Mo Yan’s poem to a literary friend in Chongqing

Professor Xu Jilin 許紀霖,Department of History, Huadong Normal University 華東師範大學歷史系, has in a public discussion with Professor Chen Taowen 陳韜文 of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on December 16, 2012 branded Mo Yan’s poem ”To a literary friend in Chongqing” as  a song of praise of the movement initiated by 薄熙來,the disgraced former Party Secretary of Chongqing, aiming at restoring the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution. It should be obvious to a reader of average intelligence and a basic knowledge of Chinese that Mo Yan’s poem, which I give below, far from being a song of praise is a satirical poem, severely criticizing Bo Xilai and warning his friend from getting involved in the Chongqing movement.



“Sing red, hit black!”: a great show of strength,
the whole country cranes its neck and looks toward Chongqing.
Internet buffs are caught in their own web,
upstarts rush about, pretending to be outraged youths.

In your writing, always despise extreme politics, whether leftish or rightish,
those in official service should treasure their reputation both in this life and after death.
Stand firm like a cliff in the midstream current, like a true gentleman,
may your spirit flare like the red cliffs illuminating the Jialing river.

The first stanza clearly criticizes Bo Xilai and his movement:
line 1: “Sing red, hit black!” translates Bo Xilai’s slogan calling for the restoration of the spirit of the Cultural Revolution;
line 3: contains a reference to the frenzied activities on the internet supporting the movement;
line 4:  “upstarts” (dark horses) refer to former nobodies who gained prominence under the Bo Xilai regime, acting in the same way as the “outraged youths” (憤怒的青年) of the Cultural Revolution.

The second stanza clearly exhorts Mo Yan’s “literary friend” in Chongqing to stand fast and retain his integrity in troubled times. Line 4 contains an allusion to the following famous lines by文天祥: 人生自古誰無死,留取丹心照汗青。

Since time immemorial no man will escape death,
(what matters is that) one’s loyalty illuminates the annals of history.

Professor Xu Jilin’s totally wrong appreciation of Mo Yan’s poem has been quoted by a great many people appearing on the net. I am not in the least surprised that an uncouth man like Liao Yiwu has failed to understand Mo Yan’s poem. But I find it hard to understand how a professor in the department of history of an esteemed Chinese university can fail to do so. I do feel that both Professor Xu Jilin and his many followers owe Mo Yan a public apology.

Göran Malmqvist/ Ma Yueran

Dear friend,

I am very grateful indeed for your long and thoughtful reply to my mail and hasten to send you my comments.
Of course Mo Yan's poem is doggerel verse 打油詩 which does not confom to the metrical rules of classical Chinese poetry.
Mo Yan is indeed not the only Chinese writer deserving the Nobel Prize in literature. I can think of several others whom I am not free to mention. But the Nobel Prize is each year given to one writer, a writer whom the majority of members of the Swedish Academy hold in high regard. The Nobel Prize laureate is not a World Champion!
Literary quality is the one and only criterion underlying the decision of the Academy.
Mo Yan was elected Vice-Chairman of the Writers' Association in 2011, the year in which he received the Mao Dun Prize. He couldn't therefore in any way have influenced the decision of the Board of the Writers' Association to hold their 2010 meeting in Chongqing. He did not take part in the Chongqing meeting (he informs me that he has visited Chongqing twice, in 1993 and 2001; I trust that Mo Yan would not lie to me!).Your statement "Given the fact that ....the leaders of the Writers' Association, including Mo Yan, were given royal treatment in2010"..is based on rumour.
It is true that we do not know to whom Mo Yan addressed his poem. What we do know is that he addressed it to a 文友,"a literary friend or associate".
Let me now turn to my interpretation of the poem. I would like to state at the outset that I have translated far more difficult pieces in my long career as translator. From the two opening lines it is quite clear that the poem deals with the movement initiated by Bo Xilai, who may have created the slogan 唱紅打黑。It seems to me highly possible that a poem dealing with this controversial movement would express views either praising or condemning it.
 Let me leave the interpretation of the first stanza aside for the moment and concentrate on the second, and much easier stanza. 為文蔑視左右黨,當官珍惜前后名could not possibly refer to Bo Xilai. Mo Yan is addressing a 文友; the verb 蔑視can only be interpreted in the  imperative or optative sense: "When writing (when you write, one writes), you (one) must (should) despise (extremist) politics of left and right". These two lines make sense only if they are interpreted as advice to Mo Yan's 文友,but utterly fail to make sense if interpreted as a comment on Bo Xilai.
The exhortation expressed in the first line is logically followed up in the second line expressing the necessity of following the advice: "Officials must value their reputation in this life and after death!"
I rather believe that the wording of this line made Mo Yan think of Wen Tianxiang's line人生自古誰無死 and that this association made him phrase the last line in the poem as an allusion to Wen Tianxiang's famous lines. In the context I find Mo Yan's 丹崖 and Wen Tianxiang's 丹心metaphorically connected. Common to the two poems is also the use of the verb 照 and the identical rhyme category: 陵/青. But this point is of minor interest and does neither support nor contradict my interpretation. The two final lines of the poem are conventional reflections on the virtue of the Confucian 君子。I do feel, rather strongly, that my analysis of the second stanza proves it to be an exhortation to a friend to behave with caution in troubled times.
My contention is that the first stanza describes events that have created the troubled times. Bo Xilai's movement created a great stir in the whole country. That much is perfectly clear. The 3rd and the 4th line are more difficult.  I am convinced that 黑馬 and 憤青 refer to the upstarts (or opportunists) who benefitted from the movement, and behaved like the "angry youths" of the Cultural Revolution.
I do appreciate that I have no obligation to defend Mo Yan on any front (I should perhaps mention that I have met Mo Yan on a few occasions and that I am more closely acquainted with scores of other Chinese writers). But as a scholar and a translator I do feel that I have an obligation to defend a writer, whose works I greatly enjoy reading, from incompetent attacks by evil scoundrels such as Liao Yiwu and his buddies.
With my warm regards,

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