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.


Mo Yan

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.