I am quite embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Mo Yan before he won the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature. To be sure, he was an established writer in China, but as vice president of the state-sanctioned Chinese Writers Association, Mo Yan belonged to the official “literary circle” that often appeared impenetrably opaque.
After his win, I felt bound by my Chinese heritage to learn more about him and his work. The first thing that struck me was his pen name. Taken literally, “Mo Yan” means “Don’t Speak” — quite an irony for someone who writes for a living.
In the preface to the English translation of his short story collection “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,” Mo Yan recounts the origins of his pen name. Garrulous by nature, his frequent outbursts of speech as a youth stirred trouble for the family and frightened his parents, who begged him to keep his mouth shut.
In many ways, Oriental culture preaches self-censorship. As much as the saying “silence is a virtue” is recognized in America, the notion is far more pervasive in Asian societies, where individual expression is often construed as a challenge to authority.
Perhaps more importantly, Mo Yan’s obsession with self-censorship reflected the political climate of his time. Born in 1955, he represents a generation that grew up during the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time when ideology overtook people’s lives and propaganda blurred the lines between imagination and reality. Any deviation from party doctrine led to persecution.
Born into these circumstances, the pseudonym “Mo Yan” thus served as a constant reminder of the dangers of unimpeded expression.
Although the Cultural Revolution ended almost four decades ago, its suffocating atmosphere of suspicion and fear has left deep scars on the Chinese psyche. Meanwhile, to this day, censorship has never been completely lifted. The state still maintains an iron grip on traditional media and actively polices the Internet. In today’s China, historic legacies and political realities have coalesced to further a culture of censorship.
Before I left for Yale this semester, my mother sat me down and reminded me about the dangers of expressing my opinions too freely. Nobody knows who might be watching, she said, or what the consequences might be. “Trouble comes out by the mouth,” the saying goes, and she told me I would be better served if I just focused on my studies and found a job.
My mother is looking out for my interests, of course. She understands that freedom of speech is protected in the United States, and that I would hardly be subject to personal harm for writing for a university newspaper. Yet to her and millions of others who have grown accustomed to the culture of censorship, there seems to be little value in expressing one’s opinion publicly. After all, what can I accomplish by writing these columns? Am I really going to change the way people think in a mere 750 words?
Censorship breeds self-censorship. Its true danger lies not in the deletion of words itself, but in the pervasive sense of self-doubt that it instills and the subsequent stifling of ideas and creativity.
For those born under the protection of the First Amendment, the open expression of one’s opinion might seem commonplace, even trivial. However, the act of speaking out itself carries enormous significance. Just as it takes time for an atrophied man to get his strength back, it also takes time for a silenced nation to rediscover its voice.
By writing under the guise of “Don’t Speak,” Mo Yan made a deliberate statement against the veil of censorship. He carefully treads the line between self-expression and self-censorship, using euphemisms and allusions to deliver his ideas. Some fault him for not being outspoken enough, and some fault him for cooperating with the system. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to respect him for sticking with his pen in an often hostile environment.
To those of us who are lucky enough to write without the looming shadow of censorship, perhaps we should pause for a bit and think about the freedom that we enjoy.
Like Mo Yan, we tread on, carefully but surely.
Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .