Mo Yan’s Middle Finger

  by A. E. Clark

Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature drew attention to his stance, or lack of one, toward human rights and freedom of speech in China. As a vice-chairman of the state-sanctioned Writers' Association, he had kept silent during the persecution of several writers1; he had joined in the commemorative hand-copying of a set of Mao's speeches which stipulated that art must serve the political needs of the Party; and he had long declined to utter a word in support of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the 2010 Prize for Peace.2

Many saw in all this an “accommodation” such as ordinary people have often made in order to survive under repressive regimes.3 Western observers by and large assumed that, were he free to do so, Mo Yan would embrace freedom of expression as a universal human value. They believed it must surely trouble him that some of his compatriots languish behind bars for their writings; the discomfort he sometimes evinced during reporters’ questioning could have been that of a man aware of his moral dilemma but not free to acknowledge it.

Since his acceptance speech in Stockholm, however, there is no longer much need for speculation. In veiled remarks near the end of his speech, Mo Yan told us how he feels about the criticisms directed at him and the values underlying them. He said he was responding to the controversy by telling three stories.4

The first story:

When I was a third-grade student in the 1960s, my school organized a field trip to an exhibit of suffering, where, under the direction of our teacher, we cried bitter tears. I let my tears stay on my cheeks for the benefit of our teacher, and watched as some of my classmates spat in their hands and rubbed it on their faces as pretend tears. I saw one student among all those wailing children – some real, some phony – whose face was dry and who remained silent without covering his face with his hands. He just looked at us, eyes wide open in an expression of surprise or confusion. After the visit I reported him to the teacher, and he was given a disciplinary warning. Years later, when I expressed my remorse over informing on the boy, the teacher said that at least ten students had done what I did. The boy himself had died a decade or more earlier, and my conscience was deeply troubled when I thought of him. But I learned something important from this incident, and that is: When everyone around you is crying, you deserve to be allowed not to cry, and when the tears are all for show, your right not to cry is greater still.

The reader in a hurry might take this for a sensitive tale of the suffering wrought by Maoist regimentation. But it is more: it draws an analogy between two situations, only one of which is made explicit.

This scene was not an uncommon one for its time. The “exhibit of suffering” (in ‘63 or ‘64) would have consisted of dioramas that showed landlords extracting rent from peasants, KMT officials lording it over the poor, and other scenes representative of life under the old regime. The exhibit might have included Japanese atrocities and perhaps even the depredations of the British during the Opium Wars. What is important – and what Mo Yan as a novelist would grasp perfectly even if this anecdote were not autobiographical – is how meaningless and bewildering the exhibit must have seemed to a bunch of eight-year-olds from a farming village. What could they feel for plaster statues in exaggerated poses caricaturing a world that had vanished before any of them were born? But under the teacher’s “direction,” emotion was required. The suggestible ones might blubber without knowing why; for the rest, a response had to be faked. They were pressured into pretending they cared.

The unnamed situation to which the scene is being compared is none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today. Now he is the boy who will not cry. In the weeks since the award’s announcement, he has been badgered about human rights by Western reporters, pressured to sign a petition on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, and invited to join in Western handwringing about Chinese censorship. He has refused. But with this story, he does more than refuse. He dismisses all these issues as fake indignation manufactured in the service of a conformist ideology. He doesn’t feel the distress or the outrage voiced by his critics and, crucially, he doesn’t think they do either (“the tears are only for show”). This is not as extraordinary a statement as it might appear. Apologists for the Communist Party of China often say that foreigners’ purported concern for human rights is a pretext for China-bashing. To put it personally: Mo Yan doesn’t care what happens to people like Liu Xiaobo, and he doesn’t believe you care either. To him, the clamor for rights is humbug and bullying like what he witnessed under Mao, and he asserts his right to stand aloof from it.

The second story:

More than thirty years ago, when I was in the army, I was in my office reading one evening when an elderly officer opened the door and came in. He glanced down at the seat in front of me and muttered, “Hm, where is everyone?” I stood up and said in a loud voice, “Are you saying I’m no one?” The old fellow’s ears turned red from embarrassment, and he walked out. For a long time after that I was proud about what I consider a gutsy performance. Years later, that pride turned to intense qualms of conscience.

It rankled that the elderly officer fussed over the absent (“the seat in front of me”) instead of acknowledging Mo Yan’s presence. It is hard not to see here an allusion to the empty chair which came to symbolize Liu Xiaobo. Mo Yan must feel he can’t get a break from Liu Xiaobo. Only days before the award ceremony, a momentary negligence on the part of guards enforcing the illegal house arrest of Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) enabled reporters to interview her and record her sobs.5 Mo Yan is annoyed that so much commentary on his Prize has compared him to that other prizewinner.

But isn’t that pique undercut, or better still, transmuted into a higher wisdom, by the remorse which Mo Yan tells us he eventually came to feel for it?

That would be nice. The problem is that his youthful reaction is vivid and the analogy to the present situation is perfect, while the attainment of an unspecified higher wisdom is claimed but not demonstrated. He wants to transcend a grievance, yet on this topic he has nothing but the grievance to express. One can recognize the classical rhetorical device of praeteritio, albeit in a specifically adolescent form: You didn’t notice my haircut, but I’m too mature to let that bother me. Let’s not even talk about how you forgot my birthday; I’m above that kind of thing.

I am sorry to say I think that is all it means.

The third story:

A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering.” Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: “Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.

Its length, its climactic position, and its exordium (“Bear with me, please, for one last story”) suggest that this parable has particular importance. It is also the most difficult. Commentators within China have proposed wildly diverse interpretations, some of which lampoon the Chinese leadership.6 Although we can’t be sure an allegorical interpretation will exhaust the meaning (especially with a writer known for free association), we can assume that details emphasized in the story are significant, and we should seek a meaning to which none of the details are discordant and which is true to the speaker’s psychological standpoint.

