Murong Xuecum, the pen name of Hao Qun, 37, is one of China’s early Internet writers, best known for the novel ‘‘Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu.’’ Recently, a nonfiction work, ‘‘The Missing Ingredient,’’ about going underground to uncover a pyramid scheme, won him the 2010 People’s Literature Prize, but he was unexpectedly barred from making an acceptance speech. He delivered it instead on Tuesday before the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong:
If I am not mistaken, the People’s Literature magazine “special action award” was not bestowed for my literary achievement, but for my courage. This is an unusual honor for me as a writer. It’s a bit like praising a football player for being a good street fighter.
I’m embarrassed because I am not a brave person. Genuine bravery for a writer is not about jousting with a pyramid-scam gang. It is about calmly speaking the truth when everyone else is silenced, when the truth cannot be expressed. It is about speaking out with a different voice, risking the wrath of the state and offending everyone, for the sake of the truth, and the writer’s conscience.
Actually, I am a coward. I say only what is safe to say, and I criticize only what is permissible to criticize.
I finished my latest book some time ago, and the most important reason for the delay in publication was that I came up against a rather peculiar editor.
Over the course of two months, he and I had some interesting verbal duels. I smashed a cup on the floor, I spoke a few strong words to him. I furiously punched the wall at home, but finally I capitulated.
This editor is a cautious person. Whatever the circumstances, the first thing he thinks of is safety. In his view, it would have been preferable not to publish my book at all; this would be the safest way.
Even if he was forced to publish it, he told me it was best to avoid talking about anything real, because anything real entails risk. The moment I had opinions, I became a danger. I disagreed with him, but I know he is not the only one to hold this view.
My new book tells the story of my time spent undercover inside an illegal pyramid-sales organization. It included this phrase: “This group, mostly made up of people from Henan, was called the ‘Henan network.”’
To the editor, this harmless sentence aroused safety issues because the phrase “Henan people” carries an air of regional discrimination. He suggested that we rework the phrase as: “They were all Henan peasants, and so this network was called the Henan network, and was made up of mostly Henan people.” I asked him why. He said that by changing “people” to “peasants,” more sophisticated Henan people would not feel slighted.
I tried to bargain with him: “In my original version there were two sentences, it would be too wordy if there were three. Why don’t we cut the first one?” He thought about it for ages and then agreed, and so we arrived at the final version: “This group, called the ‘Henan network,’ was made up mostly of Henan people.” In the end, all that changed was the word order.
As you may have guessed, this editor didn’t just cut a few words like “Henan people,” but also many sentences, paragraphs and even whole sections and chapters.
From my many years’ experience in writing and publishing, I could compile a Sensitive Words Glossary, in which you would certainly find the words “system,” “law,” “government,” as well as a large number of other nouns, several verbs, quite a few adjectives, and even a few special numbers. The glossary would also include all names of religions, all names of important people, all countries, including of course China, and also the phrase “Chinese people.”
In many places in my new book, “Chinese people” was changed to “some people,” or even “a small number of people.” If I critiqued some part of traditional Chinese culture, the editor would change it to “the bureaucratic culture of ancient China.” If I brought up anything contemporary, he would ask me instead to refer to Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, or Wu Zetian, a notorious Tang dynasty empress, or Europe of the Middle Ages.
Readers of my book may think I’m mad. Obviously I’m writing about contemporary things so why am I repeatedly criticizing Empress Wu?
Well, the reader may be right: At this time, in this place, Chinese writing exhibits symptoms of a mental disorder. I am not a Chinese writer so much as a person with a mental disorder.
Some people will say that one shouldn’t use the case of one particular editor to damn the system. I agree, but still I want to ask: What makes a paranoid editor? I confess that his fear infected me. I would also ask what kind of system could make me, a law-abiding citizen, a writer, live in indescribable fear?
There are journalists here, and perhaps some others, who may report later that I have delivered an angry speech. Well, I am not angry. I believe I am not alone; this is the situation faced by all of China’s writers. The fear I feel is not just the fear felt by one writer, but by all of our writers.
Unfortunately, I have dedicated great effort to the task of compiling this Sensitive Words Glossary, and I have mastered my filtering skills. When I wrote my latest book, I knew which words had to be cut, and I accepted the cutting as if that was the way it should be. In fact, I will often take it on myself to save time and cut a few words.
This is castrated writing. I am a proactive eunuch, I castrate myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.
Our language has been cut into two parts: one safe, and the other risky. Some words are revolutionary, and others are reactionary; some words we may use, and others belong to our enemies.
The most unfortunate thing is that despite my experience, I still don’t always know which words are legal and which illegal, and as a result I often unknowingly commit a “word crime.” When I stand at a podium to receive a prize, I feel uncomfortable calling myself a writer — I am merely a word criminal.
Some people would say that this is just the way things are. My feeling is that I am already close to suffocation. I struggled to choose safe words in a linguistic minefield. It seems that every single Chinese word looks suspicious. I want to say that this not only harms my works, it also harms our language.
This is our great language, the language of the philosopher Zhuangzi and the poets Li Bai and Su Dongpo and the grand historian Sima Qian. Maybe our grandchildren and the children of our grandchildren will rediscover many beautiful words and phrases that no longer exist. But sadly, even now, we continue to arrogantly proclaim that our language is on the rise.
The only speakable truth is that we cannot speak the truth. The only acceptable viewpoint is that we cannot express a viewpoint. We cannot criticize the system, we cannot discuss current affairs, we cannot even mention distant Ethiopia. Sometimes I can’t help wondering: Is the Cultural Revolution really over?
I know these words are not appropriate for this time and place, as I accept an award. They may be deemed naïve. But at this time, in this place, I still adhere to a kind of naïve reasoning: when the air quality deteriorates, I feel we should do something; not simply shut our mouths and stop breathing. Rather, we must act, to defend our language, to improve the environment. Most of all, this is what a writer should do. Only by saying this kind of thing do I deserve a prize for literature.
I hope that we can agree on a few things:
Literature is not at the service of the government; on the contrary, governments should do everything in their power to create a favorable climate for literature.
If we cannot get rid of censorship, then I hope we can be a little more relaxed about it; if we cannot be relaxed, at least let us be a little more intelligent.
If there really were a Sensitive Words Glossary, I hope that it could be published; in this way at least we could all save a lot of time, and reduce the possibility of unwittingly committing “word crimes.”
Writers shouldn’t be parrots, and they definitely should not be yapping house pets; they should have a clear mind and speak with an honest voice. When they take up their pens, they are nobody’s slave, they have the right to pledge loyalty to no one; and to speak the truth and be true to their own consciences.
Finally, I want to say that I am not a class enemy, I am not a troublemaker, nor an overthrower of governments. I am just a citizen who makes suggestions. My words may be sharp, but please believe in my good intentions.
Like most people, I dream of living in a perfect world, but I am still willing to give my all for an imperfect world.
The speech was translated from the Chinese by Harvey Thomlinson, Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.
By Murong Xuecun