The Chinese writer Mo Yan accepted the Nobel prize in literature this week in Stockholm, offering remarks that further fanned the flames of controversy surrounding his selection. After being dismissed by Salman Rushdie as a “patsy of the régime” for his failure to support the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and having his Nobel selection decried by Chinese artist and agitator Ai Weiwei as “an insult to humanity and to literature,” the author defended censorship as necessary, likening it to airport security checks.
Few observers could fail to note the contrasting responses to Mo Yan’s honor this year and to Liu Xiaobo’s in 2010, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Whereas in 2010 the Chinese government denounced and boycotted the award, this time the state has proudly received the honor, even announcing plans to spend $110 million making Mo Yan’s home village a “Culture Experience Zone.”
Some of the Chinese people, on the other hand, evince a response less warm. In a long consideration of Mo Yan’s work and Nobel recognition, Perry Link quotes the satirist Wang Xiaohong imagining Alfred Nobel’s distress:
Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.
Link, a co-editor of No Enemies, No Hatred, our recent volume of Liu Xiaobo’s writings, and author of a forthcoming inquiry into the workings of the Chinese language, An Anatomy of Chinese, outlines a series of recent statements and actions which have contributed to wide disappointment in Mo Yan’s politics. For his part, Mo Yan asks that his writing be allowed to exist apart from his extratextual political positioning. While acknowledging the complications of any such compartmentalization, Link points to the larger question of “how and to what extent a writer’s immersion in, and adjustment to, an authoritarian political regime affects what he or she writes.”
Link notes Mo Yan’s focus on society’s downtrodden, the “poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by local officials,” but contrasts his attention paid with that of dissident writers like Liu Xiaobo and Zheng Yi. “Liu and Zheng,” Link writes, “denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.”
Link also highlights Mo Yan’s libidinous “black humor,” the characteristic most often lauded by his supporters, but points to such writing’s usefulness to the regime for its obscuring of the past and its function as a “safety valve.” Link cites Liu Xiaobo’s 2004 article “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History,” excerpted here from No Enemies, No Hatred:
In the years since the Tiananmen massacre, the rampant materialism of the power elite’s moves to privatize wealth has given rise in China to a consumer culture that has grown ever more hedonistic, superficial, and vulgar, and the social function of this materialism has been to bolster the dictatorial political order. Sarcasm in the entertainment world has turned into a kind of spiritual massage that numbs people’s consciences and paralyzes their memories; incessant propaganda about “the state drawing close to the people” reinforces the notion that the government is the savior of the people—who accordingly are its servants. Meanwhile an erotic carnival of products in commercial culture invite entry, real or fantasized, into a world of mistresses, prostitutes, adultery, one-night stands, and other forms of sexual abandon. The craze for political revolution in decades past has now turned into a craze for money and sex.
In this situation, sexual indulgence becomes a handy partner for a dictatorship that is trying to stay on top of a society of rising prosperity. Chinese people were so repressed during the Mao era, sexually and otherwise, that when ideas about freedom trickled in from the outside, many of them had great appeal. But while ideas about political freedom—speech, assembly, elections, and so on—could have led to a liberation in the Chinese people of humanity’s best qualities, and could have brought dignity to individuals, the idea of sexual freedom did not support political democracy so much as it harked back to traditions of sexual abandon in China’s imperial times. It siphoned interest in freedom toward thoughts of concubinage, elegant prostitution, and the bedroom arts as they are celebrated in premodern pornography. This has been just fine with today’s dictators. It fits with the moral rot and political gangsterism that years of hypocrisy have generated, and it diverts the thirst for freedom into a politically innocuous direction.
Link ends his piece by granting the unusual path chosen by Liu Xiaobo, and admitting the impropriety of spectators who “enjoy the comfort of distance” demanding that Mo Yan risk all to follow it. “But it would be even more wrong,” he concludes, “to mistake the clear difference between the two.” Or, put glibly, not all subversion is subversive.