'Animal Farm' Survives China Censors
By Joe McDonald
Associated Press Writer
Monday, November 25, 2002; 1:36 AM
BEIJING –– Director Shang Chengjun worried 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 back 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.
"Animal Farm" and the better-known "1984" have both been published in China. But the China Overseas Chinese Publishing Co. in Beijing received an official warning after several chapters of "Animal Farm" 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 it in 1996.
Shang, who said he wrote his own script in six months based on a translation of Orwell's novel, sticks closely to its story, though 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 later leaders blamed for the murderous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
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 all.
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 said none understood the story nor had heard of Orwell's novel.
"It seemed pretty reactionary," said a 20-year-old drama student who wouldn't give his name.
Shang said he worried that such sentiments would doom the play with censors.
"We definitely were very worried," he said. "If they didn't like it, we couldn't proceed."
But producer Han Jia, who is married to Shang, said the review "wasn't nearly as terrible as you imagine." She said censors read only parts of the script and probably decided that since the book was already in print in China, the play was acceptable.
"We got an approval stamp after three days," she said.