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.

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.

This literature-government link permeates down to the most elemental levels of language and culture. Consider the ideogram 文 (wén). The character -- as resonant as "Tao" or "Ch'i" -- connotes writing, inscribing, delineating, patterning, ordering, rationalizing. It crops up in words relating to written language like 文章 (essay), 中文 (written Chinese),文盲, (illiteracy) and 文人, (a literatus). But it is also integral to words denoting systematized knowledge like "culture" (文化), "civilization" (文明), "civil servant" (文官), "astronomy" (天文), "hydrology" (水文) and the name of cultural progenitor and noted politician King Wen (文王; ca. 1152-1056 BC), famed for his orderly rulership and keen aesthetic sense. Emperor Qin Shihuang (antagonist of the 2002 Jet Li film Hero) was known for many brutal reforms in forging a centralized state.His standardizing writing across the empire is a tale often retold, as in a famous story analogizing court officials to writing brushes. The message: both are tools, to be used as vectors of state power.

In modern China, entire cities nearly shut down for the gaokao exam, the do-or-die college test that is the Imperial Exams' modern counterpart. References to tests and scholar-official culture likewise remain a staple of bedtime stories, soap operas, regional theaters, aphorisms, art, newspaper headlines, and even cuisine.

Diners nationwide still tuck into bowls of fondue-like "Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles." Legend credits the dish's invention to a dutiful wife hoping to keep ingredients fresh on the long walk to an isolated island where her husband crammed for the exams.

Once upon a time, official ceremonies announcing successful examinees positioned the highest-ranking applicant before a statue of the mythic turtle Ao. Today, the phrase "Standing alone by Ao" simply means excellence in any field.

Towns across China are still strewn with stelae commemorating local lads who triumphed in the exams and became famous officials. Even the Chinese analogue to English's "speak truth to power" presupposes a government stipend: "do not hold your tongue for five piculs of grain."

So what's a bureaucrat with a conscience to do? Through history, many scholar-officials have indeed piped up to criticize the emperor, often at the cost of their lives or genitals. But they are not "dissidents." Rather, the tradition allows for "loyal remonstrance," a far cry from critical fusillades launched from the comfort of a newspaper office or literary salon. At the most extreme, literary badboys like the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove will leave their posts for a forest exile, get drunk, and write poems bemoaning court corruption. But critiques are usually far more subtle, artfully tucked into poems or essays or missives to the throne, and rarely admitting even the slightest disloyalty. Outright subversion is taboo. It is instead assumed that the rulers would be virtuous if only they knew the truth. That spirit lives on in the hapless rural petitioners who converge on Beijing today, or in blind activist Chen Guangcheng's video plea recorded from the safety of the US embassy - to Premier Wen Jiabao. Among the biggest-selling books in China today are "officialdom fiction." These roman à clefs by Party insiders excoriate corruption - as Mo does in his novels - but rarely question the basic premise of authoritarian government.

Life for a modern writer like Mo Yan differs greatly from his lettered forebears. An early 20th-century modernist like Lu Xun could still write of neighbors' mockery after he forsook the Imperial Exams for Western-style education. Today, the system has passed from living memory (though a version for civil servants survives in Taiwan, whose autonomy preserves many traditions mutilated under Communism). Yet China remains infertile soil for the Voltairean axiom that an intellectual's integrity is inversely proportional to his proximity to power. Lu and his contemporaries Hu Shi, Guo Moruo, and Lao She all served various governments without stigma. Their reputations are intact today.

Mo's earliest memory is hunger during Great Leap Forward, a Maoist folly that became history's deadliest famine. It is too easy to scoff uncomprehendingly at his subsequent accommodations - how can he work for the same state that starved him as a child? That imprisons his fellow writers? But merely because Mo's "hallucinatory realism" is now judged to have universal value, it does not follow that he must answer to any ghosts or peoples other than his own.