In 1899, Gaomi became a center of unrest. Building railways between two North China cities and destroying irrigation systems and farmland along the way, the Germans infuriated local villagers who banded together with Boxer insurgents to sabotage rail tracks and launch attacks. The Germans responded with a full-scale military campaign. This sets the scene in Sandalwood Death, but fidelity to historical events doesn’t interest Mo Yan as much as the characters who inhabit the fictional realm of the novel: Sun Meiniang, a young belle whose natural feet make her undesirable; Zhao Xiaojia, a mentally retarded butcher who luckily marries the “big-feet” beauty only to be cuckolded; Zhao Jia, Xiaojia’s long-lost father who retires to Gaomi after spending decades working as an imperial executioner; Qian Ding, the Gaomi Magistrate who prevaricates in love and politics; and finally Sun Bing, Sun Meiniang’s own absent father, a Maoqiang-singer-turned-Boxer-leader. Each character evokes a major operatic trait: passionate, comical, evil, vacillating, and righteous. The drama is built on their infighting, which splits them into opposite camps as the larger conflicts intensify. Mo Yan’s naming of the three male protagonists — combining three of the most common Chinese family names (Zhao, Qian, and Sun) with words taken from a set phrase indicating anonymity (as in “jia yi bing ding”) — is not whimsical. Just as in history, real protagonists of this novel are everymen.
Not the everymen defined by everyday experience: the novel is filled with gruesome scenes. It reaches its climax, in full-bodied operatic mode, when sandalwood torture — in order to inflict utmost pain and create a spectacle of terror, the executioner uses a cured sandalwood rod to skewer and then pin a prisoner live on a wood stake — is publicly performed. The Germans and colluding Qing authority use this extremely cruel and unusual punishment to terrorize local peasants into submission and forestall future uprisings, but the victim — the aforementioned Boxer leader Sun Bing — seizes on the spectacle as a way to strike back at his enemy. A former lead Maoqiang performer, Sun knows how to work his audience. He turns the platform for torture into a stage for “a grand and spectacular performance” and a “divine altar” for martyrdom. As his splayed body rots from the inside, Sun descends into the hellish limbo between life and death.
Mo Yan is not the first Chinese writer to deal with such dark themes. Beheadings, for example, are fairly common in modern Chinese literature. But often the gore is hardly visible. By contrast, Mo Yan brings himself infinitesimally close to his characters, his pen piercing into the intestinal as well as the internal. Among the five main characters, Executioner Zhao Jia is the most enigmatic. Constantly washing his "demonic small hands,” he reminds us of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. The Chinese word for “executioner,” guizi shou, literally "the cutting hand," makes his obsessive-compulsive deviance all the more poignant. Zhao is able to carry out his tasks methodically and masterfully because he dehumanizes his victims — viewing them as dead meat ready for his carving — and also he dehumanizes himself into a “killing machine.” Yet, in a key scene where history mingles with fiction, the writer shows another facet of the character by penetrating deep into his mind:
In the past, so long as he was wearing red and had chicken blood smeared on his face, his heart was as cold as a black stone at the bottom of a deep lake. He had the vague feeling that while he was putting someone to death, his soul was hibernating in the fissures of the coldest, deepest stone, and that a killing machine bereft of heat and emotion performed the deeds. And so, when the job was over, he could wash his hands and face and be free of any feeling that he had just killed someone. It was all a haze, a sort of half sleep. But on this day he felt as if the hardened mask of chicken blood had been peeled away, like the outer layer of a wall soaked by a rainsquall. His soul squirmed in the fissures of the stone, and a host of emotions — pity, terror, agitation, and more — seeped out like tiny rivulets.
Here Mo Yan’s layering of Zhao’s disturbed feelings creates an intricate tableau of mind; it invites us to see the character’s "human" side. Even though it does not really arouse sympathy, the author avoids simplifying vileness.
Mo Yan also tries to convey a subtle irony through the character. In an audience with Empress Dowager Cixi, the most powerful person in China at the time, Zhao pitches ideas to support people in his profession, including a pension system for all state executioners. Meanwhile, Cixi uses “zhuangyuan,” a title reserved for first-class champions in the Palace Imperial Examination, to compliment Zhao on his skills. Yet, little does our eminent martial “zhuangyuan” know that Cixi already has plans underway to abolish such cruel corporeal punishments as beheading and slow-slicing, which would soon render his profession obsolete.
He is spared that bitter disappointment. In the final showdown, Zhao is stabbed to death by Sun Meiniang, who tries to save her lover, Magistrate Qian; the latter, in an attempt to kill Zhao Jia, accidentally kills Xiao Jia. Defying the order from his superior, Qian also terminates the lingering life of Sun Bing before the scheduled time. The novel ends with large puddles of gore on and off the stage of “the Ascension Platform.” Yet, the death of a headsman undone by his unredeemable acts seems anti-climactic. This very sane, sadistic, and soulless executioner compares unfavorably with those insane ones roaming the shadowy margins of Chinese and world literature: Warrior Yang Jinbiao, for example, in a brilliant short story by Shen Congwen (one of China’s most important modern writers, albeit little known in the West), “The New and the Old,” or the Executioner in Kafka’s novella, “In the Penal Colony.” While Shen’s lyricism lends great poetry to his executioner character as he falls through the crack of historical changes, Kafka’s horrific allegory, written on the eve of World War I, foresees the carnage and irrationality latent in the machine era. If Mo Yan’s narrative power puts him on a par with these two great earlier writers, his melodramatic plotting weakens the force of his cruel character. The dark power emitted from Zhao Jia’s cutting hands fizzles as he hardens into an overzealous executor. His total submission to power and his full embrace of his instrumentality can be written off as traits befitting an evil, eccentric character. In the end, his death, which looks like a triumph of justice, seems too easy a solution and too predictable an ending.
Still, one suspects that perhaps this is not all there is. When Magistrate Qian appears on the chaotic scene of confrontation between Chinese rebels and German soldiers, he entreats the Germans not to open fire on Sun Bing’s fellow performers and followers:
Do not consider the actions onstage to be a provocation, and do not confuse them with the anti-German army led by Sun Bing, even though his men also painted their faces and dressed in stage costumes. You are witnessing pure theatrics, performed by a troupe of actors, and while it may appear manic, it is a common feature of the Maoqiang repertoire, and the actors are merely following long-established traditions. [Italics added.]
By pleading the case of a harmless “performance,” is Qian here speaking for the writer too? If so, this is bitter irony, since the Magistrate can do nothing but stand by and witness the inevitable slaughter.
It is well known that the author’s nom de plume, “Mo Yan” (Don’t speak), originated in his awareness of his querulousness. But the fictional character he feels closest to, Black Kid in his breakout short story "The Transparent Carrot" (1985), remains mute or determinedly silent throughout. Faced with the pitfalls of speaking too much or not speaking at all, Mo Yan ultimately takes the middle path: storytelling. In Sandalwood Death, he has chosen to raise the aesthetic and the rhetorical above all else. He plays with narrative chronology. Flashbacks and fast-forwards are used profusely, disrupting the linear sense of narrative progress. In one segment, the story moves acrobatically backward as if a film were played in the rewind mode frame by frame. He also gives each of his five major characters his or her own aria. The polyphonic storytelling demonstrates Mo Yan’s fascination with the sonic dimension of the world — an interest first revealed in Black Kid, his inarticulate hero who yet shows a preternatural sensitivity to sounds.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Mo Yan claimed that Sandalwood Death marked the first time he visualized himself as a professional storyteller in a public square. The tripartite novel’s titles, “Head of the Phoenix (fengtou),” “Belly of the Pig (zhudu),” and “Tail of the Leopard” (baowei), are actually metaphors for good storytelling methods: a compelling beginning, a substantial middle, and a swift and powerful ending. But the three sections do not cohere into one unified plot. In terms of content, many scenes are meant for (modern) private reading rather than (traditional) communal hearing. What most significantly marks Sandalwood Death as a stylized “performance,” rather than an earnest imitation of traditional storytelling, is the author’s refusal to offer any moral message. Characters are steeped in moral ambiguities. They also display a different facet of themselves depending on which story is then in play.
