"The Storyteller": Mo Yan's Nobel Acceptance Speech

By Bruce Humes, published

It's true that the Western media, and not a few China hands, would like nothing better than for Mo Yan to have delivered a Nobel acceptance speech that criticizes China's censorship practices.

One could argue that this is a selfish if not downright childish desire.

His speech is now up in Chinese (讲故事的人), so we know that his speech contained nothing of the sort. He basically said that:

*** He perceives himself as a "storyteller" who was deeply inspired by the lives of those around him as he grew up in a small Shandong town

*** Recent criticisms leveled at him in fact have nothing to do with Mo Yan the writer

*** A writer should be judged by what he writes, not what he says -- or doesn't say -- about what he writes

I sympathize with the latter statement, but would amend it: the reading public should be able to separate a man's writing from his behavior in the real world, and thus be free to give one assessment to his literary works, while maintaining the independence to otherwise weigh his actions.

I can't offer an opinion of his writing, since I haven't read any of it. But from reviews and online discussions, it looks indeed as if he has written some highly readable and socially relevant, even indirectly critical, fiction that touches on Chinese history since 1949.

Seeing that Mo Yan is a writer who possesses a small fortune (certainly one of the top-ten-earning authors in China in 2012, with more coming down the pipeline) and now has the halo of a Nobel Laureate to boot, I do wish that he would take advantage of his economic and social standing to take a public and critical stand on the impact of China's censorship on creativity and quality. After all, he is a professional writer who has to deal with this system, and therefore has the qualifications to speak on the topic.

He has done several things in the last 2-3 years that indicate that he either doesn't understand how negative that impact can be, or he simply doesn't care. To wit:

*** Taking part in the promotion of a book that celebrates Mao Zedong's Yanan talk on the role of art in serving the proletarian revolution. This "talk" was used in the 1950s to justify struggle sessions against prominent intellectuals, and led to imprisonment and torture for hundreds of thousands, and suicide and even violent deaths for some. The "talk" still casts a shadow on art in China; while rarely cited, neither has it been critiqued or disavowed by the bureaucrats who jealously guard the gates to publication in hard copy or broadcast on the Internet. It would be disingenuous of Mo Yan or any other artist to deny the damage wreaked by this dogma.

*** Walking out of seminars at the Frankfurt Int'l Book Fair in 2009 when dissident Chinese writers were invited to take part.

*** His recent statement in Stockholm to the effect that censorship is akin to safety checks at an airport; after all, every country implements them. This implies that censorship of literature differs little from frisking a passenger for a bomb before being allowed to board. Surely the two are hardly comparable?

I for one did not "need" Mo Yan to say anything specific in Stockholm. I am a great believer in the right to self-expression, including the right to keep one's mouth shut.

But I tend to agree with this quote by poet Ye Du, a member of the Independent Chinese Pen Center: "As far as an assessment of him, in literature he has some merit, but as a living human being, he is a dwarf."


# 1.   

Am having trouble editing my post above, so I'll note here that the official English version of Mo Yan's speech is now up at:


Bruce, December 9, 2012, 1:55a.m.

# 2.   

Well said, Mr. Humes.

CHINA, December 9, 2012, 6:19a.m.

# 3.   

Worth reading his comments at the press conference in full -

I found it strange that the interpreter choose to translate the term censorship in the question (see video 12:20) as 新闻检查 rather than 审查 or 审查制度.

Anyway, here's the transcript:




Paulus, December 11, 2012, 4:26a.m.

# 4.   

Thank you, Paulus. It's good to see the fuller quote in order to grasp the context.

Bruce, December 11, 2012, 1:38p.m.

# 5.   

I'd note that Mo Yan only became a best-seller in 2012 possibly after he'd won the Nobel Prize. Before that, in 2011 for example, he wasn't in the top ten at all.

Alice, December 13, 2012, 2:42a.m.


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