Flashbacks of a township’s brutal Japanese occupation.
359 pages, ★★★★
China descended into a civil war in the 1920s. While China was divided and weak, Japan invaded during the 1930s, and brutally occupied some of the eastern regions. Pillage, burning, rape, torture and murder were commonplace during this dark chapter of Chinese history. In Nanjing, some 300,000 people were massacred within just a few days (an act which the Japanese, to this day, still do not acknowledge). Japanese forces retreated from China after the two nuclear bombs that ended the Second World War, which allowed China to focus all its energy on national re-unification (which was easier now the Nationalist Party had been weakened). China’s response to the Japanese invasion thus helped to end the civil war, to unify China under the Communist Party, and gave China a revived impetus to rejuvenate itself as a People’s Republic in 1949, which still exists today.
Red Sorghum is told as a series of flashbacks from this dark period of Chinese history. Like real flashbacks, they’re not recalled in chronological order, but as disconnected fragments that sometimes overlap in time. Characters thus seem to die then re-appear, then die again from another perspective, as time jumps back and forth.
More than half of the characters die by the end, most of whom are murdered by Japanese soldiers. Many of them are tortured before they’re killed, and the book contains vivid descriptions of rape, of body parts being cut off, of people being skinned alive, and of people being mutilated by bayonets and bullets.
At one point, Japanese soldiers destroy the entire village. Only six survivors remain (in the story, at least), and they pick up Japanese weapons and continue to fight to the death.
The Chinese patriotism and historic realism in Red Sorghum helped this book to become a best-selling modern classic in China.
The Japan/China struggle is echoed in the courtroom. On page 117, Magistrate Cao decides who has custody of a chicken—Wu the 3rd, or a “woman” (we never learn her name). Magistrate Cao demands the chicken’s stomach be slit open to see who’d been feeding it which type of grain. Wu the 3rd obeys Magistrate Cao and slices open the innocent chicken to prove he owns it—a harrowing echo of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. In my opinion, the Magistrate’s verdict—to award the chicken to the “woman”—was based on the temperaments of the two defendants (one brutal, like the Japanese; and one kind, like the Chinese), and ignored the evidence, spilled out on the courtroom floor, entirely.
Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s darkest book. It’s realistic, though, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Chinese history. However realistic it might be, a book this bloodthirsty could only earn four stars from me. ★★★★
- Film Review: Red Sorghum (tweedling.com)
- Mo Yan Nobel lecture derided by China dissidents (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
- More translations needed for Chinese literature to expand worldwide (nzweek.com)
- Pow! by Mo Yan – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Mo Yan: China’s reluctant Nobel laureate (bbc.co.uk)
- Chinese Nobel winner dodges call for laureate’s freedom (todayonline.com)
- Former Japanese PM apologizes for wartime crimes in China (news.xinhuanet.com)