Chen Xiwo - offer readers a disturbingly brilliant take on topics like rape, incest, S&M, impotence, and voyeurism, and explore links between sexual and political deviance. In I Love My Mum, a disabled man who is in an incestuous relationship with his mother, at her demand and using a whip she provides, beats her to death


The Book of Sins
Chen Xiwo, The Book of Sins, Trans. by Nicky Harman. Fortysix, 2014.




A dark tale of moral corruption.' --Prospect.


An edgy exploration of the dark side of the human psyche by one of China's leading dissident writers. Seven novellas traverse a landscape of sexual and political deviance. The Book of Sins' caused an international sensation after the author sued the Chinese government for banning the book.
Both terrifying and addictive The Book of Sins will bring a major writer and dissident Chinese voice to wider UK prominence. The book's seven linked novellas . In Bin Laden's Kidney, a resident of an exclusive gated community indulges in voyeuristic fantasies about the sex life of his neighbours. In Going To Heaven, the young son of a village undertaker tries to convince his friend to enter a suicide pact. At the top of the banned list in China, The Book of Sins is an unforgettable journey to the dark side of the human psyche.


There are sins aplenty in the seven stories that make up The Book of Sins, but the English title is misleading: the Chinese title, 冒犯书, is much closer to the mark: this is -- or at least tries, very hard, to be -- an 'offensive book'. A short introduction warns as much, of what lies ahead; it -- and each save the final story -- closes with the questioning reminder:
Are you sure about this ?
You can shut the book now.
Do you choose to read on ? 

       The novel has an epigraph taken from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch:
You have corrupted my imagination and inflamed my blood. I am beginning to enjoy all this.
       And there's a strong streak of masochism to the collection, characters wallowing in pain and misery. For may of them it is not straightforward enjoyment that leads them to this, but they are driven to it by urges and needs they can not fight or resist -- most obviously and shockingly the crippled young man in 'I Love My Mum', whose sexual longings lead to catastrophe.
       Much of the pain and suffering here is physical, beginning with the opening story, 'Pain', its narrator losing herself in her pain: "I was just in pain. Pain. Pure pain !" But in some cases the situation is more complex, as in 'Our Bones', in which a man describes his parents' quest: having lived through so much hardship, they find themselves dissatisfied with a modern world in which they can, for example, eat any sort of meal they like. They long for the simple gourd bone soup that had been such a hard-to-come-by treat in earlier, much harder times, but find it almost impossible to get nowadays. They try to buy gourd bones from various butchers to make their own, but refuse to take the offered bones when the butchers refuse payment for the worthless stuff: it only has value to them when there is at least some nominal cost associated with it, and not having to pay for the ingredients that were once so precious to them ruins their attempt to recapture those sensations of yore.
       The old couple articulate a variation of what many of the characters feel:
     When I look back, the more hardship we suffered, the more fun it was.
       In other cases there is no such retrospective recognition; rather, the characters learn to enjoy pain for the first time. Like the voyeur in 'Kidney Tonic', they find themselves drawn into something dark, losing all interest and will to try to escape it, a contrast to their limited, often boring day-to-day-lives; almost all are also drawn all-in, like leaping from a ledge. But Chen doesn't go for the entirely predictable, either, and so when one character is literally drawn to a high cliff and the thought of leaping into the abyss, in 'Going to Heaven', the story doesn't play out in the most obvious manner.
       These are well-told tales, but they are dark and often very ugly. It's not just the guts and gore and ejaculate on display (though, yeah, semen does not make for a pretty picture here -- so much for the seed of life), but what the people themselves are reduced to. In part a reaction to the modern Chinese ennui -- the one-child policy and the breakneck-speed modernization (and with it all the changes to the fabric of society) are among the factors that play significant roles in several of the pieces --, The Book of Sins is also a more general (dark) look at contemporary man. While the masochistic turns can seem exaggerated, much here strikes close to home far beyond China, too. - M.A.Orthofer



It’s unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping has read much if anything by Chen Xiwo 陈 希我 but we can safely assume that if he did he would not approve.
Xi recently told Chinese artists and writers that “Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles”, and there few exhilarating bursts of sunshine or gentle spring breezes in Chen’s angry short stories. Instead Chen paints a picture of contemporary Chinese society in painful transition between the totalitarian, conformist Mao era and the chaotic, money-grabbing present-day that is suffused with sexual anxiety. Graphic images of physical deformity, voyeurism, masturbation and incest make for a disturbing read, but the seven short stories in this collection have been fluently translated by Nicky Harman and for all the grimness The Book of Sins (Chinese title: 冒犯书)is full of surprises that make one carry on reading.
The author lived in Japan from 1989 to 1994, and now teaches comparative literature at Fuzhou Normal University in southern China. Like authors such as Yukio Mishima and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki Chen’s stories are full of sexual torment and moral ambiguity. But they are leavened with a certain bleak humour and by occasional dashes of magical realism, especially in Going to Heaven, a tale told by the young son of a village undertaker who makes friends with a Daoist monk who he believes wants to die before him so he can rush off to heaven and grab the boy’s sister’s mobile phone.
Kidney Tonic is the story of a successful but impotent businessman who develops a voyeuristic obsession with his neighbour whom he watches masturbating. The neighbour’s wife is arrested for getting hold of the kidney of an executed gangster known as Bin Laden which she plans to give to her husband as an aphrodisiac, but the businessman bribes an official at the detention centre where she is being held to get her out. The theme of cannibalism in modern Chinese literature as a metaphor for social exploitation goes back to the great early 20th century writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 and in recent times there have been frequent reports of executed prisoners’ organs being harvested for transplants, and Chen successfully combines these two themes to depict the cruelty and ruthlessness that permeate contemporary Chinese society.
Sometimes Chen is more explicit in his political commentary. In Pain, a woman who is wracked by constant pain recalls how her mother
“…would tell me how her generation had lived – putting things to rights after the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up period, respecting education, developing the economy, the fight against corruption, the progress towards a glorious future.
”Your generation is so lucky, what more do you want? You just don’t know how lucky you are…’
“But the word ‘glorious’ was like hitting a gleaming pain of reinforced glass – I was in more pain than ever.
“‘What more do I want? I want to be happy!’ I shouted. ‘You think I’m really happy? I’m in pain. I’ve been in pain since I was born! You shouldn’t have had me if you couldn’t give me happiness. Why shouldn’t I go and look for happiness myself?'”
Not surprisingly Chen has frequently fallen foul of Chinese censors and the stories in The Book of Sins have only been published in China in highly bowlderised form. But Chen is a determined individual and in an unprecedented move he took the Chinese customs service to court when an imported copy from Taiwan was confiscated as pornography in 2007. Not surprisingly he was unsuccessful, but he appealed and had the following conversation at the appeal hearing:
“Please can the Customs Office tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you. We have explained this to the court.”
“In that case, could your Honour tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you,’ responded the judge.
Chen wrote to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress with a further appeal, he writes on the website of the London-based Free Word Centre, but received no reply.
“The whole thing reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, where the unfortunate K was banged up in prison for reasons that neither he nor his captors were allowed to know. They were smothered by something intangible: ‘the system’. In the same way, as long as power is concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party in China, then anyone can become a ‘criminal’. We are not just talking about ordinary folk. Liu Shaoqi, second-in-command to Chairman Mao, was imprisoned and so badly treated that he died. And there’s Zhou Yongkan[g], member of the Politburo Standing Committee until 2012 and currently held on corruptions charges. No doubt his trial, even if it is ‘public’, will be just as much of a politically-motivated farce.”
These are extremely brave words by an author whose writings the Chinese government views as highly provocative and who must live in constant fear of arrest. But the author’s given name Xiwo, a pen name, means something like “take hope in me” and he is in real life no snarling nihilist but a friendly, soft spoken individual who clearly enjoys life. He told me when I met him in London recently that his position in the Japanese rather than Chinese literature department of his university gave him a modicum of protection. But he is treading on dangerous ground and he will need all the protection he can get. - Michael Rank


“Is being alive really such a big deal?  I’m not sure. What’s the point of living like a contented pig, without a scrap of dignity?” Chinese author Chen Xiwo’s short introduction to The Book Of Sins certainly sets the tone for the seven novellas and his warning “Are you sure about this? You can shut the book now. Do you choose to read on?” – makes you wonder what on earth you’re getting yourself into.
Banned by the Chinese authorities, The Book Of Sins is an English PEN award-winner and the first of Chen Xiwo’s works to be published in English. In it, he examines the degradation of society and claims to explore the dark side of the human psyche. Unfortunately, barring the eating of live monkey brains in Kidney Tonic, the stories are just not that horrifying and instead read a bit like a news report, especially with the old couple stealing bones in Our Bones and the spiralling fall of an addict in Pain. Of course, that could be the result of an extremely jaded reader or the fact that society continues to boast its sexual and political deviance on a near daily basis. But for whatever reason, even I Love My Mum, the tale of a disabled son who has his only sexual relationship with his mother and is then convicted of her murder, barely provokes a reaction. The Man With The Knife short story ends the book on a note of self-castration which mostly left me shaking my head in disbelief; would someone really go that far seemingly without much provocation? I guess that’s the kind of self-analysing question Xiwo wants us to ask about our societies.
It took 20 years and Xiwo suing the Chinese government for his work to be published in China but he remains defiant, stating in his 2010 essay, The First Prohibition, “I prefer to be this kind of evil spirit, rather than an angel who sings all day long in praise of some golden age of China.” That kind of talk, along with the book’s ‘warning’ and the front cover’s evil-looking skull smoking a cigarette with the seven deadly sins listed, makes for quite a build up. But the stories here just felt flat, with any satirical edge hard to see. Characters felt rather ordinary and everyday, the stories overall lacking in substance. I expected, and finished wanting, more. - Claire Inman






Chen Xiwo, I Love My Mum, Modern Chinese Masters, 2012.


