Jia Pingwa's banned novel returns after 17 years

JDM090731feiduolds.jpg JDM090731feidunews.jpg
The 1993 and 2009 editions of Feidu

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:

"Feidu is unbanned" is, I think, hype from booksellers....after so many years the storm has died down, so they're hyping it up to make another bundle. Perhaps they think that they'll really be able to publish the book.

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:

Several years back the media announced that Feidu would be reissued, but it never actually materialized. At the time, Yan Aiping said, "In 1993, we acted on GAPP's instructions and banned Feidu for 'vulgarity and sexual content,' and also punished the publisher." Today, the power of book approval now belongs to GAPP. People in the industry have changed, the approval authorities have changed, and the censors have changed, providing a fine opportunity for Feidu to be reissued.

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:

Xie: Sex was a major reason for the controversy surrounding Feidu. Another reason was the trick you played with boxes and the line "xx words deleted." I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you to tell us whether those words were actually deleted, or if it was purely a publishing strategy and the words were never written in the first place? Now that it's been more than ten years, can you finally let the truth out?
Jia: I wrote about sex. Why sex? It was because of the demands of character formation, for one: in order for Zhuang Zhidie to extricate himself, he had to seek out women. And out of a thought for the writing, for another: all four-hundred-plus-thousand characters of the novel were about everyday life. When I wrote about a meal I could write four or five pages, about drinking tea I could write three or four pages. I wrote about all of the headaches of the daytime, so there's no way I could avoid writing about the things of the night, and that meant that touching on sex was inevitable. When I was writing about sex, I wrote out a little bit, but then I didn't write any more, because I had to consider the national conditions, you know, so I thought I'd just write a little bit and that would be enough. And then I replaced the portion I didn't write with boxes. When I handed the manuscript to the publisher later on, they deleted additional sections. So the number of characters listed in parenthesis as having been deleted is actually no longer very accurate. For ten years, lots of people have asked me this question, and now I've given a truthful answer.

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 literature

by 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.


  1. Jia told the Chinese Business View that when he was notified of the Femina award, he and a few journalist friends debated how best to present the news in the mainland media. They eventually decided to hedge their bets by writing "One of Jia Pingwa's novels (Feidu) won the Prix Femina in France." Sure enough, the censors clipped the book's title but left a readable sentence intact.
  2. As it turns out, the edits have not been done consistently. Compare this excerpt from page 311 in my copy of the original (which is a semi-authorized edition at best), which has three sets of boxes totalling 279 deleted characters, with this excerpt from pages 275-276 in the new edition, which has three sets of ellipses but only two notations of deleted material. The third, which in the original represented a 200-character deletion, is unmarked, causing potential confusion with ellipses retained from the original text that do not represent unwritten sex scenes. Elsewhere, boxes have occasionally been deleted without being replaced with ellipses.
  3. One report said that Jia had received 1000150 yuan for the novel, which was based on a misreading of 1000字150元, or roughly 60,000 yuan for the 400,000-character novel. At the same time, the publisher was also rumored to have paid 300,000 yuan for the rights to the manuscript. Jia later said he received 40,000 (see the Chinese Business View article below).

Further Reading: Capital, Re-Ruined at Paper Republic; and Jia Pingwa talks about the 2004 reissue on Danwei.

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There are currently 14 Comments for Jia Pingwa's banned novel returns after 17 years.

Comments on Jia Pingwa's banned novel returns after 17 years

I suppose it's a good thing that this book is now available again. Is this what progress looks like?

As for the novel itself, I read a Taiwanese edition some years ago and was not impressed. Jia is overrated, IMHO.

Some of Jia Pingwa's shorter pieces, such as the earlier 商州纪事, are quite decent. He often sounds tiresome in longer pieces, because Jia is basically a gifted provincial and has not much to offer by way of grander intellectual ideas or literary structures. Unlike Yu Hua and Wang Anyi, Jia doesn't read world literature and has little interest in other cultural perspectives. His lack of intellectual curiosity shows in frequent gaffs on topics ranging from women's place in the society to traditional Chinese medicine. A man of much fun and little taste.

He should have stuck to short stories, where his unique grasp of Shaanxi vernacular can play out to better effect.

That very assessment was offered in the late 80s and early 90s, Orpheus, but the man's been working for another two decades. Whatever the extent of his narrative gifts, to call him nothing more than a gifted provincial ignores the fact that he's refined his craft on the national stage for thirty years. He may trade on his identity as a simple country bumpkin, but at this point it's more of a pose than a reality.

@Joel: I am pleased to find an American who appreciates Jia. BTW: I spent much of my childhood in Xi'an, so I do relate to Jia's provincial vernacular.

Yet I can't say that the man has grown intellectually over the last 20 years; have you read his "Qin Qiang"? What a wasted opportunity! Jia could have told an interesting story---or just say something interesting at all---about the tragio-comedic place Shaanxi occupies in the modern Chinese imagination.

The trouble with Jia, apart from (and you may say related to) his low esteem for intellectual curiosity is a general lack of discipline. Look at his caligraphy: he seems to take great pride in his own poor brushworks, disdain wristwork, and wish to pass clumsiness off as raw energy. That bias is lazy and self-serving.

