Mo Yan's Nobel, an ideal betrayed

The Swedish Academy's award of the Nobel literature prize to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan violates the principles of its founder and represents a collusion with authoritarian power, says the Sweden-based Chinese writer Mo Li.

It is rare for the award of the Nobel prize in literature to cause such intense controversy in the home country of its recipient. When on 11 October 2012, the Swedish Academy announced that the Chinese writer Mo Yan was this year’s winner, the Chinese government and the official media ecstatically celebrated the news, while many Chinese citizens felt a deep sadness. The latter include many Chinese writers, journalists, and artists who have been persecuted for advocating freedom and democracy, and numerous lawyers and activists imprisoned and tortured for defending human rights. For them, this was the most shameful day in the history of the Nobel award.

Why are these Chinese feeling so much sadness, anger, and even despair? It is because they truly believed that the Nobel prize in literature embodied a lofty aspiration. They looked up to the prize as a standard-bearer of freedom and dignity, and as a beacon of inspiration for the oppressed, shining a light of humanity and beauty in the form of literature. These are the kinds of people who, as the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami puts it, "Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, … will always stand on the side of the egg." They are intellectuals who love their country. For the sake of China’s future, they are willing to endure tremendous suffering. Together, their actions will shape a heroic story of resistance against tyranny.

These people can’t understand why such a prize would be given to Mo Yan, an author whose ideas they consider shallow, and whose works they find largely mediocre. Furthermore, in political terms Mo Yan sides with the oppressive power of the state. He belongs in the category of the state-approved. To award such an author is thus regarded as implicitly condoning China’s brutal system of dictatorship.

As an exiled dissident living in Sweden, I cannot ignore the questions asked by my friends in China. I feel obligated to share my observations of the Swedish Academy and express my opinions about its conduct. Although the Nobel literature award aspired to noble ideals in its original conception, the decisions on who should receive the award are made by human beings. And human beings are capable of forgetting and of betrayal. In this article I will explore the question of how a prize that Alfred Nobel himself had intended should recognise “an ideal direction” in literature could lose sight of its ideal, deteriorating instead into what might be called a “literary amusement park”, meant only to entertain.

A forgotten will

Alfred Nobel, a great inventor who was prone to fits of depression, stated in his will that the prize he established with his estate was to be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind” and that one part of the prize was to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” He surely could not have imagined that more than a century after his passing, “the Academy in Stockholm” to which he entrusted the award would have abandoned his will and its provisions like an old shoe.

In the past, the Swedish Academy took very seriously the notion of “an ideal direction” and tried to interpret its vague wording from a variety of perspectives. Over the years there have been disagreements between members who insisted on adhering to this notion as the criterion for awarding the literary prize, and members who ignored it. Because Nobel himself is regarded as having held humanistic and cosmopolitan views, many members of the academy interpreted “an ideal direction” as expressing both a humanistic spirit and a vision of “the literature of the whole world.” The term has also been understood to mean “a wide-hearted humanity.” The “lofty ideas” which Nobel himself praised in the literature that he admired, have been apparent in the works of many authors whom the academy chose to recognise.

In the view of Anders Österling, a former permanent secretary of the academy (from 1941-1964), Nobel's “ideal direction” was referring to “a work of a positive and humanistic tendency.” The humanistic spirit stands in opposition to barbarism. A member of the academy once pointed out the significance of the choice in 1972 to give the literature award to the German writer Heinrich Böll. At a time “when Böll and [Günter] Grass were both hot names… the foremost representative of a moral renaissance from the ruins of the Third Reich was preferred, with a direct appeal to Nobel's intentions, to the country's foremost representative of what was an artistic renewal.” (Kjell Espmark, in Agneta Wallin Levinovitz & Nils Ringertz, eds., The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years [Imperial College Press, 2001). By choosing Böll, the Swedish Academy clearly demonstrated how seriously it took the moral value of anti-totalitarianism.

Today, how does the academy honour Nobel’s wish to recognise “the most outstanding work with an ideal tendency”? Göran Malmqvist, a current member of the Swedish Academy, has said that Alfred Nobel’s criterion had long since been abandoned. On 15 January 2001, Cao Changqing, a Chinese journalist living in the United States, asked Malmqvist about how the notion of “ideal direction” had been applied to the choice of Gao Xingjian, winner of the 2000 Nobel prize in literature. Malmqvist replied: “Now the Swedish Academy no longer pays much attention to this criterion.” As part of an ongoing discussion of this issue, Malmqvist also wrote, in a response to Fu Zhengming, a Chinese scholar living in Sweden: “What Fu Zhengming failed to notice is that the Swedish Academy has ignored the concept of ‘an ideal direction’ since the 1940s.” (This response was published in the China Times, a Taiwanese newspaper.)

Yet there have always been academy members who paid heed to Nobel’s will; not all members have "ignored the concept of ‘an ideal direction'". In any event, the executor of a will in western countries is obligated by law to ensure that its provisions are carried out. The Swedish Academy accepted the task of selecting the recipients of the Nobel prize in literature, and it has the obligation faithfully to carry out Nobel’s intentions. Malmqvist’s statements suggest that the academy is ignoring Nobel’s original intent and replacing it with arbitrary criteria of its own.

This amounts to a betrayal and a violation, including of Nobel’s anti-authoritarian sentiment. Some studies indicate that his notion of "an ideal direction" encompasses a spirit that opposes totalitarian systems. Kenne Fant, the author of Alfred Nobel: A Biography, believes that Nobel anticipated the rise of dictatorial systems. He quotes Nobel’s own words: “A new reign of terror, arising from deep within society, is working its way out of the darkness, and one can almost already hear its hollow grumble from far away."

It was precisely because of his concerns over the rise of totalitarianism that Alfred Nobel stipulated that the Nobel prize in all categories should be granted to people who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” As a tireless social critic, Nobel hoped that his prize would boost people’s courage to resist totalitarianism. In an age in which tens of millions of people have died under totalitarian systems, what could confer a greater benefit to mankind than the effort to resist totalitarianism?

Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel committee at the Swedish Academy, is reported - in an interview with the Global Times, a publication controlled by the Chinese Communist Party - as saying: "There is never any political intention in our decisions. … All choices are based on literary quality, and nothing else." Malmqvist echoes this view: "Mo Yan’s winning the Nobel prize has nothing to do with politics, personal friendships, or luck. The only criterion was the quality of his writing.” By denying any political intentions, the academy also denies Nobel’s original intent and reneged on the criterion of "confer[ring] the greatest benefit to mankind."

By awarding the prize to Mo Yan, it is apparent that the Swedish Academy has completely lost sight of its values. The academy members are interested only in form and contrivances, in the latest novelty. Criticism levelled at the academy in 1903 by one of Sweden’s greatest authors, Johan August Strindberg, also pertains to the current reality: "Form and decoration to the Swedish Academy have become the art of poetry itself; the secondary has been made the primary, the form controls the content, and therefore the Academy patronises the trivial, the petty, the decorative, the insignificant. As a judicial authority it represents the biased, the cowardly, often the vile, and most recently the conscienceless."

A clouded window


Without the criterion of Nobel’s humanistic “ideal direction”, the Nobel prize in literature ceases to be the Nobel prize in literature. By granting this award to Mo Yan, the Swedish Academy has displayed an attitude of historical nihilism towards its own culture. The award is a negation of the essence of the award. True, the literary value of Mo Yan’s work can be debated, but however you evaluate it, his work clearly does not live up to the ideal of Nobel.

When an award loses its noble soul, what is left other than the monetary value? This lamentable situation has come about because the academy’s members lack knowledge and judgment. Their poor level of understanding of Chinese literature, and their inability to adequately evaluate it, have led them to misread Mo Yan’s work.

Mo Yan is a writer who lacks humanistic ideas - in fact, he himself claimed that writers do not need to have their own ideas. The German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin says of Mo Yan’s novels: “He writes sensational works. His style dates back to the late 18th century… They tell the same old stories about men and women, sex, crime etc.” (Interview in Deutsche Welle).

I find Mo Yan’s writing to be coarse and repetitive, and difficult to follow. He writes about the intrigues between men and women, and about sex and violence, in an extremely exaggerated way. He presents the most base and animal-like impulses of human beings. This kind of sensationalistic literature that glorifies violence has been praised by the Swedish Academy as “hallucinatory realism [that] merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”

The Sandalwood Torture, set during the Boxer rebellion of 1900, is cited by the academy as one of Mo Yan’s three most important works. In 2002, I wrote an essay entitled, “An Extravagant Exhibition of Cruelty” and criticised Mo Yan for singing the praises of the Boxers’ narrow nationalism. He wallows in the details of horrific tortures and stokes the crueller aspects of human nature. In 2007, the famous Chinese literary critic Li Jianjun, referring to a metaphor by Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky, likened The Sandalwood Torture to a beetle - something insubstantial but colourful and ornate, easily mistaken for treasure. Li noted that "Mo Yan’s description of violence always lacked any spiritual insight or deeper meaning."

Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is praised by the academy as an exemplary work of "hallucinatory realism", written with great humour. A careful study of this novel reveals its true meaning - that it is futile for the common people, when they have been mistreated by the state, to take action against state power. Rather, it is better for them to just be docile. The idea of karma in the novel is used to discourage people’s urge to resist oppression, and serves instead to promote "harmony" within the existing system. In an interview about Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan made the revealing statement: "The most important condition for reconciliation and harmony is to forget."

The Garlic Ballads is a work recommended by Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, as a good starting-point for new readers of Mo Yan's work. His evaluation of this novel is that Mo Yan is criticising the system from within. But in my view, Mo Yan only questions certain flaws in the system, such as bureaucratic attitudes or corruption at the lower levels of government, while never actually opposing the system itself. For example, there is a young military officer in The Garlic Ballads whose father, a peasant, is arrested for participating in a protest against corrupt officials. But when this young man defends his father, he still maintains that the Communist Party is great and correct, and speaks of incidents of corruption as isolated and rare. It is obvious that Mo Yan is a defender of the system of which he is a part.

China has many writers who courageously criticise the system but have been persecuted or forced into exile; yet, according to academy member Göran Malmqvist, Mo Yan “dares to criticise social injustice, and others don’t dare.” Malmqvist, a scholar of China who knows the language well, disregards China’s reality and elevates Mo Yan, a very calculating and sly individual, to a courageous hero of resistance.

In Chinese literary criticism, the term wen yan (“eye of the literary text”) refers to the window through which the central idea of the written piece can be seen. The Scandinavian members of the academy cannot see through this window because for them it is shaded by many layers of cultural curtains. They have difficulty understanding the real meaning of Mo Yan’s work. These judges from Stockholm are prone to seek exotic wonders; they lack the ability to understand the ideological leanings of Chinese writings, and therefore use their own shallow perceptions and project their own ideas in interpreting these writings. Subjectively, and without regard for principles, they have raised Mo Yan to a level of greatness that he does not deserve.

The academy says that Mo Yan’s work reminds them of the American author William Faulkner. But when Faulkner received the Nobel prize in 1949, the academy said about his work: "Briefly, Faulkner's dilemma might be expressed thus: he mourns for and, as a writer, exaggerates a way of life which he himself, with his sense of justice and humanity, would never be able to stomach." (Presentation speech by Gustaf Hellström, member of the Swedish Academy, 10 December 1950).

In this case, a sense of justice and humanity was the reason why the award was given to Faulkner. Now, however, they have abandoned the values of their predecessors and single-mindedly praise only Mo Yan’s “storytelling abilities” (in Malmqvist‘s words). They lump together all of Mo Yan’s pointless descriptions of violence and incest, his preoccupation with trivia and absurdities, his vulgar stories about big breasts and wide hips, and simply call it “hallucinatory realism.” In so doing, they have made a travesty of the Nobel prize in literature, which originally embodied the value of dignity, and have turned it into what one might call a “literary amusement park”, meant only to entertain.

A missing nerve


Mo Yan, who holds an official position in China, has never separated literature from politics. His writings display elements that are counter to the humanistic spirit. These elements include his support for centralised government control, his petty nationalistic sentiments, his glorification of violence, and his idea that people should be resigned to their fate. None of these elements is devoid of politics. It is not difficult to see that in China, a country ruled by dictatorship, literature and politics are inevitably entwined. Yet the Swedish Academy insists that its selection of Mo Yan has nothing to do with politics.

Its attitude is related to a long-standing tendency of the academy to downplay the moral value of the prize and elevate the importance of "experimental art." Kjell Espmark stated that by the end of the 20th century, the academy had moved away from focusing on "moral values at the expense of experimental art", and that the prize for literature had become a true literary award.

Such an attitude constrains the art of literature, and is contrary to the spirit of Nobel. As an art of words, literature’s basic characteristic is indeed aesthetic. But the quest for artificial and decorative beauty and a single-minded pursuit of “experiment” will lead to the trap of aestheticism and art for art’s sake. Truly great literature cannot be defined as simply experimental art; it still needs a soul. It should inspire people to seek truth and strive for their ideals. Horace Engdahl, former secretary of the academy, was a fervent proponent of experimental art. For this, he was criticised by another member as having "destroyed the moral nerve of our country."

But even if judged only by the standard of experimental art, Mo Yan falls short of the mark. He simply imitates Latin American magic realism and lacks any originality. None of his writings reach any kind of greatness. A skilful craftsman, he is a best-selling novelist hyped up by the Chinese media. He is a magician who uses extravagant and verbose prose to play tricks. He takes as his ingredients the tragedies of the Chinese people, the intense sufferings of the farmers, and the moral degeneration of society, and combines them into a grand mish-mash. He presents a feast of the absurd, the exotic, the lewd, and the morbid, for the entertainment of readers who have the leisure time to digest it all. Mo Yan’s consumerist literature suits the appetite of the Nobel prize committee. Per Wästberg told the Global Times, “Big Breasts and Wide Hips is especially fascinating, different from anything I’ve read in the past.” Having abandoned Nobel’s humanistic spirit, can the academy members offer any profound insight into literature besides being dazzled by erotic descriptions of big breasts and wide hips?

