The Washington Post

Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize-winning writing: Political struggle, loneliness, empathy

When Mo Yan was announced Thursday morning as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, one member of The Washington Post staff may have been thinking: Told you so.

View Photo Gallery: The Nobel Prize for literature was announced Thursday. Winners for medicine, physics and chemistry were announced earlier this week. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences will follow on Monday.

In 2004, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote, in a review of Yan’s “Big Breasts & Wide Hips”:

This massive novel, which runs well over 500 pages and spans almost the entire 20th century, appears to be Mo Yan’s grab for the brass ring, i.e., the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of innumerable short stories and three previous novels -- most notably Red Sorghum, which was made into a well-regarded and popular film -- turns 50 next year, and even at that relatively early age has long been an important voice in China, where he has spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism, and in the world, where he is properly regarded as representing his country’s hopes for unconstrained literary and artistic expression. The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics, might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.

It only took eight more years, but Yardley was right. Mo Yan’s Nobel win is expected to be welcomed by China, unlike the Nobel Peace Prize given to dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

Our critics have praised Mo Yan’s work throughout the years. Here are a few excerpts:

“Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh”: “These stories convey an aching searching and pronounced lack of security. These are tales in which loneliness and empathy often go together, and the powerless individual who attempts to express kindness often finds himself alone.” — Judith Shapiro

“The Republic of Wine”: “Certainly Mo Yan is right on the money in contrasting China’s put-upon peasantry with its overfed, gourmandizing officialdom. The controlling image of a nation devouring itself is undeniably effective, and personally, as a guest at Chinese state dinners where I’ve chewed down fried scorpion and still-living fish, I absolutely take his point.” — Carolyn See

“The Garlic Ballads”: “Real life is the base of this book, as it is of China’s society; these are country people who, as one character says, “scratch a living out of the earth” and who “will still be poor thousands of years from now.” They get little money and less justice in a China where everything is for sale. In this sale at least the garlic farmers rise in revolt.” — Richard Lourie

“Life and Death are Wearing Me Out”: “Mo Yan offers insights into communist ideology and predatory capitalism that we ignore at our peril. This “lumbering animal of a story,” as he calls it, combines the appeal of a family saga set against tumultuous events with the technical bravura of innovative fiction. Catch a ride on this wheel of transmigration.” — Steven Moore

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.


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