Mo Yan of China wins Nobel Prize in literature and prompts debate

Mo Yan’s name is Chinese for “don’t speak.” It aptly captures the conflict embodied by a writer trying to produce literature in a society where creative expression is still censored.

The 57-year-old novelist — who won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday — was born Guan Moye; Mo Yan has been his pseudonym since he began writing in the early 1980s.

The pen name is telling for reasons literary and political. It speaks to what colleagues call Mo’s quality of being private yet devoted to family and place. But it also suggests a pragmatic approach to writing in China, a nation that exerts strict control over what an author is and isn’t allowed to say.


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Such tensions were highlighted by a Chinese state television announcement that hailed Mo as “the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature,” conveniently ignoring Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born French national whose 2000 literature award was condemned by Beijing as anti-Chinese.

As part of its quest for soft power, China has been obsessed for years with winning Nobel prizes, which in its view too often go to dissidents and emigres. The government was especially stung by the peace prizes awarded to the Dalai Lama and most recently in 2010 to the dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison term for subversion of state authority.

Because of this, in the days leading up to this year’s Nobel literature announcement, as his name was mentioned increasingly as a potential winner, Mo became the subject of debate.

Mo is what some critics deride as an officially sanctioned artist, a vice chairman of the China Writers’ Assn., celebrated by the establishment. Although he has been called “one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers,” he recently was one of “100 writers and artists” who participated in a tribute to Mao Tse-tung. In 2009, he refused to sit on a panel at the Frankfurt Book Fair with dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling, and he has avoided making any public statements about Liu.

At the same time, his work has often hit on touchy subjects, such as the role of women in Chinese society and the Communist Party’s one-child rule. His 11th novel, “Frog,” published in 2009 and not yet available in the United States, involves a midwife confronted by the forced sterilizations and late-term abortions demanded by the party’s policy.

Mo’s detractors are forceful. “For him to win this award, it’s not a victory for literature; it is a victory for the Communist Party,” raged Yu Jui, a writer and democracy activist, in a blog post.

And yet, an article titled “Is Mo Yan Man Enough for the Nobel?” — published on Tuesday in the China Daily — includes a defense of sorts from Mo, taken from a 2009 speech. “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature,” he said then, “but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”

What this suggests is that, as with most writers, the relationship of Mo to his work, and to his country, may be more complex than it appears. It’s an idea Mo addressed indirectly in an interview with the British literary journal Granta this year.

“Many approaches to literature have political bearings,” Mo said, “for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation — making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.”

At stake is the commitment of the writer: how art not just influences but also reflects society.

“I think [Mo] marches to his own drummer,” his longtime translator Howard Goldblatt said by phone from Indiana, where he is an emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame. “He’s not comfortable dealing with political issues, but that doesn’t mean he’s not engaged.”

Certainly, Mo’s most memorable works support such a reading, blending history and traditional storytelling with more contemporary techniques. He is best known for his 1987 novel, “Red Sorghum,” a saga of small-town peasant life set in the 1930s, against the backdrop of China’s war with Japan. The book blurs the line between realism and fable, and is, Goldblatt suggested, “a hallmark of his career.”

The Nobel committee praised his “hallucinatory realism,” which blends aspects of “folk tales, history and the contemporary,” although his more recent novels — “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” and “The Republic of Wine,” among others — deal with more timely issues, such as the role of women in Chinese society. Still, his critics see this as another example of his caution (or, even worse, his complicity) since he has waited so long to write about such crucial topics, sometimes for many years.

That’s a tricky business, especially in a country such as China, where writers and artists can often push the conversation in subtle ways. Still, noted Granta editor John Freeman, who conducted the journal’s interview with Mo, the new laureate may be doing that, if on his own elusive terms.

“You see in his work that great mythical canvas that can come from really being from a place,” Freeman wrote from London via email, " … using its sounds and rhythms to bring a great zeppelin of fiction to life.”

As for the role of literature — to shout in the street or to hang back and voice quieter opinions — it may be that there is a place for both. “Sometimes,” Freeman observed, “the imagination is not commenting but creating, and so I believe Mo when he says that his books are not meant to be read as anything but robust stories.”

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.