“Heroes of the Marshes” (caomang yingxiong) and – or “Life on the Run” (jianghu liumang)in Moyan-land

In post-1930s Sino-cinematia, the bandit-hoodlum of chuanqi folk literature changes faces and becomes a martial arts expert – better, virtuoso. Without whose presence and performance skills the kungfu film would never have gained its current massive following. Or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger filmed. Or Bruce Lee a first “Chinese” then global sensation.

Of course there never was such a thing as a stock-character tough or hoodlum: the category includes grades of evil running (on the sadistic end) from jailers and torturers wearing heavy silver-studded belts and no shirts, to, on the more sympathetic side, the self-employed freebooter, who tends to make his living by kidnapping and ransom – ideally a bloodless crime victimizing the rich (thus in a sense a punishment for slack patriarchies).

Even more positive is the culture of the wuxia “knight-errant”, whose star seems if anything to be rising as a idealized alternative to the totally amoral world of wealth and power in the new “open” China, where (even if corrupted) class justice had originally offered a degree of resistance to sheer brutality, a culture of greed unstemmed.

But these “takes” are or have been based on abstract, film-enacted roles, and take up tales from wuxia fiction which are ultimately (by intent) surreal or magical.

One of the more remarkable features of Mo Yan’s fictional chronicles is that this modal personality is historically real, not simply the stuff of storytellers: he moves front stage and is anchored within the bounds of a rural underclass occasionally even rising to community organizer in chief This at the same time that the best known of these heroic predators (so-called) were it seems ALWAYS on the run or in hiding, even or especially when they drifted back to the villages that had spawned them. Though that is not as much a contradiction as it might seem: for though brother of the (same) soil could rise further in their native places (where they were best known and respected) than elsewhere, the connectedness of being (back) among neighbors and kin also made them that much more vulnerable to betrayal for cash, or by members of rival gangs or even patrilineages. Mo Yan’s lengthy NE Gaomi chronicles (RSF and BBWH) richly characterize 2 such “star” wanderers-cum-local-heroes: Yu Zhanao (b. ca 1900, place unknown) and Sima Ku (b. ca 1910, Dalan) with seeming admiration for their ability to disappear for very lengthy periods of time (Yu is supposed to have retreated into a family cellar on the eve of the Rev and not re-emerged until 1957).

A Mo Yan (管谟业) Fact and Fiction Gallery

Random pieces from the NE Gaomi Jigsaw puzzle

Since late last year and surely for some time to come, Mo Yan has been and will be a creature known mainly through the literary and Party press, in both “entertainment” and “lit-crit” modalities.

This kind of coverage is famous for distortion, plagiarism, lack of corroboration, and often simply viciousness. As we all know.

But given Mo Yan’s not necessarily humble reticence about his early (pre-1985) days, and in particular about his transformation from a PLA propaganda unit trainee into a Faulkner-influenced dream-narrator in 1985 (but about much else as well, later on), this flow of off-the-cuff material needs to be registered. Though the truth-yield is always low (or worse), there is quite often something of value, a glimpse of soul perhaps not even deliberate or intended.

All the more so since (in my read) a very large element in his (later) “hallucinorealist” style fiction reassembles as self-liberating narrative a host of searing psychological experiences from his first 22 years, all lived in his very very “postage stamp” (微地) sized village community, a community whose history is still largely unrecorded, and doomed to remain so. (It was “moved” and the old lodgings ploughed under in the early 1990s)

Where is N.E. Gaomi?

The “make-believe” postage stamp sized county called “Gaomi NE” appears in Mo Yan’s writings from end 1984, after a quick reading (in Chinese translation) of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), in which that (latter) author launches his “imagined/invented” storyland Yoknapatawpha County, a setting Faulkner created based on Lafayette County, Mississippi. Mo was then enrolled in a (new) literature dept. (program) at the PLA Lib Arts College (grad. 1986), which was at the time playing translation/interpretation catchup with the huge inventory of more or less “new” world fiction – meaning both works published “offshore” after the GPCR shut-down, AND a number of much older overseas works/writers who had been passed over or banned during the “17 years” because rejected by Soviet mainstream critics.