Perhaps their taste can be attributed to the fact that the academy members are suffering from a sickness of "urban civilisation." Perhaps they are bored by the blandness, the civility and the rationality that characterise life in western democratic societies, and they seek a bizarre, exotic otherness. Therefore they need someone like Mo Yan who can write about the rustic, and about flesh and gore, to spice up their lives and to satisfy their cravings.

An ominous signal


It is clear that this ill-advised choice for the Nobel prize has both exposed the Swedish Academy’s appetite for exoticism and its superficial literary taste, and put the spotlight on the reality of China’s relationship with the west. Because China, with its dictatorial government, has seen such a great burst of economic development, some western cultural elites have given up on advocating for social justice; they no longer condemn oppressive power, or the violation of human rights. These people, who have succumbed to China’s “red influence”, insist on playing down politics, but in fact they are complicit in the abuse of power by not taking a stand against such abuse. What they are really interested in is the extraordinary opportunity China now provides for great fame and fortune.

The Swedish Academy has travelled far on their road of betraying Nobel. Its members ignore the suffering of the Chinese people under the dictatorship of the Chinese government, and now recognise someone who is a member of the largest authoritarian organisation in the world. Not only is Mo Yan a Chinese Communist Party member, he is also the vice-chairman of the government-run writers' association. After the massacre of 4 June 1989, he still sided with the government, and he glorified Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature, in which Mao rejects the notion of freedom of expression. In 2009, when dissident Chinese writers appeared at an event during the Frankfurt book fair, Mo Yan led the official Chinese delegation of writers in walking out of the hall in protest. In 2010, during an interview with Time magazine, he gave a very evasive defence of the Chinese government’s censorship system.

By giving the prize to Mo Yan, the Swedish Academy has sent an ominous signal to the world. That is, the academy no longer cares that China has a system that violates human rights, and it has no sympathy for the Chinese people who are abused by this system. The members insist that they gave no consideration to politics in their choice of the award, as if they are unaware that in a country with a dictatorship, the reality is that “literature is politics.” The result of their action is truly ironic. A decision that they claim has nothing to do with politics has now been wielded as a political tool by the Chinese Communist Party, used as propaganda to promote “the rise of China.”

When Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called in 1989 for the death of the writer Salman Rushdie over his novel The Satanic Verses, three members of the Swedish Academy accused the academy of failing to support Rushdie. In 2005, Knut Ahnlund, a member of the academy and one of Sweden's most famous essayists and literary historians, also left in protest over another controversy. Ahnlund, who died on 28 November 2012 at the age of 89, once called the academy “a disgrace to our nation.” Now that the prize has been awarded to Mo Yan, the departure of these four members who truly believed in Nobel’s ideal makes the current situation all the more painful.

The Swedish Academy welcomed their choice of Nobel laureate at the ceremony on 10 December 2012. But in the eyes of many Chinese, the Nobel prize has now been devalued: it no longer has any authority. But it is not only the moral ideal of Nobel that has suffered a defeat; the choice of Mo Yan will result in the further suppression and marginalisation of those writers in China who insist on the freedom of expression and who refuse to ingratiate themselves to state power.

But my faith is not shaken. The conviction that the writer's conscience and high moral character should be embodied in literature goes back thousands of years in China. I believe that Chinese writers who feel an obligation to uphold justice will no longer see the Swedish Academy as the same “sacred place” that was once worthy of their admiration from afar. In this cold and corrupt world, those writers who possess moral courage will continue to seek the literary ideals that correspond to the spirit of Nobel, and to create a literature that offers hope for the future of mankind.

About the author

Mo Li (the pen name of Mo Lihua) is a Chinese writer-in-exile. She graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University, and taught at Shaoyang Teachers' College in Hunan province until 1989. She was imprisoned for nearly three years after the massacre on 4 June 1989 in Beijing for her participation in the demonstrations. She now lives in Sundsvall, Sweden, where she writes and works as a Chinese-language teacher. Her books include Tibet is Over the Mountain (Taipei, 2007) and A Walk Through the Woods of Sweden (Taipei, 2008), and her essays are published in Open Magazine (Kaifang, Hong Kong), Democratic China (Mingzhu Zhongguo, New York) and Beijing Spring (Beijing Zhichun, New York)

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Mo Li (the pen name of Mo Lihua) is a Chinese writer-in-exile. She graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University, and taught at Shaoyang Teachers' College in Hunan province until 1989. She was imprisoned for nearly three years after the massacre of 4 June 1989 in Beijing for her participation in the demonstrations. She now lives in Sundsvall, Sweden, where she writes and works as a Chinese-language teacher. Her books include Tibet is Over the Mountain (Taipei, 2007) and A Walk Through the Woods of Sweden (Taipei, 2008), and her essays are published in Open Magazine (Kaifang, Hong
Kong), Democratic China (Mingzhu Zhongguo, New York) and Beijing Spring (Beijing Zhichun, New York)