The Lost Books of Modern China: Moral Censorship and the Preservation of “Obscene” Texts

A lecture by Professor Michel Hockx (University of Notre Dame)


This talk draws attention to linkages between the craft of writing and its legal context, as well as to the sometimes long-lasting consequences of legal restrictions for the preservation of literary material. The focus is on magazines and books published in China in the early twentieth century. In recent years, a wide variety of early modern Chinese print publications has resurfaced and been digitized. Yet it seems clear that a powerful combination of political ideology, moral taboo, and scholarly bias is excluding some types of publication from the emerging digitized canon.

Whereas political censorship in China has been studied extensively, the effects of moral taboos and scholarly bias on the preservation of printed material are unknown. There is evidence that persisting taboos (for instance on nudity or description of sexual acts) are having a direct impact on decisions made by Chinese scholars, librarians, and digitizers to ignore certain historical source materials, or to treat them in biased ways.

Taking the example of Meiyu 眉语 (Eyebrow Talk),  China’s first literary magazine edited for and by women, which was founded in 1914, banned in 1916, reprinted in 2004, and since then gradually digitized, this talk will draw attention to obscenity legislation as a relevant context for literary production and preservation, not just in China but throughout the world.



Michel Hockx is a professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Hockx previously served as professor of Chinese and director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London, where he oversaw a community of fifty China scholars in a dozen disciplinary departments. He has published widely, both in English and in Chinese, on topics related to modern Chinese poetry and literary culture, especially early 20th-century Chinese magazine literature and print culture and contemporary Internet literature. His latest book, Internet Literature in China, was listed by Choice magazine as one of the “Top 25 Outstanding Academic Titles of 2015.” His ongoing research focuses on the effects of moral censorship on the preservation and digitization of modern Chinese cultural products. Hockx studied Chinese language and literature at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he earned his Ph.D., and at Liaoning and Peking universities in China. In addition to his scholarly work, he has been active as a translator of modern Chinese literature into his native Dutch.

This event is sponsored by the CCK Foundation Inter-University Center for Sinology; hosted by the Modern Chinese Culture Seminar at UBC; and co-hosted by the UBC Department of Asian Studies and the UBC Centre for Chinese Research.