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Veteran Writer Salutes Tradition in New Works

Penned the traditional way, with a brush and paper and a couplet to headline each chapter, Mo Yan's latest offering, Birth, Death and Fatigue (Shengsi Pilao), honors the tradition of classic Chinese novels.

With a grand structure, vivid narrative, a torrential flow of sharp, rich words, and a style influenced in places by William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the book has been welcomed by China's literary circles.

But the author of Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang) says he does not pin many hopes on his new work, adding that his only wish is that it is different from his previous works.

As one of the most important contemporary Chinese writers, 50-year-old Mo Yan has been quite prolific. Few other Chinese writers are as well-loved. He has published nine novels and over 70 short stories in the past 22 years.

His latest hard work testifies his prolificness. The 550,000-character book was finished in 43 days, breaking the author's own record. For one and half months from last August, Mo Yan slept just three hours every night on average.

While sleeping, he says, half his brain remained awake, and he wove some of his dreams into the novel,

"I feel sorry because I have been too hasty. I am also sorry for writing too much. But it is just like you cannot restrain a child from growing tall, so please forgive me," he says.

It is also the first time the writer has abandoned his computer and returned to a traditional method to be exact, a Chinese brush pen. Mo Yan feels this has taken him back to the long-lost pleasure of writing on paper.

Rural perspective

Like his previous novels, the writer's new book is about rural life, a subject he is very familiar with and very good at.

Like Red Sorghum, the new novel is set in a village in his hometown, the county of Gaomi in east China's Shandong Province.

The title of the novel originates from a Buddhist sutra, which says "all the birth, death and fatigue in the mundane world are caused by greed."

According to Buddhist legends, every being has six lives, and the soul passes into another body after death. This is called samsara, or transmigration.

The book's narrator is Ximen Nao, a landlord. After being executed during China's "land reforms" in the late 1940s, he transmigrates into a different kind of animal at the end of each of his next lives.

In this way, he is witness to the history of rural China between 1950 and 2000, which, according to Mo Yan, centers around the relationship between farmers and the land.

For thousands of years, the Chinese farmer and his land have been "as close as flesh and blood." All the dynastic changes and peasant uprisings in ancient Chinese history were caused by land issues .

In contemporary China, land continues to play a pivotal role. Ownership changes brought along many fundamental changes in human relationships in rural China. Besides, rapid urbanization since the late 1970s has forced many farmers to flee the land of their forefathers.

In Birth, Death and Fatigue, Mo Yan underlines this deep and subtle relationship between farmers and the land.

"Without land, farmers are like rootless duckweed floating aimlessly on water," says Mo Yan.

His novel follows the varying fortunes of Lan Jiefang, Ximen Jinlong and Lan Lian characters who represent the typical Chinese farmers.

"Although I have lived in Beijing for 20 years now, I have never regarded the city as my home. My hometown is Gaomi, a place I seldom return to but still know pretty well," he says.

"I have great concern for my fellow farmers living there. The feeling is not just one of commiseration. I am inseparable from them," he added.

Besides a satirical tone, fantastic occurrences and an imaginative narrative framework, vivid descriptions of bloody scenes are a trademark of earlier Mo Yan's works.

But such instances are rare in Birth, Death and Fatigue.

However, the writer denies that he is trying to cater to readers' tastes, saying he makes adjustments only to fit the subject.

Earnest author

Nobody can accuse Mo Yan of thinking small. In his previous works, as well as in his latest offering, he has tackled China's tumultuous past century with a mix of magical realism and sharp-eyed satire.

"All my writings," the writer admits, "are dominated by two kinds of emotion: the hatred towards the Japanese aggression of China and the deepest commiseration for Chinese farmers."

He uses a series of metaphors to describe his definition of a good novel: "A truly great novel does not roll about on the ground like a pet to please, neither does it bark like a hyena. Instead it is a whale, roaming in solitude and breathing deeply."

And this defines Mo Yan's expectations from his own work, a standard he strives to meet.

Over the past few years, China's literary circles have witnessed the trend of "shorter" novels. The novels published are much shorter compared with those published in the past, sometimes only slightly longer than novelettes.

Mo Yan believes this is caused by the fickleness of modern times.

Says Mo Yan in the postscript to his latest work, "Length, density and difficulty are three symbols that distinguish novels from short stories. They are also the dignity of this great writing style. We cannot make novels shorter, shallower and vulgar to cater to those readers who do not understand destiny and tribulation."

Titled Defend the Dignity of Novels, Li's piece goes on to explain why Birth, Death and Fatigue is a salute to the grand tradition of classic novels in ancient China.

First, the novel's form. It is in "zhanghui style," a type of traditional Chinese novel divided into several chapters. Each chapter is headed by a couplet giving one the gist of its contents.

"Zhanghui style" was widely used in ancient China, but has gradually disappeared since the early 20th century. By using the antiquated style of narrative, Mo Yan says he was trying to seek inspiration from ancient novels and folk culture and to interest modern readers in ancient Chinese novels.

But more important to critic Li is the novel's spiritual core loyalty to the Chinese experience and above all, Chinese farmers.

(China Daily January 26, 2006)

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