Mo Yan: Chronicler of a turbulent Chinese century

AFP, Friday 7 Dec 2012

The 57-year-old, whose real name is Guan Moye, is perhaps best-known abroad for his 1987 novella 'Red Sorghum', a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the eastern China countryside in the 1920s and 30s

Mo Yan has focused an unflinching eye on what he calls the darkness and ugliness of 20th-century Chinese society in a prolific writing career that brought him the 2012 Nobel prize for literature.

Mo Yan, one of China's leading writers of the past half-century, became the first Chinese national and only the second Chinese-language writer to be awarded the coveted honour.

The 57-year-old, whose real name is Guan Moye, is perhaps best-known abroad for his 1987 novella "Red Sorghum", a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the eastern China countryside -- where he grew up -- during the 1920s and 30s.

The story was later made into an acclaimed film by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

In a style which was influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan authored other acclaimed works including "Big Breasts and Wide Hips", "Republic of Wine" and "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out".

He has also written dozens of other novels, novellas, and short stories, generally eschewing contemporary issues in favour of China's tumultuous 20th century, in tales often infused with politics and a dark, cynical sense of humour.

The backdrops for his various works have included the 1911 revolution that toppled China's last imperial dynasty, Japan's brutal wartime invasion, newly Communist China's failed land reform policies of the 1950s and the madness of Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Touching on such eras means flirting with crossing the thin line that divides what is acceptable and what is politically taboo for the Communist Party.

His latest novel, 2009's "Frog", is considered his most daring yet, with a searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who ruthlessly implement it with forced abortions and sterilisations.

The heroine of the novel is a midwife who breaks down in remorse after a drunken hallucination in which she is attacked by thousands of frogs whose croaks are the wails of the babies she has aborted.

Despite such content, Mo Yan has so far deftly managed to avoid running into serious trouble with Communist authorities.

But political activists have branded him a stooge for the ruling party, stepping up their criticisms after he clinched the prize.

Mo Yan is vice chairman of the state-sanctioned Chinese Writers' Association and has supported official policies on art and culture, which state that they must serve the socialist cause -- and, by extension, not threaten Communist Party rule.

After winning the award he strove to separate his work from politics, saying it was "a literature victory, not a political victory".

The writer also surprised critics by responding directly to a question about jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. "I hope he can gain freedom as early as possible," he said of the dissident.

Chinese literary expert Eric Abrahamsen called Mo Yan "a great writer" who tells "the 'big' stories of China, who's writing the Great Chinese Novel".

"So many of modern China's stories are political in nature, simply because politics has shaped so much of recent Chinese history and society," he said.

"That inevitably means he's going to write about politics. He's also very canny about what can and can't be written."

Mo Yan has long trodden a fine line between criticising China's political establishment and cooperating with it, said Ma Xiangwu, a literature professor at the People's University in Beijing.

"For a long time Mo has occupied a position within the system, but not totally within it," he said. "His works are often very critical of society and politics -- he's too complex to be put in a box."

Mo was born in east China's Shandong province and began writing while serving in the People's Liberation Army in the early 1980s -- choosing Mo Yan, or 'Don't Speak', as a pen name.

The author has said it refers to being told to pipe down as a chatty child, but also to writers letting their works do the talking for them.

He has occasionally had individual books banned, but his most important works have largely remained in print and many have been translated into English and other languages.

His Nobel win was touted by China as a victory for the state literature policy of the Communist Party, which can also muzzle critical voices.

He was "overjoyed and terrified" at the award, he said. "Winning the Nobel prize has stunned me, as I always thought it was very distant for me," he said in a recorded interview posted on the Nobel prize website.

State-run media were effusive, hailing him as China's first Nobel literature prize winner. Chinese-born Gao Xingjian -- whose works were banned in China -- won the 2000 literature award, but as a French national.

Beijing loudly denounced Gao's Nobel, as it did Liu's 2010 award and a previous peace prize given to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in 1989.

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