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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: October 20, 2012 NO.43 OCTOBER 25, 2012
Another First for China
A look at the man who nabbed the world's top literature prize
By Tang Yuankai


Mo Yan (CFP) 

Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 11. Before the announcement was made, his novels had already sold out at bookstores across China.

"About 5,000 copies of one of Mo's novels have sold out," said Tang Zhengyu, Director of the Marketing Department at the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing Group.

Buying Mo's novels online isn't easy either because many of his works have also sold out on the leading Chinese e-commerce websites.

On learning from the bookmaker Unibet that he was likely to win the Nobel Prize, Mo returned to his hometown, Gaomi County in east China's Shandong Province, to stay with his father and out of sight from the media. He heard the news on TV.

"Winning the Nobel Prize means that I would have to meet many journalists in the following days," Mo said. "Undoubtedly, the Nobel Prize in literature is the world's highest award in the field. However, in history, many great writers never had the chance to win the prize, such as Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka, while not all the winners of the prize deserve the title."

Mo's win has elicited a variety of responses from writers and literary critics.

"In the past, the Nobel Prize in literature was mostly awarded to European writers. The Chinese have always wished that the judges would pay more attention to Chinese writers," said Wu Di, Director of the Institute of Comparative and World Literature at Zhejiang University.

"It's surprising that the Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to a Chinese. It indicates that Chinese literature has grabbed worldwide recognition. From now on we don't need to care much about winning the Nobel Prize but can focus more on our writing," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University.

Editor in Chief of Lifeweek Zhu Wei said on his micro-blog that the Swedish Academy has recognized Mo's in-depth analysis of the Chinese way of life.

"Mo's winning has aroused the Chinese people's love for reading. People can get immersed in reading books again like they did in the late 1970s and early 1980s," said Sun Yuemu, Director of China Book Business Report.

Lost in translation

Before winning the Nobel Prize, Mo had already won a number of international awards. In January 2005, he won the 30th International NONINO Prize. His works have been praised for their roots in ancient Chinese civilization, their rich imagination and unique writing technique.

However, for a long time, Mo and many other Chinese writers failed to get the recognition they deserved because much of the meaning of their works was lost in translation. A review published on the Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao on October 9 said that the Chinese don't need to attach much value to the Nobel Prize for Literature which only evaluates literary works in alphabetic languages, because the alphabetic languages cannot present the depth and richness of Chinese works.

Therefore, Mo's win could largely be attributed to his translators. Anna Gustafsson Chen, the Swedish translator of many modern Chinese literary works, had translated three of Mo's books published in Sweden this year. Howard Goldblatt, a master in translating contemporary Chinese literary works, has also introduced Mo's works to the English-speaking world by translating a dozen of his works. "I love all of Mo's novels and enjoy translating them," Goldblatt said. Noël Dutrait won the Laure Bataillin Award together with Mo and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal for translating The Republic of Wine into French in 2001.

"Chinese literary works cannot have an impact on the world without being translated into foreign languages by great translators," said Tan Wuchang, Director of the Contemporary Chinese Poem Research Center at Beijing Normal University.

The influence of foreign writers is another key to Mo's success.

After China's reform and opening up, Western literature was introduced to China, which Mo devoured. His work is said to bear a strong resemblance to the 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. The Nobel Committee in Sweden praised Mo's "hallucinatory realism," which blends aspects of "folk tales, history and the contemporary," and said that his works reminded people of Márquez's and William Faulkner's works.

Mo said that if he had read Márquez's Cien años de soledad (or One Hundred Years of Solitude) beforehand, he might have adopted a different writing approach to Red Sorghum.

Film adaptation

In 1988, Chinese film director Zhang Yimou turned Mo's 1987 novel Red Sorghum into a movie, which won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and brought both of them fame.

Set in the 1930s against the backdrop of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Red Sorghum is a tale of love and peasant struggles. The main characters dubbed "my grandpa" and "my grandma" organize the villagers to combat the Japanese with the simplest of weapons. The passion and vitality exuded by these characters attracted Zhang and he decided to turn the novel into a film.

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