Mo Yan and the Nobel: Background information when reading Pow!

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by Mo Yan

Pow! by Mo Yan X
Pow! by Mo Yan
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2013, 440 pages
    Sep 2014, 392 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
Mo Yan and the Nobel

Print Review

Nobel Laureate Mo Yan Mo Yan is the pen name of Guan Moye. Born 17 February 1955, Guan was the fourth child of farmers in Gaomi township in Shandong province in the northeast part of China. He says of his childhood:

"When I started forming memories, it was the most difficult time in China's history. Most people were starving at the time. People led a tough life. People starved to death all the time, even in my village. I think that children's memories from such times can be haunting. I remember that there were many children in the village. When the sun came out in winter, we all sat by a wall and bathed in the sun. Our clothes were all torn and ripped. We were barely covered. We also had bloated stomachs, because of lack of nutrients. Our legs and arms were thin, like those typical for starved children."
"I was quite naughty when I was in primary school and I was expelled in fifth grade. But I couldn't join the adult workforce after the expulsion because I didn't have much work ability. So I herded cattle and sheep alone. In such a solitary environment one has only the animals and the plants to talk to. I think the kind of childhood I had was quite unique."

He goes on to claim that the loneliness he experienced while herding animals plus the intimate relationship he established with nature helped form him into the writer he eventually became. He also credits the presence of banished intellectuals in his rural village with planting the idea of becoming a writer:

"One of them used to tell me, that he had known a writer who lived lavishly and would eat dumplings three times a day. Families like mine would only have dumplings during the Spring Festival, so only once or twice a year. But here was someone who had dumplings three times a day! We were in disbelief. We thought not even a king could live such a life. But as a writer, he could. So I asked him, "If I could write books, would I be able to live such a life, too?" "But of course", he said. So that was my first reason for writing."

Guan worked for a time in an oil factory, leaving at the age of 20 to join the People's Liberation Army. It was while he was a soldier that he began writing. In 1984 he obtained a teaching position at the Department of Literature in the Army's Cultural Academy, the same year in which he published his first novella: A Transparent Radish.

The author adopted his pen name in the mid-80s. "Mo Yan" literally means "don't speak." He has said he chose this sobriquet as a way to honor his parents' teachings. As he was growing up they frequently admonished him to not speak his mind outside the house because of China's dangerous political climate. He also asserts the name "is a kind of reminder and encouragement to myself. I think, if one wants to be a writer, one must speak less and write more. Talking exhausts energy and is time-consuming. If one puts the time and energy spent on talking into writing one can write more. So part of the pen name's meaning is to encourage myself to work hard."

A prolific writer, Guan is best known in the West for his 1986 novel Red Sorghum, parts of which were later adapted for the film Red Sorghum. The book portrays the hardships endured by farmers in the early years of Communist rule. His style has been referred to as both "magical realism" and "hallucinatory realism," and has been compared to the writings of Franz Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He cites William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as an early influence.

Guan's writings have garnered many literary accolades. He was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 for Big Breasts and Wide Hips. He won China's major literary prize, the Mao Dun in 2010 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

The award of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan has generated a lot of discussion and controversy. The Chinese government was thrilled; the only previous Chinese winners were anti-Communist dissidents (Gao Xingjian, who won the literary award in 2000 after emigrating to France, and Liu Xiaobo who won the Peace Prize in 2010 while jailed for his anti-government views). The ruling Politburo went out of its way to hail the decision, and a week after the award announced plans to spend $110 million to transform Mo Yan's home village into a "Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone."

Members of the dissident community have condemned the award, however. A long-standing member of the Communist Party and Vice President of the state-sponsored China Writers' Association, Mo Yan is said to write "within the system" (i.e., in a manner approved of by the Communist Party officials and which avoids criticism of Chinese authorities). He actively supports censorship; according to The Guardian he said that while it should not stand in the way of the truth, defamation and rumors "should be censored" – "but I also hope that censorship, per se, should have the highest principle". He has also compared censorship to airport security: "When I was taking my flight, going through the customs ... they also wanted to check me even taking off my belt and shoes. But I think these checks are necessary." Finally, he has refused to sign a petition calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo, which has earned him the scorn of other writers, both Chinese and Western.

The criticism doesn't seem to bother the author. As he famously stated, the Nobel "is an award for literature, not politics."

A full text of Mo Yan's Nobel lecture can be found here.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated for the September 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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