Yan Lianke in the Washington Post

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

A very interesting article in the Washington Post today brings up the damage censorship does to Chinese art, mostly via the example of Yan Lianke and his novels. The bulk of the article is given over to the mechanisms of censorship, and how Yan waters down his work to make it publishable, though I was excited to read this paragraph:

Yan's little compromise illustrates one of the most tragic aspects of the Communist Party censorship that is imposed on journalism and art in China. In many ways, the country's 1.3 billion people are being deprived of the full bloom of their culture, with thousands of artists like Yan forced to calculate how much they can get away with rather than cutting loose with their talent unfettered.

This is precisely right, and I wish the article could have dwelt longer on censorship's impact on Chinese cultural and artistic development.

The slightly ironic thing is that, of all the writers in China, Yan Lianke may be the least tragic. Yan is no one's fool. He knows exactly what he wants to write when he sits down at his desk, and he writes in full knowledge of the omnipresent system which will seek to neuter his work. He knows he cannot win against this system, but he has not conceded the game (how many writers prepare two versions of their work?). The autonomy of his imagination has mostly survived intact.

Contrast that with so many Chinese writers who have not been able to externalize the conflict, and are partially crippled by it. This is the tragedy – writers with intimations of grand art, whose aspirations are choked by a vague sense of wrongness, even shame. Writers who still feel that being censored or criticized is a moral failing on their part; who have not fully admitted to themselves that censorship is a craven, unnecessary institution, divorced from the interests of the 'Chinese people' or 'Chinese culture'. Writers who still believe that equivocation and vagueness are virtues unto themselves, and not simply 3,000-year-old survival mechanisms. Would that all Chinese writers had the presence of mind and strength of spirit to 'calculate' how much they can get away with.

All this may be beyond the scope of a two page Washington Post article (it's certainly beyond the scope of a mere blog entry), but as far as I'm concerned, this is where the story is.


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