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.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

Excellent link, thanks Slim.

October 16, 2012 @ 12:38 am | Comment

Here’s a link to piece from about Mo Yan’s Yunnan connection. It discusses the fact “Big Breast and Wide Hips” was first published as a serial in a Yunnan based magazine because no one else would publish it.

October 16, 2012 @ 1:15 am | Comment

“China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt”

What’s this 2,000 year business? Is this predicate intended to give gravitas to O’Kane’s claim?

Name me twenty (1 every 100 years) books evenly spread across this alleged 2,000 years. O’Kane couldn’t if he tried, and neither could the collective chatterati on this site.

Can’t be done, even if we threw in a truckload of Officialdom Fiction.

October 16, 2012 @ 4:17 am | Comment

Whatever you do, don’t begin with Shifu, You’ll do Anything for a Laugh. It will shut down interest in him immediately. The stronger criticism of Mo Yan has nothing at all to do with his political position: it’s that in his work extreme poverty appears nearly gratuitous. An uninsightful description of a piece of coal as an appetizing morsel is “symbolic” in all the wrong ways.

October 16, 2012 @ 9:17 am | Comment

@ King Tubby

You said (#4) ““China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt”

What’s this 2,000 year business? Is this predicate intended to give gravitas to O’Kane’s claim?

Name me twenty (1 every 100 years) books evenly spread across this alleged 2,000 years. O’Kane couldn’t if he tried, and neither could the collective chatterati on this site.

Can’t be done, even if we threw in a truckload of Officialdom Fiction.”

That is a ridiculous statement. With respect, you come across as a prejudiced ignoramus. Pathetic.

October 17, 2012 @ 2:58 am | Comment

I am agreeing with Jer on this one. KT sometimes you come across as a borderline troll.

October 17, 2012 @ 3:31 am | Comment

@Jer. Prejudiced …. sure. Ignoramus… Here I take respectful exception, since that’s libelous.

Borderline/complete troll? Just because I don’t fall into politically correct line and pay homage to past dynastic scribblings only of interest to a few bilingual westerners. A bit like Chinese opera. A few western aficionados, but sensibly rejected wholesale by the Chinese themselves.

The only universalist text among the whole wiki listing in Sun Tzu.

So I will be a complete troll and claim that Chinese culture does not exist in calendrical time. Rather, it exists within repetitive cycles of ahistorical time. And I’m not talking about the economy here, but ways of shaping and organising experience (language), structures of governance and the replacement of one dynasty by another over its glorious 5,000 years of “history”.

October 17, 2012 @ 4:34 am | Comment


I think something was missing in the translation of Mo Yan’s book Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳)

These four characters appear in the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings Sutra (八大人覺經).

The verse reads:
Which ChungTai Temple translated as:
The Second Realization: Excessive desire is suffering. Birth, death, and weariness in life / All originate from greed and desires. / Desiring less, being wu-wei, / Body and mind are at ease and free.

I think 生死疲勞從貪欲起 should be read as a sentence, and considering the age (疲勞 is not a compound here I feel, 貪欲 I believe is one) should be translated as “Birth, death, weariness and fatigue all arise from greed [and avarice].”

I think if Mo Yan’s title is read with that context in mind, and I think it can be (the Chinese literary tradition often asks its readers to complete a sentence based on their literary knowledge), it would be a pretty clear critique of *something*.

October 17, 2012 @ 5:23 am | Comment

To clarify, I mean something is missing in the translation of the *title,* not the book itself. I haven’t read the book in any language.

October 17, 2012 @ 5:26 am | Comment

@A-Gu – Howard Goldblatt is a top-notch translator, and Mo Yan would have checked over the translation of the title at least. The words written most likely reflect the intent of the author. Perhaps something is ‘missing’, but if it is it is only ‘missing’ in the sense that “That is the question” is missing from the title of “To be or not to be” (the English literary tradition often asks its readers to complete a sentence based on their literary knowledge).

October 17, 2012 @ 6:07 am | Comment

Plus, Richard, I have to say I think KT’s point is fair enough. Claiming 2000 years of literature is a bit of a stretch when what is being talked about is styles and subjects utterly dissociated from each other in a country totally transformed.

October 17, 2012 @ 6:12 am | Comment

It’s KT’s tone that gets to me sometimes, sorry if I over-reacted. I happen to trust Brendan’s assessment of Chinese literature over anyone else’s (and I admit I am not an expert in ancient Chinese literature).

October 17, 2012 @ 7:26 am | Comment

No comment on those 2000 years, but as for KT‘s tone, I’d say he’s unpredictable, sometimes spectacular, but neither borderline, nor troll. In fact, his comments make up about a third of all comments on my blog (because only few people comment there). I disagree with many of them, I don’t understand all of them, but I enjoy most of them.

October 17, 2012 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

JR, I enjoy them too, usually, and have never deleted a single one, but sometimes I find KT’s tone a little abrasive. But that’s okay.

October 18, 2012 @ 1:54 am | Comment

I’m guessing any country with a history of a written language has about 2000+ years of literature under it’s belt. Here’s a snippet in Wiki on the Epic of Gilgamesh

“Many distinct sources exist from over a 2,000-year timeframe. The old Sumerian poems, followed by a later Akkadian version, are the chief sources for modern translations, with the Sumerian version mainly used to fill in lacunae in the Akkadian version.”

To say “…a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt…” is basically fluff, meaningless. The fact that China, according to the article, feels that it deserves a higher profile is just a description of petulance – something the china-basher-watchers are waiting to pounce on but appear to have missed. Maybe they’re not smart enough to have picked up on the slur.

October 18, 2012 @ 4:11 am | Comment

Good literature is produced by people who feel strongly about something.

Generally people feel strongest about injustice, and most of the great literature in the world is inspired by this subject either directly or indirectly.

Bad news if you’re the CCP. Very few authors become famous by presenting their own societies in a good light.

October 18, 2012 @ 9:48 am | Comment

Thanks for the information Gil!

October 18, 2012 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Claiming 2000 years of literature is a bit of a stretch when what is being talked about is styles and subjects utterly dissociated from each other in a country totally transformed.

I think we would need a lot of material to judge this, Foarp. I appreciate KT‘s comments not least because of their lack of political correctness, but I think I disagree with both of you when it comes to Chinese literature.

I believe judgment is also a matter of personal background. Both of you, Foarp and KT, are Her Majesty‘s subjects. (Yes, KT, this was my bit of political correctness – choke on it.) Change was well-managed, and therefore gradual enough to be less aware to it than in a succession of try and disaster. But British (and American, for that matter) continuity is a global exception, rather than a rule. You can live through many monarchies and republics (like the French did), and through many revolutions (like the Chinese did), or through several monarchies, republics and dictatorships (like Germany did), and you’ll usually find some continuity in history. Not to mention Japan, Korea, the Arab world, or the countries that emerged from former Yugoslavia.

China is a totalitarian country, and that’s now. But even totalitarian regimes rarely transform their countries to the degree they claim they do, or aspire to.

October 18, 2012 @ 7:09 pm | Comment

One point in case: Reading the Simplicius Simplicissimus spells hard work for me – it’s very different from our language and style today. Reading Robinson Crusoe is a cup of tea. There hasn’t been much change in the English language. Business letters would be another case in point. German letters have changed a lot. British letters haven’t.

October 18, 2012 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

You can, of course, argue that Cicero is part of “Italian Literature”, at least geographically or culturally. You can do that, but it would be a stretch, too – unless you are a blackshirt and need to explain why there’s no place for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

October 19, 2012 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

I agree that there is a habit of basing political claims on culture. Lots of PRC assertions are based on the assumption that Beijing were the legal successor of every fiefdom and every oracle bone that ever existed on Chinese soil (at least). That’s how the CCP tries to pocket literature, too. But I do believe that there has been continuity in literature. Bai hua spells change, but not abandonment. The Ming-dynasty novels, even if condemned by many contemporaries, were no abandonment. The Dream of the Red Chamber was no abandonment.

But continuity spells no political entitlement to a particular party. Rather, Chinese culture (or civilization) is a great part of human heritage. What I do not believe is that the Chinese state (i. e. the party) owns it. The CCP is not, as they put it themselves, a vigorous leader and developer of advanced Chinese culture. Most of what exists in this field exists despite, not because of the CCP.

Nobody owns Cicero either. But we can all read him, if we want, just as we have access to any Chinese author’s works.

October 19, 2012 @ 5:42 pm | Comment

“Chinese culture (or civilization) is a great part of human heritage.”

Of course. I’m not very busy with Chinese current affairs, civilization, etc.. But if I was a Chinese, the constant hullabaloo about “our thousands-of-years-of-culture” would embarass me. I mean, every Arab, Turk or European could make the same fuss about what he or she “has”. It’s the same cultural area around the Mediterranean, and the same roots. But there’s no need to wear that on ones sleeve. It’s simply there.

October 20, 2012 @ 3:11 am | Comment

Nothing wrong with your pov, Tai De, but it would leave papers and bloggers with very little to write about. Btw, we’ll never turn this thread into a literaturnaya gazeta, I’m afraid.

October 20, 2012 @ 6:20 pm | Comment

@ King Tubby

You wrote (#8): “Prejudiced …. sure. Ignoramus… Here I take respectful exception, since that’s libelous.”

I charged you with being an ignoramus because of the following claim (#4):

“Name me twenty (1 every 100 years) books evenly spread across this alleged 2,000 years. O’Kane couldn’t if he tried, and neither could the collective chatterati on this site… Can’t be done, even if we threw in a truckload of Officialdom Fiction.”

Who but a complete ignoramus could possibly believe such a gobsmackingly & obviously untrue statement?

In retrospect, however, & having looked at a few of your other posts, I realise that it’s more likely that you intended your claim simply as a wind-up, while knowing it all the while to be utter BS. In which case I’m happy to withdraw the word “ignoramus”. (Being only an occasional lurker on this site I am obviously not as familiar with your posting style as some of the others on here are.)

In case, however, you really do think that no-one here can name you one “book” for every 100 years of the last 2000 years, (approximately evenly spread), I’m pretty sure that I can oblige. I’m even more sure that Mr O’Kane could. But anyway, since when has that been a defining criterion for the existence of a literary tradition?

October 21, 2012 @ 6:39 am | Comment

@ jer. Your retraction is graciously accepted.
Okay, okay Sino lit is not my strong point, but I did do a nice piece on Serial Killers in China and Officialdom Fiction: Riders on the Sino Storm, so I’m not a totally empty vessel .

You are welcome to visit my site where you will note that my strengths relate to Asian surfing girls and Malian music/ethnography.
I’d like to see Mr O’Kane beat that combination.

Thanks for the link Richard which I visited before commenting.

I saw Bokane’s piece as a neat western bookend to the Beijing’s Mo Mania narrative, which has now gone into overdrive. Vials of dirt taken from his hometown are now going on sale across China.

Further more, I particularly dislike the magical realist genre.

October 21, 2012 @ 9:13 am | Comment

Speaking of Chinese literature, Royals Shakespeare Company casts Asians as dogs and maid in the Chinese classic play, “The Orphan of Zhao” while main characters are White.

October 22, 2012 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

Yeay for the subset of perpetually wounded overseas Chinese. If they don’t look good, you don’t look good.

October 22, 2012 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

Yes Jason, apparently that’s really what is happening . . . . or, people are complaining because only 3 east Asian actors are included in the cast of 17, with the rest being white/black/south Asian. This is, as is pointed out, not a race-specific production.

October 22, 2012 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

Re: my objection to magic realism.

“Mo’s work embodies the complexity of an artist symbiotically linked to an authoritarian system, despite his frequent claims of the separation of literary and political spheres. (An argument taken up by Pankaj Mishra in relation to Western writers) Mo was a child of the post-Mao literary thaw – a generation that embraced both traditional and avant-garde aesthetics. The shattering of sexual taboo in his novel Red Sorghum was typical of his “hallucinatory realism”.
But while Mo frequently focuses on China’s trouble, these were often criticisms of local exploitation and bureaucracy. His voice is aligned to a state strategy of apportioning blame away from the political centre.
The sinologist Julia Lovell has noticed that “hysterical realism”, the term coined by the literary critic James Wood to describe the chaotic language in some modern fiction, could be readily applied to Mo Yan. Instead of meaningfully engaging with moments of deep national trauma, whether the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution, Mo seeks refuge in a manic, ironic voice, that dances round open dissent.”

December 15, 2012 @ 4:47 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment