40. ‘frog’ by Mo Yan

Mo Yan’s novel frog, about the One Child Policy in China, is an absolutely ferocious book, and something of a masterpiece.

Gugu is a midwife in China. She was born in 1937, and after training as a midwife she is the first to bring modern medical techniques to her village. At first this is met with distrust, but her fierce determination (and the fact that she will literally beat up anybody who stands in her way) results in her becoming the region’s most successful midwife. However, after a failed romance with an air force deserter and the introduction of the One Child Policy in the late 70s, Gugu’s reputation takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

frog mo yan

This book is absolutely not for the faint-hearted. frog confronts the realities of the One Child Policy in stark detail, from enforced vasectomies to compulsory abortions, and many of the characters don’t make it out alive. The emotional impact of the story is heightened by the sometimes quite distant storytelling and the fact that we never see the events unfold through Gugu’s eyes. Yan uses a framing device throughout: the book opens with a man called ‘Tadpole’ writing to a friend and telling him about the life of his aunt (Gugu), about whom he is going to write a play. In fact, Tadpole’s finished play is included at the end of the novel, and it twists everything we have already read into a powerful, magical adaptation for the stage.

Gugu is a pretty astonishing character, and it’s amazing to see her unwavering commitment to the Party, and how this leads her to commit atrocious acts. However, she also gives a clear justification for her enforcement of the One Child Policy – the argument that China’s birth rate is simply too high:

“At that rate, in 50 years the Chinese population alone would flatten the Earth. So we must lower the birth rate, no matter what it costs. That will be China’s greatest contribution to humanity.”

Now, I don’t know nearly enough about this highly controversial policy to know whether this attitude is justified, but it is a huge achievement on Yan’s part to create sympathy for a character who turns out to be wholly unsympathetic yet still remains within the morality she has constructed for herself.

Of course, the human cost of the One Child Policy cannot be doubted, and many of the things that happen in this book are purely brutal. Frogs return again and again as symbols of all sorts of things to do with childbirth: pregnant women’s skin is compared to frog skin, the ribbits of frogs are likened to screaming babies. I thought the most moving scene was the one in which a pregnant woman attempts to escape Gugu by swimming away down a river. The woman is (metaphorically) transformed into an aquatic animal driven by the most primitive instinct (to protect her child), while the people who follow her on the boat look down at her desperation distantly, even mockingly.

Many of the attitudes in the novel were quite shocking, and presumably they are accurate renderings of many attitudes held at that time. Women are seen as reproductive tools, while babies are merely a means to carry on a name, a genetic code. Female children are looked down upon as being less valuable, and children born illegally are known as ‘bootleg kids’. On top of all that, all the female characters in this book are totally obsessed with having children; many of the male characters are too, but for the women it seems to be the central aim of their existence. I’m not sure whether this was an oversimplified attitude on the part of the author, or something borne out of restrictive attitudes and traditional upbringings, but it did annoy me.

This is a pretty stunning book, and a hugely moving insight into one of the most controversial political policies of all time. I highly recommend steeling yourself and giving it a read.

“Reproduction is so solemn yet so commonplace, so serious yet so absurd.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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