On Monday night, the Chinese author Mo Yan accepted his Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm. It was a big event for him, and an even bigger one for China’s newspapers and microblogs.
The interest was predictable: Mo is the first non-dissident Chinese national to win a Nobel Prize, and his award is thus celebrated as a moment of international recognition that has long eluded the world’s most populous country. In 2010, Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident author and activist won the Peace Prize — the first Chinese national to win any Nobel — much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the Communist Party he critiqued. Fair or unfair, Mo and his prize were destined to be viewed in Liu’s shadow, and Mo was destined to be asked about — and perhaps made to answer for — Liu.
The Chinese view Mo first and foremost as a soft-spoken writer of muscular, often cruel novels of the Chinese countryside. He inspires tremendous national pride (especially since the Nobel). Before his big win, Mo had never demonstrated much interest in speaking up politically. His name is actually a pseudonym that means "Don’t Speak," and he claims to have adopted it in honour of his father’s orders to him during the Cultural Revolution.
Still, Mo is surely not naive about political matters. His role as vice chairman of the state-chartered Chinese Writers’ Association makes him a target of critics who seek to diminish his work as soft-core agitprop and certainly informs his understanding of the costs and benefits of speaking up on political issues.
Mo’s spoken words since winning the Nobel have only seemed to complicate perceptions of him among those who insist on defining him politically. In October, he spoke in support of Liu’s release. Last week in Stockholm, he declined to comment on the dissident at all. Late last week, he gave now-notorious comments seeming to suggest that censorship is a necessary safeguard, much like an airport security check. On Monday, his brief speech after receiving the prize imagined the horror of a world without literature. He could variously be interpreted as a man genuinely conflicted, a government patsy or a sly critic of the Communist Party.
Over the last week, the discussion among Chinese of Mo’s true feelings has raged more fiercely than at any time since he won. The surge of interest came in part because of Monday’s ceremony but more notably from an unexpected Internet sensation: Mo’s Nobel lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy on Friday. By early Saturday morning, the video and transcript had gone viral with tens of thousands — if not many more — views. By the end of the weekend, it was the subject of editorials in some of China’s most important newspapers. And by Monday morning, discussion of the speech was one of the top trending topics on Chinese microblogs.
What animated many of the tweets and editorials were three odd parables that Mo told at the end of his lecture, without offering any interpretation of them. In China, where censorship requires astounding feats of metaphor as a matter of daily online life, highly opaque Nobel Prize-quality parables are guaranteed to attract eager problem solvers (if only as literary Sudoku to be solved by weekend’s end).
All three parables have received some attention, but it is the third one which has China’s netizens in a sort of Talmudic tizzy. As told to the academy, it begins: "A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen."
Mo describes how the eight men decide that their group is cursed by the presence of one who must have committed a crime against the heavens. To determine who, they agree to throw their hats toward the open door. Whoever’s hat flies out the door is the guilty one and must spend the night in the storm. Mo continues: "So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them."
Many microbloggers, likely among them readers of Mo’s novels and the petty cruelties that the powerful inflict on the powerless within them, reasonably sense politics of a sort in the tale, though not the kind of politics that can necessarily be interpreted as a critique of the Communist Party.
Guo Jing, a reporter and popular host with the state-run China National Radio, took such an approach via a tweet to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, on Sunday: "Mo Yan demonstrated his political attitude in the last story of his speech: A nation with a mob mentality but without beliefs, a sense of independence, and a spirit of repentance, will earn collective retribution."
Li Xingwen, a columnist for Party-owned Beijing Youth Daily, offered two plausible deconstructions that also seem to blame Chinese society, and not the ruling Communist Party, for whatever tragedy the temple collapse represents. He wrote in an editorial on Sunday: "On one hand, the survival or extinction of ‘the one and the seven’ in the damaged temple suggests that society has its own justice and evil can’t escape a final judgment; on the other hand, the story is about democracy at a crossroads: The majority’s tyrannical policies were stupid and they finally ate their own bitter fruit. Via these three stories Mo Yan showed his viewpoint: never follow the crowd, never protest for show, and never encroach on personal freedom in the name of the majority."
Not every interpretation is quite so flattering to Mo, or to the Communist Party. Indeed, across Weibo — and in less obvious ways, in Chinese newspapers — the Chinese seem genuinely conflicted about how to interpret their new Nobelist’s tale. In a Saturday tweet by Weibo user Kai Yan, Mo is both a Communist Party pawn and a satirist whose subject-matter is China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee: "Mo Yan’s prize was controversial and recently he supported censorship. He was also condemned by the global media for not joining those who support Xiaobo’s release. However, his acceptance speech was interesting. One story in his speech was about eight masons who took shelter from rain in a temple...this is an obvious satire of the Communist Party’s court intrigues."
It’s obvious to Kai Yan, at least. For others, it remains a cryptic curiosity. Still, for all the discussion of Mo’s politics, there’s an undeniable online consensus that China’s first literary Nobelist should be left to do his work without having to answer such questions (especially when posed by foreign media). Most online commentators are more concerned with the first half of the lecture, in which he offers elegiac remembrances of his mother and hometown and how they made him the man — and the writer — he is today.
One popular tweet, later forwarded thousands of times on Sina Weibo (most notably it was quoted in a Sina Weibo tweet by Kai-fu Lee, former president of Google China, and then forwarded by his followers), sums up the sentiment: "I have not read Mo Yan’s books, but after listening to his speech I know why he would win. He has a good mother and extended family, he’s honest and kind-hearted, he has a life of hardship and rich experience, he is good at observing and remembering... he is a calm and ordinary Chinese."
Mo’s politics, whatever they may be, will likely remain a matter of dispute for years to come. But his standing among a Chinese public that embraces and identifies him as one of their own won’t falter because of it.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg’s World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry.