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Chinese people are just like mice…

A week or so ago I stumbled upon a Chinese language version of Animal Farm in a local bookshop. I was slightly surprised to see it, but the back cover described it as being about 1950’s England, so perhaps the censors signed off on it as a criticism of the west. It was only 9rmb, so I bought it as a gift for one of my co-workers to see how she would react.

After she turned the last page yesterday afternoon, we dove into discussion. “It’s a good book,” she said, “but when you think about its connection with (Chinese) society, it’s a little sad.” She explained that the whole book represented what happened in China so well that it was hard to imagine that it had been written before 1949. There was a sense of anger too; that people had known that this was the trajectory of Communism, but had allowed it to happen.

She stated that in her opinion, it would be impossible for a Chinese person to write such a book about capitalism, or what was happening in the US. She also found it upsetting that the Party was represented by pigs, which in her mind are stupid creatures. She doesn’t believe that the Party is actually thoughtless in their actions, but instead disregard the individual value of the people they rule.

I can see why she might have seen this as less than flattering

She put the book back on my desk and said, “It’s not a happy thing,” and then asked what other books Orwell had written, and wondered where she could buy them.

At this point she realized that she hadn’t yet read Murong Xuecun’s speech that I had printed for her. “That’s not really a happy thing either,” I warned. Before she started, she wanted to know if the author was Chinese, and once I assured her he was, she dug in.

The next several minutes was a stead stream of “Ai yo” (a close relative of Ai ya, but with a negative connotation), and the slow shaking of her head. When she completed reading this, she turned to me and began, “Chinese people are just like mice…” but a stranger’s entrance interrupted her. I worried for a moment that she was going to dismiss the whole essay as some kind of foreign push against China. In several recent conversations, Chinese friends have told me that they are keenly aware of the difference between loving the Party and loving their country, and that these loyalties are often at odds.

The stranger left the door open as he exited the office, but she made sure it was completely shut before she began her thought again. “Chinese people are just like mice,” she whispered, “It’s like the government just wants to see what kind of chemicals we can eat and still survive. Or they test to find out if we will be crushed when the buildings collapse. We are just hoping that we can persist through it all.”

She told me that she worries that they’ll have to send their kids to study abroad just so they can have a decent life. I half expected her to cry after she said, “Chinese parents would sacrifice all of their happiness for their children.”

Throughout the conversation I noticed a heavy use of words like “eventually,” “someday,” and “hopefully.” It was good to hear that even as she considers sending her precious 5-year-old thousands of miles away, she hasn’t given up.

It reminded me of a conversation that I overheard this weekend between two Chinese college students who were discussing a recent scandal. One had said, “Oh, you know, I really just don’t care about politics.” To which the other replied, “You should care, this is your country. This is your home. If we don’t care, than these things will just keep happening.”


24 Comments

  1. Not only is Animal Farm available here, but 1984 as well. I have given Animal Farm as a reading assignment to various students, young and old, but without any preamble to what the underlying themes are. Each one of them has come back after reading the book with the same exact reaction to the individual you were speaking with. My question is how did the book slip past the censors?

    • JACKIEXIA says:

      if you have ever seen the one of 1984’s Chinese Version,which was translated by great schlor Dong Sheshan(in fact the pronouciation is Dong Yaoshan),there is a piece of foreword before the novel,you can find your answer in it.

      If you are really interested in it,you can discuss it with me via email.

  2. Jonathan Lau says:

    That last paragraph really hit home for me, I have that same exact conversation with my friends here in the US. It’s not just Chinese youth who don’t care about politics, but at least their apathy is understandable since they do not have political freedom. Not sure what the American youth’s excuse is.

    Though, maybe OWS is the beginning of some change.

  3. kjsandor says:

    I too have firsthand experience with the idea of the last paragraph. Just last week, my husband and I were discussing something and the government came up. He said, “I don’t know. It’s not my business.” I very emphatically replied, “That’s just the problem. It IS your business. It’s YOUR country and they are making decisions that affect YOUR life. It’s very much your business!” Although I know that Chinese society and government is not like the west, I do hope he can take it a little to heart and remember this in the future. Even if not to affect change in this country, more people realizing that governmental affairs ARE their business might be the only way to develop some accountability.

  4. Bob Hale says:

    ““Chinese people are just like mice, it’s like the government just wants to see what kind of chemicals we can eat and still survive. Or they test to find out if we will be crushed when the buildings collapse. We are just hoping that we can persist through it all.”

    I’m not sure whether I’m making a point about China, or about the UK or the US or about something else entirely, but it occurs to me that I’ve heard conspiracy theorists say exactly the same kind of thing about the US and UK Governments.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Ture, Bob, but people are so fixated on their positive assessments of their imagined societies and their judgments on China that they don’t stop to reflect on what these “conspiracy theories” suggest. Having said this, these aren’t conspiracy theories. They are commentaries in the vernacular on the present state of political, social, and economic relations in these societies.

      • Bob Hale says:

        Arguably, any such comment made in any country shows nothing about the situational reality but a great deal about the prevailing attitudes, the mind-set if you like, of the general population. The reality is, to an extent, unimportant. The real questions are how many of the population believe the statements and what is the attitude of those who don’t believe them towards those who do.
        I haven’t been living in China for long enough yet to have those conversations but in the
        west the usual situation with “the Government are poisoning us” stories is that only a very small number of people actually believe them and that those of us who don’t believe think of the ones who do as isolated “nutcases”.
        As I get to know my Chinese colleagues better (I have only been working here since September) I hope to be able to better assess the differences between their publicly stated beliefs and their privately held ones.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        A modest attitude about what you can know will serve you well.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I would like to re-entitle animal farm and 1984. 《The instruction about running a communism society ,basic and premium 》should be more appropriate.

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    Do people here really think that “the censors” are unaware of the themes contained in Animal Farm or that it “slipped by” them? Publishers aren’t ignorant hicks. Of the thousands of revolutionary foreign texts available in China, why so fascinated by this one? Is it possible that something other way of thinking about the book might be at play?

    • Chip says:

      Well, the same ignorant hicks allowed the DaVinci Code movie in, thinking it was anti-catholic, then retracted it after a few weeks when they realized it was still a religious movie. So they may have let Animal Farm in as a criticism of Stalin’s USSR, without realizing that it speaks of China’s system as well. I would give the censor’s stupidity the benefit of the doubt.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Maybe they just realized what an awful movie it was. Just wondering, how long since Animal Farm slipped in to China? Are there facts floating about this world of ours?

  7. The reason that these stuff (kinda political stuff) would often shock Chinese people is that most of them normally don’t care about politics.

    You would ask why?

    The reason is simple: It’s dangerous.

    Because talking and even thinking too much about politics is dangerous and may jeopardize their peaceful life (the peaceful life they would enjoy when they don’t talk and think too much about politics), they have been “nurtured” these no-talks-about-politics habits. So when they just start to received this kind of information, many people would either walk away (because too hard for them to accept), or reject as foreign conspiracy (in order to maintain consistency of their thought and protect themselves from the identity and ideological crisis if they accept such argument), or shock (because they haven’t receive such information before; it’s new and not good).

    As a Chinese reading politics and political science for many years, I would not have the reaction that the lady did. Of course I will stop talking and shut the door when that stranger came in. But no “Ai Yo” and “Ai Ya”. Murong Xuecun’s speech is sad but I don’t feel surprising and shocking, because I already knew those things and even if I didn’t, those things are expected.

    When you capture the meaning of authoritarianism, every ugly thing happens in China or any authoritarian country is just so natural, inevitable, and expected.

  8. Rod in China says:

    Well, at least you were able to connect with your friend on this level, and in such a clear way. You had books, articles, and your friend had an open mind. I find so often that when I get into these discussions that people just write it off as an American’s opinion – of course we think that way, we’ve been fed capitalist lies from birth! Maybe not so exaggerated, but especially for people who’ve never been abroad, it’s hard for them to imagine how china compares – economically and politically.

  9. […] I asked a coworker (~30 years old and usually critical of the Party) today what she thought of Lei Feng, my desire to see the legend disappear was greatly diminished […]

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