Thu, Oct 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Acclaimed novelist's self-censorship fails to appease censors

By Jonathan Watts  /  THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING

Millions of pints of blood are pumped through underground pipelines from a big developing country to wealthy consumers in the US and elsewhere. The blood trade has produced the most spectacular boom in human history. In just five years, the formerly dirt-poor state at the heart of the hemo-business has become the richest nation on earth.

Such is the scenario of the novel that Yan Lianke (閻連科) -- one of China's greatest living authors and fiercest satirists -- was planning to write until the censors intervened.

Based on a three-year study of the blood-selling scandal in his native Henan Province, The Dream of Ding Village -- a story about a community in Henan where almost everyone is infected with HIV/AIDS because of unregulated blood-selling in the 1990s -- was to be the defining work of his career; not just an elegantly crafted piece of literature but a devastating critique of China's runaway development.

But it has turned out to be one of the most traumatic experiences of his artistic life. For his attempt to tackle a harrowing man-made disaster, Yan received a ban from the censors, became embroiled in a legal dispute with his publisher and -- worst of all -- suffers a lingering sense of shame that he compromised too many principles.

In a rare insight, the author admitted how he attempted to forestall a ban by doing the censors' work for them. Out went the novel's most ambitious features: the blood pipeline, the global trade angle and direct criticism of national politics. Instead, he narrowed the focus to a single village, where blood is bought and sold with horrific consequences.

"This is not the book I originally wanted to write," Yan, who has won China's top two literary awards, said. "I censored myself very rigorously. I didn't mention senior leaders. I reduced the scale. I thought my self-censorship was perfect."

But the authorities still issued a "three noes" order -- no distribution, no sales and no promotion. Yan found out it was banned when he tried to sue his publisher, the Shanghai Literary Arts Publishing Group, for failing to pay a promised advance on his royalties and a donation to the village where the book was researched.

Banned

Yan had been banned before. In 1994, his first novel, Xia Riluo, outraged the censors with its tale of two military heroes who gradually debase themselves. The plot was particularly bold considering that Yan, a Chinese Communist Party member, was employed at the time by the People's Liberation Army to write morale-boosting stories for the troops.

In 2004, he was asked to leave the army after publishing Shouhuo (Enjoyment), which satirized the bizarre wealth-creation schemes of many local governments. In the award-winning novel, county officials force a village of disabled people to set up a traveling freak-show to raise money for the planned purchase of Lenin's corpse from Russia. In the ultimate marriage of capitalism and communism, they hope Lenin's dead body will attract tourists.

Last year, Yan overstepped the censor's invisible line with Serve the People, a steamy and subversive parody of the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) cult during the Cultural Revolution. It tells the story of a lusty general's wife so turned on by counter-revolutionary heresies that she and her lover smash Mao icons, rip up the Little Red Book and urinate on Mao's epigrams to reach new heights of passion.

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