The man wore a Mao suit with a red emblem pinned to the breast pocket. It looked like a party emblem, but only his name appeared on it. He was holding a lecture in Stockholm, the Nobel Lecture that all authors are required to give when they receive the Nobel Prize in literature, the world's most important literary award.
It was Dec. 7, 2012, and the Chinese man, whose soft words almost felt like a song as he delivered his speech, had been considered a disappointment. He had written wonderful books, no question. They include "The Garlic Ballads" and "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out," family novels that are broad, lush and colorfully told. They always have a historic element to them, with reporting on China's development in the past decades, from the poverty of the early years, through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and on to the economic rise. Yet despite all the criticism of the Communist Party and its leaders, which is clear in his books, the author is still considered to be a regime loyalist.
Mo Yan, 58, has been a member of the Communist Party (CP) since 1979. He had a career in the army and is today the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer's Association.
His readers have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances. Reactions to his Nobel Prize were also correspondingly divided. Chinese dissidents, like author Liao Yiwu were "stunned," whereas German author Martin Walser said he didn't have "any kind of misgivings."
Mo Yan did very little to explain himself. He rejected interview requests that flooded in from around the world. At the press conference before the ceremony in Stockholm, Mo sparked another scandal when he described censorship in China as a "necessary evil," angering commentators around the world.
Earlier this week, Mo Yan's book "Frog" was published in German for the first time. Last Wednesday, five days before its publication, Mo suddenly agreed to what he described before the meeting as a "very short" interview with SPIEGEL. He chose a Beijing tea house as the meeting point. "Very short" ultimately turned into two hours.
Mo was born in the eastern Chinese village of Gaomi in 1955. Mo Yan is a pen name, his real name is Guan Moye. His parents were farmers. From 1959 to 1961, he lived through the Great Chinese Famine, a period of acute food shortage triggered by grave policy errors. Millions of people died of hunger. At the age of 12, Mo was forced to leave school because his family was considered to be unreliable. He became a cowherd and also worked in the cotton industry.
The narrator in Mo Yan's novel "Frog" embodies several autobiographical elements. He too comes from a family of farmers in Gaomi; he goes to the army and wavers between the desire to conform and the need to follow his own conscience. The narrator has an aunt who works as a gynecologist, another autobiographical detail. She is the main character of the novel and she is brutal in her implementation of the country's "one-child policy." And yet it never becomes clear why she remains true to the party despite repeated indignities. Those living in authoritarian societies risk much when they resist: That is the message of Mo's books, and it is one rooted in Chinese realities.
But Nobel laureates are protected. Nobel laureates can talk openly and take risks. Indeed, they have little choice.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Mo, your pen name, Mo Yan, literally means: "Don't speak." You seem to take it quite seriously and shy away from speaking in public, particularly to journalists. Why is that?
Mo: Because I don't like to give political statements. I am a fast writer. But I think thoroughly. When I speak publicly, I immediately ask myself if I have made myself clear. My political views are quite clear though. One only has to read my books.
SPIEGEL: Your first book to be translated into German after you were awarded the Nobel Prize in literature is called "Frog" and deals with China's one-child-policy, which affects the lives of more than a billion people. What is your personal view on this policy?
Mo: As a father, I have always felt that everybody should have as many children as he likes. As an officer, however, I had to obey the rule which applies to every official: one child, no more. China's population issue is not solved easily. I am sure of one thing only: Nobody must be stopped from having a child by means of violence.
SPIEGEL: Exactly that, however, happens in "Frog." What was the inspiration for this book? Was it your personal opinion on the policy? Was it a certain scene, a figure, a dialogue?
Mo: It was the epic life story of a straightforward aunt of mine who worked for decades as a gynecologist in my home county of Gaomi and saw unspeakable things. I felt an inner urge to write this down.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Wan, your main character in the novel, is a complicated, even monstrous figure haunted by her own deeds. How did your aunt react to the book?
Mo: She hasn't read it. I explicitly told her not to because she might be mad at me if she did. Of course, not all that happens in "Frog" is based on the story of my aunt -- who actually has four children. I added other doctors' experience and things I myself saw.
SPIEGEL: Unspeakable things happen in many of your novels. In "The Garlic Ballads," for example, a pregnant woman, already in labor, hangs herself. Still, "Frog" seems to be your sternest book. Is that why it took so long to write?
Mo: I carried the idea for this book with me for a long time but then wrote it relatively quickly. You are right, I felt heavy when I penned the novel. I see it as a work of self-criticism.
SPIEGEL: In what sense? You carry no personal responsibility for the violence and the forced abortions described in your book.
Mo: China has gone through such tremendous change over the past decades that most of us consider ourselves victims. Few people ask themselves, though: 'Have I also hurt others?' "Frog" deals with this question, with this possibility. I, for example, may have been only 11 years old in my elementary school days, but I joined the red guards and took part in the public criticism of my teacher. I was jealous of the achievements, the talents of other people, of their luck. Later, I even asked my wife to have an abortion for the sake of my own future. I am guilty.
SPIEGEL: Your books paint a bleak picture of modern China. There seems to be no progress. Neither your figures, nor society, nor the country as such seems to be heading anywhere.
Mo: I may be rather un-Chinese in this respect. Most Chinese stories and dramas have a happy ending. Most of my novels end tragically. But there is still hope, dignity and power.
SPIEGEL: Some of your books read like movies. You avoid looking too deep into the psyche of your characters. Why, for example, does doctor Wan hold on to the party principles so strictly, despite being clearly aware of their faults?
Mo: This is part of the spiritual experience of my generation. Some people have realized that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, but they have also realized that the party corrected it.
SPIEGEL: How do you yourself think about this? After all, you were forced to interrupt your education during the Cultural Revolution. And yet, you are still a member of the party.
Mo: The Communist Party of China has well over 80 million members, and I am one of them. I joined the party in 1979 when I was in the army. I realized that the Cultural Revolution was the mistake of individual leaders. It had less to do with the party itself.
SPIEGEL: In your books, you harshly criticize party officials, but your political statements, like the one you just made, are mild. How do explain this contradiction?
Mo: There is no contradiction with my political opinion when I harshly criticize party officials in my books. I have emphasized repeatedly that I am writing on behalf of the people, not the party. I detest corrupt officials.