Mo Yan, a wildly prolific and internationally renowned Chinese author who considers himself nonpolitical but whose embrace by the ruling Communist Party has drawn criticism from dissident writers, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
LONDON — Mo Yan, a prolific and internationally renowned Chinese author who considers himself nonpolitical but whose embrace by the ruling Communist Party has drawn criticism from dissident writers, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
In his novels and short stories, Mo paints sprawling, intricate portraits of Chinese rural life, often using flights of fancy — animal narrators, the underworld, elements of fairy tales — that evoke the techniques of South American magical realists.
His work has been widely translated and is readily available in the West, but he is perhaps best known abroad for “Red Sorghum” (1987; published in English in 1993), which takes on issues such as the Japanese occupation, bandit culture and the harsh lives of rural Chinese, and which in 1987 was made into a movie.
“Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” the Swedish Academy said in the citation that accompanied the award.
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The prize is worth about $1.2 million.
Mo has not been shy of lacing his fiction with social criticism, but at the same time he has carefully navigated whatever invisible line the government considers unacceptable. He has also appeared at times to embrace the establishment, and serves as vice chairman of the party-run Chinese Writers’ Association.
He is just the second Chinese resident citizen to win a Nobel; the first was the jailed dissident writer and political agitator Liu Xiaobo, who won the peace prize two years ago. But in contrast to the Chinese government’s anger over that award, which included refusing to allow Liu to accept it and exacting diplomatic penalties against Norway, Beijing reacted to this one as an international vindication.
The announcement was celebrated on the China Central Television evening broadcast, which broke into its regular coverage for a special report. The populist state-run Global Times newspaper immediately placed a “special coverage” page, clearly prepared in advance, on its English-language website.
When the organizers contacted Mo, said Peter Englund, secretary of the Swedish Academy, “he said he was overjoyed and scared,” The Associated Press reported.
The reactions highlight the unusual position Mo holds in Chinese literature. He is a genuinely popular writer who is embraced by the Communist establishment but who also dares, within careful limits, to tackle controversial issues such as forced abortion. His novel “The Garlic Ballads,” which depicts a peasant uprising and official corruption, was banned.
“He’s one of those people who’s a bit of a sharp point for the Chinese officials, yet manages to keep his head above water,” said his longtime U.S. translator, Howard Goldblatt of the University of Notre Dame. “That’s a fine line to walk, as you can imagine.”
The son of farmers, Mo was born in 1955 in Shandong province, in the east, where much of his fiction is set. He became a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, leaving school to work first on a farm and then in a cottonseed-oil factory. He began writing, he has said, a few years later while serving in the People’s Liberation Army. His first short story was published in 1981.
The author’s given name is Guan Moye; Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak,” is actually a pen name that reflects, he has said, the time in which he grew up, a time when criticizing those in power could be ruinous.
In its citation, the Swedish Academy noted that many of Mo’s works, including “The Garlic Ballads” (1988, published in English in 1995) and “The Republic of Wine” (1992, published in English in 2000) “have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.”
Other works include “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” (1996, published in English in 2004) — which was briefly banned before going on to become a huge best-seller in China — and “Sandalwood Death” (2004, to be published in English in 2013). Mo’s most recent published work, called “Wa” in Chinese (2009), “illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy,” the academy said.
Michel Hockx, professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said that Mo was part of a generation of post-Cultural Revolution writers who began looking at Chinese society, particularly in the countryside, through new, nonparty-line eyes.
But fellow writers, especially those outside the establishment, mistrust Mo’s failure to take a political stand.
“This reflects the West’s disregard for China’s human-rights problems. Mo Yan’s win is not a victory for literature. It’s a victory for the Communist Party,” said Yu Jie, an essayist and close friend of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu who fled to the U.S. this year, on his Twitter feed.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.