After Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, publishers around the world rushed to print copies of his books—none more enthusiastically than China’s infamous book pirates. In China, where piracy is so blatant that street booksellers hawk illegal copies of Mo’s work in front of his house, counterfeiting is rampant and prosecution infrequent. In the case of Mo, the authorities have made some effort to crack down; on April 9, 2013, the Haidian People’s Court sentenced bookseller Wan Yongshen to six months in jail, and fined him 2000 yuan, for violating copyright and pirating Mo’s books, and announced plans to pursue and prosecute illegal book production. Mo Yan is perhaps the most prominent case, but far from the only writer to fall victim to this pervasive practice.
I am also one of the many writers in China deeply affected by piracy. I write books about major political issues in China most of which become bestsellers. After my books are published, pirated copies routinely surface within a month or two. Pirating follows my books like a shadow, a shadow that I can’t shake.
I maintain two libraries of my own books: the ones I’ve actually published, and a few dozen copies of the pirated editions. In 2002, Shanghai TV invited me to display my collection as part of a televised discussion of piracy. I needed the driver’s help to get the huge suitcase into the car. “Why is this box so heavy?” the driver asked. “Pirated books,” I replied. He looked surprised: “So many.” At the station, the display filled two tables. I became a guide for the other guests and journalists on where I’d bought the books, and how I’d come across them.
Pirating Gone Underground: An “Urban Guerrilla Force”
My personal introduction to piracy was jarringly public. The first time I discovered a pirated edition of one of my books was on May 12, 1994. I belong to the Shanghai Writers’ Association, and often browse the private bookstands near the SWA office. One day, I noticed many of my books for sale. One was “published by” the Writers Publishing House and titled Selected Works of Ye Yonglie. I picked up a copy of my book The Life of Jiang Qing, with an unfamiliar, oddly crude cover, and was shocked to find it was a pirate edition.
The book’s cover had the same design as the original Writers Publishing House edition, but was actually a photoreproduction, so the colors were distorted and the image was murky; the paper was of poor quality. Even more brash, the copyright page reproduced the original notice: “All rights reserved. Violators will be prosecuted.”
As the authorities have started tackling these sellers with more force, books are being sold by “urban guerrillas”: two or three people riding a tricycle pulling a cart of books. One or two people can keep a lookout as another sells.
I’ve also seen a single cyclist with a box of twenty books on the back of his bicycle. He rides his bike to a bus stop, where he sells books to waiting passengers while maintaining a lookout. He brings only twenty or thirty books, but has a storeroom nearby, and restocks whenever he has sold enough. This way, even if the authorities detain the sellers, they can seize only the books on hand.
These “guerrilla soldiers” don’t keep a set spot: they get hit once by the police, and they change places. They come out after 5PM, when the authorities have left work. Some, brashly, go into downtown Shanghai to peddle books in broad daylight. It’s the same in other cities; when I travel, I “harvest” plenty of pirated editions of my more well-known works.
In January 2009, my book The Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four was published in three volumes by People’s Daily Press. Pirated copies started appearing just over a month later. My publisher informed me that pirated copies of all three volumes, printed on rough paper and with ads on the back covers, were found in Tongzhou District, about twelve miles from Beijing. Immediately after this version appeared, a competing pirated edition , which combined the three volumes into two, turned up in Zhengding, in Hebei province, about 160 miles from Beijing. I wasn’t surprised. Another book of mine, In and Out of the Storm, published by Beijing October Arts and Literature Publishing House, was also pirated after about a month, in a much smaller format. My Deng Xiaoping Changed China, published in 2012, appeared in a similar illegal version shortly after it was published.
Two readers in Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province, wrote me to report that they were enjoying my History Chose Mao, published by Hainan Press. I thought this strange, as not only did I publish History Chose Mao with Shanghai People’s Press, but I have never published through Hainan Press. I realized they were reading pirated copies. I immediately sent these two readers the original in return for their pirated copies, which I added to my shadow library.
My book Mao’s Secretaries was published by Shanghai People’s Press, too, but the pirated edition comes from the nonexistent Central Literature Press. In Yantai, Shandong province, outside Yantaishan Hospital, I bought a book called Mysteries of Mao’s Secretaries Explained; this was another pirated copy of my book Mao’s Secretaries. In place of an ISBN, the book bore an ISSN from a magazine called Waves, with editorial offices in “Nantian Square, Building 7, Office Block D, Haikou.” I called the Department of Culture for Hainan province and found out not only that Waves magazine didn’t exist, but there wasn’t even a Nantian Square.
My book The Life of Jiang Qing, the first I discovered in an illegal edition, has been the most pirated, with almost a dozen different versions. The most ludicrous changed the descriptive text on the top right corner of the cover from “Ye Yonglie: Selected Works” to “First Lady of the Communist Party.” That pirated edition also has many typographical errors. I found four in the first five lines alone: “who” became “hard”; Mao’s daughter’s name, Li Na, became Li Xiang; Mao’s second wife, He Zizhen, became Mao Zizhen; and He Zizhen’s sister, Mao’s sister-in-law, went from He Yi to He Tai. These errors were the result of hasty, unskilled typesetting on outdated equipment. But now that pirates have started using new scanning technology, the quality of counterfeits has reached a new level.
I am one of the authors of One Hundred Thousand Questions, a series of science books for children published in twelve volumes by New Century Press in September 1999. Within four months, five different pirated versions appeared. Counterfeiting the entire set couldn’t have been easy. But the pirated editions are almost identical to the original, including the covers. The book even bore the standard reprint disclaimer: “There are no typograpical errors in this edition of One Hundred Thousand Questions, unless they were present in the original.”
As advances in technology have facilitated print piracy, the rise of the Internet has led to extensive illegal online publication. Hundreds of Web sites have used my work without my consent. “Works of Ye Yonglie” actually chosen and edited by other people appear all over the Internet. One particularly bad offender, the deceptively-named Web site Constitution Net, has reproduced my entire book Detective in White, claiming it as an “exclusive.” If even a site with the official-sounding name of Constitution Net violates copyright, then what compunctions would other Web sites have?
Another Form of Piracy: False Authorship
In addition to the many rows of pirated editions of my books, my library includes other counterfeit books with my byline. To date, I have collected fifty-four titles purported to be written by me. I’ve discovered four others advertised on the Internet for which I haven’t been able to find copies.
In 1994, Time Literature and Art Press notified me that the wife of Wang Jiaxiang (an early senior Communist Party member, and former member of the Chinese Politburo), Zhu Zhongli, intended to sue both the publishing house and me. I was confused by the call until I found out about a book called The Secret Life of Jiang Qing credited to me as the author and Time Literature and Art Press as the publisher. Time Literature and Art Press had published my book The Life of Jiang Qing, but not The Secret Life. Zhu Zhongli claimed that she was the author of The Secret Life of Jiang Qing, which she wrote under the penname Zhu Shan and published with Hong Kong’s Morning Star Publishing in 1987. Later, Zhu edited the manuscript and published it as Empress Dream: Unofficial Biography of Jiang Qing with Oriental Press. It was this edition that was credited to “Ye Yonglie.”
If this work was obviously written by Zhu Zhongli, the publisher and author asked, then why was my name on the cover? Was I, a pirated author, a pirate myself? Of course, Time realized that this had to be a pirated edition. When they advised People’s Publishing House of this, it withdrew its complaint. Zhu Zhongli contacted me through the Author Rights Protection Committee of the Chinese Writers’ Association; when she found out that the illegal booksellers had victimized us both, she dropped her suit as well.
After this event, many fake books started appearing under my name. In 2001, when I told an old classmate of mine in L.A. that I was going to Vancouver, she replied that “China’s most wanted fugitive,” Lai Changxing, was in Vancouver, and that I should go interview him. I was confused; why would she mention Lai to me? We realized she’d read a fake book about Lai that appeared under my name in the US.
I published three books—Red Beginnings, History Chose Mao, and Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek—as the Red Trilogy. Illegal booksellers capitalized on that to produce a Black Trilogy, too, comprising the salacious volumes The Real Case of Lai Changxing (supposedly published by Yuanfang People’s Publishing House), Yang Yuying and Drunken High Officials (Baihua Literature and Art Press), and Three Stars and Their Nights and Days with Lai Changxing in Brothels (Chinese Literature Press). Later, I found a fake book published by Chinese Literature Press under my name called Lai Changxing’s Assistant.
Not only were my photo and bio reprinted on the jacket of the fake book Yang Yuying and Drunken High Officials, but the book also brazenly stated that the author was “the real Ye Yonglie,” not another writer of the same name. As People.com.cn wrote about the case: “Faced with a few dozen fake books, the writer Ye Yonglie looked exasperated. Faced with Three Stars and Lai Changxing and other kinds of pornographic books, Ye Yonglie was livid: ‘Why would I write something as trashy as this?’”
2003 was a particularly prolific year for me. At the end of 2002 the Sixteenth Party Congress was held in China, and new faces started appearing in the Politburo. Many readers were curious about these new key political Chinese figures, and as legitimate publishers rushed literature about the high levels of the Chinese Communist Party into print, the illegal market followed suit. The books falsely attributed to me reached unprecedented numbers. These included New Leaders in Zhongnanhai, Life of Hu Jintao, The New Premier Wen Jiabao, New Directions in Politics, Secrets in the Highest Levels, Spring and Autumn, New Figures, Secret Rumors in the High Levels, and Explosive Secrets. That year twenty-nine books appeared under my name: seven of which I'd actually written, and twenty-two counterfeits. My shadow output outpaced my real production.
These are only a few examples. Bootlegs and fake books have seriously violated my rights and harmed my reputation. But whereas I’m in the spotlight, the pirate booksellers are hiding in the dark. If I wanted to take someone to court, I wouldn’t know where to find a defendant.
Prosecuting piracy and protecting intellectual copyright: these are serious tasks for China after its entry into the WTO. As suggested by the Mo Yan case, some progress has been made in recent years. But China doesn’t have a complete and healthy legal system; the road to anti-piracy, and anti-fraud, is still long and arduous. I hope the Chinese government will continue to crack down, protect intellectual copyrights of all its authors, and eradicate, or at least curb, this shadow market. Until then, I’ll keep looking for—and, I’m afraid, finding—more additions for my library.
This essay was expanded from a post appearing on the author's blog and appears here by arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Alice Xin Liu. All rights reserved.