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The Good & The Bad: Liao Yiwu, Mo Yan – Musings

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2 prestigious prices in Literature, 2 Chinese novelists – and such diverging perceptions!

While the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2012 to Liao Yiwu, who has spent four years in prison because of his writing, has been widely appreciated throughout the European media & feuilleton, the conferment of this year´s Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan (pen name) is being largely criticised as him being “to close to the government”. How come?

In the case of Mo Yan and Liao Yiwu there is only little discussion of their literary work, its origin, its qualities, their respective literary achievements. Both of them represent contemporary “voices” about China, and Liao Yiwus accounts from the bottom of the Chinese society, his writing down of oral history from the non-globalised parts of China are an equal facet of China´s image as the somehow surreal stories in Mo Yan´s narrations.

When it comes to China it seems to always be about politics. My impression is that – for whatever reason – Western media are easier at dealing with Chinese laureates, experts, artists or whoever when they can be labelled as being a dissident.

Concerning Liao Yiwu the Board of Trustees issued the following statement: “The German Publishers and Booksellers Association … and its members have chosen to honor a Chinese author who continues to wage an eloquent and fearless battle against political repression … The author, who has experienced first-hand the effects of prison, torture and repression, is an unwavering chronicler and observer who bears witness on behalf of the outcasts of modern China.”

On the other side, Michel Hockx, professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, dismissed criticism that Mo Yan is “too close to the establishment to merit the Nobel”. “I don’t like the idea that Chinese writers are only good if they challenge the government.”

Everybody is aware of the fact that China has quite a few social and political problematic developments and issues to deal with – but then this is true for Iran, Turkey, or Russia (to name but a few). And yet, we can talk about and appreciate their art and culture (be it traditional or contemporary) and welcome efforts of putting up biennials or festivals. This is very rarely the case with China.

And what to gain in heavily picking at China within a celebratory speech? What does simple China-bashing contribute to a better understanding?

Is it because of being afraid of China´s arising influence? A post-colonial notion of holding on to Western hegemony? Or – as François Jullien, a French philosopher and Sinologist, denotes China as the most significant “other” – is it only a question of difficulties in mutual understanding?

Further bits:
The Guardian Book Blog on Mo Yan.
Details on Liao Yiwus biography, publications.

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