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Mo Yan: 红高粱家族 (Red Sorghum)

This book was first published in serial form, in five sections, in 1986, and appeared in its full form in 1987. It is perhaps Mo Yan’s most famous novel, both in China and in the West, not least because of the successful film. It tells the story of four generations of a family, though focussing on the middle two generations, primarily from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The story is told by the fourth generation son, who is not named. It is set in Northeast Gaomi Township, based on Dalan Township, Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s home town. Much of the action takes place during the Japanese occupation of China and describes the resistance of the Chinese to the Japanese. It is not told in chronological order but jumps backwards and forwards.

As the narrator is the fourth generation, he tends to refer to the characters by his relationship to them. Thus the two main characters are often called merely Grandma and Grandfather. Grandma was called Little Nine by her original father (this will be explained) while her name was Dai Fenglian. Grandfather was known variously as Commander Yu and Yu Zhan’ao. The narrator’s father, son of Grandma and Grandfather, was called Douguan. These three are the main characters of the novel.

The key early event in the lives of Grandma and Grandfather is, of course, their meeting. Grandma has been told that she was to marry Shan Bianlang, son of the richest man in the village, who had made his money from a sorghum distillery. She had not met him but had heard grim things about him, particularly that he was a leper. In accordance with tradition, she was carried to the Shan family house in a covered sedan.

This was still the period when women’s feet were bound to keep them small and, in China at that time, small feet were considered highly erotic. Accordingly, the sedan was held up by the local bandit and one of the sedan carriers, Yu Zhan’ao, grandfather-to-be, took advantage of the distraction to stake a claim. Once the bandit was despatched, which he was – his dead body left to rot – the sedan continued its journey to the Shans. Grandma’s worst fears were realised when she met her intended. However, she was married but, in accordance with tradition, she returned home after the wedding for three days.

While she was away, her husband and father-in-law were murdered (we later learn who was responsible and why) so, when she returned, she was already a widow, but not a disappointed widow. The local magistrate ruled that, as she was the surviving widow, it was she who inherited the wine factory. Grandma was a tough lady and soon took charge, despite her young age.

Yu comes to her to ask for a job and is given it but only a job, despite the fact that they had already done the phoenix dance in the sorghum field and (though she did not yet know) she was pregnant with the narrator’s father. Yu, however, soon moves into the bedroom. Meanwhile, Magistrate Cao had adopted her as his daughter and she essentiality fires her real father.

We follow their life together which is by no means without its problems. Both go off with other partners for a while. After single-handedly disposing of the bandit Spotted Neck and his men, Yu becomes a bandit, in an era when banditry was common.

Things change when the Japanese arrive. They build a highway to the village and, to do so, take the donkeys of the villagers and force the men to work on their road. Not surprisingly, the villagers do not take kindly to this, in particular Uncle Arbut. Uncle Arbut resists, is imprisoned and then escapes. He is caught and his fate is distinctly unpleasant.

Meanwhile, various groups have been set up to resist the Japanese, one led by Yu and the other two led by Pocky Leng and Little Foot Jiang, respectively. Unfortunately, the three groups seem to hate each other as much as they hate the Japanese. Much of the book is filled with the story of the ambushing of the Japanese by Yu’s group, (sort of) aided by Leng and Jiang, which ends up in a (sort of) victory but with a heavy price to pay, not least because the Japanese send in reinforcements. In-between fighting the Japanese, the three groups fight each other.

A brief description of this nature cannot begin to show the great detail and colour of the Mo Yan’s story, as we follow the various movements of the different troops and the key individuals. Indeed, he writes it almost as though it is a film. The cliché action-packed is very apposite here. All of this is mixed in with the other stories, which also include Grandma’s funeral which like her wedding procession, is hijacked, this time by the troops of Pocky Leng and Little Foot Jiang, ending up in a glorious fight.

And the Communists and Nationalists who were fighting each other as well as the Japanese?

‘What would you say if the Communists were in charge?’
Granddad snorted contemptuously out of one nostril.
‘How about the Nationalists?’
He snorted out of the other nostril

Mo Yan tells a wonderful story about a very colourful family who have their own ways and who are not afraid to fight anyone who stands in their way. Banditry is seen as a way of life and one is that often admired,not least because the law is either lacking or corrupt.

There is one other key character I have not mentioned, except in the title, and that is the sorghum. It provides their livelihood, in the form of food and drink. It provides shelter for them from the enemy (though, of course, shelter for the enemy as well). It is where the narrator’s father is conceived. It also acts as a symbol, its steadfastness and resistance symbolising the staunch resistance of the Chinese. Wind, rain, flooding, the Japanese – all of these and more attack the sorghum but, at the end, it is till there, gently blowing in the wind and growing again.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by Liberation Army Literature and Art Publishing House
First published in English 1992 by Heinemann
Translated by Howard Goldblatt