Surprise! George Orwell is NOT banned in China

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tags: China, Orwell



Michael Rank is a British journalist and translator. He graduated in Chinese Studies from Downing College, Cambridge in 1972 and was a British Council student in Peking and Shanghai from 1974 to 1976.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is just the kind of book that you would expect to be banned in China, all that talk of Big Brother, Newspeak and the rewriting of history is far too close to the bone, surely. So I was amazed to come across it on open sale in a state-run bookshop in Yanji 延吉on the North Korean border in fact.

Nineteen Eighty-four is all over the place in China in fact. A Chinese website lists no fewer than 13 translations published in the PRC between 1985 and 2012, and it’s easy to find at least three or four downloadable or online translations on a quick internet search. Apart from anything else I’m speechless at the amount of reduplicated effort all these translations involve, and also wonder how much “borrowing” has taken place between the various translations. And in addition to all the Mainland translations, about 10 have been published in Taiwan or Hong Kong, according to a University of Hong Kong M. Phil. thesis. (There is some overlap between the two categories as some translations first published in Taiwan have since been reprinted in the PRC).

I’m not sure why the Chinese government takes such a relaxed attitude to a book that condemns totalitarianism in such ferocious terms, or why there are so many different translations. It’s certainly quite unlike the Soviet Union, where the novel was banned. Certainly the squalid, Dickensian atmosphere of Nineteen Eighty-four doesn’t remotely evoke the glitzy skyscrapers of 21st century Beijing or Shanghai, but it is remarkable that the authorities are so nonchalant about a book that is supposed to frighten the wits out dictators everywhere. Perhaps it’s the fact that the book is by a foreigner and is set explicitly in London that makes the Chinese Communist Party feel that it can brush it off so casually. Orwell’s other masterpiece, Animal Farm, translated literally as 动物庄园, seems also to be widely available in China, which is equally surprising, and the translator of Animal Farm has thrown some light onto why the authorities have taken such a relaxed attitude to Orwell. David Goodman of the University of Sydney quotes his late friend Fu Weici 傅惟慈 (1923-2014) as saying: “I recall talking to Fu about Animal Farm and its translation a long way back. He said that as long as one equated the dystopia with the USSR there was no problem. This was presumably if asked, outside the text Fu was always...healthily cynical.” 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. It’s hard to imagine an original Chinese dystopian novel or political allegory being remotely tolerated.




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