Chinese Novelist Mo Yan Receives Nobel Prize. But Is He Politically Correct?

The new Nobel laureate has been accused of being both subtly subversive and too close to the party line

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Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Chinese author Mo Yan at a book fair in Saint Malo, France, in 2006.

It’s traditional for English betting houses like Ladbrokes and Oddschecker to offer odds on the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s also traditional for those odds to be completely unrelated to the actual outcome. You don’t meet a lot of people whose ship came in with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio in 2008.

This year the Swedish Academy broke with that tradition by awarding the prize to the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who was considered by the betting houses and everyone else to be a frontrunner, behind only the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and the Hungarian Péter Nádas. Mo is prolific and popular, arguably China’s most prominent contemporary novelist. His work has been filmed—the movie Red Sorghum was based on one of his novels—and even sells a few copies in America. And we’re notorious for our xenophobic reading habits.

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Yes, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, described Mo’s reaction: “he said he was overjoyed and scared.” The Nobel citation praised Mo as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” The prize is worth 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.4 million.

If anything Mo is almost too well known. He’s the second Chinese author to win the prize for literature, after Gao Xingjian in 2000, but he’s the first who retained his Chinese citizenship—Gao was born in China but went into exile the 1980s, and had taken French citizenship by the time he won. Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, was (and is) in prison. The Chinese response to Mo’s selection appears to be a mixture of huge national pride with a certain strain of bitterness among writers and critics who don’t consider Mo radical enough in his opposition to the Chinese state.

“Mo Yan” is in fact a pen name—in Chinese it means “don’t speak.” The irony, for a novelist, is intentional: Mo chose his pseudonym, he has said, to remind himself to moderate his natural outspokenness. Mo was born Guan Moye in Shandong province in 1955. His family were farmers, but during the Cultural Revolution he went to work in a factory and then joined the Army.

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Mo has published 11 novels so far, as well as dozens of short stories and novellas. His work is set largely in the past, in rural areas, and many of his books are described as family histories, though they also have a strong affinity with magical realism—he once remarked: “García Márquez wrote my novel.” His 2006 novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, for example, is the story of a landowner who, following his execution under Mao Zedong, is reincarnated as a donkey. Mo also acknowledges a debt to Faulkner:

After reading Faulkner, I felt as if I had awakened from a dream. So one could write nonsense like this, so the trifles in the countryside could be used as fiction topics! His Yoknapatawpha County showed me that a writer could not only fabricate his characters and his stories, but could make up a geographical locale as well.

Stylistically Mo is a maximalist: his novels are distinguished by their playfulness and their stylistic flamboyance, as well as occasional scenes of graphic violence—The Red Sorghum Family, on which the movie is based, includes a scene in which a human being is flayed alive. He occasionally includes himself as a character in his fictions. Mo is frequently classified as a satirist: The Republic of Wine tells the story of an official sent to the countryside to investigate rumors of cannibalism. His novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which appeared in China in 1996 and the West in 2005, was an epic, sprawling indictment of the male dominance of Chinese society. Frog, his most recent novel, addresses the Chinese policy of one family, one child.

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Mo’s work unquestionably contains powerful elements of social criticism, but he has been engaged in a career-long game of brinksmanship with the Chinese government, and while he has had his share of run-ins with the censors, he still lives in Beijing and writes and publishes within the constraints of Chinese state censorship. Critics often point out that Mo participated in a commemorative volume in which a hundred writers and artists hand-copied paragraphs from one of Mao’s speeches. A blog at the South China Morning Post adds further detail to the controversy. “He withdrew from the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair to protest the attendance of dissidents Dai Qing and Bei Ling. He’s a vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association. When asked for his thoughts on the 11-year sentence given to Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, Mo said he wasn’t familiar with the situation and wished not to discuss it.”

It’s debatable whether this kind of political criticism is even germane to a discussion of Mo’s literary merits. But the discussion certainly throws into high relief the precarious position of literary figures in contemporary China. Mo may have revealed something of his own feelings about the matter in an address at that same Frankfurt Book Fair: “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. 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.”