Why We Should Criticize Mo Yan

Cartier Bresson China 1958.jpg

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

The tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, 1958

At a recent conference at Princeton University, I met a Chinese language teacher whom I had not seen since 1989 in Beijing. Trying to recall our first meeting, she asked me, “Was that before or after the dongluan [turmoil]?” Teasing her, I asked, “What do you mean by dongluan? Student dongluan or government dongluan?” She replied reflexively: “Student dongluan, of course.” Then she peered at me for a moment, realized what I had meant, and said: “Oh, yes! Government dongluan. The massacre!” Then she went into a long apology to me: she herself had been a student protestor in 1989, had been in Tiananmen Square in the days before the massacre (but not during it); she was on the students’ side; she agreed with me. And yet the phrase “student turmoil” now rolled off her tongue as easily as “Wednesday.” How much does this kind of induced linguistic habit reinforce state power? And how much does the habit affect Chinese writers?

In my New York Review essay on the new Nobel laureate Mo Yan, I objected to the writer’s way of presenting twentieth-century Chinese history. I noted that when he arrives at catastrophic episodes like the Great Leap famine, he deflects attention by resorting to what I call “daft hilarity”—shooting sheep sperm into rabbits or forcing someone to eat a turnip carved to be a “fake donkey dick”—while making no mention of starvation that cost 30 million or more lives.

In a lengthy response to my essay, Charles Laughlin disagrees with me, arguing that “Mo Yan’s intended readers know that the Great Leap Forward led to a catastrophic famine, and any artistic approach to historical trauma is inflected or refracted.” Laughlin sees Mo Yan as doing satire, not cover-up, and when the point is put this way, I can, in a narrow sense, accept it (even though my personal taste in satire does not extend as far as donkey dicks). The problem, in my view, turns on Laughlin’s phrase “intended readers.” Mo Yan has said that he does not write with any particular readers in mind, so “intended readers” here needs to be understood not as actual readers but as the kind of reader that is implied by the writer’s rhetoric. In this meaning, “implied reader” is a well-established term in literary studies, and it is fair enough to analyze things this way.

My own worry is about the actual readers. How does “daft hilarity” affect them? I hope Laughlin will agree with me that Mo Yan’s actual readers are numerous, mostly young, and not very well schooled in Chinese history. To reach the level of what Laughlin sees as Mo Yan’s ideal “intended reader,” a young Chinese must leap a number of intellectual hurdles that Communist Party education has put in place: first, that there was no famine, because the story is only a slander invented by foreigners; second, that if there really was a famine, it was “three years of difficulty” caused by bad weather; third, that if the famine indeed was man-made, it still wasn’t Mao-made, because Mao was great; fourth, that if it was Mao-made, people died only of starvation, not beatings, burnings-alive (called “the human torch”), or brain-splatterings with shovels (called “opening the flower”), as Yang Jisheng’s book Tombstone documents.

But there is another problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” The late Chinese physicist and human rights advocate Fang Lizhi was good at pointing out double standards in Western attitudes. When Communist dictatorships fell in Europe, the Cold War was declared “over.” But what about China, North Korea, and Vietnam? If the reverse had happened—if dictatorships had fallen in Asia but persisted in Europe—would Washington and London still have hailed the end of the Cold War? What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?

Pankaj Mishra, in an essay in The Guardian called “Why Salman Rushdie Should Pause before Condemning Mo Yan on Censorship,” acknowledges that Mo Yan has offered deplorable support to China’s rulers. But the main point of Mishra’s essay is that Western writers have also been the handmaidens of powers that oppress people in distant places. He asks, therefore, that people like Rushdie (and me, whom he also mentions) “pause.” I admire some of Mishra’s penetrating observations, for example that “Jane Austen’s elegantly self-enclosed world” depended on unseen “hellish slavery plantations” in the Caribbean. But why does any of this mean that I should “pause” before criticizing Beijing or its acolytes?


Must Salman Rushdie hold his tongue about Beijing until London is squeaky clean? My guess is that Pankaj Mishra, if you could shake him by the shoulders, would say (as I would) that any citizen of any country should be free to criticize any government anywhere that oppresses anyone. But his article does not leave that impression.

Authoritarians in China and elsewhere regularly take the position that foreigners should keep criticisms to themselves; the reasons for their position are obvious. The reasons that Western liberals often take the same position are far less obvious but well worth probing. The kinds of problems in China that, in different ways, Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo bring to our attention—suppression of speech to protect state power, harassment and prison for “offenders”—can also be found in democratic societies. But to stand on that discovery and say “look, the whole world is the same, so let’s calm down” is not only intellectually feeble; when uttered by people who live at comfortable distances from true suffering, it is also morally indefensible. How do you think a Chinese liberal, sitting on a bench in a drab prison, would feel to hear an American liberal, sitting on a couch with the Guardian, say “you and I both live under oppressive governments, my friend; I must pause before criticizing yours”?

Laughlin notes that I do not answer the question posed by the title of my Review essay: “Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?” Fair enough. The title was written by editors of the Review, and I did not see it until the piece came out. Let me address the question now.

Measures of excellence in the natural sciences are objective enough that the question “Did X really deserve a Nobel?” can be answered with some confidence (if never certainty). For the literature and peace prizes, though, the question is so beholden to subjective impressions that consensus is impossible. Henry Kissinger won a peace prize. If that happened, what is not possible? I can answer only the question, “Would I personally have chosen Mo Yan?,” and I would like to restrict it further by adding the phrase “among living Chinese writers.” (Only living writers are eligible for the prize.)

The answer is no. Mo Yan would not have been at the top of my own list, which would include writers who work both “inside the system” in China and outside it. For authenticity and control of language, I would rate Zhong Acheng, Jia Pingwa, Wang Anyi, Liao Yiwu and Wang Shuo more highly; for mastery of the craft of fiction, Pai Hsien-yung and Ha Jin are clearly superior to Mo Yan; for breadth of spiritual vision, Zheng Yi is one of my favorites. I would also have put Yu Hua or Jin Yong (the Hong Kong writer of popular historical martial-arts fiction) above Mo Yan. But these are only my views. Please help yourself to your own.

A longer version of this essay appears on, a new online magazine from Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.

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