Sandalwood Death [NOOK Book]


This powerful novel by Mo Yan—one of contemporary China’s most famous and prolific writers—is both a stirring love story and an unsparing critique of political corruption during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial epoch.

Sandalwood Death is set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901)—an anti-imperialist struggle waged by North China’s farmers and craftsmen in opposition to Western influence. Against a broad historical canvas, the novel centers on the ...

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Sandalwood Death

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This powerful novel by Mo Yan—one of contemporary China’s most famous and prolific writers—is both a stirring love story and an unsparing critique of political corruption during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial epoch.

Sandalwood Death is set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901)—an anti-imperialist struggle waged by North China’s farmers and craftsmen in opposition to Western influence. Against a broad historical canvas, the novel centers on the interplay between its female protagonist, Sun Meiniang, and the three paternal figures in her life. One of these men is her biological father, Sun Bing, an opera virtuoso and a leader of the Boxer Rebellion. As the bitter events surrounding the revolt unfold, we watch Sun Bing march toward his cruel fate, the gruesome “sandalwood punishment,” whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.

Filled with the sensual imagery and lacerating expressions for which Mo Yan is so celebrated, Sandalwood Death brilliantly exhibits a range of artistic styles, from stylized arias and poetry to the antiquated idiom of late Imperial China to contemporary prose. Its starkly beautiful language is here masterfully rendered into English by renowned translator Howard Goldblatt.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This novel by the 2012 Nobel Laureate, originally published in China in 2004, embodies a labyrinthine web of changing alliances and vengeance. Set during the Boxer Rebellion, the turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese uprising against Western imperialism, it features pivotal figure Sun Meiniang, who reveals in the first sentence that she will kill her father-in-law in seven days. Meiniang's husband is the town butcher whose executioner father is ordered to devise the most diabolical death (the titular sandalwood death) for Meiniang's own father—an opera singer-turned-rebel-leader—who has been coerced into surrender by Meiniang's magistrate lover. Alternately voiced by Meiniang and her four men, the narrative dovetails with passages from an opera of the same name, quickly gaining momentum toward an epic crescendo. VERDICT In the wake of Mo's Nobel win, his upcoming titles will garner greater attention. However, demand for Death might prove higher than actual readership, not because of a lack of quality writing but for its power to conjure the most heinous scenes of torturous death. Mo's "Author's Note" warns at book's end, "This novel of mine will likely not be a favorite of readers of western literature, especially in highbrow circles […] my novel will be appreciated only by readers who have an affinity with the common man." Diligent readers will also need to detach themselves from the gruesome machinations of Mo's "common man" to reach the final pages.—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
The New York Times Book Review - Ian Buruma
…artfully written in the style of a local folk opera called Maoqiang, now almost defunct…The rhythms, idioms and narrative techniques of Maoqiang are woven into the text in a seamless way that only a master storyteller can pull off.
Publishers Weekly
In an Author's Note, the Nobel Prize winner observes that he "had trouble" answering friends who asked what this historical novel was about, before concluding that it was "all about sound." Mo attempts to preempt the criticism he anticipates by stating that the book "will likely not be a favorite of readers of Western literature, especially in highbrow circles," because of his use of "rhymes and dramatic narration, all in the service of a smooth, easy to understand, overblown, resplendent narrative." But there are other barriers to enjoyment than style. Flashbacks present the life of Sun Bing, a leader of the Boxer Rebellion who "led the fight between local residents and the German devils." The governor of Shandong province sentences him to death, seeking to "unnerve unruly subjects and preserve discipline and the rule of law." Sun Bing is to suffer the Sandalwood Death, an excruciatingly prolonged method of executionâ?”the sadism of which will be hard for many readers to stomach. The details of human suffering end up co-opting the story, overshadowing larger, more nuanced points the author is trying to make. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

Mo Yan’s recreation of the Boxer Rebellion opens, as it will close, with first-person narratives by voluptuous Meiniang and the four men in her life: her father, an opera singer leading the rebellion against the German railroad workers; her husband, a dull, muscular butcher of dogs and pigs; her father-in-law, the Imperial executioner assigned to punish the rebel leader; and her rich lover, the Magistrate who betrays her father to the foreign invaders where the sandalwood death will be his punishment. The plot has all the ingredients of an opera tragedy, and the monologues that form the opening and closing chapters each begin with lyrics from a Chinese folk opera based on the same story called Sandalwood Death.
Three public executions, at the novel’s beginning, middle, and end, are set pieces of ceremonial horror. Zhao Jia, the Imperial executioner, is such a cold-blooded, cunning, ruthless fellow that only the novel’s first sentence, revealing that the heroine will stab him to death in seven days, gives the reader the courage to read on as he performs hideously cruel public executions as well as shames, abuses and torments the more likeable pawns in this dark, suspenseful love story. Fortunately, the heroine’s not-so-bright husband provides comic relief, blundering along good-naturedly, blind to the obvious, falling out of bed when she screams in her sleep with desire for another man.
Mo Yan is a mesmerizing storyteller and a daring one, constantly showing the other side of characters you thought you knew. He gives away plot turns before they happen. He introduces a character in flashback after showing him publically executed by the hideous slicing death of 500 cuts. Though his irrepressible trademark humor has little opportunity to shine here, the scenes are just as knockdown powerful, and his sense of theatricality knows how to prolong suspense and deliver wallops of surprise as he brings to life a collapsing empire over a hundred years ago, where long beards are sexually attractive, dogs are herded and butchered as food, and public executions are long, horrific torture sessions of satanic ingenuity.
Not until sixty pages from the end of this huge novel does Mo Yan give the reader a first glimpse of the staggering finale he has painstakingly prepared – detail after detail quietly building over hundreds of pages in a mounting tsunami of information come together in a final catastrophe set piece including all the main characters and resolving all the novel’s themes in a once-in-a-lifetime ending no reader will ever, ever forget. – Nick DiMartino
Library Journal
An opera singer, who is a leader of the Boxer Rebellion, is put to an excruciating death in this historical novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806188829
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2012
  • Series: Chinese Literature Today Book Series , #2
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 1,333,960
  • File size: 13 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Mo Yan (literally, “don’t speak”) is the pen name of Guan Moye. Born in 1955 in Gaomi, Shandong province, he is the author of ten novels and more than seventy short stories. Mo Yan is the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2009 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.

Howard Goldblatt is an award-winning translator of numerous works of contemporary Chinese literature, including six other novels by Mo Yan.
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Read an Excerpt

Sandalwood Death

A Novel

By Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8882-9


Meiniang's Lewd Talk

The sun rose, a bright red ball (the eastern sky a flaming pall), from Qingdao a German contingent looms. (Red hair, green eyes.) To build a rail line they defiled our ancestral tombs. (The people are up in arms!) My dieh led the resistance against the invaders, who responded with cannon booms. (A deafening noise.) Enemies met, anger boiled red in their eyes. Swords chopped, axes hewed, spears jabbed. The bloody battle lasted all day, leaving corpses and deathly fumes. (I was scared witless!) In the end, my dieh was taken to South Prison, where my gongdieh's sandalwood death sealed his doom. (My dieh, who gave me life!)

—Maoqiang Sandalwood Death. A mournful aria


That morning, my gongdieh, Zhao Jia, could never, even in his wildest dreams, have imagined that in seven days he would die at my hands, his death more momentous than that of a loyal old dog. And never could I have imagined that I, a mere woman, would take knife in hand and with it kill my own husband's father. Even harder to believe was that this old man, who had seemingly fallen from the sky half a year earlier, was an executioner, someone who could kill without blinking. In his red-tasseled skullcap and long robe, topped by a short jacket with buttons down the front, he paced the courtyard, counting the beads on his Buddhist rosary like a retired yuanwailang, or, better yet, I think, a laotaiye, with a houseful of sons and grandsons. But he was neither a laotaiye nor a yuanwailang—he was the preeminent executioner in the Board of Punishments, a magician with the knife, a peerless decapitator, a man capable of inflicting the cruelest punishments, including some of his own design, a true creative genius. During his four decades in the Board of Punishments, he had—to hear him say it—lopped off more heads than the yearly output of Gaomi County watermelons.

My thoughts kept me awake that night, as I tossed and turned on the brick kang, like flipping fried bread. My dieh, Sun Bing, had been arrested and locked up by County Magistrate Qian, that pitiless son of a bitch. Even if he were the worst person in the world, he would still be my dieh, and my mind was in such turmoil I could not sleep, forestalling any possibility of rest. I heard large mongrels grunting in their cages and fat pigs barking in their pens—pig noises had become dog sounds, and dog barks had turned into pig songs. Even in the short time they had left to live, they were tuning up for an opera. If a dog grunts, it is still a dog, and when a pig barks, it remains a pig. And a dieh is still a dieh, even if he does not act like one. Grunt grunt, arf arf. The noise drove me crazy. They knew they would be dead soon. So would my dieh. But animals are smarter than humans, for they detected the smell of blood that spread from our yard, and could see the ghosts of pigs and dogs that prowled in the moonlight. They knew that daybreak, soon after the red rays of sun appeared, would mark the hour that they went to meet Yama, the King of Hell. And so they set up a yowl—the plaintive call of impending death. And you, Dieh, what was it like in your death cell? Did you grunt? Bark? Or did you sing Maoqiang? I heard jailers say that condemned prisoners could scoop up fleas by the handfuls in their cells and that the bedbugs were as big as broad beans. You had lived a steady, conservative life, Dieh, so how could a rock one day fall from the sky and knock you straight into a death cell? Oh, Dieh ...

