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Stick Out Your Tongue: Stories

Stick Out Your Tongue: Stories

5.0 1
by Ma Jian, Flora Drew

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Tibet is a land lost in the glare of politics and romanticism, and Ma Jian set out to discover its truths. Stick Out Your Tongue is a revelation: a startlingly vivid portrait of Tibet, both enchanting and horrifying, beautiful and violent, seductive and perverse.

In this profound work of fiction, a Chinese writer whose marriage has fallen apart travels


Tibet is a land lost in the glare of politics and romanticism, and Ma Jian set out to discover its truths. Stick Out Your Tongue is a revelation: a startlingly vivid portrait of Tibet, both enchanting and horrifying, beautiful and violent, seductive and perverse.

In this profound work of fiction, a Chinese writer whose marriage has fallen apart travels to Tibet. As he wanders through the countryside, he witnesses the sky burial of a Tibetan woman who died during childbirth, shares a tent with a nomad who is walking to a sacred mountain to seek forgiveness for sleeping with his daughter, meets a silversmith who has hung the wind-dried corpse of his lover on the wall of his cave, and hears the story of a young female incarnate lama who died during a Buddhist initiation rite. In the thin air of the high plateau, the divide between dream and reality becomes confused.

When this book was published in Chinese in 1997, the government accused Ma Jian of "harming the fraternal solidarity of the national minorities," and a blanket ban was placed on his future work. With its publication in English, including a new afterword by the author that sets the book in its personal and political context, readers get a rare glimpse of Tibet through Chinese eyes—and a window on the imagination of one of China's foremost writers.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
These powerful pages, so convincing in what appears an unflinching naturalism, are hard to shake from one's memory and remain, if nothing else, testimony to the storytelling artistry of Ma Jian. Still, it's little wonder that the pieces were once suppressed and that their author now lives in London.
— The Washington POst
Alan Cheuse
"The last story, 'The Final Initiation,' tells of a female lama incarnate whose death during an intense Buddhist initiation rite yields a ghastly but powerful souvenir for the narrator of all these stories, the stand-in for the gifted Ma Jian. The people he transfigures in his pages, the images of the high world of Tibet where the living and the dead seem to mingle with beauty and unease, the awe his language instills in us for this place of worship and sacrifice-all this becomes a striking souvenir of our own journey through these inspired pages."
The Chicago Tribune
Susan Salter Reynolds
"Perhaps it is the altitude, or the clear, pure air of Tibet, that makes the details (colors, landscape) prickle even on the page: 'When the surface of the lake mirrored the blue sky and plunged the distant snow peaks head-first into the water, I was filled with a sudden longing to take someone in my arms.'"
the Los Angeles Times
Elle Magazine
"A succinct, haunting set of stories portraying a beautiful and brutal feudal Tibet under cultural and political assault by China . . ."
Publishers Weekly
Ma's five evocative stories concern a young Chinese journalist's travels to the wild plateaus of occupied Tibet in the late 1980s. In the first story, "The Woman and the Blue Sky," the spiritually curious journalist, whose marriage has collapsed, hopes to witness a sky burial, in which a corpse is hacked up and fed to vultures; he meets a Sichuan soldier who invites him to the imminent burial of a 17-year-old pregnant woman, the soldier's lover as well as the wife of two local brothers. Incest and sexual violence figure in some of the stories, such as "The Eight-Fanged Roach," in which the journalist, seeking shelter in a tent at the edge of the Changtang Plateau, hears the awful confession of a nomad obsessed with the daughter he has sired by his mother and drunkenly raped. "The Final Initiation" is the account of a chosen Living Buddha, a 15-year-old girl whose yogic skills desert her after the monastery's sanctioned ritual rape and who dies during her last ceremony-immersion for three days in an icy river. Ma (The Noodle Maker) has a keen sense for both the feral and the deeply spiritual in his characters. The book was published in China in 1997; all of Ma's subsequent work has been banned there. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Written nearly 20 years ago, this latest offering from Ma Jian (Red Dust; Noodle Maker) to be translated into English consists of five loosely connected stories related by an unnamed Chinese narrator who is traveling in Tibet. The opening piece, "Woman and the Blue Sky," describes the narrator's search to photograph a traditional Tibetan sky burial, in which the body of the deceased is offered up to vultures. In a stroke of luck, he encounters a soldier who invites him to witness the ceremonial burial of his lover, Myima. Tragically, Myima was sold off at the age of six, sexually abused by her adoptive father, married to a pair of brothers, and died as a result of hemorrhaging during childbirth. The stories of tragedy and abuse continue in "Eight-Fanged Roach," where an old man tells of his incestuous relationship with his mother, resulting in the birth of his daughter, Metok. Though he searches for absolution for his sins, he sleeps with his daughter just prior to her running off with a local trader, and she descends into madness. In an afterword, the author notes that his work is controversial among both Tibetans and Chinese. Given their dark and explicitly disturbing nature, these stories will not be appreciated by all readers. But those who have read Xinran's Sky Burial will recognize the irony of hardship placed upon the human spirit set against the striking beauty offered by the Tibetan landscape. Academic libraries, larger public libraries, and those with collections of Asian fiction may want to add this title.-Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thinly fictionalized account of the Chinese dissident's travels in Tibet, first published in the journal People's Literature in 1987. In 1985, memoirist and novelist Ma Jian (The Noodle Maker, 2005) headed for Tibet, a land and culture he had long romanticized. He found a country in ruins, "a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out" after years of Chinese domination. Upon his return to Beijing, Ma Jian wrote the five stories collected here, and sent them off for publication without considering the repercussions. In short order, the print run of the journal was confiscated, the stories were banned and Ma Jian was forced into exile. The stories (and the author's castigations) aren't easy to read: In "The Eight-Fanged Roach," for instance, the narrator encounters a nomad on a pilgrimage to wash away his sins. (The old man committed incest with not only his mother, but also his daughter, who lost her mind as a result.) In another story, 15-year-old Sangsang Tashi, designated the reincarnation of a Living Buddha, undergoes her final initiation-standing for three days in a frozen river. The young girl is doomed, however, when the violence of a preceding ceremony shatters her concentration, and the yogic skills that had taken her years to acquire are lost in an instant. Unable to increase her body temperature, Sangsang succumbs to the frozen waters. In "The Woman and the Blue Sky," the narrator manipulates a young Chinese soldier into letting him witness a Tibetan sky burial. As the corpse, a young pregnant woman, is dismembered, her flesh given to the hawks and vultures, the soldier reveals that the young woman was his lover. The bleak settings and spare language work well together,thanks to translator Drew. Powerful, disturbing and complex.
From the Publisher
• “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature." —Gao Xingjian, Nobel Prize Winner

