Guan Moye was born into a rural farming family in Gaomi, Shandong Province, on 17 February 1955, the youngest of four surviving children. His childhood was marked by poverty and, during the Great Leap Famine of 1959-61, near-starvation. Following the advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he was compelled to leave school and instead work various agricultural jobs. He had developed an interest in storytelling, inspired by the Chinese folktales he heard from his paternal grandfather and great-uncle. His pen name, Mo Yan (“Don’t Speak”), is derived from an admonition he often received from his parents because of the fraught sociopolitical circumstances of Maoist China. He began working in a cotton factory at the age of eighteen, and the following year he made the first of several attempts to enlist in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He was finally accepted in 1976.
During his time in the military, Mo pursued his literary ambitions, completing a never-published six-act play in 1978. The following year he joined the Communist Party and married Du Qinlan. Their daughter, Guan Xiaoxiao, was born in 1981, the same year Mo’s first publication, a short story about the wife of a soldier titled “Chunye yu feifei” (“A Rainy Night in Spring”), appeared. He continued to publish short fiction over the next few years, and in 1984 he was admitted to the PLA’s Academy of Arts and Literature, graduating in 1986. His first novel, Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987; Red Sorghum), comprised five novellas that had been published separately in magazines in 1986. The book’s critical and financial success, combined with widespread praise for a contemporaneous film adaptation directed by Zhang Yimou, established Mo’s reputation as a major author. He received a MA in literature from Beijing Normal University in 1991 and left the military in 1997. That same year, Mo joined the editorial staff of the Procuratorial Daily, the news organ of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate—the agency responsible for investigation and prosecution of crime in the People’s Republic of China.
Mo remained productive, writing short stories, novellas, essay collections, novels, dramas, and even an eighteen-episode television drama, Hong shulin (1999; Mangroves). His short story “Yueguang zhan” (2004; The Moonlight Blade) won the prestigious People’s Literature Best Short Story Award in 2004 and the Pu Songling Short Story Award in 2007. In 2004 he won the Arts and Literature Knight Medal of France and the Chinese Literature Media Prize. In 2005 he received the Premio Nonino of Italy and an honorary doctorate of letters from the Open University of Hong Kong. In 2006, Mo’s 540,000-character-long novel Shengsi pilao (2006; Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out) was published to great acclaim after having been written in only forty-three days, winning the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in the year of its publication and the Baptist University Dream of Red Chamber Jury Award in 2008.
In 2009 Mo was part of a delegation of one hundred Chinese writers to the Frankfurt Book Fair and spoke at the opening ceremony, describing his views on the Chinese government and the role of the fiction writer. That same year, he published his novel Wa (Frog) about the sinister effects of China’s one-child policy. In 2012, Mo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; in contrast to its condemnation of the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo and the 2000 literature prize to Gao Xingjian, who had gone into exile in France, the Chinese government openly celebrated Mo’s win. While some Chinese writers and activists criticized Mo’s selection on the grounds that he was too cooperative with the authorities, he was praised for speaking in favor of freeing Liu at a news conference. In a 2015 ChinaX interview with Harvard professor David Der-wei Wang (see Further Reading), Mo confirmed that he had changed his pseudonym to his official name so that he could continue to receive royalties for his work. Following his Nobel Prize win, Mo received six more honorary doctorates and continued to publish several collections of short stories and a screenplay. In recent years, he has avoided the limelight and claimed that he does not wish to be a public figure, though he still makes occasional public appearances and maintains a large following on social media, where he sometimes posts new works.
Although Mo has written plays and essays to some acclaim, his reputation as a major literary figure is founded primarily upon his fiction. By far his most famous book is Red Sorghum, a novel composed of five linked novellas originally published separately in magazines in 1986. Set, like much of his other work, in Mo’s hometown of Gaomi, the novel tells the long, bloody story of the narrator’s family across three generations, focusing primarily on their involvement in the resistance against Japanese invaders in the 1930s but also incorporating material from earlier and later periods. The novel’s nonlinear structure, grotesque violence, and blending of Chinese history with narrative elements drawn from myth and folklore are characteristic of much of Mo’s work. The book likewise serves as an example of the author’s oft-stated mission of evoking a ground-level sense of history founded on ordinary lives rather than nationalistic ideology.
