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China's popular Mo Yan wins Nobel literature prize

Thursday - 10/11/2012, 8:31pm  ET

By ALEXA OLESEN and LOUISE NORDSTROM
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) - Novelist Mo Yan, this year's Nobel Prize winner for literature, is practiced in the art of challenging the status quo without offending those who uphold it.

Mo, whose popular, sprawling, bawdy tales bring to life rural China, is the first Chinese winner of the literature prize who is not a critic of the authoritarian government. And Thursday's announcement by the Swedish Academy brought an explosion of pride across Chinese social media.

The state-run national broadcaster, China Central Television, reported the news moments later, and the official writers' association, of which Mo is a vice chairman, lauded the choice. But it also ignited renewed criticisms of Mo from other writers as too willing to serve or too timid to confront a government that heavily censors artists and authors, and punishes those who refuse to obey.

The reactions highlight the unusual position Mo holds in Chinese literature. He is a genuinely popular writer who is embraced by the Communist establishment but who also dares, within careful limits, to tackle controversial issues like forced abortion. His novel "The Garlic Ballads," which depicts a peasant uprising and official corruption, was banned.

"He's one of those people who's a bit of a sharp point for the Chinese officials, yet manages to keep his head above water," said his longtime U.S. translator, Howard Goldblatt of the University of Notre Dame. "That's a fine line to walk, as you can imagine."

Typical of his ability to skirt the censors' limitations, Mo had retreated from Beijing in recent days to the rural eastern village of Gaomi where he was raised and which is the backdrop for much of his work. He greeted the prize with characteristic low-key indifference.

"Whether getting it or not, I don't care," the 57-year-old Mo said in a telephone interview with CCTV from Gaomi. He said he goes to his childhood hometown every year around this time to read, write and visit his elderly father.

"I'll continue on the path I've been taking, feet on the ground, describing people's lives, describing people's emotions, writing from the standpoint of the ordinary people," said Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye and whose pen name "Mo Yan" means "don't speak." He chose the name while writing his first novel to remind himself to hold his tongue and stay out of trouble.

The state media hoopla and government cheer contrasted with the last Nobel prizes given to Chinese. Beijing disowned China-born French emigre dramatist, novelist and government critic Gao Xingjian when in 2000 he became the only other Chinese winner of the literary prize.

After imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize two years ago, the government heaped scorn on the award as a tool of the West and chilled diplomatic and economic relations with Norway, the home country of the prize.

Nobel winners have included political and social critics, including Guenter Grass of Germany and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey. The Swedish Academy disputed suggestions that it had selected Mo to seek Beijing's favor and rehabilitate the Nobel's image in the minds of many Chinese.

"As we've been trying to, naggingly, say: This is a literature prize that is awarded on literary merit alone. We don't take other things in consideration," said Peter Englund, the academy's permanent secretary. The reaction in a winner's homeland "doesn't enter into our calculus."

Mo writes of visceral pleasures and existential quandaries and tends to create vivid, mouthy characters. While his early work sticks to a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by vivid descriptions, raunchy humor and farce, his style has evolved, toying with different narrators and embracing a freewheeling style often described as "Chinese magical realism."

Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were "Red Sorghum" (1987) and "Big Breasts & Wide Hips" (2004), as well as "The Garlic Ballads." "Frogs" (2009) looked at forced abortions and other coercive aspects of the government's policies restricting most families to one child.

His output has been prolific, which has contributed to his popularity and his impact. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, German and many other languages, giving him an audience well beyond the Chinese-speaking world. Mo has a top literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who was at the Frankfurt book fair in Germany when he learned of Mo's Nobel and told The Associated Press: "We are in discussions globally." Several of his books quickly sold out Thursday on Amazon.com, although few copies likely were in stock.

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