Mo Yan and his stories

A.E. Clark, the translator of one of my favorite contemporary Chinese novels, has written an essay about Mo Yan and his defense of himself in the light of attacks that he is not concerned enough with human rights in China or with the plight of his fellow Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo, about whom Mo has remained silent. In response to such criticism, Mo told three stories, each of which Clark translates and analyzes (they were translated By Howard Goldblatt).

I cannot urge you strongly enough to go to his site and read these translations and commentary. I can’t do justice to them in a blog post. I love the way Clark writes, and I stand in awe of his panoramic knowledge of China. Each of these stories (parables, really) is an attempt by Mo to put into perspective his reactions to the criticisms of him, but Clark sees them as telling us much more about Mo than the author intended.

The first story is about a young boy who, along with his classmates, is expected to cry when viewing “an exhibit of suffering” presumably during the Mao era. Clark explains:

This scene was not an uncommon one for its time. The “exhibit of suffering” (in ‘63 or ‘64) would have consisted of dioramas that showed landlords extracting rent from peasants, KMT officials lording it over the poor, and other scenes representative of life under the old regime. The exhibit might have included Japanese atrocities and perhaps even the depredations of the British during the Opium Wars. What is important – and what Mo Yan as a novelist would grasp perfectly even if this anecdote were not autobiographical – is how meaningless and bewildering the exhibit must have seemed to a bunch of eight-year-olds from a farming village…

The unnamed situation to which the scene is being compared is none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today. Now he is the boy who will not cry. In the weeks since the award’s announcement, he has been badgered about human rights by Western reporters, pressured to sign a petition on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, and invited to join in Western handwringing about Chinese censorship. He has refused. But with this story, he does more than refuse. He dismisses all these issues as fake indignation manufactured in the service of a conformist ideology. He doesn’t feel the distress or the outrage voiced by his critics and, crucially, he doesn’t think they do either (“the tears are only for show”). This is not as extraordinary a statement as it might appear. Apologists for the Communist Party of China often say that foreigners’ purported concern for human rights is a pretext for China-bashing. To put it personally: Mo Yan doesn’t care what happens to people like Liu Xiaobo, and he doesn’t believe you care either. To him, the clamor for rights is humbug and bullying like what he witnessed under Mao, and he asserts his right to stand aloof from it.

This is very powerful stuff. I am somewhat on the fence about Mo because I still haven’t read his works (I have one ordered) and I’ve read wildly contradictory opinions about him. One writer/translator I have huge respect for recently wrote an eloquent post about Mo’s constant criticisms of China’s government, its policies and its cruelties, and how he is anything but a government patsy. And that’s a matter of fact. But I see those as two separate issues. As scathing a critic of the government as he might be in his novels, might it not be possible that at the same time he functions as an apologist for the party? Are the two mutually exclusive? I find Clark’s arguments more than compelling.

I’m not offering a definitive answer. But reading Clark’s essay certainly made me think, especially his take on the third story (too long for me to paraphrase here). He concludes by asking why it even matters if Mo Yan is making apologies for the CCP.

It matters, finally, because – even if he never wanted this role – winning the most prestigious international prize moves Mo Yan to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power. The leadership is surely pleased that he dismisses as hypocritical nonsense the values underlying the defense of human rights against the State. We will hear more of this, from Mo Yan and others, and it won’t always be so subtle. That is not to say there will be no improvements in the area of human rights. Liu Xia has probably already been assigned better guards.

Again, please read the whole brief piece. Even if you disagree with Clark’s conclusions, his arguments are beautifully crafted and certainly thought provoking.

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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.

The Discussion: 51 Comments

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December 26, 2012 @ 4:07 am | Comment

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