China’s Nobel literature winner Mo Yan heads to Sweden Wednesday to collect his award, but he walks a delicate line with the authorities and is likely to avoid mentioning in his speech jailed fellow laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Mo Yan has been hailed as a national hero since the prize announcement in October, and his works have rocketed up China’s best-seller lists. But he has also had to contend with criticism from activists who brand him a stooge for the ruling Communist Party.
State media reported the writer was leaving Wednesday for Stockholm, where he will give his Nobel lecture on Friday ahead of the prize ceremony on Monday.
Until the award Mo Yan had won critical praise but little mainstream fame for his works, which blend harshly realistic accounts of life in China’s countryside with fantastical and sometimes grotesque satire, including cannibalism and orgiastic feasting.
But the announcement prompted Chinese readers to snap up his books, leaving retailers around the country with empty shelves.
He earned royalties of 21.5 million yuan ($3.5 million) this year, the second-highest of any Chinese writer, according to an annual survey.
Gaomi, his home town, announced $107 million in projects to honour him, including a “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone” and the planting of swathes of red sorghum, in honour of his best-known work, a 1987 novella named after the plant.
State-run media was effusive, hailing him as China’s first Nobel literature prize winner, even though Chinese-born Gao Xingjian — whose works were banned in China and who later took French nationality — won the 2000 literature award.
Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed in 2009 for calling for democratic change, was awarded the Peace prize the following year, but officials excoriated the decision as interference in China’s internal affairs. The Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was also awarded the 1989 peace prize.
Mo Yan himself was criticised for holding a senior role in the state-backed Chinese Writers’ Association, and for joining a government-sanctioned walk-out of a German book fair in protest at the presence of dissident writers.
Yu Jie, an exiled dissident writer, was quoted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle as calling Mo’s award “the biggest scandal in the history of the Nobel prize for literature”.
Romanian-born novelist Herta Mueller, who won the literature prize in 2009, called Mo’s win a “catastrophe,” saying: “He celebrates censorship. It’s extremely upsetting.”
But Mo surprised his critics when he mentioned Liu Xiaobo at a press conference in October. “I hope he can gain freedom as early as possible,” he said.
He strove to separate his work from politics, saying that his Nobel win was “a literature victory, not a political victory”.
Mo Yan has long trodden a fine line between criticising China’s political establishment and cooperating with it, said Ma Xiangwu, a literature professor at the People’s University in Beijing.
“For a long time Mo has occupied a position within the system, but not totally within it,” he said. “His works are often very critical of society and politics — he’s too complex to be put in a box.”
In keeping with that, he said there was “absolutely no chance” Mo would refer to Liu in his Nobel lecture.
“He won’t mention sensitive issues during his speech. I think he will be quite moderate. I don’t think he will directly criticise the government… but I also don’t expect he will heap extravagant praise on China,” he added.
In an open letter published Tuesday, more than 130 past Nobel winners urged the Chinese Communist Party’s new chief Xi Jinping to release Liu.
The sensitivity of the issue is such that Wei Yingjie, an author and book critic, declined to mention Liu Xiaobo by name.
“It is possible that the Writers’ Association and government officials will remind Mo Yan not to mention sensitive topics during his speech,” he said.
“I don’t think there is a big chance he will mention him of his own accord. He has already said more than Chinese web users are permitted to say online.”