2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)?

“If 2013 was ‘Mo Yan Year’, then 2014 was ‘Year of the Literary Prize’ ” writes Chen Mengxi (陈梦溪) at the Beijing Evening News.

“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”
“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone,” opined literary critic Li Jingze. “It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Indeed. It’s got the makings of a good scandal: transparency and fairness of the voting were loudly questioned in social media, new-fangled prizes not sponsored by the state — or even registered with it — popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain, and the powers-that-be even stepped in to forbid one long-running competition from presenting its (traditionally rather hefty) cash award this year.

At one point, a heavyweight in China’s literary world, Alai, nearly went ballistic when his new work didn’t receive the recognition he thought it deserved. Reports The Shenzhen Daily (National Literature Prize Raises Questions):

His [Alai’s] nonfiction novel, “The 200 Year Legend of Kangba [瞻对],” gained zero votes in the category of “reportage.” He is now planning to launch an investigation into the prize’s selection process.

    “I was very shocked by the news. I could not say that I was the best, but it was impossible for me to get zero votes. I very much doubt the fairness of the selection,” he said. “If it was some other prize, I would not care that much. However, the Lu Xun Literature Prize is a national award. As a taxpayer, I have the right to check the result.”

Even literary critic and editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine, Li Jingze (above right), recently weighed in concerning this year’s awards controversy (评奖). “I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Sounds like good fun, eh? It reminds me a bit of those vignettes of fisticuffs that take place occasionally in Taiwan’s often-less-than-civil Legislative Yuan. Democracy is messy, of course, and while China’s literary scene is hardly suffering from a bout of mínzhǔ zhǔyì, the masses are beginning to make themselves heard.

And it’s about time. Three years ago, in 2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize: Recognizing Fine Literature or Rewarding Writer-Officials?, I reported on the hubbub over the fact that, according to the China Daily, “eight of the top 10 on the [winner’s] list are chairpersons or vice-chairpersons of provincial Writers’ Associations.” Here’s what the Guangzhou Daily had to say about such shenanigans:

Official status cannot and should not be a criterion for literary excellence. That’s why people doubt the authenticity of prizes that are awarded to officials for their literary achievements. According to some media reports, even some national literary awards have been awarded to officials.

Fast-forward to the present. If you can read Chinese, check out Chen Mengxi’s article taking stock of this year’s awards, 盘点 2014 年文学奖 . Otherwise, keep reading for my summary below.

The pre-2014 status quo comprised mainly two types of literary contests:

  • “All-China” ones sponsored by authoritative state-run bodies such as the China Writers Association. They have traditionally been considered highly prestigious, and include the Mao Dun Literature Prize, Lu Xün Literary Prize, Cao Yu Drama Literature Awards and the Lao She Literary Award. Cash awards tend to be quite sizeable.
  • Contests run by big literary magazines such as People’s Literature, China Writer and Selected Novels. Eligibility tends to be limited to texts published in those magazines, however.

But as Chen Mengxi demonstrates, the prestige associated with these awards is in a virtual free-fall. One reason is that after several years of harsh criticism regarding the secretive voting procedures, both the Mao Dun Literature Prize and Lu Xün Literary Prize elected to reveal the actual votes cast by each panelist. While duly increasing transparency — seen as a necessary concession to critics who allege collusion — it also opened the standards for judging and the votes of individual judges to public debate, which is a first.

The latter prize was awarded to Zhou Xiaotian for his poetry, which was immediately and widely derided on the Internet as mere “doggerel.” Netizens who examined the guidelines and voting procedures closely — as well as outspoken authors like Alai — smelled a rat, and said so in no uncertain terms, as noted above. The organizers then refused point blank to speak to the media, which only fanned the flames of controversy.

Meanwhile, another stalwart of the Beijing literary scene, the Lao She Literary Award, was ordered not to hold an award ceremony or issue a cash prize. According to Wikipedia (Lao She), it “. . . has been awarded to a Beijing writer every two to three years, recognizing literary excellence in novels, novellas, drama, film, television, and radio . . .” and “aims to encourage high-quality literary expression that remains faithful to modern times.”

Chen Mengxi doesn’t specify if the winner (Ge Fei, for his Invisibility Cloak) did eventually receive a cash prize from the organizers (though he implies it), nor does he clarify exactly why the awards ceremony was called off. But we can assume that it was related to concerns that the judging process was considered “problematic” by the authorities.

In contrast to the controversy surrounding these traditional, state-sponsored literary contests, some others are emerging to widen the playing field and offer greater diversity. They generally:

  • Are organized by the private sector
  • Celebrate genre fiction
  • Feature an enthusiastic young fan base

I’ll close with my translation of Chen Mengxi’s closing paragraphs, which clearly illustrates these characteristics:

The biggest difference vis-a-vis contests organized by “inside-the-system” players is the “youthful” air they [private sector events] exude. In November in Beijing when the Nebula Award [星云奖] was awarded — the occasion for a big gathering of China’s sci-fi literature world — several consecutive days of activities attracted the participation of many university students. The venue was about as boisterous as what you’d find at an animé exhibition. The organizers weren’t bothered about the question of their status. They didn’t even think of registering with a government body; there were no hassles and no one expressed doubts about the event.

At this year’s first-ever genre fiction award, entitled “This is a Super Nice Novel!” (organized by Super Nice magazine) [超好看], the winning authors, Liu Lianzi (Empresses in the Palace) and the popular Weibo microblogger Mao Boyong, boldly suggested that the sole criterion for the competition should be a “great read” . . .

Although “The Next” literary awards organized by Guo Jingming invited traditional authors such as Liu Zhenyun . . . the participants and judges were post-80ers and post-90ers, while most of the audience watching the presentation of the awards were middle-school “fěnsī” [fans]. It may have appeared not overly solemn, but then, such a lack of solemnity is the hallmark of this sort of literary award.

2 thoughts on “2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)?

  1. It is no surprise to Chinese, it is their way of life. About such scandals (I remember telling you guys things like that taking place in translation circle of that country here in the comments), an interested writer can write a lot of great literary works that can offer good lessons to the future generations.


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