Post from 27/10/12 - Mo Yan, the Priz(c)e of Silence

Mo Yan, the Priz(c)e of Silence

October 27th, 2012

No sooner had the laureate of the Nobel Literature Prize been announced earlier this month that a controversy started. While an immediate and universal consensus was reached as to the winner’s nationality, Chinese, what became less certain was whether or not he was the First Chinese to receive the Prize.  It went on about discussions about the legitimacy of, not only, a so-called ‘non-activist’ sentitlement to such a Prize, but also about the Nobel Committee.  Finally, it provided a perfect platform for airing nationalist feelings in China, Taiwan and Japan. 
Mo Yan is not new to the international literary scene. He is a prolific author, father of many novels, short stories and essays on various topics.  He has been translated into many languages and has even made it to the big screen with “Red Sorghum”, his novel most famous in the West.  His stories usually depict life in rural China, a place he knows best, as he was born Gaomi, a farming community in the Shandong province, in 1955, where he still lives.  An autodidact – he only had 5 years of schooling -,  he spent many years in the Army, where he was able to graduate: “The Army was the place any youngster of my generation wanted to be: it meant warm clothes, regular meals and the possibility of going to University”[1].
His style has been depicted as “epic, visceral and bawdy”[2], “heavy with a sense of the surreal, laced with scenes of great violence tempered by moments of intense beauty”[3].  The Nobel Prize committee praised his work as “hallucinatory realism, a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives”[4], in the vein of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez. A paradox for, while Mo Yan admits to admiring and being inspired by both, in an interview he gave to the Corriere Della Serra in 2006, he criticizes contemporary Chinese authors for “aping South American literature” and proudly declares that he “never moved away from the “tradition of China” and managed “to promote the great heritage of rural culture, traditions and values”[5]
However, Mr. Shut Up’s winning has not been to the delight of all. Born Guan Moye, he took the pen name Mo Yan, ‘Shut up!’, as a ‘souvenir’ from harder days during Mao’s time, when as a young boy, his father would remind him every day not to speak outside the house, as it could be fatal. Mr. Shut-Up, is precisely what he has been accused of by fellow Chinese since the announcement of his winning the Prize.  The most vocal of all, being none other than Ai Weiwei, China’s famous artist and activist,  who depicted it an “insult to humanity and literature”. To Weiwei and to many other activists, Mo Yan is too close to the regime. A long-time member of the Communist Party, Mo Yan is now the Vice-Chairman of the official China Writers’ Association, attached to the Ministry of Culture, from where he draws his salary.  To add insult to injury, Mo Yan’s participation at an official commemoration of Mao with the Communist Party, earlier this year, did not make him dearer in the eyes of his critiques, neither did his reading of one of Mao’s passage or his comment defending his participation: “Some of Mao’s remarks on art are reasonable”[6].
Other writers and activists have denounced the Prize as a “woeful example of the West’s fuzzy morals”[7] and Mo Yan, a man “who has no principles”[8], while Cui Weiping, Professor and Social critique tweeted that “To those imprisoned writers and those who are being persecuted by censorship as we speak, this is a huge blow”[9].
The ire of the artists and activists is easy to understand with china’s poor record on artistic freedom.  At about the same time as Mo was receiving his award, IFEX was publishing “Article 19”, the latest report on China, reporting the lack of freedom of artistic expression existent in the country:  China has “failed to create an environment conducive for diverse cultural expressions. […] China does not protect cultural expressions at risk on its territory.  It actually further endangers them by implementing a policy of cultural homogeneity”[10] – the Full Report.
The attacked author first defended himself by saying that his award was a literary victory, not a political one.  His views on his subversiveness, or not, seem to be slightly more nuanced: "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 opinion".  Sabina Knight, Professor of Literature at Smith College, concurs: "Mo is a brave an unflinching writer ... who chronicles many of the horrors of twentieth century China, including Mao's Cultural Revolution. But rather than depict it directly he sets many of his works during WWII when the Japanese brutally invaded China"[11] thereby sidestepping censorship and sensitivities.

Ultimately, it would seem that the criticism that has been aimed at the author have reached their goal for barely two days after the storm started, Mo Yan has publicly wishing imprisoned Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiabo “can achieve his freedom as soon as possible”, he also added that Liu had the right to research his politics and social system[12].

While his proclamation may have pleased Ai and his fellow activists, in fact it so pleased Ai that he proclaimed Mo was admitted back in the club of humanity, "If this sort of courage is the result, I hope more Chinese will be given the Nobel prizes"[13], it did not at all please the authorities with whom Mo had been coupled until then.

In order to make their point, they issued a warning to all government and press agencies with more than clear guidelines as to how to treat and talk about the case:

State Council Information Office: To all websites nationwide: In light of Mo Yan winning theNobel prize for literature, monitoring of microblogs, forums, blogs and similar key points must be strengthened. Be firm in removing all comments which disgrace the Party and the government, defame cultural work, mention Nobel laureates Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjianand associated harmful material. Without exception, block users from posting for ten days if their writing contains malicious details. Reinforce on-duty staff during the weekend and prioritize this management task. (October 12, 2012)

Which brings us to the big question: is Mo the first or the second Chinese to have won the Nobel Literary Prize? According to the Chinese authorities, he is the first and only Chinese to have won the Prize. Even though China could have attributed itself the Honour more than a decade ago, it has steadfastly refused to do so, just as it raised total hell, when two years ago the Prize was attributed to Liu Xiabo. While it is true that Gao accepted the award as a French citizen, making him France's 14th Laureate ( J.M.G. le Clézio added another Literature Nobel to France in 2008), Gao is also the only French author who won a Prize and was praised for his work ... in Chinese - all other recipients wrote in their national language.  As a matter of fact he is the only author to ever have won a Prize in a language that is not the official language of the country he represents.  Moreover, his writing, both in content and style, is as Chinese as can be. The argument did not limit itself to China, it crossed all borders and boundaries, reaching as far as the ... blogosphere.  
While no one seems to reach a consensus, Wolfgang Kubin, Professor of Sinology at Bonn University, simply finds Mo Yan ‘boring to death’: “He doesn’t have his own thoughts; he illustrates; he was avant-garde in the … 80’s.  Now that China is ruled by the market, people have understood what sells in China and in the West. … There are many other better writers”[14].
This last remark found an echo in Taiwan, where, apart from being of the opinion that Mo Yan is the second Chinese to have won the prize, Taiwan blames Stockholm for making the wrong choices for the wrong political reasons but mainly, it accuses the Nobel Committee not having enough personnel who can read Chinese, and therefore, no Taiwanese writer has ever been chosen even though authors in Taiwan have written much more than their Chinese counterparts[15].  Lee Min-yung, poet and political commentator, deplored the fact that Taiwan was not regarded as a country “in and of itself.  The people who live on this land have their own history and hardships to tell. … This country has something to say, but the world is not listening. … Those who have recommended Mo Yan … seem to be trapped within a masochistic historical view and are biased”[16]
Last but not least Japan, with whom China is in the middle of a heated dispute over five uninhabited islands that threatens to spin out of control, another storm was averted on the literary scene when Japan’s contestant, Haruki Murakami, lost to Mo Yan. Whereas Chinese readers declared the love for Murakami intact, despite the political background, Japanese readers were very disappointed when the news reached them that they had lost.  Comfort came from the fact that at least the Laureate was from Asia.
Finally, I think it might be the safest to agree that Mo Yan is the first Chinese “living inside China and outside jail” to have won the Prize and that, as regards his political activism, the story he told at the Frankfurt Book fair in 2009, might be the clearest way to shed some light:
Goethe and Beethoven were walking side by side when they were met by a royal entourage.  Goethe took his hat off and stood to the side in deference, while Beethoven refused.  “When I was young, I thought that what Beethoven did was great.  As I have matured over the years, I realized that it could be easier to do what Beethoven did, and it might take even more courage to do what Goethe did”[17].

[3] Aw T. “nobel Prize: was Mo yan the Communist Party’s Choice” – The Telegraph – 16/10/12 -
[4] Rojas C. “China’s Literary Complex is defused” - The New Republic -11/10/12
[5] Corriere – op.cit.
[6] Tsai V. “Chinese Nobel Prize Writer Condemned for his Murky political Stance” - International Business Times, 25/10/12
[7] Carlson B. “China Scrambles to Censor Novelist Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize” - Global Post, 16/10/12 -
[8] ibid
[9] ibid
[10] IFEX – “Report on Freedom of Artistic expression in China”- Article 19, 23/10/12
[11] Wasserstrom J. “China’s Latest Laureate: Chinese Lit Scholar Answers Questions About Mo Yan” – LA Review of Books, 12/10/12
[12] Wei W. “Mo Yan’s Nobel win celebrated – and panned – in China” – NBC News, 12/10/12
[13] Carlson B. “China scrambles to Censor Noovelist Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize” – GlobalPost, 16/10/12
[14] Von Hein M. “Interview: Mo Yan bores me to death” – Deutsche Welle, 12/10/12
[15] Hung J. “Mo Yan, the Nobel and Translation” – China Post, 15/10/12
[16] Min-yung L. “Mo, Writer and Winner without the Credentials” – Taipei Times, 16/10/12 -
[17] Tsai V. “Chinese Nobel Prize writer Condemned for his Murky Political Stance” International Business Times, 13/10/12


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