Yan Lianke Wants You to Stop Describing Him As China’s Most Censored Author

Yan Lianke at Literary Hub: 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.

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