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Commentary: Journey to the West: The Pirated Version

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2010 - A monk, plus a monkey, a pig and an ogre, went to India, recorded every leaf of the Buddhist scriptures there and brought all of them back to China. Someone hearing this might be tempted to ask, "Why weren't the Indians furious over what this gang of four did to their intellectual treasure (especially, given that this was quite a weird cohort!)?" But, anyone as knowledgeable as you would probably dismiss this as ignorant or provocative.

A pilgrimage of this sort was actually carried out by Xuan Zang in the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty, and it was recounted in a famous Chinese novel in the 17th century. More important, it has become the most monumental bridge linking India and China over the past millennia, a nexus that fundamentally nurtured and reshaped Chinese culture. Thanks to our generous and good-tempered Indian friends - and to the absence of copyright laws at the time - this process of cultural sharing and transformation was possible.

People's boiling point over this issue is lower now. It is now impossible to find "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in mainland China's bookstores because the author, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, heard about the millions of copies of unauthorized Chinese language copies of his book in 1988 and became so furious that he withheld publishing rights forever in my country. You can also find professors, touring bands and film company representatives just back from China proclaiming a keen sense of justice, berating China's lack of respect for intellectual property. They have seen their textbooks copied, their CDs copied, and their high budget movie DVDs sold for less than a dollar.

People who wish to defend interests that have been infringed upon by such practices are out-and-out right. I don't dispute that. But I do wish to question the notion that piracy is an unmitigated and incorrigible evil, especially when it comes to a highly authoritarian country like China.

In this connection, consider, for example, that in 1999 Gao Xingjian, an exiled Chinese writer inspired by unauthorized translations of Beckett in the 1970s, won the Nobel Prize in literature. And in 2002, Yu Hua, a Chinese writer who was deeply inspired by pirated translations of Marquez in the 1980s, won the James Joyce Foundation Award. They belong to the generation of the 1950s and 1960s who were nourished by pirated literature and other texts in the humanities that were once banned. Without these resources, we would be still speaking and writing in the highly controlled style of Mao Zedong and would not even know what copyright means.

In 2006, Jia Zhangke, a Chinese filmmaker who had once performed as a singer for cheap art films circulated in the Beijing underground scene, won the Golden Lion award in Venice. He belongs to the 1970s generation. Without the artistic nourishment provided by pirated art films that could never have been imported or distributed at the time in China, we would have been culturally cut off and would have suffocated in junk blockbusters or eulogies to the Communist Party.

During those years the West shipped thousands of tons of CDs to be recycled as trash; and to ensure they could not be sold or played illegally, these CDs had a hole punched in them or a gash sawed through their edge before they entered the country. However, we became experts in playing the intact tracks of these CDs, and we became known as the "Hole Punch Generation." Without access to these recordings, kids from my generation would have grown up never hearing a note of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, or of Miles Davis or Chuck Berry. Today, the latter two are among the first names in my life that I associated with St. Louis, which later became the destiny of my own journey to the West.

For Chinese people, the journey to the West has always been hard. With ancestors penned in by the Great Wall and youth penned in by the Great Firewall, the only way to escape was to become a monk or a pirate. Thanks to the Party, we are living in a country with paramount harmony but no Wikipedia or YouTube.

I guess today's version of the gang of four who went on their Western trek so many centuries ago would be an eMule, a BT, a Napster led by an illuminated young man. I'm not advocating piracy. I'm just relaying some facts about these recent generations in China. Copyright or copyleft, we always have to fight for a journey to the West.

Tobe Peng is in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and a PhD student in Philosophy in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and his Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology in 2007 from Peking University - Beijing, China.