Mo Yan and the Rise of Male-Oriented Chinese Literature

How the Nobel Prize winner is developing a new genre

RTR38DU1-615.jpgDavid Gray/Reuters

Five years ago, book agent Toby Eady was giving a talk in Beijing when an audience member asked him why he consistently promoted books about the female Chinese experience -- chronicles of Chinese Cinderellas, concubines' daughters and the like. Was Eady promoting a one-sided picture of victimization to Western eyes? asked the audience member. What about the male side of the Chinese story?

Eady, who nursemaided best-sellers like Jung Chang's Wild Swans -- China's Gone with the Wind -- paused a beat before retorting, "Do you know who belongs to book clubs? Women."

The awarding of this year's Nobel prize for literature to Chinese author Mo Yan marks a swing of the pendulum in how the West sees Chinese literature, highlighting the increasing number of male Chinese writers reaching a global audience.

Male Chinese writers might not be as famous as female ones, but they present the other, much-needed perspective -- one that is lustier, masculine-minded and befitting a nation facing a male surplus.

To understand the significance of the masculine swing, imagine if the outside world's perception of, say, America, were shaped primarily by reading writers like Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, and Betty Friedan. No Hemingway, no F. Scott Fitzgerald, no Louis L'Amour, no Raymond Chandler. What a strange America this would be.

Mo Yan and his cohorts write salacious stories. Graphic. Scatological. The obsessions are making money, having sex, with possessing rather than being possessed.

Take this passage from Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, a full throttle yarn about a family's struggles during the Japanese invasion. Granddad Yu is heartbroken after grandson Douguan's testicle is bitten off by one of the packs of dogs made feral by starvation. Douguan's childhood friend Beauty is encouraged to indulge in some sex play to see whether his parts are in working order:

"Timidly, she held it in her sweaty hand and felt it gradually get warmer and thicker. It began to throb, just like her heart."

Granddad, elated to see a continuation of the family line, runs out, uttering perhaps the most memorable line in the book: "Single stalk garlic is the hottest!"

These stories offer another perspective on Chinese obsessions -- in this case, family lineage. (Anyone wondering whether this lineage business is just highly colored fiction need only scan last week's news about Hong Kong billionaire Cecil Chao, who put out $65 million to a successful suitor for his lesbian daughter's hand. Talk about Matrimony on A Bounty.)

Male Chinese writers present the other, much-needed perspective -- one that is lustier, masculine-minded and befitting a nation facing a male surplus.

There is, of course, more to male Chinese writing than Rabelaisian humor and power-crazed protagonists. A particular favorite of mine is the Inspector Chen series, written by Anthony Award-winner Qiu Xialong. The books detail the adventures of Shanghai poet-policeman Chen Cao and are set in the early 1990s, when China is beginning its rapid economic climb.

These are gentle stories, filled with melancholy and mouth-wateringly good descriptions of food. Endemic government corruption means Chen rarely gets his man, even if he solves the case, and his peregrinations bring to mind Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti, or Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe.

For too long, Western perceptions of Chinese have been essentially a female one, brought about to a large extent by the hugely successful writings of writers ranging from Han Suyin to the two Amys, Tan and Chua, who, though American, draw hugely on their Chinese roots for their stories. They have offered vivid, touching, and loving portraits of dysfunctional families, of the immigrant experience, of female empowerment. Stories that need a woman's touch.

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Mei Fong is a writer based in Los Angeles, where she teaches at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School.

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