China Celebrates Author Mo Yan’s Nobel

The writer is not the first Chinese person to win a Nobel — think dissident Liu Xiaobo and the Peace Prize — but, with their sleight of hand, elated Beijing authorities are celebrating him as the first Chinese citizen to win the literature award

  • Share
  • Read Later
China Daily / Reuters

Chinese writer Mo Yan smiles during an interview at his house in Beijing

Mo Yan, the Chinese author of earthy but surreal novels including Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, making him the first China-based writer to win the award. The Nobel Committee described Mo Yan, 57, “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”

The award will be widely celebrated in China, which despite taking up nearly a fifth of the world’s population has won a tiny number of Nobels and until now, none that were welcomed by the regime. Several Chinese have been honored with the prize after moving abroad, including Chinese-American physicists Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee and novelist Gao Xingjian, who is a French citizen. Two well-known critics of the Chinese government, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo, the jailed literary critic and lead author of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Liu’s 2010 prize was announced international news channels in China went dead, his wife Liu Xia was placed under a tight form of house arrest from which she has yet to emerge, and China’s relations with Norway, which hosts the Peace Prize, fell into a lengthy deep freeze. But the news of Mo Yan’s prize was immediately acclaimed. The official Xinhua news service plastered a banner headline announcing the Nobel across its Web page, and Mo Yan quickly became the hottest topic on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog service. State-run broadcaster CCTV relayed the news during its widely viewed 7 p.m. broadcast minutes after the Swedish Nobel Committee made the announcement in Stockholm. The CCTV announcer called Mo Yan “the first writer of Chinese citizenship to win the Nobel Literature Prize.”

Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, was born in Gaomi in China’s eastern Shandong province, a township that has served as a setting for his novels — complex, sometimes violent rural dramas often set in the turbulent early years of the People’s Republic. He dropped out of school at age 12 during the Cultural Revolution, worked in a refinery and served in the People’s Liberation Army, first turning to fiction while he was still a soldier. While he has tackled sensitive subjects including China’s one-child policy, he is best known as a writer with a solid awareness of what he can and can’t get away with under China’s censorship regime. He once said he chose his pen name, which means “don’t speak,” to remind himself to not say too much. (One popular joke circulating on Thursday on Sina Weibo: “Who is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature?” “Can’t Say.” “Come on! Tell me!” “Can’t Say.” “Why not? Tell me!” “Can’t Say.”) In a 2010 interview with TIME he said every country has restrictions on what it allows to be written, but that can be an advantage, as it forces writers to think of how to work around those limits. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety,” he said. “A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”

Tang Xiaobing, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Michigan, called Mo Yan “one of the greatest, most innovative writers in China today” and said his deep focus on a specific region was similar to the style of William Faulkner. Writing after the Nobel was awarded, Tang said it was significant that it “goes to a Chinese writer living and writing in China, a writer who is widely read and respected, whose work does not get attention simply because it is claimed to be dissident or oppositional.”

Some Chinese liberals have criticized him for his role as vice president of the state-approved Chinese Writers Association and for pulling out of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009 to protest the attendance of dissident environmental writer Dai Qing. Mo Yan was one of 100 artists who copied by hand a Mao Zedong speech from 1942 that outlined the role artists must play in developing a socialist state, which prompted criticism that he was endorsing authoritarianism. “The Nobel Literature Prize is a symbol of humanism and freedom of writing, but unfortunately we cannot see such qualities in Mo Yan,” said Wen Yunchao, a Hong Kong–based activist and blogger. “In one word, Mo Yan doesn’t deserve this prestigious honor.”

In a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair he argued that authors could speak out against injustices while still hewing to the official line. “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, according to a report in the China Daily. “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.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

Sort: Newest | Oldest
Austin Inyang
Austin Inyang

I knew they'll never give it to Chinua Achebe or Ngugi wa Thiong'o. The brave attempts by these two eminent writers to debunk comfortable European stereotypes about Africans has not been forgiven. Meanwhile, thanks, Nobel Committee,  for bowing to Chinese sensibilities by honoring this apologist for authoritarianism after years of honoring its  opponents and victims.


always tends to connect something with politics, sucks! Why you didn't mention that Dalai Lama is supported by your country's regime? 就是看不得别人好

Abraham Yeshuratnam
Abraham Yeshuratnam

The award jury holds a low opinion of American writing. The jury is biased and this bias begins from the time of Horace Engdahi who was the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury. He told the Associated Press "Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is

the centre of the literary world ... not the United States," "The US is too

isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate

in the big dialogue of literature, That ignorance is restraining.”  It is obvious from this comment that  Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age. The present jury has the same prejudice, and it has deliberately bypassed hundreds of eminent American writers. The Nobel committee has also had a crappy reputation for recognizing genius. Arafat and Krugman were selected overlooking real peace makers and eminent economists.

Tracy Domenica
Tracy Domenica

It's awfully cheeky of Wen Yunchao to comment on Mo's writing in that dismissive manner. I'm sure Mo Yan's social critique has influenced more hearts and minds than that self-styled "activist" Wen and his little blog.

The German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin once talked about how Chinese fiction is often read in the west as a probe into the country's society and politics, but seldom as an art form in itself. Readers seek a certain voyeuristic gratification from books written by Chinese authors, while largely ignoring the literary merit of what they read, often abetted by publishers who wouldn't hesitate to cash in on the shock factor. You think a Nobel win might change that crude attitude....

Leslie T. Printz
Leslie T. Printz

@facebook-100003638644394:disqus The award jury holds a low opinion of American writing...NDOQESB.Tk

Meng Ran Zhang
Meng Ran Zhang

Wen Yunchao once said on Twitter that he wants to kill the children of the Chinese "National Security" officers. To be honest, a lot of Chinese dissidents talk no different from crazy Communist-supporters from the Cultural Revolution era. They tolerate no one who does not believe that the Chinese Communist Party is pure evil, the Devil, the worst sore on mankind's face, Will-Be-Destroyed-By-Heaven, etc.

Some of them have sent me tweets telling me to commit suicide, calling me a 'pighead', saying that I pimped my mother -- all because I once said that justice is not about revenge, that if the Communist is ever overthrown, those criminals must not be killed barbarically like Gaddhafi was, but should rather be given their due punishments following legal procedures. I never insulted anyone, never threatened anyone, and never said that I support the Communist Party.

The dirty talk is not limited to less-renowned figures. Ai Weiwei calls all supporters of Liu Xiaobo's no-enemy stance "stupid cu*ts" (and why no one ever mentions that he actually tried to pull Wu Fatian's ear a while ago?). Tang Baiqiao said "f*ck your mother" to Wen Yunchao once when the latter called him a "stupid cu*t", declaring in the same tweet that he will definitely beat Wen up if he ever sees Wen. Quite a fair number of Du Yanlin's tweets are littered with slang words for genitals, particularly that of someone's mother...

And those guys call themselves democracy-supporters and trash the Nobel Prize Committee.

I've never read Mo Yan, but I do believe that the Nobel Prize Committee makes more subjective judgments than those Chinese dissidents.

P.S. I'm not saying that all Chinese dissidents are foul-mouthed extremists. Hu Jia and his wife, for instance, are pretty nice, well-mannered people. But the majority of dissidents I followed on Twitter are.