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Mo Yan (b. 1955; pen name of Guan Moyan) 

 


One of the most creative and prolific Chinese novelists and short-story writers, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. Mo Yan mixes in his work fantastical flights of imagination with historical and contemporary issues. His best known works include The Garlic Ballads (1989), banned for a period in China following the Tiananmen Square uprising, Red Sorghum (1995), adapted to screen by Zhang Yimou, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), about a village landlord, who is executed and reincarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey and a boy.

"I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart, and to hate it with unbridled fury  I didn't realize until I'd grown up that Northeast Gaomi Township is easily to most beautiful and most repulsive, most unusual and most common, most sacred and most corrupt, most heroic and most bastardly, hardest-drinking and hardest-loving place in the world .  .  ." (from Red Shorgum)

Mo Yan was born in Gaomi, Shandong province, into a large family of thirty-one members. His father, who had completed four years of education, worked as an accountant until his retirement in 1982. Mo Yan's mother was an illiterate housewife. She gave birth to more than half a dozen children, only four of whom survived. "We all lived together in five big rooms," Mo Yan has recalled. "My uncle and aunt and their three children  lived in one, my parents and four of my brothers and sisters lived in another, and my grandparents and other close relatives lived in the other three. Now when I look back I don't know how we managed to survive."

In the years of the "Great Leap Forward," a famine swept through the country. The experience of hunger became a significant motif in Mo Yan's writing. He has told that in his childhood his stomach became so swollen and transparent, that he could see the green vegetables inside his intestines after eating a vegetable soup. During the Cultural Revolution, Mo Yan was not allowed to continue his education due to his class origin, and he went to work in the fields and at a factory. In 1976, Mo Yan enlisted in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which provided a way out of hunger and hard labor.

Mo Yan married in 1979; his wife and children stayed in Gaomi County, but he had no permanent residency registration there and he lived in a dormitory in the Department of Defense. While in the army, Mo Yan worked as a librarian, taught in a  literacy campaing, and wrote in his free time at night. His oldest brother, who was a teacher and first discouraged his younger brother from his writing fiction, turned to support him. Mo Yan's first short story, 'Chunye yu feifei' (The incessant rain on a spring night) appeared in 1981 in Lian chi, a literary journal. From 1984 to 1986 Mo Yan studied literature at the PLA Art Institute. Following the publication of several novellas and short stories, including Hong gao liang, he joined in 1986 the Chinese Association of Writers. In 1988 he was admitted to a master's program at the Beijing Lu Xun Literary Institute. 

Mo Yan is associated with the authors known as "root-seekers," who were not satisfied with realistic representations of rural life, but sought inspiration from Latin American magic realism. The movement reached its height of popularity in the 1980s. Mo Yan has acknowledged his debt to Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated into Chinese in 1984, but he has also said he felt he already possessed what Márquez had. However, while writing Red Sorghum he tried hard to get away from the influence. "Come to think of it, if Marquez had not existed, a Chinese Marquez would have emerged." (Mo Yan in Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation by Laifong Leung, 1994, pp. 150-51) Lu Xun's tradition of cultural and social criticism and William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha have also inspired Mo Yan's work. "His Yoknapatawpha County showed me that a writer could not only fabricate his characters and his stories, but could make up a geological locale as well." (Mo Yan in A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan by Shelley W. Chan, 2010)  

Until Red Sorghum, Mo Yan was largely unknown outside circles of Beijing's literati. Set during the Sino-Japanese war in Mo Yan's hometown, Gaomi County, the story portrays three generations of a Chinese family in times of brutality. The traditional linear historical narrative approach is abandoned and the first-person point of view moves freely in time and space. Reviewing the novel for the New York Times Books Review, Wilborn Hampton concluded that "Mo Yan introduces Western readers to the unfamiliar culture of provincial China through dozens of vivid characters -- like Five Monkeys Shan, Spotted Neck, Pocky Leng and Nine Dreams Cao. By the end, they and Mo Yan have put Northeast Gaomi Township securely on the map of world literature." (The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993) Zhang Yimou's  film based on the book won a prize in  the Golden Bear Awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.

The Garlic Ballads, originally published by the People's Liberation Army Publishing House, was set in mythical Paradise Country, where practically nothing has changed. At the suggestion of the government, the peasant began to grow garlic, but a bumper harvest leads to disastrous events. Shortly after its publication, the novel was banned, most likely because of Mo Yan's sympathetic representation of an antigovernment riot by peasants. Later the book appeared  in a "revised" edition. Sheng si pi lao  (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out), a parody of official narratives, told of a former landlord executed for his "bourgeois sins" during land reform in 1950. He goes through a series of reincarnations from a donkey to monkey and is eventually reborn as a human child. The hallucinatory satire Jiu guo (1992, The Republic of Wine) poked fun at the Chinese obsession with banqueting. With his description of Rabelaisian drinking and feasting, Mo Yan paints a grotesque a picture of a country that definitely has moved on from the years of famine. One of the characters is a middle-aged writer named Mo Yan, who visits the fictional province of Liquorland as a guest of honor, and after rounds of toasts he slides under the table. The work was not published in China until after a Taiwanese edition came in 1992. 

Feng ru fei tun (1995, Big Breasts and Wide Hips), a celebration of the female, stirred some controversy due to its sexual content, and the book was withdrawn from sale. Though Mo Yan has pushed the boundaries of free artistic expression in China, he has also argued that limitations or censorship is great for literature creation. His novels are widely available in Chinese bookstores, and besides the Nobel Prize, he has received virtually every major Chinese literary award. His works have been translated into many other languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

For further readingGender and Sexuality in the 20th Century Chinese Literature, ed. Tongling Lu (1993); Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation by Laifong Leung (1994); World Authors 1990-1994, ed. by Clifford Thompson (1999); Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature by Li-hua Ying (2010);  A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan by Shelley W. Chan (2010)

Selected works:

  • Tou ming de hong luo bo, 1986
  • Hong gao liang jia zu, 1987
  • Bao zha, 1988
  • Huan le shi san zhang, 1989
  • Shi san bu, 1989 [Thirteen steps]
  • Tian tang suan tai zhi ge, 1989
    - The Garlic Ballads (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 1995) 
  • Jiu guo, 1992
    - The Republic of Wine: A Novel, 2000 (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) 
  • Explosions and other stories, 1991 (edited by Janice Wickeri)
  • Jin fa ying er, 1993 
  • Shi cao jia zu, 1993 [The herbivorous family]
  • Fen nu de suan tai, 1993
  • Huai bao xian hua di nü ren: Mo Yan xiao shuo jin zuo ji, 1993
  • Shen liao: Mo Yan zui xin zhong duan pian xiao shuo xuan, 1993 
  • Zai bao zha, 1994
  • Dao shen piao, 1995 
  • Feng ru fei tun, 1995
    - Big Breasts and Wide Hips: A Novel (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 2004) 
  • Hong gao liang, 1995
    - Red Sorghum (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 2003)
    - film: Hong gao liang, 1987, prod. Xi'an Film Studio, dir. by Yimou Zhang, starring Li Gong, Wen Jiang and Rujun Ten
  • Ming ding guo, 1995
  • Mo Yan wen ji, 1995
  • Xian nü ren, 1995
  • Hong er duo, 1998
  • Shi fu yue lai yue you mo, 2000
    - Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 2001)
    - film: Xingfu shiguang, 2000, prod. Guangxi Film Studio, Xin Huamian Film, Zhuhai Zhenrong Co., dir. Yimou Zhang, starring Lifan Dong, Benshan Zhao, Jie Dong, Biao Fu
  • Tan xiang xing, 2001
    - Sandalwood Death: A Novel (translated by Howard Goldblatt, 2013) 
  • Liang xin zuo zheng, 2002
  • Mu zhi kao, 2003
  • Sishiyi pao, 2003 [Forty-one bombs]
    - Pow! (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 2012)
  • Mo Yan zhong pian xiao shuo xuan, 2004
  • Yu da shi yue hui, 2005 
  • Sheng si pi lao, 2006
    - Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out: A Novel (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, 2008)
    - Seitsemän elämääni (suom. Riina Vuokko, 2013)
  • Wa, 2009 [Frog]

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