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David Wertime

Nobel Crown Likely To Sit Heavy Upon Head of Chinese Winner Mo Yan

The winner. By Johannes Kolfhaus, Gymn. Marienthal via Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Academy of Sciences has announced that Chinese author Guan Moye, who uses the pen name Mo Yan (莫言, which literally means “don’t speak”), has won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Chinese media–mainstream and otherwise–have been saturated with the news since the October 11 announcement.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, the country’s intelligentsia discussed little else in the hours after the news went public. Mo Yan appeared on front pages everywhere, and both self-serving and genuine plaudits flooded in from all corners.

Literature lovers heartened

Mo’s victory came at the expense of Haruki Murakami, a popular Japanese author who many had favored to win the award. While some commenters succumbed to the urge to gloat, Japanse netizen @加藤嘉一 described Mo’s victory as belonging to Asia. He wrote, “The New York Times, Asahi Shimbun and other foreign media have all rushed to report on this, and they’ve reported it as a news item without politicizing it. As a Japanese person who spent my youth in China, I feel happy, and Mr. Mo Yan makes me proud to be Asian. Congratulations to all those Chinese who deeply love literature. {{1}}[[1]]波士顿漂流中的红叶使我产生归属感。跑完步回家后,手机上看到一条新闻:中国作家莫言获得诺贝尔文学奖。纽约时报、朝日新闻等也海外媒体也纷纷报道此事,他们没把它政治化,当做一条新闻。作为在中国度过青春期的日本人,我感到高兴,也为莫言先生感到自豪,作为亚洲人。祝贺所有热爱文学的中国人民。[[1]]

Mainstream media embraced Mo Yan's victory.

But for many Chinese, Mo’s victory was acutely theirs. Xu Xiaoping (@徐小平), founder of New Oriental, a chain of private schools in China, was deeply inspired. Perhaps reflecting on the marriage of business and intellectual life that has characterized his own career, Xu wrote, “When economic development marginalizes everything else, in an age when great literary accomplishments have had to take a back seat, Mo Yan has always lived by his pen and by the fruits of his work. This prize will put Chinese literature back into an exalted position [in Chinese society]. My respects to Mo Yan! And my respects to the Chinese literary masters of the future!” He later added, “No matter what the ‘controversy,’ it would be enough to make the world and in particular Chinese people see that we still have some things [here] worth treasuring after all. {{2}}[[2]]莫言获奖,想想他几十年来一直不断推出新作,这才是真正的作家!当经济建设把一切都边缘化、让文学这样伟大的事业都成为冷板凳时,莫言的笔耕不缀以及丰硕的文学成果,通过获得诺贝尔文学奖,再次还给中国文学一个崇高的地位。向莫言致敬!并向未来的中国文学大师们致敬!… 我至今还记得80年代阅读莫言红高粱时那种灵魂起舞的快感。今晚,我会衷心期待他能获奖。文学奖的争议最多,但只要莫言获奖,无论有什么“争议”,都足以让世界、尤其是中国人自己看到我们毕竟还有一些值得自珍的东西。获奖本身,就能够激发这一代中国青年对文学艺术和科学技术的终生追求。[[2]]

The wider import of Mo Yan’s win

But exactly what is the controversy? While some netizens argued that Mo’s work was overrated, the real debate centered around the true import of his victory. China’s netizens are an incisive and often cynical bunch, quick to see geopolitics everywhere. Many saw it in active play here. Caijing Magazine’s Weibo feed quoted Peking University professor of Chinese literature Zhang Yiwu as saying, “Mo Yan’s award is a significant strategic move by the Nobel Committee, it’s clear they were considering this matter from the standpoint of globalization. We can see this award as an affirmation of China’s rise, an affirmation of the accomplishments of China and Chinese culture.” {{3}}[[3]]【莫言获诺奖意义重大】北京大学中文系教授张颐武:莫言获奖是诺贝尔委员会的一个大战略,可以看出诺贝尔委员是从全球格局和视角下考虑看待这个事情的。这次获奖可以视作是诺贝尔委员会对中国崛起的肯定,是对中华文明、中国成就的肯定。[[3]]

Meanwhile, Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), the always-controversial Editor of the conservative Global Times, tweeted his prediction that Mo would win before the announcement:

“Mo Yan might be picked for the Nobel today. One reason is that it will make more of a wave than giving the prize to Japan’s Murakami, and the Nobel Literature and Peace prizes care about making waves. Chinese people should keep a ‘calm heart’ about it. The Literature Prize has to consider a lot of complex [factors including] politics and whose ‘turn’ it is…Mo Yan’s victory [will be] a good thing for him, and [I'll] congratulate him, but it’s hard to say it will be a ‘breakthrough’ for China.” {{4}}[[4]]莫言今天还是有可能摘下诺贝尔文学奖的。原因之一是给他颁奖比给日本的村上春树更轰动,而诺贝尔文学奖、和平奖对轰动很在意。对中国人来说,的确要有“平常心”。文学奖有政治及“轮流坐庄”等多种复杂考虑,有点像“评先进”。若真胜出这是莫言个人的好事,祝贺他,但很难说这是中国的什么“突破”。[[4]] 

After Mo Yan won, Hu added, “If there’s anything [at play] besides him, perhaps this prize shows that with China’s rise, it’s not only those who buck the system that will have opportunities to be recognized by the West. China’s mainstream cannot be rejected for much longer.” {{5}}[[5]]如果有什么他个人之外的东西,这个奖或许说明,随着中国更加强大,并非只有反体制者才有被西方社会接纳的机会。中国的主流不可能长期被拒绝。[[5]]

Others took impatient issue with the rather widespread contention that Mo’s award was an affirmation of anything other than himself. Well-known wit Zuoye Ben (@作业本) derisively quoted vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association He Jainming, who said, “The judges’ awarding this prize to Mo Yan is not only an affirmation of the success of Mo Yan’s literary work, it is also an affirmation of one hundred years of generation after generation of Chinese authors, an affirmation of the contemporary Chinese literature world, and it obliquely reflects China’s greatness and its growing influence in the world.” Zuoyeben added, “Hmph, you might as well just say it’s an affirmation of China’s aircraft carrier.” {{6}}[[6]]中国作协副主席何建明:“评委员会将这一奖项授予莫言,不只是对莫言文学创作成就的肯定,也是对一百多年来一代代中国作家的肯定,对中国当代文学界的肯定,从一个侧面反映了中国强大以及世界影响力提升。”切,您干脆说是对我国航母的肯定得了。[[6]]

To many, no glimmers of hope in an unjust China

Don't Speak about Mo Yan?

For many prominent Weibo personalities, a shadow of injustice hung over the genuine joy and vindication many observers felt. Writer Han Haoyue (@韩浩月) tried to analyze Mo’s victory in traditional media, but said he was rebuffed by Chinese authorities:

“Last night I didn’t eat dinner, and instead wrote an essay about Mo Yan’s receiving the prize. Half an hour after sending it I heard from the editor that the whole piece had been killed, as we’re only allowed to report on it, not to comment on it. I want to say to [our propaganda department], you’re worrying too much, Mo Yan’s award makes our Party look good. Put another way, everyone is just talking about literature…is it necessary to have a gag order, stopping people from [reporting] on the good things as well as the bad?” {{7}}[[7]]晚饭没吃,写了莫言获奖评论,发出后半小时得到编辑信息,整版被毙,只许报道不许评论,想对宣萱说,您真多虑了,莫言获奖是为多咱党争光的事儿啊,再说大伙谈得也是文学,好不容易忘了体制这茬,非得来个封嘴,丧事不让办,喜事也不让办啊?[[7]]

Lawyer Xu Xin @徐昕 tweeted an imagined entry in Baike, China’s Wikipedia, for the name “Mo Yan”: 

