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…

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