Book review: Frog - Mo Yan dramatises trauma of one-child policy in China
Nobel laureate's novel views modern mainland history through trauma of the one-child policy
by Mo Yan
Dissident Ma Jian's haunting 2013 novel The Dark Road tells the story of a rural couple who live like fugitives on the Yangtze River, while trying to have a second baby in violation of China's one-child policy. Described by the noted author and literary critic Hari Kunzru as "immoderate, excessive, strident" but also "deeply compelling", the novel highlights one of the most disquieting aspects of modern Chinese history.
It's tempting to speculate what the fate of Ma's protagonists might have been had they run into Gugu, the central character in Frog, the latest novel by Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Gugu is a midwife who makes it her life's mission to enforce China's family planning law by ruthlessly pursuing every illegal pregnancy she comes across. Even the wife of her nephew, the novel's narrator, is not spared when she falls pregnant with their second child.
First published in Chinese in 2009 and awarded the state-sponsored Mao Dun literary prize in 2011, Frog is a 388-page dystopian novel. Like the other works by Mo Yan (the pen-name of author Guan Moye), the story is set in his hometown Gaomi in Shandong province. And the novel's narrator is a character who, like the author, showed literary talent while serving in the army.
Mo Yan's name literally means "don't speak". Outside China, he is perceived to be a controversial writer because of his ties to the Chinese establishment. But any suggestion that his latest novel soft-pedals China's one-child policy would be as absurd as it is false. Not only is Frog a superb novel, it's a work of art suffused with morality and meaning.
Frog's narrator is named Tadpole. He has his Chinese names, but that curious moniker, bestowed by his parents, is the one he uses as his pen name. An aspiring playwright, Tadpole narrates the novel through a series of letters to his mentor, a Japanese literature buff who shares the same family name as Japan's Emperor Akihito.
At the centre of the novel is Gugu, whose life spans China's Japanese occupation, the communists' 1949 rise to power, the Cultural Revolution and modernisation under state-directed capitalism. The daughter of a famous physician, well-versed in both Chinese and Western medicine, she is attractive and charismatic. Her 50-year career in midwifery is initially marked by fights against older midwives steeped in superstition and ignorance about birthing. Because their practices frequently have fatal results, Gugu gains acclaim for her expertise in delivering babies, especially during times of famine and political chaos.
In the mid-1950s alone, Gugu delivers 1,600 babies. This was a time when Mao Zedong encouraged reproduction, believing that a large population was good for China. After 1979, however, when China's one-child policy officially went into effect, Gugu is forced to oversee thousands of abortions. Many women, including her own nephew's wife, die as a result of the draconian state practice.
Gugu's personal life begins to fall apart when her fiancé, a charming fighter pilot, defects to Taiwan. Even though she's a staunch communist, Gugu is questioned by authorities for her possible role in her fiancé's treason. She narrowly escapes prosecution, but the ordeal compels her to prove her loyalty to the state by hunting ever more zealously for mothers trying to violate China's one-child policy.
Despite its epistolary form, Frog rips along at a cracking pace. In his first letter, written from Beijing in 2002, Tadpole recounts his mentor's meeting with his abortionist aunt, and the impression she made on him.
"In your talk the next morning, you cited her often in support of your views on literature," says Tadpole. "You said you came away with an image of a doctor racing across a frozen river on a bicycle; another of her with a medical kit slung over her back and an open umbrella in one hand, trouser cuffs rolled up, as she forces her way through a mass of croaking frogs; yet another of a doctor laughing joyfully as she holds a newborn infant in her hands, her sleeves splattered with blood."
The "mass of croaking frogs" in the letter is the first hint about the novel's odd title. (Other hints include human embryos and sperm.) Frogs are a symbol of yin (female) energy in China and a symbol of fertility across much of the Eastern world. Further, a newborn's cry is said to be similar to a frog's croak, as Tadpole says midway through his narrative, while referring to a harrowing experience that his aunt had one night when she stumbled upon a marshy area near a hospital.
"The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats," says Tadpole. "But that night it sounded to her like human cries, almost as if thousands of newborn infants were crying … with a sense of resentment and of grievance, as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations."
The choice of frogs as a metaphor for feticide is a testament to Mo Yan's earthy imagination, not to mention his talent for magical realism. "Gugu screamed and ran, but could not break free of the amphibian horde," he writes. "And when she turned to look, the sight nearly drove the soul out of her body. Thousands, tens of thousands of frogs had formed a mighty army behind her, croaking, hopping, colliding, crowding together, like a murky torrent rushing madly towards her."
The purpose of such image-laden writing is not to make something clear, but to disguise it. Elsewhere, Mo Yan deftly underlines the complexities and contradictions underlying China's one-child policy and its communist revolution.
"Children are the nation's future, its treasure," says the chairwoman of a local family planning committee shortly before Gugu performs an abortion on Tadpole's wife, who dies because the midwife doesn't have the correct blood type on hand. "But there's a problem. Without family planning, our children may not have enough to eat or clothes to wear or could be denied the chance to attend school. Family planning is about achieving great issues of humanity by denying minor ones."
Early on in Frog, we learn from one of Tadpole's letters to his Japanese mentor about a custom in the narrator's hometown whereby newborn children are named after a particular body part or organ. Examples include Nose Chen, Eyes Zhao, Colon Wu and Shoulder Sun. "Those who are badly named live long," Tadpole says, alluding to the fact that the practice made sense during periods of endemic famine and fear such as the 1958-62 famine in which an estimated 30 million people starved to death.
"Nearly all my strongest memories of the time deal with food," Tadpole tells his teacher, adding that he and many others in his village ate coal to survive. In one scene, a testament to the strength and stoicism of those who endured Mao's revolution and the famines it engendered, the narrator describes how he and his classmates were chewing on coal one day when their teacher asked what they were eating:
"It's coal, Ma," replies the teacher's son. "Want some?" asks another student in the front row, brandishing a lump of coal in her hand. The teacher takes the shiny lump, holds it to her nose and hands it back. "Today we're on lesson six, class, The Fox and the Crow," she said, recounting the fable of the wily fox that flattered the crow into dropping a piece of meat. "The teacher led us in reading the story aloud, which we did with our black-as-crow mouths."
Frog ends with a 66-page, nine-act play that Tadpole finishes in five days and appends to his last letter, written in 2009, to his mentor. Although a continuation of his aunt's story, some incidents in the play "did not actually occur", Tadpole writes. What makes them real to him nonetheless is the fact that "they did [occur] in my mind".
Anguished by the death of his wife and the child they were trying to have, Tadpole consoles himself by starting to believe that a wretched surrogate mother's child is the reincarnation of his unborn baby. But he realises that every child is unique and irreplaceable. "Can blood on one's hands never be washed clean?" he asks. "Can a soul entangled in guilt never be free?"