Can a ‘Western’ political book be published in China? (updated)

And I’m not talking about that bootleg copy of Adam Smith you bought on an overpass for ten kuai (down from fifty because you’re a guizi). I’m talking contemporary books, often with Western takes on China, translated into Chinese and published officially, on sale in Xinhua bookstores.

The answer is yes, as testified by the publication of this book* by the Oriental Publishing House (dongfang chubanshe) last spring – translated into Chinese by none other than Six contributor Jack. Jack worked on it for most of 2007, while still in full time study – I remember him asking me with great concern that summer if ‘council housing’ meant ‘parliamentary housing’ as he thought it did.

The Downing Street living conditions of Britain’s poorest rectified, Jack’s translation is thorough and faithful. But it’s no surprise, I guess, that the references to the 1989 student protests in the book are nowhere to be found. At the publishing house itself (hammer and sickle flag on the table right next to the communist stars), we were told this is because potential readers might not understand such references, or be offended by them, and therefore not buy the book.

This is of course complete rubbish if presented as the only reason for censorship. It was echoed again when I met up privately with a young Renmin University graduate who works at the publishing house: fear of losing profit was the motivation for cutting those bits out, not fear of political whiplash. She assured me there was no government interference at their editorial round table. She also repeated what her boss had said: that, “by the way”, the presentation of 6/4 in Western books tended to be very “bloodied”.

The publishing house also asked Jack to write a preface for the book. They clearly had in mind that he would distance their company from the ideas which were to follow. To this end, there are liberal reminders in the preface that the book is written “from the perspective of Western culture”, and Jack’s penultimate paragraph tells readers:

Many of the thoughts included in this book, it should be said, are relatively typical of the Western world, reflecting Western scholars’ outlook and their environment, and there are some points of view and statements that we cannot fully agree to. The translation and publishing of this book in China is only so that readers can open the window of understanding to the West, and to have a positive effect on advancing communication between the two sides.**

So the answer to my question is ‘yes’ but a cagey ‘yes’: Chinese translations of Western writings are the book, nothing but the book, but not necessarily the whole book. I gather that only very few Western books are actually banned from publication in China, including Bill Clinton’s My Life. [or that was what the publisher told me at the time, and turns out to be completely wrong, thus exposing my fact-checking nudity]

Still, in an ever opening China, it’s the ‘yes’ that counts and not its myriad qualifications.

*Update*: here’s an email from Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at UC Irvine and founding China Beatnik:

I’d amend [your post] a bit to say that almost anything can be published that isn’t specifically about China, with just some tweaks and cuts (and I’ve found it fascinating that for some time, Orwell’s work has been more readily available in China than tended to be in Central and Eastern Europe when under Communist Party rule). But as for books specifically about China, that’s a different matter. It is a hard thing to track, but certain subjects are off-limits, and sometimes it seems, a China specialist author is treated as non-suitable for translation no matter what he or she is writing about…


* which, full disclosure, is written by my father

** originally: 本书蕴含的许多思想应当说在西方世界中是比较典型的,反映了西方学者自有的观角和他们的语境,有些观点和说法也是我们不能全面苟同的,翻译出版本书只是为读者了解西方打开一扇窗,对从方交流能起一定的促进作用。

1 comment

  1. Clinton’s memoire banned in China? You sure about that?


    This article said the book was published by Zheling Publishing, and Sina ran a serial on My Life.

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