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Nobel Literature Winner Sparks Some Controversy

There's been celebration in China, after the Nobel literature prize was awarded to Chinese author Mo Yan. This is the first Nobel given to a Chinese not in exile or prison, and the author's relationship with the Chinese government has sparked criticism.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.They are celebrating in China, now that this year's Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to a Chinese novelist. He is the first Chinese Nobel winner who is not in exile, or in prison; and that offers a clue as to why the choice has sparked criticism, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: China's state-run TV was quick to flash the news. Mo Yan is China's first officially acceptable Nobel winner. He's celebrated for his satirical, earthy tales with an air of magical realism. The author professed to be overjoyed and scared. Then he made this off-the-cuff comment to a TV station.

MO YAN: (Through Translator) Whether people praise me online or criticize me, that's fine. This is the era of free speech.

LIM: That's disingenuous in a country where the Internet is censored, and all books vetted before publication. Mo Yan is as an establishment figure. His salary is paid by the state; he's vice chairman of the Writers Association; and he walked out of one event at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in protest at participation by dissidents. But his books are widely respected. Literary translator Eric Abrahamsen says Mo Yan operates in a gray area.

ERIC ABRAHAMSEN: Well, he certainly doesn't shy away from sensitive topics. Most of his books have been on something of historical significance - the one-child policy or land reform. You could say that in the way that he approaches it, he's showing a pretty astute political sensibility. He knows what'll get him in trouble, and what won't.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED SORGHUM")

LIM: He's best known for "Red Sorghum," which was turned into a film. The son of farmers, he writes about ordinary people pitted against corrupt officials. But Mo Yan's very name means "do not speak." In the past, he's even said censorship is great for the creative process, since it can spark the imagination. For fellow writer Murong Xuecun, this is troubling moral relativism.

MURONG XUECUN: (Through Translator) You could also say that going to jail is good for you; it strengthens your will. I think there needs to be clear judgments: good is good, bad is bad. Censorship is evil.

LIM: At one Beijing bookshop, there's a new display of Mo Yan's work, and a steady stream of people buying his novels. But online, news of his win sparked derision, as Eric Abrahamsen notes.

ABRAHAMSEN: More than half of the criticism was actually directed at the government, which has been very busy lambasting the Nobel Prize and making light of it, in advance - in anticipation of him not winning it. And so most of the mockery I saw on there was towards the official state media and the government; saying, well, what are you going to do now?

LIM: Of course, China's media is using this win as validation. As one newspaper put it, this prize shows the West cannot reject the Chinese mainstream for long.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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