Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. The Chinese writer discusses his writing in the Preface of a collection of 8 short stories in Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. The writer grew up poor in a rural area of China and was pulled out of school to help his family with their farming work. Mo Yan was lonely and developed a habit of telling stories about his observations of his sparsely populated environment. His incessant story telling caused his mother to ask him, if he ever stopped talking. This question produced a nick name, Mo Yan that means don’t speak. During his farm work, he met a writer toiling in the fields as punishment for being a right wing agitator. Mo Yan liked the descriptions of the writer related to writing stories and being able to afford three meals a day.
In this collection of short stories, the title story "Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh" is a tale of downsizing of old factory jobs to make way for new workers in a business booming China. It also describes social hardships resulting from dramatic economic change.
"Man and Beast" is a story of redemption and forgiveness on an isolated mountain on the island of Hokkaido.
"Soaring" is a fable of perceived beauty and ugliness and societal forces that lead to tragedy and deliverance.
"Iron Child" is a fable of persecution and resilience but final acceptance of inescapable human descruction.
"The Cure" illustrates the ultimate solution to societal problems that seems to haunt all totalitarian political systems. The ultimate degradation of the human spirit turns the solution into an identification with the aggressor.
"Love Story" is a tale of young love in the failed utopia of the Cultural Revolution in the middle decades of the 20th Century in China. In spite of the political insanity, human beings continue to procreate and evolve beyond temporary “absolute truths.”
"Shen Garden" explores the meaningless life of a “successful” man who turns his back on the one love relationship that could have resulted in ego integrity rather than despair.
Finally, "Abandoned Child" is the story of a common occurrence in a country where the government mandates social engineering justified by the idea that family planning will curb natural evolution and produce a Utopian society.
Mo Yan’s handpicked set of 8 stories was first published in 2001 then re-released in 2011. He set the context in his Preface by writing that, “Looking back some forty years, to the early 1960s, I revisit one of modern China’s most bizarre periods, an era of unprecedented fanaticism.” China was burdened by “economic stagnation and individual deprivation.”
Mo Yan’s stories reflect his development as a writer starting in the 1980s “when China opened its door to the outside world, that we finally began to face reality, as if waking from a dream.” In this volume of short stories, the reader can see in part why Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.