Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mo Yan: How Society Gives Birth to a Great Writer

In my “Advance Reading in Chinese: Modern and Contemporary Literature” class, we were assigned a short reading of Mo Yan(莫言)’s speech in a form of transcript. The speech was from the 2009 Frankfurt International Book Fair in Germany.


Mo Yan

Mo Yan is a world-renowned author of Red Sorghum Clan (1987), which was made into the film Red Sorghum starring Gong Li (巩俐) by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋). Mo Yan is a controversial writer on the question of whether he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Wen Yun Chao, a Hong Kong based activist and blogger, commented, “Mo Yan doesn’t deserve this prestigious honor,” and added that the “Nobel Literature Prize is a symbol of humanism and freedom of writing, but unfortunately we cannot see such qualities in Mo Yan.”

Why this criticism of Mo Yan? Perhaps it is because many believe that he endorsed Mao Zedong’s speech at Yan’an in 1942 regarding Art and Literature in one of his works. In this speech, Mao discussed the certain “role” of artists and writers in a developing socialist state: “to work solely in the service of the political aims of the party.” As a result, Mo Yan has been questioned as a supporter of authoritarianism.

When I first came across these arguments in the news in 2012, largely due to my lacking of understanding and knowledge of Mo Yan, I speculated that his works and intention might not entirely embody the traits of a Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

However, when I read Mo Yan’s speech in Germany for my class, I started to understand his perspective on “writing” more clearly. A part of the transcript of his speech says:

… 好的文学,好的作家当然离不开社会生活。作为一个中国作家必须对中国社会所发生的一切保持一种高度的兴趣,而且有深入的了解和经验。你要对社会上所发生的各种各样的问题有一个自己的看法,这种看法可以和所有人都不一样。对于一个作家、对于文学来讲,最可贵的就在于它和所有人都不一样。

- 莫言

In this particular excerpt, Mo Yan emphasizes the influence of society on writers. The particular society in which one lives essentially gives rise to a one-of-a-kind experience for a writer. As a result, the writer starts asking questions and becomes curious toward the society, and this process allows for the writer to think about the different aspects of the society and to create a work of literature distinctive to the writer.

If one were to read the entire transcript, one will come to understand his argument even more clearly – whether one agrees with Mo Yan or not. Unfortunately, this speech was delivered in Mandarin, and I only had the luck of coming across this transcript in a Mandarin-conducted literature class. But if you do read Mandarin, the transcript of the speech may help you understand Mo Yan’s argument better.

After generally discussing Mo Yan’s speech, my professor displayed a slide with this single question on her PowerPoint presentation:


This vaguely translates into: “What kind of perspective does Mo Yan hold toward the relationship between writers and their life in the society, particularly concerning their relationship with the government?”


Gong Li in Red Sorghum

My class raised various points; different examples came to mind that applies to Mo Yan’s argument.

One can even go back as far as Plato and his Republic . If Plato did not live in Classical Greece, where the republican theory of political philosophy was in its early development and where his ideas of the representative elect and city-states were welcomed, his work may not have been so innovative and detailed.

One of the many modern examples could be John Hersey’s Hiroshima . Consider if Hersey hadn’t been in Japan to cover stories for The New Yorker on the reconstruction of Japan after the destruction of the atomic bomb – could Hiroshima have been so emotionally challenging?

As such, there are countless examples that can support Mo Yan’s point on society’s influence on writers, regardless of how devastating or restrictive the writers’ environment could be. Anne Frank’s diaries could have not been written in such vividly tragic expressions if the Nazis hadn’t came into power in Germany and occupied the Netherlands. Wan-suh Park’s book on her personal experiences as a child could not have been so intriguingly powerful if the Japanese Occupation in Korea never happened.

To answer my professor’s question, I believe Mo Yan is trying to convey the message that writers should learn to accept and scrutinize their society (or their government). In some cases, it may not be pleasant; in fact, it could be devastating – such as living through the Sino-Japanese War in a poor rural part of Shandong, China – as the example of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum Clan portrays. However, by expressing one’s experiences of his or her daily life through writing and offering it up for others’ understanding and examination, one may truly produce “伟大的文学,” the great literature, that Mo Yan speaks of in his speech in Frankfurt, Germany.

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