Loading Now
Revised Title: China’s Authoritarian Control of Digital Fiction in the World of Redacted Fantasy – Lacuna Magazine
Revised Title: China's Authoritarian Control of Digital Fiction in the World of Redacted Fantasy - Lacuna Magazine

Revised Title: China’s Authoritarian Control of Digital Fiction in the World of Redacted Fantasy – Lacuna Magazine


The strict measures taken by China against fantasy literature and video games create a major hurdle for readers, authors, and individuals who want to access these works. Why limit these seemingly harmless stories? Eric R Stone speaks with censored writers who share how censorship and complete prohibition of certain ideas, language, and references make fictional works incomprehensible.

In the year 2019, as China commemorated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic, a million voices were abruptly silenced. 

In May, a large digital book purge took place, where online novels were removed at the government’s direction and executed by independent hosting platforms. 

Overnight, an estimated 1.2 million books were removed from the platform Qidian alone,

Based on an article published on Openbook.org.tw.

In the same month, JJWXC.net, an online book platform with more than 16 million users, also experienced similar events.

Compelled to partially close operations.
Also, ensure to conduct “self-auditing” regularly.
 


The removed content was not the declarations of extreme activists or the plans for a political uprising. They were online fiction stories, comparable to fantasy novels.
Twilight

The text cannot be reworded as it is a description of a specific type of creative work. 

Out of the 1.2 million books taken down from Qidian, 350,000 were categorized as mystical fantasy (Xuanhuan), 140,000 were labeled as kung-fu fantasy (Xianxia), 80,000 were classified as regular fantasy, 80,000 fell under science fiction, and 70,000 were inspired by video games.listed a China Digital Times article

Referring to a post made by a Weibo user under the username “@bukezhi.” 

A group of men stood in front of a big blue sign and behind a piles of hundreds of books

Disposing of Pirated and Illegal Publications in Beijing in 2017.

Many of the remaining pieces were edited in a confusing manner after the purge. 

Plot Surgery 

“Who instructed you to make the sacrifice?” Klein asked quietly. 

After achieving Sequence 4 and gaining the title of Bizarro Sorcerer, Klein’s abilities expanded beyond simply reading the Marionettes’ unconscious thoughts. With his improved control over Spirit Body Threads, he could now also serve as a conduit. However, the effectiveness of his medium abilities decreased with the increasing level of the Marionettes. 

This is an excerpt from a Lovecraftian, steampunk, Victorian-era web novel called Lord of the Mysteries

One instance of “mystical fantasy” from the Qidian platform. 

If you have not read the previous 900+ chapters, this scene might be confusing to you.

The author admits that even he couldn’t understand this chapter after it was censored by Qidian. Large portions of the text were removed without clear reason. 

“He expressed frustration in a footnote following the chapter, questioning who would be able to comprehend the plot with these omissions. He even stated that he was unable to understand it himself.” 

The writer openly expressed frustration: “I cannot handle my book becoming disorganized, structurally flawed, and nonsensical. It has turned into a chaotic mess that makes no sense… I cannot tolerate how distorted these revisions have become, to the extent that the storyline is no longer coherent. I am unable to write clearly.” 

The footnote regarding censorship under the Great Firewall was archived by Taiwanese readers after it disappeared, similar to many other complaints.those on the CFantasy board of the PTT web forums.  

Despite the author’s eventual cooperation and revision of the chapter to bypass censorship, this did not fully resolve the fragmented plot and altered the overall tone of the story. As a result, one reader from Taiwan, whom I personally interviewed, noted that the story shifted from being enigmatic and eerie to resembling a “buddy story.” 

Vague Standards 

The individual interviewed, who goes by the name “Daxiong,” stated that things have not improved in 2023.. 

The article was published in the Taipei Times.. 

Similarly, the criteria for censoring remains frustratingly ambiguous. 

In an interview with the head of China’s National Office Against Pornography and Illegal Publications, or SHDF (Sao Heng Da Fei Office), violations were defined as any problematic online literature involving deviant content, vulgarity, sexuality, or violence. 

A new announcement from China News was released.

Obscene content is defined as anything that is considered lewd or contains lewd material, promotes sexual activities and is deemed inappropriate for public distribution, promotes incorrect ideas about marriage and family values, caters to lowbrow preferences such as online mockery and sarcasm, and advertises violence, blood, fear, and cruelty. 

However, aside from broad statements like these, writers can only speculate about which words or phrases could potentially activate the algorithms responsible for censorship. 

An author from JJWXC.net stated that the standards for what is considered a “red line” in online articles are unpredictable.,

According to a recent article from The News Lens,

“Occasionally, everything seems acceptable initially, but a month later, you may unexpectedly be informed that you have overstepped boundaries and be requested to make revisions, or the entire work may simply be removed or restricted.” 

this book is

The person who wrote this book is the author.

The novel “Lord of the Mysteries” is a thrilling story that follows the adventures of a man named Klein Moretti, who unexpectedly gains the ability to enter other people’s dreams and explore their subconscious minds.

“Lord of the Mysteries” is an exciting novel that chronicles the escapades of Klein Moretti, a man who discovers he has the power to enter and delve into other individuals’ subconscious through their dreams.
He expressed a similar feeling when he pondered about his personal situation in 2019.

Why are we being removed for discussing the actions of malicious individuals and the unpleasantness of physical punishments? I didn’t go into great detail about the sacrifice, so it’s not like anyone could replicate it. I am perplexed by these censorship guidelines. Are we expected to constantly edit our books until they become meaningless nonsense? 

Invisible Blacklists 

Furthermore, aside from the aforementioned forms of censorship, such as the removal or flagging of paragraphs in books, or the complete removal of books from platforms, Daxiong and others have also noticed a third type of censorship where certain words are censored by being replaced with asterisks. 

Daxiong showed me an example from a novel he had been reading on his phone – he didn’t have to look far to find it – “這小子走了什麼****。” (
“I am unsure what type of misfortune this person is experiencing.”
 

Screenshot of web novel censorship from Daxiong’s cell phone

Screenshot of web novel censorship from Daxiong’s cell phone

He gave a nonchalant shrug. The phrase “dogshit good luck” could be applicable in this situation, but we couldn’t be certain. 

Regrettably, the Chinese government does not disclose its lists of banned keywords. 

Daxiong informed me that there is a competition between internet users and the government, where the former is constantly finding new and complex ways to bypass censorship. 

Occasionally, they employ homophones – exchanging characters with identical-sounding ones. In other instances, they reverse the process and interchange characters that may appear similar but have different pronunciations. 

Xi Jinping

Reworded: In the English language, you can use all lowercase letters and remove spaces, or you can use shortened versions of Romanizations in a code-like format, such as acronyms.Xi Jinping to “xjp.” 

Without hesitation, he indicated similar instances, some of which appeared to be profanity.  

However, the automated filtering may still be inaccurate, as seen in instances where two unrelated words were incorrectly combined. For instance, a social media user pointed out that the term “an exchange of fire at a village entrance” was mistakenly flagged.村口交戰

The phrase would be censored on Qidian due to the meaning of the middle two characters being related to “oral sex.”口交) out of context. 


Some words have been prohibited not because of their explicit meaning, but because they could potentially allude to sensitive subjects.
 

Although the specific word lists used for censoring web novels are unknown, we can gather information from user feedback and previous leaked blacklists to make educated guesses. 

The 2006-2009

The list of blocked keywords on the Baidu search engine was exposed by Wikileaks.
For instance, there may be some overlap between ancient scrolls and contemporary lists.
 

This list features innocuous words such as: “human rights protections” (人權保護) “brainwashing” (洗腦), and the decimal “6.4” – referring to the Tiananmen Square incident, known in Chinese as the six-four incident (June 4th incident). Slightly more overtly political terms include: “the nation of Taiwan” (台灣國

“I do not have affection for the Party”不愛黨) and “withdraw membership from the Party” (退黨). 

Self-Censorship 


However, the situation becomes more intricate because content is not censored through a single system. Instead, platforms are forced to either censor themselves or deal with the repercussions.
 

Rewording: Managing large amounts of content on platforms such as Qidian is a challenging task. With over a million novels, each containing millions of characters, there is a vast amount of content to regulate, totaling in billions of characters. 

Based on the example of an “exchange of fire,” it appears that they are also not capable of handling the task. 

The leader of China’s SHDF appears to be aware of this fact and solely holds the platforms responsible for it. 


He stated that certain companies are too enthusiastic and follow a rigid, one-size-fits-all method when required to adhere to strict censorship guidelines.

in the previously mentioned interview.

This leads to confusion regarding regulatory policies for individuals in the industry. 

Regardless of how clear these standards are made to such platforms, what is clear to everyone is that companies and individuals that don’t self-censor to the government’s satisfaction can face fines, be shut down for

“Reconsolidation” and being added to “blacklists for loss of trust”

If they commit another offense, these penalties are often promoted by the party’s media outlets. 

Backlash 

However, the leader of SHDF maintains that the Chinese online community is in favor of the recently implemented regulations for online fiction. This is evidenced by their proactive reporting of inappropriate content and problematic companies. However, it should be noted that this willingness may also be influenced by the monetary rewards these whistleblowers receive for their efforts. 

The SHDF disclosed that it had given out more than 1 million yuan RMB (approximately $150,000 USD) to individuals who reported violations from January to June 2020. This includes over 140,000 cases, such as 128,000 cases of “lewd/sexual information,” 5,502 cases of “illegal publishing/illegal religious publication,” 4,819 cases of “copyright infringement,” and 1,274 cases of “fake media, fake reporting, or fake reporter websites.” 

The leader of SHDF asserts that individuals who are not in support of the cause are being influenced by biased media sources, which falsely report on alleged oppression of certain groups. This results in them becoming victims of intentional manipulation.

“They intentionally manipulate information in order to sway public perception, portraying standard business regulations as targeted towards certain individuals.”

What is more significant is what he avoids mentioning – that individuals may have legitimate worries, or that there could be room for improvement in his office or the government’s actions. 

Going Forward 

However, whether they are part of the team or not, writers are becoming more engaged in the act of self-censorship. This is likely because they do not want their pieces to be heavily edited or removed after being published. 

“404’d”

– persist in facing difficulty in communicating. 

They face difficulties without speaking out, as there are limitations to what they can openly express. However, their readers stand by them, as they understand and interpret the hidden messages together. 

Daxiong mentioned, “We are observant.” They use tactics to bypass regulations, such as implied suggestions and alternate words. They also share content that has recently been removed. 

As for Lord of the Mysteries, the novel

The story was continued to be released in installments for an additional year until it reached its conclusion in 2020, receiving praise within the country.

Unfortunately, even now, it is impossible for anyone to fully understand the author’s intended vision for it. 

In any case, it appears that the writer remained faithful to the concluding statement in his 2019 footnote: “I will continue writing until I am unable to – until I am no longer able to motivate myself. I will not penalize my readers for another person’s error. That is final.” 

The National Office Against Pornography and Illegal Publications (SHDF) has not replied to inquiries for a statement, according to the editor.

All artwork by Isabelle Broad. 

Read more: