“Southern Porridge”: Wordplay in Darkness

by    /  January 30, 2013  / No comments

What does the Southern Weekly incident mean for the future of free speech in China?

China's Southern Weekly demonstration on censorship

The Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly sparked a demonstration on press censorship in early January. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The crisis surrounding the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly has almost calmed down, but on January 17, the latest issue of the Weekly rippled the State’s superficial tranquility yet again with a new announcement: The paper corrected three technical mistakes that were made in the troublesome “New Year’s Editorial” that provoked waves of protest in the country at the beginning of January.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

This correction is isolated and paradoxical, and allows much room for interpretation. From the new announcement it looks like the editorial staff is claiming authorship of the January 3 “New Year’s Editorial,” although the world knows that the propaganda chief Tuo Zhen of Guangdong Province changed the piece before its publication. The paper’s original editorial asked for more liberty and constitutional order, while the fake one praised the glory of the CCP. Not surprisingly, the journalists and editors of the Weekly were enraged by the tampering. They promptly started a public protest that rolled out like a snowball, becoming the biggest sensation of the first week of the new year.

But what do these January 17 corrections mean? Did the newspaper’s staff want to show that it had to swallow the humiliation and pressure from above? Does it intend to mobilize a new wave of sympathy to fight against censorship?

It’s hard to say. Since speaking the truth is not possible in this country, one has to be cynical enough to beat around the bush and get used to all kinds of puzzles. Every line and subtle expression must be deciphered and interpreted; the imagination is boundless and charades are both political barometers and important indicators in China.

Let’s look at the situation again. During the earthquake-like protest around the Southern Weekly affair, thousands of ordinary citizens gathered together at No. 289, Guangzhou Boulevard, in front of the newspaper plaza.

People young and old brought flowers and sang songs while some held speeches asking for the end of censorship and its Carnival of Chinese Characteristics. Intellectuals and celebrities like Han Han, Ai Weiwei, and movie stars Yi Nengjing and Chen Kun posted sympathy for the mass movement on their blogs. The Taiwanese actress Annie Yi was invited to “drink tea” after she posted a coded comment on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) in support of the paper. Her comment was deleted the same day.

Other supporters were not so lucky. Author Ye Du, webmaster of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), was ordered to a police station on January 8 where, during the interrogation, he was forced to take off his clothes and photographed in the nude. Several other members of ICPC—including poets Lang Zi in Guangzhou, Lv Gengsong, Mao Qingxiang in Hangzhou, and Mo Zhixu in Beijing—were subpoenaed by the police and detained for hours or days.

At this point the story was being covered by both the international media and Chinese media overseas. Even the popular Chinese website Wangyi (Net Ease) dared to report the story from the beginning, but the news only survived half a day before it was deleted. The most interesting phenomenon was that Baidu posted the development of the Southern Weekly story in detail, but the censor just left it alone. Through Baidu, lots of other websites in China have been able to maintain the story on their pages.

However, Xinjingbao (The Beijing News) was not as fortunate. After the official Global Times published an editorial criticizing Southern Weekly’s rebellious and unfaithful behavior to the Party, all the main newspapers were forced to reprint its editorial; only The Beijing News refused to do so. Finally, it bent to the pressure and reprinted the piece, but published it at the same time as another article, entitled “Southern Porridge” (porridge, or zhou, is a homophone for weekly), which contained the wordplay, “In the cold winter night, we sit around the porridge (weekly) and warm each other.”

Such word-based cat and mouse between politics and literature has its tradition in contemporary Chinese history. Inspired by his minion, the propaganda chief Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong once said: “Writing novels to fight against the party is a great invention.” Of course, in 1965, Mao condemned Wu Han’s historical play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office and launched the Cultural Revolution.

Words lose their purity and innocence as long as they have to hide in darkness. Black humor should be understood literally.

Another one of Mao’s favorite mantras was: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” The Southern Weekly incident is such a spark. Surely Mao’s successors—the new leadership around Xi Jinping—will try their best to prevent the prairie fire, but will they have their chance, or is it a Sisyphean effort?

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