Frog by Mo Yan

The plague of snow here in Boston enabled me to read Frog by Mo Yan.  The book seems more accessible to a U.S. reader in its themes than the typical work of a non-American Nobelist. At the core of the story is an older infertile woman who attacks the fertility of younger women, i.e., in line with a lot of Western fairy tales. The “old witch” in Frog, however, attacks the younger women not with the aid of spells but through a “one-child policy” bureaucracy and the coercive power of the state.

The book opens with a discussion of traditional medicine being supplanted by modern techniques. We learn the philosophy of the wisest midwife in China circa 1950: “The melon will fall when it is ripe.” (Not something the American health care system generally agrees with, as noted in The Business of Being Born.)

The central section is the most familiar, covering the struggle between people who wanted to have at least two children and the state.

The last third of the novel covers the softening of the policy into cash fines, readily affordable for the successful but prohibitive for the poor. As in the U.S., the wealthy infertile also have access to surrogate mothers, though the medical bureaucracy is not as involved as here (think turkey baster!), and the surrogate mom is also the egg donor. Throughout the novel, but especially in the last third, there is a focus on the cash implications of children and child birth, what they cost parents and what has to be paid when things go wrong, e.g., a botched abortion that results in the death of the mother.

For people who’ve recently read The Son Also Rises (see below), Frog is interesting because it highlights how Chinese policy has shaped reproduction by social and educational class. In the early days of “one child” the government encouraged the least educated and economically successful people, i.e., peasant farmers, to have more children. More recently the “you can have as many kids as you want if you pay the fines” system encourages the most financially successful Chinese to have relatively more children. Frog should be interesting to Europeans because the Chinese have been working so hard in the opposite direction, i.e., to discourage fertility rather than encourage it. Frog should be interesting to American political thinkers (oxymoron to have those three words together?). Through immigration the U.S. will eventually get to the same levels of crowdedness as China did. What will we do then and what will it feel like to be a citizen living through it?

More: read Frog.


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