Word crimes

March 23, 2011 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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I first met Murong Xuecun—the Chinese author and internet sensation, whose debut novel had an estimated readership of five million—late last year in Beijing. Murong, 37, was in town to receive the prestigious 2010 People’s Literature Prize and he planned to use the platform to give an explosive speech on the absurdity of censorship. Chinese writing today, he was to declare, is akin to a “mental disorder.”

Murong never delivered the speech that he had spent all night preparing. As he stood on the podium to receive his prize, he was barred from talking. Instead all he could do was mime a zip clamping his mouth shut.

Not to be deterred, the author spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong this February, where his speech—which mocked the inane, arbitrary and ambiguous Chinese censorship system—was reproduced in Western media including The New York Times. The Chinese version, posted on his blog, has since received over 100,000 hits and 10,000 comments.

Murong’s cry could not have been timelier. Fearing that events in the Middle East may encourage a “Jasmine Revolution,” the Chinese government has led a vicious—and, in recent years, unprecedented—crackdown on artists, activists, dissidents and lawyers. This week the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, the man behind Beijing’s iconic ‘bird’s nest stadium’ and the Sunflower Seeds installation currently occupying the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is under investigation for “economic crimes” following his sudden detention; while Ran Yunfei, a blogger and magazine editor who has 44,000 Twitter followers, was formally arrested at the end of March for state security charges.

“Censorship, particularly in literature, has become more rigorous,” says Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. “What do these controls do? They frighten people, but they also stifle creativity. We are looking at a generation of artists and writers who are deprived of access to information and who are falling behind.”

Given the external threat from the authorities, Chinese literature also inevitably operates under the insidious force of self-censorship. “There are too many words we cannot write, too many sentences that cannot be used, and too many things that cannot be said,” Murong says when we meet, drawing on a cigarette and stirring a tepid coffee in the drab atrium of a hotel in Beijing. “This situation makes everyone scared.”

With no hard and fast rules dictating what is or is not allowed, editors—often targets for the authorities and facing losses over destroyed print runs—err on the side of caution. The results are sometimes ludicrous. In his most recent book, for instance, Murong makes reference to an “Indian flavoured fart.” Panicked that this phrase might set off a diplomatic incident, his worried editor insisted that the word “Indian” be deleted. “As if China and India would go to war over a fart!” Murong laughs, in mocking despair.

Harvey Thomlinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Make-Do Publishing and Murong’s translator, believes that the author—who pioneered the country’s internet publishing craze a decade ago with his online serialization of Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, a furious, fast-paced and filthy homage to modern China—is foremost an entertainer. “He does not have a political agenda. He has been driven to [speaking out] by the experience of being a writer in China and the constraints he has faced.”

Murong is not the only author ready to rebel. Chen Xiwo, a professor of comparative literature, launched a legal case against China Customs in 2007 for confiscating 12 copies of his own novella, I Love My Mum, sent from Taiwan. The story, a dark portrayal of moral corruption centred around the taboo subject of incest, was declared “pornographic” and “anti-human.”

Chen has declared that all Chinese writers are “eunuchs,” and fears he is “fighting alone” against a “manipulating and controlling” government. Despite this, he acts with caution; in 2005 his book Irritation was banned, jeopardising his publisher. “After this, I started to pay more attention to self-censorship,” he explains on the phone. “Simply because I don’t want to see anyone get hurt because I speak the truth.”

Feng Tang, 40, a bestselling Beijing-born novelist, agrees, allowing his editors to cut his books without asking his permission, despite readers complaining about the jarring results. Feng, who writes directly and honestly about sexuality and adolescence, has described his latest book as “pure pornography” in the eyes of the censors. For now it will only be published in Taiwan—a route many mainland authors take to keep their work intact and avoid the wrath of the mainland.

Despite these options, however, Murong is sticking to his convictions: “I am not a class enemy, or a trouble-maker, or a subversive.” He craves something many Chinese authors desire; if censorship must continue, then, at the very least, guidelines and clear rules should be provided so that the “oh-so-careful” approach of self-censorship and cautious editing—which risks rotting Chinese literature from the inside-out—is curtailed. At the end of the day, Murong finishes, taking a slug of coffee, “I am just a citizen who makes suggestions.”

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Featured photograph: Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds

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