2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature Mo Yan reads from his book “Tiantang suantai zhi ge” (The Garlic Ballads). The video was recorded in Stockholm in December 2012.
Excerpt from The Garlic Ballads
Arrest me if that’s what you want …
Someone read the Criminal Code aloud for me –
Blind lawbreakers get lenient treatment –
I won’t shut my mouth just because you put me in jail …
– from a ballad by Zhang Kou sung after being touched on the mouth
with a policeman’s electric prod. The incident occurred in a tiny
lane around the corner from the county government compound on
the twenty-ninth of May, 1987
A jailer led him down the long corridor while another walked behind him to the right, pressing a rifle muzzle up against his ribs. An identical gray metal door with an identical small opening fronted each cell, the only differences being the Arabic numbers above the doors and the faces looking out through the tiny openings. They were bloated, grotesquely enlarged, the faces of living ghosts. He shuddered. Every step was torture. Behind one of the windows a female convict giggled. “Jailer, here’s twenty cents, buy me some sanitary napkins, okay?” The jailer responded with an angry curse: “Slut!” But when Gao Yang turned to see what the woman looked like, he felt a nudge from the rifle. “Keep moving!”
Reaching the end of the corridor, they passed through a steel door and climbed a narrow, rickety staircase. The jailer’s leather shoes clacked loudly on the wooden, steps, while the slaps of Gao Yang’s bare feet were barely audible. The warm, dry wood felt so much better on his feet than the damp, slippery concrete corridor floor. Up and up he climbed, with no end in sight; he was soon panting, and as the staircase wound steeply round, he began to get dizzy. If not for the jailer behind him, silently nudging him along with his rifle, he’d have lain down like a dying dog, spread out over as many steps as were required to support him. His injured ankle throbbed like a pulsating heart; the surrounding skin was so puffy his anklebone all but disappeared. It burned and ached. Old man in heaven, please don’t let it get infected, he uttered in silent prayer. Would that aristocratic woman be willing to lance it and release the pus? That thought reminded him of how she had smelled.
A large room with a wooden floor painted red. White plaster shows through the peeling green paint on the walls. Bright daylight shines down from the ceiling on four crackling electric prods. Desks line the northern wall. A male and two female jailers sit behind the desks. One of the women has a face like a persimmon fresh from the garden. He recognizes the words painted on the wall behind them.
A jailer orders him to sit on the floor, for which he is immensely grateful. He is then told to stretch his legs out in front and rest his manacled hands on his knees. He does as he’s told.
“Is your name Gao Yang?”
“Um … my, uh, parents were landlords …”
“Are you familiar with government policy?”
“Yes. Leniency to those who confess, severity to those who refuse to do so. Not coming clean brings severe punishment.”
“Good. Now tell us about your criminal activities of May twenty-eighth.”
Dark clouds filled the sky on May 28 as Gao Yang drove his donkey; it was scrawnier than ever, after exhausting itself day after day lugging eighty bundles of wilting garlic to town so Gao Yang could try his luck again. Nine days since Fourth Uncle had met his tragic end, but it seemed like an eternity. During that period Gao Yang had made four trips to town, selling fifty bundles of garlic for a total of a hundred twenty yuan, minus eighteen yuan for the various fees and taxes, which left him a profit of one hundred and two. The eighty bundles he was hauling now should have been sold two days earlier at a purchasing station set up north of the tracks by the South Counties Supply and Marketing Cooperative, which was buying garlic at fifty fen a pound. But just as Gao Yang reached the scales with his load, a gang of men in gray uniforms and wide-brimmed hats showed up, led by Wang Tai.
Gao Yang nodded obsequiously to Wang Tai, who, ignoring him, went up and began arguing with the co-op representatives, eventually knocking over their scales. “No one’s going to walk off with a single stalk of Paradise garlic until my storehouse is filled,” Wang Tai insisted. The dejected representatives of the South Counties Supply and Marketing Cooperative climbed into their trucks and drove off.
So Gao Yang packed up his garlic. But before he left, he tried again to get the attention of Wang Tai as he walked off with his men.
