English translation of the interview with Mo Yan

English translation of the interview with Mo Yan, 6 December 2012. The interviewer is YuSie Rundkvist Chou. The interview was made in Chinese, here transcribed by Svensk Medietext AB.

Mr Mo Yan, I’d like to congratulate you to the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. First of all, I’d like to ask you… You were born in a village in Shandong to illiterate parents, so how did you start writing?

Mo Yan: Yes, I was born in a village in Shandong, but my father was literate. He studied in a private village school and was a cultured village intellectual. He always encouraged us to study.

My eldest brother went to Shanghai’s East China Normal University in the 1960s. This wasn’t very common in my village. He left many books at home and I read those language and history textbooks when I was young. Gradually, through reading novels, I developed my interest in literature.

So how did you start writing? Did you decide to do it by yourself?

Mo Yan: I think all writers start as keen readers. We develop a desire to write while reading. We like to learn how to write. Besides, for village teenagers like myself at that time, writers were stars.Anyone who writes a novel is truly exceptional.

Moreover, there were some intellectuals in my village at the time. They were university graduates who had come from Jinan, Shandong’s capital. They taught me about literature and writers. So the interest for writing grew in me already at a young age. In primary school, I was good at writing and often complimented by my teachers. These are the reasons why I gradually got into writing.

Can you tell us more about your childhood? What was it like?

Mo Yan: All writers start by writing about their childhood, especially childhood memories. I was born in 1955. When I started forming memories, it was the most difficult time in China’s history. Most people were starving at the time. People led a tough life. People starved to death all the time, even in my village. I think that children’s memories from such times can be haunting.

I remember that there were many children in the village.When the sun came out in winter, we all sat by a wall and bathed in the sun. Our clothes were all torn and ripped. We were barely covered. We also had bloated stomachs, because of lack of nutrients. Our legs and arms were thin, like those typical for starved children.

I was quite naughty when I was in primary school and I was expelled in fifth grade. But I couldn’t join the adult workforce after the expulsion because I didn’t have much work ability. So I herded cattle and sheep alone. In such a solitary environment one has only the animals and the plants to talk to. I think the kind of childhood I had was quite unique.

When I later started writing, everything in my childhood came back to me, so I used these memories, mixed with ideas and events from real life, when I created my earliest novels.

Why were you expelled in fifth grade?

Mo Yan: It was during the Cultural Revolution. There were political activities and class struggle, and people were insecure. My family owned land before the liberation, so my background wasn’t great. Children like us could go to school in theory but if one did go, and didn’t do well. By “do well” I mean being liked by the teachers. If they didn’t like you, you’d be deprived and denied the right to continue in school.

Another reason is that the school didn’t teach much at the time. We read “The Quotations from Chairman Mao” in language class and in mathematics or other classes, students were rebelling. Students fought and quarreled every day.

My parents felt that I couldn’t learn anything there. So when I was thrown out, they didn’t fight for me and I didn’t care much about that kind of school anyway. So I left school very early. I was only 11.

How did you feel like at the time?

Mo Yan: I felt quite lonely. Children like to hang out in groups and those in my age were all in school. They may not have learned much, but they fought and quarreled and had fun. When I was herding cattle and sheep, I passed the front door of my school and saw children in my age having fun in school. I was the only outsider. So I felt very lonely at the time.

Also, I didn’t know what to do with my future. Here I was, herding cattle at a young age. Would I ever do anything else? What would my future hold? What would I do when I grew up? I felt hopeless.

The experiences I had in my childhood have been crucial to my writing. I wrote about all kinds of animals and plants in my novels. I wrote about the close and mysterious relationship between children and nature. This is all inseparable of my personal experiences.

If I look back at my past… First of all, I couldn’t go to school when I was young, and I regret that. But at the same time, I feel kind of glad about it. If I hadn’t gone through that painful experience as a child I would probably not have become a writer. If I had, I would definitely have become a different kind of writer. I would definitely be writing a different kind of books.

That’s why, in a sense, dropping out at a young age returning to the farm, being embraced by nature and the rural culture helped me a great deal in becoming a writer. Of course, I wouldn’t take my children out of school to make them writers by taking them back to the farm. It doesn’t work that way.

As I said before, the painful experiences in my childhood helped me in my writing, but if I had the chance to choose how I lived my childhood, I would definitely go for a happy one, instead of a lonely and hungry childhood.

In what ways did it help your writing?

Mo Yan: Firstly, I was able to establish an intimate relationship with nature. A child growing up in school, and a child growing up in the field have different relationships to nature, different feelings for animals and plants. The other were surrounded by other kids and teachers every day. But I was surrounded by sheep, cattle, plants, grass and trees every day. The feelings I had towards nature were so delicate and sentimental. For a long time, I thought animals and plants could communicate with humans. And I felt that they understood what I said. This kind of experience is unique and valuable.

Also, I didn’t hang out with a group of children. I was with a group of adults. I didn’t have the right to speak. They were my uncles, and they were adults. They would be scornful if I interrupted their conversation. But I could listen. I started observing the adult world earlier than most children. I started listening to adults earlier than most.

From my grandparents I learned about the rural culture. In rural culture there are historical figures, legends, historical events and even myths and ghost stories such as a wolf or a rooster turning into a human. So folk elements and oral tradition figure strongly in my books, as they are part of my experiences at that time.

It’s a unique point of view, to observe the world through the eyes of a child. When an adult looks at things, he’s not surprised by what he sees. But when a child looks up from below, because it is an upward view it sees a lot of things that adults don’t see. It helps me a lot in my writing as well.

Of course there are also other aspects, that I can’t explain all at once.

In your childhood, you had an intimate relationship with nature. When you look at China of today, how do you feel about it?

Mo Yan: I’m a conservationist. I have expressed my conservationism clearly in my books. In “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” and “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” I expressed my agony and anger over overexploitation and the destruction of the environment.

I’ve always believed that we should slow down our pace of development. We shouldn’t exploit things so quickly. We should preserve rural culture and natural heritage. Stop turning all the villages into towns. We should let the land rest. We shouldn’t work the land as hard as if it was a human.

I’m very distressed by the pollution and the destruction of China’s environment since the 1980s. I feel really bad about it. When I see that factories are built everywhere even in a village I was familiar with… When I see that the river I swam and fished in as a boy has become a dirty ditch, I can’t begin to describe the pain. When I see the trees in my village hung with old plastic bags… This kind of plastic pollution scares me. That’s why, when I give speeches in Japan and other countries, I criticise this kind of overexploitation, which only centres on economic gain based on unsustainable development.

Let’s return to the subject of literature. Do you think that literature is of any meaning to the general public today?

Mo Yan: The relationship between literature and reality; its emotional connection to people; is a subject many have theorised on. My perspective on literature is: First of all, don’t overestimate it. Don’t expect a novel, a poem or a play to change the realities of our society. That’s a too high expectation. Of course, it has happened that a piece of literature has led to war. But such incidents are very unique. Most often, the impact of literature is very delicate.

That’s because literature is a form of art. Through the appreciation of the aesthetic, the impact is gradual and descreet, like spring showers moistening the soil. So I think, to put literature on such a high pedestal, expecting it to alter reality to do that to literature, is to give it too much weight or responsibility.

Yet one shouldn’t belittle it, either. Literature is not just for fun; its purpose is not simply to draw a few laughs. I think literature’s most precious quality lies is its study of the human soul.  Literature praises what’s true and kind. Literature exposes and criticises what is dark and ugly. Its ultimate goal is to let our mind become richer and more expansive and make us kinder and more gracious. Via its transformation of people literature affects our society’s development and improvement. But I think it is a very gradual process.

I have an analogy to the relationship between literature and society, and that is the relationship people have with their hair: It is, of course, good to have a full head of hair. It looks nice and helps protect one’s head. But if one doesn’t have much hair, like me, that’s fine, as I’m still healthy. So it is with literature. A society may have many novels, poems, poets and writers which is very good. But if there are less of them, life is still…survivable. So I think, whether it is literature or art, it’s like human hair.

In the end, when a person dies, he gets buried in the ground. If he is dug up after many years, we find that his flesh has become earth but his hair remains. I mean, many things in society changes and disappear perhaps only literature and art will remain.

That is a very interesting analogy. When you started writing, what was your reason? What were you thinking about?

Mo Yan: I used to half-jokingly, half-seriously say that my initial reason for writing was that I wanted to live a happy life of eating dumplings three times a day. I said it so often that I grew tired of it. But in truth, my answer is still the same. My initial reason for writing wasn’t all that noble.

Some writers say, “I want my writing to change society.” “I want to shape beautiful minds through literature.” They give literature all these definitions. There are many writers like that. I think that for Chinese writers like me, who were born in farming villages and have lived a lower class life in poverty, our initial reason to write was probably very simple – lowly, even. It was to put food on the table, to change our situation and improve our position. Taking up a pen actually has many material benefits.

Of course, through the process of writing, when your life changes as a result many other ideas about literature naturally ensue. So, the initial reason was really not noble at all – even kind of vulgar. But that was actually the first idea I had.

I mentioned earlier that there were some educated people in my village. Some of them were educated people who had made a mistake in the 1960s. Today, when we say “made a mistake”, we should put quotation marks around it. They came to our village as punishment.

One of them used to tell me, that he had known a writer who lived lavishly and would eat dumplings three times a day. Families like mine would only have dumplings during the Spring Festival, so only once or twice a year. But here was someone who had dumplings three times a day! We were in disbelief. We thought not even a king could live such a life. But as a writer, he could. So I asked him, “If I could write books, would I be able to live such a life, too?” “But of course”, he said. So that was my first reason for writing.

This reason for you… What is your reason for writing today?

Mo Yan: Today, I can surely eat dumplings three times a day. Even in the middle of the night: I just take some out of the fridge and cook them. So today, my goals from those first days have long been achieved. So what drives me? What’s motivates me to keep writing? I can’t explain it in just a few sentences.

First of all, I just feel that I have something to say. I want to write down my thoughts and relate them to my readers through a polished piece of work.

Secondly, there are many things in society that I feel a duty to write about.

Another reason is my explorations to innovate literature as an art, which also drives me to write. Since the fictional form first emerged, at least a thousand years have passed. Within the art of literature and fiction there have always emerged new forms. Writers kept making changes to the form of fiction, whether in language or format. So, is there room for creativity for our generation of writers? I think there is. I see fiction as an art, and its development as infinite. Its format also has infinite possibilities. This near obsessive pursuit of fiction as an art, encourages me to keep writing.

Why do you use a pen name, and why Mo Yan?

Mo Yan: I talked about this at the press conference this afternoon. My name is Guan Moye. The second part becomes Mo Yan if broken up. In traditional writing, the left side of the ideogram is “Yan” and the right is “Mo”. Also, the second part, “Moye”, sounds like “Mo Yan”.

Another reason is that I was a very talkative child. Back in those days, if one talked too much one could get oneself and one’s family into trouble. It wasn’t always political, as when one said something counter-revolutionary but could also be social relationships. One could say something that offended a neighbour and upset one’s parents as the neighbour would get angry with them. When I was a child, I was too talkative which caused my parents much trouble. They would often criticise me, educate me, or even scold me. They would scold me for running my mouth.

Also, when I decided to start writing I had a somewhat superstitious idea as many great writers had pen names. People like Lu Xun and Ba Jin all used pen names. Many foreign writers as well. So, I thought, in order to write novels, one should first have a pen name. So when thinking about it, I came up with “Mo Yan”.

It is a way of paying respect to my parents’ teachings. Also, it is a kind of reminder and encouragement to myself. I think, if one wants to be a writer, one must speak less and write more. Talking exhausts energy and is time-consuming. If one puts the time and energy spent on talking into writing one can write more. So part of the pen name’s meaning is to encourage myself to work hard.

If you look back on your work, do you see any recurring theme or recurring perspective?

Mo Yan: There are two recurring themes. One is hunger, the other is loneliness. I have mentioned this many times. In my novels, especially the earlier ones these are two very important themes as these two things have affected me the most and deepest. Whenever I write about the past, these two themes will inevitably come up.

I think there is one more, something I have been pursuing until this day: my interest in the exploration of the depths of the human soul. Why are people the way they are? Why are some good and some bad? When facing the same things, why do people react so differently? Why are some naturally kind, while others, born into comfortable lives and given good education, grow up to be so evil? These are things I find unfathomable. I want to search for an answer through my writings and study this profound issue, to which there is no simple answer.

This sounds like psychology to me. Have you found an answer?

Mo Yan: I have not found an answer. Sometimes I am prone to superstition. Sometimes I think… We often believe that education and socialisation can remove hereditary traits. When we speak of someone being good or bad, we often link it to socialisation. But after my long-term observation and first-hand experiences I think it’s not always decided by socialisation. Some people are just born that way. Their thought processes are different. They are born to promote self-interest at others’ expense. Some are born to endure hardship and perform good deeds for others.

I think this is God’s will. God wanted to make the human world more complex so he created a group of true saints people with higher-than-average morality, such as Confucius. Such people are selfless and prioritise other people’s interests. For other people’s sake, they will give up what they treasure most. This is not a result of education.

The majority, average people like us two have the basic capacity for kindness. But there is also a grey area, deep within us, that sometimes puts our self-interest first. Sometimes we also have vulgar emotions. Most people are like that.

Another group is the opposite of saints. They are born evil. They have no sense of morality. People like us, because we have a basic notion of morality, if we do something that hurts others we feel bad, we criticise ourselves, and we even repent. People who are born evil have no basic notion of morality, and no conscience. When they do something we consider to be extremely evil, they don’t. They don’t feel bad, they are fine with it.

So, I can only leave the reasoning behind all this to God. God created three types of people, so we can compare and contrast us.

Do you have a religious faith?

Mo Yan: I am a polytheist. It comes from my childhood, cattle-herding in the fields. In that environment, I could feel that all things have souls. García Márquez said something similar: “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” When I was herding cattle, I felt that the birds, the animals on the ground even the trees and grass, has a soul. Everything has feelings. So I think I’ve been a polytheist since childhood.

There is also this folk culture in our village. Not far from my hometown there was a famous writer, Pu Songling, during the Qing dynasty. He wrote about gods and spirits of various animals and plants, that can change into the shape of humans. This kind of belief is common in the countryside. I was often told such stories by my grandparents and neighbours.

That was when I was a child. Then I went to the city, where I learned many theories, including Marxist atheism and theories about various gods. And I thought that all the religious faiths are humanity’s spiritual wealth and should be studied from an academic perspective.

So now I think I have religious faith. I respect all religions that teach people to be kind. But I am no follower of any one religion.

Our time is almost up. I want to ask, what does the Nobel Prize money mean to you?

Mo Yan: The money… When I was interviewed by Chinese reporters, they said: “You’ve been awarded such a large sum. What do you plan to do with it?” I jokingly said, “I plan to buy a bigger house in Beijing”, but someone immediately replied, “Not with that money.” Beijing’s real estate prices are too high. It may buy a 100 square-metre house.

Even without this money I can live comfortably and meet my basic needs but it will allow me to do more things. First of all, I won’t have to write quickly, or without rest, just to make a living. Now I have time to fine-tune my writing as I won’t be pressed to produce a large quantity. I can produce higher quality instead. Also, I can use the money to help those who need my help in my hometown my friends and relatives or villagers.

Thank you – and congratulations once again!

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To cite this section
MLA style: English translation of the interview with Mo Yan. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Sat. 2 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2012/yan/25483-interview-with-mo-yan-2012/>

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