Mo Yan Thought

Six Critiques of Hallucinatory Realism

by Jerry Xie (Author)
©2017 Monographs 288 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 51


This book analyzes Mo Yan’s writings as well as other scholarly interpretations of his writings. When Mo Yan from China was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the term «hallucinatory realism» was invented to describe his storytelling as a «merging» of folk tales, history, and the contemporary. The author stakes out a Marxist approach to theorizing the class ideology that underwrites what Mo Yan says he «knows» of the «nebulous terrain» where one supposedly experiences moments of «transcending» or going «beyond» class and politics in literary sensibility.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface: The Nebulous Attitude
  • Part One: Boundaries
  • 1. Go to the Core … but “to Change It”
  • 2. Taking Mo Yan “in Context” by Strategy
  • Part Two: Surfaces
  • 3. In Search of the Theoretical Meaning of Leaf Reading “in Context”
  • 4. Cages and Class Struggle
  • Part Three: Stories
  • 5. “Hearing” the Moist Spirit of Sandalwood Death
  • 6. Pow! as an Ideological Work
  • Postface: The Class Attitude
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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Preface: The Nebulous Attitude

Mo Yan Thought: Six Critiques of Hallucinatory Realism is an oppositional theorizing contribution to the emerging field of scholarship concerning the writings of Mo Yan (Guan Moye, born February 2, 1955), the now internationally famous author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012 and who hails from the now equally famous Gaomi County in Shandong Province, China. According to the official Nobel proclamations in 2012, Mo’s writings are “damn unique”—a “unique insight into a unique world in a quite unique manner”1—and are described as “hallucinatory realism,” meaning, among other things (as this book endeavors to demonstrate), that his stories “[merge] folk tales, history and the contemporary.”2

In Mo’s own words, his storytelling reflects his “more profound understanding of life” and “true compassion” in the knowledge that a “nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent” so as to “correctly and vividly [describe] this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain” and, in the end, “inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.”3 For Mo, “[k]nowing what resides in [his] heart is possible only by reading [his] works with care.”4 From his profoundly compassionate heart, he claims to have been “deeply influenced by traditional concepts of morality,” such as “[t]reating people with kindness and sincerity,” and as he has “[grown] older and gained a greater understanding of human beings, [his] attitude [has] gradually softened” so as to “‘roar no more,’” to “‘no longer favor waves,’” and to “‘have the capacity to tolerate filth and mire.’”5

Given such an “attitude,” which Mo himself regards as approaching an “ideal,”6 it is certainly not without justification that Shelley Chan, in her book ← 11 | 12 → A Subversive Voice in China, summarizes his “greater understanding” as that of “our pessimistic novelist.”7 More ideologically telling, however, is how strikingly Mo’s ideal attitude resembles the standpoint of the “Wise Old Man” in Mao’s famous speech of 1945, “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains,” in which the “wise” old man considers it “silly” and “quite impossible”8 to think, much less act collectively, to change the world, as Mao puts it, by “rais[ing] the political consciousness of the vanguard” and “arous[ing] the political consciousness of the entire people.”9

Throughout the six essays presented here, I engage and challenge the class ideology—the class politics of knowledge and consciousness—underlying the thought in/or “narratives” of what I call “Mo Yan Thought” in its hallucinatory realist nebulosities. These investigations take “reading” seriously as a social practice of theorizing and (re)articulating the class politics of knowledge. Philosophically, I follow, apply, and attempt to develop what Lenin called “the path of Marxian theory”10 which is the revolutionary theory “known as Marxism” that “grows out of the sum total of the revolutionary experience and the revolutionary thinking of all countries of the world.”11

In this book I also closely examine the emerging body of interpretations of Mo’s writing and thought and what I call “Moism” (Mo-ism) or the “Moist” (Mo-ist) worldview. My reading practice is, as in contemporary Chinese pedagogies of literature and language, simultaneously “intensive” and “extensive.” This means that while I carefully study and reflect on the complicated, “unique” complexities and idiosyncrasies of Mo’s thinking and storytelling (and other interpretations of it), I also relate and (re)connect such texts to broader and deeper currents in history, society, politics, and intellectual contestation.

My aim is to develop a critical, class-conscious (re)understanding of Mo’s ideological narratives and “hallucinatory realism” more generally considered. This is, I believe, especially interesting and significant with Moist narratives insofar as ← 12 | 13 → Mo himself has stated clearly—with the usual “playful” air of vacillating self-consciousness, as in the pen name “Mo Yan” itself, which means “don’t speak”12—that he has “always taken pride in [his] lack of ideology, especially when … writing,”13 and that “great” works can and should be “beyond class and politics.”14

The question that arises, of course, is why Mo, who has been a member of the Chinese Communist Party since 1978 (after Mao’s death in 1976, quickly followed by the criminalization of the so-called “Gang of Four”), employs these ideas in his “narratives,” whether in the fictive works themselves or in his role as a public intellectual in China and other countries. Do his narratives “succeed” in carrying through on these notions—or do they contradict his claims to ideological “lack” and post-class, post-political “beyondness” with the aid of “traditional concepts of morality”? Is it really possible to “lack” ideology and be “beyond class and politics”? Are these “nebulous” ideas themselves articulations of post-ideological and post-theoretical “ideological forms,”15 as Marx argues, in which the “lack” is the empty symptomatic-effect of mystified and obscured class narratives, the unsaid sociocultural function of which is to (re)legitimize “nebulous” subject positions for capitalism’s “nebulous terrain” of worldwide preeminence?

By exploring and trying to clarify questions such as these, this work aims to engage careful and critical readers and help to enable them to grasp (“realize”) the bourgeois class character and structure of Mo Yan Thought’s wily and obsessive “attractions”: the “strange” fascinations that Mo himself rather obviously considers to be the main attractions and signatures of “great” storytelling in his writing and thinking. While appealing to the “nebulous terrain” of all humanity, it should perhaps not be too surprising that Mo Yan Thought aspires to be an “other” way of sensing and thinking. And indeed, as I argue, it is: in its class essence, it is the “storytelling” in endlessly speculative “semblances,”16 as Marx ← 13 | 14 → and Engels put it in The Holy Family, of the bourgeois other of the revolutionary Marxist world outlook. These critiques are interventions which place “beyond class and politics” under critical intellectual pressure and instead—in oppositionality—bring class struggle back into reading, as Mao argued in 1962: “at no time must we forget class struggle.”17

As a project in critique—a sustained inquiry into the enabling historical conditions and effects of discourses and institutional, sociocultural practices18— I will conclude this brief preface by pointing once more to Lenin’s radical revolutionary thinking on the role of theory, which this book also follows, since critique is one of the modes of the articulation of theory:

The world’s greatest movement for liberation of the oppressed class, the most revolutionary class in history, is impossible without a revolutionary theory. That theory cannot be thought up. It grows out of the sum total of the revolutionary experience and the revolutionary thinking of all countries in the world. Such a theory has developed since the second half of the nineteenth century. It is known as Marxism. One cannot be a socialist, a revolutionary … without participating, in the measure of one’s powers, in developing and applying that theory, and without waging a ruthless struggle today …19

Five of the texts included here have received considerable intellectual support from a number of critical, contemporary, internationally-oriented journals. I thank the editors of these journals for permission to reprint materials previously published.

Chapter 1 is a partially revised version of my article, “Hard Core: Shelley Chan’s ‘Not Uncritical’ Mo Yan Thought,” published in a three-part series in the journal Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture (2015–2016, Vol. 15, No. 2; Vol. 16, No. 2; and Vol. 16, No. 3; http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/152/Xie.shtml). ← 14 | 15 →

Chapter 2 is a partially revised version of my article, “Taking Mo Yan in Context by Strategy: Yes, Grist for the Mill!,” published in the journal Textual Practice (January 2017; doi: 10.1080/0950236X.2016.1268199).

Chapter 4 is a partially revised version of my article, “Cages and Class Struggle: A Leninist Inquiry into the Caricature of Marxism in Fenggang Yang’s ‘Soul Searching,’” published in the journal Critical Sociology (August 2016; doi: 10.1177/0896920516654556).

Chapter 5 is a partially revised version of my article, “‘Hearing’ Moism in Sandalwood Death: Mo Yan Thought as ‘the Spirit of Petty-Bourgeois Sentimentality and Social Fantasy,’” published in the journal International Critical Thought (May 2016, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 267–292; doi: 10.1080/21598282.2016.1172324).

Chapter 6 is a partially revised version of my article, “The Ideological Work of ‘Swings Between Reality and Illusion’: Contribution to a Marxist Critique of Mo Yan’s Pow!,” published in the journal Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (forthcoming 2017).

A note on references: The footnotes throughout this book do not provide Internet-based web-addresses because such information clutters the pages; therefore, the reader may find complete bibliographical references, including web-addresses, in the Bibliography at the end. ← 15 | 16 →

1 Peter Englund quoted in Johan Ahlander, “China’s Mo Yan Wins Nobel for ‘Hallucinatory Realism,’” Chicago Tribune (11 Oct. 2012).

2 Nobelprize.org, “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012—Press Release,” Nobelprize.org (11 Oct. 2012).

3 Mo Yan, “Storytellers: Nobel Lecture,” Nobelprize.org, trans. Howard Goldblatt (7 Dec. 2012), p. 8, emphasis added.

4 Mo Yan, “Mo Yan—Biographical,” Nobelprize.org, trans. Howard Goldblatt (2012).

5 Mo, “Mo Yan,” quoting from his play, Our Jing Ke.

6 Mo, “Mo Yan.”

7 Shelley W. Chan, A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan, foreword by Howard Goldblatt (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, Kindle edition, 2011), Chap. 3.

8 Mao Zedong, “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains,” in Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. III (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), p. 272.

9 Mao, “Foolish Old Man,” p. 271.

10 V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, trans. Abraham Fineberg, ed. Clemens Dutt (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), p. 130, Lenin’s emphasis.

11 V.I. Lenin, “The Voice of an Honest French Socialist,” in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), p. 354, Lenin’s emphasis.

12 Jim Leach and Mo Yan, “Conversations: The Real Mo Yan,” Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2011).

13 Mo Yan, “Afterword: Narration Is Everything,” in Mo Yan, Pow!, trans. Howard Goldblatt (London: Seagull Books, 2012), p. 386.

14 Diao Ying, Mei Jia and Xu Wei, “Mo Muses on New Celebrity Chapter in His Life,” China Daily (7 Dec. 2012).

15 Karl Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx: The Essential Writings, 2nd edition, ed. Frederic L. Bender (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986), p. 162.

16 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company, in The Friedrich Engels Collection: 9 Classic Works (Lexington, KY: First Rate Publishers, 2015), p. 625.

17 Mao Zedong quoted in William Hinton, Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 314.

18 See Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton, Theory as Resistance: Politics and Culture after (Post)structuralism (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1994); and Bob Nowlan, “Radical Political Praxis within the Late Capitalist Academy,” Red Orange: a Marxist Journal of Theory, Politics, and the Everyday, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1996), pp. 289–326.

19 Lenin, “The Voice,” p. 354, Lenin’s emphasis.

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Part One: Boundaries

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1.  Go to the Core … but “to Change It”

[T]he torture “stirs up the hypercritical sympathy of the spectators, and satisfies their evil aesthetic taste at the same time.”

—Shelley Chan1

The oldest argument against socialism—that it is contrary to human nature, is also the most popular.

—Alex Callinicos2


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Mo Yan Hallucinatory realism Ideology critique Postmodern fiction Poststructuralism Marxism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 288 pp.

Biographical notes

Jerry Xie (Author)

Jerry Xie received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He teaches English and critical theory at Lanzhou Jiaotong University in northwestern China.


Title: Mo Yan Thought