By Michael Rank
UPDATE – I was wondering whether Orwell ever wrote about China, so I went to the British Library to check in his massive, 20-volume Complete Works. To my mild surprise I discovered that he wrote quite a lot about China, probably mainly when he was working for the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War II.
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 William Empson in Peking, where he was teaching English literature. When he was seriously ill in hospital in Gloucestershire 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, Complete Works, vol XX, 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 profile of 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!”
Orwell had written three months earlier that “I had vague ideas of writing [to Empson], but thought it might be embarrassing for foreigners in China 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, Complete Works, vol XX, p 117). Jake says Orwell’s assessment of his parents’ political stances is quite 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.” William’s politics were in fact sufficiently nuanced for him to accept a knighthood in 1979, five years before he died. Empson was a highly influential literary critic who taught in Peking and Kunming in the late 1930s and returned to teach at Peking Normal University from 1947 to 1952, witnessing the last years of the Chinese civil war and the Communist takeover. (Jacobus Empson’s comments in email to the author, 8 March 2014).
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 past …” 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, “China 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, Complete Works, vol XIII, p 324).
He also noted that “This is [Japan's] third war of aggression in 50 years. On each occasion they have 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, Complete Works, vol XIII, p 127).
It was surely Japanese cruelty towards the Chinese that upset 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, Complete Works, vol XV, p 28).
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 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 strictly banned. Certainly the squalid, Dickensian atmosphere of Nineteen Eighty-four doesn’t remotely evoke the glittering, 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. This Chinese Wikipedia entry says the first Chinese translation of Animal Farm was published by the leftist Commercial Press 商务印书馆 in 1948 and lists seven subsequent translations. But it’s hard to imagine an original Chinese dystopian novel or political allegory being remotely tolerated and I’m sure that any Chinese who attempted to publish such a work would soon find him or herself in serious trouble.
The first, and probably the best known, of the many Chinese translations of Nineteen Eighty-four published on the Mainland is by Dong Leshan 董乐山 (1924-99), who, like Orwell, was an independent-minded socialist and who like almost all Chinese intellectuals suffered badly during the Cultural Revolution. Dong wrote a remarkably frank introduction to the novel which is downloadable here in an edition published by the Liaoning Educational Publishing House in 1998. “Orwell is not a so-called anti-communist writer in the general meaning of the phrase, and Nineteen Eighty-four is not simply a so-called anti-Soviet work….Orwell was first and foremost a socialist, and next he was anti-totalitarian and his struggle against totalitarianism is the inevitable result of his belief in socialism,” Dong declared. “He believed that only if totalitarianism is defeated can socialism be victorious.” Dong’s condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party’s brutality and authoritarianism is clear enough, and becomes even more direct when he praises Orwell for not being like those Western intellectuals in the 1930s who “paid homage to the ‘new Mecca’ [Stalin's Soviet Union] and were led by the nose through ‘Potemkin villages’ and when they returned poured raved how they had seen the bright sunshine of a new world.” (Dong was too astute to mention the Western leftists who praised Mao’s China in the 1960s and 70s in similar awestruck terms). But Dong saved his most daring critique for last, concluding with the words: “The twentieth century will soon be over, but political terror still survives and this is why Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today. In any case so far as we are concerned, only if we thoroughly negate the terror of totalitarianism associated with the ‘Cultural Revolution’ can those people who fought for socialism for so many years bring about true socialism which is worth aspiring to”. Although the Cultural Revolution is now officially regarded as one of Mao’s greatest mistakes, open discussion of the period remains strictly banned, and Dong was extremely brave to mention the make a direct parallel between it and the terrifying world of Nineteen Eighty-four.
It’s widely claimed that Dong’s translation of Nineteen Eighty-four was first published one year after the eponymous year, in 1985, but that isn’t correct. There is an interesting account here of how his translation was published as a neibu 內部 (internal/restricted) publication in 1978, only two years after the death of Mao and as “reform and opening up” 改革开放 was just being launched. His friend and fellow translator Wu Ningkun 巫宁坤 also recalls Dong and his efforts to translate Nineteen Eighty-four. Dong joined the underground Communist Party in Shanghai in 1940, but like most intellectuals he was persecuted and imprisoned during the 1957 Anti-rightist campaign and during the Cultural Revolution. He was allowed to return to Beijing after injuring himself on a tractor, and this is when he came across The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich 第三帝国的兴亡by William Shirer. According to Wu he saw close parallels between the Nazi period in Germany and the Cultural Revolution. He secretly translated at night Shirer’s eye-witness account of Nazi Germany which after the Cultural Revolution was published as a neibu publication for senior officials and was later published openly. He first encountered Nineteen Eighty-four in the early 1970s when he had found himself a job in Beijing at Xinhua news agency 新华社 where he had worked in the 1950s. He came to the notice of the deputy director of the agency, Chen Shiwu 陈适五, who was editing a periodical with the snappy title Selected Translations from Foreign Literature 国外作品选译. Chen seems to have been quite an independent-minded official for he told Dong he was looking for “material which has reference value and is quite long and is unconventional in character, for leaders and other comrades to refer to.” (Material which is considered too unsound to be read by the masses is often known as “reference material” in official Chinese jargon). Dong decided that Nineteen Eighty-four was the ideal candidate, and it was published in three parts between April and July 1979. Only 5,000 copies of the periodical were printed. The novel was first issued in book form in China in Guangzhou in 1985, again as a neibu publication. This was the idea of Cai Nüliang 蔡女良, an editor at Huacheng Publishing House 花城出版社, who had it published in a set together with Brave New World and We. It was republished openly by Huacheng three years later. It is worth noting that although Wu quotes from Dong’s introduction in which he states how Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today, for clearly political reasons he omits the reference to the Cultural Revolution.
Another translator, Fu Weici 傅惟慈, recalled in a moving tribute to Dong how his friend was in the 1970s reluctant at first to propose that Nineteen Eighty-four be translated into Chinese because of the all too clear parallels with recent Chinese history including the Cultural Revolution, and much later, in 1997, he had trouble getting a two-volume selection of Orwell’s writings published. There seems to have been no problem with the first volume, which was a collection of essays and criticism, but the second volume was to have consisted of Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, the latter translated by Fu. At the time Fu wrote the memoir, his translation of Animal Farm had still not been published, although it has since appeared, both alone and in combination with Nineteen Eighty-four. Incidentally Fu notes that Dong’s later translations include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 锅匠、裁缝、士兵、间谍 by John Le Carré, The Last Temptation of Christ 基督的最后诱惑 by Nikos Kazantzakis (co-translated with Fu, this was particularly controversial apparently, though Fu doesn’t give details) and Darkness at Noon 正午的黑暗 by Arthur Koestler.
The first ever Chinese translation of Nineteen Eighty-four appeared in Taiwan in 1950, according to Walter Tsang Ka Fa’s 曾家輝 master’s thesis, A study of three Chinese translations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (2005), which is based mainly on translations by Qiu Suhui 邱素惠 (Taipei, 1975), Joseph S.M. Lau (Liu Shaoming) 劉紹銘 (Taipei, 1984) and Dong Leshan (Guangzhou, 1985). Lau is perhaps the best known of the translators in the west, and is co-editor of Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations (New York, 2000) and author of Hong Kong Remembered (Hong Kong, 2002). Most of the translations listed by Tsang have been published in several different editions. In fact, he lists no fewer than 16 different translations, although he says Qiu’s translation is “grossly abridged”, which has not stopped it from being published in 15 different editions, and this does not include recent Mainland reprints. Tsang compares how different translators translate particular passages (including the famous slogan “Big Brother is watching you”) and says “there is no noticeable distinction between the translations that that may be attributable to political considerations.” Regarding Dong’s Mainland translation, he says that “It seems the political environment at the time of translating the novel does not bother Dong at all. This is because he resolutely declares in his preface to the translation that he abhors totalitarianism and would like to warn readers – presumably readers in China in particular as it was first released by a Guangzhou publisher – of such horror with Orwell’s novel” (pp 125-6). Tsang doesn’t consider the possible influence of censorship on the various translations, and one should bear in mind that Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s was almost as authoritarian as the PRC.
Here’s my translation of the short foreword to the 2010 edition I bought in Yanji which was published by Qunyan Press 群言出版社 in Beijing. The translation (and presumably the foreword) are by Fu Qiang 富强, which is clearly a pseudonym meaning “rich and strong”. I have scanned the Chinese original below the translation.
George Orwell (1903-1950) was a British novelist. Among world novels there are the so-called “dystopian trllogy, consisting of We 我们 by the Soviet Union’s Zamyatin, Brave New World 美丽新世界 by Britain’s Huxley and the present work by Orwell, 1984.
To put it briefly, this book is a political satire. The plot is strange, grotesque, but it seems to obey certain rules of social development. The novel describes the evil development of totalitarianism which has developed to an appalling degree – human nature has been strangled, freedom has been eradicated, thought has been suppressed and life has become extremely monotonous.
Just like this book, the book that made Orwell famous, Animal Farm, is a very accurate – but similarly biased – novel. All the characters are animals, and the plot is strange and original, with a strong comic element, and to this extent it is pervaded by fear. But Nineteen Eighty-four is entirely lacking in comedy and a bone-chilling sense of fear fills the entire work.
The fear isn’t gory and physical however but reflects a hopeless feeling that human nature has been extinguished. For example, the novel describes an official language called Newspeak 新语言 whose use is compulsory and whose purpose is to reduce the number of words in the language to the smallest possible number so that people will not be able to think except in terms of concepts that the state has decided. Furthermore, no Party member can avoided being officially monitored and there is an electronic screen in every room that cannot be turned off, and the screen accurately transmits each sound [that it hears] to the “Thought Police”.
Nineteen Eighty-four is Orwell’s [most] influential work. Not only do readers love it but it is deeply respected by scholars. Some of the words and phrases invented in the book, such as Big Brother 老大哥，Doublethink 双重思想，Newspeak and Thought Police, are listed in authoritative English dictionaries and are even in world circulation. Everybody acknowledges that Nineteen Eighty-four is an extremely physical description of totalitarianism, and is also an extremely fierce retort 反抗 to totalitarianism. The New York Times praised this book: “No other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.” Many people are convinced that “if one more person reads Orwell, there will be one more guarantee of freedom.”
In fact, Nineteen Eighty-four isn’t purely a political novel but is a journey that asks questions about good and evil and beauty and ugliness in human nature and about reality. But while it cares about human nature it does not turn the novel into a dry textbook or manifesto. If that’s all it was it wouldn’t have attracted so many readers from all around the world. Even though what it talks about politics what it is really concerned about is human nature. Mixing and human nature together so they are inseparable is Orwell’s most successful achievement.
This is a book which reveals great truths and no matter how many times you read it you will reach a deeper understanding each time. So far as the reader is concerned, this is a challenge to his or her intelligence and is also a rare opportunity to gain wisdom.
It’s worth noting incidentally that the comments about human nature being strangled, freedom eradicated, thought suppressed and life becoming extremely monotonous seem to have been taken from Fu Weici.
• The copy I bought in Yanji came with a band around it advertising Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which had just been published in Chinese and which it says pays homage to Nineteen Eighty-four 向乔治 奥威尔 1984 致敬。
• Incidentally – nothing to do with China or Chinese – but I don’t think it’s widely appreciated just what a tragic figure Orwell is. He died at the age of 46, his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, died on the operating table aged 39, only a few months after they had adopted a baby boy, Richard Horatio Blair, and Orwell married his second wife Sonia Browell on his deathbed in University College Hospital. He died less than three months later.
• On a personal note, may I add that in the early 1960s I lived on Vicarage Road, Henley-on-Thames, where Orwell lived as a small boy with his mother and sister in 1907. Oh, and I regularly visit the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, opposite which is a cafe with a plaque that notes that it was once a bookshop in which Orwell worked in the early 1930s. It’s not a raffish, writerly sort of cafe either but part of a well-known chain – I don’t think George would be impressed. And speaking of the Royal Free, there’s a porter who works there whom I see every time I visit called Winston Smith.