Mo Yan, According to You — Part Two

In the first part of this long post, I took a closer look at Mo Ya’s political choices and explained why many Chinese find him objectionable as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the end, I asked the question: If Mo Yan is such a critical writer, as many in the west believe (the Nobel Committee certainly does), why does the Party embrace him completely, feature him prominently internationally, and award him all the official literary prizes there are in China? Knowing that the Chinese government censors criticise harshly and consistently? Why? Here is my attempt to answer this question.

Just like the face of China has changed beyond recognition over the last 30 years, so has China’s literary scene. Even though the Chinese Writers Association is still under the control of the Party and writers still must carry out “assignments” from the Party now and then, in today’s China, it is decidedly unfashionable, and despicable, for writers to sing the Party’s praises as they did in Mao’s era. In the CWA, only the relics of the past would write like that and they look as ridiculous as seeing someone wearing a Mao suit on street today. If those who have some respectability at all have to do it, they would do so discreetly.

This is because such writings have long been rejected by readers. The Party knows it very well, and the writers know it even better. As a matter of fact, the withdrawal of encomiastic literature began as soon as China’s “reform and open-up” in late 1970s. You may still see a few books of this nature in government-run bookstores; during Party anniversaries and the National Day celebrations, you would see lavish performances on CCTV, but these are “assignments.” Even with a film like《建党伟业》(“the  Great Endeavor of Founding CCP” but deceptively translated into “Beginning of the Great Revival” ), the style has little in common with similar works in the past, and it takes discerning eyes to pierce through the fog. Of the most famous or best-selling literary authors, no one has succeeded for adulating the Party.

In our email exchanges, O’Kane (quoting him with permission) thinks that, the CWA may not be a good thing, but “if it provides a living for talented writers like Han Shaogong, Wang Anyi, and Diao Dou, then so much the better.” Well, I must say that this view of the CWA is a bit naïve. The Party sets up organizations such as the CWA, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles (文联), which is a government entity from the top level all the way to the county level, claim to take away writers’ worries so that they can devote their minds on writing. Instead, these entities are reins and yokes meant to control the writers. Many people, in recent years, have called for disbanding these organizations provided by tax payers’ money, but Chinese writers all know very well that, unless they write something that offends the Party badly, their job security is probably one of the highest among government employees.

The relationship between the CWA and the Party is somewhat like a teenager and a dictator father. In the old days, the strict father required the teenager to return home before 6 o’clock every day and allowed no hanging-out on weekends. Now that the time has changed, the father relaxed quite a lot, allowing free weekend play, and moving the curfew to midnight. But what has not changed is the absolute power of the father and the bottom line that whatever you do you still must go home every night. The Party doesn’t require you to sing praise every day, but it makes sure that you don’t write anything offensive, or worse, subversive.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s time, the CCP has distanced itself from the Mao era as well. It issued an official document in 1978 to denounce the Cultural Revolution, and it has also admitted mistakes made during land reforms, the anti-rightest campaign, the great leap forward, etc. But at the same time, it is very sensitive as how deep and how broad historians and literary writers would explore the recent past, thwarting works that may cause people to question the fundamental legitimacy and justification of the Party. When O’Kane and Lovell say Mo Yan’s works are no encomia to the Chinese rulers, they are still using the 6 o’clock curfew as their yardstick while the curfew was moved to midnight long ago. Inside the CWA, many writers have been writing about the recent tragedies, and all of them would be bold, critical writers if measured by the 6 o’clock curfew.

