Copyright The New Yorker
Issue of 2005-05-09
China, experts agree, is the nation of the future; its immense population, its acrobatic blend of totalitarian controls and booming free enterprise, and the commercial and intellectual success its emigrants have enjoyed in nations from Malaysia to the United States all augur impending global dominance. In literature, however, the Chinese mainland, as far as Western ears go, is pretty quiet. The one Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize (if we don’t count Pearl Buck) was an expatriate Parisian, Gao Xingian. Bookstores, the Times reports, are bustling, but nearly half the purchases consist of textbooks and half the translations are of American books. Meanwhile, American translation of contemporary Chinese fiction appears to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt, the founding editor of Modern Chinese Literature and a professor currently at the University of Notre Dame. Goldblatt’s midwifery has recently given us two novels by mainland authors: “My Life as Emperor,” by Su Tong (Hyperion East; $24.95), and “Big Breasts & Wide Hips,” by Mo Yan (Arcade; $27). Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum,” which Goldblatt translated in 1993, won considerable notice and the hopeful remark from the Chinese-American author Amy Tan that “Mo Yan’s voice will find its way into the heart of the American reader, just as Kundera and García Márquez have.” Well, that’s a tough old heart, and I’m not sure the Chinese are ready to crack it yet.
Su Tong was born in 1963, graduated from Beijing Normal University, and now lives in Nanjing. His novella “Raise the Red Lantern” was made into a film nominated for an Oscar. He is sufficiently at ease in his authorial persona to directly address the reader, explaining:
My Life as Emperor could be considered a pleasure cruise through my inner world. It has long been my wish to penetrate the millennia of China’s history, to transform myself into an old customer at some teahouse on an ancient street in the midst of a kaleidoscopic world with its teeming masses, and soak up the passage of time with my eyes. I am fascinated by classical times. . . . I hope my readers do not approach My Life as Emperor with the idea that it is historical fiction; that is why I have set the novel in no particular time. Identifying allusions and determining the accuracy of events places too great a burden on you and on me. The world of women and the palace intrigues that you will encounter in this novel are but a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds, and nothing more.
The shrugging, dandyish tone is continued by the novel’s hero and narrator, Duanbai, the fifth son of the deceased Emperor, who is unexpectedly named as his successor: “Still a child at fourteen, I could not figure out why I had been chosen to continue the Imperial line.” He had “despised” his father, and his succession is vigorously protested by the imperial concubine Madame Yang, who waves a testamentary edict naming her son, Duanwen, Duanbai’s oldest brother, as emperor. She is bundled off, but declines to commit pro-forma suicide with the six other imperial concubines; retainers chase her down and throttle her with the traditional silk cord, but she hammers on her casket lid and sits up, still waving the edict. The casket is filled with dirt and nailed shut with “nineteen long nails.” This is the first but not the last atrocious example of imperial administration.
Duanbai has been placed on the throne by his grandmother, Madame Huangfu, and his mother, the Empress Dowager, Madame Meng; they sit beside him during his audiences with his ministers and tell him what to say. His own interest focusses on his pet crickets in their cages. Gradually, he realizes that he possesses the power to “obliterate” anything that annoys him. Near where he sleeps there is a Cold Palace, “in the grove of parasol trees,” where concubines discarded by the former Emperor weep at night. Annoyed by the sound, Duanbai secretly instructs the Imperial Executioner to cut off their tongues; when these are brought to him in a “bloody paper packet,” he is struck by their resemblance to “salted pigs’ tongues, which were quite a delicacy.” The crazed servant who tends the palace alchemy cauldron repeatedly says that “the fire is out, and calamity will soon befall the Xie Empire,” and the reader does not doubt it. When General Zheng, “on the western front,” sends an urgent communiqué, the adolescent Emperor tells the messenger, “You give me a headache the way you’re always bringing me this and that. You say the barbarians have broken through our defenses? Well, drive them back to where they came from. How hard can that be?”
