William Faulkner and Mo Yan

ZHU Shida

     In the group of writers that have come to the fore in the last decade, Mo Yan is a story writer that has caught extensive attention of literary critics not only for his proficiency but also for his unique creative approach. He is different from his contemporary writers in the structure and philosophical implication of his works and in the use of images. Mo Yan's artistic achievement is attributed to his rich experience in life and his efforts to assimilate and learn from the nutrients of foreign literature. The combination of Chinese scenes and foreign ideas makes it possible for him to create a series of unique artistic environments and images. People may be surprised to find that Mo yan who was born in an earthen kang (bed) in a dirty thatched hut in a desolate village in Dongbei township, in Gaomi county in Shandong province, grew up by herding cattle and cutting grass for animal feed and worked as a worker at a county cotton seed oil factory is compared with a descendant of southern American bankrupt plantation owners in the north of the Mississippi. However, this is precisely what art is and human sensibility and human artistic understanding and interpretation of the external world is often than not shared. Such a common sensibility is precisely the basis where the human race conduct cultural and art exchanges. "Art is undoubtedly a creation of man. The artistic images created by man is undoubtely a direct or indirect manifestation of real life and the impressions of man derived from real life. This holds true for Chinese as well western literataure and is the common thing shared by all."(Li 5)
     Mo Yan said that his stories "are considerably influenced by foreign literature in terms of ideas and artistic approaches." He said that García Márquez's Hundred Years of Solitude and Wiliam Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury are the two works that have the greatest impact on his creative effort. (2)


     After he published his Satoris in 1929, William Faulkner found that "My own little postage stamp of Native Soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own." Faulkner's intensive interest in his postage stamp of Yoknaptawpha provided a new light of enlightenment for Mo Yan who came to understand from Faulkner's artistic practice that "You have to stand on a given spot, delve into it and then obtain the license to the world and the ticket to the concert of the cosmic music."
     If we say that Yoknaptawpha is the background of a series of Faulkner's novels, if we say that Faulkner was a keen observer of the local scene, then we may say that Mo Yan persistently bases his artistic imaginations on the red kaoliang and corn fields, river dykes, wild meadows and bridge conduits in Gaomi. Like Faulkner, he imbues the stories that unfold in the wild kaoliang fields with extraordinarily legendary touches. The mythologies he tells of the barbaric clans and regions have unique aesthetic and poetic value and implications. For Faulkner, the sins of the forefathers have a bearing on the destiny of the descendants while for Mo Yan, the wild sexual play of the ancestors is the source of pride of the coming generations. However, they have a commonality on the fact that the destiny of the forefathers affects that of the descendants.
     Just as Cleanth Brooks said, the greatness of Faulkner lies in his appreciation of the strength--past and present--of the community so as to define the moral life of the human race; in his exact delineation of the race and class in the southern traditional society; in his successful employment of the folk style and romantic views to suit the needs of the novel of the 20th century.(Toward x) The novelistic art of Faulkner obviously belongs to the modernist school. Though he was a modern classic writer, his basis was folklore; he fully absorbed the tradition of oral literature he learned at bonfires of hunters and village inns.(Brooks, Bear 183) Proceeding from a limited region, he had surprisingly created works with a new spirit. Many art critics classiffy him as a primitive or mystical writer. That Faulkner was able to combine romanticism with realism so skilfully lies in the fact that his art has a kind of universal intension. Based on this interpretation, we may well comprehend why Faulkner's oral literary tradition--a kind of unconscious primitism--serves so well his art and so perfectly reflects the nuances of the modern ideas concerning time, memory and human nature. This is why Faulkner could transcend literary regionalism and romanticism, realism or naturalism and became a writer of an international caliber.
     I believe that the universal intension of Faulkner's art and that of Mo Yan's come to the same crossed point so that we may have a comparative study of them. Malcom Bradbury points out that Faulkner, like D.H. Laurence, based his art not only in local wisdom but also in compromise cosmopolitanism.(176) The achievement of Mo Yan lies in the fact that he strikes his roots in local wisdom. In the process of studying Mo Yan's fictions, one may well wonder that he is such a "primitive and mystical writer." He describes the primitive human desires and sentiments. In his fictions, either wine, red kaoling, corn, anvil or sex all have a sense of mysticism. Mo Yan imbues such primitive desire and mystical stories with so great beauty, totally Chinese beauty. Mo Yan is very much bent on "philosophical implictions" of works. From under the primitive oral literary tradition, people may well find the "spiritual home" of Mo Yan where red kaoliang abounds.


     In the fiction of "Autumn Water," Mo Yan depicts the image of Grandpa, the earliest pioneer of the Dongbei township in Gaomi. He was "sun-tanned, heavily-built," "had killed three men, set on a fire, abducted a girl (Grandma) and fled here from Baoding, Hebei." He was a robust tough guy, with two hawk-like black eyes, simply a Robin Hood on the road. In this world of immigrants turned from bandits and robbers, the rain and the wind were even ghostly. Mo Yan uses absurd language to describe the fearful natural environment when Father was born: "There came waves of queer sounds like thunderstorms," "The water rose and roared, like a flock of mad horses or wild dogs galloping along. They looked like horses and were not horses, roaring here and there, far and wide, ever changing. Grandpa looked outside the thatched hut and saw the hill perched with wild birds all over, glittering like a white blitz in the moonlight, dazzling the eye. You could not see the leaves at the tree but strange fruit. When you looked at it closer, they turned out to be big birds. It was in such an environment that the wife of a runaway criminal, Grandma, was giving birth to Father in great agony."
     Grandma thought that she could no longer survive the labor. Grandpa told her, "I've killed men and set on fire. What can I be afraid of? When we decided to get married, we told each other that even if we could live together for a single day, we would be satisfied. How many days have we lived as a couple? No matter how great the crest is, it will not submerge the high mountains and no matter how tall the tree is, it will never be able to poke a hole in the sky. Pluck up your courage and give birth to your baby." The Chinese optimism supports them in coping with the unimaginable hardships.
     The story is very simple. Amidst the rise and fall of the water and amidst hope and disappointment, Grandma fought tenaciously with the pains of labor. However, it was in this marshland where a life-and-death battle of revenge took place. The purple-clothed woman killed the woman in black dress to avenge herself on her father's death. The woman in black dress had killed Lao Qi, the father of the purple-clothed woman, for he had raped the blind girl in white dress. I think "Autumn Water" is dedicated to an artistic conception. Just as R.W.B. Lewis in "Faulkner's New World" said, such an artistic conception involves the return to a given living state from death and it is the source of vitality to return to life from dark caves of reclusion and paralysis.(251) The purple-clothed woman delivered the baby, a descendant of a murderer and in the meantime killed a man who had murdered her father while the father of the purple-clothed woman had killed a relative of the blind girl in white dress. This is a series of killings that had taken place in life with a fatalist force in the wilderness. The story ends with a folklore:

White bird eats purple cricket,
Blue swallow eats red dragonfly,
Yellow grasshopper eats red dragonfly,
Green grasshopper eats white bird,
Purple cricket eats blue swallow,
Red dragonfly eats yellow grasshopper.

     The folklore gives people too much food for thought.
     The heroes under Mo Yan have sexual defects and the legendary color of his stories are more or less related to such defects. The sexual defects have a fatalist power over the destiny of the heroes. Here, people see a Freudian interpretation. The heroes, humiliated by sexual defects, become all the madder and freewheeling, stimulated by the desire to prove their masculinity. They are heroes with tragic implications. Take Father in "Father in a Militia Company," collected in White Cotton, for an example. "The maddening explosions and smokes and the flying corpses of men and dogs combined into a terrific force to hit Father who, with a sudden contraction of the heart, felt extreme pains in his groins and he lost one of his two balls, once very much developed. In the ensuing years, whenever he thought of his girl Qing'er--my Mother, he invariably succumbed into such pains." He took great care of this remnant ball. On the way to send 30 tons of millet to the front, the militia company met an icy-cold river without a bridge. Father who took off all his clothes waded through the river. "The water rose to the hips and that remnant and very developed ball, like the head of a cock, shrank into a size of a silkworm. This was the most vital part as Grandpa told him. He cherished it and took great care of it in case there might be any injury inflicted upon it.... When he ducked all his body into the water, he covered it with one hand. However, he could not feel its existence and as a result was gripped with fear and pains."
     Mo Yan described this hero who later usurped the leadership of the company on his own and was a "wise and yet confused leader." He often threatened cutting others' ears or taking off others' trousers to box the balls when he flew into anger. Brought into bold relief was a vivid hero who had the primitive instinctive impulses and yet was ready to sacrifice himself in case of danger (I have only one ball while all of you have two balls. You will still have one when the other was hurt by the cold. I'll have none left.)
     In the narrative art of Mo Yan, he successfully perverts the time sequence and lets the story unfold in a stream of consciousness. Here I find obvious impacts of Faulkner on him. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner perverted the time sequence and made the narratives evolve in fragments of time and space. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Faulkner's present is essentially catastrophic. It is the event which creeps up on us like a thief, huge unthinkable--which creeps up on us and then disappears."(158) Like John Dos Passos, Faulkner dissolved his tale into consciousness and into fragments and let the readers to weave the net of the tale. We feel this modernistic approach in "Your Behavior Makes Us Fear" (a very beautiful story) (White Cotton 56-126). Mo Yan's vision of the world, just like that of Faulkner's that "can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backward. At every moment, formless shadows, flickerings, faint tremblings and patches of light rise up on either side of him, only afterward, when he has a little perspective, do they become trees and men and cars." (Sartre 161) Every glimpse and every moment is a beam of light, a color, a memory and an impression with a superreal force.
     Lu Lezi the "Donkey," a folk song singer, shut himself in a room and cut his balls by himself. Mo Yan does not hurry to explain why before he brings the reader to the ancient ancestral home of the Lus 20 years ago. In his childhood, Donkey was madly courting the "Crab." 20 minutes before the class was over, Donkey became agitated and uneasy, swinging his hips and neck with perspirations all over his head. he went to unfasten the ropes that tied the sheep as an excuse to meet Crab. The story comes back to the present. Crab wished to divorce her husband the "Heron". It again falls into the past when on the chest of Crab there grew two egg-size breasts, two precious things that attracted the envious eyes of boys. Heron held the two shot-size breasts appreciatively even in sleep. In the past, Lu, following on her heels, grazed his sheep and sang folk songs. Crab, extremely fat with a pale face, became insane and went into a mental home. One day when Donkey walked on the street in a downpour, he saw a woman, lying on the street in the rain, with her hair in a fearful mess. He extended his hand to help her while she, stretching out her hands with sharp nails, got hold of his balls. He ran back home in total nudity and a woman that resembled very much the woman that appeared and disppeared in the rain opened the door.
     Who was the woman with her hair in fearful mess? Was she Crab? Mo Yan tells a tale of an alienated human being with modernistic approaches that are full of mysteries and absurdities.
     Jean-Paul Sartre once asked, "Why have faulkner and so many other writers chosen this particular absurdity which is so unnovelistic and so untrue? I think we should have to look for the reason in the social conditions of our present life."(166) The form of the society in transition has a lot of absurdities. Mo Yan keenly senses these absurdities in social form and finds modernistic style that is in accord with the time.
Mo Yan sets great store by the employment of color in his narrative style that smacks of impressionism. Let's have a look at the following passage:

     When the sheep appeared on the bank of the extremely beautiful Black Ink River dotted with wild pea flowers, golden rays flowed from the setting sun in the west and the river water, tinged with the golden rays, became crimson red. The two bubbles that swell at both sides of the cheeks of the frogs were like two light purple balloons. (White Cotton 68)

     What a colorful picture of nature! Mo Yan enhances the impression with a series of colors: golden rays, crimson red and light purple to bring the scene of nature into the focus of the attention of the readers.
     People may find such lyrical and impressionist descriptions in Faulkner's narrative:

     The lane went between back premisses--unpainted houseswith more of those gay and startling coloured garments on lines, a barn broken-backed, decaying quietly among rank orchard trees, unpruned and weed-choked pink and white and murmurous with sunlight and with bees.(Red Turnip 185)

     In Mo Yan's stories, we may feel the impacts of the magic. His mystical scenes and images, apparently absurd, are often the combination of impressionism and mysticism with a unique aesthetical beauty:

     All of a sudden we saw a red woman plunging herself intothe fire. She opened her bosum, like a red butterfly, flinging herself into the fire. Maybe she was not like a butterfly at all, but a hen.... After a while, I smelt a fragrant smell of chicken meat.(White Cotton 93)

     Let's see another passage:

     As the company leader was charging ahead, we heard a great cracking from that willow tree and something black dropped from it. We were terrified to death as we saw a headless female corpse under the light of a lantern. As there was no head, the neck seemed extremely long. She was totally nude as a very loose woman.(White Cotton 91)

