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Dancing Through Red Dust: Navigating Censorship in China

  • By Murong Xuecun
  • 24th September 2015
Murong Xuecun's novel 'Dancing Through Red Dust' was subjected to extensive cuts prior to publication in China and significant influence from the censor with Xuecun forced to write three alternative endings in response. Below he explains the process of editing he was forced to go through and shares two of the alternative endings in full. Harvey Thomlinson, translator of the English version of the novel, translated the alternative endings for us, as well as the author's own note on the text.

Dancing Through Red Dust Synopsis

Dancing Through Red Dust is a gripping novel that delves into the secretive world of China’s justice system. Corrupt lawyer Wei Da destroys evidence, hides his assets and plans to flee China, leaving behind his girlfriend Xiao Li and his ex-wife Chen Hui. About to escape, he is incarcerated in the horrific Caoxi detention centre. The worst of human nature is exhibited here and even as Wei Da tries to atone, the day of his execution encroaches.

Author's Note on Endings

When Dancing Through Red Dust was published in China, the novel lost over 20,000 words to the censor. Most of these cuts concerned politics or the legal system, but censorship in China is not only about cuts, it can also mean adding new material.

The publisher was worried about the ending thinking it was too dark, too risky. There’s no way to quantify this kind of risk in China. If you publish something a little too daring someone might lose their job, or maybe even the company could be shut down.

But changing the ending was not just a matter of altering a few lines: the whole novel leads to it.

After thinking it over for ages, I decided to add a dream ending – my protagonist would wake from a dream to discover that everything about his life was different, that nothing in the novel was real. The reader doesn’t even know whose dream he has been in, because after the protagonist wakes, another character knocks on the door bearing the name which the protagonist has been carrying all through the novel. This kind of dream has deep roots in Chinese tradition, both in classical literature and folk tales.

But this still wasn’t enough for my publisher. He wanted an ending that was light and uplifting, full of ‘positive, human values’, something ‘sufficiently radiant to light up the preceding pages of darkness’.

I refused, but the publisher – a good-hearted man who is definitely not the censor’s censor – told me that since I’d been turned down by so many others he was my last chance.

‘I hope you can change the ending one more time,’ he said, ‘otherwise, I’m afraid we would not dare to publish this book.’

So I had to write a third ending. This was another dream ending, but it was much less subtle. After waking, the protagonist finds himself back with his lover and looking forwards with complete confidence into the future. Perhaps this ending wasn’t so bad, I told myself, because this ‘complete confidence’ could be read as a sarcastic hint at a different perspective.

It turned out even this third ending wasn’t enough to keep the censor happy. Just a few months after Dancing Through Red Dust was released, this brave publisher was forced out of business.

Alternative Ending 1

I floated down through endless night. Music rose and fell. Doors opened to me, one after the other. Voices came from far away, laughing and crying. One of them was repeating a phrase, over and over again: ‘The world is old, but you and me, we are young.’

Infinite tiredness filled my bones. I prised open my eyes. The phone next to me on the bedroom table bleeped. It was a text from Ren Hongjun: ‘Lend me 100,000. I’ll pay you back in a month.’ I sat up in a daze. I couldn’t remember where I was.

Something stirred outside the door and Chen Hui came in, peeling an apple.

‘Do you want some?’ she said. ‘I’ll peel it for you.’

I stared back at her.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Where else would I be?’

‘Didn’t we get a divorce?’

She tut-tutted. ‘I’m not planning to divorce you yet.’

A wave of glory and sadness washed over me: it had all been a dream. I gave a long sigh, looking at the plain and shabby walls of the room I found myself in. Chen Hui sat down on the bed and asked me if I’d been dreaming. I told her what had happened. She clapped her hands and told me I was a bad man.

‘Someone like you deserves to be shot,’ she said.

I shook my head and she gave me a hug.

‘Was I in your dream?’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘You were very kind to me and gave me lots of help. Since I’m a lawyer …’

‘A lawyer indeed.’ She grimaced. ‘If you could make a living, that would be enough for me.’

