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Frog—a Book Review


Sensei, I used to think that writing could be a means of attaining redemption, but when the play was finished, instead of lessening, my feelings of guilt actually grew more intense. Although I can trot out an array of rationalizations to absolve myself of responsibility for the deaths of Renmei and the child in her womb—my child, too, of course—and place the blame on Gugu, the army, Yuan Sai, even Renmei herself—that is what I did for decades—now I understand with greater clarity than at any other time that I was not just the chief culprit, but the only one. For the sake of my so-called “future,” I sent Renmei and her child straight to Hell. . . Can blood on one’s hands never be washed clean? Can a soul entangled in guilt never be free?

I long to hear your answers, Sensei. (p. 321)

Such is the lament that serves as a portion of the introduction to Book Five of Frog, a novel in five parts, written by Nobel laureate, Mo Yan. Frog is a rich amalgam of biography, social criticism, poignant introspection, fantastical dream sequences, and detailed autobiographical sketches from the author’s own Northeast Gaomi Township in Shandong province.

These bits are bound together by two distinctly Chinese elements. The first is the frog motif: the phonemes of the Chinese character for frog are the same as those of the character for the sound of a crying baby; the narrator’s infant and pen name is Tadpole; Northeast Gaomi Township is swampy and quite overrun by frogs and its local news is the Frog Calls; finally, a bullfrog farm is used as the front for a surrogacy clinic that provides babies, especially sons, to couples who cannot conceive.

The second unifying element is a skillfully woven net of family, classmates, and small village relationships, many linked by the local custom of naming children after body parts! All are bound together by these relationships as the world swirls around them. 

Each of the first four books is a letter to the narrator’s Japanese sensei; each contains a lengthy portion of Tadpole’s story of his great aunt Gugu (named Heart). As the first trained local obstetrician in the area, Gugu is venerated in the township for her supernaturally skillful hands and success in delivering babies; however, she is later feared and reviled for her patriotic zeal in enforcing the new government diktats on family planning. The fifth book is a fictional play written by Tadpole and based on the life of Gugu. It is in this play that the tormented soul of a gifted doctor, haunted by the innocent lives she has destroyed, is painfully exposed.

Book One opens with Tadpole (Foot) in Beijing in 2002 writing, intriguingly, to a Japanese man who had visited Northeast Gaomi Township a month earlier “to engage in literary conversations . . . with local fans of literature. . . .” urging them to “. . . create poignant works of art out of my aunt’s life.”  Book One ends in 1966, after 15 chapters of meticulously schooling the reader in village relationships and the villagers’ intimate experiences of the pre-WWII Japanese occupation under Sensei’s father, bark and coal-eating in the Great Famine of 1958-61, the joy of the “sweet potato babies” conceived after the first good harvest following the famine, and the savage cruelty of local thugs empowered in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Tadpole also begins to build in his reader a deep admiration for the devotion and strength of character of his Gugu—who graduated at 16 from the prefectural medical school, replaced dangerously superstitious, self-serving, and ignorant mid-wives at 17, traveled by bicycle throughout the township in storm, flood, or snow and safely delivered some 10,000 babies in her career. “In her later years, Gugu often thought back to this period—modern China’s golden age, and hers as well . . . she said longingly: I was a living Buddha back then, the local stork. A floral perfume oozed from my body, bees swarmed in my wake. So did butterflies. Now, now nothing but goddamn flies . . .” (p. 26)

Book Two, dated Beijing 2004, opens with Tadpole describing his wedding in 1979 but quickly morphs back to his adolescent years spent observing the family-oriented villagers’ attempted but seldom successful escapes from Gugu’s patriotic enforcement of the family planning policy. Several years after the birth of his own daughter, Tadpole, now an army officer, is faced with his wife’s second pregnancy, which ends tragically for his wife, himself, the unborn child, and Gugu.

The sad stories of Gugu’s crusade of implementation continue in Book Three, as she and Tadpole become increasingly introspective about their lives and the choices they have made. The night before Tadpole’s second marriage—arranged by Gugu to her long-time aide, Little Lion—he contemplates backing out on his commitment due to guilt over lingering emotional attachments to his dead first wife. He bemoans,  “What would that do to Little Lion? I’ve already ruined one woman’s life; I can’t ruin another’s.” (p. 189)

The beginning of Book Four is dated 2008 and marks the mid-point of the novel. Tadpole has left Beijing and is in his third year of retirement back in Northeast Gaomi Township. Mo Yan here thrusts the reader into the cultural chaos of a suddenly rich and modern China. Most of Tadpole’s old township now forms the Metropolitan Golf Course. The new Women’s Hospital is adjacent to the opulent Temple of the Fertility Goddess, which was rebuilt after the traditional one was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Just down the road, now filled with Mercedes and BMW’s, Tadpole’s classmate, Yuan Sai (Cheek) opened a large bullfrog farm with an entrance dominated by the sculpture of a huge, black frog—“the gloomy gaze from its bulging eyes seemed to carry a message from the ancient past.”(p.229)

Things appear new and easy and beautiful in his hometown, but each of Tadpole’s closely woven net of acquaintances still carries the old and hard and ugly wounds of the recent past along with fainter, sweeter memories of a simpler, somehow more stable and secure old village life. When Tadpole’s second wife, Little Lion, takes a job at the bullfrog farm against his wishes, he is happily left to spend his days as he pleases—one day deciding to take a raft trip down the river. He quickly guesses that the raft driver is the son of a classmate (Flat Head), but tries to keep his own identity hidden. However, as Tadpole recounts to his Sensei, the young man soon surmises who he is from his expensive cigarette brand and his comments about the older villagers; in the course of the ride, he brings Tadpole up to date on real life in Northeast Gaomi Township.

