Chinese Author Wins Nobel Prize For Literature

Mo Yan has been declared the most recent recipient of the Nobel prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy, who praised his work for the “hallucinatory realism [which] merges folk tales, history and the contemporary” which has become his trademark style over a career that has spanned thirty years.

Born Guan Moye, the author, who writes under the pen name Mo Yan, is the first Chinese resident to win the prize. Chinese-born Gao Xingjian was honoured in 2000, but is a French citizen currently living in exile in Paris. A widely respected serious novelist not only in his home country, but globally, with his works translated into at least 5 languages to date, his success in the literary world is in itself a remarkable feat. After leaving school at the age of only twelve to work during the Cultural Revolution, first in agriculture, later in a factory, in 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army and it was during this time that he began to study literature and write.

Although many would consider the Nobel Prize for literature as a prize for the individual, to recognize their creative achievement and impact on the world – without any broader, collective symbolism – for a country such as China the potential consequences from such recognition are massive.

Since its re-entry in the early 1980s into the global, political, economic and cultural consciousness, China’s post-Mao establishment has craved international recognition to benefit its image. We have seen this in the spectacle and sheer man-power used to catapult China into the world arena as a major power player, with a recent example being Beijing hosting the Olympics. As part of this, Nobel prizes in science, economics, and (particularly) literature have been a highly desirable in the process of winning nationalistic validation that the People’s Republic of China has made it as a modern global power, at least with influence if not dominance.

A prolific and popular writer in modern China, Mo Yan, which in Chinese ironically means “don’t speak”, is celebrated for speaking out with uncommon directness on the absurdities and corruption of modern China. The vibrancy and accuracy of his portraits of Chinese life, his steadfast insistence on showing life as it is, rather than as it ought to be, his celebration of resourceful women, and his willingness to take risks for his art make him one of the most influential writers in the People’s Republic.

Despite his popularity, this style of unapologetic honesty has sometimes resulted in controversy, notably for his novel Big Breasts & Wide Hips, which some critics accused of negatively portraying Communist soldiers. Set in rural Gaomi, in northeast China, where Mo Yan grew up, the novel vividly portrays the bloody political and historical events of the twentieth century with a brutal realism that gives a detailed picture of the realities of rural life during these historical crises, where the plight of the individual is often lost to cold fact and political analysis. Jintong, the only son of Shangguan Lu, tells the story of his remarkable mother, his eight sisters, and their families as they live through these seminal events from the Boxer Rebellion through the Communist Revolution, the Japanese invasion, the Cultural Revolution, and the death of Mao. The stories of the daughters and their marriages to men with varied political agendas reflect the history of twentieth century rural China, and it’s unconscionable atrocities, starvation, death from exposure, forced marches, and land seizures.

Mo Yan, who lived through the major events depicted here, not only gives an unwaveringly honest account of the struggles of the poor during a time of such upheaval and chaos, but also uses satire and black humour to criticize totalitarian governments and closed societies in which individualism has little meaning. The narrator and spoiled only son, Jintong, is neither a hero nor a fully realized character in the western sense, and though much detail is given to what characters do and how they behave, less consideration is given to how they think and why they behave as they do, reflecting perhaps the outlook of said closed societies, where individual agency is frowned upon and the safest route to contentment is submission.

Despite the announcement sparking celebration in his homeland, with the national broadcaster breaking into the evening news to announce the decision and news sites running Mo’s photograph on their front pages, proclaiming the author’s triumph as epitomizing the country’s advance in recent years, Mo has courted controversy since the announcement by publicly announcing his support for fellow laureate Liu Xiaobo. Xiaobo, who is currently serving 11 years in jail for “subversion”, won the Nobel peace prize in 2010, sparking an angry reaction from the Chinese authorities. Although the author has been criticized for his perceived closeness to the Chinese establishment, speaking to reporters in his home town earlier this month, Mo Yan voiced his support of the dissident, “I hope he [Liu] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.”

It remains to be seen whether this proclamation of support for the controversial figure will affect his favorability with the Chinese government, or if by winning global gravitas for Chinese Literature he has also won relative immunity from such a fate.


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