Three new essays on the Chinese script and a new twist to the old problem of censorship in Chinese studies

CLEAR imageI’m delighted to announce that volume 40 of Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) has just been released and that it includes a cluster of essays that Lorraine Wong and I have co-edited. In our brief preface to the cluster, we not only introduce three ground-breaking  essays by exciting young scholars; we also explain how they came to be published in CLEAR. We hope both the essays and our cautionary tale about censorship will generate new conversations in Chinese studies and, more broadly, about the increasing pervasiveness of government censorship around the world. To this end, I reproduce our preface (a PDF of which can be downloaded here) and the abstracts of the three essays below.

Flipping the script: An introduction to three essays and to the problem of censorship in Chinese studies

The essays by Guangchen Chen, Nicholas Wong, and Jin Liu gathered together in this issue of CLEAR are linked by a shared set of scholarly concerns and, less happily, by a history of thwarted publication and censorship. These three essays illustrate the powerful and contested role played by the Chinese script in imagining and questioning notions of Chineseness and of the Chinese state from the early twentieth century to the present day: from Lu Xun’s transcriptions of ancient steles through Ng Kim Chew’s repurposing of oracle bone script to Li Xiaoguai’s online publication of his playful and satirical invented characters. As the three essays demonstrate, these writers deploy the qualities of the Chinese script to question the norms of language, simplistic notions of Chineseness, and monolithic conceptions of China. Their publication in this issue of CLEAR brings up important areas of concern for those writing about Chinese literature and culture today.

FLSC coverThe three essays were originally part of a planned special issue of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC). Invited by FLSC to edit a special issue, Lorraine Wong responded by proposing to explore how diverse understandings and uses of the Chinese script have shaped not only Chinese literature and culture but also representations of China in the wider world. After this topic was accepted in 2015, we circulated a call for papers under the title “The Chinese Script and Its Global Imaginary.” Building on her own extensive work on the cultural politics of script reform in modern China, Lorraine also organized two related panels at the 2016 Association for Asian Studies and the 2017 American Comparative Literature Association annual meetings, and both these discussions fed into the development of the issue. As special issue editors, we oversaw a rigorous peer-review process and accepted four essays, including the three that that appear here. These essays were accepted by FLSC and slated for publication in the first half of 2018. Shortly before the publication date, we received proofs for that issue. One essay was missing entirely: Liu’s “Subversive Writing.” Our substantial introductory essay had also been crudely edited to remove all mention of Liu’s article, though one mention of her subject, Li Xiaoguai, had somehow evaded the censor’s eye.

When we wrote to the FLSC editor, Xudong Zhang, to question this censorship, we were told that the removal of Liu’s essay should come as no surprise, since FLSC has its editorial office in Beijing and so must abide by normal Chinese censorship. However, Zhang went further. He went on to say that Liu’s essay should never have been accepted and that he was now using his editorial prerogative to reject it.

Such censorship will hardly raise the eyebrows of those who work on the literature, culture, and history of modern and contemporary China. When we approached one member of the FLSC editorial board (a prominent professor at a prestigious US university), he merely shrugged: what did we expect? We all know that the price of publication in Mainland China is the censorship of anything currently deemed politically sensitive, and Liu’s discussion of invented characters that satirize the Chinese Communist Party falls easily into that category.

We are used to applying one set of rules for publishing in China and another for publishing outside it. But several aspects of the FLSC case should make us consider whether those rules are now changing for the worse and whether the distinction between publishing inside and outside the PRC is breaking down. When we first became aware of the journal FLSC and considered it as a publication outlet, we thought of it as a journal operating under the rules of the large Dutch academic publishing house Brill, which has a strong reputation in the field of modern and contemporary Chinese literary studies. Indeed, if one does a Google search for the journal in New Zealand, the top hits are for the journal’s Brill-hosted webpages. This association with Brill, along with its editorial board, which comprises many leading scholars in the field, led us to believe that the journal operated according to editorial practices similar to those of journals like CLEAR or MCLC. As it turns out, however, the journal is a joint publication of Brill and Higher Education Press, owned by the Ministry of Education of the PRC. As a result of this joint publication arrangement and the editorial office’s location in Beijing, the journal is subject to the full range of Chinese-government censorship.

We were perhaps naive to assume that the association with Brill and the international editorial board indicated that the journal operated according to the normal standards for non-Mainland publications and would not be subject to censorship—a mistaken belief shared by us as editors and our contributor, Liu. In subsequent correspondence, we have discovered from senior colleagues that others, particularly colleagues in junior and vulnerable positions, have also been caught in the unexpected application of censorship to a journal that, at a casual glance, might appear to sit outside the boundaries of Chinese government control. The journal Frontiers of History in China, which is likewise jointly published by Brill and the Higher Education Press, may have misled others in a similar way.

We believe that it is precisely the blurring of boundaries between publication inside and outside Mainland China that makes the precedent of FLSC particularly worrying and insidious. We have trained ourselves to read between the lines of work published on the Mainland, noting and compensating for the telling absences. But what happens when it is no longer obvious where something was published and according to which rules? Moreover, in these straitened times, dependence on editorial and financial support may well lead other editors, academics, and publishing houses outside China to add their stamp of legitimacy to such censorship. The affirmation of academic independence is all the more important in the face of such pressures and at a moment in history when, in many other countries around the world, governments are silencing criticism and suppressing journalistic, judicial, and academic freedom.

In the context of this disturbing trend, we would like to thank all the contributors to the planned FLSC special issue for supporting our decision to withdraw the entire issue in solidarity with Liu. We greatly appreciate their support of academic freedom, particularly when there was initially no guarantee that we would be able to secure an alternative publication outlet for their work. We are equally grateful to the editors of CLEAR for publishing these essays and, by so doing, affirming their commitment to the publication—free from censorship—of strong new scholarly work.

We too hope that the publication of these essays here in CLEAR will prompt the journal’s readers to question the unspoken rules that have grown up around censorship in the field of Chinese studies, to wake up to the changes that these rules are currently undergoing, and to open up a conversation about how we negotiate academic freedom alongside the increasing projection of PRC censorship beyond its borders. We need to maintain dialogue and engagement, yes; but not at the price of allowing institutions outside Mainland China, including publishing houses and universities, to affirm and extend the suppression of controversial ideas.

Lorraine Wong and Jacob Edmond

 

The Hand, the Gaze, and the Voice: Lu Xun’s Transcription of Ancient Inscriptions
Guangchen CHEN, Princeton University

This paper analyzes chao gubei 抄古碑 (transcribing ancient steles) as a significant obsession of Lu Xun’s prior to his becoming a famous writer in the May Fourth period. Striking moments in his literary works stemmed from this personal obsession. Even though Lu Xun’s transcribing of ancient steles can be considered a means to anesthetize himself, this paper argues that this act of transcription also serves to circumvent thinking and speech against the grain of the May Fourth period, when revolutionaries sought to facilitate the flow of thinking and speech in Chinese society by replacing the Chinese script with phonetic ones. After looking at Lu Xun’s transcribing of ancient steles, this paper examines how the purposelessness and materiality of this practice appears in Lu Xun’s fictional works, such as “A Madman’s Diary,” “Epitaph,” and “Kong Yiji.”

 

The Imaginative Materialism of Wen in Ng Kim Chew’s Malayan Communist Writing
Nicholas Y. H. WONG, University of Chicago

Taiwan-based Mahua (Chinese-Malaysian) writer Ng Kim Chew (Huang Jinshu, 1967– ) has questioned Mahua literature’s filiation to mainland Chinese literature through parodic depictions of look-alikes and resemblances involving the canonical May Fourth writer Yu Dafu and his sojourn in colonial Malaya. What critics view as Ng’s self-invention through negativity can be used to explore his strategic alliance with another mainland Chinese genealogy, that of the late-Qing philologist-rebel Zhang Taiyan and the “father” of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun. Ng provocatively claims that the late-Qing and postwar (or Cold War) Mahua intellectual and literary contexts are structurally resonant. His filiation with these two historically unrelated contexts in his essays, as well as his short fiction, over two decades is what I call his imaginative materialism of Chinese writing (wen). Using Ng’s recently published master’s thesis on Zhang Taiyan (2012), I focus on how Zhang’s role in the longer history of Chinese reflection on writing and semiotics shapes Ng’s fictional works on Malayan communism and his critique of Mahua literary history. Besides Zhang’s proposal for literary reform, I examine Ng’s allegorical reading of Zhang’s skepticism about oracle bone inscription, and what the “unearthing” of this ancient form of writing around the fall of empire means for Mahua people’s history and experience of the Asian Cold War. Ng refashions cultural essentialist Zhang’s Old Text Confucianism and “National Studies” toward new ends. Paradoxically, it is Ng’s deep engagement with the legibility of the classical Chinese past and the recurring theme of revolution and writing that defines his aesthetic modernity.

 

Subversive Writing: Li Xiaoguai’s Newly Coined Chinese Characters and His Comic Blogging
Jin LIU, Georgia Institute of Technology

This paper examines the emerging phenomenon of creating new Chinese characters on the internet with a case study of the artist Li Xiaoguai’s work. First, it analyzes the aesthetics and sociopolitical significance of Li’s new characters and neologisms. It explores how the new characters, as an alternative translation, achieve their Austinian performative force through an iteration of the original official language, which is thus displaced and subverted; how the puns become double-voiced and double-signified utterances in the Bakhtinian sense of folk humor; and how the vulgarities are pervasively used as interjections and intensifiers to vent strong emotions in the struggle against the state’s anti-vulgarity and internet censorship campaigns. Second, it studies how Li’s characters are integrated into his artistic creations via comic blogging. It explores how his comic strips evoke carnivalesque laughter by satirizing social ills, officialdom, and the increasing gap between the Communist Party (CCP) and the people, the state and the family, and the privileged and the underprivileged.

Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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