Continuing our coverage of culture and politics in China in light of the recent “Decision” on “cultural system reforms” released by the Sixth Plenary Meeting of the 17th CCP Central Committee — the annual full meeting of China’s topmost Party leaders — we offer a translation of the latest blog essay by race-car driver and cultural critic Han Han (韩寒).
In the essay, Han Han talks about his personal experiences with censorship, which he likens to castration, and offers his own (humorous) reflections on the question of building China as a “cultural strong nation.”
UPDATE: Han Han’s essay had been deleted from his blog by today, November 4, 2011. Left in its place was the headline: “What can you do when your taste is too low.” Readers will understand the headline’s meaning after reading his essay.
I haven’t written anything since [my July post] “Nation Derailed.” In point of fact, I’m not very diligent about my writing, and each time I do finish writing something and then can’t see it [after I post it, because it has been censored], I get despondent. And there are just so many government departments [to get past]. Even if the propaganda department and the General Administration of Press and Publications are fine with something, any department issued with Passats and above can wipe your essay away with a simple phone call. Of these, the most merciful are in fact certain local public security departments. Back in 2008 I wrote an essay that wasn’t deleted until a after a lapse of a whole year. No wonder people complain about slow police response times. It’s true. There are so many places that delete articles that one doesn’t know how to begin writing.
I’ve been involved in this work [of writing] for around 13 years now, and I now understand just how powerless and of no account cultural workers (文化工作者) really are. Owing to a richness of restrictions, people in this line of work are unable to produce anything truly special. Allow me to share a few stories.
China’s publishing industry actually isn’t so subject to official censorship. People will find that strange, because it goes against the common understanding. But I can tell everyone that there really is no censorship in the book publishing industry. This is because tens of thousands of books are published every year in China, and it’s actually impossible to censor them all. Moreover, I believe that most of those comrades charged with reading books [to censor them] don’t really enjoy reading books, so book censorship has actually been left to the publishing houses themselves.
But this doesn’t amount to the opening of one-hundred flowers. Of course it doesn’t. To put it rather more expertly, this is what they call a system of post-facto censorship (事后审查制). In fact, post-facto censorship is stricter than prior censorship, more lethal and having more adverse reactions. This is something of which those who have used postcoital contraceptives have a rather deeper sense.
Only if you obtain a book license [or "book number"] can you publish, only publishing houses can issue book licenses, only the authorities can operate publishing houses, and so from the very fountainhead publishing freely is impossible. Owing to the fact that the vast majority of state-run publishing houses are of no use, many privately-run cultural enterprises (民营文化公司) have gotten into the book publishing business. The method of publishing is either joint publishing [with a state-run house] or purchasing a number of book licenses from publishing houses. This, however, cannot change the situation facing publishing, because the publishing house still has the ultimate decision.
In the past when a book was not allowed to be published, the reason given was that it was counterrevolutionary. But this term counterrevolutionary later fell out of use because while counterrevolutionary activity was still frowned upon no one wanted exactly to encourage revolution either. In the view of the authorities, the work of the revolution had already been accomplished, and so while counterrevolutionary behavior was a no-no, revolution was equally unwanted. The best thing was for the masses to just live their lives by staying put.
So now the reason for not being able to publish things is that they are deficient in taste (格调不高). My first book, The Three Doors (三重门), was dragged about in coming out precisely because it was deficient in taste. If something’s deficient in taste this can be fatal. After all, if the writing isn’t strong enough, it can be improved. If the logic isn’t there, it can be worked out. But deficiency of taste is a real headache, and you just don’t know how you can lift up your taste. If you ask them what they mean by taste, they don’t know either. Only now have I come to understand that taste actually means to cut out (割掉), so deficiency of taste actually means that not enough has been cut [NOTE: This is a play on words, as the words "taste", gediao, and "to cut out" are homophones in Chinese]. So you think that just by symbolically smoothing out the calluses on your feet you can make it in the creative industries [in China], eh? No, you have to make sure you cut high enough. If you spare that part just below the waist, you might still be too manly for the creative industries.
I’ve long been subjected to the bitterness of censorship. But since I managed to raise my taste somewhat, I have fortunately been able to publish books. And because some books have enjoyed substantial sales, I’ve sometimes been able to get the publisher to push the taste down just a bit. Each time before I write I have to go through a process of self-censorship. Perhaps some who have never worked in this industry might feel that doing this makes us somehow cowardly, not MAN enough. For example, before my book Solo Troupe (独唱团) was published I went through all sorts of difficulties. Some of my friends couldn’t stand it. They said I was selling out, and if it were them they would say forget the book number, take it right to the printers, print tens of thousands of copies and start selling them. While I admire these friends for their deficiency of taste, they don’t understand that the printers can only run their machines once they’ve received a printing authorization from the publishing house. Otherwise you can’t print a single copy without someone informing the police. If your own grandfather opens up his own printing house and you manage to print tens of thousands of copies, without a book number no bookstore or newsstand is going to carry your product. Even those people who sell pirated copies won’t help you sell it.
These friends might say, well then, I would just put it up on the internet and sell it on Taobao. Let me tell you then that if you want to sell books on Taobao you first have to have the credentials, you can’t just tack a book cover right up there. You have to enter the book number, and once the system has verified the book number and the book title, only then can your book go up.
And so up to this very day, everyone and anyone involved in culture is engaged in a painful process of self-censorship. So can we look forward to publishing houses lowering their taste a bit? This is of course impossible. As soon as a publishing house shows any sign of notching down its taste — remembering that these are state-run units — the authorities will just send over a new publishing chief. The nasty thing about post-facto censorship is how it exacts penalties. It says, look, I’m not going to look over your shoulder, but if you publish something improper I’ll have your head for it. If it’s something less serious I’ll fire you from your post or disband the publishing house; if it’s serious I’ll lock you up. So, you decide how you want to do it.
As for myself, while every single essay I write goes through a process of self-censorship and castration, sometimes unavoidably the fashion of my castration is still insufficient to pass muster. This has to do with the level of sensitivity at various publishing houses. For example, my most recent novel has been killed outright, because the protagonist in the novel is surnamed Hu [like China's president]. So even though I have only written 5,000 characters so far, the publisher assumes there must be political allegory somewhere. By the time I realized I had to avoid this name and changed the character’s surname it was too late.
I don’t know how a country where a writer trembles when he takes up his pen can build itself into a cultural great nation (文化强国), or how a country where you have to avoid using the names of [politburo] standing committee members and therefore can’t find the [Tang dynasty poet] Li Bai in a Google search can build itself into a cultural great nation. I have no idea how these cultural system reforms are supposed to work. I just have one wish, and that is that Mr. Han Zheng (韩正), [currently the mayor of Shanghai], is not promoted again. Otherwise, I won’t even be able to come up with myself in a search.
NOTE: This post had been deleted from Han Han’s blog by Friday, November 4. We post the Chinese here for the convenience of our readers:
格调不高怎么办 (2011-11-02 18:42:22)转载
只有拥有书号才能出版，只有出版社才能发书号，只有官方才能有出版社，所以从源头上，自由的出版其实是不可能的。而由于大量的国有出版社能力不济，很多民营文化公司开始运营图书出版。出版的方式就是合作出版或者从出版社那里购买一些书号。但这依然不能改变出版现状，因为出版社依然是终审方。而一本书如果不让出版，在以往理由是反革命，后来反革命这个词不太出现了，因为反革命既然是不好的，那岂不成了鼓励革命。而官方认为，革命工作已经完成，所以既不能反革命，也不能革命，群众最好的生活方式就是呆着。于是现在不能出版的理由就是格调不高。我第一本书《三重门》就是因为格调不高，迟迟不能出版。格调不高是致命的，因为文笔太差可以改，逻辑不清可 以理，唯 独格调不高让人头疼，你也不知道怎么能让自己的格调提高一点。你问他什么是格调，他也不知道。一直到现在，我才明白了，格调其实就是割掉的意思，格调不高就是割掉的不够高，你以为象征性的把脚底板的老茧磨磨平就能从事文化行业了么，你要割掉的够高。凡是保留腰以下部分的，从事文化行业明显还是会显得雄性气息太浓厚。
我是一直饱受审查之苦的。但在格调稍微高了一点以后，我还是侥幸可以出版图书，并且因为图书的畅销，有的时候还稍微可以在小问题和出版方争取格调稍微降低一点。每次写作前，我都要进行一次自我审查。也许很多没有从事过这个行业的朋友会觉得我们这样做特别怂，不够MAN。比如当年《独唱团》出版前遇到很多的困难，一些朋友看不下去了，说你太娘们了，这要是我，不要书号了，直接拿到印刷厂去，印个几十万本，这就开卖了。我欣赏这位朋友的没有格调，但他们不知道印刷厂只有收到了出版社开具的委托印刷单以后才能开机印刷，否则你非但印不了一本，人家就报警了。其次就算你爹开了一个印刷厂，你印刷出了几十万本，你没有书号，就没有一家书店和报刊亭是会进你的 货的。连 卖盗版的都不敢帮你卖。也许这位朋友会说，那我就放到网上去，在淘宝卖。那我告诉你，在淘宝销售图书，首先你得拥有资质，其次你不能随手拍一个封面就上架了，你必须输入书号，当系统把你输入的书号和书名对应起来，你才能上架。