On the afternoon of 12 October 2012, Mo Yan appeared at a press conference in a hotel meeting room that has since become famous worldwide. The hotel was in Gaomi, Mo Yan’s hometown, a small city in Shandong province in northeast China. Mo Yan was still wearing the same lilac dress shirt he’d been wearing the night before. He began by fielding two questions from reporters. Most of what he said quickly appeared online and disappeared just as quickly, perhaps because it wasn’t considered politically correct. Even before he’d won the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan’s politics had already been widely criticised as pro status-quo. In response, he said that his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was a triumph not of political correctness, but of literature.
The day the prize was announced, Mo Yan told a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television in a phone interview that “both my supporters and detractors on the internet have their own reasons. We live in an era of free expression.” Observers soon picked out the phrase “era of free expression,” which spread on the internet, causing controversy.
On a flight from Beijing to Qingdao that morning, I sat next to the Phoenix reporter who’d interviewed Mo Yan the evening before. She thought his answer was reasonable but had been quoted out of context. There were scores of journalists on this 7.50am flight out of Beijing, all headed for Gaomi, about a hundred kilometres away from Qingdao. Reporters had spent hours waiting in the hotel, and in the compound where Mo Yan lived, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. They only dispersed when the press conference was about to start.
At the conference, Mo Yan looked calm and unruffled as he answered every question put to him. He had a red string ornament in his left hand, and towards the end of the press conferenc he lifted his hand and gently pushed aside his sleeve to check the time on his watch. Yet if it were possible to travel in time back to another occasion on which Mo Yan spoke in public, in February of 1976, these two scenes would present a significant contrast.
“There was a round of applause. Suddenly, I was on stage. I felt faint. My heart was beating so fast I thought it might explode.” That’s how Mo Yan, in his essay Jianghua or ‘Talking’, recalls feeling as a 21-year-old preparing to give a speech on behalf of his cohort of new army recruits. After the young Guan Moye received a letter notifying him that he had been accepted by the army, a former soldier in the village advised him to compose a written pledge if he wanted to be quickly accepted by his fellow troops. Guan, who would later choose Mo Yan [No Speech] as his pen name, remembered the man’s advice and submitted his pledge as soon as he reported to basic training. That, in turn, earned him an opportunity to speak in front of the whole camp.
Before the applause died down, he thought about everything he coveted for his future: “What a crowd. This is glory, my future, a uniform with four pockets. It’s a stainless steel Shanghai wristwatch, the kind that’s shockproof with 19 watch jewels.” 21-year-old Guan Moye plopped “right into the chair that the deputy regional commander and the new recruit instructor had recently vacated.” It was a steel-framed folding chair in red faux leather. He glanced briefly at his audience and then began to read from a script.
The 57-year-old Mo Yan, in that hotel meeting room in Gaomi, hardly ever glanced down except to look at his watch. He was already used to a large audience. The Gaomi No. 1 Middle School had a Mo Yan Literature Centre on its campus. It held a reproduction of a photograph from the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair. As the vice-chairperson of the Writers Association of China, Mo Yan stood on stage smiling, next to the association’s chairperson, Tie Ning, as well as PRC vice-president Xi Jinping and German chancellor Angela Merkel. At the book fair, when an overseas dissident turned up, Mo Yan and many other Chinese writers chose to leave quietly. He was criticised for that too.
In 1976, Guan Moye finished reading from his script and slipped off stage. Then he heard his squad leader whisper: “You idiot, you’re done for!” Baffled, Guan was entirely unable to pay attention to the arts performance that followed. Back in the barracks, he asked his squad leader what the problem was. “How dare you sit in the very same chair the senior officers occupied? Instead of standing while you spoke, you sat there like an officer. You’ve blown it, you’ll be home eating sweet potatoes next year.”
Mo Yan would later write of this experience: “I couldn’t hold my tears back. I was the son of a peasant. It was all I could do to get into the army in the first place. I had wanted to rise through the ranks, make my parents proud, divorce the humble sweet potato, and instead I’d blown it.”
Guan Moye wanted nothing more than to escape his hometown. “I told myself that if I were so lucky as to one day escape, I certainly wouldn’t ever come back. So when I climbed into that truck full of new recruits on 16 February, 1976, I didn’t so much as glance back at the home I’d left, even though the other men were tearfully bidding farewell to their families. I felt like a bird that had flown its cage. There was nothing I’d miss about the village. I couldn’t wait for the truck to take us as far away as possible, as quickly as possible, ideally to the ends of the earth.” The truck stopped at a camp only a hundred kilometres away from Gaomi. When the person in charge of new recruits announced that they’d already reached the barracks, Guan was deeply disappointed. “It struck me as an unsatisfying escape.”
What kind of place was Guan Moye’s hometown, Gaomi Northeast Township? The township Mo Yan repeatedly described in writings and interviews has since been renamed Gaomi Shugang Logistics Park. It lies at the intersection of the Changwei plain and the Jiaodong peninsula, in a low-lying area criss-crossed with rivers, which often floods in the summer. It used to be planted with taller crop varieties such as sorghum, and at harvest time the fields would turn a fiery red.
Not long after making his speech at the rally for new recruits, Guan Moye was allocated – banished, rather – to Huang County, by the Bohai Sea. Apart from being on duty, he also had to work in the fields. His life was no better than it had been in the village. In fact, it was worse.
In the monotony of active duty, Guan Moye began to write. His first story was ‘The Story of Mother,’ a piece about “the child of a landlord [the Mother of the title] who falls in love with a captain in the Eighth Route Army, the main Communist fighting force during World War Two. She runs away from home and only returns to her hometown when the army retakes it. She herself kills her father, who has been serving as a spy. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, she ends up being struggled against and killed for being the child of a landlord.” Mo Yan sent this story to People’s Liberation Army Literature and Art. “Every day I was hoping they would pay me for my stories so I could buy a watch, but all I received in the mail was a returned manuscript.”
In 1981 and 1982, Guan Moye, who had by then given himself the pen name Mo Yan, published two stories in Lotus Pond, a magazine produced by the local writers’ federation in the city of Baoding in Hebei province, ‘Falling Rain on a Spring Night’ and ‘The Ugly Soldier.’ With the 144 yuan he received, he finally bought a watch. Not that the watch was what mattered about his first published piece. The Hebei novelist Sun Li (1913-2002), who read and enjoyed the stories, would help to bring Mo Yan to the notice of the literary world. He was about to become an author.
On the evening of 11 October 2012, the author Lei Duo read a text from his assistant: Mo Yan had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Lei was happy for his classmate. He remembered the autumn of 1984, when he was the second to last student to arrive at the Department of Literature in the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art at the start of term. Mo Yan was the very last student to arrive. They’d each been held up by different things.
The Army Academy of Art was hosting the country’s first Writer’s Workshop. They were known as the First Whampoa Group, after the military academy in Guangdong. All the writers the military had nurtured for years gathered in this Beijing group, which required both excellent examination results as well as a writing portfolio. But the department chair, Xu Huaizhong, was impressed by Mo Yan’s work. He told the group’s advisor, Liu Yiran, that even if this particular applicant flunked the cultural knowledge exam, the department would accept him anyway.
The first writer’s workshop had thirty-four students and one advisor. Some of them were already established writers: Li Cunbao, for instance, had been awarded a national prize for his novellaWreath under a Tall Mountain. Qian Gangdan, who had already made a name for himself as a reporter, was the class spokesperson.
