Part 1 of the novel we’re currently looking at, Frog by Mo Yan (莫言的”蛙”), ends on a particularly dramatic note that we’ve already seen building in the second to last subchapter where men were forced into sterilizations. This final subchapter is rather long, depicting a struggle session in front of an assembly with Tadpole’s Aunt Wanxin as the central figure of contempt. Here is a historical photo of what such a session might look like:
This seems to have occurred around 1965 or 1966 perhaps. Because Tadpole’s father cries out to Wanxin during the session, the session leader takes all of the other people considered to be class enemies off of the stage except Wanxin. It is a rather brutal scene where Wanxin is injured, yet in the middle of this drama, Tadpole explains that another class enemy, Lin Yang, later becomes Wanxin’s husband.
Part 2 ups the ante by making this conflict over the new birth control policy of the Communists very personal for Tadpole. This section is only 12 subchapters long, but they really are quite dramatic and emotional, and it starts with the letter from Tadpole to his mentor. Though the letter’s contents seem to be unrelated to the actual story progression in each part, the new information we get here sheds some light on the man Tadpole is writing this story for. I had noticed that his name seemed rather strange for a Chinese man, and this letter bears out that observation, revealing that the man is the son of an old Japanese command officer known in Tadpole’s village who committed some crime. The name is 杉谷, which can be read as Sugita, Sugitani or Sugiya in Japanese. I’m not sure which reading is correct, but I’ll use Sugitani for the sake of convenience. Tadpole talks a bit about Sugitani’s family and how they suffered during the war.
Subchapter 1 of part 2 jumps to Tadpole’s wedding in 1979. He marries his old schoolmate Renmei Wang, and the wedding ceremony is described in subchapter 2. In this section, Renmei jokes around with Wanxin about taking her medicine for twins so she can have lots of children, but Wanxin is rather upset by this and emphasizes the government’s policy of having only one child. So we shift from the 1965 policy of mere reduction of the number of children to three maximum to the true one-child policy by 1979. But we also see Wanxin’s growing zeal for following the party way and Chairman Mao’s teachings, which are referenced more and more during this part of the novel. Wanxin chides Renmei to refrain from crooked and evil thinking, emphasizing family planning as the foundation of national policy for government control. Renmei keeps asking for this medicine, however, and I think the final sentence of the subchapter is quite important to understand the psychological clash going on at this point:
现在有人给姑姑起了个外号叫“活阎王”姑姑感到很荣光！ 对那些计划内生育的姑姑焚香沐浴为她接生； 对那些超计划怀孕的 – 姑姑对着虚空猛劈一掌 – 决不让一个漏网！(p. 87)
Now, there were people who gave Aunt Wanxin the name “devil incarnate,” and Aunt Wanxin felt very righteous! As far as giving birth according to this plan was concerned, Aunt Wanxin bathed in incense to become a midwife; as far as pregnancies exceeding this plan were concerned, Aunt Wanxin vainly and fiercely struck with her hand, not allowing even one to escape punishment! (My translation)
Subsection 3 moves on to 1981 or so when Renmei and Tadpole have their child, a daughter. Wanxin gives Renmei a contraception ring without consent, which sparks an argument between Renmei and Wanxin that only aggravates Tadpole. Wanxin explains that it is required for a woman to have one put in when she is finished having children, that if she had wanted more children, she shouldn’t have married her nephew in his position in the military rather than a farmer who has some concessions and is allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl and 8 years old! Renmei starts to cry, and Tadpole tries to reason with her, repeating that this is government policy. So they have a fight about Renmei on their way home with the baby.
This subchapter is a particular favorite of mine for what happens next. They run into schoolmate Sai Yuan, who is now an artisan working with clay and selling clay dolls. It is apparently a custom in the village to get clay dolls from him, and this part mixes the imagery of crushed, broken clay dolls with the now broken expectation that they can have a second try at having a boy child because their first child was a girl. It is a nice juxtaposition of images and mood.
Subchapter 4 is a celebration of Tadpole’s new daughter Yanyan’s ninth day. Part 2 gets into a lot of catching up with old schoolmates, more slice of life and lighter interactions between the characters between all of this stuff with Wanxin, but I’m not going to get into much of that here. I’ll leave that for you to read in the translation since that is due out in a few months.
Subchapter 5 is another very long, dramatic chapter that continues some skillful juxtaposition of themes and images. Here we jump back to 1970 with Tadpole and his friend Gan Wang’s affection for Wanxin’s midwife assistant Xiao Shizi. (By the way, this is a correction on how I transliterated her name the last time. I’m having a hard time with this name since it is so close to our English borrow for the dog breed shitzu, which is the same name meaning little lion, 狮子.)
As Gan Wang is reading a very melodramatic, torrid love letter he wrote to Xiao Shizi to his friends, a boat comes down the river carrying Wanxin, Xiao Shizi and Qiuya who are continuing their zealous family planning campaign on the go. While Gan Wang is all starry-eyed over Xiao Shizi, Wanxin is on a mission to induce an abortion in a woman, Quan Zhang’s wife, who already had three little girls and is 5 months pregnant with a fourth child. A big brawl breaks out with lots of crying as she attempts to do this. Wanxin threatens to get soldiers to come and take the woman forcibly to the hospital if she won’t come on her own. She does go willingly but jumps into the river on the way to the boat. They get in the boat and try to track her down while Tapdole and his friends on the shore jump in the river to help search for her.
The rest of part 2 is a tour de force that continues to focus on Tadpole’s wife struggling to have a second child in the face of party opposition and Wanxin’s zealous application of Mao’s teaching in around 1983. Sai Yuan is doing some black market business in taking out contraception rings for women who want to have more than one child, and Renmei goes to him for the procedure without telling Tadpole. She gets pregnant with a second child, which the cadre finds out about somehow and notifies him of what is going on. Renmei runs away, and Tadpole struggles with whether he should let her have the baby and lie to the cadre saying that her pregnancy was just a malicious lie. Going outside of the party system means having a “black child” who is unregistered and therefore unable to live normally in Chinese society. Sai Yuan is arrested in the meantime and is facing execution.
The situation gets very tense and brutal in this section as Wanxin leads the group trying to drag Renmei out of her hiding place to have an abortion, and Tadpole again considers that his Aunt Wanxin is no longer human, even evil. This scene to the end of part 2 is an amplified version of the earlier struggle with Quan Zhang’s pregnant wife and has many of the same elements. When Wanxin and her helpers threaten to burn down the house Renmei is hiding in, she surrenders for the surgery. The next scene has Renmei and Wanxin at a banquet honoring a party director, chock full of discussion about how Chairman Mao and other party leaders really love children, and Renmei apologizes for her crime.
The next few subchapters are poignant and are very well done. It starts with Renmei’s “minor” surgery with Wanxin taking her into the operating room after an eerie conversation between Renmei and Tadpole. At the end of this subchapter, there is an emergency, images of Renmei as white as a sheet, Wanxin covered with blood, and ambulance workers dressed in white coming to take Renmei out to get a blood transfusion. Tadpole tries to question Wanxin about what happened, but nothing comes of it. The final subchapter shows Renmei’s funeral, complete with her urn full of ashes, her young daughter asking Tadpole where she is. Cadre members arrive asserting that Wanxin made no mistakes, that Renmei’s death was just circumstance, so the party will not amend their policy but will continue to crack down on illegal pregnancies!
Part 3 begins with another letter from Tadpole to Sugitani, which references a letter Sugitani sent to Tadpole explaining that he cried when he read about Renmei’s death but that no one should blame Wanxin! Then the beginning of part 3 continues with more discussion about how no one blames Wanxin, that it was just circumstance or life or whatever. It’s really like some weird sort of Stockholm Syndrome and is rather angering the way they keep harping on how innocent the aunt is. I have my doubts about that, but maybe this is why there was so much criticism over this novel winning the Nobel Prize. However, I think Mo Yan’s execution of the novel, particularly part 2, is quite good, and it does illustrate the typical psychology found in totalitarian or authoritarian societies. We’ll cover the exciting conclusion of the novel next time.
Part three of a four part series.