The Quiet Man of Chinese Letters

Should we condemn Mo Yan for failing to speak out?


Mo Yan, the first non-imprisoned, non-émigré Chinese to win a Nobel Prize, straddles the line between critical and Communist Party success. His books are brilliant; his prose trembles with vivacity and his characters are astonishingly self-aware as they wallow in their own excess. A Ph.D. student in liquor studies falls in love with his mother-in-law. Cadres braise human babies and eat them at banquets. A peasant rapes a woman, marries her, and then improves her liquor distillery by pissing into the batch. Existentially stressed, they eat, drink, and screw, as the politics that shapes their lives lurks in the background.

China’s Nobel laureate selected Mo Yan as a pen name; it literally means "Don’t Speak." He doesn’t. Like the characters he depicts in his novels, Mo does not resist the Communist Party’s control over his public life. He is vice-chairman of the government-run Chinese Writers Association; in the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo joined the official delegation in boycotting events in which dissident writers appeared. ("I had no choice," he later said in an interview.) This year, he participated in a book project in which he hand-copied a speech Mao Zedong gave decreeing that writing must serve the Communist Party.

Some Chinese liberals and dissidents criticized the selection; one prominent writer and democracy activist, called Mo a man with "no principles." In a news conference after winning the prize, Mo said he hoped Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently imprisoned in China, "can regain his freedom very soon" but added that if freed "he can study his politics and his social system," seemingly asking dissident Liu to rejoin the fold.

Should we condemn Mo for failing to speak out for injustice? Maybe. Liu Xiaobo’s limitations as a writer didn’t detract from his peace prize; do Mo’s politics disqualify his works of literature? Mo’s characters, perhaps modeled after himself, are unable to speak out: They are too distracted, too manic — often either famished or bursting, liquor-starved or raucously drunk. In his novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a nurse survives the famine of the Great Leap Forward by trading sex for steamed buns. We see light haloing her face, puffy from starvation, "as if coating it with the blood of a dog." Mo appears as a character in The Republic of Wine as a feckless author who "can’t believe" he drank himself to death. The book’s drunken anti-hero Ding Gou’er can’t keep his appetites in check enough solve the corruption case he’s ordered to investigate. He may have munched on a cooked baby at a banquet, and he sees a group of children and thinks of them as "just like a skewer of roast lamb, basted and seasoned."

Mo knows the excess and depravation that instability brings. Born in 1955, he was a child at the start of the Great Leap Forward, one of the darkest chapters of China’s history. In a 1997 autobiographical essay entitled "I Can’t Forget About Eating," Mo recalls, in almost jocular manner, the famine that swept China from 1959-1961, in which tens of millions of people starved to death. "The best thing to do when someone died was to drag him out and let the dogs first eat him … this was a golden age for dogs." Mo was one of the children foraging for insects to eat, with "swollen bellies and legs like sticks, and their brains were enlarged with queer ideas."

Mo’s characters are still stuck in this oral stage: Their lives revolve around food, liquor, violence, and sex. In Garlic Ballads, peasants makes love in the garlic fields and sing songs in praising garlic; even a lightbulb is described as "shaped like a head of garlic." In Republic of Wine, one character states that "people who are strangers to liquor are incapable of talking about literature." In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, the narrator, even as a teenager, receives his sustenance from breast milk and cannot move beyond the body. Sex-starved, he ends up imprisoned for screwing a corpse.

Mo’s fiction is rich because it subtly captures the compromises and monstrosities of Communist China. And perhaps Mo, in his silence, fears what happened to Ding, who suffers a very MoYanian ending: After finally deciding to really investigate what’s happening around him, he gets drunk and confusedly shoots two people. Stumbling around, he spots a ship on which he sees a group of officials about to feast on a human baby. "I protest!" Ding screams. He rushes towards the boat, only to stumble into an open-air toilet, whose refuse he compares to "warm, vile porridge." As he sinks, "the sacred panoply of ideals, justice, respect, honor, and love" accompanies Ding to the bottom.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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