Cannibal Labyrinth: Narrative, Intertextuality, and
Politics of Cannibalism in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine

By Tiffany Yun-chu Tsai

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.2  (Fall 2020), pp. 230-276

This essay shows how Mo Yan creates a cannibalistic framework of metafictional narrative in The Republic of Wine (1992), which can be understood through the framework of diegetic levels outlined in Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse. In this metafiction, Mo Yan omits three signs of narrative slip as indicators of boundary and diegetic-level crossing in his narrative labyrinth. The shifts between the extradiegetic-homodiegetic narrator “I” and intradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrator “he” in the narrative render reality incomprehensible and the writing unfaithful. By thoroughly examining the framed narrative and comparing the novel’s various versions of publication in Taiwan, China, and the U.S., the article argues that this cannibalistic frame–in which the logic of the intradiegetic level ultimately takes over and incorporates that of the extradiegetic level–exposes the indiscernibility of different diegetic levels, the narrator’s, writer’s, and reader’s relationships to the story, and the blurring worlds of fiction and reality.

In this novel, narration is a process of incorporating others’ stories in order to produce a new narrative. The formulations of this cannibalistic metafictional narrative framework – narrative structure, discursive language, intertextuality, and censorship – all display an essence of cannibalism: a form of incorporation of the other into the self. Cannibalistic censorship completes a circuit in which “chaotic and corrupt” and “romantic and amorous” engross each other and become incorporated while echoing the coexistence of the binaries that Mo Yan intends to disclose. Meanwhile, Mo Yan’s metafictional explorations of inceptional, intertextual stories which make references to his own writing, to other writings, and to the real world create a form of cannibalistic intertextuality. The novel represents a deep reflection on Chinese national character through its tracing of the historical and cultural contexts of cannibalism and corruption. As allegories of cannibalism progress from Lu Xun’s to Mo Yan’s times, the sacrifice of meat boys in The Republic of Wine allegorizes the generation after the 1989 crackdown of democracy movement in China – innocent, amnesiac and numb, and awaiting “harvesting” when needed.

Therefore, in The Republic of Wine, cannibalism first frames the novel’s diegetic structure to expose the logic and reality of our actual world. It then symbolizes censorship and intertextuality, which Mo Yan deliberates over in order to provide political and sociocultural critique. It further embodies the coercive incorporation of excessive materialistic consumerism. Last but not least, cannibalism references the awakening to the shattered ethics of tradition in modern China and the reincarnated tradition of corruption and nepotism in contemporary China that persisted after the crackdown of the pro-democracy movement in 1989. By revealing the cultural logic of cannibalism with metafictional writing skills, Mo Yan ultimately manifests a postsocialist reality of a money-and-power-driven ideology along with materialist pursuits that devours each and every one from within.