On a brisk day in the middle of this month, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan’s (莫言) 62-year-old brother, Guan Moxin (管謨欣), stands outside their childhood home in Pingan Village, Shandong 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 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.
Pingan, population 800, may soon be hard-pressed to maintain its rusticity.
Authorities in Gaomi, the municipality that administers Pingan, plans to build a US$107 million “Mo Yan Culture Experience” theme park around the writer’s old home, according to the Beijing News.
The plan adds a touch of avarice to the range of reactions with which China has received Mo’s Nobel victory. The author has worked with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for decades — many outspoken dissidents were outraged by the award. However, for many ordinary Chinese the prize was a sign that China’s cultural influence may now rival its economic clout. For Gaomi city officials, it could prove to be a gold mine.
Inspired by Mo’s 1997 novel Red Sorghum, which Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) adapted into an award-winning film, the government also plans to create a Red Sorghum Culture and Experience Zone in Pingan. Although villagers counter that they stopped growing the cereal in the 1980s, the government is reportedly planning to pay local farmers to plant 650 hectares of the unprofitable crop.
The Gaomi press center director, Wang Youzhi (王有志), told the official Xinhua news agency that the theme park was more a “vision” than a concrete plan.
“Although the idea sounds promising, we have yet to take the whole situation into consideration,” he said.
“This might be the regulatory commission’s long-term plan over five or 10 years,” he added.
However, a large-scale tourism project in Gaomi remains unsurprising, analysts claim. According to Tao Ran (陶然), an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, local governments often borrow massive sums of money from state-owned banks to finance expensive development projects, hoping that they will drive up the value of local property.
“If you go to almost any Chinese county or city, you’ll see that they’re building new cities, new industrial parks and new theme parks every day,” Tao said.
In July authorities announced a 810 hectare, US$4.6 billion Tibetan Culture theme park, currently being developed on the outskirts of Lhasa. Last week officials in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region unveiled plans to build a US$1 million Malan Military Expo Park at China’s first atomic bomb test site.
Mo’s brother, neighbors and 90-year-old father say they have not heard of plans for a theme park.
“It’s impossible that the government here would spend so much money on such a surface thing,” Guan said.
Mo Yan, who was born Guan Moye (管謨業) — his pen name means “don’t speak” — could not be reached for comment.
Gaomi residents are intensely proud of their Nobel laureate, whom they refer to as “Teacher Mo Yan.” Long red banners congratulating Mo hang from the sides of concrete homes along major thoroughfares.
“Mo Yan’s works have elements from Gaomi’s culture,” said Mao Weijie (毛維杰), who oversees a government-affiliated Mo Yan museum in a local high school. “He writes about Gaomi paper-cutting, for example, and sometimes he writes using our Gaomi dialect.”
The Nobel Prize committee praised Mo for his “hallucinatory” writing in the vein of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet in China much of the discussion surrounding Mo’s prize is less related to his works’ literary merit than his relationship with the authorities.
A longtime CCP member, Mo began writing in 1981 while serving with the People’s Liberation Army. He is now the vice-chairman of the official China Writers’ Association and receives his salary from the Culture Ministry. Authorities welcomed his win with breathless commentaries in the state-run press.
Outspoken dissidents have chastised Mo for keeping his head down and toeing the party line. Artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) called the Nobel committee’s decision an “insult to humanity and to literature.”
Yet Mo’s works show an undeniable capacity for sharp-edged criticism. Many involve subjects such as corruption, the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution and forced abortions under the country’s one-child policy.
In Pingan the atmosphere is still more celebratory than soul-searching.
Guan Yifan (莫貽凡), Mo’s father, said Mo did not come back home often, but when he does, “we just talk about what’s happening in our home — how the tomatoes are growing, that type of thing.”
Inside the house faded family pictures hang on newspaper-covered walls; outside, the courtyard overflows with shucked corn.
Although Guan says that he has never read his son’s books, he is proud of Mo’s achievements.
“We’re all just happy,” he says. “Very, very happy.”