The PEN Atlas continues this week with a two-part blog sequence. The first despatch comes from one of China’s most established writers, Yan Lianke, who reflects on mechanisms of censorship.

Translated by Carlos Rojas

In ancient China, castration was an extreme method used by the imperial court to deal with people in which it had lost faith. After the removal of your male member, you would thereby lose the ability to have sexual relations, and consequently would become unable to bear offspring. The literature of contemporary China, meanwhile, similarly finds itself in the process of being gradually castrated. Hard power controls the spaces within which all art can circulate and be imagined, and anything beyond this will be regarded as illicit and subject to strict censorship. Unlike during the Maoist period, a contemporary author does not risk actual imprisonment or death as a result of challenging these conventions, though these strict censorship practices do condemn many “problematic works” to a premature death, just as modern medical technology has made it possible to have a painless abortion. You can write this, but can’t write that; imagine this sort of historical space, but not that one. . . . These censorship mechanisms specify the limits of what can be imagined, just as sidelines on a soccer field demarcate the limits beyond which players cannot cross without being penalized. Under this absurd reality, if you praise brightness you will be rewarded with brightness, while if you (artistically) reveal darkness you will be rewarded with darkness. Because things have been like this for a long time, literature has therefore learned how to perform in chains. It has learned how to obtain glory, acclaim, reward, and audiences, while gradually forgetting that it needs open space and autonomy, forgetting that it needs more freedom of imagination and a spirit of artistic exploration. This is like someone who, after being castrated, forgets that he needs great love and great life. Would a castrated official still be a man? How could he not be considered a man? Yet, what kind of official would he be? Is not a literature that can only dance within a tightly constrained space also a castrated literature? Can a castrated literature still be considered literature? And, if it is not literature, then what would it be?

© Yan Lianke 2012. Not to be reproduced on any other website or publication without prior permission. If you would like to request permission then please get in touch.

About the Author

Yan Lianke was born in 1958 and is one of China’s most established literary writers. His many novels and story collections have won several of China’s most prestigious literary prizes. Dream of Ding Village (translated by Cindy Carter) deals with blood contamination in the province where he was brought up in China.  He has received many literary prizes, the most prestigious: the Lu Xun in 2000 and the Lao She in 2004.  

 The film adaptation of DREAM OF DING VILLAGE, renamed TIL DEATH DO US PART, was released in China on May 10 2011, starring Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok. From acclaimed director, Changwei Gu, it was promoted at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and was the recipient of excellent reviews. 

DREAM OF DING VILLAGE has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, won in the past by W G Sebald and Milan Kundera.

About the Translator

Carlos Rojas is Associate Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is author, co-editor, and translator or co-translator of seven books, including the forthcoming English-language edition of Yan Lianke’s novel Lenin’s Kisses.