In 2011, Chinese author and recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan, was invited to speak before the Cervantes Institute in Beijing. Mo chose to speak about a Chinese view of something emblematic in Spanish/Hispanic society, namely bullfighting.

The undercurrent of that speech, in which he offers his opinion as an outsider looking in, revolves around the disapproving perceptions of this specific Spanish cultural aspect. Mo’s own conclusions, however, are benign: others may offer advice and counsel, but ultimately bullfighting is an internal affair.

Below are his comments, translated from the Spanish:

Bullfighting is regarded as a cultural emblem of Spain. I learned of it the year I read novels by the American writer Ernest Hemingway. Then I saw Tauromachian (bullfighting) paintings of Goya and Picasso. And then, with the advent of television, I could finally see a bullfight. It is a cruel and provocative spectacle, but also certainly beautiful. It requires discernment to determine whether, ultimately, it should be considered an artistic and cultural expression, or a sport.

Now, the controversy looms about whether it should be banned outright or be maintained as a tradition. Although in principle it is a matter for the Spanish to decide … the friends of the Instituto Cervantes invited me to render my opinion on the matter, so with simplicity I will do so.

What is the essence of the bulls? It is really a difficult question to answer. Is it to promote a certain heroic spirit? [Is it to] showcase the courage and the conduct of the bullfighter? To reveal the shocking nature of death that surrounds each human being? It seems to me that it approximates all these questions, but upon careful reflection there is something that is not quite right. Stripped of its glorious and resplendent pomp, bullfighting’s essence is reduced to the torment that devious man inflicts on this poor bull, which he makes mad and subsequently slays, thus filling the public’s thirst for blood, which is heightened by the money made by the people who run the bullfighting industry.

One could probably trace the origins of this spectacle to remote antiquity, when the men of those times had to hunt to survive, equipped with primitive weapons, and had to fight, hand to hand, with wild bulls. The bull would die in order to feed man, or man would die
and become sustenance for any predatory beast. In such a match to the death, there was a fair and equitable element.

But it’s been a long time since humanity has needed to procure its food in this way. Bullfighting now has nothing to do with survival, but merely with recreation and the satisfaction of a morbid desire among the public. As such, abolishing it would be reasonable. But we should not abolish only bullfighting, but also cockfighting, the fighting of goats and the fighting of crickets. Although such spectacles do not involve a struggle between men, they are arguably even more heinous.

Bullfighting at least puts at stake the life of a man, while in cockfighting, and fighting between goats or crickets, man makes use of his perverse intelligence to engage animals in battle without running the same risk of danger.

It even seems that we should also ban boxing competitions. Two men without any animosity toward each other are encouraged to knockout the opponent at the risk of his own life. Although they wear gloves and mouth guards, it is common to see the battered face of the opponent, as if full of red cardinals, bloodied heads. Behind all these barbaric or semi-barbaric spectacles money is hidden, and in this sense, they well deserve to be banned without exception.

Matters more mundane are always difficult to solve. Smoking, for example, is just as detrimental to one’s health and so difficult to completely ban even for a short period of time.

With regard to bullfighting, for me, as a Chinese man, I am indifferent to whether it is banned, but for the Spanish it is not so simple a question. It continues to have cultural currency … People who adore the bullfighters and who want to see bullfights or participate in bullfighting are not a minority.

The truth is I cannot think of a solution that would please supporters and detractors, one that would continue with this old spectacle that has a a certain religious halo, one that would reconcile the desire of the bullfighters and that at the same time not involve the slaughter of an innocent bull. But I am confident that if we manage to solve problems more complex than this, in the matter of bullfighting we may yet reach an adequate solution.