Mo Yan

Mo Yan's Nobel means recognition for China at last, but critics air doubts

Mo Yan's Nobel prize has satisfied the Chinese public, his publisher says, but some question his pro-government stance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 7:30am

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize for literature was hailed by the public as a sign that contemporary Chinese literature has finally won global recognition, even as several cultural critics questioned the value of his work.

Publisher Ye Kai said the award, which was the first given to a Chinese citizen, had "satisfied a long anxiety by the Chinese people" over why one of their writers had not received Nobel honours. It was also seen as evidence of recognition of broader contemporary Chinese literature, which many feel has been undervalued for too long.

"I really didn't see this coming," said Lu Jiande, director of the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "His calligraphy is surprisingly beautiful. He can make words live and breathe. He is far ahead of other Chinese in the sense that he starts from criticising himself instead of the outside world."

But others saw the decision to award Mo Yan a surprising departure from the prize committee's tradition of honouring writers who epitomise free will and idealism, as well as humanism.

Mo Yan's ability to thrive under a strict censorship regime, which has led to the muzzling or imprisonment of some of his peers, has put him under intense criticism domestically.

Zhu Dake, a culture critic at Tongji University in Shanghai, said the decision to give the prize to "a mainstream author on the mainland with a political identity recognised by the Communist Party was a total surprise".

Among other shows of support for the government over the years, Mo Yan was among a group of Chinese writers who in June commemorated a speech on literature Mao Zedong made in June 1942 by hand-copying the transcript.

"I think that shows a very subtle change in the selection standards of the Nobel literature prize," Zhu said.

Professor Xiao Ying of Tsinghua University shared Zhu's view. Xiao said the award was "outside of my expectations, as Mo Yan's works are still short on the idealism of pursuing humanity, which marks previous Nobel literature prize winners".

"Despite that some of his novels involve criticism of government policies such as birth control, Mo Yan's works are rather vulgar and dark and lack a sincere sympathy and respect for human beings and life," Xiao said.

The two experts agreed that contemporary Chinese literature was still falling short when compared with the highest levels of world literature.

"I'm afraid that contemporary Chinese authors still have a very limited vision and they seem to be quite dumb about all the changes going on in Chinese society," Xiao said.

For others, Mo Yan's winning also served as a bitter reminder of the dissident Liu Xiaobo , who won the Nobel peace prize two years ago. Liu is still in prison.

Professor Cui Weiping, of the Beijing Film Academy, said both Liu and Mo Yan were inspired by the turbulence of the 1980s.

"But they've adopted completed different paths," Cui said. "Liu obviously selected a very difficult one."

Weibo users noted that both Liu and Mo Yan were graduates of Beijing Normal University. One noted that the official Nobel site that had been blocked on the mainland was suddenly accessible again yesterday.

Another user, calling himself Ka Ka, sarcastically mocked the pen name adopted by Mo Yan, which means "don't speak" in Chinese.

"Two Chinese citizens have won the Nobel Prizes, one is 'Shut Up' and the other has been shut up," the commenter said.


Mo Yan's major works

Major works in Chinese

Touming de Hong Luobo 1986
Hong gaoliang jiazu 1987
Baozha 1988
Tiantang suantai zhi ge 1988
Huanle shisan zhang 1989
Shisan bu 1989
Jiuguo 1992
Shicao jiazu 1993
Dao Shen piao 1995
Fengru feitun 1996
Hong shulin 1999
Shifu yuelai yue youmo 2000
Tanxiangxing 2001
Cangbao tu 2003
Sishiyi pao 2003
Shengsi pilao 2006
Wa 2009

Works translated in English

Explosions and Other Stories 1991
Red Sorghum: a Novel of China 1993 - translation of Hong gaoliang jiazu 
The Garlic Ballads: a Novel 1995 - translation of Tiantang suantai zhi ge %
The Republic of Wine 2000 - translation of Jiuguo
Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh 2001 - translation of Shifu yuelai yue youmo
Big Breasts and Wide Hips: a Novel 2004 - translation of Fengru feitun
Life and Death are Wearing Me Out: a Novel 2008 - translation of Shengsi pilao
Change 2010 - translation of Bian
Pow 2013
Sandalwood Death 2013 - translation of Tanxiangxing