CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


On Censorship | China Heritage Quarterly

On Censorship

Lin Yutang 林語堂

This is Chapter 13 of Lin Yutang's A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China, Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, Ltd., 1936, pp.167-179. Minor changes in accord with in-house style have been made, and section headings have been added.—The Editor

Staying Calm

Censors the world over always occupy a ridiculous position. In whatever country and age, few censors have succeeded in avoiding making themselves alternately cursed and laughed at. Therefore if Chinese censors make ridiculous mistakes, one can very well take them with a liberal sense of humour by regarding them as mistakes belonging to the profession rather than to the individuals. I have actually talked with a head of the Magazine Censorship Bureau and found him to be a most lovable being. The reasons are obvious. The very fact of one's becoming a censor of others' writing places him in a false position. He is placed in a dilemma of either tampering with what he does not understand, like a Cantonese policeman going about the streets armed with a pair of scissors to improve the cut of ladies' dresses, or else not tampering at all with what he does not understand and admitting to himself that he is not earning his living. Imagine a middle school graduate being paid a monthly salary to delete what passages he thinks fit from an author's novel or essay. In the case of a novel, he is supposed to understand the novelist's intentions regarding plot and character, and in the case of an essay, he is supposed to be conversant with the entire world of ideas, authors mentioned, books discussed, schools of thought defined in the article-practically an impossible qualification to be expected of a young man accepting a salary that only a young man of unproved worth and without employment can accept. And who are we anyway to be censors of other people's thoughts and ideas?

Literary censorship was not unknown in ancient China. One does not have to go back to the first Emperor of Ch'in in the second century BC to find futile efforts to burn books disapproved by the government. The Manchu Dynasty offered many famous cases of literary inquisitions and burning of books and persecution of authors.[1] Emperor Ch'ienlung while collecting the famous literary Ssek'u Ch'uanshu [四庫全書]scanned and scoured the entire country for anti-Manchu literature for about seven years and his ministers drew up a list of about 2,000 books to be partially or entirely destroyed.[2]

We cannot ignore the contemporary censorship of books, magazines and newspapers in China, because it alone explains the retarding of the growth of public opinion, it alone explains why the Chinese press is what it is to-day, and furthermore, because it alone explains the prevalent spirit of cynicism in Chinese circles. The exercise of censorship implies that the government thinks it is able to carry on the national responsibilities without 'interference' from the press or the people, and when such a government is actually marching from victory to victory either in military or diplomatic battles, people do not mind keeping their mouths shut; but on the other hand, when the press is muzzled at a time when the government is daily losing bits of territory that belong to the entire nation and the people are not allowed to speak out, the only natural consequence, if censorship is prolonged over a long period, is that the people are overcome by a feeling of general cynicism and despondency. The invariable plea of the rulers is that the people should maintain 'calm' (chentsing [鎮靜])in moments of national crisis, which is true enough in the oriental tradition, but when this beautiful 'calm' is kept up too long, in which the people feel they cannot do a thing or say a thing to help their country, it is no longer distinguishable from cynical indifference.

Let us study here only the objective facts, without entering into more comments. We are all familiar with the arguments for and against press censorship. Those who suppress papers and magazines, imprison editors and arrest students have a ready defense for these acts, and I think they would not have to deny these facts as facts. There are the cursed communists always trying to stir up trouble. They try to stage anti-Japanese student demonstrations. They are corrupting the minds of the young. In this hour of national crisis, we must have 'cultural unity', 'unity of thinking', etc., etc. Censorship is therefore defensible. Let us only record the facts.

The Boomerang Effect

The degeneration of the Chinese press in the Republican period began with the regime of Yuan Shihk'ai. We have already mentioned in Chapter Ten that in 1914-1915, when Yuan Shihk'ai was plotting against the Republic, he made press laws to enable him to arrest editors and close down newspaper offices, so that among the over 500 Chinese newspapers that had grown up after the Republic, only a few dozen remained. These naturally were the papers that, having been bought over, were able to think the same thoughts as Yuan himself and spared no occasion to eulogize His Majesty. This is the familiar tale that we saw again and again when there was a strong premier-ruler, as in the Sung and Ming Dynasties.

