Chinese writer Mo Yan won last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. “Sandalwood Death,” first published in Chinese in 2001, is the second volume in the University of Oklahoma’s Chinese Literature Today Book Series.
Unfamiliar as I am with Chinese culture and history, reading this novel became an exercise in learning more about that culture – and a more enjoyable way of learning, I imagine, than reading textbooks on the topic.
Yan structures his novel as three books, or three parts of an opera called “Sandalwood Death.” In an author’s note at the end of the book, Yan writes that the book is about sound and that “each chapter title in the first and third parts – ‘Head of the Phoenix’ and ‘Tail of the Leopard’ – is in the style of speech of that particular narrator.”
This is less obvious to English readers, despite the work of renowned translator Howard Goldblatt.
Yan goes on in his author’s note to say that two sounds, that of trains and of Maoqiang opera performances, especially influenced his writing of this book. And throughout the book are excerpts from Maoqiang opera, in italic and in rhyme, another masterful stroke of the translator. (A translator’s note at the beginning and a glossary of translated terms at the back are helpful aids in understanding the novel.)
The story is set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), when North China’s farmers and craftsmen opposed the influence of Westerners. In the novel, Germans are building a railroad near Northeast Gaomi Township, and they have the backing of the Chinese emperor, who wants the riches the railroad will bring.
The female protagonist of “Sandalwood” is Sun Meiniang, who cooks and sells the best dog leg and millet spirits in the village.
Sun Bing, her “dieh,” or biological father, is an opera virtuoso (“When Sun Bing sang, women wept”) and a leader of the rebellion. He kills a German soldier who has molested his wife, and government forces hunt him down until he must face the horrific “sandalwood punishment,” which I won’t describe but is designed, like crucifixion, to keep the condemned alive in great pain for days.
A German military officer says, “Inflicting unbearable pain on someone before killing him is a uniquely Chinese art and is at the core of its governing philosophy.” His Excellency Yuan disagrees and refers to the European practice of crucifixion.
Zhao Jia, Sun Meiniang’s “gongdieh,” or father-in-law, is a celebrated executioner who treats his work like an elaborate art. He says an executioner “must simultaneously be like a maiden practicing embroidery and a butcher slaughtering a mule.” And the book’s epigraph quotes him thus: “The finest play ever staged cannot compete with the spectacle of a public slicing.” I will not describe here (the novel goes into great detail) how gruesome slicing is.
He is enlisted to carry out the “sandalwood death,” which is “so exquisite, so refined that the name alone reveals its resounding elegance: sandal – wood – death, a term with a rough exterior but an aesthetic core, displaying the patina and aura of antiquity.”
This shows some of Yan’s language, which ranges from poetry to the idiom of poor villagers.
The book is filled with aspects of Chinese culture that will be unfamiliar to most of us. We learn not only about eating dog but about Tomb-Sweeping Day and the frequent refrain of “as the adage has it,” which sometimes makes sense and sometimes doesn’t. (“A carriage cannot reach the mountain without a road, but a boat can sail even against the wind.”)
Also strange to us is the ubiquitous kowtowing, with extreme humility (“May I die a thousand deaths”) and the acceptance of injustices as fated (“We were all acting in accordance with our fates”).
Reading Yan’s novel provides more than a lesson in Chinese culture. Although it takes a while to become absorbed in the story, the narrative does capture us, and we care about its characters and feel anger and remorse at their tragic ends.
In his author’s note, Yan says his novel “will likely not be a favorite of readers of Western literature, especially in highbrow circles” but “will be appreciated only by readers who have an affinity with the common man.” This seems like either ignorance or a marketing ploy.
The Nobel committee called Yan a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” One reward for reading “Sandalwood Death” is the chance to enter a world that is unfamiliar to most of us, and the novel allows to do that in a way that also brings the pleasure afforded by good fiction.