Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

Partial Cover of Stick Out Your Tongue By Ma Jian

Vel’s Perspective:

It took me reading the introduction to realise that the title of the book did not refer to the jolly gesture of sticking your tongue out when you are being cheeky as a child, or have no verbal come back at your friend, or when you mean something funny on Skype. The short stories included in this book have little to do with jolly things, and as the introduction clarified – all to do with a much-needed visit to the doctor for a diagnosis. The diagnosis in this case being predominantly of the spirit and only then of the body.

The author does not tell us what the diagnosis is, he leaves it for us to decide, only rarely does he pass judgement through his characters and even then, it is to state the obvious so that we can focus beyond it.

The first story shocked me in two ways.

The smaller shock was the treatment of the deceased body. Kept in a sack in the house for days, then laid bare on a rock under the sky to the display of all. Once the Lama confirms the spirit has left the body, a methodical dismemberment of the body commences, even the body parts are hammered for the bones to be broken so that the vultures can eat all without leaving waste behind. You have to admit, its efficient. Its recycling. But of the body. No uhm-in and ah-ing, no expensive coffins taking up acers of workable land, or carbon emissions produced by cremation. The brutal treatment left me stunned until the pragmatism of the practice prevailed. Besides, without the spirit, isn’t the body we (we, Westerners) spend so much time, money and effort to make sure it looks pretty, just a shell?

The main thing that disturbed me was how the girl’s sexuality was exploited, by her father, by the two brothers, by the soldier. The storyteller is confused, outraged at first, but overnight undergoes a transformation which end in him taking part of the Sky Funeral. Even though the storyteller can witness her naked body as it is laid out and casually looks at her ‘private’ parts, whilst he eats meat smoked by the same girl, his camera wouldn’t work before the Lama confirmed the soul has left her body. The bread they share even has sultanas – and what a rare treat they must be in such a distant place.

This theme – of exploiting a woman’s sexuality, continues throughout the book. In the second story the dying student who searches the great plains to find his family has a vivid vision, of his family, but mostly of his sister, who has matured in his absence, by the words of the family which directs him. Aside from this, this was a character I could most easily relate to. Having left my home country to study elsewhere, I fully understand the how both worlds, so different from each other, can appeal and pull strongly in opposite directions. In the end, you are a stranger in both and lost (in my case more of a metaphorically ‘lost’ rather than the physical ‘lost’ of the main character). After the first story, this one was a bit of a low for me, I would like to read it on its own after some time has passed from reading the more memorable first and final stories of this book.

The third story hits hard with questions like, ‘Could have education from an early age prevented this entire disgusting situation form occurring at all?’ as well as the Freudian ‘Is the mother to blame for all that follows?’ and the rhetorical ‘Or the father, who died at an inconvenient time?’ The mother portrayed as a slave of her base needs, the daughter, doomed as the offspring of incest, who tries to break away from fate, only to end up fulfilling the worst playout of karma. Yet, both feel like victims, of their desires, of men, of poverty.

In the fourth story the female character is still victim to her lust, at a monastery, no less, but is in an active position, she pursues younger men methodically and, in in my humble diagnosis, gets exactly what she deserves – death by being penetrated by a golden pole. The ultimate irony, given her second husband (the first one being a tree/fruit/god/something) was a goldsmith and jewel maker. He is not innocent either, as the story explains he uses his craft to get close to the pretty women who come to purchase his works. What does he get nailed on, I wonder…? The story remains silent. Yet, the storyteller, the man who was to be the third husband, still keeps the dried-up skin of the woman. Love? Twistedly romantic, for sure.

And finally, my favourite story, the one which talks about what is ‘magicks’ are taught in the Tibetan spiritual schools. The main female character is a child to be trained as a tulku. Her short, filled with meditation, sutras and karmamudras life ends with rape. Oh, the body dies later, in the frozen river, but the woman herself is dead the moment her teacher has his way with her. Her privacy is denied, much like in the first story, as the sexual act is made public.

In this final story, just outside the gates of the monastery, every morning, a woman does pilgrimage and beats a prayer drum begging to be reborn as a man. It brings to mind the words of Tara, in the form of princess Yeshe Dawa, who is approached by the priesthood asking her to pray to be reborn as a man in order to fulfil her spiritual potential. She responds that it is only for ‘weak minded worldlings’ who see gender as a barrier to enlightenment, and prays to be reborn as a woman until samsara is no more. Her words seem to be forgotten by those who worship her.

This small book portrayed Tibet in a light I would have never expected. Is praying even going to help when the holy land is filled with incest, perversion and profanity, not to mention sexual inequality? It must be noted that the book was first published exactly 30 years ago. Perhaps changes occurred during this time, even in that remote part of the world.

Nel’s Perspective:

I decided to read Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian, primarily because I studied the Chinese language for such a long time, without having much exposure to Chinese literature, especially contemporary literature. I also wanted to support the efforts of the very few Bulgarian translators, who only recently started translating literature directly from Chinese into Bulgarian. But this particular author drew my attention because:

  1. His subject was life in Tibet, which is a very controversial topic in China unless you talk about tourism. And even then, someone might get suspicious of your interest in the subject.
  2. His books were banned. This always picks up my interest, specifically when it comes to China because more often than not, this means that the author has something to say, which may not be liked by the majority of people, and of course, the Chinese Government.

I had some knowledge about life in Tibet, mainly from Western media and less from Chinese media, but most of it consisted of the glossed over “high-mountains, fresh air, Buddhist monks” knowledge tidbits and version of Tibet. Obviously, there is much more to the story, especially after the “inclusion” of Tibet as one of China’s provinces. I constantly try to learn about different perspectives and opinions, because you never know when you’ll find something interesting and valuable. So I started reading…. and it really shocked me, but in a good way…

I really didn’t know what to expect at first. I honestly thought, maybe naively, that the stories will describe the peaceful and serene life of the Tibetan people, isolated from the rest of the fast-pacing world. Ma Jian perfectly captured this aspect, however, it was not peacefulness he captured; it was stillness. The stories seemed more like a time capsule, in which the events always progress to the same end and start with the same beginning, much like a never-ending spiral. I say spiral, because the circle implies that it cannot be broken, whereas a spiral, to me, means that although things seem to repeat themselves, a slight change in course may lead to a different, and hopefully, a better conclusion.

But why all this gloom? As Vel explained, most, if not all, of the stories, revolve around poverty, illiteracy, female sexuality, the human body in general, and primitive beliefs and superstitions. The book outlines the explanations people give in order to justify their actions and how much of what people do is dictated by inner desires and outside forces. However Stick Out Your Tongue is also about silent hope and prayer for a better future, possibly in the next life. Hence, why I used the spiral analogy.

I won’t go so much into details about each particular story (Vel summed everything perfectly) because I think that the general feeling of the book is much more valuable. On one side, Ma Jian paints a still picture of an isolated place almost 30 years ago, where sexual, financial and religious inequality reigns. On the other, he also silently provides us with a place and a time for comparison. In many parts of the world, people continue their attempts to fight inequality in all of its different forms and it must be noted that some of them have been victorious. Whether big or small, success stories pave the way for different actions and a different course of history, which could potentially provide hope and relief to many other people, who are trapped in their own unfortunate circle. And while isolated places like Tibet may still have a long way to go in order to progress, the book also lets us appreciate how far other places have come through and how much there still needs to be done.

Stories and books, such as these, need to be told because this is the best way to learn how and why some things work and why others don’t. And this is what I meant by a good shock – a meeting with reality, which serves as a cold shower that both awakens the senses and leaves the brain active, thinking about how such problems can be fixed. After I read the book, I rushed to read the comments of other people to see how they perceived the stories. Their opinions were divided – there were those, who loved them, and those, who hated them because the book made them feel depressed. When I offered Vel to read Stick Out Your Tongue, I told her not to expect anything, especially the “high-mountains, fresh air, Buddhist monks” type of narrative. Vel and I often hold similar opinions about things and I’m glad that she also appreciated the less seen and known version of Tibet like I did.

Final thought: Life and reality can often be depressing, it’s what we make of it and how we deal with it is what’s more important.

First Published: 1987; Translated: 2014

Language book read in: Bulgarian