The novel reflects on a turbulent history of human reproduction over six decades in Chinese countryside through relating the life of Auntie, a country doctor with more than fifty years of experience in obstetrics.
The author spent more than a decade gestating the novel, four years writing and completing the final draft following three rounds of revision. It consists of four long letters addressed by Kedou, a Chinese playwright, to Sugiya Yoshihito, a Japanese writer, and a drama script. The first letter introduces the theme by mentioning Literature and Life by Sugiya, whose father was an officer in the Japanese army that invaded China. Sugiya guides and encourages Kedou. The letter gives rise to the story, which culminates in the drama.
Against the backdrop of early PRC era, the Cultural Revolution, Reform Era and the 21st century, chronologically, this book, through relating the impact of policy shift during these four periods in family planning on the society, deeply reflects on history and human nature.
The story is all about dignity and the respect for human life. The names of the characters, such as Wan Xin (heart), Chen Mei (eyebrow), Chen Bi (nose), Xiao Shangchun (upper lip), Xiao Xiachun (lower lip), Wu Guan (features), Yun Sai (cheek), Wang Gan (liver), Wang Dan (gallbladder), Li Shou (hand), Wang Jiao (foot), Hao Dashou (big hand), all reference the human body and echo the theme of fertility. The images of the ubiquitous clay baby mass-produced by master craftsmen Qin He and Hao Dashou and the frogs and tadpoles of the bullfrog farm of Yuan Sai also reinforce the theme of human life. Such symbolic and allegorical devices elevate the novel to new heights of respect and awe for human life.
Mo Yan was born in 1955 in Gaomi County, Shandong Province. Some of his notable works include Red Sorghum, The Republic of Wine, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Sandalwood Death, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Notable novellas include A Transparent Radish and Women of the Commander. In addition to more than 100 short stories and novellas, he has also written a number of plays and prose essays.
His works have been translated into many languages, such as English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Arabic, and Vietnamese. Mo Yan has a considerable influence in both Chinese and international literary world. On October 11, 2012, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, being the first Chinese national to have received the distinguished honor.
Ms. Wan Xin, nicknamed the “Auntie”, is the heroine of the book. She is the daughter of an army doctor in the war against the Japanese Aggression. She follows her father’s path in the medical profession and becomes a nurse. As a midwife in the 1970s, she could handle all challenging tasks, capable of turning around any dangerous situations and on one occasion, even, helping a cow through a difficult labor. She was considered as the goddess of fertility, the savior of mothers and babies.
In 1980s, however, Auntie, becomes an active promoter of family planning and starts working on abortion, sterilization etc. She draws hatred and terror rather than love and admiration, even receiving death threats. Once undaunted by senior Japanese officers, she now faints at the sight of a frog. Mrs. Zhang drowned while trying to escape from her clutch. Her nephew’s wife dies of hemorrhage after the abortion she performed. Ms. Wang Dan, though managing to give birth to her daughter Chen Mei on her escape, nevertheless dies during labor. Like a bulldozer, she leaves a pile of crushed bodies in her wake.
On one occasion, passing by a reed field, she is encircled by numerous frogs, which tear apart her clothes, bite at her ears, spraying her with mucous and even semen. After that, she has trouble falling asleep at night. She takes the hoot of the owls as the cries of the frogs. In Chinese, frog is pronounced the same as baby. She believes that all those babies whose lives she terminated through family planning are now calling on her to demand revenge. How many babies has she delivered and killed during her life! If she had married that handsome pilot and given birth at the ‘proper’ age, maybe she would have turned out to be a much more tender and loving woman. Perhaps it is a retribution that she married Mr. Hao Dashou late in life and has no children of her own. Auntie is once deified as the godness of fertility, ironically, she can’t bear a baby herself. So does her apprentice, Xiao Shizi. They both devote their lifes in birth control but break the law intentionally in the end. Xiao Shizi even pays Chen Mei, now disfigured, fifty thousand Yuan for surrogacy.
The nine-act drama, Frog, towards the end of the book relates the tragedy of father Chen Bi and daughter Chen Mei: Chen Mei, the famous beauty, instead of living on her looks, decides to work to support herself. Tragically, she is disfigured by a fire in the plant where she works for and then turns into a mysterious masked lunatic. During time travel back to the Republic of China era, she even loses the surrogacy litigation. Chen Bi, once a prosperous local businessman, loses all his fortune due to defiance of family planning and is reduced to beggary in his old age.
Monthly Digest of Chinese Films