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