Did the Wrong Chinese Writer Win a Nobel Prize?

Last week, Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy. In sharp contrast to its outrage after poet and critic Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, China’s government delightedly trumpeted its joy. Prime-time broadcasts on state-run CCTV were interrupted to announce Mo Yan’s prize and numerous news sources including the People’s Daily, another instrument of the Chinese government, proclaimed Mo’s winning the award “a comfort, a certification and also an affirmation — but even more so, it is a new starting point.”

During the Cold War, dissident writers Russian and Eastern European writers (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky and Jaroslav Seifert) were awarded the Nobel Prize. Is the West giving up on human rights in China, in tacit acknowledgement of its wanting to stay on the Communist nation’s good side, the better to maintain economic ties with its powerful economy?

Mo Yan Means “Don’t Speak”

There is no shortage of Chinese writers known to the West. Nearly all are dissidents who have clashed with, and often been imprisoned by, the Communist government. In contrast, Yan is the vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association, does not think of himself as political and takes no issue with Beijing.

Born in 1955 to farmers in rural Shandong Province in the east, Mo left school to work on a farm and then in a factory during the Cultural Revolution. He began to write while serving in the in the People’s Liberation Army. His given name is Guan Moye; as he told a forum at the University of California, Berkeley, his pen name, Mo Yan, is based on something his parents told him while growing up:

At that time in China, lives were not normal, so my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and did not speak.

Most of Mo’s writing is set in the dusty, seemingly endless plains of eastern China where he grew up, a setting you can see in Red Sorghum, a 1987 movie made by director Zhang Yimou based on Mo’s novel of the same name. It is beautiful and brutal, an epic about the harshness and violence of rural China during the Japanese occupation that has an allegorical quality, which indeed characterizes Mo’s writings. Animals and fairy tales are intertwined in his work, which has been compared to the magical realism of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In its citation, the Swedish Academy indeed said that Mo’s writings “have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society,” including criticism of government corruption. As Michel Hockx, professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says in the New York Times, Mo’s work has made new ground by eschewing social realism about “socialist superheroes,” instead showing rural China as a “magical place where wonderful things happened, things that seemed to come out of mythology and fairy tales.”

Criticism of Mo By Dissidents

Mo is a writer who deals with “big issues but is not a political activist,” notes Hockz in the Independent.

While Mo has refrained from being overtly political, some of his actions have less than endeared him to those writers who have publicly criticized Chinese authorities. The Chinese government  barred a number of dissident writers from going to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009 but Mo attended. Last summer, Mo joined 100 others writers to transcribe by hand a 1942 speech by Mao Zedong on literature and art; for this, he was publicly denounced.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo Still Imprisoned

Poet Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year- sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” remains imprisoned in northeast China. The Chinese government went on the attack when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, taking great pains to omit mention of the award which it deemed a “desecration” while saying the West was insulting the Communist Party. China also denied visas to Norwegian officials and (rather petulantly) let shipments of Norwegian salmon rot by delaying them.

Artist Ai WeiWei, who was held incommunicado for months last year, has spoken out strongly about giving Mo the Nobel Prize:

Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.

In a New York Times op-ed, Larry Siems, head of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write program and Jeffrey Yang, translator of Liu’s poetry collection “June Fourth Elegies” (the title refers to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre), note that Mo has indeed “credited state censorship with spawning the formal innovations,” such as the use of allegory, that led to his winning the prize. But while not exactly damning Mo with faint praise, Siems and Yang suggest a way to remind the world of the realities of writers and of those who raise their voices in China. On the same day that Mo’s prize was announced, Reporters Without Borders released a “clandestine video of Liu Xia,” Liu’s wife who has been held incommunicado in her Beijing apartment for the past two years.

The video [of Liu Xia smoking a cigarette] was taken at night, with the sound of chirping crickets in the background. It was the first glimpse the world has had of Liu Xia since the Nobel Committee announced it was honoring her husband with the Peace Prize, and surfacing in the midst of this year’s literature announcement, the effect was jarring and eerie: it was almost as though, by breaking his silence on Liu Xiaobo, Mo Yan himself had summoned an image of the couple’s suffering to mind.

Siems and Yang emphasize that the video offers “a challenge to all writers,” that “yes, we can ignore her and still create literature. We just can’t ignore her and have peace.”

In a characteristically defiant act, Ai is guest-editing an edition of the British publication the New Statesman. As he simply states, “If someone is not free, I am not free” — or rather we are all not free.


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Photo via Wikimedia Commons


William G.
.3 years ago

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Nchebe I.
Nchebe I.4 years ago

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Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y5 years ago

Still, the very fact of his nickname serves to underscore the reality of life in China.

All links to the outside world and all forms of recognition help. The Chinese middle class will eventually no longer settle for totalitarianism.

Elizabeth S.
Elizabeth Stuef5 years ago

I have read many books by Mo Yan and he does deserve the prize. AiAi Wei is the west's poster artist for dissidents. I wrote another post but it vanished into the ether. Red Mo Yan
books they are about the average person in rural China and their daily strugglel against government stupidity. They are sad and funny. He is a wonderful writer.

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thanks, didn't realize you have to be critic of the government in order to write.

Ioannes J.
Ioannes J5 years ago

Instead of guessing, take a look cultural express. Go watch document on CCTV dot com about Mo Yan. It talk about his life journey in writing on who, what, when and why.

Christian R.
Land Lost5 years ago

(cont. from below)

I haven't read his work. But the fact that the former Chinese Nobel prize winner suffered for it does not by any means negate the value of Mo Yan's work. The writer of this article seems to be saying that only Chinese dissidents are worthy of the prize and that to my mind seems like nonsense. There's more to China than just politics - there is after all, life.

"Mo has indeed “credited state censorship with spawning the formal innovations,” such as the use of allegory, that led to his winning the prize."

Mo seems to me like a clever enough fellow.

Christian R.
Land Lost5 years ago

Just because Mo Yan writes a novel not involved in overtly criticizing his country's government doesn't mean the novel doesn't have validity. There's a lot more to China (and the world of literature) than just this issue.

"Is the West giving up on human rights in China, in tacit acknowledgement of its wanting to stay on the Communist nation’s good side, the better to maintain economic ties with its powerful economy?"

This implies the prize was given to him somehow to maintain economic ties? And that one must be a dissident before being considered for a peace prize.

Criticism for Mo being "a writer who deals with big issues but is not a political activist” don't seem entirely justified. You could have said the exact same thing about Pearl S Buck.

Again, in this article, it's mentioned he's criticized (by dissidents) for transcribing a 1942 Mao Ze Dong speech on art and literature. So he transcribed a speech and he's not on Beijing's bad side - the fact is most people in China still consider Mao to have been an essential part of their history. I often hear people say something like 70% right, 30% wrong when assessing the former leader who is credited with unifying China. The common man in China doesn't hate or paint Mao Zedeng out to be some sort of boogie man (as does the West) at this point in time. "Mo Yan" means "don't speak" and the name is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, though Mo Yan obviously did grow up in a time when it was wiser not to.

Frans Badenhorst
Frans Badenhorst5 years ago

the Woong Fooking Maan ??

Ajla C.
Past Member 5 years ago