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||Mo Yan (b. 1955; pen name of Guan Moyan)|
One of the most creative and prolific Chinese novelists and short-story writers, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. Mo Yan mixes in his work fantastical flights of imagination with historical and contemporary issues. His best known works include The Garlic Ballads (1989), banned for a period in China following the Tiananmen Square uprising, Red Sorghum (1995), adapted to screen by Zhang Yimou, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), about a village landlord, who is executed and reincarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey and a boy.
"I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart, and to hate it with unbridled fury I didn't realize until I'd grown up that Northeast Gaomi Township is easily to most beautiful and most repulsive, most unusual and most common, most sacred and most corrupt, most heroic and most bastardly, hardest-drinking and hardest-loving place in the world . . ." (from Red Shorgum)
Mo Yan was born in Gaomi, Shandong province, into a large
thirty-one members. His father, who had completed four years of
education, worked as an accountant until his retirement in 1982. Mo
Yan's mother was an illiterate housewife. She gave birth to more than
half a dozen children, only four of whom survived. "We all lived
five big rooms," Mo Yan has recalled. "My uncle and aunt and their
three children lived in one, my parents and four of my brothers
and sisters lived in another, and my grandparents and other close
relatives lived in the other three. Now when I look back I don't know
how we managed to survive."
In the years of the "Great Leap
Forward," a famine swept through the country. The experience of hunger
became a significant motif in Mo Yan's writing. He has told that in his
childhood his stomach became so swollen
and transparent, that he could see the
green vegetables inside his intestines after eating a vegetable soup.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mo Yan was not allowed to
continue his education due to his class origin, and he went to work in
the fields and at a factory. In 1976, Mo Yan enlisted in the People's
Liberation Army (PLA), which provided a way out of hunger and hard
Mo Yan married in 1979; his wife and children stayed in Gaomi County, but he had no permanent residency registration there and he lived in a dormitory in the Department of Defense. While in the army, Mo Yan worked as a librarian, taught in a literacy campaing, and wrote in his free time at night. His oldest brother, who was a teacher and first discouraged his younger brother from his writing fiction, turned to support him. Mo Yan's first short story, 'Chunye yu feifei' (The incessant rain on a spring night) appeared in 1981 in Lian chi, a literary journal. From 1984 to 1986 Mo Yan studied literature at the PLA Art Institute. Following the publication of several novellas and short stories, including Hong gao liang (Red Sorghum) he joined in 1986 the Chinese Association of Writers. In 1988 he was admitted to a master's program at the Beijing Lu Xun Literary Institute.
Mo Yan is associated with the authors known as "root-seekers," who were not satisfied with realistic representations of rural life, but sought inspiration from Latin American magic realism. The movement reached its height of popularity in the 1980s. Mo Yan has acknowledged his debt to Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated into Chinese in 1984, but he has also said he felt he already possessed what Márquez had. However, while writing Red Sorghum he tried hard to get away from the influence. "Come to think of it, if Marquez had not existed, a Chinese Marquez would have emerged." (Mo Yan in Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation by Laifong Leung, 1994, pp. 150-51)
Lu Xun's tradition of cultural and social criticism and William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha have also inspired Mo Yan's work. "His Yoknapatawpha County showed me that a writer could not only fabricate his characters and his stories, but could make up a geological locale as well." (Mo Yan in A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan by Shelley W. Chan, 2010) While magical or hallucinatory realism is a feature of Mo Yan's work, the author himself has explained over and over again that he has read only a little bit of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Sound and Fury by Faulkner.
Until Red Sorghum,
Yan was largely unknown outside circles of Beijing's literati. Set
during the Sino-Japanese war in Mo Yan's hometown, Gaomi
County, the story
portrays three generations of a Chinese family in times of brutality. The traditional
linear historical narrative approach is abandoned and
first-person point of view moves freely in time and space. The narrator's grandfather, called Commander Yu, is an outsider, not a member of the Communist Party. At one scene a Chinese executioner skins the manager of the family
distilliry, Uncle Arhat, alive with a sandalwood shaft.
Reviewing the novel for the New York Times Books Review, Wilborn Hampton concluded that "Mo Yan introduces Western readers to the unfamiliar culture of provincial China through dozens of vivid characters -- like Five Monkeys Shan, Spotted Neck, Pocky Leng and Nine Dreams Cao. By the end, they and Mo Yan have put Northeast Gaomi Township securely on the map of world literature." (The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993) Zhang Yimou's film based on the work won a prize in the Golden Bear Awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988. Departing from the narrative structure of the book, Zhang's adapatation proceeds in a chronological manner.
The Garlic Ballads,
originally published by the People's Liberation Army Publishing House,
was set in mythical Paradise Country, where practically nothing has
changed. At the suggestion of the government, the peasant
began to grow garlic, but a bumper harvest leads to disastrous events
following the activities of the "market administration". The story was
based on the real-life Cangshan Garlic Incident of 1987 in Mo Yan's
native province. Readers noticed the obvious parallel with
corrupt Communist officials and rotting crops.
"A big mouth is the cause of most problems," is told to Zhang Kou, a
blind minstrel. He gets stabbed in the mouth with a policeman's
electric prod. Shortly after the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the
novel was banned, most likely
because of Mo Yan's sympathetic representation of an antigovernment
riot. Four years later the book appeared in a "revised" edition. The
novel's final version (thus far) dates from the late 1990s.
Sheng si pi lao (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out), a parody of official narratives, told of a former landlord executed for his "bourgeois sins" during land reform in 1950. He goes through a series of reincarnations from a donkey to monkey and is eventually reborn as a human child. The hallucinatory satire Jiu guo (1992, The Republic of Wine) poked fun at the Chinese obsession with banqueting. With his description of Rabelaisian drinking and feasting, Mo Yan paints a grotesque a picture of a country that definitely has moved on from the years of famine. One of the characters is a middle-aged writer named Mo Yan, who visits the fictional province of Liquorland as a guest of honor, and after rounds of toasts he slides under the table. The work was not published in China until after a Taiwanese edition came in 1992.
ru fei tun
(1995, Big Breasts and Wide Hips), a celebration of
the female, stirred some controversy due to its sexual content, and the
book was withdrawn from sale. Though Mo Yan has pushed the boundaries
of free artistic expression in China, he has also argued that
censorship is great for literature creation. His novels are widely
available in Chinese bookstores, and besides the Nobel Prize, he has
received virtually every major Chinese literary award. A supporter of
president Xi Jinping, Mo Yan has been criticized by his colleagues for
not raising his voice against the government's censorship laws. Salman
Rushdie has called him a "patsy for the regime".
Mo Yan's works have
translated into many other languages, including French, German,
Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. Frog
(2012), his major work since the Nobel Prize, took up the isssue of
China's one child policy, its costs, and the cruelty of officials
enforcing the policy. Mo Yan's own aunt worked as a gynecologist in
Gaomi. "As a father, I have always felt that everybody should have as
many children as he likes," he has said in an interview. "As an
officer, however, I had to obey the rule which applies to every
official: one child, no more." (Der Spiegel, February 25, 2013)
For further reading: Gender and Sexuality in the 20th Century Chinese Literature, ed. Tongling Lu (1993); Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation by Laifong Leung (1994); World Authors 1990-1994, ed. by Clifford Thompson (1999); Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature by Li-hua Ying (2010); A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan by Shelley W. Chan (2010); Mo Yan in Context: Nobel Laureate and Global Storyteller, edited by Angelica Duran and Yuhan Huang (2014); Chinese Perspectives: Essays on Mo Yan's Novels, edited by Jiang Lin, Li Yan (2016)