Nobel for literature could counter stress on science

China’s ‘first’ Nobel prize for literature, awarded this month to author Mo Yan, has been celebrated in China as a national triumph. Academics believe it could have a big impact on humanities teaching and research in universities and may call into question the huge amounts being poured into science research.

A previous Nobel prize for literature was won in 2000 by China-born Gao Xinjiang, but he had already been in exile for 20 years and had become a French citizen.

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for calling for an end to one-party rule, won the Nobel peace prize in 2010, eliciting official Chinese anger, censorship of news of the award and strained relations between China and Norway, home to the Nobel peace prize committee.

The reaction to Mo’s honour, announced on 11 October, has been completely different. One academic described China as being in a “state of official euphoria”.

The prize will raise the profile of contemporary Chinese literature both for a general readership and for humanities teaching and research in universities. Some academics have even suggested it could lead to a relaxation of official censorship in order to allow literature to flourish.

But it could also go much further, questioning the government’s huge focus on science research in universities.

Ambition for a science Nobel

China’s desire for a Nobel prize in science has been described by some as reaching the level of obsession.

When this year’s Nobel prize for medicine went to a Japanese scientist, bringing Japan’s tally of Nobel laureates to 19, there was public irritation – even anger – heightening an “inferiority complex” over no Chinese scientist having received the prize, according to a biochemist in Shanghai who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was also referring to the rivalry between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.

Academics have said it is clear that China’s ambitions lie in science and technology, but “it is not seen as something that can happen overnight and there is a realism among the Chinese leadership about this”, according to James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy in the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University.

But the desire persists and everything is being done to push researchers to aim for a Nobel.

This week Nobel Media, the Swedish organisation that promotes Nobel laureates, announced that 2007 medicine laureate Oliver Smithers would visit Shanghai Jiaotong University and Nanjing University to meet postgraduate students.

“The Chinese students want to know about the scientist’s prize-winning work, how did they stay interested in the science for so long and the science itself, what are the new developments and how to continue,” said Merci Olsson, spokesperson for Nobel Media.

For China, a science Nobel would cement its superpower status and put it on a par with the West, said Cong Cao, associate professor and reader in contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University and an expert on science policy in China.

Science first, literature second

Although all Nobel prizes are held in very high regard, said Cao: “For China, in rank order, a Nobel in science comes first, second literature. Peace comes last.”

Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and a former chair of the Nobel chemistry committee in Sweden that selects science prize winners, said he would never reveal the secrets of how the committee makes its selection.

But in a recent interview with University World News, he said he is frequently asked in China how to get a Nobel prize.

“It takes a long time for a scientific and research system in a country to bring up a Nobel prize”, Andersson said. Science prizes are awarded for basic research in physics, chemistry and medicine. He believed China’s research would initially make a strong impact in more applied sciences and in engineering.

“Over time, when Asian and Chinese universities have matured and with resources, we are going to see many more Nobel prizes coming from here. Before World War II most Nobels went to Germany, after the war it was the US and I predict the third wave will be from Asia, yes, including China.”

A science Nobel is more likely to be awarded to a scientist among China’s returned diaspora than someone “in the formal confines of Chinese universities, however much China tries to second-guess how such prizes are awarded,” said James Wilsdon. “You can’t design a system to produce these random outstanding individuals.”

His view is shared by many others.

Pouring money into science research

The Chinese government has been pouring money into top-end research and into attracting Nobel laureates and other top scientists from abroad to ‘seed’ elite Chinese science.

In a draft budget released at the annual session of the National People's Congress in March, Beijing earmarked 32.45 renminbi (US$5.15 billion) for basic science research in 2012, an increase of more than 10% on 2011.

Funding for projects 985 and 211, which both funnel money to elite universities for top-end research, will jump 24% over last year’s funding. Globally, China’s overall spending on research and development is second only to the US.

By contrast, social sciences and humanities research grants are typically a quarter of the amount allocated to science research in China.

The literature Nobel could change public acceptance of this. “Now the scientific community will be under much more pressure. They [the authorities] will say, ‘We give you so much money, but you have not produced anything yet,’ [worthy of a Nobel].”

There is already some criticism of the government’s talent return programme, which provides huge salaries to overseas researchers and professors compared to local academics.

The public could also begin to think about how much money is being spent on science and technology and whether it is justified. “People may get angry with the Chinese leadership; they will say 'how can you give them so much money without getting something back?,” Cao told University World News.

This could benefit the humanities, with a possible easing of official control. “The authorities see humanities and social science research from the perspective of [Communist Party] ideology,” said Cao.

“There are still many restrictions. It is very difficult for academics to have the freedom to do their own research and there are certain taboos such as mentioning human rights, abuses of power and corruption.”

It was widely noted that almost immediately after being awarded his Nobel, Mo called publicly for the release of jailed peace laureate Liu.

The system for funding the humanities in China is regarded as being in good shape by comparison with the West, which is seeing many cutbacks.

“But many Chinese academics in the humanities complain that the system for research funding is designed for the sciences, based on citations and indices,” said Michel Hockx, professor of Chinese at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“There is a general sense in China that things like literature are declining in importance.”

Wilsdon agreed: “There is a lopsided model of funding towards the physical and biosciences,” with a focus on areas that underline new industries and technologies that China can market to the wider world.

The future of the humanities

Beijing has announced that Mo Yan’s works will be taught in high schools. The Language of Culture Press affiliated to the Ministry of Education said this week that Mo’s novella A Transparent Carrot, about the lives of ordinary people in the countryside, will be included in the literature syllabus.

Mo’s works are already taught in universities, which have more freedom than schools to set curriculum content.

The standard university textbook on contemporary Chinese literature written by a Peking University professor, Hong Zicheng, and translated into English as A History of Chinese Literature, includes Mo, who is widely read in China.

Although Mo is a member of the Communist Party, his book Garlic Ballads criticises official corruption and his most recent novel, Frogs, slates the country’s one-child policy and forced abortions.

Hockx predicts that Mo will now be given more prominence. “In China, there is a tendency to canonise,” he said

And he envisages more official invitations to China of Western scholars of Chinese literature. Invitations to overseas academics to become visiting professors in Chinese universities have been predominantly in the sciences, although Hockx said he had already received one such invitation.

“Culture is high on the university agenda in China, for reasons of soft power and promotion of Chinese culture as an alternative to Western culture,” said Hockx. “For China the literature prize is a wonderful success for the soft power agenda even if that’s not what the Nobel committee intended it to be.”

Shi Zhanjun, chief editor of Renmin Literature Publishing Press, said: "We have waited a long time for our dream of a Nobel prize to come true. The award signals the start of equal interaction between Chinese literature and global literature.” And he added: “It represents the spirit of China, and such a spirit can be seen as soft power."

This is in direct contast with Gao’s Nobel, which had no effect on university humanities. “When Gao won the prize there was two days' silence from the Chinese media and then the verdict was that the prize was given for political reasons,” said Hockx.

“Gao is not read, and not taught in universities. And they [the Chinese authorities] do not want him to represent Chinese literature to the outside world. In a sense they turned him into a dissident rather than a literary figure.”

Mo himself is more circumspect. In an interview aired on China Central Television he said he did not believe that his Nobel prize would have a lasting impact on Chinese literature. The public's enthusiasm, would soon fade he said.

And a Shanghai academic said: “Mo will certainly be eclipsed, and possibly forgotten, if China wins a Nobel prize in science.”