Voices from China

China: Novelists against the state

Writers can help the world adjust to impossible facts and injured societies to heal but, for Chinese writers, censorship makes exploring “the fate of humanistic values in post-Mao society” problematic. How can authors write candidly and avoid punishment? Perry Link for The New York Review of Books.

By Perry Link, reprinted by ChinaFile on November 19, 2015

First published by The New York Review of Books

Censorship, broadly conceived, appears at three levels. Level one is: “I wrote X and the censor took it out.” Level two is: “I want to write X but stop myself from doing so, out of fear.” Level three is: “It is awkward even to form thought X in the language that I have inherited.”

Can writers help an injured society to heal? Did Ōe Kenzaburō, who traveled to Hiroshima in 1963 to interview survivors of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city eighteen years earlier, and then published a moving book called Hiroshima Notes, help his compatriots to recover? Did Primo Levi, with his several books on the Holocaust, from the shocking Survival in Auschwitz (1947) to the profoundly humane The Drowned and the Saved (1986), help Europe and the world to adjust to facts that might have seemed impossible to adjust to? It seems that writers indeed can do some good. It is not hard to think of other examples in modern history.

In China, the problem of moving beyond the disasters of Mao Zedong’s rule and its consequences (today’s authoritarian capitalism, despite its appearance of being opposite to Maoism in some ways, is one consequence) has been difficult. Chinese readers have not had enough help from their writers. Censorship of course is an important reason for this: Ōe Kenzaburō and Primo Levi did not have to write under regimes that were trying to repress them. The environment for Chinese writers has been closer to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Miklós Haraszti in Hungary had to cope with. Chinese who write candidly about Maoism and its consequences have often landed in prison, where Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang are today—or in exile, with Gao Xingjian, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others.

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Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published widely on modern Chinese language, literature, and popular thought, and is a member of the Princeton China Initiative, Human Rights Watch/Asia, and other groups that support human rights. [more]

 

 

 

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