(GB “Republic of Wine), 1992, may be regarded as Mo Yan’s first venture into the tradition of Swiftian satiric travel-allegory, though (as ever) no advertisement of this kinship appears anywhere. The structure is that of a journey to and back out of a never-never-land insulated from conventional norms and outside scrutiny. As perhaps a reference to the Fijian indigenes “discovered” in one or another 18th century “travelogues”, the narrator lands in a “country” where cannibalism is a major – and privileged – entertainment of the Party elite, who feast on carefully prepared “meat children” (routong) at state banquets.
The excursion into a never-land-land has of course a very deep history in Chinese “pulp” fiction of the post-1880s (or perhaps even further back, in Xiyouji or “Monkey”, rerversals (satires) of the clericological travel-narratives sparked by the transfer of Mahayana Buddhism to Tang China.
What is presented is “quasi” caprice hiding under the canopy of reportage, a strategy of epistemological “play” that was both useful and “safe” as a means of popularizing trans-oceanic societies and their hardware (at once miraculous and frightening). “Believe it or not, dear reader… but this was what we have seen…”. All this of course is radical tension with the unambiguous run downs on “why the West is strong” and how to redress the balance (fuguo qiangbing and lifa/lixian) pamphlets – filled with alarm and predictions of doom – that poured in mainly as translations of Japanese reformist tracts.
(A helpful introduction to the whimsical or even sci-fi-like travelogues that poured from the pen of Wang Tao appears in Fogel, ed. Traditions of East Asian Travel, (2006), esp. Emma Jinhua Teng, “The West as a Kingdom of Women: Women and Occidentalism in Wang Tao’s Tales of Travel”. )
So far, “merely” grotesque, or gruesome, though (since the venue is beyond the map- again Swiftian) the claim must be taken as a kind of second-hand rumor, possibly a hallucination or folk-fiction. (Local “peasants” are described as selling their boy children to a Culinary Institute by weight and quality of flesh – but these referents allude to abortion and the (still?) actual sale of children into prostitution or servitude by pauperized peasants – something nervously described in BBWH.
Much closer to the heart of the narrative is the pictorial rendering of the “new” business class. Both victims (the children) and those who corruptly extract profits for this and other exchanges are configured in terms of height, bodily height: actually (seemingly) a correlative of aggressive energy, not of inertia or evasion.
In fact, the central “actor”, Yu Yichi 余一尺 “12 inch Yu -actually 17)”, proprietor 老板 of the “town’s” most successful “new style” businesses 一尺餐厅 (12-inch Tavern) is but one third the height of the average “outsider”, and limits his hiring to (mainly) female dwarfs.