Uncle Tall Tale: On “Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China”

By Astrid Møller-OlsenMay 31, 2022

Uncle Tall Tale: On “Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China”

Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China by Mo Yan

ALTHOUGH MO YAN’S claim to fame is undoubtedly as the Nobel laureate from China, the 23 public lectures gathered in Mo Yan Speaks present a truly “glocal” writer who has one literary foot firmly planted in the soil of his native Gaomi Township and the other tiptoeing into the arena of world literature. They show an author performing a balancing act between his international elite status and the local storytelling tradition present in his work.

Mo Yan (whose real name is Guan Moye) repeatedly draws on both these strands when presenting his literary persona. His public lectures combine anecdotes from his rural childhood with musings on literary style and namedropping of famous writers (who, with the notable exception of Wang Anyi, are all men). It is this duality of humble storyteller and Nobel laureate that defines the Mo Yan phenomenon, and it is his playful creation and shaping of this persona that make the speeches in this volume so entertaining.

In Mo Yan’s own words, the path of a writer includes straddling the spheres of knowledge and imagination: “I think a writer’s education can more or less be split up into two parts. The first takes place prior to becoming a writer, a kind of involuntary, impractical, meandering learning.” In Mo Yan’s case, the initial phase entailed listening to market storytellers, local opera troupes, and “pow-boys” (child raconteurs) with a passion for telling tall tales. The second part of Mo Yan’s literary education was spent in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Art Academy, “at which point reading and writing fiction became my day job.”

The stamp of “Nobel laureate from China” also highlights an inequality on the global literary scene, where authors from certain countries effortlessly transition to become part of a world literature while others are perceived as representatives of a specific geopolitical realm. In his foreword to Mo Yan Speaks, Jonathan Stalling rightly criticizes global media for not “discussing Mo Yan’s writing but only […] the author’s politics, or lack of politics.” Although many of Mo’s stories have a political angle, this mostly involves rewriting a specific occurrence from a new perspective — deconstructing what we perceive as historical knowledge and adding a dose of imagination: “[D]istorting official history is a political necessity; filling history with legend and romance is a psycho-spiritual necessity.” Perhaps “the storyteller from Gaomi” might be a more suitable sobriquet.

Through this cornucopia of Mo Yan performances, the reader gets a strong impression of the multisensory character of his writing. Taking care to engage the whole body, Mo Yan talks of the “literary nutrition” of his childhood, which provided him with the “bellyful of stories” he still draws on today, each of which has a unique “flavor.” Sketching himself as a writer of the people, he lauds the smells and sounds of fiction over delicate and refined imagery: “No prose style, no matter how gorgeous or how precise, can match the lens of the camera. But cameras can’t record smell, or at least not yet. This is the fiction writer’s final domain.” Not only are his narratives brimming with noises and scents (as well as color), he also describes his literary practice as engaging more than the intellectual faculty. In one talk, Mo Yan calls his habit of attending sessions with local storytellers “reading with my ears,” while “writing with my nose” refers to engaging memories through particular fragrances and then distilling them through a process of fictionalization.

In several of his lectures, Mo Yan expresses an ambition to produce works not for but of the common folk: “[W]riting for the people means giving your verdict, but writing as one of the people doesn’t necessarily involve a verdict.” His method is to create “characters that are both emblematic and archetypical,” which, unfortunately, sometimes produces works populated by very similar casts of rather two-dimensional rural archetypes. The strength of his approach is that, unlike the operatic personae that inspired them, Mo Yan’s characters refuse to be separated into heroes and villains. As he says: “I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad.” His most lasting creations are ordinary individuals who find themselves in impossible situations, forced to navigate unpleasant and violent situations under extreme social and political pressure.

It is worth remembering that his speeches and lectures are a continuation of Mo Yan’s literary work, creating the character Mo Yan, a likable pow-boy from a rural backwater who made it onto the international literary scene. The most enjoyable aspects of Mo Yan’s writing are its irreverence, its hyperbole, and its blatant fictionalization of reality, which refuse to be contained by the novel form. An example of paratextual overflow is the epigraph attributed to Joseph Stalin in The Garlic Ballads (1988); although it precedes the official beginning of the novel, it is already contaminated by the story’s fictionality:

I had the nerve to attribute this quote to Stalin. I felt Stalin must have said something along those lines. Later, the editor asked me for the chapter and page it came from in Stalin’s collected works, I told them it’s not in there. They went on to say it would be better not to cite Stalin, and instead just leave it as “a famous quotation.” All the while, I was the one who had written it.

As another speech reveals, Mo Yan’s tendency to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality has gotten him into trouble more than once, as when he used a family friend as a model for a character, using their name and other personal details. Unfortunately, the fictional counterpart died in the novel and the family friend made a furious complaint to Mo Yan’s father, who responded: “The first line of the novel refers to me as ‘My father, a bandit’s offspring.’ Surely I’m no bandit’s offspring. It’s fiction.” And if that anecdote isn’t true, at least it makes for a good story.

Mo Yan is part writer, part fictional creation, and several of the speeches record how and why Guan Moye chose the pseudonym, which means “don’t speak.” Indeed, as mentioned, many of the lectures are concerned, like the novels, with constructing and developing the persona of the author “Mo Yan.” His most brilliant metafictional novel, The Republic of Wine (1992), contains an embedded narrative supposedly written by the aspiring author Li Yidou, while the frame narrative consists of letters between Li Yidou and his literary hero, Mo Yan. The paratext of Mo Yan’s name on the cover thus forms an essential part of the novel’s metatextual theme, which presents literary storytelling as an act of theft.

This theme, as well as Mo Yan’s tendency to entangle himself in his stories, is also evident in his speeches. Tongue-in-cheek, he spoofs the global media’s pigeonholing of his writing as “Chinese magical realism” by revealing that “to this day, I’ve never finished One Hundred Years of Solitude. Back then, after reading eighteen pages I was possessed by such a creative fervor that I threw down the book, picked up a pen, and wrote.” This anecdote acknowledges his indebtedness to García Márquez (or rather to his Chinese translators) while exchanging literary journalism’s lazy habit of characterizing new writers in terms of established ones with a new myth that, in both form and content, illustrates Mo Yan’s irreverent inventiveness and stubborn originality.

Even Mo Yan’s most fundamental literary building block, the Gaomi Township itself, is more than partly fictional:

Northeast Gaomi Township should be an open concept, not a closed one — it should be literary, not just geographic. […] In Big Breasts and Wide Hips [1996], I moved mountain ranges, hills, swamps, and deserts into “Northeast Gaomi Township,” not to mention all sorts of plant life that had never grown in the region.

What makes Mo Yan’s fiction — and many of his speeches — so enjoyable is the way they bubble over with the irrepressible urge to tell stories. For those interested in a more factual account of Mo Yan’s life, the safest bet is to not fully trust anything the storyteller says but to read the translator Shiyan Xu’s concise introduction, which includes a brief biography of the author. And one should remember when Mo Yan speaks, it is in the same tongue of fictionalized memory and folk mythology that has made him the tall-tale uncle of world literature.


Astrid Møller-Olsen is a scholar of Chinese and comparative literature at Lund University, Sweden. She writes the xiaoshuo.blog and hosts the Sinophone Unrealities podcast. Her monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction was published by Cambria Press in 2022.

LARB Contributor

Astrid Møller-Olsen is a scholar of Chinese and comparative literature at Lund University, Sweden. She writes the xiaoshuo.blog and hosts the Sinophone Unrealities podcast. Her monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction was published by Cambria Press in 2022.


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