Of banned books and reading habits


The Hong Kong Book Fair had the theme "Reading Hong Kong" this year. Yau Lop Poon, editor of Yazhou Zhoukan, argued in an essay written for the fair's guide booklet that "reading Hong Kong" had to be understood in the context of "reading banned books."

Ironically, the book fair was marred this year by controversy over requests from Hong Kong authorities that seventeen books be removed from display due to questionable content (story at ESWN).

Yau's essay was reprinted in slightly edited form in the July issue of Soho Xiaobao (which also contained Tony Leung's paean to co-productions). Here's a translation; a link to an image of the original Hong Kong edition has been provided by commenter AbsurdFool.

Reading a world without banned books

by Yau Lop Poon / Soho Xiaobao

To read Hong Kong, you must begin with reading banned books.

This is my personal reading experience. During high school, I liked to go down to the used book stalls on Nelson Street, where I bought quite a lot of works by Li Ao and Bo Yang that had been banned in Taiwan. Once, at a small bookstore, I saw a copy of Yin Haiguang's The Future of Chinese Culture; the bookseller caught my eye and said, "That's the latest banned book from Taiwan, and Yin Haiguang is Li Ao's teacher." I could not resist the double temptation of "banned book" and "Li Ao's teacher," so I bought the book with all of my spending money for that month and entered the world of liberalist argument.

My encounter with those banned books led me to Taiwan for university, and into a world where there were banned books everywhere. During the "white terror" of the 1960s, Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Qian Zhongshu and other writers from the 30s and 40s were banned by the Taiwan authorities. But the harder they were banned, the more attractive they became, and every summer or winter vacation when I went back to Hong Kong I'd return to the used book stalls on Nelson Street to pick out a plenty of Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, and Qian Zhongshu, which I'd conceal in my luggage and take back to Taiwan to share the excitement of reading banned books with my classmates and teachers.

But I eventually slipped up. In the summer of 1968, I took the Anqing Ferry back to Taiwan to return to school. When I came ashore in Keelung, I carried a huge canvas bag in which I had a whole pile of clothing and other materials. But at the bottom of the bag, wrapped in clothes, were A Chinese Intellectual History by Hou Wailu and a few volumes of Lu Xun's fiction and essays. I thought I'd be able to sneak them past, and never imagined the safety inspector would deftly remove everything from the pack, revealing the "banned books."

I was taken into a small room and questioned for about half an hour. I also filled out a dense form, and then listened as an official rebuked me: "A foreign student should study hard - what're you doing reading banned books?!"

I know that from then on I was put on the Garrison Command's blacklist. Of course, I didn't tell them that the Hou Wailu book was for Yin Haiguang. At that time he was quote attentive to the ideological climate in the interior and had the several of us exchange students from Hong Kong bring him the works of mainland scholars.

At that time I was just eighteen. A terrible storm could not prevent me from reading "banned books"; in fact, it just led me to an even stronger interest. In the following few years, I began to read systematically those books that were banned in Taiwan, and which were seen in Hong Kong as "heterodox red books." I read Mao Zedong's works, and I read "revolutionary" pamphlets. At the students' bookshops on Nathan Street I bought Marx and Lenin, like Anti-Dühring [by Engels], The Civil War in France, The German Ideology, and The State and Revolution.

During the 70s, I met a Red Guard who had fled to Hong Kong. He told me that in the world of left-wing ideology, there were many works by opposing factions that had been listed as banned books on the Chinese mainland. I went once again to the Nelson Street book stalls and bought works like Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, and The Memoirs of Zheng Chaolin.

Later, I went to study in the US. In the libraries of American universities I read even more books that had been banned in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland, and I constantly wondered why they had been banned. "Banned book" is a term that has not yet disappeared from the Chinese-language world.*

Is the fate of banned books the fate of China itself? Is China a banned book? Those old days at the used book stalls on Nelson Street in Mongkok have long ago faded away. But today, at the Hong Kong Book Fair at the Exhibition Center in Wan Chai, we can read all of the books that have been banned, and we can read a free and open city.

But in a Hong Kong without banned books, there are still many people who are trapped in their own forbidden reading zones. They choose only utilitarian, profitable, and practical books, like "How to make a million before you turn thirty," "How to please your boss," or "How to control your husband." The banned books of yesterday and today on both sides of the strait are too far removed from them. They don't care about Lu Xun or Yin Haiguang, and they have even less of an interest in history, philosophy, and literature.

This turns Hong Kong into a city with little space for culture. Legally, it is a city where nothing is forbidden to read, but it must face its own psychological forbidden zones. Those zones restrict the imagination and competitiveness of Hong Kong. The forbidden reading zones of city residents form a pair of heavy wings that have difficulty flying through to a more creative sky.

Reading Hong Kong means putting no borders up around reading. Not only must we emerge from a world restricted by political power, but we must also emerge from an atmosphere controlled by commercial power. Reading is a journey; only after reading a colorful, diversified landscape can we come up with a new self, a new home for a modern China.

Note: In the original version, that sentence was followed by another list, which replaced the two questions in the next paragraph: In the last decade or so, banned books have continued to appear from the Chinese mainland. From Yellow Peril by Bao Mi (Wang Lixiong) to A Gust of Wind by Zhang Yihe and The Untold Story... by Jung Chang...(the list would be very long).

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There are currently 2 Comments for Of banned books and reading habits.

Comments on Of banned books and reading habits

There's a photo image of Yau's article here at YCulblog:


Thanks for that, AbsurdFool. I was wondering whether Yau read any banned books other than Marx and Lu Xun, and sure enough, his original piece lists books by Wang Lixiong, Zhang Yihe, and Jung Chang. Will edit the original.

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