Somewhere in China: Reading Between the Lines and the ‘Fiction of Compromise’

Censorship, General Interest, International issues

By: guest blogger Ronald Torrance

“Somewhere in…” is a monthly column from the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative that addresses international censorship issues. 

For those familiar with censorship in China, the Chinese government’s banning of books on the politics and history of its leaders (both past and present), which the Chinese authorities consider polemically divergent from its state-sanctioned opinions, is not a new phenomenon.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books (18th century Chinese painting)
“Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books” (18th century Chinese painting)

A comparable example of literary censorship in the West can be seen in the attempted suppression of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by the current United States administration, which provoked a letter from the president’s lawyers to Wolff and his publishers, demanding an immediate stop to “any further publication, release or dissemination of the Book, the Article, or any excerpts or summaries of either of them, to any person or entity [sic].” In response, Henry Holt and Co. published Fire and Fury four days earlier than anticipated, systematically denying pre-publication censorship and defying a request taken directly from the pages of Beijing’s censorship playbook.

For Chinese writers, this response is rarely, if ever, met with the feverish demand with which Fury and Fury was received. More often, Chinese authors attempting to publish material on political or historical subjects in the mainland find their books banned by state censors, such as Jung Chang’s (张戎) biography/autobiography Wild Swans and Ma Jian’s (马建) Beijing Coma, for their depictions of Mao Zedong and the effects of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, respectively.

Overseeing the censorship of potentially incendiary materials in China is the Chinese Communist Party-run General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP; 华人民共和国新闻出版总), which exists as the government’s administrative agency responsible for screening books discussing “important topics,” and usefully provides these as:

  • works and literature concerning any former or current leaders of the party or the nation, and selections concerning the circumstances of their lives or work;
  • topics which deal with the “Cultural Revolution”; and
  • topics which deal with any significant historical matters or important historical figures in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.

Under the GAPP’s watchful eye, instances of censorship – be they literary, printed, televised or politically polemic – highlight the state’s anxiety over literary production, despite the “freedom of the press” enshrined in Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. This dichotomy between the state’s projection of censorship and the reality of publishing in mainland China illustrates what Kerry Brown – director of the Lau China Institute and professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London – terms in Power and the Princelings in China “the great binary of the narrative of Chinese history after 1949,” which posits a system whereby China’s history is simultaneously countermanded and undermined by the CCP’s nihilistic suppression of any discourse other than the “official” narrative projected by the state.

This contradiction is not only rooted in state ideology, but also in historical precedent, which presents an important understanding of why writers, such as Eileen Chang (張愛玲) and Mo Yan (莫言), abstain from direct political discourse (such evocation being tantamount to inviting direct personal and reputational admonishment by the CCP) and hence why didactic leanings within texts appear to be, for the most part, preferred by many Chinese writers.

Eileen Chang, however, has long been considered a writer whose oeuvre is hermetically disengaged from the broader strokes of early 20th-century Chinese politics. Yet, as Gregory McCormick argues, “to call Eileen Chang a non-political writer would be markedly inaccurate.”

Indeed, much of Chang’s writing shares thematic similarities with her 20th-century predecessors, focusing on wider dialogues of class, oppression and collective memory: all purportedly non-political subjects which comprise the volume of her work. It is ironic, then, that politics would be a force which would ultimately determine the course of the latter part of Chang’s career; a fate she shares with fellow writer Ma Jian, whose work “echoes of the Cultural Revolution” no doubt elicited considerable nervousness within the GAPP. Ma Jian was banned by authorities upon leaving China in 1986, with “no reason for the ban or any indication of how long it will last,” according to a 2011 article by The Guardian.

In order to remain in favour with the state, Chinese writers have little choice but to compromise their literary output to topics deemed suitable for public consumption by the GAPP. This discourse was brought to a head in October 2009, when China was invited as the “guest of honour” to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which critics claimed demonstrated complicity with China’s state-sponsored censorship and to which Ma Jian is quoted in John Roberts’ A History of China: “There is little need for literary censors these days … Chinese fiction is in the main a fiction of compromise.”

The People’s Republic of AmnesiaIn her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim – former NPR and BBC correspondent for China – offers an insightful historical analysis vis-à-vis her hypothesis of the CCP’s censorship of the events leading to, and ensuing from, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and one in which the issue of authorial compromise is met hand-in-hand with state-sponsored historiographical discourse. In short, Lim illustrates that the way in which the CCP uses censorship of politically controversial subjects (we might also call these “important topics,” using the GAPP’s terminology) to assert its authority on what it pertains to be the “correct” course of Chinese history. She recalls “the rewriting of history books under the first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who, in order to consolidate control over political thought … decreed the burning of all scholarly books, sparing only the chronicles penned by his own historians.” Much like the symbolic narrative experienced by Ximen Nao’s journey through the Buddhist saṃsāra in Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Lim postulates that the dynastic cycle of historical rewriting persists within the CCP to this day, as evidenced by its wholesale rejection of the 1989 crackdown as anything other than a “counter-revolutionary” riot.

While censorship, artistic suppression and control might mitigate the distribution of politically sensitive topics within China, it remains true that these discourses and the dissemination of Chinese literature, more generally, are not solely restricted to national political censorship, but are also distributed within a wider global context. Naturally, the CCP’s censorship of “important subjects” is subjected to exterior scrutiny; the ubiquity of the internet, in particular, presents a continuous challenge to the ability of the CCP (in either resources or deliberate intent) to sustain a monolithic system of censorship, and its ability to sustain its foothold over subversive content in an age of relative digital anonymity for politically active dissidents.

Multiple questions, however, remain. How can Chinese writers respond to censorship by the CCP, and in what ways can writers create a method of dialoguing with, and subsequently challenging, the authoritarian politics of the PRC? In a new era of political revolution, as illustrated, for example, by the “Occupy (Umbrella) Movement” protests, how do Chinese writers, post-1989, effectively write themselves back into a history that is officially being erased?

Despite Mo Yan’s (at least publicly projected) political neutrality, we begin to see the subtle negotiation of the “boundaries of self-censorship [which] has steadily diminished free expression both within China’s borders and beyond,” according to Louisa Lim in The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. In Life and Death, this subtle algebra of self-censorship is cast upon the heavy canvas of China’s Cultural Revolution again, one of the GAPP’s incendiary “important topics.”

Life and Death Are Wearing Me OutIn Mo Yan’s case, Kerry Brown’s assessment of “the great binary of … China,” again, comes full circle. At once lauded “in purely literary terms” for his “brilliance and popularity,” and equally reviled by his critics for his “stance on censorship [belying] a commitment to collective cultural amnesia,” Mo Yan resides – much like his protagonist Ximen Nao’s cyclical existence under Lord Yama’s rule – in the liminal space between his public persona as a writer of considerable talent and his role as a political instrument of the CCP.

But it is precisely his position within this liminal plateau that affords Mo Yan some degree of creativity in responding to wider concerns surrounding censorship and the writer’s relationship with history underneath an authoritarian regime. Unlike writers such as Ma Jian, Yan Lianke and Su Tong (whose collective works have, at various points in time, been banned in mainland China), Mo Yan is unique in becoming “one of a handful of Chinese writers who [has] gained a worldwide readership while retaining a huge following at home,” according to The Telegraph, and simultaneously maintaining a reputationally profitable relationship with the Chinese authorities.

So, in Life and Death, when Ximen Nao tells the reader, “well, you know more about that than I,” he is not being a self-effacingly obtuse narrator, but is instead dialoguing with and challenging a history that is systematically and legislatively sensitive to the CCP. In effect, Ximen Nao’s narrative is a means through which Mo Yan can subtly bypass the radar of the GAPP’s “important topics,” and at the same time tell the reader: “I know you know that we both know about The Great Leap Forward.”


Ronald TorranceRonald Torrance, BA (Hons), MLitt is a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. After graduating in 2013, he worked for a software development company in Shanghai, where he developed an interest in Anglophone fiction in China. His current research focuses on the intersections between Chinese literature, politics and culture, and the textual engagement with history at the end of the 20th century, by exploring discourses of “literary history” in 20th- and 21st-century Chinese literature. Find him on Twitter @rnldtrnc



Global Literature in Libraries Initiative The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national and international levels. It intends to do so by facilitating close and direct collaboration between translators, librarians, publishers, editors, and educators, because it believes that these groups in collaboration are uniquely positioned to help libraries provide support and events to engage readers of all ages in a library framework that explores and celebrates literature from around the world.


  • Very informative. Was Mo Yan’s book published in China? Do some Chinese authors find international publishers?

  • Thank you for your questions, Allyson. Yes, “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” was published in China as 《生死疲勞》(shēngsǐ píláo) by The Writers Publishing House (Chinese: 作家出版社; pinyin: Zuòjiā Chūbǎnshè), which was established in 1953 and mostly publishes contemporary literature. An English translation was published in 2008 by Arcade. In response to your second question, some Chinese writers do find international publishers, although the consistency of international publishing approaches to Chinese authors is variable; Ma Jian’s works, for example, have been published in English by Chatto & Windus, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Pantheon Books, Vintage and Penguin at various points in time, yet his seminal novel, “Beijing Coma,” is still banned in China.

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