Book Review Mo Yan’s ‘Red Sorghum’

by Dr. Rohan

H. Wickramasinghe

It is somewhat banal to observe that there is considerable interest in this country in publications on the economy, politics and scientific and technological advances in the modern Peoples’ Republic of China. However, it is likely that it is mostly well-heeled literati who have more than a passing acquaintance with authors other than, for instance, Edgar Snow (‘Red Star over China’), Pearl S. Buck (‘The Good Earth’) and Joseph Needham (‘Science and Civilisation in China’), who have contributed to the literature relating to that country. This is a pity since there is a vast amount of material to explore (for instance, 128,800 new titles of books are said to have appeared in the PRC in 2005 alone).

Recent developments in the literary field in China have so far resulted in the award of Nobel Prizes in Literature to Gao Xingjian in 2000 and Mo Yan in 2012. (Although Pearl Buck, daughter of a missionary in China, was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, this is not considered a ‘Chinese’ award. She was born in the U.S., where she was also resident in the year that the award was announced.) Interestingly, both Gao and Mo gave their Nobel Lectures in the Chinese language. A brief account relating to the award of December 2012 to Mo Yan follows:

"Mo Yan" is a pen name meaning "Don’t speak" used by Guan Moye, who was born on 17 February 1955 in Shandong Province of northern China. (The pen name is attributable to his talkativeness, which distressed his illiterate mother, who wished him to be more taciturn. Mo Yan’s occupation immediately after leaving elementary school at the age of 12 years was herding cattle and sheep. He sometimes lay on a grassy river bank watching the clouds in the blue sky and dreaming. He was later educated in the army.) His works are located around Northeast Gaomi Township of that Province, where he grew up and which was occupied by Japan when it invaded around 1937 to 1940. This invasion took place within the years (1927 to 1950) of the civil war in China. ‘Red Sorghum’ develops fictional accounts in this era of fighting between Chinese and Japanese forces, as well as of encounters between opposing Chinese factions. The political instability and poverty in Shandong in that era contrast sharply with the affluence of that province today.

The jury for the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature recognises Mo Yan ‘who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary’. Among the works with which the reading public are most familiar are ‘Red Sorghum’ (1987), ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ (1996) and ‘The Garlic Ballads’ (1988). Another notable work of Mo Yan is ‘The Republic of Wine’ (1992). Much of his work has been translated and published in Japan and France, as well, so he has a considerable international following.

The principal work associated with Mo Yan is perhaps ‘Red Sorghum’. In his Nobel Lecture, Mo Yan observed ‘No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true in times like this’. This is very true as regards ‘Red Sorghum’ which, while being beautifully constructed, has passages and recounts incidents, which can best be described as graphic, brutal and gruesome. This brings to mind the observation of Esther Tyldesley of the University of Edinburgh in the ‘Introduction’ to ‘Collins Chinese Dictionary’ (2005) that Chinese is ‘an absorbing and intriguing language, which can express both brutal frankness and extreme delicacy’. The version this reviewer used no doubt owes much to the erudition of the University of Notre Dame Professor Howard Goldblatt, who was responsible for the English translation. The publication of the book was followed by an Oscar-nominated film of the same name, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, and won awards at several international film festivals.

‘Red Sorghum’ describes a three generation story of a family in the Shandong countryside in the 1930s. Gruesome events are graphically described including the skinning alive of a Chinese villager on the orders of a Japanese officer. Rapes and killings are described as well as incidents such as the offering in marriage of a young woman to a leper, whose father offered a sought after dowry of a big black mule.

An account is given of large packs of starving domestic dogs who have turned feral under these wartime conditions and attack human beings. By contrast, in one incident a group of militia wears the skins of dogs in order not to arouse suspicions when advancing on adversaries.

Interspersed with and to some extent softening the brutality is the frequent use of colours in descriptions of nature. These include the red of fields of sorghum and sunsets, green waters, sapphire-blue skies, grey-purple nights, fiery red foxes, white eels, greenish crabs and black tadpoles. Descriptions of various odours also find a place in the text.

An interesting account is given of the manufacture of ‘sorghum wine’ liquor by a distillation process different to that of the methods used for arrack or whisky. The enterprise plays an important part in the tale and it is perhaps significant that Mo Yan states that ‘People who are strangers to liquor are incapable of talking about literature’. (Shandong province is a major producer of wine today; 40% of the grape wine output of the PRC.)

The structure of the story incorporates frequent flashbacks to events in the history of the three generations of the family. Consequently, the tale is not light reading; it is perhaps in an endeavour to focus on the thread of the story that the words ‘red sorghum’ may appear at least once and sometimes more frequently on nearly every page. This tale of three generations closes with an account of the red sorghum of the fields being replaced by a hybrid lush green variety brought from Hainan Island.

In conclusion, it may be said that ‘Red Sorghum’ is a fascinating and intriguingly written work but is not for the squeamish. Caveat emptor.

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