Mo Yan – The Story of My Life
I was born on the 25 of March 1956* into a peasant family in the Ping’an Village Production Brigade of the Heya People’s Commune, Northeast Gaomi Township, Shandong Province, the People’s Republic of China. The youngest of four children, I have two older brothers and a sister. Since my father and his brother had not yet divided the family property, ours was the largest clan in the village. These days people flock to see “Mo Yan’s former residence,” which has not changed much since the day I was born; gone, though, are the two side buildings, one to the east, another to the west, and two trees – an apricot and a pear – in the yard, which appear frequently in my novels.
Perhaps I should write about something other than hunger in this brief story of my life, but whenever I think back to my childhood, I cannot avoid scenes of hunger; they are engraved on my memory. The physical pain of hunger alone might not count as unbearable. Much harder to bear during my childhood was the absence of love. I was not well liked in the village, was in fact detested. I wrote about that boy in my story “Ox.” Though he isn’t me, the emotions I experienced in my childhood are re-created in him. I could abide the fact that people in my village hated me; harder to endure was the reality that even my own family did not like me. As I reflect on my past, I have no reason to complain, since I brought those sentiments on myself. I was lazy, I had a greedy mouth, and I could not stop talking. There really wasn’t much about me worth loving, and that often drew a sigh from my mother. Fortunately, I had some natural gifts. In school, despite the trouble I got into, my grades, especially in writing, were exceptional. A teacher in the nearby agricultural middle school once read one of my third-grade essays to his students, an incident that made my parents proud. But then came the Cultural Revolution, and this little talent of mine caused them considerable distress; then something I scribbled on the school wall brought trouble to their door.
I dropped out of elementary school in the summer of 1967, before I even graduated. Since I was too young for heavy work, I went out each day to tend livestock and cut grass for the production brigade. The sight of my former schoolmates playing in the schoolyard when I drove my animals past the gate always pained me, creating a feeling of being cast out of a group, the sadness of becoming the other, and that instilled in me a fear of becoming an outcast. That fear, which constituted a painful chapter of an era characterized by unending political campaigns, caused a great many intellectuals to sell out their friends, to spread unconscionable lies, and to dump shit on their own heads precisely. This phobia exists wherever there are people, but is especially strong in collectivist nations. I have described this phenomenon in much of my fiction and have created vivid characters who stand alone in defiance of society. Lan Lian, the farmer in Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out who chose not to join the brigade, was modeled on a peasant in a neighboring village who pushed his wooden-wheeled cart past the school gate and left an indelible impression on me.
As I think back over my writing career, leaving school may have been the best thing that happened to me. Having been cast out of the group, I changed into a child who was accustomed to being alone. Spending my days with cattle and sheep and wandering the grassland, I became one with nature. That experience nurtured in me a reverence toward the natural world and engendered an understanding of the animal world. These two in turn comprise a foundation of my fictional world.
During my herding days, I dreamed of growing up fast, with a physique like the village’s brawniest men, someone who could lift objects too heavy for other people, who could do jobs beyond their ability, who could grasp the most complex labor techniques, and who could thus earn the respect of his fellow villagers. Naturally, practicing martial arts and coming to the aid of the weak were at the top of my dream list. I haunted the house of an old villager named Wang, a martial arts master, a terrific storyteller, and a practitioner of healing massage techniques. With five daughters and no son, he was regularly visited by young men in the village, all of whom hoped to become his son-in-law, while others merely wanted to study martial arts. I too wanted to study martial arts, but I also loved to hear him tell stories. Though I lacked the physique and stamina to become proficient in the martial arts, I heard some wonderful stories, many of which became material for my writing.
Father felt guilty that his class standing had curtailed my right to an education. I was forced to leave school, not because I was a mischievous student, but because powerful people in my village were afraid that I’d gain knowledge that placed me a cut above them. Father wrote to my eldest brother, who taught in a Hunan factory school, and asked him to enroll me so I could continue my studies. My brother quickly wrote back to say that was highly impractical. Without doubt, a romantic conception had gotten into Father’s head. Though he never actually talked about my leaving school, deep down he was worried. One day, after saying he wanted me to become a useful member of society, he took out some of my brother’s traditional medical books and told me to read them till I knew them inside and out. He also told me to study Chinese medicine under my grandfather’s brother during my spare time. There probably isn’t a better profession anywhere than physician, he said. Everyone gets sick at some time, and no matter who’s running the country, a doctor will always have a job.
I quickly memorized those few books, and I took every opportunity to watch my great uncle treat patients with traditional Chinese medicine. He had been born into a landlord’s family, and his only son had fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist army in 1947. With that sort of bad family background, by rights the dictatorship of the proletariat should have sent him under the whip to perform hard labor. But, dressed in silk and sporting a beard, he continued taking the pulse of his patients and curing their illnesses. This dialectic proves that the medical arts can transcend class.
This great uncle discouraged me from going into medicine. What good will that do you? he asked. You need to go out into the world and do big things. He refused to teach me his medical skills, but he did urge me to read the Chinese classics. If you don’t, he said, Chinese medicine will always be a mystery to you. So while I did not learn the arts of medicine from my great uncle, I did hear some wonderful stories that subvert history and penetrate reality, that tie together Heaven, Hell, and humankind, and that treat animals, nature, and human beings equally. Most important, he narrated his fantastic stories in the first person, leaving no doubt about their authenticity, as if he had seen, heard, and lived every word of it. That is what made them so believable. Years later, when I read the novels of Kafka and García Márquez, I understood the secrets at their core. Truth be told, I had no interest in studying medicine. What I wanted most of all was to go out into the world and do big things. But society got caught up in class struggle, assigning class lines as the sole determinant. The occupations that made it possible for a young villager to leave home – soldier, student, worker – could not possibly fall to the son of a middle peasant father. Nothing but illusions, and yet I pursued them with all my heart. Once, as I entertained a dream of becoming a student in a worker-peasant-soldier college, I wrote to the Minister of Education, and actually received a return letter. Though written in “officialese,” it pumped me up so much I envisioned college doors opening up to me one day. I even boasted to girls who worked in the village flourmill; thinking I was soft in the head, they spread the story, and in short order, my unrealistic sense of worth was passed among the clever villagers as a joke. Every time one old woman who was constantly ill treated by her daughter-in-law met me, I recall, she called me by my infant name and said, “You’re not stupid, you’re a good boy. The people who laugh at you are the stupid ones.”
When my father saw that I was no good at medicine, he encouraged me to go into music, all because he had seen a musical performance when he was at a meeting in the county seat; the two-stringed huqin and flutes deeply impressed him. Getting by in life requires a skill, he said, and even though playing the huqin or flute does not count as much of an occupation, if you do it well, it beats laboring in a rural village. He must have discussed this with his younger brother, because a few days later, my uncle rode his bicycle over from the commune head-quarters with one of his own huqin for me, and gave me a demonstration of a song from a model Peking opera. Before picking up the huqin, he said, you must learn how to read music. If you don’t, no matter how good you get, you will never be more than a local talent, with little chance to appeal to refined tastes. The big stage is reserved for those who can read music. Back then I revered my uncle and could not imagine anyone who played the huqin as well as he. I later discovered that he did not read music, that his skills were on a par with local musicians, and that he had hoped I could rise to a level of artistry he had only dreamed about.
So I picked up the huqin and began on my own, producing scratchy noises like the sound of a stone roller’s wooden axel. “Take a break, Son,” my mother would say, her voice evoking concern and sarcasm in equal measure. “We’ve got enough rice for today.” After a period of time, I began to sense that my internal rhythms and the sounds I produced on the huqin were nicely in sync. That is to say, melodies that rattled around in my head found expression in the notes I played. My mind and my hand were in perfect harmony. This was the path village musicians took in learning to play musical instruments, but most stopped at this point. A talented few worked with a master or experimented on their own to rise to a professional level. Many years later, I wrote about my experience with the huqin in a story I called “Popular Music.”
At the age of fifteen I was assigned to record work points. In those days, everyone who worked in a production brigade was required to keep a “worker’s logbook.” My job was to go to a special room after the evening meal and enter each commune member’s work points into his or her logbook. These books served as the sole annual record of each commune member’s work history. At year’s end, a family’s accumulated points determined rations and allowances. Since an uncle of mine, the brigade commander, was illiterate, he had chosen me to record out of a fear that people might try to hoodwink him with false numbers.
As the place where brigade members gathered each night, the recording room was where frequent disputes over the distribution of work points occurred. It was also where news was collected and became a window for observing society. The responsibilities of my job were what launched me into adulthood, and created a gulf between children who were still quarreling and fighting in school and me. I was still developing physically, but the satisfaction of working with grownups at my young age helped me evolve into a relatively productive worker, even though I usually made a fool of myself when I emulated the skills of the best workers.
During this period, I devoted all my spare time to reading the high school textbooks my brother had left at home and other books I borrowed from nearby villages. A “rightist” neighbor who had been sent back to labor in the fields – a college graduate in Chinese literature – poured all sorts of literary knowledge into me, and my writing dream was born.
I became a full-fledged laborer in February 1973, when I turned eighteen, which meant that I had the skills and experience to engage in all forms of labor, and that my strength was adequate to any task; I managed to accumulate the maximum number of work points. In order to build up arm strength, each evening, after recording the work points, I went to the threshing ground to work out with stonerollers that weighed a hundred jin apiece; I could do a hundred presses at a time. Soon thereafter, the village sent a hundred able-bodied men to Changyi County, more than two hundred li away, to excavate the Jiaolai River. I was one of them. This huge water project involved hundreds of thousands of laborers from three counties, who worked with no equipment other than their hands and the shoulders over which dirt was carried off. What had once been level land was converted into a broad riverbed, and at the time, I thought back to Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty, who must have used an identical method to dig the Grand Canal, the sole difference being the loudspeakers on poles erected on the work site to broadcast quotations from Chairman Mao and songs of praise to him. The living accommodations were crude – just holes in the ground – and the food was coarse, if sufficient to fill our bellies. In those days I had a fearsome appetite; my gruel bowl was nearly the size of a small basin. And yet, even under such trying conditions, lilting strains of a harmonica came on the air every night, played by a youngster from our village. It was in that environment that I began thinking of a novel, one about excavating a river.
I returned from the Jiaolai River during harvest season, and as I walked around my village I felt that I had become a man.
In the fall of that year, the 20th of August to be precise, through my uncle’s contacts, I was given a job as a contract worker in Gaomi Cotton Processing Plant No. 5. As a contract worker I was still considered a resident of my village, and a portion of my monthly wages was sent back to the village. I received one Yuan, thirty-five fen a day, sixty percent of which went to the production brigade, leaving me with a monthly total of less than twenty Yuan. But that was quite a sum in those days, and it made contract labor a plum job that required an outside recommendation and the approval of a village cadre; not just anyone qualified. One of my uncles, the plant accountant, had spoken to the village Party secretary, who reluctantly approved my request with a condition that his daughter would go as well. I wrote about this in the story “White Cotton.”
The several hundred contract laborers in the plant came from nearly a hundred villages in the county’s dozens of communes, plus urban locals who were waiting for job assignments and some sent-down students from Qingdao. Everyone showed up in their best clothes, especially the young women, whose dressy appearance was an eye-opener to someone like me, a young man who had seldom strayed from his village. Most of the workers had attended middle school, and among them were a few who could play musical instruments or sing well. Their music gave birth to a feeling that I had left the muddy confines of a village where “even a diamond encrusted sword will rust” and entered the ranks of the upper class.
But this sort of illusion did not last. There were, in fact, only two kinds of people in the plant: city and town residents, who ate high-quality food, and villagers, who ate food distributed by the brigade. Though in theory they were equal, in practice they were anything but. Contract workers all dreamed of one day becoming regulars and, in the process, urban residents who would earn enough to eat better, and as we lay on our bunks at night, we gazed out the window at the stars and dreamed our dreams.
Work at the plant was seasonal. The annual cotton harvest from dozens of villages arrived around the middle of the eighth lunar month. Since there were no warehouses, the raw cotton was left out in the open in stacks that were many meters high, a sight to behold. Thanks to my uncle’s status, I was assigned the job of scales clerk, responsible for weighing each farmer’s harvest. The job required an abacus and a bit of education.
The real work began after the plant bought the desired amount of cotton, when it was sent to the roller shop, where the bolls and seeds were separated. A total of twenty rollers were tended by the same number of young women, behind whom mountains of cotton waited to be thrown between a pair of rollers at a steady pace. It was boring, dangerous work, and no year went by without casualties. The women wore hospital masks, and their eyelashes were so densely covered with cotton fuzz you could not see what they looked like. The plant was not equipped with air filters, and when good quality cotton was processed, fine cotton fibers floated throughout the plant. But fibers from lower quality cotton merged with dust and fouled the air, some of which was breathed in despite the presence of facemasks. One of these women, Du Qinlan, became my wife.
It happened very fast. Before I’d had a chance to settle into adulthood, I was engaged to be married. I’d only been working at the plant a little over a month when a man named Li – also a contract worker – surprised me by saying he’d introduce me to someone, his niece, a good worker who was not afraid of hard-ships to get through life. He invited me to his home to celebrate his birthday, and Du Qinlan was there. She asked me: What’s your family’s class standing? I said middle peasant. I asked her the same question. She said poor peasant, and I detected an air of superiority in her response, which instilled in me a sort of inferiority complex. Arrangements soon followed, and she and I were engaged before I’d even asked her age. For the longest time it all seemed unreal. One meeting, a couple of comments back and forth, and two people’s fates were entwined, just like that? Well, that’s what happened. From 1973 to now I have lived with this daughter of a poor peasant; we have raised a daughter of our own, and there have been many hardships over that forty-year period, but in the end she and I appeared together on the Nobel stand, and in one sense, this must count as testimony to our mutual affection.
My ideal was to make a life out in the world. Those three years in the plant facilitated my eventual departure from home: while there, in addition to making contacts with talented people and raising my cultural level, in terms of my long-range goal, the experience laid the groundwork for writing in the years to come. I set my eyes on the army as a way out. Though the prospects for the son of a middle peasant to be admitted into the army were extremely remote, and though I’d twice answered the call for recruits and passed the physical exams, only to fail to be admitted, I refused to give up. If I was going to realize my dream, it would have to be in the army, for it was the only place a young man like me could reach his potential in the society of that time. In the winter of 1976, I took advantage of an opportunity for contract workers to apply directly at the commune where they worked, bypassing the village level, and, supported by some armed forces cadres, I finally received my enlistment notification.
My first assignment was for guard duty at a small outpost. Our barracks were near a livestock-feeding shelter, and from my post I could see cows and horses hitched to posts. Villagers walked past my post; wheat fields in the spring and corn in the fall were everyday scenes, and all that differentiated me from the locals, I felt, was my uniform. The contrast between my idealized army life and the real thing was so great I predicted that I’d be out of the army and back home within two years. Worst to contemplate was that I might not regain my job at the cotton processing plant, even as a contract worker.
Mao Zedong died in September of that year, and China entered a new historical era. Before long, People’s Literature and other magazines resumed publication. The ban on “poisonous weeds” was lifted and “scar literature” came into being. A frenzy for literature gripped the nation, and my literary dream was reborn. I subscribed to several literary magazines and borrowed dozens of highly regarded novels from the county library, where the girlfriend of one of my comrades worked. I began creating story lines in my head when I was on duty and hid out in the tool shed to start writing during my time off. My first attempt, a play I called “Divorce,” was patterned after popular dramas of the day. I followed that with a short piece called “Mama’s Story.” I sent both off to several magazines, but they were all rejected. Once, I recall, one of the magazine editors included a personal letter with the rejection slip. Even though it informed me that they would not publish my work, I was thrilled to receive it.
I returned home in July 1979 to marry Du Qinlan, but before my marriage leave was over, I received a telegram to return to my unit, which I did without delay, and learned I was being posted to the Hebei city of Baoding. My comrades all felt that I was being groomed for promotion to officer ranks, and I was excited by the news.
My new unit was in a ravine deep in the mountains, a base area during the war with Japan, and a two-hundred-li trip on rugged mountain roads to Baoding. My first assignment was as a squad leader, responsible for training sixteen recent high school graduates. They were to learn basic military skills from formation drills to marksmanship and grenade use. My military skills were so poor that none of my trainees passed muster as soldiers. After the completion of recruit training, I remained in the unit as a confidential clerk and librarian. This assignment was a sure sign that my superiors were grooming me for officer ranks. But not long after my reassignment, the General Political Department sent down an order to stop the direct promotion of enlisted men to officer rank; such promotions could be approved only after a candidate had completed military academy training. That effectively blocked my promotion. But an article in the document stated: “Exceptional soldiers may be promoted to cadre status, but only if approved by the cadre section of a military area command or above.” A thread of hope in the midst of my despair.
My jobs as confidential clerk and librarian gave me private space to read, and I was like a fish in water with the thousands of volumes in the library. Before long, my superiors appointed me to be an instructor of theory, responsible for teaching philosophy and political economics to two classes of students. Both subjects were totally alien to me, but the position created the condition for my possible promotion, so I braced myself and accepted the assignment, taking advantage of a summer break to read as many of the library books on philosophy and political economics as possible to prepare myself for the classroom. That was also the time I began to write again. In September 1981, my short story “A Rainy Spring Night” was published in the Baoding literary magazine Lotus Pond as the first selection in its fifth issue. My daughter Xiaoxiao was born back home on November 3rd. The attending physician at her birth was the daughter of my great uncle, the model for Aunt in my novel Frogs. I wheeled my wife in a wheel-barrow to the health center, whose facilities were rudimentary at best; the day was cold, and I waited outside the delivery room listening to my Aunt’s crisp talk and laughter. All this I wrote about in the novel The Garlic Ballads.
The publication of “A Rainy Spring Night” boosted my confidence and set loose my passion for writing. The support of Lotus Pond was a boon, for its editors published five of my stories in a row, and the famous writer Sun Li even wrote a critical piece in praise of the story “Popular Music.”
In July 1982, I was promoted as a regular instructor, which was a bending of the rules. Not long after that I was transferred to Beijing.
In September 1984, my high exam scores got me into the Literature Department of the PLA Arts Academy.
Acceptance into the Academy was a major turning point in my literary career. There I undertook a systematic study of Chinese and foreign literary histories and read many foreign novels in translation: works by Faulkner, García Márquez, and others inspired me to concentrate on my native home. Northeast Gaomi Township became my literary kingdom; childhood memories and the people from my hometown became the material for my fiction.
In March 1985, the publication of my novella “The Transparent Carrot” elicited strong reactions. It established my status as a writer and was partially responsible for changing the face of contemporary Chinese literature.
In the year that followed, I published a series of novellas – “Dry River,” “The White Dog and the Swing Set,” “Explosion,” and “Red Sorghum” – in what critics called a literary “carpet bombing.” My work demolished an ossified literary concept that had shackled Chinese writers for decades; many pieces were no sooner published than they created firestorms of controversy. It is no exaggeration to say that I took a considerable risk by what I wrote, and many people were shocked and affronted to learn that a military academy literature department had produced a writer like me. During my most trying moments, my revered teacher, the chair of the academy’s literature department and a highly regarded writer in his own right, Mr. Xu Huaizhong, shielded me from attacks.
Foreigners are often amazed to learn that the Chinese military has a literary component, but this has been a unique constituent of modern Chinese history. Military writers have been key in the development and transformation of China’s new literature. With bold experiments and a disdain for hardship, we have served as vanguards.
Upon my graduation from the Arts Academy, I was assigned as a writer in the cultural department of a military unit. There I wrote a series of novels set in Northeast Gaomi Township. Anyone reading The Garlic Ballads and Thirteen Paces today will be astounded by the power of the criticism and the courage of my advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged. In the fall of 1988, I was admitted into a graduate seminar on creative writing jointly offered by Beijing Normal University and the Lu Xun Literary Academy. While attending classes I wrote, among other works, The Republic of Wine. All these works penetrate deeply into the roots of corruption from a humanistic perspective and, to my way of thinking, are more significant as literature than the “novels of officialdom” and “anti-corruption” fiction that would later gain popularity.
Back home in 1995, I wrote the controversial novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and was roundly criticized. Among the most frequently reviled features of contemporary Chinese fiction has been a co-optation of art by politics, narratives based on class replacing those based on humanity. Big Breasts and Wide Hips was a total subversion of that narrow literary concept, and its publication shocked both literary and intellectual circles to a degree current readers would find unimaginable.
I left the army in October 1997 and took a job at the Procuratorate Daily. During my ten years with the publication I wrote three novels: Sandalwood Death, POW! and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.
Sandalwood Death constituted a course change in my twenty-year writing career. In striving to break free from Western influences, in particular the magic realism of Latin America, I set out to write a novel in my distinct style, informed by Chinese characteristics. To reach this goal, I drew nourishment from popular culture, especially drama, in writing a “drama-inspired novel.” Though the novel is set in the late Qing era, it is infused with a contemporary consciousness. In it I inherited and developed a critique of national characteristics by Lu Xun and other modern writers and created a set of richly symbolic characters.
That was followed by POW! In this novel I employed “water-infused meat,” which was based upon a real-life case, as a point of entry in constructing a novel from the perspective of a boy, resulting in one that reads like a fairy tale. In an act of defiance, the protagonist, Luo Xiaotong, asks members of the power structure to kill him with his own knife, a trick commonly employed by rough-hewn proletarians in China’s agricultural society. I witnessed such a scene in the marketplace with my own eyes.
In 2005, when I was tormented by severe insomnia, I wrote the novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in the space of forty-three days. In it I borrowed the concept of the Buddhist “wheel of life” to throw light on half a century of enormous changes in Chinese society, narrated from the perspective of animals. I explore modern Chinese society’s most critical issues, describing a series of tragedies associated with land. Naturally, what I find most satisfying about this novel is not its social significance, but the representative characters inhabiting it.
In October I was transferred to the Chinese Arts Research Institute, where I remain today. In 2009, my novel Frogs appeared.
I have repeatedly suggested that Frogs is a novel about people and not about “family planning.” In novels dealing with social issues, an author usually is absent, but in this novel I included myself as a target of exposure and criticism.
On October 11, 2012, I was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Looking back over the course of my life is a very emotional experience. People who are critical of me cannot begin to imagine the suffering I have endured. The courage I have demonstrated in attacking what was considered orthodox revolutionary literature, and an absence of fear over being consigned to Hell is something today’s lickspittle individuals cannot possibly understand. Knowing what resides in my heart is possible only by reading my written works with care. I have been deeply influenced by traditional concepts of morality. Treating people with kindness and sincerity are the principles by which I engage in interpersonal relationships. In my youth I hated evil with a passion and yearned to die fighting evildoers; but as I grew older and gained a greater understanding of human beings, my attitude gradually softened. I am getting to know myself better all the time, and am gaining a more thorough understanding of others. My play, Our Jing Ke, which was performed in Beijing in 2012, is an expression of my new understanding of people and an earnest quest to attain my ideal of a “man of noble character.”
If life is a river, then I am now on the lower reaches.
I will roar no more, and I no longer favor waves.
I have the capacity to tolerate filth and mire.
I am hiding my strength in a deep place.
I am a storyteller, I tell stories of people. I enjoy watching plays, I write plays, but I do not act in them.
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
* Due to the difference between the Chinese calendar and Gregorian calendar Mo Yan’s birthday is commonly recorded as one of two dates. 25 March 1956 is the laureate’s preferred birth date.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
See them all presented here.