She pointed to the books on the dresser.

‘You’re so smart,’ she said. ‘If you think you can be a lawyer, why don’t you take the exams?’

‘I thought I’d already done them,’ I muttered. ‘I’ve been a lawyer for years …’

‘What do you mean?’

It seemed like it was time to change the subject.

‘I dreamed about Old Pan as well.’

‘Old Pan?’ Her ears pricked up. ‘I didn’t know you two were still in touch.’

Had I said something wrong?

‘It was only a dream,’ I said.

Then I remembered that before my marriage I had fallen in love with a girl called Pan Shuwen. After I got together with Chen Hui, she asked me if Pan’s name was carved into my bones. I told her that one love like that was enough for any life. She smiled ominously and asked me if anyone could really be engraved on your heart for a lifetime. Somehow I found myself telling her the truth. Chen laughed a big, booming laugh when I told her I’d always love Pan, but she wouldn’t talk to me for a week.

‘Look at you, being petty.’ My heart was cold. ‘It was just a dream, it wasn’t real.’

She didn’t say anything, but her face filled with bitterness and she turned away. Had I seen this before in my dream? I leaned over and stroked her and teased her a little until the warmth returned. But then it struck me. What if that was my life? What if I was really a big lawyer, a wealthy man and a murderer who was executed …

I gave a jump and started shaking. What about Xiao Li? How had I forgotten her? Who was she now?

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Chen Hui massaged my forehead. ‘Are you feeling ill?’

My face was pale in the bedroom mirror.

‘You … Do you know Xiao Li?’

‘No. Who’s she?’

‘About this tall.’ I held out my hand. ‘Thin, likes to wear blue, talks with a slight Shanghai accent. Have you ever seen her?’

She bowed her head.

‘I can’t think. How old is she?’

‘About twenty-four. She used to study English. She had a lovely laugh, but she didn’t laugh much. She was always sad and we were always always sad to see it.’

‘So young, and so sad,’ said Chen. ‘Don’t talk to me about sadness. What are you getting at? Are you trying to push me away? If you want a divorce, just say it.’

I couldn’t explain. I was filled with an unbearable emptiness, as if I had slipped down into deep water. We lay there together on the bed, not saying anything until the doorbell started ringing. Neither of us moved, we just listened to the doorbell ringing again and again. Eventually she couldn’t bear it any more and she got up to answer the door. As I watched her leave it seemed that I had lost the most important thing in my whole life.

I heard voices outside the room and Chen Hui ran back in.

‘Come quickly,’ she said, ‘Old Wei’s here.’


‘Old Wei.’

I stared at her.

‘Who did you say it was?’

‘Who else? Wei Da. Your very best friend.’

Dancing Through Red Dust cover

Alternative Ending 2

I floated down through endless night. Music rose and fell. Doors opened to me, one after the other. Voices came from far away, laughing and crying. One of them was repeating a phrase, over and over again: ‘The world is old, but you and me, we are young.’

Infinite tiredness filled my bones. I prised open my eyes. Xiao Li was sleeping sweetly, curled up like a furry mouse. My chest felt warm and I couldn’t help giving her a kiss. She turned over and rubbed her eyes with two small fists, looking cuter than ever.

‘Aiya,’ she said. ‘Why are you awake so early?’

‘It’s old age,’ I said, ‘I can’t sleep through.’

‘You’re taking advantage of your advancing years,’ she giggled. ‘You’re still of tender years. What do you mean by saying you’re old?’

I laughed as I winched myself up and pulled on my clothes. The phone next to me on the bedroom table bleeped. It was a text from Ren Hongjun: ‘Lend me 100,000. I’ll pay you back in a month.’ I stared at it in a daze, still full with the memory of my dream. When I called him back, Hongjun kept sighing, telling me there was no other way, he just needed me to tide him over for a while.

‘Everyone goes through tough times,’ I said. ‘We’ve been friends for so many years. Don’t worry, take the 100,000. But listen to me carefully. This money is to help you out, not for you to waste. You’d better be straight with me.’

‘Of course, of course,’ Hongjun promised. ‘I’m almost forty, I understand. You should have faith in me, Old Wei.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘That’s settled. Let’s call Old Pan and all catch up this afternoon.’

‘Old Pan?’ He laughed. ‘Pan hasn’t got time for us any more, he’s a scholar. Now all our province leaders are so keen to study law, Pan has got into the tuition racket. He’s giving the mayor private classes every day. If you want to see him, you’ll have to make an appointment.’

A shadow of loss swept over me and then it was gone. Outside my window the red sun was rising, the early-morning light filling the streets with fresh enchantment.

The eggs were cooking in the hot frying pan. I stood there watching them solidify, an artist glowing with pleasure as he created the most beautiful thing in the world. Xiao Li came in from the bathroom and asked me if breakfast was ready.

‘Almost there,’ I said.

She pulled a face.

‘How did someone as slow as you ever become a chef?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I shot back. ‘Maybe you should start paying me.’

She came towards me and wrapped her arms tight around my waist.

‘Leave me alone.’ I slapped her on the hands. ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

She laughed and smiled, then started helping me serve the eggs, warm the milk and make the toast. My heart ached with that unending dream, that terrible and tragic other person. I was full of sadness and gratitude. Even though I was not a lawyer, at least I was still alive. In my dream I had no limits. I was just an ordinary person, but the things I had been dreaming about were not important. Perhaps my dream could teach me to treasure the things that are important, the things that had been with me all along.

Xiao Li ate up a storm, cleaning her plate and then helping herself to some of mine. The ice in my heart had melted. I gave a happy sigh.

‘It looks like a lovely day.’ Xiao Li looked at me fondly. ‘Why don’t we go hiking in the mountains?’

‘I’m afraid that’s not on,’ I said. ‘I have to go to Ren Hongjun’s chambers and take him some money. Then I have some business to attend to at the government offices.’

‘Busy,’ she snapped, ‘you’re always busy.’

‘In this life we are not free.’ I shook my head. ‘But this business is a bit tricky, because I need a witness to testify on my behalf. Do you want to come with me?’

‘And perjure myself? Have you committed a crime?’

I nodded.

‘You could say it’s perjury, but it’s only something small. It doesn’t really count as a crime …’

‘I wouldn’t dare.’ Xiao Li was full of alarm. ‘Don’t joke around, Old Wei. I have never broken the law, I don’t want to go to jail.’

‘I know,’ I said. ‘But if you don’t help me, then my case is hopeless. Look how old I am. If I don’t get married soon, I’ll be an old rogue for the rest of my life. The law of marriage requires the consent of both parties, but I’ve never found anyone to help until now. Xiao Li, would you be prepared to come with me and perjure yourself? Would you be willing to say you want to marry me?’

She threw herself into my arms, beating her hands on my chest.

‘You scared me.’

I wrapped my arms about her. She snuggled in and lightly stroked my cheek.

‘You really are pathetic, you old dog. You made me think … Oh, if I don’t marry you, then I suppose no one ever will. I don’t know why I’m so soft. Just think of it as doing someone a good deed.’

She stood up and took me by the hand.

‘Come,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and commit perjury together.’

To read the third alternative ending, which was published in China, learn more about the book, and find out where to buy it, visit makedopublishing.com.

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  • Indeed, I have been shocked several times over the last decade or so as I came to the end of a Chinese novel or a short story.

    The ending often seems as it has absolutely nothing to do with the preceding tale.

    That’s how I felt recently when I finished a Chinese-language novella by Xinjiang’s Uyghur writer Alet Asem, Shíjiān qiāoqiāo de zuǐliǎn (时间悄悄的嘴脸, 阿拉提·阿斯木著).

    At times, I’d prefer that the publisher just left a few pages blank, rather than running an ending that has undergone mind-bending plastic surgery. That way we’d know: ¡ Censored !

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