China: On Literary Censorship and ‘Castrated Writing’

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In December 2010, Murong Xuecun won the People’s Literature Prize. To mark the occasion, the young writer prepared some remarks on literature and free expression. But, before he reached the podium, he was stopped. His speech on censorship had been censored.

This week, he traveled to Hong Kong to deliver that speech. In a talk that was, by turns, funny and fierce, he argued that censorship has desiccated the Chinese language, quashed creativity and created a society where writers are “castrated while still in the nursery.”

That China censors its citizens — including it’s writers — is hardly news. Beijing is unabashed about the need for what it calls “social management.” We know that the state blocks YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as thousands of other sites. We also know that certain topics — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen — are off-limits. Beyond that, though, the battle lines are perpetually shifting.

Murong says spent two maddening months revising his latest project, an exposé about an illegal pyramid scheme, with a “cautious” and “peculiar” editor. The editor combed through his prose, questioning the most quotidian phrases, cutting entire chapters, sections and sentences. In one case, the editor advised him that the term “Chinese peasants” was politically sensitive. In another, he was forced to retract the observation that individual’s fart had the “flavour of India.” Why risk a diplomatic incident?

“Our mother tongue has been cut into two parts: one safe, and the other risky,” he said. “Some words are revolutionary, and others are reactionary; some words we may use, and others belong to our enemies.” As a result, Chinese has become a “linguistic minefield” that writers must learn to pick across.

After a lifetime of edits, they’re well equipped to do so. “I will often take it on myself to save time and cut a few words,” Murong said. State censorship has a way of becoming self-censorship: “I have already castrated myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.”