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       Sandalwood Death: A Novel (Chinese Literature Today Book Series), p.1

           Mo Yan
Sandalwood Death: A Novel (Chinese Literature Today Book Series)


  Series Editor

  Jonathan Stalling

  Advisory Board

  Paul B. Bell Jr., University of Oklahoma

  Cao Shunqing, Sichuan University

  Chen Xiaoming, Beijing University

  Cheng Guangwei, Renmin University

  Robert Con Davis-Undiano, World Literature Today

  Ge Fei, Qinghua University

  Peter Gries, University of Oklahoma

  Howard Goldblatt, translator

  Huang Yibing, Connecticut College

  Huang Yunte, University of California, Santa Barbara

  Haiyan Lee, Stanford University

  Li Jingze, People’s Literature Magazine

  Liu Hongtao, Beijing Normal University

  Christopher Lupke, Washington State University

  Meng Fanhua, Shenyang Normal University

  Haun Saussy, Yale University

  Ronald Schleifer, University of Oklahoma

  Daniel Simon, World Literature Today

  Michelle Yeh, University of California, Davis

  Wai-lim Yip, University of California, San Diego

  Zhang Jian, Beijing Normal University

  Zhang Ning, Beijing Normal University

  Zhang Qinghua, Beijing Normal University

  Sandalwood Death

  A Novel

  Mo Yan

  Translated by Howard Goldblatt


  2800 Venture Drive

  Norman, Oklahoma 73069

  This book is published with the generous assistance of China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Literature, the University of Oklahoma’s College of Arts and Sciences, and World Literature Today magazine.

  The translator gratefully acknowledges the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for its generous support.

  This translation is dedicated to the memory of Michael Henry Heim, master translator and dear friend.

  First published in Chinese in 2001 as Tanxiang xing. English eidition copyright © 2013 by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Manufactured in the U.S.A.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblence to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the United States Copyright Act—without the prior permission of the University of Oklahoma Press.

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, University of Oklahoma Press, 2800 Venture Drive, Norman, Oklahoma 73069 or email [email protected]

  ISBN 978-0-8061-4339-2 (paperback : alk. paper)

  ISBN 978-0-8061-8881-2 (ebook : mobipocket)

  ISBN 978-0-8061-8882-9 (ebook : epub)

  Sandalwood Death: A Novel is Volume 2 in the Chinese Literature Today Book Series.

  This eBook was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at [email protected]

  QED stands for Quality, Excellence and Design. The QED seal of approval shown here verifies that this eBook has passed a rigorous quality assurance process and will render well in most eBook reading platforms.

  For more information please click here.

  “The finest play ever staged cannot compete with the spectacle of a public slicing”

  Zhao Jia


  Translator’s Note

  Book One: Head of the Phoenix

  Chapter One: Meiniang’s Lewd Talk

  Chapter Two: Zhao Jia’s Ravings

  Chapter Three: Xiaojia’s Foolish Talk

  Chapter Four: Qian Ding’s Bitter Words

  Book Two: Belly of the Pig

  Chapter Five: Battle of the Beards

  Chapter Six: Competing Feet

  Chapter Seven: Elegy

  Chapter Eight: Divine Altar

  Chapter Nine: Masterpiece

  Chapter Ten: A Promise Kept

  Chapter Eleven: Golden Pistols

  Chapter Twelve: Crevice

  Chapter Thirteen: A City Destroyed

  Book Three: Tail of the Leopard

  Chapter Fourteen: Zhao Jia’s Soliloquy

  Chapter Fifteen: Meiniang’s Grievance

  Chapter Sixteen: Sun Bing’s Opera Talk

  Chapter Seventeen: Xiaojia Sings in Full Voice

  Chapter Eighteen: The Magistrate’s Magnum Opus

  Author’s Note

  Glossary of Untranslated Terms

  Translator’s Note

  The challenges for the translator of Mo Yan’s powerful historical novel begin with the title, Tanxiang xing, whose literal meaning is “sandalwood punishment” or, in an alternate reading, “sandalwood torture.” For a work so utterly reliant on sound, rhythm, and tone, I felt that neither of those served the novel’s purpose. At one point, the executioner draws out the name of the punishment he has devised (fictional, by the way) for ultimate effect: “Tan—xiang—xing!” Since the word “sandalwood” already used up the three original syllables, I needed to find a short word to replicate the Chinese as closely as possible. Thus: “Sandal—wood—death!”

  Beyond that, as the novelist makes clear in his “Author’s Note,” language befitting the character and status of the narrators in Parts One and Three helps give the work its special quality of sound. Adjusting the register for the various characters, from an illiterate, vulgar butcher to a top graduate of the Qing Imperial Examination, without devolving to American street lingo or becoming overly Victorian, has been an added challenge. Finally, there are the rhymes. Chinese rhymes far more easily than English, and Chinese opera has always employed rhyme in nearly every line, whatever the length. I have exhausted my storehouse of rhyming words in translating the many arias, keeping as close to the meaning as possible or necessary.

  As with all languages, some words, some terms, simply do not translate. They can be defined, described, and deconstructed, but they steadfastly resist translation. Many words and terms from a host of languages have found their way into English and settled in comfortably. Most of those from Chinese, it seems, date from foreign imperialists’ and missionaries’ unfortunately misread or misheard Chinese-isms: “coolie,” “gung ho,” “rickshaw” (actually, that comes via Japanese), “godown,” “kungfu,” and so on. I think it is time to update and increase the meager list, and to that end, I have left a handful of terms untranslated; a glossary appears at the end of the book. Only one is given in a form that differs slightly from standard Pinyin: that is “dieh,” commonly used for one’s father in northern China. The Pinyin would be “die”!

  This is a long, very “Chinese” novel, both part of and unique to Mo Yan’s impressive fictional oeuvre. There are places that are difficult to read (imagine how difficult they were to translate), but their broader significance and their stark beauty are integral to the work.

  I have been the beneficiary of much encouragement in this engrossing project. My gratitude to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for its generous support, and to Ed, Mike, Jonathan, and David for writing for me. J
onathan Stalling has been in my corner from the beginning, as have representatives of the University of Oklahoma Press, for whose new and important series this is the inaugural work of fiction. Thanks to Jane Lyle for her meticulous editing. Finally, my thanks to the author for making clear some of the more opaque passages and for leaving me on my own for others. And, of course, to Sylvia, my best reader, sharpest critic, and, from time to time, biggest fan.



  Head of the Phoenix


  Meiniang’s Lewd Talk

  The sun rose, a bright red ball (the eastern sky a flaming pall), from Qingdao a German contingent looms. (Red hair, green eyes.) To build a rail line they defiled our ancestral tombs. (The people are up in arms!) My dieh led the resistance against the invaders, who responded with cannon booms. (A deafening noise.) Enemies met, anger boiled red in their eyes. Swords chopped, axes hewed, spears jabbed. The bloody battle lasted all day, leaving corpses and deathly fumes. (I was scared witless!) In the end, my dieh was taken to South Prison, where my gongdieh’s sandalwood death sealed his doom. (My dieh, who gave me life!)

  —Maoqiang Sandalwood Death. A mournful aria




  That morning, my gongdieh, Zhao Jia, could never, even in his wildest dreams, have imagined that in seven days he would die at my hands, his death more momentous than that of a loyal old dog. And never could I have imagined that I, a mere woman, would take knife in hand and with it kill my own husband’s father. Even harder to believe was that this old man, who had seemingly fallen from the sky half a year earlier, was an executioner, someone who could kill without blinking. In his red-tasseled skullcap and long robe, topped by a short jacket with buttons down the front, he paced the courtyard, counting the beads on his Buddhist rosary like a retired yuanwailang, or, better yet, I think, a laotaiye, with a houseful of sons and grandsons. But he was neither a laotaiye nor a yuanwailang—he was the preeminent executioner in the Board of Punishments, a magician with the knife, a peerless decapitator, a man capable of inflicting the cruelest punishments, including some of his own design, a true creative genius. During his four decades in the Board of Punishments, he had—to hear him say it—lopped off more heads than the yearly output of Gaomi County watermelons.

