Nobel Literature laureate Mo Yan wasn’t the only Chinese writer to be honored this month, writes Louisa Greve. Two other celebrated authors received international recognition for work that demonstrates a more credible and consistent affirmation of the necessity of truth and integrity – in life as well as literature.
The controversy over this year’s Nobel Literature honoree Mo Yan, a favorite of China’s Communist regime, “highlights the dilemma faced by many writers across Asia, who are forced to consider the relationship between art and power on a daily basis,” notes one observer.
Mo Yan’s translator, amongst others, argue that being forced to calibrate one’s writing is just the way the system works in China and that by working within certain parameters, writers can still produce powerful work that “originates in a strong social conscience,” and reflects beauty and imagination.
But others note that the new laureate not simply a popular writer who wants to “keep his head down” in order to reach readers without having his books banned. He is also the vice chairman of the government-controlled China Writers Association – a low-profile position, to be sure, but one that clearly entails a duty to express the official party line.
When it was China’s turn to be the “guest of honor” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo joined the official delegation in walking out of a symposium that featured two dissident writers.
“We did not come here for a lesson in democracy. Those times are over,” said the head of the delegation.
With predictable irony, the ruling party’s propaganda department reacted to the news of a Chinese writer receiving global recognition by ordering fresh censorship in a message from the State Council Information Office to all websites nationwide.
“In light of Mo Yan winning the Nobel prize for literature … Be firm in removing all comments which disgrace the Party and the government, defame cultural work, mention Nobel laureates Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian and associated harmful material,” it demanded.
In contrast, the most recent Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Prize, 2010 Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, also a writer, is serving the fourth year of an 11-year prison sentence. And his wife is suffering a similar kind of illegal imprisonment in her home – not allowed to go out or to have visitors, subject to 24-7 surveillance with police surrounding the apartment and occasionally inside it too. Friends recently released a short video showing Liu Xia in silhouette, with her characteristic short hair, smoking a cigarette. It shows like an art film clip. If only it were art, not life: she has lived like this for 4 years with no end in sight.
Two more writers who speak sonorously about truth and the judgment of history, both personal friends of Liu Xiaobo, were also honored recently. Liao Yiwu (above), a highly respected poet and chronicler of the downtrodden, received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 14 . He spent four years in prison for his poem “Massacre,” which he wrote hours before the killings on Tiananmen Square in 1989. His book on Christianity’s survival under Communism offers a telling insight into the evolution of Liao’s own thinking as he simply listened to people’s stories after going to great lengths to meet people living in remote areas.
“Of course it’s horrible when you have to be afraid of going to jail for your work,” Liao told Deutsche Welle. “[B]ut the greater fear is to be forgotten. If I had stopped writing, then all of my years in the labor camp would have been in vain.”
In his acceptance speech, Liao dared to touch what is probably the most lethal third rail in the long list of neuralgic topics for the ruling Communist Party – China’s “territorial integrity” and the “unity of the motherland.” (The Chinese authorities recently announced draft regulations to confiscate mobile devices that display “inaccurate” maps that do not conform to the Chinese state’s territorial claims.)
He decried the legacy of imperial conquest and subjugation that is celebrated as the foundation of greatness by authoritarian dictators throughout China’s history.
“This empire must break apart, for the sake of peace and the peace of mind of all humanity,” he declared.
“To me, the truth comes first and then the literature,” Liao told Der Spiegel.
Yu Jie (left), became the third Chinese writer to be honored this month when he received the Train Foundation’s 2012 Civil Courage Prize on October 17 in New York. Now in exile like Liao, Yu held firm to his faith that history seeks truth as a source of hope even after he was threatened, kidnapped, and tortured for his writings.
”As an author committed to speaking the truth, even if I died, my writings would live on,” he said.
He too is considering how history will treat China’s current government.
Yu said he can’t keep quiet because “there are far too many truths waiting to be revealed,” including “the inevitability of the collapse of Chinese Communist Tyranny.”
With so many celebrated, brave and insightful Chinese writers in exile, who should be invited to be “guest of honor” at the 2012 London Book Fair? You guessed it.
The man leading the Chinese delegation at the fair was Liu Binjie, the Minister of the General Administration for Press and Publication (Gapp) – labeled “China’s censor-in-chief” by critics.
The decision outraged defenders of freedom of expression.
“We are raising our voice to protest at the co-operation of the Book Fair with Gapp, which is responsible for the imprisonment and torture of our colleagues,” said Tienchi Martin-Liao, a writer and current President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.
As UK-based writer Ma Jian put it, the literary world in free countries must squarely recognize that certain governments use writers “as pawns in their political games.” When they don’t, he continues, it makes you wonder who the organizers of these literary fairs will invite as guest of honor next — Iran?
The Independent Chinese PEN Centre, of which0 Yu Jie is a former vice president, and Human Rights in China, receive support from the NED.