Whatever and whenever the specific inspiration came, there can be no doubt that his home township (Dalan/Ping’an/Shakouzi cun), became the never-never-land of almost all his fiction, starting with Red Sorghum (Mar. 1985 publ.).

Mo Yan’s Folkhistorical Chronicle of NE Gaomi (1) : The (Real-life) Bandit-heroes of Red Sorghum Family

rEsd sorgh collage apr 9 2013

Header Illustrations: (upper right clockwise)
1. 江湖郎中的“祖传神方江湖郎中的“祖传神方
“mountebank” in marketplace, often a guerrilla spy (ditto for street martial arts entertainers and wedding/funeral “escorts”, monks and litter-bearers)
2. Chinese (Daoist) God of Intoxication, Dukang (+/- Bacchus). Sometimes claimed as the inventor of “alcohol”
3. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou Crossing 14-arch Bridge/Qingshakou (roadway)
built 1937-8
4. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou 14-arch Bridge, side view
5. Dukang (“wine god”, vendor’s advertisement)


Folk-history as Dream and Nightmare: Origin of the Red Sorghum Quintet

Mo Yan’s Nobel-crowned success – or impress – as a writer of metafiction (abstract or symbolic philosophical discourse embedded in subjective fictional narrative – my own term) – has moved critical interest away from his first success d’estime, Red Sorghum Family (Taiwan ed. 1988). A work which is unmistakably historically sequenced narrative, as is also its companion novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. (1996). Though the recurrent return to “NE Gaomi” (i.e. Dalan township) – reminiscent of Faulkneresque Yoknapatawpha County- creates and expands a fictional space about which more and more detail accumulates, the sense of intermittent superhumanity and magic embedded in the “NE Gaomi” chronicles drops away with the (clearly defined) mid-life coming-into- adulthood of the subject-narrator, Sima Jintong (GB 459, age “42” upon return to 76-8 Dalan), a place literally ploughed over for the construction of a hideous “new town” of ferroconcrete by typical “Deng” era predator capitalists. Though surreality and grotesqueness – what I shall call “graffiti” realism – persist across the divide (time-in-motion vs time-as-present), and the stageset remains Dalan (fictionalized “Northeast Gaomi County”), a major change in shape nevertheless occurs. Bloodline history simply ceases: the events first capturing attention, starting more or less in 1938 when the tides of guerrilla war first (literally) overflow the terrain, come to an abrupt halt with the 1993 (un-calendered) death of the writer/narrator’s mother, the super-stalwart Shangguan Lu, the novel’s unmistakable (and Christianity-converted) hero. We are at the very end left with a stage populated by two extra-maritally conceived stepbrothers, both fathered by a “Swedish” missionary-priest (Mallory). Leaving the door open to Deng Xiaoping-era capitalists to run wild and eradicate all still extant markers of the town itself.

Mo Yan’s “Big Breasts”: End of the NE Gaomi Folk-history Chronicles and of Patriline Magic

Header Illustration: 晋察冀边区爆炸大王、民兵英雄李勇。影片“地雷战”中的原型人物
Sketch of Li Yong, Partisan Heroine of the Jinchaji (Henan-Chahar-Hebei) Soviet, model for lead character in “Land Mine Warfare” (1962: Bayi studio, dir 唐英奇、徐达、吴健海)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Above, Figs 1a-b
Mo ^Yan, Red Sorghum Family (1984), 狗皮 (tr, Goldblatt) Chapt 4, Strange Death, p. 334. (edited to end p 16 filmclip)

bc305bbef94411e615c241 BrHipcover w priitiv

Above, Fig. 2
(above) Cover Illustration for (1993) “Big Breasts and Wide Hips”

Mo Yan and Flight in Reverse: Chthonic Legend in Red Sorghum


This gallery contains 4 photos.

(preamble): Why Red Sorghum – again. I have recently rewritten the frontispiece for this website: it now focuses on the metatrope of flight. Physical flight upward, seemingly without point of return or safety armature. Something I first noticed in reviewing … Continue reading

The King of Chu bids Farewell – and Moves to Hong Kong (Bawang Bieji, 1993)


This gallery contains 2 photos.

Note to readers: the essay extends an earlier of Oct 12 essay “Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?”. But it is a second go: spurred by the of the ever renewing interest in the suicide of 张国荣 … Continue reading