Books

Customs protects Fujian author from his own work

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Chen Xiwo: known pornographer in Taiwan?

Chinese customs regulations state that "prohibited" books and printed materials can be seized at the border and destroyed. Precisely what is prohibited is not always clear—sometimes a book's status can be deduced from other regulations, as in the case of the improperly-colored map that put the Lonely Planet: China on the list, but it's often hard to guess at just what will catch the customs agent's eye.

Take author Chen Xiwo (陈希我), for example. His novella collection Book of Offenses (冒犯书) was published on the mainland by People's Literature Publishing House early last year, and then in Taiwan by Aquarius (宝瓶文化) in March. In June, Aquarius sent him a package containing twelve copies of his book.

All that reached Chen's mailbox, however, was a letter from the customs office informing him that the package had been confiscated as "pornography." Over the next sixth months, Chen tried to free his books, but the General Customs Administration ultimately sent down an order declaring that the books were in violation of relevant customs regulations and had to be seized. Chen then requested a hearing.

Fujian's Straits News reported on the hearing, which took place on the 7th:

Customs said that when People's Literature Publishing House published Book of Offenses, it deleted certain sexual content. The Taiwan edition, however, claimed "the mainland edition had many cuts. This is the first complete Chinese edition in the world." Customs agents did not question that Book of Offenses had literary value, but like Lust, Caution, it came in two versions, cut and uncut. The uncut version had more "bedroom scenes," and was prohibited. The cut version retained the artistic value of the original while removing those "gratuitous" scenes and was permitted to be shown.

But the Fuzhou customs agents could not explain their examination standards or which sections of the book were pornographic. Nor did they know how the General Customs Administration had arrived at its determination.

Sadly, it appears "banned in China" is still a big selling point overseas. However, Book of Offenses wasn't actually banned. In the afterword to the mainland edition, Chen writes of how the first story he wrote in high school surprised his teacher by its darkness. He continues:

But I was never able to publish a single story. Some editors gave me suggestions, like "adding a bright ending," or moving the setting overseas, or to "miserable" Taiwan, but I rejected them all, preferring not to publish....these twenty years, my style hasn't changed; how I write now I was already writing when I was 17. What's different is that society has become tolerant. But tolerance is relative: when my works get published they still need to be processed, and my manuscripts still make the rounds of publishers and agents. That includes this book: it originally contained ten pieces, but with the deletion of Sheltering (遮蔽) (published online as I Love Mom), it is now nine. I have been acknowledged, but only in certain areas. I am an author, but only in respect to a few works.

In reviews published following the mainland publication, Book of Offenses was described as a loosely-connected collection of stories that together formed a response to the Ten Commandments—all but for the absence of Sheltering.

The novella tells the story of a lame man who is in an incestuous relationship with his mother and, at her request and using a whip she provides, flogs her to death. Bannable? Maybe, but Sheltering had previously been published in Xiamen Literature (2004.01) and was the focus of animated discussion in subsequent issues of the journal.

Here's a blog post Chen Xiwo put up on the 8th, the day after the hearing:

Just because it's always been like this, does that make it right?

by Chen Xiwo

At the end of last June, I returned from the Philippines with the image of the sunset in Manila still lingering in my mind. I wrote a piece called "Manila Sunset." Reportedly, that country is impoverished, troubled by poverty even, but I saw that their spirits were not troubled by poverty. Looking at the streets full of Filipinos sitting, reclining, and at play, I saw that they may have been materially impoverished but they were wealthy in spirit. A people trained that "food is the people's heaven" or who have been baptized in a materialist world outlook cannot comprehend this. They may not have had a home to return to, but they were free. This too seems to stir us to sympathy, but I really want to live well, to live "comfortably." Thus conflicted, I returned to China, exhausted.

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The clean mainland edition

When I arrived, I noticed an envelope on my desk. I saw that it was from Customs and felt a strange sense of foreboding. Sure enough, I was being informed that my Book of Offenses had been seized. At the start of 2007, Book of Offenses had been processed on the mainland and a simplified character edition had been published. In Taiwan, they read the information on the Internet and contacted me about releasing a traditional character edition, which came out with no obstructions whatsoever. Then problems arose: the obstruction-free publication of Book of Offenses was deemed "printed material prohibited from entering the territory."

Obstructions can be divided into physical and mental obstacles. Fatigue can become an obstacle of the flesh, particularly when sparring with enforcement departments. But for a writer whose written works are seized, there's another kind of obstruction, a mental obstacle. As someone who sees writing as life, I find this obstacle difficult to root out. No wonder beauty can drive one to "kill the Buddha." So I made a stand. I remember it was a hot afternoon, and I spoke until my mouth dried out, moving from the purpose of writing to the rules of literature, from ancient times through today, both within and without China. But it was of no use. Physical obstacles prevailed. I suggested just letting me take one copy as a memento; the rest I was willing to discard. But I was denied yet again. So I continued to fight. Finally they said, hand it over to the General Customs Administration to decide.

That decision took half a year. Countless telephone calls, countless questions to spur them on. Through it all I felt a mixture of dejection and excitement. Excitement, because I read the law: in Article 367 of the Criminal Law, it reads, "Literary and artistic works of artistic value that contain erotic contents are not regarded as obscene materials." These works had all been published in literary magazines and some had won awards (I never felt that winning awards was very important), so shouldn't they fall under "literary works of artistic value"? But the higher-ups never gave a written reply, so regardless of my thousands of reasons, I just had to wait.

The weather cooled down and became cold. Trees became bare, and I caught a new illness myself. Quite a few people around me died—would I end up dying, too? I thought of death, and asked myself what was most important. Physical obstacles once again took precedence. Best to put it out of my mind and go on living. But then the telephone rang: the matter was to be disposed according to Article 6 of the Customs Law of the People's Republic of China and Article 20 of Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Implementing Customs Administrative Penalties. I rushed to look up the Customs Law, but it looked like Article 6 did not apply to me. Perhaps the heart of it was Article 20 of the Pentalties: "Where anyone, when transporting, carrying or mailing articles the entry or exit of which is prohibited by the State into or out of the territory, fails to declare them to the Customs but does not evade Customs control by concealment, disguise or other means, such articles shall be confiscated, or be ordered to be returned, or be destroyed or undergo technical treatment under Customs control." Was I in violation? It didn't look like it. Perhaps the issue rested on the word "prohibited" (禁止). What was "prohibited"? But they don't tell you.

Maybe some dispute of mine in the past had put them on their guard. I was an important person! Oh, the vanity!

When I learned that I had the right to ask for a hearing, I felt renewed hope. I didn't understand, so naturally I wanted to hear them out. Besides, they hadn't paid any attention to me at all, so maybe I'd get them to listen. I'd just opened my mouth when it was gagged: Don't bother applying. It's no use. The General Customs Administration sent down that order!

Many people have read my works and have felt them cruel and heartless, not noticing that they are actually extremely gentle. People say I'm nothing like my works. I'm mild, but my works are frightening. But when I speak I'm suddenly vehement. Which is the true Chen Xiwo? So there's only one possible conclusion: this guy's a puzzle! When I'm mild, I'm really mild. When I'm disagreeable, I'm disagreeable with a vengeance. You tell me not to, so I say I'll do it anyway. When I get hot-headed, the mental takes over from the physical. I wrote up an application. Hearing time!

Am I crazy?

But at the hearing, my opinions weren't heard, and I couldn't understand their words.

In the first place, the "order" from the General Customs Administration was actually contestable within the scope of administrative actions. So I asked, where is its authority? Particularly concerning the examination of literary works: was it authoritative? Had the censors been given training in literary theory corresponding to the demands of that job?

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The dirty Taiwan edition

Second, where was the evidence for deciding that Book of Offenses was a "prohibited" item? The response was: this is confidential; it cannot be made public. Is it made public by telling me? I'm involved in the matter. I know that under certain conditions there can be a closed trial, like in the case of rape. But how can it not be opened to the rapist, criminal, or suspect involved? You've got to at least point out the details of the case, like what sort of rape it was and how many centimeters it went in. Reportedly, there's a difference. You can't be tagged a rapist simply the utterance "You're a rapist." Customs said: the supervision and examination of printed materials is a special case that involves confidentiality, so it cannot be made public. The order from the Supervising Office was sufficient to show that these actions were legal and effective. Where's the logic in this roundabout authentication? Isn't working under this mentality a "black box operation"? When pressed, they admitted that they did not in fact know what the Customs Supervising Office had relied on when they issued that order. I literally fell off the hearing platform. It's so murky—how have they managed to decide cases for so long? Probably no one in this situation has ever gone at them before. Or they've turned around in fright? But this time their up against someone who's foolhardy enough.

