A Nobel Prize for the Party’s Darling
What Mo Yan’s award means to China
Li Changchun, chief propagandist for the CCP, congratulated this year’s Nobel laureate in Literature, Mo Yan, with high spirits: “(This award) reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing influence of China.” It’s difficult to understand what the politician means by “the increasing influence of China.” It couldn’t mean that China put pressure on the committee, but it does show the Chinese authority’s self-confidence and their way of interpreting their citizen’s international fame.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Two years ago, when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government was outraged and criticized the award as a desecration of the Nobel tradition. Since this year’s winner Mo Yan is a CCP member and vice president of the Writers’ Association, we can suppose that the reputation of the Nobel Committee might be “rehabilitated” in the eyes of the Chinese officials. This “Nobel complex,” as The New Yorker refers to it, seems healed. Mo Yan has said he hopes for the release of his Nobel colleague Liu Xiaobo, who could not go to Oslo in 2010 to receive the Peace Prize because of his crime of “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu’s eleven-year sentence will keep him in jail until 2020.
The 55 year-old Mo Yan is a prolific writer. His early writings during the 80s and 90s, including “Touming de hong luobo” (“A Transparent Carrot,”) “Baigou qiuqianjia” (“White Dog and the Swing,”) and “Kuhe” (“Dry River”) are lyrical and literarily “down to earth.” These poems and short stories are strongly rooted to nature and the landscape of his hometown – Gaomi in Shandong province.
Mo Yan’s childhood was accompanied by hunger. He was so traumatized by the 1959 famine that his utmost wish as child was to have three meals a day and to eat as much as he wanted. When he was 11 years old the Cultural Revolution broke out; Shandong was one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Red Guards. Different groups declared that they were the truly authentic representatives of Mao Zedong’s ideas. The civil war led to fights among armed groups that cost many human lives and left incurable scars on Chinese society. Mo Yan joined the army in 1976 and served for many years. Hunger and violence are prominent in his writing.
His novels feature historical stages: The decline of the Manchu Empire, the Sino-Japanese war, and the Cultural Revolution. His diction is colorful; metaphors and visual description are wild and merciless. Beauty and ugliness, life and death, compassion and cruelty compete with each other in his stories. The description of the birth of a new life in his recent novel Wa (Frog) raises a shiver when read, without even mentioning the forced abortions and late pregnancy sterilizations that occur in China because of the “one-child policy.” He is a master of storytelling with millions of readers in China.
Mo Yan’s award has polarized opinions. How can a privileged author, who enjoys being treated as a vice minister and shows his loyalty to the CCP, receive this prestigious award? Mo Yan kept silent, true to his pen name, which means “Don’t Speak,” and was coined after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. When Liu Xiaobo was arrested and sentenced in 2009, he again chose not to talk. This summer, during the 70th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Speech on Art and Literature, he was one of the intellectuals chosen to handwrite the historical document. This obedient gesture has thrown shadows on his integrity and independence as an author.
In an interview with Granta magazine, he said: “Many approaches to literature have political bearings, 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.” Is that the so-called Mo Yan style of “hallucinatory realism”? It is an insult to all of his literary colleagues who are now in prison. The party darling knows how to keep his privileged status: By legitimizing censorship in a “philosophical way”. We have reason to doubt whether Mo Yan checked with the authority before he spoke out for Liu Xiaobo’s freedom. According to internal information, the Chinese authority wanted to release Liu under the condition that he left the country right after being released, but Liu refused. Now Mo Yan protects himself from criticism by showing a supportive attitude towards Liu. That is not enough. He should urge the government to grant freedom of expression for everyone in China, Liu Xiaobo and himself included.