As Duanbai ages, he ventures into the lists of both love and war, but with a ruinous ineffectuality. In love with the birdlike Lady Hui, he lets her be persecuted by his mother and grandmother, and by more pragmatic concubines; finally, Lady Hui is driven into prostitution, and when, his own fortunes having taken a downturn, he encounters her he quickly grows disgusted with the “degraded body” of this “once lovely girl who had run beside the Imperial Stream flapping her arms like a bird.” On the battlefield, he stays in bed, “warmed by woolen quilts,” as his chief of staff, Yang Song, urges him to show himself to his troops. When the demoralized troops lose, he orders that the badly wounded Yang Song be killed rather than rescued. The sight of the wounded man, “his face a bloody mess” while his hands are occupied in “trying to keep a length of purple intestine from spilling out,” makes Duanbai vomit. The Emperor is also nauseated by another sight as he ventures out into the troubled Xie Empire—that of a nearly naked boy eating insects in a tree. A guard explains to him:
He’s hungry. There is no more food at home, so he survives on insects. That is what many village people feed on during normal times. When natural disasters occur, after they have fought over insects, the people are forced to eat the bark of trees. . . . And when their hunger becomes intolerable on their way to somewhere, they dig up the clay roadway and use that to fill their bellies. That always kills them.
Theirs is a more merciful death, however, than that inflicted upon a defeated rebel leader, Li Yizhi, by eleven successive tortures ceremoniously called Backward Disrobing Primate, Immortal Rides the Mist, Hollow Out the Eggplant, and so on.
Su Tong’s purpose in relating his combination “pleasure cruise” and “scary dream” must be, in part, an indictment of the imperial system, with its drastic inequities, its elaborate cruelties, its implacable protocols. But the emperor’s narrative has the shallow perspective of a Chinese scroll; it is hard to enter into it. Though the book is not long, the fall of the Xie Empire feels long in coming. Only when it has fallen, and Duanbai is free to wander, in poverty and danger, in pursuit of his ambition to become a tightrope walker in a travelling circus, does the hero become a protagonist in the Western style, defined by aspirations, struggles, and discoveries. The novel turns companionably picaresque. Pushed off the throne after eight years there, Duanbai can suddenly see:
Everywhere I looked, the land was rich and fertile, and everywhere we stopped, we were surrounded by thatched huts lived in by men who farmed and women who weaved. Villages that spoked out in all directions were like a vast tapestry in yellows and greens that spread out ahead on my road to safety. A river, or a muddy road, or a few odd trees separated me from the lives of the common people, yet they were never far away.
“My Life as Emperor” culminates in its biggest bloodbath yet, and the cry of the bullfinch, “Die—Die—Die,” might be its epigraph. Like Voltaire’s “Candide,” this parade of misfortunes ends with a garden, “a weed-infested vegetable garden” in the deserted Bitter Bamboo Monastery on Bitter Bamboo Mountain, and with a doubt cast on palliative human wisdom, represented in this case by Confucius’ “Analects.” Su Tong’s morbid fantasia wears an opaque lacquer of willful elegance. The reader suspects that exceptionally much is lost in translation. In sentences like “I knew then that I had truly fallen into the chrysalis of what transpires between a man and a woman” and “Her lips looked like a dead fish as they nibbled their way up my coiling dragon robe, producing a cheerless soughing sound,” Professor Goldblatt is presumably pursuing the Mandarin text, ideogram by ideogram, but in one like “So it was a certainty that Duanwen was now licking his wounds in the residence of the Western Duke, having found safe haven at last,” the English clichés seem just plain tired.
But Goldblatt’s exertions here are as nothing compared with those in translating Mo Yan. This author, born in 1955 into a peasant family in northern China, sets a groaning table of brutal incident, magic realism, woman-worship, nature description, and far-flung metaphor. The Chinese novel, perhaps, had no Victorian heyday to teach it decorum; certainly both Su Tong and Mo Yan are cheerfully free with the physical details that accompany sex, birth, illness, and violent death. Right at the start of “Big Breasts & Wide Hips,” we are witness to two difficult births, one by the very long-suffering heroine, Shangguan Lu, and the other by a donkey:
The donkey struggled, yellow liquid shot out of its nostrils as its head jerked around and banged on the ground. Down at the other end, amniotic fluid and wet, sticky feces sprayed the area.
As for Mo Yan’s metaphors, they are abundant and hyperactive:
Sima Ting’s persistent shouts floated in the air, like a fly in pursuit of rotting meat, sticking first to the wall, then buzzing over to the donkey’s hide.
