Mo Yan

Mo Yan: a dark satirist who tells the 'big stories of China'

Mo Yan rose from the countryside to write epic works on the country's tumultuous 20th century

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 7:55pm

Mo Yan has come far from Gaomi, where he was born to a farming family in the early days of communist rule, but his writing has never left.

The rural county in eastern Shandong province, with its rich, earthy landscape, has provided the setting for several of his accomplished works, not least his 1987 breakthrough Red Sorghum: A Novel of China - a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the countryside in the 1920s and 1930s.

Born Guan Moye, he left school aged 12 to work on a farm during the Cultural Revolution. A stint in a factory followed before he joined the People's Liberation Army in 1976. It was there the future Nobel Prize laureate began writing and studying literature.

Early on, he adopted the pen name Mo Yan - "don't speak" - in Chinese. The author often got in trouble as a chatty child and figured it was better to express himself through writing.

He's a great writer... [and] very canny about what can and can't be written

Crafting a style that has been compared to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan went on to author works, such as Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Republic of Wine and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out.

He has written dozens of other novels, novellas, and short stories, often eschewing contemporary issues, instead reflecting on China's tumultuous 20th century with a dark sense of humour.

Backdrops for his works include the 1911 revolution that toppled the last imperial dynasty, Japan's wartime invasion, communist China's failed land reforms of the 1950s and the chaos of Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

He studied at the PLA's institute of arts and literature and later at Beijing Normal University, where he received a master's degree in literature and art. His first short story was published in 1981.

"Colm Tóibín on Chinese Nobel winner Mo Yan" Video by Hedy Bok

Chinese literary expert Eric Abrahamsen called Mo Yan "a great writer" who tells "the big stories of China".

"So many of modern China's stories are political in nature, simply because politics has shaped so much of recent Chinese history," said Abrahamsen. "He's also very canny about what can and can't be written."

His latest novel, 2009's Frog, is considered his most daring yet, due to its searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who enforce it with forced abortions and sterilisations.

The heroine of the novel is a midwife who is an enthusiastic advocate of such practices.

"A writer should express criticism … at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression," Mo said, according to China Daily.

Although the fantasy and satire of Mo Yan's books have been branded "provocative and vulgar" by state media, and resulted in an occasional ban, much of his work has remained in print.

Mo Yan's ability to escape the censors has made him stand out among Chinese authors.

But his support for the practices that have led to the banning - and even imprisonment - of some of his peers has made him a controversial figure.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse