Drinking with Mo Yan

 

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The Chinese writer Mo Yan (莫言 1955-) is often categorised as belonging to the new historicist trend in fiction (新历史主义小说). This literary current, which evolved in China in the 1980s and 1990s, viewed fiction and history as related subjects and merged them into a genre characterised by subjective realism, as a reaction to the official and idealised macro-narratives of the Cultural Revolution.

Mo Yan often uses food symbolism to exemplify the material connectedness of humans to society, while exposing the cultural web of meaning attached to certain foods and certain situations. In his 1992 novel Liquorland (酒国) he writes both symbolically and directly about the function of alcohol in Chinese society.

 

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I was in Beijing in 2012, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize

In this study I have limited my field of research to the role of alcohol in Chinese literary history, with fictional, poetic and philosophical writings as my main sources. Inspired by Roland Barthes I have discovered three separate alcohol ‘institutions’ relevant to the analysis of Liquorland: 1) The commensal drinking culture, 2) The poetic drinking culture and 3) The heroic drinking culture. Through my analysis I will show how the characters’relationship to the alcohol institutions can be read as a critique, not only of the same institutions, but as part of a broader critique of idealism.

 

9780857857361This is an excerpt from my chapter ‘Dissolved in Liquor and Life: Drinkers and Drinking Cultures in Mo Yan’s Novel ‘Liquorland’,’ written more than five years ago – before he won the Nobel Prize. Bloomsbury has now kindly permitted me to share the chapter (Published in Kerner, Chou, Warmind (eds.): Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, Morten Warmind (Eds.). London: Bloomsbury, 2015) full-text via academia.edu.

Re-reading stuff you’ve written years ago is always a perilous task (I’ve already discovered tons of things I want to change), but there it is, and still quite interesting I think. Cheers!

Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast – New publication with Bloomsbury

My first book chapter is now officially out there, and I just got my copy! I must confess myself fittingly proud and excited.

The book Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast was published by Bloomsbury in February and is based on the conference ‘Commensality and Social Organisation‘ held at University of Copenhagen in 2011.

The volume is edited by Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou and Morten Warmind and include a wide range of fields and topics, ranging from bronze age feasts over the culinary triangle in antiquity to contemporary Vegan activism.

My chapter is about alcohol and drinking cultures in Mo Yan‘s novel Liquorland (Jiuguo 酒国, translated by Howard Goldblatt as The Republic of Wine in 2000) from 1992, with references to historical social and artistic uses of alcohol in China. It investigates how established Chinese drinking norms – such as the hierarchical toast ritual, the poetical connotations of drinking alone and the heroic feat of drinking without getting drunk – are described and subverted in the novel.

Drowned in Shit: Scenes by Yu Hua and Mo Yan

In Yu Hua‘s 余华 best seller Brothers 兄弟 from 2005 (read Julia Lovell’s review here) he lets the father of one of his protagonists drown in the cesspool under a public toilet, while attempting to catch a glimpse of the behinds of the women doing their business in the next compartment:

“The scream scared the living day-lights out of Baldy Li’s father, making him lose his grip and fall head-first into the thick, viscous goo below. In seconds, the excrement filled his mouth and nose and then his lungs, and that was how Baldy Li’s father drowned.” (Yu, Hua: Brothers. Trans: Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas. London: Picador, 2010)

This scene instantly reminded me of a similar one of Mo Yan‘s 莫言 in his novel The Republic of Wine 酒国 from 1992, in which the detective anti-hero is likewise drowned in shit while dazed by drink and chasing the phantom of his lover the lady trucker:

“But before he got there, he stumbled into an open air privy filled with a soupy, fermenting goop of food and drink regurgitated by Liquorland residents, plus the drink and food excreted from the other end, atop which floated such imaginably filthy refuse as bloated, used condoms[…] The pitiless muck sealed his mouth as the irresistible force of gravity drew him under.” (Mo, Yan: The Republic of Wine. Trans: Howard Goldblatt. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.)

kina 124The public toilet, a dying breed in my part of the world, would make an interesting topic for sociological analysis. The invisible rules of behavior and extensive taboos surrounding it, in opposition to its indispensability in our daily lives: The poetics and profanity of the excrement.

