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Mo Yan's Nobel win celebrated -- and panned -- in China

Wang Wei / EPA

Nobel Prize-winning writer Mo Yan holds a press conference in his hometown of Gaomi, in China's Shandong province, on Friday.

BEIJING -- State media gave the official stamp of approval Friday over the decision to award the Nobel Prize for literature to Chinese novelist Mo Yan, giving him front-page coverage across the country.

The warm coverage of the award is unsurprising considering the prestige and recognition that China's ruling Communist Party will collectively bask in as a result.

But in another sense, the warm reception for the awarding is striking considering the anger and hysteria drummed up by Beijing following the 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned political dissident, Liu Xiaobo.

In the two years that have followed Liu’s win, which was heavily censored in state media, China has maintained a chilly relationship with the Nobel committee and its home country of Norway. Meetings with Norwegian ministers and trade delegations have been canceled and important talks regarding the eventual opening of the Arctic Sea route have been halting.

China even went so far as to develop its own ill-fated peace prize, while exports of Norway’s famed salmon fell victim to the frigid political atmosphere between the two countries.

China’s first Nobel-winning writer?
But Mo’s victory seems to have thawed the relationship long enough for China to celebrate the writer, who state media has hailed as the country’s first winner of the prize.

"This is the first Chinese writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature," gushed China’s People’s Daily newspaper. "Chinese writers have waited too long, the Chinese people have waited too long."

But critics of the Communist regime point out that Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000 in part for his critical writing of the government, was China’s first winner of the Nobel for literature. He had been exiled to France by the time the prize was awarded.

Mo Yan, which means "don't speak," is actually a pen name. The 57-year-old Mo's real name is Guan Moye.

Mo has been favorably compared to American author William Faulkner and is perhaps best known in the West for his 1987 book, Red Sorghum. That book heavily relied on his experience growing up in a farming community in China's northeastern province of Shandong.

That honest connection to the rural experience has been a central thread through much of Mo’s writing, according to Dai Wei, a professor of literature at China’s Jinan University.

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"Mo's topics are typically about rural life and his own life experiences, his stories are very close parallels to the real circumstances he lived through," Dai told NBC News. "He often writes about suffering. ... Some people think he glorifies suffering for Westerners, but everything he writes is based on real experience."

'The dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature'
Mo latest book, Frog, tells the dark story of a midwife who enthusiastically goes about her work enforcing China’s family-planning laws through forced abortions and sterilizations. The story, a searing critique of China’s one-child policy, won China’s Mao Dun Literature Prize last year.

"A writer should express criticism ... at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression," Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair.

Chinese author Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize in literature

But despite the critical and popular acclaim and Mo’s willingness to confront sensitive social issues in China, Mo’s victory has not come without criticism.

“Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature,” declared noted Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei to the British newspaper The Independent. "It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award."

Ai’s diatribe toward Mo appears to be rooted in part to his work on a book last year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of a speech given by Mao Zedong.

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Mao’s speech, known as the "Speech at Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature" set the guidelines for appropriate subject matter for Chinese writers and artists of that revolutionary period, calling upon them to focus on and espouse the merits of Communism and threatening punishment to those who did not bend to the will of the party.

Mo Yan and around 100 other Chinese writers and artists hand-copied paragraphs from the speech for the book.

That act, in conjunction with Mo’s position as vice chairman of the government-backed Chinese Writer’s Association, which has failed to voice support toward fellow writer Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize victory, has raised the ire of artists like Ai who wonder just how committed Mo Yan is to free expression.

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After all, critics argue, if a Nobel Prize-winning author with a leadership position in the national writing guild fails to stand up for a fellow artist, then who will?

Not fair, said professor Dai.

"I don’t agree with Ai Weiwei, it's just his personal opinion," said Dai. "People have different values, so they evaluate people differently. I think Mo Yan is a great author and Mo Yan is prized by the Nobel Prize council."

Perhaps sensing the backlash against him, Mo spoke out Friday afternoon from his hometown. Mo told reporters he hoped that Liu Xiaobo "can achieve his freedom as soon as possible." He also noted that he had read Liu’s literary criticisms from the 1980s and that the dissident had the right to research his "politics and social system."

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Other supporters of Mo have also came to his defense, noting that many of his books have been banned in China and that the Nobel victory will help put Chinese literature on the map.

But few believe that the victory will help put Liu Xiaobo back on the map in China, where his victory is still not acknowledged by the government. Liu’s name and the term "Nobel Peace Prize" remain blocked terms on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo.

Just this week, a BBC report on Liu’s imprisonment noted that the activist and his wife, who remains under illegal house arrest, have been facing extraordinary pressure to accept exile from China in exchange for their freedom.

NBC News' Johanna Armstrong and Yanzhou Liu contributed to this report.

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