by Xiaoling Zhang.

The winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature is a paradox: Mo Yan, his penname for writing, means “don’t speak”, and yet he is a prolific writer, having produced 10 novels, several novellas and more than 80 short stories. The paradox does not stop there: he is the vice president of the Chinese Writers’ Association, directly under the supervision of the Propaganda Department, and yet for three decades, Mo Yan has continuously laid bare in such works as The Garlic Ballads (banned for its depiction of a farmers’ uprising), The Republic of Wine, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and Frogs (his  most recent novel about the consequences of the single-child policy) the grotesquerie and cruelty of communist society since 1949.

It is not surprising then that his win has generated such mixed reactions from high officials, state media and the internet users.  Many have congratulated Mo for his dedication to the craft of writing, contributing significantly to the transformation of the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing in the post-Mao era: the root seeking literature and the avant-garde movements; others thank him for bringing pride to the nation, and still others see his award as a mistake, largely because he works in a pro-establishment institution.

Beijing was quick to celebrate it as a national triumph. In his letter to the China Writers’ Association, Li Changchun, the Communist Party’s propaganda chief, wrote that the award “reflects the flourishing improvements of Chinese literature as well as the increasing comprehensive national power and influence of China.”

The official Xinhua news agency hoped that “With more Chinese writers like Mo, the world could learn a more real China”.  The China Central Television’s Network News evening news bulletin even broke the news around 10 minutes after the Swedish Academy announced Mo’s award. Could the decision also be a sign of the Nobel committee seeking to mitigate tensions with China after awarding the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010?” the nationalistic Global Times asked.

The contradiction demonstrated by the officials at the winning of prize by Liu, still in prison, and Mo, is voiced by the Shanghai-based columnist Zhao Chu on weibo, “Two years ago, a Chinese won a Nobel Prize and everyone had to remain indignant, or be spurned by all as Western slaves and traitors.  A Chinese has won a Nobel Prize again this year but we have to say that ‘it is after all a good thing’. Any trace of dissent, and one will be branded a Western slave and traitor.”

Critics of Mo Yan focus on his close relationship to power. They question whether the award would send the right message to the party-state. Ai Weiwei, for instance, believes that the award was “shameful, and that “the Nobel organizers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize”.

This mixed responses demonstrate the different forces at work: Beijing is quick to embrace talented artists and writers who can show soft power of China to the world; many internet users would like to see Chinese writers more critical of the establishment.

Cui Yongyuan CCTV  anchor known for hosting the program ‘Say It as It Is’, comments on Mo’s award: when writers have been collectively tamed, Mo’s insistence on individual thinking and writing is praiseworthy.

Indeed, to criticize Mo for always being on the side of power, or to praise him simply for his literary merit, is not reading his stories right. As Mo said, his books had exposed him “to great risks”.  Those who blame him for identifying errors and excesses of the communist regime without questioning fail to see that writers like Mo Yan working within the system keep pushing the boundaries, carving out a bigger space for autonomy. The author used this penname “don’t speak” to remind himself to speak but truth.

Dr Xiaoling Zhang is a Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute and an Associate Professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Comments

  1. This is a balanced assessment of the award to Mo Yan, summed up by the following quote:
    “Two years ago, a Chinese won a Nobel Prize and everyone had to remain indignant, or be spurned by all as Western slaves and traitors. A Chinese has won a Nobel Prize again this year but we have to say that ‘it is after all a good thing’. Any trace of dissent, and one will be branded a Western slave and traitor.”
    Readers interested in recent trends in literature should see my review of Tong King Lee’s new book on Experimental Chinese Literature, and then read his very interesting study: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/002818

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