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Tiny Book Before New Year's - 《变》(莫言)


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I haven't read nearly enough Chinese the last year, so I've decided to finish a small book before the end of the year. If anyone has some time left over the next few days, I encourage you to join me.


The book is written by Mo Yan and marketed as a "自传体中篇小说", i.e. something like an "autobiographical novelette."  It was published in several installments in 人民文学, and has been compiled into a small pamphlet-sized book of 8 chapters and 85 pages. It's hard to say exactly how much is fact and how much is fiction, but judging from the first few chapters, there is nothing that seems to be blatantly fabricated, and the book casts some light on what it was like to grow up in the 60s and 70s, and how China has developed since. 


The language is fairly simple, which goes for all of Mo Yan's books, although he does not shy away from idioms, set phrases and even local dialect. It could be a good introduction to native level material for those who still haven't read a Chinese novel in its entirety - half a chapter a day should probably be very doable for advanced students.



Author: 莫言

Length: 85 p.

Character set: 简体字


Hard copy: Amazon

Read online: ShukuSohu (only ch1-ch2)



I'll try to provide some vocab, and if more people join maybe we can get a conversation going about the story?

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Chapter 1 (From “按说我要写的...” to “...差点要了我的命!”)


Most words can be easily looked up in a dictionary, so I've only tried to make a list out of those that can't, or those that have some special significance, as well as some phrases that might be hard to understand. I'll come back and edit this list, since writing out a good explanation for each one will take some time. Treat this as a list of things to be aware about, and feel free to add to it or help me write some explanations for the entries.


  • 国营农场: State farms, collectively operated farms that were instated by the communist party after the great leap forward. They were under the administration of the People's Commune.
  • 革委会: Revolutionary committee.
  • 猫头鹰报喜: This is a so-called xiehouyu, and the remaining half is "丑鸣在外", and 鸣 is a pun on 名. Owls are seen as unlucky animals, and people would not trust an owl that brings good news. I.e. people will not trust someone with a bad reputation. 
  • 也不撒泡尿自己照照,看看你那张樱桃小嘴: I included this one just because of novelty, and since the insult can be a bit difficult to pick apart. Essentially  something like "why don't you have a look at your reflection in a puddle of your own piss, and see what a pretty mouth you have."
  • 嘎斯51: Gaz-51, a Soviet produced truck.
  • 鸡飞狗跳: This is a commonly used idiom, but is used literally here.
  • Who was Teacher Liu? What did he look like? What did the children call him? Why was Mo Yan expelled?
  • Where in the classroom did He Zhiwu sit? Why? What made him memorable to his classmates?
  • What did Lu Wenli's dad do for a living? How do we know that he commanded respect in the village?
  • What happens in the movie scene Mo Yan reminisces about?
  • How did Lu Wenli almost kill Teacher Liu?
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I'm not sure if anyone is following along, but I'll add some notes for chapter 2:


Chapter 2 (From "送走了何志武之后..." to "...已经大得令人惶惶不安了。")



  • 《三国演义》、《红楼梦》、《西游记》: This probably doesn't have to be pointed out, but these are 3 out of the 4 great classics in Chinese literature. The one missing from the list is 《水浒传》.
  • 半文半白: A literary style used in the interim period after Chinese literature was exclusively written in Classical Chinese, before modern vernacular Chinese was standardized as a written language. Contains elements of both modern Chinese and traditional literary Chinese. Also disparagingly used about ordinary language that is very flowery/mixed with classical and formal language.
  • 电子测向站: A station used in radio direction finding by aircrafts. 
  • “代管代管,代而不管”: A pun on 代管 (manage), equating it to "代而不管" (being entrusted with something but not looking after it).
  • 什么鸟: Often used as a funny-sounding "what's that"/"what the heck"/WTF depending on tone and context. "...你们就知道我到了一个什么鸟单位": "So you know what effin' kind of unit I ended up at."
  • 八路军: Eight Route Army, the main communist force fighting the Japanese between 1937 and 1945. Became incorporated into the PLA and helped win mainland China for the communists. 
  • 迈: Sometimes used as a unit of speed in the mainland, kilometers per hour. Probably comes from miles per hour used as a unit in English speaking countries.
  • 邪了门了: Dialect, also 邪门, strange/odd/unusual.
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  • 3 weeks later...

Just to follow up on my own progress, I ended up finishing the book, pretty much in one go, on January 1. Since no one else has been posting in here, I have just assumed that no one else was interested in reading it, so I have not posted any notes for the remaining chapters. 


I thought that Bian was a very interesting view into the formative years of Mo Yan, and a story that helps put into perspective what we already know about China and the social institutions that shaped Chinese society from the 60s onwards. I have seen several reviews online that complain that the story is too open-ended, and that it ends right after you start to feel attached to the main cast. I disagree with that. To me, the main story revolves around the different trajectories the lives of He Zhiwu and Lu Wenli took, two very different people from very different social backgrounds.


Although the bulk of the text is about Mo Yan's own experiences, his life becomes a backdrop that explains what happened to the other characters as they bob through the story, emerging, disappearing and reemerging. It becomes clear that beeing groomed by the local officials as model citizens and currying favors with the higher-ups didn't necessarily prepare people for success, the way the children were taught to expect from childhood on. The unchecked patriotism and unquestioning loyalty to the system might in fact have led people into taking decisions that were destructive to themselves, to their families and to their communities as a whole. In places, Mo Yan almost goes as far as to say it outright. In chapter 5, for example, he laments: "我们同批入伍的战友,有很多去了前线。从内心深处,我是羡慕他们的。我希望自己也能有这样的机会,上战场,当英雄,闯过来可以立功提干,牺牲了也给父母挣个烈属名分,改变家庭的政治地位,也不枉他们生我养我。有我这种想法的,其实不止我一个人。这想法很简单,很幼稚,但确是我们这种饱受政治压迫的中农子弟的一个扭曲心态。窝窝囊囊地活着,不如轰轰烈烈地死去" - "A lot of my fellow soldiers went to the frontlines. I envied them from deep inside my soul. I also wished to be given a chance to enter the battleground and become a hero. If I survived, I would immediately be lauded and rise through the party ranks. If I did not, my parents would have their status changed to dependents of a martyr, and they would rise in political status. That way they would not have given birth to me and raised me in vain. I was not the only one harboring such thoughts. The idea was simplistic and naive, but it was a twisted mindset that could be found in the minds of us Chinese farmers who had suffered political repression. It was better to go out with a bang than to suffer a pointless existence." 


Through the entire story, I struggled with how to think about He Zhiwu. He was clearly never given a chance, and branded as as good-for-nothing from childhood, but through his craftiness and cunning, he ends up gaming the system and getting remarkable success. On the one hand, you can't help but root for him and feel that the entire story vindicates him. On the other hand, you realize that his successes have come about through fraud, deception and other underhanded practices. It's clear that those were the traits that were needed to succeed, and the behavior of the "moral guardians" throughout the story makes you empathize with He Zhiwu to the point where you think the ends might have justified the means, and the people who got the short end of the stick had it coming. The moral duplicity of He Zhiwu becomes something that to me signifies the spirit of the modern Chinese society. I still haven't decided if that is a good thing or a bad thing. 

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