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Censorship in Imperial China

In my books, the government of Serica has been under the control of the Kitran Empire and they don’t bother with censoring books. If someone writes something they don’t like, they sent a detachment of their feared cavalry to the town where the author is said to live and they burn the place down.

The new ruler of Kunhalvar province, Lord Vaina, would likely censor works which advocated support for the Kitran Empire but – they are at war with the Kitran Empire. Censorship in a time of war is commonplace, every nation does this.

But what about censorship during peacetime? My books don’t talk much about the times of peace but this is what I learned… Censorship in Imperial China was a very complex phenomenon.

I think most Americans believe that censorship means “some books are to be sought out and destroyed wherever and whenever they are found”. This is what the Catholic Church tried to do from the time of the printing press till the 1800s. 

It wasn’t like that in China. Yes, some books were censored, meaning they were not to be sold in book stores, nor taught in schools. Also, some books were considered to be state secrets (mostly these were guides to military strategy but they also included maps of cities) But the books were still read, and they were preserved at the Han Lan Acadamy library. Since there was no dominate religion in China, there was also no universal moral system, and thus, the Confucian scholars assessed books based on their utility to the state. Books that were deemed “useful” were allowed, books that were deemed harmful to the state were censored. 

But utility to the state is a value judgment, and so one set of Confucian officials might conclude a book is harmful, and another might conclude the same book is harmless. The Catholic Church by contrast maintained a more consistent policy, but was greatly limited by the fact that many European states simply didn’t follow the Church’s rules (England, and the Protestant states being obvious examples). 

Here is a specific example of censorship in China: The Water Margin (or “Outlaws of the Marsh”) was written in the early Ming (around 1400) and it tells a story from the mid-Song period (set around the year 1110). The story was popular, and well read, but after 100 years it was banned and was no longer available for open sale. Then, near the end of the Ming, people published it again, and it sold, the ban had been “lifted”. When the Manchu took over, they banned it (as they didn’t want people to be inspired to rebel against them based on reading the story). But, by 1750, with no internal revolts for 75 years, the book was on sale again. Even today, the Water Margin is considered a “dangerous book to read”.

The scholars of China seem to have felt that banned books needed to be preserved. It wasn’t that the book was “evil”, just that it suggested ideas which the government at the time felt were dangerous. The government did not go into scholars houses to track down banned books, and furthermore, literate people were expected to know “The Water Margin” and understand why it was banned. So, a book censored in China really meant “not suitable for the common folk to read”.

I can understand why “The Water Margin” was censored, it describes in detail many failures of the government during the mid-Song dynasty. And many of the heroes in the story behave quite badly themselves. Almost no one comes out looking good and the author of the novel refuses to condemn or criticize his characters, so the reader is left not knowing who was right and who was wrong.

The Water Margin is “adult reading” which raises some uncomfortable questions about whether the government was always just and what steps are reasonable to fix the problems. Was it censored? Yes, at times. But most literate people knew it.

For the interested reader, the author of The Water Margin is unknown but we do know the book was written in the early years of the Ming Dynasty. Some people have suggested the author of the Outlaws of the Water Margin worked with, or perhaps taught, the man who wrote The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. We don’t know anything for certain and stylistically, the two books are quite dissimilar. In my books, neither story has yet been written, but the early version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is being composed during this time. One of my books hints at this.

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