Book without bonking

XIEZI (WEDGE) 001:[i] On the night of July 16, 2007, I received an email in Chinese from River, a poetry magazine editor in China, in response to my query about a submission. This one sentence is worthy of English translation in its entirety: '(you) can submit (your) work but (you should) try your best to guarantee that (it) does not involve sex and politics.'[ii]

Xiezi 002: Early this year when I came back to Melbourne via Guangzhou, a local poet gave me a book of poetry with two beautifully designed bookmarks. I listened to his story with resignation: two poems removed from the collection appeared on the bookmarks as a compromise.

Xiezi 003: On August 19, 2007, I received the final proofs of my co-edited and sole-translated anthology of contemporary Australian poetry in Chinese translation. It was clear from first glance that the editor had struck through things he didn't agree with. He had crossed out yuanzhumin (indigenous people) for Aboriginal people in a few places and put a note next to his first excision: 'This expression not acceptable here (in China). I suggest using zaoqi jumin (early residents).' When I checked online I found out why. In an article, published in Huaqiao Xinwen (Overseas Chinese News), Ah Xiu Bo points out that supporters of Taiwan independence stress the important difference between them and mainland Chinese. They you tangshan gong, wu tangshan ma (have Tang Mountain fathers, no Tang Mountain mothers), meaning they are of mixed indigenous and Han Chinese blood.[iii]

The three wedges I have driven into this essay as starters confirm the suspicion that China is a totalitarian regime in which anything sensitive about politics will be ruthlessly censored and removed. But that is not the point I want to make; it would be too facile. I quote these personal examples merely to show that political censorship exists on a daily basis in China and is there like the sky, a fixture as long as the system exists. What I would like to show, though, is a different kind of censorship: cultural censorship that is more insidious, insurmountable and subtle. It never ceases to surprise me.


CORPSING BY TOBY LIT, a London-based novelist, is the eighth novel I have translated and published in Chinese and the first crime thriller. Its publication has provided a mini case study on cultural censorship. I translated the title into sharen (killing people),[iv] to challenge the censors, to dare them to remove it and replace it with something more appealing to the eye of Chinese culture. I did not voice my challenge and only half-expected the censorship. When I received my complimentary copy bearing the title of sharen, my worries were put to rest. I concluded China had moved beyond its traditional concern with decorum and propriety, abandoning the practice of Yan Fu's golden rule in translation: xin da ya (faithfulness, smoothness and elegance), particularly ya.

To me, this symbolised the emergence of something approaching honesty in literary translation. In the past, literary translation was elegant, but fake. It rendered words as they were not. The film Rebecca, my dad's favorite, was hudie meng (Butterfly Dream) and Waterloo became hun duan lan qiao (Soul Broken over the Blue Bridge). Everything in plain English is dressed in the florid, gaudy garments of traditional style. It is as if English cannot be properly translated without being heavily made up, turned into shoddy ya products that are actually yuk.

In my translation classes I tested the title on students, asking how they would render it. When no one came up with anything close to my translation, I asked if a publisher would produce it with the title sharen. Almost in one voice, they said no. They refused to believe such a sensational title would be acceptable under the sanctified golden three-character rule set up by Yan Fu more than a century ago. They remained unconvinced until I produced the book.

The same thing happened with the Masters students I taught in China. My simple explanation is that, as China is becoming more commercialised, old values are being replaced and, as a result, things once frowned upon, such as violence and sex, are considered less offensive.

As part of my cultural test, I asked my students to translate the controversial Australian tourist advertisement, 'Where the bloody hell are you?' in which a young woman emerges from the sea wondering where she is. The best translation came from a student who had mastered my reversal theory[v] – many meanings in English can only be translated when they are turned upside down or back to front. His translation was, 'Where the beautiful heaven are you?' My students and I thought that this would be the translation to recommend to Central China Television because direct translation would ruin the Australian image. Chinese people would not want to visit a 'hell', let alone a 'bloody hell'.

Culture is something that refuses to be directly imported. Even when Australian stand-up comedians create waves of laughter with four-letter words, they rarely realise that people from another culture may take offence. A female student from China said, 'Teacher, can we stop watching this kind of thing please? It's so abusive.'


IF THE TITLE survives,[vi] the contents of the book may suffer. The word 'fuck' in nearly all the lovemaking scenes – cao in Chinese – is replaced with zuo ai (make love), making an otherwise violent story innocuous.[vii] Unlike the editor in another publishing house who dealt with my translation of The Whole Woman in 2003, this editor, a pretty postgraduate in her late twenties, did not tell me of the excision; she simply removed and replaced as she saw fit or as she was told.

Prior to publication of my translation of The Whole Woman, my editor friend L emailed a list of things that he wanted to remove from the main text, a graffito written by an American GI, 'Suck my cock!'[viii] and a remark made by Germaine Greer about 'trays of cheap lacquer and lipstick under fly-spotted glass' in 'provincial cities' in China.[ix] I expressed my concern and said that I would keep them, but if the publisher decided to remove them it was out of my control and there was nothing I could do. Sure enough, these words never found their way into print. It is easier to understand the need to remove the graffito than to work out why the Greer remark was so offensive.

I had heard this kind of reasoning before, when my book on the representations of Chinese in Australian fiction was dropped from the publishing list by the People's University Publishing House in 1998. L thought the Greer remark did not present the Chinese nation in the good light that it deserved. In a telephone conversation from Beijing to Melbourne that lasted nearly an hour, my then editor for Representing the Other: Chinese in Australian Fiction: 1888-1988,[x] explained that, much as they would love to publish the book, certain parts of it were simply unacceptable and unpublishable. She used a technical term, fan xuanchuan (reverse-propaganda) when she referred to the negative literary representations of top Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong. While political leaders in the West are often subject to public ridicule and cartoonists' scorn, the same privilege would be regarded by Chinese leaders as a clandestine activity, punishable by imprisonment or withdrawal from publication.

This is more cultural than political in a society ruled by traditional respect for the aged, status and leadership. In late August an old Chinese professor and I talked about former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. I remarked that common folk noted how ugly his wife was. Professor X interrupted me. This was not a proper remark; one must show respect whatever Jiang's shortcomings. I had not thought it would be a crime to make such a comment. If ordinary people couldn't enjoy the privileges of the rich and powerful, surely they could speak their mind – political satire and cartoons helped the lao baixing (old hundred surnames) achieve mental balance.


SEX FREQUENTLY ATTRACTS the censors scissors. Back in 1987 or thereabouts, a Shanghai-based literary magazine suggested it would remove a sentence with the word 'scrotum' from a short story I translated by Ian Kennedy Williams, in which the protagonist plays with his scrotum with his fingers in his trouser-pocket. A lecturer from Canberra teaching in Shanghai, and I both strenuously objected to such blatant censorship. Eventually, we won. The scrotum slipped in without much controversy; after all, men have scrotums.

My collection of xifang xing'ai shixuan (selected Western erotic poems) fared far worse. When I first made the proposal in late 1988, Mr Hua, a scholar from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, listened intently. He was thrilled and dismayed that such gems had been excluded from decades of Chinese translation that favored aiqing shi (love poetry), not xing'ai shi (sexlove poetry), as if love had nothing to do with sex. To set the record right and introduce a new landscape of poetry to Chinese readers, he helped me find an editor interested in the idea. At this time China was intoxicated with a heady sense of euphoria, a sense that just about anything was possible, a sense that heightened until it reached breaking point on June 4, 1989.

Soon, the cover design was ready. It noted the first print run of ten thousand copies. The proof followed. When I started reading I got a shock: all sexual organs were removed, leaving only a sequence of dots to represent the words deleted. With unspeakable sadness and unusual determination, I restored the deleted characters and posted the proof back to the editor. He flew into a rage. He accused me of meddling in his affairs and threatened non-publication. From memory, he said he'd done his best to remove these things to guarantee publication and what I did would make it less likely to be published. In China editors play an important role; a manuscript depends on their whims as much as their wisdom. But this argument was unnecessary. The big student argument with the Party in the lead-up to the June 4, 1989 massacre meant nothing of this nature would ever be published in China.

The manuscript was mailed back to me in Melbourne in about 1992, my heart broken over a project destroyed by its honesty. How could anyone bear to read John Donne's 'To His Mistress Going to Bed', for example, without seeing 'Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;/As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be'? [xi]

In the end, I resorted to the only solution available to the writer whose work was rejected because it did not fit the requirement for 'unbodied' aiqing shi (love poetry) that must remain unsexed. In 2005, seventeen years after the book was banned, I published it myself as Otherland (No. 10).

By then, China had entered into a permissive age. Sex is available in every hotel, in every town and every city in China, is as pervasive and permissible as the influence of the Party. By then few had to write erotic poetry pining after sex as it was so easily available. The divide between the written and the spoken remained; you could do anything but write about it; and if you did write it, it was unlikely to be published.

There is hypocrisy in translating Western literature. Chinese are brought up to believe, through lianhuan hua (picture books) and popular literature, that Westerners are human monsters with enormous sexual appetites, capable of exerting bad influences; my memory is alive with pictures of American soldiers holding beautiful Vietnamese girls in high heels in their arms going about the town. On the other, there has been an attempt to translate classics, like Shakespeare while keeping controversial writers – DH Lawrence, Henry Miller and Marquis de Sade[xii] – out of Chinese. Even when most of John Updike's fiction was introduced in translation, his erotic poetry was unheard of. I found it in my departmental library, covered in dust, the borrowing slip at the back unstamped.

As a result of China's overwhelming concern with textual sex rather than physical sex,[xiii] and its preference for refined borrowings from foreign literatures – vividly captured in a Mao's motto, qu qi zaopo, qu qi jinghua (removing its dross, taking its essence) – dross in the form of four-letter words and scenes depicting explicit sex are removed without consulting the translator. This is consistent with Mao's attitude towards the ancient and the foreign: gu wei jin yong, yang wei zhong yong (ancient for the use of today, foreign for the use of China).


A MOST RECENT case is the publication of Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese Translation, co-edited by John Kinsella and myself. The book has gone through a rigorous editing (censoring) process, the title more censored than the content. Initially, I suggested calling it, China's Australia: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese Translation. This lasted until proof production when editor H emailed to ask me to replace the title. He didn't explain and I did not ask. China makes no claims on Australia, neither on its territory nor on its poetry. Any Australians who fantasised about a Chinese invasion would have been disappointed to learn from this that China is not interested in 'China's Australia', not even in the title of a poetry anthology. The publisher seemed delighted with my second proposal, Wattle Symphony: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese Translation, only to ditch it and opt instead for a lacklustre label.

By comparison, of the hundred poems in the anthology, only one poem, 'Bonking' by Graham Rowlands, had to be removed. I understand the concern but permissive internet poetry websites are easy to find in China. The choice is clear: either bonking without book or book without bonking. Simple as that.

Indeed, wherever the Chinese language travels its literary products tend to be confined within the limits of bu xialiu, bu seqing, bu chou'e (not obscene, not pornographic, not ugly),[xiv] a remark by Li Qing, a Singaporean-Chinese critic, reminiscent of the title of a 1995 ABC documentary about Chinese television, No Sex, No Violence, No News.


SOMETIMES, IT IS hard to distinguish from political and cultural censorship. In a critical article about my novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle, the critic taunts it for 'a sense of superiority only a colonial conqueror has'[xv] but ignores the critique of contemporary Australian ills, preferring to chastise the author for having 'no nostalgia and sorrow for the motherland'.[xvi] A critical survey of Nobel Prizes in Literature awarded from 1995 to 2004 includes no mention of Gao Xingjian who won the prize in 2000, an absence made conspicuous by the censorship implied in its evasive title, jin shinian (recent ten years).[xvii]

To come back to the yuanzhumin (original inhabitants or indigenous people) issue in xiezi 003, I am happy to report that the editor eventually agreed to using tuzhuren (earth written people or aboriginal people). And the real story behind xiezi 002, there's the two bookmark poems. One is about the downtrodden people in China including coalminers who've lost their fingers and people who sell AIDS-ridden blood and the other is about how Tibetan people make love, as shown in this line, in my translation, 'as long as you are an adult you can love/any other adults even love nine adults'.[xviii]

As for xiezi 001, I have yet to see what is selected or rejected. I'll keep you posted.


