Q&A: Self-censored Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun finally speaks his mind
Award-winning novelist spent 9 years trying to not upset the authorities. But now, not even the threat of 'almost certain' jail will deter him
The first time Murong Xuecun encountered obstacles in his writing, he was at primary school. He wrote what he still considers to be his most creative piece of work - about a city where the sun was purple, flowers sighed and strange-looking people lived. But his teacher said that was all "nonsense" and gave him no marks at all.
"That was the most creative thing I've ever written," he said. "After that, I never managed to write anything like that again."
Even after he became an award-winning novelist famed for his many best-selling books, he said the voice of the teacher saying "nonsense" still crept into his mind from time to time, ordering him to cut out content that he knew would draw the ire of the authorities.
"Self-censorship is like having this voice living inside me - whenever I write something [sensitive], it would shout, 'nonsense!'," said Murong, 41, whose real name is Hao Qun.
Famed for his 2002 debut novel, Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, which sold a million copies and was longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Murong is one of the best-known authors on the mainland.
An influential online social critic, he had 8.5 million followers on his Weibo microblog accounts before they were forcibly closed.
Yet even for such a celebrated writer - known for his nihilistic, fatalistic and tongue-in-cheek style - getting published has come at a cost.
Murong recounted the painful nine years of self-censorship that he endured to get his works published, before he became so angry he finally gave up on what he called "self-castration" in 2011.
In his second book, Heaven to the Left, Shenzhen to the Right, he originally intended a scene where his protagonists would experience the Tiananmen protests and crackdown, but knowing that it would certainly face the chop, he grudgingly took out the content.
"I started deleting one character after another," he said. "It's difficult to describe the feeling - it's a bit like a child who had a sweet snatched away from him."
His pent-up frustrations exploded one day. In 2010, he wrote an impassioned and candid speech on the devastating censorship faced by mainland authors. He planned to deliver it at the People's Literature Prize ceremony, where he was to collect an award for his book, China: In the Absence of a Remedy about his time spent undercover inside an illegal pyramid scheme.
He was barred from delivering the speech, but he posted it online, where it went viral. He delivered the speech in Hong Kong in 2011. "We cannot criticise the system, we cannot discuss current affairs ... sometimes I can't help but wonder, is the Cultural Revolution really over?" he said in the speech.
Murong said that speech was a watershed. In the years that followed, he became increasingly bold - in speaking in defiance of the authorities or taking parts in activism.
In late 2011, he tried to visit detained blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng in his village. Last year, after several participants in a private commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown got detained, he wrote an open letter inviting the authorities to arrest him because his speech was read out in the meeting in his absence.
After he returned from Australia, he was detained by police for eight hours. In May this year, he joined a protest in front of the New York Public Library to protest against the limits on free speech in China and later, also in the US, he joined in a commemoration of the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
His boldness has exacted a heavy price - in the past couple of years, the popular author has found himself contacted less and less by mainland publishers and newspapers. His four Weibo, or microblog accounts, followed by 8.5 million people, were shut down without any explanation given. Just this week, another of his popular Weibo accounts was shut down.
Murong believes he is a victim of the overall ideological tightening across the country since 2013. The Communist Party promulgated Document No 9 that year, which ordered cadres in charge of ideology and propaganda to tackle seven subversive influences in society, including dangerous liberal ideas such as human rights and press freedom.
His transformation from a popular author to persona non grata within the worlds of publishing and media had been tough, Murong said, but he had simply grown tired of self-censorship. Now, he would rather speak his mind and lose his market and income than to compromise his integrity, he said.
"To an author, this is a very difficult choice. I was an author of best sellers: I could have lived comfortably. But in a country like this, all sorts of opportunities have been denied of me."
Murong is currently writing a futuristic novel about China in 2072, which he has temporarily named Our New Era. This time, he has not tiptoed around political issues although he believes it will not be allowed to be published in China.
Over the years, he has seen many friends of his own age, who started out as mild critics of the government, becoming increasingly vocal and ending up in prison or escaping abroad. He said he was also often gripped by a sense of fear, while the threat of prison was never far from his mind.
"It's as if there is an abyss in front of you that you can't see … and every step you take is full of fear and uncertainty," he said.
Murong said he believed he would "almost certainly" end up in detention or jail, but this would not deter him from speaking up.
"If I don't say anything and shut up, would I feel better? I don't think so," he said. "So I don't think about [being arrested], I only think about whether I should say something or not.
"If you live in a country where no one has the courage to speak ... in some ways, you're in prison already."
With less and less space for liberal writers like himself in China, Murong has to publish his works abroad. Before his Weibo account was shut down this week, he wrote: "The wok I've relied on for food has been smashed into pieces - I have no choice but to beg for food outside."
However, he said he was not keen on living abroad either, even though his works had been translated into English, French, German, Portuguese and Vietnamese and he often travelled to the US and Europe to give talks.
"My English is not great, [so] if I leave behind the place I'm so familiar with, it's also like being in a prison," he said.
"I don't want to leave, but I don't want to shut up either... I hope I can contribute towards the democratic reform of China."
Living under an authoritarian regime, Murong said he understood why many people would be afraid of criticising the government, but he warned that compromising one's conscience would have dangerous consequences. "It's not a game that you can stop any time, it's a moral downward spiral," he posted in a Weibo message shortly before his account was closed.
"Today, you don't mind shaking hands with the devil. Tomorrow, you won't mind embracing him. Then the day after, you might even speak on his behalf."