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.
His novels deal with Japan’s brutal Second World War occupation of China, and the cruelties inflicted by Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward and the bloody Cultural Revolution. They are often clear in their criticisms of what the Communist Party did to its own people in that era. But nothing is too directly said – Mr. Mo says he chose his pen name while still a soldier to remind himself to be restrained in voicing his opinions.
“I have nothing against the Communist Party,” one of Mr. Mo’s characters declares in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, “and I definitely have nothing against Chairman Mao. I’m not opposed to the People’s Commune or to collectivization. I just want to be left alone to work for myself.”
Speaking to an interviewer at this year’s London Book Fair, Mr. Mo said he thought having to deal with censorship helped him refine his craft. “In our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that [the writer does] not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation,” he said.
Peter Englund, the Nobel academy’s permanent secretary, said Mr. Mo had been contacted before the announcement. “He said he was overjoyed and scared.”
A committee known for rewarding dissidents
Rewarding writers sharply critical of the governing regimes of their native countries is a traditional specialty of the secretive committee that determines the Nobel Prize for Literature, with results that are often more controversial politically than they are in terms of literary taste.
Boris Pasternak, author of the worldwide bestseller Dr. Zhivago, was the first to feel the sting of victory when he won the prize at the height of the Cold War in 1958. Outraged Soviet authorities, who had already banned the novel in their country, forced him to decline it.
The Soviets were happy when the 1965 Nobel went to strict party-liner Mikhail Sholokhov, author of And Quiet Flows the Don, which is still regarded as a masterpiece of the otherwise discredited, Communist-approved genre of social realism.
But satisfaction turned to fury in 1970 when the committee gave its nod to arch-dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, widely celebrated in the West for his anti-Communist activism. Mr. Solzhenitsyn later spiced the controversy by joining a growing body of opinion claiming that Mr. Sholokhov had plagiarized his Stalinist masterpiece. (Subsequent research has discounted the suspicion.)
Criticism was fierce when the 1971 literary award went to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who had written paeans in praise of Joseph Stalin in his youth and remained a devoted Communist, ultimately serving as a diplomat in the short-lived government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He died shortly after the coup that toppled Mr. Allende, and Chilean authorities are still investigating reports he had been poisoned by supporters of the right-wing junta that seized power.
The committee extended its embrace of Soviet victims in 1980 by awarding the literature prize to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who had lived in exile since the Communist takeover and whose work was banned in Poland, appearing only in roughly printed underground editions. The award coincided with the Gdansk uprising of the Solidarity movement – the first crack in the Iron Curtain.
In 1984, the committee repeated the gesture in Czechoslovakia, awarding 83-year-old poet Jaroslav Seifert, who had remained muzzled by authorities ever since denouncing Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. The award went unremarked in official Czech media and Mr. Seifert, unable to travel to accept his prize, died a year later.
The campaign continued in 1987 when Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky, who had been incarcerated in mental institutions and ultimately expelled from his homeland for “social parasitism,” won the 1987 award. “I am quite positive that a man who reads poetry is harder to prevail upon than one who doesn’t,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Another devoted Communist, Jose Saramago, was living in exile from his native Portugal when he won the prize in 1998, having been driven out of the country by repeated clashes with its government and the Catholic Church. When Mr. Saramago died two years ago, The New York Times eulogized him as a man “known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction.”