[The following is an op-ed, and does not necessarily express the opinions of the editors.]
The controversy surrounding Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize in Literature quieted somewhat in the last couple of months as more pressing news of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition took precedence. However, as soon as the new laureate landed in Stockholm earlier last week to receive his prize on Monday, the controversy flared again as Mo Yan took to the world stage and failed to deliver the critical statements about China that have been expected of him since his Nobel win was announced.
Mo Yan had already drawn considerable fire for remarks made at a press conference last Thursday, in which he stood with the Chinese government’s position that defamation and rumors should be censored by comparing such censorship to airport security measures. He also refused to sign a petition with over 130 of his fellow Nobel laureates calling for the release of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. That same day, the Associated Press was able to pay a visit to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, during which she described the Kafka-esque conditions of her husband’s imprisonment and her house arrest.
The disappointment of the international community was all the more acute because Mo Yan was widely reported to have said, at a much more jubilant press conference shortly after his win was announced in October, “I hope he [Liu Xiabo] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.” Many had dared to hope this meant Mo Yan would use his new status to be politically bolder, but in truth he had immediately corrected himself by adding, “achieve his freedom in good health as soon as possible.” Not quite the same.
Small wonder, then, that Mo Yan sounded empty when he claimed on Thursday, “I have always been independent. I like it that way. When someone forces me to do something I don’t do it.” Indeed, Li Changchun, head of propaganda for the Communist Party at the time of Mo Yan’s win, made it clear in his congratulatory letter that the award was about “increasing the national strength and influence of China.” Between the lines of Li’s patriotic fervor was a coded reminder to Mo Yan not to disregard official positions on controversial subjects, and to further China’s efforts to increase its cultural prominence and soft power throughout the world.
While the international press skewered the latest Nobel laureate in literature for condoning the suppression of speech, the Communist Party was praying that the remainder of Mo Yan’s time in Stockholm—which would include a Nobel Lecture the China Daily had already predicted would be “historic,”—would not be yet another signal that China could never attain serious global admiration for its culture, no matter how desperately it wanted to. As was the case with his Nobel win, Mo Yan ultimately delivered the Party an ambiguous victory.
Mo Yan giving a Nobel Lecture in a Mao suit does not have the moral resonance of Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the Nobel award ceremony two years ago. But after hearing Mo Yan’s lecture, it is evident that his refusal to be appropriated by any cause or group is clearly instinctive, to the point that it would be prejudice to deny his passionate individuality.
Mo Yan began by giving a moving tribute to his mother and relating his difficult childhood in a poor village. He spoke of frequenting the village marketplace to hear the storytellers passing by, and how retelling their tales to his mother set him on the path to becoming a writer.
What seemed like a personal narrative, however, was full of digs at the Communist Party and, to a certain extent, Chinese society’s disregard for the individual. In keeping with his Chinese folk influences, Mo Yan’s stories are never merely narratives. They are meant to instruct. He was not shy about revealing the ravages of famine in his village and the cruelty of the watchmen who enforced Mao’s collectivist policies.
He ended his lecture with three parables that pundits in China have been widely discussing over the last few days. First, there was the boy who refused to cry when Mo Yan’s class was told to cry on a field trip to a memorial exhibit. Next, Mo Yan recalled one of his elderly superiors in the military asking, “Where is everyone?” when he walked into a seemingly empty room, to which Mo Yan replied, “Are you saying I’m no one?” And finally, he related the story of the eight men who had taken shelter in a temple from what they believed to be a supernatural storm and then forced one among them to step back outside as a sacrifice to appease the heavens. As soon as the lucky seven flung their offering out, the temple collapsed on them.
Mo Yan has repeatedly made clear throughout his career that he does not care much for rebels. He does, however, lionize individuals. In doing so, he presents a far less strident, but equally potent voice against the cynical collectivism promoted by the Communist Party. He uses seemingly innocuous Chinese folk storytelling to undercut the Party’s perversion of the traditional Chinese focus on the collective good for its own ends.
Not the most comfortable public speaker, Mo Yan nevertheless mustered his most forceful tone during the lecture to assert that literature must “not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.” He did not mean that he would never write about things that have political import. Rather, he meant he would never discuss them in political terms.
Such a fine distinction has been in turns labeled the “easy way out” as well as a pragmatic balancing act in the face of the “giant anaconda” of censorship. Though the territory between the two will never be as horrific as a jail cell or torture chamber, it is nevertheless a friendless place. As Mo Yan took several swipes at his critics for expecting him to be political or failing to read his works before judging him, he defiantly announced his intent to remain friendless. We can better understand, now, why Mo Yan has made it a point to remind Chinese journalists that this award is personal, not for China. His allegiances lie a little closer to home.