Mo Yan’s Magical Realism and China’s Proudest Nobel Prize

In 2010 Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Piece prize much to the dismay of the Chinese government. They labeled Xiabo’s accomplishment as a western propaganda tool designed to undermine the authority of their government. The New York Times reports that China retaliated against Norway, the country where the Nobel prizes are awarded from. Before that, the communist government also disowned Gao Xingjian when he won the Nobel Literature award in 2000 for absurdist dramas and fiction. Gao’s literature contained underpinnings of criticism for the government and have been since banned in the country. On Thursday, October 11, all distaste for the prize disintegrated when the 2012 Nobel literature prize was awarded to the world renowned Chinese author Mo Yan. Prime time television was interrupted, tabloids ran special coverage, the whole country stopped to praise and revel Mo Yan in his success. The People’s Daily, a Chinese state-run paper labeled the accomplishment “a comfort, a certification and also an affirmation — but even more so, it is a new starting point.” To the national spirit of China, an award they approve of proves their cultural credibility is on par with the west.

While Mo Yan’s work is approved of by the Chinese government he is in no way its pawn. A great deal of his work contains social criticism but in a seemingly non-political way. Some dissident Chinese writers take issue with Mo because he does not take an authoritative stand against the government and use his influence for a cause.

Mo’s work evokes incredible images of rural life in China incorporating fantastic elements like animal narrators and other techniques used by the South American magical realists. He embodies a styled “hallucinatory realism” by the Academy.

In 1955 the Nobel laureate was born Guan Moye in the eastern Shandong province of China. Moye was a teenage during the Cultural Revolution and left his schooling to work on a farm and then later in a cottonseed oil factory. While serving in the People’s Liberation Army, he began to write. Because he was writing from within the army he had to use a pseudonym and began to share his work under “Mo Yan” which means “don’t speak.” Of his name, Mo told a forum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011. At that time in China, lives were not normal, so my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and did not speak.”

Mo’s literature has been described as “big, bold works with florid, imagistic, powerful writing and strong moral core,” by Howard Goldblatt, Mo’s American translator and former research professor of East Asian Languages and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. But his great early works like The Garlic Ballads (1988) were slow to gain recognition as they were too biting and satirical to publish.

Other pieces of his work have received tremendous praise in the west. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out—a 500,000-word tome he wrote in 43 days with a brush, not a computer—is a story narrated by five animal reincarnations of a man controlled by Yama, the lord of the underworld. The story chronicle nearly all of the country’s revolutionary episodes acting like a fantastic documentary.

The Academy highlighted Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads and Big Breasts & Wide Hips. Red Sorghum is a complex tale of a young woman working at a sorghum distillery and explores the Japanese occupation of China and bandit culture.

It’s Mo’s unique viewpoint that Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, claims to be responsible for the accessibility and success of Mo’s work. “For a very long time Chinese realism was of a socialist realist persuasion, so it had to be filled with ideological and political messages,” Hockx told the New York Times. Mo uses amazingly real people opposed to the traditional socialist superheroes literature was filled with. But Mo also imbues rural China with mystical qualities of possibility and magic.

Mo believes his writing, and style opens up a new way of expressing and addressing the issues he grew up with and now witnesses in China. He said, “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.


“Mo Yan’s ‘Hallucinatory Realism’ Wins Lit Nobel,” NPR

“China’s Mo Yan Wins Nobel Literature Prize,” NY Times

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