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Mr. MO Yan

77th Congregation (2014)

Mr. MO Yan
Doctor of Literature


Born into a farming family, he is a native of Gaomi, Shandong province in Northeastern China. Consuming turnips to ease hunger, making wine with sorghum, lighting up a stick of sandalwood incense, and listening to the song of the frogs, he is neither arrogant nor a flatterer: neither supercilious nor obsequious. Although he claims he never speaks, his words will live forever. Mr Mo Yan is one of the most famous of contemporary Chinese writers. With work that embraces ‘hallucinatory realism’, fantasy, folk tales, history and the contemporary, Mo Yan moved the hearts of the Nobel Committee, which named him a Laureate in Literature in 2012. He is the first writer from the People's Republic of China and also the second Chinese to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature after Gao Xingjian. However, Mo Yan was modest and controlled after he was awarded the prize, telling the general public that he only hoped that by winning the prize he could ‘arouse Chinese readers’ interest in literature’ and ‘actively promote the development of Chinese literature’. He accepted the prize without pride or self congratulation. Adopting a calm demeanour, he retained his gentlemanly style. Mo Yan’s original name is Guan Moye. Mo Yan was born in 1955 in Gaomi, Shandong province, into a family which originated in Longquan, Zhejiang province. During his teenage years, Mo Yan endured hard labour and suffered from hunger. He dropped out of school because of the Cultural Revolution, and spent 10 years in his hometown as a farmer, cultivating sorghum and cotton, herding cattle and mowing grass. Toil and hunger led Mo Yan to have a unique understanding and experience of survival and subsistence, fostering his deep emotion for the land and the simplicity of farmers, and creating Gaomi, that place in the Northeast region, as his personal kingdom of literature. In Mo Yan’s own words, he became a writer only because he wanted to be able to have three meals of dumplings a day. His imagination was also developed by the hunger he had suffered. ‘It is especially easy for a person to hallucinate when he is hungry,’ said Mo Yan. Like laughter with tears, this may be a joke, but it is also the truth. Mo Yan joined the military in 1976, and spent 20 years as a soldier, during which he received the chance to study again. He attended the People’s Liberation Army Arts Academy in 1984, and graduated in 1986. Later on, many of his literary works, either depicting battle scenes or portraying ordinary humanity, reflected his experience of life and the reality of his farming days and military years. In 1991 he was awarded a master’s degree in literature and art from the Lu Xun Literature Academy at Beijing Normal University. Mo Yan started writing novels during the 1980s, and began to gain attention in the mainland’s literary world with Touming de hong luobo, a collection of short novels. The main theme of the collection, published in 1985, was hunger, a topic the Chinese are very familiar with. The next year, Mo Yan published the infamous Red Sorghum Clan. The novel was made into a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, causing a stir in the Chinese literary world, as well as social repercussions. In 1988, the movie, titled Red Sorghum, was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Gradually, Mo Yan’s name became known to the world, and his novel was translated into multiple languages including English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Russian and Japanese. Mo Yan then published The Garlic Ballads, a highly critical work based on a real situation, and began his creation of The Republic of Wine, a political satire with a heavy fantasy overtone. In 1995 he published Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a 500,000-word novel which he finished in only three months. The novel perceived Mother as ‘big breasts’ and the land as ‘wide hips’. The captivating story was about the development of a family, where the timeline stretches to nearly a century; the novel is an epitome of modern Chinese history. With a strong and elegant writing style, the writer boldly and truthfully called out to and criticized humanity; this earned him the Dajia - Red River Prize in Literature, a prize that offered the highest monetary reward at that time. Since then, Mr Mo Yan has used his bold and demonstrative writing style to vividly discuss life’s great questions, as in Sandalwood Death in 2001, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in 2006, and Frog in 2009. Sandalwood Death received the United Literature Prize of Taiwan, while Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out received the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in the same year it was published, as well as the Second Dream of the Red Chamber Award in 2008. Frog was awarded the eighth Mao Dun Literature Prize. Through these three pieces of work, the writer used sophisticated ideas, a direct and vigorous writing style and profound criticism to bring him to a creative pinnacle. Mr Mo Yan is a prolific writer, having written 11 long novels, 30 medium-length novels and nearly a hundred short novels. Mo Yan once said, ‘Story telling is human nature. But when story telling becomes a profession, its goal is no longer simply to bring pleasure to others. One should use a story to express one’s views on life and society. One should also use a story to praise the true, the good and the beautiful, and use it to expose and castigate the fake, the evil and the ugly.’ When he received his award in Sweden, Mo Yan said frankly, ‘If a writer thinks he can create great pieces of writing in a state of complete freedom, I believe that is only fantasy. On the other hand, if a writer thinks he cannot write anything good when in a state of no freedom or limited freedom, that is also a lie. The point is whether the writer’s inner heart is free, whether the writer can write when standing in a position beyond politics and social class. This involves the writer’s compassion, compassion in seeing those who hate you to their guts as humans, and to show them deep sympathy.’ A freedom in his inner heart, and his gifted writing, make Mo Yan who he is today. 'Mo Yan’ originally means ‘not to speak’. Mo Yan’s straightforward character can offend people easily, so he has chosen the name Mo Yan to caution himself to speak less, to be careful of his own words. On the path of literature, however, Mo Yan has never hesitated to speak, and his words are always truthful. These are the most rare and noble qualities for a writer. Mr Chairman, to celebrate Mr Mo Yan’s daring in saying truthful words, as well as his extraordinary accomplishments in art and literature, it is my privilege to present to you Mr Mo Yan for the award of the degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa.