TWENTY YEARS ago, on my first day in a PhD program, my mentor Joseph Lau gave me a stack of ten novels. When I expressed doubts about fitting in this leisure reading on top of my coursework, he held up Mo Yan’s Republic of Wine and shook the book at me. “This writer is going to win the Nobel Prize,” he said. Such was the impact of Mo Yan’s writing on those familiar with it long before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. Yet, since winning the prize, Mo Yan has become a scapegoat for the sins of the regime in which he must survive. Mo’s literary range and philosophical depth have received little attention in the recent flurry of press coverage, which has concentrated on his apparent acquiescence to the Chinese government’s repression of dissidents. Secure in the comfort of Western freedoms, myriad writers have lambasted Mo for his public statements and silences. Few writers have noted that Western authors seldom are judged on their politics or that writers in China have reasons for working within as well as outside of the system.
In any event, Mo Yan now operates under heightened scrutiny. Indeed, the honor was triumphantly embraced by Beijing as the long-awaited global acknowledgement of China’s return, not only as an economic powerhouse but as a cultural leader. Mo’s was the first Nobel Prize in Literature ever awarded to a Chinese citizen. (The dissident Gao Xingjian had taken French citizenship by the time he won the 2000 prize.) Its belatedness was much discussed in light of China’s rich literary heritage and cultural renaissance of recent decades. Literature is a fundamental part of what Chinese officials call their country’s “national rejuvenation.”