Book Review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan


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This sprawling and brutal masterpiece of magic-realism is the perfect fictional companion for a trip to China

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The novel opens with the main protagonist, Ximen Nao, writhing in agony in a vat of boiling oil in the bowels of hell.  But this is China so the overseer of the torture is not Satan, but Lord Yama – a Sinicized figure from Buddhist myth also known as Yanluo Wang, one of the ten kings of the underworld.  Lord Yama is traditionally attended by his demonic minions, Ox Head and Horse Face.

After allowing Ximen Nao to sizzle and scald for a few moments, Ox Head and Horse Face deposit him at their master’s feet and declare, “Great Lord . . . he has been fried.”

Who is Ximen Nao and why is he being tortured in hell?  Again, as it happens, this novel begins in China on January 1st, 1950, the first day of the first full year of Communist rule.  And so it isn’t for any Christian sin that Ximen Nao is being punished, adultery or murder or idolatry – but the sin of class.

Before the king of hell, Ximen Nao proclaims his innocence,

“’I am innocent!’ I screamed.  Rancid drops of oil sprayed from my mouth with that scream . . . Me, Ximen Nao; in my thirty years in the land of mortals I loved manual labor and was a good and thrifty family man . . . And yet . . . a compassionate individual like me, a person of integrity, a good and decent man, was trussed up like a criminal, marched off to a bridgehead, and shot!  . . . they fired an old musket filled with half a gourd full of powder and half a bowl full of grapeshot, turning one side of my head into a bloody mess as the explosion shattered the stillness and stained the floor of the bridge and the melon-sized white stones beneath it . . .”

Lord Yama is feeling merciful so he lightens Ximen Nao’s punishment, sending him back to the family estate where he was once landlord, reincarnated as a donkey but conscious of his past life.  As you might expect, there are many more reincarnations in store for Ximen Nao as the novel progresses.


Lord Yama - a statue in Hubei along the Yangzte River.
Lord Yama – a statue in Hubei along the Yangzte River.

The first few pages of the novel set the tone for the next 600 or so.  It’s a wild, rollicking ride, filled with explosive violence, raunchy sex, grotesqueries and black humor – all through vivid and oddly gorgeous prose, rich in local color and detail – translated masterfully into English by Howard Goldblatt.

This book is now a decade old and there are many reviews already out there (I’m writing one myself mainly because I love this book, but also because it was the first novel I read after moving to China three years ago).

Most of those reviews have fixated upon the novel’s overview of China’s tumultuous mid-twentieth century history.  Ximen Nao is reborn again and again in various guises over a period of fifty years and witnesses the transformation of his village and of its people.  Marriages are arranged, consummated and dissolved.  Children are born and die.  Murders are committed.  Astonishing and apocalyptic changes in the physical landscape are accompanied by equally dramatic transfigurations in the psyches of the characters.  Naïve, peasant innocence gives way to political fanaticism, which gives way in turn to craven materialism and corruption.

Our protagonist Ximen Nao views all these events from the perspective of his various animal forms.  During the Great Famine as a donkey he is devoured by starving peasants.  When Chairman Mao dies, Ximen Nao is a pig and he witnesses the deaths of his fellow swine from a strange disease, “the Red Death.”  At the turn of the twenty-first century, the rebirth of yet another “New” China, Ximen Nao is a monkey made to perform tricks on the street by a character desperately seeking to “make it” in China’s brutal modern rat-race.

Ximen Nao’s cycle of death and rebirth, his high status laid low by the winds of history, is just one of the fairly obvious metaphors for China’s recent past employed in this story.  And while the metaphors are poignant and engaging enough, they wouldn’t be nearly so interesting if this novel wasn’t written so well.  The multitude of characters and their constantly evolving relationships can be difficult to keep track of, but the engaging writing made me not mind so much that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

And of course, Mo Yan’s writing style has also been a much discussed topic in other reviews.  His prose is sometimes rambling and winding, and sometimes it cracks and fizzles like a firecracker.  He exhibits an unabashedly boyish fascination with disfigurement and sexuality and with earthy, simple, folksy characters who get punished for pursuing their desires and caught up in the whirlwind of history, without thinking about it all too much.


Ox Head
Ox Head

There are elements of postmodernism in the presence of Mo Yan himself as a character in the story, (he paints himself as a disreputable and uppity prick).  There’s also magic realism and surrealism of course, and even Romanticism in his writing.  One scene in which Ximen Nao as a horse in heat is interrupted in his efforts to mount his chosen mare by vicious wolves, seems like it was inspired by a Delacroix or Stubbs painting.

