Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:41 AM CST – China


Mo Yan

Prize Fighter

Elevated into the State-approved pantheon of great Chinese writers thanks to his Nobel Prize, will Mo Yan finally be able to stop looking over his shoulder?

Mo Yan receives the Nobel Prize in Literature for his mixing of “folk tales, history and the contemporary” Photo by CNS

On October 11, Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, announces Mo Yan’s winning of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature Photo by CFP

Mo Yan in his youth Photo by CFP

From left to right: Actress Gong Li, Mo Yan, actor Jiang Wen and director Zhang Yimou during the filming of Red Sorghum Photo by CFP

On October 11, photojournalists rush toward a display of Mo Yan’s works at Frankfurt Book Fair after hearing the Nobel Prize announcement Photo by CFP

Nobel laureate Mo Yan is a busy man. He has been swept up in a whirlwind of publicity which, while it has elevated his position, has also made him a target for detractors. 

Some critics claim he embodies the “institutionalization” of Chinese writers, and has devoted himself to pushing the Communist Party’s cultural agenda. Even before his win, he was already working as vice chairman of the government-sponsored Chinese Writers Association (CWA). His role this summer, along with 100 other CWA writers, writing out by hand the full text of Mao Zedong’s “Yan’an Talks on Art and Culture” in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Mao’s speeches, hasn’t helped this image. The central theme of the Yan’an Talks was that writers and artists should “serve the people” under strict guidance from the Communist Party. 

Others, conversely, accuse him of vulgarity and literary excess – exposing China’s seedy, dirty side in order to appeal to a “foreign” Nobel jury who, presumably, single out trashy writing when awarding the world’s most prestigious literary accolade. Unlike Mo Yan’s critics in literary circles, these self-styled “patriots,” many of whom operate anonymously online, dislike Mo because he isn’t establishment enough.

Mo himself has tried to stay above the fray. “I thank both those who supported me and those who criticized me,” he told our reporter. For a writer working under scrutiny from both the sophisticated systems of official censorship as well as online legions of would-be arbiters of culture, the road to success is always rocky.


In 1986, Red Sorghum Clan was published in The People’s Literature, one of the major State-owned literary magazines in China, when Mo was 31. It appealed strongly to cinematographer Zhang Yimou, who had won plaudits overseas in 1984 for his work on Chen Kaige’s The Yellow Earth though the film was banned in China. Zhang came to Beijing, where Mo was graduating from the People’s Liberation Army Arts Institute as a literature major, and offered to buy the rights to Mo’s novel.

Set in wartime Gaomi, Mo Yan’s rural childhood home, Red Sorghum Clan tells the story of a local gang whose rough-and-ready members, after living in a haze of drunkenness and promiscuity, take it upon themselves to confront an invading platoon of Japanese soldiers. Mo Yan’s “war heroes” were markedly different from the stereotypical socialist realist protagonists of post-revolutionary Chinese literature. Lusty, unwashed and ignorant, they owed more to the bandit antiheroes of traditional Chinese classics such as The Water Margin than the idealized, handsome ideologues of much contemporary literature. 

 The fact that Red Sorghum Clan had been published at all was a revelation in itself, a sign of the impact of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-up agenda. Conservative critics blasted the novel for its “anti-tradition and anti-textbook” approach to history, which “turned the official histories upside down.” Ironically, these qualities, refreshing to a generation raised on Soviet-style propaganda, turned the book into a national bestseller. The possibility of a film version was seen as too good a chance to pass up. Mo Yan received an advance of 2,000 yuan (around US$241 at the time) and was hired as one of the screenwriters of Red Sorghum. He may not have been earning big money, but his faith in Zhang’s vision paid off when Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear Award at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Chinese audiences responded warmly when the film was released on the mainland, blown away by its unflinching and grimy portrayal of rural life in the 1930s and 40s and the honest, genuine performances of the actors. Stars Jiang Wen and Gong Li, along with director Zhang Yimou, became household names overnight, and the film is seen as a landmark in the rise of China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers. Mo Yan’s original novel was also brought to international attention following the release of the film when it was translated into English for the first time, earning Mo a reputation as one of China’s most respected authors.

Red Sorghum Clan “pioneered a new narrative style,” according to Ye Kai, a senior editor of Harvest, one of China’s foremost literary publications. He told our reporter that Red Sorghum Clan was the novel that introduced him to Mo Yan, now a close friend.

Ye divides his account of Mo’s 31 active years as a writer into three stages, each distinguished by one particularly groundbreaking work. After the success of Red Sorghum Clan, which won Mo Yan the fourth National Outstanding Novella Award, Mo continued to mature as a writer.

‘Trouble Is Coming’

In 1987, he published Happiness, the tragic story of a peasant boy who fails in his college entrance examination. Again, critics were abundant, singling out the “strikingly ugly” depiction of the boy’s mother for particular scorn. In 1988, Garlic Ballads, based on a true story, dealt with the sensitive problem of rural riots against government officials in Shandong.

In 1989, Mo’s novel The Republic of Wine saw Mo’s first major foray into hallucinatory realism: officials in the imaginary province of Liquorland develop a taste for the flesh of children, and an inspector dispatched by the government to clean the place up eventually joins the feast before drowning in a latrine while drunk.

The Republic of Wine totally gripped me. Mo’s exploration and experimentation with language and style is on a par with any pioneering writer in the world,” Cao Yuanyong, deputy editor-in-chief at Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, told our reporter. Cao went on to publish many of Mo’s later works, including 2011’s Frog, a novel which won the 2011 Mao Dun Literary Prize, one of China’s top accolades.

In 1995, according to Ye Kai, Mo hit another peak with Big Breasts and Wide Hips, an epic novel centering on the story of a mother, tragically orphaned during the Boxer Rebellion, and her son. Replete with explicit descriptions of breastfeeding and sexuality and praised overseas for its bold feminist themes, the narrative of Big Breasts and Wide Hips spans more than 40 years from World War II to the early years of Reform and Opening-up. Writing in the Washington Post in 2004, Jonathan Yardley called the book “Dickens gone to China,” and “Mo Yan’s grab for the brass ring, i.e., the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Mo himself called the novel his magnum opus. Ye calls it “the masterpiece” of Mo’s “second phase” as well as “a seminal work of the Deng Xiaoping era.” 

At the end of 1995, Big Breasts and Wide Hips was serialized in Master, an influential literary magazine, and won the inaugural Master Literature Award. Mo received 100,000 yuan (US$12,100), a sum unprecedented in the history of modern Chinese literature. However, he said that even as he seemed to have it made, he sensed that “trouble was coming.”

True enough, his detractors were soon out in force. The title of Big Breasts and Wide Hips was their first target, with some calling it “lewd” and “sensationalist.” Later, the attacks on both Mo Yan and his work became more vitriolic, with his writing called “anti-communist” and “sexually perverted.” Some older writers even attempted to formally report Mo’s “vicious writing” to the authorities, despite the fact that he was published by national presses. As a result, Mo found himself facing censure from the very organs of State which had promoted his writing. He was required to write a letter of self-criticism to his publishers, asking them to destroy his work. 

“If I were a coward, I would have long been scared to death by those ‘heroes,’” Mo wrote in a later essay. Isolated in China’s literary circles, Mo virtually disappeared from public life, only resurfacing to write the occasional TV screenplay.

In 1998, Mo launched his comeback, publishing a series of novellas which, much to his relief, were well-received by critics. One remarked that “[Mo’s] language is much better honed and he handles his writing with ease.” 

In 2001, Sandalwood Death, a novel dealing with events at the turn of the century in Mo’s hometown of Gaomi was published, proving to be the work which led both fans and critics to coin the term “cruelty of language” in reference to Mo Yan’s output. In 2006, Fatigue Beyond Life and Death, a work of 490,000 Chinese characters, offered readers “a marriage of the romantic world and cruel reality.” Ye Kai dubbed the work the “masterpiece of Mo’s third phase,” though he claims “its essence still eludes literary critics.” 

In 2009, Frog was published. Based on the true story of Mo’s aunt, a doctor who carried out forced sterilizations on rural men and women to enforce the One Child Policy, the novel remains one of the few works published on the mainland that deal directly with the reality of this hugely controversial policy. Two years later, Frog received the Mao Dun Literary Prize.


In 31 years, Mo has published some 80 short stories, 30 novellas and 11 novels. His fame and choice of subject matter have forced him to walk a fine line with an official apparatus wary of the power of literature. The textbook on modern Chinese literature used widely in Chinese colleges includes only a smattering of his output, despite his prominence in literary circles. In this primer, Big Breasts and Wide Hips is dismissively described as “as one of the representative works in the 1990s, [that] follows the narrative frame of Red Sorghum Clan and has made no essential progress, neither ideologically nor artistically.”

In contrast, publishing houses and readers have embraced Mo Yan’s readable and bankable creativity. His unique narrative style and “cruel” reflections on modern realities have won him a large following in China, a following which has translated into financial success for almost everything he has published. In 2006, Mo ranked among the top 20 of the Chinese Writer Rich List, with an estimated ten-year income of 3.45 million yuan (roughly US$550,000) in royalties. 

“His income may explode in 2013 to exceed 100 million yuan (US$15.9m),” said Wu Huaiyao, founder of the list, when asked about the possible impact of Mo’s Nobel win. “He might become the richest Chinese writer.”

Mo’s success, unlike many of his contemporaries, is unlikely to stop at the border, with his works among the most-translated and most widely-read of any living Chinese author. “In international literary circles, Mo has long had a place of importance” Ye Kai told NewsChina, adding that his Nobel nomination had been rumored for a number of years. 

While many Chinese writers, who struggle at home with the limitations imposed by official censorship as well as with linguistic and cultural disparities when attempting to gain recognition overseas, Mo has never lacked global attention. He has received a number of important international awards, including the French Laure Bataillin Foreign Literature Award for The Republic of Wine, Italy’s 30th International Nonino Prize and Japan’s 17th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize.

All who meet Mo Yan describe him, sincerely, as “humble.” “As an editor, I find him to be straightforward and generous,” Ye Kai told NewsChina. “As a friend, I can easily poke fun at him. He never puts on airs.”

“Mo Yan is never particular about personal gain. He doesn’t haggle over every ounce and always thinks of others,” said Mo’s publisher Cao Yuankai. Despite eschewing the spotlight, Mo often finds himself overstretched by commitments to lectures and personal appearances. “He’s very kind. Sometimes he refuses invitations. But if people beg him twice or more, he agrees to go,” said Cao.

Mo calls himself “the least eloquent of Chinese writers.” However, he has his moments. In 2001, while delivering a speech at Suzhou University, Mo told his listeners: “I would very much like to come to Suzhou University to have fun, not to give a speech. However, if I don’t give a speech, [Dean] Wang Yao won’t reimburse my flight tickets...Therefore I have to speak.”

“Ours is a time of resigning to our fate and making compromises. So I have to resign to my fate and make a compromise.”

Tags: Nobel laureate, Chinese writers

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