  My thoughts kept me awake that night, as I tossed and turned on the brick kang, like flipping fried bread. My dieh, Sun Bing, had been arrested and locked up by County Magistrate Qian, that pitiless son of a bitch. Even if he were the worst person in the world, he would still be my dieh, and my mind was in such turmoil I could not sleep, forestalling any possibility of rest. I heard large mongrels grunting in their cages and fat pigs barking in their pens—pig noises had become dog sounds, and dog barks had turned into pig songs. Even in the short time they had left to live, they were tuning up for an opera. If a dog grunts, it is still a dog, and when a pig barks, it remains a pig. And a dieh is still a dieh, even if he does not act like one. Grunt grunt, arf arf. The noise drove me crazy. They knew they would be dead soon. So would my dieh. But animals are smarter than humans, for they detected the smell of blood that spread from our yard, and could see the ghosts of pigs and dogs that prowled in the moonlight. They knew that daybreak, soon after the red rays of sun appeared, would mark the hour that they went to meet Yama, the King of Hell. And so they set up a yowl—the plaintive call of impending death. And you, Dieh, what was it like in your death cell? Did you grunt? Bark? Or did you sing Maoqiang? I heard jailers say that condemned prisoners could scoop up fleas by the handfuls in their cells and that the bedbugs were as big as broad beans. You had lived a steady, conservative life, Dieh, so how could a rock one day fall from the sky and knock you straight into a death cell? Oh, Dieh . . .

  The knife goes in white and comes out red! No one is better at butchering dogs and slaughtering pigs than my husband, Zhao Xiaojia, whose fame has spread throughout Gaomi County. He is tall and he is big, nearly bald, and beardless. During the day he walks in a fog, and at night he lies in bed like a gnarled log. Since the day I married him, he has badgered me with his mother’s tale of a tiger’s whisker. One day some roguish creature goaded him into pestering me to obtain one of those curly golden tiger whiskers that, when held in the mouth, confer the ability to see a person’s true form. The moron, more like a rotting fish bladder than a man, badgered me all one night, until I had no choice but to give in. Well, the moron curled up on the kang and, as he snored and ground his teeth, began to talk in his sleep: “Dieh Dieh Dieh, see see see, scratch the eggs, flip the noodle . . .” He drove me crazy. When I nudged him with my foot, he curled up even tighter and rolled over, smacking his lips as if he’d just enjoyed a tasty treat. Then the talk started again, and the snoring and the grinding of teeth. To hell with him! Let the dullard sleep!

  I sat up, leaned against the cold wall, and looked out the window, to see watery moonlight spread across the ground. The eyes of the penned dogs glistened like green lanterns—one pair, another, a third . . . a whole stream of them. Lonely autumn insects set up a desolate racket. A night watchman clomped down the cobblestone street in oiled boots with wooden soles, clapper beats mixed with the clangs of a gong—it was already the third watch. The third, late-night, watch in a city where everyone slept, everyone but me and the pigs and the dogs and, I’m sure, my dieh.

  Kip kip kip, a rat was gnawing on the wooden chest. It scampered off when I threw a whiskbroom at it. Then I heard the faint sound of beans rolling across a table in my gongdieh’s room. I later discovered that the old wretch was counting human heads, one bean for each detached head. Even at night the old degenerate dreamed of heads he had chopped off, that old reprobate . . . I see him raise the devil’s-head sword and bring it down on the nape of my dieh’s neck; the head rolls down the street, chased by a pack of kids who kick it along until it rolls into our yard after hopping up the gate steps in an attempt to escape. It then circles the yard, chased by a hungry dog. Experience has told Dieh’s head that when the dog gets too close—which it does several times—the queue in back lashes it in its eye, producing yelps of pain as it runs in circles. Now free of the dog, the head starts rolling again and, like a large tadpole, swims along, its queue trailing on the surface, a tadpole’s tail . . .

  The clapper and gong sounding the fourth watch startled me out of my nightmare. I was damp with cold sweat, and many hearts—not just one—thudded against my chest. My gongdieh was still counting beans, and now I knew how the old wretch was able to intimidate people: his body emitted breaths of shuddering cold that could be felt at great distances. In only six months he had turned his room, with its southern exposure, into an icy tomb—so gloomy the cat dared not enter, not even to catch mice. I was reluctant to step inside, since it made me break out in gooseflesh. But Xiaojia went in whenever he could and, like a snotty three-year-old, stuck close to his storytelling dieh. He hated to leave that room, even to come to my bed during the hottest days of the year, in effect switching the roles of parent and spouse. In order to keep unsold meat from going bad, he actually hung it from the rafters in his dieh’s room. Did that make him smart? Or stupid? On those rare occasions when my gongdieh went out, even snarling dogs ran off as he passed, whining piteously from the safety of corners. Tall tales about the old man were rampant: people said that if he laid a hand on a cypress tree, it shuddered and began to shed its leaves. I was thinking about my dieh, Sun Bing. Dieh, you pulled off something grand this time, like An Lushan screwing the Imperial Concubine Yang Guifei, or Cheng Yaojin stealing gifts belonging to the Sui Emperor and suffering grievously for it. I had thoughts of Qian Ding, our magistrate, who had claimed success at the Imperial Examination, a grade five official, almost a prefect, what’s known as a County Magistrate; but to me, this gandieh, my so-called benefactor, was a double-dealing monkey monster. The adage goes, “If you won’t do it for the monk, then do it for the Buddha; if not for the fish, then for the wat
er.” You turned your back on the three years I shared your bed. How many pots of my heated millet spirits did you drink during those three years, how many bowls of my fatty dog meat did you eat, and how many of my Maoqiang arias swirled in your head? Hot millet spirits, fatty dog meat, and me lying beside you. Magistrate, I waited on you with more care than any emperor has known. Magistrate, I presented you with a body silkier than the finest Suzhou satin and sweeter than Cantonese sugar melon, all for your dissolute pleasure; now, after all the pampering and the voyages into an erotic fairyland, why will you not let my dieh go free? Why did you team up with those German devils to seize him and burn down our village? Had I known you were such an unfeeling, unrighteous bastard, I’d have poured my millet spirits into the latrine, fed my fatty dog meat to the pigs, and sung my arias to a brick wall. And as for my body, I’d have given that to a dog . . .




  With one last frenetic banging of the watchman’s clappers, dawn broke. I climbed down off the kang, dressed in new clothes, and fetched water to wash up, then applied powder and rouge to my face and oiled my hair. After taking a well-cooked dog’s leg out of the pot, I wrapped it in a lotus leaf and put it in my basket, then walked out the door and down the cobblestone road as the moon settled in the west. I was headed to the yamen prison, where I’d gone every day since my dieh’s arrest. They would not let me see him. Damn you, Qian Ding; in the past, if I went three days without bringing you some dog meat, you sent that little bastard Chunsheng to my door. Now you are hiding from me; you have even posted guards. Musketeers and archers who once bowed and scraped when I arrived now glare at me with looks of supercilious arrogance. You even let four German soldiers threaten me with bayonets when I approached the gate with my basket. Their faces told me they meant business. Qian Ding, oh, Qian Ding, you turncoat, your illicit relations with foreigners have made me angry enough to take my grievance to the capital and accuse you of eating my dog meat without paying and of forcing yourself upon a married woman. Qian Ding, I will do what I must in the name of justice, and I will strip that tiger skin from your body to reveal what a heartless, no-good scoundrel you are.

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