Mo Yan: China's reluctant Nobel laureate

By Yuwen Wu
BBC Chinese

  • Published
mO yAN
Image caption,
Mo Yan is known as a man who shuns the limelight

On 11 October, when the Nobel Committee announced that they had decided to award this year's Nobel Prize for Literature to Mo Yan, the Chinese writer was in hiding in his hometown Gaomi, of Shandong province, some 600km (370 miles) from Beijing.

As there had already been intense speculation that he was the front-runner, Mo Yan braced himself for the media storm that confirmation of the win would bring.

With lightning speed it came. In the evening, up to 100 Chinese and foreign journalists converged on the village, some camping outside his house, all eager to hear from the first Chinese Nobel winner that the country could openly celebrate.

In a hastily-convened press conference, Mo Yan expressed his happiness and surprise at the win; he thought his works might have struck a chord with the committee because they reflected ordinary people's lives, Chinese culture and the national spirit.

He was asked about Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Mo Yan said he read some of his works in the 1980s, but not much after Liu turned to politics.

Mo Yan hoped Liu could be released soon, and that Liu could carry on with his research and writing. Mo's remarks were widely reported by the foreign media, but not in the Chinese media.

The Mo Yan band wagon

A man who shuns the limelight, Mo Yan hoped that the hype would die down in a month so he could return to writing.

But the country of 1.3bn people appears determined to celebrate him for as long as possible.

Messages of congratulation have poured in from high-ranking officials, fellow writers and ordinary people alike.

His village plans to renovate the Mo Yan Literature Museum, name the local primary school after him, and build a statue; they also hope to develop a themed tourist route, with lots of red sorghums planted along the way in a nod to one of his most famous novels.

A post office issued commemorative stamps, and Mo Yan's name and image have appeared in a wide range of products, from T shirts to spirit bottles.

After the writer expressed a desire to use his prize money to buy a house in Beijing, internet users advised him that 7.5m yuan ($1.2m, £750,000) wouldn't go very far, and a billionaire offered Mo a free house, which he declined.

Within days, his novels and short stories were flying off the shelves so quickly that they were out of stock in quite a few cities. And there have been two cases of copyright violations, in an attempt to cash in on his fame.

Fame has brought benefits as well headaches. A recent rich list of Chinese writers shows Mo Yan as the second richest writer in China, with annual royalties of $3.45 million in 2012.

So what does the man himself make of it all? When asked by the Chinese Central TV station if he was happy, Mo Yan replied: "I don't know".

"I am under a lot of pressure, and feeling very anxious. How can I be happy?" he explained.

"But if I say I am not happy, then it is a bit disingenuous. I just won the Nobel Prize, how can I say I am not happy"?

At his press conference on 6 December in Stockholm, he stressed that the Nobel Prize is a personal honour given to an individual rather than a country. This has gone down well with Chinese microbloggers who welcomed it as a departure from the default mode of "thanking my country".

True to his roots

Mo Yan was born in 1955 into a large peasant family, and like many of his generation he suffered the pain and anguish brought about by political turmoil as well as natural disasters.

He is quoted as saying that hunger and loneliness are his inspiration for writing, and indeed the majority of his writing is about rural life.

In a prolific career spanning 30 years, Mo Yan has produced 11 major novels, some 30 long stories and around 80 short stories.

There is no question that Mo Yan is held in high regard by many of his fellow writers.

Famous Chinese author Wang Meng says that Mo Yan is a representative writer of his generation; while Gao Hongbo says that Mo Yan's understanding of the Chinese culture is second to none. Writer Su Tong thinks Mo Yan won entirely on the merits of his writing.

But there has been criticism too.

Liao Yiwu, a dissident writer in Germany, says he is shocked that Mo Yan won, because he is too closely associated with the establishment.

UK-based writer in exile Ma Jian criticizes Mo Yan for not shouldering social responsibilities, as a famous writer can.

Others feel Mo Yan is too eager to please the authorities, citing his offer to copy Mao Zedong's work by hand in 2012 as an example.

Yet others try to understand Mo Yan as a writer and as a human being.

They think that Mo Yan avoids taking a political stand or criticising the government in order to survive in China, but he seems to be extremely critical of government policies in many of his literary works. Isn't that the way the majority of intellectuals live in China, they ask.

Mo Yan seems to be fully aware of the criticism and comments. He said in the Gaomi press conference that if the critics had read his works, they would have realised that he was writing under tremendous pressure, and he was taking a huge risk.

At the press conference in Stockholm on 6th December, Mo Yan refused to comment on Liu Xiaobo. When pressed on the matter by a Taiwanese journalist a stern-faced Mo Yan replied: "I have always been independent; if people want to force me to express an opinion, I won't do it".

This will be disappointing for those who hoped that with the Nobel under his belt, he would be more willing to take risks and take a stand on social issues,

The huge expectations piled on a Chinese Nobel laureate will be something Mo Yan just can't shake off.