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Banned Chinese writers get readers outside China

Chinese diaspora writers Ma Jian, Mian Mian complain against the intricate system of Chinese censorship.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 19:04 IST

There's plenty of forbidden material in China's publishing world: Tibet. The bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Debauched teenagers indulging in sex and drugs. But the trouble is finding where the list of taboo subjects ends, says Ma Jian, a dissident author living in London. "If you want to censor me, give me a standard. It feels terrible because you don't know anything," the 52-year-old writer said at a recent Hong Kong literary festival.

The bearded Ma writes in an acid satirical style that's at odds with the gentle demeanour of the author, who keeps his hands folded on his lap as he speaks in a soft voice. He's among a handful of Chinese writers whose banned work is finding a growing readership in the West.

His Stick Out Your Tongue, a collection of stories about Tibet, was banned in 1987. He also penned Red Dust, a critically acclaimed account of how he trekked through China to Tibet after he was branded an example of Spiritual Pollution in 1983. The books have recently been translated and published in the West, together with The Noodle Maker, a slim volume of macabre political satires Ma wrote in the wake of the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

China has undergone drastic economic and social changes since then, but Ma believes the Communist leaders' grip on the writer's pen is as tight as ever.

"It's the same today. A publisher and his family could be destroyed because of a single word," he said, describing an incident in which he and his publisher argued for a whole month over a passage involving a dog talking about Mao Zedong. The dog was eventually taken out because it was considered "disrespectful," he said.

There are no official "do's and don'ts," Ma said. Instead, an intricate system of censorship and self-censorship bonds publishers, writers and readers together in unspoken acknowledgment and interpretation of sensitive material.

But at least one thing has changed. In contrast to Ma's serious, high-literature style, the banned books that now most easily become underground hits within the country and stir the most international attention are heavy on in-your-face titillation.

Especially well-known in the West are books by a new generation of mostly female writers- whom China calls "pretty-woman writers". Racy, provocative and irreverent, their stories often center on young women drifting in a blur of sex, drugs, discos and liaisons with Western men.

The authors and their supporters say the books aren't sheer fluff because they explore sexual, not political, freedom and are reflective of a rapidly transforming society.

"The girl in this book had more problems because she had more freedom. She was free to touch drugs, to sleep with the boys she liked. The experiences are new for her and for the country," said Mian Mian, author of Candy, a sordid story about sex, drugs and rock music in China's enterprising cities- what she calls a "plastic nightmare."

Candy was banned in China in 2000, but was subsequently published in English and several other languages. "Politics is very hardcore. I don't connect with the Cultural Revolution. I'm no intellectual," the 35-year-old writer said. The Cultural Revolution was an ultra-radical, violent campaign that began in 1966 and lasted for several years. Thousands of intellectuals were persecuted.

Mian Mian has been compared to a new generation of Chinese writers including Wei Hui, whose Shanghai Baby was dubbed pornographic and banned in 1999. Chun Sue's Beijing Doll, a teenager's diary, was banned in 2002. Neither made reference to politics.

Books by these "pretty-woman writers" have been snapped up by publishers in the West, but Ma was contemptuous of their focus on sexual liberation.

"I think these books about struggles with the body are pitiful and shallow. They're devoid of spiritual meaning," Ma said, insisting that writers must look China's modern history squarely in the face.

"For us (Chinese), history could be nonexistent. History could be wiped away," he said. "But the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong are stones in the way of China's progress. Forget them and China will go around in circles and never become a great country." Whatever their themes, literature banned by China is increasingly finding its way to readers through the Internet and growing Western interest.

Many censored tales have become favourites on the Internet despite careful censoring. Last year, acclaimed author Yan Lianke's Serve the People, a sensational satirical novella, circulated and was translated online shortly after censors wiped copies off bookshelves. Among other things, the story describes how a soldier and his lover smash up images of Mao Zedong as part of sexual foreplay.

Ma, who is now free to return to China as long as he "avoids contact with sensitive characters," said Chinese censorship no longer bothers him. His new novel will be published in English first- which generates more interest and sells more copies- before coming out in Chinese, he said.

"Of course I hope more people could read my books, but not just Chinese people," he said. "I don't think that's the only channel."

First Published: Mar 20, 2006 18:27 IST