Oh, dear! How embarrassing. I'm afraid I haven't read anything of Mo Yan since Hong Gaoliang (Red Sorghum). So Mike and Sheila are just way ahead of me on this. All I can do is tell "when I..." stories, and that's not going to impress Mike.
When I arrived in China in the early eighties, people were still reading "Scar" lit, that is, books by Chinese intellectuals who went down to the countryside "to learn from the poor and middle peasants" during the cultural revolution and found that they couldn't return to the cities very easily when the cultural revolution were over. They were bitter and angry, and they mostly wrote about how badly treated they were.
Then there were people like Zhang Xianliang, Ah Cheng, Jia Pingwa and Mo Yan, who wrote what I would call anti-scar lit--books about the people left behind, full of recognizably ugly people, hard lives, and black, black humor. People said it was the Chinese equivalent of "magical realism" but I think that was mostly a marketing technique for foreigners; I thought it was much more like late nineteenth century Russian literature: Gogol and Dostoevsky and of course our great master Lu Xun. I was in my twenties and hitch-hiking around a lot of the places where this stuff was being written, and it was the literature I loved. But many Chinese, including my close friends and of course the Chinese government, were rather hostile to it, both because it was so well-received abroad and because it had so little in common with the kind of thing people wanted to read about in China.
In my very small way, I was part of it too. I translated stories by my friends Liu Fei and Tang Min (whose father was a revolutionary hero from Shandong, the same area as Mo Yan). One of the stories ("The Mysterious Miasma of Taimu Shan", which is in my first book "In Search of China") was very close to the one you read about in Garlic Ballads, but it was about jasmine tea rather than garlic and the hero is pressed to death in a rice threshing machine and then reincarnated as a cow. Unfortunately, Tang Min didn't change the names at all, so the relatives of the villain sued her and she went to prison for a year. I had to leave China for a while too.
Looking back on it, I think Mo Yan is absolutely right. We should have changed the names, both to protect the real people left behind and to achieve the kind of historical indeterminacy that Mo Yan is so good at. It's true that some of the actual freshness of the writing is caused by translation, but that's hardly his fault, nor is it limited to Chinese writing (I like to think that some of Tang Min's brilliance was my translation, but I can only sustain this illusion by not re-reading what I wrote).
I think that a lot of the complaints about Mo Yan from westerners are simply reflections of the fact that the cold war is over, and bourgeois intellectuals everywhere seem to believe that just because THEIR ideology is the only one left standing we are living in some kind of a post-ideological era. Everybody in China knows there is a "dissident industry", and that it's easy to get money from gullible foreigners by mouthing the phrases they like to use. Nobody takes that sort of thing seriously, least of all the people who actually do it.
Now the game is to see how close you can actually get to telling your patrons right to their faces that you are milking them without cutting off the dairy supply. Ai Weiwei has gotten pretty close, but not as close as some painters I know.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
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