After Yuan's death, the fortunes of the press changed very suddenly. During the period from 1915 to 1925, we may say on the whole there was a great deal of freedom allowed the Chinese press. There were however, brief periods when the press was ruthlessly persecuted, notably under the anti-Communist Chang Tsungch'ang, when Fengtien soldiery came into Peking in 1926. That was the time when to do propaganda for the Kuomintang at the old capital was to make oneself the 'instrument of Communists' and to be 'red'. With his intense hatred of the Communists, and on the plea that such revolutionary papers received 'roubles' from Russian sources, Chang Tsungch'ang, the last of China's colourful warlords, shot two editors without trial as a warning to others.

They were Shao P'iaop'ing 邵飄萍 editor of Chingpao [京報]and Lin Poshui 林白水 editor of Shehhuei Jihpao [社會日報]. These two editors were arrested at midnight and shot at about one o'clock in the morning.

With all his woeful mediaevalism, however, Chang Tsungch'ang had a sense of fair play and could listen to reason. Another editor, Ch'eng Shehwo 成舌我 of Shihchieh Jihpao was arrested to be shot. It happened that the death warrant had to be signed by Chang himself, and Chang happened to have a new concubine. No one dared interrupt him in his festivities in the small hours of the morning. That gave the arrested editor a brief respite, and the family asked for the intercession of an old official, ex-Premier Sun Paoch'i 孫寶琦. Chang Tsungch'ang made a bargain with the intercessor that Ch'eng's bank accounts should be examined, and if it turned out he had not received the alleged hundred thousand dollars from a Russian source or from any source, he would free him with apologies. The bank accounts of Ch'eng proved him to be a poor journalist, and he was freed. That was justice. Mediaeval, yes, but justice.

For comparison, we have the case of the same editor Ch'eng in 1934. Ch'eng was then the editor of the Minshengpao [民生報], the first new paper to be established in Nanking in 1927. On 24 May, it published the report that an official of Wang Chingwei's party who was responsible for the construction of the new Executive Yuan building was having a private residence built for himself by the same contractor, that the cost of the office building, originally estimated at $60,000 had run up to over $130,000, and that Wang Chingwei was indignant and the said official was tendering his resignation. For publishing this statement, the Minshengpao was suspended on 25 May for three days, on the charge of 'malicious propaganda'. On the fourth day, the Minshengpao came back with a defense of its own case, adding details of the scandal. The official then sued Ch'eng at court, and as the facts seemed to be well supported by evidence, the plaintiff withdrew the case. That was the beginning of trouble. On 27 July, the Minshengpao published a statement, issued by a news agency and passed by censors, in regard to an impeachment of an official of the Wang group by the Control Yuan, and by a telegram from Chiang Kaishek's headquarters at Nanchang, the Commander of Gendarmerie at Nanking was ordered to close down the Minshengpao, arrest Ch'eng and investigate the source of the news. The source was then found to be as stated, but the Commander was ordered by a powerful party just to follow the instructions from Nanchang, and Ch'eng was arrested and imprisoned. The fact that the same news was published in several papers besides Minshengpao,and that it was furthermore passed by the censorship board on which the Executive Yuan was represented (besides the Military Commission and the Central Kuomintang) of course made the affair look unreasonable on the part of Wang's group. After being imprisoned for forty days, T'ang Yujen (later assassinated) acting as the agent of Wang Chingwei, negotiated for the release of the editor on the following terms: 1. the Minshengpao was to be for ever closed down; 2. that the editor promised hereafter never to publish or write, in his own name or in pseudonym, any comment on the ruling authorities, nor ever to publish dailies, magazines, pamphlets or any kind of literature whatsoever in Nanking; and, 3. that the editor should report himself to the local authorities for examination whenever he left Nanking and wherever he went. Ch'eng Shehwo was wise enough to accept these terms and prefer them to languishing in prison. This coming from Wang Chingwei who shouted the slogan of 'upholding the people's civil rights' in his anti-Chiang days is apt to make one a cynic about civil rights war-cries, which Ch'eng naturally is to-day. Ch'eng is editing a daily paper, the Lih Pao 立報 to-day from the International Settlement of Shanghai.

I have recounted this case more in detail, not only as a symptomatic contrast to the straightforward fair-play of Chang Tsungch'ang, but also to show how the forces work. If it is decided that a paper should be crushed, it will be crushed, no matter whether it has right on its side. But the case of the Minshengpao serves to illustrate another point, viz., that press censorship often acts as a boomerang by making the authorities responsible for published news passed by their censors and decreasing the responsibility of the editors, legally at least. I say 'legally at least', for that theory of responsibility did not work in the case of Ch'eng, nor in the case of Tu Chungyuan 杜重遠, probably the most notorious case of injustice in which the press is involved in recent years.

Tu's case is sufficient to show that often magazine censorship acts as a boomerang on the government authorities, but not sufficient to show that a publisher who publishes articles passed by the censoring board is thereby guaranteed against taking penalties for it. Early in the summer of 1935, an article appeared in the New Life Weekly (vol.II, no.15) entitled 'Gossip about Emperors', in which Henry P'uyi of Manchukuo was referred to as 'a puppet of a puppet', the last word referring to the Japanese Emperor. About two months later, in July, Japanese authorities in Shanghai took exception to this article and brought pressure upon the Shanghai City Government to have Tu prosecuted. The writer of the article having escaped, Tu held the responsibility as publisher. It turned out, however, that the said article had been passed by the Book and Magazine Censorship Bureau of Shanghai. This made it a little awkward for the authorities, for it might be construed by the Japanese as an evidence of lack of 'friendship' on the part of the Kuomintang to pass such articles, although logically the affair might have been normally settled by dismissing the particular censor for an act of individual oversight or negligence of duty. Over-nervousness of one party started negotiations for Tu to return the censor's certificate for that issue and assume the entire responsibility on himself. Tu just happened to have slightly more 'spunk' than the average publisher and refused. In the course of events, a vindictive judgment was passed upon him by the Second Court of the Shanghai Higher Court, sentencing him to fourteen months' imprisonment, without right of appeal. The last clause was unprecedented and without a single basis in Chinese law, and the Shanghai Lawyers' Association were so moved as to publish a protest. By negotiations, the Court offered to modify its judgment, but Tu preferred to serve his sentence as on the whole the safest course. By serving his sentence, his enemy was more or less appeased and he would run up against less difficulties later on. Public opinion, such as dared to express itself in a few journals, was unanimously on the side of Tu and not the side of the Court of Justice. Immediate repercussions were seen in the temporary abolition of the Book and Magazine Censorship Bureau at Shanghai, which was seen to be an unwise institution tending to make the authorities responsible, in public opinion, for passed articles.

The Impotence of the Press

Let us for a moment merely record the objective fact that the power of the press in the last four or five years has dwindled almost to nothing, and that there is less freedom of speech or publication than in any period from 1900, and leave out of discussion all apologetics or the examples of fascist states in Europe, the presence of communists, the need for unity, etc. which cause the present rulers to curtail civil liberties. Edgar Snow, in an article entitled 'Censored Thought in China' (published in Current History July, 1935) gives a comprehensive review of the censorship situation, and if half of the statements made in that article are true, they sufficiently warrant the objective statement that thought and information are more rigidly controlled today in China than in any period after 1900. Some of the outstanding facts mentioned are the following:

There are about '2500 political prisoners in the great prison at Nanking'. 'In North China alone during 1934 there were 110 cases of suspension or total suppression of publications of various kinds'. 'In Peiping and Tientsin alone, from November (1934) to March of this year (1935), over 230 political prisoners, including many students, artists, teachers and writers, were locked up; during I934 arrests in this category in these cities totalled over 800'. The Peiping Chronicle (29 December I934) records that 149 books were banned on a list issued on 19 December 1934. 'Many of the best works of contemporary Chinese writers were proscribed, including eleven books by Lu Hsun, 'father of the modern Chinese story'; ten by Kuo Mojo, an author famous also as an archaeologist, and now forced to live abroad; ten by Chiang Kwangtse ; nine by Mao Tun, greatest of living Chinese novelists; sevenby Ting Ling, now a prisoner; and books by Pa Chin, Chang T'ienyi and many other well-known writers accused of "reactionarism". John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Strindberg, Bertrand Russell, Gorki, Upton Sinclair and even Maeterlinck and Romain Rolland are some of the many western writers, translations of whose works are forbidden'. It is only fair to say that this list was the worst and extreme example of unintelligent censorship; its ridiculousness in including authors it does not know a thing about (Maeterlinck, for instance), its banning of books published ten years ago by leftist authors, its wholesale indiscriminate character, obviously designed to cut off all royalties from leftist writers depending on them, and the fact that it affects twenty-five publishers caused the book companies to lodge a protest on 2 February 1935, for a reconsideration of the banning list, which in time was greatly softened or modified.

