Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is said to have originated in advice his parents gave him as a school-age boy during the Mao era.)

The news was greeted with elation in Beijing. A member of the nine-man ruling Politburo, Li Changchun, immediately sent a letter to the state-sponsored Chinese Writers Association, of which Mo Yan is a vice-president, calling the prize “not only an embodiment of the flourishing progress of Chinese literature but also an embodiment of the continuing rise in the overall strength of our state and its international influence.” The official media exulted that, at last, a “mainstream” Chinese had won a Nobel Prize, for which “the Chinese people have waited too long.” A week later, officials announced plans to spend $110 million to transform Mo Yan’s home village into a “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone.”

Simultaneously, a storm of controversy welled on the Chinese-language Internet both inside and outside China. Did this writer, compared to others who might have won, deserve the prize? And should a prize of this magnitude go to a writer who is “inside the system” of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers—of whom Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (a “convicted criminal,” in the Chinese government’s view) is only the most famous example? A satirist named Wang Xiaohong tweeted her worry for the deceased Mr. Nobel, whom she imagined as squirming in his grave:

Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.

Satire aside, Wang Xiaohong is correct that Nobel Prizes are closely watched and coveted in China—even more, in general, than they are elsewhere. Like Olympic gold medals, they are viewed as signs of the world’s respect—which, over recent centuries, many Chinese have felt to be less than it ought to be. The insecurity that underlies this quest for respect appears in especially sharp relief in the case of the Nobel literature prize, where China in essence hands over judgment of its cultural achievement to a committee of Swedes. (One committee member, Göran Malmqvist, reads Chinese, but the others rely on translations.) China does have its own literary prize, the Mao Dun Prize, which Mo Yan won in 2010. But neither Mo Yan nor almost anyone in China would compare it to a Nobel. (Mao Dun was a writer of political fiction during the late 1920s and 1930s; he served as Mao Zedong’s minister of culture from 1949 to 1965, and has a reputation—deserved—for tedious prose. But the main reason for the second-tier reputation of the Mao Dun Prize is that it is a domestic, state-sponsored prize.)

* * *

In recent years China’s Communist rulers have been especially sensitive to Nobel prestige, and have had to deal with a frustrating historical record. Eight Chinese have won Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences, but six of these were citizens of Western countries (the US, the UK, and France) when they won their prizes, and the other two were citizens of the Republic of China on Taiwan.1 There have been two Peace Prize winners, but one, Liu Xiaobo, embarrasses the regime that has put him in prison, and the other, the Dalai Lama (who won in 1989), has lived in exile since 1959. (China’s rulers call the Dalai Lama a “splittist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but cannot conveniently say he is “not Chinese,” because that would acknowledge that Tibet might not be part of China.) After Gao Xingjian, a Chinese whose works denounce Communist rule in China, and who took French citizenship in 1997, won the Nobel literature prize in 2000, state-sponsored media in China said that the Nobel committee had “lost authority” and was “a small clique of so-called literary experts who harbor extremely unhealthful attitudes toward the Chinese people.”

Mo Yan’s prize required a sharp reversal of those judgments, and there is no sign that anyone in state media found this difficult to do. It is their job to promote the state, not to be consistent. Now it was the turn of the other side, dissidents and anonymous freethinkers on the Internet, to attack. Some criticized the Nobel committee, but their main criticism was of Mo Yan himself, primarily for some of his recent political choices. At the opening ceremonies of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2009, he read an officially vetted speech in which he claimed that literature should be above politics; but, when Chinese authorities ordered a boycott of a session where the freethinking writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling appeared, Mo Yan joined the walkout, later explaining that he “had no choice.”

In December 2009, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s unexpectedly harsh prison sentence of eleven years, Cui Weiping, a film scholar, conducted a telephone survey of more than a hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals to get their responses. Many, at personal risk, expressed disgust and told Cui she could publish what they said. Mo Yan, who also gave permission to publish what he said, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”

But most galling to Mo Yan’s critics was his agreement, in June 2012, to join in a state-sponsored project to get famous authors to hand-copy Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” in celebration of their seventieth anniversary. These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Beijing massacre in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation. Some of the writers who were invited to participate declined to do so. Mo Yan not only agreed but has gone further than others to explain that the “Talks,” in their time, had “historical necessity” and “played a positive role.”

At a news conference following the announcement of his Nobel Prize, Mo Yan asked that his political positions be kept separate from his writing. The Nobel “is an award for literature, not politics,” he said. Some of his critics on the Internet have flatly rejected this distinction. (One tweeted that “if a chef layered in feces presents me with a meal, it doesn’t matter how delectable the food is; I’m going to have trouble swallowing it.”) The deeper question, though, is how and to what extent a writer’s immersion in, and adjustment to, an authoritarian political regime affects what he or she writes. The issue is both subtle and important, and Mo Yan provides a useful example of it.

* * *

Mo Yan became famous in the late 1980s when the filmmaker Zhang Yimou made his novel Red Sorghum, a saga of life in rural Shandong during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, into a prize-winning film. Liu Xiaobo, who knew Mo Yan at the time, later wrote that one reason for the film’s tremendous success was that

it drew freely upon the themes of raw sexuality and adultery. Its theme song, “Sister, be gutsy, go forward,” was an unbridled endorsement of the primitive vitality of lust. Against the backdrop of fire-red sorghum in desolate northwestern China, under the broad blue sky and in full view of the bright sun, bandits violently abduct village women, wild adultery happens in the sorghum fields, bandits murder one another in competition for women, male laborers magically produce the widely renowned liquor “Six-Mile Red” by urinating into the heroine’s brewing wine, and so on.

All of this…not only sets the scene for marvelous consummations of male and female sexual desire; it creates a broader dream vision that carries magical vitality. That Red Sorghum could win prizes symbolizes a change in national attitudes towards sex: “erotic display” had come to be seen as “exuberant vitality.”

Mo Yan points out, correctly, that Red Sorghum took considerable heat from the authorities in the 1980s. Then, at least, he was no sycophant. The work not only defied sexual taboos; it portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts of heroic peasant resistance. Mo Yan, Zhang Yimou, and others were viewed as young rebels.

Oe Kenzaburo, the Japanese novelist and essayist who won the Nobel literature prize in 1994, said in his acceptance speech:

By sharing old, familiar yet living metaphors I align myself with writers like Kim Chi-ha of Korea and Zheng Yi and Mo Yan, both of China. For me the brotherhood of world literature consists in such relationships in concrete terms…. I am now deeply worried about the destiny of those gifted Chinese novelists who have been deprived of their freedom since the Tiananmen Square incident [i.e., the June 4, 1989 crackdown].

Oe could not know at the time how “destiny” would turn out very differently for the two young Chinese writers he admired, Zheng Yi and Mo Yan. Zheng Yi had drawn Oe’s attention for Old Well (1984), a romance set against the background of the centuries-old quest for water in a parched area of rural Shanxi province. Like Red Sorghum, the story had been made into a prize-winning film. Oe told me in 1997 that he liked Zheng’s “vertical orientation”—old wells penetrating deep into the earth and “spirit trees” stretching in the other direction toward the heavens. (Zheng was then working on a long novel called Spirit Tree, in which there was a touch of magic in his account of Chinese village life.) In 1989 Zheng Yi supported student protesters at Tiananmen, was listed for arrest by the government afterward, lived underground in China for three years, then escaped on a small boat to Hong Kong in 1993, and has lived in exile in the US ever since. He has continued to write prolifically, always in absolute candor about his criticisms of the Chinese government.

* * *

Mo Yan, in both politics and literature, chose a different path. Every serious Chinese writer and artist in the post-1989 era has had to face the choice of whether and how much to stay “inside the system.” Many, like Mo Yan, stay unambiguously inside, making larger or smaller accommodations to official guidelines even as they publicly preserve the fiction that they are doing no such thing. (At his recent news conference Mo Yan observed, deadpan, that “we live in an era of free expression.”) During the last two decades of economic boom, money has become another important inducement for staying within the system. Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker who did Red Sorghum, moved further and further “inside” until, in 2008, he was invited to choreograph the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and commented (apparently without irony) that only a state like China’s or North Korea’s could engineer such an extravaganza.

Most of the writers who choose to go “outside” the system—Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others—have accepted exile as the price for saying what they think, without adjustments. Ha Jin took the unusual step of departing not only China but the Chinese language; he writes only in English, in part to be sure that even subconscious influences do not affect his expression. Some who chose exile after 1989 later changed their minds and returned to China. Xu Bing, the installation artist, lived in New York from 1990 until 2008, then went back to China to be vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The distinguished poet Bei Dao also returned and now spends most of his time in Hong Kong. The regime welcomes the return of famous figures, because this helps to burnish its image. It offers them money, position, and more freedom than it allows to others—but never full freedom.

The main challenge for Mo Yan beginning in the 1990s was to find a literary voice that he could use in the long term. Red Sorghum had been a genuine breakthrough, but only because of the political situation of the 1980s, when Chinese writers could make their names by “breaking into forbidden zones.” Red Sorghum had broken into two: sexual libertinism and truth-telling about the war with Japan. But by the 1990s there were fewer forbidden zones awaiting break-in, and those that did remain (the 1989 massacre, corruption among the political elite, and topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang) were so extremely forbidden as to be untouchable. Mo Yan needed something else.

The voice that he has embraced has been called Rabelaisian, but it is even more earthy than Rabelais’s. The animal nature of human beings—eating, excreting, fighting, screaming, bleeding, sweating, fornicating—abounds, as do certain traits that animals eschew, such as bullying, conniving, and betraying. Sometimes, but not always, Mo Yan’s expression is ironic, and it includes flights of imagination that critics have compared to the “magical realism” of Gabriel García Márquez. (It is doubtful that Mo Yan has read either Rabelais or García Márquez; these are similarities, not influences.)

Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials. Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.

It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system.

* * *

Mo Yan has written panoramic novels covering much of twentieth-century Chinese history. “Rewriting history” has been a fashion in Chinese fiction since the 1990s; it holds great interest for readers who are still struggling to confront the question of “what happened?” during and after the country’s Maoist spasm. For writers inside the system, a dilemma arises in how to treat episodes like the Great Leap famine (1959–1962), in which 30 million or more people starved to death, or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1970), which took the lives of another two or three million and poisoned the national spirit with a cynicism and distrust so deep that even today it has not fully recovered. Today’s Communist leaders, worried that their power could suffer by association with these Maoist disasters, declare the topics “sensitive” and largely off-limits for state-sponsored writers. But a writer doing a panorama cannot omit them, either. What to do?

Mo Yan’s solution (and he is not alone here) has been to invoke a kind of daft hilarity when treating “sensitive” events. His Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996), which spans the entire twentieth century, follows the life of a man obsessed with female body parts. In Chapter Six the book gets to the Great Leap, when China’s rural economy collapsed because of the forcible interference of Mao’s agricultural policies, including his insistence that rice stalks be planted close together (farmers knew this wouldn’t work but risked their lives if they said so) and his advice that new species of plants and animals could be created by cross-breeding—for example, of tomatoes and pumpkins to produce giant tomatoes.

Mo Yan has great fun with the craziness but leaves out the disaster. Cross a rabbit with a sheep? Why not? A volunteer in Big Breasts speaks up: “Sheep sperm into a rabbit is nothing. I don’t care if you want me to inject Director Li Du’s sperm into the sow’s womb.” Everyone present then “broke up laughing.” Meanwhile there is no sign of a famine. When the breast-obsessed protagonist needs some goat’s milk, somebody just goes out and buys it. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), another Mo Yan panorama, stretching from 1950 to 2000, the victim of a public humiliation session during the Cultural Revolution is accused of having impregnated a donkey. The victim suffers wicked taunts for four pages, after which “the crowd laughed uproariously” as he is made to eat a turnip that represents a “fake donkey dick.”

Defenders of Mo Yan, both on and off the Nobel Prize committee, credit him with “black humor.” Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. For the regime, to treat them as jokes might be better than banning them outright. In a 2004 article called “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History,” Liu Xiaobo observes that “sarcasm…has turned into a kind of spiritual massage that numbs people’s consciences and paralyzes their memories.”

