All the hopeful fans of Haruki Murakami and Bob Dylan will have to put their party hats away. This year’s Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to Chinese author Mo Yan. Peter Englund, the head of the Swedish Academy, described Mo Yan as “an extremely original narrator” whose fiction fuses folktales with history and contemporary concerns.
The 57-year-old is the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2000, Gao Xingjian had been awarded the prize, but the China-born author has lived in France since 1987 and is a French citizen. The Swedish Academy’s decision to honour Xingjian, whose work is banned in China, was not appreciated by the Chinese government which disowned the prize.
Born in 1955 in the township of Gaomi, Mo Yan grew up in hardship. He was taken out of school at the age of 12 and made to graze cattle. At 20, he joined the People’s Liberation Army and his writing career began in 1981, when he was 26. In earlier interviews, he has said that he came up with the pen name Mo Yan, which translates to “don’t speak”, to remind himself to not be too forthright. His birth name is Guan Moye.
In his almost 30-year career, Mo Yan has written numerous short stories and novels. He is most widely known outside China for his novel Red Sorghum, which was adapted into an award-winning film and marked the directorial debut of Zhang Yimou.
His novel Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out was translated into English and nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. Before the Nobel was announced, Mo Yan had told media that he didn’t want to talk about the prize because anything he said would be criticised.
It’s possible that China’s Communist leadership may be mollified by the Nobel Prize being awarded to Mo Yan. Although Mo Yan has been critical of some government policies and a few of his books have been banned in China, the author maintains a careful relationship with the authorities. In the past, the Chinese writer Ma Jian has criticised Mo Yan for not showing solidarity with dissident artistes.
In 2009, Mo Yan pulled out of a seminar at the Frankfurt Book Fair when he learnt Chinese dissidents were allowed to participate in it. He articulated his stand in a speech delivered at the fair, in which he cautioned against “one uniform” expression of “criticism and indignation at the dark side of society”. “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,” he said, clearly placing himself in the second category.
There’s no doubt that Mo Yan enjoys a degree of acceptance from the Chinese government. Last year, he won China’s Mao Dun Literary Prize, which is a government-approved award. He also contributed to a book that commemorated Mao Zedong by printing a speech that Mao had given 70 years ago, setting down the parameters for China’s arts and literature.
Prior to the announcement of the Nobel, there was some speculation that Mo Yan was perhaps too close to the Chinese establishment to win the Swedish Academy’s favour. The assumption was that the Nobel would be awarded to a dissident author, but the Swedish Academy seems to have chosen to exercise diplomacy by selecting a Chinese writer who is careful in his critique and isn’t radical or outspoken in his support of those protesting against the present Chinese leadership. Among those to express their disappointment was Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei who said that the Nobel committee’s decision reflected “bad taste”.