A Winking Owl, a Volant Dragon & the Tiger’s Arse — An Illustrated Proem

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium the title of China Heritage Annual 2022. It is produced to mark the beginning of the end of Xi Jinping’s first decennary as head of China’s party-state-army.

The Owl, the Dragon and the Tiger are the tutelary creatures that oversee proceedings in the form of a Winking Owl, a Volant Dragon and the Tiger’s Arse.


Forty-five years ago, Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang introduced me to The Louts Lodge 二流堂, the members of which included the playwright and essayist Wu Zuguang 吳祖光 (for details, see ‘Wine (jiu 酒) and Commemorating Yang Xianyi 楊憲益’China Heritage Quarterly, March 2011). It was also through their good offices that I was befriended by Huang Yongyu (黃永玉, 1924-), Hua Junwu (華君武, 1915-2010) Ding Cong (丁聪, 1916-2009) and Fang Cheng (方成, 1918-2018), whose work features here. Hua, Ding and Fang were already being celebrated as the ‘Three Old Masters of Manhua‘ (cartoons/ caricatures) 漫壇三老.

In featuring the work of these artists in this illustrated proem, we reflect some of the themes of ‘Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium’ while commemorating a unique period in modern Chinese history.

The years 1977-1981 marked a time when, after three decades of draconian rule and cultural repression, artists and writers enjoyed a breathing space, a moment when the old was being discredited even as new chains were still being forged. Long-repressed hopes found expression as the façade cracked, and humour and irreverence sparkled through.

For all of the real and continuing material achievements of China over the last years, and the prodigious wealth generated by countless laborers, educators, writers and thinkers, researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, business people and officials, the New Epoch of Xi Jinping has witnessed a further dying of the light; the bloated self-regard of General Secretary Xi increasingly eclipses everything and everyone. ‘Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium’ is a meditation on this state of affairs as well as a multifaceted consideration of some aspects of its history, its contemporary significance and its global import.

While others pursue learned analyses and dispassionate disquisitions, our approach is informed by history and irreverence; we recall how, with immense difficulty, the Mao-era cult of personality was dismantled and celebrate the efforts of those who contributed to Mao’s ‘second death’.

As I recorded in Shades of Mao: the posthumous cult of the Great Leader (1996), the formaldehyde-infused corpse of the founding father of China’s People’s Republic lies recumbent in the heart of Beijing in an unquiet grave as his spectre has continued to haunt the land.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
10 January 2022 辛丑牛年臘八節


The Year of the Tiger

‘You have to buy the full set!’ 套書不單賣, by Ding Cong 丁聰


This illustrated proem is divided among three creatures, or rather two creatures and an anatomical feature:

A Winking Owl 益鳥: Looking quizzically at the state of affairs; a nod and a wink when it comes to a shared understanding; the owl is known a beneficent creature that is always on the lookout for pests;

A Flying Dragon in the Sky 飛龍在天: unbridled aspiration takes flight, the latest ‘bounding leap’ 飛越 is towards power, might and dominion. Yet, as the I Ching warns, 亢龍有悔, ‘the arrogant dragon with have cause to repent’; and,

The Tiger’s Arse 老虎屁股摸不得: the powerful believe that they are above reproach but their prideful ways attract barbs nonetheless.

The Winking Owl

‘Everyone is thrilled that the Four Pests have been eradicated’, Huang Yongyu, 1977


‘In March 1974 a group of painters… specializing mostly in traditional ink painting, were charged by the Ministry of Culture with blaspheming “the Socialist system” — meaning the state. Their paintings were put on public display in China’s National Art Gallery in Beijing, as the so-called Black Painting Exhibition [黑畫展]. The organizers’ captions constituted a de facto indictment of the artists’ subversive political intent. Among the paintings showcased, the centerpiece was Huang Yongyu’s Owl, which shows a squat owl perched on a sparsely budded tree branch, facing the viewer head on, with an enigmatic expression that can be seen either as a wink or as a one-eye-open stare. Its exhibition caption read: “Huang Yongyu produced this Owl in 1973. The owl, with its one eye open and the other closed, is a self-portrait of the likes of Huang. It reveals their attitude: an animosity toward the Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Socialist system”. A grueling chastisement followed the Ministry of Culture’s categorical pronouncement. Reprimand sessions ran for months in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, where Huang was a professor of woodblock printing, to coerce the painter into confessing his antisocialist stance. The controversy escalated to such national proportions that it even came to the attention of Chairman Mao, who, irritated by the excesses of the factionalist cultural czars and their overzealous censorship serving their partisan interest, commented wryly: “An owl habitually keeps one eye open and the other closed. The artist does possess common knowledge, doesn’t he?” He dismissed the cynical use of art criticism as “metaphysics going berserk; a skewed view!” Mao’s pronouncement on the matter quieted the critics and put the controversy to rest, even though he had no intention of changing the overall political tenor of the time.’

