The Real Mo Yan

The renowned Chinese novelist talks with NEH Chairman Jim Leach.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2011, Volume 32, Number 1

NEH Chairman Jim Leach interviewed author Mo Yan in October during the Second U.S.-China Cultural Forum at the University of California–Berkeley. At the conclusion of the conference, Chairman Leach and the Chinese Vice Minister of Culture, Wang Wenzhang, signed a memorandum of understanding calling for further bilateral cultural cooperation.

JIM LEACH: Mo Yan is a pen name. Can you tell us its meaning in Chinese and its meaning to you? Has use of a pen name been helpful as you narrate your own life, as well as the life of your country?

MO YAN: In Chinese, Mo Yan means don’t speak. I was born in 1955. At that time in China, people’s lives were not normal. So my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and I did not speak. When I started to write, I thought every great writer had to have a pen name. I remembered my mom and my dad telling me do not speak. So I took Mo Yan for my pen name. It is ironic that I have this name because I now speak everywhere.

LEACH: Your writing career began right after the Cultural Revolution ended. What did this new period mean for Chinese literary figures and for you?

MO YAN: Without the new period in China, I would not have my writing. The reforms and opening-up that occurred in the 1980s gave me the opportunity to write a lot of books. Before 1980, China’s writers were very heavily influenced by Soviet writers. During the 1980s, we were influenced by European and American literature.

From my own perspective, the reforms and the opening-up were great happenings in China.

LEACH: You’ve sometimes been described as a “magical realist” and linked to people like Franz Kafka. At the same time, you’re considered a social realist, which in our country might suggest the influence of William Faulkner or John Steinbeck. Or, would it be better to discuss your ties to Chinese classical works?

MO YAN: I think my style is close to the American writer William Faulkner. I learned a lot from his books.

[In a speech the next day at the Cultural Forum, Mo Yan elaborated: “In 1984, in the winter, on a very snowy night, I borrowed a book by Mr. Faulkner—The Sound and the Fury. I read a Chinese version by a very famous translator. . . . The stories he wrote were of his hometown and countryside. He founded a county that you can’t find on a map. Even though that county is very small, it was representative. That made me realize, if a writer is to establish himself, he must establish his own republic. He created his own county, and so I created a village in the northeast region of China that I based on my own hometown as well and established a realm for myself. After Faulkner, it occurred to me that my own experience, my own life in that little village, could all become stories and literature. My family, people I’m familiar with, the villagers—they can all become my characters.]

But my style combines a lot of different influences.

I grew up in the countryside and lived there until my twenties. Folk literature and storytellers provided a lot of influence. The stories told to me by my grandmother, grandfather, and the old people, and by my father and my mother later became resources.

Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber were classic Chinese books that were a big influence to me, too.

LEACH: My hometown is Iowa City, where you have spent some time. Do you see any comparisons between Iowa City and its surrounding countryside and northeast China?

In your brief time in Iowa City, you left an enclave of literary friends who consider you perhaps the greatest living author in China and quite possibly the world. And so, I want you to know that you have many friends in this very precise region in America.

MO YAN: I stayed in Iowa for two weeks. I knew every street, and I went to every restaurant there. I met Paul Engle and his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, who is my good friend.

Iowa is a lot of cornfields. While I was there, I misbehaved by American standards, I think. I went to a cornfield, and I picked up some corncobs, and I brought them to the hotel and boiled them and ate them.

Iowa feels warm and familiar because it’s a lot like my home village. So I think my work will have friends in Iowa who will recognize the similar background and environment.

LEACH: Your novels are set against history. How do you view yourself in relation to history?

MO YAN: My early works described life in China in the 1930s. Although I was writing stories from history, I looked at these stories with a modern writer’s eyes, a modern person’s thinking and ideas about the past. The history in my novels is full of my own character. I have always had some difference with, well, the facts of history. My readers are supposed to get literature, not history—dry history—from my books.

LEACH: Today it seems that the story of man is written more through literature and drama than through the narration of history. Do you think centuries from now, you will be a principal resource for historians, or do you think the great resources for historians will be the sociologists and historians of our era?

MO YAN: In the future, I think that people who study history should go to the real history books. But if you want to know about a far, far long ago time and what people really felt, everyday life, then you should search for this kind of thing in literature. If people still read my books in a few hundred years, they could find out all about the everyday life of people.

History books focus on events and the times, but literature focuses more on people’s lives and feelings.

LEACH: I’m told you wrote this wonderful book, which is entitled Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in forty-two days with a brush instead of a computer. Would it have been different if you had written it with a computer?

MO YAN: A computer would slow me down, because when I use one, I cannot control myself. I always go online to search out more information.

When I use a computer, the input is Pinyin. [Pinyin is a system of romanizing Chinese words. In word processing programs, a writer enters the Pinyin spelling of a word before selecting the desired character from a set proposed by the software.] It’s different from using characters because it limits your vocabulary, which breaks my heart. So I thought that if I just use my pen and do characters, then my good thinking would come through.

Another reason I wrote is that I heard that people’s handwriting, especially that of famous people, could be worth a lot of money in the future. So I’m going to leave this for my daughter. Maybe she can get some money.

LEACH: Does that imply that this great work of yours is also a work of calligraphy that should be hung on a museum wall, as well as bound in a book with, hopefully, at some point in time, a Nobel Prize stuck next to it?

MO YAN: If that happens, I will invite you to China. We’ll go look at it together.

LEACH: I would like to come to the grand opening. When one thinks of humor, there is nothing more difficult to put on a page. And it’s particularly difficult when you’re talking about or writing about events that are very harsh. And yet humor can speak to the soul often more tellingly than statements of fact. Do you consider humor to be your greatest strength?

MO YAN: If you want to describe a feeling, like pain and suffering, you could use painful words or you could use humorous words. I think most readers would prefer to read humorous sentences about a painful life.

No matter how hard a life we had, people in my village used a sense of humor to deal with life’s harshness. This I learned from these people.

LEACH: You’ve said that the salvation of an established writer is the search for suffering. Does this tie in to your concept of thinking about suffering with humor, and has it changed? Is suffering different today in China from earlier periods, or is there a continuum of suffering?

MO YAN: I think as long as humans live, there is pain. I had a lot of pain when I was young because I did not have enough food; I did not have enough clothes—it was a really hard time. I tell my daughter: ‘See what I had in my childhood; now you have everything. So why are you in pain? Why do you still suffer?’

She said, ‘Do you think if people have enough to eat and have clothes, they ought to have no pain? We have so much homework. We have to pass so many hard tests, and we can’t find the right boyfriend. I think that these sufferings are worse than you having no food.’

So I think as long as humans are there, the pain and suffering from their hearts and their minds are always there. Literature works to show people that suffering always will be there.

LEACH: In this context, do you feel you have a responsibility to reflect this, a responsibility to culture, to your nation, to the world? Or is your responsibility principally to yourself, your own values, your own integrity? Or is it a combination that a writer has?

MO YAN: When a writer starts writing, in the beginning, it always is from his or her own heart, from his or her individual ideas. Usually, it’s from his own or his family’s pain. Of course, there is some happiness, too. He will be concerned, focused.

But what concerns a writer, what he feels, is common to other people. So what he writes, what will be expressed, most people feel.

I think everything happening in society influences my work directly or indirectly—even things happening in America and Japan. Great literature has no country boundaries.

LEACH: What is the current state of Chinese literature, and in what direction do you think it is going?

MO YAN: People think the 1980s was a golden era for Chinese literature. Even a very short novel got attention from the whole country. During the 1990s, everything was about finance and business.

After the Internet got to China, all the young people began spending most of their time online. The number of people who read literature began declining; there are more alternative styles of writing than ever. I think it is safe to say that now a lot of people are writing, and there are many, many different styles.

The situation is now more and more like America and Europe. One thing that is remarkable is a lot of young people have started to publish their novels online. China has 300 million people writing their own blogs. Their articles are very nice, very good.

LEACH: Let me end by noting that in America, most of us read Chinese works in translation. You’ve worked with a literary translator named Howard Goldblatt, who translates quite gracefully.

But are there things that when one reads in translation between these two very difficult tongues, Chinese and English, that get lost?

MO YAN: In literature, I’m sure that when any language is translated to another, some things will be missed or lost in translation. I’m very lucky that my books are translated by this gentleman, who is a pretty famous and influential Chinese literature expert. He has been my friend for many years, so he knows my style very well.

LEACH: When we think of relations between countries, we often think of the politician contrasted with the politician, the general with the general, the diplomat with the diplomat. But do you think two countries as different as ours would be more likely to get along better if there were more literary exchanges and our peoples understood each other through novels rather than through treatises about politics?

MO YAN: If writers can communicate and talk, it is good for their future writing. Exchanging ideas is positive. Last year, the Chinese Writers’ Association had an activity where they brought a lot of American writers and Chinese writers together. They communicated and made conversation.

LEACH: Thank you, Mo Yan. You may be China’s premier diplomat as well as novelist.