Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?
DECEMBER 6, 2012
Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.
Satire aside, Wang Xiaohong is correct that Nobel Prizes are closely watched and coveted in China—even more, in general, than they are elsewhere. Like Olympic gold medals, they are viewed as signs of the world's respect—which, over recent centuries, many Chinese have felt to be less than it ought to be. The insecurity that underlies this quest for respect appears in especially sharp relief in the case of the Nobel literature prize, where China in essence hands over judgment of its cultural achievement to a committee of Swedes. (One committee member, Göran Malmqvist, reads Chinese, but the others rely on translations.) China does have its own literary prize, the Mao Dun Prize, which Mo Yan won in 2010. But neither Mo Yan nor almost anyone in China would compare it to a Nobel. (Mao Dun was a writer of political fiction during the late 1920s and 1930s; he served as Mao Zedong's minister of culture from 1949 to 1965, and has a reputation—deserved—for tedious prose. But the main reason for the second-tier reputation of the Mao Dun Prize is that it is a domestic, state-sponsored prize.)
it drew freely upon the themes of raw sexuality and adultery. Its theme song, "Sister, be gutsy, go forward," was an unbridled endorsement of the primitive vitality of lust. Against the backdrop of fire-red sorghum in desolate northwestern China, under the broad blue sky and in full view of the bright sun, bandits violently abduct village women, wild adultery happens in the sorghum fields, bandits murder one another in competition for women, male laborers magically produce the widely renowned liquor "Six-Mile Red" by urinating into the heroine's brewing wine, and so on.
All of this…not only sets the scene for marvelous consummations of male and female sexual desire; it creates a broader dream vision that carries magical vitality. That Red Sorghum could win prizes symbolizes a change in national attitudes towards sex: "erotic display" had come to be seen as "exuberant vitality."
Mo Yan points out, correctly, that Red Sorghum took considerable heat from the authorities in the 1980s. Then, at least, he was no sycophant. The work not only defied sexual taboos; it portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts of heroic peasant resistance. Mo Yan, Zhang Yimou, and others were viewed as young rebels.
By sharing old, familiar yet living metaphors I align myself with writers like Kim Chi-ha of Korea and Zheng Yi and Mo Yan, both of China. For me the brotherhood of world literature consists in such relationships in concrete terms…. I am now deeply worried about the destiny of those gifted Chinese novelists who have been deprived of their freedom since the Tiananmen Square incident [i.e., the June 4, 1989 crackdown].
Oe could not know at the time how "destiny" would turn out very differently for the two young Chinese writers he admired, Zheng Yi and Mo Yan. Zheng Yi had drawn Oe's attention for Old Well (1984), a romance set against the background of the centuries-old quest for water in a parched area of rural Shanxi province. Like Red Sorghum, the story had been made into a prize-winning film. Oe told me in 1997 that he liked Zheng's "vertical orientation"—old wells penetrating deep into the earth and "spirit trees" stretching in the other direction toward the heavens. (Zheng was then working on a long novel called Spirit Tree, in which there was a touch of magic in his account of Chinese village life.) In 1989 Zheng Yi supported student protesters at Tiananmen, was listed for arrest by the government afterward, lived underground in China for three years, then escaped on a small boat to Hong Kong in 1993, and has lived in exile in the US ever since. He has continued to write prolifically, always in absolute candor about his criticisms of the Chinese government.
I read some of his writings on literature in the 1980s…later, after he left literature and turned to politics, I haven't had any contact with him, and I don't understand much of what he has been doing since then. I now hope, though, that he can get his freedom as soon as possible—get his freedom in good health as soon as possible—and then be able to study his politics and study his social systems as he likes.
The statement was quickly hailed by some of Liu Xiaobo's supporters. Here was the new Nobel laureate speaking up for someone whose very name had been banned from China's state media. Moreover Mo Yan's words were themselves quickly expunged from the domestic Chinese Internet, so the authorities must have been angered by them. Mo Yan had apparently produced a statement of conscience.