Mo Yan is First Chinese Writer to Win Nobel Literature Prize
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 14:10
I still remember in 2010 when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government censored the news. As a statement against the Nobel Committee, the government banned Norwegian salmon for a long time. But this year, Norwegian salmon won’t rot in Chinese ports. Mo Yan, a prominent writer who is endorsed by the Communist Party, was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize last Friday. It was such a boost to China’s national psyche that CCTV, the official party television was interrupted just to report the breaking news.
Mo, whose name means, “be silent, ” is from a small village in eastern Shandong province. Born in 1955, Mo was an eyewitness to some of the most important political turmoil in modern Chinese history. He was forced to drop out of school due to the Cultural Revolution and spent most of his teenage year working on a farm and later, a cotton factory. Hunger and loneliness become the motif of his life and his literary work.
Similar to most of the writers of his age, Mo focuses on depicting life in rural China, especially stories or events in his hometown. His most famous novel Red Sorghum details a family’s ups and downs during war, the Communist Revolution and Cultural Revolution. The movie was later adapted by Zhang Yimou and won the Golden Bear Award in 1988.
The most controversial novel by Mr. Mo is Big Breasts & Wide Hips. I have a very clear memory of it because my mom criticized the book as corruptive for children. Now I can understand my mother’s thinking because of the graphic description of sex and coarse language.
“Such a novel should not be qualified as literature because it is not polished. It was just blatant description of a weird unrealistic story,” said my mother. For government officials, the book is politically corruptive for there is an indication that the spoiled protagonist might be an allegory of Communist solders as incapable, lazy and brutal.
But Mo continues his writing style. In his latest novel, Frog, Mo shifts to an important issue in China: the one-child policy, told from the perspective of a midwife in Shandong province. The novel has the key characteristics of Mo’s style—“hallucinatory realism merges that folk tales, history and the contemporary” according to the Nobel Committee. The titular frog is transformed into a child that the midwife has helped abort. She is haunted by guilt but also responsibility. It is a conflict between human nature and social order. Eventually, what is imaginary becomes concrete and believable.
People would expect that the edgy content in Mo’s novels and short stories would cause trouble with the Communist Party. On the contrary, Mo not only managed to join the Communist party in China but also sits as a deputy Chairman of the state-endorsed Chinese Writer Association. Because of his political success, Mo has received criticism from fellow dissident writers.
The harshest criticism comes from Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, commented that the prize is a intellectual humiliation and the committee has been removed from reality to give such an important award to a Communist Party endorsed writer. HE raises a question of whether Chinese literature has to be political. In other words, is Mo Yan, who is not politically active, qualified to take the Prize?
Fortunately, Mo Yan gave his own philosophy behind writing at a Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009.“A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression,” he said. “Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”
This statement resonated strongly with me because as an international student in the United States, I’ve heard many un-nuanced forms of criticism of China’s politics, about freedom of speech and human rights issues. Reading a literary novel from another angle touches me more because it leaves room for me to think and reflect. I believe Chinese literature should be awarded not because of Chinese politics, but the power of Chinese language.