by Tracey Fallon.

The Nobel Prize in literature last week went to Mo Yan, the first Chinese national to receive the prize. There is a marked contrast in reception to the news by the Chinese government than the last Chinese citizen to gain a Nobel prize, that of jailed human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo. When in 2010 the Nobel Peace Prize went to Liu Xiaobo, China immediately criticised the award calling it interfering in its “internal affairs” and the Nobel committee as “clowns”.

However, this time has been different. Li Changchun, head of China’s publicity and media, wrote a congratulatory letter to the Chinese Writer’s Association, of which Mo Yan is vice chairman. In the letter Li wrote the award is “a reflection of the ceaseless rise in China’s comprehensive national strength and international influence”. The Nobel literature prize is being used as a symbol that state efforts for more global cultural recognition commensurate to the economic weight of China has borne fruit.

While the regime may attempt to co-opt the award within the discourse of China’s rise, Mo Yan himself is a politically ambiguous figure. Characterised as an establishment figure for his official positions and participation in state activates, his career can be compared to other artists of his generation who were once banned, then work within the system. His novels have at times fallen foul with the censors, as did Zhang Yimou’s early films, the director who turned his novel Red Sorghum into a film and also directed the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Yet, although working within approved organisations, Mo’s novels are not in the vein of the artistic propaganda of socialist realism which paints idealised pictures of China and its leaders. Instead they are filled with violence, hunger, desire and suffering as around the characters mistakes and corruption lead to personal disasters. For instance, The Garlic Ballads, depicts tales of abuse of authority, as characters receive beatings and unfair imprisonment from the police and local officials appear aloof in the face of disaster as a result of their own agriculture policy of encouraging farmers to plant garlic.

Beijing housingAt a press conference following winning the Nobel Prize, reporters asked Mo Yan what he will do with the prize money. He replied that he would buy a big house in Beijing. However, he added that he had been told that houses go for more than 50,000 RMB a square meter, so for 7.5 million RMB he can only afford a flat of 120 square meters. On Weibo, property tycoon Pan Shiyi, retweeted this news asking tongue in cheek, “Have you got a Beijing hukou [Household registration system]?” referring to the restrictions on the purchasing of property. Only those registered to live in Beijing or with evidence of 5 years of paying tax in the area can purchase property in Beijing. Pan Shiyi’s quip serves to remind us of the exclusivity and restrictions on purchasing property in the capital. Mo Yan’s seemingly innocuous comment hits a nerve felt by Chinese society. Mo Yan uses his characteristic humorous style to point at absurdities in society in a way which slips in under the censor’s radar.

Over the weekend from Xinjiang to Shanghai sales of Mo’s books have been high, termed “the Nobel effect” by Chinese media. The enthusiasm to read Mo Yan following the Nobel Prize indicates that international recognition can increase popularity of Chinese artists at home. Beijing’s reaction to the two prizes tells us that while international recognition is to be celebrated, any criticism from outside is unwelcome and will be met with displeasure in words and actions. However, more subtle oblique criticism may be possible from within, such as the writings of Mo Yan.

Tracey Fallon is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

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.


  1. A very nice piece – love the property tycoon tweet! does indeed expose a lingering ‘socialist’ policy that frustrates so many, and in restricting movements (or at least secure settlement) does a lot to undermine the potential benefits of reduced inequality that come from freer migration.

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