Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

Red Sorghum [the novel] Study Guide

Mo Yan.  Red Sorghum: A Family Saga.  Trans. Howard Goldblatt.  1993 Viking Penguin.  New York: Penguin-Viking, 1994.

This novel began as a short story published in 1986, so well received that it later was expanded into five chapters and published as “a family saga” in 1987, by the People’s Liberation Army Publishing House, Beijing.  It was also made into a film, released under the English title Red Sorghum, in 1987, directed by Zhang Yimou.  

At the publisher’s request, Mo Yan added further episodes and published the novel in its entirety in 1989.  Translator Howard Goldblatt is editor of Modern Chinese Literature and professor at University of Colorado; his translation of Red Sorghum was partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  At Mo Yan’s request, Goldblatt’s translation was based on Taipei Hong-fan Book Co., 1988 Chinese edition Hung kao liang chia tsu, which restores cuts made in the 1987 mainland Chinese edition.

Also by MO YAN & available in English translation:
T’ien-t’ang suan t’ai chih ko.  The Garlic Ballads (also trans. as Song of Wild Garlic).  Trans Howard Goldblatt.  1995, Viking Penguin.  NewYork: Penguin, 1996.

Literary-Biography & Critical Commentary

Mo Yan (b. 1956 in Shandong province, People’s Republic of China) is a member of the cultural affairs department of People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  He is the author of four novels, several novellas, and many short stories; and winner of many national literary prizes.  Mo Yan has been judged one of China’s “most innovative and creative novelists in recent years” (Li).  In an interview reported by Peter Li, Mo Yan describes how he came to write Red Sorghum.  He joined the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in 1976, and was admitted to the literature department of the PLA College of Literature and Arts in 1984.  There he studied military fiction written since “the liberation,” but became “disgusted with it.”  Under the dictates of the Cultural Revolution, writers were required to “write about gigantic events and projects, as well as very positive and very negative characters.  All of it was fake.”  Mo Yan’s writing soon underwent a “drastic change”: “…I wanted to explore new modes of expression.”  Jeffrey Kinkley, of St. John’s University in New York, calls Mo Yan

a young, defiantly experimental writer, and his story takes a modernist track, interweaving past and present fragments of a main plot and several subplots into a slightly mystifying yet cinematic and classically suspenseful grand narrative—cinematic because of his mesmerizing red symbolism: red sorghum (the original color the crop, modern hybrids are colorless), red blood, red sunsets, red bridal veils, red wine.

In Red Sorghum, Mo Yan portrays the “brutal realities of war, which had not be portrayed before”; he “spare[s] us none of the brutalities of war, which the other writers have sanitized from their works in order to show the revolutionary ideals of a just war” (Li).  The key characters of Red Sorghum “do not consider themselves to be part of any organized fighting force, nor do they consider themselves to be fighting on the side of righteousness . . . . In fact, even their very survival from day to day is in question.  For these fighters there is no PLA, no Communist Party, no Chairman Mao.  They fight to survive, they fight for their land, their native soil (xiangtu).  To be a hero is to fight the Japanese” (Li).  In this novel, “even a local bandit can become a hero,” “local home-grown ruffians like Command Yu and Detachment Leader Leng . . . become the heroes of Red Sorghum” (Li).  The “hit and miss” of guerrilla warfare fought on Gaomi sorghum fields is “quite different from the battle founds by the PLA” in earlier Communist socialist realist novels; we no longer find a “totally devoted, selfless soldier lead[ing] a heroic attack…without suffering a wound.”  Instead, Red Sorghum presents “a lot of blood and gore.  One’s own men are hit as frequently, if not more so, as those of the enemy and in the same horrible way” (Li).  And the victory of the Battle of Black Water Bridge is costly and short-lived.  Six days later, the Japanese viciously counterattack, kill hundreds of villagers, and torch the village before withdrawing.

Another key decision Mo Yan made was to write of the place where he grew up, “Gaomi County,” because “I had a deep understanding of its history, customs, and habits.”  The novel is “authentic” in reflecting “the attitudes and actions of a large majority of the Chinese people who live in the rural areas.  The themes of internecine fighting, differences of opinion, the interplay of local personalities, gender relationships, intergenerational conflicts all make Red Sorghum an unusual and interesting work, as do the local customs and habits of the Gaomi district in Shandong” (Li).  Gaomi is a contradictory place, evincing mixed love-hate emotions.  “But this is the soil to which the people are attached, and where life-giving crops of red sorghum are planted each year.  The people depend on the sorghum for their livelihood, and it is synonymous with life itself” (Li). 

A third inspiration for writing Red Sorghum was that “I had heard many stories that were orally transmitted in my district”:

When the peasants took breaks from their work in the fields, the older people would sit on a rock and begin telling tales.  Someone might say that in 1937, it was at this very spot that the Japanese killed, or that so and so had been killed by a bullet that ran through his stomach, making a big hole in it.  The following day, another person might retell the same tale differently, and so on.  Every time the tale was told, something was added.  The more times the tale was told, the richer it became.  The images became more and more colorful.  Gradually, history became myth.

From this oral and enriching form of storytelling, Mo Yan’s Chinese kind of “magical realism,” reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia), was born.  According to Kinkley, magical realism is evidenced in the mythic proportions of Mo Yan’s tale, its fantastic plot, and its rapturous imagery of “’crushed and broken sorghum,' ‘sorghum corpses,’ ‘sorghum everywhere…crying bitterly.’”  From the point of view of a subjective first-person narrator, colorful and dynamic characters come to life.  Marxist “socialist realism,” requiring larger-than-life heroes glorified for fighting the just revolutionary cause, gives way to “psychological exploration” of complex characters, with complicated commitments “to family and children and other humanitarian concerns” before nationalist ideals, present new forms of heroism (Li).  Peter Li identifies Grandmother Dai [called simply Nine by her family] as the true heroine of Red Sorghum:  a casualty of war, she emerges as “the most interesting and colorful character in the novel and the protagonist who links the entire story together.”  Her heroism stems from “a strength of character and integrity that defies [the usual heroic] physical characteristics” such as “exploits of strength and courage” (Li). 


Kinkley, Jeffrey C.  “World Literature in Review.”  Rev. of Mo Yan.  Red Sorghum: A Novel of China.  Trans. Howard Goldblatt.  New York: Viking 1993.  World Literature Today 68.2 (Spring 1994): 428-429.  Rpt. Ebscohost Academic Search Elite, Article No. 9407292714. 

Li, Peter.  “War and Modernity in Chinese Military Fiction.”  Society 34.5 (July/August 1997): 77+(13pp).  Rpt. Ebscohost Academic Search Elite, Article No. 9707130302.


GRANDDAD = COMMANDER YU = YU ZHAN’AO [Yu = family name; Zhan’ao = personal name]. Born to a poor family ca. 1899, Yu Zhan’ao’s history is violent and varied.  As a young bearer for the Wedding and Funeral Service Company, he first meets Grandma and falls in love with her.  He helps run the family sorghum wine distillery, becomes a bandit leader [AKA: men who eat “fistcakes,” see ch. 1.5 p. 47], later joins the Iron Society, and leads the ambush on the Japanese invaders at the “famous battle” of Black Water River.

GRANDMA = DAI FENGLIAN, or Little NINE [Dai = family name; Fenglian = personal name; little Nine = childhood name] .  At 6, her mother begins binding her feet; the painful process produces “three-inch golden lotuses” (ch. 1.5, p. 40), which contribute to Nine’s fame as a regional beauty.  At 16, Grandma is betrothed by her father to Shan Bianlang, leper son of Shan Tingxiu, (ch. 1.5, p. 39).  One of the bearers of her bridal sedan is Yu Zhan’ao (Grandfather): their attraction to each other catalyzes a chain reaction: Zhan’ao saves her from a bandit, rapes her three days later in the sorghum fields, kills the Shan father and his leprous son (her new husband), and thereby positions Grandma, the young widow, to become the rich new owner of the Shan sorgham wine distillery.

