The drama continues to build as we finish up Frog by Mo Yan (莫言的”蛙”) this time. Part 3 has eight subchapters and focuses mainly on two entwined storylines, one following Wanxin’s fanatical pursuit of women hiding with illegal pregnancies, and one following her really insensitive, angry railroading of her nephew, the now widower Tadpole, into marrying her beloved protégée, Xiao Shizi!
Looking at the timeline for the latter event, we have Tadpole marrying his first wife Renmei Wang in mid-1979. They have a daughter Yanyan in 1981, two years later. Renmei secretly gets pregnant between 1981 and 1982 and dies during the induced abortion done by Wanxin somewhere around that time. Wanxin pushes Tadpole to marry Xiao Shizi in 1982. So Renmei Wang’s body is barely even cold when she does this, and again I’m skeptical that Renmei’s death was just wholly accidental. Now Wanxin has a motive. She goes on and on to Tadpole about how Xiao Shizi is like the daughter she never had and is a wonderful woman, and she even more outrageously suggests that they now can have a second child and that she’s hoping Xiao Shizi gives him twins! It takes a lot of gall to say something like that after Tadpole’s wife died during an abortion trying to illegally have his second child only months earlier.
Tadpole tries to beg off of this marriage, especially since his good childhood friend loves Xiao Shizi, but Wanxin has kept Xiao Shizi’s suitor away from her for 12 years very deliberately! Now only Tadpole is good enough for the girl. Ironically, Tadpole really wasn’t that impressed with Xiao Shizi when he considered earlier why his friend loved her. But Wanxin gets really angry when he tries to excuse himself from the marriage, and she makes all of the arrangements. Tadpole can only weakly go along with her iron will.
Each chapter shows the progression of these plans culminating in the marriage, which takes place on the day of a terrifying electrical storm. At nearly every step, Tadpole is thinking about and comparing Xiao Shizi to Renmei, and Xiao Shizi doesn’t exactly come out favorably in that comparison. But Tadpole really shouldn’t have been surprised at how the marriage to Xiao Shizi starts so disastrously, with them even fighting about Renmei’s death on their wedding night. This is just what he should have expected allowing the “devil incarnate” to arrange his marriage.
One memorable incident in this part is when Xiao Shizi says it’s okay if Yanyan calls her Shizi instead of mama. When she talks to Yanyan about it, the girl is holding an umbrella with lions on it. Xiao Shizi points to it, explaining that is her name, and Yanyan asks if she eats children. Now, at this point in the novel, this exchange comes off as rather cute in the middle of a whole lot of negativity. But by the end, I’m not so sure it really turns out to be as cute as it seemed at the time.
Unsurprisingly, part 3 ends with more tragedy befalling another woman with an illegal pregnancy that Xiao Shizi and Wanxin had in their sights. This part is another great achievement in the novel and continues with Mo Yan’s laser-sharp focus that was not so evident in part 1; it is very similar in structure and focus to part 2, and it even ends similarly with another tragic death.
Part 4 has 12 subchapters. This is the place where frog imagery comes up immediately and is sustained throughout the novel until the end, starting with a comparison of Wanxin to a frog and a visit to Sai Yuan – Sai Yuan wasn’t executed for removing women’s contraception rings years earlier after all, which seems to perhaps be due to paying people off, but I don’t know for sure. As the novel progresses, he seems to be drawn to shady businesses that exploit the anguish the one-child policy causes. But for now Sai Yuan and another colleague now run an American bullfrog farm, and that becomes a very big part of Tadpole and Xiao Shizi’s life in the novel.
This part appears to start in 2005 or so; I had to calculate that out based on some character ages and birthdays given rather than anything the text actually says about when this is taking place, however. Tadpole is now known by his frog-related pen name instead of his childhood name of Xiao Bao, and there is a humorous moment where he and Xiao Shizi visit the frog farm and turn down the succulent frog dishes they are offered, saying they don’t eat frog because of his name. That scene is also where Tadpole mentions Wanxin’s marriage in 1999 to a man named Dashou Hao. The imagery of the clay dolls returns in a big way in this whole part, starting in the first subchapter in the context of a nearby temple full of Buddhist nuns where Xiao Shizi prays before a statue for a child. In their 20 some years of marriage, she and Tadpole have had none in spite of Wanxin’s wish. Xiao Shizi is now in her 50s, so part 4 mainly follows their quixotic quest to have a baby late in life. Dashu Yuan suggests they go to a surrogacy agency, which Tadpole thinks is against the family planning policy, but Dashu Yuan points out that all he would have to do is pay a fine.
One of the most important moments in the novel appears in the very short subchapter 6 in this part. Xiao Shizi she decides she wants to work at the frog farm, and she explains to Tadpole the parallels between frogs and human babies in detail. They form similarly as eggs, she says, and the cries of a frog and a human child sound similar. She points out the sound similarity in Chinese in the words for frog (蛙), baby (娃), and goddess (娲), all of which are pronounced wa. The significance of this discussion and association becomes clearer in the next part.
Part 5 is the nine act play purportedly about his Aunt Wanxin’s life that Tadpole told Sugitani at the beginning of the novel was his goal to write. In the letter prefacing this section, he announced his play is finished. The drama that follows is rather surreal with dramatic stage direction that I can’t imagine would actually ever be done in a real play, such as trampling frogs. The dialogue contains a lot of banter and has a few prominent characters who are deemed insane. It would be very hard for an audience to know what exactly is going on if the play were performed separately from the rest of the novel, so I suspect Mo Yan didn’t write it to be presented that way. It is both fascinating and creepy with lots of innuendo about what might really have been happening in part 4. The scenes alternate between two characters mostly: Mei Chen on the one hand and Wanxin on the other.
The storyline here is set in modern times later than part 4. Mei Chen, the “black child” born at the end of part 3 is now horribly disfigured from a childhood accident and has gone insane. She decided to become a surrogate for the agency somehow here conflated with Sai Yuan’s frog farm, and now she is going to the maternity hospital, police station, temple or wherever to find her baby, whom she hears calling out for her. Dressed oddly all in black with a black veil over her face to hide her monstrous burns, she thinks alternately the frogs or Wanxin helped her deliver the baby and stole it away. She accuses Wanxin of selling her baby and alternately thinks the frogs are ferocious baby eaters, and she explains to a police woman what she did at the surrogacy agency. At one point in the temple, two men dressed similarly in black with black veils talk with her, seeming to share and sympathize with her disfigurement and self-hatred, and they promise to take her to her child.
Wanxin dresses in black or in red depending on the scene and is with her group of mostly men, her jilted suitor who was crazy in love with her, her husband Dashou Hao and Tadpole mainly. She talks about her life delivering children in a scene set against a backdrop of the cries of babies and frogs and lit as if they were underwater. This part generally is where we see even more sustained use of frog imagery, and it gets pretty grisly around Wanxin in particular, with scenes referencing women cutting the heads of frogs off, smashed frogs, eating frogs, Wanxin having the blood of the frogs on her hands. Notably, in Act 4 Tadpole repeats the key chapter in Part 4 where Xiao Shizi explains her word association of frogs and children and goddesses. This scene is particularly bizarre and interesting with some reference in Wanxin’s dialogue to “Tadpole’s contraception law” that they want to pass:
Later, the “People’s Daily” presented “Tadpole’s Contraception Law,” allowing ovulating women to drink 14 live tadpoles for contraception. If it doesn’t work, those women will all give birth to frogs! (My translation)
The association of frogs with children and tadpoles with sperm is rather unsettling because of the earlier induced abortion plotlines. Are the frogs in the play actually symbols for children given this connection?
I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of the plot here and the ending since readers can see for themselves when it comes out in English. Let me just say, however, that it gets sinister and a bit shocking. I think part 1 of the novel was fairly weak, but the last 4 parts of the novel really do sock home the ethical issues without really even discussing them.
The novel has some interesting parallel structures between the five parts. Part 1 focuses on Wanxin’s life more than anything, but parts 2, 3, and 4 follow such similar threads and have such similar endings that it is worth pointing out here. Part 2 ended with the death of both mother and child in an illegal pregnancy, part 3 ended with the death of the mother while the child lived in an illegal pregnancy, and part 3 ends with the successful and safe delivery of mother and child in another illegal pregnancy. Part 5 continues to take this into the surprising territory of surrogacy as a destructive alternative to natural pregnancy.
However, for all of the build up by Tadpole at the beginning that this was about his Aunt Wanxin, I found very little of it actually was. Certainly, Tadpole doesn’t have to be telling the truth about his aims. I think that the story development would have been quite different had Mo Yan chosen to write from Wanxin’s perspective as either 1st person or 3rd person rather than filtering everything through Tadpole’s eyes. It would be interesting to hear why he chose to approach the story that way. As the novel stands, it is a good read and is skillfully written, so I won’t complain that he got the Nobel Prize.
Part four of a four part series.
Next time we return to historical Japan with Kouichi Matsuoka’s The Demon Cat Sword.