Nobel Prize Winner Mo Yan Talks Roots, Art in Shenzhen

By Bailey Hu, November 14, 2017

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Guan Moye is a big deal. In 2012, he became the first author based in the mainland to win the Nobel Prize for literature (emigre writer Gao Xingjian also won in 2000), a point of national pride for China. Under the pen name of Mo Yan – 'don't speak' – he's published dark, graphic and sometimes fantastic tales set in the northern Chinese countryside, from Red Sorghum to Big Breasts & Wide Hips.

Just this past weekend, the author spoke to a packed room in Futian District's Book City, kicking off a series of book-related events for Shenzhen's 'Reading Month.'


Below, we've gathered a few highlights from his talk.

On Roots

Mo's works often revisit the folklore and setting of his childhood – rural Shandong in the turbulent 60s.

“When I was a child, I often grazed cattle at our commune where adults would usually gather to chat with each other. I listened to them tell stories which later became a steady source of inspiration for my novels.”

Local Maoqiang opera, performed with traditional instruments, was also a major source of inspiration.

“If my hometown had a sound, it would be Maoqiang opera... Maoqiang opera comes from a hardship-ridden area; despite its sadness it also has strength."

“When I was naive and didn’t know too much about life, I would act on the stage playing insignificant roles such as little bandits or soldiers of the Kuomintang. At that time, I was determined to write a novel dedicated to Maoqiang opera.”

Mo did end up writing a novel in the Maoqiang style, titled Sandalwood Death.

"Folklore is a birthplace of art... We who do creative work should look towards folklore to seek our roots."


On Realism

“It takes real life and imagination to make any successful work of art. Art derives from life but it is beyond life."

“Heroes also have some cowardly and timid moments, while those spurned by society occasionally have goodness deep inside their hearts. Therefore, while writing I won’t particularly glorify or vilify people. I treat both good and bad people as humans – this has been my long-term view towards literary creation."

On Technology

Mo's talk, which addressed roots and traditional folk customs, coincided with the Singles Day e-commerce extravaganza. The irony wasn't lost on him.

"Nowadays, with phone in hand, buying things from all over the world – just 10 years ago you couldn’t have even imagined it. Life rushes forward like a carnival, which makes me deeply worried. The rapid progress of technology gives me no sense of achievement: I only learn one-fifth of the functions of a phone before the next generation comes out."

Missed Mo's talk? Shenzhen's 'Reading Month' is ongoing, with three more events scheduled to take place between now and early December. There'll be talks by critic Li Jingze and writer Bi Feiyu, as well as a discussion featuring scholar Wang Jingsheng, author Zhang Kangkang and editor/publisher Fan Xi'an. More information on the events (in Chinese) here.

Translations from Shenzhen Daily, Bailey Hu

[Images via]

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