China: Murong Xuecun

Some books editor Rebecca Carter was thinking during her British Council Trip to China in February 2011

20 Fragments

In her film-making as well as her novels, Xiaolu Guo is brilliant on the aspirations and ennui of China's new urban youth. This particular novel describes a young woman's life in contemporary Beijing with poignancy and wit. It's full of love and despair for a mixed-up city.


Ma Jian's extraordinary novel about the Tiananmen Square massacre, banned in China, conveys the unfolding tragedy with unflinching empathy, and paints a portrait of the decade of forgetting that followed Tiananmen when China's economic miracle swept people up in a new, money-driven way of life.

Sharks Fin

Out in paperback in June, this is the most perfect introduction to Chinese food you could imagine. Tracing Fuschia Dunlop's journey of discovery from her student days in Chengdu to her current position as one of the world's most acclaimed writers on Chinese cooking, it tells the story of China through its eating habits.


On 19 November 2010, in Beijing, Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun, whose works include Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, was awarded the 2010 People’s Literature Prize. Celebrated for his darkly funny novels of contemporary urban Chinese life, Murong had prepared to use the award ceremony to make a speech calling for a more relaxed approach to literary censorship. But just as he ascended the platform, he was abruptly barred from speaking. His speech on censorship had itself been censored. Here is the full text of the speech, translated by Martin Merz & Jane Pan

If I am not mistaken, the People’s Literature magazine “special action award” was not bestowed for my literary achievement, but for my courage. I’m embarrassed because I am not a brave person.

Genuine bravery for a writer is not about jousting with a pyramid-scam gang. It is about calmly speaking the truth when everyone else is silenced, when the truth cannot be expressed. It is about speaking out with a different voice, risking the wrath of the state and offending everyone, for the sake of the truth, and the writer’s conscience.

When I exposed a pyramid scheme, I just did what any citizen should do: I reported a crime. This was far from being a real act of courage, and in my view was equally far from deserving any prize. Actually, I am a coward. I say only what is safe to say, and I criticise only what is permissable to criticise.

I finished this book some time ago, and the most important reason for the delay in its publication was that I came up against a rather peculiar editor. Over the course of two months, he and I had some very interesting verbal duels. I smashed a cup on the floor, I spoke a few strong words to him. I furiously punched the wall at home, but finally I capitulated.

This editor is a very cautious person. Whatever the circumstances, the first thing he thinks of is safety. In his view, it would have been preferable not to publish my book at all; this would be the safest way. Even if he was forced to publish it, he told me it was best to avoid talking about anything real, because anything real entails risk. If I couldn’t avoid touching on a few truths, then I should be sure not to express any opinions about them. The moment I had opinions, I became a danger. I disagreed with him, but I know he is not the only one thinks that way.

My new book tells the story of my time spent undercover inside an illegal pyramid sales organisation. The gang running the scam had a saying: ‘If you invest 3,800 RMB within two years you will make five million RMB.’ In response to this, I wrote the following:

I quickly calculated that our local network had nearly 200 people. If each one earned five million RMB, then that was nearly ten billion RMB, so the turnover was close to that of a province-level branch of China Mobile. If all seven million people involved in China’s pyramid sales industry could earn that much, it would amount to thirty-five trillion RMB, which far exceeded the GDP of China in 2008. If things continued to develop in that way, then the day that China’s economy overtakes the USA would soon arrive, and in no time at all China would rule the world, just as Mencius said, by ‘using a club to defeat the deadly forces of Qin and Chu.’ We only needed to mobilise seven million hungry Chinese peasants armed with wooden clubs to bring down the imperialist stealth fighter jets. We didn’t need to develop industry, or agriculture, or a service sector; we wouldn’t even need an army.

The editor cut this whole passage from ‘overtakes the USA’ onwards, and I asked him why. Too sensitive, I was told. I said that even a simpleton could understand this passage was sarcastic. What could be sensitive about it? ‘It’s not acceptable even if it is sarcastic. It has to go. I made a proposal: ‘Alright. If being fiercely sarcastic is not allowed, then let’s try to be gently sarcastic.’ He then said that the phrase ‘China would rule the world’ was sensitive. I accepted that. ‘Okay, cut it.’ Then ‘Chinese peasants’ was also deemed sensitive, but this time, I was perplexed. Surely it was a neutral word; what was sensitive about it? The editor said that the word ‘peasant’ contained an element of prejudice. ‘OK,’ I said, pretending to be flexible, and changed it to ‘pyramid sellers’.

