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An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee for Literature

November 25, 2012

In his letter, the exiled dissident Chinese writer Liao Yiwu raises questions about the character, as well as writings, of Mo Yan, the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Liao criticizes Mo Yan, an active participant in the 1989 Democracy Movement, for later avoiding the question of the military crackdown, and his indifference to “any concerns about abuses in China.” Regarding Mo’s writing, Liao says, “[Mo] is using translation language to tell Chinese stories that no longer taste Chinese.” In his conclusion, Liao agrees with Herta Müller, the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, that bestowing on Mo the Nobel Prize for Literature “is a catastrophe.” 

Berlin, November 25, 2012

An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee for Literature

Ladies and gentlemen of the Nobel Committee for Literature,

As an exiled Chinese writer, I understand that my personal feelings cannot be used as criteria for the Nobel Prize in literature. But despite that, please allow me to raise my serious doubts about the character, as well as the writings, of Mo Yan, the man you chose to be the recipient of 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.

As knowledgeable as you all are, it seems to me that you don't have a real sense of how much evil the Chinese Communist Party has done, and it is due to this deficiency that you ended up selecting Mo Yan, a writer who succeeded in becoming the deputy president of the Party-controlled China Writers Association. Knowingly or not, you are now sharing the same opinion of Mo Yan with the Chinese Communist Party. Here is how Li Changchun, the propaganda tsar of the party and a member of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee until last month, congratulated Mo Yan: Mo’s “victory reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing influence of China” (see appendix 1).

How many Chinese have died, and how many more have been stripped of their freedom to express and to believe, under the party's rule, in 1949, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1958 (the year I was born), 1959 to 1962, 1966, 1989, and until this day! As the guideline for how writers and artists should serve the Party, Mao's Talks at the Yen'an Forum on Literature and Art devastated several generations of Chinese writers, at least those who are guided by conscience, and effectively announced the death of Chinese literature. Yet one of your committee members, to my dismay, argues that the Talks was itself a good document, helped to produce literature of rural life such as that of Zhao Shuli and Sun Li, but was unfortunately misappropriated later. First of all, the so-called literature of rural life as represented by Zhao and Sun was in fact literature by assignment that served nothing else but the party’s agenda to re-mold the intelligentsia in the name of the proletariate. For example, do you consider Xiao Erher's Marriage literature? Mo Yan's participation in handcopying the Talks earlier this year is a matter of integrity. He did it of his own choice, while more than 20 writers in the CWA declined to do so, including Wang Anyi who was also a deputy president of the CWA. Mo Yan did it because he is a cynic, and the paragraphs he chose to handcopy reflected his desire to please the Party (see appendix 2).

He is said to have even penned a poem to sing Bo Xilai's praise when the latter was at the height of his power and fame (see appendix 3).

As writers of the younger generation have pointed out, over the course of 20 years since the June 4th Movement in 1989, Mo Yan has had a meteoric rise in the Party-controlled literary scene and commands an enormous audience, but he has never expressed any views or concerns about abuses in China either openly or inside the circle of writers.

In 1989, Mo Yan was an active participant in the street movement for freedom and democracy, but after the brutal crackdown, he quickly turned away. Similar to the case of Zhang Yimou, Mo Yan has also chosen to avoid the question of 1989. For Chinese intellectuals, this is the equivalent of Soviet Union writers shunning Stalin’s gulag and Jewish writers shunning the Holocaust. Instead, following Deng Xiaoping's call, Mo Yan chose the path to a "market economy with Chinese characteristics," a literary vulgarism similar to what Havel described in Czech society following the Prague Spring. So, the Party, in pursuit of maximum benefit, and the writers the party approves have found a partnership with the western capitalism in global dealings. Among them, Mo Yan has now set the new standard for “cynics have it all” with the enormous lift that the Nobel Prize is giving him.

To be fair, Mo Yan's writings do expose the ills of the regime, but it's limited to low-level governance, without questioning the root of communist rule. Local “irregularities” are often criticized by the central government anyway, and sometimes they become the necessary mirror held up to demonstrate the greatness of the Party above. Mo Yan also selectively exposes the darkness of Mao’s era, to the extent it is allowed, but leaves out the reality under newer leaders. It is a game safe to play but, at the same time, without losing claim on “moral judgment.”

As for his criticism of China's birth control policy, these days even the official media are denouncing brutalities perpetrated by local birth control officials. Besides, the policy itself has started to be relaxed in recent years. Again, it is a safe topic to write about.

Now, let me talk a little bit about the use of language. Since the New Cultural Movement in the early 20th century, China has produced many good writers, such as Shen Congwen, Qian Zhongshu, Zhang Ailing, etc. Their language, you can tell as soon as you sit down and read them, was born out of a rich background in classical literature. Then there were Ai Wu, Li Jieren, Lao She and others who combined the vernacular tradition that had begun with Feng Menglong, Cao Xueqin, with their local dialects; reading them, the readers knew immediately where and when the author hailed from. After 1979 when large quantity of translations of western literature became available, Chinese writing entered a long span of imitation by "avant-garde" writers. Almost all of them bore strong traces of translation. And all of a sudden, the Chinese literary scene was awash with Latin-American style root-seeking, stream of consciousness, the hyperbolic and supernatural.

Mo Yan's literary language also has its root in translation, although, in his case, the localization is more successful than some others. That's why Mo Yan's works yield easily to translation, because it doesn't have that "untranslatability” belonging uniquely to a people or a place. To put it simply, he is using translation language to tell Chinese stories that no longer taste Chinese. They dwell on the freakish side of the ills found in limited areas, and the quality of their criticality doesn’t beat that of the reportage found in a small-town newspaper.

On the other hand, the official media lauded the sickly nationalism in Red Sorghum while Big Breasts and Wide Hips played perfectly into the increasing desire for vulgarity in the Chinese book market in the 1990s. The cruelty and sensationalism in Sandalwood Penalty are, at best, a bunch of nonsense that degrades both humanity and tradition.

That’s why the post-totalitarian regime in China found Mo Yan harmless, embraced him, awarding him all the titles, positions, and prizes an officially-sanctioned writer in China can possibly dream of having.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are certainly familiar with Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For China, the equivalent would be: to write without  testifying is shameful. Mo Yan’s actions have gone beyond just avoidance. During the 2009 Franfurt Book Fair, the German public and the world media had the chance to hear Mo Yan’s disingenuous speech as the Chinese government’s handpicked writer. So I concur with Herta Meuller's assessment: it is a catastrophe to have chosen Mo Yan, a high-ranking official of the CCP, and a former PLA officer, for this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.

Your predecessors had once awarded this prize to Sholokhov, a high-ranking Soviet official and supporter of cultural oppression. It was a disaster, I am sure, that would have upset the good soul of Mr. Nobel in heaven. Now you have done it again, this time to a high-ranking Chinese communist official and a supporter of censorship of free speech. It would make Mr. Nobel’s soul cry out.


Liao Yiwu

Exiled Chinese writer

2012 winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade


Appendix 1

Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Chief Congratulates Mo Yan for Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature:

BEIJING, Oct. 12 (Xinhua) – Li Changchun, a standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, wrote the China Writers Association on the 11th to congratulate Mo Yan, vice president of the body, on his winning of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In his congratulatory letter, Li said that, “as China moves rapidly with its reform, opening-up and modernization drive, great creative vitality has emerged in Chinese literary circles. Basing their writings on the life of the people and the traditions of the nation, Chinese writers have created a great many excellent works of Chinese characteristics, style and spirit. And Mo Yan is an outstanding example of them. Mo's victory reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China.” Li Changchun expressed hope that “Chinese writers will focus on the country's people in their writing and create more excellent works that will stand the test of history, thus contributing more to the prosperity and development of Chinese culture, as well as the progress of human civilization.”

Appendix 2

The two paragraphs of Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yen'an Forum on Literature and Art that Mo Yan chose to handcopy earlier this year:

“The problems of class stand. Our stand is that of the proletariat and of the masses. For members of the Communist Party, this means keeping to the stand of the Party, keeping to Party spirit and Party policy. Are there any of our literary and art workers who are still mistaken or not clear in their understanding of this problem? I think there are. Many of our comrades have frequently departed from the correct stand.


“The problem of attitude. From one's stand there follow specific attitudes towards specific matters. For instance, is one to extol or to expose? This is a question of attitude. Which attitude is wanted? I would say both, depending on whom you are dealing with.”


Appendix 3

Mo Yan singing the praise of Bo Xilai:

Duowei News, October 12, 2012 -- As the news came that Mo Yan is the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, someone in the know unearthed a poem by the laureate, published in his verified Tencent Weibo account on November 8, 2011. In what he called a “doggerel” titled To My Literary Friend in Chongqing, Mo Yan touted the now disgraced former Party Secretary of Chongqing:

Doggerel to my literary friend in Chongqing:

Sing-red-strike-down-black roars mightily,

The nation turns its head to Chongqing.

While the white spider weaves a real net,

The black horse with loose bowels is not an angry youth.

As a writer I am neither the left nor the right,

As an official you hold dear your good name in posterity.

A gentleman, bedrock in turbulent waters, that you are,

Like fire the splendid cliffs shine over the Jialing River.

Also, in March 2010, Bo Xilai invited the China Writers Association to hold its 7th Presidium’s 9th meeting and the 7th National Committee’s 5th plenary meeting in Chongqing. A regional newspaper reported that 250 or so members of the CWA, Mo Yan among them, indulged in extravaganzas such as presidential suites and transportation in Audi sedans, while the area was suffering from a severe draught.

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