"Choir of Soloists" Ceases Publication

By Eric Abrahamsen, published December 27, 2010, 4:26p.m.

Han Han just posted to his blog, confirming rumors that his magazine Choir of Soloists (独唱团) will be shutting down after the first issue.

As you might imagine, Han Han can't get terribly specific about the exact causes of the shutdown—he appears not to be sure of the details himself—but it's pretty obvious that by the time every official body who could possibly have an opinion about the magazine had gotten through expressing that opinion, publication was impossible.

"…perhaps there are just too many 'relevant departments' and 'relevant people' in China, too many people determined to see cultural reading materials become cultural relics…"

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# 1.   

I disagree with the statement that "As you might imagine, Han Han can't get terribly specific about the exact causes of the shutdown."

I'm confident he knows why: GAPP doesn't like his magazine or Han Han the social critic, and wants to deprive him of his platform, Party. As today's South China Morning Post points out, he used a "book publication number" to publish the first issue which is obviously a magazine, not a book. So the authorities are insisting that he apply for a magazine publication number, and won't give him one unless he censors his content.

His blog post shows that he, like many Chinese dissidents, is (for the moment at least) easily silenced by the authorities. I worked for a foreign publisher in the 1980s and we launched a series of hard copy magazines in China that were totally illegal, and they are still circulated---and very profitable---in China today.

Han Han needs to take a page out of Ai Weiwei's book. First of all, deal honestly with the issue of censorship. When you are censored, say so, rather than issuing this mealy-mouthed blog post. Secondly, China's government-controlled Internet is not the only one in the universe. Figure out a way to publish your magazine on a server based in Hong Kong, Taiwan or any other society that is not controlled by China. Maybe you can get readers to pay for subscriptions, who knows. Encourage mainland readers to jump the Great China Fire Wall in order to read it.

Such an uncensored magazine, even if not directly profitable, could catapult Han Han's reputation to new heights, and even eventually make money for him.

This bloke obviously needs an agent. Item Number One on the agenda: Publish your blog in English, Han Han. But don't forget to say what you really mean!

Bruce Humes
Ethnic ChinaLit

 Bruce Humes, December 27, 2010, 8:10p.m.

# 2.   

I agree with the previous post.

These are the people of literature who move the public with their accurate and sharp comments on the reality. They are expected to verbalize the truth when nobody else either can do it or is able to do it anymore.

I do believe in the mandate of language which has always been a blessing and a curse at the same time for those sensitive and gifted in times of censorship.

As the example of East European writers of the socials period shows, writers and publicists are really harshly rated after the fall of the system for their lack of explicitness.

Explicitness is also what we respect them for. The Chinese public might not necessarily realize what they live in right now due to the fact that the numbness they wrapped themselves in in order to remain intact has started being their integral part, not a disguise any more, but they have not lost the ability of passive judgement of the situation when stimulated.

Vagueness is not noble, nor is it profitable in the recognition and appreciation currency.

Marta Tomczak

Marta Tomczak, December 29, 2010, 5:33a.m.

# 3.   

I can't help playing devil's advocate a bit here…

First of all, I find Han Han's statements perfectly plausible: he's not saying no one censored his magazine, or he doesn't know why it was attacked, he's saying that in all the excitement, he's not really sure which organization or official dealt the fatal blow (or whether there even was a single black hand)—something I have no trouble believing. GAPP is the logical culprit, but many, many different folks would be happier with this magazine out of print.

Second, almost no one in China is interested in playing exclusively to a foreign audience. If Han Han stopped paper publication, went digital on an overseas server and started publishing in English, he would not only make himself instantly irrelevant within China, he would also provide heavy ammunition for those who hope to attack him on grounds of "pandering to foreigners". He'd lose the readership he wants, and gain a readership he very much doesn't want. His career as an editor and gadfly would be over.

I don't understand the demand that Chinese writers be more daring and critical. How would that happen, exactly? Where would they publish these words of defiance? Say Han Han goes AWOL and starts publishing really critical stuff: now he has no paper magazine, and the content gets deleted from internet servers as soon as it goes up. Nevertheless, readers think it's exciting and propagate that content faster than the censors can delete it, and even run off paper copies. That goes on for two months until one of the older dinosaurs in GAPP wakes from a geriatric snooze and says "what the hell is this, why are we letting this little snot publish? You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me of anti-Communist KMT propaganda from back in the day." All his younger colleagues owe their jobs to his nephew and are too embarrassed to tell him he's senile, and Han Han goes to jail for illegal publication. The result: one single issue, that sure as hell isn't read by 1.5 million readers.

My point is, resistance really is futile. You can't resist, you can only apply gentle pressure and hope nobody suddenly bites your head off. Han Han applied pressure as skilfully as he knew how, and ended up getting his head bit.

