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School dropout to Nobel: A consistent beauty of Mo Yan

By Dr Ashok K Choudhury | PUBLISHED: 11, May 2013, 13:14 pm IST | UPDATED: 11, May 2013, 15:56 pm IST

School dropout to Nobel: A consistent beauty of Mo Yan  One of the most critically acclaimed, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers, Guan Moye, better known as 'Mo Yan', a pseudonym meaning "don't speak" in Chinese, which comes from the warning from his father and mother not to speak his mind while outside because of China's revolutionary political situation from 1950s when he grew up, is the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan, the first Chinese national and second time a Chinese-born writer after Gao Xingian who received French citizenship in 1997 and honoured in 2000, and accepted by the Chinese government to win the Nobel for literature, is the 109th  recipient of the award.

With the highest literary prize to Mo Yan, the Chinese literature now can proudly claim its place in world literature, which was facing a hangover encounter with the West in the 19th and 20th century.

In his Nobel Lecture on 7th December 2012 at the Swedish Academy, Mo Yan told, “The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was target of the dispute, but over the time I have come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me... For a writer, the best way to speak is writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I don't expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers that are especially true during time like these". (www.nobelprize.orginobel-prize/literature/laureates/2012/yan-lecture-en.html)

Mo Yan, however, was awarded the Prize for his work "with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary''. He has "a damn unique way of writing. If you read half a page of his writing you immediately recognize it as him", admits Peter Englund, the Permanent Secretary, Swedish Academy. He further reiterates, "You can open almost anyone of his books and see it's very critical about many things to do with Chinese history and also contemporary China. But he's not a political dissident. I would say he is more a critic of the system, sitting within the system". Mo Yan, the name stands out amid wave of creativity, has written dozens of novels, novellas and short stories, generally eschewing contemporary issues and instead looking back at China's tumultuous 20th century in tales often infused with politics and a dark, cynical sense and humour.

His works are, mainly, about quest for identity in terms of relationship, conducted in the context of traditional kinship systems and against backdrop of an increasingly bureaucratized and commercial society. He writes about people at the bottom of the society, and is so celebrated for his sensual imagery and lacerating expression. His works are not realistic, rather magical, Rabelaisian, satirical, steeped in blood and obsessed with food in uncomfortable ways. The works highlighted by the Nobel Judges: 'Red Sorghum'(1978). 'Big Breasts and Wide Hips' (2004), 'The Garlic Ballads' (1995), and 'Frog' (2009), laced with social commentary influenced by the social realism, have touched on many of contemporary China's most sensitive themes, including the Cultural Revolution and the country's strict family planning policies.

In most of his novel and short stories, Mo Yan paints sprawling, intricate portraits of rural China and its people, its culture, particularly the Goami culture. Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, he has created "a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and oral tradition", what the Nobel citation accompanied. Mo Yan writes big, bold, often bawdy novels that are imaginative as they are sensuous, and also rooted in his social conscience.

A major theme of his works is the constancy of human greed and corruption, despite the influence of ideology. He is part of a generation of post-Cultural Revolution writers who began looking through new eyes at Chinese society, particularly in the countryside, realizing that he could make his family and the people, the villagers he is familiar with. His writing is powerful, visual, and broad, dipping in to history, fantasy and absurdity and is characterized by the blurring of distinction between the past and present, dead and living, as well as good and bad.

Whatever the subject matter he writes that remains his trade mark. His is a style and voice all his own, and 'often' regarded with the most potential to appeal an international audience. In 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, Mo Yan expressed his complex thinking, "A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of the 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". Well represented in foreign languages around the world, he himself reads foreign author in translation, and strongly advocates the Chinese authors to read world literature which only can overcome the barriers that separate countries and nations.

Mo Yan was born on 5 March 1955 in Goami in Shandong province to family of farmers, in Dalan Township, a place never known to have produced literary talents, and an area of barren land and simple people, where much of his fiction is set. He attended a primary school in his hometown, but was interrupted in the fifth grade during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, a decade of political chaos when many of China's school closed down. To escape poverty, he returned to the life of peasant in a farm for years, and then in a factory in 1973 that produced petroleum.