John Updike attributed Mo Yan’s exuberance to the peculiarities inherent to China’s history of literature.  From the New Yorker,

“The Chinese novel, perhaps,” he writes, “had no Victorian heyday to teach it decorum,” giving Mo the freedom to craft “indulgent and hyperactive metaphors.”

Such indulgence and hyperactivity should come as no surprise from the author of novels with titles like Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh.  His surrealism and black humor is often compared to Kafka’s, but the hallucinatory happenings, gory violence and extravagant set pieces remind me more of Nikolai Gogol, particularly his Ukrainian Tales.

Mo Yan’s political stances, or lack thereof, have also been the subject of much controversy.  Salman Rushdie famously deemed him a “patsy” for declining to sign a petition calling for the release from prison of his fellow Nobel Laureate and human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo.  I’m inclined to agree with Rushdie, but my disappointment at Mo Yan’s spinelessness in the face of China’s Communist overlords is overwhelmed by my love for his work.

As it should be with any truly great work of art, and particularly so with a novel as long as Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, there’s so much more to the world of this book then its political metaphors or even its postmodern narrative twists.  The characters are situated in China after all, a land deeply saturated by the cultural presence of China’s people and steeped in their myths and superstitions.  In one passage early in the novel, Mo Yan weaves together several such folk beliefs into the narrative in his account of the births of twins to Ximen Nao’s concubine, Yingchun,

“The following spring she gave birth to a boy and a girl, what they call a dragon and phoenix birth.  So we named the boy Ximen Jinlong, or Golden Dragon, and the girl Ximen Baofeng, or Precious Phoenix . . . The birth of Jinlong and Baofeng produced great joy in the Ximen household . . . I have a quirky habit of dealing with good news by doing hard work . . . I rolled up my sleeves and jumped into the livestock pen and shoveled by ten wagonloads of dung . . . Ma Zhibo, a feng shui master who was given to putting on mystical airs, came running up to the pen and said to me mystifyingly . . . Sitrring up the Wandering God does not bode well for the newborn.”

The novel’s narrative is intricately bound to such cultural detail and as someone who once studied Anthropology, I found such detail fascinating as I read it traveling and living in China.  Outside of China, Mo Yan is best known as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but within China he is known as a prominent figure in the avant-garde 寻根拍, Xungen Pai or “Root-seeking school” – a literary movement that typically fixates upon and romantically elevates the folk-traditions and values of China’s Han majority, a reaction to Communism’s erasure of ethnic identity in favor of class identity.


Horse Face
Horse Face

This elevation of Han identity is also considered a form of literary nationalism, a current within the movement that was criticized by Liu Xiaobo.  It was Liu Xiaobo’s veiled critique of Mo Yan’s literary career itself, and not Mo Yan’s political adherence to the Communist Party, that may have prevented him from signing the petition calling for Liu Xiaobo’s freedom.  If this is true, it may only lend credence to Rushdie’s assertion that Mo Yan is “craven” and a “patsy.”

In any case, those who rigidly seek political or moral perfection in their art or artists very quickly start to resemble Mao’s Cultural Revolutionaries, who destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage in the name of rectifying the crimes of feudalism.  We can condemn Mo Yan’s pandering while still reveling in the world of Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, a thick tapestry interwoven of boisterous, frank virility and subtle allusion, poetry and politics.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

  1. Thanks for this beautiful review. It’s probably one of the best novels I have read. One thing I did not understand through the whole book is why Ximen Jinlong is referred to as Ximen Nao’s biological son, while just after he’s born, Ximen Nao visits his concubine, sees the blue birthmark on Jinlong’s face, and understands that this boy is Lan Lian’s son.. What did I miss?

    1. Hi Amit, thanks for the comment.

      It’s been awhile since I actually read the novel, but I rechecked my ebook and it turns out that Lan Lian also had a blue birthmark. In fact, that’s the literal meaning of his name in Chinese – “blue face.”

        1. Oh, and I think you’re thinking of Lan Jiefang – Liberation Lan. This is Yingchun’s and Lan Lian’s son. He was born after Ximen Nao’s death and Ximen Nao saw the newborn Jiefang as a donkey and recognized whose son he was by the blue birthmark. He was angry because his concubine Yingchun had taken up with his hired hand, Lan Lian, which in old China was a major breach of the social hierarchy. This chapter is confusing because Ximen Nao’s memories of the birth of his children are interspersed with his perception of being born as a donkey. Maybe Mo Yan is suggesting that Jinlong is in fact Lan Lian’s son as well – since there were “rumors” of Ximen Nao being sterile. Anyway, if I remember correctly Ximen Nao never doubted that Jinlong and Baofeng were his children.

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