Besides the above, some of the outstanding facts are: On 7 February 1931, five communist writers were tortured and killed. This marked the beginning of the intensified campaign against communist writers, and judging from the Kuomintang viewpoint, it was justifiable because of the truly tremendous popularity of communist thought which was colouring practically the entire younger generation. Leftist or left-inclined writers began to disappear mysteriously and silently from the surface of the earth or at least from the world of living humanity, and usually it was a most difficult thing to find out whether an arrested writer was killed, or still alive, or had turned right again under pressure and persuasion. Thus the case of Ting Ling, one of the best-known girl writers of the present day, remained a mystery for two years since her kidnapping in May 1933, and there were constant contradictory rumours as to her condition and her whereabouts. She is now generally believed to be alive and going about with a limited freedom in Nanking. It is generally believed that the mystery of the kidnapping of Miss Ting Ling indirectly caused the assassination of Yang Ch'ien, Secretary-General of the Academia Sinica and secretary of the China League for Civil Liberties, headed by Madame Sun Yatsen. Yang was active in organizing a committee for the release of Miss Ting and unconfirmed rumour had it that he had evidences of the kidnapping, including the car licence number. Yang's death, through assassination in front of Academia Sinica in the French Concession brought the China League for Civil Liberties to an abrupt end.

Unified Thinking

On the surface at least, this campaign for unifying the nation's thinking and weeding out communist thought seems to have brought temporary results. In the cases of arrests, there were naturally many wrongly accused, who after a longer or shorter period in prison and after some lucky exercise of 'pull', were acquitted and released. On the other hand, many true communist leaders were shut up behind prison bars. The arrested were tried inside the prison and their cases investigated. If they had done nothing more serious than foolishly participating in anti-Japanese meetings at school or street demonstrations, they were released. The Communists were given the choice of repentance or different degrees of punishment, from jail terms to the death penalty.

Kuomintang agents were sent to convert them into the Sanmin ideology. Those willing to repent were made to 'squeal' on their comrades by giving their secret addresses leading to further arrests, as evidence of their sincerity. It was these last tactics which succeeded in rounding up a great number of important members of the Communist Party at Shanghai, including the arrest of thirty-four writers in February 1935. Of these arrested, a great majority are still in prison in Nanking, while T'ien Han, movie director and active promoter of the modern drama, may serve as an example of those who have repented and are now given liberty to serve in the Kuomintang cultural enterprises.

The censorship boards are composed in different localities of representatives of the Kuomintang and various civil and military authorities. At the top is the Central Publicity Department of the Kuomintang at Nanking, extending its authority as far as the National Government. The Censorship Bureau at Nanking consists of representatives of the Military Commission (under Chiang Kai-shek), the Executive Yuan and the Central Kuomintang. In regional governments, the composition differs from time to time, depending on the political circumstances. In Peiping, for instance, at the time when Ho Yingch'in and Huang Fu were heads of the northern administration, the censorship was in their hands. With the swift changes of events, and the establishment of the Hopei-Chahar Council, the personnel of the censorship changed. Now the censorship board is composed of representatives of the Hopei-Chahar Council and the Peiping and Tientsin Municipalities, with the authority of Hsiao Chenying and Sung Chehyuan dominating.

A sidelight on the standard of censorship is shown in the censorship regulations. The Third Revision of Censorship Regulations for the Peiping Censorship Bureau reveals that the censors have practically a free hand in suppressing whatever news they think fit; among others, the following:

'News pertaining to diplomatic affairs is to be detained or rectified if found to be (a) unfavorable to our country, irrespective of whether confirmed or unconfirmed'. (Section II)

'News pertaining to local peace is to be detained or rectified if found to be (a) agitating and leading to riots thus causing great losses in property and life of citizens'. (Section III)

'News concerning military affairs is to be detained or rectified if found to be (g) news the publication of which is disadvantageous to us'. (Section I)

Unintelligent, Anarchic, Over-sensitive

The crying need of the present censorship situation is not that we have better censorship regulations, but more intelligent censors. And it should be remembered that unless censorship is intelligent, it is worse than useless and often defeats its own ends. The worst features of present censorship are its lack of intelligence, its anarchy, and its over-sensitiveness. A study of the censorship situation reveals the fact that at least we must have on the censorship board men who understand their job-in other words, trained and professional bureaucrats, who are at least one degree more bearable than unprofessional bureaucrats—that is, people who understand something of the world situation and the world press, the workings of news agencies, and above all, what is good for our country. At least, in the suppression of literature, they should know where Tolstoi and Maeterlinck stand and have a smattering of knowledge of modern schools of thought, as librarians should know the system of book classification.

Lack of intelligence and over-sensitiveness in the fear of offending the Japanese, coupled with actual Japanese influence, caused the Peiping censors to put a very liberal interpretation on the clause 'unfavourable to our country'. When all news concerning the autonomous movements in North-China are suppressed as 'disadvantageous to us', the implication is that absolute silence in the press about such movements permitting them to grow without public knowledge is 'favourable to our country'. A more intelligent view is that while autonomous movements are unfavorable to our country, publicity concerning them or their exposure in the press is extremely favorable. Through the above-mentioned factors, news suppressed in Peiping papers in the past year include the following: references to the withdrawal of the Chinese Twenty-ninth Army troops from Chahar; the events at Tangku; the clash between anti-Japanese students at Peiyang College (Tientsin) and the pro-Nanking authorities; the details of the Sino-Japanese Conference at Tientsin concerning the future political status of Hopei and Chahar; movements of officials of Hopei and Chahar and their conferences with Japanese authorities; news concerning the independence movement in Inner Mongolia; news about the political, military and financial condition of the East Hopei administration, etc. News suppressed in February 1936, in Peiping includes the following: the establishment of Inner-Mongolian independence movement in North Chahar; Liu Shouhsin and Jokojak's invasion of East Suiyuan; Taku events and negotiations following them; the Ch'angp'ing affair and conditions there; manifestos and activities of the Tientsin Students' Union and the Cultural Workers' Salvation Association and North China People's Salvation Association; Sung Chehylian's visit to Shantung to see General Han; establishment of East Hopei Bank and Treasury; the organization of an East Hopei Army; establishment of an educational ministry in that bogus regime; negotiations concerning Northern Chahar; news concerning the memorial meetings for the Shanghai War. It is clear that there is strong Japanese influence over the censorship board, although no Japanese is represented on it, their influence being indirect, working through the Chinese militarists.

'Unfavorable to Our Country'

This has an extremely sinister significance for the Chinese press, this Japanese control of Chinese press. The events of the past years have proved that whatever the Japanese say is bad is good for China and whatever the Japanese say is good is bad for China—witness Japanese criticism against the new financial measures of the National Government. I have personally relied upon this criterion in judging events and measures in China, some of which (like the Silver Policy), are beyond my understanding, and have found it working always correctly. When the Japanese say the Chinese financial measures are bad, then they must be good; when the Japanese say China must lower her tariffs, then China must raise them, in order to stop the smuggling situation; since the Japanese think that it is 'good for our country' that the people of China should hear nothing about the autonomous movements and the independence movements in Inner Mongolia, then it must be good for our people to hear them. I really did not believe in the existence of smuggling in North China, but one day when a Japanese spokesman blandly said 'There is no smuggling', I was then convinced of its existence. Since, however, the Peiping censors seem to be working under the influence of the Japanese militarists, I think the clause 'unfavorable to our country' in the censorship means exactly its opposite, and the Chinese press is directly responsible, by its omission of duty, for the gradual penetration of Japanese control in North China.

The above review of the items of news suppressed in North China leads me to think that no nation can be conquered unless its press is first suppressed into silence.

The anarchy of Chinese censorship is shown in its lack of system, coordination and consistency. News which is suppressed in one city may be passed in another. The deletion of news often depends on the whims and vagaries of the individual censors. There was the case of a premier of the government whose official statement was censored by the middle school graduates at Shanghai. There was another case of suppressing the news of the arrival of a high official in a city, after that official had been publicly received at the station with brass bands, had faced the cameramen, and had gone through the streets with military guards and put up at the residence of the highest local official. Pitiable was the appeal submitted to the Kuomintang by over twenty news agencies and leading newspapers in December 1934. The appeals for reform were: 1. that censors be required to adhere to press regulations issued by the Party; 2. that no newspaper or newspaper man be punished except according to law; 3. that journals now suppressed, provided they had not attacked the government, be allowed to resume publication; and, 4. that newspaper men now imprisoned be brought to legal trial, and an effort be made to secure their release.

Intelligent Censorship

The state of general cynicism of the Chinese people is to be largely accounted for by the fact that they are not allowed to have a say in matters affecting the sovereignty, territory and very life of the nation. If there had been an intelligent censorship, with more liberal standards, confining itself to suppressing rebellious attacks against the government, the nation might be led to think that they themselves are partly responsible for the political situation through their own negligence of duty. I can never sufficiently stress the fact that it is a lie to say that the Chinese people of to-day are the Chinese people of thirty years ago, and that they are really 'indifferent' to their national welfare, simply because one sees no visible sign of people's activities either in the press, or in public demonstrations against daily encroachments of their territory.

What is not so comfortable to contemplate is the absence of moral self-censorship, which is more deadly than the presence of official censorship. Cinemas depicting the hardships of the people in floods and famines and the oppressions of the landlords are suppressed as 'reactionary' or 'communistic', and writers exposing official corruption and over-taxation of the people are regarded by paid propagandists and censors as unfriendly to the government. I really should like to see the censor re-censored. We have the case of a western-educated English-speaking writer, who in his anti-Chiang days harped upon official corruption and over-taxation, calling the central Kuomintang the 'private secretariat of Chiang Kai-shek' and charging that 'corruption and nepotism are so rampant in Nanking that the Nanking oligarchy has become the laughing-stock of all politically informed people', but who, upon his being made a well-paid editor of a government publication, forgot all about that 'corruption and nepotism' and immediately started on a voluble defence of the same government as the most progressive and most enlightened in China's history. This moral prostitution of the press is self-imposed, and it is this kind of moral delinquency on the part of many paid propagandists that make one think more and more of the pro-Chiang party and less and less of the anti-Chiang group, who by their empty verbiage without conviction did more than censorship to lower one's respect for the press and make one cynical about the entire class of voluble, patriotic, unashamed revolutionary writers.

But it is for this reason that I have undertaken to write the history of the Chinese press and public opinion, and by devoting long reviews to Chinese public opinion in the historical past, with its waves of heroic integrity and abject prostitution, that I hope to enable the readers to view the present situation with a historic perspective and understand its causes of prosperity and decay. The press has always prostituted itself in times of rather 'strong' governments, but if there were servile writers and eunuchs and 'sons of eunuchs' on the one hand, there were also courageous voices of the people on the other. But we are to-day long past the period of leaving politics to the whims of temporary regimes; to-day we must fight for the constitutional principle of the freedom of the press and of personal civil rights as a principle. Democracy after all simply means that the average man can and will take an intelligent interest in man's group life, and in spite of the temporarily lowered prestige of democracy in western Europe, we are bound to believe that it is one of the rarest gifts of Europe to human culture, that mankind must ultimately evolve on the road of progress upon the basis of intelligent individuals, and not of obedient, unthinking herds.


[1] See the 清代文字獄檔 recently published by the Peiping National Museum.

[2] See 清代禁書總目 (杭州抱經堂). Ed.: see also L. Carrington Goodrich's 'The Ninety-nine Ways of Destroying the Manchus', published in T'ien Hsia Monthly in May 1938, and reprinted online in China Heritage Quarterly at: