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Book ban backfires and makes China author a star

The ‘carnal’ novel is a best seller on pirated bookstands

SHARE Book ban backfires and makes China author a star

SHANGHAI, China — Zhou Weihui swells with pride as she announces, "I'm China's first banned pornographic female novelist."

If Chinese censors hoped to chasten the 27-year-old writer of "Shanghai Baby" when they banned her mildly racy novel of heroin abuse, disaffected youth and sex with foreigners, the effort backfired disastrously.

The April ban made Weihui a star.

"Shanghai Baby" is more widely available than ever in pirated versions. Young women snap up copies at bookstands set up outside nightclubs. News coverage of the ban has made the author famous abroad. Publishers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are planning foreign editions of Weihui's book.

And the controversy has done just what Chinese authorities apparently hoped to avoid — publicize a growing youth culture of sex, drugs and parties that would horrify an austere, old-style revolutionary.

"My book and I are only playing the role of a stone thrown into a pond, unwittingly causing waves that stir up mud," said Weihui — her first name, but the one she prefers to go by.

The lackluster impact of the ban also says a lot about the erosion of government power to control what the Chinese say and read. The spread of private jobs has reduced the state's power to manipulate private lives. And state publishing houses, under pressure to fend for themselves in the market, take on riskier projects.

In an earlier era, Weihui might have vanished into a labor camp or seen her writing career ruined. Instead, this slim, photogenic woman with artfully lacquered fingernails carries on an active social life and speaks her mind in interviews in her modest, third-floor walk-up apartment. Weihui says she hasn't even heard directly from government officials.

"The ban has only helped Weihui," said Christiaan Virant, an American and former journalist in Beijing who specializes in Chinese pop culture. "Even though a book is banned in China, its distribution doesn't stop. Circulation grows tenfold."

"Shanghai Baby" is following the path to fame taken by the 1997 potboiler "Wrath of Heaven." That tale of corruption, which mirrored a scandal in the Beijing city government, was banned by censors but went on to become one of China's best-selling books in pirated editions.

Sex and drugs are hardly new to Chinese pop literature. They are almost unavoidable in a flood of mass-market, widely available pulp fiction populated by gangsters, drug dealers and prostitutes.

Most of those books aren't banned. But unlike the legions of anonymous crime-and-sex writers, Weihui may have chased celebrity too successfully in a society where folk wisdom warns that "a man fears getting famous like a pig fears getting fat."

"Shanghai Baby" already was a best seller before the ban, with 80,000 copies in print, according to its publisher, the Spring Breeze Art Publishing House. That made Weihui a crossover sensation — the first of a new wave of young, female "Glam Lit" writers chronicling the Chinese youth subculture to achieve mainstream success.

It also made her a lightning rod for establishment critics of the genre, which is hugely popular with teenage girls and women in their 20s.

"Carnal shows aren't literature," harrumphed a government newspaper in the eastern city of Qingdao.

Though hardly the most explicit writing in China, "Shanghai Baby," gave censors enough to dislike.

Its main character is Coco, a Shanghai cafe waitress who lives with a heroin addict and is carrying on an affair with a married German man. Its cast of young slackers includes a computer hacker who couldn't work up the ambition to finish college. Another character is gay.

After a journey through art exhibitions, drugs, nightclubs and sex, Coco — named for French fashion designer Coco Chanel — finds her boyfriend dead in bed of an overdose. Her adulterous lover returns with his family to Germany, and Coco is alone.

In mid-April, Spring Breeze Art Publishing was told to stop sales of "Shanghai Baby" and destroy unsold copies. The publisher, located in the northeastern province of Liaoning, was shut down by the government and ordered to undergo a political review.

Weihui wasn't the only target of the official backlash. Also banned in April was "Candy," by Mian Mian, a more established Shanghai counterculture novelist. Mian Mian's previous book, "La La La," gained notoriety but only modest sales with its graphic depictions of heroin abuse.

A state news agency denounced both books as vulgar and criticized them for depicting "dissolute lives." The June 15 report by the China News Agency didn't say whether that was the reason for the ban.

Weihui dismisses her critics as jealous old men.

"They can't stand to see a young, pretty woman writing so calmly about sex," she said. "Their lives are usually restricted and drab, so they envy and hate the life they can't have."