Book review – Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard

Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard, Zed Books, London, 2015

By Michael Rank

China’s so-called “ghost cities” seem to defy economic gravity, vast conurbations consisting of block after block of empty buildings and not a soul to be seen anywhere.

That at least is how many foreign – and some Chinese – journalists have portrayed these cities, viewing them as little more than grotesque scams whereby billions of yuan pour into the pockets of shifty developers and local government officials but which do nothing to alleviate the country’s housing shortage or to provide goods and services to ordinary people.

These cities are, according to this view, harbingers of China’s premature collapse which could bring the entire global economy down in its wake. But Wade Shepard, author of this engrossing and snappily written book, challenges this apocalyptic interpretation and, having visited a large number of supposed ghost cities, claims that many at least are bustling with people, if you know where to look, and are set to thrive.

ghostThe author notes that over the next 20 years China plans to build hundreds of new cities, erecting 50,000 skyscrapers and relocating hundreds of millions of people “in a development boom that’s incomparable in scale and scope to anything we’ve seen yet. No civilization has ever built so much so quickly.”

It is undoubtedly the case that many of the towns built so far are greatly under-populated, but Shepard also presents the case of new cities such as Wujin, a district of Changzhou in Jiangsu province, that are far from ghost cities, despite claims that they are dead before they are born.

Although a Chinese newspaper portrayed Wujin as devoid of people, when the author visited it he found it full of cars, the sidewalks dotted with pedestrians and the cafes packed with customers late into the night. “The ghost city claims were made on the basis that there are a lot of empty apartments here,” Shepard writes. But “just because an apartment complex appears empty isn’t necessarily an indication that the development is faltering…There is an extended interim period between when the exteriors of residential buildings are built and the moment when residents are able to occupy them…Going round counting dark windows at night or apartments without air-conditioning units is not in itself an adequate criterion for declaring a place a ghost city.”

But although these cities are more or less bustling with people, Shepard readily admits that they are unattractive places to live – they “are like new refrigerators which are designed to break down after a few years of use so you have to go out and buy a new one – built-in obsolescence in urban planning.”

And although China’s new cities are ugly and lack amenities, millions of people buy up apartments in them purely as an investment as property is almost the only profitable way of parking one’s spare cash, driving up prices to levels well above what people on modest incomes can pay for their first home (the parallel with Britain is all too obvious).

“The property speculation market is essentially fuelling ghost cities, as investors are lured in and prospective residents kept out,” the author comments. “At present there is no yearly tax on property in China,” he adds. “So owning vacant homes is not a financial drain. This means people can easily buy homes and forget about them, leaving them vacant for a rainy day, for when property values increase enough to warrant a sale, or for when they get round to moving in.” A crucial factor behind the building of all these new cities is that it is highly profitable for local governments, and the book quotes Ministry of Finance statistics which show that profits from land sales totalled $438 billion for these bodies in 2012 alone.

The reason is that collectively owned rural land cannot be sold directly to developers, so it is much less valuable than urban construction land. “This gap in the real-estate value scale presents a prime money-making opportunity for local governments, which just happen to be the only ones with the power to change the designation of land from rural to urban. So local governments buy low at rural prices, re-zone the land as urban, then sell high to developers, pocketing the difference.” A remarkably neat trick.

Perhaps the strangest of China’s ghost cities are a cluster of pseudo-Western developments around Shanghai, including a fake Dutch town with a giant wooden windmill, a German town near a Volkswagen plant with statues of Goethe and Schiller, and Thames Town which boasts faux-Tudor shops, a statue of Winston Churchill and a Gothic-style church whose only function seems to be to act as a backdrop for wedding photographs. Shepard found Anting German Town to be devoid of life with a bridge that had collapsed into a pond and Thames Town no livelier, with nothing to do there except photobomb wedding pictures. “There was no history, no story, no soul here, and this inertia seemed to prevent anything else from being created,” he mournfully recounts.

Some of China’s new cities have been marketed as ecocities, islands of green with clean, breathable air among all the smoke-belching factories and pollution-emitting traffic of the country’s older cities. Almost 300 such cities are being built or are in the planning stage across China, the book reports, but it quotes Li Xun, secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies, as saying that only one in five of these cities “actually match low-carbon or ecological ideals.” Shepard also notes that China’s ecocities are being built where there has never been urbanization before, and that “There is nothing more ‘ecological’ than the countryside these ecocities destroy.” “However,” he adds, “there is also truth in the common rebuttal that says if China is going to build a new city anyway, it may as well be an ecocity.”

Shepard may be too cautious when it comes to judging China’s ecocities. He fails to mention the disastrous case of Dongtan ecocity near Shanghai which was billed to be the world’s first of its kind, with plans for it to be completely carbon neutral and use 100% renewable energy. It was scheduled to open in time for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo but it came to grief amidst a dispute over funding and a political scandal in which Shanghai Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu was jailed for corruption. Arup, the British engineering consultancy firm which was contracted to design the city, pulled out of the project amidst charges of “greenwashing.”

Chinese cities tend to cover vast areas, on paper at least as they often include large tracts of countryside, and I was intrigued to read that the city of Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia ranks as the world’s largest municipality at 263,953 sq km, an area larger than New Zealand. Also in Inner Mongolia is Ordos Kangbashi, which is the first so-called ghost city that foreigners became aware of, through Al Jazeerah television in 2009. Shepard disputes whether Kangbashi in particular really is a ghost city as he came across an area “packed with hundreds if not thousands of people.”  But it does sound weird, with a museum shaped like a giant golden jelly bean, a library built to look like a gigantic row of books and 50-foot-tall bucking horses in Genghis Khan Square. “These entities have become the ominous pre-emptive icons of the sinking of an Atlantean nation that brashly built too much too quick,” the author ominously adds.

Shepard is an engaging writer and the fact that he hails from the Great Lakes region of the US – the “Rust Belt” – clearly helps. He spent his 20s breaking into decommissioned mills on Buffalo’s waterfront and abandoned factories in Rochester, and found that just like in the old cities of the Great Lakes, in China’s brand new ghost cities too you didn’t know what lies round the corner. His book is occasionally repetitive, and it includes a somewhat peripheral chapter on China’s energy problems, but Ghost Cities of China is a splendid read about an extraordinary phenomenon and the author marshals facts and statistics expertly, with pithy asides in which he makes clear his own views. It won’t be the last word on ghost cities which are growing at a remarkable rate but it’s likely to be the best book on the subject for a few more years to come.

• Wade Shepard has an interesting blog here.

Book review – Individuals by Lao Ma

Individuals, Flash Fiction by Lao Ma, translated by  Li Qisheng and Li Ping, Make-Do Publishing, UK, 2015, ISBN: 978-9881677532

By Michael Rank

If brevity is the soul of wit, Chinese short story writer Lao Ma 劳马 is a modern-day Voltaire or Oscar Wilde.

The book packs 55 wry and satirical stories into 178 pages, each one of them reflecting the ambitions and venalities of Chinese academics and bureaucrats caustically but not viciously, and all too recognisably.

Lao Ma, pen name of Ma Junjie 马俊杰, is no alienated outsider, holding the post of professor at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing (see below), but he is an independent thinker who is clearly not cowed by bullying cultural bureaucrats.

laoma“A nation that can’t mock itself will always have a swaggering ego. In contemporary China this is evident in our political system, our economy and our daily lives,” he told Time Out Shanghai last year.

“The themes of my stories mostly reflect current affairs, spotlights or flash points on the current state of China,’ he added. “I’m not just an observer but a participant in my stories; I’m telling stories of the life I’m living and of those I’ve witnessed. The human failings I satirise are not just found in others but also myself.”

Neither is Lao Ma afraid to attack his fellow-writers, in particular the Party-approved Nobel prizewinner Mo Yan 莫言, whom he quotes in an introduction as saying that “a novel must be lengthy to qualify as an example of the art form.”
“According Mo, ‘Any novel less than 200,000 words lacks dignity. A leopard might be fierce and brave but he is too short in stature to be the king of the jungle. By his standards, Mo Yan is a tiger of a writer.”
Ouch. Lao Ma on the other hand clearly has no ambitions to be a writerly tiger, but he is an effective literary mosquito capable of delivering some well aimed bites at corrupt and arrogant officials, and sometimes at their naive and ignorant hangers-on too.
The stories themselves are so short as to be almost beyond summary, but involve for example a professor of philosophy who tells his students that “Only fools and idiots study philosophy, because the study of philosophy increases intelligence. Intelligent people are already intelligent, so they do not need it. Fools and idiots want to be intelligent, so they study philosophy.”
His students in fact have no wish to study such an abstruse subject and would rather be studying something practical like cookery or accountancy. They pay no attention to his lectures, and some jump out of the window to escape.
When the professor retires he gets himself a large, ugly dog which disobeys his commands. But “Despite his lifelong, vain struggle, Professor has maintained a sense of humor. The dog is called ‘Philosophy’.”
Or take the case of a man who returns from a brief trip abroad, only to be taken into quarantine as masked police officers threaten to give him an injection. Convinced he is going to be tortured he blurts out full details of his involvement in bribery and corruption as well as the names of his associates.
The story ends with the line, “On completing fifteen days quarantine in hospital he was transferred to the criminal justice system.”
The terseness of the stories means they certainly live up to the label of “flash fiction”. They are highly readable, sometimes resembling a kind of gentler Chinese Kafka, elusive and a little slight but they throw welcome light on the absurdities of Chinese society from an insider who isn’t afraid of speaking out.
A word on the translation, by Li Qisheng and Li Ping (no details available). It’s generally smooth enough, even if it tends to have a mid-Atlantic flavour which veers from American to British English somewhat uncomfortably.
I was puzzled by the fact that in a story called English Corner the 1969 pop song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” is referred to as “He isn’t heaven, he’s my brother” and the book could have done with some more careful editing.
But we should be grateful to the publishers for introducing Lao Ma to an English-speaking readership and the author should be saluted for his outspoken wit and bravery in the face of an increasingly intolerant Chinese Communist Party.
• Lao Ma (Ma Junjie) is, despite his outspoken views, very much an insider in certain crucial respects. This Chinese-language site reveals that since June 2014 he has been secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Committee at Renmin University among other official posts. He was born in November 1962 and is officially classed as an ethnic Manchu.

Book review – The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo

By Michael Rank

The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman (Forty-six, London)

sinsIt’s unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping has read much if anything by Chen Xiwo 陈 希我 but we can safely assume that if he did he would not approve.

Xi recently told Chinese artists and writers that “Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles”, and there few exhilarating bursts of sunshine or gentle spring breezes in Chen’s angry short stories. Instead Chen paints a picture of contemporary Chinese society in painful transition between the totalitarian, conformist Mao era and the chaotic, money-grabbing present-day that is suffused with sexual anxiety. Graphic images of physical deformity, voyeurism, masturbation and incest make for a disturbing read, but the seven short stories in this collection have been fluently translated by Nicky Harman and for all the grimness The Book of Sins (Chinese title: 冒犯书)is full of surprises that make one carry on reading.


Chen Xiwo

The author lived in Japan from 1989 to 1994, and now teaches comparative literature at Fuzhou Normal University in southern China. Like authors such as Yukio Mishima and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki Chen’s stories are full of sexual torment and moral ambiguity. But they are leavened with a certain bleak humour and by occasional dashes of magical realism, especially in Going to Heaven, a tale told by the young son of a village undertaker who makes friends with a Daoist monk who he believes wants to die before him so he can rush off to heaven and grab the boy’s sister’s mobile phone.

Kidney Tonic is the story of a successful but impotent businessman who develops a voyeuristic obsession with his neighbour whom he watches masturbating. The neighbour’s wife is arrested for getting hold of the kidney of an executed gangster known as Bin Laden which she plans to give to her husband as an aphrodisiac, but the businessman bribes an official at the detention centre where she is being held to get her out. The theme of cannibalism in modern Chinese literature as a metaphor for social exploitation goes back to the great early 20th century writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 and in recent times there have been frequent reports of executed prisoners’ organs being harvested for transplants, and Chen successfully combines these two themes to depict the cruelty and ruthlessness that permeate contemporary Chinese society.

Sometimes Chen is more explicit in his political commentary. In Pain, a woman who is wracked by constant pain recalls how her mother

“…would tell me how her generation had lived – putting things to rights after the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up period, respecting education, developing the economy, the fight against corruption, the progress towards a glorious future.

”Your generation is so lucky, what more do you want? You just don’t know how lucky you are…’

“But the word ‘glorious’ was like hitting a gleaming pain of reinforced glass – I was in more pain than ever.

“‘What more do I want? I want to be happy!’ I shouted. ‘You think I’m really happy? I’m in pain. I’ve been in pain since I was born! You shouldn’t have had me if you couldn’t give me happiness. Why shouldn’t I go and look for happiness myself?'”

Not surprisingly Chen has frequently fallen foul of Chinese censors and the stories in The Book of Sins have only been published in China in highly bowlderised form. But Chen is a determined individual and in an unprecedented move he took the Chinese customs service to court when an imported copy from Taiwan was confiscated as pornography in 2007. Not surprisingly he was unsuccessful, but he appealed and had the following conversation at the appeal hearing:

“Please can the Customs Office tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you. We have explained this to the court.”
“In that case, could your Honour tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you,’ responded the judge.

Chen wrote to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress with a further appeal, he writes on the website of the London-based Free Word Centre, but received no reply.

“The whole thing reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, where the unfortunate K was banged up in prison for reasons that neither he nor his captors were allowed to know. They were smothered by something intangible: ‘the system’. In the same way, as long as power is concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party in China, then anyone can become a ‘criminal’. We are not just talking about ordinary folk. Liu Shaoqi, second-in-command to Chairman Mao, was imprisoned and so badly treated that he died. And there’s Zhou Yongkan[g], member of the Politburo Standing Committee until 2012 and currently held on corruptions charges. No doubt his trial, even if it is ‘public’, will be just as much of a politically-motivated farce.”

These are extremely brave words by an author whose writings the Chinese government views as highly provocative and who must live in constant fear of arrest. But the author’s given name Xiwo, a pen name, means something like “take hope in me” and he is in real life no snarling nihilist but a friendly, soft spoken individual who clearly enjoys life. He told me when I met him in London recently that his position in the Japanese rather than Chinese literature department of his university gave him a modicum of protection. But he is treading on dangerous ground and he will need all the protection he can get.

• More of Chen’s blog posts can be found on the Free Word Centre’s website here.

Orwell and China, Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese

By Michael Rank

UPDATE – Some sad news: Sun Zhongxu, a prolific translator of Orwell and other 20th century authors, has committed suicide at the age of 41. For further information, see below.

UPDATE 2 – The Taiwan-based journal Concentric recently published a special issue entitled Orienting Orwell: Asian and Global Perspectives on George Orwell. It includes two articles of direct relevance to this one: “‘Asia, Your Asia’: Reflections of Orwell and Asia” by Henk Vynckier and “The Reception of George Orwell in Taiwan” by Te-hsing Shan. I plan to discuss these articles at a later date.

UPDATE 3 – Prof Jeff Wasserstrom of University of California, Irvine discusses Orwell and Huxley in contemporary China in a 16-minute video presentation.

UPDATE 4 – In an article in the New Yorker, Ian Buruma tells how “Like many Chinese who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, [dissident writer] Liao [Yiwu] was more or less self-educated in literature, although he received a grounding in the Chinese classics from his father, a schoolteacher. His memoir is sprinkled with the names of Western writers—Orwell, Kundera, Proust—some of whose works penetrated even the prison walls in Chongqing. Among them, amazingly, was Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ In Liao’s words, ‘On the page was an imaginary prison, while all around me was the real thing.'”

UPDATE 5 – Amazingly, both Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm have been published in Tibetan, in the PRC. Nineteen Eighty-four was recently published in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province which has a large ethnic Tibetan population. Details are here, but they’re in Tibetan; if anyone could kindly summarise/translate I would be very grateful. It was translated by Dorje Tsetsen who lives in the US, according to Bruce Humes, who reports that authors from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to J.K. Rowling have been translated into Tibetan in the PRC. Surprisingly, the translation of Nineteen Eighty-four is over 600 pages long; presumably this includes some kind of introduction or afterword, it would be interesting to know what that says. And Lara Maconi of the Centre de recherche sur les ciivilisations de l’Asie orientale – CRCAO in Paris reports on Humes’ website that there are two Tibetan translations of Animal Farm, the first published by Gansu Nationalities Publishing House in 2011, followed by a second, bilingual English-Tibetan edition published by Tibet People’s Press in Lhasa in 2013, translated by Yardrokpa Kalsan Yeshe 格桑益西. Maconi adds that the bilingual edition “is clearly meant for children, starting from the child-style drawings on the covering to the fact that I could find it in the children literature section of Lhasa Xinhua shudian [New China Bookstore].” I have uploaded some sample pages including the introduction here. The introduction mentions Orwell’s two wives, which suggests that whatever the Lhasa Xinhua Shudian thinks the publishers are well aware that it’s not simply a children’s fable. Sam van Schaik, a Tibetanist with the International Dunhuang Project, confirms this; he tells me that the introduction is mainly biographical and that there is an extensive discussion of how the word “animal” is translated into Tibetan in the title of the book, but nothing about politics. On animals, the translator claims the English word has three meanings: (i) All living things, (ii) All non-human living things, (iii) Specific creatures like cows and sheep. Sam adds: “I’m not sure about the last one but I think he means that things like insects and bacteria are not called ‘animals’! He then contrasts this to the traditional Tibetan Buddhist scheme of six kinds of
living being: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and denizens
of the hells.”

I have also discovered that the translator of the 2013 edition in 1992 also published a book about Animal Farm in Tibetan that originally appeared in Japanese

tib coverNineteen Eighty-four in Tibetan, Lanzhou 2014


Bilingual Tibetan-English edition of Animal Farm, Lhasa, 2013

Animal Farm has also recently been translated into Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang in the far west of China by about 10 million people. As in Tibet it’s seen as a fable for children 青少读物, and it has a splendidly lurid cover.

uigurAnimal Farm in Uyghur (Ethnic Publishing House, Beijing, 2014)


As I was researching Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese (see below), 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 Eton 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 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, the literary critic William Empson in Peking, where he was teaching English literature. When he was seriously ill in a sanitorium 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, CW, vol 20, p 162).

george-orwellOrwell at the BBC

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 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 sanitorium, 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’. 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 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.”

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, in 1949, shortly before he died. 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. 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 enough, 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, 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 directly 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. In present-day discourse it is hard (though not impossible) to think of a more derogatory word than “Negro”, 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.'” (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, and I think it’s worth quoting in full:

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:

J for the Junk which the Chinaman finds

Is useful for carrying goods of all kinds.

N for the Native from Africa’s land.

He looks very fierce with his spear in his hand.

U for the Union Jacks Pam and John carry

While out for a hike with their nice Uncle Harry.

The “native” in the picture is a Zulu dressed only in some bracelets and a fragment of leopard skin. As for the Junk, the detail of the picture is very small, but the “Chinamen” portrayed in it appear to be wearing pigtails.

Perhaps there is not much to object to in the presence of the Union Jack. This is an age of competing nationalisms, and who shall blame us if we flourish our own emblems along with all the rest? But is it really necessary, in 1947, to teach children to use expressions like “native” and “Chinaman”?

The last-named word has been regarded as offensive by the Chinese for at least a dozen years. As for “native,” it was being officially discountenanced even in India as long as twenty years ago.

It is no use answering that it is childish for an Indian or an African to feel insulted when he is called a “native.” We all have these feelings in one form or another. If a Chinese wants to be called a Chinese and not a Chinaman, if a Scotsman objects to be called a Scotchman, or if a Negro demands his capital N, it is only the most ordinary politeness to do what is asked of one.

The sad thing about this alphabet-book is that the writer obviously has no intention of insulting the “lower” races. He is merely not quite aware that they are human beings like ourselves. A “native” is a comic black man with very few clothes on; a “Chinaman” wears a pigtail and travels in a junk – which is about as true as saying that an Englishman wears a top hat and travels in a hansom cab.

This unconsciously patronising attitude is learned in childhood and then, as here, passed onto a new generation of children. And sometimes it pops up in quite enlightened people, with disconcerting results; as for instance at the end of 1941, when China officially became our Ally, and at the first important anniversary the B.B.C. celebrated the occasion by flying the Chinese flag over Broadcasting House, and flying it upside-down (27 Feb 1947, Daily Herald for Tribune, CW, vol 19, pp 50-51).

I think this piece very much speaks for itself, and would only add that the phrase “competing nationalisms” has a decidedly contemporary ring about it. As this article is about partly about translation (see below), I would also like to add Orwell’s touching words that he added to a list of translations of his works (he lists no translation into Chinese but does mention editions of Animal Farm in Japanese and Korean, produced by the U.K. Liaison Mission, Tokyo and the U.S. Army, respectively). He added as a note: “Some of the above translations, chiefly of ANIMAL FARM, were not paid for. I most particularly do not wish payment to be demanded for translation of any book, article, etc., by any groups of refugees, students, working-class organisation, etc., not in any case where translation will only be made if the rights are given free. Ditto with reprints in English (I don’t think Braille versions are ever paid for, but in any case I don’t want payment for any that may be made).”

