Asiaweek, June 30, 2000

China's Heart of Darkness
Surreal morality tale takes aim at market drive

Marching to the mantra, "to get rich is glorious," town and village enterprises are a symbol of change in China. They can produce toys for America, surgical equipment for Europe and fireworks for Australia. Local party bosses can acquire Mercedes-Benzes, the masses climb out of poverty and the country becomes a responsible member of the global community as the new superpower. At least that's the naïve vision latter-day Edgar Snows have of development in China.

But, as the Chinese say, much can change when the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. One township enterprise famously bought used syringes from a local hospital, washed them in lukewarm water and packaged them for resale around the world. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics produces many such incidents, some gory, some macabre. It takes the genius of a novelist to weave them into a mesmerizing tale. And Mo Yan has achieved this with The Republic of Wine (Hamish Hamilton, London, 356 pages, £16.99).

This book has had a tortuous history. Mo, whose earlier works include The Garlic Ballads and Red Sorghum, began the novel, set around a provincial enterprise, in 1989, the year of Tiananmen. When he completed it three years later, no mainland publisher would touch it. But a Taipei company obliged. Now the novel appears in English for the first time, thanks to an excellent translation by Howard Goldblatt.

The tale revolves around Ding Gou'er, a special detective dispatched to the town of Jiuguo to investigate a most unusual crime. It seems powerful plant officials led by Jin Ganzuan, the local party committee's smooth-tongued propaganda officer, have literally acquired a taste for babies (chilling echoes of reported cannibalism during the famine set off by Mao's Great Leap Forward).

A scenario to turn the stomach. And in setting it, Mo raises the question: Has anything fundamentally changed in Chinese society after 20 years of economic engagement, given the barbarism that often surfaces in the provinces? Politicians and industrialists don't want to confront this issue. So the duty falls to a writer. Mo does the job brilliantly.

Appropriately, the tale begins with an attempted seduction: A brusque woman giving Ding a lift to the plant offers more than transportation. At the factory, the investigator is further tempted when officials tell him that the inquiry can wait a while. He is taken to a magnificent banquet, lubricated by the choicest alcohol, three glasses at a time. Finally, waiters bring in the pièce-de-résistance: a tasty-looking dish, but instantly recognizable as an infant. Trying to arrest the gourmands, the inebriated Ding takes aim with his pistol and shoots off the baby's head instead.

Shocked into sobriety, Jin and his apparatchiks insist that there has been a grave misunderstanding; the detective has only destroyed a mysterious dish made of lotus root, melon, pork and sausage. Though not entirely convinced, Ding takes a small bite. It is delicious and he digs in. By the end of the meal, he is blindingly drunk and is left to sleep it off in a hotel.

The next day, Ding meets the woman who offered him a ride, and finally succumbs to her wiles. But while they are making love in her home, Jin walks in -- he happens to be her husband. Overcome with shame, Ding and the woman leave. Together, they try to investigate the bizarre rumors of children being raised for consumption. Ding hasn't had the last of his surprises, however. He discovers that his new lover is a mistress of the local wine-shop owner and may have other men in her life. They quarrel, she kicks him out.

Ding works himself into a towering rage and kills the woman and the wine-shop owner. Turning fugitive, he hallucinates about the community -- Jin, the wine-shop owner, the woman and himself -- dining on more human flesh during a boating party. Finally, as he is about to apprehend the cannibals, Ding falls into a manure pit. There are no redeeming characters in this morality tale of corruption, adultery, cannibalism and debauchery.

This narrative runs parallel to a lively correspondence between Mo and Li Yidou, a would-be writer working towards a doctorate on the art of brewing liquor. Li sends in his short stories, asking the great writer to help him get published. But the tales grow more grotesque as time passes, and Mo's responses less certain. As Ding descends into the moral hell that Jiuguo represents, Mo allows his language to atrophy -- a sort of linguistic metaphor. The writing collapses into incoherent ranting, lacking grammar or punctuation.

The Republic of Wine is about contemporary China, but the scenario could easily play out in any society yet to shake off the feudal order, but which has enthusiastically plunged into the global marketplace. Building factories and export-processing zones does not make the power elite of a country more modern, if the definition means being more enlightened. By making this distinction, The Republic of Wine goes beyond the realm of literature and becomes a haunting comment on emerging societies.