Mo Yan through a Dog’s Eyes

Mo Yan, born Guan Moye, is widely regarded as one of contemporary China’s most talented and accomplished authors. Predictably, his receipt of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has brought him an ...

Mo Yan, born Guan Moye, is widely regarded as one of contemporary China’s most talented and accomplished authors. Predictably, his receipt of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has brought him an avalanche of new attention. Many critics have celebrated him for being the first Chinese national to win the coveted award,1 while others have attempted to critically assess Mo Yan’s standing as a public intellectual. There have been countless discussions of Mo Yan’s work itself, examining his prose, his focus on rural Shandong, and his deployment of what the Nobel committee called “hallucinatory realism.” Here, however, I will approach the author from a different angle: how did Mo Yan, near the beginning of his literary career, imagine his relationship to an institutionally sanctioned literary tradition, as well as to other contemporary writers positioned at that tradition’s outskirts?

One of Mo Yan’s best known early stories, “White Dog and the Swing,”2 offers a useful prism for understanding the hybrid quality of his writing, and particularly its relationship to what he sees as China’s canonical and heterodox literary traditions. “White Dog and the Swing” opens with a lyrical description of the story’s middle-aged narrator returning to his hometown for the first time in a decade, where he encounters the “white dog” of the title. The narrator explains that there was once a breed of large white dogs in this area of the Shandong province. For many generations, however, the dogs have been thoroughly interbred with others to the point where there are no longer any pure specimens left. Locals, however, will still call an animal a “white dog” as long as the non-white portions of its fur are not too prominent. The dog in this opening scene is in fact distinguished as much by its black paws as by its white coat.

In structuring “White Dog and the Swing” around a narrator’s alienated return to his hometown, Mo Yan is also staging his own virtual reencounter with a collection of “hometown” stories by the early 20th-century author Lu Xun—widely regarded as the father of modern Chinese literature. In Lu Xun’s 1921 short story “My Hometown,”3 for instance, the narrator describes his return home after an absence of more than twenty years, where he encounters an old childhood friend named Runtu. Now adults, both men are acutely conscious of the socioeconomic gap that separates them, and upon seeing Runtu the narrator finds himself “with nothing to say.” Seeing his seven-year-old nephew playing happily with Runtu’s son, however, the narrator allows himself to imagine that the two boys may be able to enjoy the friendship that he and Runtu will never experience again.

In Lu Xun’s “New Year’s Sacrifice,” published three years later, the narrator also describes a trip back to his hometown, where he encounters a servant woman he had met on earlier visits. The woman, who is known simply as “Xianglin’s wife,” abruptly asks the narrator whether the soul survives after death, whether there is a hell, and whether they will ever see their dead relatives again. The narrator feels humiliated by his inability to answer the woman’s questions, and is further disconcerted the next day when he learns that she has suddenly passed away. He proceeds to present a detailed account about the woman’s abject life, after which he allows himself to be distracted by the firecrackers being set off as part of the auspicious celebrations for the lunar New Year, remarking that this permits him to cleanse himself of the “doubts and misgivings that had plagued [him] all day.”

In both of these works, Lu Xun takes as his starting point a description of an alienated encounter between a narrator who emphasizes his own status as an intellectual and a member of a social elite, and a figure from the narrator’s past who is located at the margins of the social order as the narrator conceives it. In each case, moreover, this sense of alienation is implicitly the driving force behind the creation of the literary work itself. Both narrators find themselves figuratively or literally silenced by their encounters with these figures from their past, and in both instances the written narrative may be viewed as a displaced response to the narrators’ resulting sense of weakness and vulnerability.

Composed about 60 years later, “White Dog and the Swing” also revolves around an educated narrator returning to his hometown. The story opens with a description of the dog leading the narrator, an educated intellectual who has returned to his hometown, across a bridge. On the other side is the narrator’s childhood friend, Nuan, who is herself repeatedly described using canine imagery. Upon noticing the bulge of Nuan’s breasts under her shirt, for instance, the narrator is reminded of a children’s song in which a young woman’s breasts are compared to gold, a married woman’s breasts are compared to silver, and a mother’s breasts are described as being “like a dog’s teats.” The narrator asks Nuan how many children she has and is surprised (given China’s One Child policy) to learn that she has three sons, though she explains that she had triplets, “like a dog giving birth to pups.” The narrator later characterizes her disfigured appearance “a cross between human and dog” (renmo gouyang), implicitly positioning her as a figurative extension of the white dog that helps reconnect her to the narrator in the first place. In this way, she becomes both an embodiment of the white dog itself, as well as a symptom of the inevitable limits of the narrator’s own perspective.

This same white dog that appears at the beginning of “White Dog and the Swing” also provides a point of entry into Mo Yan’s 1986 story “Abandoned Child,” in which the narrator remarks,

That was the summer before last, and when I was on my way home, I was led away by a white dog. I then encountered my old friend Nuan, whom I hadn’t seen for many years, and this in turn resulted in a series of stories. After I altered and rearranged these stories, I wrote a fictional piece entitled “White Dog and the Swing,” which I still consider to be a fine piece of work.4

The remainder of “Abandoned Child” revolves around the narrator’s discovery of a baby girl who has been abandoned by her parents. The narrator finds the infant and feeds her, and then goes to ask the township chief for advice on what to do next. The chief insists that the narrator should raise the infant himself, since it is unlikely anyone else would want her, leading the narrator to exclaim indignantly, “Is there no justice in the world?” At this point, the story takes a curious detour, as the narrator’s attention abruptly returns to a dog bite he received on his way into the chief’s office. His leg is now covered in blood, and it suddenly occurs to him that the dog could well have had rabies. As the roots of his teeth begin to itch, the narrator comes to feel an irrepressible urge to “bite people” (yao ren).

This desire resonates with Lu Xun’s Gogol-inspired 1918 short story, “Diary of a Madman.” One of the defining literary works of China’s 20th century, “Diary of a Madman” opens with a description of a narrator returning to his hometown. Here, he is given a journal kept by an acquaintance during a period when the diarist appeared to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia or some other mental illness. The journal details the diarist’s conviction that everyone around him has been infected with a cannibalistic urge to “eat people” (chi ren)—a condition that has conventionally been read as an allegorical critique of a self-destructive tendency in contemporary Chinese society. The diarist nevertheless holds out hope that society’s children may perhaps remain uninfected, concluding with an impassioned plea to “Save the children!” This theme is, of course, one of the central concerns of Mo Yan’s “Abandoned Child,” whose narrator quite literally saves an infant left to die.

An illustration from Lu Xuns <i>A Madmans Diary</i> (1918)

An illustration from Lu Xuns A Madmans Diary (1918)

One of Mo Yan’s most explicit engagements with Lu Xun’s literary legacy can be found in his 1987 story “The Cat Assembly,” which opens with the narrator’s description of how,

For the past several months, I had been continuously reading Lu Xun’s works, day and night. This was at the urging of a friend with a piercing gaze. At the time, the friend instructed me, “You must read Lu Xun.” I replied with surprise, “I already have.” He then said, “Even if you have read him, you must read him again. You must read him as though your life depends on it.”5

The narrator recalls reading somewhere that Lu Xun had once begun working on a novel about the Long March, and reflects that it was too bad that Lu Xun never managed to finish a full-length novel. The narrator’s friend replies that it might be just as well, since even if Lu Xun had completed a novel it would not necessarily have been very good, given that “even great figures necessarily have their limits.” This frank observation about one of the nation’s most respected literary figures seems extraordinary, particularly coming from a contemporary author who had only published his own first novel that same year.

The remainder of “The Cat Assembly” is explicitly in dialogue with Lu Xun’s 1926 essay, “Dog, Cat, and Mouse,”6 which responds to contemporary discussions of Lu Xun’s alleged hatred of cats. Mo Yan’s narrator offers several pages of descriptions of cats found in Chinese and foreign literary works, but notes that “the preceding cats are all from books, and are not real.” He then uses a set of stories about cats, combined with canine-inspired imagery, to anchor a discussion of his childhood under China’s Four Cleansings Campaign in the early 1960s. He recounts, for instance, how the local government at one point sent a female cadre to his house to investigate the family’s situation. Given the volatile political atmosphere at the time the narrator’s parents warn him not to speak out of turn, but he notes that he has always had a problem with speaking his mind, and that you can’t, as his mother colorfully puts it, “teach a dog not to eat shit.” The narrator observes, however, that this phrase doesn’t really make sense, given that any reasonable dog would certainly choose to eat real food over shit any day. He proceeds to riff happily on this scatological theme, reflecting that “even if the shit were produced by someone who had just eaten meat, this would still be merely the dregs left over after the valuable elements have already been absorbed by the person’s intestines, and consequently there was no way that it could be found to be more savory or nutritious than actual meat.”

