This strange title turns out to be a perfect summation of the book. The narrator / protagonist was a wealthy land owner named Ximen Nao who was executed when the Communists gained power in China. In heaven, Lord Yama (the judge in Chinese folklore’s version of the afterlife) sentences Ximen Nao to be sent back to Earth as a donkey, and—in subsequent lives—as an ox, a pig, a dog, and, finally and briefly, as a monkey. He’s always sent back to the family of one of his former underlings, Lan Lian, and the story follows that family over the course of several decades through the Cultural Revolution and China’s grand reforms.
The early parts (the lives of donkey, ox, and part of pig) are centered on Lan Lian’s decision to remain an independent farmer. Mao Zedong promised all farmers the right to remain independent contractors if they wished, but there was great pressure—first from the community and later from his own family—to...
I have spent most of the last 33 years in and around China, some of it studying modern Chinese history, and I have never read such a profound and delightful encapsulation of the story of the past 60 years. Given the criticism of Mo Yan for political cowardice, I was expecting something quite bland -- but not at all. Judging by this book alone, the criticism is very unfair; though Mo Yan is not a polemicist, and apparently does not want to be used as one. Mo uses animals to embody the spirit of each phase of the communist era, a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey, all possessed by the spirit of a "rich landlord" executed during land reform in the early days of the People's Republic. The landlord-animal matures through his multiple incarnations as, perhaps, does China. The novel has two tragic human heroes, a peasant who resists collectivisation and a true believer in the maoist system who cannot endure its collapse. Villains and victims abound, all detailed with a...
I'm not a scholar of Chinese literature, but I've been reading Mo Yan's novels in consecutive order. Like Big Breasts and Wide Hips the narrative's chronology sweeps across several decades and has many characters, their names, physical attributes and personalities unmemorable. The four characters that stand out in this novel are the father, his son, Ximen Nao (and his multiple animal reincarnations), and "Mo Yan", apparently a fictional and perhaps caricatural representation of the author. Clinging to Mao Zedong's license to let individual farmers retain their private ownership of their land during China's great collectivization movement, the father defies local pressures to join the local collective and maintains his narrow strip of land as a subsistence plot. His son faces the choice of turning his back on his father or joining him in being spurned by the whole community. Ximen Nao, who is reincarnated as a Donkey, an Ox, a Pig, a Dog, a Monkey, and finally a human, tells...
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