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)

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).

Mo Yan’s “Republic of Wine”: Satiric Allegory of Deng Era Liberalization or Confessions of a Nightmare Dreamer

an age of pygmiesJiuguo, or “Liquorland”

(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.

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)

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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”

Red Lanterns Raised, Singers Hung, Ghosts Rampant


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Introduction. “Hang High the Red Lanterns”. 1991. Zhang Yimou, dir. We all have seen the film, a few the 2003 ballet, probably fewer still worked our way through the original (Chinese-langage) novella by 苏童 妻妾成群 “Wife and Concubines in Contest” … Continue reading

Opera Behind Opera I: Song At Midnight (1937)


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(head-plates: Left : Puccini, Tosca, Finale, Cavaradossi’s Firing Squad Execution (Tosca stage left in red: the “chorus”) Right Song Danping’s Singing/performing 热血 (“the impetuous”) in flashback of 1916 – his own chorus Sometimes the way the same scene is redevised … Continue reading

Dancing Murder in Color 武松杀嫂 The Slaughter of Pan Jinlian (“Interlude” Drama 折子戲)

My highly unorthodox chapter head will I am sure bring down the scholarly indignation of all Sinologues upon my dillettant head “what do do you mean “interludes”- no such thing in the sense of clear separation from main text”.

I stick with the misnaming however, for a purpose”: to help accentuate what the “enfold” was meant to do.

According to the various online dictionaries, the correct translation of the genre zhezixi is “famous extract” or “highlight episode” folded into one or another longer narratives (remember that where time and cast was available, performances of full-scale stage-dramas could last 3 or more days, perhaps even beyond the stamina of the Bayreuth pilgrims. They were not the same thing as (our) interludes, eruptions of fun to lighten the mental strain of the retelling of canonical works speaking (retailing) often in translation from the Italian or French) the ballads of the troubadors (Trovatari, Meistersingern) of the pre-print age. As much as did the singers of the seemingly endless line of Orfeo operas need a breather from their recitatifs. Enough already..).

The Interlude proper in Renaissance stage works was rather “play” or “game” (ludi) free from structure, open to improvisation, especially in “ballet” – balls/masques, dressups, even occasions for persons of noble rank to try their terpsichordian skils (always applauded). Later, “The Death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, as an internal diversion within MSND, pushed the”play”-let to the point of slapstick and bawdiness,which over time births the minstrel show then “musical”, then the backdoor musical.

The hard-to-traslate “enfolded playlet” was nothing of the sort: written in the manner, perhaps, of chapter summaries by the very same scribe(s) who created (re-created) the zillion-chapter main texts (printed for salacious readers)their tone was if anything more tense and evocative than the main chaptered text.

The ‘special scene’ while an extract and highlight, does not pick up the nuance of “jumping-out-of the vernacular shuobai”. nor could it if vortices of enraged or extreme emotion, spilling over into wild (hysterical) speech and gesture, is the dramatic effect that sets these lacunae apart from predictable a diction. Wu Song’s horrifying butchering of”Golden Lotus” is no highlighted painting”: it is rather a flight into intemperate madness – the essence of opera, terror and irratioanality.

Qu’est-ce que c’est La Grand Opera? Purquoi Grand? (reflections on no particular performance)


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Illustrations of the Operatic Crisis of Approaching Death, Impulsive Death-dealing and after Death: Daumier et al. 1. Daumier Le melodrame 2. ibid. In the Orchestra = Orchestra Seats 3 ibid. The Uprising, a “symbol of all pent up human indignation.” … Continue reading

Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?


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 PEKING OPERA IN CHEN KAIGE’S FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE In FMC, traditional music and performance modes, much more than in Shangai Ttriad, are treated as objects for investigation – as topics to be dissected from afar by objective narrative rather than … Continue reading