• “Ma Jian... creates a stunning vision of a culture too easily and dangerously airbrushed into the ideals of others.” —Scotland on Sunday

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Stick Out Your Tongue

By Ma Jian, Flora Drew

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1987 Ma Jian
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3125-0



Our bus ground to the top of the five-thousand-metre Kambala Pass. Behind us, a few army trucks were still struggling up the foothills. As the last clouds tore from the rocks and prayer stones on the summit and slipped down the gullies, Yamdrok Lake came into view. When the surface of the lake mirrored the blue sky and plunged the distant snow peaks head-first into the water, I was filled with a sudden longing to take someone in my arms. This was the mountain road to Central Tibet.

During the month that I'd stayed in Lhasa, I had visited many ancient monasteries and shrines, but it was to the Jokhang Temple that I'd returned most frequently. The Jokhang is Tibetan Buddhism's most venerated site. Pilgrims from every corner of Tibet circle its walls in a continual stream, spinning prayer wheels, praying for an end to their suffering in this life and a prosperous rebirth in the next. Crowds prostrate themselves before the entrance, resembling professional athletes as they hurl themselves to the ground, stand up with hands clasped in prayer, then throw themselves down again. These displays of religious fervour appeal to foreign travellers, but sky burials arouse an even greater interest. While I was staying in Lhasa, I trekked to the burial site several times, camera in hand. But I never managed to see a burial: it would either be finished by the time I'd arrived, or relatives of the deceased would spot me from afar and tell me to stay away. Sometimes they even threw stones at me. I always ended up traipsing back to Lhasa in a bad mood.

I had been told that when a Tibetan dies, the relatives keep the body at home for three days, then carry it to the burial site, making sure not to look behind them as they walk. When they reach the village gates or a crossroads, they smash an earthenware jar onto the ground to ensure that the dead person's soul will never return. At the funeral site, the burial master lights a fire of fragrant juniper branches. Wealthy families employ a lama to recite from the scriptures and relate to the guardians of the Buddha Realm the merits and achievements of the deceased. Depending on the level of these achievements, the deceased will either return to the world of men, or remain in the Buddha Realm for eternity. The burial master hacks all the flesh from the corpse and slices it into small pieces. He grinds the bones into a fine powder and adds some water to form a paste. (If the bones are young and soft, he will thicken it with ground barley.) He then feeds this paste, together with the flesh, to the surrounding hawks and vultures. If the deceased was a Buddhist, a holy swastika will be carved on the corpse's back. When everything has been eaten, the master presents the scalp to the relatives, and the burial is considered to be complete. After that, the only way the relatives can communicate with the deceased is to go to the temple and pray.

