After the Commune: Postsocialist Collectivity,
the Commodity, and Mo Yan’s People

By Darwin Tsen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.1  (Spring 2017), pp. 95-135

Collectivized agriculture, carried out under the name of the People’s Communes, only lasted for two decades in the People’s Republic of China, but its consequences were far-reaching. With the termination of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Communes soon followed suit in 1978. The end of collective agriculture and the beginning of the Opening and Reform period meant that the sense of collectivity–an anchor of belonging in society for individuals and a necessary, normative component to society’s survival–that emerged under China’s Mao years was completely overhauled. How do individuals imagine themselves relating to each other and society after socialist practices waned in contemporary China? What imaginations of collectivity are available now, in the form of the novel?

This essay analyzes two of Mo Yan’s early novels, both published in the late 1980s, to explore the ways in which the village institution relates to the fictional collective and how such a relationship is mediated through specific commodities. When read together, Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads tell a story about how, after China’s decollectivization of agriculture, post-reform institutions and collectives gradually succumbed to the logic of the market. “After the Commune” argues that it is by aligning these texts with the historical referent of decollectivization in 1978, that we can better understand the relationship between Mo Yan’s artistic form and history and by extension, discover what his “people” reveal how Chinese collectivity as it is imagined in the post-reform era.