An increasing interest in metafictional experiments and absurdist satire is exemplified by Jiu guo (1992; The Republic of Wine), the tale of a detective’s visit to the fictitious province of Liquorland in order to investigate allegations of cannibalism among the local elite, interwoven with a series of epistolary exchanges between an aspiring writer from Liquorland and Mo himself. A condemnation of human rapacity and excess, the novel has been hailed by many as Mo’s most ambitious and successful to date.
He continued his darkly comic appraisal of Chinese history and culture in Fengru feitun (1995; Big Breasts and Wide Hips), which tells the story of Shangguan Lu Xuan’er, a rural woman who was orphaned as a baby during a raid by German soldiers. After her stepparents lead her to discover that her violent husband is sterile, Lu Xuan’er secretly has nine children by seven different fathers to fulfill her in-laws’ expectations. The youngest children are a twin brother and sister fathered by a Swedish pastor who was murdered by Nationalist soldiers. The blond, blue-eyed boy twin, her only son, is the narrator, relating his mother’s struggles against the waves of warfare, revolution, and hunger that haunt the region and result in the deaths of several daughters and grandchildren. He does not spare his family’s role as contributors to the collective madness or conceal his own physical and mental problems. When the Communists take power, succeeding the bandits, Western imperialists, and Nationalists, the effect is more disaster and pauperization, endless political campaigns, corruption, and brutal settling of private scores disguised as public legal proceedings.
Tanxiang xing (2001; Sandalwood Death), written in commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Boxer Rebellion, reenacts a microhistory of the uprising, starting with a local conflict involving a Maoqiang opera singer and two German railway guards. The opera singer’s daughter, Sun Meiniang, engages in a painful, fruitless mission of reconciliation; she is caught among conflicting loyalties to her father, Sun Bing; her lover, Qian Ding, the district magistrate; and her husband, Zhao Xiaojia, who suffers from borderline intellectual functioning and whose father, Zhao Jia, is a retired imperial executioner. Mo’s decision to let Sun Meiniang, who is pregnant with her dead lover’s child, and her infantile husband survive the execution-ground massacre in the bloody finale of the work marks the couple as signifiers of a coming posttraumatic society. Mo’s timely choice of subject matter, the creative employment of linguistic codes and voices, as well as the structural eclecticism of the work received broad acclaim, although some critics complained about the excessive representations of violence and distortions of history.
The acclaimed novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is structured based on the Buddhist concept of samsara—the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. The novel uses a traditional storytelling style rather than a conventional modern one, giving the work an epic quality. The protagonist, Ximen Nao, a noble landowner from Gaomi, is executed during Mao Zedong’s land reform movement in 1948 so that his land may be redistributed to peasants. He finds himself after death in the underworld, tortured by Lord Yama, considered in Buddhist mythology to be the wrathful judge of the dead. During his torture, Ximen maintains that he has led a completely benevolent life and refuses to admit any guilt, so Lord Yama sends him back to earth as punishment, where he is reincarnated repeatedly as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and ultimately as a human again. In these new bodily forms, he observes the political movements that transform China under Communist Party rule, through New Year’s Eve in 2000. The novel functions on one level as a strict documentary of the latter half of the twentieth century in China, on another level as an allegory of postrevolutionary Chinese society with its distinctive obsessions and anxieties. A third narrative layer develops ideas about personal as well as social accountability that implicitly critiques the excessive exploitation of natural resources.
