An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan

Long novels tend to wear out the reader, and this one was no exception. Yet I ended up reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. In the process, I came to not only respect Mo Yan’s talented writing, but also gained a view of China through the second half of the long 20th century. On a side note, it is quite ironical that what is a very long read, took Mo Yan just 42 days to write, that too by hand since he doesn’t use a computer.

Mo Yan’s writing is humorous as he recounts the ups and down of Chinese history–starting with the Revolution on 1st January 1950 and ending the novel on 1st January 2000. It is not only the turn of the millennium but also a time when China firmly and decisively, veered towards a capitalist future.

Mo Yan’s writing is a page turner, as he gallops through a very grim part of China’s recent history. The writing is marked by a humorous, even comical touch. The style is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Especially in the long middle, the narrative is quirky, marked by tangential diversions and exaggeration. While Garcia Marquez’s style came to be known as magical realism, I would term Mo Yan’s as “comic realism” (I couldn’t find the term on Google, so I may claim some originality for coining it!), given the humour with which the novel bustles.

The story revolves around a village landlord, Ximen Nao, who is killed during the Chinese revolution. After his death, the lord of the Nether world, Yama sends Ximen Nao back to earth, where he is subsequently reincarnated as a donkey, an ox a pig, a dog and finally as a monkey. Their lives correspond to the successive phases of Chinese history, spanning over half a century. Through these reincarnated lives Ximen Nao watches with trepidation the death of his wife, his concubines and the birth and lives of the children that he had with the latter. The action is limited by and large to the Ximen village in the Gaomi County where Mo Yan himself grew up.

The interspersing years saw the decimation of landlords, collectivization and the Great Leap Forward when millions died, followed by Mao’s death in 1976, de-collectivization and the eventual turn towards towards capitalism, starting in the 1980s and maturing in the 1990s.

This is how he describes Mao’s death:

On the ninth day of September, an event occurred that was as cataclysmic as a mountain collapsing or the earth opening up. Despite all attempts to save him, your Chairman Mao passed away. I could have, of course, have said our Chairman Mao, but I was a pig at the time, and that would have sounded disrespectful. (page 327)

Nevertheless, after Mao’s death, the pigs are finally free.

After a very long middle that meanders through the years of the Cultural Revolution, collectivization of agriculture followed by de- collectivization during the early Deng Xiaoping years, the novel explores the definitive turn towards capitalism and its ideals- of making money. The party officials, descendants of Ximen, have now gotten rich. While one of them, Jinlong continues to mouth the slogans of the early CPC, he also plans to make the Ximen village a place of leisure and relaxation for the rich.

His brother Lan Jiefang, now a county chief, is smitten by a young girl twenty years his junior- literally and metaphorically, symbolizing the emergence of the “gentrified” apparatchik. For the reader, the novel could not be more delightful than it is at this point. The dreadful middle, always a challenge for both the writer and the reader of a long novel, is now over. One wonders if it is a deliberate ruse to bore and wear out the censors.

Towards the end, the novel becomes more interesting as layers of meaning are revealed. Mo Yan himself appears in the novel, as a “crafty writer.” He has a soft corner for the Lan Jiefang, portrayed as a hero because he renounces his powerful position for his new found love. It is tricky and difficult to make out if Mo Yan is playing tricks to circumvent the censors by deliberately making a hero out of a much older man ditching his wife who supported him in his early years of struggle. This is left ambiguous, and readers must make their own judgement. I am inclined to assume that Mo Yan is playing it both ways, and by retaining the ambiguity, he is also saving his own skin.

Lan Jiefang’s taking a young girl and ditching his wife is reminiscent of Wang Lung, the protagonist in Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth doing something similar when he becomes a rich farmer. In sharp contrast to Wang Lung’s wife O-lan, Lan Jiefang’s wife Huang Hezuo refuses to accept the other woman and refuses divorce.

The novel’s end is rapid, comprising fast-moving events- Yingchun- Ximen Nao’s concubine, whose two sons are the main protagonists, dies. Her funeral is a big affair with numerous Party dignitaries attending it, the cavalcade consisting of 40 sedans. Ximen Jinlong owns up his parentage by recognizing that his father’s name was Ximen and not Lan. He is killed in a suicide attack by his former mentor and a die-hard believer in Mao’s socialism, Huang Tong.

Here is a short passage that says so much in its brevity:

People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid, in the 1990s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil.(page 266)

The sad fate of the brothers and other corrupt Party officials is a wonderful sleight of hand by Mo Yan to expose what the CCP officials have done since the 1990s. By showing that these deviants meet a tragic end, he can manage to remain in their good books.

Ximen Nao’s last reincarnation is that of a monkey and symbolizes that the old China is gone forever. Indeed, just like the boom-time Latin American novels that Garcia Marquez and his generation wrote have given way to the contemporary urban novel, Chinese literature too will find a new voice as China rapidly moves towards urbanization.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

8 thoughts on “An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan”

  1. I have read this wonderful book in Hebrew translation, and something remained unclear to me till the end: Right after the twins Jinlong and Baofeng are born, Ximen Nao goes to visit Yingchun and the newborn babies. He immediately sees the blue birthmark on the boy’s face, and understands that this is Lan Lian’s son, not his. From that moment on, through the whole novel, Jinlong is portrayed as Ximen Nao’s real son, and as Lan Jiefang’s half brother. Why is that?

    1. Jinlong is portrayed as Ximen Nao’s real son because he is Ximen Nao’s real son. He’s the offspring of Yingchun and Ximen Nao, because Ximen Bai, Nao’s wife, could not bear children for Nao. Yingchun was his concubine. After Ximen Nao is executed, Yingchun marries Lan Lian, and soon a baby boy, Lan Jiefang is born to them. Therefore, Lan Jiefang and Jinlong share the same mother. Does that make sense? I’m not sure if I understood you question correctly.

      1. Thanks for your answer Reetta. I’m afraid you didn’t understand my question, or I didn’t understand something in the book’s plot.
        Yes, Jinlong and Lan Jiefang share the same mother, but what I’m claiming is that they share also the same father: Ximen Nao thought that his concubine was pregnant from him, but right after she gives birth he visits her, sees the twins that were just born, and recognizes Lan Lian’s blue birthmark on the face of the baby boy Jinlong. He then understands that his concubine slept with Lan Lian, and therefor Jinlong is not his biological son. Am I a bit more clear now?

        1. Ah I understand your question better now! Jinlong was born before Ximen Nao was executed. In the second chapter there is a flashback to the birth of the twins, Ximen Jinlong and Ximen Baofeng. This is when Ximen Nao also discusses the Wandering God and how he doomed himself by upsetting the Wandering God because he went out to work right after the birth of his children.
          When he comes back as Ximen Donkey, he sees a baby boy in the arms of Yingchun. She has just given birth to a baby boy, Lan Jiefang. This is when he realizes that Yingchun has been “unfaithful” to him, as the baby has a blue birthmark. Ximen Nao would rather have had her stay single than find someone else, and that is why he curses her. Yingchun had the baby with Lan Lian after Ximen Nao’s death, but Nao suspected that they had been interested in each other for a while now (but had not consummated their relationship)

  2. I think I understand now, Reetta, I must have mixed the time of the visits. I somehow thought that the visit to Yingchun, the baby birthmark and the curse all happened when he still had been Ximen Nao and so the birthmark was on Jinlong and not on Jiefang, which was born later of course. That’s why I was wondering why the only birthmark mentioned throughout the novel was Jiefang’s and never Jinlong’s. I got it now, thank you so much.

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