Lit Mag Announces Sudden Closure After Cover Seemingly Satirizes Xi Jinping

A popular periodical featuring essays and nonfiction writing announced that it is suspending operations after 35 years. The announcement followed online chatter that the December cover was an oblique criticism of Xi Jinping. Xi is sometimes sarcastically referred to as the “Compass in Chief,” for his frequent pronouncements “pointing the way forward” on issues as niche as the marine economy and as grandiose as the progress of human society. The latest (and last) cover of “Selected Essays” (《杂文选刊》, Záwén Xuǎnkān) seems to reference that oft-censored appellation. The cover features a suit-wearing arm pointing the way forward. Miniature faceless masses sprint along the arm only to plunge over the end of the index finger into darkness. At China Heritage, Geremie Barmé published the cover art with a short note

The cover of the December 2023 issue of “Selected Essays” features a pen-and-ink illustration of colorful, faceless human figures sprinting along a giant suit-clad arm, and leaping off the index figure into the abyss below.

Note: One of Xi Jinping’s many sobriquets is ‘Emperor Indicator’ 指明帝 [zhǐmíng dì]. State media frequently uses the expression ‘[he] shows us the way’ 指明方向 [zhǐmíng fāngxiàng] when referring to Xi Jinping’s latest policy directives. [Source]

The magazine, which was published by Jilin People’s Press (吉林人民出版社, Jílín Rénmín Chūbǎnshè), gave no explanation for its suspension of operations. In a message to readers, editors wrote: “The mountains are high, and the rivers are long. Take care.” The choice of words implies that the suspension was not the editors’ choice. Journalists for Anhui’s Dawan News reported that the magazine headquarters’ phone line had already been disconnected. 

On Weibo, many speculated that the magazine’s sudden closure was related to Xi’s nickname. Underneath a post sharing news of the closure, one user commented: “Where Marshal Kim points, I follow,” with a sarcastic husky emoji. On WeChat, many essayists lamented the magazine’s closure. One blogger, reflecting on the reason for the shuttering of “Selected Essays,” wrote

Of course, everyone already knows the true reason. True writers cannot stand to write insipid essays. Those who pen hagiography are not true writers. The greatest intellectuals should be critics of society, but this often conflicts with [political] reality. If the [political] environment is inhospitable to great intellectuals, a magazine focused on essay will naturally wither too. The 2015 closure of “Essay News” (《杂文报》, Záwén Bào) was a harbinger of the popular essay’s fate. [Chinese]

Satirical essays, and satire in general, are risky propositions in today’s China. The folk-rock band Slap were wiped from Chinese social media this summer for their hit song “Red Child’s Eighteen Wins,” which had biting satirical commentary on modern Chinese politics. Even tamer jokes have landed their tellers in serious trouble. In May of this year, a Shanghai comedian was blacklisted for life for supposedly insulting the army with a joke comparing his dogs’ ferocity to PLA soldiers. 

Anything related to Xi Jinping is subject to even stricter scrutiny. A leaked list of 546 nicknames for Xi Jinping created by censors at the Instagram-like social media platform Xiaohongshu included references to “pointing the way.” It seems possible that “Selected Essays” ran afoul of that taboo, even unwittingly.


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