The knife goes in white and comes out red! No one is better at butchering dogs and slaughtering pigs than my husband, Zhao Xiaojia, whose fame has spread throughout Gaomi County. He is tall and he is big, nearly bald, and beardless. During the day he walks in a fog, and at night he lies in bed like a gnarled log. Since the day I married him, he has badgered me with his mother's tale of a tiger's whisker. One day some roguish creature goaded him into pestering me to obtain one of those curly golden tiger whiskers that, when held in the mouth, confer the ability to see a person's true form. The moron, more like a rotting fish bladder than a man, badgered me all one night, until I had no choice but to give in. Well, the moron curled up on the kang and, as he snored and ground his teeth, began to talk in his sleep: "Dieh Dieh Dieh, see see see, scratch the eggs, flip the noodle ..." He drove me crazy. When I nudged him with my foot, he curled up even tighter and rolled over, smacking his lips as if he'd just enjoyed a tasty treat. Then the talk started again, and the snoring and the grinding of teeth. To hell with him! Let the dullard sleep!

I sat up, leaned against the cold wall, and looked out the window, to see watery moonlight spread across the ground. The eyes of the penned dogs glistened like green lanterns—one pair, another, a third ... a whole stream of them. Lonely autumn insects set up a desolate racket. A night watchman clomped down the cobblestone street in oiled boots with wooden soles, clapper beats mixed with the clangs of a gong—it was already the third watch. The third, late-night, watch in a city where everyone slept, everyone but me and the pigs and the dogs and, I'm sure, my dieh.

Kip kip kip, a rat was gnawing on the wooden chest. It scampered off when I threw a whiskbroom at it. Then I heard the faint sound of beans rolling across a table in my gongdieh's room. I later discovered that the old wretch was counting human heads, one bean for each detached head. Even at night the old degenerate dreamed of heads he had chopped off, that old reprobate... I see him raise the devil's-head sword and bring it down on the nape of my dieh's neck; the head rolls down the street, chased by a pack of kids who kick it along until it rolls into our yard after hopping up the gate steps in an attempt to escape. It then circles the yard, chased by a hungry dog. Experience has told Dieh's head that when the dog gets too close—which it does several times—the queue in back lashes it in its eye, producing yelps of pain as it runs in circles. Now free of the dog, the head starts rolling again and, like a large tadpole, swims along, its queue trailing on the surface, a tadpole's tail...

The clapper and gong sounding the fourth watch startled me out of my nightmare. I was damp with cold sweat, and many hearts—not just one—thudded against my chest. My gongdieh was still counting beans, and now I knew how the old wretch was able to intimidate people: his body emitted breaths of shuddering cold that could be felt at great distances. In only six months he had turned his room, with its southern exposure, into an icy tomb—so gloomy the cat dared not enter, not even to catch mice. I was reluctant to step inside, since it made me break out in gooseflesh. But Xiaojia went in whenever he could and, like a snotty three-year-old, stuck close to his storytelling dieh. He hated to leave that room, even to come to my bed during the hottest days of the year, in effect switching the roles of parent and spouse. In order to keep unsold meat from going bad, he actually hung it from the rafters in his dieh's room. Did that make him smart? Or stupid? On those rare occasions when my gongdieh went out, even snarling dogs ran off as he passed, whining piteously from the safety of corners. Tall tales about the old man were rampant: people said that if he laid a hand on a cypress tree, it shuddered and began to shed its leaves. I was thinking about my dieh, Sun Bing. Dieh, you pulled off something grand this time, like An Lushan screwing the Imperial Concubine Yang Guifei, or Cheng Yaojin stealing gifts belonging to the Sui Emperor and suffering grievously for it. I had thoughts of Qian Ding, our magistrate, who had claimed success at the Imperial Examination, a grade five official, almost a prefect, what's known as a County Magistrate; but to me, this gandieh, my so-called benefactor, was a double-dealing monkey monster. The adage goes, "If you won't do it for the monk, then do it for the Buddha; if not for the fish, then for the water." You turned your back on the three years I shared your bed. How many pots of my heated millet spirits did you drink during those three years, how many bowls of my fatty dog meat did you eat, and how many of my Maoqiang arias swirled in your head? Hot millet spirits, fatty dog meat, and me lying beside you. Magistrate, I waited on you with more care than any emperor has known. Magistrate, I presented you with a body silkier than the finest Suzhou satin and sweeter than Cantonese sugar melon, all for your dissolute pleasure; now, after all the pampering and the voyages into an erotic fairyland, why will you not let my dieh go free? Why did you team up with those German devils to seize him and burn down our village? Had I known you were such an unfeeling, unrighteous bastard, I'd have poured my millet spirits into the latrine, fed my fatty dog meat to the pigs, and sung my arias to a brick wall. And as for my body, I'd have given that to a dog ...


With one last frenetic banging of the watchman's clappers, dawn broke. I climbed down off the kang, dressed in new clothes, and fetched water to wash up, then applied powder and rouge to my face and oiled my hair. After taking a well-cooked dog's leg out of the pot, I wrapped it in a lotus leaf and put it in my basket, then walked out the door and down the cobblestone road as the moon settled in the west. I was headed to the yamen prison, where I'd gone every day since my dieh's arrest. They would not let me see him. Damn you, Qian Ding; in the past, if I went three days without bringing you some dog meat, you sent that little bastard Chunsheng to my door. Now you are hiding from me; you have even posted guards. Musketeers and archers who once bowed and scraped when I arrived now glare at me with looks of supercilious arrogance. You even let four German soldiers threaten me with bayonets when I approached the gate with my basket. Their faces told me they meant business. Qian Ding, oh, Qian Ding, you turncoat, your illicit relations with foreigners have made me angry enough to take my grievance to the capital and accuse you of eating my dog meat without paying and of forcing yourself upon a married woman. Qian Ding, I will do what I must in the name of justice, and I will strip that tiger skin from your body to reveal what a heartless, no-good scoundrel you are.

Reluctantly I left the yamen, and as I walked away, I heard those little bastards having a good laugh at my expense. Little Tiger, you ungrateful dog, have you forgotten how you and your damnable father got down on your knees and kowtowed to me? If I hadn't spoken up for you, do you think a common little sandal peddler could have enjoyed the lucrative benefits of a yamen guard? And you, Little Shun, a common beggar who sought warmth from a cook stand in the dead of winter, if I hadn't put in a good word for you, do you think you would now be one of his select archers? I let Military Inspector Li Jinbao kiss me and feel my bottom and District Jailer Su Lantong feel my bottom and kiss me, all for you two. How dare you make fun of me! Dogs think they are better than humans; well, you dog bastards, if a curing rack fell over, I would not be tempted by the meat, nor pay for spirits even if I were falling-down drunk. I will be back on my feet one day, and when I am, I will make sure that each of you gets what is coming to him.

I put the wicked yamen behind me and walked home along the same cobblestone street. Dieh, you old fool, as you moved from your forties into your fifties, instead of leading a Maoqiang troupe down city streets and country roads to sing of emperors, kings, generals, and ministers, or playing the roles of worthy scholars and beautiful maidens, toying with star-crossed lovers, earning a lot or a little, dining on spoiled cat and rotting dog, drinking strong spirits and rice wine, and when your belly was full, spending time with no-account friends, scaling cold walls to sleep in someone's warm bed, enjoying your pleasures, big and small, and living as if in a fairyland, you decided to strut around saying whatever popped into your head: things a highwayman would not say found voice with you, and things no bandit would dare try were for you a challenge. You offended yayi and you provoked the County Magistrate. Even when your backside was beaten till it bled, you refused to bow your head and admit defeat. You challenged a foe and lost your beard, like a plucked rooster or a fine horse without a tail. When you could no longer sing opera, you opened a teashop, a move that promised a peaceful life. But you had to let your wife go off by herself and court disaster. A man laid his hands on her body, and that should have been the end of it; but you could not swallow your anger, as an ordinary citizen would have done. As they say, a loss suffered is a benefit delayed, and patience is a virtue. You succumbed to your anger and clubbed a German engineer to the ground, bringing a monstrous calamity down on your head. Even the Emperor fears the Germans, but not you. So, thanks to you, the village was bathed in blood, with twenty-seven dead, including your young son and daughter, even their mother, your second wife. But you were not finished, for you ran to Southwest Shandong to join the Boxers of Righteous Harmony, then returned to set up a spirit altar and raise the flag of rebellion. A thousand rebels armed with crude firearms, swords, and spears sabotaged the foreigners' rail line with arson and murder. You called yourself a hero. Yet in the end, a town was destroyed, civilians lay dead, and you wound up in a jail cell, beaten black and blue ... my poor benighted dieh, with what did you coat your heart? What possessed you? A fox spirit? Maybe a weasel phantom stole your soul. So what if the Germans wanted to build a railroad that ruined the feng shui of Northeast Gaomi Township and blocked our waterways? The feng shui and waterways are not ours alone, so why did you have to lead the rebellion? This is what it has come to: the bird in front gets the buckshot; the king of thieves is first to fall. As the adage has it, "When the beans are fried, everyone eats; but if the pot is broken, you suffer the consequences alone." What you did this time, Dieh, sent shock waves all the way to the Imperial Court and outraged the Great Powers. People say that Shandong Governor Yuan Shikai himself was carried into the county yamen in his eight-man palanquin last night, and that the Jiaozhou Plenipotentiary rode his foreign charger in through the yamen gate, a blue-steel Mauser bolt-action rifle slung over his back. The archer Sun Huzi—Bearded Sun—who stood guard at the gate, tried to stop him, for which he was rewarded with a taste of the foreign devil's whip. He slunk out of the way, but not before a gash the width of his finger had opened up on his fleshy ear. This time, Dieh, the odds are stacked against you, and that gourd-like head of yours will soon hang at the yamen entrance for all to see. Even if Qian Ding, Eminence Qian, were of a mind to free you as a favor to me, Governor Yuan Shikai would not permit it. And if he wanted to free you, Plenipotentiary von Ketteler would not allow it. Your fate is no longer in your hands, Dieh.

With the red sun before me, and my mind a jumble of thoughts, I trotted down the cobblestone road, heading east, enveloped in aromatic waves from the dog's leg in my basket. Puddles of bloody water dotted the roadway, and in my trance-like state I saw Dieh's head rolling down the street, singing an aria on the way. For him, Maoqiang opera was the bait to attract a wife. He turned a minor musical form that had never quite caught on into a major one. His voice, soft and pliable, like watermelon pulp, captivated scores of Northeast Gaomi Township beauties, including my late niang, who married him solely on the strength of his voice. One of the township's true beauties, she even turned down a marriage proposal on behalf of Provincial Licentiate Du, preferring to follow my impoverished dieh, the opera singer, wherever he went ... Licentiate Du's hired hand, Deaf Zhou, was walking my way with a load of water, bent over by the weight, his red neck stretched forward as far as it would go. His white hair was a fright, his face dotted with crystalline beads of sweat. He was panting from the exertion, taking big, hurried strides, splashing water over the sides of his buckets that formed liquid beads on the road stones. All of a sudden, Dieh, I saw your head in Deaf Zhou's bucket, where the water had turned into blood that filled my nostrils with its hot, rank odor, the sort of smell that bursts from the split bellies of the dogs and pigs my husband, Zhao Xiaojia, butchers. Not just rank, but a foul stench. Of course, Deaf Zhou had no way of knowing that seven days later, when he went to the site of my dieh's execution to listen to a Maoqiang aria, a bullet from a German devil's Mauser would rip open his belly and release guts that slithered out like an eel.


Excerpted from Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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.

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Table of Contents


Translator's Note,
Book One: Head of the Phoenix,
Chapter One: Meiniang's Lewd Talk,
Chapter Two: Zhao Jia's Ravings,
Chapter Three: Xiaojia's Foolish Talk,
Chapter Four: Qian Ding's Bitter Words,
Book Two: Belly of the Pig,
Chapter Five: Battle of the Beards,
Chapter Six: Competing Feet,
Chapter Seven: Elegy,
Chapter Eight: Divine Altar,
Chapter Nine: Masterpiece,
Chapter Ten: A Promise Kept,
Chapter Eleven: Golden Pistols,
Chapter Twelve: Crevice,
Chapter Thirteen: A City Destroyed,
Book Three: Tail of the Leopard,
Chapter Fourteen: Zhao Jia's Soliloquy,
Chapter Fifteen: Meiniang's Grievance,
Chapter Sixteen: Sun Bing's Opera Talk,
Chapter Seventeen: Xiaojia Sings in Full Voice,
Chapter Eighteen: The Magistrate's Magnum Opus,
Author's Note,
Glossary of Untranslated Terms,

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