Exploring the Cultural Memory of the Common People: Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Mo Yan's Sandalwood Death

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Li, Tonglu
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This article examines Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, a novel on Sun Bing, troupe leader of Cat Tune and participant in the Boxer Rebellion. Identifying more with localized folk culture than with the modern culture represented by either the new Westernized elites or the revolutionary Communist political class, Mo Yan, in Sandalwood Death, created a novel whose settings are the three interrelated realms of the everyday, the historical, and the divine. The first, “everyday” section of the novel focuses on the ways in which human desire is fulfilled and contested in the mesh of power relationships. With the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, the attention of the narrator shifts to the historical realm, in which institutional violence is exercised and challenged. The realm of the divine comes as the negation of the bodily and the historical. In this divine space constructed by the carnivalesque performance of Cat Tune, the boundaries between performers and spectators, human song and animal screams, the worldly and otherworldly, and even life and death are blurred. A psychological construction that exists in people’s memory, this divine space uses the Cat Tune as its herald. For Sun Bing and his peers, the meaning of life is not found in self-gratification, but in becoming part of the people’s eternal memory, a memory that is substantially different from any of the institutional versions. Creating, disseminating and transmitting such a memory, these people are not insensitive onlookers to scenes of bloodshed, but passionate activists who speak and sing on their own behalf.


This article is from Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 42 (2016): 25-48, doi:10.6240/concentric.lit.2016.42.1.02. Posted with permission.

everyday, history, divine, memory, enlightenment, revolution