'Frog' is Mo Yan's neatly crafted critique of today's China
A Nobel Prize laureate sets his sights on the birth rate, poverty, and 'unraveling of the social fabric' in rising China.
Spare some pity for the Nobel laureate. Sure, the $1.1 million prize and inevitable sales surge help the medicine go down. But what a hassle to be abruptly thrust into fame, expected to comment on this, lecture on that, accept this prize and force a grin for that photo op. Suddenly a writer is one of those of potentially noxious things: a public figure. Doris Lessing may have displayed the most endearingly honest reaction when confronted with the news of her win outside her London home. You could practically hear her eyes rolling: “Oh Christ,” she said and waved the cameras off. Her son, his arm in a sling, stepped out of the taxi after her and seemed to digest the news for a moment. A smirk crossed his face as he announced, “Some professor must have died.”
The cynicism is understandable. In the United States, commentators tend to declare that the winner is too European or too obscure, too political or not political enough. Mo Yan, the 2012 laureate from China, had to contend with a few of these problems at once. After being declared the frontrunner, Mo went into hiding before the announcement, only to be dragged out, like a teenage truant, and asked to explain himself. (BBC News called him “China’s reluctant Nobel laureate.”) Among the most vexing questions: What do you think of Liu Xiabo, the imprisoned writer and 2010 Peace Prize winner? Why don’t you criticize your government?
Mo seemed genuinely pained to be in his position. He marshaled his worry for reporters: “I am under a lot of pressure, and feeling very anxious. How can I be happy? But if I say I am not happy, then it is a bit disingenuous. I just won the Nobel Prize, how can I say I am not happy?”
The political criticisms are likely to dog Mo, at least as long as Liu remains in prison and China’s most famous dissident is a bold, fearless artist, Ai Weiwei. But these concerns also tend to elide what Mo is here to offer – great literature – as well as the political meanings coded into his books. Frog, the latest novel by Mo to be translated into English, is a case in point. Beginning early in the life of the communist state and spanning 50-plus years, "Frog" is a sweeping and savage deconstruction of the country’s family planning programs. The one-child policy comes up for scorn, but so do the more gradualist measures that preceded it, along with an institutionalized misogyny as endemic in party officials as it is in pastoral farmers. These themes are no mere ornamentation but instead are inextricably tied to Mo’s story of Gugu, a talented midwife whose unwavering ideological purity comes at great cost to herself and the families she works with. This sense that the political and the literary can’t be separated without sundering the whole project should please Mo’s detractors as much as it does his fans. Perhaps the Chinese censors were too taken with the power of his storytelling to realize how subversive this novel is.
"Frog" is narrated by a playwright named Wan Zu, who is also known as Xiapao or Tadpole. The book is a series of letters from Tadpole to Sugitani Akihito, the son of a Japanese soldier who had been part of an occupying force in a rural Chinese village during World War II. There, Sugitani’s father was known as an uncharacteristically nonviolent commander. When he was wounded, he was treated by the father of Gugu, the midwife, who is also Tadpole’s aunt. This gesture binds the two families together, though something deeper and more painful may connect them, but Mo never quite explains. (There are a couple of unresolved secrets in this book, but it is also shot through with so much drama that the loose ends create a useful kind of atmosphere.)
The real connection may be one of guilt and repentance. Telling his story retrospectively, Tadpole has his own reserves of tragedy and shame, but it’s Gugu who is the novel’s polestar and antihero. A talented midwife by the age of 17, Gugu is the pride of her village, called upon by families all around as the country’s mid-50s economic boom brings an explosion in pregnancies. Gugu’s esteem rises ever higher, especially as she dates a fighter pilot, a local hero. It’s “modern China’s golden age, and hers as well.”
But then the pilot defects to Taiwan, reputedly for the promise of gold and women, while the country’s birth rate begins to spin out of control. Gugu deals with her disgrace by committing herself even more fiercely to communism and the government’s family planning directives. As Gugu explains, “Chairman Mao has said: Mankind must control itself, people must learn to embrace viable population growth.” This is both a materialist practicality – the country is skirting famine – and, in the worldview of true believers like Gugu, a form of altruism, freeing up resources for other nations. Party leaders charge Gugu, who’s described as having the “bearing of a general,” with making sure that families in her township don’t go over their allotted quota of children. When illicit pregnancies are reported, she rounds up her team – a veritable militia – and drags the mothers to the abortion clinic. Blood is often spilled before they get there, and after.
As food becomes more scarce, children scrounge for bugs to eat. There’s a scene, funny and grim in equal measure, in which Tadpole and a few other children learn that coal doesn’t taste so bad (the charred pine scent helps). The road to the health center is lined with mulberry trees “stripped bare of leaves by famine victims.” The denuded path seems to augur what lays inside, where women used to having large families are forced to stop at one or two, and girls are aborted because they aren’t boys.
There’s a decades long-tragedy playing out in "Frog": namely, that advances in birth control methods have been subsumed in service of regressive state policies. The sense of loss also comes from witnessing the unraveling of the social fabric of rural China, as women die in forced late-term abortions, once-large families are reduced to one or two heirs freighted with their parents’ traumas, and the pastoral collective is brutally industrialized. And in the midst of this devastation stands Gugu, deliverer of 10,000 babies, aborter of 2,000 more. But that crude accounting doesn’t capture how this fierce woman, unbowed but surely broken, has come to represent, in Mo’s depiction, the frightful costs of modernity.
In the novel’s penultimate act, set in the mid-aughts, China is zooming towards prosperity. It is also, in most respects, unrecognizable. Tadpole, who once thought his future lay in a mid-ranking post in a third-rate Army division, has become a mid-list writer. He’s moved to Beijing and back, married more than once. His daughter is barely discussed; her absence casts into relief how much he, like many of his peers, wanted a son. Some of his friends are dead, others might as well be, and a few have transformed themselves into purveyors of souvenirs for tourists visiting fertility shrines. The local clinic has become thoroughly up to date – both antiseptic and yuppie – offering individualized birth plans for the country’s nouveau riche, who drive up in BMWs with their pregnant mistresses and pay the fines for their unauthorized births with trash bags of bills.
Gugu is still around, not yet allowed to escape the many sins she has accumulated. Everywhere she goes she recognizes people she birthed and intuits the outlines of those she never allowed to be. Another novelist might allow this chapter to slip into elegy or wistfulness, but Mo holds another surprise in store. While much of the text, in Howard Goldblatt’s translation, is light on simile and metaphor, here the frog of the title comes dramatically alive, acquiring an eerie resonance. A visit to a muddy, clamorous frog farm run by an old classmate of Tadpole (suddenly that name doesn’t seem so benign) yields something far darker. And in the final section, told in the form of a short play written by Tadpole, Mo refuses the consolations of progress. The costs are too high, he seems to say, and some must live with the awful things they’ve done.
Even with this moral reckoning, the misogyny problem remains unsolved. Boys are still valued more than girls, except that now there’s a price on them – a difference of 20,000 yuan at a clandestine surrogacy clinic. This actuarial exactitude feels like some ultimate, phantasmagorical merging of China’s two ideologies: Marxist materialism and state-dominated crony capitalism. Fused together, they form an allegory for today’s China that should appease the author’s severest critics.