Word Crimes: Murong Xuecun Interviewed
“There are too many words we cannot write, too many sentences that cannot be used, and too many things that cannot be said,” Murong says when we meet, drawing on a cigarette and stirring a tepid coffee in the drab atrium of a hotel in Beijing. “This situation makes everyone scared.”
With no hard and fast rules dictating what is or is not allowed, editors—often targets for the authorities and facing losses over destroyed print runs—err on the side of caution. The results are sometimes ludicrous. In his most recent book, for instance, Murong makes reference to an “Indian flavoured fart.” Panicked that this phrase might set off a diplomatic incident, his worried editor insisted that the word “Indian” be deleted. “As if China and India would go to war over a fart!” Murong laughs, in mocking despair.
Harvey Thomlinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Make-Do Publishing and Murong’s translator, believes that the author—who pioneered the country’s internet publishing craze a decade ago with his online serialization of Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, a furious, fast-paced and filthy homage to modern China—is foremost an entertainer. “He does not have a political agenda. He has been driven to [speaking out] by the experience of being a writer in China and the constraints he has faced ….”
… Murong is sticking to his convictions: “I am not a class enemy, or a trouble-maker, or a subversive.” He craves something many Chinese authors desire; if censorship must continue, then, at the very least, guidelines and clear rules should be provided so that the “oh-so-careful” approach of self-censorship and cautious editing—which risks rotting Chinese literature from the inside-out—is curtailed. At the end of the day, Murong finishes, taking a slug of coffee, “I am just a citizen who makes suggestions.”