Book review: 'Sandalwood Death' by Mo Yan

“Sandalwood Death” by Mo Yan is a love story, but it also is a critique of political corruption during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial epoch.
BY BETTY LYTLE Modified: February 1, 2013 at 3:46 pm •  Published: February 3, 2013
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In reading “Sandalwood Death” (University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95) by Mo Yan, I would suggest reading the author's notes first. The story is translated from Chinese to English, and the author explains his method of storytelling in his notes.

“Sandalwood Death” is a love story, but it also is a critique of political corruption during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial epoch. It is set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), an anti-imperialistic struggle waged by farmers and craftsmen in rebellion to Western influence.

Sun Meiniang is the female protagonist. She is in love with the county magistrate, Qian, although she is married to Xiaojia, who butchers pigs and dogs and sells their meat through his shop. Her father, Sun Bing, is an opera virtuoso, leader and creator of the Maoqiang opera troupe. He also is a leader in the Boxer Rebellion.

Sun Meiniang's father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is a master executioner, claiming to have cut off more than 1,000 heads. He looks at his work as that of an artist and follows old tradition. He is renowned for completing an execution using the method of 500 cuts — in which the victim is kept alive for 499 cuts, until the last cut, which causes death.

When Sun Bing is sentenced to death, Zhao Jia is recruited to conduct the execution. Although the county magistrate tries to avoid the execution, the influence of the Germans demands that it is carried out.

Told with poetry, operatic arias and lovely prose, this is an interesting story. It took me a while to get into the book, but once I did, I enjoyed it very much.

— Betty Lytle


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