Mo Yan

Mo's works in line with Nobel vision

Amy Lai says Mo Yan's body of work clearly demonstrates his humanistic concerns, which is in line with the Nobel award's vision of literary merit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 2:29am

As expected, Beijing celebrated Mo Yan's award of the Nobel Prize for literature as a national triumph. Also unsurprisingly, though, critics and activists have questioned whether Mo's Communist Party membership qualifies him for the honour and whether the Swedish Academy sent the right message to the Chinese regime by honouring him.

The award committee tried to extract itself from this issue by claiming that it was "awarded on literary merit alone", especially for his use of "hallucinatory realism".

Yet, even if Mo's creativity may have been compromised by his party membership, his work is seen as critical of the government to the extent that some of his works have been banned.

Although his early novel Red Sorghum is often read as an allegory of the communist takeover of China, its ambivalent images and anti-authoritarian subtexts also allow an alternative interpretation that is sceptical of the communist government.

The Garlic Ballads, which reads like a rural version of the June 4 incident, is much less subtle in its criticism of official corruption. Likewise, his most recent novel, Frogs, criticises China's single-child policy and forced late-term abortions through the character of a midwife. Thus, the academy cannot be said to be endorsing the party or the regime by honouring Mo for his work.

Mo's award has allayed the fears that for Chinese writers to gain recognition from the West, they need to abandon the distinct quality of their works or, alternatively, construct Orientalist artefacts and imbue their work with exoticism. While Haruki Murakami, a Nobel contender, has often been criticised for the lack of "Japaneseness" in his post-modern fiction, similar accusations have not been made of Mo's stories, which combine magical realism with Chinese folk tales and history.

The award looks set to herald a boom in China's literary scene, which may be followed by an easing of government censorship restrictions on literature. At the press conference, Mo called for the release of jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo ; it remains to be seen whether Mo will become more vocal in his criticism of the government and whether his works will become so, too.

Clearly, he has set a precedent for young authors in China, who will be more eager to test the limits of censorship. In addition, as foreign interest in Chinese literature continues to grow, translators may well gradually receive the attention they deserve.

The literature prize is awarded to the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency, which has been interpreted as a concern for human rights. Although, in recent years, the Nobel Committee has focused on candidates' aesthetic achievements, the legacy of humanism and social engagement survives. Form is ultimately inseparable from substance. So, in claiming that Mo was awarded the prize on literary merit, the academy has also tacitly recognised the humanistic concerns in his works. Let's hope that the Chinese government, in celebrating Mo's achievement, will be inspired by his concerns for Liu Xiaobo, and may be guided by the Nobel spirit in its decisions.

Amy Lai, a lawyer who was educated in Cambridge and Boston, has written extensively on literature, culture and law