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Book of the Month November 2012: 莫言's 生死疲劳

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As an added bonus, reading this novel will show you how to win the Nobel Prize yourself. There is just one thing you have to do:

A major character has to lose a testicle. Just one, any more that that and you can kiss your Nobel Prize goodbye. It happens here and it happens in at least one other Mo Yan novel. I forget which one, I only remember the line "Single stalk garlic burns the hottest". Word is that the Nobel committee is particularly impressed by penetrating analysis of the social and cultural implications of single testicle loss.

first-hand insight into what it's like being reborn as a donkey

Actually, the book is called 生死疲劳 (Tired of life and death) because Ximen Nao dies and gets reborn quite a lot. I've read the donkey bit and the bull bit. He is a pig next, and there are a couple more reincarnations to come. The book is one of those long intergenerational family sagas that Mo Yan is famous for, as gato mentioned on the other thread.

Although I enjoyed the donkey part, I did feel that 85 pages entirely from the donkey's point of view was more than enough. I was a bit afraid that the whole book would be written from the Ximen Nao point of view. I was relieved to find that the bull part was narrated by a different major character, which helped in allowing more complex and interesting relationships to develop.

When I read Ximen Nao's rant right at the beginning about what a totally awesome guy he was I wondered if you were supposed to believe him. Having read a bit further I think you probably are.

So far, the book also seems to be something of an unofficial history of Chinese political reform from 1949, which is an aspect that may interest some in light of the debate about what Mo Yan should or should not be doing politically. I vaguely remember reading a review of 生死疲劳 around the time it first came out to the effect that if it had been written 10 or 20 years earlier it would have been a groundbreaking masterpiece, but by the time it was written there was nothing particularly original about criticising the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

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That sounds like you're quite far in already. Which page are you on?

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Page 192, right at the start of the pig part. Does the ebook have the illustrations?

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No, I'm missing out on the illustrations I'm afraid.

Thanks for that link, c_redman! Are you joining us?

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Thanks for that link' date=' c_redman! Are you joining us? [/quote']

Yes, I'll give it a try. I just finished another book, so good timing! I was reluctant seeing that it was 58 chapters, and the Douban version suggested it was 538 pages, which would be a multi-year reading task for me. But the number of actual words is 91,000, which is a typical size of a common book.

Total count of Chinese words in text: 90850

Total count of unique Chinese words: 11415

(Edit: I should note that this is a very rough estimate)

Here are links to EPub, Mobi, and UTF-8 Text formatted versions of the text, derived from the shuku.net source.

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I don't want to be discouraging, but my copy is indeed 540 pages (not counting the illustrations) and it says the text has 490,000 characters. It is not a short book.

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Oh my, what a gruesome introductory chapter. Here is some supplemental reading on Chinese hell (which is even more gory, if you can believe that). Among the numerous creative punishments, there is Transmogrification:

The gate at the left side is for those who are doomed to become animals. In front of this gate stand those who had become animals because during their lifeimes they did not respect the five precious grains and wasted them. They were also ungrateful to those who helped them.

Here is my list of words for chapter 1. My criteria was: a) used >1 time in the chapter; b) new HSK 6 or old HSK 4, or not in either; c) pertinent to the story, or personally interesting. I'm not sure of the best format here.