“1) The first author to receive the Nobel Prize in China, his magical realism brought together folk tales, history and contemporary society. 2) The serious social phenomenon of the lack of freedom of speech, very rare in the world at that time; violators would be sentenced to prison or re-education through labor, the danger to those wearing or storing T-shirts reading ‘Freedom or Death’ was very great.” {{8}}[[8]]【XX百科:莫言】1、首位获诺贝尔文学奖的中国作家,他以魔幻现实主义融合民间故事、历史和当代社会。2、一种严重缺乏言论自由的社会现象,当代世界极为罕见,违者可能被判刑或劳教,穿着或私藏“不自由,毋宁死”之类的文化衫风险极大。[[8]][The second entry refers to Ren Jianyu, a local official sent to re-education for online speech, against whom a T-shirt he had worn was submitted as evidence.]

The cover says, "From now on, any house without a book of Mo Yan's should be ashamed to have company."

Some felt that Mo Yan had been a bit too successful in living up to his pen name. Some renewed their criticism of Mo Yan for participating in a group of writers who, for commemorative purposes, teamed up to copy by hand an old speech in which Chairman Mao made clear his position that art was subservient to state interests. @许纪霖 fumed, ”Mo Yan was not even able to abide by his own literary beliefs.” 

Perhaps mindful of this fact, liberal blogger Zhao Chu (@赵楚) tweeted a searing criticism of Mo, writing: “After Mo Yan got the award he told Phoenix television: ‘This is an age where you can speak freely.’ This is an outright lie, in a country where even an essay written in praise of [Mo Yan's] receiving the award get censored, [when] his Nobel predecessors [Gao Xingjian and Liu Xiaobo] are either kicked out of their mother country, or destined for jail, [when] so many tweets and accounts are deleted from Weibo every day, how shameless and lacking conscience does a Nobel Laurete author have to be to say this?” {{9}}[[9]]莫言在获奖后接受凤凰卫视采访时说:“这是一个可以自由发言的时代”,这是一句地地道道的谎话,生活在一个连获奖的赞扬评论都被勒令撤版的国家,面对他前任的获奖者或被驱离祖国,或在狱中的命运,面对微博上每天这么多删帖和注销账户,一个诺贝尔桂冠作家,要多无耻、多昧着良心才能说出这句话?[[9]]

That may have been a bit too harsh. @吴铭 lept to Mo’s defense: ”‘I think whether [people are] praising me or criticizing me online, they all have their reasons. This is an age where you can speak freely, everyone can express their view of an author and an author’s work. So praise is fine, criticism is fine, I’m thankful to them all.’ This is the original quote, and critics should not distort it.” {{10}}[[10]]莫言获奖后,对凤凰卫视表示:“我觉得不管是在网上挺我的还是在网上批评我的,都有他们的道理。这是一个可以自由发言的时代,每个人都可以表达自己对一个作家,对一个作家的作品的看法。所以挺我也好,批评也好,我都非常感谢他们。” 原话如此,批评者不应曲解。[[10]]

But Zhao’s angry tweet, which was re-tweeted and discussed by the thousands, struck a nerve in part because of its reference to Mo’s “Nobel predecessors” in China, one of whom is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, still-imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The legacy of Liu Xiaobo

Although this author found no netizen who dared to write Liu’s name, its ghostly outline was easily visible between many of their words. Netizens seemed to be saying that Mo was to some extent now responsible for using his newfound influence to push for Liu’s freedom. Professor He Weifang (@贺卫方) wrote, “We Chinese can [win more than] the Peace Prize after all. … I also look forward to Mr. Mo closely watching the freedom of his Nobel predecessor.” {{11}}[[11]]【祝贺莫言先生】虽然对他不久前参加手书《讲话》颇遗憾,但获诺贝尔文学奖还是值得真诚祝贺,毕竟我们中国人不能只奔着和平奖而去啊。《檀香刑》我没能读完,情节太残忍。这里要追贺吉林大学,那是中国唯一培养了诺奖获得者的大学,母校不该当做禁忌。也期盼莫先生关注前一位获奖者的自由。[[11]] Netizen @南云楼- played off of Mo Yan’s name, writing: “The four Chinese Nobel prize winners can be classified as: Do not bring up, Do not discuss, Do not talk, Do not speak” {{12}}[[12]] 四位获诺贝尔奖的中国人分别是:莫提、莫讲、莫说、莫言。[[12]] [referring to the Dalai Lama, Gao Xingjian, Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan].”

Those were the days -- Mo Yan with Director Zhang Yimou and Actors Jiang Wen and Gong Li on the set of 1988 film Red Sorghum, adopted from Mo Yan's novel

@多家大小姐 could not help but notice the contrasts between Mo and Liu’s fates. She wrote: “If Mo Yan wins the prize, perhaps he’ll also get: A promotion to the chairmanship of the Chinese Writers’ Association [he is now vice-chairman], a 300-square meter government-supplied flat, a solution to his father and brother’s rural residency issues, three days of fireworks and flags from the government in his hometown, signs in his old elementary school and high school saying ‘Mo Yan [was] one of our prize students,’ and media will closely dig up everything he’s ever done to write ‘Mo Yan: The Literary Master Who Moved an Age.’ I immediately think of another Chinese Nobel winner [and how he's been treated].” {{13}}[[13]]如果莫言得奖,他或许将收获:提拔莫言为作协主席,政府提供的300平米的房子一套,解决他父亲哥哥的农村户口问题,当地政府挂彩旗放鞭炮三天,莫言就读的中小学挂横幅“莫言是我校的好学生”,媒体紧跟指令深挖莫言的各种事迹写成《莫言:感动时代的文学大师》。突然想起另外一位中国诺奖获得者。[[13]]

If the reaction among Weibo influencers is any indication, the Nobel crown will hit heavy upon Mo Yan’s now-enwreathed head. He will be asked to stand not just for Chinese literature, but for China–its rise, its future, and its past sins. Mo will need a lot of help to reach these lofty (and unreasonable) expectations, but at least China’s mainstream media is doing its near-term best. And perhaps perception, in China’s media environment, is almost as good as reality. @祝捷 noted wryly, “It doesn’t matter what the Nobel [committee] says, the important thing is whether Chinese Central Television admits it!” {{14}}[[14]]莫言获奖告诉我们,诺贝尔奖宣布谁获奖并不重要,重要的是CCTV承认哪个![[14]]

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.lowsen Ben Lowsen

    “no netizen who dared to write Liu’s name” … or no flaw in the Great Firewall that let it through!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.lowsen Ben Lowsen

    “no netizen who dared to write Liu’s name” … or no flaw in the Great Firewall that let it through!

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  • Pingback: Nobel per la Letteratura a Mo Yan, rassegna stampa | Metropoli d'Asia

  • http://squalidoffice2091.wordpress.com modern day hero

    However, his detention has not stopped Xiaobo from acting as an outspoken critic of Chinese authorities.

    “Let each one of us build bridges rather than barriers, openness rather than walls. Earlier today, the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared Liu Xiaobo the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

  • Expat in awe

    I’ve lived in China for 8 years, and truthfully, the “us vs. them” mentality plus the idea that everything is a competition is making me tired.

    Really, no one here even coughs if it won’t benifit them. Never mind do something, anything. And if it was possible to get money from coughing, you bet they wouldn’t even cough until you gave them a fen.

    Then, the coughs would be touted as “Great Ancient Chinese Culture” with questions like “Do you cough in the west? Really? Well Chinese coughed first” (the competition sets in)

    It doesn’t suprise me that many folks are looking for reasons as to why he won, here, nothing is real. Everything is bought and paid for, either with hard cash or Guan XI, a complex system of famous, face saving, manipulation and extortion. Yes, looking gift horses in the mouth, bringing along dentists then complaining because you must want something if you are giving the horse away I’d completely acceptable here.

    I feel bad for Mo Yan, as he’d obviously done something special, only to have his very motivations questioned, and the validity of his winning questioned as well. Those who accept it feel it’s all of China who accomplished this, not he himself.