     In Mo Yan's stories, tears are green, "the veins at the neck squirming ahead like green worms."(Red Tunip 227) "The ropes wriggled like earthworms, sometimes as a fried dough twist, sometimes as a screw."(Red Tunip 228) "The Party secretary suddenly dissolved into the earth, with the whole body transparent as in a liquid."(Red Tunip 225)
Mo Yan tries to make Chinese mythology into his fictions to increase its vividness:

     He finally thought of a good way: When the elixir of life was made in the furnace, a woman in menstruation was asked to stand beside the furnace so that no foxy spirits dared to come to steel it. On the day when the elixir of life was ready, he asked a woman with a golden tooth stand beside the furnace and once the gate of the furnace was opened there suddenly rose a white column of gas, breaking the roof. His face turned red in the white column of gas, like hot steel in a smelting furnace.(White Cotton 108)

     I think Mo Yan obtains symbolist enlightenment and inspiration from Faulkner. Just as Cleanth Brooks said, even the simplest literature has a sense of symbolism.(Rural Faulkner 242) Now art critics all come to recognize the symbolic meaning of the rifle in "the Bear" which runs throughout the plot and serves as its theme matter. When Ike met the bear for the first time, he threw away the rifle--a sacred act; when he threw it away for the second time, he was trying to save the helpless fyce from the mouth of the bear--an act of love. R.W.B. Lewis believes that this is the main symbolist tendency of the fiction.(Transcending 223) The red turnip in Mo Yan's "Transparent Red Turnip"(136-201) has a symbolist strength like the gun in "the Bear." Mo Yan creates an image of a sun-tanned boy, reticent and as lean as dry firewood. The production team assigned the feeble-bodied boy, "a boy who would be overwhelmed by wind," to crack rocks into grit at the work site of a water conservation project. He had the greatness of all the sons of nature. He used his toes to tear apart the hard and thorny puncture vines and rolled the rough vine with the callous soles of his feet. His feet, like the hard heels of donkkeys or horses, crushed the thorns and the vines." Though life was hard to him and the stepmother did not give him any affection, he invariably found pleasure and joy and the comfort of the soul in nature. He was very much reticent and was even thought a mute. "As he grew up, he said less and less to others. He sat there motionless like a stone statue and nobody knew what he was thinking about." However, the boy had a supernatural magic power. The blacksmith asked him to pick up the hot anvil and he really grasped the sizzling anvil in his hands like a cricket. There was a smell like that of cooked pork in the air. When the blacksmith saw a streak of yellow smoke rising from the boy's hand, he madly cried, "Throw it away! Throw it away!" His voice became hoarse and cried like a cat: "Throw it away! You dammed fool!"
     The boy had a beautiful dream. He saw there was a golden red turnip on the hot anvil that glimmered in blue light. "The red turnip, as big as a pear, had a long tail with the rooting system like golden wool. The red turnip was crystal clear and elegantly shaped. The transparent and golden shell contained vital silver liquid. It was so gracefully shaped that from its beautiful line shone a glow of golden rays. The beautiful childish dream was soon dashed to pieces in reality as the blacksmith suddenly rushed forward and took back the red turnip. The only eye of the blacksmith was full of blood when he shouted, "Damn it! You dog! Are you in such a class as to have a turnip? ..."
     The boy always thought of that turnip, golden, transparent.
     One day when the blacksmith was suffering tremendously from pains, he asked the boy to go and get him a turnip to save his life. As if driven by a magic power, the boy went and pulled up two turnips. He could no longer recover the lost dream of a transparent turnip. As a result, he engaged himself in destruction by pulling out all the turnips, grown and not yet grown, and threw them all over the fields like red fires.
     The whole work is full of disappointment and disillusionment. The red turnip becomes the symbol of luxury, pleasure and joy in a humble life with a great mystical force. To the boy who does not find love in real life, it represents a vague and beautiful legend and exposes the contradiction between beautiful dream and hard reality. Life is so helpless, as barren as the alkali land. If we say the gun in "the Bear" symbolizes power and the transcendence of value, then, we may say that the red turnip represents the dream of life, a beautiful life that is beyond the boy who lives in the bottom of society.