I was travelling to the remote countryside of Central Tibet. When the bus reached the foot of the mountain and hurtled along the shores of Yamdrok Lake, I began to feel dizzy. I opened the window. The lake was calm; there wasn't a speck of dust in the breeze. The bus, however, was crammed to the brim, and the stench of dank sheepskin that wafted from the back made it hard for me to breathe. When I could take it no longer, I told the driver to stop, and jumped out.

It was August. The Tibetan Plateau's golden month. The sky was so blue and transparent, it felt as though there was no air. I walked to the shore of the lake, put down my bag, took out a flannel and washed my face. In the distance, at the foot of a mountain, I could see the village of Nangartse. A hundred or so mud houses stood in rows along the foothills, prayer flags jutting from each roof. Above them, halfway up the mountain, was a small Buddhist temple, its walls painted in strips of red and white with a band of blue running below the eaves. Beside it were the ruins of a monastery, and a freshly whitewashed stupa, housing the ashes of a dead saint, gleaming in the sun.

It was a beautiful place. The shores of the lake were clean. The water was so clear, I could see every pebble. Beams of sunlight shone right down to the bed. The coloured prayer flags on the distant roofs moved in the wind, whispering the beauty of the Buddha Realm. Below the houses, near the shore of the lake, stood a cement hut with a red tiled roof. I assumed it was the village headquarters, and pulled out from my bag a forged introduction letter that was stamped with a red seal. As I approached, I discovered that it was not the village headquarters, it was just an ordinary brick hut. A soldier stepped out. From his accent I could tell that he was from Sichuan. He invited me to come inside and sit down, so I followed him through the door. The hut was an army repair station. The soldier had been posted here to maintain the smooth connection of the army telephone line. When the line was working, he would go fishing on the lake, and read a few kung-fu novels too, I assumed — seeing the pile of them lying on the floor. He was delighted when I asked to stay. He had lived here for four years, and could speak Tibetan quite well. He often went up to the village to have a drink with the locals. A rifle hung from a nail on the wall. The room was a mess — it looked like a scrap yard.

I asked if there was a burial site nearby, and he said that there was. Then I asked if there had been any burials lately. He froze for a second, and told me that a woman in the village had recently passed away. When I asked whether I might be allowed to watch the burial, the soldier muttered inaudibly then said that he needed to buy some beer. I handed him some money, but he pushed it away and walked out of the door. It occurred to me that this might be my last chance to see a sky burial: I was unlikely to come across one again in the next few days. I couldn't let this opportunity slip by.

In the evening, we opened the beers and chatted about the latest news from China. I tried to worm myself into his favour. He liked to fish, so I said that I liked fishing too, and promised that when I returned to Beijing I would send him an imported, stainless-steel fishing rod. I gave him my address and bragged that Premier Zhao Ziyang lived right next door to me. Needless to say, you could search Beijing for days and never find the address that I scribbled down for him. Then I talked about women. He listened avidly, sucking at his cigarette. I told him wild stories about today's liberated women, and in a Sichuan dialect I assured him that when he came to Beijing, I would let him sleep with my girlfriend. 'No problem,' I said. He brushed his hand over the table, then paused and told me that the woman was only seventeen. I couldn't believe it. So young. 'She died of a haemorrhage during childbirth,' he said. 'The foetus is still inside her womb.'

I crushed out my cigarette. We both fell silent. The floor of the room was damp. A single bed was pushed against the wall. The bed was wooden and painted yellow; on its headboard were a red star and an army regiment number. The walls of the room were pasted with pages torn from colour magazines. A pile of hooks and electric cables lay scattered beneath the washstand behind the door. There was just one window in the room. The lower pane was covered with a sheet of newspaper. Through the upper pane, I watched the sky turn from dark blue to black. It had been a long time since I'd heard a truck pass by outside.

The soldier stood up, leaned against the bed and said, 'You can go to the burial if you like. The people here won't mind. Most of them have never seen a camera before. Myima's two husbands certainly haven't.'

'Whose two husbands?' I asked.

'The dead woman's.'

