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China: Intellectuals Debate Politics of Nobel Prize in Literature

Thanks to its space project, Olympic Gold medals, and economic development, China has bolstered its image around the world as a strong country. The fact that China has surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world gives confidence to the Chinese government. However, in the area of culture and arts, it has lagged behind.

Many had lamented its failure to win the Nobel Prize in Literature despite its 5,000 years of civilization and history. On one hand, pro-government intellectuals had questioned the judgment of the Nobel Prize committee, but on the other hand, they had sought the recognition of Chinese arts and culture from their western enemies. So when the committee awarded Chinese writer Mo Yan the prize this year, their hearts, hardened by a long legacy of being snubbed by the prize organization, softened. Spring finally arrived.

Mo Yan

Mo Yan. Photo from Flickr User Isaac Mao. (CC: BY)

Many commentators have said that they believe the Nobel Committee for Literature did not take international politics into consideration when they made their decision. Chinese writer Guangdi reaffirmed [zh] Mo Yan's literary achievement:


Mo Yan is probably the most knowledgeable and hardworking writer in China. He has experimented on many different kinds of genre. His writing style is wild, powerful, magnificent and candid. It is yet too early to say if his works are deep as history will do the judgement. However, he is very productive and his works are of good quality. He keeps exploring new theme and genre. In that sense, no other contemporary writer can compete with him. Great writer should intervene into the society and explore human nature. Mo Yan's efforts and mastering of language is fully recognized.

However, some believe that Mo Yan is far from a great writer. For example, media worker Kai Feng pointed out [zh]:


Literature can have nothing to do with politics, but politics always invades literature. The fact that we are in a country which once promoted that “literature has to serve the worker, the peasant and the people's army” and still exercises full control over the literature sector, how can literature be detached from politics?

Indeed, when the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, top Chinese official Li Changchun, a steering member of Central Committee of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), issued a letter of congratulations to the Chinese Writer Association. That's why Kai Feng raised the question [zh]:


Can we evaluate a literary work just by its structure and syntax? The so-called “magical realism”? How about its soul? Its relation with the society? Its humanitarianism and aspiration for an ideal society?

Public skepticism towards Mo Yan stems from his membership to the CCP and his background as deputy of the Chinese Writer Association. Moreover, people are not happy about his refusal to attend a function in Frankfurt back in 2005, just because the organizer had also invited dissident writer Dai Qing. Many also find Mo Yan's participation in hand copying Mao Zedong's piece “Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art” in May 2012 a shameful act.

Some even compare Mo Yan with Haruki Murakami, a famous Japanese writer and another top candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and highlight Murakami's choice in “standing by the side of the eggs rather with the wall” [meaning standing by the side of the oppressed].'s columnist Zhu Zhenqiang is sympathetic [zh] to Mo Yan's position:


Mo Yan has been forced to live in a highly repressive and rigid political society. He needs to be smart in order to survive. He is a living reflection of those who are swimming in the muddy water of this muddy system.

Chen Geng another writer at also agreed [zh]:


We should not be too harsh on Mo Yan. All great people are just ordinary people and they have their weakness. Mo Yan is just one of them.

Chen believes that Mo Yan's Nobel Prize in Literature will put an end to the debate between Hu Shih who was influenced by western literature and Lu Xun who believed that literature is to serve the oppressed, that frames the development of Chinese contemporary culture.

What kind of person Mo Yan is? Xi Wai, who has known Mo Yan since he was a young writer, said that while Mo Yan is very timid and does not like speaking out, which is exactly what his name Mo [Do not] Yan [Speak up] means, he is also a funny big brother to his friends and remembers [zh] the time when they were together in a rural village:


The Party arranged us to experience the peasant's life in Kuan Dian. We lived in a peasant hostel, male and female in two different rooms. Before we went to sleep, the guys said Mo Yan claimed that to prevent fleas from settling onto their bodies, they had to sleep naked and sweep their bodies in the morning before they put on clothes. We laughed so hard in the girls’ room that night.

No matter if you like Mo Yan or not, he is the first Chinese person to win the Nobel Prize with the approval of the Chinese government. News about Mo Yan's writing to be included in elementary school textbook, or that Mo Yan's home county will develop “Red Sorghum” theme park, based on one of his novels, to attract tourists will keep on popping up. Mo Yan and his Nobel Prize have become a public issue and will continue to be heatedly discussed in both political and social circles. have collected the unprecedented debate about Mo Yan from the website and organized the discussions under the Nobel Prize Complex [zh] special feature page.

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