Mo Yan: Frenemy of the State

The Nobel Prize winner and Chinese literature's statist soul

The ceiling of the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing. (Wikimedia)

The occidental commentariat was set abuzz this month as Mo Yan -- Communist Party member, People's Liberation Army veteran, Vice-Chairman of the state-run China Writers' Association, boycotter of Chinese dissidents in Frankfurt, avoider of hot topics in London, and noted "no comment"-er on the plight of countryman Liu Xiaobo - won the first-ever Nobel awarded to a citizen of the People's Republic residing inside China but outside jail. The Nobel citation sketched Mo as a rural writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary."

Most Western ink spilled over Mo's supposedly cozy relationship with China's authoritarian Party-state. Canada's Globe and Mail hailed "A Nobel laureate the Chinese Politburo can love." Le Monde of France described Mo as someone "suspected of collaboration with the regime" who had "participated in an homage to Mao Zedong." Italy's Repubblica tapped the same vein of disbelief, suggesting that "Mo Yan is organic to the system" and quoting another prominent verdict: "the artist Ai Weiwei, one of Beijing's most nettlesome critics, said [of Mo]: 'part of the system.'"

Die Welt, meanwhile, bemoaned "the triumph of China's global soft-power strategy," and contended that "the literature Nobel prize for...Mo Yan is an affront." Brazil's weekly Veja, itself once censored by a military regime, carried a story noting that the "Chinese writer has drawn criticism" for his "closeness to the Communist Party," and implied guilt by association: "Chinese Communist Party propaganda chief Li Changchun congratulated Mo Yan for his literature Nobel."

Mo's call -- at a journalist's prompting-- for the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was regarded by some as too little, too late for an "establishment" figure who, despite the occasional banned book, thrives in and is celebrated by the system.

While noting Mo's "wide-ranging, earthy writing [on] even such sensitive matters as forced abortions," theInternational Herald Tribune hinted at Mo's being an apologist-intellectual like Ezra Pound or Jean-Paul Sartre: "was he, even then, under a kind of spell?" The paper quoted Gao Xingjian, the 2000 literature laureate whose dissident stature and French citizenship made him ineligible for recognition as a "Chinese" winner back home: writers need "'total independence' to create [...] 'eternal'" literature. "What is the relation between officials and literature?" Gao asks. "Nothing... They have nothing to do with literature, especially with literature [...] Where can officials and literature be connected? Nowhere. ... And if they are, then it's merely official literature, and that's a really laughable thing. So literature shouldn't be organized by officials."

Just don't tell that to Tang dynasty wordsmiths Li Bai and Du Fu, or the historian Sima Qian, painter-poet-calligraphers Su Dongpo and Ouyang Xiu, 11th-century public-interest crusader Bao Zheng, or prominent 2nd-century BC anti-corruption activist Qu Yuan. And definitely don't tell noted itinerant philosopher Confucius.

Because if Mo Yan was indeed "under a spell," then China's indigenous literary pantheon is a rogue's gallery of delusionally craven collaborators, apologists, stooges, and sellouts. To a man, all trained for government service and either served as officials or aspired to become one. These writers are little known or read by Westerners -- or Western journalists posted to Beijing. But their literary legacy casts a longer shadow on modern China than the Voltaires or the Byrons who shape our post-Enlightenment notion of how a "writer" should behave. In the Chinese tradition, literature does not exist as a sphere outside the state: literature is the state. Or rather, the state is literature itself.

If Mo Yan was indeed "under a spell," then China's indigenous literary pantheon is a rogue's gallery of delusionally craven collaborators, apologists, stooges, and sellouts.

The earliest Chinese writing -- carved into bones, bronzes and bamboo -- obsesses over forms of ideal rulership. Confucius spent his entire career traveling from kingdom to kingdom peddling his philosophy to various monarchs and seeking a court perch, the better to expound on political meanings of ancient poems. A few centuries later, the famous Imperial Examinations further cemented the link between a tiny literate elite, government service, and an orthodox canon of Confucian political thought.

For a family with a bright son and money for tutors, there was no realistic alternative to the prestige of government position. As literatus-in-chief, the emperor himself oversaw the system's highest rungs, personally approving abstruse exam questions on Confucianism's finer points. Even for those who failed, indoctrination in the exams' orthodoxy still defined the acceptable purpose, parameters and precedents of literary activity. Rejects still wrote, tutored, and aspired to the refined ideal of a long-gowned literatus, like Lu Xun's pathetic protagonist Kong Yiji. And for well over a millennium before their 1905 abolition, the Imperial Exams and Confucian classics remained a cultural gyroscope of remarkable stability, a civilizational compass for the literati ruling class that survived wars, revolutions, barbarian invasions, and numerous dynastic collapses.

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Nick Frisch is a writer and translator in Hong Kong. He has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

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