Literature, or Politics?

Editor's note: This post is part of a collaborative effort with gnovis. Each month, we will be featuring a post related to media and politics from the blog writers at gnovis, and they will be featuring one of ours. We are very excited to be working with gnovis and their talented writers.

The result of the 2012 Nobel Prize has recently been announced. The Literature Prize this year goes to Mo Yan, a Chinese writer whose work mostly focuses on the depiction of people’s life in China’s rural place. It is indeed a big deal to China, because it is the first time, “officially”, that a real Chinese citizen has ever won the Nobel Prize. I said “officially”, because actually some other Chinese have won it before, but some of them are not Chinese citizens, and some of them, unfortunately, did not win the recognition and appreciation from the political point of view.

The Nobel Prize really means a lot to China and Chinese people. I wonder how much it means to the US people: probably not as much as to China, maybe because so many winners are from the US. Just think about the population of China and how speedy the economic growth of this country is. It is not hard to feel the pride of winning the Nobel Prize honor, which is widely regarded as the symbol of a nation’s soft power. Then why didn’t China accept some of the former Chinese winners? Yes, it’s about politics. When the Swedish Academy conferred the 2000 Nobel Literature Prize to Gao Xingjian (a Chinese author with French citizenship), the Chinese Writer’s Association issued an announcement criticizing that the Nobel Prize Committee made the decision not based on the standard of literature but rather for political purposes. I haven’t read any of Gao’s work, but I learned that the political expression in his literature is not favored by the Chinese government. However, the official criticism from the Chinese Writer’s Association doesn’t sound reasonable to me, because in my opinion, literature should be pure and should not be judged by the political bias.

If we literally translate the name Mo Yan into English, it means “don’t speak”. I have no idea why he gives himself this alias, but from some of his own words we can learn that he often expresses his political opinion in his literature in a very implicit way, to the extent that it is hard to be recognized. There are some comments in China saying Mo Yan’s achievement is “a victory of silence”. Of course, this should not be used to judge Mo Yan’s value as a Literature Prize winner because I believe literature should be beyond politics. The fact that he is the winner has fully shown his excellence in composing literature. After all, a writer is so different from a social activist. We cannot expect all writers to criticize the dark side of society, even if some of them do so. What we see from Mo Yan may indicate that he is not among that group.

However, I have to admit that in China, the reality is that literature often has to go with politics. Maybe this is one reason why Mo Yan chooses to be “silent”. Here comes the question which has been asked thousands of times: Do Chinese people have freedom of speech? Here is my answer: not as much as the US people do. To people who grow up with western culture, it may be difficult to understand or accept the current situation in China, where sometimes people need to watch their tongues when they want to express their opinions on social issues or politics. In fact, few people are in ardent favor of this. However, judging from the current overall situation in China, perhaps there are no other better options. It is really about the history of the nation, the rooted culture, the development level of the country, educational attainment of the population, and so on. Just like I cannot force a toddler to run as fast as an adult, we need to give him some time. Fortunately, we have seen a lot of progress on this issue with the widespread development of the internet during recent years, and we do hope the evolution will continue.

Again, congratulations to Mo Yan! It is a good start that the world has begun to recognize and appreciate Chinese literature. I hope this can encourage those who don’t know much about China to come closer to Chinese culture and gain more understanding about this nation.

Feature image via Daily Tagxedo, thumb image by J. Kolfhaus, Gymn. Marienthal, Creative Commons Attr. Share Alike 3.0


With a BA degree of Sichuan University in Editing & Publishing, Shu Hu is a second-year graduate member of CCT community. She is the first Chinese blogger of gnovis, of which she is really proud. For the academic interests here in CCT, blogs focusing on new media study and cultural comparison between countries may be unfolded by Shu. Also, she enjoys dancing, drama, and whatever forms of art.