Imagery and Diction in Red Sorghum

Through war torn villages and billowing sorghum fields, author Mo Yan depicts the subtle joys and harsh realities of the life of a Chinese family during the Second Sino-Japanese War in his novel, Red Sorghum. The intensity of the challenges and hardships that face this particular family are explored through the vivid imagery and potent diction that Yan employs. One of the most core elements of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum is the use of graphic imagery to capture staggeringly violent exchanges between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as between fellow Chinese countrymen.

This imagery is delivered in one of the novel’s early scenes through Yan’s cogently striking diction that articulately details the slaughter of Uncle Arhat. Arhat, a loyal friend of the novel’s central family, is enslaved by the Japanese soldiers to build a highway, and although he escapes, is later caught and brutally murdered. The narrator describes Uncle Arhat as a “huge skinned frog” as he was “hacked to pieces” (Yan, 9). The characterization of Arhat as a frog emphasizes his devolution from humanity as his flesh is stripped away to produce a bloody and barely human figure. The use of onomatopoeia in the word “hacked” instills a sense of the harsh violence that took place at Arhat’s death. The father of the narrator was not able to recognize Arhat for some time when the Japanese brought him to be killed. He is described as “just a strange, bloody creature in human form” and an “inert slab of meat”, adding to the image of Arhat as less than human, a broken and pathetic figure awaiting death (Yan, 34). Yan also manipulates the reaction of the audience to Arhat’s appearance to intensify this graphic scene. The crowd remains ashen faced and tense as they await Arhat’s death in fear and horror. Arhat’s sorrowful state causes some to fall to the ground, wailing grievously (Yan, 37). Even the nearby birds fell silent, effectively setting the stage for the grave and appalling scene (Yan, 34). The chapter continues to describe the nauseating skinning of Uncle Arhat with sharp word choice that paints a gruesome yet clear image of the sight. As Arhat’s “screeches” in ink, it seems as though a terrific howl echoes through the skull of the reader and goosebumps arise as Arhat’s detached skin twitches in the dirt (Yan, 35-36). Animated words are used to further evoke emotion, as a vivid impression of Arhat’s “bony frame twitching violently on the rack” is paired with his shrieks of agony (Yan, 36). A truly gut-rolling phrase describes Arhat as being “turned into a mass of meaty pulp, his innards churned and roiled, attracting swarms of dancing green flies” (Yan, 37). The diction and imagery used to describe this gorey setting create a vivid and realistic experience for the reader, as Yan spares no graphic detail in the murder of Uncle Arhat. This blunt style of writing is used to reveal the devolution of Arhat from loyal companion to a butchered and unrecognizable creature.

While the death of Arhat brings a shock to the beginning of the novel, Mo Yan continues the graphic imagery of violence in one of the closing chapters, called Strange Death. This scene focuses on the rape of Passion, the narrator’s “second grandma”. Passion, who lives with her young daughter in the village, is suddenly gripped one day by a “dormant and profoundly disturbing terror; she knew that her eyeballs were rolling wildly, and she heard a terrifying shriek erupt from her throat” (Yan, 319). This violent fear is conveyed through the diction that Yan chooses in this passage. The connotations surrounding words such as “disturbing”, “terror”, and “shriek” lend to the overwhelming panic that abruptly envelops Passion, as well as vividly brings the scene to life through the descriptive language. The Japanese soldiers who burst into Passion’s home a moment later are villainized by Yan’s likening of their physical image to unpopular animals. The first soldier is characterized by his resemblance to a rat, with his “crafty expression, pointy chin, and black mustache above a pointed mouth” (Yan, 319). This “sly expression” and his semblance to an animal commonly thought of as disease ridden and untrustworthy portrays this character as vile and devious. Another man is described as a “fat, squirming maggot” and a “slimy toad” as he crawls up onto Passion’s bed (Yan, 320). His facial expression is described as “the savage look of a jackal” (Yan, 321). This provides the image of the house infested with undesirable pests, infecting Passion and her child with their depravity.

Passion’s fear and anger is shown again as the soldiers continue to burst into her house and Little Auntie, her daughter, was “scared witless by the sight of her mother’s mouth distorted with hare on her ash-smeared face” (Yan, 320). This physical expression of anger on Passion’s face further emphasizes the emotion in this scene. Her experience is described in a particularly poignant passage written in second person that reads, “He pressed his savage face up to yours, and you closed your eyes in revulsion. You thought you could feel your three-month-old fetus writhing in your belly, and could hear the desperate screeches of Little Auntie, like a rusty knife being drawn across a whetstone….Your face was covered with tears, fresh blood, and his thick, sticky slobber. Hot red blood suddenly gushed from your mouth, and a vile stench filled your nostrils. The squirming fetus in your belly produced waves of liver-rendering, lung-filling pain…Anger festered in your heart, and when the Japanese soldier’s greasy cheeks brushed up against your lips and you made a feeble attempt to bite his face” (Yan, 324). This passage includes especially vibrant words that assert the utter atrocity and barbarity of rape. Yan deliberately chooses words that evoke emotion from his readers and create stirring and graphic scenes that reveal the harsh truth behind real life experiences.