Mo Yan, a novelist, in his story, “the Iron Child” narrates in details the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. Mo Yan set the story during the Great Leap Forward smelting campaign. The narrator’s parents are employed to construct a railroad in the wilderness. The boy is abandoned in a sub standard day care camp where the charges are inhumane and inconsiderate. They throw him out of the camp' and he is left to suffer outside the school compound. It is then that he meets the iron child who teaches him survival tactics. The one way of survival is mastering the technique of eating iron. The story reveals the suffering of the Chinese people during the Great Leap Forward smelting campaign (Goldblatt, 2007).
Mo Yan begins his story by recounting his childhood life. He observed that, during the great leap smelting campaigns, the government mobilized laborers to build a railway line that they completed in two and half months. While the railway’s upper terminus linked with the Jiaoji trunk, the lower terminus was at Gaomi Township bush land towards the North East. Mo Yan, he says, was only four years old and lived in a nursery school beside the public canteen. The school, Mo Yan observes, consisted of row of mud buildings “with a thatched roof”. Surrounding the school were saplings joined by a heavy wire. He maintains that even the strongest dog could not go past the saplings.
He laments that anyone who was old enough to hold a hoe or a folk was recruited into the labor brigades. All the laborers, Mo Yan provides, ate and slept at the construction site and he had not seen them for a long time. Tree skeletal women, whom the narrator likens to crones because of their sunken eyes and hawk-like noses, were in charge of the nursery school that confined him. Every day, the women in charge prepared three meals of porridge mixed with wild greens: during breakfast, lunch, and supper. The children, after drinking the porridge, would go up to the fence to gaze at the workers as the laborers walked up and down in the nearby road. The narrator describes the laborers as frustrated and poor. They were “grubby and listless, their hair a mess”. Determined to locate their relatives, the children inquired about the relatives’ whereabouts from the laborers. While the children were in tears, Mo Yan says, the adults expressed grief and others expressed ignorance. They “cocked their heads and cast a fleeting glance”.
All this while, Mo Yan reports, the women in charge of the school just sat at the door and looked at the children nonchalantly. The two-meter fence was too high for the children to climb over and the spaces between the saplings were so narrow that the children could not wriggle between them. As the narrator emphasizes, the children sat at a vantage point inside the nursery school to see the “earthen dragon rise at the distant field” and watch hordes of people as they scrambled up and down the dragon. The writer likens the hordes of people to ants swarming over a hill. He claims that the laborers reported that the rising point formed the road bed for the railway line. The writer’s relatives were part of the colony that worked in the railway line. From time to time, into this dragon, laborers would stick red flags. At other times, they would stick white flags. After some time, Mo Yan writes, many shiny objects, that he learnt from the laborers that were steel rails, appeared on top of the dragon.
One day, Mo Yan claims, a tall man with sandy hair appeared and, after enquiring about the children from their kinfolks, started playing cheerfully with them. The man then asked the narrator what was his daddy’s name. When the narrator offered his father’s name, the tall man admitted to knowing him. However, the narrator, unknowingly, had betrayed his own father. His childhood friend follows the same fate. He reveals his mother’s name and she meets death in the line of duty. In a short while, the hard labor gives birth to a complete railway line and women in white start proclaiming that ‘the train’s coming’.
The narrator is one of the children who suffer from the general lack of food and malnutrition. He wanted to become a writer, because he learnt that a writer could have the privilege of meaty dumplings as often as he wanted. His recollection of the large-scale famine forms a rich source of the story ‘The iron Child’, which is both biographical and fictional. When his parents die in the line of duty, his keepers abandon him. Without parents to fend for him, the narrator faces the real hardship as he is forced to fend for himself. After a short time, he meets so-called iron Child. The Iron Child befriends the narrator and shows him how to search for iron smelting work, and how to eat iron. At the work place, the laborers are surprised by the two demon’s ability to eat metal. The Iron Child advises the narrator against revealing their secrets to the public as the public would steal the boys’ ideas. He says, “Be sure you do not tell people how delicious iron is”.
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When the narrator knew how to eat iron, he says, he followed the Iron Child knowing that he had known one secret for survival. The walked until the sky turned red, and could smell the aroma of the burning iron. They were walking with the hope of meeting their parents, unaware of the fact that their parents were dead. However, the narrator did not care if his parents were there or not. This shows that the narrator was hardening and adapting to the hardships. The flaming iron turned the faces of the laborers who sat by the side eating their meals. While the meaty dumplings seemed sweet to them, the narrator detested its aroma.
The narrator observed the hopeless state of the laborers. The stench from them, he says, was worse that of the dog shit. Two people shouted at him, and he recognized them as his parents. The narrator took of as the parents ran after him. Following the iron child, the narrator hid past the heap of iron and steel into a drainpipe where his parents could not trace him. The two boys crawled in the drain pipe until they saw a light up ahead. Then they crawled through the threads of abandoned tanks from where they crawled up to the turret. They chewed the screws and moved into the turret and settled on “soft, spongy iron seats”. From there, the narrator could see his parents through a narrow opening. The parents crawled tossing the scrap metals aside. The sound of the metals, Mo Yan narrates, blended well with their tearful voices.
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The parents lost hope and stopped looking for the narrator. The two boys crawled to a vantage point where they could see the burned iron and the smelt metals. They went towards the furnace, seized a great big wok and ran off with it. When the laborers saw them, they ran off in fear like they had seen two little demons. The laborers thought the iron had turned into demons and this caused fear.
Mo Yan’s story is a biographical comedy that tells his childhood hardships in a satirical tone. He narrates how he suffered under the ruthless hands of the three in charges who cared for the children while the parents worked in the iron smelting industry. His was a life full of suffering. When he was only four years old, he could not afford good meals and thereby suffered from malnutrition. His life is a reflection of life that people led. The workers toiled in the iron smelting industry and railway Construction Corporation for a meager income. They suffered under the ruthless hands of the bosses who subjected them to harsh treatments. For example, when the tall man asked the children the names of their parents, he told those children that the parents would fail to come back. Sure enough, he arranges for their death.
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When the narrator met the iron child, he was much relieved, because he found a person with whom he shared experiences. The iron boy taught the narrator how to eat iron in order to survive. The chewing of iron represents a life of hardships. The iron child taught the narrator the secrets of working in the iron smelting industry in order to earn a livelihood. When the narrator saw his parents, he ran way. This shows the determination of the narrator to lead his own life. He is determined to win bread for himself rather than getting assistance from his parents.
Through the narrator, Mo Yan employs irony to bring out the theme of suffering. Mo Yan represents a group of Chinese men and women who lead a life that is full of challenges. They are subjected to a harsh treatment by their employers and receive an income that is not enough to sustain them. The Chinese group that the narrator represents works in the rail way industry, probably for the colonial government, that does not give them reasonable allowances. The narrator describes them as having a messy hair and as being grumpy and listless. The laborers cannot afford a decent meal for their children. They have to leave their children under the care of harsh women in the nursery school to fend for them.
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Mo Yan uses an ironical tone to communicate the harsh conditions in a light way. For example, he hails the “sweet aroma” of the burning iron, but despises the stench from the meat on which the laborers feed. This shows that the narrator liked to work in order to earn a livelihood in stead of benefiting from the food that the colonial government provided. The iron child teaches the narrator how to look for and eat iron, and advises him not to reveal the secret to others. In light of this, the narrator leans how to fend for himself at a tender age. The Iron Child is a book that details the survival of a young man as he hassles through the harsh reality of life.
In conclusion, Mo Yan’s story is a revelation of the suffering that the Chinese faced during the great leap forward smelting campaign. In a light, but rather satirical tone, the narrator describes the poor living conditions to which he was exposed. He travels through dark paths and treads on slippery grounds as he tries to build his own stamina. Into this environment, the narrator learns the tactics of survival and ultimately becomes a symbol of hope. However, the bigger picture of the story is the revolution of the Chinese cultural group.