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Life after death
By Joy Lu (HK Edition)
Updated: 2008-10-07 07:01

It was the early 60s. Like most rural communities on the mainland, the village Mo Yan was born in was caught up in the fervor of the People's Commune. But a farmer surnamed Lan refused to join in.

For obstinately clinging to his family plot, the farmer became an object of contempt and loathing. Four decades later, Mo still recalled vividly the desolate sight of Lan pushing a cart: "He was pushing a wooden-wheeled cart that was no longer being used. A lame donkey was pulling in the front and his foot-bound wife was driving the cart which squeaked sharply, leaving deep marks on the dirt road outside a school."


Mo Yan at the presentation ceremony of the Second Dream of the Red Chamber Award. Edmond Tang

His family decided they had had enough and left him, but the farmer refused to give in. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and cruel persecution ensued, he hanged himself.

Lan Lian is the main character in Mo's novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. The novel has recently won the Second Dream of the Red Chamber Award, a Chinese novel award set up by Hong Kong Baptist University's Faculty of Arts in 2005.

Mo said he had been longing to write about this stubborn peasant, "especially after the People's Communes disintegrated in the 1980s. The land was allotted to individual households and farmers became peasants again."

The child who had thrown stones at Lan now sees him as a heroic nonconformist: "This is an extraordinary person who sticks to his belief, even if it means he is standing against the whole society and has to defend it with death," Mo said.

A metamorphosis

Life and Death documents the changes of a rural commune in Mo Yan's hometown of Gaomi, Shandong province.

The story starts with the reincarnation of Ximen Nao, a landlord who was killed at the onset of the Land Reform, when farms were taken from the rich and given to the poor. He was reborn as a donkey to the family of Lan Lian, a former tenant. The donkey then reincarnated as an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey and eventually a human baby, each having a connection with Lan's family and paralleling a historical period.

Harvard University literature professor David Wang Der-wei compared the book to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. "Change is the theme of the book, a metaphor for China's contemporary history."

Life and Death was praised for its wild imagination, passionate writing and closely-knitted details. Earning wide acclaim is the arrangement that makes the reincarnated animals the main narrators.

The touch of magic-realism came to Mo during a 2005 visit to a Buddhist temple, where he saw a mural on Samsara, or the six realms of existence in the cycle of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is a familiar concept in rural China. "If a lamb was born in the same hour of a person's death, people would talk about reincarnation," Mo said.

Superstitious as it sounds, Mo said he did believe it when he was young. "It's the atmosphere of the countryside... Our village didn't have electricity supply until the 1980s. After 9 pm, the place would become completely dark and all kinds of ghosts and demons seemed to lurk."

Rice complex

Today's Mo no longer believes in ghosts. But his rural roots are evident, in and outside the novel.

The writer was born to a family of farmers in 1955. He only finished primary education but self-studied the used textbooks of his elder brother when he was not helping on the farm.

Mo read extensively after he joined the army in 1976 with the help of a fellow soldier's fiance who happened to be a librarian. Later Mo staffed a small army library himself. He began writing in 1981.

Mo was better known in the West as the author of Red Sorghum, a novella that was adapted into an eponymous movie directed by Zhang Yimou.

His real name is Guan Moye, while his pen name - Mo Yan - means "don't talk".

As a child, he was often admonished by his parents for talking too much, Mo said. It was the era of "class struggle" and a person could get into great trouble for advertently saying something wrong.

But rather than political struggle, it was the famine during the Great Leap Forward period (1958-61) that was deeply burned into his memory.

"If I could, I would use the HK$300,000 prize of the Dream of Red Chamber award to buy rice," Mo said. It's not entirely a joke.


Cover of Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. Courtesy of Mo Yan

A young writer, "not a very good one", had once asked Mo to write a preface for his book, Mo said. Mo didn't want to. But one day, the young writer brought him two sacks of best quality rice, from the young writer hometown. Mo was moved, by the gift only a farmer would appreciate.

He wrote the preface. The story spread and Mo had since received many sacks of gift rice. But the rice often had to be thrown away because Mo's family couldn't consume it in time. "What a pity," Mo said, with true regret.

"China doesn't have much arable land in the first place. To make things worse, cities are expanding so fast these days." Mo said.

Urbanization is one of the subjects of Life and Death. Farmers in the book who leave their land are lost, confused and sad.

Reviewers saw much social criticism in Mo's work, because of its realistic nature. But Mo said sometimes his books were interpreted too politically.

One would easily relate the big-headed baby in Life and Death to the poisonous milk powder incident. But Mo said that Ximen Nao's reincarnation in the 21st century is intended as a symbol of the new generation that does nothing but talk and criticize.

His goal is to create a character that is lifelike. Such as Lan Lian, which was inspired by Mo's fellow villager surnamed Lan.

(HK Edition 10/07/2008 page4)