By Eric Abrahamsen, published July 30, 2009, 2:33a.m.
Yesterday's big news was the announcement of the republication of Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa, one of the major novelistic works of the past few decades, and a perpetual lightning rod for controversy and criticism. The Writers Publishing House is doing the honors.
The book has for some years been under something like a soft ban: no new editions have come out for a while, and it was getting harder and harder to find a non-pirated version of the book. The 'controversy', based almost solely on the fact that there's sex in the book, was pretty silly from the beginning: it was an awfully prurient read when it came out in 1993, but the constitution of the modern Chinese reading public is highly fortified compared to what it used to be, and it's hard to imagine anyone really raising an eyebrow at the steamy scenes today.
Not to mention they cut most of the good stuff out, and here's where censorship displays its coy side: the original edition put in little blank boxes instead of the dirty characters, usually accompanied by an editorial note reading "Here the author deleted 322 characters" – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how worked up Jia had gotten. Moral standards were upheld, imaginations stimulated, and a good time was had by all. The new edition, they tell us, features no changes to content except that the little blank boxes have been replaced with ellipses, and it no longer tells you how many characters were deleted.
Not much to get excited about, but it does hark back to less sophisticated days when censorship was willing to put in a personal appearance. It's hard to imagine a contemporary Yan Lianke story bearing notes like "Here the author altered the AIDS toll from an entire village to just two victims", or a Xu Zechen story: "Here the author changed the ending so the protagonist is punished for his crimes". That would make for some highly entertaining reading.
For whatever reason Feidu continues to represent lasciviousness and sensuality in the minds of the public (most pirated editions I've seen are actually someone else's soft-core porn with "Feidu" on the cover), while of course people ought to be reading it as brilliant social tapestry. It makes no real difference, of course, so long as they're reading it…
Writer Jia Pingwa revealed yesterday that his novel Ruined Capital [Feidu], originally published in 1993, had been repackaged and republished by the Writers Publishing House only the day before. Besides changes to binding, layout, font and price point, the content of the novel itself would remain unaltered.
New Edition, Original Content
Set against the background of contemporary life in Xi'an, Feidu's main narrative concerns the romantic entanglements of Zhuang Zhidie and several women, with secondary narratives revolving around Ruan Zhifei and other renowned personages, so painting a historical portrait of social customs in 1980s China. The novel was originally serialized in the October literary magazine, then published by the Beijing Publishing House. Its extensive descriptions of sexuality once aroused widespread controversy.
This new publication of Feidu, along with Disturbances and Qin Opera, is part of a Jia Pingwa Trilogy. Compared to the original edition, the content of the new edition has remained unaltered: the largest change is that the places in the original text which once read (here the author deleted XXX characters) now read (here the author made some deletions). The cover of the new edition is peach-red, and priced at 39 RMB.
Jia Pingwa: Both Elated and Terrified
Feidu became the center of attention as soon as it was published in 1993, and was reviewed by most critics. Later, a redacted version was published in Hong Kong, and at this time Japanese, French, Russian, English, Korean and Vietnamese translations were also published. [so far as we know, an English translation was made but never published]
Jia Pingwa describes his reaction to this republication of Feidu as "both elated and terrified". Prior to this he has said to other interviewers: "While I was writing this, about 20 years ago, I put certain observations of society into the book, as well as predictions for society's future. Twenty years later, re-reading the book, the things it describes have already appeared in today's society."
Since Feidu's publication in 1993, it has never ceased to be pirated, and Jia Pingwa himself has collected 60 different pirated editions. Jia notes that, while most people say they oppose book pirating, had Feidu had not been pirated, it might not have survived to the present day. Discussion of Feidu has continued for more than a decade, so it has continued to be pirated. "So in the end, I must thank my readers." We've been told that the Jia Pingwa Trilogy will be officially launched in Xi'an, at Jia Pingwa's literary salon, on August 8th, where Jia Pingwa will appear to sign books for his readers.
Zhuang Zhidie: Everything But His Own Lecture Series
The re-publication of Feidu has attracted the attention of literary critics. Critic Li Jingze says that, reading Feidu again sixteen years later, Zhuang Zhidie seems very much like someone who might be living in contemporary society. He's like a literary lecture on Lecture Room [a popular TV program with lectures on cultural subjects], going about with a halo over his head, a master of adding to and using his storehouse of metaphor. "He's very much a cultured man in the traditionalal mold, at home within official circles, trading poems over wine, getting his fortune told at Buddhist temples, chasing tail, opening bookstores, etc – everything but starting his own lecture series." Li Jingze sees Feidu as a kind of web or network, tying together all kinds of social institutions and aspects of daily life into a single novel.
Xie Youshun believes that, in terms of enquiry into the meaning of life, Feidu is the deepest and most representative of all Jia Pingwa's works. It provides counter-evidence to the collapse of some people's ideals and the desolation of their faith. It's spiritual foresight, in particular, is still notable and chilling, even today. Xie Youshun feels that, although Feidu was once criticized for its elements of sexual description, reading it again more than ten years later "we have to admit, its exploration of intellectuals' spiritual fate and their room for existence reached important new heights."