After the Cultural Revolution he joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in 1976 and after five years of military life, literature became his passion. While studying at the PLA Academy of Art from 1984 through 1986, he was given position at the Academy, which he left in 1997 and worked as newspaper editor. Subsequently, he obtained a Master's degree in literature from Beijing Normal University in 1991. The long time Communist Party member, Mo Yan now the Vice Chairman of the Communist Party-backed Writer's Association, and draws his salary from the Culture Ministry.

He began writing in 1981, while in the army, in the reform and opening up period. Alike many modern Chinese native writers take their hometown as the chief inspiration for their fiction, Mo Yan's greatest source of creative inspiration was his own people, who live in his hometown Goami. He chooses for his milieu his native village that the place is more fictional than real.

His village is extremely robust and individualistic, presumably as a result of the adverse environment and the turbulent age they live in. Though Falling Rain on a Spring Night (1981) is the first novel of Mo Yan, but his popularity was reconfirmed with Howard Goldblatt's English translation of Red Sorghum: A Novel of China (1993), a novella first published in China entitled Hung Kao-liang Chia-tsu (1986), and later expanded into five-part novel in 1989, an epic that takes on issues like Japanese occupation, bandit cultures, and the harsh conditions of rural China.

The novel spans over 40 years in rural Goami Township, far removed from late 20th  and early 21st century world through flashbacks and foreshadowing, beginning with the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. 'Sorghum', used here as food and as an ingredient of a potent wine, has been the focus and metaphor of peasant life during peace time. Mo Yan tells the story of three generations.

Set during the fratricidal barbarity when the Chinese battled both Japanese invaders and each other in a region where sorghum is grown in a particular time and place- a place where red-sorghum, which forms a glittering sea of blood and is the traditional spirit of the region. The story begins as a memory, being told by an unseen narrator, of his grandmother. The protagonist, a poor girl who in late 1920s, was sent by her parents into a pre-arranged marriage with a much old man, had leprosy, which represents the corruption of the Guomingdan period. The girl thoughtfully slips a pair of scissors into her blouse before being borne off by sedan chair to meet her husband. As her party makes its way through a field of sorghum, it is attacked by bandits, and dies. But his murder enables the young woman to take over, and calm up the winery, representing China.

Red Sorghum shows peasants glorified the breaking down of class barriers and a brave struggle against Japanese invaders. The workers revolt against the Japanese, and after their uprising is crushed, the Japanese order two of the local people skinned alive in front of others. Violence and death are a fact of daily existence in the rural world. Mo Yan, in Red Sorghum, brings us into a world in which people work hard to find the means of survival. Red Sorghum can be read as a parable of China's development, or as a hymn in praise of the way workers resisted the Japanese invaders.

World War II plays a major role in the book, but the Red Sorghum also looks into Chinese culture and family. With the acclaimed novel of love and resistance the government also plans to create a Red Sorghum Culture and Experience Zone in Ping 'an. Although villagers counter that they stopped growing the cereal in the l980s, the government reportedly planning to pay local fanners to plant 1,600 acres of profitable crop. Unique among modern Chinese novels, Red Sorghum winds up with evermore incredible and glory epiphanies in the final chapters. Red Sorghum, the wild, open sorghum field is also the stage on which a modern historical revolutionary romance is carried out.

To quote Jeffery C Kinkley, Professor of History and a founding core faculty member of the Doctor of Arts degree in Modern World History at St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Science, New York, "Red Sorghum will be remembered for its inventiveness, its mythmaking, its heroism and anti-heroism, its violence, its absurdity". Mo Yan, perhaps, best known in the Western world as his novel Red Sorghum was made into a film, by the same name, based on the first two chapters "Red Sorghum" and "Sorghum", by Zhang Yimou, China's most celebrated new wave director.

Covering the experiences of three generations of a single Chinese family in Shandong, the film is about survival, individual and communal conflicts, and the impact on individual and social lives by external historical events such as Sine-Japanese War. However, the film won Golden Bear, the highest award of the Berlin International Film Festival in 1998, and after which the novel was sold nearly 50,000 copies according to the publisher Penguin Group (USA).
In his subsequent works: Tiantang Suantai Zhige, 1989 (The Garlic Ballads. 1995); Jiuguo, 1992 (Republic of Wine); Fengru Feitun, 1995 (Big Breasts and Wide Hips); Shengsi Pila, 2006 (Life and Death are wearing me out); Mo Yan embraced various approaches, from myth to realism, from satire to love story. But at base, he is a satirist of animal urges and animal longings: lust for food, lust for sex, and lust for dominion. His tales were always remarked by an impassioned humanism. In The Garlic Ballads, Mo Yan adopts a completely different approach. The novel marks a return to traditional realism and the facts of realism. Brilliantly Mo Yan developed and revived the peasant literature of earlier communist writers.

Based on a true story of when farmers of Goami Township rioted against the government that would not buy its corps. The farmers of Paradise Country have been leading hard scrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encouraged them to plant garlic, a crop the region is famous for. Great returns are promised. Instead, a glut of garlic collapses the market and ruins the peasants who demanded compensation from the authorities. The government had encouraged them the marketing co-op would buy their harvest for one Yuan a pound- put in cold storage and resell it at profit in the spring. But the surplus on the garlic market ensues, the farmers watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields.

The ensuing confrontation culminates in the sacking of the local party headquarters. The fate of the principal characters, coming from three generation, are tragically entwined, and their lives overtaken by the snowballing events. This is the story with a lot of brutality and suffering, but it is told with an ironic touch. The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. Through this powerful, fiercely lyrical story of garlic farmer's 1998 revolt, Mo Yan uncompromisingly portrays the harsh realities of an existence difficult to comprehend. The political story highlights the breakdown in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the peasants.

With the powerful new voice on the brutal unrest of rural China in late '20s and '30s, The Garlic Ballads, which eventually circulated in China, Mo Yan emerged as a major writer. He spares no niceties in his vilification of the new China and its rulers. The government banne the novel in China as it portrays a landscape at once strange and compelling; a timeless China violently interrupted.

His other acclaimed works: The Republic of Wine, a satire around gastronomy and alcohol, uses cannibalism as a metaphor for Chinese self-destruction, following Lu Xun; Big Breast and Wide Hips, both for its sexual contents and for its failure to depict class struggle, the controversial novel by some leftist critics, deals with female bodies. With 500,000 characters the Big Breast... relates the story of a Chinese peasant woman from the North who raises nine children under the most adverse and difficult circumstances. It begins on the eve of the Sino- Japanese War 11(1937) and ends in '90s.

The novel deals with all the stormy changes and hardships that transpired during Communist Chinese history. The narrator, Shangguan Jintong, the most unforgettable character, meets a violent death during the War. He witnesses every tumultuous event, but nothing to compare in importance with the breasts of his mother, his sister, and his wife. Here Mo Yan describes at least 10,000 breasts jiggling in heaven and a breast-fondling banquet on the earth is enough to leave readers extolling the praises of his literary imagination. Big Breast... represents a sexual totem, and a taboo. Critics regarded the book as the portrayal of Communist solders as lazy, indiscriminate slaughters, as an endorsement of the Kuomintang’s role in fighting the Anti-Japanese war.

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2006), a huge and ambitious work, written in forty-two days, conjures a benevolent landlord who is executed so his land can be redistributed. He is then reincarnated in the form of various animals: as a donkey, or ox, a pig, a dog, and finally a monkey, during the Chinese land reform movement. The landowner experiences, through these bodies, the shame and abuses, and violence of the revolutionary upheavals of China in the 20th century.

Life and Death... is somewhat different from other novels as the landlord observes and satirizes communist society. The victim of a public humiliation session during the Cultural Revolution is accused of having impregnated a donkey. The critics praised that the novel covers almost the entire span of China's revolutionary experience, almost like a documentary of the times, from 1950 to 2000.

His later works include the collection of eight stories Shifu Yue lai yue mo, 2000 (Shifu, you'll do anything for a Laugh), and the novels: Tanxiang Xing 2001 (The Sandalwood Death); and Wa (Frog, 2009). Tanxiang Xing, a more ambitious and thought provoking novel, translated in 2013 in English titled The Sandalwood Death, by Howard Goldblatt, with starkly beautiful languages, borrows its form and story from a Maoqiang Opera, otherwise known as Cat Opera, the symbol of Chinese tradition, well known in Northeast Goami Township, his native place. Set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), it is partly based on actual events with historical figures such as Empress Dowager Cixi and German Plenipotentiary Clemens von Ketteler, a revolt led by farmers and craftsmen against imperial creep of the Qing Dynasty in Northern China that claimed over 100,000 lives.

The novel, set against a broad historical canvas told in its first half from several perspectives and in the later portion by an omniscient narrator, centres on the interplay between Sun Meiniang, the female protagonist, a reformer and an interior of the Maoqiang tradition, and three male paternal figures in her life. One of them is Sun Bing, her biological father, an opera singer, and was a leader of the Rebellion. The government captures him and plans to execute him by sandalwood punishment, or crucifixion with some added effects.

Over the course of the novel Sun Meiniang tries her best to save her father's life, but from the moment her father is arrested, the gandieh becomes mysterious hard to reach. But she is determined not to let the old man be killed as an example. Her quest to secure his rescue is desperate and heart breaking. The march to his death has a malevolent kind of moment, underscored by the occasional rhymes that nod to the opera origins of the sadistic and horrifying novel. Though the death in England came with one swift blow in the Rebellion period, the punishment is described as 'Sandalwood Death'. However, The Sandalwood Death, brilliantly, exhibits a range of artistic styles, from stylized arias and poetry to the antiquated idiom of late imperial China to contemporary prose. For the translation of The Sandalwood Death, Goldblatt was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.
His 2009 novel Wa (Frog), devoted to his 77 years old aunt, set in more contemporary times, tells the tale of a midwife who witness the clandestine, sometimes force abortions of daughters by women desperate to have a male heir for their husbands. The novel has led to many debates at a time when birth control is discussed openly and even become more flexible in Sanghai areas. More recently Pow, his first novel to appear in English before it is published in Chinese, translated by Howard Goldblatt too, is a red-toothed fantasia about meat production and meat consumption.

Luo Xiaotong, the narrator of Pow, was the most renowned gluttonous boy who recounts his childhood in Slaughterous Village, a hamlet of butchers led by the crude, lascivious Lao Lan. Xiaotong loved meat so much that it sang to him how his frugal mother's decision to deprive him of it made him crazed with longing. The novel also chronicles the changes in a town that has come under the spell of capitalism as the farmers abandon their fields and became butchers. Meat is artificially inflated with injections of water to increase its weight; formaldehyde is applied to keep it fresh. Finally, the people of the town become literally sick from greed.

While writing fictions, Mo Yan has written a number of essays and other type of prose and collected in one volume in J 993 titled Shenliao (Supernatural Talk). All the stories, powerful in their own right, are terse and forceful, wondrous tales of men, and ghostly tales. 'Tie Hai' (Iron Child), set in the iron-smelting movement during the Great Leap Forward (1958), explores the bizarre tale of two children eat copper and iron scraps to survive; 'Ye Yu' (Night Fisherman) narrates a fisherman who has a run-in with a voluptuous ghost that has returned from beyond grave; 'Shen Piao' (Divine Debauchery), depicts the spectral mood of Mo Yan, a story of a country gentleman with an insatiable taste for flesh who hires scores of prostitutes to fulfil lust tor carnal pleasure.

Mo Yan, however, personalizes the social and political changes of China over the past decades in Change, translated by Goldblatt, published by Seagull, London in 2012. The sleek volume is a representative of people's history on small events and every day people. Mo Yan breathes life into history by describing the effect of larger than life events on the average citizen.

Known as the foremost of modern and contemporary Chinese literature, Mo Yan, whose literary vision brings us into a social, cultural, and political world without making us feel uncomfortable, virtually, won every Chinese literary prize including Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1998), Kiriyama Prize for Big Breasts and Wide Hips (2005), Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize XVII (2006), Man Asian Literary Prize nominee for Big Breasts and Wide Hips (2007), Newman Prize for Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2009), Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (2010), and Mao Dun Literature Prize for Frog (2011).

As a most translated writer of China, several of Mo Yan's works have been translated into English, mostly by Howard Goldblatt, Professor of East-Asian Languages and Literatures at University of Notre Dame, as well, into Russian, French, German, and many other languages, giving him an audience well bound the Chinese-speaking world. A week after the Nobel, the government announced plans to spend $110 million to transform the home village of Mo Yan into a "Mo Yan Cultural Experience Zone".
# Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury, a lit critic & postdoctoral scholar, is associated with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.