Part of our series with The Economist
In 1917, Chen Duxiu, a Chinese revolutionary, asked: “Pray, where is our Chinese Hugo, Zola, Goethe, Hauptmann, Dickens or Wilde?”
China has long fretted that it lacked a great modern literary voice with international appeal. In the decades since Mao the tendency has transmogrified into a full-blown “Nobel complex”. The quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature was made the object of official policy by the Chinese Communist Party, eager for validation of its national power and cultural clout. It has also been a heartfelt desire for those Chinese intellectuals and writers who have felt inferior in global influence and reach.
Almost a century later, Chen’s plea has been answered. A Chinese writer, Mo Yan, just won the 2012 Nobel prize for works described by the Swedish Academy as “hallucinatory realism”, which mix folk tales, history and the modern day.
Mr Mo has not only broken the streak of European writers who have dominated the Nobel Prize in recent years. He is being hailed as the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Technically this is true, but it would be more accurate to say that he has won the first Nobel that the Communist Party can celebrate.
In 2000, Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born dissident with French citizenship, won the Nobel for writing that was laden with criticism of the Party and banned from sale on the mainland. China declared that his prize had been awarded with “ulterior political motives”, huffing that the award was not worthy of a comment. Mention of Mr Gao is still banned in state media (although Mr Mo, for one, has applauded his “enormous contribution” to literature). China’s other Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who won the peace prize in 2010, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for other crimes committed with words.
Mr Mo writes within a system of state censorship. Unlike exiled dissident writers—who enjoy recognition abroad but little influence at home—he is widely read and respected within China. He is also a Communist Party member and vice-chairman of the state-run China Writers’ Association. For him, the government has sung a very different tune.
Yesterday evening, most unusually, state news broadcasts were interrupted for the announcement of the prize. Thousands of China’s micro-bloggers showered congratulations on Mr Mo. Many here believe this to be the first time a Chinese person has ever won a Nobel.
Mr Mo was born with the name Guan Moye in 1955, into a peasant household in Gaomi, Shandong province, in eastern China. He left school at the age of 12 to work in a farm and factory, and started to write after joining the People’s Liberation Army in 1976. He is regarded as a key member of a canon of influential authors from the 1980s, alongside Yu Hua and Su Tong, who all wrote about the experience of life under Communism following Mao’s death. Mr Mo is best known for “Red Sorghum”, an epic spanning three generations, starting with the Japanese invasion in the 1930s—which was eventually made into a film directed by Zhang Yimou.
Along with the accolades for his writing, Mr Mo has garnered criticism for his comfortable—some say cosy—standing within the Party. Earlier this year he contributed to a handwritten, commemorative edition of Mao’s “Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art”, which preach that art should serve society.
Others have questioned whether the prize will boost Chinese literature—or simply prop up the status quo, under which more rebellious writers suffer. Chen Xiwo, a maverick author whose banned short story “I Love My Mum” uses incest and matricide as metaphors for the decay of society, believes the prize sends a dangerous message to other Chinese writers. Namely, that they can win worldwide applause for buckling under China’s repressive political system. Artist Ai Weiwei has judged the choice of Mr Mo “an insult to humanity and to literature”.
Mr Mo has batted away similar criticism in the past. In an interview with Granta he said that “censorship is great for literary creation”. Mr Mo’s rural stories feature an absurdist brand of magical realism and opaque images set within China’s past, a technique, he implied, that he employs to avoid the censor’s wrath. This has not always worked. In 1988, his novel “The Garlic Ballads”, about a peasant uprising, was banned for a period after its publication.
“Frog”, his latest novel, addresses China’s one-child policy. It tells the story of a midwife who has been complicit in forced abortions and sterilisations. She has a hallucinatory vision of thousands of frogs, whose croaks sound like the cries of aborted babies. Not light fare, nor the stuff of happy-faced propaganda. Mr Mo is “not afraid of offending people”, in the words of Charles Laughlin, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Virginia. Mr Mo’s award is a “triumph” for literature, in Mr Laughlin’s view. As he sees it Mr Mo’s writing is not a platform for politics; nor should it have to be. The prize is purely recognition of great literary writing.
There is something ironic in the conviction that Chinese writers should, perforce, indict the Party. It is worth remembering that not all Chinese writers yearn to be held up as the lonely “Chinese voice” that rebels against a repressive state. Neither do all Chinese writers need to make a forced choice between exile and artistic compromise.
China may have come unknotted from its Nobel complex. But Mr Mo will find it hard to outrun politics forever. The pen name he chose for himself means “be silent”, which might have been a warning of sorts. The day after he won the big prize, on October 12th Mr Mo told reporters in his hometown that he hopes Mr Liu can “achieve his freedom as soon as possible”. This marks a startling shift for Mr Mo, just as he was being criticised for having failed to comment directly on the plight of the other laureate. He might be expected to begin speaking out much more, as he adjusts to the glare of worldwide fame.