阴曹地府 [yin1 cao2 di4 fu3] /netherworld/Kingdom of the Underworld/Hades/
酷刑 [ku4 xing2] /cruelty/torture/
阎罗 [Yan2 luo2] /Yama, King of Hell/translation of Sanskrit: Yama Raja/
大殿 [da4 dian4] /main hall of a Buddhist temple/
* 鬼卒 [gui3 zu2] /Hell's Jailer, demonic guard in Chinese mythology/
阎王 [Yan2 wang2] /same as 閻羅王|阎罗王/Yama, King of Hell/translation of Sanskrit: Yama Raja/
蝙蝠 [bian1 fu2] /bat/
煳 [hu2] /burnt/to char/
头颅 [tou2 lu2] /head/skull/
判官 [pan4 guan1] /magistrate (during Tang and Song dynasties)/mythological underworld judge/
冤枉 [yuan1 wang5] /to accuse wrongly/to treat unjustly/injustice/wronged/not worthwhile/
腥 [xing1] /fishy (smell)/
捐 [juan1] /to contribute/to donate/contribution/tax/to abandon/
囤 [dun4; tun2] /bin for grain; to store/hoard/
不服 [bu4 fu2] /not to accept sth/to want to have sth overruled or changed/to refuse to obey or comply/to refuse to accept as final/to remain unconvinced by/not to give in to/
牛头 [Niu2 Tou2] /Ox-Head, one of the two guardians of the underworld in Chinese mythology; ox head/ox-head shaped wine vessel/
马面 [Ma3 Mian4] /Horse-Face, one of the two guardians of the underworld in Chinese mythology/
掖 [ye1; ye4] /to tuck (into a pocket)/to hide/to conceal; support by the arm/to help/to promote/at the side/
木桶 [mu4 tong3] /cask/
黏稠 [nian2 chou2] /viscous/
麻利 [ma2 li5] /swift/agile/efficient/quick-witted (colloquial)/
隧道 [sui4 dao4] /tunnel/

* Not in CC-CEDICT, my definition

*令牌 [ling4 pai2] /token symbolizing military or bureaucratic authority/

Edited by c_redman
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Great that you're joining! And thanks for the translations - maybe I should let you get ahead a bit so I can go through them before reading the chapter... ;-)

I've had a busy weekend, so I've only finished the second chapter up till now.

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Fantastic idea!

Unfortunately, I'll have to pass for now. I'm still plowing through Water Margin, and I want to finish that before jumping into another epic.

I'm definitely planning to come back to this some time next year when I'm finished, though. My girlfriend is reading "Big Breasts & Wide Hips" now and I was considering reading that, but the donkey and bull might be more interesting :)

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Chapter 2 - Vocabulary and Questions

Words Used >1 time

良田 liang2 tian2 /good agricultural land/fertile land/

炕 kang4 /kang (a heatable brick bed)/

佃户 dian4 hu4 /tenant farmer/

驹 ju1 /colt/

枪崩 qiang1 beng1 /to shoot/

家业 jia1 ye4 /family property/

牲口 sheng1 kou5 /animals used for their physical strength (mules, oxen etc)/beast of burden/

狗屎 gou3 shi3 /canine excrement/

霞 xia2 /red clouds/

掩埋 yan3 mai2 /to bury/

屌 diao3 /penis/cool or extraordinary (colloquial)/

工头 gong1 tou2 /foreman/

东家 dong1 jia1 /master (i.e. employer)/landlord/boss/

姜 jiang1 /ginger/

干儿子 gan1 er2 zi5 /adopted son/

干爹 gan1 die1 /godfather/

黏稠 nian2 chou2 /viscous/

丫头 ya1 tou5 /girl/servant girl/(used deprecatingly, but sometimes also as a term of endearment)/

骨盆 gu3 pen2 /pelvis/

接生 jie1 sheng1 /to deliver (a newborn child)/

产道 chan3 dao4 /birth canal (in obstetrics)/

产妇 chan3 fu4 /woman recuperating after childbirth/woman in childbirth/

Some other words

出落 chu1 luo4 /to grow (prettier etc)/to mature into/to blossom/

魁梧 kui2 wu2 /tall and sturdy/

地契 di4 qi4 /deed (for land)/CL:張|张[zhang1],份[fen4]/

生育 sheng1 yu4 /to bear/to give birth/to grow/to rear/to bring up (children)/

骒 ke4 /mother horse/

茉莉花茶 mo4 li5 hua1 cha2 /jasmine tea/

箩筐 luo2 kuang1 /wickerwork basket/

囫囵 hu2 lun2 /complete/whole/

游击队 you2 ji1 dui4 /guerrilla band/

鸡巴 ji1 ba5 /penis (vulgar)/

怪诞 guai4 dan4 /freak/weird/

树碑立传 shu4 bei1 li4 zhuan4 /lit. to erect a stele and write a biography (idiom)/to monumentalize/to glorify/to sing the praises of/

