Chinese author Mo Yan was in residence at UI in 2004
Thursday, October 11, 2012
portrait of Mo Yan
Chinese author Mo Yan, a 2004 resident of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 11. Photo by Johannes Kolfhaus.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Chinese author Mo Yan, a 2004 participant of the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP).

One of China's foremost novelists, Mo is best known for his 1987 novel Hong Gaoliang Jiazu (in English, Red Sorghum). The internationally acclaimed film adaptation, directed by Zhang Yimou, won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival, becoming one of China's most popular films and bringing Chinese cinema into the international mainstream.

After a childhood of extreme poverty during the Cultural Revolution, Mo worked in a factory until he joined the army in 1976. He began writing in 1981 and graduated from the Army Academy of Art and Literature in 1986, subsequently receiving a Master of Arts in literature from Beijing Normal University. In the late 1990s, he left the army to become a professional writer. In 2011, he received the Mao Dun Literature Prize, established in the will of prominent Chinese writer Mao Dun and sponsored by the Chinese Writers Association.

He has written dozens of short stories and numerous novels, translated widely. In addition to Red Sorghum, released by Viking in 1993, titles available in English include Explosions and Other Stories (1991), The Garlic Ballads (1995), and The Republic of Wine: A Novel (2000).

The Nobel Prize, which carries a value of approximately $1.2 million, will be presented in a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

“Mo Yan, which means Don't Speak, nevertheless speaks elegantly, and humorously, in his novels, which are set largely in the impoverished countryside of China. They brim with life and light, as he himself does,” says IWP Director Christopher Merrill. “The complicated history of modern China is his true theme, which he explores in ingenious ways. For example, his recent novel in English, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, details the story of a landlord who believes himself to have been unjustly executed by the Communists during the Land Reform Movement. He convinces the Lord of the Underworld to let him come back to life, first as a donkey, then as an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and finally a boy who has a gift for language—someone who will learn to tell the truth with the wit of Mo Yan. It is a wonderful romp, like Mo Yan himself.

“Who knew that the Nobel Committee was prepared to tickle its funny bone?"

In announcing the prize today, the Nobel Foundation said that "with hallucinatory realism (Mo) merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary"—a sentiment echoed by Hualing Engle, UI professor emerita and co-founder of the IWP. "Mo Yan writes in a local, everyday language, expressing such magical realism," she says.

In its announcement of the award, the Nobel Foundation wrote in a statement, “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. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.”

To hear a reading by Mo Yan during his IWP residency, visit

In his writing, Mo draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth—apparent in Red Sorghum. The book consists of five stories that unfold and interweave in Gaomi in several turbulent decades in the 20th century, with depictions of bandit culture, the Japanese occupation, and the harsh conditions endured by poor farm workers.

The Garlic Ballads and his satirical The Republic of Wine have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.

Fengru feitun (1996; in English, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, 2004) is a broad historical fresco portraying 20th-century China through the microcosm of a single family. The novel Shengsi pilao (2006; in English, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, 2008) uses black humor to describe everyday life and the violent transmogrifications in the young People's Republic, while Tanxiangxing (2004; to be published in English as Sandalwood Death, 2013) is a story of human cruelty in the crumbling Empire.

His latest novel, Wa (2009; in French, Grenouilles, 2011) illuminates the consequences of China's imposition of a single-child policy.

More information about the prize winner is available on the Nobel website at

Mo is the second IWP resident to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2006, Istanbul-born novelist Orhan Pamuk received the honor; he was in residence during the fall of 1985.

The IWP is a unique conduit for the world’s literatures, connecting well-established writers from around the globe, bringing international literature into classrooms, introducing American writers to other cultures through reading tours, and serving as a clearinghouse for literary news and a wealth of archival and pedagogical materials. Since 1967, more than 1,400 writers from more than 140 countries have been in residence at the UI.