Famed Chinese journalist and environmentalist Dai Qing, on her 70th birthday, reflects on the words of Confucius, who said: “When you’re 70, do as you please, as long as it doesn’t break the rules.” Dai, however, decides she was born 2,500 years too late. “I embody the cultural atmosphere of the ‘People’s Republic,'” she says. “With all its hidden rules.”
This article by Dai Qing appeared in PEN’s 2013 Report “Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China,” which can be read in full here.
By: Dai Qing Translated By: Scott Savitt
I never celebrated my birthday when I was growing up, so I haven’t really given birthdays a lot of thought later in life. But last year, a group of young friends graciously and unexpectedly offered to make up for a lifetime’s worth of deprivation of this pleasure by throwing me a birthday party. This caused a bit of a ruckus, attracting a serious, forbidding warning from the police.
The hard-fought negotiations ended with the young people compromising on the party’s size, only to have the police impose one further condition. “There has to be one government official in attendance,” they were told. “She has so many old acquaintances who have government posts; any one will do.”
When my friends relayed the message to me, I did a quick mental inventory: old classmates… young playmates… I told my young friends, “There are only two officials I still have contact with: Old Ma, who guarded me in the Haidian district when I was in college, and Xiao Liu, who has been watching me since I moved to Shun Yi.”
For 65 years, from the time I started primary school and began “making contact with society,” I’ve been accumulating a galaxy of sparkling contacts: politicians, businesspeople, artists… But nothing can overcome the two characters of my name, “Dai Qing,” which since the tanks drove down Chang’an Avenue have come to mean “Plague for Officials.” Anyone with a government title, no matter how small or insignificant, and anyone who benefits from dealings with the government, avoids me like the plague.
Other than an official identity as a “Beijing resident,” Dai Qing is nothing in her motherland. I remember once having to fill in my identity on an application form. I wrote “unemployed,” which is the simple truth. The police threw the form back at me, saying, “That’s so unpleasant! There are so many other choices. Just pick anything.”
Anything? I can’t work as a reporter anymore. As for writing books, my life’s cause and my living, all I have for the past 22 years is an empty sigh of grief. Not because I have nothing to write; just because in China, all books need an ISBN number to be sold in bookstores, and to this day these troublesome things are controlled by publishers who work for the state and eat the emperor’s rice. Nobody is going to risk losing his fat job to publish a book by Dai Qing.
And just how big is the risk? Doesn’t everyone enjoy the protection of Article 35 of the Chinese constitution?
Several years ago, I translated The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, by the Dutch writer Ian Buruma. Through the good offices of a go-between, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Publishing House accepted it for publication. But how to credit the translation? I insisted on my right to be identified. My go-between told me, “This puts the publisher in a very difficult position.” I asked the publisher to show me the regulation saying the name Dai Qing cannot appear in a published book. Is it a publishing law? Criminal laws? Some unpublished regulation? A telephone warning? I said if he couldn’t cite a regulation, I would have to conclude it was his own decision, and I would send my lawyer to see him.
This message was communicated. The book went to print. The freshly-published book arrived in the mail. I looked through it from cover to cover, title page to spine; I finally found the two characters “Dai Qing” in tiny six-point font on the third page. A few days later, the editor of the book review section of the Southern Weekend newspaper sent me a copy of the book with the note, “This book isn’t bad. I’m hoping Teacher Dai can review it.” I ended up asking my go-between to relay this exchange to the publisher, and to underscore this: you published the book with the two characters Dai Qing in it, and there has been neither flood nor earthquake—nor have you been stricken with the plague.
In 2010, my book In the Palm of the Tathagata Buddha: Zhang Dongsun and His Era was published in Hong Kong. A very successful agent was eager to publish a mainland edition. He knew that in the past I had used my mother’s pre-revolutionary name “Ke Rou” to edit Zhang Dongsun’s Essays on Academics and Thinking. Should we use this old person’s name again? I said fine. He went on to ask if we could “remove some sensitive words and paragraphs.” I again gritted my teeth and agreed. A few months passed, then a few years. Multiple photocopied versions of the book were distributed on university campuses. But still nobody will publish it, even under the name of a retired senior official.
Luckily, Mainland China is now practicing a “market economy with socialist characteristics.” A publishing industry where “the author takes sole responsibility for the content of the publication” is booming, an industry where you don’t need an ISBN or official reviews, and all you need is money. Unable to throw a birthday party for me, the young people collected money, bought an “author takes sole responsibility for the content of this publication” permit, and printed the Selected Works of Dai Qing as a birthday gift. Mr. Mao Yushi, who is listed as China’s “most wanted traitor” on a Maoist website, calligraphed the title of the book.
What police want to control these days is people taking to the streets and pressing petitions. As for writing and printing books, it depends. About a thousand copies of my Selected Works made their way to readers, even some policemen. My young friends made a special bookmark for the book, too. In the upper part a Han Dynasty figure (very much resembling Deng Xiaoping) holds up a sign that reads “In Memory of the Violent Suppression of 1989,” and the lower part has one of my self-ironic couplets. At 70, I should be enjoying the life of a senior citizen; as Confucius wrote: when you’re 70, do as you please, as long as it doesn’t break the rules. But I was born 2,500 years too late; I embody the cultural atmosphere of the “People’s Republic,” with all its hidden rules. And so the couplet goes like this: “With an indomitable spirit, she breaks some rule every day.” The streamer for the couplet reads: “hard to live these days at 70.”
This is the space for freedom of expression in today’s China. Compared to the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries of 1952, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, and the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, it’s much better now: writers have enough food to eat, an apartment to live in, a car to drive, and all it takes is a click of the mouse to send their articles around the globe.
Dai Qing is a journalist, author, and activist whose works have been banned in mainland China since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.