Incidentally, Orwell was by no means the first person to object strongly to the word Chinaman. The American missionary Arthur H. Smith was equally vehement in condemning the word some 50 years before Orwell. “It is a matter of surprise, and even more of regret, that this barbarous compound seems to have rooted itself in the English language, to the exclusion of the proper word Chinese. We do not know of a foreign periodical in China, in which natives of that country are not constantly called ‘Chinamen,’ nor of a single writer in the Empire who consistently avoids the use of the term.” (Smith, Arthur H. Chinese Characteristics. Enlarged and revised edition. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1894. Print. Page 10, footnote).


1984The 2010 translation of Nineteen Eighty-four with banner advertising Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

George Orwell’s 乔治・奥威尔 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, it turns out. 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 and was only available in illicit samizdat form. And 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 or 动物农场, is also 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. Nevertheless, Orwell has quite a following among Chinese intellectuals (the British-based Orwell Society has at least one Chinese member), and his essays as well as his novels are widely read and discussed.

The high esteem in which Orwell is held by Chinese intellectuals is highlighted by the fact that he features in the pantheon of Western writers and thinkers on the walls of the All Sages bookstore in the university district of Beijing. Orwell’s portrait is up there with such luminaries as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf, and the shop is well stocked with his works: I counted half a dozen different editions of Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, as well as collections of his essays, diaries and other works.

20848885829_b5e44c18e2_z Orwell’s portrait along with Camus, Kafka, Woolf, etc at All Sages Bookstore, Beijing


Orwell’s works for sale at All Sages bookstore, including Nineteen Eighty-four, Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London

One reason Orwell is officially tolerated in China may well be that the Party regards making his works readily available is a worthwhile way of currying favour with intellectuals. After all, Orwell wasn’t Chinese and his best known works make no direct mention of China, so it’s possible to maintain the pretence that his writings have little relevance to China (and as noted above, his little known writings about China are highly pro-Chinese and scathing about Japanese imperialism, which suits the current regime extremely well). A further reason may be that, as Peter Hessler notes in a fascinating New Yorker article (March 9, 2015) on publishing and censorship in China, “newspapers and magazines are censored much more heavily than books,” which would give novels like Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm a certain amount of leeway. But that is far from the main explanation as there are vast numbers of articles on Orwell on the internet, and there are even plenty on the  website of the Central Compilation & Translation Bureau 中共中央编译局 which is under the direct control of the Communist Party. A search under 奥威尔 (Orwell) in April 2015 reveals Orwell mentioned in articles with such titles as “A transparent hallucination”, (it also mentions a range of luminaries from Zamyatin to Jeremy Bentham to Julian Assange), “The clash between western economics and harmonious civilisation” and “Culture and multiculturalism.” Which goes to show that the Party isn’t totally terrified of intellectual debate, so long as it’s at a pretty rarefied level.

dongDong Leshan

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, whose translation was first published in 1979, wrote a remarkably frank introduction to the novel which is downloadable here in an edition published by the Liaoning Educational Publishing House in 1998. Surprisingly, this introduction remains in print, in an edition first published in 2013 combining Nineteen Eighty-four with Animal Farm (the latter translated by Gao Yuan 高 源). In the introduction Dong declares: “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. He believed that only if totalitarianism is defeated can socialism be victorious.”

1984 afCombined edition of Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm with Dong’s 1998 introduction (Shanghai, East China Normal University Press, 2013. Purchased Shanghai, 2015). The cover design seems to be based on a stock graphic with no relevance to either novel.

Dong’s condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party’s brutality and authoritarianism is implicit but clear enough, and becomes 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 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 lives on 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 totalitarian terror 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 highly sensitive, and Dong was extremely brave to 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. David Goodman of the University of Sydney has kindly provided me with a copy of the first edition of Dong’s translation, including an introduction and editor’s note, which was published in neibu 內部 (internal/restricted) form in 1979. This would have been available only to senior officials and intellectuals deemed politically reliable enough to be permitted access to such material. It was published in three installments in the “irregularly published” periodical Selected Translations from Foreign Literature 国外作品选译 and is marked on the back “Internal publication. Look after carefully” 内部刊物 注意保存. The first installment appeared in issue no 4 of the journal on April 15, 1979, with further installments in May and July.

Dong says in his short introduction to the 1979 edition (full translation below) that Nineteen Eighty-four “soon became a classic anti-communist work which was highly influential, so that anyone who takes just a casual interest in modern international politics can encounter this book almost anywhere.” Orwell is a “bourgeois intellectual” who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, while the novel is “the embodiment in print of how he imagined the future of society based on contemporary Soviet society, in which he exaggerates and caricatures phenomena which do not fit in with his bourgeois individualist liberalism.” Dong also notes how expressions such as “Big Brother” and “doublethink” have entered the English language, “which shows how great its influence is.” The (anonymous) editor’s note makes a similar point, noting that the phrase “‘Orwellian society’ is a frequently used English expression”, and says “Western newspapers and magazines even directly or indirectly refer to this book as an anti-communist ‘classic'”. It says Orwell “changed from being a ‘left-wing’ to an extreme right-wing writer”, and adds: “The way the book exaggerates and distorts all aspects of this future society under totalitarian rule is used to incite anti-Soviet and anti-communist feelings in the service of the Cold War and ideological war that was then waging.”

Above: First, neibu edition of Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese, 1979 in Selected Translations from Foreign Literature, issues 4-6.

Interspersed with Nineteen Eighty-four in the first edition are extracts from an eclectic selection of other works: The Final Diagnosis by Arthur Hailey (author of Airport and Hotel), a critique of The Third World War by Sir John Hackett, The Japanese by Edwin O. Reischauer, a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Alden R. Hatch, Roots by Alex Haley and a memoir by the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue 井上 靖. At the back of issue no 4 are details of the first three issues, which include extracts from the memoirs of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, stories by the British science fiction writer John Wyndham and yet more by and about Arthur Hailey. It also includes an advertisement for another presumably neibu publication, Foreign Thought 国外思潮, which features articles by the prominent Soviet dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov as well as works by “French right-wing bourgeois thinker” Raymond Aron, “extreme ‘rightist’, former chairman of the French-Chinese Friendship Association” Charles Bettelheim, and a critique of “the main representatives of the ‘new left'”, Herbert Marcuse and Karl Popper. Both Foreign Translations and Foreign Thought are supplements to the journal Editing and Translation Reference  “遍译参考” 增刊. I have uploaded the advertisement here.

It may seem surprising that publication of a book by an anti-communist “extreme right-winger” like Orwell was permitted in China, even in a neibu edition, but as can be seen from the above paragraph the authorities have taken a relatively pragmatic approach, and heretical works, including books by Trotsky and Bakunin, were in the 1970s and since made available to top officials, and were often labelled 反面教材 (negative teaching materials). (See here for a discussion of this in Chinese). I recall seeing the best-selling novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull as well as Gone with the Wind in neibu editions when I was a student at Fudan University, Shanghai in 1975-76, and I believe other Western novels were also published at this time as “negative teaching materials”.

There is an interesting account here of how Dong’s translation of Nineteen Eighty-four was first published. Dong’s 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 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 as mentioned above it was published in installment form in 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.


Fu Weici holding a copy of his translation of Animal Farm (David Goodman)

Another translator, Fu Weici 傅惟慈 (1923-2014), 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.”

Incidentally, it’s not unusual for Western books in China to be published in many different translations: for example, a Chinese website lists no fewer than 35 translations of Walden by Henry David Thoreau published between 1978 and 2015.

Regarding Dong’s Mainland translation, Tsang 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.

Sadly, another translator of Nineteen Eighty-four, Animal Farm and Coming Up For Air , Sun Zhongxu  孙仲旭 , committed suicide in August 2014 at the age of 41, having suffered from depression. He also translated Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger among many other works of 20th century British and American fiction. There’s a huge amount of material about Orwell on the internet and in print in Chinese, far too much to go into in any detail here. An extremely long list – 27 pages in fact – of Chinese Orwell translations can be found here. Most of his major works have been translated, as have two biographies, Orwell: The Life by D.J. Taylor (2004) and Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers (2000), in a translation by Sun Zhongxu. There is also what appears to be an original Chinese biography of Orwell, but as it’s subtitled “The Cold [or Stern] Conscience” 冷峻的良心, I can’t help wondering if it’s not heavily based on Meyers’ work. The author of the Chinese biography is Ya Shalong 押沙龙, which is clearly a pseudonym (Yashalong is the Chinese name of the Biblical character Absalom), while the editor is named as the veteran linguist and government critic Zhou Youguang 周有光, who in January 2015 celebrated his 109th birthday. Zhou is best known for having been the principal inventor in the late 1950s of the now standard Pinyin system of Chinese romanisation, but in the context of Orwell he is notable for being an outspoken proponent of democracy in China and a harsh critic of Mao Zedong. I think Orwell would be proud to have Zhou as one of his fans.

Here’s my translation of Dong’s introduction to the 1979 edition of Nineteen Eighty-four and of an editor’s note on the novel:

On the book and its author

George Orwell (1903-1950) was the pen name of the British author Eric Blair. He was a bourgeois intellectual who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. He later wrote some novels and essays but they did not receive much attention [at the time] and he died of tuberculosis when he was middle aged, so his two political allegories Nineteen Eighty-four (published in 1949) and Animal Farm (published in 1945) only became well known after his death.

Nineteen Eighty-four, together with We by A. Zamyatin and Brave New World by A. Huxley are together known as the “dystopian trilogy”. This is in contrast to the “utopian trilogy” which appeared at the time of the emergence of capitalism, consisting of Utopia by Thomas More, The City of the Sun [La città del Sole] by [Tommaso] Campanella and Christopolis by [Johann Valentin] Andreae. The earlier “utopian trilogy” represents the search for mankind’s glorious prospects set in a future ideal society and reflects an imaginary yet optimistic yearning, while the “dystopian trilogy” is in fact the precise opposite and shows how the bourgeoisie and intellectuals cannot see a future path for mankind or a way of resolving present society’s contradictions, and thus are representative works for feelings of pessimism and hopelessness. But while Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932) describes how industrial western capitalist society strangled individual freedom and as it develops the future consists of the advanced development of material conditions and the extreme erosion of spiritual culture, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is the embodiment in print of how he imagined the future of society based on contemporary Soviet society, in which he exaggerates and distorts phenomena which do not fit in with his bourgeois individualist liberalism. The future described in all three of these books consists of a society which has been totally bureaucratised, and mankind has lost [all] freedom and individuality and has been totally transformed into automatic machinery.  Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four in particular, in order to suit the demands of the cold war that was then taking place, soon became a classic anti-communist work which was highly influential, so that anyone who takes just a casual interest in modern international politics can encounter this book almost anywhere. “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, etc have become part of modern English vocabulary, which shows how influential it has become. Editor’s note [in Selections from Foreign Literature, issue 5, p. 100]: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949, but the book’s influence in the western world has not faded over the last 20 or more years. Western newspapers and magazines continue to directly or indirectly regard this book as a anti-communist “classic”, and often quote it as a “classic” in envisioning a pessimistic view of future society. “Orwellian society” is an often used English expression. The author of the book George Orwell is the pseudonym of the modern British author Eric A. Blair (1903-1950). He changed from being a “left-wing” to an extreme right-wing writer. Nineteen Eighty-four is a satirical fantasy novel in which he used contemporary Soviet society as a model for future society as he imagined it. The book totally exaggerates and distorts every aspect of this future society under totalitarian government in order to incite anti-Soviet and anti-communist feelings in the service of the war of words that was being waged during the cold war at that time. In order understand ourselves and others, this magazine is publishing the full text, starting from the previous issue.

And here’s my translation of the foreword to the 2010 edition, 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 a pseudonym meaning “rich and strong”. I have uploaded the Chinese original here.


George Orwell (1903-1950) was a British novelist. Among world novels there are the so-called “dystopian trilogy, 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] enduring 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 思想警察, are listed in authoritative English dictionaries and are even in world circulation. Everybody acknowledges that Nineteen Eighty-four is an extremely graphic 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 is politics it is really about human nature. Mixing politics and human nature together so they are inseparable is Orwell’s most successful achievement.

This is a book which reveals deep 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 straight 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 Brownell on his deathbed in University College Hospital. He died less than three months later.

• The extremely beautiful Sonia Orwell (as she was known, although her husband never changed his name officially from Eric Blair) died in 1980 aged 62, an alcoholic with a reputation as an unpleasant literary groupie (she had a large number of famous literary and artistic lovers and tended to be obstructive with researchers into Orwell’s life and work). But a 2002 biography, The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling, strongly defends her, and although Michael Shelden claims in his biography George Orwell (1991, pp 483-4) that she was dancing the night away in a nightclub with the painter Lucian Freud on the night Orwell died, this seems to be no more than malicious gossip.
Sonia (and George’s) friend Anne Dunn said that she and Freud dined together that night “and afterwards invited Sonia, who had spent a long day at the hospital, to join us at a small club opposite her flat in Percy Street. Plans were discussed with Lucian, who was to help her move George to Switzerland by plane, a change upon which her hopes for his recovery were founded. Sonia, anxious over his immediate well-being, then telephoned the hospital, and reported to us in a state of shock that George had just died of a massive haemorrhage.” Dunn says she had had two short telephone conversations with Shelden about Orwell’s death, “which, it seems to me, he has misremembered” (letter to Times Literary Supplement, October 25, 1991, p 15).
Among those who disliked Sonia is the veteran publisher Diana Athill, who in her memoir  Stet, an editor’s life (2000), says: “Sonia struck me as tiresome. She often drank too much, was easily bored, which made her tetchy and sometimes rude, and was an intellectual snob without having, as far as I could see, a good enough mind to justify it” (p. 167, Granta paperback, 2001). But Athill acknowledges that Sonia was “amazingly generous”to the poverty-stricken and chaotic Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, even if it was her “sudden fame, rather than her writing in itself, which made Sonia take her up” (pp 167-8).
There is strong evidence that Sonia was defrauded by her accountant of the millions in royalties from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four that should have been hers. One minor puzzle about the highly controversial Sonia is that Spurling and others describe her as blonde when in all the photos I have seen she is dark-haired. And I was interested to see that there’s a Chinese Orwell fan who shares my interest in Sonia and his less well known first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

• 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 1904. 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. The report in the Telegraph assumes the portrait that formed part of the plaque was stolen, but a members-only posting (since deleted unfortunately) on the Orwell Society‘s website suggested that the damage was the result of bad weather rather than vandalism. I’m glad to report that it was repaired in 2014. It’s not a raffish, writerly sort of cafe I’m afraid, but part of a well-known chain – I don’t think George would have approved. And speaking of the Royal Free, there’s a porter who works there whom I see almost every time I visit called Winston Smith.

