A Westerner's Reflection on Mo Yan

By Davis-Undiano, Robert Con | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Westerner's Reflection on Mo Yan


Davis-Undiano, Robert Con, Chinese Literature Today


Since 1986, Mo Yan has gradually been recognized as one of the significant writers in the world-often ranked with Yu Hua and Su Tong as an influential voice in China's post-Cultural Revolution period that started in 1976. He is frequently praised by international critics as the writer of his generation most likely to reach the first rank as "a truly great writer."1 His supporters cite the scope and clarity of his vision, his innovative narratives, especially in the novel, and his remarkable productivity. His translated works in English include Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads, Explosions and Other Stories, The Republic of Wine, Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, along with many other published works in China, including White Dog Swing, Thirteen Steps, Man and Beast, Soaring, Iron Child, The Cure, Love Story, Shen Garden, and Abandoned Child. Among serious writers, his ability to write challenging works that continue to surprise with their quality and variety is stunning.

Given Mo Yan's stature and productivity, I propose that we view him as a possible test case to gauge the depth and quality of Western engagement with Chinese literature. He is only one writer, but Western critics have responded strongly to his work, and how critics and readers react to a major writer is always revealing. A Frenchman in the nineteenth century unhappy about reading Jane Austen and unwilling to read Charles Dickens was probably not open to English literature in any form. I will argue that the Western active appreciation of Mo Yan signals a Western openness to Chinese literature and a deepening engagement with Chinese culture.

I will also argue that Mo Yan's Red Sorghum (1986) is especially valuable for probing the Western response to his work and Chinese literature, owing to the significance of this novel in his production overall, the book's grand scope, and the Western attention that the film Red Sorghum has already brought to the novel. Deeply influenced by reading William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, especially by their creation of large fictional worlds like Yoknapatawpha County and Macondo, Mo Yan views Red Sorghum as part of "a full saga [that] is far from finished," with as many as three sequels still to come.2 Red Sorghum is a large novel with a Tolstoyan scope, and if any sequels appear, it will instantly become one of the grand fictions of our time. Even without sequels, this novel's focus on the Gaomi Township in Shandong Province suggests China's direction as a country-making Gaomi Township, as Howard Goldblatt explains, "a metaphor for China's fate."3 Over time, I believe that this book will be recognized as one of Mo Yan's masterpieces.

My task here is to examine the Western response to this novel, mainly American-based scholarly articles that have addressed this book-its content, form, and vision- since its translation into English by Howard Goldblatt in 1993. Western criticism and interpretation of Mo Yan's work are robust, and I will discuss them in the four areas that George Steiner names as the inevitable difficulties of understanding any literature. 1) First is cultural knowledge, what George Steiner calls a "contingent difficulty" 4-in this case, efforts to unpack and gloss the Chinese cultural and historical contexts of Mo Yan's work. This is cultural information, as Steiner notes, that one could "look up" in history books and references sources. For a Western reader, access to such knowledge is critical in that Western critics and readers often know little outside of European culture. 2) Next are discussions of literary forms that Mo Yan uses, what Steiner calls a "modal difficulty."5 This area would typically include discussions of Mo Yan's version of the novel and short story and how he adapts them for his purposes. 3) Third is what Steiner calls a "tactical difficulty"6-in this case, how Mo Yan deploys narrative to shape his material, probe it, and raise questions. …

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