Mo Yan and the Politics of Language

After being questioned over his close relationship with the Chinese government, the Nobel-winning author Mo Yan is now facing another round of criticism for the quality of his writing.  Anna Sun at The Kenyon Review writes that the language of Mo Yan lacks aesthetic value:

The discontent lies in Mo Yan’s language. Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: “Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.” But in fact, only the “brutal realism” is Mo Yan’s; the “shimmering poetry” comes from a brilliant translator’s work.

[…] Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed, but it is striking because it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mo Yan’s writing is in fact a product of the aesthetic ideologies of Socialist China. As Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893-1976), the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1934 until his death, famously said in his seminal speech “The Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art” in 1942, a few years before the Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949: “Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” As a result, Mao demanded writers in the socialist regime write for the masses: “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and whole-heartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle. Only then can they proceed to creative work.” Not any kind of creative work, but work that serves the “proletarian revolutionary cause.”

Charles Laughlin counters Sun’s argument at ChinaFile:

Piling up aesthetic objections to conceal ideological conflict is a familiar tactic. I had the opportunity in 2000 to discuss the Nobel Prize in Literature with members of the Chinese Writer’s Association (of which Mo Yan is now Vice Chairman) after it was awarded to the Chinese author Gao Xingjian, who was by then a French citizen. It was then I learned that the Chinese Writer’s Association’s “line” on the Gao Xingjian award was not that his works contain politically unacceptable ideas (in fact, his novels published after leaving China are very critical of the Chinese government); rather it was that Gao Xingjian is a mediocre writer, and there are many superior to him in China more deserving of the award. The writers I was talking to did not exactly say that Gao’s work lacked “aesthetic conviction,” but their criticism of Gao looked very similar to Anna Sun’s criticism of Mo Yan, even though they are supposed to be defenders of state socialism.

[…] My point is not that Mo Yan is these writers’ equal, but rather that like them, he forcefully asserts his particular vision without regard to pressures to adopt and convey a political posture. Literature like this is not apolitical—no literature can be—but it is not written to serve a political agenda. Mo Yan’s fiction satirizes the inhumanity of self-serving and hypocritical government officials while also depicting the senseless suffering of their victims; it also satirizes the style and narrative conventions of the orthodox socialist literature of the past, with its celebration of unbelievable heroes and cartoonish oversimplification of society and history. He indicts the One-Child Policy and forced abortion. The orthodox literature of socialism made politics sacred, but Mo Yan’s fiction shows orthodox politics to be profane in the face of humanity. All literature is political, but each writer figures politics in a different way.

Meanwhile, supporters and detractors alike seem to recognize the crucial role of Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s prestigious Chinese-English translator. Michael Orbach at Tablet gives a detailed account of Mr. Goldblatt and his cooperation with Mo Yan:

Goldblatt, 73, is the foremost Chinese-English translator in the world. Over the course of his almost 40-year career, he has translated more than 50 books, edited several anthologies of Chinese writings; received two NEA fellowships, a Guggenheim grant and nearly every other translation award. In the first four years of the Man Asian Literary Prize, three of the winners were translations by Goldblatt. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, said that “American translators of contemporary Chinese fiction appear to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt.”

[…] Goldblatt found one of his stories in a 1985 anthology of Chinese writers. Sitting in his French-style living room, Goldblatt was unable to recall which story it was, however the story struck him as one of the first really authentic Chinese stories he’d read after the country’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mo Yan’s writing harked back to earlier modes of Chinese folktales.

“They weren’t new in Chinese literature; they were new in modern Chinese literature,” Goldblatt said.

Months later, when Goldblatt visited Taipei a friend handed him a magazine with an excerpt of Mo Yan’s Garlic Ballads. The book, an unflinching chronicle of a failed insurrection in a village, was initially banned in China, according to Goldblatt. Goldblatt sent a letter to Mo Yan, addressed simply to “Mo Yan, Peking” and the two began a correspondence that culminated in a translation of both The Garlic Ballads and Red Sorghum, which became a 1987 film by renowned director Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li.