Xu Huaizhong brought in nationally recognised professors, writers, critics and artists to serve as advisors for the workshop. They included the authors Wu Zuxiang, Ding Ling, Wang Meng, Liu Zaifu and Zhang Chengzhi. Xu would also organize smaller tutorials for the students. “He once asked me and Mo Yan to take part in a private discussion of literary texts,” recalls Lei Duo. At the time, many Chinese writers were interested in experimental writing. Borges, Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa were among the authors frequently discussed.
As far as literary experimentation went, Lei Duo felt that Mo Yan did a better job whereas he himself had gone too far: “If this were a live broadcast of a football game, Mo Yan would have an excellent angle, perfectly placed for the field of vision, with the action taking place near the camera.”
But at the beginning of the course, hardly anyone noticed Mo Yan. Instead, Li Cunbao got all the attention, and his work was discussed by the entire class in a seminar, during which Mo Yan couldn’t help disparaging Li’s work: “We’d organised a discussion in the department of Li’s novel Those Nineteen Graves in the Mountain. I really didn’t think much of it, so I criticised it roundly, and went overboard with my comments.” He thought Li’s work wasn’t a novel so much as a piece of propaganda.
A dream offered another source of inspiration. In the early hours of the morning one day, Mo Yan dreamed (as described in his essay ‘Individuality Requires a Goal’ in the 1985 collection The Chinese Author) of “a radish field, the sunlight shining on an old man with his back bent, tilling the field. A girl with a harpoon walked over and speared a radish, holding it up and walking towards the sunlight. The radish gleamed marvellously in the sunlight.” That dream would become the basis of a story which Mo Yan wanted to call The Golden Radish. Xu Huaizhong altered the title to The Radiant Radish, and Mo Yan initially preferred his own title, but he grew to think the new one was better.
The protagonist of The Radiant Radish (translated in 2015 by Howard Goldblatt as Radish) is a child called Blackie, and the story has been taken to be an account of an abused child’s sexual awakening. There was speculation that Mo Yan had often been beaten by his father when he was a child, and that the abuse had taken its toll. When I met Mo Yan’s 90-year-old father, Guan Yifan, in Gaomi, the old man told me that Mo Yan had been a mischievous child and said he might have spanked him a couple of times. Guan kept stacks of books by his bedside. He had received a traditional classical education as a child and enjoyed reading, but he had never read any of Mo Yan’s books. “He won’t let me,” the old man said, smiling.
Gaomi’s radishes gave Mo Yan’s literary career a boost. The radish was taken as a symbol of masculinity, and the descriptions of sex were interpreted as a venture into experimental writing. China has a long history of suppressing any mention of emotion and sex. Mo Yan broke this taboo. “The Radiant Radish contains a strong sexual element, which gives it a foundation for accessing universal emotions,” says Lei Duo of the work.
The novella The Radiant Radish was published in the second issue of The Chinese Author in 1985. It caught the eye of authors and editors in Beijing, who gathered to discuss the work. People were finally paying attention to Mo Yan, the way they’d once paid attention to Li Cunbao when he first entered the workshop.
Then Mo Yan entered a phase of what might be called frenzied writing. Within a year, he had published short stories and novellas inHarvest, Zhongshan, People’s Literature and many other outlets. The following year, his collection The Radiant Radish was published by the Writers Publishing House. His literary experimentation took on an increasingly definite direction: just as he said upon winning the Nobel Prize, from the eighties onwards his writing had centred on individuals. His stories were no longer aimed at painting a picture of the era – they were portraits.
The young man who had originally hoped never to return to Gaomi would grow up to discover that his difficult childhood had become a tremendous resource: no other author had stored up such a wealth of folk tales. “The Nobel prize committee says he was influenced by Latin American magical realism, and that’s indisputable.” Lei Duo sums up Mo Yan’s literary art in two words: strangeness and unrestraint. “The notion of the magical is a good descriptor. His work draws on the language of humans, gods, and demons together, such that somewhere between the invented and the real, what he wants to convey will come through. For instance, his critique of Chinese officialdom is perfectly packaged. It’s slippery. You could accuse him of criticising the status quo, but you’re never sure if he’s just joking.”
All these literary forms and techniques boil down to the depiction of human nature, which may be the task that has compelled writers of Mo Yan’s generation to keep writing until the present day. “At the Army Academy of Art, we used to say two things make you a writer: a god complex, and an empathetic disposition. When I’m writing, I’m god: I can allow new characters to be born or kill them off as I please. Their fates are in my hands. But empathy is more important: even if I’m exposing you or ridiculing you, deep down I’m hoping you’ll do better for yourself. Mo Yan’s work follows these principles, which has to be one of the reasons why he was awarded the Nobel Prize.”
Lei Duo was also struck by Mo Yan’s diligence: “When he was in a period of volcanic, explosive creativity, he would work all night, come to class briefly in the morning, and then go home to nap. He was careful in how he spent his time, and only came to the best lectures. If he felt that a class was not helpful to him, he would skip it and head home to keep reading more and writing.”
“He was usually quiet, but when he did say something, it was always hysterically funny.” One night, a few students from the literature department got into an argument with members of the Eastern Song and Dance Troupe after a few beers. They agreed to meet the following day for a fight. Mo Yan was there, and he told his classmates: “Don’t worry, I’ll bring a knife tomorrow.” He turned up with a glittering dagger, and only when his friends took a closer look did they realise it was plastic.
One particular personality test was all the rage then. It involved giving you some irregular shapes to turn into a picture, and then analysing your psychological state. “Basically, a Freudian exercise,” says Lei. Most of their classmates came up with something that resembled a landscape painting, but Mo Yan produced what looked like a crying child. “He may have had some residual childhood trauma, but when we hung out he always seemed cheerful.”
Mo Yan graduated with the other Army Academy of Art writers, two years later.
In Gaomi Northeast Township, there is a road called Red Sorghum Road. Beyond it is Qingsha Road, and beyond that Cotton Road, and beyond it the location where the movie Red Sorghum was shot: Sunjiakou Village.
There aren’t any sorghum fields left. In fact, back when the movie was produced in 1987, sorghum had already ceased to be a local crop, and the production team had to plant several sorghum fields to serve as backdrops.
Red Sorghum was based on a historical event: according to the Gaomi County Annals, on 15 March, 1938, Kuomintang guerrilla forces and armed Sunjiakou villagers ambushed the Japanese army at Sunjiakou, and the Japanese forces retaliated by massacring more than a hundred villagers.
In Gaomi Northeast Township, Mo Yan’s second oldest brother Guan Moxin recalled that when the production team was shooting on set at Sunjiakou, they would return to the village of Ping’anzhuang for lunch, and Mo Yan’s mother would generally cook. One day after lunch, Mo Yan, actor Jiang Wen, director Zhang Yimou, and actress Gong Li all posed for a photograph. The three men were shirtless, and Gong Li was in period costume. After Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, someone posted this photograph to the social media platform Weibo with the caption: “If someone at the time had said: you, go to Berlin to receive a prize, you go to Cannes, you go to Venice, and as for you, go and get the Nobel Prize in Literature, would anyone have taken it for more than a fantasy?”
The photograph dates to the summer of 1987. The four people in it would spend the next 25 years realizing this fantasy, to which 1986 was only the prelude. That year, Mo Yan published the novella Red Sorghum in issue no. 3 of People’s Literature. He bulldozed forward steadily, publishing six novellas and four short stories that year.
During the Army Academy’s summer holiday, Mo Yan was holed up in the student dormitories, writing. One day he heard someone calling his name from outside the building. “I came outside to see who it was, and it turned out it was a man in a torn shirt. He had a shaved head, was very dark-skinned and was also holding a pair of crude slippers in his hand, the kind with soles made from recycled tyres. The straps had broken when someone stepped on them on the bus.” He introduced himself as Zhang Yimou. He said he liked Red Sorghum and wanted to film it. They talked for ten minutes and Mo Yan agreed. “I’m not Lu Xun or Mao Dun,” he said. “If you film their work, you have to be faithful to it. You can adapt my work however you like. I could care less if you have the grandfather and grandmother figures experimenting with nuclear bombs in the sorghum fields.”