Made comical by our own embarrassment of having to excrete the waste products of our metabolism and coupled with the pathos of death, it makes a delicious, if at the same time nauseating, literary spectacle when treated by to of China’s best contemporary novelists. Well, I’ll continue thinking about it, maybe its just shit anyway.

Mo Yan’s hometown seen from a fast train

Mo Yan in the media

It’s already over a month since Mo Yan 莫言 won the Nobel prize in literature, and all the news papers flared up with his image, discussions of ”why him?” and questions as to what he would do with the prize money. At the time I was so humbled by all the informed commentaries on the political aspects of the event that I didn’t feel like writing about it.

Recently however, as I was travelling from Qingdao to Beijing, going 300 km/h on a fast train, I had a glimpse of Gaomi 高密, the town where Mo Yan grew up and which have inspired many of his literary landscapes and it got me thinking of it again. (Apparently the town might soon be turned into a Mo Yan-theme park, but as I sped past I didn’t notice any sign of the approaching changes.)

At the time of the prize-giving many discussions revolved around questions as to why Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese fiction) had never got it; why it had taken China so long to get one (Gao Xingjian who won the prize in 2010 is not recognized as a Chinese writer because he lives in France and has French citizenship, so though he is culturally Chinese – Huaren 华人, he is not a Chinese citizen – Zhongguoren中国人); and around Mo Yan’s status as party member.

Gaomi seen from train window

My favourite Mo Yan novel is Republic of Wine (酒国) from 2005, in which he compassionately and with great self-awareness investigates human weakness as expressed through corruption, pride and lust. Though he does not explicitly denounce the communist party in public or in his novels, his writings surely reveal some ugly truths about all of us. The interesting aspects of his works are general and relating to the human condition rather than a specific political situation.

The insistence of some western critics that all Chinese works must be about China, thus understandable only in a Chinese political context, and considering the label ‘Banned in China’ as the best recommendation is in my eyes an expression of a new kind of Orientalism. If only the politically correct authors should be awarded, political standpoint superseding literary quality, now that would be political censorship on an international level.

I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize, not saying that all Mo Yan’s works are brilliant, just that when enjoying a literary work, political correctness is not the first thing I look for. I also love Knut Hamsun’s work even though politically he supported the national socialist party.

Just like the landscape of Gaomi speeding past my train window, Mo Yan’s best novels present a blurred and slightly drunken image of a world governed by weak and complex human beings, always changing, never allowing us to stand still for one moment to get the whole objective picture. We are all part of it. Even we literary critics, who like to stand on the sideline and criticize everything, are part of it. Eating forbidden fruits, performing good deeds for ulterior motives, displaying kindness because of vanity, hurting people because of love, sometimes riding high above the world in brief spells of ecstasy, sometimes ending up throwing up in a ditch.

Regardless of political standpoint I would advise anyone to read some of Mo Yan’s works, even though they might be sold out at the moment. But I would also advice readers to look beyond the Nobel committee’s narrow lens, and start investigating Chinese literature on their own. There are several good platforms introducing Chinese literature in translation, including Renditions magazine, Paper Republic and MCLC Resouce Center.

Alcohol and identity in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine

I will be giving a presentation on Alcohol and Identity in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine at the workshop: Commensality and Social Organisation at the University of Copenhagen 6.10.2011 – 9.10.2011.

“Commensality, the social context of sharing consumption of food, drink and sometimes drugs, is of great importance for societies on all levels. Food, globalisation and identity play an important role in the social make-up of society.”

– Organised by ToRS (Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies), University of Copenhagen.

Read my abstract here
Read more about the workshop here

(Photo by avlxyz@flickr)