Mo Yan Wins 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature

The Swedish Academy announced on Thursday that the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to China’s Mo Yan, “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”. Mo said that he was “overjoyed and scared” at the announcement, which was greeted with cheers in the room and accompanied by a ‘biobibliography’ on the Nobel Prize website:

Mo Yan (a pseudonym for Guan Moye) was born in 1955 and grew up in Gaomi in Shandong province in north-eastern China. His parents were farmers. As a twelve-year-old during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work, first in agriculture, later in a factory. In 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army and during this time began to study literature and write. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981. His breakthrough came a few years later with the novella Touming de hong luobo (1986, published in French as Le radis de cristal 1993).

[…] Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.

Michel Hockx, Professor of Chinese Literature at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote a ‘Beginners’ guide to Mo Yan‘ for the BBC, while Esther Bintliff compiled a reading list at The Financial Times. This includes extracts posted at Granta from Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Mo’s Frogs, in which “a bad-tempered and unwilling abortionist […], on the night of her retirement, falls victim to a bizarre and terrifying plague of frogs.” Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish collected a selection of particularly “juicy bits” from Mo’s work including lust, death and cannibalism, while translator and historian Julia Lovell wrote in praise of Mo at The Guardian:

In his 30-year writing career, Mo Yan has gained a reputation for speaking out with uncommon directness on the absurdities and corruption of modern China. Born in 1955, he won celebrity during the mid- to late-80s, participating in two key developments in the post-Mao literary thaw that, together, transformed the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing: the root-seeking and avant-garde movements. The root-seekers opened up fiction to influences from Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics, countering decades of anti-traditionalism both before and after the communist revolution of 1949. The experimental avant-garde writers, meanwhile, released literary form and content from the stranglehold of socialist realism.

[…] Mo Yan is notable not only for his creative engagement with modern Chinese history but also, more simply, for his dedication to the craft of writing. As the catchphrase of the market economy-oriented 1990s became “wang qian kan” (“look towards the future”, which, in Chinese, neatly punned the word for “future” on the word for “money”), many writers who had found fame in the 80s joined in the capitalist free-for-all. Plenty of once-serious novelists shelved literary fiction in favour of profit-making: television and film scripts, song-writing, business ventures. In this febrile cultural context, Mo Yan stands out for his commitment to his literary vocation. He is one of the relatively few contemporary Chinese novelists who has stuck with the form long enough to attain intellectual maturity.

Greetings left for Mo on the Nobel site mostly offered congratulations, in some cases barbed:

“Congratulations!Greeting from No.1 middle school,Shuangyashan City,Heilongjiang province,the PRC.”
/Reven Dong

“Mr. Mo Yan helped non-Chinese people like mo to better understand chinese culture. Thanks.”
/Federico, from Italy

“释放2010和平奖得主刘晓波 Release Xiaobo Liu the winner of Nobel Prize in Peace 2010”

“clam down,our proud doesn’t stand on foreigner’s approval.”

“He should quote my Yan’an talks about literature and art for his acceptance speech.”
/Mao Zedong

“HIGHLY FELICITATE YOUR MAJESTY LITERARY LEGEND SIR MO YAN, i am entirely happy that China also produces such prestigious literally brain !”

Xinhua explained how Mo had won “China’s first Nobel Prize in Literature”, brushing aside the 2000 award given to Chinese-born French citizen Gao Xingjian and stressing the new laureate’s mainstream position:

“I think the reason why I could win the prize is because my works present lives with unique Chinese characteristics, and they also tell stories from a viewpoint of common human beings, which transcends differences of nations and races,” Mo said on Thursday evening to Chinese journalists.

Mo also said many folk arts originated from his hometown, such as clay sculpture, paper cuts, traditional new year paintings, have inspired and influenced his novels.

Mo’s prize may give powerful encouragement to the country’s writers as the more reflective of Chinese lives their works are, the more possible they arise as a world literature.

[…] The country faces a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, worsening environment pollution and an aging population. Paying more attention to such issues, Chinese writers may create more works that record the nation’s journey to rejuvenation.

With more Chinese writers like Mo, the world could learn a more real China. Perhaps, this is another reason for the Swedish Academy’s choice.

Global Times, on the other hand, confronted the contrast between the “fringe” Gao Xingjian and the “mainstream” Mo Yan head on:

Ordinarily, we should treat the Nobel Prize with indifference, as past prizes have tended to be politicized, just like the peace prize.

However, it seems that Chinese society has attached a great deal of attention to the Nobel Prize in Literature and other Nobel prizes. We are surrounded by Western culture’s soft power. Previously, Peace prizes for the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo conveyed very unfriendly and even hostile massages.

Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born French citizen, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. Chinese people generally believed that Gao was awarded this prize because of the political leanings in his literary works.

[…] Mo is a mainstream Chinese writer. This suggests that the West doesn’t only embrace individuals that are against the Chinese system. It cannot reject the Chinese mainstream for long. No matter what inspired the award this time, it is a welcome decision. We hope such appreciation of Chinese mainstream ideas can extend further.

At The New Yorker, Evan Osnos discussed Mo’s, Liu’s and Gao’s awards in the context of China’s “Nobel Complex”:

The Prime Minister at the time, Zhu Rongji, happened to be giving a press conference the day [Gao’s prize] was awarded, and he congratulated the laureate: “I am very pleased that a literary oeuvre written in Chinese was awarded the Nobel Prize. Chinese characters have a history of several thousand years and the Chinese language has an inexhaustible appeal.” Except the Premier hadn’t gotten the official line yet: Gao, it turned out, had criticized the Communist Party in the past, and so the government was not at all pleased with his Nobel. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared that awarding it to Gao “shows again the Nobel Literature Prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and it is not worth commenting on.” And though some Chinese writers—including this year’s winner, Mo Yan—applauded it, the Writers’ Association said Gao’s win “proves that the committee is very ignorant.” To this day, there are Chinese books on the Nobel Literature prize that simply omit the year 2000 from the history. (Sebastian Veg has a terrific piece on the legacy of Gao’s prize.)

[…] Mo Yan’s win is significant for China. It recognizes a life of writing in a difficult place to be a writer, and, one hopes, it will combat some of the paranoia and victimhood that some Chinese intellectuals still feel about their stature in the world. But, over time, one hopes that the Nobel will become less important to China. That, after all, would be the sign of a country that is exactly the kind of cultural power that China aspires to be. In 1986, an especially provocative Beijing writer declared the obsession with the Nobel “childish.” He won it twenty-four years later. His name was Liu Xiaobo, and he was awarded the prize for peace, not literature. Today he is serving an eleven-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Meanwhile, criticism continued of Mo’s own political stance, having built up steadily as rumours spread of his possible victory. Sarah Lyall and Andrew Jacobs wrote of Mo’s politics at The New York Times that:

Mr. Mo has not been shy of lacing his fiction with social criticism, but at the same time he has carefully navigated whatever invisible line the government considers unacceptable. He has also appeared at times to embrace the establishment, and serves as vice chairman of the party-run Chinese Writers’ Association. Yet when the émigré novelist and critic Gao Xingjian won the literature prize in 2000 and was criticized for having given up his Chinese citizenship, Mr. Mo publicly defended him.

Mo himself said at the London Book Fair that “Of course I care about politics, and I write about things that I see that I think are wrong – but I also think that the writer should not just be a political activist, a writer should be a writer, first and foremost.”

His critics feel, however, that he carries this approach too far. He said of the 2010 Peace Prize award to the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, for example, that “I don’t know much about this situation, and don’t want to talk about it.” In 2010, he told TIME’s Simon Elegant that “there are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” and suggested that censorship could actually help writers by preventing them from being too blunt: “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.” Though his pen name, meaning “don’t speak”, is a reference to the strictly controlled political climate of the 1950s, he was among the Chinese writers who produced hand-written copies of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art to mark the speeches’ 70th anniversary this year.

After the news of the announcement hit Twitter, tempers appeared to fray as many attacked both the author and the Academy, while others defended both:








“I criticised Mo Yan on Weibo, and my account’s been deleted.”




“I’m cutting ties with anyone who congratulates Mo Yan.”


“If the Swedish Literary Academy was trying to see who’s more despicable, themselves or the Chinese Writers’ Assosication, then the foreign devils have won this round.”





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