Raymond Zhou on the Nobel Dilemma


Early October is Nobel Prize announcement week. It is often an agonizing and even humiliating period for some Chinese who see the prize as the yardstick of our nation's scientific and educational development.

When the occasional overseas Chinese person wins the prize, it somehow accentuates the pain, as it appears to show the Chinese as a race are capable of the highest achievements in science, but we are somehow handicapped by something else, say, our system.


# 1.   

This is a great take on a fascinating subject. The Nobel complex is such a telling window onto society and psychology, and I get drawn into conversations about this all the time. Raymond makes most of the points I find myself often repeating:

  1. They give the Nobel prize for literature to a writer, not a country.

  2. Culture is not a competitive sport.

  3. Insisting that it be an officially recognized Chinese writer who wins the prize pretty much guarantees disappointment.

Eric Abrahamsen, October 9, 2009, 10:18a.m.

# 2.   

I have a bit of a problem with your last sentence, Eric, concerning "an officially recognized Chinese writer". A part from Gao Xingjian, who no doubt fully deserved the prize, I see no Chinese writer abroad of the same caliber apart perhaps Ha Jin ... in a few years. On the other hand, I have the feeling that the fact that Mo Yan (the first and perhaps the only one who deserves to be on the list)is still a member of the Party, does not improve his chances to win the prize.

Bertrand Mialaret, October 9, 2009, 1:19p.m.

# 3.   

One could also ask: Why in the world would these writers care about Nobel Prize any way? Isn’t our own Maodun Literary Prize good enough to boost writers’ morale? (from Raymond Zhou's essay)

Good questions.

Quickie answers:

1) It's not the writers who care -- it's Chinese people (and there are many) who equate a Nobel Prize with other forms of global recognition so long denied the PRC, such as membership in the UN, hosting the Olympics, membership in the G7/G20, etc.

2) The Mao Dun prize has indeed been given to some fine books/authors, but because it is perceived as "state-sponsored," it only goes to those considered politically correct and so it is rightfully seen as limited in scope.

As Eric Abrahamsen pointed out recently, many Chinese are quite unaware that a Chinese has ALREADY been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name is Gao Xingjian, and happily for him, he lives in France where he can get on with his writing and painting. But the Chinese media has done a very effective job of twisting everything about that award: Gao is painted in the media as an utter foreigner living in the West. In fact, Gao was born in the PRC, was thoroughly criticized in the Cultural Revolution, wrote much of his work while still on the ground in China, only left China in the 1980s when he was already a middle-aged playwright, and continues to use his mother tongue to write.

I bring up these facts simply to point out that China -- or at least the authorities -- do have a "Nobel" complex, and granting prizes to politically incorrect writers like Gao Xingjian only makes it worse.

What many Chinese people and the authorities in China crave is a stamp of approval from the West that signifies that China is back, this time as an independent, socialist-minded country with a five-thousand year civilization. To meet their expectations, this writer must be a mainstream China writer who projects an image of a modern, confident society in which the government/party play a leading and positive role. (continued below)

Bruce, October 10, 2009, 3:05a.m.

# 4.   

(continued from above)

To expect an isolated committee of intellectuals off in northern Europe, most of whom can read only 2-3 European languages, to identify such a Chinese author, and after comparing him or her against a pool of largely European authors, to vote to distinguish that Chinese author with a prize, is highly unlikely in the near future. Partly because the comittee is obviously Euro-centric, partly because most Chinese literature hasn't been translated, and partly many of the more compelling Chinese writers are politically incorrect ones whose manuscripts are often heavily censored before they are even published.

My advice to Chinese literature lovers: Establish a high-profile Chinese literary prize, perhaps in Hong Kong or Singapore. Ensure that the committee includes Chinese from the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as non-Chinese fluent in the language, and let them award an author/work based on the literary value of the book/work. If well done, this would be of more interest to the world than the Nobel hoopla.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, October 10, 2009, 3:08a.m.

# 5.   

Didn't they try to establish that kind of prize already? I remember reading about it. Maybe it was the 花踪世界华文文学奖. I don't quite recall the name.

Anna GC, October 13, 2009, 9:58p.m.

# 6.   

The 花踪 prize is based in Malaysia. Yu Guangzhong mentioned it in a recent interview with the Yangtse Evening Post. But despite the commonality of language, the literary worlds of the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and further overseas don't really seem to overlap all that much.

Anyway, Yu's relevant comments:




jdmartinsen, October 14, 2009, 4:09a.m.

# 7.   

There is a failed prize in mainland China, called "Chinese Literature Media Prize" (not an attention-catching name to begin with), which was set up by Southern Metro Daily (http://book.qq.com/a/20090414/000036.htm) in an ambition to rival prizes in other languages, but it has not generated much interest. Bi Feiyu, one of my favorite authors, even turned it down this year when he was awarded the prize in the novel genre:


I agree with Bruce that there should be a prize for all writers who write in Chinese, those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and those abroad. I hope some rich tycoon nearing the end of his life would raise his hand to respond to my post. Well, I am not going to bet on it.

In any case, many tiny prizes in each of these parts of what I would call "Greater Chinese Writing Circle" would do little to bring the best authors into public attention. In the meantime, writing to the prize is like teaching to the test, except the former is more hopeless. So Raymond is right, maybe it is better that nobody has won it it. It would definitely ruin any talent that is left if someone did end up getting it.

In my Chinese blog article about the issue (http://berlinfang.blog.163.com/blog/static/11667071620099811554546/), I found that about a half of those who left a comment (666 comments so far)indicate one way or the other that I should not have fretted about it, that Chinese literature is altogether a different thing. This led me to think that much more goes into literature than some "universal quality standards" which I originally assumed in the post when reflecting upon Chinese writers' failure at Nobel. Yu Guangzhong (the Taiwanese poet quoted in jdmartinsen's comment above) said something that is worth pondering: Even at his best and with the best possible translation, Shakespeare would not be as interesting for a Chinese reader as Tang Xianzu or Mao Dun (Chinese playwrights). I don't think that is sour grape. That's often what I felt as a reader.

Berlin, October 15, 2009, 5:34a.m.


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