Chinese Nobel Winner Mo Calls for Liu Xiaobo’s Release

Chinese Author Mo Yan
Chinese author Mo Yan, seen here attending the premier of a TV series in Ningbo, China, on July 19, 2010. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, called for jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo to be freed, hours after the Communist Party trumpeted his award as a sign of China’s growing influence.

“I wish for him to be freed in good health as soon as possible,” Mo said of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, speaking at a briefing that was broadcast on Hong Kong’s Cable TV yesterday. “I feel he absolutely can continue studying his politics and social structures.”

China’s top media and culture official had lauded Mo Yan for winning the prize, in sharp contrast to rejections of past Nobel awards to Liu, writer Gao Xingjian and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. Signifying the government’s approval, the prize made the front page of newspapers including the Beijing News, while the English-language China Daily devoted two full pages to him. Then Mo Yan called for Liu’s release.

“Mo’s comments are an embarrassment to the Chinese government,” Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said of Mo Yan’s remarks yesterday. “The fact that he has the courage to speak now means he is a writer that still has a conscience.”

Still, saying “‘I hope he can obtain his freedom as soon as possible,’ isn’t quite the same as a ringing call for release,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor in the political science department in the University of Miami.

“The price of obtaining freedom might conceivably involve a self-criticism from Liu and promise not to raise the embarrassing question of the CCP’s counter-constitutional actions in the future,” Dreyer wrote in an e-mail. “Still, in the context of current-day Chinese politics, Mo’s decision to raise the issue of a sensitive topic was courageous.”

Official Congratulations

Politburo member Li Changchun sent Mo Yan a congratulatory note saying the victory shows the improvement of Chinese literature, state power and international influence, according to Xinhua. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei also congratulated him and again repeated the Chinese government stance that Liu’s win was a violation of China’s internal affairs. Mo Yan is a member of the Communist Party.

Xinhua said Mo Yan was the first Chinese national to win the award. Chinese-born Gao, whose books are banned in the country, took French citizenship several years before he won the literature Nobel. Chinese state media didn’t mention Gao at all in its coverage of Mo Yan.

Silence on Liu

There was similarly no mention in state media of the Dalai Lama’s 1989 Peace Prize or Liu, the Chinese activist who was barred from attending his own Peace Prize acceptance ceremony. Liu remains in prison for helping organize Charter 08, an open letter signed by more than 300 Chinese academics, lawyers and activists calling for direct elections and freedom of assembly.

When the Oslo-based Peace Prize committee awarded Liu the Peace Prize, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said “Cold War practices” had been at play in the selection process and that China wouldn’t change “because of interference by a few clowns.” The selection damaged ties between Norway and China.

Mo Yan is a pen name that translates as “don’t speak,” or more colloquially, “shut up.” His real name is Guan Moye. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, he became a writer for the People’s Liberation Army, leaving more than two decades later in 1997, said Howard Goldblatt, who has translated many of his books into English.

To evade China’s stiff censorship, Mo Yan often resorted to satire, such as in “The Republic of Wine,” which deals with China’s obsession with alcohol -- and also dabbles in cannibalism -- and in “POW!” which derides gluttony.

‘Jonathan Swift’

“He is very much a Jonathan Swift,” Goldblatt said in a telephone interview before the prize was announced. “Many of his novels have a fabulist quality to them. If absolute unalloyed realism is your thing, some novels won’t appeal.”

In a 2010 interview with Time Magazine, Mo Yan said there are restrictions on writing in every country and that writers should convey their thoughts through their characters. He said he started writing to pull himself out of poverty.

Mo Yan was selected for blending folk tales, history and contemporary life with “hallucinatory realism,” according to the Swedish Academy.

The first of Mo Yan’s books to be translated into English was “Red Sorghum.” It was made into a 1987 movie directed by Zhang Yimou.

Other works include the historical novel “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” published in 1996; “The Garlic Ballads” in 1988; and “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” in 2006. His most recent book, the 2009 “Wa” (“Frog”), looks at China’s one-child policy through the eyes of a midwife.

“He definitely deserves the prize,” Er Yue He, a Chinese writer in central Henan Province, told Xinhua. “His prize is an affirmation for Chinese literature on the world stage.”

Last year’s Nobel literature prize went to Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet and translator known for his depiction of nature and for his economy of form. Winners in the past decade have included Romanian-born novelist Herta Mueller in 2009 and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in 2006.

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