Mo Yan’s 莫言 Nobel Win in Three Registers

When, on 11 October, the Swedish Academy announced that the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature would go to Mo Yan 莫言, the reaction in the Chinese media was intense. After decades of waiting and years of stinging disappointment, Mainland China at long last had a Nobel Prize it could talk about in the open. The Shandong-based writer’s lengthy back-catalog provided considerable fodder for discussion; but the immediate response dealt less with textual questions and more with Mo Yan’s interaction with the state:

  • He is a Vice-President of the Chinese Writers’ Association 中国作家协会 (CWA);
  • As a member of a CWA delegation to the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, he showed disdain for the prominent dissident writers Dai Qing and Huang Beiling by walking out of an event when they attempted to speak;
  • He spent a decade on the staff of the Procuratorial Daily 检察日报; and,
  • His novel Frogs 蛙 was awarded the prestigious CWA-sponsored Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011.

Writing on via Sina Weibo and Twitter (see this roundup) critics of Mo Yan mocked the author’s establishment ties, attacked his moral cowardice and dug up an old microblog post that he had written containing a poem that seemed to praise the purged mock-Maoist Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai to the skies. Defenders argued that Mo Yan had always spoken through his work, which tackled tough subjects and, as in the case of Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀, had at times been banned by the authorities. This was taken as evidence that he wasn’t a stooge.

Why I Am a Critic

Xu Jilin 许纪霖, a leading intellectual historian based in Shanghai, posted one of the earliest substantive critical responses to Mo Yan’s Nobel win in a long-form microblog post that circulated widely on Sina’s Weibo service. The focus of Xu’s criticism was Mo’s decision to take part in the hand-copying of Mao Zedong’s 1942 ‘Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art’ 延安文艺座谈会上的讲话, the seventieth anniversary of which was celebrated in May 2012. The ‘Talks’ became Party dogma after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and were used as the basis for widespread literary and artistic control, and persecutions, until well after the Cultural Revolution (which only really ended with the December 1978 Third Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress). The ‘Talks’ provide a key theoretical basis to party-state cultural policy even today.

Xu wrote:

If Mo Yan, like some leftist writers, sincerely believed in the spirit of the ‘Talks’, that politics comes first and art comes second, then although I’d disagree with his viewpoint, I would still respect his character. However, Mo Yan’s choice is at odds with the literary ideals that he has always proclaimed, which makes it a question of whether his internal values are truly sincere.

Xu pointed out that Wang Anyi 王安忆, like Mo also a Vice-President of the official Chinese Writers’ Association, declined to participate in the project. It is hard to make the case that Mo Yan had no choice but to take part in an exercise of pro-Party flattery that runs counter to his avowed literary ethos.

Source: 许纪霖, 我为什么批评莫言?, Xu Jilin’s blog, 12 October 2012.

Mo Yan’s Award: China is happy, the world is happy too

Ding Guoqi 丁国旗, a scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a professor of literature at Renmin University, wrote a commentary for CCTV in which he discussed the question of why a Nobel Prize had been awarded to a Chinese writer at this particular juncture:

For the Chinese people, Mo Yan’s win fulfils a dream; for the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan’s win is also the fulfilment of a dream. If a major world-class prize cannot be given to someone from a country with an outstanding traditional culture and brilliant achievements in contemporary literature and art, then it is unfortunate not only for that country but for the prize itself. If the Nobel Prize seeks to maintain a fair and just image in the international community then it must consider this point. Therefore, Mo Yan’s win realizes the literary dream of a country while at the same time perfecting the Nobel Prize itself. Perhaps the Nobel Prize will always be accompanied by controversy and criticism from all sides, but Mo Yan’s unsurprising win will undoubtedly garner more praise for the jury.

There are more profound reasons for Mo Yan’s win, of course. The world-renowned economic and political accomplishments of China’s Reform and Opening Up, and the demeanour of a great country that China, as a responsible large country, increasingly demonstrates in international affairs is winning greater respect for our nation. We can, therefore, say that this prize was not awarded to Mo Yan alone, but to all Chinese.

Source: 丁国旗, 莫言获奖:中国很高兴 世界也很高兴, CCTV, 11 October 2012.

Politics and the Nobel Prize

Liu Zaifu 刘再复, a literary critic and a well-known defender of the self-exiled novelist Gao Xingjian’s 2000 Nobel Prize, discussed Mo Yan’s win with Southern People Weekly 南方人物周刊:

I think the Swedish Academy’s choice transcends politics and looks solely to an author’s literary quality. An author has the freedom to choose a political stance, and the Swedish Academy does not infringe on this freedom. Among Soviet Nobel laureates were those who did not cooperate with the government, such as Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and Brodsky, as well as those like Sholokhov who did. Sholokhov was a CPSU Central Committee member, but his And Quiet Flows the Don and Virgin Soil Upturned are actually very good. And Mo Yan, purely a literary man, is not close to politics nor does he really understand it. A writer’s conscience courses through him, he does not shrink from darkness, every work is a call for the dignity and worth of humanity, and a fully righteous response to the decades of political absurdities that took place on Chinese soil. Which of his works, from Red Sorghum, Republic of Wine, The Garlic Ballads, and Thirteen Steps, to Sandalwood Torture, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and Frogs, plus The Grass Eaters and Red Forest, and even the collections White Dog Swing and Date with a Master, is not a response to the times? Which does not involve a call to, a concern for, or a rejection of conscience?

If we really were to apply ‘political criteria’, then if we droped Mo Yan back into the Cultural Revolution era we would see all of his works decried as ‘poisonous weeds’ 毒草. They would provide the Red Guards reason enough to carry out ten ‘sandalwood tortures’ 檀香刑 and a hundred ‘cowshed’ 牛棚 punishments.

The Swedish Academy is correct not to treat Mo Yan’s work as ‘exposé literature’ or ‘novels of social criticism’, but rather as a reflection of Mo Yan’s imagination, soul and aesthetic sensibility. They took note that when Mo Yan describes an era he transcends time and enters the eternal dimension of literature. The Fellows of the Swedish Academy have a clear sense of conscience, but what they require of a writer is high literary accomplishments, not moral and political demands that are beyond the realm of literature. It is only by taking such an approach that they can make the best choice for the Prize in the complex global context.

Source: 刘再复谈莫言, 《南方人物周刊》, 13 October 2012, via Liu Zaifu’s blog.