Nobel Prize in Literature and China

By He Qinglian on October 12, 2012.

As the people began to feel fed up with the topics of the 18th CPC National Party Congress and Bo Xilai, the news of Nobel Prize in Literature came at a perfect timing, all Chinese media are thrilled by the result. Because of the various angles, the multifarious choices of words reflected the position of the Chinese government and the varying reactions of people from all walks of lives. These attitudes overshadowed the reasons Mo Yan won this prize. 

A gift to the 18th Party Congress 

Without doubt, the news of Mo Yan being awarded the prize is a joyful one to the CPC. Why? That’s because, in the eyes of the Chinese government, literature and arts should never be decoupled from politics. If a vice-chairman of the National Writers Association, an institute managed by the United Front Work Department of CPC Central Committee, a writer who stays in alignment with the CPC on political stance receives the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Chinese government would surely interpret it as an international acceptance and recognition of the Chinese political culture. 

For the CPC Central Committee, there is nothing more important now than this acceptance. As domestically, all sorts of social conflicts are surfacing, Hu Jintao has been agonized by the various forms of political infighting before the 18th Party Congress. Although the theme of “the golden decade” has been decided, its publicity is weak [because of the lack of content]. Since last year, the CPC has found itself caught in “splendid isolation” for many reasons. Right at a time like this, Mo Yan is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor that adds significant weight to Hu's “golden decade”. The significance of the award, as people knew, is that before Jiang Zemin retired he had two major achievements during his 13 years in power: the successful Olympic bid and the accession to the WTO. With this background, it is understandable that the Publicity Department of China would undoubtedly assign multiple political meanings to Mo Yan's award in accordance with current political needs. This manipulation is not what Mo Yan could control and to which the online public opinion could exert little influence.

Questions about Mo's political morality on Weibo

Before the award winner was officially announced, China's Weibo circle and the Chinese community on Twitter have already been boiling. When a gaming website ranked Mo the first place in the quiz game 'who'd be awarded the prize', some people had already said that, if Mo won the Nobel Prize, three things about him would be spread across the international community. All three are about Mo and Chinese politics: one, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo Yan and Chinese government officials walked out in protest of Dai Qing, Bei Ling, Xu Xing and other dissident writers attending the Fair; two, he declined to comment on Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; three, he hand-copied Mao Zedong's totalitarian text, “Speeches of Mao Zedong at Yan'an Forums on Arts and Literature (Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art)”.

The Chinese people have always believed that the Nobel prizes take into account chiefly the pursuit of universal values, and the advocacy of the concept of human rights and democracy, and so many people think that Mo Yan's political attitude would mean he could not possibly win. As a result, after they learned that Mo Yan had been awarded, various remarks emerged on Weibo. Those comments basically questioned the political morality of Mo Yan. Take the following Weibo comment for example: "Who's Who: Mo Yan, known as a copier, zips his mouth shut and speaks to praise, his English name: 'shut up'.

Another comment ridiculed Mo: "Q: Who is the next President? A: Jinping (comments forbidden)! Q: Who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature? A: Mo Yan (Not allowed to say)!"

My take on Mo's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature

Because of Mo Yan's political attitude, people have paid less attention to the reasons of his winning the award, the reasons expressed by the Nobel Prize in Literature Committee: "Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition." 

The last thing to dawn on the minds of the judges of the Nobel Prize in Literature was that the implications of the award are highly politicized in China. The judges would of course stress that the prize embodies some values, but they may not realize the fictions Mo Yan writes and how he acts represents respectively the divergent behaviors and values that are prevalent among writers in China. It is true that fictions by Mo Yan show caring of life and he uses the expression style of magic realism to reflect the various kinds of ugliness in the history and the reality of China. Yet it is also true that Mo's political attitude is one that is submissive to those in power. This Chinese style of complex survival wisdom is beyond the cognitive abilities of the elderly Swedish judges. 

In the morning of October 11, I was just making a guest appearance on a TV program, the topic of which was Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize. The first question the program host asked was if I was surprised by Mo Yan's winning the Nobel Prize? The answer I gave was “no”, for three reasons: 

First, judging from the preferences of the Nobel judges, one could tell that they like the expression style of magic realism; and it has been quite a while since the European literary circle and the movie makers showed the tendency of pursuing bizarreness. They appreciate in particular the exotic bizarreness expressed in films and literary works in developing countries. Mo Yan's works happened to meet this aesthetic preference of the judges in both ways. From Sandalwood Death, Mo Yan has become increasingly adept at using this expression means to create his literary works. 

Second, the Nobel Prize in Literature is a worldwide award, yet there have not been many Oriental Laureates—only four of them so far: India's Rabindranath Tagore (winner in 1913), Japan's Yasunari Kawabata (1968), Kenzaburo Oe (1994), and Israel's Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966).

China complained that the Royal Swedish Academy “is taking a hostile stance against the Chinese people” when Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Out of various considerations to balance things, it would now be the time a Chinese writer is chosen to be given the award. 

Third, Mo Yan has an advantage that few other Chinese writers share. His works have been translated into many languages. In particular, his works are regularly translated into English and Swedish and get new lives in the process. Howard Goldblatt, the English translator of Mo Yan's novels, is very competent. He understands thoroughly Mo Yan's works and produces vivid translation that help showcasing Mo Yan's unique literary kingdom to Westerners, making his works very easy for the Nobel judges to read and comment. 

The Chinese people should dispel the moral charm of Nobel Prizes
As mentioned earlier, the anger of the Chinese netizens was mainly due the excessive moral imagination they placed upon Nobel Prizes. Literature laureates from other countries are known to have ethical shortcomings, which the Chinese people are not quite aware. Yet when it comes to the moral issues of fellow Chinese, the darkness of Chinese politics and the flaws of the literary circle, they knew these all too well, and would often view and critique them together. Under this circumstance, Mo Yan, or any other writers who receive this award, would be subject to all kinds of criticism. And Mo Yan, with his understanding of Chinese politics and culture, should know that, living in today's China, when he is awarded the bright red rose of Nobel Prize, his attitude and position would inevitably mean he's also getting some pricks. This is the fate of Mo Yan. 

I think that Mo Yan's winning of the Nobel Prize was a vivid lesson for the Chinese people to cure the charm Nobel prizes has on them. When it comes to understanding the international community, both the Chinese government and the people, have biases. For example, the Chinese government propagandizes Western forces as trying in vain to implement the peaceful evolution in China; the Chinese people either believe in this propaganda of the government or have too high an expectation on the international community, which is complex and its members have varying stances. This, coupled with the exemplary role of two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi (even though the two, especially the Dalai Lama, are already the leader of their people before they were awarded the Prize), results in the Chinese people's yearning for a Nobel Laureate or two, who could act as political leaders that the Chinese people need and assume the responsibility of leading China onto the path of democratization. Now that Nobel Laureates could not meet the political demand of the Chinese people, they are disappointed in different degrees. With this sense of disappointment, it is natural that they would make all kinds of remarks.

Instead of seeing these remarks as products of the Chinese infighting and jealousy, Western societies might as well view them as the wishes of the Chinese people that, when their country's democratization process is stuck, the international community could give a hand and truly offer help to them.