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China’s Literary Nobel Complex Is Defused

Today’s announcement that Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize is certainly historic. Since the 1980s, China has held a complicated “Nobel complex”—in which the nation’s consistent lack of a Nobel laureate in literature has elicited passionate discourses critiquing both the Nobel establishment (for not awarding China the prize) and China’s literary establishment (for not earning it). If anything, these conflicted attitudes were exacerbated when Gao Xingjian (a Chinese-born author, who at the time was already a naturalized French citizen and who explicitly distanced himself from Chinese discourses of cultural nationalism) was awarded the Nobel for Literature in 2000, and when Liu Xiaobo (a literary scholar who has established himself as a prominent human rights activist, and who is currently a political prisoner in China) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

China’s obsessive fascination with the Nobel Prize for literature actually predates the ’80s. As early as 1944, the acclaimed Chinese author and literary scholar Qian Zhongshu published a bitingly satirical story entitled “Inspiration,” about a fictional Chinese author who has his works translated into Esperanto in an attempt to increase his chances of winning the Nobel. The author’s failure to win the prize unleashes a media firestorm, and Qian Zhongshu’s protagonist passes away shortly afterwards (literally crushed under the sheer weight of his personal library). He is reincarnated as an “inspiration” for a young writer in the mortal world.

The 2006 novel by new Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, ends on a similar note. On the first day of the new millennium, the central character, Ximen Nao, a wealthy landowner who is executed in 1948 as part of Mao Zedong’s Land Reform Movement and subsequently reincarnated several times as various animals, is reincarnated one final time—as a human boy, who is described, in Howard Goldblatt’s authoritative English translation of the novel, as having “a remarkably big head in which near-total recall and an extraordinary gift for language existed.” This big-headed boy with preternatural literary abilities might be seen as an ironic reference to the “Mo Yan” character that inhabits this novel. But it could also be read as a commentary on the future promise of Mo Yan’s evolving oeuvre, together with that of the overall Chinese literary field.

Born Guan Moye in 1955 in the rural township of Gaomi in central China’s Shandong province, Mo Yan adopted his pen name (which literally means “do not speak”) when he began publishing fiction in 1981. Initially associated with the “Roots-Seeking” literary movement that flourished in China in the early ’80s, Mo Yan has displayed an impressive literary versatility, with many of his subsequent works foregrounding historical themes (his 2001 novel Sandlewood Death is set against the backdrop of the turn-of-century Boxer Rebellion), contemporary Chinese state policies (his 2009 novel Frog examines some of the consequences of China’s One-Child policy), or meta-fictional conceits (the fictional “Mo Yan” in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out and other novels).

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These dramatic shifts in literary tenor and focus are particularly evident if we compare Mo Yan’s novels Red Sorghum and Republic of Wine. Originally published as a short story in 1986 and, together with four other stories, republished the following year as a full-length novel, “Red Sorghum” (or Red Sorghum Family, as the novel was called) describes several generations of a family, focusing in particular on their travails during the War of Japanese Resistance and the ensuing Chinese Civil War. A bittersweet reflection on desire, survival, and betrayal, the novel is one of Mo Yan’s best-known works, thanks in part to the fact that the acclaimed Chinese cinematographer Zhang Yimou, in his directorial debut, adapted the novel into a feature film in 1987.

Five years later, Mo Yan published Republic of Wine—an elaborate meta-fictional work structured around an epistolary dialogue between a (fictional) “Mo Yan” and an enthusiastic fan of (the fictional) “Mo Yan’s” work, and particularly his novel Red Sorghum. The fan, who is a doctoral candidate in “liquor studies” whose passion for wine is rivaled only by his morbid fascination with cannibalism, hopes to become an author in his own right, though “Mo Yan” finds his stories to be virtually unreadable. “Mo Yan,” meanwhile, is attempting to compose a novel of his own, but is increasingly dissatisfied with how it is developing. Eventually “Mo Yan” abandons his work-in-progress, and—in a peculiar meta-textual twist—proceeds to step into a fictional space remarkable similar to that of the novel he was himself attempting to compose. 

At the same time, just as the central protagonist of Life and Death are Wearing Me Out preserves a core identity, Mo Yan the writer has similarly retained a core set of literary sensibilities. Virtually all his works are set in a rural region explicitly inspired by Shandong’s Northeast Gaomi Township, where Mo Yan himself was born and grew up. Most of his works feature a phantasmagoric fascination with corporeality—including injured, diseased, and eroticized bodies, and even themes of cannibalism. Many of his works feature innovative narrative structures, and often include a self-referential, meta-textual dimension.

Above all, his literature consistently attempts to present a candid glimpse of different facets of twentieth-century China, in all of its complexity. When the Swedish Academy praised Mo Yan’s oeuvre as being characterized by a “hallucinatory realism,” “a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives,” and ultimately yielding “a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez,” they recognized Mo Yan’s long-running literary project. The Chinese people can happily let go of their literary Nobel complex—a deserving literary hero has been duly commended.

Carlos Rojas is the author of The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity and the translator, most recently, of Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses.