Shortly after introducing Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh in my Monday memes, I finished the last story in the collection. This collection of short stories by Mo Yan contains a wide variety of of themes and serves as a great introduction to Mo Yan for those not already familiar with him. There are eight stories total but in this review I’ll focus on my favorite three: “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh,” “Soaring,” and “Abandoned Child.”
“Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh” is about Ding shifu, who’s been working for the same factory for years and is mere days away from his retirement when the company decides to let go of most of their workers. The title “shifu,” is given to people who are a master of their trade, or just as a way to show respect to someone who has been working for a long time. With no hope of getting his due pension, Ding shifu has to find a new way to support his family and falls into despair. He gets a business idea when he spends an afternoon watching young couples in the park sneak off into the woods to get close. He builds a shack which he charges these young couples to use and makes a killing at it, at least until a couple comes along months later who enter the shack and then become deathly quiet. Convinced the couple has committed double suicide, Ding shifu runs around town trying to figure out what he should do. When he finally brings a police officer to the scene, they find no one in the shack. In this realistically bleak and yet humorous story the reader is left wondering what forces of nature had stepped in and brought an end to Ding shifu’s less than honorable business. Were they ghosts? Did the couple play a joke on Ding shifu for making money off of young love?
In “Soaring,” a newly wedded bride gets a look at her new groom and takes off flying– literally. The entire town gives chase, trying to coax her down as she gets further and further away from her new home. Even her own family gets involved and begs her to accept her marriage or she’ll ruin the marriage for her mute brother which was so hard to set up and is contingent upon the poor girl’s marriage. Nothing affects the flying bridge, who eventually ends up sitting in a tree with the entire crowd watching her. Finally she is shot down and killed with a bow and arrow, and the groom laments the loss of his beautiful bride. Again humor mixes with a stark portrayal of truth about how powerless bridges are in their arranged marriages.
The last story of the collection is “Abandoned Child,” which describes the terrible effects the one child policy has specifically on those who live in the rural parts of China who still cling to the belief that male children are more valuable than female. The main character finds a baby girl abandoned in a sunflower field and brings her home. His family is devastated and angry because he already has one child, a girl, and all of their hopes were for him to produce a second, male, child. He goes to the local government which suggests he go around and ask widows/widowers if they would take in the child, but he finds that these families also only want boys. Meanwhile the government official mentions that if the rescuer keeps the child, he’ll have to pay the fine for having more than one child. The story ends with the fate of the little girl unclear and the main character disgusted by the people of his hometown. This story is devoid of the humor of the previous two but the narrator of the story has a disillusioned, desperate tone that will stay with you long after you finish reading.
As I mentioned, there are five other stories in the collection which are also very worth reading. I hope that readers out there will give this collection, and Mo Yan himself, a chance. I have three of his novels sitting on my TBR pile and they’ve just been given higher priority, so look forward to more reviews of Mo Yan’s work.