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Mo Yan, Nobel literature prize winner, not a dissident in China but still a controversial figure

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, at 4:09 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at 2:08 p.m.

— Chinese novelist Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, an honor that brought acclaim for an author whose work traces the turbulent history of China through a surrealist lens but that also underlined the nation’s current political complexities.

The news was immediately announced on Chinese state TV and the official Xinhua news service, and The Global Times, a popular tabloid known for its nationalist leanings, posted a page on its website titled simply, “Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize.”

The celebratory mood contrasted strongly with the accusations and anger Beijing displayed two years ago when the Nobel Peace Prize for the first time went to a Chinese citizen: Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving an 11-year sentence on subversion charges after helping write a political manifesto. The Nobel award for another Chinese writer, Gao Xingjian, who won the literature prize in 2000, is rarely mentioned officially here because he was then, as now, living in France, where he gained citizenship after applying for political asylum.

Mo, the pen name of 57-year-old Guan Moye, has taken a different position within Chinese society. While some of his stylistically daring fiction has been banned in the past, he has not pushed his commentary so far that it has run afoul of the government.

His books have included “Red Sorghum,” an account of the hardships endured by generations of a family in the Chinese countryside, including the brutality of the Japanese invasion, and “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” a darkly humorous work that starts off in Hell and then explores the tumult of recent Chinese history through a series of animal reincarnations.

In giving the award, the Swedish Academy said, “Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.”

Mo is a senior member of the government-backed Chinese Writers’ Association. Intellectuals with an activist bent criticize him for being co-opted by Beijing’s authoritarian rulers. They note that he joined a group of authors who hand-copied excerpts from a 1942 speech by Mao Zedong that set limits on artistic expression in China.

During a 2010 interview with Time magazine, Mo was quoted as saying of censorship, “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country.”

The article further quoted him as saying: “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”

In an essay this week, the state-run English-language China Daily newspaper said that during his speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, Mo retold the anecdote of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and composer Ludwig van Beethoven coming upon a royal entourage. Goethe was said to have taken off his hat and stood to the side in deference while Beethoven refused.

“When I was young, I thought what Beethoven did was great,” Mo said, according to China Daily. “But, with age, I realized it could be easier to do what Beethoven did, and it might take more courage to do what Goethe did.”

The piece omitted a detail from the narrative, though – it was during the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair that the official Chinese delegation tried having two activist Chinese writers blocked from attending.

The nom de plume chosen by Mo, born to impoverished parents and said to have first left school at the age of 12 during the Cultural Revolution, means “don’t speak.”

In an interview published last year, he explained: “I was born in 1955. At that time in China, people’s lives were not normal. So my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. . . . So I took Mo Yan for my pen name. It is ironic that I have this name because I now speak everywhere.”

Email: tlasseter@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tomlasseter

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