To commemorate members of the British race


By Michael Rank

I turned tourist at Westminster Abbey today, hoping to visit the College Garden on one of the rare days it’s open to the public as it’s Open Garden Weekend this weekend. But it turned out that it’s only open on Sunday, so I will have to go back tomorrow. I did visit the cloisters, however, and was surprised to see these two plaques, dedicated to members of the British race. I was very surprised that such language was used as recently as 1957/60, with its deeply unpleasant racist undertones. The plaques explicitly wish us to remember only the British who died in those countries, and to hell (so to speak) to anyone with a darker skin. How inappropriate this now seems for a church (and this is not just any old church), but clearly 50 or 60 years ago this didn’t occur to anyone, or at least not the kind of people who design plaques for Westminster Abbey.

Morphometrics for Nonmorphometricians

By  Michael  Rank

Here’s an enticing new book title, Morphometrics for Nonmorphometricians, it’s hot off the press and it only costs £117.

It may not win the Booker Prize but I doubt if it’s much less readable than anything by the tediously overhyped (and little read) Martin Amis, who hasn’t won the Booker either.

North Korea wants to revive search for US MIAs

Update – Unfortunately, but not surprisingly perhaps, the US has rejected the North Korean proposal about reviving the hunt for MIAs, saying Pyongyang must first return to the six-party talks.

By Michael Rank

I posted last year about a British Korean War pilot who is buried in North Korea. This got me interested in MIAs (missing in action) in the Korean War more generally, particularly Americans as there was in the 1990s rather surprisingly a joint US-North Korean programme to recover their remains.

This Clinton-era project foundered after a few years, not at all surprisingly, but there are now unexpected signs that the North Koreans want to revive it.

Admiral Robert F. Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, said on Jan 27: “We’re going to enter into discussions with [North Korea] [about MIAs]. That is what we know right now.”

“They are willing to talk about it and we’re willing to address the particulars with them.”

“It’s a complex problem. We’ve been in (North Korea for recovery missions) before, and it appears that we’re being invited to consider going back again,” Willard told reporters at Camp Smith, Hawaii, according to the Honolulu Advertiser. “It’s something that we’ll take seriously and we’ll enter into dialogue with them and find out where it will lead.”

No date has been agreed on restarting the search for the remains. More than 8,100 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Department of Defense.

During Operation GLORY in 1954, North Korea returned the remains of over 2,000 Americans, the Department of Defense says .

“Between 1954 and 1990, the U.S. was not successful in convincing North Korea to search for and return additional U.S. remains,” the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) states on its website.

“However, from 1990 to 1994, North Korea exhumed and returned what they claimed were 208 sets of remains. Unfortunately, their records and recovery methods have hampered U.S. efforts to identify most of these. The North Koreans co-mingled the remains and the associated personal effects. These difficulties underscored clearly the need for joint field activities in which U.S. expertise would guide the recovery process and improve the identification results.”

Larry Greer, director of public affairs of the DPMO in Arlington, VA, confirmed to me that the North Korean army “informed the United Nations that they were willing to talk about remains recovery operations. That was at a Panmunjom meeting on the 26th [Jan], our time. The U.S. has not yet responded.”

The US military newspaper Stars and Stripes last year quoted a US Defense Department anthropologist who had taken part in the hunt for MIA remains in the North as saying he was frustrated that the operation north of the border had been suspended.

“I am always disappointed when politics interfere with human rights and bringing closure to families whose relatives died in Korea so long ago,” said Jay Silverstein during a search for remains in South Korea close to the border with the North.

He said he hoped some day to return to North Korea to continue to search for the remains of U.S. service personnel. “I found the North Koreans very pleasant to work with,” said Silverstein, who was overseeing the excavations in Hwacheon county about eight miles from the border with North Korea.

“My experience was very positive. It gave me a lot of hope for the future … that relations between the North and the South and the West and the rest of Asia will someday be improved.

“I found [the North Koreans] to be very reasonable people. Very friendly. We could sit down and have a beer, or smoke a cigar, and talk. It was quite pleasant,” he added. [Surely the first time a US military official has ever said anything nice about North Koreans? Ed]

Apart from the suspended agreement with North Korea, the United States reached an agreement with China in 2008 “to formalize research in Chinese archives on Korean War POW/MIA matters.”

The Chinese side seems to have been reluctant to share much information with the Americans so far, but the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported last October that “Chinese military archivists have identified more than 100 documents that could lead to the repatriation of the remains of the United States personnel who disappeared during and after the Korean War”.

It added that “China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Archives Department has been combing more than 1.5 million archives of the then People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the PLA headquarters during the Korean War.

“Archivists have given at least four valuable archives found in the first 10 percent to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

The Chinese report mentioned how archivists had located the site where a U.S. bomber crashed in 1950 in the southern province of Guangdong. “After visiting the site and interviewing 19 witnesses who helped them identify the burial site of U.S. crew, they believe the possibility of finding the remains is high,” it added.

The DPMO’s Greer said that “We are making slow steady progress” in the joint archive project.

He said that in September 2009 the US hosted six PLA archivists for annual discussions and to review arrangements, and that the archivists provided additional information on the Guangdong crash site which was part of their annual report in June 2009.

In October 2009, General Xu Caihou 徐才厚, vice-chairman of the PLA’s Central Military Commission, presented four Chinese-language documents to Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Washington.

“The documents concerned the Guangdong site and a F-86 Korean War crash site in China about which we were already aware.We have requested permission to investigate the Guangdong Province crash site in April this year,” Greer told me in an email.

“At the September 2009 meeting we also discussed amending our arrangement to facilitate the transfer of actual documents from the PLA archives to us and to permit joint PLA archives-DOD accounting community remains recovery work in China. The amendment process is underway now, but not final,” he added.

The South Koreans, who lost tens of thousands of soldiers in the war, would also like to hunt for their remains in the North.

President Lee Myung-bak said in a New Year’s address this would be an appropriate way to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

But relations between the two Koreas are so frigid that I would lay a much bigger bet on the US search for MIAs restarting than on a similar agreement being signed between Pyongyang and Seoul.

With many thanks to Daily NK for drawing my attention to North Korea’s interest in reviving the MIA search.

Click here for an interesting New York Times article about Daily NK and other Seoul-based organisations that report on North Korea through underground contacts there.

Birdwatching – a lexicographical lacuna

Oh dear, I reluctantly retract my claim below. Bird-watcher and bird-watching (both, rather quaintly, hyphenated) are listed in the OED, but they are hidden away at the end of the entry for bird and the citations are separate from the definitions. In my defence I should state that the words don’t come up under “find word” unless you spell them with a hyphen.

