MCLC: irony of politicizing Mo Yan

Denton, Kirk denton.2 at
Fri Oct 19 09:27:58 EDT 2012

From: Laughlin, Charles <cal5m at>
Subject: irony of politicizing Mo Yan

I wrote this a few days ago, but none of the papers I sent it to picked it



The Irony of Politicizing Mo Yan

Although Mo Yan seems to have quieted down his critics by calling for the
release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, it is still interesting to
probe the causes and implications of their deep resentment towards him.
Most of them point to his participation in a handwritten commemorative
edition of Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and
Art,” as though it were evidence of the author’s capitulation to the worst
excesses of political repression in PRC history. As Mo Yan has pointed out
in a press conference in his hometown of Gaomi today, the “Talks” is “a
historical document whose existence is a matter of historical necessity.”
At the University of Virginia, we teach Mao’s “Talks” not only in my
“Introduction to Modern Chinese Literature,” but also in our much broader
survey “East Asian Canons and Cultures,” designed and taught by my
colleague in traditional Japanese literature, Gustav Heldt. Mao’s “Talks”
played a key role in the formation of the modern Chinese literary canon;
as Mo Yan puts it, the new writers of the 1980s were very much focused on
breaking through the limitations the “Talks” placed on literature, and yet
there is still much in the “Talks” that he can accept. To me there is
nothing odd about issuing a commemorative edition of this text on the 70th
anniversary of the Yan’an Forum, or for leaders of the Chinese Writers’
Association to be involved with it.

Mo Yan’s detractors in China and abroad seem to read Mo Yan’s
participation in the handwritten edition as an affirmation of Maoist
repression of free speech and the oppression of intellectuals and artists,
particularly in the Rectification Campaign of 1942 which accompanied the
Forum. But to blame the oppression and even annihilation of intellectuals
and artists on a text is misguided: political oppression consists of acts
of violence, and Mao Zedong did not rely any speech or document to excuse
his repressive actions and inactions; he simply performed them.

Secondly, Mao’s “Talks” does not lay down rules that must be obeyed, nor
does it prescribe torture, incarceration, ostracism or death as penalties
for disobedience. It is clear that Mao was concerned with discipline among
intellectuals in Yan’an, and we know that he held the Forum as a pretext
for criticizing Ding Ling, Wang Shiwei and other intellectuals who Mao
thought were getting out of line. Wang was even executed, presumably for
ideological sins, but it would be a mistake to lay the blame for the
violence of Rectification on Mao’s “Talks.” The Forum and Mao’s “Talks”
were political theater, meant to lend the appearance of interactivity, if
not democracy, to the Rectification campaign.

The interesting thing about Mao’s “Talks,” though, from today’s
perspective, is that in them, Mao emphasizes how writers who have come to
Yan’an from all over China during World War II were entering into a new,
unfamiliar rural environment, and that new literary works should reflect
that change of space. They should abandon the environment of urban life,
themes of social disintegration, and bourgeois consciousness that
characterized much Chinese literature of the 1930s. Mao insisted that
writers immerse themselves in this rural world and to look at China
through the eyes of peasants. The new literature should abandon negativity
and emphasize politically heroic characters and more optimism for the
future. While this often led to insipid literature, it also had much in
common with 1938 Nobel Prize for literature winner Pearl Buck’s way of
writing China, and also something in common with Mo Yan’s rural fictional

I am not being facetious. The art of rural life and peasant consciousness
is one of modern Chinese literature’s contributions to world culture. Mao
Zedong deserves no credit for this, but the regard for the rural masses in
the cultural world before and after the Yan’an Forum put a lot of wind in
the sails of the revolution, even if much of it was hot air.

Criticizing Mo Yan’s participation in the handwritten “Talks” implies that
Mo Yan was supposed to conspicuously refuse to participate in this
unremarkable act of political ritual. But writing some passages of the
“Talks,” part of the PRC’s historical iconography, is akin to singing “The
East is Red” or visiting Mao Zedong’s mausoleum--a mild gesture of
patriotism even less surprising when performed by a leader of the
government’s Writer’s Association; does such an act really imply an
affirmation of Mao’s worst atrocities?

Mo Yan is a literary man, but is also a government official, and in this
latter capacity, one would expect him to perform any number of inane,
meaningless and harmless ritual activities and observances. None of this
should affect our view of him as a writer, nor has any of this clouded the
vision of the Swedish Academy. Even Mo Yan’s critics must admit, in this
day and age of the rise of the New Left in literary, academic and
political arenas, that Mo Yan does not really seem to be an advocate of a
return to Maoist socialism. As Mo Yan himself points out, the desire to
break free of the limitations of “Mao’s Talks” was a major impetus for his
generation’s emergence onto the literary scene in the 1980s. This both
puts Mao’s “Talks” in its place, but also affirms its centrality to
literary history.

In any case, Mo Yan’s opinions about Mao’s “Talks” have little bearing on
his literary achievements. This is not to say that literature is or ought
to be apolitical; on the contrary, the principal value of great literature
is that it encompasses all aspects of human experience: it places the
political, the economic, the emotional, symbolic, absurd and philosophical
into one holistic vision, but not one that serves politics. Indeed, this
is a rough description of Mo Yan’s many stupendous literary worlds.

Therein lies the irony of the criticism of Mo Yan: by expecting Mo Yan to
use his literature and influence to make the right politically progressive
gestures, Mo Yan’s critics are expecting the same of him that Mao Zedong
would have: the political subservience of writers and their responsibility
to serve as the political conscience of the nation. However, Mo Yan and
most contemporary Chinese writers have already been liberated from that
burden. Now China’s writers are receiving much-deserved international
recognition simply because they are devoting their souls wholly to
literary art.

Charles A. Laughlin
October 12, 2012
Orange, Virginia

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