The 2012 Nobel prize whets the global public’s appetite for Chinese literature
China, as the joke currently doing the rounds on the Internet goes, has three Nobel laureates: one of them can’t get in, another can’t get out, and the third does not speak. What is China’s 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 China’s 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 Party’s 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 China’s Mobel, is thus cause for celebration—vindication 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 Mo’s works, and trying to understand what this prize means for China’s other well- known and not so well-known and budding literary talents.
While ‘scar’ literature—sob stories drenched in tragedy, concerning Mao’s times and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution—is typically the stereotypical fodder about China that rules bookshelves around the world, the Chinese themselves have little patience for it.
In the 2000s, China’s ‘scar’ literature gave way to ‘beauty’ literature. The latter was a heady combination of dope, sex and rock & roll typified by Mian Mian’s Candy (2000) and Chinese Ivy League graduate (from Fudan University) Wei Hui’s 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