What this story emphasizes is the value-system of the bricklayers. They are guilt-ridden and superstitious; they think punishing someone will solve their problems; they interpret the world and its phenomena in ignorantly moralistic terms. And they take refuge in a temple, specifically a rundown temple (破庙) — a symbol of old-fashioned beliefs, a creed outworn.

The man whom they make into a scapegoat is engaged, like them, in a profession of cultural construction. He stands alone, outnumbered. Initially, he was no different from them, but because his hat (which we can naturally associate with his thoughts or his mind) blows out of the temple, he is judged guilty and is ostracized.

In a speech where the first-person-singular pronoun appears more than three hundred times, when a lone figure appears in a parable one may guess that the storyteller is referring to himself. That, plus the manifest emphasis on the moralism of the bricklayers who cast him out, suggests an interpretation. The storm represents social stress and human suffering, perhaps specifically such as the Chinese people have endured in modern times. The temple stands for a moralistic and illusionary system of values in which many take refuge. The bricklayers are writers and artists. The outcast is Mo Yan, whose mind has departed from the constricting framework of moralistic thinking and who on that account is condemned by some. The other bricklayers are his contemporaries in the arts who seek to hold him accountable for imperfections in Chinese society and would reject him as unworthy. The ostracism has not actually happened (and in the case of a Nobel prizewinner it is a bit of a stretch even to imagine it) but Mo Yan may feel it is the goal toward which the attacks on him are tending. He is saying to those who have called him a sellout or a tool of the regime and would place him beyond the pale: “Fine, cast me out. I’m finished with your values. Don’t preach to me about the writer’s moral responsibility. Your morality is flawed and it will bring ruin upon you if you persist in it. I am, luckily, a pragmatist, and pragmatism has served me well.”

The difficulty with this reading is that it seems absurd for a popular and esteemed writer to describe himself as ostracized while he accepts a Nobel Prize. It would also appear that in his symbiosis with the Party and in his political morality Mo Yan is, objectively, very far from standing alone. But it is consistent with the outlook revealed in the first of these three stories for him to cast himself as the lone victim of a witch-hunt.

Why does this matter? It doesn’t affect the merit of Mo Yan’s works. This analysis has no bearing on whether Mo Yan deserved the Nobel Prize.

It matters, on the simplest level, because it is useful to understand what people are saying to you. That they might choose to rebuke you so subtly that you could easily miss the message may seem an odd form of communication. But you have probably witnessed such exchanges, in which the speaker is annoyed by the hearer and believes himself a lot cleverer. There is often an in-group, perhaps a domestic audience, that is expected to get the point. If the target makes a fuss, he can be assured it was a misunderstanding.7

It matters, more seriously, because we need to identify differences honestly. It is beguiling to say, What we’ve got here is failure to communicate, and often that is true. But sometimes what we’ve got is a conflict of core interests or a clash of mutually exclusive values, which no amount of communication will resolve.

It matters, finally, because – even if he never wanted this role – winning the most prestigious international prize moves Mo Yan to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power. The leadership is surely pleased that he dismisses as hypocritical nonsense the values underlying the defense of human rights against the State. We will hear more of this, from Mo Yan and others, and it won’t always be so subtle. That is not to say there will be no improvements in the area of human rights. Liu Xia has probably already been assigned better guards.

December 14, 2012
Dobbs Ferry

The opinions expressed in this piece are mine alone, and should not be imputed to authors published by Ragged Banner Press.


(1) The caselists of PEN International’s Writers In Prison record that Chen Wei, Chen Xi, Zhu Yufu, and Li Bifeng were arrested during Mo Yan’s tenure as one of the Association’s vice-chairmen. During this time, PEN also lists Guo Quan, Hada, Tursunjan Hezim, Kong Youping, Lu Jianhua, Liu Xiaobo, Lu Zengqi and Yan Qiuyan, Liu Xianbin, Liu Yonggen, Hailaite Niyazi, Dilishat Paerhat, Qi Chonghuai, Shi Tao, Tan Zuoren, Wang Xiaoning, Yang Tongyan, Nurehamet Yasin, Yuan Xianchen, Zhang Qi, and Li Tie as continuing prison sentences which had commenced in earlier years. Mo Yan’s sole comment about this phenomenon came on December 9, 2012 at Stockholm University. Questioned about imprisoned Chinese writers, he “replied that he had not heard that there are many writers in prison and that there are complex reasons for this.”

(2) On October 12, 2012, in response to a reporter’s question and after distancing himself from Liu’s “politics,” Mo Yan said, “I now hope that he can regain his freedom very soon. If he can be freed in good health sooner, then he can study his politics and his social system.” Ever since, he has pointedly refused to revisit the topic or repeat what was perhaps too hopefully greeted in the West as evidence of a changed position.

(3) The relevance of this theme from Philippe Burrin’s France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise was pointed out by Wendy Larson in a discussion on the e-mail forum at the Modern Chinese Literature Center.

(4) From Howard Goldblatt’s translation of the speech, published at

(5) “Liu said her continuing house arrest has been painfully surreal and in stark contrast to Beijing’s celebratory response to this year’s Chinese victory among the Nobels — literature prize winner Mo Yan.” From the AP report.

(6) Adam Minter, “Mo Yan’s Nobel: Parable of a Patsy?”

(7) In 1972, Zhou Enlai clinked his wineglass against Richard Nixon’s in a particular way that only Chinese would recognize as disrespectful to a guest. The pianist Lang Lang, invited to the White House in 2011, played a melody from a Korean War propaganda movie.