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Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

Red Sorghum

by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin, 359 pp., $17.00 (paper)

The Garlic Ballads

by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 290 pp., $14.95
Gunter Gluecklich/laif/Redux
Mo Yan, Hamburg, Germany, 2009

On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is said to have originated in advice his parents gave him as a school-age boy during the Mao era.)

The news was greeted with elation in Beijing. A member of the nine-man ruling Politburo, Li Changchun, immediately sent a letter to the state-sponsored Chinese Writers Association, of which Mo Yan is a vice-president, calling the prize “not only an embodiment of the flourishing progress of Chinese literature but also an embodiment of the continuing rise in the overall strength of our state and its international influence.” The official media exulted that, at last, a “mainstream” Chinese had won a Nobel Prize, for which “the Chinese people have waited too long.” A week later, officials announced plans to spend $110 million to transform Mo Yan’s home village into a “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone.”

Simultaneously, a storm of controversy welled on the Chinese-language Internet both inside and outside China. Did this writer, compared to others who might have won, deserve the prize? And should a prize of this magnitude go to a writer who is “inside the system” of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers—of whom Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (a “convicted criminal,” in the Chinese government’s view) is only the most famous example? A satirist named Wang Xiaohong tweeted her worry for the deceased Mr. Nobel, whom she imagined as squirming in his grave:

Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.

Satire aside, Wang Xiaohong is correct that Nobel Prizes are closely watched and coveted in China—even more, in general, than they are elsewhere. Like Olympic gold medals, they are viewed as signs of the world’s respect—which, over recent centuries, many Chinese have felt to be less than it ought to be. The insecurity that underlies this quest for respect appears in especially sharp relief in the case of the Nobel literature prize, where China in essence hands over judgment of its cultural achievement to a committee of Swedes. (One committee member, Göran Malmqvist, reads Chinese, but the others rely on translations.) China does have its own literary prize, the Mao Dun Prize, which Mo Yan won in 2010. But neither Mo Yan nor almost anyone in China would compare it to a Nobel. (Mao Dun was a writer of political fiction during the late 1920s and 1930s; he served as Mao Zedong’s minister of culture from 1949 to 1965, and has a reputation—deserved—for tedious prose. But the main reason for the second-tier reputation of the Mao Dun Prize is that it is a domestic, state-sponsored prize.)

In recent years China’s Communist rulers have been especially sensitive to Nobel prestige, and have had to deal with a frustrating historical record. Eight Chinese have won Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences, but six of these were citizens of Western countries (the US, the UK, and France) when they won their prizes, and the other two were citizens of the Republic of China on Taiwan.1 There have been two Peace Prize winners, but one, Liu Xiaobo, embarrasses the regime that has put him in prison, and the other, the Dalai Lama (who won in 1989), has lived in exile since 1959. (China’s rulers call the Dalai Lama a “splittist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but cannot conveniently say he is “not Chinese,” because that would acknowledge that Tibet might not be part of China.) After Gao Xingjian, a Chinese whose works denounce Communist rule in China, and who took French citizenship in 1997, won the Nobel literature prize in 2000, state-sponsored media in China said that the Nobel committee had “lost authority” and was “a small clique of so-called literary experts who harbor extremely unhealthful attitudes toward the Chinese people.”

Mo Yan’s prize required a sharp reversal of those judgments, and there is no sign that anyone in state media found this difficult to do. It is their job to promote the state, not to be consistent. Now it was the turn of the other side, dissidents and anonymous freethinkers on the Internet, to attack. Some criticized the Nobel committee, but their main criticism was of Mo Yan himself, primarily for some of his recent political choices. At the opening ceremonies of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2009, he read an officially vetted speech in which he claimed that literature should be above politics; but, when Chinese authorities ordered a boycott of a session where the freethinking writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling appeared, Mo Yan joined the walkout, later explaining that he “had no choice.”

In December 2009, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s unexpectedly harsh prison sentence of eleven years, Cui Weiping, a film scholar, conducted a telephone survey of more than a hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals to get their responses. Many, at personal risk, expressed disgust and told Cui she could publish what they said. Mo Yan, who also gave permission to publish what he said, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”

But most galling to Mo Yan’s critics was his agreement, in June 2012, to join in a state-sponsored project to get famous authors to hand-copy Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” in celebration of their seventieth anniversary. These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Beijing massacre in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation. Some of the writers who were invited to participate declined to do so. Mo Yan not only agreed but has gone further than others to explain that the “Talks,” in their time, had “historical necessity” and “played a positive role.”

At a news conference following the announcement of his Nobel Prize, Mo Yan asked that his political positions be kept separate from his writing. The Nobel “is an award for literature, not politics,” he said. Some of his critics on the Internet have flatly rejected this distinction. (One tweeted that “if a chef layered in feces presents me with a meal, it doesn’t matter how delectable the food is; I’m going to have trouble swallowing it.”) The deeper question, though, is how and to what extent a writer’s immersion in, and adjustment to, an authoritarian political regime affects what he or she writes. The issue is both subtle and important, and Mo Yan provides a useful example of it.

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. 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.

Oe Kenzaburo, the Japanese novelist and essayist who won the Nobel literature prize in 1994, said in his acceptance speech:

By sharing old, familiar yet living metaphors I align myself with writers like Kim Chi-ha of Korea and Zheng Yi and Mo Yan, both of China. For me the brotherhood of world literature consists in such relationships in concrete terms…. I am now deeply worried about the destiny of those gifted Chinese novelists who have been deprived of their freedom since the Tiananmen Square incident [i.e., the June 4, 1989 crackdown].

Oe could not know at the time how “destiny” would turn out very differently for the two young Chinese writers he admired, Zheng Yi and Mo Yan. Zheng Yi had drawn Oe’s attention for Old Well (1984), a romance set against the background of the centuries-old quest for water in a parched area of rural Shanxi province. Like Red Sorghum, the story had been made into a prize-winning film. Oe told me in 1997 that he liked Zheng’s “vertical orientation”—old wells penetrating deep into the earth and “spirit trees” stretching in the other direction toward the heavens. (Zheng was then working on a long novel called Spirit Tree, in which there was a touch of magic in his account of Chinese village life.) In 1989 Zheng Yi supported student protesters at Tiananmen, was listed for arrest by the government afterward, lived underground in China for three years, then escaped on a small boat to Hong Kong in 1993, and has lived in exile in the US ever since. He has continued to write prolifically, always in absolute candor about his criticisms of the Chinese government.

Mo Yan, in both politics and literature, chose a different path. 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. (At his recent news conference Mo Yan observed, deadpan, that “we live in an era of free expression.”) 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.

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.

  1. 1

    These two, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, later became US citizens as well as very “friendly” to the PRC. 

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