Banned Books

banned book
Illustration from The Water Margin. Image source: Wikipedia

When my Dad was a kid, he loved The Water Margin. It’s racy. It’s gory. His teachers probably banned the book from the classroom. The Water Margin stars a band of 108 bandits who wreak havoc in what is now the province of Shandong.

Three of the bandits are women. They are as morally reprehensible as their male counterparts. The villagers are no better. One murderous innkeeper disposes of her corpses by grinding them up to serve for lunch as steamed buns. What’s not for a boy to love?

After 6 centuries, The Water Margin is still in print. In China, the novel has spawned an entire cottage industry of TV shows, movies, comic books, radio programs, board games, and video games. The set for the popular China Central TV series is now a theme park.

Pearl S. Buck was the first to translate The Water Margin into English. Her 1933 version is titled All Men Are Brothers. Countless translations have followed since in print and podcast form.

Today, scholars and readers agree that The Water Margin is a Chinese classic. Yet, twice in its history, the government banned the book. As recently as 2014, a legislator proposed doing the same. Why the hot and cold treatment?

Confucius Says

For much of its long history, autocrats have ruled China. Whether under the title of emperor, chairman or general secretary, Chinese leaders demand strict loyalty. They cite Confucius and his theory of the state as a family and its leader the father-figure. Chinese leaders demand filial piety from their citizens. The Water Margin breaks with that tradition.

The Water Margin represents another, equally real and representative, Chinese worldview. In this world, local injustice is the rule, and defence against cruel local authority is a matter of vengeance, stratagem, and violence.

Josh Stenberg, “Guide to the classics: The Water Margin” in The Conversation, 14 Jan 2019

Hence its banning during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and again in the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). Both times, rebels tried to violently overthrow the sitting rulers. The Water Margin came a little too close for comfort. It is, after all, the story of rebels tired of the immorality of their local leaders and choosing to take matters into their own hands. Unlike Robin Hood et al. who had only the sheriff of Nottingham to contend with, the bandits of The Water Margin were aiming for dynastic change.

The Water Margin in lego
The Water Margin in lego comics. Image credit: Tigerggyy

Dynastic change has commonly come to China by way of violent overthrow and popular revolution. This pattern belies the stereotype of the Chinese people as meek and submissive. The Water Margin reminds Chinese leaders of what a band of strongmen, hunters, fishermen, and thieves can achieve in the face of local injustice. When in extremis, those leaders choose to ban books.

On a snowy night, closing the door to read banned books.

An anonymous Qing Dynasty scholar

Mao Zedong

Bei Dao is a dissident Chinese poet. In his autobiography City Gate, Open Up, he recalls the family library. The bookcase stands at the northern wall of their home beneath the portrait of Chairman Mao. Pride of place on the top shelf belongs to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. The other shelves contains classics like The Water Margin and reference works like the Russian-Chinese dictionary. But there’s more.

Around the age of ten I discovered a momentous secret: large stacks of banned books stashed away in the attic space above the corridor between the front door and the kitchen.
The boy was short, the attic high; this proved to be no obstacle as curiosity worked its mischief and, alone at home, I positioned a tall stool on top of two chairs, each balanced on the other. This required an extraordinary degree of precision for all the furniture to fit flawlessly together. It was, essentially, an acrobatic performance without, sadly, any audience present; or it could be said that I played the sole audience member, determined to climb up and see what could be found.

“Bei Dao’s Books in the Attic” from City Gate, Open Up by Bei Dao, translated by Jeffrey Yang in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 25 Oct 2017

The books Bei Dao finds are far from racy: fashion magazines, novels published before the Liberation, books written by authors banished to that cold place, a medical textbook entitled Comprehensive Gynecology. Then comes the day when Red Guards announce a door-to-door search for the four olds: old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of the mind. Bei Dao and his family disassemble the attic library, carry its contents into the yard, and burn their banned books.

Blood Letters

Lin Zhao had her work purged during the Mao era. She was an early adherent to the Communist cause though not to Mao’s cult of personality. She dared to criticize him and was, as a result, imprisoned and tortured. Still, Lin refused to recant. She was shot in 1968.

In 1981, the government posthumously rehabilitated Lin. Only then did her family received the letters Lin had written while in prison.

Blood Letters by Lian Xi
Image source: SCMP

Lin expressed her contempt for Mao’s regime [with] letters written in her own blood. These were addressed to her mother, the United Nations and, most frequently, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP. The letters probably never made it past the prison gates, but they were kept by the party’s bureaucratic machine as evidence.

J.P. O’Malley, “The story of a martyr in Mao’s China: executed and her family billed for the bullet” in South China Morning Post, 26 Apr 2018

Those old scraps of paper now form the backbone of Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China by Lian Xi.

Into the Void

Mao Zedong was purportedly a great fan of The Water Margin for so long as its political message aligned with his own. Once the Communist Party took control of China, the idea of civil disobedience — let alone armed revolt — became anathema. Milovan Djilas called this the central paradox of Communist ideology.

“Revolutionaries who accept the ideas and slogans of the revolution literally,” he wrote, “are usually liquidated.”


Lin was only one woman, not a band of 108 rebels, and yet even her memory is too dangerous for the current Chinese government. Surveillance cameras keep watch over her grave in Suzhou.

It’s tempting to think that banned books and purged writers were unique to the Mao era. The checkered past of The Water Margin tells us this is not the case. The Chinese have plenty of practice at banning books.