China Banned My Book for Five Years—Then Let Me Go on a Book Tour

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 11:00 AM

See You Again, Old Beijing

My book was banned in China for five years. Then they cleared it—and let me visit on a book tour.

The author presenting during his book tour.
Michael Meyer speaks at the bookstore One Way Street Library in Beijing.

Courtesy of Michael Meyer

In a Taipei, Taiwan, radio studio, the host, who I’ve been told is a serious interviewer when it comes to books, begins: “Meyer. A Jewish name!”

“Sometimes,” I reply. “Not in my case.”

“And you’re from Minnesota!”


“The Bible Belt!”


In Beijing, where I sit for seven hours each day, meeting journalists one by one, a reporter asks, “What difficulties does a foreign writer face in China?” Answering this question again, I want to respond. “What can China learn from America’s destruction of historic neighborhoods?” Due process, I think. “Is there any time you want to leave China?” Happy to be here, I smile for the camera.

I’m nearing the end of a three-week promotional tour for the Chinese edition of my book The Last Days of Old Beijing, which details the three years I lived just south of Tiananmen Square in Dazhalan, the capital’s oldest neighborhood of hutong, the narrow lanes that lattice Beijing like canals do in Venice. With several locals, I had shared a dilapidated courtyard home—sans toilet and heat—recording both quotidian community doings and the largest, looming in the near future: the neighborhood’s destruction as the capital remade itself.

The English edition came out five years ago, but in China it was rumored to be banned not for its depiction of the sensitive subject matter of heritage preservation and relocation of residents, but because the introductory map of China shaded the island of Taiwan a different color than the mainland. I’ll never know for sure; writers don’t receive an explanatory letter on General of Administration of Press and Publication letterhead. In 2008, in Berkeley, Calif., at my first-ever radio interview for the English edition, I found myself seated next to the affable Salman Rushdie. After hearing I lived in China, he replied that all of his books were banned there. “Mine, too!” I boasted, with brash bonhomie. Banned brothers!

Not anymore. Last year, the book went to auction in China, resulting in both Taiwan and mainland editions. The differences between them are slight but telling: The cover of Taiwan’s is a warning-bright red with the image of a courtyard about to bite the dust, under the headline moniker The Disappearance of Old Beijing. The mainland’s cover is a warm blue image of a three-wheel bicycle against the backdrop of a construction site and the more wistful See You Again, Old Beijing. Place the books side-by-side: pessimism and optimism.

Meyer's book jackets from (left) Taiwan and (right) mainland China.
Meyer's book jackets from (left) Taiwan and (right) mainland China.

This simultaneous release and tour on both sides of the strait is unprecedented. One of the first questions Taiwanese and Hong Konger journalists and audiences ask is: “What was cut from the mainland edition?” Surprisingly, that’s also one of the first questions mainland journalists and audiences ask. Also surprisingly: Very little was cut. Of the book’s 400 pages, less than one page was excised: the artist Ai Weiwei cursing Beijing’s leaders (though not a paragraph noting how he distanced himself from the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium as a piece of propaganda). An entry from the neighborhood’s official gazetteer noting the local government office’s actions at the climax of 1989’s demonstrations centered at Tiananmen Square. Funniest was a pair of text messages sent by an American architect at a municipal planning meeting, noting the presence of a teenage mistress noisily sucking a lollipop on the arm of a middle-aged man. The follow-up text read: “Update: man is the mayor.” Gone.

Of course, an author being published in China does not know why something is cut or by whom. Your manuscript comes back with the changes, take it or leave it—and some authors have opted out, notably Peter Hessler with Oracle Bones, though his other books have been translated into Chinese with cuts similar to mine. Even these minor cuts felt major at the time—since mollified by readers’ responses to the content that remained. Better 400 pages of book than no book at all. In China, you take what you can get.


The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.