The Intermediate People's Court in Changchun in northeast China's Jilin Province ruled against novelist Hong Ying at the end of last month in a defamation case brought by Chinese-British woman Chen Xiaoying.
Chen had sued Hong Ying, who is also Chinese-British, for defamation of Chen's mother in the novel K: The Art of Love.
The court supported Chen's claim and ordered defendant Hong Ying to pay a fine of 100,000 yuan (US$12,000), plus all legal costs, which amount to a further 100,000 yuan according to invoices handed to the court by the plaintiff. In addition, the court verdict requires Hong to publish an apology in a national newspaper.
Chen's mother was Ling Shuhua (1900-90), a very well-known Chinese writer in the 1930s.
The Observer newspaper in London reported on the case in June and noted that, "under Western legal codes, all defamation actions cease with the death of individuals involved."
In contrast, the 1993 interpretation on libel suits handed down by the Supreme People's Court of China said that citizens have the right to sue for libel regarding close and direct family members within three generations of their death.
Another judicial interpretation handed down by the Supreme People's Court, which took effect on March 10 this year, stipulates that close relatives of the deceased have the right to sue for compensation for mental anguish when the deceased's reputation and right to privacy have been violated.
As a result, although both parties in the lawsuit are British citizens, Chen Xiaoying decided to take Hong to court in China.
Origin of the Case
Chen Xiaoying first sued Hong Ying for libel at Haidian People's Court in Beijing in April 2001 but the court rejected the lawsuit in July that year on the ground that both parties are British citizens.
The judge asked Hong where she wrote the novel. When she said "in Britain," the judge said that they should bring the lawsuit before a British court.
Chen appealed to Beijing Intermediate Court, which rejected the lawsuit in December last year.
Then Chen brought the case to the Changchun court, adding the Changchun-based magazine Chinese Writers and Sichuan Youth Daily as co-defendants. The magazine published several chapters of the novel and the newspaper has also serialized the novel.
In a statement Chen said Hong had based the novel on the life of Chen's mother Ling Shuhua and her father Chen Xiying but that Hong made up a lot of "disgusting" plot lines.
Chen said she believed that the publication of these chapters had damaged the reputations of her mother and father and caused her mental anguish.
Hong denied the accusation during the court hearing in June this year, saying that her book is only a work of fiction.
The Observer quoted Hong as saying that the visit to China by Julian Bell (1908-37), a real-life poet and nephew of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), was just a springboard for her imagination.
In the book, Bell meets a fictional Chinese woman surnamed Lin, with whom he has an affair.
Chen said she believes that the character represents her deceased mother.
Fu Guangming, a researcher with the China Research Institute of Modern Literature who acted as Chen's representative, was quoted by the Chinese media as saying that "Hong did stress that she was writing a 'pure novel'... but she may have forgotten that she repeatedly stated that she based her novel on true events, both in the preface she wrote for the edition published in Taiwan and in the Changchun-based magazine Chinese Writers."
In an interview with the Chinese media last year, Fu also said the character of K, as written by Hong, was a "loose woman." The book contains many erotic descriptions.
Hong said Bell's family had given her materials to use for the novel. But she stressed: "I've never said that K was Ling Shuhua."
After last month's verdict, Hong said: "I was really shocked and was not mentally prepared for the court verdict. I shall of course fight back. The best way to fight back is to show that I am a good writer, no matter what punishment and humiliation I could be subjected to."
Zong Renfa, editor-in-chief of the magazine Chinese Writers, said that the verdict was unacceptable.
The verdict requires the magazine and paper each to pay the plaintiff 30,000 yuan (US$3,600).
Zong emphasized that K: The Art of Love was only a work of fiction. The heroine Lin in the novel was an artistic image, who could never be deemed a specific person in real life, he said.
The character was not described in a derogatory manner even if the assumption of the plaintiff could be established and therefore the verdict was unacceptable, Zong argued.
Zong admitted that his magazine did have the responsibility of examining a work before publishing it. However, since K: The Art of Love is fiction, the magazine has no obligation to check whether it has slandered any specific people, Zong claimed.
Both Hong and Zong said that they would appeal to the higher court.
The novel K: The Art of Love was first published in Chinese in Taiwan in 1999 and was published in Swedish, French and Dutch in 2001. A Chinese version was published on the Chinese mainland by Huashan Publishing House based in Shijiazhuang, capital city of North China's Hebei Province, at the end of 2001. An English translation was published this year.
When the novel was first published in Swedish, a book review in a Swedish magazine said that the novelist had written about the prejudices of Western people and touched on the meaning of life. It said the love described in the novel is quite mysterious. A book review in The New York Times praised the novel as a forceful work.
Hong maintained that the conflict between Western and Eastern cultures was the dominant theme of the novel.
She said that she does not think the heroine Lin is a lascivious woman but as one who is very brave in the pursuit of true love. "Lin is one of the very few women at that time to shake off the shackles of traditional ideas. She should be considered a heroine of feminism," Hong said.
The verdict by the Intermediate People's Court in Changchun means that the Chinese version of the novel may be banned on the Chinese mainland.
The implications of this case will be immense and will have repercussions on how far a writer can go in producing fiction based on anecdotes and stories about deceased celebrities.
(China Daily December 9, 2002)