The Star Tribune
28 november 2002
Director Shang Chengjun worried that censors would ban his stage version
of "Animal Farm
," George Orwell's anticommunist
satire of a barnyard revolution gone wrong.
His anxiety was misplaced.
The government culture officials who regularly suppress books and movies
quickly approved his script about animals who take over their farm, then let
a murderous pig called Napoleon make it a dictatorship. The problem isn't
the officials, though; it's the audience.
"They don't get it," said a disappointed Shang, 30. His play, performed
nightly since mid-November, has attracted audiences that fill barely half
of a 715-seat theater.
Shang's problem places him squarely in the intricate, often unforeseeable
mix of political and cultural risks for the arts in China as the nation opens
economically and socially but retains sweeping government controls on expression.
Artists complain that publishers and other arts promoters, no longer state-supported,
are more reluctant than ever to support potentially sensitive books, movies
and other projects. They need to make a profit and fear that an official ban
could bring on bankruptcy.
Those, like Shang, who reach an audience, find that despite surging popularity
of Western movies and music, China is still learning modern global culture
after decades of isolation and propaganda.
Communist leaders imprison democratic activists but call China a "socialist
democracy" -- language that Orwell famously lampooned in his novel "1984
" as nonsensical "doublespeak." And
officials use "Big Brother" -- the name of the book's all-seeing dictator
-- without irony as a term of respect.
Orwell died in 1950 a year after China's communists took power.
" and the perhaps better-known "1984"
been published in China. But the China Overseas Chinese Publishing Co. in
Beijing received an official warning after several chapters of "Animal
" appeared in an Orwell collection that it printed in 2000, according
to a spokeswoman for the company.
"Officials told us 'Animal Farm
' was not appropriate for publication
in China because it was not good for the Communist Party," said the spokeswoman,
who refused to give her name. She said the book wasn't banned, but the company
didn't print any more after its first edition of 7,000 copies sold out.
Shang's "Animal Farm
," complete with lively, whimsical animal costumes,
is being performed at the China Central Academy of Drama, the country's most
prestigious acting school. Shang graduated from there in 1996.
Shang, who said he wrote his script in six months based on a translation
of Orwell's novel, sticks closely to its story, although with subtle changes
to adapt it to China.
Orwell's three rebel-leader pigs represented Soviet revolutionary leaders
Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. In Shang's version, one is female and the wife
of the leader -- a veiled reference to Jiang Qing, the egomaniacal wife of
communist founder Mao Zedong whom leaders later blamed for the murderous 1966-76
Despite such changes, Shang insisted that his script isn't intended as a
comment on Chinese politics, but rather a warning against complacency and
a universal appeal to the public to stay alert to social wrongs.
"This kind of state of mind, Europeans, Americans all have," he said. "You
submit to pressure and give up your rights. . . . You have the right to vote,
but you don't use it."
Audiences, however, don't seem to understand that theme -- or get any message
At a recent performance, the audience laughed at such comical bits as the
animal slogan "Four legs good, two legs bad!" But a half-dozen theatergoers
interviewed afterward neither understood the story nor had heard of Orwell's
"It seemed pretty reactionary," said a 20-year-old drama student who wouldn't
give his name.