The Controversial Mo Yan, 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner

Mo Yan

Unlike in the past when the yearly awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature still brought me much awe and excitement, I saw this year’s announcement pass by with ambivalence. Like in the other year, I’m still rooting for the radical African novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o to win the prize.

When the Chinese writer Mo Yan won the prize, I didn’t take much interest except for the customary background check. This yielded some noteworthy tidbits such as Mo Yan’s having once joined the Red Army, his being a non-dissident writer, and his writing of  social commentary imbued with black humor. Based on these alone, Mo Yan would definitely merit my attention as an avid reader of good literature.

But Mo Yan finally clinched my attention after another Nobel Prize in literature winner attacked him for being cozy with the ruling Chinese Communist Party and for allegedly “celebrating censorship.” In an interview with the Swedish newspaper, the 59 year old Romanian-born writer Herta Mueller, who won the prize in 2009, confessed that she wanted to cry when she heard that Mo Yan got the Nobel.

Other critics have since pointed out the contrast between Mo Yan, who is vice-chairman of the state-sponsored China Writers’ Association, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize awardee Liu Xiaobo who remains in prison while his wife Liu Xia is under house arrest. Mo Yan, critics protest, became a winner in every sense while Liu Xiabo won the Nobel Prize at the expense of losing everything.

It is clear that the People’s Republic of China is now ruled by a revisionist Communist Party that is following the capitalist road at the expense of the working masses while shamelessly repeating empty slogans about “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and retaining the “Communist” title in order to retain claim for itself the revolutionary legacy of Mao Zedong and thereby postpone the eruption of the social volcano.

But while Mo Yan should be held accountable for his siding with this bankrupt system, it is altogether another thing to offhand condemn him for copying by hand Chairman Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art in celebration of the text’s seventieth anniversary. Mo Yan is certainly justified when he said that Mao’s talks “played a positive role” and had “historical necessity” in their time.

In fact, Mao’s injunctions for writers to write for the oppressed and exploited people remain relevant to this day. Far from merely legitimizing the rule of the Communist Party, Mao proposed the creation of art and literature that support the Party in the talks because it is the vanguard party of the people’s revolutionary struggles. Today, the Party has turned traitor to Mao’s revolutionary ideals and therefore does not deserve such support.



  1. The awarding of the Nobel Prize always stirs some controversy. There also had been upheavals when Orhan Pamuk and Elfriede Jelinek won. Anyway, I also don’t know what to feel about Mo Yan. I was hoping for an African or an Asian writer to win this year, and when my wish was granted, it didn’t feel as great as I thought it would, especially after hearing Mo Yan’s support for censorship.

    1. But in my opinion it is precisely because of this controversy that Mo Yan, regardless of his privileged position in authoritarian capitalist China, deserves the prize all the more. ;)

  2. Guess I must read this Ngugi Wa Thiong’o! “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.” Mo Yan in New York Times (

  3. Хочется сказать спасибо переводчику Егорову. Если бы не его переводы на общественных началах, мы бы вообще никогда не смогли оценить творчество Мо Яня. Получается, что в России только два источника информации об этом удивительном писателе – Игоь Егоров и сайт, где и собраны все крупицы переводов Мо Яня. Кстати, на этом сайте можно найти перевод книги “Изменения”, пока только начало. Будем надеяться на продолжение работы по переводу. Где все китаеведы?

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