Mo Yan’s historical novel Sandalwood Death revisits the Boxer Uprising, exploring a local structure of feeling from the point of view of oral transmissions that, one hundred years after the events, appears gradually to be receding into oblivion. It is a project of recuperation or, rather, aesthetic reconstruction of local knowledge. The staging of a variety of local performances, such as Maoqiang opera, seasonal festivals, military and religious parades, as well as of scenes of excessive violence in executions and battle scenes, appears to be a strategy for the cultural reclamation of these local experiences.
The story challenges the ingrained dualism between foreign, modern imperialist and nationalist forms of rationality, and pre-modern, local patterns of behaviour and thought. Employing polyphony and multivalent historical representtations, the novel aspires to portray the social dynamics in a given geohistorical circumstances by measuring the spatiotemporal as well as the cognitive distance between the witnessed event, the testifying witness and the future receivers of the transmitted stories. Thus, the inquiry does not focus on the historical events as facts, but rather on their cultural afterlife in (founding) narratives. In times of a growing gap between the modernist vision of human liberation and the actual conditions of growing inequality, delegitimization and dispossession, this tale of unrest in the wake of globalization has as much to say about the world’s peoples around the year 2000, when the novel was published, as about the microcosm of Shandong Gaomi County around the year 1900, when the historical events took place. Taking into account that the novel was written as a local Maoqiang opera in the making and that theatres are major providers of cultural space for the enactment of the human self as the subject of history, Sandalwood Death can perhaps best be described as a theatre of reclamation.