The bullfrog farm is just a front for Uncle Yuan, he said. His real business is helping people make the other kind of “wa”—babies.

That shocked me, but I tried not to show it.

To put it nicely, it’s a surrogate-mother center. Not so nicely, he hires women to have babies for other women who can’t have them.

People actually engage in that kind of business? I asked him. Doesn’t that make a mockery of family planning?

Oh, old uncle, what times are you living in, bring up something like family planning? These days the rich fine their way to big families—like the Trash King, Lao He, whose fourth child cost him 600,000. The day after the fine notice arrived, he carried 600,000 to the Family Planning Commission in a plastic knit bag. The poor have to cheat their way to big families...They go out of town to repair umbrellas, resole shoes...and they can have as many babies as they want. Officials impregnate their mistresses—that needs no explanation. It’s only the public servants with little money and even less courage who toe the line.

If what you say is true, then the policy of family planning exists in name only.

No, he said. The policy is in place. Because that’s the only way they can legally collect fines. (p. 264)

Shortly after, Tadpole discovers to his horror that his barren second wife has tricked him into becoming a father via the bullfrog farm. To console himself he goes to the Don Quixote Cafe, which is owned and operated by the most brilliant of his classmates Li Shou (Hand). Li Shou became a skilled doctor and had a bright future—which he gave up to return to his home village and open a small restaurant. Outside the cafe, which shares the town square with the Fertility Temple, dancers and actors are performing a creation of the local cultural center, entitled Unicorns Deliver Babies. In this small cafe, author Mo Yan epitomizes the cultural chaos felt by so many Chinese caught up in the warp-speed modernization of their nation. The former doctor-owner pretends he doesn’t know Tadpole; another classmate Chen Bi (Nose) is delusional and pretends to be Don Quixote; Chen Bi’s daughter, Chen Mei (Eyebrow), a beautiful young woman who always appears in a flowing black gown and veil because she was severely burned in a toy factory fire, is pregnant with Tadpole’s son in the nearby “bullfrog farm.”

When Tadpole later goes to his brilliant classmate for help in ending the surrogacy, the classmate simply jokes about it. Tadpole comments, “Since I have been back I’ve discovered that all you people, educated or not, talk like stage actors. Where’d you learn that?” His classmate responds, “We live in a civilized society, and in a civilized society everyone is an actor—film, TV, drama, crosstalk, sketch—we’re all acting. Don’t they say that all the world’s a stage . . . My experience over the past few years has concluded that the best way to solve a thorny problem is to quietly observe how it evolves and let nature take its course.”(p. 289)

Book Four ends with Tadpole, his wife, and Gugu going through an elaborate charade, pretending that Little Lion is really pregnant and delivers the baby, which actually came from the surrogate mother. Shortly before this, Gugu shows them her hall of penance: a cave filled with clay dolls crafted to look like each child that she aborted. She recounts proudly how they have all been reborn into better families than they were initially destined to join.

Tadpole asks for compassion from his Sensei as he explains his response to his wife and aunt’s flight from reality: “Anyone burdened with guilt must find ways to comfort herself, as Xiang Lin Sao did in the Lu Xun story Benediction . . . I have complied with their wishes, I even strive to believe in whatever they believe in. That seems the proper thing to do . . . For the sake of the child and for the sake of Gugu and Little Lion, who had once been saddled with special work, I’m perfectly willing to muddle along the way I’ve been going.” (p. 311) With this resolution and the birth of his son, Tadpole quickly completes the play that he has been promising his Sensei since the first letter several years earlier.

Thus, the novel Frog ends with “Frog: A Play in Nine Acts.” This phantasmagorical retelling of Gugu’s life and the torment she suffered over the deaths caused by her skilled hands is mostly dark and depressing, yet ends with Gugu being “reborn” and Tadpole’s little family in the play being “fine.” However, as the quote that begins this review poignantly reveals, Mo Yan’s Tadpole of the novel does not find the absolution he anticipated before beginning his play. The reader is left to answer Tadpole’s question in his own way: Can a soul entangled in guilt never be free?

Mo Yan, in his biographical piece for The Nobel Foundation, describes his unique role in Frog: “I have repeatedly suggested that Frog is a novel about people and not about ‘family planning.’ In novels dealing with social issues, an author usually is absent, but in this novel I included myself as a target of exposure and criticism. . . . Looking back over the course of my life is a very emotional experience. People who are critical of me cannot begin to imagine the suffering I have endured. The courage I have demonstrated in attacking what was considered orthodox revolutionary literature, and an absence of fear over being consigned to Hell is something today's lickspittle individuals cannot possibly understand. Knowing what resides in my heart is possible only by reading my written works with care.”[1]

Read Frog with care, pray for those seeking Truth in a troubled, chaotic culture, and celebrate Mo Yan’s genius.

BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989. View Full Bio