‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ : A Banned Book on the Health of a Nation


Stick Out Your Tongue, originally Stick out your tongue or you’ll have nothing (亮 出你的舌苔或空空荡荡) was first published in China in 1987. The book, a collection of five short stories, depicts Tibet in an exotic and sexualized way, and evoked strong reactions from both Chinese as Tibetan people. The printing of Stick Out Your Tongue (SOYT) lead to the “Ma Jian Affair,” which is called one of the biggest scandals in modern Chinese literature (Schiaffini 2004: 37). The book was instantly banned by the government. The writer, Ma Jian (马建) went into exile. He is now living in England.

SOYT was targeted as an anti-nationalistic book, and as “a vulgar, obscene” book, that, according to the Chinese government “defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots” (Lovett 2006). This reaction shows how much nationalism and literature are actually connected. In this essay I will explore the relationship between the Chinese nation and literature. I will argue that SOYT is not an anti-nationalistic book per se, but a book that goes against the way China “thinks the nation”, to speak in Benedict Anderson’s terms (Anderson 1983: 22).

Chinese Literature & Canon

Every nation has its own literature. “Literature” is mostly seen as an established body of classics; an evolving canon of acknowledged masterpieces (Damrosch 2003). What “literature” means and what the contents of this canon are depends on the nation and the culture. The “canon” is a metaphorical notion, since it refers to the collection of highly regarded literary works that assume a different appearance at different moments in different situations and for different groups of people. An important function of the national canon is that it represents the national identity; national literature is the mirror of the specific character of a nation (Corse 1997; Van Dijk 1999). How this identity is established will be different for each country. A big part of the Western concept of “literature”, for example, evolves around fiction. In the Chinese traditional concept of literature, however, there is little room for fiction. According to Chinese literary tradition, history is the embodiment of the highest truth. For centuries, fiction was never part of the Chinese canon (Idema&Haft 1996).

For over 3000 years literature has played an important role in Chinese society. Today it is still a significant part of Chinese culture. An important aspect of Chinese literary tradition is the inseparable relation between literature and politics. In the old days, people saw the state of society as a reflection of the ruler. Since literature and society are closely connected, the conditions of the nation’s literature were also seen as a mirror of the ruler. Literature actually served the emperor. Therefore, censoring or banning literary works that did not stroke with the government’s line of thinking was considered normal (Idema&Haft 1996).

The year 1912 marked the end of the Chinese dynasties. The official commencement of the People’s Republic of China took place in 1949. The period in between these years is a tumultuous time that meant a lot for Chinese literary reforms. The classical Chinese (wenyanwen) was no longer the official written language; people now started to write in baihua, the spoken language. This made literature more accessible to the people. The traditional examination system was also abolished in 1905. It was especially this examination system that kept the traditional canon alive. Now, with the end of the examination system and the eradication of classical language, a new canon of literary works started to be formed. Fictional works were also included in the canon. A new mainstream literature was firmly established by 1920. The controllers of this new canon were the new intellectuals, who worked together with the government by producing politically acceptable work. The state supported intellectuals and writers by giving them salaries (McDougall&Louie 1997). In 1942 Mao Zedong presented his view on art and literature at Yan’an: “Art and literature serve the “people”- workers, peasants, soldiers, not the petty bourgeoisie, students or intellectuals- and, above all, serve the revolutionary cause” (Schoppa 2000: 98). Later on the gap between intellectuals and government became almost unbridgable. Writers who did not propagate communism in their work were accused of being enemies of the nation. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) officially there were only 126 books that were approved for publishing (Lan Yang 1998: 4). After Mao died in 1976, China had to re-discover its identity. The confusion and insecurity that came with this process was especially noticeable in the literary world. The Party said it would allow more freedom of press, but still the government was closely involved in what could be published or not. In 1981, the government called on writers to “voluntarily suppress a certain amount of darkness and put on a cheerful appearance” (Chan 1988: 89). The government constantly changed its policy on literature and censorship. In 1989 the debate on the influence the government had over the freedom of the people reached a boiling point on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students protested for freedom and reforms. After the protest was violently beat down by the Party, many writers fled the country. Today, the Chinese guidelines on literature are still not clear. As Ma Jian says: “It’s the same today. A publisher and his family could be destroyed because of a single word. (…) There are no official do’s and don’ts” (Hui 1996).

In a way Chinese literature is still serving the government. According to the government, there is chaos in the whole nation when there is chaos in literature. This is how it has always been. From this perspective, the Chinese concept of literature has not changed a lot in roughly 3000 years.

Literature & Nationalism

Literature provides a powerful perspective in the study of the nation as a cultural force. Literature is an important vehicle for nationalism, just as nationalism serves as a vehicle for literature. For literature, the nation serves as a symbolic force. The nation has become a system of cultural signification, and is often used as a metaphor. On the other hand, national culture is formed through national narrative. It is exactly those traditions of literature that turn the nation into a powerful idea (Bhabha 1990). In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson also points out that nationalism and printed literature are closely connected. According to Anderson, the world is made up of “imagined communities” that we call nations. It is imagined because the members of a nation, no matter small or big, will never know, meet nor hear from most of the members, yet still in their minds they have the idea that they somehow belong together. Anderson shows that nationalism actually is a product of “print capitalism” (novels and newspapers), since printed language was commodified and so provided a way to represent the nation (or, as Anderson says: the kind of imagined community that is the nation). Through shared print language, people could start ‘thinking the nation’, imagine themselves as part of a bigger community. Language is a key-factor in the formation of the imagined nation, since language made it able for people to identify with each other. In this way, in China, the transition from the use of classical language to the normal vernacular, the ‘baihua’, was essential in turning literature into a vehicle for nationalism.

In China, the literary canon is specifically formed in order to represent a sense of nationalism, since the government is so involved in the literary world. And so, by censoring certain books, like SOYT, China sets one culture as the imperialist culture. A hierarchy of culture is a hierarchy of one kind of nationalism.

The “Ma Jian Affair”

Stick Out Your Tongue resumes where Red Dust, Ma Jian’s first book, left off. Ma Jian traveled to Tibet after three years of running for the authorities and wrote a book about his experiences. He sought spiritual clarity in Tibet and expected to find a deeper insight into Buddhist fate; a soulful place, where life was simple and idyllic. Instead, he found a surrendered people living in unrecognizable poverty. Tibet was nothing like he had expected; people were poor and the atmosphere was tense. Temples lay in ruins, and a lot of monks seemed to chase economic dreams instead of spiritual ones (Ma 1987: 82). His image of Tibet was crushed. SOYT is the result of the realization that Tibet is not some spiritual paradise on earth.

SOYT is almost a dream-like novel. Short stories sketch a dark image of remote grasslands and dilapidated temples; a secretive, haunted place. The book tells about how an ageing pilgrim reveals why he gave everything away in a Buddhist penance before walking into the mountains to die. One scene gives a detailed description of a sky burial, which was once a common funerary practice in Tibet wherein a human corpse is cut into pieces and placed on a mountaintop, so that birds of prey could eat the flesh. Later on, the bones of the body would be crushed with an axe. Although not common anymore, this ritual is still practiced in Tibet nowadays. Other stories tell about incest and rape.

SOYT enraged the Chinese and the Tibetans. The latter accused Ma Jian of being misinformed and acting disrespectful to the Tibetans. The situation, which was called the “Ma Jian affair”, was on the verge of escalating. In order to avoid ethnic riots in Tibet, the Chinese immediately banned the book (Schiaffini 2004).

The Tibet-China conflict remains a sensitive issue in China. There are still many people that support the proposition that Tibet was, and should be, independent of China. Others support the stance that Tibet was historically a part of China, and is simply part of the Chinese nation today. In fact, the conflict over Tibet’s status has been one over history (Sperling 2004). Instead of seeing Tibet as a place of conflict, corruption and civil wars, many would rather see the place as a mythical place of peace and harmony. A main reason for protest in the Tibet-China conflict has always been ideology (Zizek 2008).

Ma Jian’s harsh stories about Tibet crush the way China “thinks” the nation. Tibet is part of China, and, like the government said, the stories Ma Jian wrote defamed the image of the Tibetan compatriots (Lovett 2006). Like Bhabha says:

Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries – both actual and conceptual – disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities (Bhabha 1990: 300).

Stick Out your Tongue disturbs the image of the nation as China would like to see it. It was therefore called an “anti-nationalistic” book, and was forever banned from the literary scene of China. A book that does not help to create the image of the nation as China would like to see it, does not deserve a place in China’s literary world, let alone in China’s national literary canon.

The Health of the Nation

What does it actually mean to “stick out your tongue”? “Stick out your tongue” is not the name of any of the stories, nor do the stories have anything to do with it. Ma Jian uses the expression to summarize the message he brings with the book. Sticking out the tongue is used by Chinese doctors to diagnose a patient’s health condition. According to Fatima Wu (2006), Ma Jian uses this expression similarly since he sees Tibet as a spiritual haven in which he will be able to find salvation. However, I feel the title of the book explains something else: the “health” to which Ma Jian refers to is not his own, but rather the health of the Chinese nation.

Tibet has become a holy place in the images of people. The Tibetans dress up in ethnic clothing for the tourists who come and visit, and wear their normal clothes when they leave. During official festivities like the Beijing Olympics 2008, China proudly lets their ethnic minorities parade in colourful traditional outfits. In the minds of many people, Tibet is tourist-spot, a peaceful place that is part of the big Chinese nation. In reality, Lhasa has become a polluted city like anywhere else in China. According to Ma Jian, the Chinese government has now discovered that spreading economic prosperity to Tibet is more effective than machine-guns and army tanks (Ma 88). In his afterword, Ma Jian notes how not only the Chinese but also the Western world idealizes Tibet:

The need to believe in an earthly paradise, a hidden utopia where men live in peace and harmony, seems to run deep in among those who are discontented with the modern world. Westerners idealize Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealize them is to deny them their humanity (89).

This is what Ma Jian could also aim at by “stick out your tongue”: a nation is not healthy when the sicknesses are hidden from view. By sticking out your tongue, and showing the weak spots, the nation becomes more humane. By depicting Tibet as a place where people also rape, kill, shit, and steal, he makes Tibet “just like the rest of us”, and thus makes it one with China. Tibet should not be untouchable. By being untouchable, Tibet is not really part of the nation.

This is why SOYT is not an anti-nationalistic book. It is a book about a writer who discovers that Tibet is not a place of spiritual awakening, but a place where the human condition can be as ugly as anywhere else. It is not a political attack on China. It is a perspective on humanity and truth.

In the interview with The Observer (Merritt 2006), Ma Jian says that Chinese writers cannot turn their eyes away from their country’s history of death and suffering. Ma Jian is not an activist for Tibet per se. He is a Chinese man who writes about his nation openly and honestly. Tibet is part of that nation. Ma Jian is the one who sticks out his tongue and shows the world that being sick, or being ugly, is also one part of China. If nobody “sticks out his tongue”, all that is left is an empty notion of the nation, an “imagined” nation that is not real. This is why the original title of the book is “stick out your tongue, or you’ll have nothing” (liangchu ni de shetou huo kongkongdangdang).

Tibetan Literature

A national literary canon helps “thinking” the nation, and therefore is a vehicle for nationalism. According to the Chinese, SOYT does not belong in the realms of China’s national literature. Literature about Tibet or by Tibetan writers, however, is not necessarily banned in China. The government officially states that since Tibet is part of China, and the 56 acknowledged ethnicities of China are “siblings”, there is no need to separate the works about Tibet produced by Tibetans from those produced by the Han (Schiaffini 2004: 88). Tibetan writers have the freedom to write on whatever, as long as they keep away from politics. Chinese oppression, however, has changed Tibet. The prohibition on teaching Tibetan culture and language during the madness of the Cultural Revolution has lead to great illiteracy. Many Tibetan intellectuals have also fled to India before the arrival of the Chinese. This has caused a lack of Tibetan writers, and thus a lack of voices from Tibet.

There have been a lot of Han Chinese who came to Tibet to write about it. In the first place people from the People’s Liberation Army came to Tibet to write propaganda from 1960 on. Secondly, a lot of Chinese youth has come to Tibet, inspired by the spiritual image of the region (Schiaffini 2004). Work by Chinese writer Ma Yuan, for example, was not censored in China. Ma Yuan wrote stories about Tibetan culture, religion and mysticism during his residence in Tibet between 1984-1987; around the same time that Ma Jian was there. Ma Yuan was called a rising star in the Chinese literary world (Zhao 1995). Like Ma Jian, he wrote dream-like stories on Tibet. Ma Yuan’s stories, however, were light; he wrote about a Tibet with fairy-tale like elements. Ma Yuan was also praised by the Tibetans themselves, who published his stories in the local Tibetan Literature (Xizang Wenxue) magazine.

Positive voices on Tibet, like Ma Yuan’s, are allowed in the literary scenes of China. Ma Jian does not belong there, according to them. But one could think of Ma Jian’s work as benefiting the nation.

SOYT: Part of the Nation

In my view, Ma Jian’s work could be seen as nationalistic, since it “thinks” the nation and narrates the nation, with some kind of benefit for China in mind. It may not be the same type of nationalism as the government has in mind; there is a difference in what nationalism is in the margin of narration and in the centre of politics.

Firstly, Tibet is a sort of ‘Other’ to China. The China/Tibet conflict lives on, and the cultures of Tibet and China are still very different. Ma Jian makes Tibet less different by making it less pretty. As Bhabha says: “The ‘Other’ is never outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously ‘between ourselves’” (1990: 4). Ma Jian, as a Han writer, imbeds the Other, Tibet, in national culture by showing that they are ultimately human, and thus Chinese as well. The government, however, does not see it this way.

Secondly, SOYT is a resistance to cultural supremacy. I already noted before how China sets one culture as the hierarchical culture and thus also sets one type of nationalism. In Nation and Narration Bhabha notes how certain traditions of writing attempt to construct narratives of the imaginary of the nation-people. In this way it actually destroys the national culture, since it is attempted to hark back the past and culture of all the people in one nation to one “true” national past, which is often represented in stereotypes(Bhabha 1990). SOYT does not participate in this tradition. This is exactly the reason why he is banned from China’s literature, but it is also the reason why you could say he adds something to the nation. He gives an alternative to the propagated way of describing the nation. And so, in my opinion, SOYT actually is a national literature since it represents the nation, in its own way, too.

Thirdly, to speak with the words of Fredric Jameson, “the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the collectivity itself” (cited in Bhabha 1990: 292). In other words, Ma Jian tells an individual story by which he actually tells a collective story of the nation as well.

Lastly, it is important to note that Tibet as a subject in Chinese literature has become the focus of attention in the late eighties exactly through the “Ma Jian Affair” (Schiaffini 2006). And in this way, although SOYT was banned, it still served a purpose in China’s national literature: to involve marginalized Tibet in the literary discourse that is at the core of the nation.


The fierce reactions of Tibetan and Chinese people to SOYT and the banning of the book itself reveal the close connection between the Chinese nation and literature. SOYT does not suit the way the way the Chinese, or the Tibetans for that matter, would like to imagine themselves, and therefore will not allow the book to be a part of the literary scene of China.

China, just like any other nation, is an imagined community. The way the nation is imagined, however, is heavily controlled and directed by the government. Nevertheless, the banning of SOYT does not extinguish the work. SOYT, in translation, lives on across the borders of China and in the underground circuits of the nation. At a certain point it will become clear that the imaginative is changing; there cannot only be one culture, one nationalism, or one type of literature. To speak with Bhabha’s words:“those imagined communities that played on the unisonant boundaries of the nation are singing with different voices” (319). If enough writers, like Ma Jian, keep sticking out their tongues, the “health” of the Chinese nation will greatly advance. If nobody sticks out his or her tongue anymore, there will, indeed, be nothing but emptiness.


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