Chinese writer Mo Yan wins literature Nobel

In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 2, 2011, Chinese writer Mo Yan poses for photos in a theater in Beijing. Chinese writer Mo Yan surprised the literary world when he was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature this morning.  Photo: AP

Novelist Mo Yan, this year's Nobel Prize winner for literature, is practiced in the art of challenging the status quo without offending those who uphold it.

Read more about  Mo Yan's masterpiece: Sandalwood Death

Mo, whose popular, sprawling, bawdy tales bring to life rural China, is the first Chinese winner of the literature prize who is not a critic of the government. And Thursday's announcement by the Swedish Academy brought an explosion of pride across Chinese social media.

"He's one of those people who's a bit of a sharp point for the Chinese officials, yet manages to keep his head above water," said his longtime U.S. translator, Howard Goldblatt of the University of Notre Dame. "That's a fine line to walk, as you can imagine."

"He knows the rules, knows the parameters, as do all writers in China," said Goldblatt. "He doesn't speak for the government. Some of his books have received unpleasant notices from Chinese literary officials and he doesn't care."

The award will probably act as a huge boost to China’s national psyche, which has long suffered from a sense that its cultural accomplishments, at least in the eyes of the West, are overshadowed by its economic prowess.

“This will be embraced as an indicator that China has arrived in the world,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize and I congratulate him. A group of people outside of China have validated his literary efforts and accomplishments, and that is all," wrote well-known independent columnist Zhao Chu.

Swedish Academy member Per Wästberg said in a chat with readers on the website of Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet that the academy doesn't care about the political views of writers.

"All choices—which are based on literary quality, and nothing else—are in some way controversial in their effects," he said, noting Mo Yan's Communist Party membership.

The state-run national broadcaster, China Central Television, reported the news moments later, and the official writers' association, of which Mo is a vice chairman, lauded the choice. But it also ignited renewed criticisms of Mo from other writers as too willing to serve or too timid to confront a government.

The reactions highlight the unusual position Mo holds in Chinese literature. He is a genuinely popular writer who is embraced by the Communist establishment but who also dares, within careful limits, to tackle controversial issues like forced abortion. His novel "The Garlic Ballads," which depicts a peasant uprising and official corruption, was banned.

"Whether getting it or not, I don't care," the 57-year-old Mo said in a telephone interview with CCTV from Gaomi. He said he goes to his childhood hometown every year around this time to read, write and visit his elderly father.

"I'll continue on the path I've been taking, feet on the ground, describing people's lives, describing people's emotions, writing from the standpoint of the ordinary people," said Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye and whose pen name "Mo Yan" means "don't speak." He chose the name while writing his first novel to remind himself to hold his tongue and stay out of trouble.

Nobel winners have included political and social critics, including Guenter Grass of Germany and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey. The Swedish Academy disputed suggestions that it had selected Mo to seek Beijing's favor and rehabilitate the Nobel's image in the minds of many Chinese.

"As we've been trying to, naggingly, say: This is a literature prize that is awarded on literary merit alone. We don't take other things in consideration," said Peter Englund, the academy's permanent secretary. The reaction in a winner's homeland "doesn't enter into our calculus."

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