The Diseased Language of Mo Yan

Anna Sun

“It has often happened in history that a lofty ideal has degenerated into crude materialism. Thus Greece gave way to Rome, and the Russian Enlightenment has become the Russian Revolution. There is a great difference between the two periods. Blok says somewhere: ‘We, the children of Russia’s terrible years.’ Blok meant this in a metaphorical, figurative sense. The children were not children, but the sons, the heirs, the intelligentsia, and the terrors were not terrible but sent from above, apocalyptic; that’s quite different. Now the metaphorical has become literal, children are children and the terrors are terrible, there you have the difference” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, 1958).

For anyone following the development of Chinese fiction in the past thirty years, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Mo Yan 莫言 in October 2012 wouldn’t have come as a surprise. Mo Yan is a prolific writer who is a household name in China; his novels sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Several have been adopted for film, including Red Sorghum in 1987, the debut feature of the director Zhang Yimou 張藝謀, which won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival and introduced the artistic visions of both Zhang and Mo Yan to a global audience. Politically, Mo Yan is clearly a writer with a strong social conscience, although he has not been a dissident; he is unafraid to satirize contemporary Chinese reality in his novels, and he is wryly conscious of the game of political negotiation he has to play with the state, sometimes setting his stinging stories not in the socialist China but in the pre-revolutionary past. Internationally Mo Yan has been a major figure representing Chinese literary fiction on the world stage since the 1990s, heralded at symposia and book fairs in both North America and Europe as a writer with great artistic integrity and authenticity. Indeed, it seems almost a given that, if the Nobel Prize were to be given to a Chinese writer, after it was awarded in 2000 rather contentiously to Gao Xingjian 高行健, a dissident writer living in Paris and a naturalized French citizen, Mo Yan would be a perfect candidate. One may ask: Why the discontent?

The citation of the award reads as follows: “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” A longer citation reads: “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 “hallucinatory realism” mentioned in the citation is a phrase that brings to mind James Wood’s brilliant coinage of “hysterical realism,” referring to the works of Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and their fellow maximizing novelists. As Wood says, “Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs” (The Guardian, October 5, 2001).

Is “hallucinatory realism” the next, improved step of “hysterical realism”? The Latin root of “hallucination” refers to “a wandering of the mind,” and hallucinations are often described as dreamlike sensory experiences that have no relation to reality, which exists only in the imagination. It is reality heightened and transformed. Instead of an aimless velocity found in hysterical realism, here we expect a natural lavish flow of impressions, an extravagant and reckless expansion of the literary imagination. One imagines that the language of such hallucinatory realism must be fluid, colorful, affecting; it might even be extraordinarily so.

The kind of reality Mo Yan depicts in his impressive oeuvre might indeed be “hallucinatory reality.” The characters in his novels engage in struggles with war, hunger, desire, and nature; it deals with brutal aggression, sexual obsession, and a general permeation of both physical and symbolic violence in Chinese rural life. But unlike the great novelists who grapple with the harsher side of the human condition – Dickens, Hardy, and Faulkner, for example – Mo Yan’s work lacks something important which these authors have, although it is seldom spoken of: aesthetic conviction. The aesthetic power of these authors is the torch that illuminates for us the dark and painful truth of humanity. The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.

The discontent lies in Mo Yan’s language. Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: “Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.” But in fact, only the “brutal realism” is Mo Yan’s; the “shimmering poetry” comes from a brilliant translator’s work.

Mo Yan’s language is disconnected from the long history of China’s literary past, which goes back to the time of The Book of Songs, a collection of poetry that took shape in the seventh century BCE, contemporary with the creation of the Iliad. It is a tradition that has produced an immense amount of extraordinary writing over two thousand years, including the poetry of Li Po 李白 of the eighth century, the poems and essays of Su Shi 蘇軾 of the eleventh century, the drama of Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖 of the sixteenth century, and a work still beloved by readers today, the one-hundred-and-twenty-chapter novel of Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹, the splendid Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 of the eighteenth century. Mo Yan’s writing bears little or no resemblance to the rich and complex language that grows out of this illustrious tradition.

Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed, but it is striking because it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mo Yan’s writing is in fact a product of the aesthetic ideologies of Socialist China. As Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893-1976), the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1934 until his death, famously said in his seminal speech “The Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art” in 1942, a few years before the Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949: “Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” As a result, Mao demanded writers in the socialist regime write for the masses: “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and whole-heartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle. Only then can they proceed to creative work.” Not any kind of creative work, but work that serves the “proletarian revolutionary cause.”

As a result, a new literary language was invented. It was meant to represent the true voice of workers, peasants and soldiers, the nominal leaders of the new country. But in reality, instead of becoming the “owners of the new republic,” ordinary people were about to face the most horrendous suffering imaginable, through both the three-year Great Famine that swept most of the country (1958-1961) and the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). And the new literary language promoted by the socialist cultural bureaucracy – pedestrian, crude, hyperbolic, affected, full of clichéd political phrases – was about to become the source of an ailment that affected generations of Chinese writers.

There were writers who escaped the fate of the infection of the disease. Like the Silver Age poets and writers of the Soviet Union, such as Blok, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva, who all came of age before the Russian Revolution, the Chinese writers who kept their artistic voices were the ones who were old enough to have had an artistic education before the invention of this new literary language. Writers of this generation include Shen Congwen 沈從文, Wang Zengqi 汪曾祺, Lao She 老舍, Bing Xin 冰心, Qian Zhongshu 錢鐘書, Fu Lei 傅雷, and Eileen Chang 張愛玲, all deeply immersed in the Chinese classical tradition through their early education. (And many had a cosmopolitan education abroad as well: before returning to China to pursue their intellectual careers, Qian studied at Oxford; Fu studied at University of Paris; and Bing Xin received a degree from Wellesley.) Eileen Chang (1920-1995), arguably the greatest short story writer of twentieth-century China, produced her finest work when she was still in her 20s in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. She tried to follow the approved new language after the revolution in 1949, occasionally attending meetings organized by the Party to reeducate “bourgeois writers,” but realized that her writing was never going to be accepted by the new regime; it was still too complex and with too much depth. She left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1953, never to return.

Mo Yan, on the other hand, was a child of the revolution. Born in 1955, only six years younger than the People’s Republic, Mo Yan grew up in a poverty-stricken village in Shandong Province, the geographical location of the imagined Gaomi County of his novels. He stopped attending school at age 11, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and became a factory worker at age 18. As a way of escaping the destitution of rural life, he enlisted in the army in 1976, which changed his life. Mo Yan started writing fiction while he was still a soldier, receiving a fiction award from the Literature of the Liberation Army magazine in 1984. In the same year he went to the Military Art Academy, a central training institution of writers and artists for the military. His first major publication was Red Sorghum in 1985, published in People’s Literature, the leading state-run literary magazine. It was an overnight sensation. Red Sorghum won a national best novella award and was made into an internationally known film the next year, launching the careers of the director Zhang Yimou as well as the lead actress Gong Li. Since then Mo Yan has been a celebrated writer who has published over a dozen novels, and received every major national literary award in China.

Mo Yan writes about the deep-rooted aggression and bravery of peasants against Japanese soldiers; he extols the violent vitality of men in both war and sex. These are the men who drink riotously, love passionately, and fight single-mindedly. In most of his novels, there is a strong Dionysian spirit, a blunt and unrelenting masculinity that serves as a stark contrast to the usual tame and sexually repressed heroes of the proletarian literature of previous generations. In a 2003 interview, Mo Yan expressed his view on the successes of Red Sorghum: “Why did a novel about the Sino-Japanese war have such a great impact on society? I think my novel expressed a shared mentality of Chinese people at the time, after a long period of repression of personal freedom. Red Sorghum represents the liberation of individual spirits: daring to speak, daring to think, daring to act.” It represents a new articulation of the Chinese national spirit, a cry for the liberation of libido.

And yet, no matter how remarkable the stories are, they are still written in a language deeply rooted in the revolutionary literary dogma first articulated by Mao in 1942. In fact, Mo Yan participated in the hand-copying of Mao’s “Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art” for the volume One Hundred Writers’ and Artists’ Hand-Copied Commemorative Edition of the Yan’an Talks, published in 2012 (“Chairman Mao, in their Own Hand,” The New York Times, June 6, 2012). Some critics have viewed it as Mo Yan’s political commitment to the Party, but it may be closer to the truth to see it as his genuine attachment. The kind of writing Mao endorsed in his speech had been Mo Yan’s education in literature.

When Mo Yan speaks of the experience of hunger in his childhood, it is indeed powerful: it is the hunger of the body as well as the hunger of the spirit. During Mo Yan’s formative years, which were the years of the Great Famine and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he not only had to endure long stretches of wrenching physical hunger, but also a deeper hunger for nourishment of the soul. All he had access to were the novels of the “Seventeen Years,” social realist work written between 1949 and 1966 that bore a strong influence of Mao’s political aesthetic doctrine. The teenager Mo Yan took in these books only a hungry soul would, devouring each page in his mother’s dimly lighted rural kitchen, reading aloud to his beloved illiterate mother and sister when they begged him to share his treasure. In these novels, what left a strong impression on him were not the political stories about class conflicts and struggles, but the moving love stories of revolutionary heroes.

Even so, this is not enough to truly nourish the soul. No matter how deeply Mo Yan appreciated the novels at the time, he did not know that he had been denied access to the true legacy of Chinese literature: the splendid poetry and essays of the Tang and Song dynasties; the great novels of the Ming and Qing Dynasties; not to mention the canonical Confucian texts such as the Analects and Mencius that had long been the backbone of early education in imperial China, from the private academy of aristocratic families to the schoolrooms of rural village children.

No matter how sincere a critic Mo Yan might be of the current social and political regime, especially in his later novels such as The Garlic Ballads and The Republic of Wine, with his uncompromising critique of the ills of corruption under communist rule, his language is a language that survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state deliberately administered a radical break with China’s literary past. Mo Yan’s prose is an example of a prevailing disease that has been plaguing writers who came of age in what can be called the era of “Mao-ti,” a particular language and sensibility of writing promoted by Mao in the beginning of the revolution. The burden of this heritage can be seen not only in Mo Yan’s work, but also in the work of many other esteemed literary writers today, such as Yu Hua 余華 and Su Tong 蘇童. In fact, it can be seen even in the work of political dissident writers who live and write outside of China, such as the novelist Ma Jian 馬建 (see my review “Mao-ti” in the London Review of Books). This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of the fate of contemporary Chinese writers: too many of them can no longer speak truth to power in a language free of the scars of the revolution itself.

Today writers who have sought to purge their language of Mao-ti often do so through forging a real connection with China’s literary past, including the long tradition of vernacular writing; many have been inspired by early twentieth century masters such as Wang Zengqi, Shen Congwen, and Qian Zhongshu. For instance, women writers such as Wang Anyi 王安憶 and Chen Danyan 陳丹燕 have attempted to reconnect with the rich cosmopolitan past of the city of Shanghai through a more refined literary voice. There are also writers such as A Cheng 阿城, Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, and Wang Shuo 王朔 who pay close attention to the everyday colloquial speech of ordinary people. (In recent years Wang Shuo has become a popular commercial writer, no longer producing serious literary work.) They are reflexive artists who have strenuously fought the slavish use of a diseased language, either developing something new through a dialogue with tradition, or making use of Mao-ti in a poignantly ironical manner.

However, much of their writing is not widely known in the West. It is worth noting that many superb Chinese writers’ work does not read well in translation. (Although there are certainly exceptions: David Hawkes’ magnificent translation of Dream of the Red Chamber is both a faithful translation and a masterpiece of English prose.) Take the example of Eileen Chang, whose exquisite language and deep literary sensibility is sui generis in contemporary literature; both C. T. Hsia and David Der-wei Wang, two leading scholars of modern Chinese literature, consider her to be one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Chang’s prose is so unique and complex that she has been compared to Henry James, another writer of iridescent intensity. Yet no matter how good the translator might be, since much of Chang’s power resides in her subtle and masterly use of the Chinese language, it is very difficult to convey it through translation. Indeed, the most popular work by Chinese writers in English translation today is often the kind of work that has broad strokes, vivid characters, and dramatic plots, such as Mo Yan’s novels. It also helps when the books have clear social or political messages, such as in the case of dissident writing. This is a phenomenon that has been noted by the literary scholar Stephen Owen, who made the controversial claim as early as 1990 that certain contemporary Chinese poetry is written in easily translatable language, instead of seeking mastery in original Chinese.

It is worth noticing that there is now another alternative to Mao-ti literature in China. Today’s up-and-coming literary writers, especially writers in their 20s and 30s, did not grow up with the kind of social realist literature that greatly influenced Mo Yan and his generation, which essentially faded after 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. For this younger cohort of writers, their education took place in the 1980s and the 1990s, when China experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth. Although Chinese classical texts have gradually returned to early education in recent years, and there is ever increasing interest among intellectuals in classical Chinese art, philosophy, and literature, the main cultural influences of most young Chinese writers today are primarily a mixture of Chinese, East Asian, and American popular cultures. Capitalist market economy has now become their destiny, and commercialism and cutthroat competition their only reality. They tend to write in a mode of what might be called “flippant realism,” with a detached irony and a hint of nihilism as their hallmark. This is a new world for Chinese literary writers, for they have to compete with popular commercial fiction in an open market. Indeed, popular fiction today represents most of the best-selling novels one finds in bookstores in China; they deal not with the weighty issues of history, war, or politics, but business maneuvers, romantic intrigues, and semi-erotic fantasies. These are novels that share a kinship with the works of John Grisham, Danielle Steel, and even E. L. James, and they have no pretention of being good literature.

But shouldn’t a good story line, strong characters, and serious social and political convictions be enough for a work of art – the kind of novels Mo Yan produces – to be good? Why does language matter in literary art? In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell warns us: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” It is important to be aware of the ways language carries moral implications, for a diseased language can make it difficult for people to think with precision and truthfulness. And it spreads almost against our will: “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” “A debased language” is convenient, and it allows us to think wantonly, without conscious efforts to achieve moral clarity.

For writers like Eileen Chang, Cao Xueqin and Henry James, moral conviction is always connected with aesthetic conviction. In Cao’s eighteenth century world of the Dream of the Red Chamber, the ones who appreciate the beauty of poetry, of art, and of nature are necessarily the ones who recognize the essential humanity of others. Yet this is not equating aestheticism with moral clarity; far from it. In The Portrait of a Lady, James makes a brilliant case of the moral corruption of Osmond, a much-admired aesthete; yet as we dive deeper into the novel and observe the dissolution of Osmond’s façade through the exquisitely weaved narrative, we realize that Osmond is not the one with true aesthetic conviction. He poses rather than loves; his taste in art is vulgar and superficial rather than authentic and deep. He is a man of gestures, and his aesthetic void echoes his moral emptiness.

The highest calling of the writer is to be moral without being moralistic, and to write with an aesthetic sensibility that is constitutive of his or her moral commitment. Mo Yan and his generation of writers, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution, have done their best to fulfill their calling. Today’s China is full of new promises; its economic power is placing it in the center of our global world, and its social and cultural developments will have an immense impact on our new century. China is ready for great novels about its recent history and growth, works by writers with a profound moral imagination as well as an extraordinary literary voice. Such a writer will have drunk from the purer streams of China’s literary past, a long river that has never ceased flowing, not even under the most unpropitious conditions. Such a writer will have the strength to take on the turmoil of the past sixty years, and to write about the sorrow and beauty of our shared human condition with an illuminating, transfiguring aesthetic conviction.

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