‘Defeat the imperialist stealth planes’ was also sensitive. I told the editor I got his point and suggested we change it to ‘unmanned stealth planes’. The editor said that this was still no good, and that ‘stealth plane’ was also sensitive because it touched on a military topic. I asked him to just reflect for a moment: China’s bookstores have numerous books on military topics. If they could all be published, why could I not even ‘touch on the topic’? His response was that this topic is not for discussion, and those words definitely had to be modified. But as these words were the core subject of the passage, there was no way to modify them, so I had to rewrite it completely.

The book also included this phrase: ‘This group was mostly made up of people from Henan, he called them the “Henan network.” ’ The book also mentioned the ‘Guangxi network,’ the ‘Shandong network,’ the ‘Sichuan network,’ and so on. These were all harmless references, but to the editor, even this kind of everyday expression aroused safety issues because the phrase ‘Henan people’ carries an air of regional discrimination. He suggested that we rework the phrase as ‘They were all Henan peasants, and so this network was called the Henan network, and was made up of mostly Henan people.’ I still pushed back and asked him to read my original words again and tell me whether there was any sense of discrimination against Henan people. Another problem was that I could not identify the difference between my original language and his suggestion. Why did we have to make this change? He said that by changing ‘Henan people’ to ‘Henan peasants,’ more sophisticated Henan people would not feel slighted. I tried to bargain with him: “In my original version there were two sentences, it’d be too wordy if there were three. Why don’t we cut the first one?” He thought about it for ages and then agreed, and so we arrived at the final version. My original words were: ‘This group was made up of mostly Henan people, and it was called the ‘Henan network’.’ After it was changed the new version became ‘This team was called the ‘Henan network,’ it was made up mostly of Henan people.’

In another place I said that someone’s fart had the ‘flavour of India.’ I must admit that this could be regarded as a bit vulgar, but surely either way it was hardly of great importance? But the editor insisted that I make a change because of the reference to India. On this point he was unyielding: Indian-flavoured flatulence is not permitted. I sympathised with him, because apparently he was genuinely afraid of causing a diplomatic incident between China and India. But I also wondered whether China and India would really start a war over a solitary fart.

In one of my previous books, which was first published in 2005 and has been through several editions, I used a geographic term: South China. To my surprise, this phrase now turned out to be sensitive and the editor insisted it be changed. The reason he gave was that you never see this phrase in official publications. I couldn’t help wondering why words that could be used in 2005 were no longer permissible in 2010. Later I did some research online and found out that not only was there a South China hotel, there was also a South China magazine; and a film called South China (1994) that won the Golden Rooster award. China’s most authoritative news organisations also repeatedly use the phrase ‘South China’. I have some good news to report: on this point, I prevailed.

As you may have guessed, this editor didn’t just cut a few words like ‘Henan people,’ ‘peasants,’ ‘imperialism’ and a miscreant fart, but also many sentences, paragraphs, and even whole sections and chapters. From my many years’ experience in writing and publishing, I could write a ‘sensitive words glossary’, where you would certainly find the words ‘system’, ‘law’, ‘government’, as well as a large number of other nouns, several verbs, quite a few adjectives, and even a few special numbers. In this dictionary, the proscribed words would also include all names of religions, all names of important people, all countries, including of course China, and also the phrase ‘Chinese people.’ In many places in my new book, ‘Chinese people’ was changed to ‘some people’, or even ‘a small number of people’. If I critiqued some part of traditional Chinese culture, the editor would change it to ‘the bureaucratic culture of ancient China’. If I brought up anything contemporary, he would ask me instead to refer to Zhu Yuanzhang—the founder of the Ming Dynasty—or Wu Zetian—a notorious Tang dynasty empress—or Europe of the Middle Ages. After this book is published, the reader may think that the writer is mad: obviously he was writing about contemporary things, so why did he repeatedly need to criticize Wu Zetian? Well, the reader would be not far wrong, because at this time, in this place, Chinese writing exhibits symptoms of a mental disorder. I am not a Chinese writer so much as a person with a mental disorder. 

Some people will say that one shouldn’t use the case of one particular editor to damn the system. I agree, but still I want to ask: What makes a paranoid editor? I confess that his fear infected me, and I would also ask what kind of system could make me, a law-abiding citizen, a writer, live in indescribable fear.

There are journalists here, and perhaps some others, who may report later that I have delivered a rather angry speech. Well, I am not angry; I am just describing my situation, because I believe it is certainly not just my situation, but the situation faced by all of China’s writers. And the fear I feel is not just the fear felt by one writer, but by all of our writers. Unfortunately, I have dedicated great effort to the task of compiling this ‘sensitive words glossary,’ and I have mastered my filtering skills. I knew which words and sentences had to be cut, and I accepted the cutting as if that was the way it should be. In fact, I will often take it on myself to save time and cut a few words. I call this ‘castrated writing’ -—I am a proactive eunuch, I have already castrated myself before the surgeon raises his scalpel

It is hardly news that in this world there are some things that can be written about and some that cannot ; some things can be said yet other things can only be thought. Our mother tongue has been cut into two parts: one safe, and the other risky. Some words are revolutionary, and others are reactionary; some words we may use, and others belong to our enemies. The most unfortunate thing is that despite my experience, I still don’t always know which words are legal and which illegal, and as a result I often unknowingly commit a ‘word crime.’ Last night I saw an advertisment in Peking that said: What will you say if you become a world champion? Here’s my answer: I am a writer. It is difficult to call myself a writer, even when I stand at a podium to receive a prize, I feel uncomfortable calling myself a writer—I am merely a word criminal.

Some people would say that this is just the way things are. My feeling is that I am already close to suffocation. I struggled to choose safe words in a linguistic minefield . It seems that every single Chinese word looks suspicious. I want to say that this not only harms my works, it also harms our language. This is our mother tongue, our great language, the language of the philosopher Zhuangzi and the poets Li Bai, and Su Dongpo and the grand historian Sima Qian. Maybe our grandchildren and the children of our grandchildren will rediscover many beautiful words and phrases that no longer exist. But sadly, even now, we continue to arrogantly proclaim that our language is on the rise.

The only truth is that we cannot speak the truth . The only acceptable viewpoint is that we cannot express a viewpoint. We cannot criticise the system, we cannot discuss current affairs, we cannot even mention distant Ethiopia. Sometimes I can’t help wondering: Is the Cultural Revolution really over?

Why is contemporary China short of works that speak directly? Because we writers cannot speak directly, or rather we can only speak in an indirect way.

Why does contemporary China lack good works that critique our current situation? Because our current situation may not be critiqued. We have not only lost the right to criticise, but the courage to do so.

Why is modern China lacking in great writers? Because all the great writers are castrated while still in the nursery.

People often ask me why I write, and I usually answer: for a wider world. It is my dream. Because of this dream, I can put up with a world populated with Barbie dolls, but I cannot tolerate a world that compels Barbie dolls to wear chastity belts.

I know these words are not appropriate for this time and place. They may be deemed naïve. But at this time, in this place, I still adhere to this kind of childish reasoning: when the air quality deteriorates, I feel we should do something; not simply shut our mouths and stop breathing. Rather, we must act, to defend our language, to improve the environment. Most of all, this is what a writer should do. Only by saying this kind of thing do I deserve a prize for literature.

I hope that we can agree on a few things:

Literature is not at the service of the government; on the contrary, governments should do everything in their power to create a favourable climate for literature.

If we cannot get rid of censorship, then I hope we can be a little more relaxed about it; if we cannot be relaxed, at least let us be a little more intelligent.

If there really were a ‘sensitive words glossary,’ I hope that it could be published; in this way at least we could all save a lot of time, and reduce the possibility of unwittingly committing ‘word crimes.’

Writers shouldn’t be parrots, they shouldn’t be human loudspeakers, and they definitely should not be yapping house pets; they should have a clear mind and speak with an honest voice. When they take up their pens, they are nobody’s slave, they have the right to pledge loyalty to no one; and to speak the truth and be true to their own consciences.

Finally, I want to say that I am not a class enemy, I am not a troublemaker, nor an over-thrower of governments. I am just a citizen who makes suggestions. My words may be sharp, but please believe in my good intentions. Like most people, I dream of living in a perfect world, but I am still willing to give my all for an imperfect world