As I suspected they both date back to the early 20th century and both were first used in book titles by E. Selous. Here are the citations:

1905 E. SELOUS (title) The *Bird Watcher in the Shetlands. 1930 J. S. HUXLEY Bird-Watching i. 13 From the bird-watcher pure and simple it is but a step to the bird-watcher naturalist.

1901 E. SELOUS (title) *Bird Watching. 1920 Edin. Rev. Jan. 63 Bird-Watching as a Hobby. 1930 J. S. HUXLEY Bird-Watching iii. 52 Accompanying Mr. Eliot Howard..on his bird-watching rounds. Ibid. iv. 64 A party of bird-watching friends.

I stand corrected, and have learnt a lot in the process. Here’s my original posting:

As a keen birdwatcher I was surprised to discover that the words birdwatcher and birdwatching are not in the vast, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. I find this extremely surprising as editors are constantly trawling for new words, and these two words are hardly the latest accretions to our mother tongue (I would guess they date back to the early 20th century or maybe late 19th century, but that’s what I was hoping to find out from the OED).

But although birdwatcher/-ing aren’t in, birding is in, with the same meaning, defined as: “colloq. The activity of bird-watching. Also attrib.” Which is a bit odd, since, as I say bird-watching (with or without the hyphen) isn’t listed.

The first recorded use of birding in the sense of birdwatching is delightful. It is from the Daily News, 1927, and reads: “Miss Fry plays the flute and joins in the arduous sport of ‘birding’. This consists in following across country any strange species of bird, and of playing the flute beneath the tree on which the melodious songster performs.” Well, this is a rather unusual approach to birding (or birdwatching) but I suppose it fits the bill.

The other examples are more conventional, and two are American, reflecting the fact that Americans are more likely (I think) to say “birding” than “birdwatching” (cf. American Birding Association). Actually more and more Brits are starting to say birding rather than birdwatching and to describe themselves as birders, and I’m not at all sure that this word should be regarded as “colloq.” these days. And the fact that the OED refers to birding as “colloq.” raises the question of what the literary or non-colloq equivalent is and why it isn’t listed.

Of course the word birding existed long before 1927, but in the sense of “The action or sport of bird-catching or fowling. arch.” The first usage of the word in this sense dates from 1569 (“An other exercise of Hunting, which is termed Fouling, or Birding.”).

Surprisingly, despite the lack of birdwatcher/-ing, twitcher and twitching, in the ornithological sense, are both in. The OED defines a twitcher as “A bird-watcher [sic] whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds.” Its earliest recorded use of the word is from Birds magazine (published by the RSPB), Summer 1973, and is again rather charming: “Twitchers are difficult to identify because they are polymorphic. Best clues are behavioural including carrying Zeiss binoculars and Where to Watch Birds… Known to have nested in Wandsworth and possess a sense of humour.” Of course nowadays they would carry Leica or Swarovski binoculars and a BlackBerry. The reference to Wandsworth eludes me.

The first use of twitching, defined as “The activity of a ‘twitcher’ (sense 4); obsessive or enthusiastic bird-watching for rarities”, is almost contemporaneous, dating to New Society, 17 November, 1977, and is attractively jargonish: “Sibe is twitching slang for a Siberian bird.” Sibe, incidentally, isn’t listed in the OED, and neither for that matter is jargonish (but jargonesque and jargonic are).

I should add that I found all this online at home, using my public library card. It’s a rather little known fact that the OED is available free of charge to anyone with a library card – go to your public library’s website and log in there with your library card number. A terrific free resource.

In memory of Ft Lt Desmond Hinton DFC

By Michael Rank

Flight Lieutenant Desmond Frederick William Hinton (August 13, 1922-January 2, 1952) was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot who died in the Korean war flying for the United States Air Force and is buried in North Korea. I am extremely grateful to his brother David who shared his memories of Desmond with me and told me the remarkable story of how he located Desmond’s grave near Pyongyang and visited it in 2004.

I wrote about this for the Asia Times, and David was also kind enough to share with me photographs of Desmond which he has allowed me to put on this website.

I am also grateful to HE Peter Hughes, British ambassador to North Korea, and to Korean war veterans Frank Ellison, Peter Fisher, Edgar Green and Stuart Holmes for their valuable assistance, as well as to former British envoy to Pyongyang Jim Hoare for bringing the Quinones article cited below to my attention.

In addition I would like to thank the North Korean ambassador to the UK, HE Ja Sŏng-nam, who first alerted me to the existence of Desmond Hinton’s grave in a speech at the House of Commons in March, 2009. For more about Mr Ja and his role in recovering the remains of US soldiers who died in North Korea, see below.

F Lt D Hinton

Desmond Hinton (right) with USAF pilots in Korea


Desmond and David at Desmond's wedding, Old Malden, 1947

Desmond and David at Desmond's wedding, Old Malden, 1947


Desmond and his wife Audrey

Desmond and his wife Audrey

David Hinton at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David Hinton at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave (top), with Col Kwak (middle), at grave (bottom)

David at Desmond's grave (top), with Col Kwak at Panmunjom (middle), at grave (bottom)


David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

David at Desmond's grave, June 28, 2004

Original grave, moved about 50 metres shortly before David's visit

Original grave, moved about 50 metres shortly before David's visit

Letter from Desmond's C.O. that gave the family false hope, stating that "I personally feel that he made it O.K. and I feel that he will be held until the cease fire talks become a reality ... Des is one of the most courageous and skilful pilots I have ever known. He helped in many ways and I think of him as one of my closest friends."

Letter from Desmond’s C.O. who said he believed Desmond had survived. Colonel Mitchell said Desmond was on a strafing run on some trucks a few miles northeast of Pyongyang.

He called that his plane was hit and he would have to bail out. He jettisoned his canopy and two pilots saw the seat was empty which makes me beleive [sic] that Des got clear of the seat.

His parachute was not seen, however, he was wearing an all white shute and the ground was completely covered with snow. This would have made it difficult to see the opened parachute.

The other pilots circled the area for some time and the could not locate Des. I personally feel that he made it O.K. and I feel he will be held until the cease fire talks become a reality …

Des is one of the most courageous and skilful pilots I have ever known. He helped in many ways and I think of him as one of my closest friends.

The grave is in fields near the village of Kusŏ-ri/Guseo-ri 구서리 which is about 30 km north of Pyongyang close to Sunan 순안 airport at 39°14’05″N 125°42’28″E. Here’s a screenshot from Google Earth and it can be seen on Wikimapia here.


Kusŏ-ri is shown in the map below, near the top of the yellow area on the left hand page. The map is from a small North Korean atlas조선지도첩(Pyongyang, 1997). Reflecting North Korea’s extreme secrecy the country’s only international airport is not marked, although the town of Sunan is marked without mentioning the airport (the town is about 10 km south of Kusŏ-ri). I have marked Kusŏ-ri on the North Korean map here if you want to pinpoint the places on the map more precisely.


And here is Ft Lt David Hinton (Ret) who made my article possible.


David Hinton, London, May 2009

David Hinton, London, May 2009

Desmond Hinton was one 41 RAF pilots attached to the USAF in the Korean war, according to Mark Tomkins who has researched this field extensively. Most were attached to the 4th and 51st Fighter Interceptor Wings, flying F-86 Sabre fighters. Four died in action, including Desmond Hinton. None of their bodies were recovered. I have uploaded Tomkins’ report here.


Another report, whose author I have not been able to trace, says a total of 18 members of the RAF Sunderland Squadron died in two separate crashes in the Korean war, and six RAF pilots attached to the Royal Australian Air Force also died on operational duties.

According to the official history The British Part in the Korean War by Anthony Farrar-Hockley, 1,078 British troops died in the war, including 27 members of the RAF (12 officers, 15 other ranks) (vol 2, p. 491). It refers to how RAF officers became attached to the USAF in order to achieve “manpower savings which could be passed to the Fifth Air Force in Korea.”

“By the end of the war, twenty-one RAF pilots had served with the 4th and 51st Fighter Interceptor Wings,” the book states.

“Each tour was approximately four months. As one group went home another was in training at Nellis [Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada]. Sixteen officers in all completed active operations. All of them damaged one or more MiG-15s during combat, several were credit with ‘kills'” (Vol 2, pp. 323-324).

However, David Hinton told me his brother trained at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, not at Nellis. The Shaw website describes how “The outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 spurred the deployment of the wing’s flying units to Royal Air Force Station Manston [Kent], United Kingdom. Perceiving the communist North Korean aggression as a potential precursor to a large-scale Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the Truman administration ordered a deterrent force of nuclear-capable bombers to England. The wing’s F 84s deployed to protect the bombers from aerial attack while they were parked on vulnerable airfields in East Anglia.” Shaw is still being used to train RAF pilots today.

The National Archives has a useful website on the Korean war here.

There’s an extremely interesting report entitled The US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework and the US Army’s Return to North Korea on the now suspended official U.S. efforts to recover the remains of American servicemen who died in North Korea in Korea Yearbook 2008. The report by former senior State Department official C. Kenneth Quinones tells how Ja Sŏng-nam was involved in these efforts long before becoming ambassador in London, and how he was almost killed in a car crash near Kaesong on his way to Panmunjom in the wake of the downing of a U.S. helicopter that had repeatedly strayed into North Korean airspace in December 1994. The pilot was killed and his passenger was injured, but thanks in part at least to Mr Ja the pilot’s remains were repatriated and the passenger was released.

David Hinton’s host in North Korea, Senior Colonel Kwak Chol-hui, is one of the very few Korean People’s Army officers who has had dealings with foreigners. He met two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members in 2003, and told them “that the DPRK would like to expand the joint recovery operation, employing as many as 2,700 investigators to scour the country to conduct interviews with those elderly North Korean who might have knowledge of the location of U.S. remains. He indicated that the DPRK’s commitment to the recovery operations is independent of the nuclear issue, and, in his opinion, should remain so. It is unclear, however, what role the DPRK envisions for U.S. forces in such an expanded operation.”

Kwak has since been promoted to major-general. He led the North Korean side at “DPRK-U.S. general-level talks” with U.S. Air Force Major General Johnny Weida at Panmumjom in March 2009, when he declared that planned U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises “will pose increasing danger as they are timed to coincide with a spate of bellicose remarks let loose by the U.S. and the south Korean conservative forces as regards the projected launch of a satellite by the DPRK.”

Apart from Desmond Hinton, who knows if any further British or other members of U.N. forces lie buried in North Korea?

And as a footnote, here’s a 2004 article by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) which reported David’s visit but was not widely read at the time:

British Citizen Thanks DPRK Government and KPA

Pyongyang, July 2 (KCNA) — Some days ago, British citizen David Hinton requested the DPRK side to correctly ascertain the fate of his elder brother Frederic William Hinton, former lieutenant of the British Royal Air Force, who participated in the Korean war as an airman through a channel concerned. From a humanitarian point of view the DPRK side confirmed with much effort that his elder brother died in the Korean war and informed him of the correct crash site and the grave site.
Recently he paid a visit to the DPRK during which he went round these sites.
He expressed thanks to the DPRK government and the side of the Korean People’s Army for helping him realize his hope.





District 9 and other extremely boring films

Like all too many films we have seen recently District 9 is BORING. It starts out interestingly enough, but from the start it seems unsure if it wants to be a reasonably straight sci fi film, a political allegory or a sci fi comedy spoof. The film is set in present-day Johannesburg, which has been visited by grotesque aliens known as prawns who have emerged from a giant spaceship that hovers over the city. The prawns have been forced into squalid squatter camps but they escape.

The hapless Wikus Van Der Merwe leads the team that tries to round them up, but he has only got the job because he is the son of the head of the multi-national company in charge of the effort, so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty hopeless.It doesn’t help that he looks a bit like Alan Partridge and there’s a chorus of journalists and others who occasionally pop up to give a rather self-conscious commentary in an Office-like way.

The idea of separation and squatter camps has obvious apartheid overtones, and there are also thuggish Nigerians in the camps who deal in prawn weaponry and body parts, just as there are people from all over Africa in South Africa trying to eke out a living. The cannibalistic Nigerians are portrayed in a highly xenophobic way that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, so to speak.

But after the thematically very mixed up but reasonably interesting first half hour or so, the film becomes simply a Rambo-type action movie with vast amounts of blood and guts and an extremely limited vocabulary consisting almost entirely of the f-word. This soon becomes extremely tedious and we were bored stiff (though it may appeal to not terribly bright 15-year-old boys).

Incidentally we have seen a number of terribly dull films lately. These include Swedish horror film Let The Right One In, which got wonderful reviews, but although it’s slightly creepy and pervy as one might expect from such a film, we found it extremely flat and uninteresting,

Equally dull overall was Synecdoche, although it was excellent for the first 20 minutes when it was about illness, death and hypochondria (and quite funny!) but becomes terrifically pretentious and dull for the subsequent two hours (or whatever) when it turns into a tedious meditation on a theatre director for whom art becomes his life (or something like that). The idea of actors on a vast set in a disused factory or warehouse with lots of parallel plots in some kind of grandiose soap opera where it’s difficult to tell what is real life and what is the drama the director is directing is an interesting idea, but it’s so lengthy and lifeless it became utterly tedious. And I got awfully tired of the sight of the talented but over-exposed Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But the most mind-numbing film I have seen in my life is Bustin’ Down the Door, a documentary about middle-aged surfers reliving their glory days in Hawaii in the 1970s. It was mindblowingly uninteresting from the first few seconds (an “I’m wonderful, you’re wonderful, we’re all wonderful” surfing awards ceremony), followed by endless inane soundbites from said aging surfers plus grainy footage from the hallowed 70s. The only slightly interesting part was about a turf war involving a nasty bunch of heavies who resented the Australian and South African new arrivals, but that wasn’t really developed. And why was it shown in the large format Imax? The surfing footage was old and grainy and didn’t benefit at all from being shown on a huge screen, and the rest of it consisted merely of talking heads. An utter waste.

Incidentally I noticed that Shaun Tomson, one of the surfers featured in the film, is both executive producer and producer, which may be why he and his mates come over as a little egotistical and un-self-critical.

Which is not to say we haven’t seen some good to excellent films lately, such as Frozen River, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (Le premier jour du reste de ta vie), The Damned United and Home, and but I simply don’t understand why so many people seem to have liked the really boring films and they got such good reviews. Chacun à son goût, I suppose…