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By Yaxue Cao
In the first part of this long post, I took a closer look at Mo Ya’s political choices and explained why many Chinese find him objectionable as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the end, I asked the question: If Mo Yan is such a critical writer, as many in the west believe (the Nobel Committee certainly does), why does the Party embrace him completely, feature him prominently internationally, and award him all the official literary prizes there are in China? Knowing that the Chinese government censors criticise harshly and consistently? Why? Here is my attempt to answer this question.
Just like the face of China has changed beyond recognition over the last 30 years, so has China’s literary scene. Even though the Chinese Writers Association is still under the control of the Party and writers still must carry out “assignments” from the Party now and then, in today’s China, it is decidedly unfashionable, and despicable, for writers to sing the Party’s praises as they did in Mao’s era. In the CWA, only the relics of the past would write like that and they look as ridiculous as seeing someone wearing a Mao suit on street today. If those who have some respectability at all have to do it, they would do so discreetly.
This is because such writings have long been rejected by readers. The Party knows it very well, and the writers know it even better. As a matter of fact, the withdrawal of encomiastic literature began as soon as China’s “reform and open-up” in late 1970s. You may still see a few books of this nature in government-run bookstores; during Party anniversaries and the National Day celebrations, you would see lavish performances on CCTV, but these are “assignments.” Even with a film like《建党伟业》(“the Great Endeavor of Founding CCP” but deceptively translated into “Beginning of the Great Revival” ), the style has little in common with similar works in the past, and it takes discerning eyes to pierce through the fog. Of the most famous or best-selling literary authors, no one has succeeded for adulating the Party.
In our email exchanges, O’Kane (quoting him with permission) thinks that, the CWA may not be a good thing, but “if it provides a living for talented writers like Han Shaogong, Wang Anyi, and Diao Dou, then so much the better.” Well, I must say that this view of the CWA is a bit naïve. The Party sets up organizations such as the CWA, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles (文联), which is a government entity from the top level all the way to the county level, claim to take away writers’ worries so that they can devote their minds on writing. Instead, these entities are reins and yokes meant to control the writers. Many people, in recent years, have called for disbanding these organizations provided by tax payers’ money, but Chinese writers all know very well that, unless they write something that offends the Party badly, their job security is probably one of the highest among government employees.
The relationship between the CWA and the Party is somewhat like a teenager and a dictator father. In the old days, the strict father required the teenager to return home before 6 o’clock every day and allowed no hanging-out on weekends. Now that the time has changed, the father relaxed quite a lot, allowing free weekend play, and moving the curfew to midnight. But what has not changed is the absolute power of the father and the bottom line that whatever you do you still must go home every night. The Party doesn’t require you to sing praise every day, but it makes sure that you don’t write anything offensive, or worse, subversive.
Since Deng Xiaoping’s time, the CCP has distanced itself from the Mao era as well. It issued an official document in 1978 to denounce the Cultural Revolution, and it has also admitted mistakes made during land reforms, the anti-rightest campaign, the great leap forward, etc. But at the same time, it is very sensitive as how deep and how broad historians and literary writers would explore the recent past, thwarting works that may cause people to question the fundamental legitimacy and justification of the Party. When O’Kane and Lovell say Mo Yan’s works are no encomia to the Chinese rulers, they are still using the 6 o’clock curfew as their yardstick while the curfew was moved to midnight long ago. Inside the CWA, many writers have been writing about the recent tragedies, and all of them would be bold, critical writers if measured by the 6 o’clock curfew.
Take for example Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, one of Mo Yan’s newer novels in 2006. In the first volume, a landowner was shot to death during the land reform at the end of 1940s. To avenge himself, he was reborn as a donkey. From the fragmentary narrative of the donkey, we learned that the landowner was a good man who had helped the poor and lived a diligent life. He was shot in the head, his land was distributed to the poor, his two concubines remarried to his two farmhands respectively, and his house became the village hall. The donkey’s owner is one of the landowner’ old farmhands, the only man who refused to join the cooperative, the precursor of People’s Commune. The donkey was exceptionally handsome, more magnificent than a horse, so much so that the head of the county made it his own. The donkey later had an accident in which he broke his legs, and was eventually killed. This of course is just a summary. But as far as the historical land reform is presented, the novel is surprisingly spotty and one-dimensional, not too much more than my summary. But the first volume roams on for over one hundred pages, what do they consist of? Words; overflowing words, superabundant words, a florid rain of words.
