A NEW YORK TIMES TOP BOOK OF 2015
WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK
The author of Red Sorghum and China’s most revered and critically acclaimed novelist returns with his first major publication since winning the Nobel Prize
Before the Cultural Revolution, Gugu, narrator Tadpole’s feisty aunt, is a respected midwife in her rural community. She combines modern medical knowledge with a healer's touch to save the lives of village women and their babies. Gugu is beautiful, charismatic, and of an unimpeachable political background.
After a disastrous love affair with a defector leaves Gugu reeling, she throws herself zealously into enforcing China's draconian new family planning policy by any means necessary, be it forced sterilizations or late-term abortions. Tragically, her blind devotion to the Party line spares no one, not her own family, not even herself.
Once beloved, Gugu becomes the living incarnation of a reviled social policy violently at odds with deeply rooted social values. Spanning the pre-revolutionary era and the country's modern day consumer society, Mo Yan's tatut and engrossing examination of Chinese society will be read for generations to come.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Mo Yan (literally "don't speak") is the pen name of Guan Moye. Born in 1955 to a peasant family in Shandong province, he is the author of ten novels, including Red Sorgum, which was made into a feature film; dozens of novellas; and hundreds of short stories. Mo Yan is the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. He has won virtually every Chinese literary prize, including the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011 (China's most prestigious literary award), and is the most critically acclaimed Chinese writer of his generation, in both China and around the world. He lives in Beijing.
Howard Goldblatt, widely recognized as one of the best translators from Chinese to English, has received the National Translation Award as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work. He lives in Colorado.
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Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015
Copyright © 2009 by Mo Yan
Translation copyright © 2014 by Penguin (Beijing) Ltd
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Translated from the original Chinese edition by Howard Goldblatt
Originally published by Shanghai Art and Literature Publishing House.
English-language edition first published by Penguin Group (Australia) in association with Penguin (Beijing) Ltd
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Mo, Yan, 1955-
Frog: a novel / Mo Yan ; [translated by Howard Goldblatt]
1. Childbirth—China—History—20th century—Fiction. I. Goldblatt, Howard, 1939- translator. II. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Tadpole and Gugu’s family
GUGU, or WAN XIN, midwife
JIN XIU, cousin of Xiaopao, business partner of Xiao Xiachun
LITTLE LION, Gugu’s medical intern
WAN KOU, aka Eldest Brother, brother of Xiaopao, father of Wan Xiangqun
WAN LIUFU, father of Gugu, soldier and doctor, founder of the Xihai Underground Hospital
WAN MAN, sister of Xiaopao
WAN XIANGQUN, air force pilot, nephew of Xiaopao, son of Wan Dakou
WAN ZU, or XIAOPAO or TADPOLE, nephew of Gugu
WUGUAN, cousin of Xiaopao
YANYAN, daughter of Xiaopao
Chen Bi’s family
AILIAN, mother of Chen Bi
CHEN BI, classmate of Xiaopao
CHEN E, father of Chen Bi
CHEN ER, daughter of Chen Bi
CHEN MEI, daughter of Chen Bi
Other Characters (in alphabetical order)
DU BOZI, a villager/fisherman
FANG LIANHUA, Wang Jiao’s wife
FLATHEAD, rafter, son of old classmate of Xiaopao
GAO MEN, village beggar
GENG XIULIAN, wife of Zhang Quan
HAO DASHOU, the clay-doll maker
HUANG JUN, aka Melon Huang, hospital director, the son of Huang Pi from Hexi Village
HUANG QIUYA, doctor at health centre, enemy of Gugu
POLITICAL COMMISSAR LI
LI SHOU, son of Teacher Yu, younger schoolmate of Xiaopao
CHIEF LIU, Armed Forces Bureau
LU HUAHUA, village beggar
LU MAZI, civil administration clerk
LÜ YA, brigade commander
POSTAL DIRECTOR MA
NING YAO, commune security chief
QIN HE, brother of Qin Shan, beggar/actor, boat pilot, clay-doll maker
QIN SHAN, commune Party secretary, brother of Qin He
QIU, commune Party secretary (and Qin Shan’s successor)
SESAME TWIST, wife of Yuan Sai
DIRECTOR SHEN, Bureau of Health
COMMANDER SUGITANI, Japanese Army
SUGITANI AKIHITO, mentor to Xiaopao
TIAN GUIHUA, old midwife
WANG DAN, daughter of Wang Jiao, twin of Wang Gan, classmate of Xiaopao
WANG GAN, son of Wang Jiao, twin of Wang Dan, classmate of Xiaopao
WANG HUAN, the bean curd peddler
WANG JIAO, owner of a horse and cart, father of Wang Dan and Wang Gan
WANG JINSHAN, aka OLD WANG, the school cook
WANG RENMEI, daughter of Wang Jinshan, wife of Xiaopao
WANG XIAOTI, Gugu’s fiancé, Air Force pilot, traitor
WANG XIAOMEI, a seventeen-year-old girl from Wang Village, Director Huang’s lover
SECRETARY WU, commune Party secretary, 1980s
WU JINBANG, school principal
XIAO BI, office manager of bullfrog farm, sculptor
XIAO SHANGCHUN, stretcher-bearer in the Eighth Route Army, commune granary watchman, Windstorm Rebel Corps Commander, enemy of Gugu, father of Xiao Xiachun
XIAO XIACHUN, classmate of Xiaopao, son of Xiao Shangchun, entrepreneur
XIE BAIZHUA, restaurant owner
XIE XIAOQUE, the son of Xie Baizhua
COMMANDER XU, Eighth Route Army
YAN, assistant director of the commune
YANG LIN, county Party secretary
CHAIRWOMAN YANG XIN, family-planning committee
YANG XIONG, county chief, son of Yang Lin
YUAN LIAN, village Party secretary
YUAN SAI, son of Yuan Lian, classmate of Xiaopao
ZHANG JINYA, Party secretary of Dongfeng village
ZHANG QUAN, from Dongfeng village
Dear Sugitani Akihito sensei,
It has been nearly a month since we said goodbye, but I can relive virtually every moment of our time together in my hometown as if it were yesterday. With no concern for age or physical frailties, you crossed land and sea to come to this out-of-the-way spot and engage in literary conversations with me and with local fans of literature; we were deeply moved. On the second morning of the year, you favoured us with a presentation in the county guesthouse auditorium that you called ‘Literature and Life’. With your permission, we would like to publish a transcription of the taped lecture in the local publication Frog Calls, so as to make available to those who were unable to attend in person a chance to appreciate and learn from your use of language.
On the morning of the first day of the year I accompanied you on a visit to my aunt, an obstetrician for more than fifty years, and though she spoke too quickly in her accented Chinese for you to grasp everything she said, I am sure she left a deep impression on you. In your talk the next morning you cited her often in support of your views of literature. You said you came away with an image of a doctor racing across a frozen river on a bicycle; another of her with a medical kit slung over her back and an open umbrella in one hand, trouser cuffs rolled up, as she forces her way through a mass of croaking frogs; yet another of a doctor laughing joyfully as she holds a newborn infant in her hands, her sleeves spattered with blood; and finally one of a doctor with a care-laden face, a cigarette dangling from her lips, clothing rumpled . . . you said that all these mental pictures sometimes come together into a single image and at other times split into discrete fragments, like a series of carvings. You urged local literature fans to create poignant works of art out of my aunt’s life, either in fiction, in verse, or in drama. Sensei, your encouragement has produced a creative passion in many of us. An associate at the county cultural centre has already begun a novel about a village obstetrician, and though my understanding of what my aunt accomplished is much greater than his, I do not want to enter into a competition and will leave the writing of a novel to him. What I want to do, sensei, is write a play about my aunt’s life. On the night of the second, when we were talking as we sat on the kang at my house, I experienced an epiphany thanks to your high praise and detailed analyses, as well as your unique insights into the plays of the Frenchman, Sartre. I want to write, I feel I must write librettos as fine as The Flies and Dirty Hands, with the audacious goal of becoming a great playwright. With your instruction as a guide, I will proceed slowly, without forcing the issue, as patient as a frog on a lily pad waiting for insects to come its way. But when I put pen to paper, it will be with the speed of a frog jumping up to snatch an insect out of the air.
When I was seeing you off at the Qingdao airport, you asked me to send you in letters the story of my aunt’s life. Although she is still alive and well, I could describe her life using such potent metaphors as ‘surging forth magnificently’ and ‘rife with twists and turns’. There are so many stories, and I don’t know how long this letter ought to be, so with your indulgence, I will put my meagre talents to use by simply writing until the time has come to stop. In this age of computers, writing a letter with pen and paper has become a luxury, but a pleasurable one, and I hope that as you read this, you enjoy a taste of olden times.
While I’m at it, I want to tell you that my father phoned to say that on the lunar twenty-fifth, red blossoms burst onto the tree in our yard, the one whose unique shape prompted you to call it a ‘talented’ old plum. Many people came to witness our blooming plum, including my aunt. My father said that a feathery snow fell that day, saturated with a redolence of plum blossoms that cleared the head of anyone who smelled it.
Your student, Tadpole
21 March 2002, in Beijing
Sensei, an old custom in my hometown dictated that a newborn child is given the name of a body part or organ. Nose Chen, for instance, Eyes Zhao, Colon Wu, Shoulder Sun . . . I haven’t looked into the origin of this custom, but I imagine it embodied the outlook of ‘those who are badly named live long’. Either that or it evolved from a mother’s thoughts that a child represented a piece of her body. The custom is no longer followed, as young parents have no interest in naming their children in such an unusual way. Local children these days are endowed with elegant and distinctive names of TV characters in dramas from Hong Kong, Taiwan, even Japan and Korea. Most of those who were named the earlier way have adopted more conventional names, most but not all. We still have Chen Er (Ears) and Chen Mei (Brow).
Chen Er and Chen Mei were the daughters of Chen Bi (Nose), my classmate and my friend. We entered Great Sheep’s Pen Elementary School in the fall of 1960. That was during the famine, and nearly all my strongest memories of the time deal with food. I’ve told the story of eating coal. Most people think I made that up, but I swear on my aunt’s good name it’s true.
The coal was part of a ton of high-grade ore from the Longkou Coal Mine, so glossy I could see my face in it. I’ve never seen the likes of it since. Wang Jiao (Foot), the owner of a horse cart, transported the coal over from the county seat. Wang, a man with a square head, a thick neck and a bad stammer, had a bright look in his eyes when he spoke, his face flushed from the effort. He had a son, Wang Gan (Liver), and a daughter named Wang Dan (Gallbladder). They were twins, and both were my classmates. Wang Gan was tall and well built, while his sister never grew to full size and remained a tiny thing – to be unkind, a dwarf. Everyone said she was so small because her brother had sucked up all the nutrition in their mother’s womb. After school was out, we ran over with our backpacks to watch Wang Jiao shovel the coal to the ground, where it landed crisply on a growing pile. He stopped to wipe his sweaty neck with a blue cloth he’d wrapped around his waist, and when he saw his son and daughter, he shouted: Go home and mow the grass.
Wang Dan turned and headed for home, struggling to keep her balance as she ran, like an infant learning how to walk; a lovely sight. Wang Gan backed up but did not run. He was proud of his father’s occupation. Children these days, even those whose fathers are airline pilots, are not as proud of theirs as he was of his. Wang drove a horse cart whose wheels threw up dust as it rumbled along; an old branded warhorse said to have distinguished itself by once towing an artillery piece was between the shafts, while a bad-tempered mule was up front in a harness, a mean animal known to kick and bite. That aside, it was astonishingly powerful and could run like the wind. No one but Wang Jiao could control it. Though many villagers admired his line of work, they kept their distance from the mule, which had already bitten two youngsters: Yuan Sai (Cheek), son of Yuan Lian (Face); and Wang Dan, who had been bitten and picked up by the head while playing in front of the house. We were in awe of Wang Jiao, who stood over six-two, with broad shoulders, and the strength of an ox. He could lift a stoneroller weighing two hundred jin over his head. But what really wowed us was his skill with a whip. That time the crazy mule bit Yuan Sai, Wang pulled back the brake and, with one foot on each of the shafts, brought the tip of his whip down on the animal’s rump with a crack that drew blood. The mule reacted by kicking out, but then began to quake as its forelegs buckled and its head hit the ground, mouth in the dirt, rump raised ready for another hit. It was Yuan Sai’s father, Yuan Lian, who came to its rescue. It’s okay, Old Wang, he said, sparing the animal further anguish. Yuan was our village’s ranking official, the Party secretary. Not heeding his word was not an option for Wang Jiao. After the crazy mule bit Wang Dan, we eagerly awaited another good show, but instead of striking out with his whip, Wang Jiao scooped up a handful of roadside lime and pressed it against the girl’s head as he carried her inside. The mule did not taste his whip this time, but his wife did, just before Wang kicked his son.
That crazy mule was one of our favourite topics of conversation. Skinny as a rail, the indentations above both eyes were so deep they could accommodate hen’s eggs. Its eyes emitted a sorrowful gaze, as if it were about to howl. How a skinny animal like that could exert such strength was a mystery. We were talking about that as we drew up to the mule. Wang Jiao stopped shovelling coal and glared menacingly, backing us up terrified. The pile in front of the school kitchen grew higher and higher, the load of coal on the cart kept getting smaller. We sniffed in unison at the strange aroma in the air, a bit like burning pine or roasting potatoes. Our sense of smell drew our gaze to the pile of glistening coal as Wang Jiao flicked the reins and drove his cart out of the schoolyard. This time we didn’t chase it out of the yard, as we usually did, even risking the bite of Wang’s whip when we tried to climb aboard to satisfy our desire for a ride. No, we kept our eyes glued to the pile of coal as we shuffled forward. Old Wang, the school cook, wobbled over with two buckets of water on his shoulder pole. His daughter, Renmei, was also a classmate who, much later, would become my wife. She was one of the rare children not burdened with the name of a body part, and that was because her father had attended school. As the one-time head of a commune animal-husbandry station, a careless comment had cost him his job and sent him back to his village. He observed us with a wary eye. Did he think we were planning to raid his kitchen? Go on, you little shits, get out of here! There’s nothing here for you to eat. Go home and suck your mothers’ teats. We heard him, of course, and even considered what he’d said. But he was just mouthing off. Already seven or eight years old, we were way past nursing at our mothers’ breasts. Even if we hadn’t been, our half-starved mothers, with their flattened chests, had nothing to give us. But we weren’t interested in arguing with Old Wang. Instead, we stood in front of the pile of coal, heads down and bent at the waist like geologists who have discovered an unusual rock formation. We sniffed the air like dogs searching for food in a rubbish pile. At this point I need to first thank Chen Bi and then Wang Dan. It was Chen who first picked up a chunk of coal and sniffed it, crinkling his brow as if pondering a weighty question. His big, high-bridged nose was a source of laughter for us. After a thoughtful pause, he smashed the coal in his hand against a much larger piece, like shattering glass, releasing a strong aroma into the air. Both he and Wang Dan picked up shards. He licked his to taste it and rolled his eyes as he looked our way. She copied him by tasting hers and looking our way. They exchanged a glance, smiled, and as if on cue, cautiously took small bites; they chewed briefly before taking bigger bites and chewing like crazy. Excited looks burst onto their faces. Chen Bi’s big nose turned red and was beaded with sweat. Wang Dan’s little nose turned black with coal dust. We were entranced by the sound of coal being chewed and shocked when they swallowed it. They’d actually swallowed coal! It’s good, guys, he said softly. Eat up, big brother! she cried out shrilly. Wang Gan picked up another piece and really started to chew, while she grabbed a large chunk and handed it to him. So we followed their lead, smashing the coal into smaller chunks and nibbling it at first to see how it tasted. Though it was sort of gritty, it wasn’t half bad. Chen Bi picked up a large chunk. Eat this kind, guys, he said helpfully, it tastes the best. He pointed to some slightly transparent, amber-like pale yellow coal. That was the source of the pine aroma. From our nature study class we’d learned that coal formed over millennia from buried forests. Our teacher for that class was our principal, Wu Jinbang. We hadn’t believed him or what the textbook said. How could green forests turn into black coal? We’d thought he and the textbooks were lying. But the smell of pine trees changed our minds. Our principal and the textbook were telling the truth. All thirty-five students in our class, except for a few absent girls, picked up chunks of coal and started chewing, crunching away, slightly mysterious looks of excitement on our faces. It was like improvisational theatre or a strange game. Xiao Xiachun (Lower Lip) turned a piece of coal over and over in his hand, but chose not to eat it, a superior look on his face. He didn’t eat it because he wasn’t hungry, he said, and that was because his father was the commune granary watchman.