Take for example Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, one of Mo Yan’s newer novels in 2006. In the first volume, a landowner was shot to death during the land reform at the end of 1940s. To avenge himself, he was reborn as a donkey. From the fragmentary narrative of the donkey, we learned that the landowner was a good man who had helped the poor and lived a diligent life. He was shot in the head, his land was distributed to the poor, his two concubines remarried to his two farmhands respectively, and his house became the village hall. The donkey’s owner is one of the landowner’ old farmhands, the only man who refused to join the cooperative, the precursor of People’s Commune. The donkey was exceptionally handsome, more magnificent than a horse, so much so that the head of the county made it his own. The donkey later had an accident in which he broke his legs, and was eventually killed. This of course is just a summary. But as far as the historical land reform is presented, the novel is surprisingly spotty and one-dimensional, not too much more than my summary. But the first volume roams on for over one hundred pages, what do they consist of? Words; overflowing words, superabundant words, a florid rain of words.

As for the subject of the land reform, following the highly simplified and symbolized route of beating-down the landowners, killing the landowners, digging up their wealth and dividing their land and houses has long become the standard route for writers of CWA writers.

In the following volumes, the novel’s depiction of the other major events of the recent history is just as sketchy and standard. So I said the other day, half jokingly and half seriously, “in Mo Yan’s ‘hallucinatory realism,’ 99% is hallucination, and 1% is realism.”

About ten years ago, Mr. L, the chief editor of Shanxi Literature, a CWA writer as well, interviewed dozens of old folks in his hometown in northwestern Shanxi province for their stories during the land reform. Later he compiled these interviews into a book. His interviewees included the then village heads, militiamen, poor peasants, well-to-do families, adult and youth, men and women. From historical documents to the Party’s decrees, from individuals’ tragedies to village population analysis, from the voting procedure for executing landowners to details of various tortures, his interviews presented a layered and panoramic view of the land reform. Readers of his book were shocked, including people who were not strangers to the subject. But no publisher would publish his book, the reason being: it’s too much.

By comparison, the land reform in Mo Yan’s novel, whether it’s the characters or the events, has the quality of a jingle, highly cursory and generic. There is nothing sensitive about it, because it doesn’t provoke, nor challenge, you to think. This is why the barbarism and ugliness depicted in Mo Yan’s novels somehow don’t connect. You can read at flying speed without being seized by something that makes you pause and think. As a matter of fact, this novel of 460,000 characters, “the consummate work of my writings” as Mo Yan told Xinmin Weekly recently, was also written at galloping speed in 43 days.

Next to a non-fiction work, of course we must also consider the structure, the symbolism and other elements of a novel in our evaluation. My point here is to demonstrate what kind of realism is Mo Yan’s realism, and what is acceptable to the censorship and what is not.

Until I started reading Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (I read the Chinese original), my impressions of Mo Yan still stayed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the ‘80s when the memories of Cultural Revolution were still fresh, Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, part of a new literary movement, was different from anything people had read for a long time. To use—guess who?—Liu Xiaobo’s words, it was like “a cracking rock that startles the sky” (石破天惊). Especially after the movie adaption by Zhang Yimou, it became an expression of the kind of eruptive energy widely felt in the 80s. For a long while, just about every Chinese young man was singing or humming the “Liquor Song” of the movie: “March ahead bravely, my beloved!” (“妹妹你大胆地往前走”). And the scene in which a burly country man makes a clearing in a sorghum field and lays down a young, beautiful woman was an indelible cultural memory of a generation.

But I never thought Mo Yan as an author with a critical bent, probably because there were many outspoken writers at the time and, next to them, Mo Yan didn’t stand out. On the other hand, I was weary of Mo Yan’s increasing tendency toward hyperbolic depiction of violence, barbarism and sex, because the surreal treatment of them turns them into entertainment, desensitizes their potential criticism, and turns readers’ attention away from the real evil and its roots. In addition, Mo Yan’s language has always been colorful but overly indulgent that can really test your patience. But according to Wolfgang Kubin, the German scholar of Chinese contemporary Chinese who has written a lot about Mo Yan and other Chinese writers, such excess has been corrected in translation. Mo Yan’s English translator Howard Goldblatt seemed to suggest, in an interview with Nanfang Weekly in 2008, that the translator had done quite bit of editing, even re-writing, of the original. Fans of Mo Yan like him not for his sharp criticism of either the past or the present, but find his brand of extravaganza intriguing and exhilarating.