The narrator’s family then offers the visiting cadre what, by their impoverished standards, is an elaborate banquet, and when she invites them to join her they politely demur, claiming that they have already eaten. The young narrator, however, is famished, and when the cadre notices his discomfort she insists that he have some. He proceeds to wolf the food down—eating, as he himself observes, “like a dog eating shit.”

While works like “White Dog and the Swing” and “Abandoned Child” use dogs to represent a perspective that is radically distinct from the narrator’s own, here the young narrator ironically identifies himself with a dog eating human excrement. Although the shit-eating metaphor was originally introduced to describe the narrator’s outspokenness, the canine imagery simultaneously underscores the narrator’s link to the figure of the author behind the text itself.

After the meal, the narrator’s mother dresses him down for his lack of restraint. At this point, the narrative fractures into something akin to stream of consciousness—a string of seven loosely connected reflections linked by dashes and followed by an ellipsis. The last of these linked reflections consists of the narrator’s observation—seemingly apropos of nothing in particular—that, “according to contemporary practices of literary criticism, it is frequently assumed that all fictional works written in the first person are based on the author’s personal experience, such that Mo Yan’s father thereby becomes the ‘son of a bandit,’ and Mo Yan’s grandmother and a bandit have sex in a field of sorghum …”

The first-person fictional work at risk of being mistaken for personal experience here is Mo Yan’s first novel, Red Sorghum, which he began releasing as a set of independent novellas in 1986 before publishing it as a full-length novel in 1987. The work traces four generations of a Shandong family, beginning in the 1920s with a former bandit who will become the narrator’s grandfather seducing the narrator’s future grandmother, whose father has just forced her to marry the leprous son of a family that owns a sorghum wine distillery. Red Sorghum is still one of Mo Yan’s best-known works, though it is notable that in “The Cat Assembly” he cites it to strategically remind readers of his status as an established author, while at the same time pointedly warning them not to conflate his different fictional narratorial personae with the biographical author himself.

The technique wherein Mo Yan’s narrators repeatedly refer to the author’s earlier works is deployed most extensively in his novel Republic of Wine, which he composed between 1989 and 1992. Structured as a series of multiply embedded narratives, this elaborately metatextual novel is framed by an epistolary dialogue between a doctoral candidate in “Wine Studies” and a fictional version of the author himself. It turns out that the doctoral candidate, Li Yidou, is fascinated by the novel Red Sorghum, which has inspired him to try to become an author in his own right. He sends a series of stories he has written to the fictional Mo Yan, who responds with some polite encouragement, although privately horrified by what he perceives to be the stories’ astonishingly poor quality.

Several of the short stories that Li Yidou sends “Mo Yan” adopt a decidedly bacchanalian tone, particularly the first: “Alcohol.” Upon receiving this story,  the fictional Mo Yan writes Li Yidou that,

During times like this, it is fair to say that literature is not the choice of the wise, and those of us for whom it is too late can but sigh at a lack of talent and skills that leaves us only with literature. A writer by the name of Li Qi once wrote a novel entitled Please Don’t Call Me a Dog, in which he describes a gang of local punks who are deprived of opportunities to cheat or mug or steal or rob, so one of them says, “Let’s go become goddamned writers.”

The plot ascribed to Please Don’t Call Me a Dog is that of contemporary author Wang Shuo’s 1989 novel Not Serious at All, although the title attributed to the fictional Li Qi’s work is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to another Wang Shuo novel published that same year: Please Don’t Call Me Human.7

One of China’s most popular authors in the late 1980s and 1990s, Wang Shuo developed a distinctive brand of so-called hooligan literature, which focused on disillusioned Beijing urbanites and incorporated large amounts of local slang. The real Mo Yan clearly admires Wang Shuo, having remarked in a 2002 interview that “I have, from the very beginning, believed that he is one of the very few Chinese authors who have managed to truly influence an entire generation of Chinese readers with their works”8

Republic of Wine’s fictional Mo Yan appears to regard the author who represents Wang Shuo with considerable skepticism, but nevertheless recommends his works to Li Yidou. Li Yidou, in turn, is even more critical of Please Don’t Call Me a Dog and of contemporary hooligan literature than “Mo Yan” is himself. Instead, Li Yidou cites Lu Xun’s work as an example of the sort of canonical orthodoxy he is attempting to emulate, and describes one of his own stories as a “latter-day ‘Diary of a Madman.’”

In this epistolary exchange between the fictional Mo Yan and his putative acolyte, Li Yidou, we find a curious interrogation of notions of literary orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The fictional Mo Yan, who is presented as an embodiment of the contemporary literary establishment, strategically allies himself with the fictional Wang Shuo, who is known for his heterodox position at the margins of that same establishment. Meanwhile, Li Yidou, whose literary offerings “Mo Yan” can barely stomach, rejects Wang Shuo and instead allies himself with the arch-canonical Lu Xun. Within the context of the novel, however, Li Yidou’s appeal to Lu Xun functions not so much as a return to an idealized literary canon from which “Mo Yan” has himself already begun to stray, but rather a radical defamiliarization of that same canonical tradition itself.

Even as many of Mo Yan’s works explicitly appeal to an idealized literary tradition linking him back to Lu Xun, his own writing is characterized less by its strict adherence to this tradition than by its deviations from it. Like the “white dog” in Mo Yan’s 1986 story, in other words, Mo Yan’s oeuvre is defined not by its orthodox “whiteness” but rather by its distinctive discolorations—its figurative black paws.

Just as Mo Yan’s early stories are in dialogue with moments of alienated recognition in Lu Xun’s work, Republic of Wine imagines how future authors might similarly find themselves in a state of alienated recognition with respect to the emergent orthodoxy that is already cohering around Mo Yan’s own works. In refusing to align himself with the canonical tradition here, Mo Yan is tacitly allying himself with the motley pack of dogs that roam through his work, and who represent new hybrid possibilities that his oeuvre might help engender. His plea, in other words, is precisely that readers treat him as a dog—a contemporary “white dog.” icon

  1. In 2000 the Nobel was awarded to Gao Xingjian, who was originally from China but by that point had already become a naturalized French citizen.
  2. Mo Yan, “Baigou qiuqianjia” (White dog and the swing), in Dao shen piao, pp. 313-332. An English translation of this story by Michael Duke is available in Worlds of Modern Chinese Fiction, edited by Michael Duke (M. E. Sharpe, 1991), pp. 45-62. All translations of this and Mo Yan’s other stories, however, are my own.
  3. Translated as “My Old Home” in The Real Story of Ah-Q.
  4. Mo Yan, “Qi ying” (Abandoned child), in Dao shen piao, p. 45.
  5. Mo Yan, “Mao shi huicui” (Cat assembly), in Dao shen piao, p. 102.
  6. Lu Xun, “Gou, mao, shu” (Dog, cat, mouse), in Lu Xun quanji (Lu Xun’s collected works), (Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1996), pp. 232-242.
  7. Wang Shuo, Qianwan bie ba wo dangren (Please don’t treat me as a human), in Wang Shuo wenji, vol. 4 (Huayi chubanshe, 1994), pp. 283–481. Translated as Please Don’t Call Me Human, Howard Goldblatt, trans. (Hyperion, 2000). Howard Goldblatt’s translation of the preceding passage from Republic of Wine has been slightly amended to underscore the parallel between the title of Li Qi’s fictional novel and (Goldblatt’s own translation of) the title of Wang Shuo’s real novel.
  8. Zhu Hongjun, Zhongguo wenhuabao (Chinese culture daily), July 17, 2002. (
Featured image: Still from Red Sorghum.