Burn that Book: Censorship and Respect for Literature in China

MiMi Yeh

On October 7, Alexander Des Forges, a junior faculty member with a Ph.D. in Chinese literature, held a junior colloquium titled “Burn That Book: Censorship and Veneration of the Written Word in China.” Des Forge has also taught at the University of Michigan and Brown University and has a focus on nineteenth century China.

During the eighteenth century, pornography was considered a major problem in China. If obscene texts couldn’t be purchased, then they could be “rented” from any bookstall, rather like the video machines found in the Liberty Adult Bookstore over in the former Combat Zone. Not only did this lead to a lack of morality but an increase in sex and violence. Finally, an imperial ban was imposed on pornography.

A leading group of literati then gathered together to put an end to the sin and degradation through the burning of such works as the Dream of the Red Chamber, 12 Towers, and Sharing a Single Pillow. Those who brought in their pornography, such as merchants, would be compensated. Anyone not turning them in would be punished. The works themselves would be burned on temple grounds in great furnaces specifically designed for this purpose. The ashes would then be taken, with great care, and dumped into a nearby river.

Printing has been going on for over a thousand years in China and popular novels were available for the masses since the eleventh century. However, two contradictory perspectives have arisen out of concern for the actions and ideas that the written word can inspire.

Censorship is not a new concept. There has always been concern that certain texts would incite individuals to disobey authority, that “literature would inspire antisocial behaviors.” Treason was an offence, punishable by death. Not much has changed since then.

The previous ban on printing certain materials only existed to protect the author’s loyalties. Like the dime store novels and pulp magazines available in early late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, sensationalism sold. Those who published and put out works such as these were out to “make a buck, not subvert the paradigm.”

However, there already existed a practice of word “veneration” as well. People would pick up pieces of paper off the street and put them in special baskets to be burned. Old texts would be sanctified in the same furnaces used to destroy pornography. It was thought to be showing respect and reverence for ancient knowledge. Somehow, these two practices became linked together.

One practice designed to encourage morality and promote “orthodoxy” were morality books, ledgers that identify good and bad deeds. One could earn merits or demerits depending on whatever the actions written down warranted. For eaxample, one could earn “one merit” for every hundred dollars spent in temple upkeep.

This discussion was comfortable if somewhat confusing; the concept of burning the book in an attempt to show respect instead of preserving it seems counterproductive. It is interesting to read just how many human rights’ groups complain about censorship, yet historically most disregarded it and printed what they wanted anyway.