LONDON — Mo Yan, a wildly prolific and internationally renowned Chinese author who considers himself nonpolitical but whose embrace by the ruling Communist Party has drawn criticism from dissident writers, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
In his novels and short stories, Mo paints sprawling, intricate portraits of Chinese rural life, often using flights of fancy — animal narrators, the underworld, elements of fairy tales — that evoke the techniques of South American magical realists. His work has been widely translated and is available in the West, but he is perhaps best known abroad for ‘‘Red Sorghum’’ (1987; published in English in 1993) which takes on issues like the Japanese occupation, bandit culture, and the harsh lives of rural Chinese, and which in 1987 was made into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou.
‘‘Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,’’ the Swedish Academy said in the citation that accompanied the award.
Mo has not been shy of lacing his fiction with social criticism, but at the same time he has carefully navigated whatever invisible line the government considers unacceptable. He has also appeared at times to embrace the establishment, and serves as vice chairman of the party-run Chinese Writers’ Association. Yet when the emigre novelist and critic Gao Xingjian received the literature prize in 2000 and was criticized for having given up his Chinese citizenship, Mo publicly defended him.
He is the just the second Chinese resident citizen to receive a Nobel; the first was the jailed dissident writer and political agitator Liu Xiaobo, who won the peace prize two years ago. But in contrast to the Chinese government’s anger over that award, which included refusing to allow Liu to accept it and exacting diplomatic penalties against Norway, the country that awards the peace prize, Beijing reacted to this one as an international vindication.
The announcement was celebrated on the China Central Television evening news broadcast, which took the unusual step of breaking into its regular news coverage for a special report. The populist state-run Global Times newspaper immediately placed a ‘‘special coverage’’ page, clearly prepared in advance, on its English-language website.
When the organizers contacted Mo, said Peter Englund, secretary of the Swedish Academy, ‘‘he said he was overjoyed and scared,’’ the Associated Press reported.
The son of farmers, Mo was born in 1955 in Shandong Province, in the east, where much of his fiction is set. He became a teenager during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, leaving school to work on a farm and then in a cottonseed oil factory. He began writing, he has said, a few years later while serving in the People’s Liberation Army. His first short story was published in 1981.
The author’s given name is Guan Moye; Mo Yan, which means ‘‘don’t speak,’’ is a pen name that reflects, he has said, the time in which he grew up, a time when criticizing those in power could be ruinous.
In its citation, the Swedish Academy noted that many of Mo’s works ‘‘have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.’’
Other works include ‘‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’’ (1996, published in English in 2004) — which was briefly banned before going on to become a huge bestseller in China — and ‘‘Sandalwood Death’’ (2004, to be published in English in 2013). Mo’s most recent published work, called ‘‘Wa’’ in Chinese (2009), ‘‘illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy,’’ the academy said.