I want to thank Charles Laughlin for his recent posts on the MCLC list and on Facebook. His conclusion included these words: “Mo Yan’s critics are expecting the same of him that Mao Zedong would have: the political subservience of writers and their responsibility to serve as the political conscience of the nation”. Now I have written another blog post about this. 罗老师多谢!
Mo Yan’s 莫言 situation is ironic, as Charles Laughlin says. But serving “as the political conscience of the nation” is not the same as “political subservience”. It is rather the opposite. As we know, Murakami Haruki 村上春树 and his colleagues can be “the political conscience” of Japan, making “politically progressive gestures”, but Chinese writers in China, because of “political subservience” cannot be “the political conscience of the nation”, except obliquely in their fiction, poetry etc. Or in the first few days after they win a Nobel.
Along with Charles and many other people I am very glad that after Mo Yan was announced as a Nobel winner, he finally felt up to, or forced to open his mouth as a public intellectual, in contrast to the meaning of his pen name. Now he can be a public figure, like Murakami in Japan, not just an ambivalent functionary and a reclusive writer. Or can he? Is he going to say anything more on China-Japan relations or political prisoners? Is he going to mention Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 in Stockholm? He will certainly be asked about other Chinese Nobel winners. That’s the nature of this particular prize, whether you like it or not.
Murakami and his colleagues can “serve” as public intellectuals, when their conscience tells them to do something additional to their writing. The irony is that under CCP 中国共产党 rule, there are no public intellectuals in China. There are occasional trouble-makers and commentators, like Ai Weiwei 艾未未 and Murong Xuecun 慕容雪村, Yu Hua 余华 and Wang Shuo 王朔. But can any of them speak their mind in public at length about Sino-Japanese relations or other sensitive topics? Apart from these writers and artists, there are professors like Cui Weiping 崔卫平, who issued the call to turn back to reason in Sino-Japanese relations, which got censored on Sina Weibo 新浪微波. She has often been prevented from traveling abroad. And there are some civil rights lawyers, who sometimes disappear.
Murakami and his colleagues can “serve as the political conscience” of Japanese society in and out of their books. Mo Yan has to be very circumspect with his topics. The Garlic Ballads was censored and supressed for a while. Mao’s “Talks” 讲话 at the “Yan’an Forum” 延安文艺座谈会 helped to make sure writers and artists could not speak their conscience. Vague documents like this have played an important role as instruments of obedience inforcement in one-party societies, as Anne Sytske Keijser and Maghiel van Crevel have shown in a recent article in “De Groene Amsterdammer” (10/17/2012). Mo Yan knows about this dilemma. His comments after he won the Nobel, and even some comments before, suggest he cannot find hand-copying and displaying Chairman quotes quite as harmless as Charles. That would be the difference between working with political realities in China and teaching about them in the US. The conditions of these political realities are still determined by largely the same factors as decades ago. As Keijser and Van Crevel put it, Mao’s “Talks” and other directives are up on the shelf, routinely mentioned in speeches by present leaders, and ready to be enforced again as needed. Yes, Mo Yan and his colleagues fought successfully for enough freedom to write great literature. Isn’t that enough? Not outside the realm of fiction, unfortunately. The cultural achievements of the 1980s couldn’t prevent the 1989 crackdown and everything that stays vague and threatening in theory and practice today.
Mo Yan writes “stupendous” novels, as Charles Laughlin says. Yes, he does. His development as a writer was influenced by the threat of starvation, the brutality in the name of revolution, and by the ideology. Yes, including the Yan’an “Talks”, as Charles shows. Now, Charles says, “China’s writers are receiving much-deserved international recognition simply because they are devoting their souls wholly to literary art.” Yes, they do. Liao Yiwu’s 廖亦武 speech in Frankfurt was in Sichuan dialect 四川方言. The text is available on the Internet. Try to find a video not dubbed into German. The German translation was fine, it just wasn’t dialect or even colloquial German. And it didn’t sound half as humble as Liao himself did. Politics made him into the writer, musician, poet and activist he is now. And his temper, his foolhardiness, as he readily admits. Not a hero, as Jonathan Stalling suggested. The German Book Trade’s Peace Prize has often been awarded to writers such as Orhan Pamuk.
The irony is that in theory, as taught by Charles, “Mao Zedong would have” reminded writers of their “responsibility to serve as the political conscience of the nation.” In practice, he silenced them. Virtually all, in time. So there would be no political conscience. That’s what Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is about. Words like “Ministry of Truth” 真理部 are very well-known in China. 1984 is a vision of the closed world of a one-party state. Some moments of life in other societies can feel just as eerie, like a progressive college professor who turns into a cult leader, as in Murakami’s 1Q84, or, even more so, the perfectly cultured killer with secret roots in Korea. But on the whole, Japan in the 1980’s, evocatively and masterfully portrayed, is not ironic enough for connecting to Orwell’s 1984. I guess Taiwan under martial law 台灣戒嚴, in 1984, could have just made it.
Hu Ping 胡平, elected as independent candidate in Beijing’s Haidian district towards the end of the brief Beijing Spring over 30 years ago, recently circulated an excerpt from Mo’s “Life and Death Are Wearing me Out” (Shengsi pilao 生死疲勞). The novel was already well-known before the Nobel. A land owner who had his head blown off in the land reform in 1950 is born again as a farm animal several times, most famously as a donkey. In this excerpt, the donkey/landlord laments his unreasonable and unnecessarily bloody execution, until the guy who shot him tells him he acted with expressive backing from local and provincial authorities, to make sure the revolution was irreversible. So was it “a matter of historical necessity”? I don’t know what Hu Ping meant by circulating the email that somehow ended up forwarded in my inbox, because I don’t follow Chinese exile communications very closely. To me, the excerpt sounds just as absurd, evocative, tragic and yes, “stupendous”, as Mo Yan’s novels usually do. And thus rather close to Orwell’s 1984, or Wang Xiaobo’s 王小波 2015, in a way. I don’t think most readers would think that the author wants to commend, recommend or even excuse such acts of brutality.
There is another irony. Gao Xingjian 高行健 was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2000 even though, or maybe because, he did not and does not make himself available for political comments. Gao emigrated to France in the late 1980s and rescinded his Party membership in 1989, and it doesn’t seem he wants to come to terms with the powers that be in China in his lifetime. But on the whole, Gao has made about as many explicit political comments in the last 20 years as Yang Mu 楊木.
Chinese writing in 2012 is very complex. At least there is “much-deserved international recognition”, finally. Yu Hua’s essays “China In 10 Words” 《十個詞彙里的中國》 were serialized in the New York Times 紐約時報, among other international papers. And now Yang Mu, Mo Yan and Liao Yiwu appear together in headlines, also in the New York Times. What more could we wish for?