Mo Yan was born in 1955, in Gaomi County in Shandong to a family of farmers, in Dalan Township (which he fictionalised in his novels as "Northeast Township" of Gaomi County). Mo was 11 years old when the Cultural Revolution was launched, at which time he left school to work as a farmer. At the age of 18, he began work at a cotton factory. During this period, which coincided with a succession of political campaigns from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, his access to literature was largely limited to novels in the socialist realist style under Mao Zedong, which centered largely on the themes of class struggle and conflict.
At the close of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mo enlisted in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and began writing while he was still a soldier. During this post-Revolution era when he emerged as a writer, both the lyrical and epic works of Chinese literature, as well as translations of foreign authors such as William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, would make an impact on his works.
In 1984, he received a literary award from the PLA Magazine, and the same year began attending the People's Liberation Army Arts College, where he first adopted the pen name of Mo Yan. He published his first novella, A Transparent Radish, in 1984, and released Red Sorghum in 1986, launching his career as a nationally recognized novelist. In 1991, he obtained a master's degree in Literature from Beijing Normal University.
"Mo Yan" – is "don't speak" in Chinese – is his pen name. Mo Yan has explained on occasion that the name comes from a warning from his father and mother not to speak his mind while outside, because of China's revolutionary political situation from the 1950s, when he grew up. It also relates to the subject matter of Mo Yan's writings, which reinterpret Chinese political and sexual history.
In an interview with Professor David Wang, Mo Yan stated that he changed his "official name" to Mo Yan because he could not receive royalties under the pen name.
Mo Yan began his career as a writer in the reform and opening up period, publishing dozens of short stories and novels in Chinese. His first novel was Falling Rain on a Spring Night, published in 1981.
Mo Yan's Red Sorghum Clan is a non-chronological novel about the generations of a Shandong family between 1923 and 1976. The author deals with upheavals in Chinese history such as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, but in an unconventional way; for example from the point of view of the invading Japanese soldiers.
His second novel, The Garlic Ballads, is based on a true story of when the farmers of Gaomi Township rioted against a government that would not buy its crops. The Republic of Wine is a satire around gastronomy and alcohol, which uses cannibalism as a metaphor for Chinese self-destruction, following Lu Xun. Big Breasts & Wide Hips deals with female bodies, from a grandmother whose breasts are shattered by Japanese bullets, to a festival where one of the child characters, Shangguan Jintong, blesses each woman of his town by stroking her breasts. The book was controversial in China because some leftist critics regarded Big Breasts' perceived negative portrayal of Communist soldiers.
Extremely prolific, Mo Yan wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in only 42 days. He composed the more than 500,000 characters contained in the original manuscript on traditional Chinese paper using only ink and a writing brush. He prefers writing his novels by hand rather than by typing using a pinyin input method, because the latter method "limits your vocabulary". Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is a meta-fiction about the story of a landlord who is reincarnated in the form of various animals during the Chinese land reform movement. The landlord observes and satirizes Communist society, such as when he (as a donkey) forces two mules to share food with him, because "[in] the age of communism... mine is yours and yours is mine."
Mo Yan's works are predominantly social commentary, and he is strongly influenced by the social realism of Lu Xun and the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. In terms of traditional Chinese literature, he is deeply inspired by the folklore-based classical epic novel Water Margin. He also cites Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber as formative influences.
Mo Yan, who himself reads foreign authors in translation, strongly advocates the reading of world literature. At a speech to open the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, he discussed Goethe's idea of "world literature", stating that "literature can overcome the barriers that separate countries and nations".
Mo Yan's works are epic historical novels characterized by hallucinatory realism and containing elements of black humor. A major theme in Mo Yan's works is the constancy of human greed and corruption, despite the influence of ideology. Using dazzling, complex, and often graphically violent images, he sets many of his stories near his hometown, Northeast Gaomi Township in Shandong province. Mo Yan says he realised that he could make "[my] family, [the] people I'm familiar with, the villagers..." his characters after reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. He satirizes the genre of socialist realism by placing workers and bureaucrats into absurd situations.
Mo Yan's writing is characterised by the blurring of distinctions between "past and present, dead and living, as well as good and bad". Mo Yan appears in his novels as a semi-autobiographical character who retells and modifies the author's other stories. His female characters often fail to observe traditional gender roles, such as the mother of the Shangguan family in Big Breasts & Wide Hips, who, failing to bear her husband any sons, instead is an adulterer, becoming pregnant with girls by a Swedish missionary and a Japanese soldier, among others. Male power is also portrayed cynically in Big Breasts & Wide Hips, and there is only one male hero in the novel.
On 11 October 2012, the Swedish Academy announced that Mo Yan had received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work that "with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary". Aged 57 at the time of the announcement, he was the 109th recipient of the award and the first ever resident of mainland China to receive it—Chinese-born Gao Xingjian, having been named the 2000 laureate. In his Award Ceremony Speech, Per Wästberg explained: "Mo Yan is a poet who tears down stereotypical propaganda posters, elevating the individual from an anonymous human mass. Using ridicule and sarcasm Mo Yan attacks history and its falsifications as well as deprivation and political hypocrisy."
Swedish Academy head Peter Englund said less formally, "He has such a damn unique way of writing. If you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognize it as him".
Winning the Nobel Prize occasioned both support and criticism.
Firstly, it won warm welcome from the Chinese government immediately after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. The People's Daily Online, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published on 11 October 2012: "Congratulations to Mo Yan for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature! It is the first time for a writer of Chinese nationality to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today is the day that Chinese writers have awaited for too long and that Chinese people have awaited for too long."
The Chinese writer Ma Jian deplored Mo Yan's lack of solidarity and commitment to other Chinese writers and intellectuals who were punished or detained in violation of their constitutionally protected freedom of expression. Several other Chinese dissidents such as Ye Du and Ai Weiwei also criticized him, as did 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Müller who called the decision a "catastrophe". A specific criticism was that Mo hand-copied Mao Zedong's influential Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the speech, which described the writer's responsibility to place politics before art, These "Talks"—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao's death in 1976 and the Tiananmen protest in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation. Mo Yan not only agreed but has gone further than others to explain that the "Talks," in their time, had "historical necessity" and "played a positive role." He has also attracted criticism for his supposed good relationship with the Chinese Communist Party in general.
Anna Sun, an assistant professor of Sociology and Asian studies at Kenyon College, criticized Mo's writing as coarse, predictable, and lacking in aesthetic conviction. "Mo Yan's language is striking indeed," she writes, but it is striking because "it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China's cultural past at the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949." Charles Laughlin of the University of Virginia, however, accuses Sun of "piling up aesthetic objections to conceal ideological conflict," comparing her characterization of Mo to the official China Writers Association's characterization of Gao Xingjian as a mediocre writer when Gao won the Nobel Prize in 2000.
Perry Link, describing Mo Yan's fiction and politics in the New York Review of Books, asked, "Does this writer deserve the prize?" Link commented that Chinese writers, whether "inside the system" or not, "all must choose how they will relate to their country's authoritarian government." This "inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways." Link's main criticism was that Mo Yan "invoke(d) a kind of daft hilarity when treating 'sensitive' events" such as the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. Link believed that the regime approved it because "this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve." As Link pointed out, to treat sensitive topics as jokes might be better than banning them outright. Link compared Mo to Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, who was jailed for dissidence, whose moral choices were "highly unusual." It would be wrong, Link concludes, "for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two."
Charles Laughlin, however, published an article called What Mo Yan's Detractors Get Wrong on ChinaFile against Link's argument. As a response to Link's criticism that Mo Yan trivialized serious historical tragedies by using black humor and what he called "daft hilarity", Laughlin emphasized the distinction between documentary and art and literature: "art and literature, particularly since the traumas of the twentieth century, never simply document experience." Laughlin argued that Mo Yan's intended readers already know that "the Great Leap Forward led to a catastrophic famine, and any artistic approach to historical trauma is inflected or refracted." According to him, "Mo Yan writes about the period he writes about because they were traumatic, not because they were hilarious."
Salman Rushdie called Mo Yan a "patsy" for refusing to sign a petition asking for Liu Xiaobo's freedom. Pankaj Mishra saw an "unexamined assumption" lurking in the "western scorn" for these choices, namely that "Anglo-American writers" were not criticized for similarly apolitical attitudes.
In his Nobel Lecture, Mo Yan himself commented, "At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I've come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers." He concluded that "for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated."
Another source of criticism was a perceived conflict of interest on the part of Göran Malmqvist, who is one of the members of the Swedish Academy. Malmqvist had translated several of Mo Yan's works into Swedish and published some through his own publishing house. Mo had also written a laudatory preface to one of Malmqvist's own books, and been a close friend of Malmqvist's wife for 15 years. The Nobel committee denied that this constituted a conflict of interest, and said that it would have been absurd for Malmqvist to recuse himself.
Mo Yan has written 11 novels, and several novellas and short story collections.
This is a complete list of Mo Yan's works published as a collection in 2012 in China (after Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize).《红高粱家族》 Red Sorghum (1986)
《天堂蒜薹之歌》 The Garlic Ballads (1988)
《十三步》 Thirteen Steps (1988)
《食草家族》 The Herbivorous Family (1993)
《酒国》 The Republic of Wine: A Novel (1993)
《丰乳肥臀》 Big Breasts & Wide Hips (1995)
《红树林》 Red Forest (1999)
《檀香刑》 Sandalwood Death (2001)
《四十一炮》 Pow! (2003)
《生死疲劳》 Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006)
《蛙》 Frog (2009)
《白狗秋千架》 White Dog and the Swing (30 short stories, 1981–1989)
《与大师约会》 Meeting the Masters (45 short stories, 1990–2005)
《欢乐》 Joy (8 novellas; six of them are published in English as Explosions and Other Stories)
《怀抱鲜花的女人》 The Woman with Flowers (8 novellas)
《师傅越来越幽默》Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh (9 novellas; one of them, Change, is published independently in English)
《会唱歌的墙》 The Wall Can Sing (60 essays, 1981–2011)
《我们的荆轲》 Our Jing Ke (play)
《碎语文学》 Broken Philosophy (interviews, only available in Chinese)
《用耳朵阅读》 Ears to Read (speeches, only available in Chinese)
《盛典:诺奖之行》 Grand Ceremony
1998: Neustadt International Prize for Literature, candidate
2005: Kiriyama Prize, Notable Books, Big Breasts and Wide Hips
2005: Doctor of Letters, Open University of Hong Kong
2006: Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize XVII
2007: Man Asian Literary Prize, nominee, Big Breasts and Wide Hips
2009: Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, winner, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
2010: Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association
2011: Mao Dun Literature Prize, winner, Frog
2012: Nobel Prize in Literature
Several of Mo Yan's works have been adapted for film:Red Sorghum (1987) (directed by Zhang Yimou)
Happy Times (2000) (directed by Zhang Yimou, adaptation of Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh)
Nuan (2003) (directed by Huo Jianqi, adaptation of White Dog Swing)
The Sun Has Ears (1995) (directed by Yim Ho, adaptation of Grandma Wearing Red Silk)