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For Mo Yan, a Case Study in the Politics of Being a Chinese Literary Figure

October 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Charles Laughlin of the University of Virginia and Xiao Qiang at the University of California, Berkeley about prolific writer and Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, whose detractors cite a cozy relationship with Chinese state media and a savviness about staying away from topics sensitive to the Communist government.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the writer and his work, we turn to Charles Laughlin, professor of Chinese literature and director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia. Xiao Qiang, chief editor of China Digital Times, he’s also a professor new media and international freedom at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

And, Charles Laughlin, I want to start with you. Tell us about his work, about his themes. What’s he writing about? What jumps out at you?

CHARLES LAUGHLIN, University of Virginia: Well, Xiao Qiang — is one of the major writers who came out of — onto the scene in 1980s after the beginning years of the era of reform and opening.

Many writers came out at that time influenced by Western literature, particularly magical realism from South America, and in Mo Yan’s case, particular influence from the American writer William Faulkner. And many writers came out at that time, but not many have continued their careers and sustained them to the president day.

And Mo Yan is one of probably only three or four who have done so. And he is, among them one, probably that emphasizes his rural origins the most in terms of subject matter and the particular sort of coarse rural voice he maintains in his fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Qiang Xiao, how well-known is he in China? What’s his status there?

QIANG XIAO, University of California, Berkeley: Well, I think he’s certainly an acclaimed author, very popular.

Even — I left China more than 20 years. I have heard his name and read his literature back in the ’80s and ’90s when I was in the United States. He’s also apparently embraced by the Chinese state media, particularly for this particular receiving award event.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fill in a little bit more, Charles Laughlin. So his writing is embraced, in a sense, by the people? How well-known — who would read him? How — what would be his relationship there to readers and the government?

CHARLES LAUGHLIN: Well, the position of literature in Chinese society has been marginalized in the last 15 years or so.

And so belonging to a group of serious writers, his greatest influence would be among those who are particularly interested in literature. A lot of people are reading detective novels and soap opera type of fiction. And so he wouldn’t be appealing to them as much.

To sort of chime in though with what Xiao Qiang is saying, he is in the vice chairman of Chinese writers association and thus a government official.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what does that mean in China?

CHARLES LAUGHLIN: That’s a very good question, because critics, including Ai Weiwei, use this to sort of put across the idea that what he writes is not literary and he’s just acting as a spokesperson for the government.

 

But I view him still, in terms of his literary productivity, as a sincere author who’s writing about virtually everything that world authors write about. And his work is not without social and political criticism. It’s just that he doesn’t push some red buttons that authors since 1989, for example, have decided to no longer push in their work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Xiao Qiang, fill in a little bit of that for us, because here you have got the Chinese government celebrating. You have some dissident voices unhappy. What’s going on there?

XIAO QIANG: Well, first of all, I think I agree with what Charles just said about the literature accomplishment of Mo Yan. He’s very prolific.

And his writing is original and in a sense seeking to — literature in-depth and make a remarkable contribution to Chinese literature and Chinese culture. That being said, he is not isolated from the social political reality. And he does hold a very cozy and official position in the system.

And some of the activity that he had done in the past generates such a controversial issue in terms of his politics. Here’s an example, just very recent, this year. The Chinese government state official — the writers association has this campaign to have prominent writers to handwrite the copy of Mao’s — one of the 1942 documents about how — what’s the party’s view on art and literature, and essentially saying that only the good — the bright side of society should be written about and be elaborated.

In that campaign, Mo Yan is part of it. He personally handwrites a copy of Maoist document and that is printed the book. In my view, that’s very poor choice, considering Mao is personally responsible for destroying China’s freedom of expression and the persecution of so many writers and intellectuals in the past.

That’s been said. And Mo Yan is receiving a literature award. So we should judge him in terms of the merit of his literature accomplishment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but this, Charles Laughlin, goes to so many interesting cases of writers and artists’ positions through history in different regimes, where it’s difficult politics.

I have seen Mo Yan described as having a good sense of what he can and can’t say without getting in trouble. Is that — does that sound — is that a fair description?

CHARLES LAUGHLIN: That is a fair description. And this shouldn’t be mistaken for being a mouthpiece for government policy.

To give another example, what Xiao Qiang just referred to, this handwritten copies of part of Mao’s talks at the Yenan Forum, this was probably not Mo Yan’s initiative. It was probably an activity that was participated by most of the leadership or even the broader membership of the Chinese writers association.

This is a document that’s considered to be of great historical importance to the Chinese Communist Party. And so his participation in it shouldn’t be viewed necessarily as a particular statement in favor of government policy and especially not of the repression of freedom of speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — just stay with you. What about putting this in a larger context of a changing China and what writers are writing about these days?

You were saying that he was writing — most of his stories are set in rural areas about rural issues. Is he engaging, are others engaging more so now with the kind of changes that we hear about all the time?

CHARLES LAUGHLIN: He is, but I’m not sure he’s keeping up as well as people of the younger generation, who are much more cosmopolitan and multilingual and savvy about world trends and technologically savvy.

Mo Yan is writing a lot of novels recently. He’s published more prolifically in the last three or four years than he has before. And I have noticed that he tends to move from a rural focus in the earlier or mid part of the novel to generationally, maybe a more of a focus on the urban environment in the later stages of the novel.

But in so doing, he demonstrates a little bit less familiarity with that slice of contemporary Chinese life. And I think these younger writers are probably more in their you might say native habitat when they’re writing about these things.  

JEFFREY BROWN: Xiao Qiang, a brief last word on that about how this fits into contemporary writing?

XIAO QIANG: Well, I think it’s very interesting to see how the Chinese state media lauded about his being — received this award, in contrast with the former two Chinese you mentioned that — one is Gao Xingjian, who is in exile, the government doesn’t approve of his politics.

And another is a democracy champion, Liu Xiaobo. Interestingly, Mo Yan is his pen name. And his pen name literally in Chinese means don’t speak. So, there’s a popular Internet joke circulating on Chinese Internet right now saying, who is the first Chinese winner of a Nobel Prize? Don’t speak. Who’s the second Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner? Don’t speak. And who’s the third one? Don’t speak.

This one, it is Mo Yan. But two other people are being banned in the Chinese official media and Chinese Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Xiao Qiang and Charles Laughlin, thanks, both, very much.

CHARLES LAUGHLIN: Thank you.