Nobel Win Stirs Controversy

A Chinese writer makes history by capturing the Nobel Prize for Literature but some critics wonder whether he deserves it.

2012-10-11
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china-nobel-lit-305.gif Mo Yan speaks at an event in Hangzhou city, east China's Zhejiang province, Sept. 11, 2012.
Imaginechina

Updated at 4:18 p.m. EST on 2012-10-11

Controversial writer Mo Yan became the first Chinese national to win the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday but critics questioned his "surprise" elevation to Nobel laureate.

The Swedish academy said he was picked for his works combining "hallucinatory realism" with folk tales, history, and contemporary life in China.

Some of the books of Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, have been banned as "provocative and vulgar" by Chinese authorities but the 57-year-old writer has also been criticized by some as being too close to the ruling Chinese Communist Party considering the tight state control over cultural affairs in the country.

The Nobel Academy, which announced the award in Stockholm, said Mo was honored for using "a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives" to create "a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

Mo was "very surprised" but "very happy" at winning the award, according to state news agency Xinhua.

"The Nobel Literature Prize is a very important literature prize, but not the top award. It represents the opinions of the jury," he told reporters at a hotel in his hometown Gaomi city in east China's Shandong province.

"I wrote from the perspective of a human being. These works stand beyond regions and ethnic groups," said the writer, who was forced to drop out of primary school and herd cattle during China's Cultural Revolution.

Mo is best known in the West for Red Sorghum, which portrayed the hardships endured by farmers in the early years of communist rule and was made in a film directed by Zhang Yimou. His books also include Big Breasts and Wide Hips and The Republic of Wine.

"I was influenced by the cultural elements I witnessed through my childhood. When I picked up the pen for literature creation, the folk cultural elements inevitably entered my novels and affected and even determined the artistic styles of my works," Mo said.

He was nominated along with Canada's Alice Munro and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

The last Chinese-born Nobel Literature Prize winner was Gao Xingjian in 2000, although he was living in France by that time and had taken French citizenship. His Nobel was not celebrated by the Chinese government.

Sharp contrast

In sharp contrast to the angry response by the Chinese authorities when dissident Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Beijing seems pleased by the latest win.

Government-controlled television broke into its evening news broadcast to announce the award while Xinhua quoted an official of the government-backed Chinese Writers' Association as saying that the prize showed the world's recognition of the nation's contemporary literature.

"It is not only a joyous occasion for Mo, but also a dream coming true for generations of Chinese writers," vice president of the association He Jianming said, adding that the award also showed recognition in realism writing derived from traditional Chinese literature.

He cited Mo's latest novel, Frog, which was published in China in 2010, as an example of Mo's focus on realism. The book focuses on the influence of China's one-child policy in the countryside.

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei was angered by the award to a writer with the "taint of government" about him, according to various news reports.

Citing Liu, who is languishing in jail two years after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Ai said, "[Mo's] winning won't be of any help for Liu Xiaobo, unless Mo Yan expresses his concern for him."

"But Mo Yan has stated in the past that he has nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo. I think the Nobel organizers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don't understand it."

Chinese authors said Mo was a fairly establishment figure who had never challenged the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

"He sees himself as having been forged in the furnace of the revolution," Hangzhou-based blogger Zan Aizong said. "He won't ever forget that."

Zan said Mo's loyalty to Party ideals essentially limited his creative options.

"His environment is such that he is unlikely to break away from the main theme and create something spontaneous," he said. "I definitely don't think his works are world class."

'Poor language'

U.S.-based exile author Yu Jie, whose recent book is stridently critical of the current Chinese administration, agreed.

"From a linguistic point of view, I think Mo Yan’s language is poor even among the most popular novelists," Yu said. "We should pay attention to whether a writer can contribute to and carry forward the creativity of a language."

"I believe it is a huge mistake for him to win this award," he said. "We have also noticed that Chinese authorities have shown a totally different attitude towards the other winners of the Nobel Prize, Gao Xingjian and Liu Xiaobo."

Meng Lang, a Chinese poet based in Hong Kong, said the Noble Academy's decision was a mistake, saying Mo's writings "do not match the will of the Nobel prize."

He said the founder of the Nobel Prize had encouraged writings promoting idealism but Mo Yan's works, according to Meng, did not have such an element.

"In addition to this, he never expresses his support for writing freedom," Meng said, "There has been generally crackdown on the freedom of writings and speech in China. He (Mo) does not has the conscience as a writer. He never supports or shows his position on this. This totally violates the Nobel Prize's founder's original thinking."

However, New York-based writer and literary commentator Timothy Tung welcomed the announcement.

"I was surprised that another Chinese writer once again won the Nobel Prize for Literature after Gao Xingjian in such a relatively short period of time," Tung said. "I am happy for the Chinese literary world."

Sichuan-based author Tie Liu said Mo's books were well-known for their proximity to real life, however.

"Frog is a fairly realistic portrait of the family planning regime [in China]. I think that the life force of literature lies in its realism."

'Fresh life'

Lu Jingbo, a Chinese publisher, likened the award to a "cardiac stimulant," breathing fresh life to Chinese literature which he said has been "marginalized."

"In this Chinese culture, it is very marginalized if we just talk about literature.... Actually the sale of books written by Chinese writers overseas is not so good. No one wants to be in this field.
This [winning of the award] is only a coincidence."

Reported by Hai Lan of RFA Cantonese service and Shi Shan of the Mandarin service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie, Shiny Li and Feng Xiaoming. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Luisetta Mudie.

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