Nobel Laureate Mo Yan: 'I Am Guilty'

Photo Gallery: Mo Yan and the Communists Photos

Part 2: "I Don't Like to Speak in Front of Many People"

SPIEGEL: When Chinese writer Liao Yiwu was awarded with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last year, he criticized you in SPIEGEL as a "state writer" and said you don't keep enough distance to the government.

Mo: I have read his statement and I have read the speech he gave at the award ceremony. In the speech, he called for the split of the Chinese state. I can absolutely not agree to this position. I think that the people of Sichuan (the province where Liao is from) would not agree to cut their province out of China. I am sure Liao's parents could never agree to this position. And I can not even imagine that he himself can, in the depth of his heart, agree to what he said there. I know he envies me for this award and I understand this. But his criticism is unjustified.

SPIEGEL: Which of his criticisms do you mean exactly?

Mo: Well, among other things he accuses me of praising Bo Xilai …

SPIEGEL: … the disgraced former party boss of Chongqing …

Mo: … in a poem. Actually, the opposite is true. I was sarcastic, I wrote a satire. Let me jot it down again for you.

(Mo Yan takes a notebook and writes)

Sing-red-strike-black roars mightily,
The nation turns its head to Chongqing.
While a white spider weaves a real net that catches bugs,
A black horse with loose bowel movement is not an angry youth.
As a writer one should not be afraid of either a left or right party,
As an official one should hold dear one's good name before and after his death.
A gentleman, a bedrock in turbulent waters, that you are,
The splendid cliffs shine on Jialing River like fire.

Mo: In the fall of 2011, a writer from Chongqing asked me for a calligraphy as is a custom among us. I sent him this poem to which he replied: "I don't know whether I should laugh or cry about this." Many praised Bo Xilai for his campaign of singing red songs and fighting the mafia (the "black ones") in those days. Some writers were even asked to praise Chongqing. When I mention the "white spider," though, I allude to the young people in China who are sitting in front of their computer screens weaving webs to expose actual criminals and corrupt officials. With the "black horse," I meant those others who just pretended to be public intellectuals. And with the rest of the poem, I call on my writer friends not to take the side of the right or the left but to take the stance of the people.

SPIEGEL: And you say that your critics deliberately misinterpreted this poem to make you appear like a friend of Bo Xilai's?

Mo: Those who oppose me are mostly writers and know full well that this poem was satire. But since I was honored with the Nobel, they use magnifying glasses to look for my flaws and they even distort the meaning of my poems.

SPIEGEL: Another of your critics' arguments is that you contributed to a book celebrating Mao Zedong's infamous Yan'an speech of 1942 -- a speech in which he laid down the limits within which Chinese writers would have to write from then on.

Mo: That speech is an historic document by now which has its rationality but also its limits. When I and my generation of writers started out, we extended these limits step by step and crossed them. Whoever has actually read my work from that period and has a conscience cannot claim that I was uncritical.

SPIEGEL: But why did you contribute to this project in the first place?

Mo: Honestly, it was a commercial project. The editor of a publishing house, an old friend of mine, came up with the idea. He had convinced around 100 writers before and when we attended a conference together, he walked around with a book and a pen and asked me, too, to hand-copy a paragraph of Mao's speech. I asked "What should I write?" He said: "I chose this paragraph for you." I was vain enough to take the opportunity to show off with my calligraphy.

SPIEGEL: In your novel "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out," one of the protagonists inadvertently drops his Mao badge into a latrine. In your autobiographical book "Change," you describe how you use little Mao statuettes to shy away the rats in your dormitory. Why do you write so daringly in your books and yet are so careful in your personal remarks?

Mo: Do you think I am careful in my personal remarks? If that were so, then I wouldn't have agreed to this interview. I am a writer, not an actor. And when I wrote down these scenes, I didn't think about breaking a taboo. If I have made clear by them that Mao was a man and not a god, so be it. When I was a child, I thought he was god.

SPIEGEL: Today you are the deputy president of China's Writers' Association. Can one hold this title in China without being close to the government?

Mo: This is an honorary title about which nobody complained before I was awarded the Nobel. There are people who think the Nobel should only go to people who oppose the government. Is that so? Should the Nobel Prize in literature not be for literature, for something someone wrote?

SPIEGEL: But there are people in this country who are harassed, even arrested for what they write. Do you not feel an obligation to use your award, fame and reputation to speak out on behalf of these colleagues of yours?

Mo: I openly expressed the hope that Liu Xiaobo should regain his freedom as soon as possible. But again, I was immediately criticized and forced to speak out again and again on the same issue.

SPIEGEL: Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. And indeed, repeated statements of support would make a greater impression than a single comment.

Mo: I am reminded of the rituals of repetition in the Cultural Revolution. If I decide to speak, then nobody will stop me. If I decide not to speak, then not even a knife at my neck will make me speak.

SPIEGEL: Another one of your critics is Ai Weiwei, an artist particularly well-known in Germany.

Mo: What does he have to say about me?

SPIEGEL: He too accuses you of being to close to the state. He says you are detached from reality and cannot represent current China.

Mo: Aren't many artists in mainland China state artists? What about those who are professors at the universities? What about those who write for state newspapers? And then, which intellectual can claim to represent China? I certainly do not claim that. Can Ai Weiwei? Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.

SPIEGEL: You are not only a member of the party, you have repeatedly said that you retain a utopian vision of communism. Yet don't your books show step by step that this utopia doesn't always become reality? And should you not therefore consider letting go of this utopia altogether?

Mo: What Marx wrote in the "The Communist Manifesto" was of great beauty. However, it seems to be very hard to make that dream come true. But then again, I look at those European, specifically Northern European, states and societies and wonder: Would these welfare states even be thinkable without Marx? We used to say in China that in a way Marxism has saved capitalism. Because those who benefited most from his ideology seem to be societies in the West. We Chinese, Russians and Eastern Europeans seem to have misunderstood Marxism.

SPIEGEL: One of your great admirers is the German writer Martin Walser. He calls your novels "orgies of precision and cruelty and beauty."

Mo: I respect Martin Walser very much. I've read all his books which have been translated to Chinese. He is a very reflective author who explained the Germans' mentality after World War II to us. It honors me that he treasures my work. If you ask me, he is one of the German writers most qualified to be awarded the Nobel himself. Günter Grass, whose work I hold in high esteem, is a Nobel laureate already. I have also read those works of Nobel laureate Herta Müller which have been translated into Chinese, some of which I find excellent.

SPIEGEL: Grass, unlike you, enjoys getting into brawls with his government.

Mo: Yes, I admire him and other writers for their ability to become involved in such public debates. I don't have that, though. As I said in the beginning, I don't even like to speak in front of many people.

SPIEGEL: Then all the pomp and circumstance in Stockholm must have been rather unpleasant for you.

Mo: I held on to a piece of wood in my hand most of the time.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Mo, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Bernhard Zand

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