The following is an extract from Change written by Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012, and translated by Howard Goldblatt. It was first published in 2010 by Seagull Books as part of its What was Communism series.
By rights, I should be narrating events that occurred after 1979, but my thoughts keep carrying me back to that fall afternoon in 1969, when the sun shone brightly, the golden chrysanthemums were in full bloom and the wild geese were on their southern migration. When it reaches that point, I cannot be separated from my thoughts. My memories comprise the ‘me’ of those days, a lonely boy who had been expelled from school but who was drawn to the clamour inside the schoolyard. I had slipped in through the untended gate, my heart in my throat, and crossed the long, gloomy corridor to enter the school’s central quadrangle, a yard surrounded by buildings. To the left stood an oak pole with a crossbar held on by wire, from which hung a rusty iron bell. Off to the left, two people were playing ping-pong across a simple concrete table on a brick stand, watched eagerly by a crowd that was the source of the clamour. It was the school’s fall break and, though most of the spectators were teachers, there were also a few of the pretty co-eds who made up the ping-pong team and who were the pride of the school. They were in training for a countywide tournament as part of the October First National Day celebration, so instead of leaving school for the break, they’d stayed behind to practise. As children of the state farm Communist Party cadres, they were well developed and fair-skinned, thanks to a nutritious diet. They were also dressed in gaily coloured clothes, and one look told you that they were in a different class from us poor kids. We looked up to them, but they wouldn’t give us the time of day.
One of the players was the math teacher, Liu Tianguang, a short man with a startlingly large mouth. We’d heard that he could fit his entire fist in that mouth, but none of us had ever seen him do it. An image of him up at the podium yawning grandly often flashed into my mind—that gaping mouth of his really was a sight to behold. One of his nicknames was ‘Hippo’. Now, none of us had ever seen a real hippopotamus, which in Chinese is hema, and that sounds like hama, for toad, another creature with a large mouth, so it was only natural that we started calling him Toad Liu. That wasn’t my invention but, after asking around, he decided it was. Saddling Toad Liu, son of a martyr and deputy chairman of the school’s revolutionary committee, with a nickname was such a heinous offence that expelling me from school and kicking me off campus was both reasonable and inevitable.
I’d always been a diffident kid with lousy luck who was often too clever for his own good. For example, if I tried to brown-nose one of the teachers, they’d figure I was trying to get them into trouble. I can’t count the number of times my mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re the owl that ruins its reputation by announcing good news!’ She was right. No one ever associated me with anything good or worthwhile. But let something bad happen, and all fingers pointed to me. People said I was rebellious, that the quality of my thinking was poor, that I hated school and my teachers. They could not have been more wrong! Truth is, I loved school and had special feelings toward my teacher, Big Mouth Liu. That’s because I was a kid who was burdened with a large mouth. The boy in one of my stories—‘Large Mouth’—was based on yours truly. Teacher Liu and I were, truth be told, fellow sufferers and ought to have enjoyed mutual understanding or, at the very least, mutual sympathy. If there was one person I’d never have given a nickname to, it was him. Anyone could have seen that. Anyone but him. He dragged me by the hair to his office, he kicked me to the floor and yelled: ‘You . . . you . . . you’re like a blackbird mocking a black pig! Go take a good look at that dainty mouth of yours in a puddle of your own piss!’
I tried to explain but he wouldn’t let me, and that is how a pretty good boy who was fond of Big Mouth Liu—me, Big Mouth Mo—was expelled from school. Despite the fact that Teacher Liu broadcast my shameful expulsion in front of everyone, I still liked my school so much that I looked for ways to sneak into the schoolyard, beat-up book bag slung over my shoulder, every single day.
At first, Teacher Liu personally demanded that I leave. When I refused, he dragged me out by my ear or hair. But I’d sneak right back in before he’d made it back to his office. So then he told some of the bigger boys to do it for him, and, when I still wouldn’t leave, they’d pick me up, carry me out beyond the gate and deposit me on the street. But before they were back in their classroom, I was in the schoolyard again, crouching in a corner by the wall, shrunk into myself, both to keep from being spotted and to get a little sympathy as I listened to the cheerful voices and watched the kids jump and play. Ping-pong was my favourite. I could watch that till I lost track of where I was, often with tears in my eyes or biting down on my fist. After a while, they gave up trying to drive me away.
On this particular fall afternoon, forty years ago, I was crouching in the corner, watching Toad Liu brandish a ping-pong paddle of his own design—extra large and shaped like the head of an army shovel—in a match against a girl in my class, Lu Wenli. She too had a large mouth, if you want to know the truth, but hers fit her face perfectly, not oversized like Liu’s and mine. Even back then, when a large mouth was not considered a sign of beauty, she was one of the school’s best-looking girls. What made her even more appealing was that her father drove the state farm Gaz 51 truck, which to us was lightning fast and eye-popping impressive. In those days, truck drivers were the next thing to royalty.
Once, when I was still in school, the teacher had us write an essay on the topic ‘My Ideal’, and half the boys in class put down ‘truck driver’. But He Zhiwu, a tall, strapping boy with acne and a noticeable moustache—which made him seem more like twenty-five than our age—wrote simply: ‘I don’t have any other ideal—I only have one ideal—My ideal is to be Lu Wenli’s father.’
Teacher Zhang was in the habit of reading the best and worst essays in front of the whole class. But instead of telling us who wrote them, he’d make us guess after he finished. In rural areas back then, the locals laughed at people who spoke Mandarin, even in school. Teacher Zhang was the only one who dared to teach us in that alien dialect. A graduate of a teachers’ college, he was still only in his early twenties. He had a gaunt, pale face, wore his hair short with a part down one side and dressed in a faded blue gabardine army jacket, with a pair of paperclips on the collar and blue over sleeves. He must have worn other jackets in different colours and styles, since he couldn’t have worn the same one all year round. But that one is inextricably tied to his image in my memory, starting with the over sleeves and paperclips to the jacket itself and then to his face, his features, his voice and his expression. If I don’t do that, I simply cannot conjure up his image. In the slang of the 1980s, he would be called ‘Butterball’, what in the 1990s became ‘Pretty Boy’. These days, he’d just be ‘Handsome’, I guess.