胸口 xiong1 kou3 /pit of the stomach/

转世 zhuan3 shi4 /reincarnation or transmigration (Buddhism)/

毛驴 mao2 lu:2 /donkey/CL:頭|头[tou2]/

七级浮屠 qi1 ji2 fu2 tu2 /seven floor pagoda/

平价 ping2 jia4 /cheap/cut-price/par value/

粜 tiao4 /to sell grain/

良心 liang2 xin1 /conscience/

虱子 shi1 zi5 /louse (Pediculus humanus)/

阿弥陀佛 E1 mi2 tuo2 Fo2 /Amitabha Buddha/the Buddha of the Western paradise/may the lord Buddha preserve us!/merciful Buddha!/

干娘 gan1 niang2 /godmother (see also 干妈)/

巴掌 ba1 zhang3 /palm/hand/

痣 zhi4 /birthmark/mole/

羞耻 xiu1 chi3 /(a feeling of) shame/

白沫 bai2 mo4 /froth/foam (coming from the mouth)/

羊水 yang2 shui3 /amniotic fluid/

蜇 zhe1; zhe2 /to sting; jellyfish/

* 蜇皮 [zhe2 pi2] /jellyfish (as a food ingredient)/

浮肿 fu2 zhong3 /edema (accumulation of interstitial fluids in internal organs)/dropsy/

忧伤 you1 shang1 /distressed/laden with grief/

陪嫁 pei2 jia4 /dowry/

颌 he2 /maxilla and mandible/

肥水不流外人田 fei2 shui3 bu4 liu2 wai4 ren2 tian2 /lit. don't let one's own fertile water flow into others' field/fig. keep the goodies within the family (proverb)/

龙凤胎 long2 feng4 tai1 /twins of mixed sex/

弹性 tan2 xing4 /flexibility/elasticity/

接生婆 jie1 sheng1 po2 /midwife/

妖精 yao1 jing5 /evil spirit/alluring woman/

发痒 fa1 yang3 /to tickle/to itch/


救人一命,胜造七级浮屠 It is better to save a life than to build a seven-story pagoda

丫头 is the only noun I know of that routinely doesn't use a measure word; e.g., "这丫头".

Quiz questions: - Fair warning, there is a chance I have misunderstood the passages, in which case the answers will be wrong :)

1) How long had the narrator been in the underworld?

Two years (during which time his adopted son had grown from weak to strong)

2) After being revived from near death, why does the rescued boy shout "阿弥陀佛"?

In Pure Land Buddhism, this is what you should say at the moment of death to enter the Pure Land. When he woke up, he saw a woman standing over him and he assumed he had died (I think)

3) What is the explanation for the name 蓝脸? 白氏? 西门金龙 and 西门宝凤?

蓝脸 - a blue mole on his face; 白氏 - she had no adult name, but was from the Bai family; 金龙 and 宝凤 - they were twins of mixed sex, "龙凤胎" or dragon and phoenix fetuses

4) What (apparently fictional?) book of Mo Yan is refered to in the chapter?

《人死屌不死》 - Man Dies, Penis Lives

5) What was Ying Chun's delivery of the twins described as being like? Why was the midwife nervous?

Like a watermelon from a burlap sack (due to her wide pelvis and elastic birth canal). The midwife was nervous because the mother was too quiet and peaceful, making her afraid it was an evil spirit (妖精)

6) Other than the person 蓝脸, who or what other unrelated thing did the narrator use 蓝脸 to describe?

The blue faces of the two demons (Ox-Head and Horse-Face) in the previous chapter

Parts I didn't understand:

Why did people joke that he was confusing rocks with excrement? Because it would be hardened by the winter?

His mistress was really the servant girl from his wife's dowry?

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Great work c_redman.

Why did people joke that he was confusing rocks with excrement? Because it would be hardened by the winter?

People thought that he worked too hard for a rich man, for example getting up at daybreak to collect fertiliser, so they joked because it was too dark to see he came back with rocks instead (天麻麻亮 refers to sunrise, the mistake was made because 因起得太早 - ie: he got up too early).

His mistress was really the servant girl from his wife's dowry?

No, mistress is not a good translation here, she was his "secondary wife" - ie: an official part of his household, but junior to his wife. It was expected at the time that a rich man would have more than one partner. Actually, I think it says that 白氏 encouraged this and this was also very common at the time. A wife's worst nightmare at the time was that after she had gotten older and less attractive her husband would take some random hot young girl as a secondary wife that would actively compete with her for primacy in the household. A common strategy to avoid this was to arrange for the husband to marry the servant girl that had served her since they were both children and had come with her from her parents household when they were married. In this case, the relationship between the original wife and the secondary wife would often be stronger between the relationship between the secondary wife and the husband, so the original wife could trust the secondary wife to respect her seniority. Many husbands also recognised that this would preserve household harmony so saw advantages in it for themselves as well.

After being revived from near death, why does the rescued boy shout "阿弥陀佛"?

Buddhists will say this whenever they think that a divine being has helped them or they want the help of a divine being, it is a very common expression and I doubt the reason was so specific.

白氏 - she had no adult name, but was from the Bai family

I think she would have had a given name but this was a common way of referring to a woman that had married into a household. `

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Thanks, guys, for the vocab list and explanations.

How do you make your vocab lists, c_redman? All manually, or do you have a program for that?

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This is my attempt at summarizing, so I can find out if I have understood it correctly. It will also help remind me many chapters down the road, when I can no longer remember the earlier chapters.

Chapter 3:

Ximen Nao has gotten used to his life as a Lan Lian's donkey. We are introduced to Hong Taiyue. While Ximen Nao was alive he was a beggar(?), but is now an honored veteran of the Revolution. Lan yells at him for throwing a rock and injuring Ximen's leg. In return, Hong warns him against resisting the revolution, and for thinking of marrying above his station. (I can't tell if they had already married, due to a lack of 了's)

Vocabulary used >1 time

咀嚼 [ju3 jue2] /to chew/to think over/

土改 [tu3 gai3] /land reform/same as 土地改革[tu3 di4 gai3 ge2]/

瘸 [que2] /lame/

* 牛胯骨 [niu2 kua4 gu3] /cow's pelvic bone (adorned with bells for use by beggars or rhythmic storytellers)/

讨饭 [tao3 fan4] /to ask for food/to beg/

闪烁 [shan3 shuo4] /flickering/twinkling/evasive/vague (of speech)/

螃蟹 [pang2 xie4] /crab/CL:隻|只[zhi1]/

畜生 [chu4 sheng5] /domestic animal/brute/bastard/

半晌 [ban4 shang3] /half of the day/a long time/quite a while/

合作社 [he2 zuo4 she4] /cooperative/workers' or agricultural producers' cooperative etc/

单干 [dan1 gan4] /to work on one's own/to work single-handed/individual farming/

Used once

缰绳 [jiang1 sheng2] /reins/

槽头 [cao2 tou2] /feeding trough in stable/

骡马 [luo2 ma3] /pack animal/horse and mule/

渣滓 [zha1 zi3] /residue/dregs/disreputable people/

蒙蔽 [meng2 bi4] /deceive/hoodwink/

蒙混过关 [meng2 hun4 guo4 guan1] /to get away with it/to slip through/to bluff one's way out/

瓮中之鳖 [weng4 zhong1 zhi1 bie1] /lit. like a turtle in a jar/to be trapped (idiom)/

恶霸 [e4 ba4] /evil tyrant/

贫雇农 [pin2 gu4 nong2] /poor peasants (in Marxism)/

糜烂 [mi2 lan4] /dissipated/

蜕化 [tui4 hua4] /to exuviate (of insects)/to degenerate/

阶级成分 [jie1 ji2 cheng2 fen4] /social composition/social status (in Marxist theory, esp. using during cultural revolution)/

