Mo Yan & Liu Xiaobo: Another Nobel Roundup

Mo Yan 莫言 has given his Nobel acceptance speech, but that doesn’t mean the debates about whether he deserved the award have stopped–or that older pieces haven’t been resurfacing.

A good deal of the debate focuses on the contrast between Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, the imprisoned critic who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Larry Siems and Jeffrey Yang (my editor at New Directions) make the case in “China’s Nobels” that while Liu is “is serving an 11-year sentence for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ in his writings” (while his wife is under house arrest), Mo Yan “has done little to jeopardize his status as one of the country’s most honored writers.” Yang is the translator of Liu’s poems assembled in June Fourth Elegies 念念六四, which has just been noted as one of’s Notable Books of 2012. Yang and Siems do note that despite the difference between the two Nobels, their stories do converge: “Mo Yan, who had previously pleaded ignorance of his countryman’s case, told reporters that he hoped that Mr. Liu ‘can achieve his freedom as soon as possible’ and that he should be free to research his ‘politics and social system.'” Another editor of a recent Liu Xiaobo publication in English, however, Perry Link, editor of No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo, is less impressed: in “Does This Writer Deserve the Nobel Prize?” Link speculates, “Was Mo Yan’s ‘in good health’ phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s ‘seeking medical treatment abroad’?”

In his Nobel speech, Mo Yan says, “I would like you to find the patience to read my books” 我希望你们能耐心地读一下我的书. Many commentators have read the speech, such as Chad Post at Three Percent, or Mark McDonald, who notices “‘Garlands and Mud’ for New Nobel Laureate from China,” or Adam Minter, whose “Mo Yan’s Nobel: Parable of a Patsy?” looks at the controversy both outside of China and in, but they don’t seem to notice that one of the stories Mo Yan tells in his lecture about an empty chair–

More than thirty years ago, when I was in the army, I was in my office reading one evening when an elderly officer opened the door and came in. He glanced down at the seat in front of me and muttered, “Hm, where is everyone?” I stood up and said in a loud voice, “Are you saying I’m no one?” The old fellow’s ears turned red from embarrassment, and he walked out. For a long time after that I was proud about what I consider a gutsy performance. Years later, that pride turned to intense qualms of conscience.


–seems to invoke the empty chair of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize two years ago.

Nor do many commentators seem to have read his books very closely. Andrea Lingenfelter, who has, though, says in her review of his forthcoming novel Pow! (translated, as always, by Howard Goldblatt) that it, “like the bulk of Mo Yan’s other novels, is a social and political critique”; interestingly, when I first caught her review online I remember it being less patient with criticisms of Mo Yan’s politics. Perhaps she was convinced by Link’s article, or Mo Yan’s defense of censorship.

As for his remarks on censorship, under the headline “Censorship is a must, says China’s Nobel winner,” the Guardian reports that he “defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.” This, unsurprisingly, has gathered lots of commentary: Publishing Perspectives asks, “is it?” and Canada’s Globe & Mail says “that’s just wrong.” Salman Rushdie concludes Mo Yan is “a patsy of the régime,” while Pankaj Mishra says Rushdie “should pause before condemning Mo Yan.” But look at what he said in Chinese:

我反感所有的检查。我去大使馆办签证,他们也要检查。我坐飞机出海关,他们也要检查,甚至要解下腰带,拖鞋检查。但是我想这些检查是必要的,我从来没有赞 美过新闻检查这种制度,但是我也认为新闻检查在世界上每个国家都是存在的。但是这种检查的尺度,检查的方式不一样。如果没有新闻检查,这个人就可以在报纸 上或者是电视上攻击其他人,诽谤其他人。这个我想在任何一个国家都是一样的。但是我希望所有新闻检查应该有最高准则:只要不违背事实真相的都不应该检查, 违背了事实真相造谣和诬蔑的都应该受到检查。

The word he uses is jiancha, usually translated as “check,” either as a verb or a noun, rather than “censorship,” which my dictionary tells me would be shencha 审查. Jiancha is, of course, related to security checks, which should help explain his comparison. And as I read it, he doesn’t say that checks should exist but that they do exist. I would give a rough translation of the passage as:

I’m disgusted with checks of all kinds. When I go to the embassy for a visa, I get checked. When I take an airplane and go through customs, I get checked, even have to take off my belt and shoes. But I figure these checks must be necessary, and while I’ve never praised the system of checks on the news, I believe that checks on the news must exist in every country in the world. But measuring checks like this, the method of checking is different. If there were no checks on the news, somebody could go off in the newspapers or on TV and attack someone, or slander someone. I imagine it’s the same in any country. But I would hope all checks on the news adhered to the highest principle: as long as it doesn’t violate the truth it shouldn’t be checked, but rumormongering and defamation that violates the truth should be put under check.

In a related point, Mo Yan was cited in a Time Magazine feature two years ago:

Mo Yan is adamant that he never worries about censorship when choosing what to write about. “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer “conform to the aesthetics of literature,” Mo Yan argues. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”

You may disagree. You may find this naïve. You may feel like security checks and censorship are not the same, and that the kinds of governmental controls on the news he imagines do not exist in your country and should not exist in his. You may feel that the restrictions on writing inherent to literature are of a different order from the restrictions on writing imposed by the government, and that writers can be subtle without having to worry about censorship. You may feel like the “highest principle” he wishes for is a pipe dream, that as long as the state has power to limit speech it will use that power, and the only high principle is the principle of freedom. I certainly think all those things. That is different, however, from claiming that Mo Yan advocates, let alone celebrates, censorship. I’ve written about problems of translation in English-language reporting on China before; this example, in which reporters have treated the word jiancha as if it were shencha, is more of the same.

Finally for the commentary, Charles Laughlin argues, in “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” (an article that mentions Xi Chuan) that “when discussing the merits of Mo Yan’s receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, I think it is misleading for us to compare its validity to that of awarding the Peace Prize to Liu.”

Meanwhile, in Stockholm, people are running naked in protest or else flash-mobbing Red Sorghum style:

3 thoughts on “Mo Yan & Liu Xiaobo: Another Nobel Roundup

  1. Pingback: » Man Streaks Outside Nobel Banquet Hall In Stockholm To Protest Mo Yan Beijing Cream

  2. We can parse Mo Yan’s recent statements from here to eternity, and make some interesting points about mistranslations, tabloid-style reporting, and the biases of his detractors.

    But for me, it’s obvious that he understood clearly that the issue was not airport security, or anything of the sort. The questions thrown his way by foreign reporters were aimed at getting him to say something critical about the way the Chinese government does its darndest to curtail free speech and free thinking, and in particular, free artistic expression. He was obviously very uncomfortable in this role and was absolutely unwilling to utter such criticisms on the international stage.

    It will be interesting to see if he can once again find the time and the environment he needs to write another novel that meets his own standards, let alone that of those who enjoyed his earlier writing. My bet: he won’t. He has become THE Chinese Nobel Laureate, and now carries a very, very heavy burden. Based on what we’ve seen of him recently, he doesn’t want to be the nation’s spokesman; he just wants to be a storyteller.

    • Excellent points well put, Bruce. A lot of writers’ quality drops off after winning a literature Nobel. Maybe that’s why Jean-Paul Sartre rejected his. But then, I’ve felt MY’s work to be declining for a long time.

      I think you’re right that foreign reporters wanted to trap him into saying something either critical of the PRC or else praise a system we don’t approve of, which he uncomfortably tried to answer with a noncommittal but nuanced statement, neither of which the foreign press has been able to accommodate. As I’ve indicated, I don’t agree with his “defense” of censorship, but nor am I happy with how it’s been reported–either outside of China or, in its absence, within it. But while I disagree, I have to say that I find his point of view pretty philosophically consistent: the state has a role in ensuring the well-being of its citizens. I think it takes a little more conceptual gymnastics to say that the state has a role in ensuring people’s economic or physical well-being but not their intellectual well-being; I think as individuals and as a society we need to perform these gymnastics (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson put it), but I acknowledge that not everyone does. Or should I be outraged that Mo Yan finds things more or less right with the system of a country in which he has not only endured, as Faulkner put it, but prevailed?

      All the bluster of commentary I’ve seen about Mo Yan’s literature Nobel has made me wonder what’s at stake for most people. Are we arguing over whether Mo Yan is the world’s greatest writer? A committee of 18 individuals in Sweden elected him; does anyone think their taste is supposed to represent anyone other than themselves? Or are we arguing about the morality of electing someone who writes within–and does not actively oppose–a system of censorship? The Nobel Prize is given in many categories, and I don’t know that any of these categories needs to have anything to do with each other; should a prizewinner in Literature be any more amenable to consideration for Peace than for Chemistry? Or are we arguing about whether the values the Nobel Prize espouses are somehow compromised by the full record of the people who have won? In the history of the Peace prize, which I think is most directly relevant to the issue of values, winners include the European Union, Barack Obama, Yasser Arafat, and Henry Kissinger, all of whom are responsible for the deaths of thousands; Liu Xiaobo wished for centuries of colonialism for China; does anyone still think the Nobel actually represents an uncontroversial honor for people whose lives achieve the highest ideals of moral principle?

      For me, the stakes are much simpler: How is China represented? How is literature represented? How is translation represented? I’m much less interested in final judgments about morality or peace than I am in, as you put it, “interesting points about mistranslations, tabloid-style reporting, and the biases of his detractors” and defenders.


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