As I stand amid the dense hybrid sorghum, I think of surpassingly beautiful scenes that will never again appear: in the deep autumn of the eighth month, under a high, magnificently clear sky, the land is covered by sorghum that forms a glittering sea of blood.
— Mo Yan, Red Sorghum
Red Sorghum is a Chinese novel written by Guan Moye, a Nobel Prize winning author better known by his pen-name Mo Yan, which means "Don't speak". Moye explained that this name eludes to the advice his parents gave him while growing up. When Moye was growing up, it was considered unwise to speak one's mind in public, especially anything which could be considered anti-government, amidst the political climate of the 1950's, during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Red Sorghum is probably Moye's best known novel, particularly with English-speaking readers like myself. It was published originally as a series of magazine shorts in the 80's and officially published in 1988. I read the English translation (obviously) authored by Howard Goldblatt and originally published in 1992; the translation is based off the Taipei Hong-fan Book Co. 1988 edition of the novel, at the authors behest, as the mainland Chinese version published had to be altered and censored.
Red Sorghum takes place in the early twentieth century and the events span the course of several decades. The unnamed narrator has returned to his hometown to compile a family chronicle and tell the story of the elder generations of the Shandong family - from his parents all the way back to his great-grandparents. The events are not told chronologically, which made the first few jumps a little confusing as I was still getting acquainted with the various characters. The story takes place in what the narrator refers to as "Northeast Gaomi Township", which is most likely based on the town of Gaomi in the Shandong province of China, as that is where Moye grew up. Most of the events of the book occur during the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan between 1937 and 1945. This war, which involved the invasion of mainland China by the Japanese, eventually became a part of the Pacific War of World War II. War and conflict is a major theme of Red Sorghum; every member of the Shandong family is either a part of the war, or deeply affected by it.
It's hard to comment on the writing style of Moye, since I am reading a translation and thus it is the combination of both the writer and the translator's styles that produced the book I read. But for the sake of brevity I will assume the translation made a minimal impact on the resultant prose and the intended meaning, and therefore will just refer to Moye in my discussion. Moye's writing is terse, and he can be very graphic, but in general I found his prose to be oblique and abstract, often interjecting his narrative with unrelated descriptions and non-sequiters. I'm not trying to say these random inclusions didn't serve a purpose with regards to the story - I think they add more dimensionality and vibrance to the writing. For example,
Father’s attention was riveted by the sight and sound of blood dripping from the Japanese soldier’s nose into the steel helmet, each drop splashing crisply and sending out rings of concentric circles in the deepening pool. Father had barely passed his fifteenth birthday. The sun had nearly set on this ninth day of the eighth lunar month of the year 1939, and the dying embers of its rays cast a red pall over the world below. Father’s face, turned unusually gaunt by the fierce daylong battle, was covered by a layer of purplish mud.
— Mo Yan
I loved the visually descriptive nature of Moye's writing; I found it was both creative and intruiging. The description of the dead Japanese solider's blood slowly dripping into his metal helmet is intense and detailed, and then this is followed by "Father had barely passed his fifteenth birthday". Not directly related but it reminds the reader of the innocence and youth of the narrator's father during this time. His first experience in battle.
I started reading this book during my vacation to China. I figured since I'd be doing quite a lot of travelling while there it'd be good to have a book, and I felt like it'd be an appropriate time for a foray into the world of Chinese literature. It was cool to be reading about this period of time in China's past and then to look up and see the modern state of living in the cities I visited, as well as the small rural towns I passed by on trains and such. The contrast between the brutality and hardships of 1930's China with the technology and social order of 2018 China was interesting. Another contrast was that of urban life vs rural life that I glimpsed while there. There is a huge disparity in the living conditions and culture of towns and cities - so much so that I could see similarities between what I was reading in Red Sorghum and what I saw of rural life. It hasn't appeared to have changed much. It sounds like this disparity has been present for a long time; in Red Sorghum, even the accent of someone from the city was seen as valuable and a status symbol:
When Commander Yu was recruiting troops, he assembled fifty or so men, one of whom was a gaunt young man with a pale face and long black hair, dressed in black except for a pair of white shoes. He spoke with a beautiful Beijing dialect, and never smiled; his brow was forever creased in a frown, with three vertical furrows above his nose. Everyone called him Adjutant Ren.
— Mo Yan
I ended up not actually getting very far in the book while I was there, most of my travelling time was spent talking to my friends I was with, and since they were both Chinese I learned a lot about China's history and culture from them anyways.
Red Sorghum follows the story of the Shandong family, more specifically the narrator's grandfather, Commander Yu Zhan'ao, his grandmother Dai, and his father Douguan.
The story is divided into 4 parts. The first part, Red Sorghum, is mostly about a famous battle in the town's history called the Black River Battle, of which his grandfather led a local army squadron. The narrator describes the events of this battle, and how it culminated in the death of his grandmother. Although the non-chronological nature of the writing makes this a little obscure. The second part, Sorghum Wine, is about how the narrator's grandmother came to own a wine distillery, how she met his grandfather, and how his father was conceived. There is lots of death, and lots of violence in this story. Granted it takes place during a war, but still I would reckon a significant chunk of the deaths in the book come not by the hands of the Japanese but by fellow countrymen. The people of Gaomi Township couldn't even have a funeral without multiple people dying due to being trampled to death by the chaotic crowd. I'm serious.
Part three of the story is called Dog Ways, and it is largely about dogs. So much so in fact that there are entire scenes written in which the author explains the inter-group drama between a pack of dogs out in the forest with no actual humans present - which kind of calls into question the journalistic facade the author was trying to go for with his narration.
The central conflict with this third section is actually between humans and this aforementioned pack of dogs (a pack that includes several hundred dogs). The conflict arises after a terrible massacre during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, where only a handful of villagers survive, including the narrator's grandfather, father, and also soon to be mother. It also left all the dogs in the town ownerless, and so they take off to the forests surrounding the village looking for food and shelter. The issue arises when the surviving villagers pile all the corpses of the massacre into the field outside the town (they did not have the manpower to give proper burials to all of them yet), and the dogs begin to launch organized raids on the dead bodies so they can eat. The injured and vulnerable group of villagers then have to arm and defend themselves so that they can ward off the dogs and protect the bodies of their deceased fellow villagers.
It's pretty surreal, and I found the whole section to be quite...surprising I guess. I think it was because of the devotion that this handful of individuals, despite barely surviving the massacre themselves, showed towards protecting the bodies of their deceased villagers. It was meant to symbolize the respect that the Chinese have for the dead, as well as for tradition. The events of this chapter also showcased a recurring theme in Red Sorghum, and that was how the natural world used to be integrated with our humanity and livelihood, not just in Chinese history but in all societies at some point. Our modern society has developed the systems and infrastructure necessary to distance ourselves from nature, so that we are not affected by it. 100 years ago, this was not the case. Humans were much closer to being a natural component of their environment, exposed and vulnerable to the world around them. Organized human society was not the artificial and destructive presence it is today. Dogs were more than a pet to the villagers, they were also a labourer, a source of food, and as seen in this chapter they could also become an existential threat in large numbers. This highlighting of the parity between species was intentional by Moye I believe. I think he wanted to draw a comparison in this section between the violent assaults against the dogs by the villagers, and the assault the Japanese invaders had shown against them. Being rural villagers, much of the weaponry the Japanese used was advanced and unknown to them, as described by the father during this battle at the Black Water River Bridge
The fast-approaching trucks were getting larger and larger, the eyes in front, as large as horse hooves, sweeping the area with their white rays. Their revving engines sounded like the wind before a downpour. Having never actually seen a truck before, Father assumed that these strange creatures survived on grass or some sort of fodder, and that they drank water or blood. [...]As they neared the stone bridge, the lead truck slowed down, allowing the clouds of dust to catch up and settle over he hood, obsuring the twenty or more khaki-clad men in the bed, shiny steel pots on their heads. Father subsequently learned that these pots were called ‘helmets’.
— Mo Yan
Contrast that with this passage from the third section when the remaining villagers were battling the dogs, and using grenades they had scavenged from a previous battle:
Red glared hatefully at Father and barked, as though accusing him and his friends of violating a tacit agreement by invading their bivouac area and using new, cruelly undoglike weapons.
— Mo Yan
These "cruelly undoglike" weapons are comparable to the exotic weaponary the Japanese used while invading the rural Chinese countryside.
The fourth part of the book is called Sorghum Funeral, and it mainly covers the events before and after the aforementioned funeral where several people were trampled to death by overcrowding. It actually got much worse from there, as the funeral procession later gets ambushed by a rival Chinese battalion and many more people die. It was interesting that there was actually a lot of conflict in the story between different "groups" of Chinese soldiers originating from disparate villages and regions. It seemed strange that there would be so much blood shed between fellow countrymen during an actual invasion by a foreign country. I suspect the military squadrons that formed in these rural areas of China were not being controlled by the government very much, instead being essentially a gang that protected their immediate area and also fought off any other potential "gangs", as resources like food and weapons were limited.
Thinking about the main themes of Red Sorghum - I feel that Moye wanted to explore this period in China's history to highlight the characteristics that he believes define his culture and country: Unwavering strength, resolve, and vitality in the face of hardship. This is symbolized in the red sorghum which blankets the land surrounding Gaomi Township. It is a resilient plant which stands up to wind, sun, snow, rain, and even war - the fields of sorghum provided the stage on which countless raids and battles were fought. Despite all this, the sorghum plant remains a constant and enduring source of life and prosperity for the people of Gaomi Township. It feeds them, clothes them, makes the wine which provides industry and employment for many, and even provides cover and protection in times of conflict. Sorghum is the lifeblood of this village, and countless others like it, and the narrator aludes to this dependency when recounting the death of his grandmother,
Father falls to his knees, drapes her arms around his neck, then stands up with difficulty, lifting her off the ground. Fresh blood quickly soaks his neck and assails his nose with the aroma of sorghum wine. His legs tremble under the weight of her body; he staggers into the sorghum field as bullets whizz overhead. He parts the densely packed plants, stumbling forward, his sweat and his tears merging with Grandma’s fresh blood to turn his face into a demented mask. Grandma is getting heavier as the passing sorghum leaves lacerate him mercilessly.
— Mo Yan
Moye is symbolizing this dependence literally by describing the blood as smelling of "sorghum wine". The grandmother's death is amongst the sorghum, her son carrying her through the sorghum leaves while being cut and sliced by them. The sorghum pervades the whole scene. It is so critical to the life and death of the villagers that it is integrated into all the important moments in the story.
I think Moye is also highlighting the similarity between the citizens and the sorghum itself. They both endure hardships and have to fight for their survival, and they are both affected by the forces of nature. Unlike our modern society, which has practically eliminated the risk and influence of the natural world on our lives, the peoples of Gaomi Township during those years were as much a component of nature as the sorghum they harvested. In the closing scenes of the book, our narrator recounts his experience going back to Northeast Gaomi Township and visiting the areas where all these triumphs and atrocities happened. He visits the graves of his ancestors and along the way he takes note of a new strain of sorghum which has invaded the region. It is a green hybrid which, to him, doesn't stand as tall or look as bright, and it has a "a bitter, astringent taste" compared to the red sorghum of days past. Through the sorghum he is metaphorically speaking about himself and his generation, raised in cities and exposed to all sorts of luxuries and exotic lifestyles,
Hybrid sorghum never seems to ripen. Its grey-green eyes seem never to be fully opened. I stand in front of Second Grandma’s grave and look out at those ugly bastards that occupy the domain of the red sorghum. They assume the name of sorghum, but are bereft of tall, straight stalks; they assume the name of sorghum, but are devoid of the dazzling sorghum colour. Lacking the soul and bearing of sorghum, they pollute the pure air of Northeast Gaomi Township with their dark, gloomy, ambiguous faces.
— Mo Yan
It is interesting that he chooses to end the story on this note. After reading nearly 400 pages of questionable ethical behaviour from almost every character in the story, Moye sought to make a point that the hardships his forebearers experienced made them better people. Perhaps not better per se, but stronger and of better character. Moye asks whether perhaps the increase in comfort and quality of life has taken something away from the individual as well; a sacrifice of our essential humanity in exchange for happiness:
I sometimes think that there is a link between the decline in humanity and the increase in prosperity and comfort. Prosperity and comfort are what people seek, but the costs to character are often terrifying.
— Mo Yan
Overall, I enjoyed reading Red Sorghum. I learned a bit about what China looked like in the 20th Century, and how the war shaped and altered their society. It ultimately was a novel about humanity and survival - and how closely connected these two concepts are. We owe our existence to the strength and resilience of our ancestors. Red Sorghum was meant to celebrate our predecessors and their stories of survival, but also to pay respect for all those whose stories had to end early.