Review: A practical guide to writing in Chinese

October 26, 2012

By Katrina Hamlin

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Mo Yan may have won the Nobel, but in China celebrity blogger Han Han rules online. More than half a billion readers have visited his irreverent blog. He’s also a hit on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, where his first post attracted 750,000 followers.

In a new compilation of translated blogs, “This Generation”, Han Han comments on everything that matters to modern China’s Gen Y – from the state of Sino-Japanese relations to the price of a KFC burger. He dissects the latest news with gusto, and he condemns and criticises as he goes.

Chinese media is subject to careful control from the powers that be, so the writer’s cheek may surprise foreign readers. But it’s not easy for Han Han. “It’s a real brainteaser to work out how to write anything at all,” he concedes. His posts are deleted from time to time, and he is very conscious (and contemptuous) of the “fifty-centers”, who he believes are paid to post comments more amenable to the establishment.

But Han Han has found a way to work within his limits. He has mastered the art of saying just enough to make his point without being silenced. He has learnt how and when to shut up, and that restraint allows him a considerable degree of expression.

His lavish but ironic praise of Han Feng is a good example. The Communist Party member whose salacious diaries were leaked in 2009 was arrested and eventually expelled from the party. Han Han carefully recounts Han Feng’s working day, which consisted of bribery, boozy banquets, and extra-marital affairs, and then rushes to his defence. The cadre accepted only 60,000 yuan in bribes; he attended no more than eight-nine banquets; he kept only a mistress, and no second wife. This particular official is really not so bad – because there are so many others who are so much worse: “To sum up, in the current scheme of things Han Feng is a more than satisfactory official.”

The art of shutting up can take the Chinese writer a long way. Earlier this month, Mo Yan became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel prize for literature with the full support of his own government. Mo Yan, a pen name, means ’Shut up’; like Han Han the author has succeeded in speaking out without shouting. His writing does take on sensitive topics, including the one child policy and rural poverty. He does not always toe the party line on these matters, but he has seldom been censored.

It’s not only professional writers who play the game. China’s 500 million netizens are quick learners. Although the censors are out in force (Sina Weibo advertised for more ’Monitoring Editors’ earlier this year), users know how to carry out fluid discussions while dodging censor-attracting keywords. They also take full advantage of the time it takes a censor to discover a new post, and interesting material is rapidly replicated before the original is removed.

A lingering question is how much further netizens and public voices like Han Han could or should push these boundaries. Both Han Han and Mo Yan are criticized for excessive self-censorship. Han Han makes his points well, but much is left unsaid. He sometimes sound more like an entertainer than a serious commentator.

In the end “This Generation” is a pragmatic guide to public expression in China. Han Han’s immodest subtitle, “Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star”, goes some way towards explaining – if not justifying – the decision to avoid riskier content. He has an audience, and a very large one, because he has not been shut up entirely.

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