Chinese writer Mo Yan smiles during an interview at his house in Beijing in 2009. (Reuters)
Oct. 11: Chinese national television today broke into its tightly scripted newscast to make a highly unusual announcement: Chinese writer Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize in literature.
For a government that had disowned the only previous Chinese winner of the award — an exiled critic — today’s choice appeared to be a cause of pride.
Some of the books of Mo, who was once so destitute he ate tree bark and weeds to survive, have been banned as “provocative and vulgar” by Chinese authorities but he has also been criticised as being too close to the Communist Party.
While users of a popular Chinese microblogging site offered their congratulations, dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he disagreed with giving the award to a writer with the “taint of government” about him.
The Swedish Academy, which selects the winners of the prestigious award, praised Mo’s “hallucinatory realism” saying it “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.
“Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” the citation declared, striking what seemed a careful balance after campaigns of vilification against other Chinese Nobel laureates.
Mo, born Guan Moye in 1955 to a farming family in eastern Shandong province, chose his pen-name while writing his first novel. Garrulous by nature, Mo has said the name, meaning “don’t speak”, was intended to remind him to hold his tongue lest he get himself into trouble and to mask his identity since he began writing while serving in the army.
Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary, said the academy had contacted Mo, 57, before the announcement. “He said he was overjoyed and scared,” Englund said.
Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were Red Sorghum (1987), The Garlic Ballads (1995), Big Breasts & Wide Hips (2004).
“He’s written 11 novels and let’s say a hundred short stories,” Englund said. “If you want to start off to get a sense of how he is writing and also get a sense of the moral core in what he is writing, I would recommend The Garlic Ballads.”
Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, praised the win in a commentary on its website. “This is the first Chinese writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chinese writers have waited too long, the Chinese people have waited too long,” it wrote.
The praise was in sharp contrast to the response when jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, which infuriated China. That was the last time a Chinese national won a Nobel.
The communist leadership also disowned the Nobel when Gao Xingjian won the literature award in 2000 for his absurdist dramas and inventive fiction. Gao’s works are laced with criticisms of China’s communist government and have been banned in China.
Mo, a vice-chairman of the government-backed Chinese Writers’ Association, said he had nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo, whose name has been banned from public discussion in China.
Mo was once forced to drop out of primary school and herd cattle during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Mo’s breakthrough came with the novel Red Sorghum, published in 1987. Set in a small village, like much of his fiction, Red Sorghum is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. A film based on Red Sorghum and directed by Zhang Yimou was one of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese films and was seen by millions.
Speaking to the state-run China News Service, Mo said he was happy to have won. “But I do not think that my winning can be seen as representing anything. I think that China has many outstanding authors, and their great works should also be recognised by the world.
“Next, I’m going to put most of my efforts into creating my new works. I will keep working hard, and I thank everyone. As to whether I go to Sweden to receive the prize, I will wait for word from the organisers about arrangements.”
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei said: “His winning won’t be of any help for Liu Xiaobo, unless Mo Yan expresses his concern for him. But Mo Yan has stated in the past that he has nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo. I think the Nobel organisers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don't understand it.”
Beijing-based writer Mo Zhixu said Mo Yan, who once copied out by hand a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong for a commemorative book, “doesn’t have any independent personality”.
Yu Shicun, a Beijing-based essayist and literary critic, said Mo Yan was a puzzling choice for the prize. “I don’t think this makes sense,” said Yu in a telephone interview.
“His works are from the 1980s, when he was influenced by Latin American literature. I don’t think he’s created his own things. We don’t see him as an innovator in Chinese literature.”
The Academy had been charged in the past with being too Euro-centric.