When the film won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Red Sorghum started a nuclear reaction in the Chinese film world, the force of which carried Zhang Yimou, Gong Li and Jiang Wen directly to the world stage.
After the spring festival of 1988, Mo Yan returned to Beijing. Walking along the road at night, he could hear passersby singing to themselves: “Sister, keep going, don’t look back.” It was the song from the movie. “Film really is powerful. I was lucky to work with Zhang Yimou,” he reflected. Mo Yan would become synonymous with Red Sorghum, and people would judge his work by the merits of the movie.
On the evening of 14 October, Red Sorghum was playing in the open air in Gaomi. Everyone knew the movie well, and the familiar scenes brought nostalgia. The people of Gaomi needed these familiar faces to help them process the unfamiliar notion of the Nobel Prize. Gaomi Northeast Township had been written into existence by Mo Yan’s pen, but Red Sorghum had brought it to the attention of the wider world. These few days, Gaomi had been overrun by journalists, tourists, and literary enthusiasts, all keen to see the original Gaomi for themselves. The origin of such a history-making event will always have its appeal, regardless of whether it is real or fictional.
In October of 1999, Mo Yan went to Japan. When speaking at Kyoto University, he said: “One winter night 15 years ago, I was reading the Yasunari Kawabata novel Snow Country. I came to the line ‘A powerful black Akita dog crouched on a stepping stone lapping at the warm water,’ and the image of the dog sprung to mind. I was electrified, as if touched by the woman of my dreams. I understood what fiction was, and how I should write it. Without even finishing Snow Country, I put it aside, picked up my own pen, and wrote: ‘The gentle white dogs native to Gaomi Northeast Township have been bred for generations, but it is hard to find a purebred dog in Gaomi now.’ This was the first time that Gaomi Northeast Township appeared in my writing.”
The story was called ‘White Dog and Swing Frame.’ The flag of Gaomi Northeast Township had been flown: Mo Yan was like a king raising an army for it. “Kawabata’s Akita dog awakened me to the truth that dogs can appear in literature, even warm water can appear in literature! From then on, I would never worry about finding material for my novels. While I was writing one story, the next story would start clucking at my heels like a hen anxious to get home to lay its eggs. I used to write stories but now the stories were writing me, I was their slave.”
In an essay, Mo Yan once quoted Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel: “My conviction is that all serious creative work must be at bottom autobiographical, and that a man must use the material and experience of his own life if he is to create anything that has substantial value.”
At the 2012 press conference in Gaomi, when responding to the reporter, Mo Yan said: “A writer writes as his conscience dictates. He is directly responsible to the public. He investigates fate and human emotion, and makes his own judgments. If people were to read my books, or if any of you present have read my books, you’d know that I have always relentlessly and seriously criticised the darker side of society. The novels I wrote in the eighties, including The Garlic Ballads, The Republic of Wine, Thirteen Steps, and Big Breasts and Wide Hips, all took the stance of critiquing the systemic injustice I observed from an individual’s point of view.”
In 1984, Mo Yan’s fourth uncle was killed in a traffic accident. He’d been on his way home in an ox cart after delivering sugar beets to a refinery when his cart was hit by a truck out making deliveries for the commune secretary. Fourth Uncle’s family received only 3000 yuan in compensation, which made Mo Yan very angry. He wrote to his brother about possibly returning home to file a lawsuit and obtain justice for his uncle.
In 1987, while home for the Spring Festival, Mo Yan read a newspaper report in the Popular Daily about the riots that had taken place over the garlic crop in Cangshan county in Shandong. As a result of government incompetence and inaction, the farmers had a full harvest of garlic shoots but no buyers. In their frustration, they ended up setting fire to the local government offices.
These two events became the basis for Mo Yan’s first novel, The Garlic Ballads, which took him only 35 days to write. On his motive for writing the book, he said: “This book has my conscience in it, and even if writing it requires me to pay a price, it will still have been worth it. I have always felt that novels and politics should be kept separate, but sometimes a novel itself becomes political. I’m writing it in hopes that reality will never again provide such a model for fiction.”
In the autumn of 1988, the American sinologist Howard Goldblatt travelled to China. He got in touch with Mo Yan and asked for permission to translate The Garlic Ballads into English. Goldblatt would eventually become Mo Yan’s most significant translator into the English language and the reason why many Western readers knew Mo Yan’s work, making it possible for him eventually to gain the notice of the Swedish Academy.
Mo Yan spent that year in the writers’ workshop jointly run by Beijing Normal University and the Lu Xun Literary Institute. His masters’ thesis advisor, Tong Qingbing, spoke to us about his former student after the news of the prize had been released. Mo Yan’s masters thesis on ‘Childhood Experience and Creative Writing’ had been supervised by Tong. Of Mo Yan’s work, Tong said that “Mo Yan is no mere imitator of magical realism. Reality was his starting point, but he didn’t just copy the techniques of Western magical realist narration. His work falls within the realist May Fourth tradition but he has his own vision. The traces of Shandong folk art in his writing give it an unusual twist.” He particularly admires the novel Frogs. “It’s about China’s family planning policy, which is extremely difficult to write about, and impossible if one doesn’t understand Chinese village life.”
In a yard by Sorghum Road in Gaomi, I met the model for Gugu, the obstetrician aunt in the novel Frogs. She is Mo Yan’s aunt, Guan Yilan. She told us about how Mo Yan drew inspiration from her work. I asked her for her opinion on the family planning policy. Guan Yilan said: I can’t even count the number of children I’ve aborted. I used to agree with the family planning policy but now I think it should be changed.
Apart from Gugu, the greatest influence on Mo Yan’s writing was his aunt’s father, his paternal grandfather. As a child, he loved listening to his grandfather tell stories that would later become a source for his own writing. “My father once said to me, Dou (Mo Yan’s childhood nickname) is going to make a name for himself. I won’t live to see it, but you will,” Guan Yilan said.
The night that the Nobel Prize was announced, Guan Yilan’s son, Wang Xin, was driving to his cousin Mo Yan’s home, to give him a thermometer for his grandchild. At 7pm that evening, Wang Xin heard the news of the prize on the radio. He ran into Mo Yan upstairs in the apartment, and said: “Wow, cousin, you really are something.” Mo Yan just smiled.
At 6.40pm that evening, Mo Yan had received a phone call from the chair of the committee for the Literature Prize, notifying him that he had been awarded the prize. There were still 20 minutes to go before the public announcement of the award, and these 20 minutes were the last Mo Yan would have to both savour the news and enjoy the peace of his pre-Prize life. 20 minutes later, whether he wanted it to or not, his life would be irrevocably changed.
Out of all the authors in China, he had been chosen for the spotlight. At the press conference, he pointed out that many Chinese authors were equally qualified to win the Nobel Prize. One who was often mentioned in comparison with him was his classmate from the writer’s workshop at Beijing Normal University, Yu Hua. Other members of the workshop included Liu Zhenyun, Chi Zijian, and Bi Shumin. It was a class of stars.
Tong Qingbing recalled: “In 1988, when I was the associate dean of Beijing Normal University’s graduate school, I myself drafted a report for the ministry of education on how I felt that China should develop a literature for the new century and invest in young writers. There were many courses for writers scattered all over the place but few were degree-granting. I suggested that Beijing Normal University and the Lu Xun Literary Institute should jointly run a masters degree course that would culminate in a certificate and a degree.”