UNCLE ARHAT” LIU:  initially works for Shan family distillery, and, after the Shans’ untimely deaths, he continues as Grandma’s foreman of the family sorghum winery.  Rumors that “he had affair with my grandma” are not supported by “hard evidence” (ch. 1.2, p. 14).  Beloved friend and caretaker of young Douguan (“Father”).  Later, in 1938, during the building of the Jiao-Ping Highway, Uncle Arhat is conscripted for the road building, rebels and attacks Grandma’s two black mules (see ch. 1.3, pp. 14-24), and then is caught, skinned alive, and mutilated by Sun Five (village hog butcher) before the whole village (see ch. 1.4, pp. 33-37), on the orders of the Japanese invaders (ch. 1.2, p. 14).

FATHER = DOUGUAN:  son of (first) Grandma and Grandfather Commander Yu.

NARRATOR [unnamed “I” who tells the story] son of Douguan, and grandson of Grandma and Commander Yu.  Narrator returns “to Northeast Gaomi Township to compile a family chronicle, focusing on the “famous battle” of Black Water River (ch.1.2, p. 13).

COMMANDER YU’S 40 GUERRILLA TROOPS, who fought the “famous battle” at Black Water River (ch.1.2, p. 13) against the Japanese in 1939

“Uncle” Wang Wenyi, whose children were killed in a Japanese bombing, and whose wife is killed by the Japanese during the ambush at Black Water River bridge (ch. 1.7, pp. 65-66).

Adjutant Ren – see description: ch. 1.6, p. 53; after he forces Commander Yu to execute Big Tooth Yu.  Adjutant Ren is the original owner of the Browning pistol.

Mute: also “one of Commander Yu’s old bandit friends, a greenwood hero who had eaten fistcakes in the sorghum field,” and who limps from a “prenatal injury” (ch. 1.1, p. 11)

Fang Six and Fang Seven, brothers

“Buglar” Liu Sishan -  “another of Commander Yu’s longtime buddies, dating back from when he was a sedan bearer and Liu was a funeral musician” (ch. 1.4, p. 25).

“POCKY” LENG – AKA: DETACHMENT LEADER LENG:  Commander Yu [Granddad] is enraged when Leng and his men fail to show up on time for the ambush of the Japanese where the Jiao-Ping Highway crosses the Black Water River bridge.  When Detachment Leader Leng does show up, he and his men take most of the munitions and leave the village defenseless (ch. 1.9).  During the Chinese anti-Japanese resistance, “Pocky” Leng’s detachment; the Jiao-Gao Regiment, led by “Little Foot” Jiang”; and Commander Yu and the Iron Society often fight among themselves over scarce armaments and power in the county. 

“LITTLE FOOT” JIANG, leader of the JIAO-GAO REGIMENT, which will later attack the Iron Society at Grandma’s belated funeral.  Both these groups are in turn attacked by “Pocky” Leng’s detachment at the Black Water River Dike.  Then all three guerrilla groups are attacked by their common enemy, the Japanese (Ch. 4.4, 4.9).


OLD WOMAN = “CLAY POT” = “LAME WOMAN LIU” is one of the few villagers who survive the Japanese invasion and village massacre.  Afterwards, she takes care of Commander Yu, Douguan, and “Mother.”  Years later, she will sing the glorious history of Grandma Dai Fenglian and tell Uncle Arhat’s story for the Narrator.  The “woman Liu” is added to the family scroll (ch. 4.5, p. 270).

Shan Tingxiu [Shan  = family name; Tingxiu = personal name]: Owner of a famous regional distillery of “high-quality white [sorghum] wine and “one of Northeast Gaomi Township’s richest men” (ch. 1.5, p. 39).  He arranges the marriage of his son Shan Bianlang, who has leprosy, to GRANDMA.  The Shans, father and son, are later murdered by YU ZHAN’AO [=GRANDFATHER].

Great-Granddad DAI (the village silversmith) and Great-Grandma DAI:  the greedy parents of Grandma “Nine.”

Beauty, a teenaged friend of Grandma, is killed by a lightning strike, rumored to be heaven’s revenge for her greed for causing the death of an abandoned baby named Road Joy.

Sun Five, the village hog butcher, is forced by the Japanese to skin Uncle Arhat alive in front of the whole village.  Afterwards, Sun Five goes insane.