Is there more to Mo Yan’s thinking than he puts into print? For him, like all inside-the-system writers in China, we need at least to keep this question open. At a news conference on October 12, he answered a reporter’s question about his fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo this way:

I read some of his writings on literature in the 1980s…later, after he left literature and turned to politics, I haven’t had any contact with him, and I don’t understand much of what he has been doing since then. I now hope, though, that he can get his freedom as soon as possible—get his freedom in good health as soon as possible—and then be able to study his politics and study his social systems as he likes.

The statement was quickly hailed by some of Liu Xiaobo’s supporters. Here was the new Nobel laureate speaking up for someone whose very name had been banned from China’s state media. Moreover Mo Yan’s words were themselves quickly expunged from the domestic Chinese Internet, so the authorities must have been angered by them. Mo Yan had apparently produced a statement of conscience.

The statement certainly has value, but to me there is a more plausible explanation for it than courage of conscience. Police and propaganda officials in China stay in close touch with influential people, including both establishment figures and dissidents. There are “chats,” sometimes over tea, about what a person should or should not say or do in public. When something as spectacular as a Nobel Prize comes along, it is inconceivable that the recipient would not be summoned for one or more chats, and the question of what Mo Yan should say about Liu Xiaobo must have come up. It is an obvious question. Reporters from the world press were asking it almost from the moment Mo Yan’s prize was announced, and it will be even more unavoidable when he travels to Stockholm to collect his prize. (Chinese citizens on the Internet have raised the question, too. One tweeted that “if Mo Yan has guts, he will stand next to an empty chair when he speaks in Stockholm.”2)

* * *

One way or another, Mo Yan will have to have a shuofa—a “way of putting things.” And what way might be least damaging, from the regime’s point of view? If Mo Yan were to say to the world that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who deserves to be in prison, Mo Yan’s own image would plummet, and the glory of his winning of the prize—a glory that the regime wants to enhance and to ride upon—would also nosedive. On the other hand, if Mo Yan were genuinely to side with Liu Xiaobo, who has written many times that “going to prison for one’s words” is always and in principle wrong, that would not do, either. The optimum might be a mild middle-of-the-road statement about hoping that Liu gets released soon.

One phrase in Mo Yan’s statement adds special plausibility to this interpretation. He repeats the “freedom” phrase in order to stress that it be freedom in good health. Does Mo Yan know about Liu Xiaobo’s current state of health? I doubt it. Only Liu Xia, his wife, has seen him in recent months, and she is bound to strict silence on pain of cut-off of her visiting privileges. Mo Yan may simply be taking into account the fact that the health of other dissidents has suffered, sometimes very seriously, while in prison. But we do know that the Lius are likely to be under pressure from the regime to accept exile from China. Dissidents in exile cause much less trouble to authorities than they do at home. The blind rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled last April from house arrest in Shandong to the US embassy in Beijing, is now in New York, where he causes the regime much less headache than he did when he was in either Shandong or Beijing.

And what may this have to do with “good health”? The favorite euphemism of the regime when it ships dissidents overseas is to say they “are seeking medical treatment.” In June 1990, for instance, when the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi was released to go to Britain (Chinese authorities insisted he spend at least six months in “a third country” before going to the US), “medical treatment” was the regime’s pretext in negotiating with British diplomats. Fang tolerated the word-game even though there was nothing at all wrong with his health. Was Mo Yan’s “in good health” phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s “seeking medical treatment abroad”? I don’t know. But it seemed one possible explanation for why the phrase popped up in Mo Yan’s statement.

The fact that Chinese censors expunged Mo Yan’s comments from the domestic Internet is fully consistent with this interpretation. The target of the “release in good health” word-game (if that’s what it is) may be not the Chinese people; it may be the international community, the ones who will receive Liu Xiaobo, if he is exiled, and the ones whose good impressions of the new Chinese Nobel laureate the regime dearly wants to preserve.

Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.

  1. These two, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, later became US citizens as well as very “friendly” to the PRC.
  2. Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize certificate was placed on an empty chair in Oslo in December 2010, after which authorities banned the phrase “empty chair” from the Chinese Internet.
Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published...
Reviewed in This Article

Red Sorghum
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin, 359 pp.

The Garlic Ballads
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 290 pp.

Big Breasts and Wide Hips
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 532 pp.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 540 pp.

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This article was first published in the December 6, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low....

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?


“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to...

Old Dreams for a New China


Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to...

China: When the Cats Rule


In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...