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.

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.

This Issue

December 6, 2012