Mo is probably best known to English-language readers for "Red Sorghum," thanks in part to Zhang Yimou's acclaimed film adaptation. The novel has sold nearly 50,000 copies in the U.S., according to the publisher Penguin Group (USA), a strong number for a translated work. Most of Mo's books in the U.S. have been released by Arcade Publishing, whose founder, the late Richard Seaver, had previously worked with Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and other writers who faced battles with censors.
"Dick Seaver was Mo Yan's champion from the beginning and admired this exceptional writer's unique and original voice," Seaver's widow, Jeannette Seaver, said in a statement. "He was constantly reading passages to me."
Mo has said that censorship is a great spur to creativity.
"In our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that (censors) do not wish to touch upon," he said in an interview with the literary magazine Granta earlier this year. "At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation — making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world."
Even so, Mo, who started writing while in the army, has steered clear from criticizing the government in public. He has been accused of refusing to appear with dissident writers at overseas literary seminars. The award stirred the criticisms anew.
"Some are opposed to his winning the Nobel Prize because he serves as a vice chair of the China Writers' Association and helps the government in censorship. But some are supportive, arguing literature should not be linked to politics but be valued on its own merit," said Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun, who has become more outspoken about censorship in recent years.
Yu Jie, an essayist and close friend of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu who fled to the U.S. this year, was more acid. "This reflects the West's disregard for China's human rights problems. Mo Yan's win is not a victory for literature. It's a victory for the Communist Party," Yu said on his Twitter feed.
The government ignored the controversy and instead focused on the prize as emblematic of China's now recognized status as a great nation. "China is winning more and more respect from the world. We can say this award is not only for Mo Yan but to all the Chinese people," state-run television said in a commentary.
For many Chinese and his supporters, the award was welcome for recognizing an acclaimed author and for steering clear of past Nobel controversies.
"For me personally it's the realization of a dream I've had for years finally coming true. It's suddenly a reality," said Mo's publisher, Cao Yuanyong, deputy editor-in-chief of Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. Cao said he and a dozen colleagues were toasting Mo in his absence with red wine in a Shanghai restaurant Thursday night. The prize is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.
Born in 1955 to a farming family, his early education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political chaos when many of China's schools closed down. To escape rural poverty, he joined the army in 1976 and, while still a soldier, started writing in 1981.
His breakthrough came with "Red Sorghum." Set in a small village, it is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. It was turned into a film that won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988. Amy Tan, author of the best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," became an early admirer.
Goldblatt, who has translated nine of Mo's books, remembered meeting the author in Beijing in the late 1990s, when the two had dinner.
"We didn't have any chemistry and we sat there, silent the whole time," Goldblatt said. "I tried to strike up a conversation and nothing happened. Then, he pulled out a cigarette, and although I had quit smoking, I said, 'Why not?' We were best friends from then on."