Chinese Author Battles Censors


A Peking Opera performer at a temple fair, Lunar New Year 2006. Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown

Author Zhang Yihe writes on what is possibly the most politically sensitive subject in China today: the country's recent past. Still haunted by her family background--her father was denounced as China's "number one rightist" during the Anti-Rightist campaigns of the 1950s--Zhang has had several of her books banned because of the painful memories they contain. The latest, Stories of the Opera Stars , brought censure to her publishers and prompted her to hire a lawyer to defend her constitutional right to freedom of expression. She spoke to Shen Hua about her struggle to be a witness of history:

"I have had expressions of empathy and support from university professors at Yale and Columbia Universities, and Japan, Chinese companies operating in Saudi Arabia and business people in Spain. I thank them all for that. I was most moved by a farming community in Subei, and workers in a watch and clock shop. There was also a rural doctor in Xinjiang and a doorkeeper from an agricultural university who couldn't afford to buy my book, but who borrowed it from someone else."

"I think that the most important thing is that we are allowed to express our own point of view, regardless of whether it's right or wrong."

No rule of law

I still plan to carry on writing. I will carry on until I die...It's as if I'm playing a chess game without a single pawn. I don't even have a square to play from.

"There are systems in place anywhere for checking what is being published and for banning it. But they have to function under the rule of law. If my books had been banned under a transparent system with all the due process and probity of the law, then I would respect. But that's not what has happened here."

"A lot of people who criticize me say that I live the lifestyle of the nobility. They really have no idea how hard my life has been for the past few decades."

"Writing an autobiography is easier said than done. We all have wonderful ideas about what we'd like to write, and we haven't done it. We aren't allowed to do it...I don't really understand why the government takes such an attitude to me."

"I still plan to carry on writing. I will carry on until I die...It's as if I'm playing a chess game without a single pawn. I don't even have a square to play from."

Passionate defense of rights

In a statement published online in defense of her right to publish, Zhang said:

"Who am I? I am an old researcher who researched opera. I am an old member of the Chinese Democratic League. I am a single old woman now retired at home. When I was 60 years old, I picked up a pen and wrote about histories. I wrote first about the stories of my father's generation. Then I wrote about the legends of the opera singers."

"From the moment that I picked up the pen, I did not want to be some kind of social elite and I did not want to write any 'grand' history. I wanted only to narrate certain trivia about my personal experiences and family lives. There is bitterness, there is warmth, and there were the ways of the world during an era of changes. My motivation to write is also very clear: It is the longing and pursuit of heaven by someone who has just emerged from hell."

"When the first two books were banned, I responded with 'I don't care.' But nothing should happen three times. This time, I care. I care a lot! Mr. Wu, let me tell you: I will use my life to fight your seriously illegal action. If [Butterfly Lover] Zhu Yingtai can give up her life to defend her love, I can use my life to defend my words."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Translation of Zhang's statement by Roland Soong. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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