About Mo Yan 莫言, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2012
Guan Moye (simplified Chinese: 管谟业; traditional Chinese: 管謨業; pinyin: Guǎn Móyè; born 17 February 1955), better known by the pen name Mo Yan (/moʊ jɛn/, Chinese: 莫言; pinyin: Mò Yán), is a Chinese novelist and short story writer. He has been referred by Donald Morrison of U.S. news magazine TIME as "one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers", and by Jim Leach as the Chinese answer to Franz Kafka or Joseph Heller. He is best known to Western readers for his 1987 novel Red Sorghum Clan, of which the Red Sorghum and Sorghum Wine volumes were later adapted for the film Red Sorghum. In 2012, Mo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work as a writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary".
Mo Yan was born in 1955, in Gaomi County in Shandong province to a family of farmers, in Dalan Township (which he fictionalised in his novels as "Northeast Township" of Gaomi County). Mo was 11 years old when the Cultural Revolution was launched, at which time he left school to work as a farmer. At the age of 18, he began work at a cotton factory. During this period, which coincided with a succession of political campaigns from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, his access to literature was largely limited to novels in the socialist realist style under Mao Zedong, which centered largely on the themes of class struggle and conflict.
At the close of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mo enlisted in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and began writing while he was still a soldier. During this post-Revolution era when he emerged as a writer, both the lyrical and epic works of Chinese literature, as well as translations of foreign authors such as William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, would make an impact on his works. In 1984, he received a literary award from the PLA Magazine, and the same year began attending the Military Art Academy, where he first adopted the pen name of Mo Yan. He published his first novella, A Transparent Radish, in 1984, and released Red Sorghum in 1986, launching his career as a nationally recognized novelist. In 1991, he obtained a master's degree in Literature from Beijing Normal University.
"Mo Yan" — meaning "don't speak" in Chinese — is his pen name. In an interview with Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he explains that name comes from a warning from his father and mother not to speak his mind while outside, because of China's revolutionary political situation from the 1950s, when he grew up. The pen name also relates to the subject matter of Mo Yan's writings, which reinterpret Chinese political and sexual history.
Mo Yan began his career as a writer in the reform and opening up period, publishing dozens of short stories and novels in Chinese. His first novel was Falling Rain on a Spring Night, published in 1981. Several of his novels were translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, professor of East Asian languages and literatures at the University of Notre Dame.
Mo Yan's Red Sorghum Clan is a non-chronological novel about the generations of a Shandong family between 1923 and 1976. The author deals with upheavals in Chinese history such as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the Communist revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, but in an unconventional way; for example from the point of view of the invading Japanese soldiers. His second novel, The Garlic Ballads, is based on a true story of when the farmers of Gaomi Township rioted against a government that would not buy its crops. The Republic of Wine is a satire around gastronomy and alcohol, which uses cannibalism as a metaphor for Chinese self-destruction, following Lu Xun. Big Breasts & Wide Hips deals with female bodies, from a grandmother whose breasts are shattered by Japanese bullets, to a festival where one of the child characters, Shangguan Jintong, blesses each woman of his town by stroking her breasts. The book was controversial in China because some leftist critics regarded Big Breasts' perceived negative portrayal of Communist soldiers.
Extremely prolific, Mo Yan wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in only 42 days. He composed the more than 500,000 characters contained in the original manuscript on traditional Chinese paper using only ink and a writing brush. He prefers writing his novels by hand rather than by typing using a pinyin input method, because the latter method "limits your vocabulary". Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is the story of a landlord who is reincarnated in the form of various animals during the Chinese land reform movement. The landlord observes and satirizes Communist society, such as when he (as a donkey) forces two mules to share food with him, because "[in] the age of communism... mine is yours and yours is mine."