Beijing-based Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser believes China’s writers are “castrated”. Censorship and state crackdowns, Woeser suggests, is turning Chinese literature into a retinue of eunuchs – men whose “three treasures” were amputated to reduce their political bite in the imperial court.
This week, Chinese literature has hit the headlines. The London Book Fair, which ends today, has chosen China as its market focus. Yet there have been complaints that the fair has capitulated to pressure from the Chinese authorities by failing to invite any independent or dissident voices.
Bei Ling, founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, has accused organisers of “cleaning us away”. As Bei points out in a series of open letters, all of the authors sent to London to represent China were chosen by the Chinese Writers’ Association – a state organisation which runs under the very body that controls print censorship in the country.
From Beijing the issue is not so clear cut. The official delegation consists of some of the country’s most popular authors. Examples include Internet sensation Annie Baobei, whose soulful, sad short stories are bestsellers; Man Asian Literary Prize winner Bi Feiyu; and the audacious, upcoming author A Yi, who writes dark tales about the countryside. All three deserve to be lauded – even if their journey to London is sponsored by the Chinese state.
What is clear is that censorship has a caustic relationship to creativity. China is now commanding the world’s attention as an economic superpower. Its literature, however, flags behind its political clout. Censorship, it appears, is keeping the country’s best writers in chains.
It is true that times have changed, and for the better. During the Cultural Revolution writers could be silenced for merely thinking bad thoughts – today that is no longer true. While it is inescapable that some of the country’s most candid critics (including the Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo) are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for word crimes, others are able to both be cautiously critical and retain their freedom.
More problematic is the subtly destructive power of self-censorship (admitted by nearly all writers working in China). Editors self-censor for fear of losing their jobs. Writers for fear of never finding an audience.
This was summed up best in 2010 when Murong Xuecun declared that Chinese writing is akin to a “mental disorder”. The author – known best for Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu – delivered a scathing condemnation of the state’s ludicrous censorship engine in a speech in Hong Kong. (Murong was barred from speaking on the Chinese mainland; see my story in Prospect magazine here).
Authors consciously – and more disturbingly subconsciously – edit problematic words, phrases, and story-lines as they write. Editors avoid anything risque in case books are pulped. The result is an often ridiculous editing process in a linguistic minefield. Murong, unable to let loose the full force of his imagination, says he is “close to suffocation”.
Murong is not alone. Last year I interviewed Yan Lianke for The Independent on his new book Dream of Ding Village, a disturbing novel based on the real-life 1990s blood-selling scandal and Aids outbreak in Henan province. Yan told me that self-censorship “is in our blood. It kills creativity while we are writing.”
Authors living and working in China – most of whom are members of the Writers’ Association, a gilded cage which provides writers with a salary and publishing network – often tell me of their frustration that foreign publishers and media are only interested in politics, sex and “banned in China” books.
Yet, despite great potential – and its rich literary history – Chinese literature can be stilted and jarring to read. So much energy is spent finding ways to say things obliquely or tip-toeing around hazy government lines. As the managing editor of Pathlight, a new Chinese literature in translation magazine, told me: “As a reader it does make you really mad when you think what there could have been if there wasn’t that [censorship] apparatus in place since 1949.”
Some people argue that censorship is the mother of all creativity. But Chinese literature has suffered long enough from political purges, isolation, and poor translation. Let’s hope that one day writers in China can create free from shackles. For any writer of true ambition freedom of expression must surely be paramount. Only then will the true potential of literature in China be realised.