Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

resd-sorghumMo Yan is not quite the toast of the writing community west of China. When the Nobel Prize for Literature went his way in 2012, it was deemed a ‘catastrophe’, a ‘betrayal’ and an ‘ominous signal’ by the fraternity, including his compatriots in exile. His language has been found ‘diseased’ and ‘banal’, his authority that of a stooge and a ‘party hack’.

Then there are those who have likened Mo Yan to Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The Swedish Academy sees in him an author “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

The credit for Mo Yan’s introduction to the English speaking world, one may daresay to the Nobel pedestal, goes squarely to Howard Goldblatt, his translator and ardent supporter, whose transcriptions are allegedly ‘superior to the original’. Red Sorghum was the first of Mo Yan’s works translated by Goldblatt in 1993.

Red Sorghum is a chronicle of blights and massacres unleashed by the Japanese forces on the peasantry of Northeast Gaomi Province during the second Sino-Japanese War. The story is spun around a ruthless bandit-cum-guerrilla Yu Zhan’ao and his wife Dai, referred to as Granddad and Grandma by the narrator. Douguan, or ‘father’, is their lovechild who also figures prominently as a witness and a participant in many of the events. The story shuffles back and forth in time, dwelling on anecdotes that shape and emphasize the personas of Granddad and Grandma. Yu Zhan’ao braces brutal confrontations both with Japanese soldiers and local warlords armed to teeth.

Grandma’s parents marry her off to a leper when she is sixteen for the promise of a mule from the family of a rich wine distiller. At the time, Granddad was a bearer in a company that moved coffins and bridal sedan chairs to their destinations. Granddad had already initiated himself in the profession of killing by settling scores with his mother’s monk lover, by then. As it happens, he is one of the bearers of Grandma’s sedan chair that is carried amidst intermittent music and banter through the vast plains. They are waylaid by a bandit who robs the musicians and the bearers and tries to kidnap Grandma. Granddad rises to the occasion and batters the highwayman to a gory death. The incident sows seeds of love in the two young hearts. Soon, Granddad murders her leper husband and his father; the ownership of the distillery falls in Grandma’s hands and they start living together.

The quiet village life is pulverised when the Japanese rout the hinterland with unbridled barbarism. All able-bodied men and cattle are rounded up in make-shift labour camps for constructing highways. Dissidents are brutally chopped off bit by bit and flayed alive. Women are raped en masse, children are hoisted on bayonets. Dogs have a never-ending party feasting on the corpses.

Commander Yu Zhan’ao musters the leftover villagers to launch a guerrilla outfit. He plans to ambush a Japanese convoy due to pass the Jiao-Ping highway. They are betrayed by Detachment Leader Leng who had promised to spring a surprise on the Japanese from the southern end. Although Grandpa’s suicidal guerrillas manage to shoot down the Japanese, they are decimated in the skirmish. Grandma receives fatal bullet wounds while carrying food for the fighters.

It is impossible to ignore the shimmering sea of blood red sorghum inundating the fields of the Northeast Gaomi province.  It is the driving force of the peasant’s lives, lurking close to their smiles, tears, sorrows, fears, hunger and anger. It sways with their passions, tumbles with their slaughters, sings with their joys and mourns at their funerals. It provides them food for subsistence, wine for leisure, ointment for wounds, cover from the enemies and shrouds for the dead. It resembles their tears, their piss, their puss and their blood. Red sorghum is an overpowering, elemental force to the villagers, bandits and guerrilla fighters, a super-conscience that moulds the thoughts and influences the actions of the protagonists.

 Mo Yan is an absolute storyteller, unbothered with plots and climaxes to beckon the reader.  Rather than building up peaks, he dwells on drama and detail of the moment, squeezing the last ounce of juice from the anecdotes to captivate. Fates are often foretold in perfunctory manner; death and devastation are declared long before they take place. He keeps alluding to such ends as if to put an aura, a halo of sorts, about the protagonists and incidents. Eventually, he zooms in on the alluded scene, unleashing a graphic, unbridled, minute-by-minute description, pouring in illusions, myths, beliefs, customs, passion, violence, blood, bodily fluids, maggots, death and sorghum.

He spares no weapon in his armoury to arouse maximum emotions. Heads explode into dark red paste. Gooey green eyes pop out of sculls. Dogs feed hungrily on hundreds of putrefying corpses. A nauseated girl vomits smelly green stuff in her bridal sedan chair. A decomposed body is banged around in a coffin. The stench permeates the river, air and the sky and the sorghum.  He seems to be obsessed with violent deaths, slaughters, suppurations and putrefactions. Vivid, animated description of a character being dismembered and flayed alive may test the endurance of many a reader.

Mo Yan intermixes recurrent morbid imagery with passion and humour. The abiding love between Grandma and Grandpa, the unflinching filial bond Douguan feels towards his parents, and the loyalty of peasants towards the motherland suffuse the storyline amidst the grease and grime of war and retribution.

“Swing your sabre at the heads of Japs!
The sorghum is red, the Japs come from the east.”

 Mo Yan uses wry humour and stinging parody for trivialising long established customs and institutions. We are witness to Solomon-like jurisprudence of Magistrate Cao in one incident but in the very next he is reduced to a clown who scampers for dear life. Referring to the custom of foot-binding of girls, he says, “Even a pock-faced witch is assured of marriage if she has tiny bound feet, but no one wants a girl with large unbound feet, even if she has the face of an immortal….Throughout our long history, the delicate pointed tips of women’s feet have been viewed as genital organs, in a way, from which men have derived a sort of aesthetic pleasure that sets their sexual juices flowing.”

 Describing Grandma’s bridal carriage, he says, “The inside of the sedan chair was badly worn and terribly dirty, like a coffin; it had already embraced countless other brides, now long dead. The walls were festooned with yellow silk so filthy it oozed grease, and of the five flies caught inside, three buzzed over her head while the other two rested on the curtain before her, rubbing their bright eyes with black stick like legs.”

Mo Yan’s writing seems geared to please the peasantry and the proletariat. He has a series of messages to deliver, historic, socialist and philosophical, deftly woven into the stories. He will often talk of rectums and farts to cater to the coarser ears. But he is perfectly capable of soulful strains that force the readers to sit up and take note. “Over decades that seem but a moment in time, lines of scarlet figures shuttled among the sorghum stalks to weave a vast human tapestry. They killed, they looted, and they defended their country in a valiant, stirring ballet that makes us unfilial descendants who now occupy the land pale by comparison.”

It is not surprising then that the voice of Mo Yan the moralist rises above the cacophony of the peasants, bandits, guerrillas and the omniscient narrator, once in a while.  “I sometimes think that there is a link between the decline in humanity and the increase in prosperity and comfort. Property and comfort are what people seek, but the costs to character are often terrifying.”  Reflecting on the chasm between the city and village life, he says, “There are, it appears, two separate human races, each evolving in accordance with its own value system. What frightens me is that my eyes, too, have taken on that crafty look, and that I have begun to utter only the words that others have spoken, themselves repeating the words of still others. Have I no voice of my own?”

Mo Yan, whose name literally means ‘Don’t Speak’, has certainly spoken, and left his mark.

Red Sorghum
Author: Mo Yan
Translator: Howard Goldblatt
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 378


  1. Having gone through the half , I reckoned its not my stuff. Too much killing and violence. Nevertheless your writing skills are commendable. Your narration almost compelled me to go looking for it on flipkart.

  2. I have read only one book by a writer to win a high literary award – My name in red – Orhan Pamuk – his way of storytelling was too good to ignore and revealed the crux at the beginning of the story. The current book seems to be like that except it’s heavily borrowed from ‘The walking dead’ types. Would try after the current read.

  3. Thanks for a wonderful review. I recently read his collection of short stories, “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh” and was impressed even though some of the stories are weaker than the others.

    His novel, “Life and Death are Wearing me Out” is even more uneven. It is impressive in its sweep and details about life in China during the cultural revolution. However, he tends to get carried away by his own words and gets into long and unnecessary detours. There is also too much of himself as well as repetition. More when I finish reading it.

    Despite his failings, Mo Yan has been a delight to discover.

    1. There is no denying the sweep of his microscopic focus. He does tend to phiolosphise and preach every now and then. Yet, he is thoroughly entertaining, as you say. Good luck with his other works!

  4. Nicely done…I just saw the book on display at the local University Bookstore and will read it soon. Your review carried weight! Thank you.

  5. The writer may be a master story teller but the brief snippet about his Grandma’s carriage is not very enticing for me. Honestly, violence and gore do not interest me. However, the review is brilliant, as always.

  6. I, too, felt that this was not the book for me but, as ever, you capture the mood of the book so brilliantly.

  7. Interesting. I somehow always find myself interested in literature related to China. Thought this again seems darkly narrated. Someone like Pearl S Buck I guess can soften even dark events for the reader/

  8. I am not a big fan of books set in an era and the violence has put me off. But the review really covers lot of interesting aspects.

  9. US, loved your narration. Could get a complete feel of the book by your excellent rendition of the subject and I realize probably not my cup of tea. I wonder whether you have had a chance to read Shogun by James Clavell. I liked that one inspite of the violence.

  10. Wow ! This is just what I would want to read. You know it reminds me of two films – “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Nanking” .. As usual your review is perfect !

    1. Finally, I manage to sell red sorghum to someone! Life is not all bright and bubbly. It is grim and bitter too. Lest we forget, books like these keep poking at our conscience. I will be looking out for those two books you have mentioned.

  11. Mo Yan may be controversial and some of the criticisms may well be true but he is not a lightweight by any measure. In a world where every second man or woman claims to be a writer, this Chinese author has spewed some compelling stuff.

  12. I have been enjoying your blog and have nominated you for a Liebster award. You can find the details on my site, Good Golly Miss Molly…Congratulations…

  13. An expansive review US,
    Obviously a violent book for violent times. Certainly no love lost between Japan & China. I guess that still continues @ the world’s peril, with India right there of course.

    I liked the quote “I sometimes think that there is a link between the decline in humanity and the increase in prosperity and comfort.” Have often wondered about that myself.
    Cheers, ic

    1. Your observation is apt, IC. No wonder the Chinese distrust of Japanese is deep. Unfortunately, they seem to be harbouring warlike sentiments against neighbours like India too.

      There is more brooding like the one you liked.

  14. I read another one of his books where he was totally obsessed with pee. He is very powerful, though, and it’s wrong to say he didn’t deserve the prize.

  15. Great review Uma! I am sure he is a great storyteller, even trust his honesty for his authenticity of the cruelty he reveals through his tales, but I am not sure if I ever get chance to read his words. I watched the movie, though it was said one of greatest contemporary Chinese movies, I found it’s not for me, too brutal and barbarous.

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