We know from the beginning of “Sandalwood Death” that Chinese regional opera star, Sun Bing, is going to be executed in a horrible way for leading a part of the Boxer Rebellion in northern China against the extraterritorial German government and the Chinese dynastic government. His daughter tells us so in her rambling chapter, “Meiniang’s Lewd Talk,” which opens the novel.
This chapter is so full of vivid description, gratuitous violence and Chinese named persons, titles and terms, that you, the reader, can feel lost and be tempted to give it up. The succeeding chapters are easier to follow and understand. Do not give up too soon.
The novel’s precipitating event is Germany’s taking people’s farmland and cemeteries to build a railroad in northern China from Jiaozhou to Jinan. Sun Bing organizes a peasant army to stop the builders and drive them out so that the inhabitants can reclaim their land and resume the life that they had always known.
The German army, when it is unable to capture Sun, retaliates by gratuitously killing 27 townsmen. Sun escapes and establishes a headquarters/fortress in another town; after the Germans capture him by deceit, they level the town with their cannons, killing all of the inhabitants.
The chief German engineer demands that Sun be publicly executed by the most painful and drawn-out means to set an example. After some discussion of various choices, they decide on the sandalwood death, which is too horrible to describe in a family newspaper. You will have to read the book yourself to find out how it is done.
While Sun is held in the city jail, some of his followers try to release him by putting a look-alike in his place. The plan fails, Sun is executed as planned, all of the conspirators, dead or alive, are beheaded and numerous others are killed by various means. The Germans will not be stopped.
“Sandalwood Death” is basically about the use of governmental power as told from the points of view of the different narrators of the individual chapters.
The central problem that the novel presents to the reader follows from the fact that the Qing Dynasty, which has existed since 1644, has lost its vitality. The Emperor and Dowager Empress can barely retain control over their country partly because eight nations - Austro-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdo and the United States - are seeking extraterritorial control over various parts of the country for trade purposes.
The Provincial Governors and District Magistrates are caught between the Dynasty and the foreigners on the one hand and the common people whom they are supposed to govern directly on the other. Each of these three governing groups constantly works to keep those below them under control by cruelly punishing them for any offense, personal or legal, no matter how slight. Justice is never the issue; maintaining absolute, arbitrary power is.
The narrators of the different chapters tell us, in vivid detail, of the Powerful’s use of any means of control that they choose, and of their executioners who make it happen.
In several passages, these executioners consider the means, esthetics, artistry and psychology of their craft, which makes for interesting reading.
Their means include flogging, torture and various forms of execution, from quick and simple beheading through the death by one thousand cuts, to the horrible sandalwood death. Life is very cheap.
The translator should have written an introduction which told the reader a bit about the Chinese culture and history of the time, rather than having him start cold by reading “Meiniang’s Lewd Talk.”
The plot can be difficult to follow at times because the chapters are not always presented in chronological order and because narrators change without our being told. The frequent use of Chinese words add authenticity to the narrative but can be confusing. You might want to have a sheet of paper beside you as you read to write them and their meanings down.
The author, Mo Yan, is a prolific writer in Chinese of novels and short stories that have been translated into five languages. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the citation said that he “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” “Sandalwood Death,” originally published in Chinese in 2004, “is the story of human cruelty in the crumbling Empire.”
While the novel can be difficult to read and understand because it is so different from our own heritage, culture and language, if the reader can make his way through it, he will find it a rewarding experience.
Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.