Issue: 2013: Vol. 12, No. 2

Found in Translation

Article Author(s)

John Israel

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John Israel is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia. 
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(Editor’s note: The following are the author’s verbatim notes for a speech he delivered to the Atlanta chapter of the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association in October 2013.)

LiandaXinan Lianda – Southwest Associated University – was an amalgam of three institutions that fled Beijing and Tianjin in 1937 at the outset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. These were Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Nankai University. Lianda kept the light of learning burning in Kunming for eight years of war in the face of Japanese bombing, material shortages, devastating inflation, and official oppression that sometimes morphed into terrorism.

When I first heard of Lianda in the early 1970s, I decided to write a book about it. Besides the historical importance of the university, I was attracted to the subject because it was a ripping good story – and I am a rather old-fashioned practitioner of narrative history. But there was another dimension that tied together author and subject – shared values. So much of what I found in Lianda resonated with my own values as a liberal American academic: a vision of liberal education marked by diversity, tolerance, and academic freedom. The people I was writing about were subsequently characterized by my mentor, John King Fairbank, as “Sino-Liberals.”

Following a quarter century of research, interviews, writing, rewriting, procrastination, and unanticipated problems, my work was published by the Stanford University Press as Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution.

Friends in China – many of them Lianda alumni – heard about the book. Some volunteered to translate for a Chinese edition. Knowing that a serious translation depends upon close cooperation among author, translator, and publishing house, they invariably asked me if I would cooperate in such an enterprise. I agreed to do so if they could satisfy three conditions:

  1. They would have to have a high level of proficiency in English. The response here was invariably affirmative.
  2. They would have to write Chinese with stylistic verve. Further smiles and nodding of heads.
  3. The publisher would have to agree not to change a single word for political reasons.

This always elicited a crestfallen expression and nipped our Sino-American joint enterprise in the bud.

There were two reasons for my zero tolerance stand on censorship:

  1. Personal convictions and values. I have been a card-carrying ACLU member for half-a-century.
  2. The nature of my subject. Professors and students at Lianda risked (and sometimes gave) their lives for freedom of expression. It would have been unseemly to sacrifice such a noble legacy to publish a sanitized version of the university’s history.

Over time, I became more fully aware of what I was up against. Chinese censorship did not operate from the top down. To be sure, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Bureau was charged with guarding against politically incorrect ideas. However, publications were not submitted to some official with a wary eye, a green eyeshade, and the countenance of the Grand Inquisitor. Rather, publishers had to self-censor authors’ manuscripts before they were published. If anything slipped through that would rankle higher-ups, the entire publication run could be confiscated and months of hard work and piles of renminbi would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Given this system of self-censorship, it was inevitable that publishers would err on the side of caution and that self-censorship would, in effect, out-inquisit the Grand Inquisitor.

So I resigned myself to the reality that a billion-plus Chinese would have to survive without access to my magnum opus in its native language.

Fast-forward to November 2007. I was packing up for a trip to China when an email arrived from a certain Rao Jiarong. Mr. Rao identified himself as a recent graduate from the history department of Xiamen University who had taken a job in Beijing. There, a friend of his had lent him a copy of my book. So enamored was he of my work that he finally quit his job to devote full time to writing a translation. After a year’s work, he had completed the manuscript, which he attached to the letter.

Would I help him find a publisher? I was awestruck by this intrepid young man who had poured his financial and spiritual resources into this labor of love, the beloved object being my own literary progeny. But I had already said no to more than one ardent suitor, including a good friend, so what could I tell Mr. Rao? Maybe, I pleaded rather lamely, he could find a publisher in Taiwan or Hong Kong, but I had little hope that this unknown recent college graduate would have access to such remote realms.

I had underestimated Mr. Rao. Within a few months, he had a contract from the Zhuanji Wenxue Chuban She (Biographical Literature Publishers) in Taipei. The Taiwan edition appeared in 2010, complete with a preface that lay bare the realities of literary censorship on the other side of the Taiwan Straits. Now my work was available to some 20 million Taiwan Chinese. I took some solace when I found the book advertised on a Mainland website, but I realized that few people in the PRC would go to the trouble of ordering an expensive book from the Unliberated Province, printed in traditional Chinese characters.

Then, in the summer of 2011, I received an email from Mr. Rao. The Jiuzhou Chuban She – Nine Continents Publishers – in Beijing was prepared to produce an uncensored simplified characters edition. We soon had a contract guaranteeing that not a single word would be changed for political reasons.

This seemed too good to be true. And it was. In December 2011, Mr. Rao forwarded from the publisher a list of about a dozen “sensitive passages,” as he called them, with suggestions for softening the wording. Would I approve them? I went down the list, wrote “No!” next to each item, and returned it to Mr. Rao. He replied, to my amazement, that, in every instance, the Press had accepted my decision. Then, a couple of weeks later, I got an email from the Press. The fact that they were writing me directly underscored a note of desperation. Three particularly sensitive passages had to be dealt with before publication. We finally agreed to place controversial words in quotation marks, followed by footnotes attributing the quotation marks to the publisher rather than the author. Here is how the passages appear in the translated version:

After seizing power in 1949, the Communists were able to impose unprecedented restraint upon the words and deeds of liberal academics.

Quotation marks around “restraint.”

Academic freedom, which reached its apogee in Beijing during the warlord era and in Kunming under the patronage of Long Yun, was challenged by the Guomindang and finally crushed under the Communists.

Quotation marks around the word “crushed.”

The frenzied reassertion of political and ideological control following the destruction of the democracy movement in June 1989 is a further reminder of the official strictures that limit political and philosophical discussion.

Quotation marks around “democracy movement.”

Here is a poignant example of the inanity (if not insanity) of censorship. The translated version not only retains criticism of the Communists for political and ideological oppression, but actually calls attention to these passages!

So much for my experience with China’s system of censorship. Equally intriguing is what I learned about China after the spring of 2012, when the Beijing translation hit the bookstores.

First of all, my history had appeared in the middle of a phenomenon called “Lianda Re” – meaning Lianda Fever. What was going on was the familiar Chinese passion for using history as an oblique way of commenting upon the contemporary scene. There had been a minor tsunami of books, articles, reviews, and commentaries identifying Lianda as a high point in modern Chinese higher education. Such publications, as not even the dullest reader could fail to observe:

  1. Highlighted the inadequacies of Chinese higher education in the 21st century
  2. Provided a Chinese pedigree for ideas, values, and institutions that might otherwise have been dismissed as bourgeois American intrusions
  3. Reminded people, sometimes quite explicitly, that under Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi’s) officially reviled Guomindang regime, China’s universities had reached a height unequalled under the People’s Republic.

Because my subject was so hot, the author also became a hot item. Reviews of my book proliferated; reporters besieged me with requests for interviews. And my history of Lianda, of which the English edition had sold fewer than 500 copies from 1998 to 2013, reached the 20,000 mark less than two years after the publication of its Chinese translation.

Most interesting was my personal experience in talking about my book in universities and book stores in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xiamen, and Qingdao. For the first time I came into contact with audiences of educated young Chinese. I quickly had to reassess my preconception of the political mentality of the younger generation, an image left over from the 1990s. I had assumed that these young men and women were chauvinists, supportive of ultra-nationalist rants, hostile to whatever their leaders labeled as foreign interference in the realm of ideas and values, and more receptive of ideologies that bordered on fascism than on anything akin to Jefferson or even Mao.

My moment of truth came at my very first public lecture, at Xiamen University. Following my talk, a gentleman in the back row stood up and asked how an American, whose armed forces ran around the world seeking excuses to interfere in the affairs of inoffensive nations, could stand up in front of an audience and prattle on about liberal values.

My own response to this question is less interesting than the fact that virtually the entire audience sprang to support an old American professor’s defense of liberal values against a challenge from this young Chinese critic of U.S. imperialism.


On a broader level, I realized that I was seeing up close what I already sensed from daily life in China: In striking contrast to a political elite – self-perpetuating, insulated from the people in whose name it ruled, and paranoid in defense of its privileges – sectors of China’s civil society were creative, energetic, vibrant, searching fearlessly for answers.

The question remained as to how widespread and how representative was the kind of critical thinking and open discourse in which I had been privileged to participate. But the fact that it existed at all gave reason for hope.