[i] The Chinese word for 'wedge', synonymous with prologues used in Yuan Dynasty dramas and some modern novels. Figuratively speaking, when you drive a wedge or xiezi into something, you start something going.

[ii] Email with H in Chinese (16/7/07), English translation mine.

[iii] See 'you "Taiwan Xunli" tan Taiwan yuanzhumin' ('Passport to Taiwan': talking about indigenous people in Taiwan) by Ah Xiu Bo, at 'Tangshan' (Tang Mountain) here refers to China.

[iv] Ouyang Yu (trans), sharen (Corpsing) by Toby Litt. Shanghai: Shanghai Arts and Literature Publishing House, 2006.

[v] A most simple telling example is the words a café attendant would say to his client as he brings him a cup of coffee, as mine did just now to me, 'Here you go'. The reverse is true in Chinese as one would say, ni de dongxi lai le (your thing comes) or, simply, 'Here it comes'.

[vi] Of a number of articles about the translation I have read, there's not a single remark on the unelegance of the title.

[vii] See, for example, this passage that goes, 'Bullet-headed, my cock was a poor parody of the real fucking that somebody was going to get'. Toby Litt, Corpsing. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000, p. 276. In the published Chinese translation, the word 'fucking' is replaced with the words zuo ai (making love) although in my original translation this word 'fucking' is literally rendered as 'ri b', meaning 'fucking the cunt'. Similarly, in another passage in Corpsing, where the original words are 'Could she bear to fuck them in the bed that Lily and I had shared?' (p. 62), the word 'fuck' is replaced with zuo ai (making love) in Chinese translation (p. 46) even though my original rendering is, again, 'ri b' (to fuck cunt or cunt-fucking).

[viii] Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman. London: Doubleday, 1999, p. 173.

[ix] Ibid, p. 28.

[x] Published by Xinhua Publishing House in 2000 as biaoxian tazhe: aodaliya xiaoshuo zhong de zhongguo ren: 1888-1988.

[xi] John Donne, 'To His Mistress Going to Bed', at:

[xii] Both Lawrence and Miller are available in Chinese but I am not sure to what extent their works are censored in terms of their sexual coverage. Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom was not published in Chinese until 2004 in Taiwan, translated by the mainland-Chinese writer Wang Zhiguang. Ning Ying-pin, 'sha de zhi hou' (After Sade), an article written in Chinese found at: According to Ning, more than a decade ago before 2004, some of the de Sade books translated and published in Taiwan had met the fate of chajin qisu (being banned and charged) and the only progress made during that period is that these books have gone from bu shiyi gongzhong yuedu (not appropriate for reading by the public) to bu shiyi qingshaonian yuedu (not appropriate for reading by the young and the younger).

[xiii] Popular literature is an exception. A recent example full of fuck words is Shanghai Boy, Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2006, by New Zealand writer Stevan Eldred-Grigg, a novel about a 50-year-old white New Zealand teacher's sexual encounters in Shanghai with boys as young as 18.

[xiv] Quoted in Chen Xianmao (ed), haiwai huawen wenxue shi [di san juan] (A History of Literature written in Chinese by Overseas Chinese) [Volume 3]. Xiamen: Lujiang Publishing House, 1999, p. 239, English translation mine.

[xv] Wang Labao, 'liuwang, sixiang yu dangdai yimin wenxue' (Exile, Nostalgia and Contemporary Immigrant Litearture), waiguo wenxue pinglun (Foreign Literary Review), No. 1, 2005, p. 112 [English translation mine].

[xvi] Ibid, p. 113.

[xvii] Wang Liaonan, 'jin shinian nuobeier wenxue jiang de pingjiang quxiang' (The Awarding Orientations in Nobel Prize in Literature in Recent Ten Years), dangdai waiguo wenxue (Contemporary Foreign Literature), No. 4, 2005, pp. 162-170.

[xviii] The two poems are from a book of poetry by Yang Ke, the first one titled, 'renmin' (People) and the second one, 'ting pengyou tan xizang' (Listening to Friends Talking about Tibet).

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