MO YAN: CHINA'S NOBEL-PRIZE-WINNING AUTHOR

MO YAN WINS NOBEL LITERATURE PRIZE

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In 2012, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan, a Chinese author regarded as a magical-realist whose work has been partially banned but who is not seen as a dissident. “Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” the citation for the award stated.

Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian: Mo Yan, who left school for a life working the fields at the age of 12, has become the first Chinese citizen ever to win the Nobel prize in literature, although Gao Xingjian won in 2000, and was born in China, he is now a French citizen; and although Pearl Buck took the prize in 1938, for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces", she is an American author.[Source: Alison Flood, The Guardian, October 11, 2012]

Alan Cowell wrote in the New York Times: “While his American audience has been limited, a film based on his novel “Red Sorghum” and directed by Zhang Yimou, was one of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese films, seen by millions. In addition to novels, Mo Yan has published short stories, essays on various topics, and “despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors,” the citation said. Mr. Mo was born in 1955 in Gaomi, China. The citation described him as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” [Source: Alan Cowell, New York Times, October 12, 2012]

Mo Yan books available in English: Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Penguin); The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Arcade); Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Arcade); Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Arcade).

Mo Yan and His Work

The name Mo Yan is a pseudonym for Guan Moye. The son of farmers, he was forced by the Cultural Revolution him to leave school at 12 and work in the fields, completing his education in the army. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981. “In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth,” the biography said, referring to his 1987 novel published in English as “Red Sorghum” in 1993. "Mo Yan" means "don't speak." He chose the name while writing his first novel to remind himself to hold his tongue and stay out of trouble.

Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom of Associated Press wrote: Mo Yan’s “works have been translated into English, Russian, French, German and many other languages, giving him an audience well beyond the Chinese-speaking world. Mo has a top literary agent, Andrew Wylie.... Mo Yan, is practiced in the art of challenging the status quo without offending those who uphold it. Mo, whose popular, sprawling, bawdy tales bring to life rural China, is one the first Chinese winner of the literature prize who is not a critic of the authoritarian government."He's one of those people who's a bit of a sharp point for the Chinese officials, yet manages to keep his head above water," said his longtime U.S. translator, Howard Goldblatt of the University of Notre Dame. "That's a fine line to walk, as you can imagine." [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

In announcing Mo Yan as the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund said:"He writes about the peasantry, about life in the countryside, about people struggling to survive, struggling for their dignity, sometimes winning but most of the time losing. The basis for his books was laid when as a child he listened to folktales. The description magical realism has been used about him, but I think that is belittling him---this isn't something he's picked up from Gabriel García Márquez, but something which is very much his own. With the supernatural going in to the ordinary, he's an extremely original narrator."

Life of Mo Yan

Mo Yan, a pseudonym for Guan Moye, was born in 1955 to parents who were farmers and grew up in Gaomi in east China's Shandong Province in north-eastern China. The dusty, agricultural plains of Shandong, where he grew up is also where much of his fiction is set. He left school at age 12 during the Cultural Revolution to work, first in agriculture and later in a cottonseed oil factory, according to his Nobel biography. In 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army to escape rural poverty and began to study literature and write.

Gaomi became the setting of his most famous novels: Red Sorghum, published in 1987; Big Breasts and Wide Hips, written nine years later and winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize; and his most recent work, 2008's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. He writes affectionately of the big blue skies and green pastures of pre-revolutionary Gaomi, as well as its backward and tradition-bound people who are buffeted by the times they live in. [Source: Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2012]

Mo Yan said his pen name (Mo Yan), which means “don’t speak,” is actually a pen name that reflects the time in which he grew up. “At that time in China, lives were not normal, so my father and mother told me not to speak outside,” he said at a forum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011. “If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and did not speak.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, October 11, 2012]

Mo Yan published his first book in 1981. Anna Sun wrote in the Kenyon Review: “Mo Yan started writing fiction while he was still a soldier, receiving a fiction award from the Literature of the Liberation Army magazine in 1984. In the same year he went to the Military Art Academy, a central training institution of writers and artists for the military. His first major publication was Red Sorghum in 1985, published in People’s Literature, the leading state-run literary magazine. It was an overnight sensation and Sorghum won a national best novella award . [Source: Anna Sun, Kenyon Review, Fall 2012]

Mo Yan but found literary success in 1987 with Hong gaoliang jiazu (Red Sorghum), a novel that an internationally successful movie by director Zhang Yimou, set against the horrific events that unfolded as Japan invaded China in the 1930s. Set in a small village, "Red Sorghum,” is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. The film won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988 and launched the careers of Zhang Yimou as well as the lead actress Gong Li. Amy Tan, author of the best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," became an early admirer. Since then Mo Yan has been a celebrated writer who has published over a dozen novels, and received every major national literary award in China.

Howard Goldblatt, who has translated nine of Mo's books, remembered meeting the author in Beijing in the late 1990s, when the two had dinner. "We didn't have any chemistry and we sat there, silent the whole time," Goldblatt said. "I tried to strike up a conversation and nothing happened. Then, he pulled out a cigarette, and although I had quit smoking, I said, 'Why not?' We were best friends from then on." In 2012, Mo Yan still lived with his 90-year-old father in the rural eastern village of Gaomi where he was raised and which is the backdrop for much of his work.

Getting a Picture of Mo Yan’s Life From His Works

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Sheldon Lu wrote in MCLC List. Like many of us, I have been trying to understand more about Mo Yan’s life and works recently. From what I have gathered, it appears his novels and shorts closely reflect his personal experiences. This is what I noticed from reading things and watching his interviews. He said he was not a handsome boy and his grandparents did not like him. His childhood was characterized by two things: loneliness and hunger (the effect of the Great Leap Forward in Shandong Province and practically everywhere in China). He was looking for food all the time and ate even charcoal. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature includes a piece by him: “Iron Child.” It describes this experience, but his “magical realist” style can twist and turn a sad event into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit in adverse circumstances. [Ibid]

He wanted to leave the countryside , and the way to do it was to join the People’s Liberation Army. He tried three times/three years, and finally made it at the age of 21. He was promoted to the rank of platoon leader---while in the army. He and his wife had had a daughter, but he wanted to have a SON. His wife was pregnant with a son. This sort of thing was not allowed in the Army. His wife must undergo an abortion. As he witnessed, even if people at the higher rank of lianzhan in the Army were dismissed from the Army and sent back to their villages if they violated the policy of planned parenthood. It was a heartbreaking dilemma. Eventually, his wife had an abortion. That was a bad choice but only “choice.” His original purpose was to leave the countryside and that was his life goal at the moment. If he violated the policy, he would be sent back to where he started in the first place. Looking back at the past, he said he was a coward. But he also said he was not sure if he could handle this situation better if it were to happen again today. [Ibid]

His novel Frogs is about forced abortion. I recommend people read it before they pass judgment about whether Mo Yan is pro-government and anti-government. This novel is almost a reflection of Mo’s personal tragedy. What happened in the novel is even worse: the woman died of forced abortion. But Mo Yan also lets the reader hear the voice and reasoning of the fervent supporters of the one-child policy. If there were not such a policy, China would have several hundred million more people today---and what is the consequence of that for China and the world? It seems that there is a certain amount of “multi-voicedness” in Mo’s novels. [Ibid]

Red Sorghum and Mo Yan’s Books

Among the Mo Yan works highlighted by the Nobel judges were "Red Sorghum" (1987) and "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" (2004), as well as "The Garlic Ballads." “The Garlic Ballads,” and other works “have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.” ''Frogs" (2009) looks at forced abortions and other coercive aspects of the Chinese government's one-child policy. It examines the country's family-planning policy through the life of a rural gynecologist, who is based on his own aunt. Other works include “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” (2006) and ‘sandalwood Death,” to be published in English in 2013. His most recent published work, called “Wa” in Chinese (2009) “illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy.”

Mo is probably best known to English-language readers for "Red Sorghum," thanks in part to Zhang Yimou's acclaimed film adaptation. The novel has sold nearly 50,000 copies in the U.S., according to the publisher Penguin Group (USA), a strong number for a translated work.Most of Mo's books in the U.S. have been released by Arcade Publishing, whose founder, the late Richard Seaver, had previously worked with Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and other writers who faced battles with censors. "Dick Seaver was Mo Yan's champion from the beginning and admired this exceptional writer's unique and original voice," Seaver's widow, Jeannette Seaver, said in a statement. "He was constantly reading passages to me." [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

Perry Link wrote in the NY Review of Books, “Mo Yan became famous in the late 1980s when the filmmaker Zhang Yimou made his novel Red Sorghum, a saga of life in rural Shandong during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, into a prize-winning film.” [Source: Perry Link, NY Review of Books, December 6, 2012]

Liu Xiaobo, who knew Mo Yan at the time, later wrote that one reason for the film’s tremendous success was that “it drew freely upon the themes of raw sexuality and adultery. Its theme song, ‘sister, be gutsy, go forward,” was an unbridled endorsement of the primitive vitality of lust. Against the backdrop of fire-red sorghum in desolate northwestern China, under the broad blue sky and in full view of the bright sun, bandits violently abduct village women, wild adultery happens in the sorghum fields, bandits murder one another in competition for women, male laborers magically produce the widely renowned liquor “Six-Mile Red” by urinating into the heroine’s brewing wine, and so on...All of this---not only sets the scene for marvelous consummations of male and female sexual desire; it creates a broader dream vision that carries magical vitality. That Red Sorghum could win prizes symbolizes a change in national attitudes towards sex: “erotic display” had come to be seen as “exuberant vitality.”

Mo Yan points out, correctly, that Red Sorghum took considerable heat from the authorities in the 1980s. Then, at least, he was no sycophant. The work not only defied sexual taboos; it portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts of heroic peasant resistance. Mo Yan, Zhang Yimou, and others were viewed as young rebels. [Ibid]

Mo Yan and the Success of Red Sorghum

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Film of Red Sorghum, based on
book by Mo Yan
Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily: “Mo Yan's brush with cinematic fame started with a bang. In 1986, Mo published Red Sorghum as a novella; the following year the film version swept the world off its feet and went on to collect the Golden Bear award at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival. Red Sorghum jump-started many high-octane careers, including Zhang Yimou as China's pre-eminent filmmaker and Mo as a major literary figure. Both have acknowledged the other's contribution to their mutual success. For Mo, "without the movie, I'd have been known only within literary circles". [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, October 12, 2012]

However, the experience also exposed his ignorance about filmmaking as an art form separate from literature. When Mo first saw Gong Li on the set, he was not impressed. "She looked like a college girl to me, without any trace of the female lead I envisioned for the part," he said. "She would ruin the movie." In addition, the thick script he helped adapt from his own work was slashed by Zhang to only "seven or eight pages". The end result, of course, took him by surprise. The five-minute bridal sedan scene alone leapt from page to screen with striking visuals and unforgettable energy. "And I was so wrong about Gong Li," he said. [Ibid]

In 1987, Mo earned 800 yuan for the rights to Red Sorghum. That was in addition to the 1,200 yuan he got as one of three writers for the script. "I was so excited I was awake the whole night. Nowadays, 800 is a pittance. Some writers make millions by selling the movie rights to their novels." Mo has been left wiser after his occasional forays into the business of films. "Do not think of movie stuff when you write a novel. Do not pander to directors. It's their job to pick what's useful to them from the novels."

Mo Yan’s Other Film and Television Projects

Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily: “Zhang's other film of another Mo Yan novel, however, was an abysmal failure. Happy Times (2000), based on Mo's writing, got mixed reviews both inside and outside China, with US film critic Roger Ebert calling it "creepy", even though the premise is eerily similar to Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Mo said that, unlike Red Sorghum, which also removed many plotlines from the original, Happy Times deleted "some of the most valuable things from my novel". [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, October 12, 2012]

But Mo accepted that turning book to film is a double-edged sword. "It is a pity, but once I give the rights to a filmmaker, it's none of my business. If the adaptation is good, I'd be happy because it will promote my book; if it's not good, it may have the adverse effect but that's not my shame." Another failed project with Zhang was Cotton Fleece, which Mo wrote specifically for him. "I had Gong Li in mind when I was working on the story, her mannerisms and her way of speaking." He also set the crucial scene in a cotton field, knowing that Zhang has a penchant for vibrant colors. But Zhang didn't like it. It also had scenes of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) which were potential censorship minefields. The screenplay was later picked up by a newcomer from Taiwan and turned into a little-known feature. Another of Mo's works fared better on screen. Nuan (2003) is set in rural China, but instead of the Bacchanalian abandon typical of Mo's style, the story is delicate and subdued, more a trait of its director, Huo Jianqi. [Ibid]

Mo has always believed that his better works such as Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and Sandalwood Punishment are made for cinema. He lamented at the 2010 Shanghai Book Fair that no filmmaker had the foresight to adapt these stories, and said he would be more than willing to serve as their scriptwriter. The consensus is that Mo's works have too much graphic sex and violence to be palatable for the big screen, which needs to be more sanitized than novels. [Ibid]

Compared with other writers, Mo has limited exposure to the glitter of showbiz, but his take on the symbiosis of the two art forms is unique. For one, he does not believe in the conventional wisdom of using literature for storylines. "The more valuable thing novelists can provide for filmmakers is an ambience, a setting for values and intelligence, not just the plot."

On top of that, money has been a temptation to Mo just as it was to William Faulkner and other US writers who ventured into the muddy waters of Hollywood. "I tried screenplays in the 1990s," said Mo. "I had a clear motive to make money." He was paid 15,000 yuan ($2,100) for each television serial episode, three times the market price. But he had to endure grueling rewrites. His conclusion: Do not treat scriptwriting purely as a moneymaking tool. Be serious about it. [Ibid]

Mo Yan Writing Inside the System After Tiananmen Square

Perry Link wrote in the NY Review of Books, “Every serious Chinese writer and artist in the post-1989 era has had to face the choice of whether and how much to stay “inside the system.” Many, like Mo Yan, stay unambiguously inside, making larger or smaller accommodations to official guidelines even as they publicly preserve the fiction that they are doing no such thing. During the last two decades of economic boom, money has become another important inducement for staying within the system. Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker who did Red Sorghum, moved further and further “inside” until, in 2008, he was invited to choreograph the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and commented (apparently without irony) that only a state like China’s or North Korea’s could engineer such an extravaganza. [Source: Perry Link, NY Review of Books, December 6, 2012]

Most of the writers who choose to go “outside” the system---Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others---have accepted exile as the price for saying what they think, without adjustments. Ha Jin took the unusual step of departing not only China but the Chinese language; he writes only in English, in part to be sure that even subconscious influences do not affect his expression. Some who chose exile after 1989 later changed their minds and returned to China. Xu Bing, the installation artist, lived in New York from 1990 until 2008, then went back to China to be vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The distinguished poet Bei Dao also returned and now spends most of his time in Hong Kong. The regime welcomes the return of famous figures, because this helps to burnish its image. It offers them money, position, and more freedom than it allows to others---but never full freedom. [Ibid]

The main challenge for Mo Yan beginning in the 1990s was to find a literary voice that he could use in the long term. Red Sorghum had been a genuine breakthrough, but only because of the political situation of the 1980s, when Chinese writers could make their names by “breaking into forbidden zones.” Red Sorghum had broken into two: sexual libertinism and truth- telling about the war with Japan. But by the 1990s there were fewer forbidden zones awaiting break-in, and those that did remain (the 1989 massacre, corruption among the political elite, and topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang) were so extremely forbidden as to be untouchable. Mo Yan needed something else. [Ibid]

The voice that he has embraced has been called Rabelaisian, but it is even more earthy than Rabelais’s. The animal nature of human beings---eating, excreting, fighting, screaming, bleeding, sweating, fornicating---abounds, as do certain traits that animals eschew, such as bullying, conniving, and betraying. Sometimes, but not always, Mo Yan’s expression is ironic, and it includes flights of imagination that critics have compared to the “magical realism” of Gabriel García Márquez. (It is doubtful that Mo Yan has read either Rabelais or García Márquez; these are similarities, not influences.)

Mo Yan, a Critic of the Chinese Government?

Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall wrote in the New York Times: “Mon Yan “is hardly a tool of the Communist Party; much of his work is laced with social criticism, and he is admired by readers of Chinese literature abroad as much as he is hugely popular in his own country. But he does not consider himself political, and his decision not to take a stand against the government---as well as his position as vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers’Association---has drawn criticism from Chinese dissident writers. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, October 11, 2012]

Mr. Mo’s books have touched on many of contemporary China’s most sensitive themes, including the Cultural Revolution and the country’s strict family-planning policies. [Ibid] One of his most famous books, “The Garlic Ballads” (1988, published in English in 1995), describes a peasant insurrection against government malfeasance, telling it in a semi-mythical fashion that avoids criticizing specific government officials. But the book came in the aftermath of the 1989 student unrest, and was at first deemed too biting and satirical to publish, according to Goldblatt...Mo Yan instead had the book printed in Taiwan; it was published later on the mainland. [Ibid]

Mo, who started writing while in the army, has steered clear from criticizing the government in public. He has been accused of refusing to appear with dissident writers at overseas literary seminars.

Mo Yan, a Government Stooge?

Mark MacKinnon wrote in The Globe and Mail, While Mr. Mo’s work hardly paints a flattering portrait of China’s wobbly rise over the past six decades, he is unquestionably a product of the system. He joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976 Though he has pronounced himself “disgusted” with much of the fiction produced under Communist rule, he’s a party member, and serves as vice-chairman of the official China Writers Association. and graduated eight years later from the PLA College of Literature and Arts. [Source: Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2012]

He also helped transcribe, by hand, a speech Mao Zedong gave on culture and the arts, for a commemorative book.”A writer who chanted “Hitler” couldn't win the award, but a writer who chanted “Mao Zedong” could,” said Yu Jie, a prominent author who fled China to the United States earlier this year after being detained and tortured after the publication of a book critical of Premier Wen Jiabao. “That shows the negligence of the West toward China’s human-rights issues. Mo Yan’s award is not a victory for literature but a victory for the Communist Party of China.”

His novels deal with Japan’s brutal Second World War occupation of China, and the cruelties inflicted by Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward and the bloody Cultural Revolution. They are often clear in their criticisms of what the Communist Party did to its own people in that era. But nothing is too directly said  Mr. Mo says he chose his pen name while still a soldier to remind himself to be restrained in voicing his opinions. “I have nothing against the Communist Party,” one of Mr. Mo’s characters declares in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, “and I definitely have nothing against Chairman Mao. I’m not opposed to the People’s Commune or to collectivization. I just want to be left alone to work for myself.”

On the criticism of him as a government stooge, Mo Yan said, "A lot of people are now saying about me, 'Mo Yan is a state writer.' It's true, insofar as like the authors Yu Hua and Su Tong, I get a salary" from the "Ministry of Culture, and get my social and health insurance from them too...That's the reality in China. Overseas, people all have their own insurance, but without a position, I can't afford to get sick in China," he said. [Ibid]

Pierre Haski, a reporter formerly based in Beijing for the French newspaper Libération, interviewed Mo Yan in 2004. During the interview, Mo Yan said that during the Great Leap Forward and Great Famine, he ate charcoal to keep from starving. He thanks the military and is still a Communist Party member---even though he’s lost his faith in the Party. When the reporter asked him when he lost his faith, he replied that from that year onward, he only retained his Party membership to avoid bringing on unnecessary trouble. [Source: China Digital Times]

Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Mo Yan joined the People's Liberation Army's artistic section in 1976. "In those years," he explained, "for a country boy, poor as I was, whose constant worry was to be able to have enough to eat, the Army guaranteed one's survival." After he became a writer in 1981, belonging to the PLA offered cover so that, paradoxically, he could write more freely than others. Readers were free to interpret his descriptions of corruption or famine as references to more recent decades. He remained under the army's protective wing until 10 years ago. [Source: Ilaria Maria Sala, Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2012]

Mo Yan and Censorship

Speaking to Granta in early 2012 Yo Man said that avoiding censorship was a matter of subtlety. "Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation---making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation," he said. [Source: Alison Flood, The Guardian, October 11, 2012]

Mo has said that censorship is a great spur to creativity. Speaking to an interviewer at this year’s London Book Fair, Mr. Mo said he thought having to deal with censorship helped him refine his craft. “In our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that [the writer does] not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation  making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation,” he said. [Ibid]

A few days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan said he doesn't feel that censorship should stand in the way of truth but that any defamation, or rumours, "should be censored." "But I also hope that censorship, per se, should have the highest principle," he said in comments translated by an interpreter from Chinese into English. Mo likened censorship to the thorough security procedures he was subjected to as he travelled to Stockholm."When I was taking my flight, going through the customs ... they also wanted to check me---even taking off my belt and shoes," he said. "But I think these checks are necessary." [Source: Vancouver Sun, December 6, 2012]

MO YAN AS A WRITER

On Mo Yan as a writer, Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Born in the small city of Gaomi in Shandong province, he is so prolific and puts such creative force on the page that one imagines him living with myriad characters always buzzing around his head. When I first interviewed him a few years ago in a Beijing hotel lobby, I was surprised at not seeing an oversized man, as if only a very large body could contain that unceasing explosion of stories. "I write about my region, the countryside in which I grew up," he explained. "I heard so many stories from Gaomi's peasants that I had an irrepressible urge to write them down. Today, Gaomi's peasants know that they have become famous around the world through my writings, but I think they are a little puzzled by this." [Source: Ilaria Maria Sala, Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2012]

His books often have an epic feel to them. They can be generational sagas, like the novel "Red Sorghum," made into a movie by Zhang Yimou, in which history happens to those whose lives are usually forgotten, like peasants, bandits, beggars, mercenaries and even noodle-stall owners. Each character is doggedly busy in countless acts of daily heroism in order to stay alive. In "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" it is the turn of a spoiled illegitimate child to narrate everything that happens in China during a few decades of turmoil, once again in a whirlwind of events and encounters. He has a breast-obsession (not uncommon in modern Chinese literature) and a rather skewed moral compass, but a powerful story-telling voice. [Ibid]

Mo Yan writes feverishly, with the abandon of one who is answering a need ("I could not do anything else," he said) putting on the page the violence of history and the pettier, but certainly no less cruel, violence of man against man, or woman, or even beast. Wars, prisons, famines and family feuds all conspire to make life at once a torment and a triumph. The powerful are often corrupt and insensitive, the poor are exhausted in the constant struggle to feed themselves and their families, but also cunning and resourceful, adding up to supremely humanistic frescos. Love is a human hunger. Time is often measured by popular songs and ballads. And the uncultivated peasant or worker is the centre of this literary universe. [Ibid]