     Like Faulkner, Mo Yan benefits tremendously from rural materials and experiences in his works from "Folk Music," "White Cotton," "The Family of Red Kaoliang" to "The Kingdom of Wine." This has enabled him to have the possibility to portray the eternal truth in his mind about the long-standing fix of man. By making use of the rural materials, he finds that he is able to stay in his hometown and yet handles questions of universal significance.(Brooks, Bear 183)
     Chinese art critics have taken note of the modernistic efforts of Mo Yan. Nevertheless, they are not yet very keenly aware of its profundity. "In reading 'Transparent Red Turnip,' we get a very fresh and yet strange artistic experience. The artistic images the fiction creates are obviously different in terms of essence and form from those we used to know."(Li) This was a comment in 1986. How fresh is it? Why and where are they different from the imagery we used to know? If we look at the creative work of Mo Yan from a broader literary perspective, if we take into account the impacts of such modernistic writers as Faulkner on him, we will naturally come to understand the artistic approach of Mo Yan and come to know why the images in his fictions are metamorphosed, the heroic deeds that transcend the existing moral code are born out of those metamorphosed images and give one a sense of alienation and solitude.
     That I so say does not mean that I believe Mo Yan creates fictions entirely under the shadow of Faulkner. No, it is not so. As I have analyzed above, the impacts of Faulkner on him is a kind of impact that naturally finds its way into Mo Yan's creative effort. The bridge of communication between them is partly based on impacts and assimilations and partly on the confluence of art and inspiration. I think the later part is all the more important.
     Some art critics have taken note of Mo Yan's Chinese-styled imagist (Yi Xiang) efforts. Is imagism only Chinese, only a category of Chinese classic aesthetics? In Chinese classic literature, especially in its poetry (Ci), the employment of imagism is abundant and virtually perfect. But, this does not mean that there is no imagism in foreign literature. The imagist school of pooetry in the early 20th century is an example. Though the imagism of fiction is different from the imagism of poetry, yet, they are the same in terms of poetic implication. That is to say, fiction, like poetry, must contain philosophical, i.e., poetic implications. I think that the imagism of Mo Yan is no longer in the traditional Chinese pattern. He has obviously assimilated and digested the nutrition of foreign imagism and worked it into his fictions. Especially on the conflict between humanism and naturalism, he shows his unique way of observation and description and unique way of philosophical approach. It is not purely Chinese, neither foreign, but an integration of Chinese and foreign quintessence. He stands solidly on his own foundation stone and takes his own road.
     As analyzed above, Mo Yan has tried modernism in his imaginative writing. This is an encouraging effort and achievement in the modernization of the Chinese concept of fiction. Will the modernization of the Chinese concept of fiction make Chinese fiction an appendage to Western modernism? I think that it will not. For all genuine Chinese artists will have to base themselves on the Chinese soil and in the meantime assimilate foreign essence (including modernist essence) with a view to creating an art that is national as well as cosmopolitan. Just as Mo Yan said, "García Márquez and Faulkner are two burning blast furnaces while I am a piece of ice. So, I tell myself: run away from the two furnaces and go and open a world of my own!" He also said, "I think that if I can not go and create a region of my own, I shall never have features of my own. If I can not strike deep into the soil where I grow up, my roots will not develop." So, he sets four principles for himself:

1. Establish an outlook of his own on life;
2. Open a region of his own;
3. Establish a system of characters of his own;
4. Establish a narrative style of his own. (Essay)

     We may well note that he attaches so great importance of things of his own, i.e., his own unique creations. Like Faulkner, he sets great store by his own stamp-size region and his own system of characters.


Bradbury, Malcolm. "London 1890-1920." Modernism 1890-1930. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James MacFarlane. Harmondsworth: Penguine Books, 1976.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. ---. "William Faulkner with 'The Bear.'" Trans. Li Wenjun. Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 1990.
---. "Rural Faulkner." Collection of Essays on Faulkner. Faulkner, William. "Interview." The Harper American Literature, Vol. 2 (1987): 1342.
Lewis, R.W.B. "Faulkner in the New World." Collection of Essays on Faulkner. Ed. Li Wenjun. Chinese Social Sciences Publishing House, 1980.
---. "'The Bear': Transcending the United States." Collection of Essays on Faulkner.
Li Tuo. "Preface to Transparent Red Tunip." Mo Yan. Transparent Red Tunip. Zuojia Publishing House, 1986.
Mo Yan. "Essay." World Literature (Chinese Social Sciences Publishing House), 3 (1986): 298-299.
---. "Autumn Water." Transparent Red Turnip. Zuojia Publishing House, 1986. 236-48.
---. "Dry River." Transparent Red Turnip.
---. "Father in Militia Company." White Cotton. Huayi Publishing House, 1993. 1-55.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner." Collection of Essays on Faulkner.

Copywright (C) 1999  Zhu Shida