Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Orwell in China: Big Brother in every bookshop
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, we reveal the surprising fact that George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is alive and well in China, in translation. Along with Animal Farm. Find out about it in Michael Rank's report on Big Brother's availability in Chinese bookshops even as internet censorship tightens
'...George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is just the kind of book that you would expect to be banned in China, all that talk of Big Brother, Newspeak and the rewriting of history is far too close to the bone, surely. So I was amazed to come across it on open sale in a state-run bookshop in Yanji 延吉on the North Korean border in fact.
Nineteen Eighty-four is all over the place in China in fact. A Chinese website lists no fewer than 13 translations published in the PRC between 1985 and 2012, and it’s easy to find at least three or four downloadable or online translations on a quick internet search. Apart from anything else I’m speechless at the amount of reduplicated effort all these translations involve, and also wonder how much “borrowing” has taken place between the various translations. And in addition to all the Mainland translations, about 10 have been published in Taiwan or Hong Kong, according to a University of Hong Kong M. Phil. thesis. (There is some overlap between the two categories as some translations first published in Taiwan have since been reprinted in the PRC).
I’m not sure why the Chinese government takes such a relaxed attitude to a book that condemns totalitarianism in such ferocious terms, or why there are so many different translations. It’s certainly quite unlike the Soviet Union, where the novel was banned. Certainly the squalid, Dickensian atmosphere of Nineteen Eighty-four doesn’t remotely evoke the glitzy skyscrapers of 21st century Beijing or Shanghai, but it is remarkable that the authorities are so nonchalant about a book that is supposed to frighten the wits out dictators everywhere. Perhaps it’s the fact that the book is by a foreigner and is set explicitly in London that makes the Chinese Communist Party feel that it can brush it off so casually. Orwell’s other masterpiece, Animal Farm, translated literally as 动物庄园, seems also to be widely available in China, which is equally surprising, and the translator of Animal Farm has thrown some light onto why the authorities have taken such a relaxed attitude to Orwell. David Goodman of the University of Sydney quotes his late friend Fu Weici 傅惟慈 (1923-2014) as saying: “I recall talking to Fu about Animal Farm and its translation a long way back. He said that as long as one equated the dystopia with the USSR there was no problem...'
As I was researching Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese, I wondered whether Orwell ever wrote about
China. His interest in India, where he was born in 1903, is well known,
and he served in the Burma Police after leaving school and before becoming a
writer, but my guess was that China
didn’t concern him greatly. But when I went to the British Library to check in
his massive, 20-volume Complete Works [CW], I was surprised to discover that he
wrote quite a lot about China and its fate under Japanese occupation, in
particular when he was working for the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War
And of direct relevance to this article, it turns out that he asked his publishers to send a copy of Nineteen Eighty-four to his colleague, the literary critic William Empson in
where he was teaching English literature. When he was seriously ill in a
sanatorium in Gloucestershire in 1949, Orwell wrote to his agent Leonard Moore:
“William Empson in China
has asked for a copy of 1984 [sic]. I think it might be wise to get two copies
sent, one from London and one from New York. He already
seems uncertain as to whether his letters are being opened, so could you ask
both publishers not to enclose the usual card saying ‘Compliments of the
Author’, as this might just conceivably be embarrassing to him.” Helpfully he
gave Empson’s address as 11, Tung Kao Fang, Near Peking Normal University,
Peiping 9, China (30 August 1949, CW, vol 20, p 162).
It so happens that a neighbour of mine was a close friend of the Empsons and a couple of years ago she introduced me to their son Jacobus, who has written a book about his parents’ unconventional marriage and his childhood in
Peking. Jake tells me that not
only did at least one copy of Nineteen Eighty-four arrive safely in Peking, but that he remembers his parents reading it so
eagerly that “they had to tear it in half so they could both read it at once!”
(J. Empson, email to the author, 8 March 2014).
Orwell had written three months earlier that “I had vague ideas of writing [to Empson], but thought it might be embarrassing for foreigners in
to get letters from outside at the moment. Hetta, Empson’s wife, is or used to
be a Communist, & he himself is not particularly hostile to Communism, but
I doubt whether that would do much good under a Chinese Communist régime”
(letter also from Gloucestershire, to his American publisher Robert Giroux.
Orwell adds that “I have been horribly ill for the last month or so…” 19 May
1949, CW, vol 20, p 117). Orwell seems to have been somewhat bemused by the
Empsons’ departure for Peking, and in another
letter to Giroux, he says: “I’d like to know what he [Empson] has to say about
“[King] Lear,” (a reference to Empson’s recent essay on Lear, Tolstoy and the
Fool). He has disappeared into China
the way people do…” (14 April 1949, CW, vol 20, p 84). Jake says Orwell’s
assessment of his parents’ political stances is accurate. “My mother was a
member of the Communist Party from 1937 until 1956, so Orwell was quite correct
in her case – my father’s political opinions were more nuanced, as they say
these days, but he could have been rightly described as a sympathiser – wearing
his Chinese communist uniform when attending a conference in the U.S. in about
1950, for instance.”
But despite Orwell’s suspicions about the Empsons, he did not include them in his famous (or infamous) list of alleged communists that he drew up for the Information Research Department, a branch of the British Foreign Office, a year or two before he died (CW, vol 20, pp 240-259). This list of 135 “crypto-Communists & fellow-travellers” sparked a furore when it finally came to light in the late 1990s, with some denouncing Orwell as a government informer and others defending him because he viewed the Communist Party as a totalitarian menace. The list includes comments such as “Half-Caste...Main emphasis anti-white but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues”.. Empson was a highly influential literary critic who taught in Peking and
Kunming in the late 1930s and returned to
from 1947 to 1952, witnessing the last years of the Chinese civil war and the
Communist takeover. Peking Normal University
Orwell’s main interest in China was related to its attempts to resist the Japanese, who had first invaded the northeast in 1931 and the rest of the country six years later, and he voiced his anger in several BBC scripts. He was appalled at the eye-witness stories of extreme Japanese cruelty that came to his attention at the BBC. With unusual insight, he dated the beginning of World War II not to the German invasion of
Poland in 1939 but to the Japanese invasion of China. “[The war]
started, properly speaking, in 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and
the League of Nations failed to take action.
From then onwards, we have seen a long series of aggressions … [I]t was
inevitable that Soviet Russia, however anxious to remain at peace, should
sooner or later be drawn into the war on the side of the democracies. It was
inevitable that Britain and China should ultimately find themselves fighting on
the same side, whatever differences there may have been between them in the
Predictably perhaps, Orwell does not seem to have been sympathetic to the Communists, and gives the Nationalists the credit for China’s success in resisting the Japanese. He notes that when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, “
was in a state of chaos, and the young Chinese republic was in no condition to
resist. Six years later, however, when the invasion of China proper
began, order had been restored under the leadership of Marshal Chiang Kai-shek,
and a powerful national spirit had grown up.” Orwell adds that the main reason
the Chinese kept on fighting against enormous odds is that “they are fighting
for their liberty, and the will to surrender does not exist in them” (16 May
1942, CW, vol 13, p 324).
He also noted that “This is [
Japan's] third war of aggression in
50 years. On each occasion they have wrenched away a piece of Chinese territory
and then exploited it for the benefit of two or three wealthy families who rule
Japan, with absolutely no regard for the native inhabitants” (17 January 1942,
CW, vol 13, p 127).
It was surely Japanese cruelty towards the Chinese that angered Orwell the most. “By almost universal agreement it is a regime of naked robbery with all the horrors of massacre, torture and rape on top of that. The same will happen, or has already happened, to all the lands unfortunate enough to fall under Japanese rule. Perhaps the best answer to the propaganda which the Japanese put out in India and other places is simply three words LOOK AT CHINA” (13 March 1943, CW, vol 15, p 28).
In Nineteen Eighty-four Orwell envisaged a world divided into Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania which are continually at war against each other, and shortly after the end of World War Two he envisaged how “More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parcelled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-selected oligarchy.”
“The haggling as to where the frontiers are to be drawn is still going on, and will continue for some years, and the third of the three super-States–East Asia, dominated by
China–is still potential rather
than actual,” Orwell declared. “But the general drift is unmistakable,” he
said, adding rather puzzlingly that “every scientific discovery of recent years
has accelerated it” (‘You and the Atom Bomb,’ Tribune, 19 Oct 1945, CW, vol 17,
p 320). This seems to be the closest that Orwell got to linking current
politics to the horrific world of his final novel.
Orwell is famous for his interest in political language, and this includes the use of appropriate words for various ethnicities, not a matter that troubled many writers of his time but one which concerned him a great deal and which he returned to again and again. In 1943 he wrote to Penguin Books with the corrected proofs of the forthcoming Penguin edition of his first novel, Burmese Days. Apart from correcting a few misprints, “I have also made a few minor alterations,” Orwell says, adding that “I draw attention to these as it is important that they should not be missed. Throughout, whenever it says in the text, ie. not in the dialogue, I have altered ‘Chinaman’ to ‘Chinese’. I have also in most cases substituted ‘Burmese’ or ‘Oriental for ‘native’, or have put ‘native’ in quotes. In the dialogue, of course, I have left these words just as they stand. When the book was written a dozen years ago ‘native’ and ‘Chinaman’ were not considered offensive, but nearly all Orientals now object to these terms, and one does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” (21 November 1943, CW, vol 15, p 338).
Of course “Oriental” is now almost – or just as – objectionable as “Chinaman”, and the words “racist” or “racism” would be bound to crop up in any modern discussion of such terms, but Orwell was surely ahead of his time in his sensitivity to such issues. The word Negro is now archaic, but in Orwell’s time it was a word of respect, and he insisted (more than once) that it should be written with a capital N: in a review of a special supplement to New Republic magazine, entitled The Negro: His Future in America he highlighted how “the facts it reveals about the present treatment of Negroes in the U.S.A. are bad enough in all conscience. In spite of the quite obvious necessities of war, Negroes are still being pushed out of skilled jobs, segregated and insulted in the Army, assaulted by white policemen and discriminated against by white magistrates….
“In Asiatic eyes the European class struggle is a sham. The Socialist movement has never gained a real foothold in Asia or
Africa, or even among the American Negroes: it is
everywhere side-tracked by nationalism and race-hatred…
“The word ‘native,’ which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung about all over the place. “Negro” is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent.” He adds how he has been substituting “Chinese” for “Chinaman” in Burmese Days, adding: “The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time ‘Chinaman’ has become a deadly insult. Even ‘Mahomedan’ is now being resented: one should say ‘Moslem.’ These things are childish, but then nationalism is childish. And after all we ourselves do not actually like being called ‘Limeys’ or ‘Britishers.’” ('As I Please', 2, Tribune, 10 December, 1942, CW, vol 16, pp 23-24).
Orwell returned to this theme in 1947, devoting an entire 'As I Please' column to it. It has an added poignancy because the reason he was looking at a child’s illustrated alphabet is no doubt because he was by now a widower with a small adopted son, Richard. It’s a forceful piece without a wasted word:
Recently I was looking through a child’s illustrated alphabet, published this year. It is what is called a “travel alphabet.” Here are the rhymes accompanying three of the letters, J, N and U. ..