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Radish by Mo Yan

translated by Howard Goldblatt

Penguin China 2015

Publisher's blurb

During China's collectivist era in the later 1950s, a rural work team set to repair a river floodgate receives a new labour recruit: Hei-hai, a skinny, sorry, silent boy.  Assigned to pump the bellows at the worksite forge, Hei-hai proves indifferent to pain or suffering, but eerily sensitive to the beauties of the natural world.  As the worksite becomes embroiled in human jealousy and strife, Hei-hai's eyes remain trained on a world that only he can see, searching for wonders that only he understands.  One day, he finds all that he has been seeking embodied in the most mundane and fragile of objects: a radish.

'That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I've created since then is as close to my soul as he is.'
Mo Yan, from his 2012 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech 

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Zahra Raja, 19/2/18

Radish by Mo Yan is a slim novella easily finished in one sitting, but don’t let the size of it fool you; it’s packed full of punch. The story is set in the late 1950s when the new People’s Republic introduced collectivisation into China; collectives were formed and members who worked the land eventually no longer earned income based on shares of land owned, but received it on the basis of labour contribution. At the very beginning of the novella, Mo Yan sets the scene in the autumn, with the production team leader heading to ring the bell that will summon the people in his collective. He is described as having ‘ambled towards the bell, carrying a sorghum flatbread in one hand and clutching a thick peeled leek in the other. By the time he reached the bell, his hands were empty, but his cheeks were puffed out like a field mouse scurrying away with autumn provisions.’ With this particularly striking image and pointed use of language, Mo Yan hints at the corruption that was rife within the system; despite collectivist ideology, there were plenty of leaders abusing their power to fill their bellies.

This image of the corrupt leader filling his belly is then starkly contrasted with the protagonist, Hei-hai, who is introduced to us as having a ‘jutting breastbone’, and has clearly not been able to eat as well as he should. My Chinese is a bit rusty, however the name ‘Hei-hai’ in Chinese literally translates to ‘black child’ and Hei-hai lives up to the image; a pitiable boy treated badly by his stepmother and abandoned by his father, he is a child that is wanted by none and hovers, barely clothed and always silent. It is unclear whether this is his real name or an unkind nickname given to him by others. However, Hei-hai is unique in that he is able to see the beauty in the seemingly commonplace, and his search remains constant throughout the novella despite living in a world that is greedy, jealous and full of strife. Mo Yan notably has also drawn parallels between himself and Hei-hai, stating that “That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output.” Mo Yan was also born in 1955 and his writing was thus aided by his own experiences of the collectives and lack of food.

The nearby commune has demanded that each local production team send a mason and an unskilled labourer, and Hei-hai is chosen to accompany the mason due to his relative lack of value in the team. He is put to work with the blacksmith, and observes the conflicts that arise amongst the workers. Mo Yan is extremely skilled at the art of description so that the reader is able to infer what is going on without having to be told directly; one of my favourite images is when Yan further extrapolates on Hei-hai’s malnourished state; ‘his jutting breastbone seemed to contain a clucking hen’. Yan’s use of language also imparts beauty into the most mundane of objects which brings us to the golden radish. Hei-hai is sent on multiple trips to steal radishes from the commune’s field for the blacksmith, and on one particular evening, a radish is left resting on an anvil in front of the lit forge, and is bathed in its light. The beauty of this sight is enough to draw a sound of emotion from Hei-hai, the first (and last) we see this occurring in the novel. It is a touching scene in particular because Hei-hai is able to sense the beauty in simple things despite all that he has suffered, and it is the last thing we would expect an underfed young boy to be able to appreciate. Hei-hai chases this radish for the rest of the novel and we never learn the reason for his obsession. The conclusion of the novel proves tragic for several characters, and Hei-hai’s search for the golden radish is as frantic as we’ve ever seen it; perhaps amidst the inevitable storm of human strife and greed it serves as his only solace. To conclude, I found this to be a relaxed read, and a good place to start for those new to Chinese fiction.

Reviewed by Zahra Raja

Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung, 9/1/18

This little classic is a perfect read for everyone. It’s thin and light so it’s perfect for taking on the tube for the morning and evening commutes to and from work.

One of the things I really enjoyed and truly appreciated was the slang. The author doesn’t shy away from using the colloquial and harsh vocabulary of the town folk and labourers. Crude words such as “prick” and “dog turd”, for those who know some Chinese insults, are used quite commonly in their language within such laborious work environments.

Another highlight of this story is the male protagonist as he is quite unlike the types of protagonists I’m used to encountering. The headspace of the male protagonist, Hei-Hai, is an odd place to be. Throughout the short novel I found myself trying to decide whether he was simply simple minded or perhaps he was so focused on the little things that we usually dismiss that he was unable to pay attention to what “normal” people might notice or choose to focus on. The perspective Hei-Hai possesses is one which is truly difficult to understand. Throughout the course of the story, sometimes he appears to understand what is going on around him and sometimes he is completely oblivious.

Most of the time, he responds to what is said to him and what goes on around him. There are, however, times when he either consciously chooses to ignore something that is said to him or he becomes so fixated on something else that he becomes unable to respond in a manner that might have been expected of him. Having said this, I discovered that many of his reactions to the events around him and what is said to him are quite unusual. His reactions are, often, by no means ordinary. Often times, he behaves in a somewhat animalistic and primitive manner, as though he had been raised by monkeys and dogs, reacting purely based on primal instincts such as fear or the need to fight.

Hei-Hai is, on the whole, treated as a child who needed to be instructed on how to live his life. The female protagonist, Juzi, instinctively took Hei-Hai under her wing as a “big sister” as soon as she meets him when he is sent to break rocks. The idea of such a small and spindly looking boy doing manual labour at the bridge unsettled her and there were times throughout the course of the story where she would try to insist that he stopped working.

Thinking from a psychological point of view, it was very likely that Hei-Hai possessed some kind of mental condition. It was hinted a couple of times that he was mistreated at home by his step-mother. The point is further emphasised when he doesn’t want to go home. This could be one of the contributing factors to his condition. Sometimes, he becomes easily fixated on the task at hand such as when he was working in the bellows for the black smith. Other times, he was quite easily enraptured by another far away detail and he would lose focus on the task at hand, leading to an injury.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime. Though the story is different, I found myself sometimes thinking back to how I felt when I first read that book. The way that I was quite often baffled and struggled to understand why the male protagonist behaved the way he did. This book is also great for those trying to understand a little more of the harsh and crude conditions manual workers during China’s collectivist era in the late 1950s. This book painted an easy to visualise image of the rough life rural workers endured.

Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung