Contraception and the Sweet Potato Children – Frog, Part 2

The Chinese novel we’re currently reading, Frog by Mo Yan (莫言的 “蛙”), continues with Tadpole’s feisty aunt becoming a midwife using new methods in the 50s. We learn in the section I’m covering this time both the birth and school names of Tadpole and his aunt. Her school name that she is called even into adulthood is Wanxin, which means ten thousand hearts. Tadpole’s school name is Wanzu, which means ten thousand feet. While their school names follow the pattern in the village to name children after body parts, in this family Tadpole and Wanxin’s birthnames do not. The first children whose birth Wanxin assisted in were Bi Chen’s and Tadpole’s, and she was the one who named them both. The novel describes these events in detail.

Later, when Wanxin is dispatched to Tadpole’s house to help with birthing a calf, her true character emerges. Annoyed to be called to help an animal give birth, she feistily argues with Tadpole’s father about the way men are so happy when an animal gives birth to a female but sad when their wives give birth to a girl. She also is shown in a few places arguing about the old forms of midwifery that she abhors, such as midwives who only want to get wealth this way or who give herbs claiming to change a girl baby into a boy before birth. She even goes so far as to beat some of the old women using these methods. This is shocking in the context of Confucianism, because one’s elders were to be given such deference, though during this time in history, Chinese society was trying to rid itself of these old ideas.

The village where Tadpole’s family lives is near two airports, and Tadpole’s brothers want to become pilots. This part of the novel details their experiences with the planes and suppositions about the Soviet-Chinese alliance they witness during military drills.

Mustang Fighters

Painting of P-51D mustang fighters flying past Tiananmen, 1949

The matter of Wanxin’s marriage comes up a few times and becomes an intriguing tragedy with repercussions for Wanxin. Since she is from a good family and has a good job, she wants to marry a man of equal stature and thinks she has found it in military pilot Xiaoti Wang. I’m unclear on whether she was only still in the planning stages of their wedding or if it actually happened. Then one day Tadpole and his friends were out playing and saw a plane landing in the middle of the village, which excites them at first until they realize something is wrong and starting running away in time for it to explode. This becomes a big scandal because Xiaoti was flying the plane and was said to be defecting to Taiwan.

This part of the novel is noteworthy because it jumps from around 1960 to 40 years later in the year 2000 for the next two subchapters where this topic comes up at a family party with Tadpole’s nephew asking questions about it. Then the text returns back to the 1960s without really getting into the situation that much other than to note it shouldn’t be brought up in front of Wanxin. When the boy does dare to question Wanxin directly about it, everyone is shocked, and all she will say is that Xiaoti both condemned and saved her. Tadpole takes the boy aside and offers to tell him all about Xiaoti himself since he has done the research for his writing and knows objectively Xiaoti is an important character in Wanxin’s story. Tadpole does take a few lines to describe Xiaoti’s talents and hobbies to humanize him a bit.

Wanxin starts to work in the district hospital around 1961, and the famine continues to a degree that no babies are born for nearly two years in the districts her hospital serves. Starvation shuts the women’s bodies down so it is impossible to get pregnant, but by 1962, they have a bumper crop of sweet potatoes in the communes that reverses the effects of starvation. In that year, there were close to 3,000 births, and Wanxin calls these children “the sweet potato children.”

But although Wanxin’s connection to Xiaoti becomes something no one dares discuss in her presence most of the time, and there are a few scenes where the mention of it under the wrong circumstances brings on an investigation of her. The older gynecologist Qiuya Huang that she works with at the hospital makes an issue of it, and a physical fight between the women is described blow-by-blow, complete with “evil capitalist” put downs and other ugly comments. The hospital director has to separate them. This exposes Wanxin to an investigation and party discipline, but this part of the story is skipped at this juncture, turning to the good harvest immediately after this is mentioned. When the famine is over, her workplace returns to a somewhat more tranquil mood though everyone’s status is not forgotten, and Huang’s background is explained in some detail to show her capitalist credentials.

In 1966, Wanxin gets a young 18-year-old woman as an apprentice named Xiao Shizu (Little Lion), who comes to visit Wanxin’s family, but otherwise no real detail has emerged about her yet other than the fact that one of Tadpole’s schoolmates has a crush on her. Her introduction comes up out of sequence in the story, appearing before the 1965 birth policy push detailed below in the course of the novel. The novel does jump around in time quite a bit, but what is portrayed next as part one winds down is long and dramatic.

Some of this will become more important I suspect as the story takes us deep into China’s Cultural Revolution, so here is some basic background on that historical period:

Mostly, however, life goes on, and Wanxin takes part in the new push by the government in 1965 to encourage births but to cut down on the number of children that the people have. Wanxin gives speeches about the new policy, which also includes giving out free contraception and has an emphasis on the equality of the sexes. It uses the slogan, 一个不少,两个正,三个多了, which means something like one is not too few, two is just right, three is plenty. This part of the novel shows the strong contrast between this new way of thinking about family and the old way of thinking, which are represented by Wanxin and Tadpole’s parents respectively. The new way is that too many people were undisciplined and too hard to control, while the old way was that if you didn’t have children, who would the government conscript in the army? So the new policy doesn’t go over that well among the villagers. The women used fingers or chopsticks to throw up the contraceptives, and condoms ended up becoming children’s toys or are blown up as balloons.

Rumors float around the village about how Wanxin and Qiuya developed some new technology that sounds similar to vasectomies (男扎技术) out of envy and hatred for married couples since they were both unmarried. But they conducted a number of scientific trials on pigs, monkeys and convicted criminals, so these rumors were considered baseless. This new technique is used on men after their wives give birth to three children and the third child is a son. The men feel a little aggravated that they will be castrated like their livestock, however. The cadres go out and try to calm them down about the procedure, which isn’t anything as severe as castration, and to explain compensation provided for their recovery time. Resisters are punished by expulsion from their jobs or the party, depending on their situation. Party members are encouraged to get the procedure done first so the rest of the public will follow their example.

The novel then goes on to describe the situation of two of the strongest resisters to this new procedure, Jiao Wang and Shangchun Xiao. This is deemed counterrevolutionary by the party secretary, and he orders Jiao Wang’s arrest. This is scene is rather dramatic, and both men are coerced into having the procedure by the end of this subchapter, the second to the last in part 1.

On a technical note, I should point out that Mo Yan uses what to a Western reader is a kind of chaotic style of dealing with speech in his story, though it is not uncommonly used in Chinese writing. Quoted direct speech is not indented in a new paragraph and doesn’t use quotation marks to set it off from the rest of the text, so it can be hard to know where someone stops speaking, and these comments can be embedded in a paragraph describing other things. It’s very different from the way we handle our texts as writers and readers in the English-speaking world. I’m not sure how Mo Yan’s translator will handle that particular issue.

Part two of a four part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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