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Mo Yan: 蛙 (Frog)

As usual for Mo Yan, this novel is set in the small town of Northeast Gaomi Township, based on Dalan Township, Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s home town. This novel deals with the then contentious issue of family planning and birth control. The narrator is Wan Zu, also known as Xiaopiao and as Tadpole (hence, in part, the title of the book). We follow him from childhood to adulthood but, in particular, we follow his aunt Wan Zin, known to everyone as Gugu.

Gugu is a midwife and a very good one by all accounts. Gugu’s father was Wan Liufu, a very respected doctor. She wants to follow in his footsteps. She attends medical school and qualifies as a midwife, using modern methods. Gugu forged an unbreakable bond with the sacred work of obstetrics.

Up to then, much of the midwifery had been carried out by older women using traditional and often unsafe methods. Gugu took to midwifery and medicine immediately. All she had to do was lay her hands on a sick person for that illness to retreat at least 70 per cent. Gugu came close to being deified by the women in our township.

Wan Zu is the second child she delivers. Most of the children in the town are named after a body part (Zu = foot). She will go on to deliver hundreds more babies. During that period in the mid-late 1950s, the economy was booming and Gugu was kept busy, not only delivering babies but also driving out the old-fashioned midwives, who did not know what they were doing. Things got worse in the 1960s. Indeed, there is a famine, with some people reduced to eating coal. As a result of the famine both the men and women are too weak to produce babies and Gugu has hardly any work. However, the economy improves and she is back in business.

Gugu may have been a success at midwifery but her romantic life is non-existent, till she meets an air force pilot. However, when he defects to Taiwan (with his plane), she is arrested. She is exonerated but the rest of her love life is equally unsatisfactory, even though she eventually marries later in life.

Much of the story is about the Chinese family planning laws. The basic law states that couples could have only one child but, if their child was a girl, they could try again. If the second one was a girl, they could try once more and then no more. Not surprisingly, many couples do not approve of this.

Guru was not only a first-class obstetrician, she was also a keen supporter of the family planning laws and a keen supporter of the Chinese Communist Party. Much of the book is how the local people try to outwit her and the family planning laws and how she tries to outwit those people who are flouting the family planning laws. Gugu is ruthless in her pursuit of transgressors, even against Wang Renmei, wife of her nephew and our narrator.

Sometimes her intransigence leads to tragedy but she insists she is only obeying the laws. She is attacked on numerous occasions, but to no avail. We also learn about how the people find ways around the policy, sometimes successfully, often not.

Though the focus is on Gugu, we also follow Wan Zu’s relatively uneventful life, as a successful military man, as a husband (twice) and a father, and always a nephew to Gugu. Like many people from his town and his country, not having a son gives him a certain sadness, and even he considers ways round the rules. Indeed, the latter part of the book goes into this in more detail.

The last part of the book is the play he has written. The book takes the form of a long letter to Sugitani Akihito, whom he addresses by the Japanese title of sensei. Why he is writing to Sugitani Akihito is explained. In his letter, he has explained that he always intended to write about Gugu. However, while she certainly does feature in the play (called, of course, Frog), much of the play is about his efforts to father a son.

Given that the overriding topic is the family planning issue, which colours the entire book, this novel tends to be somewhat more serious than his other books. They, of course, have serious elements but are often relieved by humour, in particular slapstick humour. There is a little slapstick humour, except for when pregnant women try to flee Gugu and her family planning militia, but, as it occasionally ends in tragedy, the humour is clearly dark. There is also less mockery of the authorities than we find in his other books

As in his other books, there is a main plot but numerous side stories about the various denizens of the town, some related to the family planning issue and others on other topics. However, Gugu and the family planning issue dominate this book so much that the side stories tend to get lost.

I certainly learned a lot more about the Chinese one child policy and while I understand the rationale for it, I can fully see why couples did their best to flout it. Incidently, there is now a two child policy.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Shang hai wen yi chu ban she
First published in English 2014 by Hamish Hamilton
Translated by Howard Goldblatt