Murong Xuecun on the “Absurdities” of Chinese Censorship

Speaking to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club on February 22, writer Murong Xuecun lamented the often bizarre contortions an editor had forced upon his text. From Time’s transcript of the speech:

When I exposed a pyramid scheme, I just did what any citizen should do: I reported a crime. This was far from being a real act of courage, and in my view was equally far from deserving any prize. Actually, I am a coward. I say only what is safe to say, and I criticise only what is permissible to criticise ….

‘Defeat the imperialist stealth fighter jets’ was also sensitive. Alright. I suggested we change it to ‘unmanned stealth drones.’ The editor said that this was still no good, and that ‘stealth drone’ was also sensitive because it touched on a military topic. I asked him to just reflect for a moment: China’s bookstores have numerous books on military topics. If they could all be published, why could I not even ‘touch on the topic’? His response was that this topic is not open for discussion, and those words had definitely to be modified. But as those words were the core subject of the passage, there was no way to modify them, so I had to rewrite it completely — “the imperialist stealth fighter jets” became “the nomadic chieftain’s cavalry of the Jin Dynasty from almost a thousand years ago.” …

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. After this book is published, the reader may think that the writer is mad: obviously he was writing about contemporary things, so why did he repeatedly need to criticize Empress Wu? Well, the reader would be not far wrong, because at this time, in this place, Chinese writing does exhibit symptoms of a mental disorder. I am not a Chinese writer so much as a person with a mental disorder.

While Murong Xuecun acknowledges that “one shouldn’t use the case of one particular editor to damn the system”, the almost comically thin veiling of politically sensitive terms is common in China. The detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong painted Shanghai and its officials in too unflattering a light for his Chinese publishers, who changed the setting to the fictional “H City”. From Reuters:

“They took out street names and other landmarks because they were worried people would recognize these places as Shanghai.”

Qiu, who grudgingly accepted censorship for his first three novels — “Death of a Red Heroine”, “Loyal Character Dancer”, and “When Red is Black” — refused cuts for his fourth, “A Tale of Two Cities”.

“I haven’t heard from the publishers since. Maybe they are still thinking about it,” he shrugged.

While frustrating for the author, the cuts fooled no-one.

“Chinese newspaper reviews refer to my books as being set in Shanghai. Perhaps the censors don’t read the newspapers?” Chen laughed.

But while these tricks frustrate and even “castrate” writers, they have become a colourful and subversive part of China’s online culture. NBC points out some recent examples:, the website where the original call for China’s “jasmine revolution” was issued, just put up a new post encouraging netizens to use the phrase “two sessions” as a substitute for “jasmine.” “Two sessions” here refers to the annual National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, held in Beijing every March.

In this vein, the phrase “to protest at a square” becomes “to hold two sessions at a square.” This tactic would greatly embarrass the authorities if they tried to censor the phrase as they would need to delete anything related to their own Party events that will dominate China’s media in fewer than two weeks.

Another example of playing around with language is the word “protest.” The act itself is now being represented by the phrase, “to take a stroll,” when people want to discuss online mass demonstrations without being censored.

The open letter calling for these subversive Sunday afternoon strolls can be found here. See also China Digital Times’ Grass Mud Horse Lexicon for explanation of a number of similar expressions, and of the mysterious and Oedipal beast from which it takes its name.


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