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Mo Yan: 檀香刑 (Sandalwood Death)

Mo Yan has gone back in time (to the beginning of the twentieth century, the time of the Boxer Rebellion), though not in place, as we are still in his home town, Northeast Gaomi Township. Our heroine is Mrs Zhao, also known by her maiden name Sun Meiniang. Her husband is the local butcher, Zhao Xiaojia. He seems to be a highly competent butcher but not very bright and naive in other areas. She is a very beautiful woman and it is not initially clear why she chose to marry him but all is explained later.

Meiniang has been having an affair with the local magistrate, Qian Ding, of which her husband seems to be remarkably ignorant. She claims that she has helped his career and, indeed, he would not be magistrate without her. Two key things happen at the beginning of the novel. The Germans have been in partial occupation of the area for a while and have been behaving in a very high-handed manner. They are building a railway. Meiniang’s father, Sun Bing, had led a rebellion against them, killing twenty-three. As a result, on orders of the governor, he has been arrested by Qian Ding and locked up. He is certain to be executed. Meiniang is now trying to get him released though Qian Ding refuses to see her.

The second key event is the arrival of Zhao Jia, her father-in-law. He has turned up out of the blue – Meiniang had never met him before – and has come to stay with with his son and daughter-in-law in his retirement. He seems to be well-off, which is an advantage, but naturally requires some looking after. Meiniang is not too happy with the idea.

While we are learning about the rebellion and the actions of Sun Bing, a former opera singer, we are following Meiniang’s attempts to help her father. She is also learning more about her father-in-law’s history. She discovers, to her surprise, that he used to be an executioner, indeed one of the foremost executioners in the country, working for the Emperor and his wife, with whom he was on good terms. We learn how he rose from being a nobody to this exalted position and we are given some fairly gruesome accounts of the things he did. Indeed, Mo Yan seems to very much enjoy his rags-to-riches story but also describing in great and gory details some of the executions he carried out, many of which were not simple beheadings (the usual method) but very horrible, long drawn-out tortures, both to discourage others from committing similar crimes or because the crimes were deemed a great insult to the Emperor and/or his wife.

Meiniang realises that she can enlist Zhao Jia’s help, particularly when Qian Ding sends men to bring him in and they are sent away and told that Qian Ding must visit him. When Qian Ding does visit him, he is very much put in his place and ends up kowtowing. Zhou Jia tells his daughter that her father is certain to be executed for what he did but that he himself will do the execution so that Sun Bing will die a glorious death. Meanwhile, Zhou Jia is trying to persuade his son to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an executioner.

Much of the book is the back stories relating to the main characters and the key events that have been briefly outlined at the beginning. We learn how Meiniang met and had a affair with Qian Ding and how and why she met her husband and married him. We learn about Qian Ding’s uncle Qian Xiongfei and the horrible fate that befell him. We learn in detail while the drunken reprobate opera singer, Sun Bing, became a revolutionary and of his previous run-ins with authority. We learn of the cruelty of the Germans but also of the Emperor and Governor as well as of how the Germans steal the souls of the Chinese. We also learn how the authorities invariably side with the Germans against their own people.

Two key events take up a large part of the book. Firstly there is the battle (perhaps war might be a more accurate term) between the Germans (sometimes aided by the Chinese authorities) and the local Chinese. The actual fighting starts when a German assaults Sun Bing’s wife but the high-handedness of the Germans has certainly not helped. the locals are also very critical of the railway. Firstly, their land has been taken, generally without compensation. Secondly the railway has damaged the feng shui of the area.

The second key event is the activity leading up to the planned execution of Sun Bing, including various attempts to save him from death and the reactions and views of various parties: Germans, Chinese authorities and the ordinary Chinese people.

Mo Yan tells a superb story as always, with lots of back stories and considerable detail about the main stories. He very much wears his heart on his sleeve, damning at every opportunity the evil Germans and the evil Chinese authorities, while siding with the ordinary people. He does not over-romanticise the ordinary people, showing their faults and foibles but he does also show them as individuals, each with their own characters and not as an amorphous mass, as the Germans and Chinese authorities see them. Virtually everyone takes one side or the other but there is one man with something of a troubled conscience and that is Qian Ding. He tries to carry out his orders to the best of his ability, knowing full well that, if he does not, he will likely lose his job and may lose his life. Nevertheless, he is troubled by the behaviour of the Germans and troubled by the planned execution of Sun Bing and tries to prevent or, at least, mitigate both.

However, there is one down side to this novel and that is that it is really brutal. Mo Yan gives very detailed and graphic accounts of the various tortures carried out by Zhao Jia and his colleagues. Zhao Jia is a perfectionist and when he is given a task he carries it out, not thinking of his unfortunate victim but of just doing his job to the best of his ability. While he is not really a hero – Mo Yan does sort of condemn him – nevertheless Mo Yan seems to have a grudging admiration for him. The only comparison I can think of is Gene Wolfe‘s The Book of the New Sun series, where the hero is a torturer.

If you asked me what this novel was about, I would say the conflict between the people and their oppressors. However, when Mo Yan was asked, he said it was about sound. He said, for him, there were two key sounds: the sound of the local opera (Sun Bing is part of an opera troupe and we get quotes from an opera they have written as the heading of each chapter) and the sound of the railway. I do not really see it myself. Though the railway plays a role, we barely see (or hear) it. Whatever it is about, it is a fine novel, except for the gruesome bits.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Zuo jia chu ban she
First published in English 2012 by University of Oklahoma Press
Translated by Howard Goldblatt