"'I Love My Mum' caused an international sensation in 2007 after the author sued the Chinese customs when they confiscated the Chinese version published in Taiwan. 'I Love My Mum' is a shocking tale of murder and incest and a powerful metaphor for corruption in modern Chinese society. The story is narrated by a hardened crime squad detective who is used to the seamy side of life. But even he has never come across a murder case like this. And the same is guaranteed for the reader."


Chen Xiwo has been described by Asia Sentinel as: “one of China’s most outspoken voices on freedom of expression.” His refusal to self-censor his controversial work meant he’d been writing for nearly 20 years before his books could be published in China, although he found publication in Taiwan.  In June 2007, the China Customs intercepted the galley proof of The Book of Sins, which had been mailed to Chen by his Taiwanese publisher. The book was banned in China.  Chen launched a legal challenge  against the government for the prohibition and an uproar exploded in the Chinese media at the absurdity of a writer having his own book confiscated.
In a 2010 essay, The First Prohibition, Chen Xiwo wrote: “To be prohibited is normal for me. Basically, everything I have published has either been banned or else extensively revised…This is my style of writing, although lots of people don’t understand why I want to write this way. It embarrasses them. It makes people unhappy, makes them anxious. Well I prefer to be this kind of evil spirit, rather than an angel who sings all day long in praise of some ‘golden age of China.’”



Author, publisher and translator on tour  By Nicky Harman                         
Having translated the posts for Chen Xiwo's online residency at Free Word, translator Nicky Harman reflects back on her author's recent book tour, to promote his 'Book of Sins'. Read more

Working with Laowai       By Chen Xiwo                         
In his fourth blog as Free Word's Online Writer in Residence, Chinese novelist Chen Xiwo talks about how foreigners - especially translators - are perceived in China.   Read more
  • Sex, power and censorship: Writing like de Sade      By Chen Xiwo                         
  • What can the Marquis de Sade teach us about contemporary China? In the third post of his online residency, Chen Xiwo explains how sex, power and censorship are inextricably linked in contemporary China. Read more

    A Kafka-esque trial     By Chen Xiwo                       
    The Chinese government banned Chen Xiwo's book, so he sued them. In the second post of his online residency, the Chinese novelist explains what happened next. Read more

    Dancing with shackles on       By Chen Xiwo                         
    Chen Xiwo is one of China's most outspoken, and most censored, novelists. He's also our new online writer in residence. Over the next few months he'll be posting about writing under the shadow of censorship, with the help of our former translator in residence, Nicky Harman. Read more


    Time Out speaks to the rebellious author of My Dissipation and Book of Offenses
    Profile: Chen Xiwo


    Chen is recognised as one of the most outspoken voices in Chinese literature and regularly airs his views on freedom of expression for the country’s writers. He has written seven major novels, but because of his refusal to compromise on style or political content, it’s taken almost 20 years for his work to be published. He famously sued the Government after Chinese Customs officials in Fujian confiscated his Book of Offenses. His works have been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Chinese Literature Media Prize in 2001 for My Dissipation. He currently teaches comparative literature at Fuzhou Normal University.
    Notable works An English translation of what is perhaps his most famous work, I Love My Mum, was published in 2010. The book is a shocking tale of murder and incest narrated by a hardened vice-squad detective, and serves as a powerful metaphor for corruption in modern Chinese society.
    What’s next Chen’s new novel on Chinese emigration is set to be released next year.
    His place in Chinese literature ‘People say that I’ve zeroed in on the reality of society, but I don’t think so. I think I’ve zeroed in on the reality of people. I’m not offensive for the sake of being offensive. There are lots of writers who write about sex purely for the shock effect, but I’m trying to write about sex as a metaphor for human nature.’
    Sex ‘I’m interested in human nature and personalities, and the basis of our human nature is sex. There are feelings and desires that we can’t use language to express. Sex is the most concentrated and the deepest form of expression.’
    S&M ‘S&M deeply expresses something about human nature. We say that man has reason, and that man acts directly upon his own will: if you love me, then I will be happy; if you hate me, then I will be sad. But the truth is that sometimes if you abuse me I will be happier, and sometimes if I love you I will try to make you suffer. I think these ideas need to be deeply studied by literature.’
    Reaching Western readers ‘It’s very important to obtain a wider readership but more important is that I’ve been very unsuccessful in China’s publishing world. All of my writing has been partially censored or totally banned, so translation guarantees that my work is seen in its whole, intended form.’
    China ‘I’ve left China to go abroad before, and lived in Japan for many years. But I believe that a writer can not leave his or her own country for too long. If he leaves for too long, he becomes a tree without soil.’
    Future endeavours ‘I just finished a long novel. I wrote about the three periods of mass emigration in the 20th century. The first era is at the end of the Qing dynasty when Chinese people left to be menial labourers in Southeast Asia and a number of Western countries. The next period was during the 1980s when students went to attend graduate school abroad. Now, only those who have money can emigrate. Why? It’s because people with money don’t have a sense of security, but also because they have no hope for this country.’ - www.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Books__Film-Book_features/10735/Profile-Chen-Xiwo.html

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