The Chinese winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature is Guan Moye, a novelist who writes under the pseudonym Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak”. This has become not just a sly joke on the readers of his prodigious oeuvre, but also on his English-language critics. None of the leading literary journals had anything to say about last week’s announcement. Newspapers and websites focused on his political views.
There is no escaping controversy over Nobel Prizes. Although Mo Yan is one of China’s best-selling novelists, he is a member of the Communist Party and seldom critiques its human rights abuses. In 2000, writer and critic Gao Xingjian won the literature prize, but he had lived in France since 1987. In 2010 democratic activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize and is still in jail. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei declared that Mo Yan’s award was “shameful”.
Perhaps, however, Mo Yan is a man who chooses his targets. His latest novel is Wa (or Frogs, published in 2009; translated into French in 2011). It is a searing critique of the one-child policy. Since this must be the world’s most shameful human rights abuse, I’d say that it qualifies him as a critic of the regime.
Wa was inspired by the life of the author’s aunt, a obstetrician who headed up a family planning unit in a rural county. “Wa” is a pun which Mo Yan uses to good effect, for “frog” and “baby” sound the same in Mandarin. The doctor hates the croaking of frogs.
Obeying the slogan “One is not too short, two is just what is needed, three is one too many,” the doctor does 2,000 abortions, forces people to have IUDs, vasectomies and tubal ligations and runs a network of spies to discover unauthorized pregnancies.
There are numerous terrifying sub-plots. An enterprise for breeding frogs is a cover for recruiting surrogate mothers. One woman character is severely disfigured in a fire; she is inseminated to pay for her father’s medical expenses. Women’s bodies become commodities.
Mo Yan is far from being a strait-laced Puritan. One of his most recent novels is Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which is about, well, the title says it all. Through the life of a tough mother of eight, it chronicles the bloody catastrophes which have scourged China since the mid-30s. A reviewer in the TLS grudgingly acknowledged that the “noisy sex and violence” might be “a barely veiled protest against the failures of China’s oppressive, still male-dominated political Establishment and its sanitized account of the recent past” – but she hated it all the same.
Mo Yan’s use of magical realism is reminiscent of another Nobel laureate, Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Plots lurch from horror to farce; animals talk; bizarre and hallucinatory scenes are sprinkled throughout.
Perhaps this style is a good lance to skewer a deranged policy which has aborted and killed millions of babies, destroyed women, altered the national sex ratio, created a baby-trafficking industry, and threatens to make China grow old before it grows rich.
“I personally believe the one-child policy is a bad policy. If there were no one-child policy, I would have two or three children.”
“When I was serving in the army, I was promoted to the rank of officer. There was another officer in the army who lost his rank… because he had a second child. I was afraid I would receive the same punishment, so I chose not to have another child. If it were not for my own selfish ambition, I would have let my wife have a second or even a third baby.
“I used a very high-sounding rationale to convince her we needed to abort the baby: we had to follow the Party’s policy and nation’s policy. This has become an eternal scar in the deepest part of my heart… It became a big shadow in my heart.”
There are signs that China’s draconian control of families is loosening. Hopefully the national exhilaration at winning a Nobel Prize will accelerate the process.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.