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Mo mania's impact on Chinese writing
By Yao Minji

Mo Yan, the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, today (early tomorrow morning, Beijing time) receives the award in Stockholm, Sweden, where his contributions to Chinese and world literature will be recognized.

After the announcement that he had won the prize, "Mo mania" swept the nation and his books were sold out immediately. His hometown launched a tourism campaign featuring Mo's humble family home and his books, which are mostly set in poor, rural Shandong Province where Mo was born in 1955.

Prices of Chinese publishing and related stocks surged on China's exchanges in anticipation of high book sales. Even what Mo will wear when accepting the prize has become a hot topic. Some Chinese want him to wear a traditional Hanfu gown, but Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, is more likely to wear a suit and tie.

Mo Yan, whose pen name means "don't speak," has published 11 novels, 20 novelettes and many short stories and plays. His Chinese publisher released a collection of three stage scripts after he won the Nobel, and his latest published novel was "Frog," one discussing the one-child policy in China.

It is not available in English yet, but his earlier novels "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out," "Red Sorghum Clan" (1987), "The Garlic Ballad" (1988), "Pow!" (2003), "The Republic of Wine" (1992), "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" (1996) and "Sandalwood Death" (2004) have all been translated in English by Howard Goldblatt.

Mo himself recommends "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" to foreign readers. Speaking as he arrived in Stockholm, he said in answer to a question, "(It is) a story not only featuring imagination and fairy-tales, but also the history of modern China."

"It (Mo's winning) is a significant event and sort of a landmark showing that Chinese literature has been accepted and acknowledged by the world. So the mania is understandable. But now it is time to calm down and look at literature itself. It's time to look at the impact of the event on the future of Chinese contemporary literature," says Lei Da, a well-established Chinese literature critic based in Beijing.

"Mo Yan was never the top writer in China, he was one of the top writers who were nurtured from contemporary Chinese literature in the past 30 years, during which they learned from the west and merged such western influence with their Chinese-rooted stories and styles." Lei was one of the first critics to review Mo's works.

Mo's works became well known because of the movie "Red Sorghum" (1987) by director Zhang Yimou, adapted from his 1986 novel of the same name.

"This (Mo's winning) is significant since not the best contemporary Chinese writer got the prize," Dr Wolfgang Kubin, a famous German translator, tells Shanghai Daily in a recent e-mail interview.

In the past, the noted sinologue called Chinese contemporary literature "trash" and said Mo's works bore him. After the Nobel award, he said he had to "rethink" his views on Mo Yan, but still prefers Chinese poetry to novels. He believes the Chinese long contemporary novel "does not come up to international standards."

"Long Chinese novels (I am not talking about short stories or novelettes!) have too many flaws: too many protagonists (as in Ge Fei's works), only images and no thoughts (as in Su Tong's work). They very often read like a screen play, with too many mistakes, too many words. The more or less repetitious 'Brothers' (2008) by Yu Hua is an awful example. Facts, names and dates do not fit together. (Also, some reflect a reactionary world view, such as in Jiang Rong ('Wolf Totem,' 2004), among others," Kubin says.

"The hope for Chinese literature lies in poetry and in short stories or novelettes," says Kubin, who teaches Chinese philosophy and the Chinese-German relationship at the University of Bonn and at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Many young Chinese writers say they have become more confident in themselves, after Mo won the prize.

Zhang Yueran, among the bestselling young writers, says "Mo's triumph indicates that Chinese literature has been truly accepted by the foreign literature world," which is a big encouragement for young writers. Zhang writes novels and is editor-in-chief of Li magazine.

Mo has always been considered among the top Chinese writers, and his books have been widely translated abroad, first introduced to English speakers by distinguished American translator Howard Goldblatt. His works have also been translated into Japanese, French, German, Swedish, among a dozen languages.

He has also come in for extensive criticism for his blunt language, extensive use of slang, cruel descriptions of violence and plain-spoken descriptions of sex.

Many critics say he should thank his translators, especially Goldblatt and the Swedish translator Anna Gustafsson Chen, who have softened and sometimes even deleted scenes.

Chen wrote on her weibo account that the Nobel jury read Mo's works in Swedish, French, German, English and other languages.

In Stockholm on Thursday, Mo and Chen will engage in a dialogue about his works.

According to Mo's Italian translator Patrizia Liberati, he sent his translators a message after the Nobel announcement to pay tribute to their work and share the honor. He also invited his translators as his Nobel guests, including Goldblatt, Liberati, Japanese translator Tomio Yoshida and French translator Noel Dutrait, among others. At the Beijing airport, he expressed appreciation to translators who have played an important role in introducing contemporary Chinese literature to an international audience.

Due to the violence and explicit sex scenes, none of his works has been included in Chinese high school textbooks in Shanghai, according to Wang Tiexian, chief editor of Shanghai's high school textbooks.

Mo's early novella "The Transparent Red Carrot" (1985) established his reputation. Written from a boy's perspective and without sex or violence, it is included in the textbook for Chinese literature majors in universities.

"The bloody and sex scenes in his books definitely made it difficult to include them in high school texts. And his key works are mostly novels, which also makes it difficult because only part can be included and it doesn't reflect the whole work," Wang says.

After the Nobel announcement, Wang suggested including excerpts from "The Transparent Red Carrot" in high school texts. The story is told by a poor child who hopes to find the beautiful, transparent red carrot that he once saw in a field.

Chinese critics and academics have long expressed their disappointment in contemporary Chinese literature and in writers for lacking originality and spiritual and philosophical depth, and for failing to tap the richness of traditional Chinese literature.

After the Nobel announcement, many of these critics reversed themselves and praised Mo, some even praising the entire body of contemporary Chinese literature.

Chen Xingeng, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Literature Paper, says he has received glowing reviews from same authors who once severely criticized Mo. After the announcement, the very points they deplored are now described as strengths.

"It's great he has won such an important prize and, hopefully, the event can bring more readers to contemporary Chinese literature. But that must not eclipse the problems in his works, and the problems in contemporary Chinese literature," critic Lei says.

He cites lack of originality as a great problems, adding that writing today is marked by increasing quantity but not quality. When a book becomes popular, thousands of copies can be produced overnight, but rarely do writers plumb spiritual depths or reveal psychological complexity or linguistic subtlety.

The consensus is that serious literature is declining.

Wang Zheng, a writer and critic from Jiangsu Province Writers' Association, says the quality problem is difficult to overcome.

"Society, which is increasingly materialistic and consumption-driven, has stopped providing motivation for writers to explore serious issues. The problems of lack of originality and depth cannot be solved without changes in the society," he concludes.

Diverse Chinese novels in English

Many excellent Chinese contemporary novels have been published in English and Shanghai Daily recommends the following:

"Three Sisters" by Bi Feiyu

Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Bei Feiyu, based in Jiangsu's capital city of Nanjing, is known for his understanding and sophisticated portrayal of female characters. Some of his best-known books feature female protagonists, such as "Three Sisters," which won the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize.

"Sisters" consists of three novella following three of the seven Wang sisters. Their mother kept getting pregnant until the eighth child, a boy, was born. The sisters struggle to change their destinies after the sacking of their father, once a village official.

"Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet" by Alai

Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Alai is one of few ethnic Tibetans writing in Mandarin. The Sichuan Province native was editor-in-chief of a popular science fiction magazine. His own novels, while not sci-fi, are imaginative and adventurous, focusing on mysterious Tibetan society.

"Red Poppies" is set in the 1940s and follows the family of a Tibetan chieftain, who has a Tibetan and a Han wife.

A smart and brave son is born to the Tibetan wife and a younger boy born to the Han mother. This boy feigns foolishness to escape family and clan power struggles.

"Turbulence" by Jia Pingwa

Translated by Howard Goldblatt

Jia Pingwa, born in a village in Shaanxi Province, is considered among the best contemporary writers. Most novels are set in Shaanxi and explore the huge transformations in Chinese villages and small cities through the lives of ordinary people.

"Turbulence," which won the Pegasus Prize for Literature, follows the lives of young farmer Golden Dog and Water Girl in the 1980s, in the early stages of China's opening-up and reform.

Ambitious Golden Dog becomes a reporter and gets entangled with bureaucrats, blacksmiths, artisans, monks and other intriguing characters.

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