Persistent Censorship In China Produces Art of Compromise

Author Yan Lianke, shown in March 2005, has tangled repeatedly with censors, most recently over a novel based on the infection of Henan villagers with the AIDS virus.
Author Yan Lianke, shown in March 2005, has tangled repeatedly with censors, most recently over a novel based on the infection of Henan villagers with the AIDS virus. (By Chen Shuyi -- Imaginechina)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 9, 2007

BEIJING -- Yan Lianke, one of China's most popular contemporary novelists, is busy composing a new book, using his trusty pen to scratch out line after line of Chinese characters for what promises to be another biting satire of life under the Communist Party.

But not too biting.

The novel will be a patently absurd story about a well-meaning but weak professor, Yan said, crafted as a fantasy and so clearly fictitious that he hopes it will escape the censor's veto. Just in case, Yan said with a twinkle, he is writing two versions at once, watering down the controversial sections for Chinese readers -- and party watchdogs -- while keeping the full flavor of his provocative imagination for editions to be published abroad, outside the censor's grasp.

"Of course, this will affect the quality of the book," he acknowledged in an interview, smiling softly as if sharing a dark family secret.

Yan's little compromise illustrates one of the most tragic aspects of the Communist Party censorship that is imposed on journalism and art in China. In many ways, the country's 1.3 billion people are being deprived of the full bloom of their culture, with thousands of artists like Yan forced to calculate how much they can get away with rather than cutting loose with their talent unfettered.

China has come a long way from the days of Mao Zedong, when singing the praises of socialism was virtually the only form of art allowed by the party. But the principle has remained the same. The party still has a giant bureaucracy with broad authority to control what Chinese hear, see and read. After nearly 30 years of reforms set in motion by Deng Xiaoping, censorship is arguably the least changed aspect of the party's rule.

As a result, writers and other artists are forced to navigate between what they want to say and what the party might allow -- and to consider how high the cost would be if the censors were to hand down a ban. "This is a really big headache," Yan said, speaking in the straightforward language of his native Henan province and his peasant origins.

Yan, who turns 49 next month, is no stranger to China's censors. His first novel, "Xia Riluo," was banned in 1994 because of official outrage over its depiction of two army heroes who go bad. To make matters worse, Yan was in the employ of the People's Liberation Army at the time, assigned to write propaganda. He was kicked out a decade later when he published "Enjoyment," the rollicking story of local Chinese officials who try to buy Lenin's corpse from Russia to attract tourists to their backwater town.

Yan's most notorious run-in with the censors came in 2005, when a literary magazine published his "Serve the People," a novella in which an army officer's wife has an affair with a young recruit and finds that destroying her absent husband's Mao icons and shredding his Little Red Book enhances her sexual desire.

Copies of the magazine sold briskly. But when officials in the party's Central Propaganda Department realized why, they issued an emergency order recalling 30,000 copies already out and banning distribution of any more.

Despite the ban and condemnation -- outraged officials called the story a slander against the People's Liberation Army -- the book quickly caught the attention of China's literature lovers. It was translated and published abroad and is still widely read by Chinese young people adept at accessing forbidden overseas Web sites.

Yan's most recent clash with officialdom displayed some of the most insidious aspects of China's censorship, which includes covering up public health problems such as AIDS and SARS in the name of maintaining a good image of the country. Yan said he got interested in the AIDS epidemic in 1996 through a friend. He got in touch with Gao Yaojie, a bold doctor who brought an outbreak in Henan to public attention and who filled in Yan on how blood sales had resulted in wholesale contamination of villages.


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