When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Thursday that Chinese author Mo Yan had won the Nobel Prize in literature, the elated state media in China paused programming to broadcast the news of the first Chinese national to win the award.
The excitement contrasts with the blackout of international news coverage two years ago when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu is still in jail for co-authoring a manifest for democracy in China.
Although Mo has a better standing with the government—he is a member of the Communist Party and is the elected vice chairman of the state-sanctioned China Writers Association—the excitement comes as a surprise to some because Mo is a critic of the country’s one-child policy.
His latest book, Frog, follows the fictional story of a rural gynecologist who is first known as a skilled midwife but later is required to enforce the one-child policy, including performing forced late-term abortions and forced sterilizations. In the novel, the main character struggles with her conflicting loyalties to the government’s policies, to her family, and to her patients: “Every baby is unique. It cannot be replaced. Will the bloodstained hands never be washed clean? Will the soul wracked with guilt never be free?”
In a 2010 interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, Mo mentioned that the subject matter is personal: He had compelled his wife to abort their second child in order to maintain his rank in the army. He said the decision left “an eternal scar in the deepest part of my heart” and that he personally disagrees with the one-child policy. “If there were no one-child policy, I would have two or three children.”
Despite the book’s controversial topic, Frog passed national censors and went on to win the Mao Dun literary award. Some claim this was possible through Mo’s whimsical, realist writing style.
“There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” Mo said in a Time magazine interview in 2010. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”
The Nobel committee chose Mo for the honor because of his style, praising the way his “hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.
Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, grew up on a farm in Gaomi in Shandong province. During the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory and later joined the army. His book Red Sorghum, published in 1986 and about the Japanese invasion of China, became a literary success and was made into a film. He is also known for his book Big Breasts and Wide Hips, an epic about the power of women from the end of the Qing dynasty to the Deng Xiaoping era.
But some claim that by choosing Mo as the Nobel Prize winner, the Nobel committee was playing it safe to appease the Communist government. Patrick Poon, the executive secretary of the independent Chinese Pen Center, told CNN that while Mo was good, he believed there are better and bolder Chinese writers. Currently more than three-dozen writers are imprisoned in China.
Still, U.S.-based Chinese dissident Chai Ling believes Mo’s win is a step toward ending the one-child policy, especially after the recent high-profile case of Feng Jianmei’s forced abortion had citizens outraged. (See “Living in fear,” by Jamie Dean, June 14.)
“I hope that Mo Yan’s thoughtful criticism of the one-child policy will help others see its role in causing gendercide,” said Chai, the founder of All Girls Allowed, a nonprofit group that fights the effects of the one-child policy, in a statement. “It is the largest challenge facing girls in China. Every day the policy continues, another 3,000 girls are lost to sex-selective abortion, infanticide, or abandonment.”