My thoughts leaped across and squirmed beneath the white cloud that had so gently covered her and Babbitt. . . . My eyes were like blood-sucking leeches, fastened to her chest.
Pastor Malory flung himself off the bell tower and plummeted like a gigantic bird with broken wings, splattering his brains like so much bird shit when he hit the street below.
The morning winds blew in from the fields, like a wet cat with a glistening carp in its mouth, prowling arrogantly on the sheet-metal roof.
A full-bodied girl to my right had a tender, yellow, budlike extra finger outside the thumb of each hand . . . and those darling little extra digits fluttered over her face like the curly tails of little piglets.
Such surplus energy of figuration attests to, if not greatness, a greatly ambitious reach. Mo Yan here seeks to accommodate in the story of one indestructible woman most of Chinese history from 1900, when Shangguan Lu, first called Lu Xuan’er, is six months old and is hidden in a flour vat while her parents are slain by German forces invading to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, to 1993, when she dies in the care of her only son, Shangguan Jintong, in church during a sermon preached, as it turns out, by the eldest son of her son’s father, a Swedish missionary called Pastor Malory. The dauntless mother (the novel is dedicated to “the spirit of my mother,” and Jintong is its narrator) survives these ninety-three years but is one of the few characters who do; her eight daughters, the various men who have fathered them, her sterile husband, her ferocious mother-in-law, her fellow-villagers in Northeast Gaomi Township—all, with a few exceptions, perish in the waves of war, famine, and Communist enforcement that bathe this hapless land in suffering. So many die that individual deaths register with little more emotion than a hit in a shooting gallery. One piece of pain that does linger in the mind comes when five-year-old Xuan’er’s feet are bound by her aunt:
First she bent the toes back with bamboo strips and wrapped them tightly, wrenching loud squeals of protest from her niece. Then she wrapped the feet tightly with the alum-treated white cloth, one layer after another. Once that was done, she pounded the toes with her wooden mallet. Mother said the pain was like banging her head against the wall.
“Please, not so tight,” Mother beseeched her aunt.
“It’s tight because I love you,” her aunt said with a piercing glare.
As her uncle tells her, “Girls who don’t bind their feet grow up to be big-footed spinsters that nobody wants.” But history undercuts this marital strategy when the Manchu dynasty falls and foot-binding is banned. Xuan’er, sixteen and a beauty, is put on display; her “perfect lotus feet” are derided as “a poisonous legacy of a feudal system” while six young women with unbound feet sing and bounce around, “raising their feet high in the air to show their natural beauty,” and an orthopedic surgeon demonstrates “how the broken bones of bound feet forever altered the shape of the foot.” “A fallen phoenix,” Xuan’er is humbly married off to the feckless son of a female blacksmith, and embarks on a strenuous life of domestic chores and wartime marches on crippled feet. At times, Mo Yan, speaking through Jintong, seems to forget that his heroine is handicapped, so dynamic does he make her, but at others he remembers: “The deep footprints she made in the muddy road with her crippled, once-bound feet were still discernible months later.”
Seven of her daughters are physically sound (the eighth, Shangguan Jintong’s twin, is born blind) but meet unkind fates in the century’s clashing currents. Eldest Sister, Laidi, is forced to marry a crippled mute soldier in the Army of the People’s Republic; Second Sister, Zhaodi, marries a local commander in the antiJapanese forces who later becomes an anti-Communist rebel; Third Sister, Lingdi, daughter of a “peddler of ducklings,” dies trying to fly; Fourth Sister, Xiangdi, becomes a prostitute in order to feed the others; Fifth Sister, Pandi, marries a commissar and, as Ma Ruilian, enjoys an active career in the Communist ranks; Sixth Sister, Niandi, marries an American pilot named Babbitt, who works with the eventually defeated Kuomintang forces; and Seventh Sister, Qiudi, offspring of a rape by four soldiers, volunteers, along the self-sacrificial lines of Fourth Sister, to be sold to a Russian woman.