'How come she had two husbands?'

'She married two brothers, that's why,' he answered quietly.

I paused, then asked why she had married two brothers. But as soon as the question left my mouth, I realised how disrespectful it sounded. The woman was dead. It was no business of mine why she had married two men.

He answered me, though. 'Myima was not from these parts. She was born in Nathula. She was a weak child, the youngest of eleven. When she was six years old, her parents sold her to another family in exchange for nine sheep hides.'

'Does that kind of thing still happen, then?' I asked.

He ignored my question and continued, 'She grew stronger after she moved here. She even attended school in Lungmatse. That was before her adoptive mother died, though.'

'And what was her name?' I asked, taking a pen from my bag. It sounded like an interesting story.

'Her adoptive father is a drunk. When he drinks too much he breaks into song and starts grabbing women. Sometimes he grabbed Myima. After his wife died, his behaviour got worse. How could a young girl protect herself against such a brute?' His voice was trembling. I could tell that he was about to swear. When he'd been showing off to me a few minutes earlier, he'd let out a torrent of abuse.

'Bloody bastard! Just wait until I'm out of these army clothes!' His face turned from red to purple, in that surly, stubborn way typical of Sichuan men. I kept quiet and waited for his anger to subside.

He went to the door and checked the direction of the wind. The telephone line was completely still. I finished my beer and circled the room. Although it was summer, the altitude was so high that there were no mosquitoes. The damp air from the lake poured into the room and chilled my bones.

'Will you take me to see the brothers?' I asked. Without looking round, he grabbed a set of keys and a torch from the table and said, 'Let's go.'

We climbed to the village along dark, narrow passages of mud and brick. The path was rough and bumpy. The straw and dung on the ground flinched back silently as my torchlight fell on them. Behind every wall, I could hear the sound of dogs barking.

The soldier pushed through a gate and shouted a few words of Tibetan at a house with a light at the window. We walked inside.

The men seated around the fire turned and stared at me, mouths agape. The eldest one stood up and started speaking in Tibetan with the soldier, while the others continued to gawp at me. I took out my lighter and flicked it on, then passed my cigarettes around. In the dark, all I could see was the white of the men's teeth. I flicked the lighter again and let the flame rise. Their jaws slackened. I handed the lighter to the man who was standing up. He took it from me and sat down. Everyone's eyes focused on the lighter. They passed it between them, looking up at me from time to time to exchange a smile. At last I felt that I could sit down. The young man next to me took a chunk of dried mutton from his bag and cut me a piece. I had tasted raw mutton like that in Yangpachen, so I pulled the knife from my belt and took a slice. They seemed pleased, and handed me a bowl of barley wine. It was still green, and there were husks floating on the surface. My mind turned to the dead woman.

The smell of burning dung was suffocating. I glanced around the room. It was as simply furnished as most Tibetan homes: prayer scarves draped over a wooden table, whitewashed walls. To the right of the front door was an opening into a dark chamber. I presumed that this was Myima's room, or a larder, perhaps. Opposite the fireplace was a traditional Tibetan cabinet, and a scroll painting of Yama, Lord of Death, gripping the Wheel of Life in his hands and flashing his ferocious teeth. It was an old painting; its edges were pasted with scraps of coloured paper printed with words from the scriptures.

I guessed that the men were discussing my request to see the sky burial. A few of them were talking in Tibetan and nodding at me. The soldier stood up and gestured for me to follow him. He led me to the chamber and shone his torch on a large hemp sack that was tied at the top with cord and stood on a platform of mud bricks.

'That's her,' he said.

I flashed my torch on the sack. She appeared to be sitting upright, facing the door, her head bowed low. I presumed that the men had had to push her head down before they could tie up the sack.

Back in the soldier's hut, I lay on the bed, eyes wide open, imagining what the woman had looked like. She could sing, like the Tibetan women I'd heard in the forests or high on the mountain paths. At noon, she bound her sheepskin cloak to her waist, and bent down over the fields, her long braids of hair slipping over her ears. I gave her the face of a girl I'd seen on a bus: large red cheeks, small nose, dark-rimmed eyes, a steady gaze. Her neck was soft and pale. As I stood beside her, I could see the dark dip between her breasts tremble with each shake of the bus.

The soldier walked in from his nightly inspection of the telephone line and switched on the light. His face was blank. He lit a cigarette and lay down beside me. Neither of us was in a mood to sleep.

Eventually he spoke. 'I might as well tell you. You'll be gone in a few days. Besides, I can't keep this to myself much longer. The pain is too much.' I propped a pillow against the wall and sat up.

