As everyone has heard by now, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan. Nearly any selection would create controversy—from sour grapes to complaints about literary quality to accusations of political maneuvering on the part of the Nobel committee. This year, what strikes me is the substantial difference between what is being said in the US about the choice, and what is being said in China.
Outside of Chinese literature specialists, the major reaction in the US seems to be: “Huh?” Few have heard of, let alone read, Mo Yan’s work, even though six of his novels have been translated into English, with two more forthcoming. For a Chinese writer, that is a remarkably high rate of translation. And therein lies part of the trouble.
In China, Mo Yan is a prominent literary figure, largely because of Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of his novel Red Sorghum Clan into a movie (renamed Red Sorghum), but partly because he is so widely translated. Access to the rest of the world, and in particular, the English-speaking world, means potential fame and money and a shot at international prizes like the Nobel. That alone can lead to bitterness among other authors whose work has not received the same attention from the West. Mo Yan is also well known for his ability to toe the official line, and this creates resentment in a political climate that necessitates a delicate balancing act between expression and self-censorship. Mo Yan is a member of the official Writer’s Association, from which he draws a salary. For Chinese writers, and for China specialists in the West, ‘official’ is a fraught term. It smacks of obeisance to the Communist regime, and a kowtowing to government strictures on what is allowed and what is not. For those who risk everything to speak out against the political system—writers like Liu Xiaobo, Ma Jian, and Liao Yiwu, or the artist Ai Weiwei—this shows a lack of moral courage. Since the awarding of the Nobel, the Chinese internet has exploded with complaints of this type. Mo Yan the stooge, Mo Yan the coward, Mo Yan the inferior self-limited writer.
Yet the Chinese press as well as many critics and readers are behind him. And Mo Yan does address a range of controversial issues. His novels are by no means simple peons to the greatness of the Communist party, or, like the worst of ‘official’ literature, Brave-Communist-Party-Member-Saves-Village tales. What tends to protect Mo Yan from Party censure (although his work at various times has, in fact, been censored or criticized by the government) is that he sets his work in the past—i.e., he says nothing about the current political regime—and he uses a style of ‘hallucinatory realism’ to address issues that if tackled head-on might lead to Party condemnation. Having a tadpole as a narrator provides a certain amount of protection. The Communist Party will often ignore allegory and extended metaphor, so long as it doesn’t cross a certain, constantly changing, line. Liu Xiaobo, the other recent Chinese Nobel laureate (the one never mentioned in the Chinese press), wasn’t jailed for his potentially incendiary poetry; the government just cared about his directly political writings.
And now the Chinese government has a laureate it can promote. But with such recognition comes a degree of dangerous power. Mo Yan has just said at a news conference that he hopes Liu Xiaobo will win his freedom soon (although he also said he ‘doesn’t understand’ Liu’s political essays), which is an embarrassment for a government greatly concerned with keeping face. Perhaps Mo Yan will continue to make cautious political statements, perhaps not. Either way, he is now, whether he likes it or not, a political figure, in China even more than in the West.
----Eleanor Goodman 顾爱玲
(Ed note: Eleanor Goodman is a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, where she is working on a book-length translation project. Eleanor writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and translates contemporary Chinese literature. Her work has appeared widely in publications such as PN Review, Fiction, Pathlight, The Guardian, Pleiades, Acumen, Perihelion, New Delta Review, The Los Angeles Review, and on this blog. Find out more about Eleanor Goodman here.)