Mo Yan, pen name for Guan Moye (管谟业), is best known to Western readers for his 1987 novel Red Sorghum Clan, of which the Red Sorghum and Sorghum Wine volumes were later adapted for the film Red Sorghum. In 2012, Mo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.
Winning the Nobel Prize occasioned both support and criticism.
Firstly, it won warm welcome from the Chinese government immediately after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. The People’s Daily Online, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published on 11 October 2012: “Congratulations to Mo Yan for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature! It is the first time for a writer of Chinese nationality to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today is the day that Chinese writers have awaited for too long and that Chinese people have awaited for too long.”
The Chinese writer Ma Jian deplored Mo Yan’s lack of solidarity and commitment to other Chinese writers and intellectuals who were punished or detained in violation of their constitutionally protected freedom of expression. Several other Chinese dissidents such as Ye Du and Ai Weiwei also criticized him, as did 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Müller who called the decision a “catastrophe”. A specific criticism was that Mo hand-copied Mao Zedong’s influential Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the speech, which described the writer’s responsibility to place politics before art, These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Tiananmen protest in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation. Mo Yan not only agreed but has gone further than others to explain that the “Talks,” in their time, had “historical necessity” and “played a positive role.” He has also attracted criticism for his supposed good relationship with the Chinese Communist Party in general.
Anna Sun, an assistant professor of Sociology and Asian studies at Kenyon College, criticized Mo’s writing as coarse, predictable, and lacking in aesthetic conviction. “Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed,” she writes, but it is striking because “it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.” Charles Laughlin of the University of Virginia, however, accuses Sun of “piling up aesthetic objections to conceal ideological conflict,” comparing her characterization of Mo to the official China Writers Association’s characterization of Gao Xingjian as a mediocre writer when Gao won the Nobel Prize in 2000.
Perry Link, describing Mo Yan’s fiction and politics in the New York Review of Books, asked, “Does this writer deserve the prize?” Link commented that Chinese writers, whether “inside the system” or not, “all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” This “inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways.” Link’s main criticism was that Mo Yan “invoke(d) a kind of daft hilarity when treating ‘sensitive’ events” such as the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Link believed that the regime approved it because “this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve.” As Link pointed out, to treat sensitive topics as jokes might be better than banning them outright. Link compared Mo to Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, who was jailed for dissidence, whose moral choices were “highly unusual.” It would be wrong, Link concludes, “for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.”
Charles Laughlin, however, published an article called What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong on ChinaFile against Link’s argument. As a response to Link’s criticism that Mo Yan trivialized serious historical tragedies by using black humor and what he called “daft hilarity”, Laughlin emphasized the distinction between documentary and art and literature: “art and literature, particularly since the traumas of the twentieth century, never simply document experience.” Laughlin argued that Mo Yan’s intended readers already know that “the Great Leap Forward led to a catastrophic famine, and any artistic approach to historical trauma is inflected or refracted.” According to him, “Mo Yan writes about the period he writes about because they were traumatic, not because they were hilarious.”
Salman Rushdie called Mo Yan a “patsy” for refusing to sign a petition asking for Liu Xiaobo’s freedom. Pankaj Mishra saw an “unexamined assumption” lurking in the “western scorn” for these choices, namely that “Anglo-American writers” were not criticized for similarly apolitical attitudes.
In his Nobel Lecture, Mo Yan himself commented, “At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers.” He concluded that “for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.”
Another source of criticism was a perceived conflict of interest on the part of Göran Malmqvist, who is one of the members of the Swedish Academy. Malmqvist had translated several of Mo Yan’s works into Swedish and published some through his own publishing house. Mo had also written a laudatory preface to one of Malmqvist’s own books, and been a close friend of Malmqvist’s wife for 15 years. The Nobel committee denied that this constituted a conflict of interest, and said that it would have been absurd for Malmqvist to recuse himself.
“Mo Yan” – meaning “don’t speak” in Chinese – is his pen name. Mo Yan has explained on occasion that the name comes from a warning from his father and mother not to speak his mind while outside, because of China’s revolutionary political situation from the 1950s, when he grew up.