Book Excerpt from Mo Yan Speaks

Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, whose name literally means “don’t speak,” is renowned for his fiction, which includes The Garlic BalladsRed SorghumShifu, You’ll Do Anything for a LaughLife and Death Are Wearing Me OutThe Republic of Wine; and Big Breasts and Wide Hips (all translated into English by Professor Howard Goldblatt).

Mo Yan’s fiction has captivated a global audience for years, and his speeches are just as riveting. They provide rare insights into the complex thought processes of one of the most influential writers in the world. Mo Yan’s passion for this work comes across clearly in his lectures and speeches, reinforcing the strong emotions his works evoke in his readers. Many of these speeches have been translated into Japanese and Korean, and they are now finally available in English. From the writers who have influenced him to the relationship between his life and his works, these speeches offer an extraordinary window in Mo Yan’s world and will help us appreciate his works even more.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 15 “Fear and Hope” from Mo Yan Speaks: Lectures and Speeches by the Nobel Laureate from China by Mo Yan, translated by Professor Shiyan Xu with a foreword by Professor Jonathan Stalling.

In the 1970s, I worked at a cotton-processing factory, and whenever I went home at night after a late shift, I had to cross over the little stone bridge. I was fine as long as there was moonlight, but if there wasn’t any moonlight, I would start to sing when I approached the bridge and then run quickly over it. When I got home, I would be all out of breath, my clothes soaked through with cold sweat. That little stone bridge was about two li from our home. My mother would say, “We heard you before you even entered the village.” That was right when my voice was changing, and it would get all hoarse and broken, so my singing probably sounded just like the sobbing of a ghost or the howling of a wolf. My mother said, “It is the middle of the night when you come back. Why do you need to howl like that?” I said I was afraid. Mother said, “Afraid of what?” I said, afraid of the “Hey, hey” ghost. Mother said, “Son, in this world, the scariest things are human beings.” Even though I admitted that my mother was right, every time I crossed the bridge, I couldn’t help it, I had to run. And yell. 

I used to be so scared of ghosts and monsters, but I have never encountered any. No ghost or monster has ever done me harm. Part of my boyhood fear of ghosts, though, was the pleasure of anticipation. For example, more than once I wished I could meet a beautiful woman fox spirit. And I did look up on the top of the courtyard walls on moonlit nights to see if that little animal was there. But in all these years, the only things that ever really caused me harm were other human beings, and now it’s human beings that really strike fear in me. Before the 1980s, China was a country of class struggle; in the countryside it was the same as in the cities, and there were always some people who, for whatever ridiculous reason, had to oppress others. Some of the children were stripped of their rights to an education because their parents or grandparents had once been comparatively wealthy. And going to the city in search of a better life was not an option. Yet another group of children enjoyed both of these privileges because their parents and grandparents had been poor. And if that were all, I wouldn’t have been so afraid, but what really kept me scared was that these poor people with power, and their children, kept us under surveillance—and oppressed us. My ancestors had once been wealthy (what was considered “wealthy” back then meant no more than owning a few mu of land and one cow for tilling the fields), so I was forced out of school in the fifth grade. For a long time, I had to be very careful, especially of anything I said or did, out of fear that even the slightest little thing said or done imprudently could bring disaster to my parents. Many times we could hear sounds coming from the village office, harrowing cries of pain and sorrow from so-called “bad people” chained up inside, with the village cadres in there with them. That made me very, very afraid—much more than I ever feared ghosts. That was when I finally understood what my mother had said. I thought at first she meant that humans scared off the ghosts and wild animals, but now I understood: no ghost or wild animal could ever be as scary as a human devoid of reason and conscience. Tigers and wolves may have harmed humans at various points in time, and maybe monsters in the stories had too, but only human beings have caused tens of millions of their own kind to die before their time. Only human beings tortured each other, by the tens of millions. A government gone insane made this cruelty legal; a sick society endorsed and rewarded it.

Although the dark times of the Cultural Revolution ended more than twenty years ago and “class struggle” as we called it ceased, fear still lingers in the hearts of people like me who grew up during that era. Every time I return to my hometown and I see the people who used to oppress others, even though they are all smiles with me now, I still can’t stop myself from bowing at the waist, head down, heart full of fear. When I pass the building where people were once shackled, I still shiver, even though the building is now condemned and crumbling to the ground, ready for the wrecking ball, and even when the day is warm—just as I still had to run and yell when I was crossing the stone bridge even when I knew there were no ghosts haunting it.

Looking back, when I was a child, I certainly grew up in the midst of famine, isolation, and fear. I have survived a lot of suffering. But in the end, I never went crazy or succumbed to despondency. And I even became a fiction writer. What was it that sustained me through those long dark years? It was hope. 


Mo Yan is the Chinese writer and Nobel laureate whose best-selling books include Red SorghumThe Garlic BalladsThe Republic of WineBig Breasts and Wide HipsSandalwood DeathPow!Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and Frog.

About the translator: Shiyan Xu is Professor of English at Nanjing Normal University and holds a PhD from Nanjing University. She is Deputy Editor-in-Chief for Chinese Arts and Letters, a journal whose aim is to translate works of Chinese literature and introduce them to the English-speaking world. In addition to several journal articles, her previous publications include The “Weather Vane” of Mainstream Theatre: Study of the Pulitzer Plays in the 21st Century. Dr. Xu also translated Eugene O’Neill’s newest biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts (Yale University Press, 2014), which was published in 2018 by Nanjing University Press and won the prestigious Purple Mountain Prize in Literary Translation awarded by the Jiangsu Writers’ Association.


“To have a Nobel laureate’s take on literature is invaluable—it is all the more the case for Mo Yan, whose name means ‘Don’t Speak’! It is a significant contribution to the literary world that his insights will now be available to English-language readers for the first time in this priceless book, which contains important speeches and lectures by this writer whose impact on world literature continues to grow.” —Professor Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Nobel Laureate

“Mo Yan’s public speeches are extremely insightful, not only in respect to his views of written, translated, and read literature but also concerning the role of literature—including its appeal and its limitations—in contemporary society. Mo Yan Speaks enhances our appreciation of his published fiction.” —Professor Howard Goldblatt, translator of Mo Yan’s novels and collections; Guggenheim Fellow; and Research Professor, University of Notre Dame


  • Foreword by Jonathan Stalling
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Smell of Fiction
  • 2. Fiction and Society
  • 3. The Tradition of Chinese Fiction
  • 4. Writing What You Most Want to Write
  • 5. Ten Major Relationships of Contemporary Literature
  • 6. My American Books
  • 7. Mysterious Japan and My Literary Journey
  • 8. The Infinite Merits of Translators
  • 9. Ramblings on Strindberg
  • 10. One Man’s Bible
  • 11. The Anxiety of Influence
  • 12. Literature Is the World’s
  • 13. Fiction’s Function Is Greater Than Social Criticism
  • 14. The Mysterious Cow of My Home
  • 15. Fear and Hope
  • 16. My Literary Journey
  • 17. Why I Write
  • 18. Reading with My Ears
  • 19. Six Lives in Search of a Character
  • 20. Writing Has Its Own Road
  • 21. Writing as One of the Common People
  • 22. Literature and Youth
  • 23. A Modest Proposal on Literary Individuality
  • Index


Mo Yan Speaks is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions. Save 25% on publisher-direct orders for print editions (hardcover and paperback)—use coupon code SAVE25 at the Cambria Press website.

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