back to homepage

Cross-media study of Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum" in Film and Translation

Author: Kieran Maynard, 2012

Advisor: Dr. Karin Myhre

The name “Red Sorghum” [红高粱] may refer to any of several different works, the first of which is Mo Yan's short story “Red Sorghum,” published to critical acclaim in 1986. The second is the film directed by Zhang Yimou that is based on two Mo Yan short stories “Red Sorghum” and “Sorghum Wine” [高粱酒], which won a Golden Bear at the 38th Berlin Film Festival in 1987. The third is any incarnation of the collection of short stories otherwise called Red Sorghum Family [红高粱家族]. In English, “Red Sorghum” refers either to the Zhang Yimou film or Howard Goldblatt's 1993 translation of Red Sorghum Family, called Red Sorghum: A Novel of China. According to the translator's notes, Red Sorghum Family was abridged by the People's Liberation Army Publishing House in the 1987 edition. The “Taipei Hong-fan Book Co. 1988 Chinese edition,” published in Taiwan, restored those cuts. At Mo Yan's request, the Hong-fan edition was the text Goldblatt translated. Today, the 1987 and 1988 editions are both out of print. Like the 1993 translation, the available editions of Red Sorghum Family (such as the 2008 Shanghai Wenyi edition) contain the five stories “Red Sorghum,” “Sorghum Wine,” “Dog Ways” [狗道], “Sorghum Funeral” [高粱殡], and “Strange Death” [奇死]. There is also an edition called Red Sorghum that contains only the first two stories, as in the film, and is sold with the DVD inside. In this paper, “the film” refers to Zhang Yimou's 1987 film adaptation, and “the book” refers to both the 2008 Chinese and the 1993 English publications by contrast with the film. “The translation” refers to Goldblatt's 1993 translation (based on the 1988 Hong-fan edition).

Red Sorghum in film and print

The 1987 film adaptation is based primarily on the stories “Red Sorghum” and “Sorghum Wine” but follows a different chronology than that of the book and occasionally changes the plot. The book and film are narrated by an unnamed character who is the grandson of the principal characters. The events of the two stories are not narrated in chronological order. Instead, the text shifts between two main story arcs: the lives of Yu Zhan'ao and Fenglian (the narrator's grandfather and grandmother) in the 1920s, and the invasion of Shandong by the Japanese around 1939. Sometimes these shifts in time occur between chapters, and sometimes between or within paragraphs. In contrast, the film is narrated in chronological order, and follows the first arc from the time of Fenglian's marriage in 1923 to the Japanese invasion in 1939. The fragmented chronology is done away with. For example, the book weaves the story in which Yu Zhan'ao kidnaps Fenglian with the scene in which Fenglian dies after being shot by the Japanese. The book narrates the two scenes (sixteen years apart in time) in alternating paragraphs. In contrast, the film presents the kidnapping as part of a continuous chronological sequence. The sequencing may have been changed to make the film easier to follow when there was much material from the book that could not be included.

While the book focuses on Yu Zhan'ao and Douguan (the narrator's father), the film focuses on Fenglian (or Jiuer). “Red Sorghum” opens with Zhan'ao and Douguan going to ambush the Japanese, and “Sorghum Wine” ends with the pair stunned after the battle. In contrast, the film opens with Fenglian's marriage, and ends with her death. In addition, many details of Yu Zhan'ao's life included in the book are omitted in the film, and he is made to look more foolish. For example, in the book Yu Zhan'ao organizes Fenglian's return after she is kidnapped by bandits and bides his time before seizing the chance to kill them in revenge, while in the film he sleeps drunk while Arhat organizes her return and afterward rushes to confront the bandits where he is nearly killed and fails to get revenge. The result of these changes is a less complex character and a greater contrast with Fenglian.

The film's narrative is more abbreviated than that of the book. Where the book fills in the details of events in separate passages, the film omits the details. For example, the film does not explain what became of Jiuer's husband (who was murdered by Yu Zhan'ao) or why Arhat Liu (who killed a confiscated mule) is executed by the Japanese. This abbreviated style was used perhaps due to time constraints, or perhaps to evoke the time shifts in the novel.

The book and film are alike in their vivid use of color. Even ostensibly colorless phenomena like the wind are described in terms of color. For example, a passage in “Red Sorghum” reads:

The low curtain of heaven stared darkly at the silvery faces of sorghum, over which streaks of blood-red lightning crackled, releasing ear-splitting explosions of thunder. With growing excitement, Grandma stared fearlessly at the green waves raised by the black wind.

In particular, the red color of ripe sorghum is an important motif, and the narrator is scandalized to find it replaced with green sorghum in “Strange Death”:

In the deep autumn of the eighth lunar month, under a high, magnificently clear sky, the land is covered by sorghum that forms a glittering sea of blood. If the autumn rains are heavy, the fields turn into a swampy sea, the red tips of sorghum rising above the muddy yellow water, appealing stubbornly to the blue sky above. When the sun comes out, the surface of the sea shimmers, and heaven and earth are painted with extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily majestic colors.

The film uses “extraordinarily rich” colors to reproduce this effect on the screen.

'The book and film differ in how they appeal to other senses. The book includes many references to odors, especially the xingtian qixi 腥甜气息 or 'sickly-sweet odor' of blood. A passage from “Red Sorghum” reads:

A dark blue substance was flowing on his cheek. Father reached out to touch it; hot and sticky, it smelled a lot like the mud of the Black Water River, but fresher. It overwhelmed the smell of peppermint and the pungent sweetness or sorghum and awakened in Father's mind a memory that drew ever nearer: like beads, it strung together the mud of the Black Water River, the black earth beneath the sorghum, the eternally living past, and the unstoppable present. There are times when everything on earth spits of the stench of human blood.

The smell of blood and the mud from the Black Water River are a motif that is repeated throughout the book. Like the blood-red color of sorghum, the sickly-sweet smell of mud symbolizes the spirit of Northeast Gaomi Township. In “Strange Death,” the voice of a spirit orders the narrator to bathe in the Black Water River to remove “the pet-rabbit odor you brought with you from the city” and retrieve a “talisman” of “pure-red sorghum.” The film maintains the motif of blood-red color, but by nature of the medium lacks an effective way to relay olfactory sensation. Instead, the film emphasizes sound. The film opens and closes with music. The remarkably long opening scene shows Fenglian's wedding procession. Most of the scene is filled with music and song. While the music of the procession is described in the book, the words are not recorded. In the closing scene, Douguan sings a funeral song for Jiuer. This song is found in “Sorghum Funeral.” Two other pivotal scenes feature music. The scene in which Yu Zhan'ao kidnaps Fenglian is filled with harsh music, and afterward Yu Zhan'ao sings lyrics that are also found in the book. The scene in which Arhat Liu shows Jiuer how sorghum wine is made features a song. In a scene that is not found in the book, the workers offer wine to the jiushen, or 'Wine God,' and sing a song about sorghum wine. In addition to color, the film emphasizes sound—especially music and lyrics—perhaps to translate Mo Yan's lyricism into a vocabulary that can be used in film.

Changes in “Sorghum Wine” Chapters Four and Eight

A careful analysis of two chapters will illuminate several of the primary differences between the book and the film, and on occasion differences between Chinese editions and the translation. Chapters Four and Eight in “Sorghum Wine” are both part of the story arc that follows the early relationship of Yu Zhan'ao and Fenglian. Because of the fragmented chronology of the book, the chapters contain stories about Yu Zhan'ao's life in earlier years. They are separated in the chapter sequence of the book by two chapters that describe events in chronological order and one that returns to the battlefield in 1939. In contrast, the film follows a linear chronology and eliminates all the events that occur between these chapters, thus the tavern scene taken from Chapter Four comes directly before the winemaking scene taken from Chapter Eight. In addition, the film changes the chronological position of the tavern scene. In the book, Yu Zhan'ao goes to the tavern to eat before going to kill Fenglian's husband and has a chance encounter with a bandit. In the film, the murder of the husband is not included. The film also omits scene in which Yu Zhan'ao takes revenge on the bandit who kidnapped Fenglian, and thus uses the tavern scene to replace it.

In the book, “Sorghum Wine” Chapter Four primarily concerns Yu Zhan'ao and describes three murders he committed early in his life. The tavern scene—in which he refuses to pay full price for a meal and encounters a bandit leader who invites him to become a bandit—illustrates the impetuousness and righteousness of Yu Zhan'ao as a young man, before he became a bandit, and makes a sharp contrast with the scene in Chapter Ten in which he schemes carefully to murder the man whose life he spared in Chapter Four. After the tavern scene is a paragraph in which the narrator explains Yu Zhan'ao's reasons for refusing the bandit leader. Because this paragraph is missing in Goldblatt's translation, I translate and reproduce it in full here. It reads:

He possessed the essential character of a bandit, yet maintained considerable distance from true banditry. As for why after so long he had yet to enter the “Green Wood” of outlaws, the reasons were many. In short, there were three. One, he had received the strictures of culture and morality and considered banditry and robbery contrary to feudal ethics. Regarding the local authorities he still held a considerable degree of superstition, and in traversing the “proper” channels to fight for wealth and women he had not entirely lost faith. Two, for the time being he still had not encountered the overwhelming pressure to revolt (lit. 'be driven to [join the] Liangshan [rebels]'), could still eke out a living, and lived carefree. Three, his outlook on life was still in the tender green stage of growth, and his understanding of life and society still had not attained the degree of detachment and audacity seen in great bandits. Six days earlier, during that fierce battle—a candidate for small-time banditry—in which he beat to death a highwayman, he showed considerable grit and resourcefulness, but the fundamental motivations of that act were righteousness and pathos, and the flavor of the spirit of banditry was weak. His taking my grandmother into the depths of the sorghum field basically embodied a sort of relatively lofty love of fine women, and again the significance of banditry was not great. East Gaomi Township runs rampant with bandits, and the class composition of banditry is considerably complex. I have the high aspiration to write a big book about the bandits of East Gaomi Township and have exerted a considerable degree of effort. This is also first bringing out big talk; if it can bluff a few people, that's fine.

In this paragraph, the narrator draws a distinction between the righteous Yu Zhan'ao of earlier years and the bandit he becomes. This paragraph may have been omitted in the edition of the book Goldblatt translated, or he may have removed it himself. In any case, the translation deemphasizes the change in Yu Zhan'ao's character, and the film deemphasizes further by changing the context of the scene. Both the tavern scene and the calculated revenge scene are combined into a reckless revenge scene. In addition, the tavern scene of the film exaggerates the visuals. In the book Yu Zhan'ao receives a dog's head from a butcher wearing a white pelt. In the film, he receives what looks like the head of an ox from a butcher wearing what looks like an apron of flesh or raw meat. In the translation, in what may have been an oversight by the translator, a sentence is missing. It reads, “He was ravenous, so with no concern for fine flavors he swallowed the dog's eyes, sucked its brains, chewed its tongue, nibbled its cheek, and drank an entire bowl of wine.” Perhaps it was the translator's intention to make the passage less graphic by omitting the sentence. In contrast, the film exaggerates the unsightly elements of the scene, perhaps for stronger visual effect.

In “Sorghum Wine” Chapter Eight, Yu Zhan'ao comes to work at Fenglian's winery, becomes drunk and belligerent when she won't acknowledge him after months, helps make sorghum wine, urinates in the wine, and openly takes Fenglian as his lover. The film condenses Yu Zhan'ao's first few months at the distillery into three days, inserts the kidnapping and tavern scenes between Zhan'ao's drunkenness and the scene at the distillery, and elaborates on the winemaking scene by adding ritual offerings and music. The ritual offering scene—in which the distillery workers line up with bowls of sorghum wine and sing its praises in front of a dais holding the image of the Wine God—is not found in the book. In the book, Chapter Eight is followed by other chapters that continue in the same story arc, but in the film, the distillery scene precedes a considerable leap forward in time (about nine years), thus the musical scene was perhaps added to emphasize the whole distillery sequence before an abrupt change in the film's pace.

Conclusions and candidates for further analysis

The collection of short stories that goes by the name Red Sorghum or Red Sorghum Family contains considerably more material than is included in the film, and different editions of the book may contain different stories. The English translation is based on an out of print older edition of the book and may contain additional changes made by the translator. The film makes notable changes to the chronology and plot of the story to focus on Fenglian's character and not others, such as Yu Zhan'ao. While color plays an important part in both media, smell is emphasized in the book, and sound is emphasized in the film. Further research could analyze other passages omitted or altered significantly in translation or adaptation, such as Arhat Liu's execution or the attack on the Japanese caravan.

additional notes

I produced this research in 2012, coincidentally only months before Mo Yan won a Nobel Prize for literature. Obviously, the award sparked intensely renewed interest in his work and much has been written about this novel and its translation in the past decade. I haven't followed the research, but I was delighted to find a paper that tackles exactly the same passages I describe below, but with a much more sophisticated analysis. I don't know Yu Yali personally but I recommend their paper:

Yu , Yali. (2017). "A Study of Creative Treason in Red Sorghum: From the Perspective of Rewriting Theory". Studies in Literature and Language, 15 (4), 29-37. Available from: