Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian – Review

Stick Out Your Tongue, by MA Jian (Original hardcover edition, Chatto & Windus UK, 2006, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew) The author’s surname (family name) is Ma.

Back to Getting the Hang of the Chinese Novel

I have read Stick Out Your Tongue by MA Jian quite a few times and each time I found something new to wonder about. It is a collection of short stories or long short stories on the same theme – Tibet and Tibetan sky burials – making it a novella. On the cover is praise from Nobel laureate, author and artist, Gao Xingjian, for MA Jian:

“One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.”

Praise for Ma Jian on the cover of Stick Out Your Tongue.

My copy was published by Chatto & Windus, London, in 2006, and translated by Flora Drew, and it contains an Afterword by the author. The book originally came out in 1987, in the Chinese literary journal, People’s Literature. Result: a government crackdown; the novella was denounced, the editor of the journal was sacked, all the copies of the edition in which it had appeared were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily Ma Jian was in Hong Kong at the time, and the novel, branded “pornography” became infamous and was sold on the black market. In that way, it was read by many people, causing the opposite effect to what the Chinese government wanted to achieve.

Soul mates – English language translator Flora Drew with Chinese author Ma Jian. (Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer. Source: Claire Armitstead, ‘It’s a silent conversation’: authors and translators on their unique relationship, April 6, 2019, in The Guardian UK)

A collection of five stories

The novella contains 5 stories: The Woman and the Blue Sky, The Smile of Lake Drolmula, The Eight-Fanged Roach, The Golden Crown, and The Final Initiation.

Ma wrote them after two years or so of travelling through the remotest areas of Tibet. He saw first-hand the destruction of Tibetan towns, temples and monasteries as a result of the Chinese “liberation” in the 1950s:

“My hope of gaining some religious revelation also came to nothing. Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.”

Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian, Afterword, p. 84
Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian (Picador USA; Reprint edition, July 24, 2007, 104 pages)

The Woman and the Blue Sky

The Woman and the Blue Sky is the only story about Tibetan sky burial, which caused most of the fuss. Ma writes in his Afterword to the book:

“Westerners idealize Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealize them is to deny them their humanity. The Chinese people have retained a very different view of Tibet. For them it is not a mystical Shangri-La, but a barren outpost of the great Chinese empire.”

Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian, p. 89

A first person narrator, a photographer, wanders into a little village where he asks to attend and photograph a sky burial of a young woman. Ma writes simply, but often his imagery is poetic and wonderfully evocative – but also as unexpected as slap across the face. The body of the dead woman has been cut apart and the hawks and vultures are feeding on bits and pieces, but,

“In the valley below, ribbons of mist rose from Yamdrok and rolled into a single sheet that slowly covered the entire lake. The mist thickened and spread, rising and falling like the chest of a woman breathing, drifting higher and higher until it veiled the blood-red sun.”

Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian, p. 14

The narrator’s emotions are shown by the descriptions of the environment – the dusty streets, the high plains, the lakes and the interiors of houses. It is all so clearly described that the reader feels as if they are there.

The Smile of Lake Drolmula

The Smile of Lake Drolmula is about a student, “Sonam”, who comes back from studying in the city and searches for his family who has trekked somewhere in the mountains with their flock. He cannot find them, he is tormented by images of his loved ones and the life he left behind, his horse runs away, and eventually, he dies. But before he dies, he thinks he is with them again. It is quite a poignant description:

“A gust of wind blew into Sonam’s face. When it died, his family suddenly appeared before him. First, he saw the tent, the flickering fire and the cooking pot with the aluminium lid. His mother was standing behind the steam, dropping lumps of yak butter into the pot. He could smell the warm butter tea and fried cheese. Then he saw Dawa, or rather, Dawa saw him. She yelped with joy, raced over to him, dug her head into his chest and slapped his shoulders. He laughed and followed her into the tent.”

Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian

Is that not a beautiful description? In his last moments, Sonam wants to explain to his family how wonderful his new life is, he wants his family to like the presents he brought them, but all he realizes is that his new life is nothing compared to what he left behind, and it sounds a bit ridiculous. The story is a moving depiction of longing and nostalgia.

Taboos and transgressions

All the stories have plain references to taboos in Chinese literature during the Cultural Revolution – sex, incest, death, Buddhist reincarnation and bodily functions. (In terms of writing about taboos, Su Tong’s Rice is riddled with no-holds-barred depictions of them. They hardly bear repeating here, they’re so awful. But Rice was published in 2004, not the 1980s.)

There is a sub-theme of these taboos running through all the stories; a girl is forced into marriage with two brothers; a man has sexual thoughts of his sister; an old man has sex with his mother and his daughter; that daughter loses her mind and sells her body in a marketplace; a reincarnation of a Living Buddha is ritually deflowered and dies in a frozen river.

Who knows how it really was in those far-off places in Tibet where life was so different to the West in every way? Sometimes you wonder, can they be true? Is that the way it was? Or is the character rambling or dreaming? Sometimes the stories have stories, fables, being retold within them, making you think the narrator is exaggerating what happened.

At the same time, these things are so baldly stated, so well contextualized and fit so perfectly into the plots, that they seem authentic. They are not there to sensationalize or dramatize. If anything, Ma depicts them in a restrained, factual manner.

For example, a woman who may be the same one who had been raped by her father, lives on the street, a simple-minded prostitute and a beggar:

“The lower lids of her eyes were slightly swollen, but when she smiled, her mouth stretched wide open and her eyes beamed with kindness. It was the smile of a woman of the high plateau, a smile as pure as the grassland air. She was smothered by the dust and noise of the crowded street. So that passers-by wouldn’t tread on her, she retreated under the table of a yak meat stall.”

Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian, p. 48

The state of this poor woman gets worse from there on, but still, she has this trusting smile.


This is the core of Ma’s novella or “non-fiction novel” for me: the harsh ugly reality of Tibet as he experienced it, combined with ravishing beauty and tenderness.  It is very different from the writing of any establishment-approved Chinese author. But its bold, gritty realism ensures that even today, it is read by people all over the world – the mark of a classic.

In April 2012, in a dramatic act of protest at the London Book Fair, Chinese author Ma Jian smeared red paint across his face to demonstrate his anger at the choice of China as the event’s “market focus". He spoke out against Chinese censorship of “taboo” subjects.
In April 2012, in a dramatic act of protest at the London Book Fair, Chinese author MA Jian smeared red paint across his face to demonstrate his anger at the choice of China as the event’s “market focus”. He spoke out against Chinese censorship of “taboo” subjects.