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

The prize money is found money and surely comrade Mo, a staunch senior Party member, is going to enjoy the loot. There is no question that the Party sees through the transparent ploy to use the literature prize to try and fend off future objections to awards made for the purpose of honoring subversion. But knowing the plot also means that it is neutralized. So in the mean time Mo will take the money and buy a small Beijing flat (the Crona ain’t what it used to be).

December 19, 2012 @ 3:16 pm | Comment

I kind of agree with this…

“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.”

There is little doubt that calls for more freedoms in China are – in part – simple (and cynical) brow beating of an economic competitor that many feel is a threat. Certainly, not all criticism is cynical, but I think that a significant amount of it is. If this wasn’t the case then why aren’t more Americans outspoken about severe human rights abuses by American allies like Saudi Arabia? Plus, I don’t see anyone expecting American artists and writers coming out as passionately about Guantanamo.

Furthermore, who has the right to pressure anyone else put their life on the line for any cause? I don’t think that it follows that Yan has been pushed to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power – for some reason the link to the article won’t work for me so maybe Clark makes a good case for this, but I don’t see it.

December 19, 2012 @ 3:43 pm | Comment

The prize money is found money and surely comrade Mo, a staunch senior Party member, is going to enjoy the loot.

Snicker. No wumao for that one.

But knowing the plot also means that it is neutralized.

The Illuminati will not be stopped!

December 19, 2012 @ 3:52 pm | Comment

Sounds like AE Clark is just jelly that Mo doesn’t use his services for translation.

December 19, 2012 @ 4:46 pm | Comment

Nobody is required to take a stance, unless his conscience makes it an obligation. But as far as the first parable is concerned, the interpretation is too speculative for me to follow. If it was up to something, though, it would indicate how much the party profits from the Maoist terror, even decades later. Refusing to side with oppressed people wouldn’t be the same thing as to side with those in power.
But I’m no subscriber to Clark’s interpretation anyway.

As for the Nobel Prize for Literature, a man’s character can’t be a main issue. Gerhart Hauptmann always sided with the powers that be during his life (although not in all of his works). Thomas Mann was a pretty authoritarian character during the first half of his life at least, and it took quite a while – and a lot of pressure from his children – before he openly opposed the Nazis.
But hardly anyone disputed either man’s literary merits. And let’s not go into Nobel prizes for science, and how they, in some cases at least, served naked power.

The Nobel Peace Prize seems to have influenced the views of all other Nobel Prizes, too – and maybe the name Nob(l)e(l) has played a role, too. But they are, basically, prizes for achievements in very different fields.

There’s no reason to condemn Mo Yan – he hasn’t known anything but life in a totalitarian country. But there are reasons to admire those who grew up in the same kind of society, and still refuse to shut their conscience up once it starts asking inconvenient questions.

December 19, 2012 @ 7:48 pm | Comment

Or Mo Yan felt that his Nobel Prize for LITERATURE awarded by Swedish Academy (which doesn’t relate to the NORWEGIAN COMMITTEE’s Nobel PEACE Prize) is being politicized and felt his spotlight is being overshadowed by an individual that has absolutely no relevance to the prize Mo Yan has received.

December 20, 2012 @ 12:38 am | Comment

4. t_co, I’d like it if you could make a more productive criticism if you have one. That kind of comment is beneath you.

Also, I made a mistake in the post, now corrected: Clark did not do the translation, just the commentary.

December 20, 2012 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Clark makes some interesting comments and interpretations of Mo Yan’s Nobel acceptance speech. When seeking to understand a message, we need to look at it from many different angles. To be honest, I am inclined to disagree with Clark’s interpretations, but I don’t discount them entirely either.
Mo Yan is no saint. And to be honest I am disappointed that the Noble committed chose Mo Yan for the prize. I have read some of his writing, and feel that it is not up to the level of other writers, such as Haruki Murakami, David Mitchel, or Ma Jian among others.
Still I think Mo Yan is really a small frog, suddenly dropped into a big pond. Who can blame him for wanting to refuse to take a stand against the ruling CCP. Well, Chinese dissidents and others critical of the CCP would wish him to do so, but he will have none of it.
I grieve for the persecuted in China. But change that comes slowly is more likely to last. Mao showed us, again and again, that revolution leads only to death and anarchy. I believe Mo Yan has seen enough of Mao’s work to prefer gradual change. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
– yamabuki Zhou

December 20, 2012 @ 4:55 am | Comment

I don’t necessarily disagree with you, Yamabuki, and wonder whether I might not do the same if I were in Mo’s shoes. He grew up in awful conditions and rose to the top by hard work coupled with immense talent. How far should he go in criticizing the government and risk all he’s achieved. A difficult question.

December 20, 2012 @ 4:58 am | Comment

I’m sure with all the genuine, selfless concern you all (and all other Westerners) show to China, everything will be just fine in 50 years.

Something akin to the staggering successes your infinite compassion have given rise to in Africa. And the Middle East. And South Asia.

Even a river of crocodile tears can’t grow a single bag of grain to feed any of their children. It must be the fat content.

December 20, 2012 @ 9:12 am | Comment

I’m sure with all the genuine, selfless concern you all (and all other Westerners) show to China, everything will be just fine in 50 years

Ferin, if you’re just going to lash out it will become very tiresome. Where does your anger come from?

December 20, 2012 @ 9:56 am | Comment

I think Clark over-extends with his analysis of what Mo said. I think it’s reasonable that an 8 year old might be bewildered by the CCP propaganda display, but I don’t think an 8 year old is capable of perceiving anything to be in service of a conformist ideology. If Mo is reflecting on his situation as that 8 year old, he might be bewildered and surprised by the forced ties between him and Liu, but I don’t think he’s disavowing the concept of rights altogether. Like that 8 year old, he probably is just wishing for the circus to end.

Mo seems like a geriatric version of Han Han. The odd jab here and there, clever tip-toeing on more sensitive issues, criticism in areas where there is general consensus, and never crossing the red lines.

December 20, 2012 @ 10:10 am | Comment

If he is just simply conforming, he joins the majority of human beings who, when faced with a choice between an apparently secure future and the unknown, chooses the former.

December 20, 2012 @ 11:05 am | Comment

I would agree, and as I said above, I’d have a hard time if I were faced with having to make the same decision.

December 20, 2012 @ 11:07 am | Comment

CM,’Something akin to the staggering successes your infinite compassion have given rise to in Africa. And the Middle East. And South Asia.’

So modern day Westerners and their ‘infinite compassion’ are responsible for the current state of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia? You’re not seriously one of these people who believe that ‘When [If] China Rules the World’ things will be any different, are you?

December 20, 2012 @ 11:11 am | Comment

Ironically, if Mo was a former part-time light-weight shit-disturber, those days are over. The CCP might tolerate a relatively anonymous part time shit disturber, but they’re going to have a short leash with the new face of Chinese soft power, if that’s what Mo is to become. And much like his linkage to Liu, that association with Chinese soft power (an oxymoron if there every was one) might not be one he covets, but it’s his nonetheless.

December 20, 2012 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

Too early to tell what Mo is going to do – and to write – in future. His comments concerning Liu Xiaobo would suggest that there is quite a gulf between CCP practice and the CCP’s rather decorative function owners in the world of art and culture. It doesn’t even matter greatly if he meant what he said, or if he acted under peer pressure. Either way, there are ethical standards which are fundamentally at odds with the way the CCP is exercising power.

They say that old people won’t change their minds easily. But who knows “Don’t Speak’s” mind? Besides, one might compare old people to stable weather conditions. Slow changes may be more profound than quick ones.

December 20, 2012 @ 2:15 pm | Comment

Xilin
So modern day Westerners and their ‘infinite compassion’ are responsible for the current state of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia? You’re not seriously one of these people who believe that ‘When [If] China Rules the World’ things will be any different, are you?

For the Middle East? Absolutely. Africa? Partially. South Asia? Quite a lot.

And yes, the world will be much, much better as the West declines and China gains influence. Even as we speak African nations with strong economic ties to China are booming.

December 20, 2012 @ 4:32 pm | Comment

4. t_co, I’d like it if you could make a more productive criticism if you have one. That kind of comment is beneath you.

Fair enough.

I’m not sure why AE Clark’s arguments are beautifully crafted or thought provoking. Rather, they seemed fairly clumsy and childish to me.

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.

How is the unnamed situation none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today? Did Mo ever imply that himself, or is AE just guessing?

Second, how does a refusal to feel distress or outrage appear to be “an extraordinary statement” that requires comparison with positions that CPC “apologists” maintain? This is a combination of two logical flaws in one badly worded argument–a classic non sequitur AND association fallacy.

The final issue with AE Clark’s piece is that it is essentially a long-winded hit piece on Mo. AE Clark ascribes Mo to be an apologist for the CCP, and hence undeserving of any sort of soft-power recognition except the barest minimum possible grudgingly bestowed as a consequence of the Nobel Prize–but is clever enough, of course, not to call for direct revocation of that prize, as that would expose the nature inherent in AE Clark’s hit piece for all to see.

I would have a lot more respect for the beauty or thought-provoking nature of what AE Clark is trying to say if he just came out and said it, rather than simply cloaking it in half-truths. It would certainly make his arguments a lot better crafted, Richard.

December 20, 2012 @ 6:35 pm | Comment

In my case, I would be more interested in Clark’s piece if he could think outside his own society and zeitgeist. That’s, after all, what a lot of foreign observers are expecting of Mo Yan.

December 21, 2012 @ 12:01 am | Comment

What’s outside Mo’s own society and zeitgeist, Wukailong?

December 21, 2012 @ 12:35 am | Comment

I wasn’t specifically talking about Mo but Clarke, since I wanted to turn the discussion around a little bit. This reminds me a bit about the TV series Twin Peaks, where Leo has just been shot and the police are there investigating the case. One of the policemen keep mentioning Leo’s beautiful wife, Shelley, and the FBI agent in charge of the case says: “Stop thinking about Shelley… for a while.” In the same sense: stop thinking about China… for a while – and turn to the author of the original piece, A.E. Clark.

But I’ll answer the question about Mo first. What is outside Mo’s society and zeitgeist? Well, the idea that political reform is needed, that the current “Chinese model” is not going to look that great forever, and it’s time to move past the typical arguments for the one-party system.

In Arthur’s case, I would say the following: what do you think it looks like from Mo’s point of view? Can you accept the idea that at least some of the human rights or criticism of the one-party state from Western sources look hypocritical, even is hypocritical? Can it even be that someone who experienced a major part of the CR has become cynical and disillusioned to a point you’re not aware of?

I’ve found a lot of people on both sides tend to believe that the other side has been made to believe their viewpoints by propaganda, whereas “we” do not. If we can get outside that kind of viewpoint and see through our common myths, then we can transcend the society and zeitgeist we’re living in.

December 21, 2012 @ 2:36 am | Comment

CM, my point was that I don’t think modern day Westerners can or should be held accountable for events which happened before they were born.

‘And yes, the world will be much, much better as the West declines and China gains influence. Even as we speak African nations with strong economic ties to China are booming.’

Previous world powers have brought economic growth to other nations; it’s what they do after that which is the crux of my question. What makes you think that China will behave differently from other previous world powers when faced with essentially asymetrical power relations? Throughout history, nations and peoples with extremely diverse cultural and historical backgrounds have all behaved in a remarkably similar fashion when they became dominant world powers. What makes you so sure that China will be different?

December 21, 2012 @ 8:59 am | Comment

@WKL,

‘I’ve found a lot of people on both sides tend to believe that the other side has been made to believe their viewpoints by propaganda, whereas “we” do not. If we can get outside that kind of viewpoint and see through our common myths, then we can transcend the society and zeitgeist we’re living in.’

Completely agree. It’s like saying, ‘If you agree with me, great. But if you dont, you have been brainwashed.’ Sentiments like these are always to be heard on both sides of the debate.

That being said, I don’t think we can ever truly ‘transcend’ or act completely free from our own cultural and social backgrounds. Our actions are always affected by our place in history.

December 21, 2012 @ 9:12 am | Comment

What is outside Mo’s society and zeitgeist? Well, the idea that political reform is needed, …

How can you know that the points you mention are outside Mo’s society and zeitgeist, Wukailong?

December 21, 2012 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

@JR: I think anyone who’s lived in a society for a certain amount of time and is from another culture/society can see certain facets of a society more clearly than its citizens – 旁观者清 – but if zeitgeist is seen to be shared around the world, maybe not. Perhaps my musings are just a part of the zeitgeist in the West that I haven’t transcended, who knows.

December 22, 2012 @ 12:09 am | Comment

Mo Yan is the son of Chinese peasants, and his worldview is bound to be different from that of the privileged liberal intellectual elite, be they red guards liberating the peasantry from ignorance by bringing the CR to the countryside during the 60s, or the Western human rights activists of today. I think his stoic cynicism toward his detractors is heartfelt, and not the result of fear or pandering to the Party establishment for materialistic gain. Rightly or wrongly, he should be given the right to not to shed tears without judgment. Political correctness of any kind is never a good idea, not in literature, not in art, and not in any kind of meaningful exchange of ideas.

December 22, 2012 @ 8:09 am | Comment

Xilin
CM, my point was that I don’t think modern day Westerners can or should be held accountable for events which happened before they were born.

Of course, so I am judging Westerners who weren’t alive while America was propping up brutal dictatorships in Egypt or invaded Iraq on a whim.

Sure, democratic evangelists may have the wherewithal of 9 year olds at best (or infants, if we’re talking about America’s three-decade long support of Mubarak), but I don’t believe such a designation matches with their chronological age.

December 22, 2012 @ 9:31 am | Comment

Xilin
Previous world powers have brought economic growth to other nations; it’s what they do after that which is the crux of my question.

No, they haven’t. Any time a European colonial (or Islamic imperial, etc) power has brought “economic growth” to a polity it was only to serve their own interests. The growth in Africa is far better distributed and they are in a position to make decisions based solely in their self-interest. Perhaps you mean no harm but to compare China’s benign involvement to European colonialism suggests you have no idea exactly how barbarously they were treated by the Germans, Dutch, Belgians, English, French, etc.

What makes you think that China will behave differently from other previous world powers when faced with essentially asymetrical power relations?

China WAS a previous world power, and in the case where we argue against this (that is, no such thing as “world power” existed in pre-industrial times), only European nations have set precedent. China is in no way like European powers and never has been, in such a way that is good for everyone else.

Throughout history, nations and peoples with extremely diverse cultural and historical backgrounds have all behaved in a remarkably similar fashion when they became dominant world powers. What makes you so sure that China will be different?

Except China was the world’s dominant power for varying stints adding up to thousands of years, and they were very rarely belligerent or dangerous unless 1) divided 2) ruled by outsiders.

December 22, 2012 @ 9:36 am | Comment

How come only Western human rights activist get to be liberal, intellectual elites? You got a problem with non-Western human rights activists, schtickyrice?

December 22, 2012 @ 10:07 am | Comment

Coathanger Lapdogsbody, lapdogs do not count. You have to be partially human to be counted as a liberal intellectual elitist.

December 22, 2012 @ 10:14 am | Comment

How come only Western human rights activist get to be liberal, intellectual elites? You got a problem with non-Western human rights activists, schtickyrice?

I think stickyrice was referring to Chinese liberal, intellectual elites in his discourse.

December 22, 2012 @ 10:38 am | Comment

You have to be partially human to be counted as a liberal intellectual elitist.

Then you and I are both in the cheap seats, Merp.

P.S. Comma after “liberal”.

December 22, 2012 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

@CM

‘No, they haven’t. Any time a European colonial (or Islamic imperial, etc) power has brought “economic growth” to a polity it was only to serve their own interests.’

Whatever the aim, this is still economic growth. Of course they were aimed at serving their own interests. Do Chinese ventures in Africa not serve their own interests? Do they not make a profit? Do they not make more of a profit than the African nations in which they operate? And no, I’m not equating Chinese ventures in Africa with those of the European powers.

When I say that previous powers have behaved in a remarkably similar fashion, I mean that first comes trade, then military forces to protect financial interests and growing numbers of citizens overseas, then aggressive promotion of one’s culture, religion, language, form of governance etc. Besides countless wars and the irrevocable destruction of indigenous cultures, history has shown this to be a very effective model for promoting one’s own culture and people. This has happened on global, regional and domestic scales throughout history. Why won’t China follow this model?

The European powers plundered and killed in Africa on a tragic scale. Before them, the Arabs plundered and killed. Before them, the African nations plundered and killed each other. Simplistic, but for all the cultural trappings, I think human beings behave in a remarkably similar fashion.

China went through periods of expansionism, subjugated and colonised other nations, promoted Chinese culture and religion, and fought wars just like other powers. China expanded as much as it could with the main challenge and focus always being to maintain national stability. I think it was this that placed limits on Chinese expansionism.

If it wasn’t this, then what was it? What is it about Chinese culture or the Chinese people which, in your view, will prevent the China of the future from following the model described above? If there is something unique about Chinese culture or the Chinese people, then one, or both, are indeed morally superior to all the other cultures and peoples around the world that have pursued expansionist ambitions.

December 22, 2012 @ 4:16 pm | Comment

Xilin
Whatever the aim, this is still economic growth.

Economic growth can go on without any benefit to the overwhelming majority of people. Natural disasters and wars likewise create “economic growth”.

When I say that previous powers have behaved in a remarkably similar fashion, I mean that first comes trade, then military forces to protect financial interests and growing numbers of citizens overseas, then aggressive promotion of one’s culture, religion, language, form of governance etc.

By what law of history are you going on? China was in a position of overwhelming power in the 1500s and yet did not do anything of the sort. Likewise during the Han in the Western regions. The list of examples goes on and on.

Simplistic, but for all the cultural trappings, I think human beings behave in a remarkably similar fashion.

China is one of very few exceptions.

China went through periods of expansionism, subjugated and colonised other nations, promoted Chinese culture and religion, and fought wars just like other powers. China expanded as much as it could with the main challenge and focus always being to maintain national stability. I think it was this that placed limits on Chinese expansionism.

First, China’s periods of expansionism were relatively mild compared with both what they were capable of, and especially in light of the external pressures they faced to expand. Second, they never colonized other nations. People from China may have moved on their own to other regions, but “colonize” and “nation” really do not fit into this rubric. In that case Chinese Americans are “colonizing” America. Third, I am not aware of any attempts by any Chinese polity to force its culture on other peoples. Chinese culture was largely spread to its neighbors through natural diffusion and the occasional monks and visits from foreigners, as well as the “colonization” process where private individuals would up and leave to settle somewhere else, against cultural norm and official approval.

If there is something unique about Chinese culture or the Chinese people, then one, or both, are indeed morally superior to all the other cultures and peoples around the world that have pursued expansionist ambitions.

Chinese people have the lowest crime rates in the world. This is undeniable and what you take from it is up to you. Likewise, every single representative sample of Chinese people in any developed polity yields the best educated people in the region. Chinese Americans, Chinese British, Chinese Australians, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Shanghainese are all on the very top of their respective regional/national educational rankings. More educated people are less virulently jingoistic, and America’s huge underclass of semi-literate dullards naturally predisposes Americans to blind dogma and militarism. Likewise, most truly Confucian nations are generally not known for adventurism. Even though South Korea, Taiwan and even Singapore could easily bully Southeast Asian states, they don’t do it. A European derived nation in the same position would undoubtedly be (at the least) raping their financial markets. Westerners are simply more prone to sociopathic, rent-seeking, evil behavior.

December 22, 2012 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

“Perhaps my musings are just a part of the zeitgeist in the West that I haven’t transcended, who knows”

I think that manners differ to quite a degree, Wukailong, but there is a zeitgeist which is quite universal, in the globalized world. One of its characteristics is that it is more diverse than regional ones in the past (which had their commonalities all the same). I’m not trying to discern now if ideas are more diverse now, or if they were more diverse several thousand years ago. They seem to reach further down through social classes now, though.

My point is this: I see no use in a “struggle for Mo Yan’s heart and soul”. I don’t condemn him for his compromises – besides, he’s explained his reasons for compromising, in a pretty sober and practical way. He’s probably struggling himself. And it’s too early to know which part of the zeitgeist is his. His works seem to contain lots of autobiographical material – but it would be a mistake to equate an author and his works.

December 22, 2012 @ 5:20 pm | Comment

@JR: Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word zeitgeist since the discussion went in a completely different direction than what I meant, but I agree with your point about struggling about Mo Yan’s heart and soul. Having said that, though, after the dust has settled on his win, I’m starting to doubt that he was the most suitable Chinese author for the prize – then again, that’s a different discussion that might take very long to settle.

December 23, 2012 @ 3:05 am | Comment

@Atticus and t_co

Yes, for better or for worse, the liberal intellectual elite are found all over the world, east and west. Their impact on China over the years has largely been disappointing. Things will only change for the better when the majority peasantry become more educated and assertive regarding their rights. This is already starting to happen with the second generation of migrant workers and the impending labour shortage. There is nothing exceptional or Chinese about any of this, just plain demographics at work, in any society.

December 23, 2012 @ 3:05 am | Comment

Yes, for better or for worse, the liberal intellectual elite are found all over the world, east and west. Their impact on China over the years has largely been disappointing. Things will only change for the better when the majority peasantry become more educated and assertive regarding their rights. This is already starting to happen with the second generation of migrant workers and the impending labour shortage. There is nothing exceptional or Chinese about any of this, just plain demographics at work, in any society.

Well, disappointing… relative to what? I would say most political ideologies and ideologists have had a disappointing impact in China, from the Prussian reformism of Liang Qichao through the Republicanism of the early KMT through Leninism through Maoist mass movements. It was only after Deng decided to drop all ideologies and pick policies on a pragmatic basis that China really found a system that worked.

Indeed, when compared to earlier ideologies, liberalism never really got a chance to flourish in China, as it was snuffed out by Yuan Shikai in 1916. Give it a chance. IMHO, a working-class endorsement of liberal ideologies–limited, decentralized, participatory, and flexible government, rule of law, and a strong belief in natural rights–is the best hope for China.

December 23, 2012 @ 5:10 am | Comment

The challenge is how to get there from the current set of political values without creating a lurch towards fascism, populism, or theocracy, or (god forbid) a mix of all three (e.g. the Taiping Rebellion).

China shouldn’t seek to emulate the political systems of the West–China needs to push the game forward and find ways to build a system better than those overseas. There is no reason why China can’t have a political system the rest of the world envies–there are only excuses (and interest groups).

December 23, 2012 @ 5:12 am | Comment

@t_co

Perhaps disappointing is the wrong word to use…no liberal intelligentsia, domestic or imported, can be expected to be the saviour of the down trodden majority in any society. Change needs to happen from the grassroots, and not imposed from above, no matter how well meaning. If anything, the Chinese liberal intelligentsia has been co-opted since 89 to join in the exploitation of the migrant workers for economic benefit. Until the peasantry is ready and able to demand their rights, nothing will change. They will not do so, however, until they have become migrant workers, or joined the rank of the working and emerging middle classes. This is the type of urbanization and ensuing social change that will unfold in the next few decades.

December 23, 2012 @ 6:06 am | Comment

A robust and engaging exchange of views between t_co and schtickyrice.

Appreciated.

December 23, 2012 @ 12:30 pm | Comment

@ Schticky

Good point. Mass buy-in for liberalism will require a xiaokang society.

December 23, 2012 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/opinion/stifling-progress-in-russia-and-china.html?_r=0

A tough but fair article on China/Russia from Richard’s alma mater. Worth a read.

December 24, 2012 @ 3:34 am | Comment

http://www.salon.com/2012/12/23/china%E2%80%99s_schizophrenic_sexual_revolution/

Excellent article to read as well.

December 24, 2012 @ 6:49 am | Comment

Richard, I sent you an email.

December 24, 2012 @ 8:59 am | Comment

@CR, apologies for the late reply.

‘Economic growth can go on without any benefit to the overwhelming majority of people.’

Absolutely, economic growth is not evenly distributed, but is it ever? Your point was that it did not bring economic growth.

‘Chinese people have the lowest crime rates in the world.’

According to what statistics? As we were discussing a propensity towards violence, what better statistic to look at than intentional homicide? In descending order, Hong Kong is in the top three at 0.2 per 100’000 inhabitants. Mainland China is down at 26, with a rate five times higher than that of Hong Kong. Taiwan is further down with a rate over three times higher than that of Mainland China. They are all predominantly ethnically and culturally Chinese regions, but with very different rates. If it was simply the superiority of the Chinese people or Chinese culture, how do you explain such different rates and why are not Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan the top three?

‘By what law of history are you going on? China was in a position of overwhelming power in the 1500s and yet did not do anything of the sort.’

I was making a generalization. I don’t present it as a ‘law of history’ but rather as a general model which fits a large number of examples of expansionism by peoples and cultures around the world. And I take it you chose the 1500s so as to not cover the invasion of Vietnam just a few decades earlier?

‘Second, they never colonized other nations.’

Taiwan during the Ming and Qing dynasties?

‘Third, I am not aware of any attempts by any Chinese polity to force its culture on other peoples.’

山地平地化。 Now you are aware of at least one.

‘Westerners are simply more prone to sociopathic, rent-seeking, evil behaviour.’

Going back to the crime statistics, do Western nations have the highest rates of intentional homicide? How many Western nations in that table inconveniently have lower rates than Mainland China? You’ll find cultures and peoples in every corner of the world with histories of expansion, conquest and bloody civil war. If there is any universal human trait, it is inhumanity.

‘This is undeniable and what you take from it is up to you.’

I’m asking you. I’d like you to tell me. Do you think Chinese culture and the Chinese people are in some way superior? I suppose you shy away from giving a direct answer because it would be difficult to reply in the affirmative and not sound like an echo of the imperialist powers of the past which you, I and most reasonable people rightly deplore.

December 24, 2012 @ 11:17 am | Comment

Xilin, I’ll get back to you.

t_co, thanks a lot for sharing that link; it sounds like a wonderful book that everyone interested in China should read. :)

December 24, 2012 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

Xilin
Absolutely, economic growth is not evenly distributed, but is it ever? Your point was that it did not bring economic growth.

No, I said specifically that countries with economic ties with China are booming. Or flourishing. Being colonized by extractive Western parasites is not booming. I would not characterize the British Raj with the same word.

According to what statistics?

That are income/wealth adjusted. You also forgot Singapore and the huge Chinese diaspora numbering 60 million. Almost half if not more of people executed for murder in Singapore are non-Chinese.

And I take it you chose the 1500s so as to not cover the invasion of Vietnam just a few decades earlier?

China had tributary obligations to the preceding dynasty in Vietnam. It’s not exactly an “invasion”.

Taiwan during the Ming and Qing dynasties?

To the contrary, the Qing court made efforts to constrain the movement of people onto Taiwan, and passed countless laws to keep the indigenous Taiwanese from being overrun. Chinese men were strictly forbidden to take aborigine wives on top of that, land was leased from the natives (instead of simply stolen, as in the case of all European settlement) and they repeatedly drew borders that Chinese could not cross. Of course that’s not enough to overcome natural population pressures.

Now you are aware of at least one.

I responded in the context of your comment – implying that China aggressively pushed its culture onto peoples outside of its borders. Once Taiwan was ‘taken’ (400 years ago more like it) the policy you mention is instead an internal issue – not that it was particularly devastating, unlike Canada, Australia and the US who collectively are seeing the extinction of hundreds of languages.

How many Western nations in that table inconveniently have lower rates than Mainland China?

All of them together add up to fewer than maybe 200 million people, so I’m not seeing the point of what you’re saying. Second, China is a developing nation. China excluded, the trend is for poor nations to have HIGHER crime rates, not lower. See Russia for how a large, less wealthy nation of European extraction does in terms of crime.

Do you think Chinese culture and the Chinese people are in some way superior?

Do you really think that greed, bloodlust and religious/racial hatred are marks of inferiority in this current world where inhumanity, as you put it, is the only universal trait?

December 24, 2012 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

“Do you think Chinese culture and the Chinese people are in some way superior?”

Of course that is true!

Every ethnic group believes that of their own ethnicity, and takes pride in the superior ways of their own. Writers of Chinese literature (like Mo Yan) are born and raised with the realization of that superiority, and the writing reflects such.

December 26, 2012 @ 3:56 am | Comment

I’m closing this thread. If you still have something to say please use the new open thread. Thanks.

December 26, 2012 @ 4:07 am | Comment

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