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October 11, 2012

Award Spotlights Nobel Group's Troubled Past With China

by Jeff Seldin

The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature is making big news in China, being hailed on television and the Internet, in a marked departure from the past.

Just minutes after the Swedish Academy gave the award to Chinese writer Mo Yan, state-run television broke into its usual programming to relay the news.  Millions of Chinese took to social media and micro-blogging sites to post their feelings, many calling the prize a triumph.
 
"I am proud of him as Chinese," said Beijing resident Zheng Qingcheng. "The Nobel Prize is a world class prize.  He is great.  I am so happy for him."

Hu Yanyu, a 29-year-old finance officer, called it a first.

"I think this sends a signal that the foreign mainstream culture is now accepting Chinese culture, so I think this is very gratifying and worth congratulating," she said.

But this is not the first time someone from China has been given the prestigious honor.
 
A troubled past

In 2000, the Swedish Academy awarded the literature prize to Chinese writer Gao Xingjian for his "bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity . . . in the writing of Gao Xingjian literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses."

But by the time the award was announced, Gao Xingjian had been living in France for 13 years, having been declared persona non grata by Beijing.

More recently, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Peace Prize to jailed writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, infuriating China.  

Chinese officials said awarding Liu a Nobel prize was an insult. Neither Liu nor his family was permitted to attend the award ceremony in Oslo, where his absence was marked by an empty chair on the stage.

In China, the anger over the so-called "insult" has lingered. Just this past June, China refused to grant a visa to former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, whom it blames for the decision to award Liu the peace prize.

China changing course

This time, though, there will be no empty chairs.

"He said that he was overjoyed and scared and, yes, he is coming to Stockholm," said Swedish Academy permanent secretary Peter Englund, who praised Mo Yan for his "hallucinatory realism."

Editor-in-chief of the state run Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, said Thursday Mo’s winning the award was a sign the West is looking beyond Chinese dissidents.

Dissident anger

But not everyone is happy.

Hong Kong-based blogger Wen Yunchao criticized the committee for giving the prize to Mo, who serves as vice president of the pro-establishment China Writers Association.

"The two words 'Mo Yan' mean 'do not speak,' and they are a very real portrayal of the current political situation in China," Wen said.  "With Mo Yan winning of the prize, people in China will get the message that you can become an accomplice of an authoritarian government. As long as you have made enough contributions to literature, you will have the chance to win the most prestigious international award. Morally and politically, I think this will have devastating consequences.''

New insight into China

Those who teach Mo Yan's works say they understand the criticism but they also say to focus only on the current politics is unfair.

One of them is Alexander Huang, a professor of English, theater and international affairs at George Washington University, and an author who has written about both Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan.

"Some of his [Mo Yan's] works were censored early on," he said.  "I think his works, especially the fantastical realism, has a lot to say about his society. In other words, his form of social criticism is more subtle."

Huang says by putting the spotlight on Mo Yan, the Nobel Literature Committee may be signaling an important shift in how Chinese literature, as well as the whole region, needs to be viewed.

"We are only interested in the output by the so-called dissidents. We are less interested in art for art's sake. And in Mo Yan's humorist, satirical and humorist narratives about his society we see a different face of art and literature from that region," he said.

University of Maryland literature Professor Andrew Schonebaum agrees.

"This pick seems to celebrate Chinese cultural productivity on its own merits, as opposed to being really politicized," he said.  "When it comes to China in the last couple of decades, we in the States [the United States] have been primarily concerned with politics and economics, and this I think is a pretty crucial component that's often overlooked."

Both Huang and Schonebaum say the focus on Mo Yan could help bring attention to more artists and writers from China, perhaps even catapulting some onto the international scene.

If any of them manage to catch the eye of the Swedish Academy, they could join a growing list of influential artists and scientists. Seven other Nobel laureates were either born in China or are of Chinese heritage, although none lived in China at the time of their award.