Talk about disappointing. Two years ago, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature for Frog, Westerners and Chinese were shocked and elated. The Chinese were ecstatic that a Chinese writer won the honor at all (he’s the only Chinese writer who lives in China to have ever won the prize) and Westerners were amazed that the book was “about the one-child policy and forced abortions.” Unfortunately for people who can’t read Chinese, that description was a bit of a misnomer. After waiting two years for the official English translation of Frog, I can tell you that there is nothing surprising, shocking, or reactionary in Mo Yan’s Frog. In fact, Frog toes the party line just like every other Chinese writer trapped in China (though I don’t think Mo is actually trapped and rather enjoys his role as an exemplary Party member).
Many reviewers claim that the book is about a woman named Gugu, a midwife, obstetrician, and abortionist in China from the 1960s to the present day, but that isn’t actually true. The book is about Tadpole, the book’s male narrator and Gugu’s nephew. Gugu does have a large role in the book, but she is not the protagonist, and large swathes of the book leave her out entirely.
The book opens on the Great Chinese Famine from the late 50s to the early 60s. The narrator and his classmates are so hungry, they eat coal. While this is most likely based on true events, the scene is humorous and contains none of the horrors that people endured during the Great Famine. Everyone who was alive at the beginning of Mo’s book is still alive after the famine, even though as many as 40 million people died during that time, including whole communes. At one point, Tadpole says that he would “have rather starved than eat a frog.” This seems to imply that the famine wasn’t so bad if people could still be picky about what they would and wouldn’t eat to survive. The truth is that some people ate their own children in order to survive the famine. But Mo’s lighthearted approach to one of the most tragic parts of China’s history sets the tone of the novel.
The book finally moves into the family planning stories and recounts the deaths of two women who are trying to have second children, but the narrative is extremely sloppy and paltry. The first family planning policy stated, “one is good, two is just right, three is too many” and forced vasectomies became the norm. Forced vasectomies certainly did happen in frightening numbers, but they are rarely talked about. They also don’t happen today, unlike forced abortions. But then the book jumps 20 years into the future when the one-child policy is in full effect with no explanation or introduction.
None of the women in the book are “forced” to have an abortion. One woman (Tadpole’s first wife) is “coerced” (Gugu begins tearing down the neighbor’s houses and the woman eventually gives in) and the other one gives birth prematurely while trying to escape from Gugu. These are also only two women. The fact that countless women (even today) have been dragged out of their homes and strapped down while their wanted babies are ripped from their bodies is completely left out. While the deaths of the two women who have abortions are sad, and the ramifications are felt throughout the rest of the book, the deaths are just not particularly significant. I’m not sure if that the right word, but if you feel horrified, disgusted, or heartbroken over their deaths, you really are not very well-informed about what women have been enduring in China since the one-child policy came into effect over 30 years ago.
But more frustrating than the way Mo handles the one-child policy and the women’s deaths is how he completely dissolves the Chinese government, the family planning commission, and even Gugu of any responsibility. He says “Westerner’s critiques of China’s family planning policies are unfair;” “I wasn’t blaming [Gugu]…it was just our fate;” “Society didn’t create my problem; I was the problem;” “The men and women who defied the policy against multiple pregnancies could not escape a share of the responsibility for what happened;” and “Family planning has an impact on the national economy and the people’s livelihood, and it is the greatest importance.”
Oh sure, there are some nice feminist statements littered throughout the book, such as “his head was filled with feudal ideas like favouring boys over girls” and “I want them to know how hard it is to be a woman,” but in the end, the book holds up the old status quo. At 55-years of age, Tadpole becomes a father to a son, and even though he has a wonderful daughter living abroad, he says that his son “is a treasure sent down to me from the heavens, and is worth all my suffering.” See, as long as you have a son, it doesn’t matter how many women died or how many kids were aborted or how many filial daughters you have, having a son makes everything all right!
This book is beyond disappointing, it is infuriating. I honestly don’t know why it won the Nobel Prize. The book does nothing to challenge preconceived notions, is not original, and isn’t even honest. There are so many books out there that are so much better. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the selection of Mo Yan as a winner is a downright sexist decision. The book largely deals with women’s issues but is told by a man from a man’s perspective. And while men can write about women’s issues and be allies, why have Chinese female writers who have also talked about these issues with much more candor, honesty, and emotion been snubbed? Authors like Xinran and Lisa See have both written brilliantly and openly about women’s experiences in China because they have the freedom to do so by living overseas.
Mo Yan is nothing more than a communist party mouthpiece, and as long as the Chinese government continues to pursue policies of censorship and artistic strangleholds, this is the best Chinese authors will be able to give the world. Mo Yan’s Frog is an excellent example of why Chinese authors in China shouldn’t and don’t win Nobel Prizes.
Have you read Frog? Let me know what you thought in the comments.