Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 7:44 PM
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:
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:
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.
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?
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:
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Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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