莫言 (don’t speak)

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 was awarded to the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who—in the words of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize—”with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Mo Yan, Nobel Prize in Literature 2012

Mo Yan

It’s both the history and the contemporary that have made this a controversial award. Mo Yan—a pen name meaning ‘don’t speak’—writes ‘inside the system’ of authoritarian Communist Party rule in China, avoiding the sort of criticism of the government that has led other Chinese writers into exile. This is why the award is contentious in contemporary cultural politics: Salman Rushdie, on his Facebook page, called Mo Yan a “patsy of the régime” for refusing to sign a petition of other Nobel laureates calling on the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, who won the Peace prize in 2010. But other writers have also observed that Mo Yan’s vision of twentieth-century Chinese history is problematic. His early novel Red Sorghum, set in the 1930s and 40s “portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts” (and he got into trouble for it); but when his century-spanning historical panoramas reach the period after the Communists themselves took power, they’re much more careful not to offend: no words for the dead of the ‘Great Leap’ famine of 1959–62, or the Cultural Revolution.

Perry Link, in an article in the New York Review of Books at the start of December, outlined both the contemporary politics of the award and the problems with Mo Yan’s version of history, asking “Does this writer deserve the prize?” In response, Charles Laughlin and Pankaj Mishra, from different angles, have defended Mo Yan—or at least, offered some thoughts to give his detractors pause; more recently, Link has answered them. The debate is worth a read for anyone who’s interested in the intersection of politics, literature, and history.

(The real venue for this controversy, of course, is not the pages of western literary journals and political websites but the Chinese blogosphere and Weibo: that link, for Sinophone readers, should bring up search results for Mo Yan—莫言.)

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