Like many contemporary Chinese writers, though, Mo Yan is often profane and scatalogical. This may be a byproduct of communist literary education that instructs art should be "for the people" and close to them, eschewing artificial, bourgeois refinement. Yet most of the atrocities Mo Yan's heroes must endure and fight against are from a pre-Communist era. One of the exceptions comes in the more recent work "Frog," which addresses the brutality of the one-child policy. [Ibid]

But in the bulk of his work, horror is represented by the Japanese invasion. Other writings purposefully avoid all mention of historical facts in order, he says, to keep an "ancient, timeless feel in my stories." But most of the time this also allows him to steer clear of directly describing, and criticizing, the current regime. [Ibid]

Mo Yan’s Writing

Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom of Associated Press wrote: “Mo writes of visceral pleasures and existential quandaries and tends to create vivid, mouthy characters. While his early work sticks to a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by vivid descriptions, raunchy humor and farce, his style has evolved, toying with different narrators and embracing a freewheeling style often described as "Chinese magical realism." His output has been prolific, which has contributed to his popularity and his impact. [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, New York Times, “In his novels and short stories, Mr. Mo paints sprawling, intricate portraits of Chinese rural life, often using flights of fancy---animal narrators, elements of fairy tales “ that evoke the lyrical techniques of South American magical realists. His work has been widely translated and is readily available in the West, but he is perhaps best known abroad for “Red Sorghum,” an epic that takes on issues like the Japanese occupation, bandit culture and the harsh conditions in rural China, and which in 1987 was made into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, New York Times, October 11, 2012]

Critics in the West have lavished praise on his work. “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” a huge, ambitious work narrated by five animals who are reincarnations of a man controlled by Yama, the lord of the underworld, “covers almost the entire span of his country’s revolutionary experience,” almost like a documentary of the times, the Chinese scholar Jonathan Spence wrote in The New York Times in 2008. [Ibid]

In its Nobel Prize citation that accompanied the award, the Swedish Academy said: “Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.” The academy also noted that many of Mr. Mo’s works “have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.”

Michel Hockx, a professor School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London said Mo Yan "knows how to write a good story", filling his tales of remote communities "with a magical atmosphere, without shying away from the harsh and sometimes violent realities that he has witnessed". His 1996 novel Fengru feitun, translated into English as Big Breasts and Wide Hips in 2004, starts with the story of Xuan'er, six months old in 1900 when she is abandoned in a vat of flour, and follows her family's life through the war with Japan and the cultural revolution. Wa (Frog), Mo Yan's most recent novel, tells of the consequences of the single-child policy implemented in China through the story of a rural gynaecologist. [Source: Alison Flood, The Guardian, October 11, 2012]

"He expertly handles the use of local language and dialect, and as his career progressed he became increasingly experimental with his narration, to the extent that he once even made himself a character in one of his novels," said Hockx. "All his novels create unique individual realities, quite different from the political stories that were told about the countryside in the Maoist years, when Mo Yan grew up."

Hockx told the New York Times that Mo was part of a generation of post-Cultural Revolution writers who began looking at Chinese society, particularly in the countryside, through new eyes outside the party line. “For a very long time Chinese realism was of a socialist realist persuasion, so it had to be filled with ideological and political messages,” Mr. Hockx said. “But instead of writing about socialist superheroes,” Mr. Mo has filled his work with real characters, Mr. Hockx continued, while at the same time portraying rural China as a “magical place where wonderful things happened, things that seemed to come out of mythology and fairy tales.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, New York Times, October 11, 2012]

Howard Goldblatt, a professor of Chinese literature who has translated many of Mo Yan's works into English, compared the author's writing to Dickens in a interview with China Daily, saying that both write "big, bold works with florid, imagistic, powerful writing and a strong moral core". Goldblatt said that the author's satirical novel Jiuguo (The Republic of Wine) "may be the most technically innovative and sophisticated novel from China I've read", while his Shengsi pilao (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out) is "a brilliant extended fable", and Tanxiangxing (Sandalwood Death) "is, as the author contends, musical in its beauty". [Ibid]

Mo Yan’s Books After Tiananmen Square

Perry Link wrote in the NY Review of Books, Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials. Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture. [Source: Perry Link, NY Review of Books, December 6, 2012]

It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system. [Ibid]

Mo Yan has written panoramic novels covering much of twentieth-century Chinese history. “Rewriting history” has been a fashion in Chinese fiction since the 1990s; it holds great interest for readers who are still struggling to confront the question of “what happened?” during and after the country’s Maoist spasm. For writers inside the system, a dilemma arises in how to treat episodes like the Great Leap famine (1959---1962), in which 30 million or more people starved to death, or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966---1970), which took the lives of another two or three million and poisoned the national spirit with a cynicism and distrust so deep that even today it has not fully recovered. Today’s Communist leaders, worried that their power could suffer by association with these Maoist disasters, declare the topics “sensitive” and largely off-limits for state-sponsored writers. But a writer doing a panorama cannot omit them, either. What to do?

Mo Yan’s solution (and he is not alone here) has been to invoke a kind of daft hilarity when treating “sensitive” events. His Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996), which spans the entire twentieth century, follows the life of a man obsessed with female body parts. In Chapter Six the book gets to the Great Leap, when China’s rural economy collapsed because of the forcible interference of Mao’s agricultural policies, including his insistence that rice stalks be planted close together (farmers knew this wouldn’t work but risked their lives if they said so) and his advice that new species of plants and animals could be created by cross-breeding---for example, of tomatoes and pumpkins to produce giant tomatoes. [Ibid]

Mo Yan has great fun with the craziness but leaves out the disaster. Cross a rabbit with a sheep” Why not” A volunteer in Big Breasts speaks up: ‘sheep sperm into a rabbit is nothing. I don’t care if you want me to inject Director Li Du’s sperm into the sow’s womb.” Everyone present then “broke up laughing.” Meanwhile there is no sign of a famine. When the breast- obsessed protagonist needs some goat’s milk, somebody just goes out and buys it. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), another Mo Yan panorama, stretching from 1950 to 2000, the victim of a public humiliation session during the Cultural Revolution is accused of having impregnated a donkey. The victim suffers wicked taunts for four pages, after which “the crowd laughed uproariously” as he is made to eat a turnip that represents a “fake donkey dick.”

Defenders of Mo Yan, both on and off the Nobel Prize committee, credit him with “black humor.” Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. For the regime, to treat them as jokes might be better than banning them outright. In a 2004 article called “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History,” Liu Xiaobo observes that ‘sarcasm---has turned into a kind of spiritual massage that numbs people’s consciences and paralyzes their memories.”

An excerpt from Howard Goldblatt's translation of Mo Yan's novel Frogs, has been published in Granta magazine: http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/Frogs

Criticism of Mo Yan’s Work

Anna Sun wrote in the Kenyon Review: The kind of reality Mo Yan depicts in his impressive oeuvre might indeed be "hallucinatory reality." The characters in his novels engage in struggles with war, hunger, desire, and nature; it deals with brutal aggression, sexual obsession, and a general permeation of both physical and symbolic violence in Chinese rural life. But unlike the great novelists who grapple with the harsher side of the human condition “ Dickens, Hardy, and Faulkner, for example “ Mo Yan’s work lacks something important which these authors have, although it is seldom spoken of: aesthetic conviction. The aesthetic power of these authors is the torch that illuminates for us the dark and painful truth of humanity. The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world. [Source: The Diseased Language of Mo Yan by Anna Sun, Kenyon Review, Fall 2012]

The discontent lies in Mo Yan’s language. Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: "Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn." But in fact, only the "brutal realism" is Mo Yan’s; the "shimmering poetry" comes from a brilliant translator’s work. [Ibid]

Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed, but it is striking because it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mo Yan’s writing is in fact a product of the aesthetic ideologies of Socialist China. After Mao Zedong seminal speech "The Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art" in 1942, a new literary language was invented. It was meant to represent the true voice of workers, peasants and soldiers, the nominal leaders of the new country. But in reality, instead of becoming the "owners of the new republic," ordinary people were about to face the most horrendous suffering imaginable, through both the three-year Great Famine that swept most of the country (1958-1961) and the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). And the new literary language promoted by the socialist cultural bureaucracy “ pedestrian, crude, hyperbolic, affected, full of clichéd political phrases “ was about to become the source of an ailment that affected generations of Chinese writers. [Ibid]

There were writers who escaped the fate of the infection of the disease. Like the Silver Age poets and writers of the Soviet Union, such as Blok, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva, who all came of age before the Russian Revolution, the Chinese writers who kept their artistic voices were the ones who were old enough to have had an artistic education before the invention of this new literary language. Writers of this generation include Shen Congwen, Wang Zengqi, Lao She, Bing Xin, Qian Zhongshu, Fu Lei, and Eileen Chang, all deeply immersed in the Chinese classical tradition through their early education.

Mo Yan, on the other hand, was a child of the revolution. Mo Yan writes about the deep-rooted aggression and bravery of peasants against Japanese soldiers; he extols the violent vitality of men in both war and sex. These are the men who drink riotously, love passionately, and fight single-mindedly. In most of his novels, there is a strong Dionysian spirit, a blunt and unrelenting masculinity that serves as a stark contrast to the usual tame and sexually repressed heroes of the proletarian literature of previous generations. In a 2003 interview, Mo Yan expressed his view on the successes of Red Sorghum: "Why did a novel about the Sino-Japanese war have such a great impact on society? I think my novel expressed a shared mentality of Chinese people at the time, after a long period of repression of personal freedom. Red Sorghum represents the liberation of individual spirits: daring to speak, daring to think, daring to act." It represents a new articulation of the Chinese national spirit, a cry for the liberation of libido. [Ibid]

And yet, no matter how remarkable the stories are, they are still written in a language deeply rooted in the revolutionary literary dogma first articulated by Mao in 1942. In fact, Mo Yan participated in the hand-copying of Mao’s "Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art" for the volume One Hundred Writers and Artists: Hand-Copied Commemorative Edition of the Yan’an Talks, published in 2012 ("Chairman Mao, in their Own Hand," The New York Times, June 6, 2012). Some critics have viewed it as Mo Yan’s political commitment to the Party, but it may be closer to the truth to see it as his genuine attachment. The kind of writing Mao endorsed in his speech had been Mo Yan’s education in literature. [Ibid]

When Mo Yan speaks of the experience of hunger in his childhood, it is indeed powerful: it is the hunger of the body as well as the hunger of the spirit. During Mo Yan’s formative years, which were the years of the Great Famine and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he not only had to endure long stretches of wrenching physical hunger, but also a deeper hunger for nourishment of the soul. All he had access to were the novels of the "Seventeen Years," social realist work written between 1949 and 1966 that bore a strong influence of Mao’s political aesthetic doctrine. The teenager Mo Yan took in these books only a hungry soul would, devouring each page in his mother’s dimly lighted rural kitchen, reading aloud to his beloved illiterate mother and sister when they begged him to share his treasure. In these novels, what left a strong impression on him were not the political stories about class conflicts and struggles, but the moving love stories of revolutionary heroes. [Ibid]

No matter how sincere a critic Mo Yan might be of the current social and political regime, especially in his later novels such as The Garlic Ballads and The Republic of Wine, with his uncompromising critique of the ills of corruption under communist rule, his language is a language that survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state deliberately administered a radical break with China’s literary past. Mo Yan’s prose is an example of a prevailing disease that has been plaguing writers who came of age in what can be called the era of "Mao-ti," a particular language and sensibility of writing promoted by Mao in the beginning of the revolution. The burden of this heritage can be seen not only in Mo Yan’s work, but also in the work of many other esteemed literary writers today, such as Yu Hua and Su Tong. In fact, it can be seen even in the work of political dissident writers who live and write outside of China, such as the novelist Ma Jian (see my review "Mao-ti" in the London Review of Books). This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of the fate of contemporary Chinese writers: too many of them can no longer speak truth to power in a language free of the scars of the revolution itself. [Ibid]

Reaction to Mo Yan Wining the Nobel Literature Prize

According to to AP, Mo Yan greeted the prize with characteristic low-key indifference. "Whether getting it or not, I don't care," the 57-year-old Mo said in a telephone interview with CCTV from Gaomi. He said he goes to his childhood hometown every year around this time to read, write and visit his elderly father. "I'll continue on the path I've been taking, feet on the ground, describing people's lives, describing people's emotions, writing from the standpoint of the ordinary people," said Mo. [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian: Nicky Harman, a Chinese translator and lecturer at Imperial College, London, hailed Mo Yan's win as "amazing" news. "He's a great writer and will now be better known. That's good news for all Chinese writers, because it will bring English readers a bit closer," she said. "I'm sure they will be deliriously happy in China. He's very well thought of there." [Source: Alison Flood, The Guardian, October 11, 2012]

SOAS professor of Chinese Michel Hockx, who knows Mo Yan personally, said the author was probably the most translated living Chinese writer, "very well known, very respected [and] although he's had his spats with the literary censors ... generally speaking not regarded as politically sensitive". Hockx dismissed criticism from China that the author is "too close to the establishment to merit the Nobel". "I don't like the idea that Chinese writers are only good if they challenge the government---a good writer is a good writer. It's not a good yard stick of anything; are the only good British writers the ones who speak out against the war?" he said. "Choosing a dissident is the safe choice [for the Nobel committee]---to choose an author with a strong literary reputation, because of the strength and power of his work, is a very brave choice."

Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall wrote in the New York Times, “The award represents something of a shift, too, for the Swedish Academy, whose members choose the Nobel literature winner. During the Soviet era, it consistently gave Nobels to Soviet and Eastern European dissidents, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Joseph Brodsky and Jaroslav Seifert... Indeed, the academy has rarely, if ever, awarded one of its prizes to a writer or scholar embraced by a Communist government. The Academy’s deliberations are shrouded in Vatican-style secrecy, but officials insist that neither politics nor any diplomatic or economic pressure from China played any part in the decisions. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, October 11, 2012]

The Swedish Academy disputed suggestions that it had selected Mo to seek Beijing's favor and rehabilitate the Nobel's image in the minds of many Chinese after imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize in 2010 and China-born French emigre dramatist, novelist and government critic Gao Xingjian when in 2000. [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

“Basically, it’s quite simple,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Academy. “We are awarding a literary prize, and it’s on literary merit. The political fallouts and effects don’t enter into it. That doesn’t mean we regard literature as unpolitical or that this year’s prize winner isn’t writing political literature,” he continued, speaking of Mr. Mo. “You can open almost any one of his books and see it’s very critical about many things to do with Chinese history and also contemporary China. But he’s not a political dissident. I would say he is more a critic of the system, sitting within the system.”

Beijing’s Reaction to Mo Yan Wining the Nobel Literature Prize

Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom of Associated Press wrote: The announcement by the Swedish Academy that Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize “brought an explosion of pride across Chinese social media. The state-run national broadcaster, China Central Television, reported the news moments later, and the official writers' association, of which Mo is a vice chairman, lauded the choice. The reactions highlight the unusual position Mo holds in Chinese literature. He is a genuinely popular writer who is embraced by the Communist establishment but who also dares, within careful limits, to tackle controversial issues like forced abortion. His novel "The Garlic Ballads," which depicts a peasant uprising and official corruption, was banned. [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

The government embraced the prize as emblematic of China's recognized status as a great nation. "China is winning more and more respect from the world. We can say this award is not only for Mo Yan but to all the Chinese people," state-run television said in a commentary. “The Chinese people have a long history and a glorious culture,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. “This is a treasure shared by all humanity.” The government focused on the prize as emblematic of China's now recognized status as a great nation. "China is winning more and more respect from the world. We can say this award is not only for Mo Yan but to all the Chinese people," state-run television said in a commentary. [Ibid]

News of Mo's historic win was plastered across newspaper front pages. The nationalist tabloid Global Times praised Mo's award as a sign of Western acceptance of mainstream Chinese culture. As one of China's most popular writers, Mo represents a rising China in both the economic and cultural spheres, the paper said in an editorial. "The Chinese mainstream cannot be refused by the West for long," it said. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, October 12, 2012]

Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall wrote in the New York Times, “China erupted into something close to a national celebration. The state-run CCTV interrupted its prime-time broadcast to announce the news; the nationalistic Global Times tabloid posted a ‘special coverage’ page on its Web site; and in a glowing account, the state-run People’s Daily prominently wrote that the prize was “a comfort, a certification and also an affirmation---but even more so, it is a new starting point.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Lyall, New York Times, October 11, 2012]

The award will probably act as a huge boost to China’s national psyche, which has long suffered from a sense that its cultural accomplishments, at least in the eyes of the West, are overshadowed by its economic prowess. “This will be embraced as an indicator that China has arrived in the world,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The contradictions between their response to Liu Xiaobo’s prize and Mo Yan’s prize will not trouble them in the least.”

Chinese and Weibo Reaction to Mo Yan Wining the Nobel Literature Prize

For many Chinese and his supporters, the award was welcome for recognizing an acclaimed author and for steering clear of past Nobel controversies. "For me personally it's the realization of a dream I've had for years finally coming true. It's suddenly a reality," said Mo's publisher, Cao Yuanyong, deputy editor-in-chief of Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. Cao said he and a dozen colleagues were toasting Mo in his absence with red wine in a Shanghai restaurant Thursday night. The prize is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million. [Ibid]

Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “Weibo users had a field day when Mo told a journalist from the state-run Xinhua News Agency: “I’m getting ready to buy a house in Beijing, a big house. But then I’ve been warned I won’t be able to get anything that big. A house is more than RMB 50,000 (nearly $8,000) per square meter.” One Weibo user evoked Mo’s style of writing with the quip: “Over RMB 50,000 for one square meter. That truly is magical and realistic.” Others referred to the imminent corruption trial of a Chinese official who allegedly owned more than 20 illegal apartments in Guangzhou, a city on China’s southern coast: “In China, a small-time official is worth more than a world-class writer,” one Weibo user wrote. [Source: Melinda Liu, Newsweek, October 22, 2012]

A day after learning of his prize, Mo got the Chinese blogosphere even more excited when he lent support to imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. “I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible,” Mo said at a news conference. Mo had previously declined to comment on the fate of his fellow Nobel laureate, knowing all too well that Chinese officials consider Liu a menace. Despite being ignored by state media and blocked by China’s online censors, Mo’s statement of support was transmitted widely through Weibo, where many also offered him considerable praise. “Now Mo can say what he didn’t dare say in the past,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology. Wang Xiaofeng, a culture critic with Sanlian Life Week magazine in Beijing agreed: “[The Nobel] will make Mo more outspoken and critical of the government.”

Critics of Mo Yan Wining the Nobel Literature Prize

Mo Yan’s winning the Nobel Prize also unleashed a wave of criticism of Mo from other writers who accused him of being too willing to serve or too timid to confront a China government that “heavily censors artists and authors, and punishes those who refuse to obey.” Mo was castigated for compromising his artistic and intellectual independence by being a Communist Party member and vice president of the official writers association. Wen Yunchao, a Hong Kong-based blogger and free speech advocate, warned of “devastating moral and political consequences.” [Ibid]

AP reported: “Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun, who has become more outspoken about censorship in recent years, said, are opposed to his winning the Nobel Prize because he serves as a vice chair of the China Writers' Association and helps the government in censorship. But some are supportive, arguing literature should not be linked to politics but be valued on its own merit. Yu Jie, an essayist and close friend of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu who fled to the U.S. this year, was more acid. "This reflects the West's disregard for China's human rights problems. Mo Yan's win is not a victory for literature. It's a victory for the Communist Party," Yu said on his Twitter feed. [Source: Alexa Olesen and Louise Nordstrom, Associated Press, October 11, 2012]

Herta Mueller, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, says the choice to give this year’s award to Mo Yan is a “catastrophe” that never should have happened, and accuses the Chinese writer of praising the Asian country’s tough censorship laws. In an interview published in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter on Saturday, the Romanian-born author---whose struggle under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship has influenced most of her works---says she wanted to cry when she learned of the 2012 laureate choice. She says she feels “it’s a catastrophe,” and an “incredibly upsetting” choice. [Source: Associated Press, November 24, 2012]

Famed artist and activist Ai Weiwei told The Associated Press that Mo was cooperating with a system that was "constantly poisoning" its people. "They mock the ones who dare to raise their voice and opinion, and ignore the sacrifice some have made to gain that right. This is shameful. It is a shame for the Swedish Nobel Prize committee," Ai said. [Ibid]

Defending Mo Yan

Julia Lovell wrote in the New York Times, “It would be intellectually lazy for distant Western observers of this situation to dismiss Mo as a literary stooge, or to assume that his several historical novels set in post-1949 China offer an officially sanitized view of China and its recent past. Since the publication of “The Garlic Ballads” in the late-1980s, Mo’s fiction has sought to lay bare the brutality, greed and corruption that has flourished under Communist rule. [Source: Julia Lovell, New York Times, November 15, 2012]

Rather than condemning Mo for his political accommodations, we should expend our energies instead on fathoming what he and his fiction tell us about China today. Contemporary Chinese literature is, for the most part, not a Manichaean struggle between spineless appeasers of the regime and heroic, dissident resisters (although China has no shortage of exceptionally brave individuals willing to speak truth to power). Rather, a spectrum of voices strives to operate within a realm of political possibility that is at times surprisingly broad; some (including Mo) periodically push at its edges. Mo alluded to this ambiguous situation himself when he answered his critics in a post-Nobel press conference: “Many of the people who have criticized me online are Communist Party members themselves. They also work within the system. And some have benefited tremendously within the system ... If they had read my books they would understand that my writings [have taken] on a great deal of risk.”

Brendan O'Kane wrote on Rectified.name: Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which. Mo may not be a “dissident” in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine , one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs, whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum , the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips . His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party. [Source: Brendan O'Kane, Rectified.name, October 15, 2012]

Mo’s position in the China Writers’ Association is discomfiting to observers, but the CWA is a big and diverse organization containing talented, edgy authors as well as Audi-riding talent vacuums. Mo has written movingly about growing up as a hungry, lonely child in an impoverished backwater, and his novels show a keen awareness of the smallness of individuals in the face of forces beyond their control. Given this, it seems unsurprising that Mo would prefer the security of a position that offers him some kind of official cover. Mo Yan’s role in the CWA likely explains his public silence (until the day after the Nobel announcement on Liu Xiaobo and his copying-out of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art . It most certainly explains his leaving the stage at the Frankfurt Book Festival when Dai Qing tried to ask a question. CWA authors, even very well-known ones, are told in no uncertain terms what they are and are not to say internationally

T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody . If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile. The people insinuating that Mo and other CWA members are lightweights incapable of writing lasting or eternal literature seem to be saying that such privations are a prerequisite for literary legitimacy---for Chinese authors, at least. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012

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