Chinese author Mo Yan became the first Chinese citizen in the Swedish Academy’s 111-year history to win the Nobel Prize in literature when he was awarded the prestigious prize Thursday. (Gao Xingjian, who won the prize in 2000, was born in China but was a French national when he won the award.)
“Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” the award’s citation declared, describing him as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.
Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye (“Mo Yan” is a pen name meaning “don’t speak”), told Nobel organizers he was “overjoyed and scared” when he was told he had won the coveted award.
Once called “one of the most famous, oft-banned, and widely pirated of all Chinese writers,” Mo Yan is known for his depiction of rural Chinese life, particularly its women, which populate many of his novels, short stories, and essays. His novel “Red Sorghum,” about the life of a young woman working in a distillery, was made into a film directed by Zhang Yimou, which became one of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese films.
Other well-known works include “Frog,” “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” and “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.” Mo Yan’s most recent novel, “Wa,” is the story about the consequences of China’s one-child policy.
Mo Yan’s unusual biography informs his work: He was born in 1955 in Gaomi, China, the son of farmers who left school at 12 during the Cultural Revolution to work, first in agriculture, then in a factory, according to his Nobel biography. He joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976, where he began to study literature and write. Hi first short story was published in 1981, in a literary journal.
“In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth,” the Nobel biography stated.
“He writes about the peasantry, about life in the countryside, about people struggling to survive, struggling for their dignity, sometimes winning but most of the time losing,” Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy told the press. “The basis for his books was laid when as a child he listened to folktales. The description magical realism has been used about him, but I think that is belittling him – this isn't something he's picked up from Gabriel García Márquez, but something which is very much his own. With the supernatural going in to the ordinary, he's an extremely original narrator.”
Along with Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Mo Yan was one of several writers “tipped by bookmakers to break what critics had seen as a preponderance of European winners over the past decade,” writes the New York Times.
He is the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, is now a French citizen, and Pearl Buck, who won in 1938 is an American author.)
The prize is worth 8 million Swedish kronor, about $1.2 million.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.