Hidden History

Lady Chatterley Must Go!11 min read

The censorship of a classic in 1940s Shanghai – Paul French


In September 1940, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) launched a concerted campaign to ensure that no English-language books deemed “salacious” or “unfit for public sale” should be available in the territory of the International Settlement. The campaign began by seizing several copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover available in foreign and locally operated bookstores. With the Japanese encirclement of the foreign concessions of Shanghai complete, relations between the International Settlement – often termed the “solitary island” (gudao) – and the Japanese military were at an all-time low. It was the brink of all-out, total war.

The SMP’s intelligence service, called Special Branch, was officially charged with “providing an orderly environment for foreign trade and commerce.” They chose this moment to mount considerable resources, time and effort in seizing and confiscating English-language books deemed unsuitable for both Shanghailanders  – as those foreigner residents of the city termed themselves – and the local English-reading Chinese population to consume.

The books that were to be voluntarily surrendered by booksellers, or seized by the police, were nominated by the Translation Office of the Shanghai Municipal Council, (SMC), invariably referred to invariably as “the censors.” Their offices were in room 606 of the Municipal Council offices at 185 Foochow Road (now Fuzhou Road), and were shared with the other branch responsible for film and theatre censorship. These censorship units translated pertinent articles from the Chinese-language daily press, issuing morning and afternoon editions, for senior SMP officials to gauge the state of opinion in the Settlement.

“Officers confiscated early sex manuals ‘for the purposes of examination by the police’ ”

Both the SMC and the SMP were foreign-dominated bodies that controlled the daily running and policing of the International Settlement. The Chinese government in Nanjing could not tell them what to do within the Settlement’s borders; the SMC and SMP had no remit outside the Settlement. By 1940, the SMC Translation Office also censored all Chinese-language materials generated officially in the Settlement before publication. In addition, they scrutinized the English-language press for “offensive” material, usually taken to mean sexual or prurient content but also including matters ranging from Indian independence to mentions of venereal disease in Shanghai hospitals.

During the campaign, these censorship activities broadened out to include the confiscation of books, both fiction and non-fiction. This raised the question not just of which published materials could and could not be sold in the International Settlement but also that of what could be distributed from and to the “outports,” meaning the other foreign treaty-ports on the Chinese coast. Starting in September 1940, the campaign continued until March 1941, with books being seized and confiscated throughout the crackdown.


On 5 September 1940, a bookstore called the Modern Book Company’s branch at 357 Szechuan Road (now Sichuan Middle Road) was visited by SMP officers. A number of English-language books were taken and delivered to Detective Superintendent Stewart Young at Special Branch. Confiscated titles included DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Alexander Kuprin’s Yama: The Pit, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

A confiscation slip from the Shanghai Municipal Police

Officers then returned to the Modern Book Company and confiscated, “for the purposes of examination by the police,” a number of other books by Lawrence. Non-fiction titles were also seized, including Ely Culbertson’s The Strange Lives of One Man, a rather racy (for the time) memoir by a contract bridge player and rampant self-publicist; Theodoor van der Velde’s Sex Hostility in Marriage and Sex Techniques in Marriage; Victor Robinson’s Encyclopaedia Sexualis; The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia by the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski; and a book called Sex Life in France. All of these books were, essentially, early sex manuals. When they were confiscated, SMP officers in attendance issued the bookshop manager with official receipts from the SMP Translation Office.

Eventually, all of these titles were deemed OK by the SMC Translation Office, with the exception of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Kuprin’s Yama, and Joyce’s Ulysses. And so the police moved to other bookshops in the Settlement and proceeded to seek out any (now contraband) copies of Lawrence, Kuprin, and Joyce.

D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

On 20 September, SMP officers visited the Far Eastern Book Company’s sales shop at 104 Central Arcade on Nanking Road (now Nanjing West Road). There they seized a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the store’s General Manager, Mr. KY Hsia. Additionally, a copy of Yama was seized. Both copies, along with the information that the shop had previously sold two copies of Yama, were passed along to Detective Young. It was noted by the the (by now rather well-read) officers that although the edition of Lawrence was described as “unabridged,” it was indeed abridged, while the copies of Yama had been bought on consignment from the Modern Book Company.

Following these raids, the Modern Book Company sent Detective Young seven copies of Yama and five of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with a letter authorising the SMP to destroy them. They also informed Young that a number of copies of Joyce’s Ulysses which had been in stock had been returned to a publisher based in Tianjin who had originally supplied them.


The Modern Book Company was a Chinese-owned firm based in the Settlement, with several branches selling both English and Chinese-language books. Their assistant manager, Mr. YY Koo, claimed to have been unaware of the content of the books by Lawrence, Kuprin and Joyce. It appears that Detective Young was notified of the problem by the SMP Translation Office after they saw the Modern Book Company’s fall catalogue listing the three titles as in stock. Koo, in his correspondence with Young while surrendering the remaining copies, apologised for “any trouble caused.” His letter was accompanied by a second letter, from the Modern Book Company’s General Manager, Walter Woo, stating that he was voluntarily surrendering the remaining copies for destruction as being of “an indecent nature.”

“All the books targeted by the campaign had contentious content of a sexual rather than political nature”

The one foreign-owned bookstore to be investigated was the French Book Store, run by Monsieur Bonardel, a French national. The store, which shared premises with the Modern Book Company at 357 Szechuan Road, sold French and English-language titles as well as materials in some other European languages. Detective Young visited the premises and interviewed Bonardel, who informed him that the business was registered with the French Consulate in Shanghai, and that he owned the lease on the premises and sublet part of the building to the Modern Book Company.

The French Book Store contained a number of books of concern to the Translation Office – in particular a range of titles, displayed in the shop’s window, from the notorious Obelisk Publishing Company. Obelisk was an English-language press based in Paris from the 1920s, run by the novelist Jack Kahane. Kahane and Obelisk were self-proclaimed publishers of ‘DBs’ (dirty books), and the company’s list mixed serious literature with downright smut. There were various legal loopholes regarding English-language books published in France, and Obelisk exploited these to publish editions of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (banned in the US upon publication in 1934 with only smuggled copies reaching the UK) and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (banned in Britain in 1928 for its overtly lesbian themes). Although controversial, none of Obelisk’s books were officially banned by 1940, except in Canada. Indeed, the company had ceased to trade in September 1939 following Kahane’s death. In this instance, Young asked Bonardel not to display the Obelisk titles in the store’s window. Bonardel complied.

None of these cases seem to have made the papers. Neither the local Shanghai press (such as the North-China Daily News or the China Press) nor the media in Hong Kong, Tianjin or Peking appeared interested. Only the China Weekly Review, edited by JB Powell, showed concern for the censorship measures and reported them in some detail. By the end of 1940, Lawrence, Kuprin and Joyce were not to be found on any bookstore shelf in the International Settlement.


Why were Lawrence, Kuprin and Joyce targeted in especial?

Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally published privately in Italy in 1928. The book become instantly notorious for its depiction of a sexual relationship between an aristocratic lady (Constance Reid/Lady Chatterley) and a working-class man (Oliver Mellors, the estate’s gamekeeper). There were descriptions of sex and words then deemed unprintable. An obscenity in trial in England led it to be banned for 11 years. A heavily censored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover appeared in the US in 1928, and unexpurgated editions could be found on the Continent. The book was not to become available legally in the UK until after a court trial in 1960.

“Leopold Bloom could masturbate over Gerty MacDowell in Tianjin, but not in Shanghai”

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses was first serialised in the American journal The Little Review in 1920 and then published by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922. However, owing to various scenes and language being declared obscene, the book was banned in the UK until the 1930s and in the US until 1934. Unlike Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was still officially banned in the UK in 1940, Ulysses was no longer under any ban in Europe or America by that time. Indeed, in America Random House reissued a revised and corrected edition of their original 1934 text in 1940. Yet the book had caused offense, particularly to Roman Catholic readers who objected to the considerable blasphemy in the book, particularly in the masturbation scenes. By confiscating Ulysses and destroying copies in Shanghai, the Translation Office and SMP appear to have been making judgements independently of those being taken in other countries.

Aleksandr Kuprin, the turn-of-century Russian novelist

Alexander Kuprin’s novel Yama, meanwhile, was written in 1915 and dealt with the lurid lives of a group of prostitutes in Odessa. Kuprin is slightly different to Lawrence and Joyce, since his book was not banned until 1930, when it appeared in an English translation from the original Russian. It remained on the UK banned list until 1953.

There appears to be no official record why these three novels were specifically targeted. The Shanghai international settlement’s censorship decisions did not simply mirror image those of the US or UK. Similarly, copies of Joyce’s Ulysses that were returned to Tianjin were placed back on sale in that treaty port, which had its own separate censorship regime, municipal police system, and local government. Leopold Bloom could masturbate over Gerty MacDowell in Tianjin, but not in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s global image, particularly in Europe, as a city with a somewhat louche and sinful reputation, may have been on the minds of the censors. Certainly all the books targeted by the campaign in 1940 and ’41 had contentious content of a sexual rather than political nature. Did the Translation Bureau worry about the overtly sexual reading habits of Shanghailanders as much as their night-time habits, in a city of proliferating casinos, nightclubs and brothels?

pullquote: “Local authorities decided that Lady Chatterley fucking the help and Molly Bloom’s erotic reveries would not do in their international settlement”

Another theory is that the censors were concerned with books falling into Chinese or Japanese hands that showed Europeans as decadent and white women engaging in sex. In a city where white prostitution was rife, and that had incredibly salacious cabaret shows, this may seem like closing the gate after the horse has bolted. But not withstanding Shanghai’s reputation as a sin city, the authorities worked surprisingly hard in terms of both movie and book censorship to suppress any notion that white women were in any way “loose,” sexually profligate or dissolute.

Whatever the rationale, local authorities decided that Lady Chatterley fucking the help and Molly Bloom’s erotic reveries would not do in their international settlement. For their part, China’s literary elite were extremely curious about Joyce and Lawrence. The journalist, essayist and translator Xiao Qian, who spent WWII teaching Chinese at SOAS in London – then in Cambridge as the Blitz forced the college’s relocation – visited Joyce’s grave in Zurich in 1946. With his wife Wen Jieruo, he eventually began a Chinese translation of Ulysses in 1990, which was published in 1994. Anticipating problems, Xiao wrote a foreword highlighting that in 1933 foreign courts in the USA had declared that Ulysses was “not a dirty book.” He did not note that the book was still being censored by foreigners in China as late as 1940. Ulysses in Chinese was a bestseller.  ∎

Many thanks to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society China for permission to adapt this article, which first appeared in extended form in Vol.77, No.1, 2017.
Header image: Detail from an early paperback cover of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.