There was, until Thursday, an embarrassingly empty space on this rising superpower’s list of achievements. No citizen of the People’s Republic of China – other than those in exile or in jail – had ever won a Nobel Prize.
So when Mo Yan, a 57-year-old from Shandong province who tells bawdy and edgy tales of life in rural China while staying within the political red lines, was named winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, the people who govern this nation of 1.3 billion could almost be heard exhaling with relief. It can no longer be said that the world’s second-largest economy has produced everything but a uniquely creative talent.
At a brief ceremony in Stockholm, the Nobel Prize committee praised Mr. Mo’s work for its “hallucinatory realism,” saying he “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.”
There have, of course, been a few previous Nobel laureates from China. But the ruling Communist Party reviled, rather than celebrated, those recipients.
Mr. Mo’s win was a reversal of that pattern. At last, Beijing was cheering the Nobel selection committee for choosing a Chinese writer it approves of. Critics, meanwhile, complained that the Nobel Prize had gone to a writer who – whatever his artistic talents – is a tool of a repressive regime.
“This is the first Chinese writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chinese writers have waited too long, the Chinese people have waited too long,” the official People’s Daily crowed shortly after the win was announced. The editorial deliberately ignored the fact Chinese-born Gao Xingjian won the same prize 11 years earlier for work he was forced to have published abroad.
It was also a sharply different response than jailed pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo got when he won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago. Then, the Chinese government snarled that the selection committee had become “a political instrument for some Western forces” and blocked online mention of Mr. Liu or the word “Nobel.”
This time, state media hopefully geared up the cheering section days before the official announcement, as soon as betting houses put Mr. Mo on a short list of potential winners with Japan’s Haruki Murakami and Canada’s Alice Munro.
While Mr. Mo’s work hardly paints a flattering portrait of China’s wobbly rise over the past six decades, he is unquestionably a product of the system. He joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976 and graduated eight years later from the PLA College of Literature and Arts. Though he has pronounced himself “disgusted” with much of the fiction produced under Communist rule, he’s a party member, and serves as vice-chairman of the official China Writers Association.
He has drawn fire for that from dissident Chinese writers, who accuse him of refusing to use his influence to defend their right to speak, and for publicly avoiding the topic of Mr. Liu’s Peace Prize. Mr. Mo has become increasingly controversial in recent years, first for boycotting a 2010 book fair in Frankfurt that included dissident Chinese writers, then for helping organize this year’s London Book Fair, which excluded the same voices.
He also helped transcribe, by hand, a speech Mao Zedong gave on culture and the arts, for a commemorative book.
“A writer who chanted ‘Hitler’ couldn't win the award, but a writer who chanted ‘Mao Zedong’ could,” said Yu Jie, a prominent author who fled China to the United States earlier this year after being detained and tortured after the publication of a book critical of Premier Wen Jiabao. “That shows the negligence of the West toward China’s human-rights issues. Mo Yan’s award is not a victory for literature but a victory for the Communist Party of China.”
Several prominent dissidents said they hoped Mr. Mo would use his new prominence to call for the release of Mr. Liu – who remains in prison with eight years remaining on a sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” with his writings – but said they had no expectation he would.
Mo Yan is actually the pen name – it means “Don’t Speak” – of Guan Moye, the son of a farming family from Gaomi Township in northeastern China. Gaomi became the setting of his most famous novels: Red Sorghum, published in 1987 and made into a critically acclaimed film directed by Zhang Yimou; Big Breasts and Wide Hips, written nine years later and winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize; and his most recent work, 2008’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. He writes affectionately of the big blue skies and green pastures of pre-revolutionary Gaomi, as well as its backward and tradition-bound people who are buffeted by the times they live in.