Media regulation

Books behind bars - He Dong on restricted literature

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The cultural supplement to Beijing's Mirror evening paper has a regular feature in which contemporary commentators reflect on newspaper articles of the past.

In today's installment, entertainment writer He Dong uses a 1978 People's Daily article indicting the Gang of Four for flagrant book banning as inspiration to reminisce about his reading experiences during the Cultural Revolution. The PD article, written by the Theory Group of the Library Science department of Wuhan University, is available here courtesy of Suzhou Library's excellent digital archive of issues from 1948 to 1997.

"I Want to Read"

by He Dong / Mirror

Banning books has quite a tradition in China. The case of Qin Shi Huang burning books and burying scholars is well known across the world. Beginning in the Qin Dynasty, book bannings would come around every few years.

In a February 1978 issue of People's Daily [1978.02.04], the article "Obscurantist policies of the Gang of Four as shown by banned books" provides this analysis:

Over the past few years, the normal open circulation of library books has been disrupted and destroyed by the Gang of Four. For all sorts of groundless reasons, they labeled a large group of books "poisonous weeds" and locked them up for the long term....obscurantism is for the purpose of keeping the people in check. Obscurantist policies have among their number the wanton banning of books.

The burning of books during the Cultural Revolution was likely even more serious than during the time of Qin Shi Huang. In those days, the China Books Library where my father was probably had the largest collection of books out of all of Beijing's publishers. But two intersecting seals completely cut off the library, turning it into a prison. And that wasn't enough: when a young "revolutionary" intellectual from my father's work unit came to search our home, he seized all of our books in open burglary. I remember that I had a few children's books in a cardboard box, and those too were seized by that man with gentle face. In fright, I whispered, "....this is my book!" The man just kicked me savagely.

The man who kicked me published many books himself after the Cultural Revolution, and he reportedly did quite a bit of scholarly research. But every time I go to a bookstore and see his name on a book, I have a sudden, mischievous thought: if I were to design his book cover, I'd definitely use the shoes he used to kick people back then as a stamp, and make a print on the front or back cover as a memento.

The bans were so thorough that through 1969 when I went to the countryside I had not had a book to read for several years. Later, some unknown person came back from a visit to family in Beijing, and secretly carried back two novels - How Steel is Tempered and The Builders. As a result, they passed back and forth like handbills from the men's dormitories to the women's; in the end the covers had been torn off and the binding was about to disintegrate. You can see the degree of thirst for reading in those days.

The most tragic event happned when a young intellectual in the dormitory lying under the mosquito net one evening reading How Steel is Tempered was caught red-handed by one of the political instructors passing through the dorm. A joint criticism session was immediately convened that night; the young intellectual was made to stand up front, holding How Steel is Tempered above his head to demonstrate his shame. Then the political instructor gave an instructional talk: "Him - he reads pornographic books! How is steel tempered? I want him to know how steel isn't tempered!" Then came the layers of investigations - how the book came from Beijing to "infect" the company. The ultimate fate of the book was not the fire; rather, the political instructor ripped each page to shreds in front of everyone.

In 1977, after the Cultural Revolution had ended, some books were gradually unbanned. In 1978, a few novels by Balzac were sold openly in Beijing's Xinhua Book Stores. Readers waited in a serpentine line to buy the khaki-colored books, like the line of people waiting to buy a train ticket over Spring Festival these days.

I recall someone named Gao Yubao writing a novel called I Want to Read*. When I returned to Beijing from the countryside, I saw Xie Hailong's "Project Hope" photobook, with the same name - I Want to Read. Evidently, making reading commonplace is never an easy project in China.


Note: 我要读书 - The same phrase can be translated as either "I want to read" or "I want to go to school"; the book titles ought use the second translation but I've used the first to preserve He Dong's play on words. More info on the Project Hope photobook can be found at ESWN.

Links and Sources
  • He Dong 何东, "I Want to Read" 《“我要读书”》, from Mirror, 2007.02.12, B20 (not yet online)
  • Image from Langlangbay
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