Blood and bones. The old timers believed that the blood came from the mother and the bones from the father.
- Fae Myenne Ng, Bone
Fae Myenne Ng’s debut novel, Bone, anticipates with uncanny foresight some of the central themes of Yan Lianke’s Marrow. Published in 1993, Bone describes a family of three girls from San Francisco’s Chinatown. The family includes the protagonist, Leila, and her two younger half-sisters, Ona and Nina, and the book opens with Ona having recently committed suicide by jumping off a building. Her family struggles to respond to this loss, agonising over how they may each have contributed to it. Ona’s father, Leon Leong, originally came to the United States as a ‘paper son’ – someone who pretends to be another man’s son for immigration purposes. Leon promised his ‘paper’ father, Grandpa Leong, that he would return the older man’s bones to China after his death, but Leon happened to be away at sea when the older man died. Consequently, Grandpa Leong’s remains ended up buried in San Francisco, and Leon never managed to have the bones repatriated. After Ona’s suicide, Leon becomes even more distressed by his failure to send the bones back; he thinks that he ‘gave those bones power, [and] believed that they were the bad luck that stirred Ona’s destiny.’
Similar concerns with death and inheritance run through Yan Lianke’s Marrow, which he wrote in 1999. Set in a remote mountainous region of central China’s Henan Province, Yan’s novella focuses on a family of three girls, each of whom suffers from a combination of epilepsy and other mental illnesses. The girls have a brother who is several years younger, and although it was initially believed that the boy was born normal, he begins displaying symptoms similar to those of his sisters when he is a year and a half old. The parents take him to see a doctor, who concludes that all four children have inherited their conditions via their father (though the father himself is asymptomatic). Upon hearing this news, the father proceeds to jump to his death from a cliff, leaving the mother to raise all four children on her own. Although the novella’s main plotline unfolds two decades after the father’s death, the mother nevertheless continues to interact with him as though he were still alive, particularly with respect to questions of how she should raise their children. The father’s spectral presence symbolises the way in which his family continues to struggle with the disabilities they have inherited from him.
By the time the novel begins, the mother has already found (disabled) husbands for her two elder daughters, and is similarly determined to find a husband for her third, who has become increasingly aware of her sexuality. Moreover, even though the third daughter’s illness is more acute than that of her sisters, the mother is determined to find her a non-disabled husband – or a ‘wholer’ (quanren), to use Yan Lianke’s term. In so doing, the mother is hoping to domesticate her daughter’s errant desire while also giving her the chance to have children who might escape the clutches of the family illness. The youngest son, who is referred to in the novella as ‘Fourth Idiot’, is also driven by a set of aberrant desires – including incestuous and even zoophilic tendencies. In the end, however, the novella ends up hinging on the boy’s more literal hunger, and the ways in which it may be rechanneled for alternative ends.
Like Marrow, many of Yan Lianke’s other works revolve around a dialectics of death and desire. Lenin’s Kisses (2004), for instance, focuses on a remote village whose residents all suffer from congenital (and apparently hereditary) disabilities. A local bureaucrat recruits the villagers to form a travelling performance troupe, wherein they perform for local audiences a set of special skills they have each developed to compensate for their disabilities. The bureaucrat’s objective in creating this performance troupe is his hare-brained scheme to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia, so that he may then turn it into a profitable tourist attraction in China. By having the villagers perform their disabilities precisely in order to arrange for Lenin’s corpse to be put on display, the bureaucrat is flaunting traditional funeral conventions, which are driven by a desire to remove the body of the deceased from view. Dream of Ding Village (2006) describes a remote village that has been ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, and one subplot involves an adulterous, terminally-ill couple who resolve to divorce their respective spouses and marry each other before they succumb to their illnesses. The novel is narrated through the eyes of a young boy who has recently died, and whose father becomes determined to disinter his son’s remains so that the son may be granted a post-mortem marriage to the dead daughter of a local politician. The resulting ‘ghost marriage’ may be viewed as a perversion of both conventional marriage and funeral rituals, while at the same time reaffirming the underlying concerns with identity and inheritance that drive these sorts of rituals in the first place.
Rituals generate identity and continuity through a process of repeated citation, though embedded within that process of citation is the necessary possibility of transformation. Rituals may be reinvented and transformed, and the identities and beliefs that they anchor are similarly fungible. In Fae Myenne Ng’s novel, for instance, Leon’s status as a paper son means he has spent the past fifty years living a fiction, inhabiting another man’s identity. One of his most valued possessions is a suitcase full of papers, including official documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and even countless rejection notices. The narrator explains that Leon’s collection reflects a ‘tradition of honouring paper, how the oldtimers believed all writing was sacred’, but also, more simply, it illustrates the fact that ‘Leon kept things because he believed time mattered. Old made good.’ Yan Lianke’s Marrow similarly focuses on the ways in which ritual and tradition offer the possibility of self-invention.
Virtually none of the characters in Marrow is given an actual name, and instead they are identified by their kinship status: for instance, Eldest Daughter, Second Daughter, and so forth. The son is referred to as either Fourth Idiot, Fourth Son, or Fourth Babe, depending on the context. The parents are both identified by the family’s surname, You, with the father also given the name ‘Stone’ (shitou) and the mother, for reasons never explained in the text, consistently referred to as ‘Fourth Wife You’ (You sipo). The original Chinese title of the novella, meanwhile, is Balou tiange, which could be translated as ‘sky songs of the Balou Mountains’. For this edition, however, we have re-titled the work Marrow, in recognition of the degree to which the story, like Fae Myenne Ng’s novel, pivots around the concept of ‘blood and bones’.
Carlos Rojas, 2015
The entire world smelled of autumn.
The fall harvest season arrived before you knew it. In the mountains, the sweet smell of corn was so thick it would stick in your throat. Drop by drop, the autumn light streamed down onto the roofs of houses, onto the tips of grass, and onto the hair of the peasants out working in the fields. This sunlight, shimmering like agate, illuminated the entire village.
It illuminated the entire mountain ridge.
It illuminated the entire world.
It was a bountiful harvest. During this period of the year, a dry spell would usually be followed by a flood, and by the time the corn was ready for pollination, the balance of sun and rain would be perfect. Down in the plains the harvest was meagre, while up in the mountains it was extraordinary. The ears of corn were almost as thick as a man’s leg, leaving the stalks doubled over like a hunchback. A few of the stalks were broken and lying on the ground, struggling to grow. You Village, often called Four Idiots Village, consisted of a few hills, and had abundant harvests. Between the white dew and the autumn equinox – which is to say, between the fifteenth and the sixteenth solar terms – people began harvesting corn. All the land belonging to the family of Fourth Wife You was on the mountain ridge furthest from the village. During previous years’ land reallocations, all of the families in the village felt that this field was too far away. The village chief told Fourth Wife You that if her idiot children wanted ...