识时务者为俊杰 [shi2 shi2 wu4 zhe3 wei4 jun4 jie2] /Only an outstanding talent can recognize current trends (idiom). A wise man submits to circumstances./

* 下三滥 [xia4 san1 lan4] /a person of low standing/


颠鸾倒凤 [dian1 luan2 dao3 feng4] /to have sexual intercourse/

不由自主 [bu4 you2 zi4 zhu3] /can't help; involuntarily (idiom)/

轻举妄动 [qing1 ju3 wang4 dong4] /to act blindly without thinking (idiom)/

抑扬顿挫 [yi4 yang2 dun4 cuo4] /pattern or falling, remaining even and rising in pitch and rythm/inflection/intonation/cadence/

有板有眼 [you3 ban3 you3 yan3] /orderly/methodical/rythmical/

假仁假义 [jia3 ren2 jia3 yi4] /hypocrisy/pretended righteousness/

罪大恶极 [zui4 da4 e4 ji2] /lit. crime is great, evil extreme (idiom)/

心服口服 [xin1 fu2 kou3 fu2] /lit. convinced in heart and by word (idiom); sincerely convinced and ready to concede/to convince/to get one's message across/

食言而肥 [shi2 yan2 er2 fei2] /lit. to grow fat eating one's words (idiom)/fig. not to live up to one's promises/

斩钉截铁 [zhan3 ding1 jie2 tie3] /lit. to chop the nail and slice the iron (idiom)/fig. resolute and decisive/unhesitating/categorical/

有气无力 [you3 qi4 wu2 li4] /weakly and without strength (idiom); dispirited/

张口结舌 [zhang1 kou3 jie2 she2] /agape and tongue-tied (idiom); at a loss for words/gaping and speechless/

悬崖勒马 [xuan2 ya2 le4 ma3] /lit. to rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice (idiom); fig. to act in the nick of time/

迷途知返 [mi2 tu2 zhi1 fan3] /to get back on the right path/to mend one's ways/

心甘情愿 [xin1 gan1 qing2 yuan4] /delighted to (do sth, idiom)/perfectly happy to do/most willing to do/


There are two explanations for 下三滥 (which I defined as a person of low standing), which is sometimes written 下三烂:

Baidu Baike - What's left after the third grinding of grain

Hudong - Three low professions: prostitute, actor, beggar

"螃蟹过河随大溜" - a crab crosses the river along with the main flow(?). It was stated this was a common saying, but I can't find it quoted anywhere but this book. There is somewhat of a consensus that the phrase is actually "螃蟹过河七手八脚". I don't how to translate this exactly, but it seems to mean something different.

Also, here is a picture of a 牛胯骨:


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Very useful post again!

However, you're missing out on quite a bit. I just checked the text file you uploaded, and all the chapters seem to be truncated - as in, half is missing. I guess there's a reason why your edition only has 90,000 characters...

The coay link I posted above should be complete, and I'm sure you can find a full edition elsewhere online too (try searching for this phrase "鞭炮声驱散了西门闹不能生育的谣言", which occurs later on in chapter 3).

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I guess there's a reason why your edition only has 90,000 characters.

c_redman said 90,000 words, not 90,000 characters.

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c_redman said 90,000 words, not 90,000 characters.
Fair enough. But to get to 490,000 characters, that would require an average word length of 5.5 characters - which seems unlikely. ;-)

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Disaster! It turns out there are placeholders where images might have gone, and my script wasn't scanning past these. I am so glad you noticed before I had gone further!

I now count 238,000 words or 338,000 Chinese characters which makes a lot more sense for the page count. I wouldn't take too much stock in what the frontpiece claims. I don't know what their method is, but it's been highly inaccurate for other books. Even including punctuation and indenting spaces, maybe a few pages would contain 907 characters, but not every page.

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