The Humor of Mo Yan

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Mo Yan as Humorist
Alexander C. Y. Huang
These days I can point out an Audi, a Mercedes, a BMW, and a Toyota; I also know all about U.S. space shuttles and Soviet aircraft carriers. But at the time, I was a donkey, a 1958 donkey. This strange object, with its four rubber wheels, was clearly faster than me, at least on level ground. Allow me to repeat Mo Yan’s comment: A goat can scale a tree, a donkey is a good climber.

— Mo Yan, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006)

32 ı W orld Literature Today

and bureaucrats alike find themselves in comic
and sometimes absurd situations.
Similar to other contemporary writers who
parody socialist realism, Mo Yan has blended
the bawdy and humorous modes to construct
counternarratives to the grand narrative of the
nation-state. In East German writer Thomas Brussig’s 1996 novel Helden wie wir (Eng. Heroes Like Us, 1997), the first-person narrator asks in a selfreflexive and playful tone: “The story of the [Berlin] Wall’s end is the story of my penis, but how to embody such a statement in a book conceived

as a Nobel Prize–worthy cross between David Copperfield and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire?”2 Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine, a parody of Chinese
food culture written in the reinvented genres of
detective and epistolary novels, and Life and Death
Are Wearing Me Out (2006), use a similar strategy
to create a sense of comic absurdity. Toward the
end of The Republic of Wine, on his way to Liquorland on the invitation of Li Yidou, a doctoral student in “liquor studies at the Brewer’s College”
there, the character Mo Yan reminisces that:
Back when I was leaving Beijing, my
bus passed through Tiananmen Square,
where . . . Sun Yat-sen [commonly referred
to as the father of the Republic of China,
founded in 1911], who stood in the square,
and Mao Zedong [leader of the People’s

illustration: cong zhang

O

ne of the most energetic writers in contemporary China, Mo Yan has been at the center of some of the most significant literary events of his time. His writings are energized by several interconnected themes

and styles ranging from magical realism to black
humor, and from epic historical novel to bawdy
fable. His comic visions are sometimes neglected
in the English-speaking world thanks to his betterknown historical novels such as Honggaoliang jiazu (Eng. Red Sorghum, 1987; film version by Zhang
Yimou), which chronicles a sober history of pain.
Set against a rich stream of powerful and unpredictable stories, Guan Moye’s pen name, Mo Yan, signaling a vow to “abstain from speech,” contains
a healthy dose of humor. This claim to silence, or
an author’s abstinence from speech, may be seen
as a gesture of self-mockery or self-praise, but it
is also a critical tool in the works by Mo Yan that
boldly reimagine political history and the history
of sexuality. It is a tool to speak the unspeakable,
and humor commits the invisible to writing. The
silence of the writer Mo Yan creates a unique
space for the articulate character Mo Yan, a regular in such novels as The Republic of Wine. More importantly, his works have reinvigorated the
neglected tradition of literary humor in modern
China with comic yet sympathetic portrayals of
individuals in a fragmented world of postsocialist
marketization.1 Both underprivileged individuals

Newman Prize – Mo Yan

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out parodies
official narratives about the history of the People’s
Republic of China from 1950 to 2000 through the
metaphorical framework of the Buddhist idea
of the six paths of reincarnation. Ximen Nao, a
landlord executed for his “bourgeois sins,” goes
through a series of reincarnations as a donkey (see
the epigraph of this article), an ox, a pig, a dog,
a monkey, and eventually a human child. Along
the way, Ximen interacts with humans, fights
with other animals for survival, and observes and
comments on human (Chinese) society as it goes
through momentous...
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