Since the Prize, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon, that is, a lot of Chinese readers are asking: Where is Mo Yan’s criticalness? The writer himself also seems to feel the necessity of defending himself. He said in a news conference,“if you have read my books, you would know that my criticism of the dark side of the society is very harsh and serious. The Garlic Ballads, Republic of Wine, Thirteen Steps, and Big Breasts and Wide Hips that I wrote in the 1980s were all unreserved criticism of social injustice from a humanistic point of view.”

To write this post responsibly, I can’t just rely on my past impressions and the one novel I am reading now. So I emailed my friend, Professor Z of the College of Literature, Beijing Normal University, the very institution with which both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan had ties, to seek his views. In the 1980s, my friend was a college student of Chinese literature, and now he is a professor in the same field. For years he was a fan of Mo Yan, wrote about him quite a lot, and has made contacts with the writer in countless professional occasions. He said he had read just about everything Mo Yan had written except for Republic of Wine and Life and Death Are Wearing me out which he lost interest when he reached “Volume Three, the Wallowing Pig.”

First of all, I asked Professor Z to tell me the “history of Mo Yan’s conflict” with the authorities, if any. This is his reply:

“Mo Yan had had run into trouble with the authorities. The biggest occasion came when he published Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1995). A bunch of leftists complained about him, saying that this work of his was anti-Party and anti-socialism, and they took their case all the way to the PLA Army General Staff Department. As a result, Mo Yan had to write self-criticism, and then had to leave the military to a job at Procuratorial Daily. I knew a bit about this episode at the time, and just this afternoon I heard more from an insider who told me that Mo Yan had had trouble twice because of this book. The second time was when the Workers’ Publishing House planned to re-issue the book but there were people who were still at him. This insider happened to be the censor/reader who helped protect him. But after being published for a while, the book was banned again.”

Then I asked Professor Z to evaluate how critical a writer Mo Yan has been. This is his view:

“My reading experience of Mo Yan has been somewhat complicated. I admit that he has written good works before Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which I believe is his best work, that were strong as social critiques. But his works have become weaker steadily ever since. His craftsmanship has grown more and more deft in later works but their substance and level of criticism have become thinner and thinner.”

How about his latest novel Frogs? The Nobel Committee said it was a “brave” work that critiques China’s birth control policy. Professor Z said,

“I guess you can say Frogs is a critical work, but it’s not compelling enough. I wrote in an article last year that ‘the novel tells the story of the aunt, and the history and the current situation of China’s one-child policy, in the form of letters to a Japanese friend. Because the recipient of the letters is a foreigner, it’s impossible for the author to bare it all. The narrative then becomes a dilemma for him: on the one hand he wants to explore the cruel history of it, but on the other he engages in a kind of cover-up. So half-said-and-half-unsaid is the basic narrating strategy of the novel. Technically you can’t lay blame on the narrative strategy an author chooses, but it does dull the sting and leave readers wanting.’”

Mo Yan’s real aunt, the archetype of the aunt in Frogs, said recently when interviewed by a Hong Kong TV station (start 4:20) that, as a busy country midwife, she delivered about 20,000 babies over the course of the last 40 years, and aborted twice as many. Considering the aunt in the novel only aborted 2,000, some asked, “Doesn’t the novel down play the one-child policy?” Well, I won’t find fault this way with a fiction that I haven’t read, but the effect would surely be different if the aunt in the novel aborted twice as many as she delivered.

How does my professor friend think about Life and Death Are Wearing me Out? Since Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize, he said, he had pulled it out again to finish from where he had left it. “At the time I felt Mo Yan was too indulgent in playing dazzling tricks without much substance. This afternoon I was chatting with a colleague of mine, and he was of the same opinion.”

