Chinese Character

Censor and sensibility

Delight in China as Nobel prize goes to local author Mo Yan

Mo Yan: transcending politics?

It was perhaps a sign of his roots: Mo Yan, the farmer’s son turned Nobel literature laureate, was soon announcing plans to invest his Nobel prize money in buying land – or rather an apartment in Beijing, the urban equivalent.

The 57 year-old novelist, known for being as crafty in his work as he is prolific, then added that high prices meant he wasn’t sure what he could buy in the capital city with his Rmb7.5 million ($1.2 million) cash windfall.

Still, he seemed more than ready to consider his options. Questioned by a Xinhua journalist, Mo (whose real name is Guan Moye,) said: “I’m getting ready to buy a house in Beijing, a big house. But then I’ve been warned I won’t be able to get anything that big. A house is more than Rmb50,000 per square metre.” So the Rmb7.5 million would buy a dwelling of just 120 square metres (or 1,292 square feet), Mo concluded.

The Nobel committee gave Mo the award for what it said was the author’s large and lively style that simultaneously engaged and subverted the state in which he lives. Certainly, Mo shows a worldliness that keeps him in step with most of his compatriots, admitting to writing forewords to weak novels in the past “for two sacks of rice”.

Now, of course, he has more bountiful resources. And Mo’s prize is also a boon for the Communist Party, which at last has a Chinese Nobel winner that it can actually boast about.

Two previous winners – Gao Xingjian (born in China but of French nationality when he won the literature prize in 2000) and Liu Xiaobo (winner of the Peace prize in 2010) – are persona non grata in China. Other more acceptable victors were born in China but had chosen to give up their Chinese nationality by the time that they received their honour.

Not this time, though, and Li Changchun, the Party’s head of propaganda, was soon writing to congratulate the Chinese Writer’s Association, of which Mo is vice chairman.

“Li said Mo’s victory reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China,” Xinhua reported.

But others say that what makes Mo different is that he has chosen to stay within the system but without being fooled by it, and that he has always been ready to raise a critical voice.

The accolade is a little ironic, given that his pen name suggests the opposite. Born on 7 February, 1955, in the village of Gaomi in Shandong, Mo gave himself the pen name “Don’t Speak,” or “mo yan” early in life. It was a reminder, he said, not to open his mouth too much in public. His parents had warned him he was prone to outspokeness, not a smart trait when people around him were falling prey to political infighting, as one campaign raged after another during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1967, aged just twelve, Mo left school to work as a farmer, later became a factory worker and then joined the army in 1976.

He began to write in 1981 and his output since then has been prolific, as if the bottled energy of his ‘Don’t Speak’ youth has been channelled into the written word instead.

One of his more recent novels, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, is 490,000 characters long. But Mo wrote it in just 43 days. That works out at 11,000 characters a day, which Mo still writes by hand. (He does so because he knows his daughter will be able to sell his manuscripts for a fortune in the future.)

Mo’s style is punchy, colourful and dramatic – “melodramatic, sometimes,” says the Hong Kong author and scholar Leung Ping-kwan, in an interview with WiC this week.

In them violence is widespread and people cheat and murder their way through life. Mo’s plots are also marked by a magical, or hallucinatory realism, a tool, he has said, for getting round some of the censorship rules.

In an interview with Granta magazine earlier this year, Mo said: “Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship are great for literature creation.”

The Transparent Carrot, which came out in 1986, was Mo’s first success. Soon after, he published a novel telling five interlocking stories called Hong Gaoliang. Seven years later that would come out in English as Red Sorghum, the title that was to make his name.

“The book consists of five stories that unfold and interweave in Gaomi in several turbulent decades in the 20th century, with depictions of bandit culture, the Japanese occupation and the harsh conditions endured by poor farm workers,” the Nobel’s Stockholm jury wrote.

Made into a film by Zhang Yimou, Red Sorghum impressed audiences in a number of countries. Although some said that Zhang’s film was better than Mo’s book, Mo was now a well-known writer – at home and abroad. Since then more novels have been published. The Garlic Ballads (1988) and The Republic of Wine (1992) both took aim at contemporary Chinese society (and were temporarily banned). Next came Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a “broad historical fresco” of a family in 20th century China, as the Nobel committee put it. Darkly humorous, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out then portrayed the violence of life in the early years of the People’s Republic, while Sandalwood Death, to come out next year in English, is a story of human cruelty in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty.

Mo has said his books are deeply influenced by William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, although he says he discovered them late in life, aged 29.

Not known for his modesty, Mo told Granta: “If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did.”

The Nobel committee lauded Mo for work that mixed “fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives”. It also said: “Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.”

In his home village of Gaomi Mo gave a news conference after his victory, dismissing the criticism of those that say he has failed to show solidarity with other writers who fell foul of the system.

Notoriously, last year he joined other writers in honouring Mao Zedong’s theory that literature must serve politics, by copying out Mao’s 1942 poem Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art. The treatise is said to have underpinned restrictions on literary expression in China for decades.

But Mo had little time for detractors. “The award is a victory for literature instead of political correctness, because my writings transcend politics… I am writing in a China under Communist Party leaders. However, my works cannot be restricted by political parties,” he insisted.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.