They say it's always been like this. Lu Xun asked, "Just because it's always been like this, does that make it right?"

Aren't we all talking about the rule of law? If we can't even make out what the law is, how can China's authors write? Or will we continue on like we always have: when you're banned, tough luck; when you're given the go-ahead, it's like you've slipped one past them, and you chuckle to yourself.

Of course, I am fully aware that the customs agents before me have no recourse. As enforcers, they can only enforce. As someone who's subject to that enforcement, I can only ask them. They're caught in the middle—how painful!

So after all of that, what's the root of the problem?

Perhaps I shouldn't press them so hard; they might end up suffering for it. But then I'll be the one suffering, which doesn't really matter, except that in abetting irrationality they'll eventually suffer anyway.

So that the rest of us don't have to suffer.

* * *

Writing in The Beijing News, Pan Caifu, an editor, speculates on why the customs agents chose to seize the books:

This writer is fairly familiar with the works of Chen Xiwo, and after a sentence by sentence reading of Book of Offenses, I can't think of anything in this book that deserves to be banned. Reportedly, the traditional character edition added just one piece to the mainland's foundation. Using the process of elimination, we can analyze each of the possible "infractions":

Pornographic publication. This is perhaps the most likely reason that the book was seized at customs. But if Book of Offenses is the standard for "pornography," then a whole pile of literary works, including The Abandoned Capital (废都), White Deer Plain (白鹿原), Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), would be trapped by the enlightened gaze of the customs officials, for those books are clearly far more "pornographic" than Book of Offenses. But this writer has never heard any news of those books being seized at customs. Customs would not be exercising a double standard, so this option can be ruled out.

Next comes ideological issues. If customs was sensitive enough they'd seize it. But the power to "rate" and decide the fate of books rests in the hands of GAPP. Would Customs try to move in on GAPP's turf? GAPP didn't ban it, and it was published by the most authoritative literary press, yet it was seized by Customs. How will they explain that to GAPP? Do they have issues with GAPP's metric? That shouldn't be the case, and I have full confidence in GAPP's ability to hold the line, so this option can be ruled out, too.

So if the two choices above don't apply, that leaves only one possibility: the title Book of Offenses is too offensive, too provocative. But there are tons of provocatively-titled books: Mo Yan's Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀), Tie Ning's A Woman Bathing (大浴女), Chi Li's Shout Out When You Feel High (有了快感你就喊), and Bi Shumin's Save the Breast (拯救乳房). Which of those titles doesn't push the limit of taste? Which doesn't offend the eyes? So this option should be ruled out, too.

This writer has one final question: according to Article 367 of the Criminal Law, "Literary and artistic works of artistic value that contain erotic contents are not regarded as obscene materials." Works contained in Book of Offenses won the "People's Literature Prize" and other literary prizes and were published by the People's Literature Publishing House, so they ought to have artistic value. But they couldn't pass customs. When did Fujian Customs take it upon itself to judge the value of literary and artistic works? How will it explain the reason for this ban to the People's Literature Prize judges' panel?

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There are currently 3 Comments for Customs protects Fujian author from his own work.

Comments on Customs protects Fujian author from his own work

i hate to argue in defense of censorship, but the opinion issued at the Customs hearing referenced is far sounder than Beijing News editor, Pan Caifu, would have readers believe.

as noted above, Book of Offenses was published in two versions: the cut version, published on the Mainland, and the uncut version published in Taiwan, copies of which were confiscated by Customs.

as further noted above, the confiscated uncut editions contained a story, "Sheltering," which is potentially "objectionable" and therefore bannable at the border. indeed, there appear to be no other bases on which the confiscation could be "justified" were "Sheltering" not to have been objectionable and were this finding not to have revealed the "infraction" on which the confiscation was premised.

Pan Caifu, however, argues that no such ban is justifiable because no conceivable infraction is--for lack of a better word--"reasonable." Pan then suggests three potential infractions--(i) "Pornographic publication," (ii) "Ideological issues," & (iii) the book's title--but dismisses each for reasons which i refute below. the last of these potential infractions is purely flippant, and should be disregarded. the first two, however, are relevant; though Pan is mistaken about them both, because:

(1) the story "Sheltering" is (in the opinion of Customs) pornographic and books which include this chapter are bannable. the fact that, as Pan suggests, "a whole pile of literary works, including The Abandoned Capital (废都), White Deer Plain (白鹿原), Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅)" were "pornographic" and not banned does not invalidate Customs' ban of the Book of Offenses. pornography is bannable unless "cured" by artistry. these two qualities are counter-balanced for the purposes of Customs' determinations; that is, as the level of pornographic content increases, so too must the level of artistry in order to cure the infraction and allow importation across the state's borders. thus, even objectively low-levels of pornographic content may justify confiscation if the level of artistry is low or non-existent. conversely, extreme pornography is permissable is offset by extreme artistry; AND

(2) though, as Pan suggests, "the power to 'rate' and decide the fate of books rests in the hands of GAPP," Customs is entitled to incorporate GAPP opinions and standards along with those of other agencies while conducting its confiscations. to suggest otherwise is to suggest, as referenced by Joel above, that Customs would have no power to prohibit importation of maps (and publications containing such maps) which cede Chinese territory to foreign powers such as India simply because Customs does have the power to define China's borders.

lastly, as noted above, the story "Sheltering" "had previously been published in Xiamen Literature (2004.01) and was the focus of animated discussion in subsequent issues of the journal." thus, it might be argued that because "Sheltering" had previously been published on the Mainland, it was not objectionable, and therefore could not constitute the basis on which Customs seized the books at issue.

this argument fails, however, for two reasons. it fails, to wit, becuase: (1) Customs has no authority over the publication process, and thus the appearance either by error or by right of "objectionable content" in the domestic press does not, of itself, divest Customs of its authority to prohibit the importation of such content at the state's borders; and (2) publication in Xiamen Literature does not, of itself, render facially-objectionable content non-objectionable.

why do i care? i care because laws, regulations, and procedures like those which led to the concededly absurd confiscation of Chen Xiwo's Taiwan-published novel need to be challenged and need to be reformed if not overturned. straw men and sentiments of vague discontent are a poor match for the power of the state.

good work, by the way, to Joel whose posts are the very paragon of hard-work and professionalism.

Thanks for that analysis, b.

Chen Xiwo told one of the newspapers that he wants two things: his books returned to him, and an explanation for why they were seized. The first isn't going to happen, apparently, without bending the rules. But can he get them to explain their decision? Or can Customs claim that something is "confidential" and a "special case" essentially at will?

I posted Pan's arguments because I thought they were fun, not because they have any legal merit. Pieces like his get thrown about all the time in the wake of unfortunate censorship decisions, and for parties that aren't directly involved, public mockery is about the best that they can do - see the response to Tang Wei's blackout, or to the banning of Lost in Beijing (which demonstrates that even domestically, permission to publish isn't a free pass).

In that last case, the producers of Lost in Beijing filed suit against SARFT on 12 March, but there haven't been any further developments (I haven't seen anything about it in the English-language press). Producer Fang Li is being represented by Pu Zhiqiang, who said, "The judge's explanation was that the Olympics are this year, so it's rather sensitive, and after consulting the opinions of various sides, they were inclined not to accept the case. But it hasn't been decided yet."

Accurately Martinsen adds "Sadly, it appears "banned in China" is still a big selling point overseas". Indeed any Machiavellian observer well versed in Chinese classical stories -or an avid reader of Sun Tzu (孫子 Sūn Zǐ) like many Western marketers- could well even imagine -of course jokingly- that the whole story was, even farther in the shade, behind the shadowy forces of the authority, a private setup -with obviously the help of obliging or greedy Customs officers-, by the author or his PRC publisher, for a bit of free publicity in the Mainland Press...

Besides, there is a very strange and possibly conflictual relation between the GAPP (and of course behind the scene the CPC propaganda apparatus) and the Customs: official book import statistics by the Customs are 2-3 times more important than the GAPP's, with thousand of names of work units in the Customs' files paying taxes for imported books* (save individuals, which the Customs do no record and rarely check in fact -see boxes of foreign books received regularily by foreign individuals, for example in certain bars, in Beijing...-). So for once, the Customs' won't be accused of leniency by the GAPP, in front of the tons of individual mail (including millions of supposedly "foreign" pornography, in fact printed and mailed in the Shenzhen area)...

* a curious, especially concerning the PRC, and worldwide exception, the PRC Customs sell for cheap these file containing names and quantities...

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