Mo Yan Interview Translation

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Following this previous link to an interview with Mo Yan in French, Igor Yegorov wrote in with an English translation so we didn't all have to suffer through the Google translator. Thanks Igor!

Writer Mo Yan : From dictatorship of the Party to that of the market

By Bertrand Mialaret | 24/06/2009 | 12H57

The Chinese writer Mo Yan is spending a week in France to talk about his books and his new novel, due to be published in late August. The meeting with him in Beijing was facilitated for Rue89 by Bertrand Mialaret, chronicler of Chinese literature, and Pierre Haski. The exchange was rendered possible by Chantal Chen Andro, translator of several books by Mo Yan.

Mo Yan, 53, was born in a village near Gaomi, Shandong Province, south of Beijing.

This area is an essential part of his works, like Macondo in those by Garcia Marquez. Until 1995 he lived in Gaomi with his brother and father; now he is a Beijing resident.

His mother kept feeding him with her milk during the famine suffered by their peasant family during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).

He suffered from hunger and isolation when he had to quit school during the Cultural Revolution: his grand uncle who used to own some land was considered a “bad element”. He remembers tending animals, a buffalo with long hair…

Recruited to the army despite his "bad class background"

When he worked at a cotton plant, he volunteered to join the army and enrolled successfully in 1976 despite his "bad class background". The army provided him an opportunity to form himself and go to university; he served in a cultural education unit, then as an instructor, and finally left the ranks in 1997.

Like other authors who once had a military career (Yan Lianke or Ha Jin in the US), he "is grateful to that organization which permitted him to have time to write". "However, I wrote nothing about the army. It is possible that I will manage a project about army and war one day".

His first story was published in 1981 and "Transparent Radish" was followed by success of "Red Sorghum Family" which has been added to considerably by the film "Red Sorghum", directed by Zhang Yimou and awarded a prize at the 1988 Berlin Festival.

Dictatorship of the Party and that of the market

Mo Yan has often stressed that although politics is a central theme of his novels, literature should not be held politically responsible as it used to be in the times of Mao Zedong; it has become more marginal in the society and that is a good sign.

"As Mao put it, politics shall be in the first place, the economy in the second place; nowadays everything is put to the service of economy. In the old days it was politics that was considered important by the people, now it is money”.

Several years ago he made it clear to Pierre Haski in an interview published by Libération:

"I keep on as a Party member, and I don’t want to quit as it means creating unnecessary problems and questions why in big headlines in the newspapers."

However, he and Yan Lianke are surely the writers that come in for the most vigorous critical attacks by the Party and local authorities. His most percussive book, "Republic of Wine", the great novel published in China in 1993, caused no disquiet. But on the contrary, "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" published in 2001, was awarded, banned and then published in an unabridged version several years later!

His latest work, “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out”, is a step beyond: his protagonists are a landlord killed during the land reform and a farmer who rejects any form of collectivization. For his edification the former is ordered by Lord of the Underworld to be reborn in succession as a donkey, ox, pig, dog, monkey and... a human so that he could participate in the history of his village, his descendants, his enemies…

Except for one Maoist who keeps to his convictions, the Party members are presented as corrupted and preoccupied with their own interests, in which they succeed only by virtue of violence and manipulation…

We will enlarge on this book of quality in the month of August.

Mo Yan: the success of a great writer

The Japanese Nobel Prize Kenzaburo Oe has declared: "If I were to choose a Nobel Laureate, it would be Mo Yan". If he is famous outside China, it is in France that he is most translated. Essentially, fifteen works of his have been published by éditions du Seuil.

Mo Yan attributes his success to the high quality of his translators Chantal Chen Andro and Noël et Liliane Dutrait; in the United States he has been equally served by Howard Goldblatt who has translated five of his books. This long-term collaboration is exemplary and rather rare, as the translators are happy with both the author’s cooperativeness and rapidity of his responses.

In China, Mo Yan explains, "the editors fight for this signature (the average editions constitute 200 000 copies), the copyrights are put to auctions and the editing houses are changed frequently.”

He regrets how much of his time is occupied in order to promote books with the media. "I don’t think it so important, and after ten interviews I will stop". Judging from his program this week, he makes an exception for France!

They often say that Mo Yan is a person who is difficult to reach, but this is not so. Anyone worried by the “thickness” of his formidable novels may discover him with a collection of his superb stories "Child of Steel" (éd. du Seuil, 2004) and the novels which are slimmer in number of pages but not in interest ("Joy", éd. P. Picquier, 2007 ; "Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh", éd. du Seuil, 2005…). One may be elect to read "Forty One Cannons" (Le Seuil, 2008) as well.

Is Internet the future of literature?

China’s community of net users is the largest in the world, the literary sites there are most popular and the number of authors contracted by the sites is outstanding.

Mo Yan’s attitude towards the phenomenon is reserved: "The good works are very scarce, anybody can write". However, he admits that new writers have come forth and that "the most active authors are those on the net":

"That’s true, the number of readers has reduced since 1980s, but those who publish their works on the net are readers too".

He knows young authors on the net who apply to him to be introduced to “classic” editors as the net copyrights are meagre. Besides, there is no legal protection on the net, it is far from stable and pirated publications are the norm.

Out-and-out fakes also flourish: a book was published featuring his name as the author and the name of his publisher… they have won the case in court.

The 'literary idols' like Han Han that can be found among successful authors of the younger generation are gently mocked, both the phenomenal 'people' and their 'groupies'. However, the diffusion of works by Han Han, Guo Jingming and others are mostly spectacular. Certain readers regret that Mo Yan does not write about young people and the middle urban class in contemporary China.

"That’s true, I do not write about young people of today, maybe because I do not understand them well. I am a little bit immersed in the past and my memories. Maybe if I write anything else within next twenty years, I will turn to the present."


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