Mo Yan, a novelist who brought to life the turbulence of the 20th century China in vivid and often graphic works set against the tumult of the Japanese invasion and a struggling countryside, on Thursday became the first writer in China to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, praised Mr. Mo as an author “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary” in the announcement, which was hailed in China as a long-awaited landmark heralding the arrival of the country's literature on the world stage.
Born Guan Moye, Mr. Mo adopted the pen name of Mo Yan — meaning “don’t speak” in Chinese. Mr. Mo revealed in a speech in Hong Kong that he chose the name to remind himself of the lines he could not cross as a writer in a country where the government routinely censors the works of authors and artists.
The turbulence Mr. Mo experienced in his early life in the rural north-eastern province of Shandong was reflected in his writing. Forced to leave school when he was only 12, when Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) began, Mr. Mo spent his childhood herding cattle and surviving on weeds and tree bark as he was too poor to eat rice.
The hardships of life in rural China were captured in his breakthrough work Red Sorghum , which brought him nationwide acclaim when made into an award-winning film by renowned director Zhang Yimou in 1987.
His sweeping novels often reflected the turmoil of 20th century China, from the Cultural Revolution to the horrors of family planning campaigns, depicted powerfully in his 2009 work Frog , which tells the story of a midwife haunted by the forced abortions she witnesses.
Mr. Mo has, however, received criticism from some Chinese dissidents and authors for not being critical enough of the Communist Party’s censorship regime and not speaking up for other silenced writers.
Nobel renews debate
Novelist Mo Yan said on Thursday he was “very surprised” on becoming the first writer in China to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that has been hailed here as a watershed moment for Chinese literature’s long march overseas.
“I felt I was not very senior in terms of qualification [among Chinese writers]. There are many good writers and my ranking was not so high,” Mr. Mo told reporters in his hometown of Gaomi, a rural county in northeastern Shandong where he has set most of his novels. “My works... show the life of Chinese people as well as the country’s unique culture and folk customs,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying. “I was influenced by the cultural elements I witnessed through my childhood. When I picked up the pen for literature creation, the folk cultural elements inevitably entered my novels.”
Mr. Mo rose to national acclaim following his 1987 work Red Sorghum, the story of a young girl in rural China set on the eve of the Japanese occupation. He has since been much celebrated for his dramatic novels usually framed against turbulent events in recent Chinese history.
Among his more popular works here is the 1992 Republic of Wine, which lifts the veil on the drinking culture — and the accompanying corruption — that permeates all levels of government. His 2004 work Big Breasts and Wide Hips, the story of a mother and her seven daughters set against the backdrop of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion and the Cultural Revolution, was also critically acclaimed.
While Mr. Mo’s Nobel Prize for his “hallucinatory realism” was widely welcomed by the Chinese media and bloggers as a long-awaited recognition of this country’s writers, the award has also renewed questions about the relationship between politics and literature in a country where a vast censorship mechanism still operates.
Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, expressed her displeasure at the decision on the Chinese Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo, suggesting it would strengthen the hands of the authorities.
The last Chinese Nobel laureate was the jailed political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 2010. As the Vice Chairman of the government-supported China Writers Association, Mr. Mo has faced criticism from some quarters for not speaking out against censorship forcefully enough. Beijing writer Liu Di, on Twitter, questioned his silence on Mr. Liu’s case.
Earlier this year, Mr. Mo was at the centre of a controversy that divided China’s literary world, when a major publishing house arranged for 100 top writers, including him, to commemorate a controversial 1942 speech by Mao Zedong. The Mao speech, from his landmark Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, laid out the role writers needed to play in the Communist revolution — a speech seen by many as a precursor to the Communist Party’s subsequent censorship of intellectuals in a “rectification” campaign that persecuted thousands. While today’s China is far more open than the days of Mao, the willing participation of 100 writers in the project angered many of their colleagues.
Other Chinese writers have questioned the emphasis placed by dissidents and activists on a writer’s politics rather than on literature. Those familiar with Mr. Mo’s work point out he has not shied away from sensitive issues. His 2009 work Frog tells the story of a midwife haunted by the many forced abortions she witnessed on account of family planning rules.
“The question is, why do we expect writers, particularly Chinese writers, to be the political conscience of the nation to get [a] Nobel [prize]?,” asked Charles Laughlin, professor of modern Chinese literature in the University of Virginia, on Twitter. “I think most people don’t realise how epoch-making this is, as this is the first non-dissident in a Socialist country to win.”