Book Review: Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan

Aside from the intense fantasy adventure stories I usually read, historical fiction is another personal favourite genre of mine. It’s not always as action-packed but often the internal conflicts exude more energy than anything else. Sandalwood Death is one of those books. This was a friends’ recommendation showcasing a fearless rendition of political corruption in Imperial China.

Book Information:

  • Author: Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt)
  • Year Published: 2001 / 2013 (Translated version)
  • Page Count: 424
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Pacing: Drawling | Slow | Suspenseful Build | Fluctuating | Steady | Fast | Vague
  • Type: Fantasy | Mix | Realism


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The initial story follows three male figures in Sun Meiniangs’ life; her father, father-in-law and lover/benefactor. Her father, Sun Bing is being tried for the murder of a German soldier who harassed his wife and children. Her father-in-law, a master executioner is given the task to perform a punishment that will prolong Sun Bings’ suffering until his slow death. The events are laced and layered with a critique of the political corruption in the Qing Dynasty.

Needless to say, this plot isn’t something you hear of or see every day. Historical fictions like this hold their power in the underlying message and impact on the characters themselves. Mo Yan does this in the most artistic and beautiful prose I’ve ever read.


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The characters were connected and webbed really well in this entire story. Most of the characters showed a mix of active and passive behaviors depending on the situation. In this story in particular, passiveness takes the priority in order to heighten the critique rather than formulating a solution.

Passiveness in this books’ sense is flowing with the corruption rather than fighting against it. Sun Bing was the most active character in the book and the story shows the journey to his demise. Instead of hyping up Sun Bing as the rebellion hero, we heighten the critique by turning him into a martyr.

In terms of building a story, it’s an easy way to critique anything because solutions are harder than critiques.

Sun Meiniang is also somewhat active but her actions quickly melt into passive throughout the story. She was always passive to begin with since everything was simply happening around her rather than actually initiating too much.

Connection Building:

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All the connections were essentially built from the beginning. Meiniangs’ relationship with her ‘gandieh’ (sugar daddy) is explained and developed through flashbacks. Other than that, every connection branches out from Meiniang and surrounds the events of Sun Bings’ arrest. So there is no specific development between each of them, rather a collection of them impacted by a decision.


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Unlike the stylized royalty of China we usually see in fiction, this book was set in the raw country side of Imperial China. Farmers, merchants and entertainers come together bustling in their own culture.

Story Arc:

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The story arc was brutal. It wasn’t here to give you a happy ending by any means necessary. I mentioned in the Handmaids’ Tale Book Review of how extremely passive Offred was throughout the book. My critique in that story was the brutality of the world seemed like a shallow display in a lot of places.

There is a similar critique here as well except we have a balance with Sun Bing. Granted, he doesn’t have a happy ending but his actions create a ripple through the corruption. I feel like no matter how little of a contribution, it managed to create a balance so the display of corruption wasn’t shallow or ‘preachy’.

Writing Style:

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The descriptions and language use in this book is close to writing sorcery as it can get. A huge props to the translator as well for placing all that detail. Every colour, taste and smell was so vibrant. Most of the time, I honestly just continued reading it only to appreciate the sheer descriptions in itself rather than the story. It’s beautifully crafted and anyone who needs writing inspiration, this is the book to get.

Social Readings

There aren’t any specific categories this book really contains other than the fact that you’re probably not going to relate too much on anything here. The act of rebellion after being wrongly accused is the closest to a relatable factor as far as stories go. The author stated himself that he made it culturally specific on purpose because it felt right to him. It’s definitely more educational and you do end up learning a few things on the way. 

Concluding Thoughts:

Sandalwood Death is not for everyone. It’s gory, raw and very brutal in the message it’s trying to portray. But if you don’t mind all that then it’s an amazing historical fiction based on the Boxer Rebellion. Something I didn’t even hear of until I read this book so it’s always good to check out for the knowledge!


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