I shared my assessment of Mo Yan with my friend: That he is a boy who comes home dutifully before the midnight curfew. My friend agreed. “I feel the same way,” he said. “What Mo Yan wrote in his later works is permissible; and his critiques are critiques well within the boundaries.” My friend went on to say, “the current publishing system in China means that what have been published are safe to publish; if a work is too challenging, it wouldn’t be published to begin with, because publishers are afraid of taking risks, because it directly concerns people’s livelihood. This I think is the key problem.”

Interestingly enough, in terms of criticism, Mo Yan’s self-assessment seems to coincide with that of my friend. You may have noticed it too: in my earlier quote of Mo Yan, he mentioned only his earlier work to defend that he is a critical writer.

Needless to say, contemporary Chinese literature is rather diversified.  But reading Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, I am reminded of a couple of “avant-guardist” writers I read in the 90s and a few writers I came across more recently. Together they seem to represent a winning trend in Chinese literature. Depending on the writers, it more or less has the following characteristics: It’s set in a specific time of the past before 1949, but the sense of time is very thin; its descriptions tend to be elaborate and copious; the characters tend to be poker-faced and immobile, lack of connection with real people; it has universal themes but seldom challenges the readers morally or existentially; and one feels hollow after reading such novels. I call it pseudo literature, and the China depicted in such works pseudo China.

It looks like the authors and the government have found harmony with each other in such a trend: The authors write happily and indulgently; the critics have plenty of material to expound on; and as far as the Party is concerned, you can write about all the pillage and all the rape in the world as long as you don’t ask questions about the real realities, which in many ways are ten times worse than Mo Yan’s fictional realities. Do the censors and the watchers from the propaganda department really like Mo Yan? Not necessarily. But dictators don’t err in what’s damaging to them and what’s not. Writers like Mo Yan are perfectly acceptable to them, and at the same time, they know that such writers are the only viable athletes to represent China in the cultural Olympics of the world.

And for the world, perhaps a little too eager to concede something to the communist China that looms big economically, Mo Yan looks right and feels right.

In an interview with Time magazine in 2010, Mo Yan said he never worried about censorship when he chose what to write. “‘There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,’ he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer ‘conform to the aesthetics of literature,’ Mo Yan argues. ‘One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.’ ” So, censorship helps writers write better literature? I don’t know that before! I feel so sorry for all the great writers of the world, and in history, who haven’t had the good fortune to benefit from censorship. How much better would they have written?!

Mo Yan’s defense of censorship reminds me of a conversation I had with another CWA writer friend of mine in China a couple of years ago. When I shared Shen Shuren with him, he liked it very much but told me right away that it was not publishable in China. So I commented on the lack of freedom to write even though there was considerable space for good writers to shine. To my surprise, he corrected me sternly. “I have complete freedom to write,” he said. “What I am writing now is what I will be writing anyway in a state of complete freedom.”

At this juncture, it would be interesting to compare Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and Mo Yan. With the same Red Sorghum, one as a short story and the other as a movie, the two men opened up new horizons in the 1980s and became famous overnight. Both were disliked in the 80s and part of 90s by the government, and both “adapted” to the realities. Zhang Yimou has been making grandiose but vapid “visual banquets” such as Hero (英雄) and Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲), while Mo Yan found home in “hallucinatory realism.” Both are now China’s gold medalists in the realm of world culture, towering signs of China’s cultural achievement next to its economic miracle. These days I don’t think there are that many people outside China who regard Zhang Yimou as a critical movie maker anymore, but the assessment of Mo Yan will be a lot more complicated, partially because not that many people have the patience to read 500-page novels one after another, partially because he is now shrouded in the aura of the Nobel Prize. I don’t think Mo Yan made a mistake when he named only his earlier writings to defend the critical quality of his works and the risks he has taken to write them. I haven’t read enough myself to agree or disagree with my professor friend, but the fact remains that, after the mid-1990s, Mo Yan has not run into any trouble with the authorities and his status in the officially anointed Chinese literary scene has pinnacled long before the Nobel Prize.

Julia Lovell, in her article in the New York Times, warns against intellectual laziness on the part of western readers who might judge Mo Yan unfavorably simply because he’s a writer embraced by the Party and the government. She urges them to find answers in his works. I, too, would warn against intellectual laziness on the part of any reader, Chinese or otherwise: Just because Mo Yan does not portray power and the government in favorable light doesn’t automatically make him a critical writer. And more importantly, don’t let the Nobel Prize deify anyone for you.

I don’t know how many times I have heard argument over the last couple of weeks for separating literature from politics. First of all, the Party doesn’t for a second think that way. For the Party, everything is politics, literature and art in particular as tools to shape ideas and minds. Second, aren’t Mo Yan’s painstaking avoidance of Liu Xiaobo and going along with handcopying Mao all political choices? As a matter of fact, when Chinese writers and movie makers escape into the era before 1949, into the ancient times, or take pains to blur the clear memories of the recent past into a fog, aren’t they political behaviors after all?

As a Harvard scholar pointed out the other day (sorry I can’t find the link anymore), now that he is a Nobel winner, Mo Yan has become a political figure whether he likes it or not, more so in China than in the world. People will seek him out for his opinions on the hottest topics of the day and he will not be able to just say “no comment.” The Party will watch him closely to make sure that he stays on track. For Chinese literature, the message is clear: Forget all those talks about idealism and conscience; the key is to have the right literary formula.

For days I have had the wicked image of the five judges of the Nobel Committee and the nine members of the Politburo sitting together, exchanging their enthusiastic views of Mo Yan over a cup of warm tea. “… Who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary,” the old dons from the Swedish Academy of Letters say. “… Who among a slew of great works by Chinese writers is an outstanding representative of the Chinese characteristics, Chinese style and Chinese grandeur,” said Li Changchun (李长春), the Party’s propaganda tsar. These two groups of old men have thus far disagreed on just about everything else, and the latter hates the guts of the former for being “vicious” to China. But with Mo Yan, the chemistry between the two changed miraculously, swirling merrily together like a hot cinnamon bun.

So, readers, no matter who you are, Chinese or foreigners, men or women, having read Mo Yan or not, for him or against him or having no opinion of him, knowing China or not, no matter who you are and where you are, we can all agree on one thing: Mo Yan has it all.

And that is truly a huge and supernatural achievement for which one Nobel Prize is not enough. I think this year’s Peace Prize and Chemistry Prize should have gone to Mo Yan as well.

About Yaxue Cao

I grew up in Northern China during the Cultural Revolution, came to the United States in the early 1990s to study literature and stayed. I have been writing stories about China, exploring both my own experiences and those of others against the larger picture of Communist China. You can find my work on Amazon.com, and new works are being added periodically.
This entry was posted in Chinese Culture & Language, Current Events and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Mo Yan, According to You — Part Two

  1. C.A. Yeung says:

    Thank you for this very honest and powerful blog post, and particularly for reminding us that the CCP is a regime thriving on censorship and propaganda, and that Mo Yan is very much a part of this establishment. It would be very naive for those of us in the western world to assume that this regime will somehow rely less on speech control when it starts to open its economy to the world. Quite to the contrary, economic prosperity means that the CCP is more capable and resourceful than before in exporting its value to the world, very often at the expense of those who have been denied freedom for telling the truth about this oppressive regime. What really upset me is that many so called China experts in the western world are fast becoming willing collaborators to this regime, not so much through their actions, but more often through their silence in face of injustice. And their silence confirms consent to the CCP’s whim.

  2. Pingback: 译者 | 《你看莫言》 (2) - 中国数字时代

  3. Viktor says:

    Thank you for this informative post. In general I agree with your points but I would still have a question. Why is it that both those who attack and those who defend Mo Yan do so by referring to the social and political criticism in his work (or lack thereof)? Is it really the only standard available to us for evaluating works of art? Is political criticism the only measure? Is it only in terms of politics that we can contribute to human life and experience? I think here the Nobel Committee is partly to blame as they have, to some extent, directed the Nobel Prize in the direction of being associated with human rights and political freedom during the last decades. But why so? Should we also judge the prize in economics, physics or chemistry also by political standards, by how they contribute to our political goals and ideals?
    Applying a political standard to Mo Yan is of course necessary, and I think your post is a good argument in this framework. I am just somewhat taken aback by the public’s apparent incapacity to discuss literature in terms other than its contribution to politics.

    • Chopstik says:

      Art has often been inextricably been linked to politics – and the Party is certainly aware of this. Consider Mao’s own strict control over the arts and his manipulation of it to achieve his own political ends. He frequently used it for metaphors in contemporary society and such practice has not abated in the years since his death. It is also not something specific to China. Whether we or the artists intended it as a political too, its interpretation often ends up in that arena.

  4. CK, aka 康哲文 says:

    I read all your articles with great interest and I agree with many points; still, when you exclaim in indignation

    “So, censorship helps writers write better literature? I don’t [didn't] know that before! I feel so sorry for all the great writers of the world, and in history, who haven’t had the good fortune to benefit from censorship. How much better would they have written?!”

    you should know better. As one of those who you criticize (Lovell? O’Kane? I forget) has written, Shakespeare is one such case. All those great European writers and artists who wrote under authoritarian kings and regimes in the 16th-20th centuries had to use ‘subtlety’ if they happened to be critical toward their rulers or regimes in one way or another in order to save their own head, and had to turn their explicit critique into literature and art by avoiding sensitive references, by not talking about certain periods etc. etc. And they used ‘subtlety’. That’s a historical fact. Now, how can we know if this harmed the quality of their work, since we only have the self-censored, ‘subtle’ product? How can we be sure that “they would have written much better”? How can we exclude the possibility that, had they had complete freedom of speech, their prose/poetry would have taken a more biting but a less satisfying tone, artistically speaking? And I’m speaking of European writers alone. I suspect the history of Classical Chinese literature will have hundreds of similar cases, given that China has always lived under monarchs, but I leave it to you as a Chinese man (I’m not one) to work through that.

    Let me give another example: can we say with certainty that post-Soviet Russian cinema is better than Soviet era cinema? Are we sure that when the Communist dictatorship ends one day or another in China Chinese literature and art will improve in quality? And isn’t the environment created by the dictatorship of market forces plus the general apathy of free market societies plus the increasing vulgarization of mass market culture (already introduced in Chinese pop literature) also a negative influence on an author’s creative, non conformist efforts?

    So I think Mo Yan has a point here, regardless of whether Mo Yan is a very good or a less good writer himself and regardless of whether he is harmful or harmless for the regime.

  5. C.A. Yeung says:

    “Why is it that both who attack and those who defend Mo Yan do so by referring to the social and political criticism in his work (or lack thereof)?”
    Yes, it’s a good question. But I reckon the answer is perhaps simpler than you think: Mo Yan is not, in any sense, an independent writer. His works, strictly speaking, are commissioned, not by a literary agent, by a political party. This political party is well know for its reliance on propaganda to justify its legitimacy. So it would be very naive for any critics of Mo Yan’s works to overlook the sociopolitical dimension of his literary creation, I reckon.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well,i’m a chinese,and my english is poor,but i have to say,if you born and grew up here,someday when you know most of things in your mind are false,what you’ll think about it? Maybe that’s the answer for Viktor’s question,many people will fight for their freedom once they know the truth whether they care about literature(not everyone,as someones don’t believe the truth,the brainwash is so successful here).The lesson of school,the program of tv(almost all channel is owned by government..),the book,the newspaper are full of lies,and most people believe it ,it’s a ture “matrix”.
    Btw,i wanna talk about more politics of China,that’s the key to know it,but my political english can’t afford it ,what a pity@.

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