Drawing the News: Mo Yan and the Nobel

Mo Yan, the magical realist writer who is also the vice-chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association, is China’s latest Nobel prize winner and the first to be publicly feted in the People’s Republic. The author of Red Sorghum was born Guan Moye in a Shandong Province village in 1955. He adopted the pen name Mo Yan (“Don’t Speak”) to remember his father’s warning to him before leaving the house during his Cultural Revolution childhood. Some online cartoonists are taking his tongue-and-cheek alias literally as they criticize the Nobel committee’s choice.

“All of China is boiling over!” artist Guaiguai proclaims in this cartoon. The whole of China shouts, “Don’t Speak!” “Boiling over” (沸腾) usually has a positive sense, like “bursting with excitement” in English. China is indeed collectively rejoicing: Mo Yan is splashed across the news, and his books are selling at a fast clip. But here, it’s hard to tell if Guaiguai’s China is shouting in celebration or crying out for freedom of speech.

Crazy Crab of Hexie Farm depicts the Nobel gagged.

Feng Zikai, a prominent cartoonist in the 1940s, painted this image to show a slice of life in wartime Beijing. Titled “A Corner of the Tea House,” it shows a gaggle of men chatting underneath the wooden beams. The sign pasted to a pillar, which is only half-visible, reads “Don’t Speak of National Affairs” (莫言国事). The ruling Kuomingtang posted these notices in every tea house in the capital to ensure chit-chat did not veer into politics. This cartoon is now making the rounds on Weibo. Mo Yan has not enjoyed a completely smooth ride to the top–some of his work has been censored before–but he has negotiated a creative space within the parameters set by the state. In an interview earlier this year with the literary magazine Granta, Mo explained, “I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.”

Cartoonist Rebel Pepper depicts Mo Yan walking by a jail cell, in an homage to China’s other mainland-based Nobel laureate, imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the Peace Prize in 2010. Later, Mo Yan surprised many by stating publicly at a press conference that he thinks Liu should be freed. The CCP may have expected Mo Yan to let it bask in his achievement, but instead Mo’s unexpected response to a journalist’s question brought Liu’s plight back into the spotlight.

Mo Yan actually joins another Chinese Nobel laureate of literature. He congratulated Gao Xingjian when Gao won the prize in 2000. But Gao, who gained French citizenship in 1997, does not count in the eyes of the Chinese government. Having tackled political corruption and national trauma head-on, Gao’s work is banned in his home country.


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