Mo money

Nobel prize winner’s novel attacks China’s food safety

Mo money

Gong Li, circa 1988, star of the film version of Red Sorghum

When more than 10,000 dead pigs turned up in the Huangpu River last month, the general public was soon asking how they got there. Yet the mystery has remained just that, having never been satisfactorily explained by the authorities (see WiC186). This absence has led to the usual theorising by China’s half a billion internet users. Perhaps the most plausible theory centres on a rather grisly set of middlemen, who routinely buy diseased pigs from farmers for sale at discounted prices to restaurants (this grim meat then goes into the wok with likely malign consequences for diners’ digestive systems). International media has suggested that a crackdown from Shanghai’s government on the sale of diseased pork temporarily drove out the black market traders, but also strangled the usual disposal mechanism. So when an epidemic hit the pig population in nearby Jiaxing, farmers responded by dumping their dead animals in the river.

It’s a theme that will be all too familiar to Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize winning author. His most recently translated book – titled POW! – came out in North America earlier this year and it is all about China’s disreputable meat industry. Because of the Huangpu scandal, the novel seems almost eerily timely, even though the original Chinese version came out more than 10 years ago.

In many respects POW! is Mo’s answer to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s early twentieth century novel about the horrors of Chicago’s meat packing business (see WiC159).

Like Sinclair’s book it reveals a host of unsavoury business practices in the meat industry, with suppliers showing little concern for the end consumer. The novel is set in a fictional place called Slaughterhouse Village, which as the name suggests is a giant abattoir. He describes it thus: “Everywhere you looked there was meat on the hoof and meat on the slab, bloody hunks of meat and washed-clean chunks of meat, meat that had been smoked and meat that hadn’t, meat that had been soaked in formaldehyde and meat that hadn’t, pork beef mutton dog donkey horse camel… The wild dogs in our village were so fat from eating spoilt meat that grease oozed from their pores.”

The book’s narrator and central character is Luo Xiaotong, a young boy and carnivore extraordinaire. But the most colourful character in the novel is the dishonest rogue Lao Lan. He has become the village’s richest man and also its political leader thanks to his invention of the ‘water injection method’ – a process that sees the meat bulked up through fluid injection so that it can be sold at more costly rates to city supermarkets.

That isn’t the only trick of the trade, says Xiaotong: “My father told me it wasn’t water that Lao Lan injected into his meat but formaldehyde. Later, after relations between Lao Lan and our family took a turn for the better, Lao Lan told us that it wasn’t enough for the meat to be injected with formaldehyde; in order to keep its freshness and colour, it also needed to be smoked with sulphur for three hours.”

The narrative takes place in 1980s and 1990s China, depicting a viciously competitive society where money is all that matters. Xiaotong himself displays little sense of social responsibility or morality. He doesn’t care that adulterated produce is being sold: “The taste buds of the city-dwellers had deteriorated to such a point that they could no longer distinguish good meat from bad. There was no sense in giving them high-quality meat – it was wasted on their inferior palates.”

When he sees barbecued pig ears for sale at a railway station, Xiaotong comments: “I knew they were from animals that had died – not slaughtered but sick pigs treated to look palatable. Where I come from, it doesn’t matter what kills an animal – swine fever, erysipelas or hoof-and-mouth disease. We have ways to make any kind of meat look appetising.”

Lao Lan, who presides over these poisonous scams, is a likeable villain, if only because he is so self-aware. In seeking to win others over to his schemes, he posits: “Where will you find another village in the county, in the province, in the whole country, where water isn’t injected into the meat. If everyone else does it but we don’t, we’ll not only fail to earn a living, but also wind up in the red. We live in an age that scholars characterise as that of the primitive accumulation of capital. Just what does that mean? Simply that people will make money by any means necessary, and that everyone’s money is tainted by the blood of others. Once this phase has passed, moral behaviour will again be in fashion. But during times of immoral behaviour, if we persist in being moral, we might as well starve to death.”

Lao is also smart enough to stay a step ahead of the authorities, and even anticipates their five-year plans to boost GDP. He persuades them to let the village set up the province’s largest meatpacking plant, on the understanding that it will put all the independent butchers out of business and end the worst of the industry’s practices (thanks to standardisation and inspection processes). When the plant opens, media are invited to inspect it, and herald a new era of food safety. But nothing changes. The government inspector is bribed and ‘water injection’ is merely replaced with ‘water cleansing’ (an even worse process that achieves the same end).

In Yan’s tale everyone in Slaughterhouse Village is complicit in Lao’s crooked practices. All told, it’s hardly an uplifting read: the author depicts a rotten society in which food is polluted-for-profit, harming the social fabric and destroying trust.

No one escapes the consequences, not even Lao Lan and his accomplices. They think they are eating better meat, but unbeknownst to them it too is contaminated. This emerges when Xiaotong walks in on Lao’s chef cooking a banquet in the factory kitchen. He watches in horror as the chef “moved a stool up to the pot, took out a demonic tool and then released a stream of yellow piss into the meaty mixture…When he was finished he put the now-contented object back inside his pants, climbed off the stool with a smirk and picked up a spade-like object, which he dipped in the pot to stir the meat, which whined as it tumbled in the fouled soup.”

“Just right,” the chef says. “Now you bastards can eat my piss.”

The reviews in the Western press for POW! have been largely favourable, with the Washington Post praising a “subtle display of narrative wizardry” and the Guardian calling it a “rich, original and highly rewarding novel”. But for readers of WiC who are curious to see why Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, we think it will prove a disappointment.

Our advice: if you only have time to read one translation of Mo’s work, it would be better to turn to Red Sorghum. It remains his most famous work, and was turned into a cinema classic by director Zhang Yimou (launching too the career of starlet Gong Li). The English translation is based on the Taiwanese version, with the author noting it is his preferred text, given he was forced to make several cuts to the mainland edition.

Set in Mo’s native Gaomi, Red Sorghum spans a chronology that begins in the 1920s and culminates in the war with Japan. Those cuts? They relate, not altogether surprisingly, to the behaviour of the Communist Party. For example, in the plot’s set piece battle, the narrator’s grandfather, Yu Zhan’ao, leads a bloody attack and in an emotional outburst later accusingly demands of the commander of the Communist’s Jiao-Gao regiment: “Where were you when we fought the Jap armoured troops?”

The implication: the Jiao-Gao troops evaded fighting the Japanese, knowing they might be annihilated (in fact, historians widely agree that this was Mao Zedong’s strategy, having seen how dangerous it was to fight Tokyo’s armoured brigades – paradoxically, official Party orthodoxy holds that the Communists were at the vanguard of driving the invaders out).

Another character named Five Troubles even talks about who should run China after the Japanese are defeated: “Not the Communist Party and not the Nationalist Party. I hate them both.”

You can bet that got cut too…

While POW! has a plot that mixes contemporary China with fabulism, the narrative of Red Sorghum is more realist. It depicts a war-torn China in which the Chinese battle among themselves as much as they do with the Japanese.

In what is a signature of Mo’s style, the book is (again) profoundly depressing, with the sorghum of the book’s title serving as a key motif, shimmering “like a sea of blood”. Death, rape and pillage bestride every page. His latest novel, 2009’s Frog is similarly searing in its depiction of China’s “one child” policy and the officials who ruthlessly enforce it.

Despite the bleak manner in which he often portrays his country in his work, Mo has come in for criticism since winning the Nobel Prize last year, with accusations that he is too close to the authorities and too unwilling to speak out against cases of censorship.

Mo himself denied the allegations in an interview in February. “Which intellectual can claim to represent China? I certainly do not claim that. Can Ai Weiwei [a more outspoken artist]?,” he told Der Spiegel, adding: “Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.”

Certainly, many of Mo’s novels beg a similar question: can China ever achieve the rule of law? In one striking incident in Red Sorghum, a village virgin is deflowered by a soldier. The upright Adjutant Ren speaks to his superior Commander Yu, asking: “If a Japanese raped my sister, should he be shot?” The answer: of course! “If a Chinese raped my sister, should he be shot?” Again, the reply: of course! Following this logic, Ren then says: “That’s just what I wanted to hear. Big Tooth Yu deflowered this local girl… When will he be shot Commander?”

But Big Tooth Yu is the commander’s uncle, so his response changes dramatically. “Since when is sleeping with a woman a serious offence?” Yu declares, before suggesting an alternative punishment: 50 lashes and compensation for the family of 20 silver dollars.

Nor is Yu even the villain of the story: in fact, he’s the closest thing the novel has to a ‘hero’.

To the current day the precedence of family obligations is problematic in China. In the hands of the powerful its abuse is a hurdle to the functioning of blind justice (think of the famous “My dad is Li Gang” incident, see WiC84). And there are other passages in Red Sorghum in which Mo also implies that China has not fundamentally changed from earlier times.

Again we are back to the food and beverage industries. While 1920s Gaomi didn’t have melamine-laced infant milk formula, local production processes were still highly questionable. The narrator’s ancestors made their fortunes turning Gaomi’s abundant sorghum crop into wine. But there was a secret to the unique taste that made it so popular throughout the county. You may have already guessed. “The unique qualities of our wine were created when Granddad pissed in one of the wine casks.”

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