Whether you think Mo Yan is too close to the Chinese government to be getting such a prestigious award as the Nobel Prize for Literature, or you think Mo can’t help living under an authoritarian regime and shouldn’t be criticized for making necessary compromises, no-one is denying that the man can write, and write well (he did, after all, just win a Nobel Prize). If you’ve never read any of Mo’s work, this list should help you get started.
Mo’s first novel to be translated into English, Red Sorghum was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 1988. Set in rural China, Mo interweaves the stories of three generations of the same family, beginning in the 1930s with the Japanese invasion and continuing through the end of WWII and into the Chinese Civil War. Mo contrasts Japanese atrocities and the staggering horror of civil war with the beautiful Chinese landscape and a yearning for peace.
The Garlic Ballads
The farmers of Paradise County led an unchanging existence for generations, until the Communist government instructed them to begin growing garlic. When selling the crop proves difficult, warehouses begin to overflow and a surplus means farmers can only watch in horror as the garlic rots in the fields. Government officials become frustrated and maltreatment and random incarceration is common. A blind minstrel incites the masses to take the law into their own hands, with savage and unforgettable consequences.
The Republic of Wine
There are rumours that locals in the province known as the ‘Republic of Wine’ are engaging in cannibalism. Special investigator Ding Gou’er is sent to learn the truth, but soon finds himself in over his head. Mo Yan sends up the Chinese preoccupation with food, drink, and sex even as he daringly explores the nature of his country’s political structure. The author also interweaves the main plot with correspondence, purportedly between himself and a doctoral candidate in “Liquor Studies”, which examine the intersection of art and politics in China’s Communist society.
Big Breasts and Wide Hips
The novel that transformed Mo from relatively well-known writer into literary darling; nominated for both the Kiriyama Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize, Big Breasts and Wide Hips forms an intimate portrait of life for women in a society steeped in patriarchy. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900. Married at 17 into the Shangguan family, she has nine children, only one of whom is a boy, the narrator of the book, a spoiled and ineffectual child who stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings. Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman, who risks her life to save the lives of several of her children and grandchildren. Set across several decades, Mo examines the key events of the Chinese 20th-century, from the Japanese invasion to the Cultural Revolution and post-Mao China.
Life and Death are Wearing Me Out
Ximen Nao is known amongst the peasants in his area as a man of great generosity and kindness. However, during Chairman Mao’s Land Reform Movement in 1948, Nao loses not only his land and possessions but also his life. He travels to hell, where the kind of the underworld, Lord Yama, tortures him mercilessly to try and make him admit that he deserved execution, but to no avail. Frustrated with Nao’s obstinacy, Lord Yama allows him to return to earth, to his own farm, reborn first as a donkey, then an ox, pig, dog, monkey, and finally the big-headed boy Lan Qiansui. Through the eyes of his various incarnations, Nao narrates fifty years of modern Chinese history, his spellbinding story exemplifying why Mo Yan has earned the title of “China’s Franz Kafka”.