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The Book Inside: An Occasionally Unpublishable Writer from China

  • By Chan Koonchung
  • 25th October 2016
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Chan Koonchung, a sinophone writer born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, shares his personal experience of literary censorship in mainland China and what this means for his work.

Technology now means that anyone can ‘publish’ and share their words with a global readership. This usefully serves the cliché that everybody has got ‘a book inside’, but what are the implications for all involved, and in how we define literature itself?

This key question is one Free Word is exploring in this series of four international blogs, in partnership with The Literary Consultancy (TLC). In addition to these international voices, a range of writers and key UK-based industry figures will speak to the theme ‘The Book Inside’ at TLC’s 20th Anniversary Conference on 11 November at Free Word Centre, with a symposium on the subject to celebrate TLC’s 20 years of work with writers.

These blogs aim to draw out the aesthetic, practical and free expression implications of this key question as writers share with us the challenges they face bringing their books out into the world. Both Free Word and TLC welcome comments and thoughts on the theme, and we encourage you to use #TheBookInside on Twitter and Facebook to join in the debate; you can find us @FreeWordCentre and @TLCUK.

About THE FAT YEARS (SHENGSHI) by Chan Koonchung

An entire month has gone missing from Chinese records. No one has any memory of it, and no one seems to care except for a small circle of friends who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn — not only about their leaders, but also about their own people — stuns them to the core.

The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past in order to protect the future.

Published by Penguin Random House, 8 January 2013. Translated by David Tse. Available online here.

I am a writer who lives in Beijing and writes in Chinese. In the past decade or so I have published five collections of essays and one novella in China, though my three most recent novels were not “publishable” there.

I got the epiphany to write a satirical “dystopian” novel in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. That was also the year when the world began to see China differently.

When the novel Shengshi (The Fat Years in the English edition), a dystopian novel set in the near future of China, was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in late 2009, many mainland Chinese publishers quickly said they were interested. I asked them to read it first. They never got back to me.

They could tell – maybe after flipping through a few pages – that Shengshi would be considered unpublishable there. This time they didn’t even bother to give it a try, as they sometimes do with books that fall into the undefined “grey area” according to the often ambivalent censorship standard of China

In China, all publishing houses are State-owned and their staff are sort of like civil servants. They could be punished for publishing the wrong book. Some might even lose their jobs, and in a few really nasty cases whole publishing houses have been ordered to close down and all life-long employees disbanded. Many livelihoods might thus be destroyed for failing to screen out one unpublishable book.

Publishers and editors are on the front-line of guarding China’s elaborate book censorship machine. Routinely they would avoid controversial works, often by over-killing just to play safe. Anticipating this, writers adapt and pre-censor their works or tailor them in codes in order to be publishable. Or, they just publish outside of China in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. That means giving up on the huge and potentially profitable mainland Chinese market.

Having said all that, there are always fearless writers and intrepid publishers who try to push the envelope – to test the “di xian” (literarily “bottom line”) as it is called – at their own risk.

Though not publishable as a book, for some months Shengshi enjoyed a life in cyberspace – someone (without asking me) scanned the text of the novel and put it on different Chinese websites. It was downloadable as free content within the Chinese internet firewall for the most of 2010. I was quietly pleased with that.

Then on one day it was all taken down. Even an internet discussion forum about the novel was ordered to shut down. Only then I could safely claim that my novel was officially banned in China – before that, it was merely not being published. I had no idea who gave the order, and there would probably have been no paper trail for such orders.

My next novel was not so lucky as a cyber product. After it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2013, Luo Ming (The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver in the English edition), which had a Tibetan protagonist, was taken down almost the moment its text appeared on China’s firewalled internet. This showed that within the few years between Shengshi and Luo Ming, China had been getting better and better at screening out undesirable content on the internet. It was said the corporations that operated Chinese internet portals did the censoring chore on behalf of the State and hired hundreds of “internet nannies” (often young males) to do the job, aided by new automated technologies such as keyword search-and-delete.

In 2015, my novel The Second Year of Jianfeng, an alternative historical novel, came out in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The novel asked: What if the Chinese Communists hadn’t won the civil war in 1949 and instead their opponents, the pro-American Nationalists led by Generalissmo Chang Kai-shek, had prevailed? Obviously this was not a publishable subject in China. But it did get some free publicity within the Chinese blogospheres of Weibo and Wechat. Then some boutique book sellers at Chinese eBay-type websites such as Taobao took notice and began selling hard copies of its Hong Kong or Taiwan editions. . It sold so well on Taobao that even pirate publishers got interested and came up with pirated editions, pretending they were hard copy imports, along with Hong Kong or Taiwan price tags which were often four to five times the average price of similar books from China. I bought a hard copy from one of the Taobao shops too, for the record. The pirate edition turned out to be of a smaller size, maybe for the sake of saving paper.

Then, after a few months of selling, the novel’s shelf life on all Taobao shops ended on the same day.

Fortunately there are more than 30 million Chinese from the mainland visiting Hong Kong and Taiwan each year, and some of those who drop by local bookshops might come across my novels.

Chan Koonchung is a sinophone writer. Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, he has lived in Beijing since 2000. His novel The Fat Years (2009) has been translated into 13 languages and The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver (2013) is available in English, Dutch and Italian. They have both been included in the Ten Chinese Novels of the Year by Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) of Hong Kong.

Chan Koonchung is a fellow of the University of Hong Kong and was on the board of directors of Green Peace International from 2008 to 2011. He has been on the chair of Minjian International since 2008.

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