Why Yan Lianke Would Prefer That You Not Call Him “China’s Most Censored Author”

In China we have a saying that reading a banned book on a snowy night is one of the true joys of life. From this, one can well imagine the kind of satisfaction that reading a banned book may bring—like candy locked up in a cabinet, it releases a sweet fragrance into solitary spaces. Whenever I travel abroad, I am invariably introduced as China’s most controversial and most censored author. I neither agree nor disagree with this characterization—I’m not bothered by it, but neither do I feel particularly honored by it.

Authors should be very clear that being banned is not synonymous with artistic success. Sometimes, being banned is equated with courageousness, and we can certainly understand Goethe’s observation that without courage, there would be no art. If we were to extend this logic, we could even say that without courage, there would be no artistic creation. However, many readers view censorship and controversy only at the level of courage—particularly in relation to authors from China, the former Soviet Union, and other so-called third-world countries.


Countless authors have had their books banned, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Henry Miller, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Ismail Kadare. If we were to stand in a library or open a computer to any page, these names may resemble a triumphant victory procession stretching from antiquity up to the present.

However, the reason that everyone remembers these well-known names from the much longer list of banned authors is not only because their works were censored, but more importantly it is because these censored works were great works. As for those other authors who made enormous sacrifices in the name of freedom of speech, we must express our sincere respect for their sacrifices on behalf of their respective nations and to promote people’s openness, advancement, freedom, democracy, and equality.

However, if we consider these latter authors’ works from a strictly aesthetic perspective, we must admit that we—or at least I—barely remember them at all. The reason for my inability to remember these authors, apart from my own blasted memory, is rooted in the inferior quality of the works themselves.

I hope to become someone who uses a pen filled with the blood of reality and the moralistic spittle of the masses to create his own literary tomb.

Art can be very cruel. Just as a day cannot be extended to thirty-six or forty-eight hours simply on account of someone’s social status, similarly the achievement of an artwork does not increase simply on account of the oppression the artist happens to have faced. Even if the status of an artwork could be enhanced on these grounds, one day people might decide that this enhancement was inappropriate and secretly remove the work’s extra stature.

In contemporary China there are several—or even several dozen—books written every year that cannot be published because they have been censored or banned. Even if we resent this sort of censorship and are willing to go to great lengths to abolish it, we cannot automatically conclude that all books that have been censored are necessarily great works of art.

I know that when contemporary Chinese authors go abroad, and particularly when they travel to the United States, they like to talk about how their books have been criticized, censored, and banned—because they hope this will encourage foreign publishers to take interest in them. But I hope that my esteemed friends will forgive me when I say that censorship and controversy are not only a stain within the Chinese censorship system; they are also the most immediate means by which the West can approach Chinese works.

However, this does not necessarily offer a standard for evaluating the artistic quality of the works in question. Several years ago, a Chinese author spent hundreds of thousands of yuan bribing the Chinese publishing industry so that it would criticize and ban his works. This hilarious example illustrates how censorship is truly a pathway to recognition, as opposed to being a standard of artistic quality.

For this reason, whenever I am abroad and am introduced as China’s most censored author, I simply remain silent, feeling neither pride nor pleasure in this description. I can only treat this sort of introduction as an inappropriate courtesy—such as when you encounter an acquaintance and offer your cheek to be kissed, and the acquaintance merely extends a hand.

As it happens, the first work of mine that Western readers were able to access was my banned novel Serve the People! Regardless of how you might assess this work, however, I don’t believe it is particularly significant within the context of my overall oeuvre. It is merely a mark, event, and memory within my life and work, and it is definitely not a masterpiece. Readers who like Serve the People! should read Hard Like Water. I’m very pleased when people report that they like Hard Like Water, but when they praise Serve the People!, I can only smile.

My 1994 collection Summer Sunset was also banned in China, but while this work is significant within the context of the genre of China’s military literature and its contemporary tradition of realist fiction, it is less significant if considered within the context of my overall oeuvre. The broader the context, the harder it is to specify a work’s significance. Of all my banned books, I hope that people would read Dream of Ding Village and Lenin’s Kisses, not those earlier works. Similarly, when people discuss me, I prefer that they refer to me simply as an author, not as China’s most controversial or most censored author.

My entire life, I have simply sought to produce good works and to be a good writer, and certainly have not aspired to become China’s most controversial and most censored author.


Virtually all countries throughout the world use a mundane scenario to illustrate the dilemma of choosing between two undesirable outcomes—namely, if your wife and mother were to fall into a river and you could save only one of them, whom would you save? This question sets up a moral trap: regardless of whom you try to save, you yourself will inevitably end up drowning in moralistic spittle.

