Is it censorship, or simply having your work edited?


Back in August 2003, former U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir Living History was published in China. Yilin Press, based in Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province, paid US$20,000 for the exclusive right to publish the book in Simplified Chinese.

According to Red Chan in his valuable essay “One Nation, Two Translations: China’s Censorship of Hillary Clinton’s Memoir” (in Translating and Interpreting Conflict [Approaches to Translation Studies 28], edited by Myriam Salama-Carr, May 2007, page 119-131), this amount (US$20,000) is “four times the usual rate a Chinese publisher would pay for a work in English for a translation copyright”. A further 10-percent copyright royalty would to be paid later.

Living History was published in Traditional Chinese in Taiwan by China Times Publishing Co. in June 2003, two months ahead of China. However, as soon as this version came out, pirated copies in Simplified Chinese started to appear all over China, and Yilin was under huge pressure to publish the book as the official Simplified Chinese version. In order to reach this target, Yilin decided to purchase the Traditional Chinese translation from China Times and convert it into Simplified Chinese.

Living History sold 200,000 copies in China in just over a month. However, it was soon discovered that Yilin had removed, reduced and reinterpreted plenty of comments made by Clinton on issues of human rights in that country. Clinton was reported to have been “amazed and outraged” to learn that her book had been extensively censored. Although Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Living History in English, immediately demanded a remedy of the unauthorized changes, Yilin argued that it only “carried out technical treatment in a few places for the sake of better reader reception” (see Chan, “One Nation, Two Translations”, page 126).

More importantly, Yilin claimed that “most state-owned media companies are not subject to advance censorship, though they can be held responsible if they publish something deemed offensive to the leadership” (see Chan, “One Nation, Two Translations”, page 128). Due to such need for self-censorship, even after three months of intense negotiation with Simon & Schuster, Yilin still refused to restore all of the unauthorized changes it had made in Living History. As a result, Simon & Shuster terminated the publishing contract with Yilin.

(Note: Readers would be amazed to know that even after the rows over Living History, Yilin was still granted the rights by Knopf Publishing Group to translate former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life. The book was published in China in September 2004, one month after its Traditional Chinese version was published in Taiwan. In the words of Chan, “a hard fact remains: whether it is the Chinese press or the American publisher, it is money, not politics, that dictates the world of publishing.”)

Recently the issue of China’s censorship resurfaced after The New York Times revealed on October 2013 that renowned historian and Harvard professor Ezra F. Vogel bowed to Chinese censors in order to have his book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China distributed in China. “To me, the choice was easy,” Vogel was reported as saying. “I thought it was better to have 90% of the book available [in China] than zero.” And his “unpleasant but necessary bargain” has paid off — the book sold 30,000 copies in the U.S. but 650,000 in China.

Vogel’s book was first published in May 2012 in both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. In the words of Gan Qi, director of the book’s publisher, Chinese University Press of Hong Kong: “These editions were complete translations with no omissions. Censorship played no role. The complete translation editions are being read not only by people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore but also by many people in China.”

It was only after the Simplified Chinese edition of this book was published in China in January 2013 that issues of censorship were raised. Although most writers in the West baulk at censorship, Gan felt it necessary to recognize the “persistent efforts of Chinese editors and publishers, including Sanlian Publishing House [which published the latest Simplified Chinese edition], to push the censorship boundaries further for their books and for the sake of a more open Chinese society”. Even though its content was censored, Vogel’s book was seen by Chinese publishers like Gan as “a huge breakthrough in the release of sensitive information about [the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests]” — a topic whose discussion has always been restricted in China.

Most importantly, according to Gan, Vogel’s case is very different from that of Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is because “in Professor Vogel’s case, the Chinese editors worked hard to find acceptable ways to preserve the essence of the original meaning and kept him fully informed before his book was published”, while Clinton “had no idea that deletions had been made to her…memoir until it reached the shelves of Chinese bookstores”.

So the choice is this. As an author, in order to have your book widely distributed, sold and read in a market, would you agree to have its content censored? Would you submit to your publisher’s proactive “technical treatment” of your content in order to have the book approved by the government that controls that market? Would you be willing to look at this whole issue as simply having your work (heavily) edited “for the sake of better reader reception”? The choice is yours.

Image thanks to: “Censorship: Justifiable?” by Smug Puppies.


How issues of censorship have affected the introduction of established and emerging titles to the Chinese market is part of my research on the translation, publishing and promotion of English-language authors in the Chinese world. Would you like to have 1.5 billion potential Chinese readers as well? Please support “A Guide to Self-Publishing in the Chinese World” Indiegogo Campaign.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Chinese Publishing Weekly: November 4-10, 2013 | Chinese Publishing Weekly

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