When Stick Out Your Tongue was first published in China in 1987, one commentator denounced it as a “vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots,” and Ma Jian's works were banned forevermore in the country. The remaining copies of the serialized novel were traded on the black market for exorbitant sums.
Its English translation, published almost twenty years later, brims with lurid details that might shock Western sensibilities as well. The narrator, a divorced Chinese writer, witnesses the sky burial of a woman who died in childbirth. As her lovers carry her body up the mountain, they pass the remains of previous sky burials, “scraps of bone, clumps of hair, smashed rings, glass beads, and bird droppings dotted with human fingernails.” The narrator stares at her naked, swollen belly in fascination, but as he tries to photograph her, the shutter freezes.
While the narrator of Stick Out Your Tongue sounds like a thinly disguised alter ego for the author, the tone of the work is not voyeuristic. In the 1980s, as a young man, Ma Jian fled his Chinese persecutors and journeyed through Tibet, sleeping under the stars and on dirt floors with his pastoral compatriots. In spare language, he provides a unique glimpse into the life of China's exotic and misunderstood stepchild. The novel, really a collection of short stories, attempts to reveal the psychic and cultural landscape of Tibet on her own terms.
In the subtlest of the vignettes, a young man educated in the city returns home to find his nomadic family. He misses the grasslands, but he has grown comfortable living in the world of books, films, and multistory buildings. When he tells his sister about the girls in the town of Saga whose limbs are “as shiny as yak legs,” she looks away. In deft strokes, Ma Jian portrays the chasm separating the old from the new, and the internal struggles of a young man who lives in two distinct worlds.
Sexual themes reverberate throughout many of the stories. The narrator encounters a nomad who has committed double incest and is making a journey to the sacred mountains to wash away his sins. The nomad had a child with his own mother, and in a moment of drunkenness, he took the grown daughter to bed. The father searches in vain for the girl, but it is the narrator who finds her begging in the city, in a disheveled and deranged state.
Most provocative is the blending of mythology and realism; an old craftsman reveals how his lover became impaled on the pillar rising out of a stupa he constructed, and claims that the incident happened over four hundred years ago. When the lover's body dries into a thin shell, the craftsman hangs it on the wall of the monastery. At times, the emotional truth behind these fantastical scenes becomes too much to bear. The death of the feminine echoes throughout: when the pregnant woman's corpse is cut into pieces, when the dried parchment of the old lover's body flutters in the wind. These vignettes seem to evoke a greater tragedy: the Tibetans' loss of their motherland to the Chinese conquest and to modernization.
While each piece has its epiphanies and its moments of sorrow, the collection leaves the reader wanting more. The stories are written with the urgency of a fugitive who has seen too much, yet one feels that one has only scratched the surface of this ancient, complex culture. The narrative thread running through the stories is a thin one; Ma Jian does not provide a unifying arc, nor does he retrace his steps. Stick Out Your Tongue thus resembles Ma Jian's previous work, The Noodle Maker, a novel that depicts Chinese lives after the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, also written as a series of vignettes recounted by a fictional writer.
The tales in Stick Out Your Tongue are not unlike the hanging parchment of the old lover. They offer a preserved image of Tibet that titillates the senses, while challenging our romanticized notions about the culture. By depicting ordinary people whose feelings are familiar to us despite their unusual ordeals, these stories allow us to get outside our own skin, if only for fleeting moments.