Dark clouds filled the sky two days later, on May 28. It looked like rain. Gao Yang had just crossed the tracks when someone up ahead passed word down: “The supply and marketing co-op’s storehouses are full, so now we can sell our garlic anywhere we want.”
“But where? The locals have already squeezed out us farmers from outlying districts. They don’t care if we live or die.”
As the talk heated up, feelings of helplessness began to grip the farmers, but none turned his cart around and headed home. It was as if their only hope lay up ahead somewhere.
The line of wagons pressed forward, so Gao Yang fell in behind them, gradually realizing that instead of heading toward the cold-storage area, they were rolling down the renowned May First Boulevard on their way to May First Square, directly in front of the county government compound.
As the number of garlic farmers increased, the air above the square grew increasingly pungent. Dark clouds roiled above the downcast farmers, who began to grumble and swear. Zhang Kou, the blind minstrel, stood atop a rickety oxcart, strumming his erhu and chanting loudly in his raspy voice, froth bubbling at the corners of his mouth. His song plucked the heartstrings of everyone within earshot; Gao Yang couldn’t speak for the others, but he felt sad one moment and angry the next, with a measure of hidden fear mixed in. He had a premonition that trouble was brewing that day, for there, in a nearby lane, some people – he couldn’t tell who – were taking pictures of the square. He wanted to turn his wagon around and put some distance between him and this dangerous spot, but was hemmed in.
The county government compound was on the northern side of the boulevard, running past the public square. Pines and poplars grew tall and green behind the wall; fresh flowers bloomed everywhere; and a column of water rose in the center of the compound, only to fan out and rain down on the fountain below. The government offices were housed in a handsome three-story building with glass-inlaid arched eaves and yellow ceramic tiles set in the walls. A bright red flag billowed atop a flagpole. The place was as grand as an imperial palace. Traffic on May First Boulevard was blocked by the carts and wagons and their loads of garlic. Impatient drivers honked their horns, but their sonorous complaints were ignored. Noticing the carefree looks on others’ faces, Gao Yang relaxed. Why worry? he thought. The worst that can happen is I lose my load of garlic.
Zhang Kou, the blind minstrel, sang: “… Hand baby to Mother to stem its grief. / If you can’t sell your garlic, look up the county administrator …”
The heavy wrought-iron gate was shut tight. Well-dressed office workers peeked through windows to watch the goings-on in the square, where hundreds of people were massed before the gate. A cry went up: “Come out, County Administrator! Come out here, Zhong Weimin! If your name really means ‘Serve the People,’ then do it!”
Fists and clubs pounded the gate, but the compound remained still as death – not a person in sight, until an old caretaker came out to secure the gate with a huge padlock. While he was about his business, phlegm and spittle rained down on his clothes and face. Not daring to say a word, he turned and darted inside.
“Hey, you old dog, you old watchdog, come back and open this gate!” the crowd bellowed.
By now the horns of the jammed-up cars were silent. Drivers leaned out their windows to see what was going on.
“Get the county administrator or the party secretary out here to give us an explanation!”
“Get out here, Zhong Weimin!”
Gao Yang saw a horse-faced young man perched on a cart, like a crane standing amid a flock of chickens. “Fellow townsmen,” he shouted, “don’t just yell anything that comes to mind! The county administrator won’t hear you that way. F-follow my lead!” He had a slight stammer. The crowd roared its approval.
“His name is ‘Serve the People,’ but he should change it to ‘Serve Myself!” The horse-faced young man shook his fist.
The shout was repeated by the crowd, including Gao Yang, who was so caught up in the heat of the moment he too shook his fist.
“County Administrator, Master ‘Serve the People’ Zhong, come out and face your people!” The horse-faced young man had a strange look on his face; his lips hardly moved.
The crowd echoed his shout, a deafening roar to which Gao Yang contributed.
“Officials who don’t bail people out of jams should stay home and plant their yams!” Everyone knew that slogan, so they shouted it over and over.
Finally two men in Western suits emerged from the building and walked up to the gate. “Garlic farmers, quiet down! Quiet down, I said!”
The crowd held its collective tongue to observe the newcomers on the other side of the gate. The gaunt-faced one pointed to the middle-aged man beside him, who wore tinted sunglasses, and said, “Garlic farmers, this is Deputy Director Pang of the County Government Administrative Office. He has instructions.”
“Garlic farmers, I am here on behalf of the county administrator, who wants you all to go home and stop this unlawful and potentially explosive demonstration. Don’t let a few rabble-rousers lead you astray!”
“What about our garlic?” someone shouted.
“The county administrator says that since the co-op cold-storage storehouse is filled to capacity, take your garlic home with you. What you do with it is your business. If you can sell it, well and good. If not, eat it yourselves!”
“Go fuck yourself! You’re the ones who told us to plant the stuff, and now you refuse to take it off our hands. Is this some sick joke?”
“To keep us from selling our crops, you confiscated or smashed the scales!’
“We can’t give the stuff away now!”
“Come out here, Zhong Weimin! Officials who don’t bail people out of jams should fuck off and plant their yams!”
“Back off, garlic farmers!” Deputy Director Pang screamed angrily, his face sweaty. “The county administrator can’t come out now. He has important business to attend to. Don’t you understand that he’s in charge of an entire county? His hands are full just taking care of really important matters. You don’t expect him to sell your garlic for you, too, do you?”
Gao Yang felt his heart go thump as he listened to Deputy Director Pang’s harangue. That’s right, he’s in charge of the whole county, and we can’t expect him to sell our garlic for us, can we? Of course not, even if we have to let it rot. He wished he could quietly leave and go home, but he was boxed in by wagons and farmers. He was nearly in tears.
“Tell him to come out and talk to us!”
“Right! Bring out the county administrator! Bring out the county administrator!”
“Garlic farmers,” Deputy Director Pang shouted, “I’m warning you – turn around and go home, right now, or we’ll call the police and let them teach you some manners!”
“Fellow townsmen,” the horse-faced young man raised his voice, “don’t fall for their scare tactics! We’re not breaking any law. Who says it’s illegal for the people to ask to see the county administrator? He’s an elected public servant, and we’re within our rights to see him.”
“Who the fuck elected him? I couldn’t tell you if his face was black or white! How did he get elected?”
“Zhong Weimin, get out here! Zhong Weimin, get out here!”
“Now you’ve gone too far!” Deputy Director Pang thundered.
“Down with corrupt officials! Down with bureaucrats!” Gao Yang saw Gao Ma climb onto the oxcart and shake his fist.
Gao Ma picked up a bundle of garlic and flung it into the compound. “We don’t want this stuff. Put it on the old masters’ dinner tables!”
“Right, we don’t want it. It’s worthless, anyhow! Get rid of it! Throw it into the county compound to feed the old masters!”
Frenzy gripped the crowd, as thousands of bundles of garlic sprouted wings and flew across the wall, landing in heaps inside the government compound.
Deputy Director Pang turned to make a dash for the building. “Stop him!” someone shouted. “He’s going to call the police!”
The heavy gate shuddered violentiy as the people up front crashed into it. Clubs, fists, feet, shoulders, bricks, and tiles all became weapons as the gate began to yield to the assault.
“Storm the compound! If the county administrator won’t come talk to us, we’ll go find him!”
Emitting one last gasp, the lock snapped, and the gate flew open in the face of a surging tide of people. Poor Gao Yang was swept along, powerless to resist. He hadn’t thrown a single bundle of his precious garlic, and was worried that his donkey might get trampled. But he was not even able to look behind him.
