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.
"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.