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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Is there more to Mo Yan’s thinking than he puts into print? For him, like all inside-the-system writers in China, we need at least to keep this question open. At a news conference on October 12, he answered a reporter’s question about his fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo this way:
I read some of his writings on literature in the 1980s…later, after he left literature and turned to politics, I haven’t had any contact with him, and I don’t understand much of what he has been doing since then. I now hope, though, that he can get his freedom as soon as possible—get his freedom in good health as soon as possible—and then be able to study his politics and study his social systems as he likes.
The statement was quickly hailed by some of Liu Xiaobo’s supporters. Here was the new Nobel laureate speaking up for someone whose very name had been banned from China’s state media. Moreover Mo Yan’s words were themselves quickly expunged from the domestic Chinese Internet, so the authorities must have been angered by them. Mo Yan had apparently produced a statement of conscience.
The statement certainly has value, but to me there is a more plausible explanation for it than courage of conscience. Police and propaganda officials in China stay in close touch with influential people, including both establishment figures and dissidents. There are “chats,” sometimes over tea, about what a person should or should not say or do in public. When something as spectacular as a Nobel Prize comes along, it is inconceivable that the recipient would not be summoned for one or more chats, and the question of what Mo Yan should say about Liu Xiaobo must have come up. It is an obvious question. Reporters from the world press were asking it almost from the moment Mo Yan’s prize was announced, and it will be even more unavoidable when he travels to Stockholm to collect his prize. (Chinese citizens on the Internet have raised the question, too. One tweeted that “if Mo Yan has guts, he will stand next to an empty chair when he speaks in Stockholm.”2)
One way or another, Mo Yan will have to have a shuofa—a “way of putting things.” And what way might be least damaging, from the regime’s point of view? If Mo Yan were to say to the world that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who deserves to be in prison, Mo Yan’s own image would plummet, and the glory of his winning of the prize—a glory that the regime wants to enhance and to ride upon—would also nosedive. On the other hand, if Mo Yan were genuinely to side with Liu Xiaobo, who has written many times that “going to prison for one’s words” is always and in principle wrong, that would not do, either. The optimum might be a mild middle-of-the-road statement about hoping that Liu gets released soon.
One phrase in Mo Yan’s statement adds special plausibility to this interpretation. He repeats the “freedom” phrase in order to stress that it be freedom in good health. Does Mo Yan know about Liu Xiaobo’s current state of health? I doubt it. Only Liu Xia, his wife, has seen him in recent months, and she is bound to strict silence on pain of cut-off of her visiting privileges. Mo Yan may simply be taking into account the fact that the health of other dissidents has suffered, sometimes very seriously, while in prison. But we do know that the Lius are likely to be under pressure from the regime to accept exile from China. Dissidents in exile cause much less trouble to authorities than they do at home. The blind rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled last April from house arrest in Shandong to the US embassy in Beijing, is now in New York, where he causes the regime much less headache than he did when he was in either Shandong or Beijing.
And what may this have to do with “good health”? The favorite euphemism of the regime when it ships dissidents overseas is to say they “are seeking medical treatment.” In June 1990, for instance, when the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi was released to go to Britain (Chinese authorities insisted he spend at least six months in “a third country” before going to the US), “medical treatment” was the regime’s pretext in negotiating with British diplomats. Fang tolerated the word-game even though there was nothing at all wrong with his health. Was Mo Yan’s “in good health” phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s “seeking medical treatment abroad”? I don’t know. But it seemed one possible explanation for why the phrase popped up in Mo Yan’s statement.
The fact that Chinese censors expunged Mo Yan’s comments from the domestic Internet is fully consistent with this interpretation. The target of the “release in good health” word-game (if that’s what it is) may be not the Chinese people; it may be the international community, the ones who will receive Liu Xiaobo, if he is exiled, and the ones whose good impressions of the new Chinese Nobel laureate the regime dearly wants to preserve.
Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.
2 Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize certificate was placed on an empty chair in Oslo in December 2010, after which authorities banned the phrase “empty chair” from the Chinese Internet. ↩
Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize certificate was placed on an empty chair in Oslo in December 2010, after which authorities banned the phrase “empty chair” from the Chinese Internet. ↩