan

Red Sorghum


“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.

4/5****