If I were faced with this choice, I would save the person who would have the greatest significance for my family in the future. This is because my responsibility is not only to my mother and wife but also to my family. If in the future it is my mother who would be most beneficial to my family, then I would rescue my mother, but if it is my wife, then I would rescue my wife. As for the one who ends up being swept away by the churning river—if she could understand my predicament, this would be the greatest consolation for my spirit, but if she were to curse me while being swept away, I would be fated to carry this curse with me to my deathbed.

In any nation or society, even if we can’t say that authors will automatically be praised and be able see their works affirmed, this is not a situation that authors would necessarily oppose or reject. In contemporary China, authors must choose between the equivalent of rescuing their mother or their wife. This is because, when faced with a combination of power and ideology, the market can be controlled by power. Power controls the markets, just as it drives the stock market. (Most) readers are also controlled by power, given that for decades it has been controlling all the nation’s newspapers and television stations, as well as modern communication platforms like Weibo and WeChat.

(This morning, as I was reviewing my notes for this lecture, I read a newspaper article reporting that after a “rumor” has been reposted more than five hundred times on platforms like Weibo and WeChat, it thereby becomes subject to a new national law. In China, where more than two hundred million people use cell phones, for a piece of news to be reposted five hundred times is as easy as a drop of spittle fracturing into five hundred, five thousand, or even five hundred thousand droplets.

Although rumors must necessarily be subject to legal review, the challenge is how to distinguish between actual rumors and mere exaggerations, between falsities and complete fabrications. In a world where things are often indeterminate, who will differentiate between rumors and mere exaggerations, between falsities and complete fabrications? If the truthful revelation and exposure are qualities of rumor, then is not exaggerated praise also a kind of rumor?)

When all media outlets are managed and controlled by the state, then (virtually) all readers will similarly be managed and unified, as well as folk entertainment and misery. Today, China lets you “party till you drop,” but it does not permit you to reflect critically on issues; it lets you believe in money and elevate the worship of money to an almost divine level, but it does not allow you freedom of belief. With literature, there are also some things that are permitted and others that are not.

For instance, you are permitted to pursue goals based on the principles that the reader comes first, the market is paramount, enjoyment is eternal, and the ideal is pure art, pure technique, and aestheticism. However, you are not permitted to choose the exploration of artistic truth or literature’s unremitting inquiry into the reality of the human soul. People who praise these principles will be commended, whereas those who question them will be restrained.

This produces two kinds of situations, in that it takes the richest and most complicated reality and under the control of a shapeless power divides it into one set of writings that can be accepted by virtually everyone and another set that is rejected by most people. In making this division, power sometimes intrudes directly, as in the case of virtually all literary awards and literary censorship, but more often it operates indirectly, via market cultivation, people’s reading pleasure, and authors’ pursuit.

When authors’ writerly pursuit, combined with elements associated with the market, pleasure, and readers, together with pure literature, aestheticism, technicalism, and positive energy, come together to form a collectively accepted camp, the authors with the most talent and prospects and the greatest ability to produce a great work will be accepted, and a minority of authors will be rejected. When this minority of authors is cast into the masses and viewed as the opposite of literature, they will be categorized as nonliterary and left to the side.

At this point the porous boundary between literature and nonliterature will disappear, and all that will remain will be a distinction between works that are widely accepted and those that are clearly rejected. Therefore, an author will find himself in the position of the person on the riverbank trying to decide whether to rescue his mother or his wife, and regardless of whether he selects the market and his readers or so-called pure art, aestheticism, and technicalism, he will inevitably be caught in a trap of morality and fame and will drown in moralistic spittle.

If someone is going to be forced to make this choice on the riverbank, let that choice be to be cast aside and drowned in moralistic spittle.

I must choose not only between my mother and wife but also between who will be most helpful in helping me rebuild my broken family and household.

In the process of choosing between being accepted and being cast aside, I choose to be cast aside and risk being drowned in moralistic spittle.

Even if I can’t change reality, at the very least I hope that reality will not change me.

When power aligns readers, the market, and pure art into a unified front, these elements do not share much with one another, but instead they achieve a state of co-victory, co-prosperity, and coexistence, whereas other writing becomes minoritized, contested, and banned. After all these divisions and classifications, however, in the end you are not actively choosing, but rather you are being chosen. You are not actively advancing, but rather you are being pushed forward after having been chosen.

It is not that you don’t wish to interact with a mass readership, but rather that a mass readership is cultivated and readers are defined, whereas your readers, because they are classified as a minority, are drowned in other people’s moralistic spittle. The configuration has already been formed, and given that one is going to be chosen anyway, why not choose for oneself? Therefore, let me face the majority—let me stand in a position of having been rejected by most readers—and welcome those who want to come while letting the others leave. In this way, I hope to become someone who uses a pen filled with the blood of reality and the moralistic spittle of the masses to create his own literary tomb.


Time, age, reality, and the environment have left me feeling empty, vain, and ponderous. I no longer assume that China’s contemporary reality can be significantly improved, and I certainly don’t assume that literature will be able to change that reality. Even if I can’t change reality, at the very least I hope that reality will not change me. Regardless of how hard I try, I’ll never be able to change reality, although at the same time I recognize that reality is constantly transforming me, my literature, and my literary perspective.

Virtually all my friends and colleagues praise my works from the period in the late 1990s when I wrote Streams of Time, Marrow, and The Years, Months, Days, and they ask why I didn’t continue writing in that manner. To this I laugh and reply, “As the saying goes, after you pass that village, you won’t see that shop again.” Why is this so? It is because China’s current era is no longer the one in which I wrote those works, nor is China’s current reality the same as it was then. My reality and state of mind have changed, and one’s writing must necessarily be grounded in one’s current reality and state of mind. The issue is that reality has changed me and my literature, not that my literature has created, shaped, transformed, or maintained that reality.

After finishing Streams of Time, I wrote Hard Like Water. However, the censors deemed Hard Like Water to be “Robbe-Grillet respect to both red [revolution] and yellow [sex].” Had it not been for the fact that a representative from my publisher, who was serving as the book’s editor, went to Beijing and pulled all sorts of strings, this novel would definitely have been banned. Everyone regards Lenin’s Kisses as an extraordinary work, yet it resulted in my being kicked out of the army. When Serve the People! was translated into numerous different languages, foreign publishers would invariably include, for publicity purposes, a reference—on either the front or back cover—to the work’s having been banned in China.

Later, many readers asked why, after Serve the People! created such a controversy, did I then decide to write Dream of Ding Village. Was this not a case of going against the current and trying to seize an opportunity to gain fame? What these readers didn’t realize was that it was precisely because of the problems surrounding Serve the People! that I decided to write Dream of Ding Village. This is because I wanted to take the initiative and present myself to my readers. I wanted to show everyone that I love life, reality, and everyone in that reality. I resolved to write in this way because I wanted to display my devotion to real life—I thought that in the writing of Dream of Ding Village, my tolerance for contemporary reality and history, together with the enormous compromises and concessions I had made on behalf of history, would convey my enthusiasm for reality and my love of people.

In the end, however, following the publication of Dream of Ding Village, this same love ultimately became the work’s tomb. Not only was the novel banned after publication, but furthermore I came to be viewed as someone who was deliberately going against the current.

I could write an entire book about the controversies surrounding my works, but after a lengthy reflection, I have arrived at the following specific conclusions:

First, when works by modern Chinese authors have aroused controversy or been censored, this is usually not a result of the authors’ own actions. These controversies are not something that authors seek out, but rather they are something that society needs.

Second, controversy and censorship are not good things, but they are also not necessarily bad. If an author is controversial, this demonstrates that at least he possesses integrity and magnanimity. To the extent that some authors have integrity, we should preserve their works. On the other hand, given that authors don’t have the ability to alter society or reality, their works are ultimately less influential than a single remark in an official document or a gesture by someone in power. Given that an author’s writings cannot change reality, we must simply ask that reality not change the author. We must try to help ensure that the qualities of integrity and truth in the author’s works might endure.

Third, as for an author’s ability to endure, one hopes this will not result in the author’s becoming increasingly distanced from society, the environment, and most readers. Sometimes persistence is not merely persistence, but it is also an opposition to a consolidated position. I have gradually come to understand that because you persist and don’t want to change, you must continuously be the object of controversy. If you persist but find that the controversy around you has stopped, that will be because it was not you but rather society itself that has changed. But that is such a distant eventuality! It is as difficult to imagine as a scenario where an egg and a rock collide and the egg remains intact while the rock shatters.

To tell the truth, I don’t imagine that the egg would ever shatter the rock, and instead I simply hope that the shattered egg may retain some of its original freshness and that its yolk and egg white may remain bright.

That way, when readers—or at least a minority of readers—pass by, they will not be so put off. People will continue to engage in controversy and censorship, but this is irrelevant to you. You simply want to write—to write good works based on your understanding of people, the world, and literature. You simply hope that the powerful and prosperous society will not change you and that when you become a shattered egg, the egg white and yolk will retain their freshness.

That is all. From now on, I ask readers to stop describing me as China’s most controversial and censored author. Instead, I request that you simply say that I am a Chinese author. It is enough to say that I’m an author with some basic rectitude and independence.


sound and silence

Excerpted from Sound and Silence: My Experience with China and Literature by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas. Copyright © 2024. Available from Duke University Press.

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