While Mo is one of China’s most acclaimed authors, he has also been one of its most controversial. Though there is a tendency to see him as a dissident writer, his major literary accomplishment is the creation of an alternative way of writing modern history that deviates from the official method that emphasizes a critical approach to the values and political correctness endorsed by the government and a dedication to the peoples’ everyday history—their suffering, their struggle, and a search for the meaning of life. Shelley W. Chan (2000; see Further Reading) traced the changes in Mo’s writing represented by Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips, arguing that the former is still a patriarchal work despite the fact that it departs from Maoist historiography by blurring the boundaries between good and bad as well as old and new. The latter, she suggested, breaks from the confines of the Maoist patriarchal tradition in its celebration of motherhood. Michael S. Duke (1993; see Further Reading) concentrated on Tiantang suantai zhi ge (1988; The Garlic Ballads) and Mo’s short stories written in the 1980s, asserting that in these works the author deviates from Maoist socialist realism and demonstrates continuity with the anti-imperialist May Fourth tradition. Duke contended that while the novel portrays peasants as active historical agents, the stories focus instead on their passivity and pain, which is caused by political and economic oppression rather than by traditional culture. Xudong Zhang (2008; see Further Reading) studied this notion that the Communist Party is the root of problems rather than the solution, treating the satirical novel Republic of Wine as an allegorical labyrinth that enables readers to make sense of the chaotic era of the 1990s, which was driven by the “demonic” market economy, corruption, and cannibalistic desire. Zhang declared that the novel provides a dwelling “where the fragmented realities of postsocialist China find their own formal and moral certainty, even meaningfulness.” Demonstrating how violence in Mo’s work is described in a highly graphic and disturbing way, Tonglu Li (2016) centered on the protagonist of Tanxiang xing, his enjoyment of everyday life, his involuntary engagement in the violent Boxer Rebellion, and his eventual decision to choose death over life.
The emphasis on body and bodily desires have also become central to a discussion of Mo’s writing. David Der-wei Wang (2000; see Further Reading) provided a guide to understanding the divergent and heterogeneous “historical space” that Mo created in his works. Wang discussed the ways in which Mo “three-dimensionalize[s] a linear historical narrative and imagination” by shifting to unofficial histories, emphasizing bodily experiences, and crossing all forms of boundaries. Howard Goldblatt (2000; see Further Reading) studied the cannibalism in The Republic of Wine through the lens of cultural anthropology and the history of cannibalism in China. Goldblatt depicted the novel as a parody of the May Fourth attack on the cannibalistic nature of Chinese traditions. Yang Xiaobin (1998; see Further Reading) suggested that The Republic of Wine was created as an allegory of the “extravaganza of decline,” and has multiple layers of meaning. Yang alleged that the novel’s criticism of the decadent extrinsic sociopolitical and cultural environment is only made possible by a criticism of the intrinsic violence the nation both “enjoys and suffers.” The crisis of the represented world thus simultaneously becomes the crisis of representation itself. Mo’s use of animals, particularly in Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, has received attention for its transcendence of the anthropocentric concept of history, enabling readers to perceive life in a broader way. Chengzhou He (2018; see Further Reading) investigated philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s notion that an act that destabilizes the current order will eventually be undone. He focused on the continuous reincarnation of humans and animals in the novel, maintaining that it illuminates a concurrent process in which “the dis-eventualization of the political events coexists with the eventualization of the ecological consciousness.”
Religion, both institutional and folk, has been an emphasis in Mo’s work and the criticism surrounding it. Yiju Huang (2016) argued that Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out offers an understanding of the self and its traumatic formation that serves as an alternative to Western trauma theories. Huang focused on the concept of reincarnation in the novel, using Buddhist ideology to explore how rebirth illuminates a “self” that travels through different forms of life, eventually transcending obsession and desire. Chi-ying Alice Wang (2014) disputed the influence of magical realism or other recent literary trends on Mo, urging instead that his literary creativity should be traced back to the antiquity of China. Wang examined The Garlic Ballads and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out as examples of how commonly shared literary, folk, and religious traditions work within the framework of the two novels.
James Overholtzer. "Mo Yan." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 478, Gale, 2021.