Taiwanese author Iris Chiang (江學瀅) hardly seems like the type whose work would be banned from publication in China. Yet four years after being sold to a Chinese publisher, her book teaching children how to appreciate art has yet to go to press, a victim of heightened tensions between China and Taiwan that are spilling over into the cultural sphere.
It is not just about losing access to the huge Chinese market, authors and publishers say. It is also about losing opportunities to exchange and connect, after three decades of growing contact between the two.
Beijing has cut the flow of Chinese tourists and students to Taiwan, and blocked its artists from taking part in Taiwan’s Golden Rooster and Golden Melody awards, regarded as the Oscars and Grammys for Chinese-language movies and music.
Photo: Chiang Ying-ying, AP
“It feels like in these few years, the flow of exchange is diverging. Taiwan is going further in one direction and China is going farther in one direction,” said James Chao (趙政岷), head of China Times Publishing, one of the largest publishers in Taiwan. “It’s getting farther and farther apart.”
The election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who favors Taiwan’s de facto independence, in 2016 ushered in a period of deteriorating relations. China has tried to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and pressure it militarily.
While the Chinese Communist Party has long banned books on sensitive issues from religion to the lives of China’s political leaders, Taiwanese publishers previously sold a wide variety of other books to China, drawing on a shared language and cultural history.
“Exchanges in publishing is really the exchange of ideas,” said Linden Lin (林載爵), the head of Linking Publishing Co in Taiwan. “It’s only through publishing that you can have this type of exchange.”
Now, any Taiwanese book has become harder to publish in China, editors, academics, publishers and authors said.
It is not a blanket ban and Taiwanese publishers blame self-censorship by their Chinese counterparts rather than any official order.
Titles that have been frozen out include a Taiwanese-Japanese fusion cookbook, a self-help book and a book of travel sketches from a Taiwanese artist’s travels in Beijing that featured cats roaming the city’s traditional hutong neighborhoods.
One sticking point is any content that suggests a separate Taiwanese identity. Younger Taiwanese in particular have developed a distinct identity.
A survey published on Tuesday found that 67.9 percent of respondents said they are Taiwanese, 1.8 percent said they are Chinese and 27.9 percent said they are both.
“In the past, they would censor books about religion, but for example if a book’s topic is Taiwan’s food then that’s fine,” said Rosine Liu (劉憶韶), an editor at Business Weekly in Taiwan who previously sold two cookbooks by a Taiwanese author to China. “But now I feel like now if it’s called Taiwan Cuisine, even that’s a little stressful.”
The soft-spoken Chiang thought that she would market her book Play With Art (玩藝術，酷思考) to prosperous parents in China, where the government is encouraging many people to have more children — a fact she learned from one of her Chinese students.
Things went smoothly with the Chinese publisher at first. At the publisher’s request, she agreed to change one chapter that used examples from art museums in Taiwan. A Chinese writer would substitute a chapter based on museums in China.
Then the other side went silent, Chiang said.
When she reached out more than a year later, she was told the review process was slower than normal.
“After we got a new president, the response from the other side — the harshness of the situation and the unfriendliness — has created a lot of tedious things that make it inconvenient to have an exchange,” she said.
That is in sharp contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when Chinese readers were drawn to Taiwanese writers such as Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), whose essays contributed to the debate on Taiwan’s transformation from one-party rule to democracy.
Sanmao (三毛), a Taiwanese writer who wrote stories about her life in the Sahara, captured a generation of Chinese women’s hearts.
There was also curiosity about the most basic things, after the two were cut off for decades following their split in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War.
“Back then, relations were good and it seemed like there was a mood in China that they really wanted to understand Taiwan,” Chiang said. “What kind of fruit do you guys eat? What’s your art like? What’s your life like? How do you celebrate New Year’s? These small things in life.”
Now, Taiwanese are also sensitive to the heightened tensions, highlighted by debate last year over a children’s book from China. Waiting for Dad to Come Home (等爸爸回家), about a boy whose father was out of town during the Lunar New Year holiday treating COVID-19 patients, paints a rosy picture of China’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
Some in Taiwan argued that China was using the nation’s open environment to spread propaganda, but a government proposal to vet books from China prompted criticism that Taiwan would be falling back on authoritarian habits.
“If we say we are afraid that the people will see fake news, that I will help them filter information, then how can you call this democracy?” said Lai Hsiang-wai (賴祥蔚), a professor of press freedom at National Taiwan University of Arts.
The government dropped the proposal, saying it would only censor books published by the Chinese Communist Party or the People’s Liberation Army.
Liu said that it was never a purely commercial exchange for her. She enjoyed meeting her Chinese counterparts at book fairs and learning about their way of doing things. In the current political climate, these very basic human moments of exchange, which had helped people forge a connection to each other, have disappeared.
“For me, in this harsh environment, you will also shrink yourself, because that type of cooperation is mutual,” Liu said. “Because in the end we are all still carrying this burden of country and this burden of history.”
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