Oct 08

What Lies between Chinese Writers and the Nobel Prize

Written by berlinf on Thursday, October 8th, 2009 at 10:12 pm
Filed under:Opinion | Tags:, , ,
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Nobel Prize for Literature was just awarded to Herta Müller, born in Romania and productive in Germany. This came somewhat to my surprise even though I had not been playing with a crystal ball. Shortly before the announcement, one prominent member of the jury Peter Englund admitted to the Associated Press that the prize has become too Eurocentric with most jury members being European . Americans have not won any Nobel Prize in literature since 1993. Englund’s confession sparkled some hope in America that this time it might be an American author. And the disappointment that followed!

It is worse for China. Chinese poet Beidao was among those nominated for the prize. I guess he will have to wait. On the map of world literature with Europe right at the center, Chinese literature is an island that is hidden somewhere, to be discovered and understood. We depend on the likes of sinologue Wolfgang Kubin to tell the rest of the world what our writing is about. Unfortunately, Kubin was disgusted with the majority of Chinese literature that has surfaced, especially the vulgar young authors who proclaim to be “writing with their bodies” instead of their minds and hearts. Such “body” authors receive better recognition than their more serious peers, thanks to the cultural reporters that care more about controversies than content. Many pop critics do not read much anyway.

What hurdles, then, lie between Chinese writers and Nobel laurels? Literary critic Wang Binbin from Nanjing University says they lack everything, except quantity. They lack “good language, good mood, good thoughts” . With Wang leading the effort, I will add a few items of my own to the list(中国当代作家无人能摘诺奖).

Some believe that Chinese literature, written in Chinese, lack good translators and good translation. If only it were that simple! As I have observed, there is an increasing number of “talent scouts” diligently looking for the next big name in China. There are good translators out there, but of course, being one myself, I have to state that nobody is paying them beyond some symbolic royalties, so understandably some good ones left. There is also no lack of foreign publishers who came in recent years to pursue their Chinese dream. The key of the issue is whether writers can actually sell once their works is translated into other languages. This is something that translators cannot help much with. Some professional translators of Chinese literature confess that their translated works do not sell more than a few thousand copies. What sells is the scar literature by Chinese authors living abroad. Their writings are based upon stereotypical perceptions centered on such themes as the Cultural Revolution and their personal growth story. Not that these themes are innately wrong, but these authors do not take it any further to add new dimensions, new layers, new inquisitions. They just lie comfortably in their little narcissist cocoons without trying to have a broader vision.

Speaking of vision, my feeling is that the Eurocentric jury like works from authors of “two worlds”. Müller, for instance has her “two worlds”: Romania and Germany. She started out as a translator to work in two languages. She is interested in transformations that can happen when words cross borders. In an interview with Radio Romania International, she described how a falling star makes a Romanian think of death, and a German would want to come up with a wish. “We’re not only speaking about different words, but about different worlds. ”

Europe is a place where borders are easily crossed, many languages are spoken, and cultures are constantly clashing, absorbing and assimilating. Once upon a time there were also the opposing worlds of the capitalist vs. the socialist, the Soviet vs. the western. In literature, such clashes and tensions present numerous opportunities. But the “two worlds” I am talking about can be related to geographies, times or systems of ideas. Faulkner has his two worlds of the black and the white, the north and the south, an America before the Civil War and an America after. Naipaul has his worlds of Africa, India and Europe. Pearl Buck grew up familiar with the “East Wind and West Wind”. Sartre found his tensions between his middle class upbringing and his working-class political position. Orhan Pamuk literally lives between Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, where a nostalgic Ottoman past meets a modern Turkey. In an interview with the Paris Review earlier in 2009, Pamuk says: “Turkey should not worry about having two spirits, belonging to two different cultures, having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. You may lose your relation with reality –I’m a fiction writer, so I don’t think that’s such a bad thing- but you shouldn’t worry about your schizophrenia. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness.” (Interview with the Paris Review, 30/01/2009). I am not quoting Pamuk here to promote insanity as a path to literary success. However, it should be emphasized that writers should not be confined only to their little unitary world. People living in two worlds find voices crossing, echoing and clashing, which result in undertones and depths in their work. Living in two worlds is often anything but enjoyable. People may find themselves in dilemmas and clashes and difficult decisions. They may find themselves not accepted or welcomed by each. At the margin or being on the edges, however, lies fertile soil for the growth of artistic creativity. Sadly, China’s literary landscape is monotonous in spite of the sheer number of works being published. It is a landscape isolated from past glories and cut off from international exposure. It is basically an island. There is something really tragic about it.

Chinese writers also lack an encouraging environment for creative writing. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize only after he went to France. In recent years, our cultural environment seemed to have gone back in time. Times are now harder for writers than the 1980s. The Central Propaganda Ministry, the stern father of many smaller watchdogs, is just a huge nervous system housed in a government building. Everything can be made to sound sensitive. They don’t like things they cannot deal with using the old command and control methods. It is so difficult to avoid ideological landmines that writers sometimes retreat to safer corners to write toothless literature that does not bite, or even bark. In this restraining environment, not having anyone win the Nobel Prize may not be such a bad thing for status-quo-maintaining bureaucrats. What may worry them is the possibility that someone may be so careless as to really get a Nobel Prize. The lucky bastard would become an international celebrity. How do we control what he or she says? Would he or she end up embarrassing the state? In cultural affairs, the watchdogs are just pretending they like to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred voices be heard. Deep in their guts they like unerring uniformity, also known as “harmony”.

In addition, the overall social environment in China right now is simply too noisy for quiet writing. You have to enjoy tranquility to enjoy writing. Chinese writers too, stop enjoying tranquility in their writing because everybody else is making money by means fair or foul. They want to be rich, famous and popular. They too want to get a piece of the attention pie. They want to have both the reputation as a serious writer and the popularity of a pop writer, as Dr. Wang Binbin puts it.

Chinese writers also need to have “hearts” to allow them to have larger concerns. Pearl Buck, for instance, took an interest in a group of people that neither Chinese intellectuals nor anyone outside at that time took an interest in: Chinese farmers living on the good old earth. If there are any necessary fools today who’d worry whether the sky will collapse, they should include writers. We are like a bunch of cavemen waiting in our rest for sages to tell us stories and make sense of the world. They are the ones to fret about seemingly unpractical issues, such as the destiny of Africa, what happened to East Germany after the Berlin Wall, or, what is the meaning of life. They are the ones to give voice to the voiceless. They are the ones that hold their chins to think, to look at the starry night, to ponder what is out there and what our life here is all about. They are the ones to formulate difficult questions about the environment and our neighbors. What value is there, if an author cease to do these while focusing on his or her own little life?

I am not offering any formula for the Nobel, of course who’d expect that anyway? One could also ask: why in the world would these writers care about Nobel Prize any way? Isn’t our own Maodun Literary Prize good enough to boost writers’ morale? Not necessarily. In a larger context, there is a glaring inconsistency between our economic success and literary failure. This isn’t very helpful in telling the China story.

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48 Responses to “What Lies between Chinese Writers and the Nobel Prize”

  1. Louis Yu Says:

    I was under the impression that Chinese readers tend to read more “documentary” things like biographies, or books that document history movements ect; I was told once by family and friends to “not waste my time on reading “fictions” as they are just stories…”. I think some people see literature or fictions as just useless pass-times as oppose to a form of art…. “art” has a weird effect in China and usually is looked down on- both the art and people that makes art…

  2. K Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I am reading Pamuk’s book Snow at the moment and I think you are right about the creativity that comes out of these kinds of tensions.

  3. Rhan Says:

    There are only two topics that catch the Chinese attention in the past few decades, politic and economy. Everyone is busy to absorb, learn, imitate, take, and have no time to release, teach, create, and give. Until today, I am still reading the same old literature written before New China came into picture. I couldn’t grasp what is the theme of the modern work and writing, and among modern writers, perhaps only 余秋雨 is popular in my region but somehow, his writing is not real literature and lean toward historical and cultural. The rest like 王蒙、莫言、王安忆、张贤亮、贾平凹 which I believe is well accepted in mainland are to me too peculiar. Perhaps Chinese lack humanism and never appreciate leisure?

    Back to Chinese and Nobel Price for Literature, how come nobody ask why there is not a single Chinese song in the Billboard 100?

  4. Niklas Says:

    A Chinese writer has one the Nobel Prize, but it was censored.

    Anyway, i think it’s futile to discuss the nobel prize based on geography.
    If you’re going to discuss the validity of the prize, then you need to discuss what the authors have accomplished, not what nationality they have.

  5. Li Zhenhua Says:

    thats all the fact you can get in the perception of “China” and “Chinese”, but lots of them are the old issues already, I do think to win the prize is really not important even this not correct Eurocentric issue does to the world. Literature should not relay too much on the political or power, well something shall tell the truth, but literature normally does not tell especially for today, it’s not about literature, it’s about how blogging system have constructed by writers and none writers, if we still have the old way of judge for it as the nobel prize, then the prize shall pass away itself. and in comparison of what is the better understanding which should not be an one way ticket, we should not ask the jury all become Chinese or Indian, but those juries have to understand the outside world which existing not far from the language which language can not always tell. So, sometime we have people win the prize because of political reasons, which is fine, but is that really about the identity or the need of politically correct….

  6. wgj Says:

    Why do so people keep calling it “Central Propaganda Ministry” when the actual English name is “Central Publicity Department”? First of all, it’s not a ministry within the the government, but a department within the CCP; second of all, “propaganda” is so negatively loaded it’s almost sarcastic, and the CPD itself never officially adopted it for the translation of its name, AFAIK.

  7. dragan Says:

    Hm,… by your logic, Ha Jin should won Nobel Prize. There’s lot of politics in Nobel Prize. Maybe you think that NP is Eurocentric, but people form East Europe thinks that NP is “great culture” centric. Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn got prizes solely on political basis (they are great, NP worth writers anyway). Problem is not in China, but in Committee.

  8. FOARP Says:

    “Why do so people keep calling it “Central Propaganda Ministry” when the actual English name is “Central Publicity Department”? First of all, it’s not a ministry within the the government, but a department within the CCP; second of all, “propaganda” is so negatively loaded it’s almost sarcastic, and the CPD itself never officially adopted it for the translation of its name, AFAIK.”

    1) Trying to claim that the CCP and the Chinese government are not one and the same is simply laughable, but even if we accept your argument . . .

    2) Trying to use the word ‘publicity’ in place of ‘propaganda’ when translating the word ‘宣传’ is a fruitless task. Just read this article and you will see how Orwellian it makes things (parts where the word ‘宣传’ are used are bolded):

    “Carrying Forward the Spirit of Patriotism and Adhering to Correct Guidance of Public Opinion to Create a CCP Anniversary of Soaring Spirit in a Social Atmosphere of Harmony”

    Making an inspection yesterday at Beijing Television and the Beijing Bureau of Xinhua News Agency of preparations for news and publicity of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC and Beijing Municipal Party Secretary Liu Qi (刘淇) demanded that [media] powerfully carry forward the spirit of patriotism and adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, creating a soaring spirit, joy and serenity, and a harmonious and civilized atmosphere for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city . . .

    Liu Qi emphasized that news and publicity departments must tightly adhere to the events and topics as determined by the Central Party, publicizing the resplendent journey since the founding of the new China 60 years ago, carrying forward the spirit of patriotism and upholding correct guidance of public opinion, publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city, singing loudly the main themes of praise of the party, of socialism, of economic reforms, of our great mother country and of our various peoples . . . “

    (Source: http://cmp.hku.hk/2009/05/15/1627/ )

    Tell you what, since crazed internet nationalists and the reality-based community cannot agree on the correct translation for “中共中央宣传部”, let us simply call it “The CCP Ministry of Truth”, has a nice ring to it, no?

    @Berlinf – I have only ever read two Nobel Prize-winning works: Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and A Dance To The Music of Time. Churchill was and is an amazing read, but A Dance To etc. was pretentious, meaningless waffle. I do not think of the Nobel Prize for Literature as a mark of quality, nor do I think Chinese authors should feel particularly miffed for never having won it.

    What I would say is that Chinese literature will never reach its full potential whilst freedom of speech lags. Yes, I know that Russian authors acheived much under the Tsars and the USSR, but they were always hampered by the government (cf. Solzhenitsyn) and nowadays there are few Russian authors whose works are known outside their home country (Eduard Limonov being the only exception known to me).

  9. Jerry Says:

    @FOARP #8

    Carrying Forward the Spirit of Patriotism and Adhering to Correct Guidance of Public Opinion to Create a CCP Anniversary of Soaring Spirit in a Social Atmosphere of Harmony

    … Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC and Beijing Municipal Party Secretary Liu Qi (刘淇) demanded that [media] powerfully carry forward the spirit of patriotism and adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, creating a soaring spirit, joy and serenity, and a harmonious and civilized atmosphere for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city . . .

    Liu Qi emphasized that news and publicity departments must tightly adhere to the events and topics as determined by the Central Party, publicizing the resplendent journey since the founding of the new China 60 years ago, carrying forward the spirit of patriotism and upholding correct guidance of public opinion, publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city, singing loudly the main themes of praise of the party, of socialism, of economic reforms, of our great mother country and of our various peoples . . . “

    Good god, FOARP, this sounds like one of Dick Cheney’s political wet dreams. Rummy, Wolfy, Glenn Beck and Frum are probably jealous as hell. This sounds like it is right out of the neo-con bibles of The Project for the New American Century and The American Enterprise Institute. Fortunately, most Americans reject such inane ideology. Please note I did not say all. After all, we still have teabaggers and birthers and neo-fascists. And neo-cons.

    Unfortunately, it is also reminiscent of the Nazis, Hitler’s speeches and Leni Riefenstahl’s films.

    This is a joke, RIGHT? Honestly, FOARP, is this just a Jon Stewart-like pre-Halloween skit by the CCP? 😀 This sounds beyond belief. And the Beijing Daily printed this for everyone to see. Wow. That makes it even scarier. Have they ever heard about “plausible deniability”? At least Cheney knew enough to lie about things like this. ::LMAO:: 😛 😉

    Thanks for the link from David Bandurski at the China Media Project at HKU.

  10. Jerry Says:

    @FOARP #8

    FOARP, You wrote regarding Russian literature. I am familiar with Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his 2 books, Crime and Punishment, and the Brothers Karamazov. FD wrote during the era of the tsars. Leo Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, and War and Peace. He wrote during tsarist times, too. Another tsarist-era writer was Anton Chekhov. He wrote Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, which were plays.

    These are all outstanding works. Tsarist Russia was anathema to generations of my fellow Russian Jews and my own Jewish family. Nonetheless, the Tsars cultivated the arts, such as ballet, music and writing. It was a much different atmosphere than the current atmosphere for writers in China.

  11. hzzz Says:

    You can find the list of nobel laureates in literature here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_in_Literature)

    There have been 4 winners so far from Asia. 2 from Japan, 1 from China and 1 from India. American authors have won this prize 7 times. If I counted correctly the Europeans (both eastern and western) have won the prize 56 times. I think the facts speak for themselves whether the the judges are euro-centric or not. It’s understandable too – that’s where the judges are from and a few if none of them can read asian languages directly, so their exposure in works done in other languages are limited.

    I agree with others that this is not a big deal. The non-science Nobel decisions are mostly political. For a Chinese to win you must be anti-government, otherwise the political zealots would view giving prize to a Chinese as kow-towing to the CCP.

    Growing up in the US system I had to read Hemingway and Faulkner. Since I took french in high school I also had to read Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. These are great works, but the best novels I have read in any language are the kung-fu ones written by Jin Yong. In terms of pure influence his work is likely to have been more read and made into more media than the works by any other modern author. Yet because his work is actually appealing to the masses, easy to read, and he does not outright condemn the Chinese government, the euro literary snobs will never accept him as a great writer.

    *edit* – I just read that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize! LOL. Okay I am definitely happy that I voted for him and all, but I am not sure what he has done to deserve this prize. Is this some sort of consolation prize for Chicago not getting the Olympics?? Just more evidence that the Nobel committee is getting way too political.

  12. The Pooka MacPhellimey Says:

    This doesn’t bear as much relation to the translation of Chinese literature as one would think — though God knows Chinese literature suffers terribly in English translation at the hands of talentless hacks who submit their first drafts and call it a day. Still, Göran Malmqvist, one of the members of the Swedish Academy, is a respected sinologist in his own right, and frequently mentions Chinese authors to the press. (He has pretty lousy taste, but de gustibus non est and all that.) And Chinese literature is frequently better represented in French and German translation than in English.

    The problem is that the “serious writers” of today’s China — Cao Naiqian, Mo Yan, Yu Hua — either continue writing the same book over and over again (see Mo, who apparently thinks that if the last three thousand-page epics about Shandong families with strong women and weak men didn’t get him the Nobel, the next one will), lack the discipline to maintain a full-length novel and fall back on grotesqueries instead (see Yu, and the mess that is 兄弟), or do nothing but transpose William Faulkner into a rural Chinese setting (Cao, and pretty much every other “serious writer,” at least once). Other once-promising writers (Ah Cheng, Wang Shuo) have either quit writing altogether or committed intellectual suicide to the point that they can no longer write anything worth reading. The case of Wang Shuo, one of very few contemporary writers who actually seems at home in his own language, is particularly sad: he had always seemed to me the best bet for a true vernacular literature, and now he does little more than masturbate. And while there are plenty of other talented writers out there, it’s rare in my experience to read a novel that can honestly qualify as good, rather than just “pretty good…for China.”

    What happened? (I mean besides 1957. And, you know, everything that came after it.) So many of the great writers of the Republican period — Lu Xun, Lao She, Qian Zhongshu, and Eileen Chang come to mind — were producing truly world-class literature, stuff that hasn’t been surpassed since. Of course, they’d all received foreign schooling to some degree — Qian, famously, was fluent in several European languages living and dead, and wrote beautifully in English. Their foreign education didn’t teach them how to write, of course, but it must surely have expanded their worldview, as the original poster said, to encompass something beyond themselves. Later generations, even with access to an abundance of foreign literature in translation, just don’t seem to have that.

    Not everything can be chalked up to political prejudice. (The choice of Gao Xingjian, for example, can better be chalked up to an utter lack of taste.) If people want to know why China hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for literature, maybe they should ask first why China has produced so few good writers in recent years.

  13. berlinf Says:

    @The Pooka MacPhellimey I agree that some potentially great writers have squandered or given up their talents. A great writer should never write to meet the expectations of his readers. They should surprise them. What you described about Mo Yan and Yu Hua are both cases of trying to please the market.

    Ford once said to the effect that he’d made a faster horse instead of a car if he had listened to customers 🙂

  14. berlinf Says:

    @wgj at 6

    With all due respect to the respectable individuals in the government, I really do not think changing the translation of the Central Propaganda Ministry helps in making China a better place for culture. We have to face the fact that contemporary Chinese literature and culture in general is in a rather pathetic state. Whose fault is it? I don’t know how creativity lives, but I sure know how it dies. You say no to this and no to that and pretty soon thinking starts to freeze. This is why I don’t like this ministry. I don’t see how it nurtures and cultivates anything. It’s a big naysayer that works only to stifle creative talents. These folks really don’t have a clue how culture works. Go to the Confucius Institute web sites and you’ll see they perceive cultural prosperity only as the preservation of things like the Beijing Opera, the Taiji, the Kungfu, the Calligraphy… beautiful things from the past that start to stink if you put all of them together for too long. These are what I call museum culture that a Confucius elite in the past cherish. These propaganda folks do not cast their eyes at a more “living culture”, namely how the ordinary folks live, laugh and love, as Jia Zhangke would demonstrate. Only when you start to appreciate these will there be cultural confidence, and new opportunities for traditional Chinese culture to grow and reproduce. Otherwise, it will suffer from atrophy. Mao certainly did it wrong by denying all the traditional heritage, but now I think we err in another extreme in our revolt against the Cultural Revolution.

  15. berlinf Says:

    @hzzz at 11,

    No doubt these members are eurocentric and probably biased in their taste. But Chinese folks don’t like what is being written either, including the readers and the critics. If these don’t say anything about the quality of their writing, I do not know what would.

    But I agree that in oppressive regimes such as the former Soviet Union, great works were also produced. One major difference I see is that in the former Soviet Union, the materialist world view was not so thoroughly adopted. Churches were still alive there, though somewhat subdued. China is more successful in adopting the materialist world view which severed the link with the folklore and killed imagination. The materialist world view is rather limiting in perspectives. I am not saying that all literature should be fantasies, but when imagination is killed, the soil is no good for literary things to grow. In such environment you cannot even think of things like the Harry Porter, let alone deeply inquisitive works like Brother Karamazov. We just look at what can be seen, heard, tasted or felt. This therefore produced a kind of a spiritual wasteland.

  16. Jason Says:

    @The Pooka MacPhellimey

    In short, Nobel Prize in literature just doesn’t gave a damn of Asian writers. From their history of awards, there’s only been 2 Nobel Prize winners in Asia (Japan and China).

    Not to sound racist or anything like that but this world is a “white” world.

  17. berlinf Says:

    @Jason, No need to feel bad about it. I heard that Southern Metro Daily is creating a competing prize for Chinese writers. Maybe we ARE different after all, belonging to a different tradition. I’m more and more torn about the issue. I guess It’s only when we try to play the same game that problems arise which force us to be self-reflective as what I had tried to do.

    Check here if interested: http://book.qq.com/a/20090414/000036.htm

  18. Hemulen Says:

    I think it is important to put the Nobel Prize in literature into perspective and to take it for what it is.

    First, the Prize is not awarded by a panel of “judges” or a “jury” but by the Royal Swedish Academy, the primary purpose of which is to develop and protect the Swedish language. It was set up by the Swedish king in 1786 and consists of 12 members, the statutes have never been amended. The membership is a self-selected group and once you are elected, you are a member for life. Today most of the members are linguists, academics and authors, but there have also been some politicians on the academy. Their major task is to edit a number of dictionaries and other normative material on the Swedish language. All of them are Swedish or have Swedish as their native language, it is NOT and is NOT supposed to be an international panel where every country is represented, so it is besides the point to say that the “jury members are all European”.

    Second, the Nobel Prizes were set up in 1901 in pursuance of Alfred Nobel’s will, which he wrote in 1896. In his will, he said that the literature prize should be awarded to the author who “in the field of literature [wrote] the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. He also stated that the prize should be awarded to anyone regardless of nationality and that the Swedish Academy should be in charge of the prize. That’s it.

    The entire Nobel Prize rests on the will of a private individual who died in 1896 and his fortune. The Swedish academy never asked for this honor and they can decide at any moment not to award the Nobel Prize in Literature. Neither has the Swedish King any obligation to hand out the prizes on December 10 every year. No one is forced to accept the prize either and some people have declined the prize.

    There is more information at the Official Nobel website nobelprize.org

  19. Berlinf Says:

    @Hemulen Sweden is not in Africa or Asia or the Americas, so I don’t see why “eurocentric” is beside the point. I don’t know what you are trying to say here, that the Nobel is based on just a Swedish scientist’s personal will and governed by a club of a bunch of good old boys? That may well be the case, but unfortunately the thing has become so influential that ignoring it and dismissing it doesn’t help either. I’d look at it and ask: Ok, it’s may be a trashy prize, but how come we cannot even get a trashy prize?

    I guess we could use this as a starting point to discuss what went wrong with Chinese contemporary culture. Let’s face it, something is wrong, very wrong.

    I am seeing that ideological control as playing a part. I woke up this morning and the first email I recieved is that from Douban who said it deleted one of my book reviews on Hammer and Sickle. In the review I was refering to communism laughed out of its existence in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it may be out of brotherly love that Douban censor even that.

    But I guess the more essential part lies in the writers themselves. They don’t have the perspectives, guts or hearts that great writing requires.

  20. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Alfred Nobel bequeathed to the Swedes and Norwegians (depending on the category) the opportunity to hand out a prize each year. So “worthiness” for this prize is determined by the academies and Norwegian parliament who make the selections. Tough to argue that it’s the most prestigious prize in the world, but the winner isn’t necessarily the de facto world-wide consensus pick as the best in his/her/their field that year. All it means is that he/she/they was/were the majority choice among committee members.

    So to complain that Chinese writers haven’t won simply because the Nobel is “eurocentric” is unbecoming at best, and sour grapes at worst. A Chinese writer winning a Nobel would not render the prize any more or less eurocentric. In fact, it’s Scandinavian-centric, since those are the opinions that matter.

    So for the hard-done-by CHinese writer, I guess they have a choice. Do they write about what moves them, or do they write something they hope will appeal to the judges? Hopefully the former. And if the lack of a CHinese winner is troublesome, then it’s time to start your own prize, and hope that one day it matches the cachet of a Nobel.

  21. dewang Says:

    Hi Berlin,

    Interesting post.

    My thinking is the West at this particular time has a strong appeal for everything “raw” and going back to the primal instincts.

    By the time China swings that way, the West would have swung the way China is today.

    And then at that time, it is whomever the richest and most powerful that can give the biggest award going to make the most noise. 🙂

  22. Berlin Says:

    That’s an interesting thought. Someone ought to set a big prize in China. There are so many tycoons in China nowadays, I wonder why nobody did that. Waiting till they die to leave a will? There is a hope there.

  23. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Berlin:
    “Waiting till they die to leave a will?” — that’s what Nobel did. The symmetry would be nice, no?

    As I suggested in #20, that’s the way to go. Just like there are Golden Elephant awards for Chinese/Asian cinema. You can probably transplant the Nobel discussion onto the film industry, and wonder why Chinese films don’t win Best Picture Oscars. I don’t think anyone’s come close other than Crouching Tiger. And the reason is the same as for Nobels: an Oscar doesn’t define some movie/actor as the best in the world; it simply reflects the opinion of the Academy. So better to make your own award, and hope that someday it might match the pomp and circumstance of the big cheese.

  24. Wukailong Says:

    Of the three prizes that are not awarded to the “hard” sciences – peace, literature and economics – the same discussions start every year, and perhaps for a good reason. I sometimes make this joke with my brother:

    * The peace prize is given to the one who created most trouble in his or her area the last decade. It will help if he/she is highly controversial.

    * The economic prize is given to American nationals based on either 1) being staunch libertarians or 2) finding out some simple principle that only economists would miss anyway.

    * The price in literature will be handed to the person based on who didn’t get it last year, and pressure from areas who still haven’t gotten it. Two many European men getting the prize? Give it to an American woman, whether she’s writing quality literature or not.

  25. Wukailong Says:

    Btw, there is one member of the Academy that speaks and reads Chinese, Göran Malmqvist (马悦然). He’s a friend of Li Rui and knows many other of the famous authors well. From what I understand he takes things very personally and relations with Ba Jin got sour after 6/4 (he expected the old man to speak out against the government). Here’s an interview with him in Chinese about the subject at hand:


  26. dewang Says:

    I recommend Berlin writing Jack Ma to plead for a $100million to beef up an existing literary award that already exists in China and then take it “international.”

    Another thought – I think the Chinese Olympic Committee is very interested in changing the rules on table tennis so other countries get a better chance at winning gold. That makes the sport more popular. If China keeps winning it, then the overall prestige is not as high.

    Same thing for Nobel. If it is not inclusive and doesn’t take into consideration what rest of the world (mainly outside Europe and America) thinks cool, it will only remain a regional award.

  27. FOARP Says:

    @Dewang – The Nobel prizes will continue to attract attention so long as they remain controversial. They have certainly managed that his year.

  28. Berlin Says:

    Now you mentioned it, I remember Sweden as being the only country who could compete with China in Pingpong a few years ago. Now it’s all dominance for China. What we lost in literature we gained in Ping Pong. Just kidding.