Zhang Qinghua, a literature professor at Beijing Normal University, has received many congratulatory messages and emails for having accurately predicted Mo Yan’s win. Ten years ago, he had predicted that a contemporary Chinese novelist, either Mo Yan or Yu Hua, would win the Literature Prize. “They’d both had numerous novels translated. Their novels are considered significant, and their writing is more accessible to western readers and intellectuals. Mo Yan’s novels are more heavily coloured by eastern culture, regional culture, and folk culture, and he has a marvellous imagination. They exemplify the rule that the more nationally representative a work of art, the more international it is. Yu Hua’s novels are spare, succinct, precise in their narration, but they explore universal themes: the warmth and depravity of human nature. There’s almost nothing specifically Chinese about his writing, but that makes it even more accessible to readers globally. One of them has an additive, one a subtractive form of writing, and that’s why I think they both have a good chance at winning the prize,” he wrote.
Mo Yan spent the last year of the eighties and the first two years of the nineties in the writer’s workshop. This was a watershed moment in Chinese contemporary literature, and the position of the author before and after it was completely different.
By the summer of 1990, Mo Yan was distraught. “It felt as if there was nothing left in my brain, and I couldn’t find a literary language any more. I thought I was finished, I didn’t have an ounce of creativity left.” He wrote a dramatic version of the Shajiabang revolutionary opera and sent it to the literary magazine Huacheng, but oddly enough, his manuscript was returned. The following year, Mo Yan went to Singapore, where he met the Taiwanese author Zhang Dachun. Zhang asked him to contribute some writing to a Taiwanese publication, and after writing sixteen stories that holiday, Mo Yan felt he had recovered the ability to write fiction.
When he published The Republic of Wine in 1993, there was hardly any response – he seemed to have been forgotten. The novels receiving the most attention at the time were Jia Pingwa’s Ruined City and Lu Yao’s Ordinary World. The Republic of Wine didn’t contain a single reference to Gaomi. The world Mo Yan had built was beginning to tremble. In Chinese society, literature was no longer being placed on a pedestal; it had already become part of mainstream culture.
At 9pm on the evening of 11 October, I was taking the subway home in Beijing. Someone in my compartment was talking about Mo Yan getting the Nobel Prize in Literature. A few migrant workers got on the train, their clothes stained after a day at work. They leaned on the walls of the compartment and stared wordlessly out the window.
In Beijing, Mo Yan often rode the subway too. Chen Xiaoming, a professor of Chinese at Peking University, described Mo Yan as kind, wise, generous, but also down-to-earth and calm. “I often invited him to lecture at Peking University and speak at conferences. Once he took the subway and there was an unusual delay. Mo Yan was out of breath when he arrived: he was afraid of causing trouble for the organisers by being late.”
On one afternoon in the autumn of 1990, Mo Yan was taking the subway in Beijing. “As I climbed the steps towards the exit, I looked up and saw a migrant woman sitting right at the subway exit, breastfeeding. She had two children, not one, and her withered face gleamed in the setting sun like an ancient bronze vessel.” Tears came to Mo Yan’s eyes. He stood on the steps, rooted to the spot, gazing at the woman and her two children.
In 1994, Mo Yan’s mother passed away. He wanted to write a book for her but didn’t know where to start. Then he thought of the mother and children he had seen at the subway exit in Beijing. The novel became Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Zhang Qinghua has always considered the book to be a seminal work of Chinese literature. “It is a wide-ranging work covering much of twentieth-century Chinese history. If I were to sum it up in a sentence, I would say it describes how Chinese society has gradually disintegrated under the steady assault of outside forces.”
The novel blurs class differences, treating all human beings as equals. The protagonist, Shangguan Lu, equally values the children of both Kuomintang and Communist men. Some older leftist cadres were offended by the book and used their connections to file complaints against Mo Yan.