Nine Dreams Cao = Magistrate Cao, Gaomi County magistrate in the 1920s, whom Grandma declares to be her “foster dad” when she repudiates her own father (Great-Granddad).  Also known as Shoe Sole Cao the Second for his favorite punishment, he wages war against the county’s “three scourges”: “banditry, opium, and gambling” (ch. 2.5, pp. 112-113).  Later he sets a trap for Granddad’s bandits outside Jinan City.

Master Yan Luogu, one of Magistrate Cao’s men.

Nine Monkeys Shan, the village chief and another of Magistrate Cao’s men.

Spotted Neck, a notorious bandit in the early 1920s--“the golden days of banditry in Northeast Gaomi Township” (Ch. 4.5, p. 277)—whose gang kidnaps Grandma for ransom.  Later Granddad exacts revenge and himself becomes a bandit leader.

Lingzi:  a young woman, rumored to be in love with Adjutant Ren, and who is raped by Big Tooth Yu (ch. 1.6, p. 52-54).

Big Tooth Yu, uncle of Commander Yu, who helped raise him: after Big Tooth Yu rapes Lingzi, Adjutant Ren demands that he be executed, and Commander Yu reluctantly orders Mute to shoot his uncle (ch. 1.5, pp. 56-57). 

PASSION, later  2ND GRANDMA, who works for Grandma at the sorghum wine distillery until she and Granddad become lovers and they move to another village, Saltwater Gap.  2nd Grandma suffers from possession by a weasel, later is gang-raped by the Japanese invaders (ca. 1937), and goes insane.

Little Auntie, named Xiangguan, is the 5-year-old daughter of Passion [2nd Grandma] and Granddad [Commander Yu].  She is killed by the Japanese in ca. 1937.

Other Survivors [besides “the woman Liu,” Douguan, & Commander Yu] of the Mid-Autumn Festival Massacre by the Japanese:

            “MOTHER” [of the Narrator], named Beauty, whose parents hide her and her little brother Harmony is a well during the Japanese invasion.  Harmony dies, but she is rescued by Douguan [“Father”], and will later marry him.

Wang Guang, Dezhi, Guo Yang [AKA “Gimpy”], Blind Eye (in addition to “old woman Liu,” Commander Yu, Douguan, and “Mother”).  Douguan leads them in battle against the corpse eating dogs.

            Blackie, Green, and Red:  the family dogs who become rival leaders of the “crazed” pack of corpse-eating dogs left masterless after the massacre.


Black Eye, leader of the Iron Society.  After Granddad and Passion [2nd Grandma] leave her, Grandma lives with Black Eye for a time in Saltwater Gap.  Seeking revenge, Granddad fights Black Eye to a draw on the bank of the Salty Water River. 

Five Troubles, a handsome young Iron Society soldier, talks Commander Yu [Granddad] and Douguan into joining the Iron Society to continue fighting the Japanese (ca. 1940), and supports Granddad in becoming undisputed leader of the Iron Society.


NORTHEAST GAOMI TOWNSHIP, Shandong Province, Northern China
Fertile, productive black soil, “and the people who tilled it were especially decent, strong-willed, and ambitious” (ch. 1.1; p. 9)

SORGHUM fields, the lifeblood of the township, at their height forming dense fields separating the village from the Black Water River.

SORGHUM WINE DISTILLERY becomes Grandma’s after the original owners, the Shans, are murdered.  The wine is renowned because of the “family secret” (ch. 2.1).  The family home is later destroyed when the Japanese invaders torch the village (ch. 3.2, p. 181).

TOAD HOLLOW: on the road through the sorghum fields, the site of the hold-up of Grandma’s wedding party and, 3 days later, where “Grandma and Granddad exchanged their love” and Douguan is conceived (ch. 1.8, p. 71).

BLACK WATER RIVER, running near the village and through the sorghum: site of the ambush and “famous battle” of late Autumn, 1939.

JIAO-PING HIGHWAY: a forced-labor construction project of the Japanese invaders (1938), running across the Black Water River along the sorghum fields of Northeast Gaomi Township.

WHITE HORSE MOUNTAIN: “an enormous rock formation on the northern edge of the plain”  

Red Sorghum [the novel] Chronology [under construction]:

Red Sorghum [the novel] Study Guide [under construction]:


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