Home > Book Reviews, China > Book Review – Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

Book Review – Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer, due to his outstanding travel narrative, “Red Dust.” Ma is a realist; he has said that it is his intention to depict the lives of the people he sees around him as accurately as possible. But realism is very much out of fashion in Communist China, dangerously so. As such, when “Stick Out Your Tongue” was first published in a Chinese journal in 1987, it was not only banned by the Communist authorities, but a blanket ban was placed upon all of Ma’s future work. Soon after this, Ma moved to Hong Kong and later to London, where he now lives.

At first glance, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about. “Stick Our Your Tongue” is a very short collection of stories about Tibet, so short that they barely justify being published in book form. What we have here is less than 80 pages of actual stories, as well as an interesting Afterword. It gets worse, however, when one realises that the first story in this volume, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” is actually in “Red Dust.” All that’s changed is that the story has been changed from past to present tense, and a couple of references to other characters have been removed. This is disappointing, because what is left is around 50 pages of new material.

The new material depicts a series of disturbing events: an old Tibetan man who raped his own daughter, a Buddhist acolyte who is sexually degraded (in the name of Buddhism) and then left to die on a frozen river. This is disturbing stuff, partly because the material is presently calmly, without attempt to cushion the reader. This is Ma’s strength: he is able to look at the world around him and describe it carefully, even solemnly. But this is hardly pleasant reading. One finishes reading this volume wondering what, if anything, one has learned, other than a reminder of the infinite cruelty of human nature.

Ma’s Afterword, written 18 years after the initial volume was published, discusses the repression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese government. This is of course very topical at the moment, but there’s a strange dislocation between the actual written text of “Stick Out Your Tongue” and the ills Ma suffered as a consequence of having written it. In short, there is nothing overtly political about these stories, except by inference. Ma must have carefully avoided any direct criticism of the Communist authorities in his original text. As such, the Afterword, with its talk of Communist repression, seems out of whack with the rest of the book.

What I am saying here is that Ma Jian is a major writer, but that this is a minor book. “Red Dust” is vital reading for anyone even remotely interested in what has been happening in China in recent decades. “The Noodle Maker,” a ‘novel’ which is in fact a collection of thematically-linked stories, is well worth reading too. But I wouldn’t go out of your way to find “Stick Out Your Tongue” unless you are a Ma completist (he has only published 3 books so far). The good news is that this situation is soon to be rectified. Ma’s magnum opus (at nearly 600 pages) is his new novel, “Beijing Coma,” which is due to be released in around a month’s time. I am hoping that it will confirm my suspicion that Ma Jian is one of the most important Chinese writers of his generation.

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