'Myima and I were very close,' he continued. 'That's why I've stayed here so long. Most people would have applied for a transfer years ago. I first met her up on the mountain. I'd climbed up to repair the telephone line two mountains behind. She had let her sheep out and was sitting on the grass. On my way back, I was carrying a large bundle of wire. It weighed a ton. I said hello and sat down beside her. Her dog glanced at me then went back to sleep. It was a hot afternoon. Her sheep had wandered off to graze on a breezy slope. She smiled, then looked at me straight in the eye, without any shame or embarrassment. I told her I worked in the repair station below. She didn't understand me, so I traced my finger along the telephone line to my house at the bottom. She laughed and turned her face to the Kambala Pass. Two trucks were driving up the foothills over there, too far away for us to hear. Myima said that she'd seen me before, and asked why I'd stayed here so long. Her accent was different from the other Tibetans in the village. Before I left her that day, I cut off a long piece of wire and gave it to her as a present. I told her that she could use it to hang out her laundry or to tie things up with.

'After that, I often went up the mountain to see her. She'd be sitting there, waiting for me, with home-made dried mutton and barley wine. Sometimes she made gin for me from dates and mountain pears. I would stay with her until sunset. She was cleaner than most Tibetan girls — I grew to like the smell of mutton and milk on her skin. One day, I stretched my hand out to unfasten the belt of her sheepskin cloak. She didn't push me away, so I put my arm around her. She was the first woman I'd ever touched. After that, as soon as I got close to her, or my hand brushed against her cloak, I'd panic. I could tell that she wanted me to put my hand inside her cloak, but I was too afraid. She told me how her adoptive father kept grabbing her, and how she'd often run away and be too frightened to return home. Everyone in the village knew about it. All the young men in the village looked down on her.

'Last year, at about this time of night, she burst into my room and felt her way to my bed. She had never slept here before ... We spent the whole night together. In the morning, she pushed me aside and said that she had to leave. I helped her get dressed, then I went back to bed. Before she left, she took off the turquoise necklace she'd worn since she was a child and slipped it under my pillow. It wasn't until the next day that I found out that she'd agreed to marry the two brothers.'

He paused and looked up at me. 'If this gets out, I'm finished. My leaders will kill me.'

I nodded solemnly, and gestured to him that I would keep my lips sealed. That is why, in this story, I refer to him only as 'the soldier'.

He took out the necklace from the drawer. I held it under the lamp and studied it closely. It was a string of agate and red wooden beads, with a large lump of turquoise in the middle. The turquoise was smooth and dark, and still smelt of the woman's milky skin. I thought of her now, sitting in the hemp sack on the platform of mud bricks.

'Did she visit you again after that?' I asked.

'No. After she got married, she was busy with her chores and seldom left the house. The brothers liked her very much, apparently. Whenever they'd had a drink, the villagers would hear Myima yelling late into the night. The younger brother was even seen making love to Myima on his horse as he rode back from Wangdan Temple. Myima was already pregnant by then. The brothers were in their forties. They'd never been married before.'

'Why didn't she visit you again?'

'She did,' the soldier replied. 'I just don't want to tell you everything.'

When I reached the sky burial site, the sun had already risen. This wasn't a large flat boulder jutting from a cliff like the burial site in Lhasa, it was a gravel terrace halfway up the mountain between the foothills and the higher slopes. Dirty ropes hung from metal posts that were jammed into cracks in the ground. Beside them lay rusty knives, two hammers and an axe with a broken handle. The gravel was scattered with scraps of bone, clumps of hair, smashed rings, glass beads and bird droppings dotted with human fingernails. The mountain was silent. Hawks and vultures sat perched on the summit. In the valley below, ribbons of mist rose from Yamdrok and rolled into a single sheet that slowly covered the entire lake. The mist thickened and spread, rising and falling like the chest of a woman breathing, drifting higher and higher until it veiled the blood-red sun. The mist still clinging to the lake trembled slightly, then broke free and floated towards the foothills.


Excerpted from Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian, Flora Drew. Copyright © 1987 Ma Jian. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

The San Francisco Chronicle
"...sharply polished...picture-perfect...thoughtful...[and] moving..."

Meet the Author

Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives. He is the author of Red Dust and The Noodle Maker, which FSG published in 2005.

Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender’s apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and traveled for three years across China. In 1987 he completed Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his future work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but he continued to travel to China, and he supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives.

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