Idiosyncratic as it is, Sandalwood Death is perhaps not that singular. Mo Yan embraces the same two imperatives other contemporary popular historical fiction writers espouse: namely, to mine the historical past for interesting subjects and materials, and to use the effects of fictional verisimilitude to bring history closer to readers today. Mo Yan’s attempt at creating realistic effects, most prominently demonstrated in his torture scenes, has the double function of making the historical strange and familiar at the same time. Whereas scenes of cruelty seem grotesquely peculiar, his focus on intricate workings of body and mind allow readers with little to no knowledge of Chinese history a hook to grasp the story. In the numerous scenes where Mo Yan emulates a traditional storyteller, the author executes his craft in a fashion similar to his headsman's "thousand cuts": the same aplomb, the same penchant for dramatic flourishes, and the same microscopic attention to detail.
The line between the storyteller and the executor is further blurred in a chapter where the executioner becomes a storyteller in turn, miming a legendary vocal performer. The epitaph written in Zhao’s voice — “The finest play ever staged cannot compete with the spectacle of a public slicing” — may sound like Mo Yan’s gallows humor, but it condemns the executioner’s depraved performative impulse. One can also discern the author’s critique of “performance” in the character of Sun Bing, the charismatic yet irresponsible, courageous yet egomaniac hero. In the eyes of the only intellectual in the novel, Magistrate Qian, Sun is not a real leader but a trickster — he knows how to ply magic tricks and recruit followers, yet is essentially clueless about his enemy and the consequences of his action. Qian sees through the mighty charade behind the Boxer leader’s performance early on and calls his bluff about his allegedly tempered “iron body” that’s “impervious to bullets, resistant to water and fire.” Kicking over the incense altar, Qian cries, “how can you continue to beguile and bewitch your followers when rivers of your men’s blood already flow across the fortification?”
Imagine this line being used by Mo Yan’s critics, who mushroomed after his Nobel win: how could you continue to practice your literary tricks to “beguile and bewitch” while your fellow countrymen and fellow writers are suffering injustices at the hands of the Chinese government? Yet most of these critics were too busy lambasting him to read his tomes line by line. They did not see an author alert to both the empowerment and perils of performance, and by implication, the treacherousness of writing as a form of public performance.
In Sandalwood Death, Mo Yan strives for a high aesthetic effect by modeling his work on conventional repertoire and melodrama — sometimes at the sacrifice of strong characters, plot, and moral insights. In lesser hands, the novel might have turned out like a shadow puppet show: paper-thin characters, tethered to strings, tumble and rumble rambunctiously on stage, all the dazzling fighting and rhapsodic singing the work of one multi-talented and multi-voiced puppeteer. Yet, if it does not amount to a fiction of great historical realism or even a refined piece of narrative art, the novel is remarkable in its engrossing details, subtle irony, and multitudinous perspectives and voices. Mo Yan’s appropriation of folk opera and traditional storytelling devices also invigorate his narrative with a unique liveliness. At its most compelling moments, the words that he hurls at us with such velocity and ferocity take on a shocking power that makes violence in history seem more intelligible and indelible. The foregrounding of the performative and rhetorical also allows him to break away from the kind of Chinese narrative mode that has so often been pushed into the grinding grooves of history and politics. The fictional — the sound of Maoqiang — is given a larger role to play, so much so that it upstages the historical —the sound of trains. For all these reasons, one may regard the novel as a daring experiment rather than dissimulative and retro.