While growing up, however, the girls did not lack for appreciation by their little brother, who from infancy basks in the “glorious tradition of Shangguan women, with big breasts and wide hips.” We don’t hear much about the hips, but it’s a rare page that fails to mention breasts: they smell of sulfur and lamb; nipples are likened to dates, cherries, and button mushrooms, and drive the narrator to such extravagancies as “slightly upturned nipples as nimble as the mouth of a hedgehog” and “whenever her nipple was aroused, you could hang an oilcan from it.” Jintong admires his mother’s breasts from his little basket; they look to him “like a pair of happy white doves.” He jealously wails at Malory’s amorous attentions to them, until:
She stuck the white doves up under my nose, and I urgently, cruelly grabbed one of their heads with my lips. Big as my mouth was, I wished it were bigger still. . . . I had one of them in my mouth and was grasping the other in my hands. It was a little red-eyed white rabbit, and when I pinched its ear, I felt its frantic heartbeat.
When his twin sister tries to nurse, he claws and kicks at her “until the poor blind thing cried her eyes out”; she survives on a thin gruel. Jintong refuses to be weaned at age seven, and a goat’s teat is substituted, then goat’s milk in a bottle:
So I stuck the yolk-colored rubber nipple into my mouth. Naturally it couldn’t compare with the real things on the tips of Mother’s breasts—hers were love, hers were poetry, hers were the highest realm of heaven and the rich soil under golden waves of wheat.
So impressive and ardent are Jintong’s evocations of nursing’s primal pleasure that this reader was slow to realize that Mo Yan intended our hero to be not a healthily typical male but a case of arrested development. His mother strikes a rare note of maternal complaint when, being beaten by a Red Guard while an intimidated Jintong watches, she cries, “Stand up, my useless son!” Though he does in the end make the disgusting switch to solid food, he never quite makes the switch to real life, running afoul of Mao’s revolution to the tune of fifteen years at a labor reform camp and emerging into post-Mao capitalism to waste several golden opportunities others have provided for him. His one consummated sexual relationship, arranged by his mother, is with Old Jin, the proprietress of a vast recycling station; she is much older than Jintong and has only one breast, but it is a big breast and has some milk in it. However, she wearies of babying him and decrees, “Shangguan Jintong, you’re dog shit that won’t stick to a wall, you’re a dead cat that can’t climb a tree. I want you to get your balls out of here!”
Professor Goldblatt, in his introduction, explains, “In a relentlessly unflattering portrait of his male protagonist, Mo Yan draws attention to what he sees as a regression of the human species and a dilution of the Chinese character.” Amid so much slapstick mayhem and mammary lewdness, this moral risks being lost. What does bear in upon the exhausted reader is the crushing misery of Chinese existence in the last century, which, beginning in the final years of imperial rule, neatly dovetails with the imperial misery portrayed, in a stylized but not implausible manner, in “My Life as Emperor.” Both worlds, ancient and twentieth-century, are stews of slaughter, torture, famine, flood, and, for the peasant masses, brutalizing overwork. Both protagonists are immature weaklings. Nevertheless, unlike many braver and more engaged characters in these fictional annals, they survive to tell their tales. Their wanton weakness and self-absorption, and the natural poetry both are capable of, rebuke the societies that have made life on earth hellish. Bad societies offer no incentive to grow up.
Mo Yan’s portrait of Chinese history has met ire on the mainland. Goldblatt quotes one critic as calling the novel “a sycophantic, shameless work that turns history upside down, fabricates lies, and glorifies the Japanese fascists and the Landlord Restoration Corps.” The Japanese forces, whose invasion is the principal event of “Red Sorghum,” are relatively shadowy in this novel; but even a Western reader insensitive to the fine points of the civil conflict that placed Mao in power must notice that in this book Communist programs and propaganda are played mostly for laughs, and that the most praiseworthy men, the Sima brothers, are associated with the old, bourgeois regime and the Nationalist Army. Mo Yan’s fate is to operate on the edge of official constraints; the novel, nearly a half-million words long as first published in 1996 in China, has undergone trimming and rearrangement right up to this translation, based upon “a further shortened, computer-generated manuscript supplied by the author.” Semi-capitalist China will not replay the censorship game by the same rules as were hammered out in the Soviet Union, but free spirits in China are still short of enjoying free speech.