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Mo Yan is China’s first writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The novelist is well known for his hallucinatory realism that merges folk culture with twentieth century Chinese history. Much of the media attention focuses on this aspect of his work.
What is less well known is that Mo Yan represents the first generation of Chinese writers to break with the previous constraints, that is, politics and tradition.
Mo Yan belongs to the “searching for roots school” (xungenpai) that emerged after the Cultural Revolution. This school was among the first to overturn the dictates of socialist realism that under Maoism hampered free expression.
For the first time since 1949 writing emerged in China that reflected the reality of Chinese life. This reality, which included harshness, party corruption and poverty, represented a picture of life that the government wished to suppress.
The meaning of “Mo Yan” (don’t speak) thus reflects the dangers for Chinese writers who speak out. The pen name is Mo Yan’s reminder to himself of the requirement to moderate his speech.
Mo Yan broke with the constraints in a second way. Historically in China, the educated urban elite tended to dominate literature and the arts. There were few published works about the countryside or ordinary Chinese life. Mo Yan remains one of the few “peasant writers” who writes about this experience.
Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, was born in 1955 and grew up in Gaomi in Shandong province in eastern China. His parents were farmers, and during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work in a factory. He later joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and began to write.
Many of his stories are set in the rural area of Shandong and amount to critiques of the harsh conditions, the poverty of poor farm workers and the bandit culture. They also include the brutal violence and traumas of twentieth century history, such as the Cultural Revolution.
The novel Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang jiazu, 1987) sums up much of this experience, including the Japanese occupation. The novel was made into a film and directed by Zhang Yimou, the well-known director. Mo Yan's other acclaimed works include Republic of Wine, Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out and Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Frog is his latest prize-winning novel and concerns China's one child policy.
In 2000 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born playwright and novelist. But the award remains controversial due to the fact that Gao is a French citizen and resides outside China. Mo Yan is the first writer residing in China to be awarded the prize.
Dr Rosemary Haddon is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese at Massey University. Her PhD thesis (UBC) focused on allegorical conceptions of the countryside and included “peasant writers” such as Mo Yan.