BEIJING — Novelist Mo Yan, whose popular, sprawling, bawdy tales bring to life rural China, won the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday, the first time the award has been given to a Chinese who is not a critic of the authoritarian government. Official media and many Chinese cheered his selection.
The Swedish Academy in Stockholm, which selects the winners of the prestigious prize, announced the award to the author of dozens of novels and short stories. It praised Mo’s “hallucinatory realism,” saying it “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”
The announcement triggered an explosion of pride across Chinese social media. The state-run national broadcaster, China Central Television, reported the news moments later, and the official writers’ association, of which Mo is a vice chairman, lauded the choice. But it also ignited renewed criticisms of Mo from other writers as too willing to serve or too timid to confront a government which heavily censors artists and authors and punishes those who refuse to obey.
The reactions highlight the unusual position Mo holds in Chinese literature. He is a genuinely popular writer who is embraced by the Communist establishment but who also dares, within careful limits, to tackle controversial issues like forced abortion. His novel “The Garlic Ballads” which depicts a peasant uprising and official corruption was banned.
“He’s one of those people who’s a bit of a sharp point for the Chinese officials, yet manages to keep his head above water,” said his longtime U.S. translator, Howard Goldblatt of the University of Notre Dame. “That’s a fine line to walk, as you can imagine.”
Typical of his ability to skirt the censors’ limitations, Mo had retreated from Beijing in recent days to the rural eastern village of Gaomi where he was raised and which is the backdrop for much of his work. He greeted the prize with characteristic low-key indifference.
“Whether getting it or not, I don’t care,” the 57-year-old Mo said in a telephone interview with CCTV from Gaomi. He said he goes to his childhood hometown every year around this time to read, write and visit his elderly father.
“I’ll continue on the path I’ve been taking, feet on the ground, describing people’s lives, describing people’s emotions, writing from the standpoint of the ordinary people,” said Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye and whose penname “Mo Yan” means “don’t speak.”
The state media hoopla and government cheer contrasted with the last Nobel prizes given Chinese. Beijing disowned China-born French emigre dramatist, novelist and government critic Gao Xingjian when in 2000 he became the only other Chinese writer to win the literary prize.
After imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize two years ago, the government heaped scorn on the award as a tool of the West and put diplomatic and economic relations with Norway, which awards the prize, into a chill.
The Swedish Academy parried suggestions that it had selected Mo to seek Beijing’s favor and rehabilitate the Nobel’s image in the minds of many Chinese.
“As we’ve been trying to, naggingly, say: This is a literature prize that is awarded on literary merit alone. We don’t take other things in consideration,” said Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary. The reaction in a winner’s homeland “doesn’t enter into our calculus.”
Mo writes of visceral pleasures and existential quandaries and tends to create vivid, mouthy characters. While his early work sticks to a straight-forward narrative structure enlivened by vivid descriptions, raunchy humor and farce, his style has evolved, toying with different narrators and embracing a free-wheeling style often described as “Chinese magical realism.”
Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were “Red Sorghum” (1993) and “Big Breasts &Wide Hips” (2004), as well as “The Garlic Ballads.” ”Frogs” (2009) looked at forced abortions and other coercive aspects of the government’s policies restricting most families to one child.
Mo has said that censorship is a great spur to creativity.
“In our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that (censors) do not wish to touch upon,” he said in an interview with the literary magazine Granta earlier this year. “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.”
Even so, Mo, who started writing while in the army, has steered clear from criticizing the government in public. He has been accused of refusing to appear with dissident writers at overseas literary seminars. The award stirred the criticisms anew.
“Some are opposed to his winning the Nobel prize because he serves as a vice chair of the China Writers’ Association and helps the government in censorship. But some are supportive, arguing literature should not be linked to politics but be valued on its own merit,” said Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun, who has become more outspoken about censorship in recent years.
Yu Jie, an essayist and close friend of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu who fled to the U.S. this year, was more acid. “This reflects the West’s disregard for China’s human rights problems. Mo Yan’s win is not a victory for literature. It’s a victory for the Communist Party,” Yu said on his Twitter feed.
The government ignored the controversy and instead focused on the prize as emblematic of China’s now recognized status as a great nation. “China is winning more and more respect from the world. We can say this award is not only for Mo Yan but to all the Chinese people,” state-run television said in a commentary.
For many Chinese and his supporters, the award was welcome for recognizing an acclaimed author and for steering clear of past Nobel controversies.
“For me personally it’s the realization of a dream I’ve had for years finally coming true. It’s suddenly a reality,” said Mo’s publisher, Cao Yuanyong, deputy editor-in-chief of Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. Cao said he and a dozen colleagues were toasting Mo in his absence with red wine in a Shanghai restaurant Thursday night.
Born in 1955 to a farming family, Mo chose his penname while writing his first novel to remind himself to hold his tongue and stay out of trouble. His early education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political chaos when many of China’s schools closed down. To escape rural poverty, he joined the army in 1976 and, while still a soldier, started writing in 1981.
His breakthrough came with the novel “Red Sorghum” published in 1987. Set in a small village, it is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. It was turned into a film that won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988, marked the directing debut of Zhang Yimou and boosted Mo’s popularity.
His output has been prolific, which has contributed to his popularity and his impact. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, German and many other languages, giving him an audience well beyond the Chinese-speaking world.
Goldblatt, who has translated nine of Mo’s books, said Mo is a remarkable storyteller in the Chinese literary tradition. “But he never moves that far from social conscience and looking into what is wrong and how we deal with it,” he said.