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Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan is being sued in China for 'distorting history'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mo Yan was hailed when he won China's first Nobel Prize for literature in 2012, but he is now under attack from Chinese nationalists, who claim that his novels depicting rural life in China, quote, "distort history." One prominent blogger is suing the author for allegedly insulting national heroes, a crime that's punishable by up to three years in prison. Jessica Chen Weiss joins us. She's a professor for China and Asia Pacific studies at Cornell University. Professor Weiss, thanks so much for being with us.

JESSICA CHEN WEISS: My pleasure.

SIMON: Mo Yan is not generally thought of as a dissident. What prompted this lawsuit?

WEISS: Well, Mo Yan's attracted a fair bit of attention, and in recent years, the party has really become increasingly concerned about what it sees as the roots of the Soviet Union's collapse, including critical reevaluation of history and the appeal of Western ideas. And so, really, under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been emphasizing the dangers of what they call, quote, "historical nihilism," which are views that call into question the sort of positive patriotic narratives that the CCP has used to justify its continued rule. So there have been a variety of laws created to kind of codify these efforts to promote, quote, "a common historical memory" and punish those who would appear to be harming the good reputations of Chinese heroes and martyrs, including this law that's the basis of the suit against Mo Yan.

SIMON: Professor Weiss, what did anybody find particularly objectionable about the writings of Mo Yan?

WEISS: Well, the lawsuit claims that his books have smeared the Chinese Communist Party's reputation by, quote-unquote, "beautifying" enemy Japanese soldiers. And so it's the depiction of China under a wartime Japanese occupation that was complicated and not the kind of one-dimensional view of the heroic resistance against the evil enemy that I think state media might have liked.

SIMON: Beautifying Japanese occupation or beautifying Japanese soldiers, or just writing about them as human beings?

WEISS: I think just writing about them as human beings, some of which are, you know, worse than others.

SIMON: I mean, in the United States, we've had a lot of people question traditional American heroes, and we could rattle off the names - obviously Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, even Abraham Lincoln. Is this the same thing?

WEISS: I mean, it's obviously a very different political context, but there are some similarities here. And many of the - you know, the lawsuit itself is not something that's coming from the Chinese Communist Party. They're utilizing this sort of framework that's been put in place to harass this celebrated, award-winning literary hero. You know, I think that just as in the United States, I think the path forward is pretty fraught. So far, at least, the suit in China appears somewhat unlikely to succeed, and it's been prompting backlash, even from other nationalists inside China, like the Global Times editor Hu Xijin, who criticized this blogger for kind of staging a farce to seek attention.

SIMON: Help us understand how some of these laws have changed under President Xi.

WEISS: Well, you know, they've really reflected his increasing emphasis on instilling confidence within society and ruling the country by law. But I think it's important to note that there's considerable resistance from within society, including government advisers to the party. So, for example, Jia Qingguo, one prominent Chinese expert, recently proposed that as long as people speak out by differing public opinions, the combined effect would contribute positively to the world's objective understanding of China. And so Xi Jinping has put a lot of emphasis also on telling China's story well to the outside world. But what experts like Jia Qingguo are pointing out is that propaganda can only go so far. So having these kind of incredibly talented writers like Mo Yan bring to life and humanize real struggles that Chinese people have endured is important for building empathy in the face of growing political and geopolitical tensions and suspicions.

SIMON: Jessica Chen Weiss, professor at Cornell University and a senior fellow at the Asia Society, thank you so much for being with us.

WEISS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.