The Red Piano Won’t Play in China

In Feature Articles by Andrew Wilkins

By Andrew Wilkins

The Red PianoWhen I bought the English language rights to a beautiful children’s picture book, The Red Piano, from French publisher Editions du Sorbier earlier this year, I wasn’t really thinking I would have censorship problems.

While the book is a fictional retelling of a real episode from China’s Cultural Revolution, the author is Canadian, the illustrator French and I am from Australia.

But then I had to print it. I contacted my usual printer in China and told them about the book.

“Sorry,” came their response, “If it mentions Mao and the Cultural Revolution, there’s no way it will get passed the censor. We can’t do it.”

My initial reaction was irritation. Why should some Chinese censor be telling me what I can and cannot print? What’s more, the Cultural Revolution ended way back 1976. Why would anyone still have an interest in preventing people from reading about it?

This isn’t the first that I’d heard of Chinese printers rejecting foreign books for censorship reasons. Last year, a fellow Australian publisher was told their atlas couldn’t be printed because it featured Tibet as a separate country. The more publishers I talk to, the more such anecdotes I hear.

I printed my edition in Singapore instead—slightly more expensive but equal in quality— and the book is now out in Australia.
Ironically, the fact that <em>The Red Piano</em> couldn’t be printed in China is now a selling point. Sales have been brisk and Amnesty International has helped us promote the book. My passing brush with censorship has also piqued my interest in China’s dark and heavily censored history. I’ll publish a second book next year, this time for adults, and expect the second book to do even better.

At the heart of publishing is the idea that no-one has a monopoly on the truth and that the truth is open to interpretation. That’s what makes publishing such a dynamic and interesting industry. That’s why the Frankfurt Book Fair exists.

Even as I share the excitement of seeing China as this year’s Guest of Honour, I’m also concerned that we have a Guest that still seems interested in censoring not only its own people, but the rest of the world as well when it can. If the official Chinese delegation takes one message home from this year’s fair, I hope that it’s this: censorship of the truth is self-defeating. Somehow, somewhere, the truth gets out. And it’s not to be feared.

Andrew Wilkins is the publisher of Wilkins Farago in Australia.

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.