2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize: Recognizing Fine Literature or Rewarding Writer-Officials?

“We are judging literary works, and society is judging us,” said Gao Hongbo (高洪波), vice-director of the Evaluation Committee for the 8th Mao Dun Literature Prize.

Indeed. And to judge by the reaction among netizens and even among China’s own mainstream media, the committee has been found badly wanting.

Several hot-button issues have dogged the competition throughout August as the sixty-plus-strong committee worked feverishly to choose five winners from 187 candidates. In an attempt to project a more liberal and transparent image to the public, cyberlit was allowed to compete and each judge’s vote was made openly, ending the secretive tradition of the past.

But when the 20 semi-finalists were announced, the China Daily noted that “eight of the top 10 on the list are chairpersons or vice-chairpersons of provincial Writers’ Associations.”

And the government’s English-language mouthpiece went further, translating and citing an editorial in the Guangzhou Daily:

Official status cannot and should not be a criterion for literary excellence. That’s why people doubt the authenticity of prizes that are awarded to officials for their literary achievements. According to some media reports, even some national literary awards have been awarded to officials.

The references here to “officials” means senior-level managers of provincial-level Writers Associations, the Soviet-inspired organization that groups many of China’s professional writers. Until the late 1980s, it was basically a writers’ union that supervised literary “production,” ensured politically correct writing, and paid writers a living salary provided they toed the Party Line. Non-members—freelance writers, essentially—found it quite difficult to get their works published.

Today, provincial Writers Associations are voluntary organizations, and many better-known novelists are not members. But these bodies are still very influential, and the Mao Dun Literature Prize is sponsored and managed by the national Writers Association.

The results of this year’s competition has been aptly described by Beijing-based China watcher J. D. Martinsen, in his typically understated fashion:

The final results are out. Five men, three writers association officers, and the top winner a huge, multi-volume work that has been written and published over the course of the last decade:

  • 你在高原 (张炜) On the Plateau, Zhang Wei (Shandong Writers Association chair)
  • 天行者 (刘醒龙) Skywalker, Liu Xinglong (Hubei Writers Association vice-chair)
  • 推拿 (毕飞宇) Massage, Bi Feiyu (Jiangsu Writers Association vice-chair)
  • (莫言) Frog, Mo Yan
  • 一句顶一万句 (刘震云) One Sentence Worth Thousands, Liu Zhenyun

But it would no doubt be unfair to categorize these writers as a group of apparatchiks, or their works as mere verbiage. Bi Feiyu is widely admired in China and out, and he won the Man Literary Prize in 2010, Mo Yan is one of the most translated of contemporary Chinese novelists—Frog has already appeared in French—and Liu Zhenyun has been translated into French and German. On the Plateau has also been widely praised by critics in China, and awarding the prize to him can be interpreted as recognition for his 10-volume magnum opus that has taken him a decade to put down on paper.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that two types of writing failed to make a showing in the last group of 10 semi-finalists, one predictably, and the other a bit surprisingly.

As was widely expected, seven novels that appeared first on the web, i.e., examples of cyberlit, were quickly eliminated in the first rounds of voting. This is the first time that publishers were permitted to nominate online writing, but the rules were very restrictive: only “legal” (registered) online publishers could nominate, and they could recommend only novels that were subsequently published in hard-copy within 2010.

Official denials to the contrary, among the powers-that-be there is clearly a feeling that writing that first appears on the Internet is somehow not on a par with prose that is published first in a traditional book.

More surprisingly, this Mao Dun Prize competition did not recognize a novel with an “ethnic” theme, i.e., written by a member of an ethnic minority, or featuring characters and motifs from China’s non-Han population and cultures. Past winners in this "unofficial" category include: Huo Da’s Muslim Funeral (<穆斯林的葬礼>,霍达著), Alai’s Red Poppies (<尘埃落定>,阿来著) and Chi Zijian’s Right Bank of the Argun (<额尔古 纳河右岸>,迟子建著).