The crowd carried him along, his feet barely touching the octagonal slabs of cement covering the ground; his face was moistened by an icy spray as he passed the fountain. The crowd surged into the office building, where a grand clatter echoed across the tiled floor, compounded by the crisp tinkle of shattering glass, the thud of splintering cabinets, and the shrieks of terrified women. A sense of ecstasy crept into Gao Yang’s mounting anxiety as he saw the destruction of luxurious trappings that induced in him feelings of envy and hatred. As an initial probe, he picked up a flowering cactus in a shallow red-and-pink vase and flung it at a window whose glass was polished until it shone. It parted without a murmur, allowing the vase and its contents to pass slowly through. He ran to the window in time to see the red-and-pink vase, the green cactus, and shards of window glass dance and skitter across the concrete ground. The vase broke, the detached petals scattered in all directions. A gratifying sight. Then he went back, picked up an oval aquarium, and admired the plump black and orange goldfish for a moment. The sloshing water and filthy debris rising from the bottom alarmed the aquarium’s denizens, which began splashing frantically, releasing a fishy odor that he found extremely disagreeable. He flung it against another window, which also disintegrated slowly as he ran up to watch the aquarium float downward, followed by glistening drops of water and sparkling shards of glass. The black and orange goldfish swam in midair. When it hit the concrete below, the aquarium shattered without a sound.
Unsettled by the sight of goldfish flapping around on the concrete below, he looked up and saw that the square was alive with people and animals, all in motion. His donkey and wagon were nowhere in sight, he noted with chagrin. Throngs of people poured into the compound, as a phalanx of armed policemen in white uniforms emerged from a lane east of the square and swarmed over it like tigers on a flock of sheep, swinging their batons to clear a path to the compound. He turned away from the window, concentrating on getting out of there as fast as his legs would carry him. But his way was blocked by dozens of people who by then had flocked into the office. He could hardly believe his eyes when he spotted Fourth Aunt Fang, who had hobbled in on tiny bound feet. A youngster in a white vest with an anchor logo shouted, “This is the county administrator’s office. Let’s hunt him down!” Oh my God! Gao Yang thought, the young man’s shout hitting him like a thunderbolt. The county administrator’s office! It was his vase, his aquarium, his windows. He would have fled if he could, but there were too many sticks and clubs fanning the air between him and the door. Vases with exotic plants came off the floor and began flying out the windows like so many artillery shells. One of them must have hit someone, if the string of screams and curses below were any indication.
Scrolls were ripped off the walls, and one young fellow even smashed a filing cabinet with a dumbbell, sending files, documents, and books tumbling out into a pile. He then used the same dumbbell to smash two telephones on the desk.
Meanwhile, Fourth Aunt was grabbing everything in sight, including some green satin curtains, which she pulled down and began tearing to shreds, as if ripping a rival’s hair. “Give me back my husband!” she screamed through her tears. “I want my husband back!”
While farmers rifled desk drawers, the young fellow put his dumbbell to work smashing the glass top and metal ashtray. The county administrator had cleared out so fast that his cigarette was still smoldering in the ashtray. Spotting a tin of ginseng cigarettes and a box of matches on the desk, the young fellow stuck one of the former between his lips and announced, “I’m going to try out the old magistrate’s throne.” With that he sat down in the county administrator’s rattan chair, leaned back, lit up, and crossed his feet on the desk, looking mighty pleased with himself, as the other farmers rushed up to fight over the remaining cigarettes. Fourth Aunt, who had made a pile of the torn curtains, scrolls, and files, lit a match from the box on the desk and touched it to the satin curtains, which began to burn at once. Amid puffs of smoke, the paper then caught fire, sending tongues of flames snaking up the smashed cabinets by the wall. Falling to her knees, she banged her head on the floor in a kowtow and muttered, “Husband, I’ve avenged your death!”
The fire quickly spread, forcing the farmers into the hallway. On his way out the door, Gao Yang grabbed Fourth Aunt and yelled, “Run for your life!”
Dense smoke swirling up and down the hallway indicated that more than one office had been torched. Everything was shaking – the ceiling above and the stairs below. People ran and clawed for their lives. As Gao Yang dragged Fourth Aunt out the entrance, he thought about the black and orange goldfish, but only for a fleeting moment, since with a thousand heads and twice that many legs fighting over limited space, anyone who stumbled was sure to be trampled – already you could hear the screams. Holding Fourth Aunt’s hand in a deathlike grip, he virtually flew out of the compound, past the blurred faces of seven or eight armed policemen.
“Was it you who led the mob that demolished the county administrator’s office?”