The New Yorker excerpted a piece by Mo Yan, Bull, and Deborah Treisman interviewed Goldblatt on his views of the novel as well as the writer:

“Bull,” the piece by Mo Yan in this week’s issue, was excerpted from your forthcoming translation of his novel “POW!” The book follows the story of a boy and his mother struggling to survive a father’s abandonment, in a Chinese village that has become the central slaughterhouse for cattle in the region. When did Mo Yan write the book?

An interesting question. He often “writes” his novels in his head, where they leaven until he’s ready to put brush to paper or fingers to keyboard and send a manuscript to his publisher, whomever and wherever that may be. “POW!” was published in China in 2003. The copy he sent me was signed in July of that year.


Did this year’s awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan come as a surprise to him, or to you?

I suspect that he was surprised but hopeful when the odds-makers began floating his name; the same goes for me. That 5 A.M. phone call from NPR (I was in Colorado) made for the beginning of a very happy and very busy day. By then, I’d read and enjoyed quite a lot by the other “top candidates”—Mo Yan was, I have to say, in good company.

With all the controversy surrounding Mo Yan, the parables he told at Stockholm this Monday provide more fodder for discussions of his political standing:

Mo describes how the eight men decide that their group is cursed by the presence of one who must have committed a crime against the heavens. To determine who, they agree to throw their hats toward the open door. Whoever’s hat flies out the door is the guilty one and must spend the night in the storm. Mo continues: “So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.”

[…] Li Xingwen, a columnist for Party-owned Beijing Youth Daily, offered two plausible deconstructions that also seem to blame Chinese society, and not the ruling Communist Party, for whatever tragedy the temple collapse represents. He wrote in an editorial on Sunday: “On one hand, the survival or extinction of ‘the one and the seven’ in the damaged temple suggests that society has its own justice and evil can’t escape a final judgment; on the other hand, the story is about democracy at a crossroads: The majority’s tyrannical policies were stupid and they finally ate their own bitter fruit. Via these three stories Mo Yan showed his viewpoint: never follow the crowd, never protest for show, and never encroach on personal freedom in the name of the majority.”

Not every interpretation is quite so flattering to Mo, or to the Communist Party. Indeed, across Weibo — and in less obvious ways, in Chinese newspapers — the Chinese seem genuinely conflicted about how to interpret their new Nobelist’s tale. In a Saturday tweet by Weibo user Kai Yan, Mo is both a Communist Party pawn and a satirist whose subject-matter is China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee: “Mo Yan’s prize was controversial and recently he supported censorship. He was also condemned by the global media for not joining those who support Xiaobo’s release. However, his acceptance speech was interesting. One story in his speech was about eight masons who took shelter from rain in a temple … this is an obvious satire of the Communist Party’s court intrigues.”

In the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra argues that Mo Yan is being judged by different standards than Western writers, who are not condemned for their often cozy relationships with the ruling powers:

His writing, however, has hardly been mentioned, let alone assessed, by his most severe western critics; it is his political choices for which he stands condemned. They are indeed deplorable, but do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan’s counterparts in the west to such harsh scrutiny?

In fact, we almost never judge British and American writers on their politics alone. It would seem absurd to us if the Somali, Yemeni or Pakistani victims of Barack Obama’s drone assaults, miraculously empowered with a voice in the international arena, accused the US president’s many literary fans of trying to put a human face on his unmanned killing machines; or if they denounced Ian McEwan, who once had tea with Laura Bush and Cherie Blair at 10 Downing Street, as a patsy for the Anglo-American nexus that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more.

Nevertheless, they would not be wrong to detect an unexamined assumption lurking in the western scorn for Mo Yan’s proximity to the Chinese regime: that Anglo-American writers, naturally possessed of loftier virtue, stand along with their governments on the right side of history. Certainly, they are not expected to take a public stance against their political class for waging catastrophic – and wholly unnecessary – wars. In fact, very few of them use their untrammelled liberty to do so. Many even pride themselves on their “apolitical” attitude. Furthermore, their political opinions risk no widespread opprobrium even when these mock the same values of freedom and dignity that Mo Yan is evidently guilty of violating.

Read also In the People’s Liberation Army by Mo Yan via the New York Review of Books.

See more on Mo Yan via CDT


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