Mo Yan, According to You — Part One

By Yaxue Cao

The disparaging of Mo Yan began before the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced on October 11 when rumor had it that Mo Yan was this year’s favorite. With the exception of the literarily versed, the criticism wasn’t based on his works, to be sure, but on a few events that had thus far shaped people’s perceptions of the man: Boycotting dissident writers during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009; refusal to comment on Liu Xiaobo’s sentence in late 2009; and handcopying Mao Zedong’s Talks on Literature and Art earlier this year. (The Chongqing doggerel, turned up after the prize, wasn’t part of that perception, so I will leave it out of my discussion.)

Since the prize, Mo Yan voiced his support for Liu Xiaobo (“I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible,” “I read some of his literary criticism in the 80s… but I lost track of what he was doing later on”), defended himself, and explained things away. As commentaries poured in the last few days, a view, eloquently argued by Branden O’Kane at, seems to have taken hold among many foreigners who seem to be struggling for an opinion of the man that they feel comfortable with: Much of the online criticism isn’t fair; the boycott was something Mo Yan had no choice over since he was with the Chinese delegation; it’s regrettable that he failed to speak up for Liu Xiaobo, but then again, it’s understandable that he took measures to protect himself so that he could write if he didn’t want to be thrown in prison or exiled; handcopying Mao really is boneheaded; and Mo Yan’s works in no way portray the Communist Party and China’s recent history in a favorable light. Julia Lovell, writing for the New York Times, also urged critics of Mo Yan’s political compromises to look beyond these incidents and delve into Mo Yan’s works for answers.

I thought I was done with the topic of Mo Yan. But thoughts kept coming, so here I am, revisiting the topic by examining the three incidents more closely and asking a question that so far everyone seems to have neglected to ask. Even if you have made up your mind already, knowing a little more never hurts.

The exiled poet Bei Ling (贝岭) recounted the Frankfurt Book Fair boycott in a recent book and again here (in Chinese). There is another take by Didi Kirsten of New York Times who attended the Fair and shared her notes about the events and Mo Yan). According to Bei Ling, “in the morning of September 12, as soon as Dai Qing (戴晴, a journalist and writer living in China known for her writings about the Three Gorges project and many other social issues) and I walked up to the rostrum, I saw Mo Yan, silent and glum-faced, getting up to leave with Chinese officials and scholars like a school of fish. Are we their enemies? To refuse to listen to me and Dai Qing giving speeches? Embarrass the mayor of Frankfurt and the organizers of the Fair? What surprised me about Mo Yan was the helplessness of someone who had to submit to an order. … Then events became more theatrical. First, the Chairman of the Fair apologized to the Chinese delegation (for featuring dissident writers without China’s knowledge), then the Chinese ambassador chided the organizers in a long speech, in fluent German, at the podium. In the end, the seminar resumed, but Dai Qing and I were removed from the list of speakers.” It’s said that Mo Yan, later on, privately told others that he himself didn’t really want to boycott the dissident writers but had no choice.

There is much more to this story, it turns out, and the renowned historian Qin Hui (秦晖) of Tsinghua University, who went by separate invitation and didn’t boycott the dissident writers, gave a detailed account of Chinese government pressuring the organizers about who should attend, and who should not, way before its delegation left China. Interestingly, the seminar was called “China and the World: Perceptions and Realities.” I don’t know what perceptions and realities they discussed, but I bet one would walk away with more useful perceptions and knowledge of realities if one examines the Chinese government’s attempts and actions before, during and after the event.

On December 25, Christmas Day, 2009, Liu Xiaobo was tried for “inciting subversion” after being detained extralegally for seven months. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his writings calling for political changes in China. The verdict angered and saddened the more liberal-minded members of Chinese intelligentsia. Cui Weiping (崔卫平), a well-known intellectual and a professor at Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院), called her friends and acquaintances to ask their views of the verdict. She called 146 of them in total, and posted each answer—with the speaker’s permission—on Twitter. Later she compiled all the responses here. Yesterday I went over each of the 146 answers, and found a few things. First of all, most of the interviewees are working within the system, e.g., for institutions run by the government: university professors, commentators, movie makers, literary writers, poets, critics, musicians, journalists, etc. Second, most of them gave a measured response: a few offered straightforward support for Liu Xiaobo’s political ideas, while the majority either didn’t say anything about Liu Xiaobo’s political stand or stated clearly that they didn’t agree with it. But almost unanimously the interviewees condemned persecution against speech.