“Mr. Jailer, I didn’t know it was his office … I stopped as soon as I found out.” He was on his knees.
“Sit down like you’re supposed to!” the policeman demanded roughly. “Do you mean to say if it had been somebody else’s office it would have been okay?”
“Mr. Jailer, I didn’t know what I was doing. I got swept along with the crowd … I’ve been a model citizen all my life. I’ve never done anything bad.”
“If you weren’t such a model citizen you’d have torched the State Council Headquarters, I suppose,” the policeman said derisively.
“I didn’t start the fire. Fourth Aunt did that.”
A policewoman handed a sheet of paper to the policeman in the center, who read it aloud. “Is this an accurate statement of what you said, Gao Yang?” he asked.
“Come over here and sign it.”
One of the policemen dragged him over to the desk, where the policewoman handed him a pen. His hand shook as he held it. Were there two vertical strokes in “Yang,” or three? “Three,” the policewoman told him.
“Take him back to his cell.”
“Mr. Jailer,” Gao Yang fell to his knees again and begged, “I’m afraid to go back there …”
“Because they gang up on me. Please, Mr. Jailer, put me in another cell!”
“Let him bunk with the condemned prisoner,” the policeman in the center said to his colleagues.
“Want to bunk with a condemned man, Number Nine?”
“Anything, just so you don’t put me back with them!”
“Okay, but make sure he doesn’t try to kill himself. That’ll be your job, for which you’ll get an extra bun at each meal.”
The condemned man, sallow-faced, clean-shaven, with green eyes that rolled around his sunken sockets, terrified Gao Yang, who was in his new cell only a few seconds before realizing what a terrible mistake he’d made. Except for a single cot, the cell was furnished only with a rotting straw mat. The condemned man, manacled hand and foot, hunkered in the corner and glared menacingly at Gao Yang, who nodded and bowed slightly. “Elder Brother, they sent me to keep you company.”
The condemned man’s lips split into what passed for a smile. His face was the color of gold foil, and so were his teeth. “Come over here,” he said with a nod.
Gao Yang was wary, but the manacles were reassuring – how much damage could he do all trussed up like that? Cautiously he approached the condemned man, who smiled and nodded, urging him to come closer, and closer, and closer.
“Elder Brother, is there something you want?”
The words were barely out of Gao Yang’s mouth when the condemned man reached out and banged Gao Yang’s head with the handcuff chain. With a cry of pain, Gao Yang crawled and rolled over to the cell door, followed by the condemned man, who hopped in pursuit, murder in his eyes, his manacles scraping the floor. Gao Yang slipped under the outstretched arms and darted over to the bed, only to be driven back to the door when the man came after him again. That went on another dozen times or so, until the condemned man plopped down on the bed and said through clenched teeth, “Don’t come near me or I’ll bite your head off. Since I’m going to die, I want somebody to lead the way.”
An exhausted Gao Yang forced himself to stay away that night. The overhead light, which was left on twenty-four hours a day, allowed a measure of well-being as he curled up on the floor alongside the door, putting as much distance between him and his cellmate as possible.
The condemned man’s greenish eyes stayed open all night long, and whenever Gao Yang started to doze off, he stood up. Gradually the threat of danger sharpened Gao Yang’s senses: at the first sign of a rattle he sprang to his feet and readied himself for another confrontation.
At dawn the condemned man finally rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He looked dead already. Gao Yang recalled hearing people talk when he was just a boy about the scary business of spending the night with a corpse. They said that late at night, when everyone’s asleep, the dead rise to haunt the living, chasing them round and round until cockcrow, when they finally lie down again. The night just past was pretty much like that, except that spending the night with a corpse could earn you a tidy sum, while all he’d get for watching his condemned cellmate was an extra bun at mealtime.
At this rate, he thought, I’ll be dead in a month.
He could kick himself.
Old man upstairs, get me out of here. If you do, I’ll never complain, never fight, never ask for help, even if someone dumps a load of shit on my head.
Excerpt from The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt.
Copyright © Mo Yan, 1988
Translation copyright © Howard Goldblatt, 1994
Reprinted by permission of Methuen
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.