    I really think we need a grand prize not for China as the PRC, but for the larger Chinese writer community, including overseas writers. Here is my comment on a similar discussion at paper-republic (http://paper-republic.org/links/raymond-zhou-on-the-nobel-dilemma/#comments):

    There is a failed prize in mainland China, called “Chinese Literature Media Prize” (not an attention-catching name to begin with), which was set up by Southern Metro Daily (http://book.qq.com/a/20090414/000036.htm) in an ambition to rival prizes in other languages, but it has not generated much interest. Bi Feiyu, one of my favorite authors, even turned it down this year when he was awarded the prize in the novel genre:


    I agree with Bruce that there should be a prize for all writers who write in Chinese, those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and those abroad. I hope some rich tycoon nearing the end of his life would raise his hand to respond to my post. Well, I am not going to bet on it.

    In any case, many tiny prizes in each of these parts of what I would call “Greater Chinese Writing Circle” would do little to bring the best authors into public attention. In the meantime, writing to the prize is like teaching to the test, except the former is more hopeless. So Raymond is right, maybe it is better that nobody has won it it. It would definitely ruin any talent that is left if someone did end up getting it.

    In my Chinese blog article about the issue (http://berlinfang.blog.163.com/blog/static/11667071620099811554546/), I found that about a half of those who left a comment (666 comments so far)indicate one way or the other that I should not have fretted about it, that Chinese literature is altogether a different thing. This led me to think that much more goes into literature than some “universal quality standards” which I originally assumed in the post when reflecting upon Chinese writers’ failure at Nobel. Yu Guangzhong (the Taiwanese poet quoted in jdmartinsen’s comment above) said something that is worth pondering: Even at his best and with the best possible translation, Shakespeare would not be as interesting for a Chinese reader as Tang Xianzu or Mao Dun (Chinese playwrights). I don’t think that is sour grape. That’s often what I felt as a reader.

  29. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Dewang:
    while i think the Nobels don’t represent “the best in the world”, but rather, “the best in the eyes of the selection committee”, it seems a stretch to suggest they aren’t prestigious. In fact, if they weren’t prestigious, I don’t think this thread would exist. I think it unlikely that CHinese would complain about the lack of Chinese Literature Nobelaureates if it was merely some pedestrian ho-hum award.

  30. Rhan Says:

    If rich tycoon set up an award – How literature could stoop so low.
    If government set up an award – Tend to bias and deem propaganda.
    If writer association set up an award – No one care.
    If readers set up an award – Many would ask why the winner is JinYong and not Bajin.

    I think sometimes the Chinese is a confuse lot.

  31. dewang Says:

    Hi S. K. Cheung, FOARP, Berlin,

    I didn’t mean disrespect for the Nobel, actually. It is one of the most noble awards that exist today for the most part, to the extent humans are capable of making it.

    Truthfully, it is difficult to say if some other committee governing such kind of award in the future will be able to make it truly something the world respect as something representative for the whole planet.

  32. dewang Says:

    Hi Berlin, #28

    Thx for the links and added info. I am getting a chance here to learn more about Chinese authors.

  33. dewang Says:

    Hi Rhan, #30,

    Who says Chinese all think alike? 🙂

  34. Rhan Says:

    Dear Dewang,
    I never said that! Who did deserves a kick on his butt! Or can we send our troops over?

  35. Uln Says:

    Berlinf, I really liked your post. It answers (or it asks?) a few questions that I was also asking myself for some time.There are 2 different issues here, in my opinion.

    1- Is the Nobel prize a fair standard for World literature? Obviously not, it is eurocentric and it is just the opinion of a few committee members that are not necessarily the most qualified judges. But in the end, I dont think we are looking for fairness, or is anything in art and literature really fair? This is just about prestige, and as long as the Nobel prize is recognized by a large part of the World population as the most prestigious prize, it should be regarded as a worthy objective for Chinese literature. The other solution, which is to snub it and say “in China we have our own standards” cannot possibly be good. It leads to isolation and inbreeding, which is deadly for creativity. In conclusion: Nobel is unfair, but unavoidable. At least until the time when Chinese “soft power” creates a new World order 🙂

    But there is more interesting question in your post, IMO: What is the problem with Chinese literature?

    I don’t know so much about Chinese literature, but I have read a few of the most popular books: the wolf totem, Yu hua’s books, Han han, etc. and seriously I have the feeling that they lack the variety and creativity of the Western scene. Not to mention the thousands of non-fiction and novels out there that are strictly designed to catch readers and do not even attempt to risk something original. It is as if the “get rich quickly” slogan has made its way into literature, completely polluting the art.

    From what I have seen of Chinese literature, my impression is that it doesn’t go beyond to explore new worlds, and instead it is stuck in its own space. Perhaps I am being too European in this judgement. Perhaps, as you hint, Chinese books should not try to compete in “europeanness”, but instead develop their own virtues, just like the Chinese mountain-water paintings ignored the Western laws of perspective. After all it was never a characteristic of China to have the clash of different Worlds, but rather the great harmony of a mighty empire… and yet, some degree of conflict seems necessary for creation. What about the journey to the West, or the stories of the 3 kingdoms?

    I don’t have the answers to all this and I still have a long way to understand the problem, but I do think that there IS a problem with Chinese literature today.

    I agree with the commentators above that some of the best works in literature have been done in times were there was no democracy, and in societies less free than China is today. I think the state of literature has to do not so much with the CCP or the censorship in China, but rather with the socio-economic environment, where the ethics of materialism invade all domains. Add to this that there is little respect for IP, and that books, even the most famous authoos, are selling at 3$ apiece. What is the motivation of a young talented Chinese to dedicate his life to the risky business of literature? He has to be crazy to even try it.

  36. Uln Says:

    Regarding censorship: one anecdote:

    I made a Chinese friend when I was in Xian 8 years ago. She was a student of art and in spite of her young age she knew a lot of World literature. She impressed my with her knowledge of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the spanish speaking Noble prize writer that I didnt suspect would be well known in China.

    Then she said it is a pity there was no Chinese nobel prizes and I said well, actually last year a Chinese won the prize. And she says “no, it is impossible, you are wrong” And I said I actualy seen him with my own eyes, he lives in the same part of Paris where I live, in the Chinese area. And I ended up asking my friend back home to buy the book and send it over, because it was not available in China (I had no internet at the time). And I sent it to her, although personally I didn’t like it so much (it was the Mountain of the Soul), but just because I thought it was unfair that she didnt have access to it.

    With this I mean that, for sure, censorship does have an impact in the way Chinese regard literature, and I agree that the government has no interest in promoting Chinese writers to win the prize. But still, I don’t think that is the main reason for the situation. If there were really the necessary social conditions, literature would flourish IN SPITE of the government much better than supported by it, as it often happened in past times in many countries.

  37. Wukailong Says:

    @Uln: I was in China when Gao Xingjian got the prize, and I have an anecdote too. 😉 When the prize was announced, media in China was absolutely silent, except Xinhua, which published a very short notice saying that Gao had been awarded the prize, that the Swedish Academy obviously had no idea about quality literature in China, and that the prize had been given for political reasons and thereby lost all its significance.

    A couple of weeks later I went to a bookstore and found a book by Li Rui that seemed interesting. As I was paying, the man behind the counter said that “this man really ought to get the Nobel Prize instead.” I asked: “well, but who did get the prize?” The man answered that they had the winner’s books and asked if I would like to buy one, after which he went out to a storeroom to fetch a bunch of Gao’s books. Apparently they were all in stock but had been stopped with short notice.

    Later I met several people who were really into literature and nobody had heard about Gao winning the prize. I don’t think this would be possible today.

  38. TonyP4 Says:

    The Norwegians use ‘Peace’ Prize as a political tool to influence world affairs. Their yardstick is based on a rich country like Norway, so they oppose developing countries like China. The Prize should be given to where the credit is due. Period.

    It is similar to the Literature Prize discussed here. I started a post at FM on the Peace Prize:

  39. Steve Says:

    I saw this article in the Guardian. Here are some excerpts:

    Sorry, John Updike. Don’t get your hopes up, Joyce Carol Oates. And Philip Roth, what were you thinking? It’s been 15 long years since an American author was last honoured with a Nobel prize for literature.

    Judging by the low opinion the head of the award jury holds of American writing, it is not going to happen this year.

    Today, the literary world on this side of the Atlantic reacted in bemusement and anger to an extraordinary tirade against American writing by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury.

    “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States,” he told the Associated Press today.

    “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

    The black-and-white views guaranteed Engdahl a wide audience for his confident dismissal of an industry that published more than 50,000 works of fiction last year.

    The US literary community has long had an ambivalent attitude towards the Nobel prize – not helped by the long drought. The last time American to win a prize for literature was Toni Morrison in 1993.

    In the years since then, Europeans have been recognised nine times, including Britain’s Doris Lessing.

    The Nobel committee has also had a patchy reputation for recognising genius. Although the reputations of such US winners as TS Eliot, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway have survived, other honourees such as Sinclair Lewis or Pearl Buck, have fallen in popular regard.

    Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth have been mentioned for years as worthy candidates without ever getting the nod. John Updike presumably decided he never had a shot anyway when he created his character Bech and made fun of the prize.

    Apparently, it isn’t just something against Chinese literature. The Nobel world seems to be a eurocentric one.


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