If you happened to be watching the 7 p.m. broadcast on Beijing’s CCTV Thursday evening, you witnessed a notable first. China’s state-run news network proudly announced that the mainland writer, Mo Yan, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was recognized for his contribution in fiction, including the internationally acclaimed novels Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips.
Since then, newspapers across China, including those considered to be a mouthpiece for the government, have trumpeted the win. It is the first time a Chinese writer living in China has won the prize.
But it is not the first time a Chinese national living in China has been recognized by the Nobel committee. In 2010, the political activist Liu Xiaobo won the prize for human rights—for, in the committee’s words, “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu had co-authored the “Charter 8”petition in 2008, which took aim at the Communist Party and called for democracy in China. The following year, a Chinese court sentenced him to 11 years in prison for subversion.
When Liu’s prize was announced two years ago, international news broadcasts carrying the story were pulled off the air. Screens went black and the story was silenced per government orders. Today, by contrast, very public congratulations are pouring in for Mo Yan.
The Chinese Leader Li Changchun, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, wrote to the China’s Writer’s Association to praise Mo for “increasing the national strength and influence of China.” He went on to express his hope that “Chinese writers can contribute more to the prosperity and development of Chinese culture, as well as the progress of human civilization.”
The differences between Liu and Mo might help explain the contrast in official reaction to the Nobel news.
“With hallucinatory realism,” the Nobel committee said, Mo’s work “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” The phrase “hallucinatory realism” could aptly describe the niche in which Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, has found his voice. For he seems to exists between two worlds; that of an artist writing griping tales some interpret as allegories for social and political discourse, versus that of the dutiful and very much law-abiding Chinese national, honor-bound to pursue his art in his homeland. The latter demands he walk a fine line between expressionism and obligatory concession; a delicate balance when it comes to the written word.
The government appears to have no problem with, or at least quietly tolerates, Mo. He is the vice chairman of the government-backed China Writer’s Association. He gets a fair amount of criticism in the netizen community for that, as well as his pattern of staying silent when controversial matters arise. His own pen name, which he says reflects the lesson his parents taught him growing up during the Cultural Revolution, means, “Don’t Speak.”
In a 2010 interview with Time magazine, Mo went so far as to indirectly acknowledge government censorship and restrictions. He said, “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety … a writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through characters in his novel.”
Mo’s own novels are rich in detail, largely based on his knowledge of the Chinese countryside where he grew up. It has been argued that Mo’s work, “sharp but careful,” as Time magazine put it, can be interpreted as an allegory for socio-political issues in China, similar to the way William Faulkner’s were for racial discrimination in the American South.
But the question Mo’s own Time comments pose is this: at what cost? At what cost does is the work of a writer, a thinker, an activist, or an artist compromised if he or she is to survive in China today? I don’t suggest that Mo purports to be anything more than a writer of fiction. But the question must necessarily be asked of any mainland artist today of similar caliber, particularly one recognized by the Nobel Prize committee.
It may be that Mo is exhaustingly subtle for safety and self-preservation. That’s all well and good, but it is also a trying paradox for a writer. As a reader’s comment on the Global Times website put it:
I thought the Nobel Prize was a political tool of the West. In that case, how can they do this? They gave [a Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo] and I was told this was the reason, and the West just wants to hold China back. But now they do this … I am so confused! It is not easy being Chinese!
Mo’s win may not clarify things soon. But in less than 24 hours, it played a role in moving the conversation on government censorship forward.
Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy and well known social critic, told me, “Mr. Mo has never said a word or done anything to fight for the freedom of writers in jail like Liu Xiaobo. For that reason I don’t think he is qualified to be honored with this prize.”
But within the same day, news came that Mo said, “I want to express my gratitude to all friends who support me, as well as those who criticize me.” He then added that he hoped Liu Xiaobo “could achieve his freedom as soon as possible.”
From a writer praised for expressing “hallucinatory realism,” it was a black-and-white comment many here are welcoming.
Photo Credit: Johannes Kolfhaus, Gymn. Marienthal