Category Archives: culture

“Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?”

From Brendan O’Kane at Rectified.Name, what I’ll consider the last word on Mo Yan until the guy actually does something again:

The announcement on Thursday night that Mo had become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel for literature set off a miniature firestorm of criticism, almost all of it from liberal-minded Chinese Twitter users, that seems mostly to have centered on several issues: Mo’s silence (now broken) on Liu Xiaobo, his vice-chair position in the China Writers’ Association (作协), his role in an unbeliev– all-too-believably boneheaded event in which 100 authors copied out Chairman Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, his behavior at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bit of Weibo doggerel that he allegedly wrote in support of Bo Xilai. Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy.

T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody. If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile.

Mo Yan is a serious writer with a substantial body of work, much of it dealing with Chinese social and historical issues as directly as he dares. We might wish as readers that he were more daring, but we don’t get to make that call — he does. He has chosen to ensure that he will have the freedom to keep writing and publishing. Mo’s novels and stories do his speaking for him, and they do so eloquently and forcefully.


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“Writer Mo Yan in Delicate Nobel Dance With Chinese Authorities”

A new take on Mo Yan and the Nobel prize by Josh Chin of China Realtime Report:

A day after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, Chinese novelist Mo Yan said he hoped China’s other Nobel winner, jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, can “achieve his freedom” soon.

The writer’s willingness to speak publicly about Mr. Liu flies in the face of criticisms leveled by some other writers and human rights activists in China that the novelist, once celebrated for his sly subversiveness, had recently grown too close to the authorities. It also means Chinese authorities will likely need to step carefully in trying to exploit the soft power potential of the writer’s award, human rights advocates say.

“Mo Yan certainly has a mind of his own. He’s not a government puppet. His novels make very clear that he’s not a cheerleader for the state of Chinese society today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The novelist’s willingness to talk about Mr. Liu, he added, “will make it a little more difficult for China to conceal that they’re holding a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.”

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who on Thursday slammed Mo Yan as unworthy of the prize, did an about-face upon hearing the writer had expressed sympathy for Mr. Liu. “I want to welcome Mo Yan back into the arms of the people,” he said. “If this sort of courage is the result, I hope more Chinese writers will be given Nobel prizes.”

“It does put the government in a bind because it doesn’t look good, but I don’t think that it’s likely to affect the government’s position on Liu Xiaobo at this time,” Mr. Bequelin said, adding: “From the government’s perspective it’s a small price to pay compared to the benefit of being able to say China has a Nobel literature prize winner.”

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Mo Yan Wins!

But what does it mean? People have been arguing back and forth today about Mo Yan, who was given the Nobel prize for literature today. CCTV has been hyping this as a great achievement for China, while others have been decidedly more critical- via Bequelin, Yu Jie’s reaction:

“A writer who praised Hiter couldn’t win this award, but a writer who praised Mao Zedong can.”

The dual expectations placed on Mo Yan are pretty far apart- that he write artfully for the Chinese on one hand, and that he should serve the Party on the other. Reuters has a good summary:

Some of his books have been banned as “provocative and vulgar” by Chinese authorities but he has also been criticised as being too close to the Communist Party.

While users of a popular Chinese microblogging site offered their congratulations, dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he disagreed with giving the award to a writer with the “taint of government” about him.

“My works are Chinese literature, which is part of world literature. They show the life of Chinese people as well as the country’s unique culture and folk customs,” Mo told reporters in his hometown, Xinhua news agency reported.

The last Chinese-born winner was Gao Xingjian in 2000, although he was living in France by that time and had taken French citizenship. His Nobel was not celebrated by the Chinese government.

“His winning won’t be of any help for Liu Xiaobo, unless Mo Yan expresses his concern for him,” said Ai Weiwei.

“But Mo Yan has stated in the past that he has nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo. I think the Nobel organisers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don’t understand it.”

Beijing-based writer Mo Zhixu said Mo Yan, who once copied out by hand a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong for a commemorative book, “doesn’t have any independent personality.”

Yu Shicun, a Beijing-based essayist and literary critic, said Mo Yan was a puzzling choice for the prize.

“I don’t think this makes sense,” said Yu in a telephone interview. “His works are from the 1980s, when he was influenced by Latin American literature. I don’t think he’s created his own things. We don’t see him as an innovator in Chinese literature.”

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“Why China Lacks Gangnam Style”

Evan Osnos with a good explanation for why China just can’t seem to put together any kind of cultural power for export:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news.

In Chinese cultural circles there is a name for this: the “ ‘Kung Fu Panda’ problem,” named for the 2008 DreamWorks movie. It refers to the fact that the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects. The director Lu Chuan, for example, once agreed to produce an animated film for the Beijing Olympics, but after he embarked on the project, he discovered he was not supposed to let his mind run wild. “I kept receiving directions and orders from related parties on how the movie should be like. An important part of the instructions was that the animation should promote Chinese culture,” he wrote later. “We were given very specific rules on how to promote it. And some were not flexible about ‘promoting the Olympic spirit,’ ‘promoting Chinese culture’ or ‘rich in Chinese elements.’ ” He went on, “Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity. The planned animation was never produced.”

For now, China’s Gangnam moment seems far off. “In China, culture and the arts develop under the watchful eye of the government, and anything too hip or interesting gets either shut down or bought up. In Korea, by contrast, artists and entertainers thrive in a space that is highly commercialized but also pretty much free of the heavy hand of the state,” Delury told me, adding, “I kid government officials that the moment they understand why K-pop is so successful and try to replicate it, they will destroy it.”

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“Why China Is Weak on Soft Power”

Joseph Nye, the man behind the term ‘soft power,’ explains why China just can’t seem to build any in an NYT piece here. His conclusion:

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective.

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities.

The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xianjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.

Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign.

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“China’s war against Harry Potter”

The esteemed Stephen Walt weighs in on Hu’s attempt to declare a culture war:

Forgive me, but China’s leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game. It’s not that I think the Chinese people couldn’t cast a larger cultural shadow both at home and abroad, it’s that this goal is not something that a bunch of middle-aged Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats can mandate and control, especially in an era where culture spreads via decentralized mechanisms like YouTube and file-sharing software. Government leaders don’t create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents. Oops.

What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a “British invasion.” Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.

Other authoritarian bureaucracies offer similar lessons. Stalinist Russia produced “socialist realism” (not to be confused with realist IR theory!) and a lot of clunky middle-brow fiction, but hardly any lasting cultural products. There were great artists in the Soviet Union, to be sure, but the best (Shostakovich, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) fell afoul of the authorities at one time or another and those who retained official favor didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Soviet efforts to insulate themselves from outside cultural products backfired completely, as Western jazz, rock and roll, and other forms of contemporary art became clandestine objects of desire and emulation, all the more desired for being taboo.

Ironically, if Hu really wants to win a culture war, he’d have to abandon some of the other social control mechanisms upon which CCP rule now depends. So if he wants to launch a culture war, I’d say “bring it on.”

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“Beijing’s ‘Culture War’ Isn’t About the U.S.—It’s About China’s Future”

Another reaction to Hu’s culture war, this time from Damien Ma at The Atlantic:

I have a bit of a different take on Hu’s politically charged essay. I am of the view that the “politics” of it are predominantly aimed at the Communist Party itself rather than an abstract “external enemy,” in this case the West or specifically the United States. It serves as a warning to both current party members and incoming leaders to remain vigilant, not simply because it is a political transition year but because of the existential fear that peaceful evolution (和平演变) may just be around the corner. Indeed, one of the longstanding fears for the party-state is not that it will go out with a bang but that it will fold quietly in a whimper of irrelevance.

First propounded by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War, the concept of “peaceful evolution”, which essentially meant promoting policies that would induce a peaceful transition to liberal democracies within the Communist bloc, preoccupied Mao Zedong dearly. The chairman became suspicious of the Soviet Union falling prey to Dulles’ cunning ploy and eventually grew so concerned that one of the justifications for launching the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1966 was to counter the threat of peaceful evolution.

Among these passages, this remark stood out for me the most: “He [Dulles]…placed his hope on the third and fourth generations within socialist countries…” (for those interested in the Chinese, Mao supposedly said “帝国主义的预言家门把和平演变的希望寄托在中国党的第三代或第四代身上”, which roughly translates into “imperialism’s prophesiers have pinned their hopes for ‘peaceful evolution’ on the shoulders of the party’s third or fourth generations.”) Well, depending on how leadership generations are counted, China is in that third or fourth generation, preoccupied by a leadership change that is breeding considerable caution regarding any potential destabilizing factors. Mao’s warning (or prescience?) may have added resonance, given the year that China just had, which began with the Arab Spring and ended with Wukan. In some quarters in China, these developments are likely viewed as manifestations of western-inspired peaceful evolution.

Indeed, the Hu administration has seen a personal communication technology boom like none any previous Chinese leadership has dealt with, unintentionally creating a public that is exerting vigorous bottom-up pressure. Perhaps in an indirect admission of the challenges of a new era of information pluralism, the propaganda chief recently bemoaned the immense challenge in propaganda work and “maintaining reform stability.”

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