The British historian John Keegan once wrote that the political history of the twentieth century could be approximated to the biographies of six men. Four of them (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao) embodied the totalitarian strain in the century, while the others (Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill) characterized the democratic impulses that would ultimately, if somewhat tentatively, prevail. A similar assertion could probably be made about China’s recent Nobel Laureates: 2000 Literature Laureate Gao Xingjian, 2010 Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and this year’s winner of the Literature prize, Mo Yan.
Gao, a pioneer of absurdist drama and strange, genre-defying prose, lives in exile. Liu, a poet, literary critic and human rights activist, is currently serving an 11 year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”. Only Mo (whose name is actually a pseudonym that means, suggestively, “don’t speak”) has managed to remain on cordial terms with Beijing.
A glimpse of Mo’s biography is enough to show that it has all the required experiences for a serious political novelist. Growing up poor and hungry in East China’s Shandong Province, Mo felt the full shock of Mao’s Cultural Revolution when he was forced out of school at the age of twelve and sent to tend cattle. Eager for the education just snatched from his grasp, Mo read voraciously. His nickname, incidentally, came from his parents’ warning that he should not speak his mind in front of the Maoist faithful, for fear of the repercussions.
Only when he joined the People’s Liberation Army, (PLA) at the age of 20 was Mo able to see the world beyond his village. He began writing in his mid-twenties and his reputation within China grew steadily, spreading abroad thanks to the efforts of a small group of dedicated translators. He is believed to be the most widely read Chinese author both within and outside of the country. With fame and prizes also came acceptance within the political establishment. Today Mo is vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers Association.
A translator’s preface to one of Mo’s best-known novels, “The Republic of Wine” (the Chinese title, Mingding guo, is closer to “republic of drunks”) observes that the book was originally “considered extremely subversive, and could be published in China only after a Taiwanese edition appeared in 1992).” The translator continues, “[b]eyond the characters’ preoccupation with food, drink, and sex, the satiric tone and fantastic occurrences, and the imaginative narrative framework” Mo’s text is replete with “puns, a variety of stylistic prose, allusions – classical and modern, political and literary, elegant and scatological – and many Shandong localisms.” In other words, the turgid social realism one might expect from an officially approved author has been leavened by other influences, the magical realism of Colombia’s Literature Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among the most noticeable.
Intriguingly, Mo has said that his style evolved partly to accommodate the pressures of China’s censors. Decades of educated guesswork have made him, and other Chinese authors, adept at telling truths aslant, transposing difficult questions – such as the notorious one-child-per-family policy – to contexts that conceal their political resonance. But while Mo seems to have learned how to outwit his censors, he has also shown a willingness to toe the party line. During the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which the Chinese delegation were special guests, Mo upheld a boycott of dissident Chinese authors, much to the chagrin of other writers who have spoken out against Beijing’s harsh treatment of political dissent. (At least 40 writers are currently imprisoned in China.) Equally worrisome has been Mo’s willingness to endorse the party line by hand-copying a fragment of a Mao talk at the Yenan Forum on literature and art, a speech that enjoined authors to “conscientiously learn the language of the masses” and to create literature and art that would advance political objectives rather than explore political realities.
Gao Xingjian famously burned a suitcase filled with literary manuscripts to avoid being punished during the Cultural Revolution. But he remained in China despite subsequent mistreatment at a re-education camp, leaving for exile in France only after the government banned one of his books in 1987. By contrast, Liu Xiaobo, one of the lead authors of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08, has accepted ill-treatment and incarceration as part of the price for political reform. His sangfroid, and charity, are quite extraordinary. Two days before receiving his inevitable prison sentence, Liu publicly stated: “I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.”
Judged within the context of his fellow Chinese Laureates, Mo Yan’s achievement remains precarious, a situation of which he seems fully aware. Despite being roundly criticized by well known political dissidents like Ai Weiwei – who called Mo’s Nobel ‘an insult to humanity and to literature – Mo has shown considerable courage in saying that he hopes Liu “can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.” A small utterance from a prolific writer — and one strangely at odds with his otherwise circumspect political conduct — but a bold move nonetheless. Beijing should display similar courage and release Liu Xiaobo. If nothing else, doing so would display a long overdue openness to one of the fundamental propositions in Charter 08, namely “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”