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.
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.”