As for the subject of the land reform, following the highly simplified and symbolized route of beating-down the landowners, killing the landowners, digging up their wealth and dividing their land and houses has long become the standard route for writers of CWA writers.
In the following volumes, the novel’s depiction of the other major events of the recent history is just as sketchy and standard. So I said the other day, half jokingly and half seriously, “in Mo Yan’s ‘hallucinatory realism,’ 99% is hallucination, and 1% is realism.”
About ten years ago, Mr. L, the chief editor of Shanxi Literature, a CWA writer as well, interviewed dozens of old folks in his hometown in northwestern Shanxi province for their stories during the land reform. Later he compiled these interviews into a book. His interviewees included the then village heads, militiamen, poor peasants, well-to-do families, adult and youth, men and women. From historical documents to the Party’s decrees, from individuals’ tragedies to village population analysis, from the voting procedure for executing landowners to details of various tortures, his interviews presented a layered and panoramic view of the land reform. Readers of his book were shocked, including people who were not strangers to the subject. But no publisher would publish his book, the reason being: it’s too much.
By comparison, the land reform in Mo Yan’s novel, whether it’s the characters or the events, has the quality of a jingle, highly cursory and generic. There is nothing sensitive about it, because it doesn’t provoke, nor challenge, you to think. This is why the barbarism and ugliness depicted in Mo Yan’s novels somehow don’t connect. You can read at flying speed without being seized by something that makes you pause and think. As a matter of fact, this novel of 460,000 characters, “the consummate work of my writings” as Mo Yan told Xinmin Weekly recently, was also written at galloping speed in 43 days.
Next to a non-fiction work, of course we must also consider the structure, the symbolism and other elements of a novel in our evaluation. My point here is to demonstrate what kind of realism is Mo Yan’s realism, and what is acceptable to the censorship and what is not.
Until I started reading Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (I read the Chinese original), my impressions of Mo Yan still stayed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the ‘80s when the memories of Cultural Revolution were still fresh, Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, part of a new literary movement, was different from anything people had read for a long time. To use—guess who?—Liu Xiaobo’s words, it was like “a cracking rock that startles the sky” (石破天惊). Especially after the movie adaption by Zhang Yimou, it became an expression of the kind of eruptive energy widely felt in the 80s. For a long while, just about every Chinese young man was singing or humming the “Liquor Song” of the movie: “March ahead bravely, my beloved!” (“妹妹你大胆地往前走”). And the scene in which a burly country man makes a clearing in a sorghum field and lays down a young, beautiful woman was an indelible cultural memory of a generation.
But I never thought Mo Yan as an author with a critical bent, probably because there were many outspoken writers at the time and, next to them, Mo Yan didn’t stand out. On the other hand, I was weary of Mo Yan’s increasing tendency toward hyperbolic depiction of violence, barbarism and sex, because the surreal treatment of them turns them into entertainment, desensitizes their potential criticism, and turns readers’ attention away from the real evil and its roots. In addition, Mo Yan’s language has always been colorful but overly indulgent that can really test your patience. But according to Wolfgang Kubin, the German scholar of Chinese contemporary Chinese who has written a lot about Mo Yan and other Chinese writers, such excess has been corrected in translation. Mo Yan’s English translator Howard Goldblatt seemed to suggest, in an interview with Nanfang Weekly in 2008, that the translator had done quite bit of editing, even re-writing, of the original. Fans of Mo Yan like him not for his sharp criticism of either the past or the present, but find his brand of extravaganza intriguing and exhilarating.
Since the Prize, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon, that is, a lot of Chinese readers are asking: Where is Mo Yan’s criticalness? The writer himself also seems to feel the necessity of defending himself. He said in a news conference,“if you have read my books, you would know that my criticism of the dark side of the society is very harsh and serious. The Garlic Ballads, Republic of Wine, Thirteen Steps, and Big Breasts and Wide Hips that I wrote in the 1980s were all unreserved criticism of social injustice from a humanistic point of view.”
To write this post responsibly, I can’t just rely on my past impressions and the one novel I am reading now. So I emailed my friend, Professor Z of the College of Literature, Beijing Normal University, the very institution with which both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan had ties, to seek his views. In the 1980s, my friend was a college student of Chinese literature, and now he is a professor in the same field. For years he was a fan of Mo Yan, wrote about him quite a lot, and has made contacts with the writer in countless professional occasions. He said he had read just about everything Mo Yan had written except for Republic of Wine and Life and Death Are Wearing me out which he lost interest when he reached “Volume Three, the Wallowing Pig.”
First of all, I asked Professor Z to tell me the “history of Mo Yan’s conflict” with the authorities, if any. This is his reply:
“Mo Yan had had run into trouble with the authorities. The biggest occasion came when he published Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1995). A bunch of leftists complained about him, saying that this work of his was anti-Party and anti-socialism, and they took their case all the way to the PLA Army General Staff Department. As a result, Mo Yan had to write self-criticism, and then had to leave the military to a job at Procuratorial Daily. I knew a bit about this episode at the time, and just this afternoon I heard more from an insider who told me that Mo Yan had had trouble twice because of this book. The second time was when the Workers’ Publishing House planned to re-issue the book but there were people who were still at him. This insider happened to be the censor/reader who helped protect him. But after being published for a while, the book was banned again.”
Then I asked Professor Z to evaluate how critical a writer Mo Yan has been. This is his view:
“My reading experience of Mo Yan has been somewhat complicated. I admit that he has written good works before Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which I believe is his best work, that were strong as social critiques. But his works have become weaker steadily ever since. His craftsmanship has grown more and more deft in later works but their substance and level of criticism have become thinner and thinner.”
How about his latest novel Frogs? The Nobel Committee said it was a “brave” work that critiques China’s birth control policy. Professor Z said,
“I guess you can say Frogs is a critical work, but it’s not compelling enough. I wrote in an article last year that ‘the novel tells the story of the aunt, and the history and the current situation of China’s one-child policy, in the form of letters to a Japanese friend. Because the recipient of the letters is a foreigner, it’s impossible for the author to bare it all. The narrative then becomes a dilemma for him: on the one hand he wants to explore the cruel history of it, but on the other he engages in a kind of cover-up. So half-said-and-half-unsaid is the basic narrating strategy of the novel. Technically you can’t lay blame on the narrative strategy an author chooses, but it does dull the sting and leave readers wanting.’”
Mo Yan’s real aunt, the archetype of the aunt in Frogs, said recently when interviewed by a Hong Kong TV station (start 4:20) that, as a busy country midwife, she delivered about 20,000 babies over the course of the last 40 years, and aborted twice as many. Considering the aunt in the novel only aborted 2,000, some asked, “Doesn’t the novel down play the one-child policy?” Well, I won’t find fault this way with a fiction that I haven’t read, but the effect would surely be different if the aunt in the novel aborted twice as many as she delivered.
How does my professor friend think about Life and Death Are Wearing me Out? Since Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize, he said, he had pulled it out again to finish from where he had left it. “At the time I felt Mo Yan was too indulgent in playing dazzling tricks without much substance. This afternoon I was chatting with a colleague of mine, and he was of the same opinion.”
I shared my assessment of Mo Yan with my friend: That he is a boy who comes home dutifully before the midnight curfew. My friend agreed. “I feel the same way,” he said. “What Mo Yan wrote in his later works is permissible; and his critiques are critiques well within the boundaries.” My friend went on to say, “the current publishing system in China means that what have been published are safe to publish; if a work is too challenging, it wouldn’t be published to begin with, because publishers are afraid of taking risks, because it directly concerns people’s livelihood. This I think is the key problem.”
Interestingly enough, in terms of criticism, Mo Yan’s self-assessment seems to coincide with that of my friend. You may have noticed it too: in my earlier quote of Mo Yan, he mentioned only his earlier work to defend that he is a critical writer.
Needless to say, contemporary Chinese literature is rather diversified. But reading Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, I am reminded of a couple of “avant-guardist” writers I read in the 90s and a few writers I came across more recently. Together they seem to represent a winning trend in Chinese literature. Depending on the writers, it more or less has the following characteristics: It’s set in a specific time of the past before 1949, but the sense of time is very thin; its descriptions tend to be elaborate and copious; the characters tend to be poker-faced and immobile, lack of connection with real people; it has universal themes but seldom challenges the readers morally or existentially; and one feels hollow after reading such novels. I call it pseudo literature, and the China depicted in such works pseudo China.
It looks like the authors and the government have found harmony with each other in such a trend: The authors write happily and indulgently; the critics have plenty of material to expound on; and as far as the Party is concerned, you can write about all the pillage and all the rape in the world as long as you don’t ask questions about the real realities, which in many ways are ten times worse than Mo Yan’s fictional realities. Do the censors and the watchers from the propaganda department really like Mo Yan? Not necessarily. But dictators don’t err in what’s damaging to them and what’s not. Writers like Mo Yan are perfectly acceptable to them, and at the same time, they know that such writers are the only viable athletes to represent China in the cultural Olympics of the world.
And for the world, perhaps a little too eager to concede something to the communist China that looms big economically, Mo Yan looks right and feels right.
In an interview with Time magazine in 2010, Mo Yan said he never worried about censorship when he chose what to write. “‘There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,’ he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer ‘conform to the aesthetics of literature,’ Mo Yan argues. ‘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.’ ” So, censorship helps writers write better literature? I don’t know that before! I feel so sorry for all the great writers of the world, and in history, who haven’t had the good fortune to benefit from censorship. How much better would they have written?!
Mo Yan’s defense of censorship reminds me of a conversation I had with another CWA writer friend of mine in China a couple of years ago. When I shared Shen Shuren with him, he liked it very much but told me right away that it was not publishable in China. So I commented on the lack of freedom to write even though there was considerable space for good writers to shine. To my surprise, he corrected me sternly. “I have complete freedom to write,” he said. “What I am writing now is what I will be writing anyway in a state of complete freedom.”
At this juncture, it would be interesting to compare Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and Mo Yan. With the same Red Sorghum, one as a short story and the other as a movie, the two men opened up new horizons in the 1980s and became famous overnight. Both were disliked in the 80s and part of 90s by the government, and both “adapted” to the realities. Zhang Yimou has been making grandiose but vapid “visual banquets” such as Hero (英雄) and Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲), while Mo Yan found home in “hallucinatory realism.” Both are now China’s gold medalists in the realm of world culture, towering signs of China’s cultural achievement next to its economic miracle. These days I don’t think there are that many people outside China who regard Zhang Yimou as a critical movie maker anymore, but the assessment of Mo Yan will be a lot more complicated, partially because not that many people have the patience to read 500-page novels one after another, partially because he is now shrouded in the aura of the Nobel Prize. I don’t think Mo Yan made a mistake when he named only his earlier writings to defend the critical quality of his works and the risks he has taken to write them. I haven’t read enough myself to agree or disagree with my professor friend, but the fact remains that, after the mid-1990s, Mo Yan has not run into any trouble with the authorities and his status in the officially anointed Chinese literary scene has pinnacled long before the Nobel Prize.
Julia Lovell, in her article in the New York Times, warns against intellectual laziness on the part of western readers who might judge Mo Yan unfavorably simply because he’s a writer embraced by the Party and the government. She urges them to find answers in his works. I, too, would warn against intellectual laziness on the part of any reader, Chinese or otherwise: Just because Mo Yan does not portray power and the government in favorable light doesn’t automatically make him a critical writer. And more importantly, don’t let the Nobel Prize deify anyone for you.
I don’t know how many times I have heard argument over the last couple of weeks for separating literature from politics. First of all, the Party doesn’t for a second think that way. For the Party, everything is politics, literature and art in particular as tools to shape ideas and minds. Second, aren’t Mo Yan’s painstaking avoidance of Liu Xiaobo and going along with handcopying Mao all political choices? As a matter of fact, when Chinese writers and movie makers escape into the era before 1949, into the ancient times, or take pains to blur the clear memories of the recent past into a fog, aren’t they political behaviors after all?
As a Harvard scholar pointed out the other day (sorry I can’t find the link anymore), now that he is a Nobel winner, Mo Yan has become a political figure whether he likes it or not, more so in China than in the world. People will seek him out for his opinions on the hottest topics of the day and he will not be able to just say “no comment.” The Party will watch him closely to make sure that he stays on track. For Chinese literature, the message is clear: Forget all those talks about idealism and conscience; the key is to have the right literary formula.
For days I have had the wicked image of the five judges of the Nobel Committee and the nine members of the Politburo sitting together, exchanging their enthusiastic views of Mo Yan over a cup of warm tea. “… Who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary,” the old dons from the Swedish Academy of Letters say. “… Who among a slew of great works by Chinese writers is an outstanding representative of the Chinese characteristics, Chinese style and Chinese grandeur,” said Li Changchun (李长春), the Party’s propaganda tsar. These two groups of old men have thus far disagreed on just about everything else, and the latter hates the guts of the former for being “vicious” to China. But with Mo Yan, the chemistry between the two changed miraculously, swirling merrily together like a hot cinnamon bun.
So, readers, no matter who you are, Chinese or foreigners, men or women, having read Mo Yan or not, for him or against him or having no opinion of him, knowing China or not, no matter who you are and where you are, we can all agree on one thing: Mo Yan has it all.
And that is truly a huge and supernatural achievement for which one Nobel Prize is not enough. I think this year’s Peace Prize and Chemistry Prize should have gone to Mo Yan as well.
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 rectified.name, 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.
Readers of my posts here by now should know that I am not a neutral person, and my bias can be very strong. To be perfectly honest with you, I cherish the freedom of not having to pretend otherwise. Below is a compilation of Twitter Chinese community’s reaction to the news of Chinese writer Mo Yan 莫言 winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature (his name literally means “Don’t talk”). I follow nearly 800 people, and the voices on my Timeline are overwhelmingly lopsided. Now, since it’s unlikely that the Swedish Academy will provide you some of the key information about this particular laureate on its site, I will do you a service by supplying it: Mo Yan is currently a member of the Chinese Communist Party and a deputy Chairman of the Party endorsed and Party-run Writers’ Association. In fact, China’s Writers Association is an organ of the government on all levels, from top to county level. And of all the tweets I read today, my favorite came from the laureate himself: It’s his poem to Bo Xilai (薄熙来), the recently disgraced Chongqing leader. Life is always rich and magical, more so than fiction, isn’t it? –Yaxue
@eleven_K: Mo Yan, first Chinese Nobel winner who lives inside China but outside a prison.
@mozhixu: (leading dissident intellectual): In my last interview yesterday, my view is that, due to information unbalance, the westerners have a hard time to understand the reality of the post-totalitarian China. As a result, they underestimated, even ignored, the negative impact of Mo Yan’s subjection to the regime. But for those Chinese who pursuing freedom, it’s very unfair.
@HeQinglian (exiled economist) : Wei Yingjie from Tencent Weibo: Having read so many comments about Mo Yan, I think the most accurate one comes from the man himself: “In everyday life, I can be a stooge, a coward and a pathetic worm, but when I write, I have balls to steal, to fuck and to do whatever I want.” This probably is Mo Yan philosophy of life.
@ye_du: Mo Yan’s poem to Bo Xilai on his Tencent Weibo:
Doggerel to my literary friend in Chongqing:
Sing-red-strike-black roars mightily, the nation turns its head to Chongqing. /While the white spider waves real net, the black horse with loose bowel movement is not an angry youth./ As a writer I look down on either the left or the right, as an official you hold dear your good name in history./ A gentleman, a bedrock in turbulent waters, that you are, the splendid cliffs shine on Jiangling River like fire.
@YaxueCao: Sven Englund (@svenenglund, Swedish student in Fudan University who was expelled from China for writing an open letter to Hu Jintao calling for free expression), you wrote a letter calling for free expression, the Chinese government chased you out of China. Today, Mo Yan, the winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, said in China this is an era when one can speak freely. Are people in the Swedish Academy a bunch of decrepits or what?
@Michae1S Warm congratulations to Mo Yan, CCP member, former PLA officer, loyal soldier of communism, loyal supporter of censorship, boycotter of Frankfurt Book Fair, father of Big Breasts and Wide Hips, for winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature!
@wentommy: From Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art (1942) to Nobel Prize for Literature, Mo Yan becomes the binding figure in China’s cultural revolution.
@YaxueCao: To be a little off in your literary judgment is one thing; to be completely unaware of the pseudo nature of Mo Yan’s oeuvre is another.
@YaxueCao: (Answering question “What is the “pseudo nature” of Mo Yan’s works”) It’s set in China, it’s about China, but it contains little truth about China, realistically or allegorically, not China in the past, not China now. It’s pseudo China.
@wongkala: Mo Yan’s handwriting of MaoZedong’s Talks 2 Writers & Artists, the section about a writer/artist’s stand & attitude.
@YaxueCao: Just how bad is it for any of the 100 Chinese writers and artists, Mo Yan included, to engage in handcopying Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art earlier this year? First of all, it’s a despicable act of suck-up. Secondly, please remember: this text of Mao marks the beginning, and is the guideline, of Chinese Communists’ war on literature and art where complete submission is required of writers and artists, or they face persecution as generations of them have done. Today is a sad day for all of those Chinese who have suffered from that tyranny against literature and art.
@YaxueCao: Four Nobel Prizes and two tales, delivered by People’s Daily:
@lantudou: To best balance the relationship with China, why not award Nobel Peace Prize to Hu Jintao?
@Cloudbleu: Nobel Prize for Literature went to a man who works for a regime that suppresses expression. This is disgusting! Damn disgusting!
@ranyunfei (renowned independent intellectual who was detained last year during the jasmine terror and whose Weibo accounts, all of them, were deleted recently during the anti-Japanese protests): Mo Yan said, upon the news of the prize, that this is an era when one can speak freely. All I can say is that, at this moment of time when China is on the eve of big changes, that Nobel Prize awards a man who has no principles indicates it is an accomplice to the scoundrel China. In China, Mo Yan has received unprecedented, all-you-can-think-of promotion as no one else has ever done, yet the whole world is blind. You will all be paying the bills.
@yangpigui (independent writer): This prize that will be awarded in Stockholm will cause the spread of Stockholm Syndrome.
@aiww (Artist Ai Weiwei) : Swedish Academy of Letters & China’s Writers’ Association compete for who is more despicable. This round the foreign devils won.
@aiww: China’s Writers Association is an association of bootlickers. The Westerners think Mo Yan is outstanding among them.
@aiww: A writer is a liar if he can’t face truth; a literary prize is a curse on conscience if it shuns the question of justice.
@wenyunchao: My Weibo account has just been deleted for criticizing Mo Yan.
@Cui Weiping 崔卫平: (renowned pro-democracy academic) To those imprisoned writers and those who are being persecuted by censorship as we speak, this is a huge blow.
@mozhixu (leading dissident intellectual): Many people still under-estimated the naivety of leftist Western intellectuals. That’s why, unlike many of you, I didn’t assert that Mo Yan had no shot at it.
@aiww: Why can’t a rich man award a coward, a stooge and a hypocrite? Do you really think this world is clean?
@YaxueCao: Mo Yan himself aside, the people who are overjoyed about this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature are CCTV, Xinhua, and People‘s Daily.
@tengbiao (tweet by renowned rights lawyer Teng Biao on October 6): He handcopied Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen’an Forum on Literature and Art (《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》). He claimed that writers are not in any way restrained at all in today’s China. In Frankfurt Book Fair, he refused to attend seminars with dissident writers Dai Qing 戴晴 and Bei Ling 贝岭. When Cui Weiping 崔卫平 interviewed him for his view on Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year sentence, he said, “I don’t know much about it. I don’t want to talk about it.” He has never uttered a single word for any Chinese prisoners of conscience. He is Mo Yan 莫言, this year favorite for Nobel Prize for Literature.