Our favorite banned books in Hong Kong and China

Our favorite banned books in Hong Kong and China

Savvy mainland tourists come to Hong Kong to spree at book stores for these censored tomes
banned books
Browsing books at People's Recreation Community.

The Chinese government has long engaged in Sisyphean tasks. Beginning in the fifth century, it built the Great Wall to keep a flood of invaders at bay. More recently, the current incarnation built the Great Firewall to keep a flood of electronic information at bay. In both cases, the walls have proven to be anything but impervious. The Great Wall was breached repeatedly, and the Great Firewall can be sidestepped relatively easily.

In theory, an easier task is that of book banning. When you control the granting of publication licenses for all printed materials, as the Chinese government’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) does, it’s easy to snuff books out at their source.

While weighing the prospects of economic reform, Deng Xiaoping famously said, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” He betrays a certain passivity with this comment, but the government takes a decidedly active stance when it comes to controlling the printed word within its borders. If a book contains certain unmentionables (for instance, the purges of Mao or Tiananmen), chances are that it will fall victim to the censors.

For authors, a banned book means losing out on a potentially massive reading public. At the same time, a new audience is forged by virtue of the fact that banned books enjoy a newfound notoriety that only a “banned in China” label can bestow. And thanks to historical circumstance, newfound mobility, and a thriving market economy, it is now easier than ever for curious mainlanders to get their hands on the entire back catalog of banned books.

Taiwan and Hong Kong, due to their respective levels of autonomy, each enjoy the right of a free press. Publishers in each locale are quick to print books that prove to be too edgy for mainland censors. Moreover, they seek out and publish works that would never pass muster on the mainland, driving the offshore market for books that probe the depths of mainland taboo.

banned booksDen of literature debauchery: People's Recreation Community.From the moment they alight the plane, mainland visitors to Hong Kong and Taipei can sidle up to one of the requisite airport bookstores and peruse the books that are stacked in the highest visibility areas near the entrance. These are the implied “banned in China” sections that boast titles probing Mao’s dark side or the debauchery evident in the People’s Liberation Army.

Savvy mainland tourists can continue this spree in the main shopping districts, where chic chain bookstores and small second-floor bookshops alike cater to “book tourists,” a growing segment of these bookstores’ customer bases.

Also read 6 things mainlanders like to do in Hong Kong (that isn't shopping).

Paul Tang, co-owner of the People’s Recreation Community, a small bookshop in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, estimates that over 90 percent of his customers are from the mainland. The shop’s floor and shelf space are a testament to the book tourists. Colorful covers and bindings blare titles that read like ironic slogans of China’s recent history.

During a recent visit, a shopper balanced a small stack of books on his arm near the register and Tang noted the relative ease with which these book tourists are able to smuggle banned books back across the border into China. “The customs officers can’t search every person’s bag,” he said. “And even if they find something illegal, the only punishment is confiscation.”

The sole land border crossing between China and Hong Kong connects Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Shenzhen at seven different control points. According to the latest data, between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, there were 187 million crossings between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. This makes it, by far, the busiest border crossing in the world. Bundle this with the myriad of other entry points into the mainland via land, sea, and air, and it is apparent that the Chinese government has mired itself in yet another impossible task in trying to control the flow of information into the country.

“In a few years, these books will all be in electronic format,” said Tang, sweeping his arm up and down the length of his store. Many of them already are, and PDF files proliferate alongside pirated photocopies and smuggled soft and hardcover versions in households across China.

Human curiosity knows no bounds. Suppress it, and it only gets stronger. Ban a book, and its contents become inherently valuable. Here are a few of our favorites.

banned booksLung Yingtai is a Hong Kong favorite.大江大海:一九四九 (Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949)
By 龍應台 (Lung Ying-tai)
2009, 天地圖書有限公司 (Cosmos Books)

Lung Ying-tai is a Taiwanese essayist whose work is read widely in the Chinese-speaking world. Her courageous early work was regarded as influential in the eventual democratization of Taiwan. This book, her most recent, chronicles the chaos of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. She traces, in detail, the paths of families and individuals as they are wrenched and displaced, caught in the throes of history’s unrelenting march. Lung spent over 10 years researching the book and had wanted it to be widely read on the mainland. It is a best-seller in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, but alas, it did not pass muster with Chinese censors.

為人民服務 (Serve the People)
By 閻連科 (Yan Lianke)
2005, 花城 (Hua Cheng literary magazine)
Published in English as Serve the People! (2008, Grove Press/Black Cat)

Yan Lianke is one of China’s most original novelists. He allows his skeptical viewpoint to shine through in his characters and his plotlines. Naturally, he continually runs afoul of the censors. This 2005 send-up tells the story of the wife of a military commander who seduces a young soldier. Each time she desires his company in the bedroom, she leaves a sign in the kitchen that reads—you guessed it—“Serve the People.” The censors were not impressed, issuing a decree noting that this book “slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex.”

banned booksMao: The Unknown Story.毛澤東:鮮為人知的故事 (Mao Zedong: The Unknown Story)
By張戎 (Jung Chang) and喬•哈利戴 (Jon Halliday)
2005, 開放出版社 (Open Press)
Published in English as Mao: The Unknown Story (2005, Jonathan Cape)

This biography is a naked attempt to portray Mao as the worst tyrant of the 20th century. The authors explicitly state that Mao was responsible for “well over 70 million deaths in peacetime” and was a megalomaniac who was “more extreme than Hitler or Stalin.”

The book is obviously extreme in its portrayal of Mao, and the authors never relent and find no silver lining in anything he did. Reading this is enough to deflate even the most ardent Mao apologist, provided you are successful in smuggling this to them across the border. The gaze of Mao is everywhere, after all.

banned booksShanghai Baby.上海寶貝 (Shanghai Baby)
By 周衛慧 (Zhou Weihui)
Published in English as Shanghai Baby (2002, Simon and Schuster)

北京娃娃 (Beijing Doll)
By 春树 (Chun Sue)
Published in English as Beijing Doll (2004, Riverhead)

糖 (Candy)
By 棉棉 (Mian Mian)
Published in English as Candy (2003, Back Bay Books)

These three novels were each originally published in China to various levels of acclaim before being ceremoniously banned and panned. Published in quick succession by young, female authors, these books drew attention to a newly urbanized and sexualized generation of disaffected Chinese youth, and established these authors as China’s very own literary “brat pack.” After the respective bans, each of these three books was scooped up by major publishing houses in the West and translated, but they all uniformly underwhelmed in the English-speaking market.


Freelance writer Jason Beerman has a predisposition for eating food that's served on a stick and sometimes wanders aimlessly for hours at a time.

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