China, Mo Yan and the Nobel: Truth and Consequences

Four people born in the territory officially classified as "China" have won Nobel prizes to date: two for the Peace Prize, and two for literature. One of the Peace Prize winners, the Dalai Lama, is Tibetan and lives in exile. The other Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is and has been in prison for signing a document advocating democratic reforms. In fact he was in prison when he won, and he learned of the prize from his jailers. One of the Literature Prize winners, Gao Xingjian, lives in Paris and is a French citizen.

That leaves the latest Nobel Prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who was awarded the prize on December 8 in Stockholm.

Mo Yan -- his name is a pseudonym, meaning 'Don't Speak' -- is a free man in China. He can speak. He went to receive his prize, and he can return to China, where he is celebrated.

His winning the prize has been surrounded by controversy: he is too cozy with the Communist Party. He spoke up once about Liu Xiaobo but did not use his platform to do so in his acceptance speech. He did, however, address the controversy, by telling stories.

So is he simply a party hack and stooge?

Chinese literature has a long history of what Emily Dickinson's poem alluded to: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. The glorious ancient poems known as the Book of Poetry or Book of Songs (mythically edited by the mythical figure Confucius) can be read as poems about plants and love, or as political allegories. Many of the Tang poets we celebrate, such as Du Fu, were exiled in the far wastes outside China Proper for their outspoken and unpopular views. The hero commemorated in the Dragon Boat Festival, Qu Yuan, was a loyal critic who committed suicide in the Miluo River when he was exiled for his frankness. Contemporary poet Bei Dao was unable to enter China for decades following 1989, and even now is extremely limited in his movements within China.

Censorship in China is widely known and lamented, including by me. But the citizens of China, the netizens, have responded by brilliant verbal play, puns, and clever confrontation. "The truth" circulates in ways both slant and direct.

Mo Yan's own literary contributions have been categorized as a type of magical, or hallucinatory, realism, quite the opposite of the dreadful socialist realism that was celebrated in the early years of the People's Republic. They can be read in a variety of ways, not at all celebrating the Chinese status quo.

It is possible that Mo Yan chooses "not to speak" about the political situation directly, but to tell it slant through his literary works.

And his prize is for literature, after all. Literature and shouting slogans, art and shouting confrontations, are not the same.

I applaud the courageous ones who risk everything to challenge a censoring regime. I am awed by those like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo who take on the state. But I also treasure those who can tell us a story, and then another, and tell us deeper truths. We can't jail everyone. So I for one am glad that Mo Yan is free to walk, and talk, and tell us ever more stories. Listen carefully.