By Mo Yan
Viking Press, $27.95, 388 pages
Reviewed by Steven Mosher
In outline, Mo Yan’s new novel, “Frog,” sounds subversive enough: A jilted Chinese midwife turns agent of the state. She is relentless in her pursuit of women who have conceived “illegal” second children. She is pitiless in coercing them one and all into terminations.
But 30 years (and thousands of forced abortions) later Gugu — the midwife in question — has a change of heart.
Filled with remorse, she marries a talented sculptor of clay dolls, then sets him to work making clay figurines of her tiny victims: one for each of the 2,800 babies whose life she has extinguished. She turns one of the rooms of her house into a kind of shrine, filling it floor to ceiling with the figurines. She goes there daily to light incense and pray for their souls.
Upon witnessing this scene, her nephew exclaims: “I knew that by employing her husband’s talents, Gugu was bringing to life all the children she’s stopped from being born. I guessed that was her way to assuage deep-seated feelings of guilt … .” The repentant midwife is even made to utter the un-Communist sentiment that, once the souls of the sacrificed children have reached “spiritual attainment” they can be “reborn.”
This is obviously not a full-throated endorsement of the Chinese State’s one-child policy by a party propagandist. But neither is it an unambiguous condemnation of a policy that has cost the lives of some 400 million Chinese, either. Each time Gugu commits some new atrocity, Mo Yan has her launch into a defense of Beijing’s Draconian program. She repeatedly parrots the regime in claiming that the policy was necessary for the country’s development and was “a contribution to humanity.” China is saving the planet, you see.
Mo Yan is no Alexander Solzhenitsyn, eager to expose the crimes of the Stalinist state that he resides in. Truth be told, this position is already being admirably filled by Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence as, one might say, the “dissident writer-in-residence” at Qincheng Prison outside of Beijing.
In fact, Mo Yan should probably split his prize money for the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature with Liu Xiaobo. Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize sent the Beijing regime into predictable paroxysms of anger. And its outrage in turn may well have prompted the Nobel Committee to double back to China a couple of years later. And in Mo Yan they found one of Beijing’s house authors who is generally careful to work “inside the system.”
Dissident writers like Liu Xiaobo not only tell the unvarnished truth about life in China, they courageously denounce those who lead it. Inside-the-system writers like Mo Yan, on the other hand, blame local officials for excesses and abuses, largely exculpating their superiors, and completely excusing the system itself.
In “Frog,” for example, he keeps the focus of his book narrowly on Gugu and her nephew, refusing to address the overall cost of the program, or reflect on the wisdom of those who ordered it. In this he mimics the party-state itself, whose top leaders invariably blame lower-level officials for carrying out inhumane policies that they themselves have ordered be enforced.
Still, Gugu’s late-in-life rejection of the one-child policy implies dissent, even if Mo Yan is careful not to declare himself openly. Instead, speaking through her nephew, he observes that “if no one had done what [Gugu] did, it is truly hard to say what China might be like today.”
Here Mo Yan chooses his words very carefully — as those in China who wish to avoid censorship, if not arrest and imprisonment, customarily do.
Chinese is a slippery language, full of homophones and the double and even triple entendres that they allow.
“It is truly hard to say” (zhende hen nanjiang) can be taken in one of two ways. It can be taken figuratively, in which case Mo Yan’s verdict on the one-child policy would mean something along the lines of “the consequences of unchecked reproduction might have been catastrophic.”
But it can also be taken literally. In which case Mo Yan is saying that it is “hard” (in a totalitarian state) to “speak” the truth.
For the sake of his fellow writers in China, including the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, I hope that he meant the latter. If he will use his newfound stature to protest the suppression of speech to protect state power he could do tremendous good.
Editor’s note. Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, is the author of “A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy” (Park Press). This first appeared in the Washington Times and is reprinted with permission.