China’s dissident authors losing their home appeal
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – You might have expected a throng of
local fans when a well-regarded Chinese author spoke at a
Shanghai literary festival in March, but Ma Jian’s audience,
like his readership, had only a handful of Chinese mainlanders.
China-born Ma, whose translator-wife and passport are both
British, is barely known in his native land, and dissident
voices like his are winning ever less sympathy from mainland
“I hadn’t heard of him before, and it was only when I read
about him on the Internet that I realized he was famous. But he
seems quite an angry man,” said one Chinese literature graduate
attending the festival, who declined to be identified.
Such ignorance does not surprise Ma.
“My books are still banned in China, but they’re published
in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so that’s where most of my Chinese
readership is,” he said.
Ma is best-known for “Red Dust,” an autobiographical
travelogue set in 1980s China which sold more than 50,000
copies worldwide in 12 languages. In it, Ma relates a number of
awkward encounters with officials, though politics is not his
main concern, he says.
“China’s economy is booming, but politically very little
has changed. No one is allowed to criticize the government and
the media is very strictly controlled,” said Ma.
The Chinese government previously stoked resentment for its
heavy-handed censorship, but now a growing number of Chinese
find politically concerned writers like Ma irrelevant,
“Several writers unpopular with the leadership left China
post-1989 and the concerns of readers in China changed from the
politics- and art-committed ’80s to … increasingly popular
styles of fiction,” said Julia Lovell, a Chinese literature
research fellow at Cambridge University.
“The exiles are developing in a different direction, and
the rise of a China-centered, anti-foreign nationalism on the
mainland since the 1990s increases that distance,” she said.
The fate of the only China-born Nobel literature laureate,
Gao Xingjian, is a case in point.
Gao’s most famous work is “Soul Mountain,” an
autobiographical part-Buddhist odyssey through China searching
for his roots, but it was banned in China. He won the Nobel
prize in 2000, but the Chinese government views French
passport-holder Gao as no longer Chinese — and many Chinese
have never heard of him.
“Someone Chinese writing in English, like Ha Jin, doesn’t
care so much about reaching a Chinese audience,” said a senior
researcher in modern Chinese literature based in Hong Kong,
speaking of the U.S.-resident, Pulitzer Prize winner Ha.
“But for those writing in Chinese, the question is simply
how to reach that audience — often all they can do is to get
published in Hong Kong,” said the researcher, who asked not to
There is also the Internet which, though monitored, offers
far better access to a mainland readership, for politically
concerned writers, than Chinese publishers can dare to offer.
One writer whose work spread fast among China’s netizens is
Zhang Yihe, author of “The past is not like dissipating smoke,”
which recounts Mao Zedong’s 1957 purge of intellectuals.
“It was restricted when it was actually published,” said
the researcher. “But by that point it could always find a way
TURNING THE PAGE
For all the continued political censorship, however, other
formerly off-limits areas are beginning to open up and writers
are quickly turning to address them.
“Since the phenomenon of the so-called ‘Pretty Women’
writers, it has been possible to write about sexually explicit
aspects of pop culture, or about drugs culture, as Mian Mian
does,” said Lovell, referring to a Shanghai writer whose works
have angered the censor.
This is part of the new commercialism that defines China
since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy
protests, said Lovell, where publishing has become increasingly
tied to China’s market economy as publishers battle it out for
Writers like Han Han and Guo Jingming, the 20-something
pin-ups who found fame as teen-age authors writing online about
their struggles and joys, generate millions of yuan in revenue
for their publishers.
But if modern China’s bookshelves stock plenty of Han Han
and not much Ma Jian, China appears to now be quietly letting
even a few politically sensitive, formerly blacklisted authors
back onto the shelf, among them 1949-born poet Bei Dao.
“He was associated with the overseas exile movement and the
anti-1989 protest, but his works seem to have made their way
back into mainstream publishing,” said Lovell.
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