Mo Yan

Mo Yan: no dissident. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has been greeted with some extraordinary hostility in the west. This week Salman Rushdie described him as a “patsy” for the Chinese government. According to the distinguished sinologist Perry Link, “Chinese writers today, whether ‘inside the system’ or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” And, clearly, Mo Yan has not made the right choice, which is to range himself as an outspoken “dissident” against his country’s authoritarian regime.

But doesn’t the “writer’s imagination” also conflict with the “imagination of the state” in a liberal capitalist democracy? This was broadly the subject that John Updike was asked to speak on at a PEN conference in New York in 1986. Updike delivered – to what Rushdie, also in attendance, described as a “considerably bewildered audience of world writers” – a paean to the blue mailboxes of the US Postal Service, which, he marvelled, took away his writings with miraculous regularity and brought him cheques and prizes in return.

It is a preposterous twist of Kafkaesque proportions that the 2012 Nobel Prize winner in literature has endorsed censorship as a necessary evil. The Chinese winner, Mo Yan, who made the pronouncement in Stockholm on Thursday, has tarnished the prize and insulted writers everywhere who are risking their lives to tell truth to power.

In retrospect, Mr. Mo’s selection was always going to be fraught. Some condemned it from the start, saying the author was too close to the government apparatus of his country. He is a member of the Communist Party and vice-president of a party-approved writers’ association. As well, he is well known for being among a select group of Chinese authors chosen to write out, in their own hand, excerpts from Mao Zedong’s (in)famous speech on the responsibilities of artists under communism for a commemorative book.

The father of Chinese writer Mo Yan

Guan Yifan, 90, the father of Chinese Nobel laureate writer Mo Yan, in front of Mo’s childhood home at Ping’an village, Gaomi, Shandong province Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

On a brisk day in mid-October, Nobel prizewinner for literature Mo Yan‘s 62-year-old brother, Guan Moxin, stands outside their childhood home in Ping’an village, Shandong coastal province, posing for photographs with a steady stream of brightly dressed tourists. He smiles as a teenage girl in a pink sweater puts her hand on his shoulder and flashes a peace sign at the camera.

“Everybody wants to understand what Mo Yan’s life used to be like, when we were young,” says Guan, leading a small crowd inside the abandoned house to a dusty room where Mo, now 57, was married. A broken antique radio – a wedding gift, Guan says – sits on a crumbling concrete bed, untouched for decades.

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The annual autumn buzz here in Tokyo for the Nobel Prize in Literature was more intense last week than in any years past. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, whose global audience and literary stardom confound conventional publishing wisdom (he’s not American, doesn’t write in English, and not a single vampire or wizard appears in his oeuvre), has been in the running several times, but this year he topped everyone’s list of favorites. Leading up to the word from Stockholm, early evening local time, a major domestic TV network aired a segment in which Murakami readers worldwide expressed their love for him and his books in a babel of languages. One Chinese reader declared that the latest China/Japan spat over disputed island territories had zero impact on China’s love for Murakami, despite the author’s recent newspaper article calling for both sides to lay off the liquor of nationalism. (Some Japanese newspapers were reportedly banned in China last month, so the reader may not have seen it.)