I do agree, however, that in some future, freer China, today's writers will be utterly forgotten, even those who are relatively daring. "Relatively" is, unfortunately, the key.

 Eric Abrahamsen, December 29, 2010, 8:33a.m.

# 4.   

I was writing this comment up just as Eric was posting, so I'm gonna stick it up as it was.

I think we can all agree that this news is a source of real and justifiable frustration. This magazine was a source of hope in varying degrees for, literally, millions of people, and the disappointment we all feel at seeing in the pooled blood around the body the reflection of an unchanged political visage is, bitterly, hard to fight off. True, there wasn't enough gunpowder in the first issue, but there was some material worth looking at. Personally, if I had thought it was a waste of time, I wouldn't have reviewed it.

I do, however, think that we "Westerners" should refrain from hanging a drowned man, and by this I am referring specifically to Bruce and Marta's comments, for failing to live up to a set of thoroughly Western ethical principles in his response to censorship. I am as tired as Eric is of this apostolic castigation of Chinese authors by Western audiences. It's true that Han Han advocates freedom of artistic expression, that typically Western idea, but does he come from a sociopolitical tradition that grew around a constant, even fissure of power between political and religious bodies, as in Europe after the rise of the Catholic Church? What happened to "sanctioned" writers alone, people like Sima Qian, if their prose rubbed the leadership the wrong way? (if you don't know, Google it.) How much (or how little) time has passed since the concept of the author's role in China finally began to drift away from the scholar's political identity? In short, how do you defend judging a Chinese artist by an utterly foreign standard?

Han Han is not Ai Weiwei. When has he ever written, spoken or acted in any way like Ai Weiwei? He is not a dissident--a term that thrills our spines because it transforms ordinary people into stolen chesspieces on an ideological board--because he clearly does not wish to remove himself from the community he wishes to change. Shouldn't that be worthy of consideration? China is not staggering politically or economically as the Soviet Union did, and there is no evidence to suggest that the CCP will turn up its toes in the near future. We may say that the Chinese government today is Murakami's stone wall reinforced with steel rebar, while the writer is the egg.
(continued below)

 Canaan Morse, December 29, 2010, 10:12a.m.

# 5.   

Yet, when faced with such a situation, must we conclude that the only two choices are total surrender or screaming opposition? Should Han Han try to pick up this literary operation and move it wholesale to HK or Taiwan, he'd be taking a step in the latter direction. In so doing, he'd very likely lose the tools that allow him to participate in Chinese popular society now--his blog, his speeches, even the Fanke ads on the Beijing subway walls. Those are all flags that remind the innumerable, commuting Chinese masses that he exists, and that maybe they should look him up when they get in to work to see what he's been saying lately. He has to play with massive inertia. The one who tries to meet the boulder coming downhill with one lowered shoulder often ends up like Qian Yunhui under the wheel of a truck; while the one who puts on a few well-timed touches, a change of a tenth of a degree now, might end up causing a thirty-degree change in course ten years down the road.

 Canaan Morse, December 29, 2010, 10:13a.m.

# 6.   

@ Eric and Canaan:

You might have read it already, if not yet, I would recommend: 'Servant of the State' by Jianying Zha, from Nov.8, 2010 'The New Yorker'. It seems we are underestimating the Chinese public. They have certain expectations regarding the quality of the literary message. And I believe there are some universal values, which are not the invention of the West.

I would be very far from encouraging Han Han to go on a battle with the censorship or ideology, but I think Han Han has all the tools, including his success and popularity, to be explicit at least about this simple issue. As I understood, he was censored, everybody knows is. Saying: My magazine was blocked because of the censorship' could be a good beginning of an explicit trend.

Marta Tomczak, December 29, 2010, 10:37a.m.

# 7.   

"Should Han Han try to pick up this literary operation and move it wholesale to HK or Taiwan, he'd be taking a step in the latter direction. In so doing, he'd very likely lose the tools that allow him to participate in Chinese popular society now--his blog, his speeches, even the Fanke ads on the Beijing subway walls."

This is the kind of thinking that the CCP loves. It equates to saying: When you speak to the world using "un-Chinese" tools (like overseas servers), you are being "unpatriotic."


Why do satirical authors like Yan Lianke write and get published in China? One reason is that his books like "Serve the People" were published outside China first, earning him an international reputation and a modest amount of $ so he could make a living back in China. He has said as much in a number of interviews. And now, gradually, his other books are being published here.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. I'm just hoping that Han Han will get creative and transcend the patriotism test that the CCP, and apparently some China experts, will want to apply to him.

 Bruce Humes, December 29, 2010, 7:45p.m.

# 8.   

Bruce, what had I been saying on either end of that quote you pulled out? Was I pushing a political agenda (or even simply kowtowing to one), or was I weighing real consequences? The rhetorical question with which I begin my second post (#5) carries an obvious answer: no. There are other paths to resistance. Patriotism test? The only ones to subject Han Han to any sort of ideological "test"--and an unabashedly subjective test, at that--were you and Marta.

My point, a very straightforward one, is essentially Eric's, namely: if we first assume that Han Han is not giving up, and we wish to weigh his options for the further pursuit of his cause against the advantages and disadvantages of his current situation, then it is not reasonable to mandate that he shift his audience, which is exactly what would happen. One of the reasons Yan Lianke is in no way a model for what Han Han might do is that, compared to Han Han, not many people listen to Yan Lianke.

But let's think hypothetically: say the 300-million-hits-blogger moves his operation to Taiwan and starts saying what he thinks when he wants to say it. Would it seriously stir up the pot over here? You bet it would. He'd get more off-the-record press than Liu Xiaobo. And then what would happen? Either Han Han would get thrown in jail and his stuff be erased, or he'd ship himself in a box to Taipei or San Francisco and guess what, the CCP would be happier than ever before.

This has almost nothing to do with "patriotism" in the blustery, Communist political sense. Nationalism is a political tool, solidarity a popular one. It's about reaching the largest numbers of people, people who do not consider themselves a part of the political mechanism, and successfully standing with them.

 Canaan Morse, December 29, 2010, 9:08p.m.

# 9.   

The fact that publications are censored in China should surprise no one in his audience, and they are also well aware of the channels for publication that exist overseas. But the thing about Han Han is that the position he occupies is pretty much the optimum one for him at the moment: he writes what he wants, with the inevitable deletions only serving to increase the attention he receives, an attention that would vanish if he published overseas. His magazine was so talked-about partly because so many people were interested in how far he could push the line. That's a worthy role to play. There shouldn't be a binary choice between craven patriotism and self-imposed literary exile. Heck, even Yan Lianke is somewhere between those two extremes, with a long, mainland-based career marked by regrettable self-censorship -- he laments the cuts imposed on the AIDS novel, and he says that he cut 'Serve the People' down by nearly half before submitting it to Flower City, which then lopped off another 20%, and the story still got the magazine pulped by cultural authorities. Yet it pushed boundaries and became a sensational conversation-starter nonetheless.

I do believe that it's important for authors to push harder against those boundaries and to take advantage of the other creative ways that exist of publishing their work outside the system, but I don't think it's reasonable to ask that of any particular author. There are far more dimensions to literature than a simple head-on tussle with the state. For example, one notable thing about Han Han's magazine (in addition to the urban outskirts theme Canaan mentions in his review) is that it managed to escape the confines of "post-80s" lit and cater to a cross-generational group of readers and writers. That sort of literary development doesn't make for sexy headlines, but there ought to be space for it in the literary arena even if it's not big news.

 jdmartinsen, December 29, 2010, 10:50p.m.

# 10.   

Bruce and Marta seem like armchair quarterbacks to me. You start a blog in Chinese that criticizes the Chinese government. You balance the mistrust people feel for foreign support (coming as it does from other nations with their own self-interest) against the protections it provides. You wager your private and family life on your ability to outthink Chinese bureaucracy.

I'm being serious. Nothing is stopping either of you from getting a talented Chinese grad student to translate for you and publishing thoughtful, straightforward pieces on censorship yourselves. Pick a Chinese pen name and go nuts. We'll see how far the government lets you get, and then we can snipe at you in blog comments once the assholes shut you down.

The fact of the matter is that the censorship situation in China tarnishes us all. We all -- even just by studying or translating Mainland literature -- collaborate with its system to a greater or lesser extent. Pointing at Han Han because he's refused fame-in-exile or domestic martyrdom, or because you think Yan Lianke is better, occludes the two processes that we should all be focusing on: how the government represses speech, and the ways in which we personally submit to that suppression. I'd say that placing the onus of responsibility for besting the system on an individual writer is a clear example of personal submission to the system (because it expects change to come from others), and we should be quit of it as soon as possible.

Surrey, December 31, 2010, 2:11p.m.

# 11.   

Hear hear!

 Eric Abrahamsen, December 31, 2010, 3:17p.m.

# 12.   

An interesting update about Han Han's willingness to publish abroad (bravo!). Note that this could, of course, just be a rumor.

Speaking on March 21 regarding an unrelated subject (negotiations with Baidu.com about its copyright infringement) publisher Shen Haibo made a brief reference to Han Han's "upcoming column in the New York Times" ( [沈浩波]还透露,“如果这次谈判破裂韩寒在纽约时报即将开设的专栏的第一篇文章将会是中国首富李彦宏》”。) See the second paragraph in the Chinese-language article at http://www.chinanews.com/cul/2011/03-22/2922761.shtml

 Bruce, March 23, 2011, 10:35p.m.


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