Red Sorghum is absolutely brutal. It tells the story of a Chinese family during the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1939 and a few years thereafter, although there are glimpses of years before and later. I say book, because it is described in some places as a series of novellas and in other places as a novel.
The two main characters are Yu Zhan’ao, the narrator’s grandfather, also known as Commander Yu, and Dai, his grandmother. The narrator’s father Douquan is a less important character. The narrator himself only makes an appearance in the last two pages.
The book begins with an ambush of the Japanese near Black Water River. But nothing here is related in a straightforward manner. The narration moves back and forth in time as Commander Yu’s preparations for the battle alternate with the story of Uncle Arhat’s kidnapping as slave labor for the Japanese and the story of how Yu Zhan’ao meets Dai. There is plenty of violence in all of these stories, and we are not spared any details of guts falling out, decapitated heads, or anything involving bodily functions.
The Chinese are at war through most of the book, of course, but various factions of Chinese fight and kill each other just as viciously. Although Commander Yu wins the battle of Black Water River, almost all of his men are killed when his ally, Detachment Leader Pocky Leng, fails to turn up at the ambush, then steals all of the captured armament.
Earlier in time but later in the book, Grandfather Yu meets Dai on her way to marry a rich man’s son. Her father’s greed has betrothed her to a leper. Yu seduces her on her way back to visit her parents after three days of marriage and then goes off to murder her husband and father-in-law, leaving her a rich widow.
Sometimes the violence in this book is so extreme it is almost funny. People behave grotesquely—they are crude, barbaric, disgusting, venal, and revengeful. Commander Yu is almost more eager to kill Pocky Leng than he is the vicious Japanese, who are nearly cartoonish in their evil.
In between scenes of almost unbelievable brutality are beautiful descriptions of nature, with a strong emphasis on color. Red is consistently a symbol of life and goodness while green is its opposite. Sometimes blood is green instead of red and too the sun can be green. This use of color comes to a focus in the last pages of the novel, where Mo Yan laments the disappearance of the wonderful red sorghum (a major presence in the novel) and excoriates its green hybrid replacement.
I found very little to like in this book. I read it all, but I basically had to force myself to finish it (and beautiful descriptions or not, I got tired of reading about sorghum). I know the book has received a lot of admiration, and I do not exactly agree with the criticism that it glorifies violence, but there is a lot of very graphic violence in the novel.