Nobel-winning author Mo Yan delivered his official lecture in Stockholm on Friday, recounting his development as a storyteller through tales of his rural upbringing and especially of his relationship with his mother. The speech—well worth an open-minded read in its entirety—came amid renewed controversy after a press conference on Thursday, in which Mo defended censorship of rumours and defamation as a necessity akin to airline security checks. He also refused to discuss the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, instead urging his audience to search online for his earlier remarks.
This reawakened the heavy criticism of Mo’s politics that followed the announcement of his prize in October, but had substantially subsided after he expressed hope that Liu could soon be free. Compounding matters, the Associated Press published the first interview in over two years with Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, while Chinese activists, international Nobel winners and hundreds of thousands of others signed petitions calling for the couple’s release.
Mo addressed his critics at several points during his lecture. From Howard Goldblatt’s translation at NobelPrize.org:
My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.
Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.
The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. 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. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:
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. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these.
Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.
So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.
Video of the speech is available on YouTube, though not yet with subtitles.
Mo’s critics responded by comparing him to a prostitute and a dwarf and calling his speech “powerless, disgraceful, a betrayal and a sellout”.
Meanwhile, fellow author Salman Rushdie wrote of Mo’s comments on Thursday that it was “hard to avoid the conclusion that Mo Yan is the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet Russian apparatchik writer Mikhail Sholokhov: a patsy of the régime.” At The Atlantic, James Fallows warned that “as a public figure, [Mo] will forever be diminished by the stands he is taking, and avoiding, now.” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos acknowledged that “the timing of Mo’s words could not have been worse”, but was more sympathetic regarding his general predicament:
For Mo Yan, China’s most famous user of words these days, they have never carried higher stakes. When Mo won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, the first Chinese writer to do so, the Communist Party’s propaganda chief, Li Changchun, made it clear that he intended Mo to remain in the fold. Li wrote to congratulate him, saying that the “victory reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China.” It was impossible not to sympathize with Mo’s excruciating position: he was being asked to take a stand that would, without exception, alienate one side or another. The Chinese government, with one stroke, could choose to make his life miserable, and the rest of the world would decide how history remembers him. Until he won the Nobel, had spent his life tiptoeing back and forth across the line, kowtowing at some moments, speaking his mind at others. The time when he could perform that kind of balancing act was over. Nobody who has not borne the weight of writing under authoritarianism could casually dismiss his dilemma.
The AFP, quoting a Swedish newspaper, noted that some of Mo’s other comments had been less Party-friendly:
Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on Friday said the writer’s comments that the Nobel Prize was “personal” and not “for a country” could […] be seen as a snub to the Chinese establishment.
“He made it clear to Chinese journalists that the prize has not been given to China, where it is being used on patriotic grounds,” it wrote.
[…] It also quoted Shelley W Chan, the US-based author of a book on Mo Yan, who called his writing “brave”. Chan accused his critics of not having read his work.
She argued that some of his criticism of the Chinese regime is quite explicit while some was more indirect. Parts of it could be seen as referencing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, still a taboo subject in Chinese society, she added.
The political content of Mo’s writings has frequently been cited in his defence. The Kenyon Review’s Anna Sun, for example, while attacking Mo’s written language as an impoverished Maoist husk, wrote that “politically, Mo Yan is clearly a writer with a strong social conscience, although he has not been a dissident; he is unafraid to satirize contemporary Chinese reality in his novels, and he is wryly conscious of the game of political negotiation he has to play with the state [….]”
At The New York Review of Books, however, Perry Link suggested that the political aspects of Mo’s writing, and even his apparent words of support for Liu Xiaobo, might in fact serve the Party’s purposes:
Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials. Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.
[…] Defenders of Mo Yan, both on and off the Nobel Prize committee, credit him with “black humor.” Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, 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. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. For the regime, to treat them as jokes might be better than banning them outright. In a 2004 article called “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History,” Liu Xiaobo observes that “sarcasm…has turned into a kind of spiritual massage that numbs people’s consciences and paralyzes their memories.”
[…] Chinese writers today, 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. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong 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.
For another side of the argument from October, see Brendan O’Kane’s ‘Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?‘ at Rectified.name. “Spoiler alert”, O’Kane wrote by way of introduction: “in keeping with the general rule about headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, the short answer is ‘no.’”