Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 11:20 AM
Jia Pingwa's controversial novel Feidu (废都, often translated as "Abandoned Capital"), which caused a sensation upon its publication in 1993 and was banned the same year, has returned to print after sixteen years during which it was only available in pirated editions.
The official launch, which is technically for a trilogy that includes both Turbulence (浮躁, 1987) and Qin Qiang (秦腔, 2005), will take place in Xi'an on August 8, but the book slipped quietly into stores last week without any advance notice.
The restraint is understandable given the book's troubled history. Its initial publication in 1993 by the Beijing Publishing House was accompanied by a media frenzy that sensationalized the book as a modern Jin Ping Mei, the classic Ming Dynasty novel famed for its explicit sexual passages, and hype ranged from the author's rumored million-yuan advance to a million-copy print run, and from speculation about the nature of the book's deleted passages to the avalanche of bootleg versions that soon appeared in streetside book stalls. Feidu was banned before the year was out.
In late 2003, a decade after the ban, a new edition was rumored to be in the works. The Southern Metropolis Daily printed a preface to that edition in which Jia wrote of his detached reaction to the news. But the book never made it onto shelves, perhaps because of fears that the media hype engine was gearing up again. A GAPP official told Oriental Outlook magazine in January 2004, "Feidu has not been unbanned. Outside claims that Feidu will be republished in 2004 are pure hype." And Yin Aiping, head of the book publishing management department at the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication, which issued the original ban order, went further:
At the time, critic Xie Youshun hailed the possible republication as a sign that times had changed, that Chinese society no longer saw sexual content as shocking or controversial. But this year's reissue may be due more to changes that took place in other areas. The Beijing News concluded its article last week with a suggestion that authorities are no longer personally invested in maintaining the ban:
Times have indeed changed. Jia, a respectable novelist prior to the Feidu controversy, is now firmly back in the good graces of the literary establishment and was given the Mao Dun Prize last year for Qin Qiang. Oddly, the award is not mentioned in the short bio inside the cover of the new edition, which states only that he has "won numerous national literary prizes, the Pegasus Prize, the Prix Femina, and was made a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters."*
Taking inspiration from the bowdlerization of classic erotic novels, the novel interrupted risque passages with a series of boxes (□□□□□□) and the annotation The author deleted xx words here, which led readers to imagine the existence of an uncensored "author's edition" that filled in all of the smutty details (and which motivated unscrupulous bootleggers to provide exactly that).
But that imagined edition does not actually exist, as Jia revealed in a dialogue with Xie Youshun ahead of the aborted 2004 republication:
In the present version, the boxes have all been replaced with ellipses and the notes no longer reveal precisely how many characters the author was supposed to have deleted.* That's apparently all the editing that has taken place. He Jianming, president of the Writers Publishing House, told The Beijing News, "This is nothing out of the ordinary. It's a normal publication of one of Jia Pingwa's novels after a round of editing."
The issue of the boxes also turns up in the first of three forewords to this new edition. Li Jingze, current editor of the journal People's Literature, bookends a freewheeling discussion of Feidu's achievements and inadequacies with the suggestion that the boxes represent a failure of characterization that allows the protagonist, Zhuang Zhidie, to abdicate moral responsibility for his actions. It's a peculiar essay that ties Feidu to the present moment with tossed-off references to shanzhai culture, "lecture room" scholarship, and Xiao Shenyang.
The other two forewords are more scholarly, complete with footnotes. PKU professor of literature Chen Xiaoming writes about the historical semantics of Jia's writing, paying particular attention to the three volumes in the "trilogy," and Xie Youshun contributes a discussion of Jia's narrative ethics.
The overall intent of the three forewords seems to be an attempt at restoring Feidu's status as a work of literature rather than a literary or cultural phenomenon. In an opinion piece in The Beijing News last week, critic You Mianjin argued for just that approach, but feared that media sensationalism was already hard at work:
The reissue of Feidu: Let literature be literatureby You Mianjin / TBN
I was born too late to catch the first round of Feidu fever in 1993. Of course I came across the book later on, packaged like a pirate edition and sold by uneducated plebeians as pornography to be hidden away lest the children find it, or a possibly authentic copy placed on a shelf so as to enjoy the delight of possessing a banned book without actually reading it.
Pirated editions in Jia's library
Looking back at the publication of this book seventeen years ago, it was an innocent, beautiful exercise in hype. First, the news came out that Jia Pingwa was writing a romance to rival Dream of the Red Chamber, and then there was the rumor about a one-million-yuan manuscript fee, later clarified to be a misunderstanding of 150 yuan per 1,000 characters.* Then there were the pumped-up printing numbers, from an initial printing of 100,000, through additional printings to make a total of 1.2 million a month, and then the ban order was handed down, which halted both printing and distribution, recalled all copies, confiscated the publisher's profits, and assessed double that in fines....all the techniques that matured through repeated use over the next decade or more, until all we're really able to say today is, "Ha ha."
Seventeen years later, we have a much more subdued reissue of a Feidu that claims to be a "revised edition" that's "unedited," with the boxes replaced by ellipses. There's no chance that everyone's going to buy a copy, so a high cover price was the target: a nicely-bound, slipcased set of Turbulence, Qin Qiang, and Feidu is selling for 116 yuan. On its own, Feidu is also available for the low, low price of 39 yuan. Reportedly, "the book sector is fairly cool at the moment," so copies aren't flying off the shelves, and "it's pretty much impossible for there to be fever over Feidu in this day and age."
Seventeen years if the masses could draw the curtains and watch a Cat III film from Hong Kong, there was no end to their excitement; seventeen years later, college males can download adult films day or night by computer. Seventeen years ago, if a family had an expurgated Jin Ping Mei, it was kept a secret; seventeen years later, no online romance novel is without big chunks of sex. Regardless of the interpretation and deconstruction the critical world has performed on Feidu, of the 12 million official, semi-official, and bootleg copies that were sold, quite a large percentage is accounted for by misinformed masses seeking erotic material, with few people likely to be interested in the thought processes of a 90s-era intellectual. Dream of the Red Chamber gave birth to Redology, yet lots of people just want to read about Baoyu and Daiyu falling in love.
These days, Feidu's biggest gimmick is, in the minds of most people, no longer such a bombshell, so the natural significance of the reissue lies in the possibility for a clear, rational examination of literary value that was previously drowned out. Yet even this feels a little forced: there's really no reason to bring up how "Ji Xianlin said that Feidu would shine in twenty years." Ji is not a Tiger Balm to be applied everywhere, and besides, the man just died, so to drag him out for undisguised hype is bad manners beyond what was done seventeen years ago. The best home for Feidu would be for it to quietly enter literary history and await the cleansing wash of time.
The sole regrettable thing is that there's no more "□□□□ (the author deleted xx characters here)," which would otherwise be of historical interest as a kind of parody of the bowdlerized Jin Ping Mei - when I furtively read Jin Ping Mei when I was young, those boxes always appeared at critical moments. It was truly infuriating, but when I went back to catch up on it as an adult, I discovered they were little more than that, and certainly not as good of a read as the sections about everyday life. Taboos are strangely seductive, but when they're set free and laid bare, they lose their mysterious garb and become ordinary. This fact is understood by many, and misunderstood by many others. Feidu has lost this ritual aesthetic and feels a little more ordinary. I'm reminded of how a well-known fiction website strips out unwholesome words and replaces them with □□, leading to some very peculiar effects. If this incarnation of Feidu had filled in the deleted sections, and then dug out a few box-shaped holes, it may have made for an interesting text of our times. And if doing it manually would be a hassle, then Green Dam could have been put to the task - too bad that's all impossible now, and we're left to sigh at ordinary ellipses.
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
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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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.