Lotus blooms, bamboo curtain

Written by Anurag Viswanath | Updated: Oct 31 2012, 18:49pm hrs
The 2012 Nobel prize whets the global publics appetite for Chinese literature

China, as the joke currently doing the rounds on the Internet goes, has three Nobel laureates: one of them cant get in, another cant get out, and the third does not speak. What is Chinas saga of the Nobel Prize

An unknown, obscure (outside of China) Chinese author Guan Moye who writes under the pen name Mo Yan (which, literally translated, means do not speak) has grabbed the international spotlight by winning the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Fifty-seven-years old Mo broke Chinas jinx at the Nobel stakes, where previous recipients such as playwright Gao Xingjian (2000) and activist Liu Xiaobo (2010) were not exactly the Communist Party favourites. Gao, who became a French national in 1998, is an open crusader for Absolute Independence. He has famously received the Partys cold shoulder. Liu Xiaobo has been languishing in prison. Compared to these anti-heroes, Mo is almost too good to be true. He is the vice-chairman of the state-run State Writers Association. His Nobel, now cheekily nicknamed Chinas Mobel, is thus cause for celebrationvindication that the lotus blooms, in unlikely fashion, even behind the shroud of a bamboo curtain.

While the Party is in the throes of self-congratulation, others are reading between the lines of Mos works, and trying to understand what this prize means for Chinas other well- known and not so well-known and budding literary talents.

While scar literaturesob stories drenched in tragedy, concerning Maos times and the horrors of the Cultural Revolutionis typically the stereotypical fodder about China that rules bookshelves around the world, the Chinese themselves have little patience for it.

In the 2000s, Chinas scar literature gave way to beauty literature. The latter was a heady combination of dope, sex and rock & roll typified by Mian Mians Candy (2000) and Chinese Ivy League graduate (from Fudan University) Wei Huis Shanghai Baby (1999). These so-called beauty writers actually wrote less-than-beautiful lascivious tales centering around fornication. However, they attracted a curious audience (or, arguably, voyeurs). Although narrowly and superficially, they were describing the turbulent changes and undercurrents of a China in flux.

To be fair, China boasts more than scar and beauty writers. A rich stock of writers in the pre- and post-socialist years have explored crevices of history and culture, and sometimes damned the Party in the process. These writers stand adored at home but are incomprehensible to the rest of the world, for the most part.

Back to the man of the moment. Mo has been hailed by the Swedish Academy for his hallucinatory realism. Most of his works vividly depict Chinas countryside, with ordinary people pitted against the vast historical shifts of the 20th century. It is said that Mos artistry is reminiscent of American writer William Faulkner who successfully created the southern legend in a fictional place Yoknapatawpha. Through Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner explored, as celebrated critic Ernest Sandeen wrote, the hard, gnarled, intractable world of human experiencethe history of the civil war, the aboriginal Chickshaws, the poor dirt farmers who were called white trash. Mos realism invokes a similar world in that it is reflective of the rudderless rural Chinese existence; his imagery evokes a pitiless, tragic grind far removed from the oriental grandeur that we consume in extravaganzas such as The Last Emperor.

Mo is actually no stranger to publicity and fame. He first tasted success in the 1980s, following the successful adaptation of his novel The Red Sorghum Clan into a film by a young fledgling director Zhang Yimou in 1987, who has since grown into a celebrity. Zhang recently directed the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics in 2008. The film Red Sorghum seemed to have the proverbial Midas touch in that it made actress Gong Li a star, director Zhang internationally renowned (the film went on to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival) and, last but not least, Mo into a household name. In recent years, English translations of Mos The Republic of Wine (1992) and Life and Death Wear Me Out (2006) have gathered accolades.

Mo is not the first Chinese literary great of the century. The list runs long and includes Lu Xun (1831-1936) whose Diary of a Madman (1918) is widely regarded as marking the beginning of a new era of modern Chinese literature, New Literature. Lu Xun was regarded as the Chinese Gorky. Lao She (1899-1966) is regarded as the other great who received critical acclaim with Camel Happy Boy (1937). In fact, celebrated Chinese literary critic CT Hsia welcomed this as the finest exemplar of Chinese modern novel.

Lao Shes suicide, a Chinese version of the Japanese seppuku, where She jumped into Taiping Lake in Beijing, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, cut short a brilliant life. In a tragic way, it also drew attention to socialisms scant regard for literary genius and its twisted logic, which deemed that art and literature should serve the people.

Mo is also not the first Chinese favourite for the prize. Ba Jin (1904-2005), who braved Chinas turbulent times literally from revolution to reform, is a beloved writer. Bas works are known for his beautifully etched-out heroines in contrast to shrinking, shrivelling heroes. Bas works such as Family (1931), Garden of Rest (1944) and Cold Nights (1947) made him a strong contender for a prize that did not materialise. It was Ba who publicly spoke out for creating a museum in memory of the victims of the Cultural Revolution.

The other strong contender has been poet in exile Bei Dao, known for The August Sleepwalker (1990) and The Rose of Time (2010). In a reading attended by this author many years ago, Bei read his contemplative poetry to an enchanted audience. Ba is no more, Mo has the prize, but it is likely that Bei will again be in the running soon.

Mo is from a breed of post-socialist writers who have dabbled in, as sinologist Michael Duke says, avant garde experimental fiction. Others include Han Shaogong, famous for describing rural life, local peculiarities and the nuances of Hunan (province) life in The Mute (1986) and A Dictionary of Maqiao (1996), both of which have received rave reviews. Writer Ah Chengs experimental novella The Chess-master (1984) affirmed that life could be vacuous without art and spirituality. Writer Su Tong made waves with his novella Wives and Concubines (1990). These are some of the popular figures in Chinas literary circuit.

One cannot overlook the flamboyant Wang Shuo, who became a craze in the late 1980s. Wang sparked the genre pizi wenxue, literally meaning hooligan literature. Wangs stories centre on the riff-raff, marginal hooligans (perhaps exemplified by actor Govinda in Bollywood in the 1990s). Wangs subversive stories were a whopping successhis books sold more than 10 million copies despite the Party calling him a pollutant and banning his book Dont Call me Human (1989). Sinologist Geremie Barme noted something to the effect that Wang did not just criticise the Party but did something more fundamentally devastating: in the new times, he made the Party uncool.

Yes, the Nobel salutes the trials and tribulations of all these Chinese writers (and many more) who walk the tight rope, a valuable and timely affirmation that will whet the global publics appetite for more writing from China. But it is also poignant reminder that the lotus has difficulty blooming under siege. As Gao Xingjian says, self-censorship looms large in un-freedom. Perhaps, like Gaos acclaimed tragic-comedy Bus Stop (1983), we are pondering the absurdity of a future that may never come.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist, currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal