Mo Yan’s “Graffiti Realism” and Metamorphobic Fantasy

It has been pointed out that reductive caricature – the naming of characters by out-of-the-ordinary (usually undignified) physical attributes or the attrbutes’ metamorphoses into free-floating body parts – regularly swallows up the human actors in Mo Yan’s fiction. A tag of eccentricity (what unusual attributes of clothing, complexion, height, etc. associate with a character’s initial appearance?) comes to stand in for the persona, as it were, “behind” them.

This can at first pass be seen as no more harmful than a means of establishing a character’s identity within a blurred and alien and pressingly overpopulated village/commune world (or one so perceived by the writer); as such it seems cousin to the more-or-less harmless teasing of the nickname, the monicker that a not terribly self-conscious interloper might accept and even re-broadcast. (The “Unicorn” in BBWH for example).

Thus in Frogs, Dec. 2009 (commentary by Yinde Zhang):

“The given names of the characters, …nearly always refer to a part of their body, Chen the Nose (Chen Bi 陳鼻), Wang the Liver (Wang Gan 王肝), Xiao (father 肖上唇) = Xiao Upper Lip, Xiao son =
Xiao Lower Lip (Xiao Xiachun 肖下唇)….”

(Yinde Zhang, China Perspectives, 2011/4, p. 60 The Biopolitical Novel: Some Reflections on Mo Yan Frogs

But this is no recent digression: it turns up in one of his first works (1981, much earlier) Minjian yinyue where we encounter
Lame Fang 6, “Pocky” (pockmarked) Du Shuang, and “Yellow Eyes” Huang Yan (fn) https://asianimperialisms.com/2013/03/22/aboriginality-as-icon-of-a-crisis-in-lineage-pedigree-and-male-potency/10/

This stretching – and diminishing – of identifying perception by the superimposition of an isolated and normally non- referenced body part attachment (moustache, nose) or deformity (acne, smallpox scars etc) is of course a universal attribute of the very long-lineaged genre of satire, in which regard it is (at least) cruel but still not meant to terrify: in “inclusive” satire it somehow transforms into engaging playfulness. (Children of course play/play at this double-faced badinage all the time).

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