As Big Breasts and Wide Hips grew more controversial, the authorities created a working group to investigate the matter. As Mo Yan once recalled, “They wanted me to write a self-criticism. I thought I didn’t have much to say, but if I refused to self-criticize, my colleagues would be forced to stay up all night ‘helping me’ to ‘change my thinking.’ I was very good friends with my colleagues, and none of them really had time to read my book, but if I was being asked to self-criticize, they’d have to. One of them was a pregnant woman. I couldn’t bear to keep her up all night. I could see her yawn and hear the child in her belly grumble. So I said: ‘Comrades, please give me the criticisms you’ve written about me.’ Then I signed that criticism with the many crimes it listed, and handed it in to the authorities.”
Soon, the authorities would force him to write to his publisher and request that it destroy any remaining warehouse copies. Big Breasts and Wide Hips was subsequently widely pirated. Mo Yan himself estimates that at least five hundred thousand pirated copies were printed. A taxi driver who picked me up in Gaomi had never read any of Mo Yan’s books, but he’d once sold pirated copies of Big Breasts and Wide Hips.
Mo Yan decided that it was time for a change of scene. In 1997, he transferred to the Jiancha Daily, the official organ of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
On the afternoon of 14 October, as the autumn sun gleamed, I stood in a large radish field in Sunjiakou village in Gaomi Northeast Township. I could hear the hum of insects and locusts beating their wings. It reminded me of the old blacksmith in The Radiant Radish, looking up at the sky and singing a line from an opera: “I was in love with your youth and bravery, your erudition and swordsmanship, and so I followed you around the four seas, with little to eat and nowhere to sleep, suffering everything.”
Water trickles by along the edges of the field. In Red Sorghum, this is where the grandfather ambushes his enemies. Now there are wild chrysanthemums, dandelions, corn and poplar growing here, but no sorghum. A local couple is harvesting the turnips in the field. The six and a half mu turnip field (about an acre) will bring in about ten thousand yuan gross. Before the turnip season, they plant potatoes, which are worth about twenty thousand yuan gross, so the thirty thousand yuan they can make from this field is their income for the year. After costs, they make five thousand yuan in profit. I ask them: Are you happy? The husband said: Yes, more or less. The wife said: We have all we need.
“When they were taking pictures of Gong Li crossing the bridge by donkey, I was there watching,” the husband chortled. He knew that Red Sorghum had won a Golden Bear, but he’d been busy in the fields for the past few days, and hadn’t heard about the Nobel Prize.
The stone bridge, built during the Qing Dynasty, still stands. The daily tilling of the fields has never stopped. So where is the magical realism here? When I said goodbye to that couple, the wife told me that she was originally Vietnamese, from a village 80 kilometres from Saigon. She’d come to the village in 1992 when she got married. Her identity revealed the magical side of the landscape.
On our way back, the photographer pointed ahead and said: “Look, look!” A weasel bounded across the highway. In Chinese mythology, the gods and spirits can take the form of weasels. We drove along, and then it was my turn to say: “Look, look!” The clouds were lit up with streaks of colour. Garcia Marquez once said, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Mo Yan said, “Memories of my hometown are at the heart of my novels. The soil and rivers, fields and trees, birds and beasts, myths and legends, devils and ghosts, enemies and benefactors of my hometown, all find their way into my novels.”
It had only been half a day, but by the time we got to Mo Yan’s house, someone had already put a sign up at the door. The road was lined with newly planted shrubs, the trees were hung with red lanterns, and the railings of the bridge at the entrance to the village had been freshly painted in white and blue. In public places throughout China hang large red banners with white characters painted on them. Right then, in Northeast Gaomi Township in Shandong province, the white characters said: “Enthusiastically congratulating local author Mo Yan on being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.” There’s nothing more magical and real than that.
Reporting contributed by intern reporters Huang Xinyu, Xu Shasha, and Guo Ting.
This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.