China's 'hooligan' author falls foul of the censor

The cultural commissars haven't threatened Wang Shuo, they just stop his work being seen, reports Teresa Poole in Peking
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He is the forbidden face of Chinese writing, the author who brought liugang (hooligan) literature to the masses. But the man whose novels cannot be reprinted, and whose two most recent film projects were banned, turns out to have a disarming Cheshire-cat grin and a warm chuckle which punctuates any discussion about the problems of being a writer in China today.

Wang Shuo, 38, has had little to laugh about this year. A popular four- volume set of his collected writings, which came out in January, was subsequently prohibited from reprinting. A completed film, Father, for which he wrote the script, was blocked from release. And filming on his screenplay, Relations between Man and Woman, was halted after a fortnight.

Did the government give a reason when they stopped the cameras rolling? "It was vulgar, obscene, and harmful to public morality. Because the film tells about extra-marital love affairs," he said.

Mr Wang's own view was that his film was rather more moral than The Bridges of Madison County, an American import which attracted sell-out Chinese audiences this year. "In my film, there is not even a kissing scene. But still it is regarded as pornographic."

China's Radio, Film and Television Ministry branded it as "seriously violating the Chinese nation's traditional ethics and social customs".

In more than 30 novels, novellas and short stories, Wang Shuo popularised liugang literature in the 1980s. Set among China's low life, his central characters were usually cynical, irresponsible petty criminals who regularly despoiled nice girls. The sharp dialogue was laden with street slang and coarse humour. "The group of people I lived with at that time lived and talked in that way. So most of it came from real life," he said.

He moved on to write a string of successful television series, including Stories from the Newsroom, which often took an irreverent approach to party dogma. Film scripts followed, including In the Heat of the Sun, based on his own experiences as a youngster running riot during the Cultural Revolution.

On a recent trip abroad, his first, Mr Wang saw and liked the film Trainspotting. "Most films, influenced by market or social moral concepts, fall into a conventional pattern. But from this film you can see something true," he said.

His own work built up a following among students and urban twentysomethings. But this year Mr Wang has run foul of China's new culture commissars, who want to inspire the country's youth with loftier ideals. An official campaign to build a "spiritual civilisation" has taken hold in China, and the document which emerged from this autumn's annual Communist Party plenum in Peking spelled out what this meant for the arts.

The resolution firmly opposed "pandering to low tastes ... despising revolutionary art traditions and holding in esteem the decadent trends of thought in literature and art".

The "spiritual civilization" campaign does not raise a smile from the writer. "I do not think it is very funny, because they are very serious about it, too serious. They not only talk about it. Their first target of attack is film, then TV, then novels, step by step." The campaign has struck home: the number of films produced this year in China fell to about half the level of recent years.

Censorship in China works in various ways. Mr Wang's collected works sold well, but then he heard that the central government's propaganda department had barred another print run. "The publisher said that during a meeting of the propaganda department, one leader said this collection had problems. It made fun of politics. The publisher had to write a self- criticism, and could not reprint it. But nobody ever came to me and pointed out these problems."

Over the years, the hooligan author has had his pick of adversaries. His first critics, after his books became bestsellers in the 1980s, were intellectuals. "They thought my style of work, as well as its moral quality, was not high. It was vulgar and obscene. . . . If you approach social reality by making fun of it, the intellectuals think your attitude is not serious and your work lacks 'depth'."

His initial brush with the government came after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The cultural climate froze, and no new books by Mr Wang could be published. From 1992 he switched mainly to films and television, but now that outlet too has been blocked. He himself has received no direct strictures.

"Even if you really made trouble, nobody would come and point it out. They just restrict your activity. For instance, forbidding one to go abroad. I was not allowed to go abroad for two years in the past, and I did not even know the reason. I do not like this kind of thing happening to me."

There is also a significant financial impact. When in print, Mr Wang is a rich man by Chinese standards, especially those of Chinese writers: his royalties can bring him about 100,000 yuan (pounds 8,000) a year. "But next year there will be nothing."

A few months ago he was earning money by writing captions for cartoons which were published on the Internet by a Chinese company.

Wang Shuo has always lived outside the system, at least as much as one can in China. Born and bred in Peking, he was at primary school when the Cultural Revolution broke out, disrupting a generation's education. His youth was dominated by an overbearing and strict father. He started writing fiction after a spell in the navy; he has also done a spot of smuggling, and worked as a salesman for a state pharmaceuticals company.

These days he lives in a Peking hotel. "It was convenient for shooting films. If the situation continues, I won't live in a hotel. My daughter [aged 8] lives with my parents. My wife lives in another place, doing business, and we meet once a week."

What does the future hold? "Maybe I'll write a novel. Maybe I'll wait to see whether there is any possibility to make a film, because now I'm greatly interested in films. Of course, when making films I'll consider the commercial results. But as to writing novels, I only want to write according to my own likes and dislikes."