Pro-active Guide for Foreign Scribes: How to Deal with Censorship of Your Writing in Xi Dada’s China

Foreign authors entering China Zone: To ensure "faithful" translation, best hire a bilingual third-party to vet your China publisher's "rendition"

Foreign authors entering China Zone: To ensure full and faithful translation, best hire a bilingual third-party to vet your China publisher’s “rendition” before publication

In a global world where the printed book resembles a species under threat, China’s publishing industry is a striking exception. Total revenues exceeded US$16 billion in 2012, and annual growth averages 10 percent. And in that same year, Chinese publishers acquired 16,115 foreign titles.

Authors worldwide naturally want to break into this potentially lucrative market. There’s just one catch: the book you wrote may not be the same one they publish in China. The culprit: your China publisher’s in-house editor-cum-censor.

“Books that deal directly and heavily with politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet and Taiwan are almost inevitably censored, but works of poetry, fiction, memoir and even self-help texts are not safe from the editor’s scalpel in China,” advises Pen America’s newly released Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship.

I’ve actually been documenting censorship in China for over 5 years now on this blog. Some of the most popular posts:

  • China even censors foreign book reviews of novels written by its own writers. See a review of Yu Hua’s Brothers for an easy-to-follow, real life example.
  • More predictably — and at least as fun — is what happens to brazen foreign news reports about the unspeakable in China. See Just Say “No” to Orgasms.
  •  我是马拉拉 (I Am Malala) appeared one year earlier in Taiwan than mainland China. Guess why?

But back to the free report from Pen America, which makes great reading for several reasons. For one thing, it opens the lid widely on what is, for most people outside the Middle Kingdom, the black box of Chinese censorship. Foreign authors, agents and publishers who coyly claim “But I didn’t know!” henceforth have no such excuse. And the 25-page report is well researched, citing a host of Chinese and overseas publishers, agents and writers. Most are identified in full, but unfortunately, several of the Chinese authors seem to have requested anonymity.

And best of all, the report closes with Recommendations, a series of practical, bulleted steps to ensure that you negotiate the best deal possible for your “published-in-China” book, including the ultimate weapon of conscience — simply refusing to publish it in censored format.

A few highlights of the report: [Read more…]

Filling a Void: Five Contemporary Tibetan Novelists Published in Tibetan 

藏语首部母语长篇小说丛书 青海民族出版社In Mother-tongue Literature, I posed these questions about one Han scholar’s call for celebrating writing in China’s indigenous languages:

Who is going to write in their native language — or read what is written for that matter — if they cannot receive a decent education in it?

Those weighty questions remain unanswered, but happily, some publishers are pushing ahead to make more such fiction available to potential readers. According to a May 19 news report (藏语首部母语长篇小说丛书), a new five-volume series of novels in Tibetan has just been launched by Qinghai Nationalities Publishing (青海民族出版社). A similar item has now appeared in English (First Collection).

The promotional material states that this is the first such collection of contemporary novels in Tibetan. This may just be advertising hype, but if true, it indicates that Tibetan authors are either not writing a lot of novels in their mother tongue . . . or they couldn’t previously find publishers!

The titles and authors are as follows:

[Read more…]

BookExpo America (May 27-31 event): Off-site Events Featuring Authors from China

Here are several BookExpo America events featuring writers from China, including films based on their writing — or even directed by them. For a fuller list of off-site China-related events, see here.

China-America Literary Symposium 2015: Reading Contemporary China with Liu Zhenyun, Bi Feiyu, Feng Tang, Xu Zechen, Lan Lan, Cao Wenxuan, He Jianming, and Zhao Lihong
Wednesday, May 27 from 5:30-8:30pm
SUNY Global Center
116 East 55th Street
New York NY

Decoded with Mai Jia
Wednesday, 5/27 at 7pm
Barnes and Noble — Upper West Side
82nd & Broadway
2289 Broadway
New York, NY 10024

New Films from China: A Screening of Fly with the Crane
Followed by a Q&A with author/co-producer Su Tong
Wednesday, May 27 7-9PM
Brooklyn Public Library
Central Branch
10 Grand Army Plaza
Brooklyn, NY 11238

[Read more…]

BookExpo America (May 28 Event): Literary Translation Between China and the US

Literary Translation Between China and the US: Status Quo and Perspectives

Thursday May 28| 2:00 – 2:50 PM | 1E11 at BookExpo America (New York City)

Chinese authors have found an international following of dedicated readers in recent years, helped by the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan, and Jiang Rong’s successful novel Wolf Totem (狼图腾) which was released this year as an international movie production, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Also in 2015, one of the most popular literary authors in China, Mai Jia, saw his first novel, Decoded (解密) released in an English translation. In return, American writers, both modern classics and new voices, have been translated into Chinese. This panel will explore that status quo of literary exchanges, and how publishers from both sides have been going to build a reading audience around these works and literary profiles.


Bi Feiyu
Chinese Author
Massage, published by Penguin China, in English

Liu Guohui
Editor in Chief
The People’s Literature Publishing House

Eric Abrahamsen, Moderator
Literary Translator, founder of Paper Republic
Paper Republic

Jeffrey Belle, Speaker
Vice President
Amazon Publishing,

Karen Christensen, Speaker
Chief Executive Officer
Berkshire Publishing

2015 Mao Dun Prize: Who Will Snare Award for Unofficial “Ethnic-themed” Category?

Hong Ke's longlisted novel 《少女萨吾尔登》 interweaves Xinjiang, Mongolian and Shaanxi motifs

Hong Ke’s long listed novel “The Fleet-footed Sawadeng Dancing Girl”  interweaves Xinjiang, Mongolian and Shaanxi motifs

The longlist for what is arguably China’s most prestigious award for novels has just been published (第九届茅盾文学奖参评作品目录). I write “arguably” because, like virtually every literary competition in the PRC of late, even the reputation of the Mao Dun Literature Prize — sponsored by the very official Chinese Writers Association — has been questioned. See 2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)? for a wrap-up.

Awarded every four years to between three and five long works of fiction (at least 130,000 hanzi), they will be handed out again this year (2015). China-based publishers have nominated some 252 works distributed in hard copy form between 2011-2014.

Naturally, there are plenty of works by famous mainstream authors on the list, such as Ge Fei (江南三部曲), Jia Pingwa (古炉, 老生) and Han Shaogong (日夜书).

But here at Ethnic ChinaLit, our focus is on “writing by & about non-Han peoples of China.” And it is my understanding is that there is a tradition — albeit an unwritten rule — that each set of Mao Dun awards include one “ethnic-themed” work (民族题材的作品). In the past, winners included Huo Da’s Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼), Alai’s Red Poppies (尘埃落定), and Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸).

By my count, there are at least 20 contenders for the prize that fall into the unofficial ethnic-themed category, i.e., the novel has major “non-Han” components in terms of characters and storyline. My impression is that the Chinese literary establishment has also become acutely aware of the need to identify and promote authors who not only write about ethnic minorities, but are themselves “ethnic” writers. That may give certain nominees a bit of an edge this time around — after all, winning titles and authors must definitely meet the prevailing standards of political correctness. Model writers, particularly hailing from restive border regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, are likely to be particularly in demand.

The recent brouhaha over Wolf Totem, the movie, is a good example of the pent up frustration among peoples

Mongolia: Guo Xuebo's explores the Shamanistic past of his people and his family

“Mongolia”: Guo Xuebo explores the Shamanistic roots of his people . . .  and his family

who are unhappy at seeing their culture commercialized for great profit —and possibly misinterpreted — by Han authors like Jiang Rong. See Breakthrough for Mongolian on the Screen for details of one author’s critique of the very idea that the wolf represents a totem for the Mongolian people.

I’ve gone through the list of 252 novels and done my best to identify non-Han authors and their works. No doubt I’ve missed some, and I welcome your additions and corrections. Interesting to note that this list is dominated by members of ethnicities located in northern China that traditionally speak an Altaic language such as Mongolian, Daur, Uyghur or Kazakh:

《时间悄悄的嘴脸》by Uyghur writer Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木). For an excerpt of his writing, click on his short story Sidek Golden MobOff . I recently read the nominated work (a novella, actually), which I enjoyed. Asem’s fiction is a Uyghur world where Han just don’t figure; his hallmarks are womanizers, insulting monikers and a hybrid Chinese with an odd but appealing Turkic flavor.

《艾多斯 · 舒立凡》 by young Kazakh writer Aydos Amantay (艾多斯·阿曼泰) who won the Aksay New Writer’s Award for this work.

《忽必烈大汗》Kublai Khan by Mongolian writer Bagen (巴根) [Read more…]

Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Human Rights Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang Uses Taboo “C” Word about Xinjiang

“If you say Xinjiang belongs to China, then don’t treat it as a colony,” Mr. Pu wrote in May 2014. “Don’t act as conquerors and plunderers, striking out against any and all before and after, turning them into the enemy.”

浦志强在 2014 年 5 月时曾写道,“说新疆是中国的,就别把它当殖民地说新疆是中国的,别当征服者和掠夺者,先发制人后发制人都为制人,都是把对方当敌人。”

(Tweet by Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), a human rights lawyer now facing charges of “incitement to racial hatred,” and “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Cited in NYT article on May 15, 2015, Chinese Rights Lawyer Detained in 2014 Will Stand Trial)


Vietnamese Translator-Authors Make Killing by Adding Value to Chinese “Slushy Fiction”

Thanks to translation software and some creative editing, suppliers of China’s spiritual pollution products have reportedly found an eager new readership south of the border. Writes Denis Abrams in Sexed up Chinese Pulp Invading Vietnam:

The translated titles of “several slushy Chinese books” that are “currently all the rage” include Do You Like America?, Moonlight Doesn’t Understand How I Feel, Let Me Look Toward You, Forever Together, and the ever popular I’m Just Like Radiant Sunlight.

The writer of the article notes that a growth in “online translators” (who apparently “have a fragmentary command or none at all of the Chinese language”) has added to the “bountiful” inventory of these books. The “translators” use software to translate the Chinese versions into “awkward Vietnamese stories” before “clumsily ‘editing’ them into finished ‘works.’”

For full text, click here.

Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: From “The Garden of Evening Mists”

“Your mind is just like a strip of flypaper hanging from the ceiling. Every thought, no matter how fleeting or inconsequential, sticks to it.”

(Master Japanese garden designer Aritomo, speaking to his reluctant disciple, Yun Ling, in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of the Evening Mists)



“Shanghai Baby” and “Candy”: Back When Young Female Chinese Writers “Wrote with their Bodies”

《大使先生》九丹著Am currently translating a new semi-autobiographical novella, The Embassy’s China Bride (大使先生), by Jiu Dan of Crows (乌鸦, 九丹著) fame. This reminded me that at the turn of 21st century, three young Chinese female writers were busy boldly writing about their sexuality, orgasms and all, and being lambasted for it by the critics and Chinese society at large. The trio were Jiu Dan, who chronicled the exploits of “Little Dragon Girls” from China in Singapore; Mian Mian, author of Candy (糖, 棉棉著); and arguably the best known, Wei Hui, who authored the infamous Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝).  They were denigrated as “pretty chick-lit authors” (美女作家) who “wrote with the lower half of their bodies” (下半身写作), as some engagingly put it.  This designation conveniently allowed the critics to focus on the writers’ lifestyles rather than the content of their writing.

But that wasn’t the case with Zha Jianying, who holds a Ph D. in Comparative Lit from Columbia. Happily, I have just located my translation of her Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian: Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop. I don’t recall exactly when it was published, but I think I translated it in 2000.

Given that Jiu Dan — now a forty-something — has just launched The Embassy’s China Bride in Taiwan (potentially controversial in its own right), I thought it might be fun to put my translation of Zha Jianying’s critique up on this blog in order to give readers a taste of how these daring female writers were viewed when they first appeared on China’s literary scene. I should mention that Zha Jianying wrote me and roundly criticized me for a host of errors in my rendition. But since she wasn’t specific, I publish it below, warts and all. For a bilingual version with her original, see 卫慧棉棉.


Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian:

Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop

By Zha Jianying (translated by Bruce Humes)

I was in Shanghai less than a week but heard comments in several different venues about novels by Mian Mian and Wei Hui. It’s widely agreed that these “New Generation”writers are daring, superficial and tend to “write with their bodies, and think with their skin.” Their writing is said to be little more than sex and drugs.

Before I left Shanghai I bought Candy and Shanghai Baby at a bookstore on the new pedestrian-only portion of Nanjing Road. Said a friend on learning of my purchase: “You’d best take it with you on a flight for a quick read, and leave it on the plane when you get off.” But the condescending attitude behind these words just piqued my curiosity.

In recent years I’ve read few Chinese novels. Be it books given by friends or ones I’ve bought as a result of an occasional overheard recommendation, it’s a rare novel that I don’t abandon mid-way. Sometimes I wonder where the problem lies: With me? The novelist? Or our times? But I read Shanghai Baby in no time flat. Could it be because I read it on an airplane?

Last time I was on an airplane too when, as luck would have it, I got to see a Hollywood film released last year, The Thomas Crown Affair. The male and female stars were fashionable, good-looking, big-city types. The story revolves around an art theft, and the film comes across as both clever and excitingly romantic. Cool, really. Watching it was like eating ice cream . . . with your eyes.  Shanghai Baby possesses a similar beauty and rhythm, but it’s younger and more decadent, a bit like licking a lemon lollipop in the shadows of an ice-skating rink.

When you finish eating your Hollywood ice cream cone, you immediately put it out of your mind,  but that lollipop isn’t so easily forgotten. After all, it is “Made in China.” When I finished Shanghai Baby, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “Ladies and gentlemen, hats off, here comes Wei Hui!” It reminded me of the headline for a 1960s newspaper review: “Ladies and Gentlemen, hats off, here comes Bob Dylan!” I don’t mean to suggest that Wei Hui is the new Bob Dylan. But this novel did indeed leave me with a distinctive impression: A new literary personality has entered the scene, and a new kind of urban novel has been born in China. [Read more…]

Mo Yan’s “Frog” Reviewed: Call for Diversity among Chinese-to-English Translators

Frog by Mo YanIn Literary Prowess Lost, we have one of the first coherent — and highly critical — reviews of a modern novel translated from the Chinese in which the reviewer knows the source language and doesn’t shirk from calling out the translator on several points:

Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.

Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.

Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.

It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.