The People’s Bookshop, a tiny Hong Kong establishment, used to be the last place to get ahold of censored literary contraband. Today, it no longer exists. Locals and activists believe that there was pressure from the government—and recent history seems to agree. Hong Kong bans literature to do with politics, religion, or sex, rendering topics ranging from BDSM to China’s own history nigh unspeakable. Now, literary censorship remains unchallenged.
Image Via Theguardian.com
China adopted the ‘one country, two systems policy‘ in the 1980s, ostensibly with the intent to grant certain regions of China (including Hong Kong) with territorial autonomy independent from the rule of the Communist Party of China. In actuality, the legitimacy of Hong Kong’s autonomy is uncertain and possibly suspect. Many in the literary and political spheres questioned the role of literary censorship in regional autonomy back in 2015—when 5 controversial Hong Kong booksellers were abducted. One vanished overseas under deeply suspicious circumstances, with CCTV footage demonstrating that, although the victim was in Thailand, his kidnappers could only speak Chinese.
Image Via Hongkongfp.com
China at large is infamous for literary censorship, with popular works like George Orwell’s Animal Farmand Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandon its banned list. Yet even with the heightened efforts at Hong Kong censorship, which began in 2013 as penalties increased for smuggling texts from the city, Hong Kong’s literature has heretofore thrived. Exiled Chinese poet Bei Ling stated in a 2016 interview: “according to my estimates, about half of the books published in Hong Kong are on politics and cultural topics banned in China.” While the People’s Bookshop closure is certainly upsetting, it implies a far darker truth: that the Party may no longer be interested in protecting regional autonomy and may, instead, prefer to dismantle it.
I’m always up for a little history lesson, not to mention some classic art and literature. When you mix all of them together then you’ve hit the damn trifecta. Try your best to go back in time to about 618 CE, more than 1,000 years ago. This was when China was at the very beginning of the Tang Dynasty. It was then that the ancient art of dragon scale bookbinding was born.
“Dream of the Red Chamber” | Image Via CNN
It was an ancient literary art passed down between royals, nobles, and affluent families. They believed it resembled a fierce dragon and that every page looked like the beast’s scales. Now, with only a few of these special books still around and the process nearly obsolete, Zhang Xiaodong is using his studio in Beijing to bring it back to life.
Image Via Pinterest
According to CNN, Xiaodong spent four years referring back to the Forbidden City Palace Museum’s one and only existing dragon scale bound book, Dream of the Red Chamber. He is tasked with laying hundreds of thin sheets of paper on top of one another until a clear image is formed. Once the chapters unfold, they fan out similarly to an accordion. His hard work was recently put on display at an art fair and garnered much attention.
Image Via CNN
“When there is a slight movement in the air, [the pages] flow, giving life to the book itself,” said exhibit curator Ying Kwok. “This makes the whole experience of reading a book three-dimensional.” With 120 chapters and 230 images replicated from a Qing Dynasty artist, Xiaodong manages to combine new technology with only cutting and folding techniques to get his work right.
Although this ancient process remains a lost art, Yink Kwok is hoping for a revival to preserve old and new traditions. “There has always been an interest in traditional Chinese art but now there are more people interested in experimental and modern takes on traditional techniques… It shows how a younger generation of artists can actually use traditional formats to respond to their surroundings.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently moved to abolish presidential term limits in China, meaning that he could effectively remain the country’s leader for the remainder of his life. The move has understandably been met with much criticism from both within China and internationally. In response to this, the president has had censorship authorities crack down on online critiquing of his proposed constitution change.
‘Ten thousand years’ (万岁), which is China’s way of saying: ‘Long live!’ or ‘Viva!’
‘Xi Zedong’ (习泽东) – a hybrid of the names of Xi and Chairman Mao Zedong
‘Personality cult’ (个人崇拜)
Mention of George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 was also banned, along with the name Yuan Shikai, who was a Qing dynasty warlord who unsuccessfully tried to restore a monarchy in China.
While it’s easy to see why these terms may have been banned, it is less apparent where the letter ‘N’ fits in. Victor Maire, the University of Pennsylvania China expert has suggested that it was banned “probably out of fear on the part of the government that ‘N’ = ‘n terms in office’, where possibly n > 2.”
Beijing accused the West of acting ‘hysterically’ to the proposed changes.
Are you ready for the next Game of Thrones? What about another Lord of the Rings? Well, look no further than Jin Yong’s series Legends of the Condor Heroes! Hailed as a classic in China, the series has inspired films, games, comics and TV shows and is being released for the first time in English.
The Guardian notes that ‘in the west, [Jin Yong’s] name is barely known, largely due to the complexity of the world he has created and the puzzle that has posed for translators.’ Many translators have tried and failed to translate the fifteen novel series, however Edinburgh native Anna Holmwood, who studied Chinese at Oxford, has successfully translated the first novel, A Hero Born.
Image Via Amazon
Holmwood told the Observer that “these books are read by so many Chinese people when they are teenagers, and the work really stays in their heads. So, of course, I felt a great weight of responsibility in translating them – and even more as publication draws near.”
According to The Guardian, the book, set in China in 1200, ‘tells of an empire close to collapse.’
Under attack from the Jurchen Jin dynasty, the future of the entire Chinese population rests in the hands of a few lone martial arts exponents.