Old Wang the cook came out, his hands flour-dusted, and was stunned by what he saw. (My god, that’s flour on his hands! In those days, the only people who ate in the kitchen were the principal, our political instructor, and two locally stationed commune cadres.) What are you kids doing? Old Wang cried out in alarm. Are you . . . eating coal? Who does that? Wang Dan picked up a piece and, in a tiny voice, said, It’s delicious. Here, Uncle, try it. Old Wang shook his head. Wang Dan, he said, why is a nice little girl like you acting like these wild kids? She took a bite. It really is delicious, Uncle, she said. A red evening sun was setting in the west. The two privileged commune cadres rode up on their bicycles. We got their attention, as Old Wang tried to shoo us away with his shoulder pole. The fellow named Yan – I think he was the assistant director – stopped him. With a disdainful wave of his hand and a sour look on his face, Old Wang stormed back into the kitchen.
The next day in school we nibbled on coal while listening to Teacher Yu’s lesson, our mouths smeared black, coal crumbs in the corners. The boys weren’t the only ones either. Wang Dan taught even the girls who’d been absent the day before how to eat it. Old Wang’s daughter, my future wife, Renmei, enjoyed it more than anyone. Now that I think about it, she probably had a gum disease, since her mouth bled as she chewed. After writing several lines on the blackboard, Teacher Yu turned back to the class and asked her son, Li Shou (Hand): What are you kids eating? It’s coal, Ma. Want some, Teacher Yu? called out Wang Dan, who sat in the front row, a lump of coal in her hand. Her voice was like that of a kitten. Teacher Yu stepped down from the podium and took the lump from Wang Dan, holding it up to her nose either to smell it or get a closer look. She didn’t say anything for a moment then handed it back. Today we’re on lesson six, class, ‘The Fox and the Crow’. The crow found a piece of meat and was proud of herself, perched high up in a tree. From under the tree, the fox said, Crow, you have such a beautiful singing voice you put all the other birds to shame. Swooning over the flattery, the crow opened her beak to sing and, ha, the meat fell right into the fox’s mouth. The teacher led us in reading the story aloud, which we did with our black-as-crow mouths.
Teacher Yu was an educated, out-of-towner who followed the local custom by giving her son the name Shou (Hand), using his father’s surname, Li. Li Shou did well enough in the exams to be admitted to medical school. After graduation he returned to the county health centre as a surgeon. When Chen Bi lost four fingers while cutting hay, Doctor Li was able to reattach three of them.
Why did Chen Bi have a big nose that was so different from everyone else’s? Probably only his mother can answer that question.
His father, Chen E (Forehead), with the style name Tianting (Middle of the Forehead), was the only man in the village with two wives. A well-educated man, he came from a family that had farmed a hundred acres of prime land, run a distillery, and owned a business in Harbin before the establishment of the People’s Republic. Chen’s first wife, a local, had borne him four daughters. He fled north just before Liberation, but was brought back from the northeast in the custody of Yuan Lian and a pair of militiamen around 1951. He had fled alone, leaving his wife and daughters at home in the village, but brought another woman back with him. This woman, who had brown hair and blue eyes and looked to be in her early thirties, was called Ailian. She carried in her arms a spotted dog, and since she and Chen E had married before Liberation, it was perfectly legal for him to have two wives. Poor, unmarried village men were upset that Chen had two wives and half jokingly asked him if they could share one of them. Chen could only grin in response, a look somewhere between laughing and crying. The two Chen wives lived in the same house at first, but since they fought like cats and dogs, Chen received permission to put his junior wife up in two rooms next to the school, given that the school buildings had once housed his family’s distillery, which meant that the two rooms counted as his property. He reached an agreement with the women that he’d divide his time between them. The dog the light-haired woman had brought with her was tormented to death by village mongrels, and not long after Ailian buried it she gave birth to Chen Bi. People liked to say that he was a reincarnation of the spotted dog, which might explain his ultra keen sense of smell. By that time, my aunt had returned from the county seat, where she’d gone to learn the newest methods of midwifery. She became the first professional midwife in the entire township. That was in 1953.
In 1953, villagers were adamantly opposed to new midwifery methods, thanks to rumours spread by old midwives, who said that children born through these methods were prone to be arthritic. Why would they spread such rumours? Because once the new methods caught on, they’d be out of work. Delivering a baby at the mother’s home meant a free meal, a pair of towels, and a dozen eggs. Whenever these women entered the conversation, my aunt – Gugu – ground her teeth in anger. She could not begin to calculate how many infants and pregnant women had died at those old witches’ hands. Her descriptions of their methods were chilling: they grew long fingernails, their eyes emitted green will-o’-the-wisp-like glimmers, and their breath stank. She said they pressed down on the mother’s belly with rolling pins and stuffed rags in their mouths to keep the foetuses from coming out there. They knew nothing about anatomy and were totally ignorant of a woman’s biological make-up. When they encountered a difficult birth, according to Gugu, they crammed their hands up the birth canal and pulled with all their might, sometimes actually wrenching the womb out along with the foetus. For the longest time, if I’d been asked to compile a list of people most deserving to be lined up and shot, I’d unhesitatingly say: the old midwives. Gradually I came to understand why Gugu was so prejudiced against them. Crude, ignorant old midwives certainly did exist, but experienced old midwives who, through their own experience, had a keen grasp of the secrets of a woman’s body, existed as well. Truth be told, my grandmother was one of those midwives, one who advocated a policy of interfering as little as possible into the process. Her approach could be characterised as ‘the melon will fall when it is ripe’. In her view, the best midwives simply offered encouragement as they waited for the foetus to emerge, then cut the umbilical cord, sprinkled on some lime, wrapped the child, and that was that. But she was not a popular old midwife, considered by some to be lazy. Those people seemed to prefer women whose hands were constantly busy, who kept running in and out of the room, shouting and carrying on; those old midwives perspired as much as the woman in labour.
My aunt was the daughter of my great-uncle, who had served as a doctor in the Eighth Route Army. He’d entered the army as a specialist in traditional Chinese medicine, but then had been taught Western medicine by the Canadian Norman Bethune, whose subsequent death from blood poisoning hit him so hard he fell desperately ill. He told his superior he wanted to see his mother before he died, a request that was granted so he could recuperate. Gugu’s grandmother was still alive at the time, and the minute he walked through the door he was greeted by the familiar smell of mung bean soup. His mother had washed the pot and started a fire to make the soup, and when her daughter-in-law came up to help, she pushed her away with her cane. My great-uncle sat in the doorway waiting impatiently. Gugu said she was old enough then to remember such things, and when she was told to greet her father, she ran behind her mother to peek at him from there. She’d often heard her mother and grandmother talk about her father, whom she was now meeting for the first time, and to her he was a stranger. She told us how he sat in the doorway, sallow-faced, his hair long, fleas crawling up his neck, tufts of cotton wadding peeking out through tears in his tattered lined coat. Gugu’s grandmother – my great-grandmother – was in tears as she worked at the stove. When the soup was finally ready, Great-Uncle eagerly picked up a bowl and began slurping, despite the mouth-burning heat. Son, his mother said, slow down. There’s more in the pot. Gugu said his hands were shaking. He ate a second bowl, and his hands stopped shaking. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. Signs of life showed in his eyes as the colour returned to his face. Gugu said she could hear his stomach rumble, the sound of a millstone turning. An hour or two later, Gugu said, her father went to the outhouse, where he emptied his bowels, almost taking his intestines along with the loose mixture. That’s when his recovery began, and within two months he was his old, vigorous self again.
I told Gugu I’d read something like that in The Scholars. The what? she asked. I told her it was a famous classical novel. She glared at me. If things like that happen even in classical novels, that proves it was true.
Now that he was fully recovered, my great-uncle made preparations to rejoin his troops on Mount Taihang. Son, his mother said, I can’t live much longer. Wait to go till after my funeral. And there was another matter his wife found hard to bring up, that was left to Gugu. Father, she said, Mother doesn’t mind if you go, but she’d like you to leave me a little brother before you do.
Soldiers from the eastern Shandong military district of the Eighth Route Army showed up at Great-Uncle’s house to recruit him, as a follower of Norman Bethune, reminding him of his fine reputation. I already belong to the Shanxi-Chaha’er-Hebei arm, he said. But we’re Communists, just like they are, the Shandong representative said. It doesn’t matter where you work. We really need someone like you, Old Wan, and we’ll do whatever is necessary to keep you here. Commander Xu said if an eight-man sedan chair won’t do the trick, he’d hogtie him and take him under escort to a banquet in his honour. That is how Great-Uncle wound up staying home in Shandong, where he founded the Xihai Underground Hospital.
The hospital had underground passages that linked the wards and other rooms, including a sterilisation room, a treatment room, an operating theatre, and a recovery room, all of which remain in Zhu Family Village, which is part of Yutong Township in the Laizhou Municipal area, and are still well maintained. An old woman of eighty-eight, Wang Xiulan by name, who was Great-Uncle’s nurse back then, is still alive and well. Several of the recovery rooms lead directly to a well. One day back then, a young woman went to the well for water, and was surprised when her bucket stopped before reaching the bottom. She looked down, and there in a hollow in a wall, a young, wounded Eighth Route soldier looked up and made a face at her.
Talk of Great-Uncle’s superb medical skills quickly made the rounds. It was he who removed the shrapnel lodged near Commander Xu’s scapula. He also managed to save both Political Commissar Li’s wife and her child during a difficult birth. Word had even spread to Pingdu city, which was under the command of an officer named Sugitani, whose warhorse had stepped on a land mine during a mop-up operation. He had taken off on foot, leaving the horse behind. Great-Uncle performed surgery on the horse, and after it recovered it became the mount for Regimental Commander Xia. But before long, the horse was so homesick it bit through its tether and ran back to Pingdu. Sugitani was so happy to see his horse again, with its wounds healed, he told his Chinese collaborators to find out what had happened. He learned that the Eighth Route Army had established a hospital right under his nose, and that the medical skills of its director, Wan Liufu, were responsible for saving the life of his horse. Commander Sugitani, who himself had received medical training, was impressed by Great-Uncle’s skills and summoned him to surrender. To do so, Sugitani adopted a scheme from the classical novel Three Kingdoms, which was to secretly infiltrate our hometown to kidnap my great-grandmother, my great-aunt, and my aunt, and take them back to Pingdu, where he sent a letter to Great-Uncle, telling him they were being held hostage.
After reading Sugitani’s letter, my great-uncle, a dedicated Communist, wadded it up and threw it away. The hospital commissar retrieved the letter and delivered it to district headquarters. Commander Xu and Commissar Li wrote a joint letter to Sugitani, denouncing him as a petty man and threatening to throw the entire weight of the Shandong Eighth Route Army against him if he harmed a hair of any of the three members of Wan Liufu’s family.
Gugu said that she and her mother and grandmother were well treated during the three months they spent in Pingdu. According to her, Sugitani was a fair-skinned young man who wore white-framed glasses and had a moustache. Quiet and bookish, he spoke fluent Chinese. He called my great-grandmother Aunt, called my grandmother Sister-in-law, and called Gugu Niece. She did not have a bad opinion of him. Of course, she only said that privately to members of the family. To others she said that all three were victims of Japanese brutality, subjected to coercion and bribery, though they remained steadfast.
Sensei, I could talk about my great-uncle for three days and nights and never exhaust the subject. We’ll continue this some other day, but I must tell you about how he died. Gugu said he was gassed while performing surgery in the underground hospital. That is how his death is listed in historical documents prepared by the county consultative congress, but a private source claimed that he rode his mule into Pingdu with eight hand grenades on his belt, determined to single-handedly rescue his wife, his daughter and his ageing mother, but unfortunately struck a land mine placed by the Zhao Family Trench militiamen. The source of this account was Xiao Shangchun (Upper Lip), a stretcher-bearer for the Xihai Hospital. A quirky individual, Xiao served as the commune granary watchman after 1949, where he invented a pesticide that was a potent rat poison, for which he was extolled in the local newspaper, which changed his name from the chun that meant ‘lip’ to the one that meant ‘purity’. Later it was discovered that the main ingredient of his rat poison was a banned highly toxic pesticide. He and Gugu were bitter enemies, which makes his account highly unreliable. He once said to me that my great-uncle disobeyed orders by neglecting his patients in favour of playing the hero, and that he’d fortified himself before setting out by drinking two jin of potato liquor, winding up so drunk that he stumbled on one of their own land mines. A gloating Xiao Shangchun flashed a yellow-toothed grin as he continued: Your great-uncle and the mule he was riding were blown to bits, both carried back to the hospital in boxes, bones and hooves all mixed up, and dumped into a coffin. Not a bad coffin, though, one confiscated from a wealthy family in Lan Village.
When I repeated his story to Gugu, her eyes grew wide and she gnashed her silver teeth. One of these days, she said, I’m going to cut that bastard’s balls off!
Boy, she said staunchly, you can forget about everything else, but the one thing you must believe is that your great-uncle was a hero of the resistance and a revolutionary martyr! His body rests in a mausoleum on Martyrs Hill, his scalpel and leather shoes are part of the display in Martyrs Hall. They are English shoes, bequeathed to him by Norman Bethune on his deathbed.
Sensei, I rushed through the story of my great-uncle so I could take my time telling Gugu’s story.
She was born on 13 June 1937, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which is Duanyang, the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. They called her Duanyang until she started school, and was then called Wan Xin (Heart). Great-Uncle named her, showing respect for local tradition while investing her name with a message. Not long after Great-Uncle’s death, his mother died of natural causes in Chengdu. Members of the Shandong military district launched a large-scale rescue mission to free Gugu and her mother from their captivity, and once they were in the liberated zone, Gugu was enrolled in the Resistance elementary school and her mother was sent to a factory to make soles for cloth shoes. After Liberation, the future for descendants of martyrs like Gugu could not have been brighter, but her mother hated the idea of leaving her hometown and Gugu hated the idea of leaving her. Officials at the county level asked her what she would like to do; when she said she’d like to carry on her father’s work, she was admitted to the prefectural medical school. She graduated at the age of sixteen and was assigned to the township health centre, where she undertook a training course for modern birthing methods organised by the county health bureau. Gugu forged an unbreakable bond with the sacred work of obstetrics. According to her calculations, from the fourth day of the fourth month of 1953, when she attended her first birth, till the spring of last year, she delivered around ten thousand babies, counting two as one when working with someone else. She told you this in person. I assumed she’d inflated the number somewhat, but there had to have been seven or eight thousand at least. She had seven interns, one of whom she called ‘Little Lion’, a young woman whose hair was never combed, who had a flat nose, a square mouth, and a face full of zits. She was so devoted to Gugu that if she’d been told to kill someone, she’d have picked up a knife and done it without asking why.
We’ve already seen how, in the spring of 1953, women in my hometown resisted modern birthing methods, including the old midwives, who spread all sorts of rumours. Gugu was only seventeen at the time, but with her unconventional experience and privileged background, she was already an influential young woman who was held in high esteem. Admittedly, her good looks played a role in that. Putting aside head, face, nose, and eyes, her teeth alone are worth mention. Our water was so heavily fluoridated that everyone, young and old, had black teeth. But after spending her youth in the liberated areas of eastern Shandong and drinking spring water, not to mention being taught to brush her teeth by Eighth Route soldiers, Gugu’s teeth were spared of that noxious effect. Hers were the envy of all, especially the girls.
Chen Bi was the first baby Gugu delivered, a fact that caused her a lifetime of regret – her first ought to have been the son or daughter of a revolutionary, not a landlord’s mongrel. But at the time, the necessity to start something new and do away with old birthing methods would not allow her to take such issues into consideration.
When Gugu learned that Ailian had gone into labour, she jumped on her bicycle (a rarity at the time), a medical kit over her back, and rushed home, covering the ten li from the health centre to our village in ten minutes. Village secretary Yuan Lian’s wife, who was washing clothes on the bank of the Jiao River, watched her race across the narrow stone bridge, so scaring a puppy playing on the bridge it fell into the river.
Medical kit in hand, Gugu burst into Ailian’s room, only to find that the old midwife Tian Guihua was already attending to her. The old woman, with her pointed mouth and sunken cheeks, was in her sixties; by now, thankfully, this torchbearer for the obstructionists is feeding worms. When Gugu entered, Tian was straddling Ailian and pushing down on her bulging belly with all her might. As Tian was suffering from chronic bronchitis, the sound of her laboured breathing merged with the hog-butchering screams of her pregnant victim, producing a tragically heroic aura in the room. Chen E, the landlord, was in the corner on his knees, banging his head in supplication on the floor, over and over, and mumbling incoherently.
As a frequent visitor to Chen’s house, I knew its floor plan well. Two cramped rooms with hanging eaves faced west. The first thing you encountered after entering was the stove, which was backed by a two-foot-high wall. The sleeping platform, the kang, was behind that low wall. So Gugu witnessed the scene the moment she walked in, and was livid with anger; in her own words, ‘the flames were thirty feet high’. She dropped her medical kit, ran up and, with her left hand on the old woman’s left arm and her right hand on her right shoulder, yanked her off the kang. The old woman’s head banged into the bedpan, splashing its contents all over the floor and filling the air with the smell of urine. Dark blood oozed from a head wound. It wasn’t a serious injury, but you wouldn’t have known that by her shrieks of agony. Most people, hearing such pitiful wails, would go dumb from fright. But they had no effect on Gugu, who had seen a thing or two in her life.
She took her place next to the kang, donned rubber gloves, and spoke sternly to Ailian: No more crying, no more screaming, since neither of those is helpful. Listen to me if you want to come out of this alive. Do exactly as I say. That had the desired effect on Ailian, who knew all about Gugu’s background and her uncommon experiences. You are a little old to be having a child, Gugu told her, and the position of the foetus is wrong. Babies are supposed to come out headfirst, but yours wants to come out hand first, his head still inside. In years to come, Gugu often teased Chen Bi by saying he wanted to emerge with an outstretched hand to ask the world for something. To which, Chen always remarked: I was begging for food.
It was her first case, and yet she was calm and composed, not a hint of panic, someone whose techniques produced better than expected results. Gugu was a natural genius as a woman’s doctor. What her instincts told her, her hands put into practice. Women who witnessed her at work or those who were her patients absolutely revered and admired her. My mother said to me more than once: Your aunt’s hands are different than other people’s. Most people’s hands are cold some of the time, hot at other times, sometimes stiff, and sometimes sweaty. But your aunt’s hands were always the same, whether in the cold of winter or the heat of summer: soft and cool, not spongy soft, more like . . . How can I describe them? My educated elder brother said: Like a needle tucked into cotton, supple yet firm? That’s it, Mother said. And the coolness of her hands was never icy. I can’t find the words . . . Again my brother came to her aid: Can we call it outer heat and inner coolness, like cool silk or fine jade? That’s it, Mother said, that’s it exactly. All she had to do was lay her hands on a sick person for that illness to retreat at least 70 per cent. Gugu came close to being deified by the women in our township.
Ailian was a lucky woman; she’d been a smart one to begin with. As soon as Gugu’s hands touched her belly, she felt a sort of vigour. She often told people she met afterward that Gugu had the bearing of a general. Compared to her, the woman lying on the floor in a puddle of piss was a clown. In the inspiration and power derived from her scientific approach and dignified demeanour, Ailian saw brightness and gained the courage to deliver; her gut-wrenching screams and pain were greatly reduced. She stopped crying and did as Gugu said, working in concert with Gugu’s movements to bring Chen Bi safely into the world.
Chen wasn’t breathing when he emerged, so Gugu held him by his feet and smacked him on the back and chest until he produced a kitten-like cry. How is it the little imp has such a big nose? Gugu wondered. He looks like one of those Americans. She was as happy as she could be, like an artisan who has just completed the first project. And a smile spread across the face of the exhausted mother. Though Gugu was imbued with strong class-consciousness, class and class struggle were completely forgotten as she helped the infant emerge from the birth canal. Her elation constituted the pure essence of happiness.
When he heard that it was a boy, Chen E stood up. Feeling helpless, he threaded his way back and forth in the narrow space behind the stove, strings of tears dripping like honey from his dried-up eyes. He was incapable of describing the joy he felt. (There were terms like male heir and patriarchal clan, but from a man like him they would have been offensive.)
The boy has such a big nose, Gugu said, why don’t you just call him Chen Bi – Nose Chen?
She was just teasing, but Chen E nodded and bowed to her, taking her words as if they constituted an imperial edict: I thank Gugu for favouring him with a name, he said. Nose it is. We’ll call him Chen Bi.
Swathed in Chen E’s insistent thanks and Ailian’s tears of joy, Gugu packed up her kit and was on her way out when she spotted Tian Guihua sitting in the corner against the wall, the broken bedpan on the floor in front of her. She actually appeared to be asleep. Gugu could not say when this transformation had taken place or when her hair-raising shrieks had stopped. She thought the woman might be dead, but light in her cat-like eyes proved her wrong. Waves of anger surged through her mind. What are you hanging around for? she said. I did half the work, the woman said, and you did the other half. By rights I should get one towel and five eggs, but my head is injured, thanks to you. For the sake of your mother, I won’t report you to the authorities, but you have to give me your towel to wrap the wound and your five eggs for my health.
That reminded Gugu that the old midwives always demanded a fee, and the thought disgusted her. Shame on you! she said through clenched teeth. Shame, shame on you! What do you mean, you did half the work? If I’d let you finish, there would be two corpses lying on that kang. You witch, you think a woman’s birth canal is like a hen’s rectum, that all you have to do is squeeze for an egg to pop out. You call that a delivery? What it is is murder. And you want to report me? Gugu aimed a flying kick on the woman’s chin. You want a towel? And eggs? Another kick followed, this one on the woman’s backside. She then grabbed her medical kit with one hand and the tight bun of hair on the woman’s head and dragged her out into the yard. Chen E followed them out, wanting to make peace. Get your arse back in there! Gugu demanded angrily, and take care of your wife!
It was, Gugu told me later, the first time she’d ever struck anyone. She’d never thought herself capable of such a thing. But she kicked her again. The old woman rolled over and sat up, pounding the ground with both hands. Help! she shrieked. She’s trying to kill me . . . Wan Liufu’s bandit daughter is trying to kill me!
Evening is when that occurred. The setting sun, a colourful western sky, light breezes. Most of the villagers were taking their dinner out in the streets, rice bowls in hand, and they came trotting over to see what all the commotion was about. The village Party secretary, Yuan Lian, and Brigade Commander Lü Ya (Tooth) was among them. Tian Guihua was a distant aunt of Lü Ya, close enough to be considered family. Wan Xin, he said to Gugu, aren’t you ashamed to hit an old woman?
Who did Lü Ya think he was, scolding me like that, a creep who battered his wife to make her crawl around the house?
Old woman? Gugu said. Old witch is more like it. A demon! Ask her what she was doing here.
I don’t know how many people have died at your hand, but if a woman like me had a gun, she’d happily put a bullet in your head. Gugu pointed her finger at the old woman’s head. She was all of seventeen at the time. The crowd tittered at her use of ‘a woman like me’.
There was more Lü Ya wanted to say in Tian Guihua’s defence, but he was cut short by Yuan Lian: Doctor Wan did nothing wrong. Old witches who play games with people’s lives deserve to be severely punished. Tian Guihua, stop the phoney act. You got off lightly with only being struck. You ought to be sent to prison! From now on, Doctor Wan is to be called when any woman is about to have a child. Tian Guihua, if you ever again show up to do what you do, I’ll rip those dog fingers right off your hands!
Gugu said that Yuan Lian was not an educated man, but he could see which way tides ran and knew the importance of justice. He was a good cadre.
Sensei, I was the second child Gugu delivered.
When my mother’s time came, my grandmother did what tradition called for her: she washed her hands, changed clothes, and lit three sticks of incense, which she stuck in a burner in front of the ancestral tablets. Then she bowed three times, rapping her head against the floor, and sent all the males in the family outside. It was not my mother’s first child: two boys and a girl had preceded me. You’re an old hand at this, my grandmother said to her, you don’t need any help. Just take your time. Mother, my mother replied, I don’t feel good about this one, there’s something different. My grandmother would not hear of it. How different can it be? she said. You’re not expecting a unicorn, are you?
My mother’s feeling did not betray her. My brothers and sister had all come out headfirst. Me? Leg first.
My grandmother was scared witless when she saw my tiny leg emerge. There’s a popular saying in the countryside that goes: If a leg is foremost, then you owe a ghost. Owe a ghost? What does that mean? It means that in a previous life someone in the family had an outstanding debt, and the person owed had returned as a newborn baby intent on making things difficult for the woman in labour. Either both woman and child die together, or the child hangs around till a certain age, then dies, leaving the family destitute and devastated. So Grandma tried her best to appear calm. This one, she said, is born to be a runner – someone who runs errands for an official. Now, don’t worry, she said, I know what to do. She went out into the yard, where she picked up a copper basin, carried it inside, then stood at the foot of the bed, and beat it like a gong with a rolling pin – Bong! Bong! Come out, she shouted, come out now! Your father wants you to deliver an urgent message, and you’re in for a whipping if you don’t come out right this minute!
Sensing that something was indeed seriously wrong, Mother tapped on the window with her bed whisk and shouted to my sister, who was waiting anxiously in the yard, Man – my sister’s name – go fetch your aunt, and hurry!
Quick-witted as always, my sister ran to the village administrative office, where she asked Yuan Lian to phone the township health centre. I later put that ancient hand-crank telephone away as a keepsake. You see, it saved my life.
It was the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, a day when the Jiao River overflowed its banks and submerged the local bridge, although waves crashing over the stones made it easy to see where it stood. Du Bozi – Du the Neck – who had been fishing in the river, saw my aunt speed down the opposite bank on her bicycle, sending sprays of water at least three feet into the air as she crossed the bridge. The way the river had turned into rapids, if she’d fallen into the water, well, sir, I’d never have made it into this world.
Gugu rushed in dripping wet and took charge.
Mother later said that seeing Gugu walk in the door put her mind at ease. She told me that the first thing Gugu did was take Grandma aside and say, with unmistakable sarcasm, Auntie, how would he dare come out with you making all that racket? With a lame attempt at defending herself, Grandma said, Children crave excitement, so why wouldn’t he want to see what the noise was all about?
Well, Gugu said she grabbed hold of my leg and yanked me out like pulling a radish out of the ground. I knew she was joking. After bringing Chen Bi and me into the world, our mothers became her volunteer propagandists. They showed up everywhere to spread the word, while Yuan Lian’s wife and Du Bozi told everyone about Gugu’s incredible bike-riding skills. The speed at which her reputation spread matched the drop in interest in the old midwives, who were relegated to the status of historical relics.
The years 1953 to 1957 saw a rise in China’s rate of production, creating a period of vigorous economic activity. The weather was good, producing bumper crops every year. With plenty to eat and good warm clothing, the people’s mood was one of wellbeing, and the women were eager to get pregnant and have a child. Gugu was a busy woman in those days. The tyre tracks of her bicycle were visible on every street and in every lane of all the eighteen villages of Northeast Gaomi Township, her footprints in most people’s compounds.
From 4 April 1953 to 21 December 1957, she performed 1612 deliveries, bringing a total of 1645 babies, six of whom died. But of those, five were stillborn, the sixth died of a congenital illness. This remarkable achievement approached perfection.
Gugu joined the Communist Party on 17 February 1955. That occurred on the day she delivered her one-thousandth baby. The child was our classmate Li Shou.
Gugu said that Teacher Yu, Li Shou’s mother, was her most nonchalant patient ever. While she was busy down below, Teacher Yu was preparing for class, a textbook in her hand.
In her later years, Gugu often thought back to this period – modern China’s golden age, and hers as well. I don’t know how many times I saw her eyes light up as she said longingly: I was a living Buddha back then, the local stork. A floral perfume oozed from my body, bees swarmed in my wake. So did butterflies. Now, now nothing but goddamn flies . . .
Gugu also came up with my name: in school I was known as Wan Zu (Foot), but I was Xiaopao – Jogger – as a toddler.
I’m sorry, Sensei, I should have made myself clear: Wan Zu is my true name, Tadpole is just a pen-name.
Gugu had reached marrying age. But she was a salaried professional, a public servant who ate marketable grains and enjoyed an enviable background, which kept the local boys from entertaining any hope of being the one for her. I was five at the time, and often heard my great-aunt and my grandmother talk about my aunt’s marital prospects. Wan Xin’s aunt, I heard Gugu’s mother say, her voice laden with anxiety, Xin is twenty-two. Girls born the same year as her already have two children of their own, but not a single proposal has ever come her way. There’s no reason to be concerned, my grandmother said. A girl like her, who knows, she could marry into the royal family and wind up as Empress. When that happens, you’ll be mother-in-law to the Emperor, and we’ll all be royalty, enjoying reflected glory. Nonsense, Great-Aunt said. The Emperor went out with the revolution. We’re a republic now, with the Chairman at the helm. Well, if that’s the case, Grandmother replied, then we’ll have Xin marry the Chairman. You might live physically in the modern world, Great-Aunt said impatiently, but your mind is stuck in pre-Liberation days. I’m different than you, Grandmother said. In all my life I’ve never left Heping. But you’ve been to the liberated areas and spent time in Pingdu city. Don’t talk to me about Pingdu city, Great-Aunt said. Just hearing the name makes my scalp itch. I was kidnapped by those Jap devils, taken there to suffer, not to enjoy myself.
The longer the two sisters-in-law talked, the more their conversation sounded like an argument. The way Great-Aunt stormed off angrily, you’d have thought she never wanted to see my grandmother again. But she was back the next day. Whenever my mother witnessed the two of them talking about Gugu’s marital prospects, she had to stifle a laugh.
I recall one evening when our water buffalo calved. I don’t know if the mother modelled herself after my mother or the calf modelled itself after me, but it started coming out leg first, and got stuck. The mother’s bellows gave testimony to her agony. My father and grandfather were so distressed they could only wring their hands, stomp their feet, and pace the area in tight little circles. A farmer’s life revolves around a buffalo, and this particular one had been sent to us by the production team to tend. There’d be hell to pay if it died. My mother whispered to my elder sister: Man, I heard your aunt coming in. My sister took off. My father glared at his wife and said: Don’t talk like an idiot. She works with women. The principle’s the same, Mother replied.
Gugu walked in the door and raged: You people are going to kill me from exhaustion. Delivering human babies has me running all day, and now you want me to deliver a cow!
With a smile, Mother said: Like it or not, Sister, you’re a member of this family. Who else should we ask for help? Everybody says you’re a reincarnated bodhisattva, and bodhisattvas are supposed to deliver all living creatures from torment, to save the lives of all sentient beings. A water buffalo may not be human, but it’s a life, and I can’t imagine you letting it die without lifting a finger.
It’s a good thing you can’t read, Auntie, Gugu said. If you knew how to read a couple of handfuls of characters, our village would be too small to hold you.
If it had been eight handfuls, not two, I’d still be no match for even your little toe.
Annoyance still showed on Gugu’s face, but the feeling behind it was fading. Night had fallen, so Mother lit all the lanterns in the house, turned up the wicks, and carried them out to the barn.
When the birthing mother saw Gugu come in, she bent her front legs and knelt on the ground. The sight nearly caused tears to spurt from Gugu’s eyes.
Ours were not long in following.
Gugu made a quick examination of the mother’s body. Another leg-first, she said in a sympathetic, but slightly mocking tone.
Gugu sent us out into the yard so we wouldn’t be upset by what we might see. By the sound of her commands, we could picture what she was telling Father and Mother to do. It was the fifteenth day of the lunar month; as the moon hung in the southeast corner of the sky, illuminating the earth below, we heard Gugu shout: Good, it’s out!
With whoops of delight we ran inside, where we saw a little sticky-coated creature on the ground behind its mother. Wonderful, Father announced excitedly, it’s another female!
Isn’t it strange, Gugu seethed, how men pull a long face when a woman gives birth to a girl baby, but grin happily if a cow does the same thing.
When this calf matures, she’ll have calves just like her, Father said.
What about humans? Gugu countered. When a girl matures, she’ll give birth to girls, also just like her.
That’s different, Father said.
Seeing that Gugu was about to lose her temper, Father stopped talking.
The mother turned her head to lick the sticky substance that covered her calf’s body. Her tongue appeared to have miraculous powers, for every spot she licked clean seemed to be strengthened. The sight overwhelmed us. I sneaked a glance at Gugu, whose mouth hung open and whose eyes radiated love, as if she were the one being cleaned and groomed by the cow’s tongue, or it was her tongue that was cleaning the calf. When the sticky substance was nearly all gone from its hide, the calf wobbled onto its legs.
Someone brought a basin and filled it with water. A bar of soap materialised, and a towel, so Gugu could wash her hands.
Grandma sat in front of the stove using a bellows. Mother stood at the kang making noodles.
I’m starved, Gugu said after washing her hands. I’ll eat here tonight.
This is your home, isn’t it? Mother said.
Of course it is, Grandmother said. It wasn’t long ago when we all ate out of the same pot.
On the other side of our compound wall, Gugu’s mother shouted for her to come home for dinner. I can’t work for them for nothing, Gugu shouted back. I’m going to eat here. Your aunt has lived on a tight budget, Great-Aunt replied. If you eat even one bowl of her noodles, she won’t forget that for the rest of her life. My grandmother picked up a poker and ran over to the wall. If it’s food you want, come in and have a bowl. If not, then go home! I’m not interested in eating anything you’ve got, Great-Aunt said.
When the noodles were ready, Mother filled a bowl and told my sister to take it to Great-Aunt. (Years later I learned that in her haste, my sister stumbled, spraying the soupy noodles everywhere as she dropped the bowl and broke it. To keep her from getting yelled at back home, Great-Aunt took a bowl from her cupboard, and told my sister to take it home with her.)
Gugu loved to talk, and we loved listening to her. After she’d eaten her noodles, she sat on the kang, leaned back against the wall, and started the chatter. By appearing in just about every house in the area, she’d met all sorts of people and heard many interesting things, and was not above spicing up her accounts like a professional storyteller. In the early 1980s, when we watched the serialised TV stories told by Liu Lanfang, Mother would say, That could have been your aunt. If she hadn’t become a doctor, she had what it took to be that kind of storyteller.
That night she began telling us about her battles of wits with Commander Sugitani in Pingdu city. I was seven at the time. She looked at me and said: I was just about Xiaopao’s age when I went with Great-Grandma and your great-aunt to Pingdu city, where we were shut up in a dark room with two ferocious guard dogs outside the door. The dogs were fed human flesh every day and drooled whenever they saw a child. Great-Grandma and your great-aunt cried all night long. But not me. I went to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and I didn’t wake up till the next morning. I don’t know how many days and nights we spent in that room until they moved us to a separate compound, where there was a lilac tree that smelled so good it made my head swim. A gentleman from the countryside in a long robe and formal cap came to invite us to a banquet hosted by Commander Sugitani. Your great-grandma and your great-aunt wept and did not dare accept the invitation. The gentleman said to me: Young lady, tell your grandmother and your mother there’s no need to be afraid. Commander Sugitani has no desire to harm you. All he wants is to be friends with Mr Wan Liufu. So, Grandma, Mother, I said, you can stop crying. It doesn’t do anybody any good. It won’t help you sprout wings, will it? Can you bring the Great Wall down with tears? The gentleman clapped his hands. Well spoken, young lady, you’re a smart one. You’re going to be someone special when you grow up. At my urging, your great-grandma and great-aunt stopped crying, and we all followed the gentleman over to a large wagon pulled by a black mule. After countless twists and turns, we entered a compound with a high gate, flanked by two military guards, a Chinese collaborator on the left and a Japanese soldier on the right. It was an enormous compound, with one courtyard after another as we went deeper and deeper, with no end in sight. Finally, we came up to a large reception hall in the middle of a garden, with sandalwood armchairs and windows framed by wooden carvings. Commander Sugitani was dressed in a kimono, slowly folding his fan in and out, the cultured man. After greeting us with some formal gibberish, he offered us seats around a large table overflowing with fine food. Your great-grandma and great-aunt wouldn’t even pick up their chopsticks, but I wasn’t shy, not about eating the little prick’s food. His pointed chopsticks were hard to use, so I dug in with my meat hooks, cramming food into my mouth. Sugitani held his wine cup and watched me eat, smiling the whole time. When I’d had all I could eat, I wiped my hands on the tablecloth and started to doze off. Would you like your father to come here, little girl? Sugitani asked. I opened my eyes. No, I said, I wouldn’t. Why not? My father is Eighth Route, you’re Japanese, and the Eighth Route fights the Japanese. Aren’t you afraid that’s what he’ll come to do?
Gugu paused and rolled up her sleeve to check her watch. There couldn’t have been more then ten wristwatches in all of Gaomi Township at the time, and Gugu wore one of them. Wow! my eldest brother exclaimed. He was the only member of the family who’d ever seen one before. He was enrolled in the county middle school, where he studied Russian, taught by a returnee from the Soviet Union, who also wore a wristwatch. My brother’s ‘Wow!’ was followed by a second exclamation: A wristwatch! My sister and I joined in: A wristwatch! we shouted.
Gugu rolled down her sleeve, feigning indifference, and said, It’s only a watch. What’s the big deal? That casual comment – intended as such – intensified our interest dramatically. My brother spoke up first: Gugu, I’ve only seen teacher Ji’s watch from a distance . . . can I take a look at yours? Please, Gugu, show it to us, we joined in.
She smiled. You little rascals, it’s just an old wristwatch, not worth looking at. But she took it off her wrist and handed it to him.
Be careful! Mother said.
My brother accepted the watch timidly, cradling it in his palm at first, and then put it up to his ear. When he was finished, he handed it to my sister, who handed it to my second brother when she was finished. He didn’t even have time to hold it up to his ear before Eldest Brother snatched it away and handed it back to Gugu. I showed how unhappy I was by crying.
Mother was quick to scold me: When you grow up, Xiaopao, you’ll run far enough away to have a watch of your own.
Excerpted from "Frog"
Copyright © 2016 Mo Yan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This
Praise for Frog
“Heavily laced with ardent social criticism, mystical symbolism, and historical realism, Mo Yan’s potent exploration of China’s most personal and intrusive social control programs probes the horrors and pain such policies inflict.” — Booklist
“Goldblatt’s translation is inviting, while Yan’s tale deftly explores the human toll of national policy and historical forces.” — Publishers Weekly
“Harrowing, haunting, poignant . . . Mo Yan proves himself a novelist of the highest calibre.”—Financial Times (UK)
“It's an expansive, fascinating cultural-political history. It skilfully blends high farce with social commentary, domestic drama with deeper themes…Much of the novel is funny, much is sad and moving, and Yan effortlessly moves between the two registers. And you really get a sense of how China and rural Northern Gaomi (Yan's hometown) have changed, almost beyond description, from Maoist times to the current hyper-capitalistic phase.”—Independent (UK)
"There is no denying the ease and beauty of his storytelling . . . this is often difficult subject matter — but never hard to read."— West Australian
"Frog has that wonderful sense of flipping between the mundane and the fantastic… Both heartbreaking and absurd… a tragicomic tale."—Adelaide Advertiser
Reading Group Guide
At the opening of Nobel laureate Mo Yan’s novel Frog, Wan Zu (nicknamed Xiaopao or Tadpole) is aflame with literary ambition. Sugitani Akihito, a visitor from Japan, recently delivered a lecture entitled “Literature and Life” to the citizens of China’s rural Northeast Gaomi Township. Upon hearing about Tadpole’s extraordinary Aunt Gugu, Sugitani “urged local literature fans to create poignant works of art out of [Gugu’s] life” (p. 3). Tadpole embraces the challenge.
In a letter to Sugitani written in 2002, Tadpole announces his intentions to write a play. First, however, he will provide Sugitani a detailed account of his aunt’s life. Gugu, the daughter of a renowned military doctor, is born in 1937. As a young girl, she—along with her mother and grandmother—is taken hostage by occupying Japanese forces in an attempt to force her father into joining their medical unit. A devoted Communist, Gugu’s father refuses, and the three are eventually released unharmed.
After her father’s death, party officials reward his loyalty by allowing the beautiful and intelligent Gugu to choose her future career. Gugu becomes a doctor, specializing in obstetrics, and quickly displaces the township’s untrained and largely mercenary midwives. She is only seventeen when she delivers Chen Bi, the first of thousands of babies she will eventually usher into the world. Tadpole himself will be the second.
“From 4 April 1953 to 21 December 1957, [Gugu] performed 1612 deliveries” (p. 26). This is Gugu’s golden age. She is universally esteemed and becomes engaged to a handsome air force pilot. Everyone agrees that Wang Xiaoti is an excellent match—until he defects to Taiwan to join Chiang Kai-shek.
Gugu claims that she knew nothing about her fiancé’s treasonous intentions, but her own allegiance is questioned. When she is exonerated in 1961, Gugu throws herself into her work, even as a widespread famine ensures that “over a two-year period . . . not a single infant was born in any of the more than forty villages that made up the People’s commune” (p. 52).
When a bumper crop of sweet potatoes sets off a baby boom, each new birth is rewarded with “coupons for sixteen and a half feet of cotton and two jin of soybean oil” (p. 65). Soon, however, the party leadership realizes that the population explosion could strain the nation’s resources in the years to come.
Gugu takes on a new role: the heartless enforcer of China’s one-child policy, performing hundreds of vasectomies and abortions—even on near-term fetuses and upon frequently unwilling patients. In the years that follow, Gugu’s unblinking allegiance to the party will transform not only her own life but also that of Tadpole, Chen Bi and hundreds of other ordinary citizens who will risk everything to have another child.
Spanning more than seventy years of China’s tumultuous history, Frog is a masterwork by one of the world’s most important writers, as well as a riveting and heartrending saga of life in Communist China through the lens of its most infamous policy.
ABOUT MO YAN
Born in 1955 to a family of farmers, Guan Moye writes under the penname Mo Yan—which means “Don’t Speak” in Chinese. Inspired, in part, by William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Yan fictionalizes his birthplace of Gaomi County in Shandong province as Northeast Gaomi Township in Frog as well as in many of his earlier novels. Yan focuses on the lives of the downtrodden villagers and workers, and his work is characterized by a darkly comic, sometimes surreal storytelling style. The author of ten novels, Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2012, making him the first resident of mainland China to receive the award.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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