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Mo Yan: Chronicler of a turbulent Chinese century
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Dec 06, 2012

Nobel winner Mo Yan stands by call for dissident's release
Stockholm (AFP) Dec 06, 2012 - China's Nobel Prize-winning writer Mo Yan on Thursday stood by his call for the release of jailed compatriot and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, but downplayed the importance of Chinese censorship laws.

"I have already issued my opinion about this matter," he said, visibly reluctant to discuss the Liu matter in detail at a press conference in Stockholm ahead of the formal Nobel prize ceremony on Monday.

After winning the Nobel in October, Mo Yan courted official anger by saying he hoped that Liu Xiaobo could be freed soon.

"I hope he can gain freedom as early as possible," he said at the time.

Asked Thursday why he made that remark then, if he was unwilling to discuss the issue now, Mo Yan, 57, replied: "We'll leave it for time to judge."

China's state-run media have hailed Mo Yan as a national hero, a sharp contrast to the blackout imposed when Liu Xiaobo won the prestigious Peace Prize in 2010.

Liu, also a writer, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009 after leading a manifesto for democratic change called Charter 08.

Prominent Chinese government critics, including the artist Ai Weiwei and the exiled former prisoner Wei Jingsheng, have accused Mo Yan of being a sellout due to his cooperation with Chinese authorities.

At Thursday's press conference the author downplayed the impact of Chinese censorship on his work.

"Whether China has freedom of speech is a very difficult question," he said, adding that people should "go online and look at Chinese websites" before forming an opinion.

He said that although he was against censorship, he believed that in "every country in the world (it) exists. The only difference is the degree."

Censorship shouldn't stand in the way of telling the truth, but it was sometimes needed to stop people from insulting others, he argued.

"I don't think this should be allowed in any country."

A person "in a not so free environment" can still be creative, he said. "The main thing is if an author feels free inside himself."

Previous Nobel literature laureate Herta Mueller said last month that she wanted to cry when she heard Mo Yan had been given the prestigious award, saying his rank in Chinese society was on par with that of a government minister.

On a lighter note, the Chinese winner said that receiving the Nobel prize had boosted his profile at home, with journalists camping outside his home after the announcement was made.

He lamented the fact that many of them seemed to lack any knowledge of his work.

Still, fame also had its perks, he noted. "A few days ago when I was riding a bicycle in the street in Beijing, a few girls were chasing me to take photos with me," he said.

But he disputed the results of a survey that claimed he earned royalties of 21.5 million yuan ($3.5 million) this year, which would make him the second best paid Chinese writer.

"I checked my account at the bank. It's not that much," he said.

Mo Yan has focused an unflinching eye on what he calls the darkness and ugliness of 20th-century Chinese society in a prolific writing career that brought him the 2012 Nobel prize for literature.

Mo Yan, one of China's leading writers of the past half-century, became the first Chinese national and only the second Chinese-language writer to be awarded the coveted honour.

The 57-year-old, whose real name is Guan Moye, is perhaps best-known abroad for his 1987 novella "Red Sorghum", a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the eastern China countryside -- where he grew up -- during the 1920s and 30s.

The story was later made into an acclaimed film by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

In a style which was influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan authored other acclaimed works including "Big Breasts and Wide Hips", "Republic of Wine" and "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out".

He has also written dozens of other novels, novellas, and short stories, generally eschewing contemporary issues in favour of China's tumultuous 20th century, in tales often infused with politics and a dark, cynical sense of humour.

The backdrops for his various works have included the 1911 revolution that toppled China's last imperial dynasty, Japan's brutal wartime invasion, newly Communist China's failed land reform policies of the 1950s and the madness of Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Touching on such eras means flirting with crossing the thin line that divides what is acceptable and what is politically taboo for the Communist Party.

His latest novel, 2009's "Frog", is considered his most daring yet, with a searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who ruthlessly implement it with forced abortions and sterilisations.

The heroine of the novel is a midwife who breaks down in remorse after a drunken hallucination in which she is attacked by thousands of frogs whose croaks are the wails of the babies she has aborted.

Despite such content, Mo Yan has so far deftly managed to avoid running into serious trouble with Communist authorities.

But political activists have branded him a stooge for the ruling party, stepping up their criticisms after he clinched the prize.

Mo Yan is vice chairman of the state-sanctioned Chinese Writers' Association and has supported official policies on art and culture, which state that they must serve the socialist cause -- and, by extension, not threaten Communist Party rule.

After winning the award he strove to separate his work from politics, saying it was "a literature victory, not a political victory".

The writer also surprised critics by responding directly to a question about jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. "I hope he can gain freedom as early as possible," he said of the dissident.

Chinese literary expert Eric Abrahamsen called Mo Yan "a great writer" who tells "the 'big' stories of China, who's writing the Great Chinese Novel".

"So many of modern China's stories are political in nature, simply because politics has shaped so much of recent Chinese history and society," he said.

"That inevitably means he's going to write about politics. He's also very canny about what can and can't be written."

Mo Yan has long trodden a fine line between criticising China's political establishment and cooperating with it, said Ma Xiangwu, a literature professor at the People's University in Beijing.

"For a long time Mo has occupied a position within the system, but not totally within it," he said. "His works are often very critical of society and politics -- he's too complex to be put in a box."

Mo was born in east China's Shandong province and began writing while serving in the People's Liberation Army in the early 1980s -- choosing Mo Yan, or 'Don't Speak', as a pen name.

The author has said it refers to being told to pipe down as a chatty child, but also to writers letting their works do the talking for them.

He has occasionally had individual books banned, but his most important works have largely remained in print and many have been translated into English and other languages.

His Nobel win was touted by China as a victory for the state literature policy of the Communist Party, which can also muzzle critical voices.

He was "overjoyed and terrified" at the award, he said. "Winning the Nobel prize has stunned me, as I always thought it was very distant for me," he said in a recorded interview posted on the Nobel prize website.

State-run media were effusive, hailing him as China's first Nobel literature prize winner. Chinese-born Gao Xingjian -- whose works were banned in China -- won the 2000 literature award, but as a French national.

Beijing loudly denounced Gao's Nobel, as it did Liu's 2010 award and a previous peace prize given to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in 1989.


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