These include ‘Guo Jing, a young soldier among the massed ranks of Genghis Khan’s invading army and son of a murdered warrior,’ who could soon be the new Jon Snow.
Still from the 2017 TV adaptation of Jin Yong’s series | Via Steemit
It should be interesting to see how an Eastern series of this size and scale will be received by a Western audience, given the number of nuances and references that will be unfamiliar to an English speaking audience. The Guardian says,
The challenge facing all [the translators involved] is to faithfully represent the kung fu moves along with the Chinese philosophies and religions that are all woven through the plot. Even the fighting skill of the warrior in A Hero Born, for instance, which literally translate as “the 18 palm attacks to defeat dragons”, is in fact derived from a Taoist classic ascribed to Lao Tzu, dating from 2,500 years ago, and has a strong philosophical element in addition to movement.
Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, the ninety-three-year-old whose books have been the biggest publishing hit in China has seen in the last century.
What do you do if you’re an author whose home country refuses to publish the most important books you’ve ever written in your career? If you’re Chinese author Xue Yiwei, you move all the way across the world.
Mr. Xue, known in China as one of their “most charismatic literary stylists,” is largely unknown in the English-speaking part of the world, but that’s about to change. In 2010, he wrote a book entitled Dr. Bethune’s Children, which is a book of letters addressed to Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who died on the front lines of the Communist resistance to the Japanese occupation in 1939. An English translation of the book just came out in Canada, his new home country.
What was wrong in his old home country of China? For a long time, nothing. Mr. Xue has written sixteen novels and essay collections. Thirteen have been published in China. The last three, including Dr. Bethune’s Children, were rejected.
In China, authors who write about controversial topics like Communist resistance often have all their works banned. Authors whose works are constantly in print are suspected of self-censorship. Nearly all published authors belong to the China Writers Association. This group demands their members pledge their loyalty to the Communist party. Perhaps this is the reason Mr. Xue never joined. He couldn’t if he wanted to have a chance of getting Dr. Bethune’s Children published.
However, it seemed he may never get that chance. Editor after editor rejected the manuscript. One editor told Mr. Xue this, “Dr. Bethune’s Children couldn’t appear because the attitude of the novel’s expatriate narrator was judged as harmful to China’s reputation.”
Another editor gave Mr. Xue a detailed plan on how to rewrite the novel and omit all references to the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, two subjects that are taboo in China. This response is what prompted Mr. Xue to seek publication outside of China. Dr. Bethune’s Children was first published in Taiwan in 2014.
Image via Amazon
The release of Dr. Bethune’s Children in Taiwan found Mr. Xue in a peculiar situation. He was neither completely banned nor completely accepted in his native country. However, he did not regret seeking publication elsewhere. He deemed Dr. Bethune’s Children one of his most important works.
A fellow Chinese author based in Boston, Mr. Ha, commented on Mr. Xue’s tendency to write books that are the opposite of the kind of books other Chinese authors write. “Established writers in China may pay attention to big ideas but they are so isolated and confined within the system they can’t really think differently.”
Dr. Bethune’s Children is not the first controversial piece Mr. Xue has written, and his other controversial works got him in trouble. In 1989, he wrote a book called Desertion about an amateur philosopher’s efforts to quit his government job. Soon after the book was published, he joined the Tiananmen Square protests, and wrote another controversial piece, a novella called December 31, 1989. It was about the mood of dejection among his friends over the suppression of protest. The novella was published in magazines in Taiwan and Guangzhou. When the publication got back to China, the reaction was severe.
They never came at me personally, but they came to my friends. They tried to shut down the magazine I had written for. I still don’t know who ‘they’ were. Somebody, a friend, told me I should not write anymore. For my own benefit.
Mr. Xue took those words to heart. He went back to school and studied linguistics. He wrote infrequently, and what he did write and sent for publication, he sent under a pseudonym.
In 1997, Desertion, which was largely ignored when it was first published, won a major award in Taiwan. This event prompted a leading critic in Beijing to count Desertion as one of China’s most important philosophical novels. The validation came too late however, as Mr. Xue had already decided to move to Montreal, unable to handle his native country any longer.
I could see what was happening in China. At the high point of my writing, I had to hide myself. Even after that, conversation with publishers was not comfortable.
Mr. Xue wanted to remain a current writer in China, but did not feel safe writing there, so he moved to Montreal, took some classes at a university there, and welcomed a period of great productivity. “I marginalized myself…but I remained an essential writer on the literary scene in China,” he said.
Image via The New York Times
Michael Berry, a UCLA contemporary Chinese culture professor understood exactly why Mr. Xue moved to Montreal to remain current in China.
It makes sense that Xue wants to be removed from the cacophony of changes happening in China every day. The outsider perspective living in Montreal lets him explore opinions a writer in China wouldn’t dare touch upon.
In the recent years, Montreal went from a safe haven to write to his new home. He gained a fluency in English and began translating passages in Dr. Bethune’s Children into English. He’s happy about his growing popularity in his new land, but he remains devoted to getting his content out there in China. “In this materialistic era, I believe literature is more crucial than ever for the conscience of my motherland.”
Mr. Xue is clearly devoted to his country (or rather, one of his countries), and keeps hoping his writing will help things change for the better.