MO YAN, PEN NAME OF GUAN MOYAN (1956— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

MO YAN, PEN NAME OF GUAN MOYAN (1956— ). Novelist. Born in Gaomi, Shandong Province, Mo Yan received a B.A. from the Literature Department of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Arts and Literature in 1981 and an M.A. from Beijing Normal University. He is undoubtedly one of the most creative and most prolific Chinese writers today. Noted for his magical realist style that takes astonishing, imaginative flights, Mo Yan has acknowledged his debt to Gabriel García Márquez and William Faulkner, whose art invoking the power of a specific locale with its own mystical norms and logic offers Mo inspiring models. In many ways, Mo Yan’s success lies in his extraordinary talent for transforming the crude and earthy into something sublime, through prose just as precise, to achieve a kind of lyric joy that permeates his works. The otherwise disconcerting dichotomy between the sublime and the grotesque is thus obliterated, producing an aesthetic experience that is both uplifting and challenging. Mo Yan’s sensibility is often characterized as grandiose and masculine, for his literary world is filled with larger-than-life heroes who flaunt their primeval personalities. Bawdy language, violent sexual conquests, relentless revenge, and savage behavior all mingle to form epic-scale sagas. Matching his strong themes, his language, with its characteristic intensity and exuberance, cascades downward like a torrential stream mingled with fantastical flights of imagination. Beginning with his first short story, “Touming de hong luobu” (The Translucent Red Carrot), Mo Yan has consistently exhibited an uncanny ability to move at ease in and out of two modes of narrative: the realist and the surrealist. This trademark can be found even in his most realist stories. He continues to push the limits of narrative innovation in his more recent novel Tanxiang xing (Sandalwood Torture) in which he uses a large amount of colloquial expression and rhymed prose, lending the text well to oral recitation. He has a unique style completely his own, easily recognizable.

The most successful of Mo Yan’s works are his historical romances, including Hong gaoliang (Red Sorghum), set during the Sino-Japanese War, Tanxiang xing (Sandalwood Torture), a love story rendered with descriptions of horrific tortures during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and Feng ru fei tun (Big Breasts and Wide Hips), a celebration of the female through the chronicle of the life of a sexually potent, fertile, and wise woman who lives from the end of the Qing to the post-Mao era. Mo Yan is also known for his surrealist novels, such as Jiu guo (Republic of Wine), which pokes fun at the Chinese obsession with food and the “cannibalistic” culture vehemently denounced by Lu Xun 40 years before, Tiantang suantai zhi ge (The Garlic Ballads), set in rural China of the 1980s, when a bumper harvest of garlic precipitates a series of disastrous events, and Sishi yi pao (Forty-one Bombs), a story told by a butcher’s son about growing up in a village and the moral and social problems brought about by modernization and commercialism in contemporary China. Mo Yan extols the primordial forces that, in his opinion, have been suppressed by two thousand years of Confucian civilization. He celebrates the unbridled natural forces within man; he considers the libido the essential drive for survival. His search for a primitive self in the memories of his native Gaomi is thought to be a metaphorical search for the Chinese national spirit. Termed an “explosion of life’s energies,” Mo Yan’s works resonate with the prevalent view held in China that the ancient Chinese race has degenerated, suffocated by layers of restrictions, its blood flow clogged and its life force exhausted. What the Chinese badly need, Mo Yan suggests, is the strong pulses of life, the awakened primordial forces, the “red sorghum,” the “big breasts and wide hips,” in order to rejuvenate itself.

Mo Yan’s most recent book, Shengsi pilao (Fatigue of Life and Death), an examination of the relationship between the peasant and the land, departs from his previous works in that it contains much less violence and is more contemplative. Considered by many as his best work, the story is narrated by a former landlord executed during land reform in 1950. Unwilling to admit that he committed any crime other than being rich, he is reincarnated into various domestic animals who observe up close the changes in his home village during the subsequent 50 years. See also ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE.