I’ll admit upfront that I’ve never read Mo Yan’s works, but after all I’ve read about his winning the Nobel prize for literature that’s going to change very soon. (If anyone has a recommendation as to where I should start it will be appreciated.)
So all I wanted to do is draw attention to two of the most interesting pieces I’ve read about Mo. First, Brendan O’Kane has written a wonderful post for Rectified.Name on whether Mo Yan is “a stooge” of the CCP, and the answer is a resounding No. From all I’ve read (like this article), I have to agree. Quite the contrary.
There’s no question that Mo’s win was welcomed by the Chinese government. CCP propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote a letter to the CWA congratulating Mo on the win, coverage occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, and foreign media coverage of the win was translated in Cankao Xiaoxi (albeit in censored form, as Bruce Humes shows). Given China’s Nobel complex, however — or, more charitably, China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt should have a slightly higher profile on the international literary stage than China currently does — a win by any novelist not banned outright would in all likelihood have been welcomed just as warmly.
Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.
Read the entire piece; it’s beautifully written, rich in detail, and is probably the best single article you’ll find on Mo and his works.
Second is an article by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. She looks at Mo’s selection for the Nobel prize from a unique perspective, namely that it highlights “the increasing number of male Chinese writers reaching a global audience.” So many of the popular books about China, she argues, come from a female perspective, which is well and good, but there is another side to the story that has been less told: the male side.
For too long, Western perceptions of Chinese have been essentially a female one, brought about to a large extent by the hugely successful writings of writers ranging from Han Suyin to the two Amys, Tan and Chua, who, though American, draw hugely on their Chinese roots for their stories. They have offered vivid, touching, and loving portraits of dysfunctional families, of the immigrant experience, of female empowerment. Stories that need a woman’s touch.
In The Good Women of China, journalist Xinran Xue describes a visit to a remote part of China where women walk with a strange swagger. She discovers it is because the women live in a dry region with little forestation, and are forced to use sharp-edged leaves to staunch menstrual bleeding. I doubt a male writer would have spotted that telling detail.
Of course, these are stories that need to be told. But the surge of stories with tropes of infanticide, abortion and rape reinforce Western perceptions of the Chinese experience as being overwhelmingly feminine. As victims or objects of desire.
Women’s stories, no matter how vital, don’t necessarily square with all that’s going on in China today, which is facing a surplus of males following three decades of a government-mandated population planning policy — popularly referred to as the one-child policy — that reinforced Chinese families’ cultural preference for sons.
A very perceptive piece that takes a hard look at the difficulties facing many men in China today, and the hope that there is a shift in Chinese literature toward telling more of their stories.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.