Breaking away -- a journey of self-enrichment

It is not unusual to grow up with a desire to leave family behind and venture into uncharted territory to see the wonders of the world. But, often times, upon leaving our homeland, we realize that there is simply no place like home -- our identity and our family will always be a part of our DNA. As a young boy, Mo Yan was no different.

Howard Goldblatt, a renowned scholar of Chinese literature, once said: Mo Yan is more than a writer; he is a literary phenomenon. A Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, a recipient of numerous accolades and an honorary doctorate; once a village boy with a fifth-grade education in rural China. Mo Yan’s h is a remarkable life story. 


His roots in the countryside 

It is not unusual to grow up with a desire to leave family behind and venture into uncharted territory to see the wonders of the world. But, often times, upon leaving our homeland, we realize that there is simply no place like home -- our identity and our family will always be a part of our DNA. As a young boy, Mo Yan was no different. 

Inside view of Mo Yan’s ancestral home at Dongbei Township, Gaomi County, Shandong (Source: China News Service, 中新社)


Mo Yan, formally named Guan Yiye, was born in 1955 to a peasant family in a rural area of northeastern China. He spent the first 21 years of his life, in Ping’an Village, located in the city of Gaomi in Shandong Province, before he eventually left to join the army.  

Not far from where Qing-Dynasty Chinese writer Pu Songling (蒲松齡), author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) resided centuries ago, Mo Yan’s birthplace is known for a host of legendary ghost stories. From a young age, he spent much time listening to stories told by his fellow villagers. He became fixated on folktales and fascinated by mythical creatures. Often, he would adapt and embroider these stories to tell his mother and sister; his first attempts at storytelling while dodging his chores.  

Many of his novels were inspired by this early life infused with the folklore and tales of the countryside. With no electricity and little fuel the village was poorly lit, dark at night as a young Mo Yan walked home humming revolutionary tunes to calm himself while his mind dwelt on the mysterious tales to which he had been listenning. These experiences enriched the imagination that is particularly evident in his earlier works. 

Mo Yan only had five years of primary education, but nonetheless was noted for his creative abilities. An essay written in third grade garnering much admiration from a teacher, igniting his enthusiasm for writing. In the following years, almost every piece he wrote would be read out loud in class and occasionally used as learning materials for the secondary students next door.  

Throughout his adolescent years, Mo Yan was immersed in contemporary novels, including Bitter Cauliflower (苦菜花), Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), and The Lane (三家巷),  borrowing them from a teacher who loved literature. He read and re-read the books to be found in the village -- a dozen  Chinese classics such as Three Kingdoms (三國演義), Strange Stories from the Studi, and Heroes in the Sui and Tang Dynasties (隋唐演義). 

To lay his hands on more books, he  helped people grind their grain for an afternoon in exchange for a copy  of The Creation of the Gods (封神演義). Ignoring his family’s livestock he was supposed to be keeping an eye on and braving the mosquito bites sustained while hiding in a haystack, he insisted on finishing The Song of Youth (青春之歌) without being interrupted. 

Soon after the Cultural Revolution began, Mo Yan’s academic life was cut short, and he was left with memories of lingering loneliness and hunger in the following three years as a result of Three Years of Natural Disasters. 

Instead of going to class, Mo Yan herded cattle, watching the flow of drifting clouds on mountain tops and listening to the sound of waving grass in the fields. He developed keen sensory faculties propelled by his painful feelings of loneliness and hunger -- an experience that nurtured his ability to describe vividly a certain smell, taste, sound, touch or sight in his work many years later. 

During this time death became more certain than anything else. Mo Yan no longer had an ambition to become a writer, and only thought about how he could make ends meet and find his way to the city -- it was indeed the hope of all young minds at that time.  

Mo Yan only dared to start  dreaming of living as a writer when a neighbor (and a graduate of Shandong Normal University), upon returning home after being labeled a rightist, painted a rosy picture of what a writer’s life was like;  three meals of dumplings a day -- an incredible lifestyle for those accustomed to one meal of dumplings a year.  

To sustain his life outside rural China, Mo Yan worked in a factory and dug ditches along the Jiqing Highway. In 1976, he finally had an opportunity to “break through the ceiling” and joined the army, leaving his rural existence behind. 


 ​​​​Going away

In May 1981, Mo Yan’s first novel Spring Rainy Night (春夜雨霏霏) was published in a bi-monthly literary magazine called Lotus Pool (蓮池) in the city of Baoding, Hebei Province amid a deep self-search for story plots and ideas.  

At the beginning of his career as an author under his real name, Mo Yan had little success. Often his work was rejected. Then a comrade suggested he use a catchy pen name constructed by splitting the first character of his given name -- meaning “speaking diligently.” In fact, he was nicknamed “cannon boy” for having said too much and getting into trouble. 

Nonetheless, Mo Yan was never reluctant to speak his mind. He once caused a controversy when he openly challenged the works of Li Cunbao, a classmate and famed author of the novel Wreaths of the Mountain Base, while in a seminar at the Arts Academy of the People’s Liberation Army (now the National Defense University’s Military and Cultural Institute). 

Mo Yan was first recognized as a potential star  with his novel A Transparent Radish (透明的紅蘿蔔); a narrative in which an unnamed black child is said to be Mo Yan’s own incarnation -- a reflection of a lonely teenage boy living a bleak, unhappy life without hope, in a dismal environment. 

Since then, Mo Yan’s literary path has taken him towards a descriptive account of tales based on his own experiences in rural China. The style he has adopted for this has been to allow ideas to materialize naturally. Under a new  pen name he has produced a number of bestsellers, including Ball Lightning (球狀閃電), Explosions (爆炸), and White Dog & the Swing (白狗鞦韆架). 

Wine ceremony scene in the Red Sorghum Dance Drama (Source: China News Service)


In 1986, Red Sorghum Family (紅高粱家族) garnered much public recognition and was named “Book of the Year.” Shortly thereafter, it was adapted for cinema by Chinese film director and producer Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) in his directorial debut, and won a Golden Bear award at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival; China’s first and elevating Mo Yan to the world stage.  

In 1993, Red Sorghum Family was named Best Novel by World Literature Today, a bi-monthly journal of literature and culture in the United States. In 2000, it was selected by Yazhou Zhoukan (亞洲周刊), a weekly news magazine headquartered in Hong Kong as one of the Top 100 Chinese-language novels of the 20th century.


A homecoming  

The work of Mo Yan is uniquely captivating because of his real-life experience as a village boy living through a revolutionary period. Many of his literary works are based largely on his observations as an adolescent. For instance, his feelings towards his past life in rural China were clearly conveyed in the film Nuan (暖), a cinematic adaptation of White Dog & the Swing and winner of Best Film at the 2003 Tokyo International Film Festival. 

In 1995, Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀), a novel written in memory of his late mother, made its debut. Though deemed controversial because of its title, Mo Yan believes it was a major work of literary creation. For his novel celebrating motherhood and life in general, he won a literary award and was given an unprecedented RMB 100,000 prize in 1997.   

Following his transfer to a newspaper, Mo Yan produced several more  novels, including Red Forest (紅樹林), Our Seventh Uncle (我們的七叔), and Sandalwood Death (檀香刑). 

In 2011, after numerous drafts, Mo Yan finally released  Frog (蛙), a story about obstetrics and mercenary midwives in a Chinese village in the 1960s. The novel, a reflection of his aunt’s real life, was selected for a Mao Dun Literature Prize, an award founded by an association of Chinese writers in 1982. 

“There is a strong correlation between my home and my literature,” Mo Yan notes. “As I grew up, I was fascinated by such folk art and culture as clay sculptures, paper-cutting, ash paintings, and indigenous singing. It is only natural that I am heavily influenced by these in my style of writing.” 

In an October 2012 announcement by the Swedish Academy, Mo Yan was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel Frog, a masterpiece in which “hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”  

“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 García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” according to the Swedish Academy. 

“Themes of peasantry, life in the countryside and ordinary people struggling to survive characterize Mo Yan as a skillful narrator,” said Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, speaking upon the announcement. “The basis for his books was laid when he was only a child mesmerized in folktales. Often described as a form of magic realism, his style is more and uniquely his own. His mix of the real and the unreal is very original.” 

Interview with Mo Yan at his hometown (Source: Visual China Group, 視覺中國)


Mo Yan said: The childhood memory of an author will always be apparent in his or her fictional creation. This will always be true. “My literary creation is indeed based upon my village and my childhood -- or simply my life.” 

Today, Mo Yan is no longer a young man looking for an adventure outside his own village. When he gets hounded by the media, he often retreats back to his birthplace, where he spends time with his aging father and other villagers during harvest season every year. As Göran Malmqvist of the Swedish Academy observed: “He belongs to the countryside where he grew up, and he is firmly rooted in this land.” 


Short story and novella collections 

 White Dog and the Swing (30 short stories, 1981–1989) 

Meeting the Masters (45 short stories, 1990–2005) 

Joy (8 novellas; six of them are published in English as Explosions and Other Stories) 


 The Wall Can Sing (60 essays, 1981–2011) 


1. Red Sorghum (collaborative project), produced by Xi’an Film Studio;  winner of the Golden Bear Award at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival  

2. A Heroe’ s Romantic Tale (英雄浪漫曲), Chinese and Foreign Films (中外電影) (1988)  

3. The Flood (大水) (collaborative project), Chinese and Foreign Films (中外電影) (1989)  

4. My Big Brothers’ Memories of Youth (哥哥們的青春往事) (6-part drama series) (collaborative project), produced by Henan Film Studio (河南電影製片廠) (1991)  

5. The Sun has Ears, directed by Yim Ho (also known as Yan Hao) and starring Zhang Yu; winner of the Silver Bear Award at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival  

6. Mangrove (紅樹林) (18-part drama series), produced by the the Video Division of Procuratorial Daily (檢察日報影視部) (1998)  

7. Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬) (play, collaborative project), produced by Kongzhenghua Theatre Company (空政話劇團), premiered 2000 Beijing  

8. Broken Dreams (夢斷情樓) (collaborative project)  

9. Our Jing Ke (我們的荊軻) (play), Zhongshan Literary Bimonthly (鐘山), 2004 Issue 2  

10. Brocade Clothing (錦衣) (Opera drama script) 

Novels / Novella adapted into film:  

1. Red Sorghum, winner of the Golden Bear Award at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival  

2. Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh (adapted into the film Happy Times)  

3. Cotton Fleece (白棉花)  

4. Nuan, a cinematic adaptation of the novel White Dog & the Swing; winner of the Grand Prix at the 16th Tokyo International Film Festival; winner of the Best Picture and Best Writing awards of the 12th China Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival  




Mo Yan as Seen by Foreign Media: a Silent Writer and a Hero of the Pen (外媒看莫言:沉默作家 文字英雄) by Huang Fangni (黃昉苨), Elite Reference (青年參考), Oct. 17, 2012 

The Man Behind the Nobel Prize - Mo Yan’s Literary Path, (莫言——諾貝爾獎背後的文學路), A Date with Luyu (魯豫有約), Oct. 19, 2012 

Mo Yan: China’s  Nobel Literature Prize (莫言:中國的“諾貝爾文學獎), Face to Face (TV program) (面對面), Oct. 14, 2012 

Mo Yan’s Sentiments on Winning the Nobel: My Literary Work is Inexorably Tied to My Native Land (莫言獲獎感言:我的故鄉和我的文學緊密相關), Xinhua News Agency (新華社), Oct. 13, 2012 

Mo Yan: Keeping My Family Happy is My Greatest Success; wife:  Three Generations Share 91-Square-Meter Apartment (莫言:最大成功是家庭幸福 妻子:三代人住91平米房), (中青網), Oct. 17, 2012 

An Assessment of Mo Yan’s Works Over 30 Years by Cong Xinqiang, Sun Shuwen, Dongyue Review (東岳評論), 2013 Issue 6 

Mo Yan wins Nobel prize in literature 2012. The Guardian.  Oct. 11, 2012 

After Fury Over 2010 Peace Prize, China Embraces Nobel Selection. The New York Times. Oct. 11, 2012  

“How I Became A Novelist (Speech by Mo Yan),” 2015 





Audiobooks: Too busy to read Mo Yan’s works cover to cover? If you have an audiobook app, try obtaining Mo Yan audiobooks. There are audiobooks for six works in total including A Transparent Carrot (透明的紅蘿蔔), Red Sorghum Family and Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Read by Zhu Wei (朱偉), the Chief Editor of Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine (三聯生活週刊) who used to edit the works of a young Mo Yan, they are guaranteed to help bring you up to speed on Mo Yan’s works. 

Literary tourism: A county-level city under the administration of Weifang City, Gaomi (高密市), Mo Yan’s hometown, is located in the Jiaodong region of eastern Shandong Peninsula with its eastern boundary abutting Qingdao City. As a literary celebrity, Mo Yan has become Gaomi’s tourism calling card, and the county now boasts Mo Yan’s former residence, a Mo Yan Literature Museum, as well as a filming base for the Red Sorghum TV series among its attractions. Check out this site if you are interested in learning more: Cathay Dragon offers daily direct flights to and from Qingdao with a flight time of around three hours, so it’ll be a good idea to plan your sightseeing schedule in advance so you can visit Qingdao’s attractions as well, if time allows.  

Last updated:

Extended Reading