Mo Yan

Mo Yan: from farm labourer to literary superstar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 5:19am

Mo Yan emerged as one of China's most prominent and influential authors during the 1980s, but came to worldwide attention in October last year when he became the first Chinese national to be awarded he Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born Guan Moye in 1955 to a family of farmers in Gaomi, Shandong, Mo left school aged 11 to work the land. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, he joined the People's Liberation Army and began to write.

In 1984 he attended the Military Art Academy and adopted Mo Yan, meaning "don't speak", as his pen name.

He found fame with social commentaries such as Red Sorghum Clan, the story of a Shandong family facing decades of upheaval between 1923 and 1976; Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, the story of a landowner during the land-reform movement of the 1950s who is reincarnated in the form of various animals; and Frog, which discusses the consequences of the one-child policy through the story of a rural gynaecologist.

Known for his prolific output, Mo Yan prefers to write rather than type.

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," Abrahamsen said. "He's also very canny about what can and can't be written."

While Mo Yan's Nobel Prize was warmly received in China, with his books flying off the shelves in cities including Hong Kong, the choice of the Nobel jury proved controversial with some.

His ability to stay in print on the mainland - despite state media dubbing his fantasy and satire offerings "provocative and vulgar" and within a system that has seen many of his peers detained and imprisoned - has seen him criticised by many artists and activists.

Yu Jie, an exiled dissident writer, called Mo Yan's award "the biggest scandal in the history of the Nobel prize for literature".

The Romanian-born novelist Herta Mueller, who won the literature prize in 2009, called his win a "catastrophe", saying: "He celebrates censorship".

But others like Taiwan's minister of culture, former University of Hong Kong academic Lung Ying-tai, took a more nuanced view of Mo Yan's politics.

"I never thought and I still don't think that he's a so-called red writer. If one says that, that means he's not properly understood," she said.

"As I understand it, when you label someone a 'red writer', that means all his writings are trying to butter up the party and serve as propaganda.

"Under that definition, I don't think he is."