In other words, most of the interviewees took precaution to protect themselves without shying from moral clarity. Out of the 146, only 7 people declined to make comment, and Mo Yan was one of them.  Cui meant to interview more people, but after 19 days, she was told by the authority to stop. So she did. A year later she reported in this article (last sentence) that no one had been punished for speaking out in her interviews.

Mo Yan’s reply is No. 13: “I don’t know much about it; I don’t want to talk. I’m entertaining guests, and I am talking with them,” a response that reminds me of how I brush aside advertisement calls at home.

Then there was the event, earlier this year, of 100 writers and artists handcopying Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art, the 1942 document that cut the rule for literature and art:  Serve the Party. It went like this, according to an account of the episode by Nanfang Weekend (《南方周末》): China Writers’ Publishing House, the publishing house of the Chinese Writers Association, wanted to publish a Collectible Commemorative Edition of Comrade Mao’s ‘Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art’, Handcopied by One Hundred Writers and Artists ( 《毛泽东同志〈在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话〉百位文学艺术家手抄珍藏纪念册》). It sent invitations to 120 or so writers and artists, asking them to handcopy any paragraph of their choosing, with RMB1000 for those who do. According to the Publishing House, most of them responded “enthusiastically,” but two dozens of them declined, including Wang Anyi (王安忆), the chairwoman CWA’s Shanghai chapter.

Since everyone got to pick what to copy, I become curious about Mo Yan’s choice (translation link):

“The problem of class stand. Our stand is that of the proletariat and of the masses. For members of the Communist Party, this means keeping to the stand of the Party, keeping to Party spirit and Party policy. Are there any of our literary and art workers who are still mistaken or not clear in their understanding of this problem? I think there are. Many of our comrades have frequently departed from the correct stand.

“The problem of attitude. From one’s stand there follow specific attitudes towards specific matters. For instance, is one to extol or to expose? This is a question of attitude. Which attitude is wanted? I would say both….”

Frankly, I don’t think Mo Yan gives a damn about Mao’s old crap in the year of 2012. What many found interesting and irritating is this: Why did he do it? It wasn’t an “obligation,” and it’s not for self-protection because there is no risk in not doing it. For a Chinese writer with a modicum of principle, you would imagine this is a distasteful thing to do.

On the other hand, for many Chinese, ordinary or well-known, the aversion to Mao’s Talks on Literature and Art, and to the act of writers and artists copying it, was palpable in late May when the event, a small one by all means, made news. The list of 100 names were widely spread online, and I remember looking over them, one name after another, including that of the future winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, filled with disgust and contempt.

The public’s response was so strong that that Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the legal scholar, rights advocate, founder of the Open Constitution Initiative whom this blog translated more than once, called for the “Ten Thousand People Handcopy the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” campaign on Weibo and Twitter and received, yes I was a witness and I knew, an enthusiastic response from thousands of netizens.

You may ask, “Again, what do all these have to do with Mo Yan and his literary achievement?” The answer is: Nothing; nothing against him as an individual making choices. If nothing else, the online outrage was a sign of the times—China in 2012: It is a time when more and more Chinese are becoming clear about what they want the country to be. It is a time when more and more ordinary citizens are taking a stand, taking risks, to do what they can to push for changes, not to mention those spearheading the struggle who have been locked up in prisons and in re-education-through-labor camps. It is the time of Chen Guangcheng, fellow Shandongese living in the neighboring municipality, whose saga embodied the sickness of China on one hand and the extraordinary courage on the other that inspired so many. When you watch this recent video and feel haunted by the silhouette of Liu Xia (刘霞), wife of Liu Xiaobo under house arrest with no legal justification, smoking a cigarette by her window, many—myself included–find it difficult to rejoice in Mo Yan’s award even without having read a word of his but knowing that he submit himself readily to the Party, he has never uttered a single word of support for anyone fighting for rights and justice, nor taken any stand, no matter how slight, on the important issues of our time.

Someone on Twitter, a non-Chinese I believe, actually yelled at me the other day, “Oh leave him alone! You freaking liberal!” Well, I’m sorry, there is no such thing as leaving him alone. A public figure, especially a literary one, is bound to be judged against his time and place; for Mo Yan, it’s against the awaking China on the eve of big changes. Things matter now.

If you are one of those who wondered why, or were even irked by, Twitter’s Chinese community’s strong reaction against Mo Yan’s prize (the Weibo reaction is similar except censorship caught on quickly), this post hopefully will give you some answer. It is not a random, shrill burst; it has come a long way. True that it is not a reaction based on Mo Yan’s works, but a legitimate and grounded reaction nonetheless. On the other hand though, I have been pleasantly surprised that many of his critics in fact know his works pretty well, were once his fans, and can speak of his works eloquently, despite Mo Yan’s claim that those who are criticizing him have not read his works.

Both O’Kane and Lovell went on to point out that Mo Yan’s writings by no means reflect the sanctioned views of the Party:

“Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.” (O’Kane)

Lovell’s assessment is that “Mo is a writer who plays a public game with authority while maintaining a creative space that enables him to present an indirect challenge to this same authority” (Lovell).

I concur with both. I have never for a moment suggested that Mo Yan is a literary stooge for the Chinese government or the communist ideology. I knew enough of his works to know he is not.

What both O’Kane and Lovell, and just about everyone else, have neglected to ask is this obvious question: If Mo Yan is such a critical writer as they think he is, how come the Party embraced him completely, featured him prominently in all the international events such as book fairs in Europe, and awarded him all the official literary prizes there are in China, knowing that the government censors criticism harshly and consistently? Why?

I proposed this question (well, the gist of it anyway) to O’Kane on Twitter after reading his post, and his answer is that “[Mo Yan] is an ambitious and prolific writer, whether you like his works or not (I’m pretty lukewarm on him), and he is from the same generation as the people awarding the prizes, so they share certain tastes.”

I hope Brendan won’t chase me down the lane with a baseball bat if I say that his answer is woefully inadequate, and not even relevant. But then again, Twitter is not the place for adequate answers, and I’m certain he has a lot more to say to address this “why”.

I don’t have an adequate answer either due to my limitations, but in the second part of this post, I will bring a few things out to at least help us answer that question.

6 responses to “Mo Yan, According to You — Part One”

  1. C.A. Yeung says:

    From my point of view, the most intriguing part of Mo Yan’s Nobel commendation is how much it echoes the frustrations that the western world has been experiencing in its desperate search for a viable model of engagement with China. So Mo Yan’s lack of moral clarification is brushed away hastily in favour of an interpretation that focuses on his skills in not just circumventing but in also negotiating identity with the censorship regime.

  2. Why would the Party embrace someone who’s fiction has a critical bent? How about to insulate themselves from his critique. By offering Mo Yan the “warm embrace” of the party’s protection, they effectively subverted his ability to critique them.

  3. […] 在国际书展上重点推广他,并颁给他中国文学所有的官方奖?原文:Mo Yan, According to You发表:2012年10月18日作者:Yaxue Cao本文由作者自译  SEEING RED […]

  4. Anonymous says:


  5. Chopstik says:

    This certainly offers a more nuanced reasoning behind some of the vitriol. I’ve not read his works (nor seen the movie Red Sorghum, for that amtter) so can’t comment on his work itself. However, I tend to think that not everyone should be committed to protecting others at the possible expense of themselves. You make several good points on where he has failed to do so and I do think there is a disconnect between many Chinese and Western liberals who make excuses for the failure to connect their words and deeds when it comes to Mo Yan’s selection in this instance. Perhaps he will change and be more forthright but I suspect that history is, in this case, a predictor of the future and thus not very likely. Sad as it will be a missed opportunity.

  6. […] ← Mo Yan, According to You — Part One […]

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