Yesterday the Nobel Committee announced that Chinese author Mo Yan had earned this year's prize for literature. One of China's best known writers, Mo Yan has has been heralded as one of China's preeminent writers. But Mo Yan has not always been so highly regarded by China's government.
Born Guan Moye in 1955 to a family of farmers, Mo Yan was raised in the Shandong province. During the Cultural Revolution, he left school to work at a petroleum factory. Afterward, he joined the People's Liberation Army. In 1981, still a soldier, he began writing. Three years later he earned a teaching position at the Department of Literature in the Army's Cultural Academy. He went on to earn a masters in Literature from Beijing Normal University in 1991.
Mo Yan means "Don't speak" in Chinese. The author says that he took this pen name because his parents always warned him not to speak his mind publicly. He grew up in the 1950's, during a time of great political strife. Mo Yan began writing as China entered a period of reform, but some of his work was still banned early in his career; Mo Yan didn't shy away from addressing the Communist or Cultural Revolutions, and he often took a different stance on these events than the Chinese government.
As Mo Yan's career progressed, his writing has received not merely acceptance from the government, but widespread acclaim. The Chinese press called Mo Yan's achievement a "history making first" yet Mo Yan is not the country's first Nobel laureate in Literature. Indeed the Chinese government has been seeking a Nobel Prize in Literature for years now; a recent article in the New Yorker even explored China's "Nobel complex."
And in 2000, Chinese-born writer Gao Xingjian did win the prestigious award. Immediately following the announcement, China's then Prime Minister Zhu Rongji congratulated Gao and noted the richness and appeal of the Chinese language. But by then Gao had French citizenship--and he'd also spoken out against the Communist party. The Chinese government's official stance was that Gao's Nobel was awarded for political reasons, not for his talent as an author. The government's disapproval for Gao is so strong that many Chinese books on Nobel laureates omit the year 2000 altogether. Gao clearly left a complicated legacy (explored here by Sebastian Veg).
Meanwhile Mo Yan finds himself in a delicate position as a Nobel laureate. Currently endorsed by his government, he has expressed a desire to avoid discussing the political implications of the prize. But he also lives in a country where authors are imprisoned for their work, and many have questioned Mo Yan about whether he'll come to their defense. It's no wonder that Mo Yan was both "overjoyed and scared" at the news that he'd won the prize.
Mo Yan 's Place in the Tapestry of World Literature
Mo Yan has long been a proponent of Chinese writers' reading world literature. He noted at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair that literature has the power to "overcome the barriers that separate countries and nations." The influence of authors from around the world is quite evident in his work. Though he was profoundly influenced by the classical Chinese novel Water Margin, Mo Yan also draws from the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the social realism of Lu Xun.
Critics also often compare Mo Yan to Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka. But such a view oversimplifies Mo Yan's style and the tradition of the Chinese novel. When John Updike reviewed Big Breasts and Wide Hips for the New Yorker in 2005, he observed that "the Chinese novel, perhaps, had no Victorian heyday to teach it decorum" and extolled Mo Yan's "abundant and hyperactive" metaphors.
Mo Yan's position as China's "first" Nobel laureate in literature puts him in a unique position as both an author and a political figure. It will certainly be interesting to watch how he wields this new-found clout in years to come.