Hallucinatory Realism of Mo Yan, the First Official Chinese Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Duncan Hewitt on Mo Yan’s work and why his selection for the Nobel literature prize is being criticized.

Mo Yan’s pen name means Don’t Speak—his real name is Guan Moye—and the writer who has become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is a man of few words in public. Yet in print he is volubly expressive. Many observers—including some in China—may be surprised that popular Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami didn’t win this year’s award, but of contemporary Chinese authors, Mo Yan has long been seen as having perhaps the most realistic claim to the prize. From his early works such as Red Sorghum (1987) to Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2008), he has dedicated himself to creating his own unique literary world in his fiction.

The environment of Mo’s writing—often based around the rural landscapes of his home region, Shandong’s Gaomi County—is a frequently grotesque, sometimes mystical place in which the surreal routinely rubs shoulders with the banal and everyday. Announcing the award, the Nobel committee spoke of him as merging “folk tales, history, and the contemporary” with “hallucinatory realism”—and many have compared his view of the world to the writings of William Faulkner or the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even in his novel Red Sorghum, which details guerrilla resistance to the Japanese occupation of eastern China in the 1930s and ‘40s, the brutality of the conflict is mixed with a grim joie de vivre, symbolized by the mass consumption of grain spirits made from the sorghum which fills the local fields.

Mo Yan began writing while serving as a young soldier in the Chinese army, and his early short stories like “Flies” takes a surrealistic and sardonic look at military life. But it was Red Sorghum that cemented his place in Chinese popular culture—partially due to the wildly successful 1987 film version, the first big hit in the career of leading director Zhang Yimou. Mo Yan followed this with novels like The Garlic Ballads and The Republic of Wine, and his most recent, Wa, which looks at the impact of China’s one-child policy.

Howard Goldblatt, the U.S. translator of most of Mo’s major works, describes Mo Yan as “one of the great defamiliarizers: blood is green, children eat metal—he’s a fabulist in a way, it’s fantasy, but he connects it with reality in a way that you think, I can live with that.” Goldblatt, who expressed “delight” at Mo’s success, told The Daily Beast that Mo is a “really smart guy who loves to write. I love his work, and I really enjoy working on him: I’ve always loved bold, bawdy wordsmiths, like Dickens or Rabelais. Mo Yan’s strong point may not be so much his characters as his use of language and imagery, mixed with his satirical humor.”

Mo has over the years faced accusations of not giving women sufficient status in his books, a charge Goldblatt disputes. Goldblatt said that while there have been negative reviews, some people have also interpreted the book Big Breasts and Wide Hips—which Mo Yan dedicated to his mother—as a sign that he “really cares about women.” And he notes that the novel Sandalwood Death, due to be published in English soon, features a “young woman as a unifying character in the story.”

Goldblatt calls Mo an “autodidact” who dropped out of school at an early age and instead “picked up a rich storytelling tradition from his elders, his grandfather, and one of his uncles,” who used to tell him folk stories and fables when he was a child. “He knows so much about the writing tradition of Imperial China,” he adds. “In fact he once told me he has at least 300 old stories he still has to form into novels one day!”

Like many writers in China, Mo's career has been bound up with the official system. He studied at China’s official Lu Xun Writer’s Institute and more recently, faced criticism when he took part in an official Chinese delegation at the 2009 Frankfurt book fair—and joined most of its members in walking off stage when the journalist Dai Qing, (whose writing is banned in China) tried to ask a question. Mo has also been criticized this year after he took part in a book project commemorating Chairman Mao’s 1942 speech on literature and art, which many writers see as having led to the persecution of intellectuals and writers during the Maoist era. (Dai Qing told Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper today that the award of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan was “a joke.”)

And some critics of China’s record on freedom of expression have suggested that the Nobel committee may have been seeking to appease Beijing following China’s anger at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Goldblatt, however, calls Mo “a writer of conscience—but one who is also very familiar with the environment in which he works, in which he must always work.”

“In China, censorship really occurs at the level of the publishers—there are no censors standing around and no authors saying well what can I or what can’t I write,” Goldblatt said.

And while the Chinese authorities may now be able to revel in the fulfillment of the nation’s long-held dream of winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, some Internet users also took the opportunity to poke fun at the authorities, citing official Chinese commentaries denouncing the Swedish Academy as a “reactionary organization” in 2000, when the prize was given to Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born writer who became a French citizen because of political differences with the Chinese government. For once, Beijing will now find itself in the unusual—and potentially awkward—position of having to agree with the Nobel committee.