Then his silly pseudo-macho posture: "Art conquers; therefore it is." Hey, the 1820s called, they want their romantic poseur back.

Nevertheless, I know reasonable people who like Jia's writing, so let's respectfully disagree (if you compare Han Han to Lu Xun, as HK's Leung Man-tao did, that's a totally different matter). For someone with your literary sensibilities (a wild guess), I would recommend Liu Qing-bang 刘庆邦;he's prose is great, and so is the structure of his stories and novellas.

BTW: where was my "very assessment was offered in the late 80s and early 90s"? I thought I was being original ......

Heh. Truth be told, I actually tend to find Jia's afterwords, in which he tells of how the books came to be written, more entertaining than his novels (and you're right, storytelling doesn't seem to be a priority in his writing). I've guess I've got middlebrow tastes. Liang Xiaosheng does more for me as a 平民代言人.

I wasn't trying to criticize your assessment of him as being's more of frustration with the way that Chinese authors are given a particular role to play when they first get famous, and then the media holds them to that role (even as they call each successive work "a turning point" or a "new direction"). Jia's reputation was made with his shorter fiction and essays, and that still holds in his public image (beneath his later image as a pornographer, of course).

I'll have to take a look at Liu Qingbang. Thanks for the recommendation.

Hi Joel. Now I get you: yes, I share your annoyance at the media's role in pigeonholing authors. Jia did try to break out of that role by posing as a renaissance man and a connoisseur, but the final effect is almost always an old-fashioned Chinese country squire pontificating on topics to which he adds nothing new. I think he should be referred to as Jia, ESQ.

The author I recommended, Liu QingBang, also suffers from the media's stereotyping, and perhaps deserves more of our sympathy. Liu is more than a story teller of miners or farmers' life; he is a humanist poet that captures the sense of unsettling transitions in Chinese life, with all the promises, injuries and pains. His stories are often tragic yet seldom doomed. And Liu packs a beautiful Chinese prose that has not been seen since the best works of Shen Cong-wen.

My rule of thumb when it comes to approaching a male Chinese author, in judging whether he is worth reading: (1) how he feels about women. (2) how his writing ENGAGES the physical specifics of his characters' lives. These two correlate directly to how interesting his view on Chinese aesthetics and values in contemporary society can be. Liu, rare among Chinese writers, loves women, is erotically attracted to women, yet always rejects the temptation of objectify them in a Old-Boys'-Club manner. And he's very sensitive to sensual beauties of every kind: the shade of sky's turning color near dusk, the smell of freshly tilled earth, the sensation of moist earth squeezing between toes, the (imagined) pleasant and tantalizing itch of a young woman's budding breasts against clean, coarse fabric of her farm girl's blouse......

In his early works Jia seems to be capable of exploring the kind of life he's familiar with in a similar depth and with the same loving care. But I guess he's less secure about his rural roots than Liu.

Orpheus - interested that you hold up Yu Hua as an example of what Jia Pingwa is not. Having read Yu' Brothers (in English) I was most disappointed at just how unsophisticated a writer he was and at what an anti-climax this novel proved to be. Was something lost in translation? genuinely interested to hear your thoughts...

I agree that Yu Hua is a better writer than Jia Pingwa, though Wang Anyi is better than both. Yu Hua's early fiction is very well done, suprising, and historically significant. His last few novels, however, have been disappointing. Brothers may be provocative, but it is not great literature.

For my part, although I admit that he won't appeal to everyone, I quite enjoy Mo Yan. Even so, his writing sometimes reminds me of something that Howard Goldblatt (a well known translator) once said about Chinese novels generally being too long and Chinese editors generally behaving less like proper editors than proofreaders.

As for Mike's claim that Yu Hua is "unsophisticated," I don't know how to respond. It seems to me that one could make the argument that much great literature is unsophisticated. Critics said the same about Mark Twain, Dickens, James Joyce, and Dostoyevsky. What exactly does it mean to be unsophisticated?

As for Orpheus' idea that one consider a male Chinese writer's treatment of women when "approaching" his work - again, I'm not sure what this means. Plenty of great novelists have been misogynists. Such writers may not have been good persons, but they were still excellent artists. Should I refuse to read V.S. Naipaul? A recently published biography (i.e., The World Is What It Is) of Naipaul, written with the author's consent and cooperation (the author was given access to private letters), is shocking in its description of Naipaul's abuse of his first wife. Does this mean that I shouldn't read A Bend in the River or A House for Mister Biswas? Was the Nobel committee mistaken in its estimation of Naipaul? (In truth, I admit that it is difficult to reconcile the idea that the same man was responsible for both the damning letters and the brilliant novels.) And what about Norman Mailer? Who objectified women with greater vigor than him? Still, I quite enjoy much of his writing.

@mike: actually, I was only referring to a "road not taken" when I mentioned Yu Hua and Wang An-Yi, whose Chinese writing styles as well as the ideas of their stories both show the influence of translated works from an Anglo-American repertoir. But I am not an admirer of Yu Hua, although I enjoy reading Wang An-yi. Among other shortcomings, Yu Hua isn't sensitive to the lively spoken speech of common people, doesn't express himself well in Chinese vocabulary, often sounds pedantic, and seems to have a very skewed, pre-fab'd view of Chinese lives, now and in the past. I can assure you that Yu reads worse in the original, clumsy, anglicized Chinese than in English translation. In fact, I think Yu writes to be translated.

Furthermore, due to the lack of physical specificities of his description of various Chinese locales, apart from the generic atmospheric characterization (usually of a motonous doom and gloom), I see no evidence that Yu still lives in China.

Therefore I often say Yu has a tin ear, a wooden voice, and a pair of purblind eyes.

And reading the above, you would also know why I like Wang An-yi a lot better. And for the same reason, I find Chi Zi-jian's redemptive values that makes up for the absence of a compelling narrative or psychological depth: at least she sees and hears things.

orpheus: thanks

stinky: my 'unsophisticated' remark was related to 'Brothers' only. To explain: I thought it was a clumsy and unimaginative allegory with an unbelievably predictable plot, a hackneyed narrative (especially the CR section), lacking any depth whatsoever, and verging on cartoon-like characterisation. Rather than write all that out, I chose 'unsophisticated' (the dictionary says 'lacking refinement or complexity' - I would certainly settle for the latter)

@Stinky: points taken, yet you may want to read my post more carefully.
I didn't say misogynists don't make good writers. In fact, two of my favorite authors that I always find a pleasure to read even when I disagree with their 'message', Jonathan Swift and Graham Greene, shared this particular shortcoming. What I said was a rule of thumb "approaching a male Chinese author". In contemporary Chinese society there seems to be a strong correlation between an author's attitude towards women and his awareness of the more subtle psychological aspects of people under his observation, a.k.a. "literary sensitivity", without which a fiction writer is simply not worth reading. Does that correlation still exist in other societies or another time? Maybe; maybe not. Please do not extrapolate my statement beyond its qualifications which I made clear.

I will give you an analogy: many of the grand old masters of Western literature could sound perhaps a bit on the racist side by contemporary standard. Apart from the Antioch College crowd, we still read them and find them worth reading. We understand that their explicit racism was a product of the time, when a morally and psychologically aware person could still harbor some deplorable thoughts. However, if a new book in 2009 is guilty of the same bias and bigotry about race, what would we think? At least we would perhaps feel the author seems disconnected from this day and age, and we would doubt if he has anything interesting to say. It's all about context.

RE Naipaul and Mailer: would the same correlation I just described apply to Anglo-American writers? I don't know. I guess the difference between Jia's misogyny and Mailer's is one between a village atheist in Nothern China, and Richard Dawkins. Chinese society at large is basically regressing into a general objectification or even denigration of women, and there is nothing interestingly and defiantly contrarian in being a fellow misogynist alongside nouveau riches with a beer belly and three teenage mistresses. It is not naughty, as in the case of Mailer or Theroux, to speak ill of certain type of women they find offputting or intimidating, but pander-like and unconcionable, as in the case of Jia or Zhang Xian-liang, when the status of women is actually sinking.

BTW: I read Naipaul's "An Area of Darkness". He is certainly a gifted writer, and I am no big fan of the self-congratulatory nation of India. But even I find his characterization of India deplorable and unfair. Travelling in a developing country, one can marvel at the unbound exotic landscape and smell wild briar roses on the roadside, or one can glue his eyes on the ground and sniff feces left by uncouth "natives". The fact Naipaul would be fecally-oriented is perhaps not completely unrelated to the aspects of his personality that underlie his misogyny, wanton, arbitrary, undisciplined, disorganized. These problems compromise his writings and make it shallower than it could have been. Naipaul's misogyny is a malaise that prevents him from being great, not a harmless, anectodal attribute one can look to for an excuse of misogyny in literature.

It seems to me, Orpheus, that you're half-making an argument in favor of Chinese exceptionalism. It's an argument I don't accept.

Forget about misogynists for the moment. What about homophobics? In judging whether an author (male or female, Chinese or not) is "worth reading," would you suggest examining his/her feelings toward gays? How about racists, xenophobics, and people who discriminate against fat people (i.e., anti-Americans)?

Isn't one of the things about great art that it transcends the flawed humans who produce it? How else do you explain the fact that the German people gave the world great art, philosophy, AND the Nazis? You assert a particular correlation between a Chinese author's "literary sensitivity" and his view of women. What about the Germans and genocidal facism? Although the German people were thoroughly morally discredited, no one denies that they were capable of producing great art. Why should it be different for the Chinese, or anyone else for that matter?

@stinky: your observation that I was making "an argument in favor of Chinese exceptionalism" is, well, bizarre, given what I actually wrote earlier.

I suggest that we read each other's posts more closely before we provide counter-arguments.

RE Germany: I don't enjoy pointing out the obvious, but what is the point of characterizing a nation in such broad strokes? A meaningful study would be to see what "great arts" were created by Germans during the Nazi era, NOT throughout German history. Are you even aware that Germany as a national entity is a fairly recent phenomenon (since late 19th century)?

The achronological confusion in some posts is mind-boggling.

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