While the pronouncement produced the obligatory congratulations here in the West, it inspired equal parts bafflement and skepticism in the land of its honoree. On Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where reflexive and visceral responses to current events often appear in a hundred and forty characters before encountering either the state censorship or authorial remorse, a commotion quickly ensued: “Can the Chinese media get it right for once? Can someone tell me if Wang Shu actually win???,” an impatient micro-blogger complained. Another commenter, presumably upon hearing confirmation of the news, wondered if the selection of the judging panel had unfairly biased the decision. “Can (Wang’s) achievements really compare with those of his predecessors?” A third poster glumly summed up the muddle of emotions: “Alas, news of Wang’s win made me happy and depressed at the same time.”
This is not to say that there were no well-wishers—a good number of Chinese found their countryman’s win, once it was deemed safe for the consumption of the general public, an unequivocal cause for celebration. But why the tremors of distress instead of a swell of nationalistic pride? The mixed reaction called to mind the novelist Gao Xingjian’s 2000 win of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though Gao was the first Chinese Nobel Laureate for Literature, not only did the Chinese government refuse to claim their star writer, much of the Chinese public—those who had heard of him, at least—decided that Gao was the benefactor of a political decision masquerading as a merit-based one.
The ambivalence surrounding the international recognition of two artists with such different profiles—Gao was an exiled dissident writing from abroad, Wang lives and works in China—speaks less about their art than it does about a pervasive cultural anxiety surrounding Chinese artists. In other words, the doubt has little to do with Wang’s work but rather his celebration by the West—a West that, for better or worse, casts a continual and critical eye on both the country’s human-rights record and its brisk pace of urbanization.
For some Chinese at least, the question is less how the work is being judged but rather if it is being judged at all—that is, if a reward like the Pritzker represents nothing more than a veiled political reprimand or dressed-up directive from the West: “I don’t care what you build, but for the love of God, convince your countrymen to lead less stifling and more conscientious lives!” And what if the awards really are not-so-subtle hints?