Cai Li's Culture Column

Banned today, back tomorrow. In this article, Cai Li explains how once-banned books sometimes become Chinese classics. After reading the article on this page, choose a link below to read another -- or to visit another section of the Classroom Package.

A Brief Look at Banned Chinese Books

On a snowy night, closing the door to read banned books. From a poem by a Qing Dynasty scholar.

Way back in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), Emperor Qin Shin Huang ordered his officials to burn all books that disagreed with state laws and policies. Since then, for over 2000 years of dynastic history, Chinese emperors consistently banned books deemed to threaten their power or to compromise their ruling philosophy. But in many cases, a banning today meant brisk sales tomorrow as infamous titles became famous under new leadership (though usually after the lifetime of the author). Some have even become classics and are now required reading for Chinese high school and university students.

One of the most influential and widely studied once-banned books is Kong Zi's The Analects (Lun Yu), a collection of conversations between Kong Zi (Confucius) and his students. Kong Zi (551-479 B.C.) was the founder of the School of Ru. He spent most of his life roaming around different kingdoms trying to convince leaders to adopt his philosophy, later propounded in The Analects. The basic tenets of that philosophy were ren, 'to love people,' and li, 'courtesy.' Kong Zi insisted on the importance of education and leniency when it came to punishment. When Qin Shi Huang united China around 221B.C., he adopted a different school of philosophy, the School of Fa (Legalism), which emphasized ruling by fear and punishment. Unfortunately for the followers of Kong Zi and other philosophical schools, the new emperor practiced what he preached. He initiated the infamous purge known as fen shu ken ru ('burn books, bury the School of Ru'), burning all books from competing schools and brutally burying the followers of Ru alive.

The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or Shui Hu in Chinese), by Shi Nai An, is a once-banned classic epic written during the Ming Dynasty and now very popular among teenage boys (mainly because of the kung fu fighting scenes and the many colorful characters). It is based on the true story of a hundred and eight renegades who unsuccessfully fought against the corrupt governors of the Song Dynasty. Each of the heroes, mostly men, had his own nickname and specific character traits, weapons and skills. Song Jiang, the ring leader of the rebels, for example, was known by the nickname Ji Shi Yu -- A Rain Shower on Time -- and, though he was not the best fighter nor the best strategist, he was a talented and flexible leader who could quickly adjust to the circumstances at hand. Another character, Li Kui, a.k.a. the 'Black Tornado,' was a proud and impetuous warrior who wielded two giant axes, yet was humble enough to apologize and repent when he made a mistake. Together, the band of 108 famously practiced the Chinese virtue yi -- loyalty to friends -- often putting themselves in harms way to help their companions escape trouble. Because it glorified the spirit of freedom and revolution, The Water Margin was officially banned by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who claimed that the book 'encouraged people to steal, rob and kill.' Today, hundreds of years later, most Chinese people are very familiar with the legendary heroes of The Water Margin since the book and individual stories from it are frequently adapted into TV shows, movies and local operas.

Another of China's once-banned classics is Dreams of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) by Cao Xue Qin. Written and banned during the Qing, its hundred and twenty chapters feature over 700 different characters from four different branches of the royal family of the dying Ming Dynasty. Although ostensibly a tragic love story and virtually an encyclopedia of Chinese folk art and culture, Dreams of the Red Chamber traces the fall of the royal family it portrays. But this wasn't the only thing that offended the rulers at the time it was written. It was classified as 'pornography' and banned by the Qing Dynasty because it mentioned homosexuality and exposed unseemly behavior inside the royal family that diminished the public image of the institution. Cao Xue Qin also seemed to encourage young people to make their own choices, in marriage and in life, instead of blindly pursuing the path their parents, families and lords defined for them. Though written when ignorance was still considered a virtue for women, Hong Lou Meng portrayed a group of beautiful and talented young women who drank rice wine and composed poems about blossoming plum flowers in the snow.

Despite being burned and banned, thanks in part to scholars who read them behind closed doors on snowy nights, and perhaps, thanks to their being banned itself, today, these books are pillars of Chinese literary history and still have a significant impact on Chinese cultural identity.

Country of Courtesy
I Mean What You Know! -- Tricky Chinese Expressions
Mystery Languages
A Matriarchal World
Jin Yong, the Kung Fu Master
A Brief Look at Banned Books

Cai Li's Culture Column

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