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In 2010, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, who is serving a 30-year term in an undisclosed prison near Beijing. Last year, the Swedish Academy selected for the literature prize Mo Yan, a pen name that means being silent. The latest joke in China sums up the two divergent fortunes of the country's only laureates: one is called silence; the other is silenced.
If the earlier prize had angered the Chinese government, the most recent one puzzled Chinese literary critics. "Why Mo Yan?" everyone asked during my recent three-week lecture tour in China. Someone suggested that I was partially to blame because I had included the author in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. In truth, Mo Yan had gotten his lucky break much earlier when his early novel Red Sorghum was turned into a hugely successful movie, and a second lucky break in an excellent Swedish translator.
This answer didn't quite satisfy my audiences, who found this writer, who tends to revel in seemingly archaic rural worlds, out of touch with their own urban experience. The only person in China who is happy about both Nobel Prizes is Tong Quingbing, a professor of literary theory at Beijing Normal University, who taught both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan there and who is known to boast about his two famous students.
The Chinese Government and many Chinese don't count Nobel Prizes for Chinese living abroad, often because they and their works are banned. And yet the literary production of the Chinese diaspora, especially in the United States, is too significant to be ignored, and Chinese scholars are now paying attention to writers like Ha Jin. Even though he is barred from returning to China, Ha Jin can now see some of his novels, for example his most recent Nanjing Requiem, favorably reviewed in China.
During my lecture tour, the topic of greatest interest was capitalism. How did American writers respond to the convulsive forces of industrialization and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, my Chinese hosts and students wanted to know? I offered as resonant examples writers like Frank Norris, whose Trilogy of the Wheat described the power unleashed by the Chicago Stock Exchange and Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape, which identifies with the awe-inspiring energy of a steamboat. I described this literature as "capitalist sublime" because writers like Norris and O'Neill approached the overwhelming power of capitalism in ways similar to how 18th century philosophers described unimaginably large numbers and overpowering storms.
When I traveled through China on the sleek bullet train at 200 miles per hour past a landscape of power plants, factories, and gigantic developments, I understood why Norris and O'Neill resonated. Chinese newspapers revel in records, the speed with which the latest battery of high-rises has been built, the latest increase in production. Everywhere, superlatives abound. At the same time, the human and environmental costs are becoming more difficult to ignore. Writers like Frank Norris or Eugene O'Neill didn't have any illusions about the destructive powers of capitalism, either; the sublime was a way of understanding that as well.
I was struck that my Chinese audiences had a rich experience of the capitalist sublime, but they were less familiar with the most hard-nosed defenders of capitalism like Joseph Schumpeter, whose term "creative destruction" fits the current Chinese experience better than any. Ayn Rand was completely unknown as well, though my description of her novels and theories resonated with the harsh face of capitalism in China. Rand's glorification of egotism, by contrast, led only to gasps of astonishment.
The biggest problem for urban Chinese right now, and the subject of the latest set of superlatives, is the explosion of housing prices. Everyone talked about it, on trains, over dinner, after lectures. Those who are priced out are kicking themselves for having waited too long while others rattle off the latest increase in home values (10 million rmb, one teacher told me, about 1.6 million dollars, for a modest Beijing apartment). Students complain that they will have to find work at home because they will be forced to move back with their parents. Those who buy rely on family networks to raise the funds for the down payment. Small wonder that a play like David Mamet's Glengary Glen Ross, the best American work on real estate, is of interest here.
The future of Chinese letters and its relation to world literature is closely bound up with the country's experiment in marrying its one-party system to market capitalism, what the Chinese now refer to, with a chuckle, as "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" (a modification of the official "socialism with Chinese characteristics"). Who will describe its new heroes and new victims? How will writers — and other artists — capture the powers, the superlatives, the destructions, creative and otherwise, of this new brand of capitalism?
The next Chinese Nobel Prize in Literature will probably not be a writer of rural life, like Mo Yan, but a Chinese David Mamet aiming at the world's largest housing bubble. Or, if we are unlucky, an Ayn Rand with Chinese characteristics.
Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He is at work on a travel book about world literature.