— Eugene Y. Wang, ‘The Winking Owl’, Critical Inquiry, (Spring, 2000): 435-436


A letter from the National Painting Exhibition Office seeking approval to pursue the public denunciation of Huang Yongyu and Zong Qixiang, a leading landscape painter. Rescripts by Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao, leading Maoist members of the Party’s Politburo, caution against a large-scale campaign against the artists, for the moment. December 1973


It was a time in China when just about anything could well mean something else or, for that matter, actually mean the opposite of what surface appearances might suggest. Words and ideas, literary and artistic works could, upon closer inspection, reveal hidden messages, subtle allusions, dark inferences or garrulous contempt.

The ‘Winking Owl’ and the Black Painting Exhibition were part of the sotto-voce rumour mill that I encountered shortly after arriving in Beijing as an exchange student in October 1974. It was not until long after Mao had died in September 1976 and the Gang of Four were detained in a coup the following month that I learned details of the exhibition. I also met and was befriended by Huang Yongyu, the artist whose Owl was the main focus of the controversy. By then, the newly ousted Gang of Four were being accused of having long fostered a literature of cloak-and-dagger conspiracies 陰謀文學, of concocting groundless accusations against their enemies 影射, the publication of poison-pen screeds 惡語中傷, the making of poisonous claims with deadly inferences 含沙射影, as wall as the widespread use of historical allusions to upend their factional foes 借古諷今.

But, by then, officially Huang Yongyu was known for the design and execution of ‘The Vast Fatherland’ 祖國大地, the mist-shrouded panoramic art work behind the Lincoln-esque statue of Mao in the entrance hall of the mausoleum that opened in the heart of Tiananmen Square on 9 September 1977, the first anniversary of the Chairman’s demise. Among Huang’s friends, however, his Owl remained a favourite, so much so that for years he made new versions of the previously controversial painting, one of which we feature above.


Traditionally, the owl was regarded as a bird of ill omen; they were regarded as earthly emanations of the powers of hell, its cry a harbinger of death. Perhaps, then, ‘the ominous connotations of the owl’ and,

‘the symbolic association that might be made between Mao’s waning years and Jiang Qing’s waxing political power surely figured in the castigation of this painting and its maker.’

Ellen Johnston Laing, in Eugene Wang, pp.438-439, n.8

As Eugene Wang explains,

‘Since the late 1950s, the owl’s moral character as an agent of dark unknown forces has been recast. In these years, as China experience drought and famine, it was necessary to do whatever possible to stop voracious sparrows and mice from competing with the starving humans. Nationwide campaigns were launched to kill these destructive birds and rodents. Accordingly owls, the natural enemy of these malevolent creatures, were highly appreciated as “beneficial birds” diligently preying on mice and sparrows…. Upon his post-Mao exoneration, Huang repainted a number of variations of the 1973 Owl with the inscription:

“This is a benevolent bird.” [益鳥也]

‘So two conflicting associations — the sinister bird of traditional belief and the benevolent bird of the modern campaign — make equally potential claims on the owl image.’ (Wang, op.cit., pp.444-445)

The contradictory messages of the image of the Owl — harbinger of disaster vs. guardian of the public good — make Huang Yongyu’s ‘Winking Owl’ the main tutelary image of ‘Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium’. With ‘one eye alert and the other meditative’  睁一只眼,閉一只眼 zhēng yī zhī yǎn, bì yī zhī yǎn rather than casting a blind eye over the Xi Decade, as the Chinese expression would have it, ours is a quizzical gimlet glare; we are neither wide-eyed nor blind to reality. We seek to follow the gaze of our mentors both in- and outside China who were knowing yet questioning, observant yet engaged, alert to spot the pests of certainty and to mock the pontifications of certitude.

The Owl of Minerva

In the conclusion of Living with Xi Dada’s China (December 2016), I remarked that:

‘Over the years, I have experienced three China climacterics, each a decade apart: 1979 which saw the arrest of Wei Jingsheng and the promulgation of the Communist Party’s Four Cardinal Principals; 1989 and the nationwide Chinese protest movement crushed on June Fourth; and, Christmas Day 2009, when Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on trumped up charges. Today, I have spoken in sombre tones about the present, but although I might not outlive the reign of Xi Jinping, or the pitiful careers of many of the mediocrities who crowd the stage, you, at least most of you, probably will. You should prepare now and in the years to come for that future as well, and it is to that end that I’ve addressed you as I have.

‘Hegel famously remarked that: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” That is, wisdom — the owl of the goddess Minerva — only fully takes flight or unfolds after the fact. But for us it is still daytime; it is a day that began with the morning sun of promise. Although it is too early to tell what time of day it is now, there is no doubt that it will — as do all things — draw to an end. The lengthening shadows of dusk … will then offer a measure of wisdom and a better understanding of the world in which we are now living.’


‘Five Owls’, by Huang Yongyu, 1991. Source: Eugene Y. Wang, ‘The Winking Owl’ (2000)


‘In my beginning is my end…’

In 1980-1981, Huang Yongyu found himself embroiled in a controversy that was part of the first post-Mao cultural purge. Huang’s life story had inspired a work of fiction that was then made into a film known as ‘Bitter Love’ 苦戀. Among other things, it featured a seditious line addressed by the daughter of the protagonist, an artist who has suffered years of persecution:

‘You love our country … But does our country love you?’

The film infuriated ideologues who, following the announcement of the Four Cardinal Principles in late March 1979 and the quashing of the ‘Peking Spring’, had been anxious to re-impose control over the cultural sphere. Deng Xiaoping, the co-creator of the Principles, and Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang sided with the enemies of the film. The move was castigated along with a raft of literary works, and the journalism of Liu Binyan (劉賓雁, 1925-2005), as examples of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’, something they warned threatened the Party’s leadership. With that the ‘Second Hundred Flowers Movement’ of 1978-1981 during which many previously persecuted cultural figures had dared to speak up, although not with the same frankness of 1956, drew to a close.

As we note in ‘You Could Have Looked Up’, the introduction to ‘Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium’, the limited efflorescence of the period, followed by a deadening contraction, was a harbinger of things to come. To appreciate its significance you only had to keep your eyes open and pay attention.



Flying Dragon in the Sky
Draco Volans Est in Coelo

From ‘The Nine Dragons Scroll’ 九龍圖卷 by Chen Rong 陳容 of the Southern Song (early thirteenth century). The provenance of this work indicates that it was possibly owned by Yixin 奕訢 (Prince Gong 恭親王, 1833-1898), the regent forced from power by the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Tongzhi Restoration in the 1870s. During his years ‘in the wilderness’ 在野, Prince Gong spent time in a modest garden at a temple outside Beijing. There he was known as a ‘Hidden Dragon’ 臥龍 (so called because of the ‘recumbent pine tree’ 臥龍松 growing nearby), nurturing his talents and biding his time, waiting to be recalled to Court and lead the movement to reverse the waning fortunes of the ruling house. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


In ‘Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong’, (China Heritage, 20 September 2021), I reprinted an essay by Liu Xiaobo, the translation of which I had titled ‘The Specter of Mao Zedong’. I took my inspiration from ‘A Specter Prowls Our Land’ 一個幽靈在中國大地遊蕩, a poem by the Sichuan writer Sun Jingxuan 孫靜軒 published in 1980 lines from which have often featured in China Heritage:

Ancient China! A loathsome specter
Prowls the desolation of your land …
The specters come, the specters go,
inhabit this man’s corpse, that man’s soul.
Your vast domain breeds feudalism. …

China, like a huge dragon, gobbles all in its path
Like a huge vat, dyes all the same color. …

Fear the spectre from within the ancient fortress,
Prowling our land.


The Chinese dragon, lóng, is born of a zoological miscegenation. There are over a dozen species of dragon and the most commonly represented in the late-dynastic and modern era is a creature that has the head of a camel, the horns of a stag, the eyes of a rabbit (or devil) and the ears of a cow (or ox). These are joined by the neck of a snake to the belly of a sea monster. It is covered with the scales of a carp and has the claws of an eagle and the pads of a tiger. Along its back are eighty-one scales. It has whiskers on either side of its mouth and a beard on its chin, and it carries in its mouth a pearl, the symbol of wisdom. A dragon can change size at will and, in the blink of an eye, can shrink as small as a silkworm or become so gargantuan that its body fills the sky.

Although the dragon has a venerable history in China — dragon-like creatures, the kuí 夔, festooned ancient bronzes — its rise to the status of imperial emblem was gradual. From the time of the Tang dynasty (seventh century), it was employed by the imperial house, and in the following dynasty (the Song, tenth to thirteenth centuries) it became the crest of the imperial house, a five-clawed dragon being reserved for the use of the emperor and his family and a four-clawed creature being a common decoration on the court vestments of lesser officials. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in need of an identifying national symbol as it reluctantly entered the world of international politics, the Manchu-Qing government chose the Dragon Banner. This Yellow Dragon Flag of the Great Qing Empire 大清黃龍旗, as it was called, was first hoisted by Chinese diplomatic missions in the West in early 1862, at the start of the reign of the Tongzhi emperor, just as the Tongzhi Restoration or Self-Strengthening Movement was launched.

Thus, something that had been the mark of imperial power became, in the age of the nation-state when the invention of individual national identities were de rigueur, emblematic of China as a country. As the rule of the Qing dynasty faltered, revolutionary patriots set on the overthrow of the imperial house rejected the dragon and its symbolism; it was regarded as being symptomatic of a dated and reactionary tradition.

After the Revolution of 1911, the dragon was abrogated by nationalists as they formulated a new sense of self-identity. Yet, as the century progressed, this ancient icon was gradually reclaimed as a symbol of the nascent nation-building temper of the country. Eschewed as a remnant of the feudal past on Mainland China during the height of Maoism, it has only been since the 1980s that the dragon has been embraced once more as being emblematic of the Chinese-Han people, as well as a commercial icon with a high-recognition factor for tourists. It flourished during the first Year of Tourism of 1988, and while it was promoted by the authorities, some intellectuals criticised it as a symbol of malevolence, violence and backwardness (at the time, the published dialogue between the journalist Dai Qing 戴晴 and the social scientist Yan Jiaqi 嚴家其 on the subject of the dragon was supposed to have so offended the party-state elder Deng Xiaoping, whose Zodiac Sign was the Dragon, that it helped seal the fate of The World Economic Herald 世界經濟導報, the popular newspaper that ran the conversation).

Heirs of the Dragon

In Taiwan, by contrast, the dragon had resurfaced in the unlikely context of the US government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China on 1 January 1979 and the abandonment of three decades of diplomatic support for the Republic of China, aka ‘Free China’. At the time, the campus song-writer Hou Dejian (侯德健, 1956-) composed ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ 龍的傳人 to express the melancholy mood of the island and a profound frustration with China’s autocratic traditions; then and subsequently the song has generally been misinterpreted as being a paean for the outsized scaly creature and its descendants, the Chinese People.

Hou’s lyrics describe a sense that many people have had of growing up not secure in the reassuring embrace of the dragon, but rather constricted by this snake-like totem and oppressed by its mighty claws:

In the ancient East there is a dragon;
China is its name.
In the ancient East there lives a people,
The dragon’s heirs every one.
Under the mighty claws of this mighty dragon I grew up
And its heir I have become.
Like it or not —
Once and forever, an heir of the dragon.



‘Dragon on the edge of a sluice in the Tongzhou Canal’, Beijing, Zhili province, in Ernst Boerschmann, Picturesque China: Architecture and Landscape, a journey through twelve provinces, New York, 1923


Hou Dejian’s fellow Taiwanese writer, the acerbic essayist and historian Bo Yang (柏楊, 1920-2008), was even more direct:

I really don’t know why the Chinese people have chosen this grim, hideous figure of the dragon to symbolise our nation!  In fact, the dragon can only symbolise the hardships of our people!  Whenever anyone mentions ‘Heirs of the Dragon’, my hair stands on end.

It was a sentiment repeated by the mainland writers of the controversial tele-series River Elegy 河殤 broadcast on CCTV at the height of late-1980s Chinese self-questioning openness. The series excoriated the country’s inward-looking, landlocked culture and it identified the dragon as a malevolent and threatening force:

‘Some say there is an element in Chinese culture that tolerates evil; others say the fatal weaknesses of the Chinese national character are worldly wisdom, fatalism and a docile acceptance of suffering. This is no accident…. Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, and it is the dragon king who rules over water. For this reason, this nation both loves and hates the dragon, worships him and curses him. It is a complex combination of emotions, as twisted as the form of the dragon itself…

‘You could say that [the dragon] is the symbol of our nation. But has anyone ever considered why the Chinese adore this terrifying monster?’

As the Chinese economy boomed in the 1990s, so too did the aspirations to make good the nationalist hopes of the past. Once more the dragon has been transmogrified into a proud national icon. Meanwhile, the threat of the Chinese dragon, which has figured in the European mind for more than a century — the fear of what will happen ‘when the dragon wakes’ — was revived. Four tectonic shifts in recent Chinese history took place in a Year of the Dragon: 1976-1977 saw the death of Mao and the end of his repressive policies; the political crisis of 1988-1989; the country’s economic transformation which was quickened by China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2000-2001; and, the power struggle of 2012-2013 that has led to Xi Jinping’s domination of the Chinese party-state-army. Who knows what the 2024-2025 Year of the Dragon holds in store?

Imperial Presumption

In modern Chinese politics the ancient symbol of the dragon has also often been aligned with vaunting ambition. As Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙/孫中山, 1866-1925), the Father of the Chinese Republic, famously observed a year before his death:

‘In China, the majority of individuals endowed with a powerful ambition have from antiquity onwards dreamed of becoming emperor … . This kind of ambitious person has always existed in all periods of history. When I began to advocate revolution, six or seven out of ten of those who rallied around were harbouring this type of imperial dream at the outset … . If everyone retains this imperial mentality, a situation arises where comrades fight each other, and the whole population of the country is divided against itself. When these unceasing fratricidal struggles spread throughout the country, the population is overwhelmed by endless calamities … . Thus in the history of China through the generations, the imperial throne has always been fought over, and all the periods of anarchy which the country has then gone through have had their origin in this struggle for the throne. … In China there has for the last few thousand years been a continual struggle around the single issue of who is become emperor!’

中國自古以來,有大志向的人,多是想做皇帝 … 此等野心家代代不絕。當我提倡革命之初,來贊成革命的人,十人之中,差不多有六七人,是一種帝王思想的。…中國歷史常是一治一亂,當亂的時候,總是爭皇帝。… 中國幾千年以來,所戰爭的都是皇帝一個問題。

Sun Yat-sen, ‘First Lecture on Principles of Democracy’, 9 March 1924, quoted in
Introducing Translatio Imperii Sinici, China Heritage, 14 January 2019

Years before Mao, standing on Tiananmen Gate in the heart of the old imperial capital of Beijing, announced the establishment of a new government, his critics said he presumed to be emperor. When ‘Snow’ 雪, his most famous poem, was published in the wartime capital of Chungking, even Chiang Kai-shek read it as being a statement of imperial ambition. Subsequently, Mao might have formally rejected the imperial past but he embraced it when it served his purposes (see, For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone, China Heritage, 27 January 2018). And, although he favoured proletarian aplomb and abjured imperial airs (after all, his main model was Comrade Stalin, the Soviet Vozhd), he was not averse to lofty titles. At the height of his personality cult in the 1960s, Mao was crowned with ‘Four Greats’ 四個偉大: Great Teacher 偉大導師, Great Leader 偉大領袖, Great Helmsman 偉大舵手 and Great Commander-in-Chief 偉大統帥. As Mao’s spiritual successor Xi Jinping has also demonstrated a penchant for the grandiloquent.

Since December 2020, state media have hailed Xi Jinping as a ‘Marxist Political Leader, Thinker and Strategist’ 馬克思主義政治家、思想家、戰略家 and, following the Sixth Plenum of the Nineteenth Party Congress in early November 2021, at which a new resolution on Party history crowned Xi Jinping’s epochal genius, a gallimaufry of adulation flooded official media outlets. For instance, Xin Ming, a professor in the Governance Institute of the Central Party School, composed a simpering encomium in what is now regarded as rote hyperbole:

‘General Secretary Xi Jinping is unquestionably the estimable leader of the Communist Party; he is supported by all Party members and revered by the Peoples of China. His leadership is grounded in his unique and practiced ability to guide us through this Remarkable Era and command us in engaging with Profound Struggles. Since the Eighteenth Party Congress [in November 2012], General Secretary Xi Jinping has personally devised, mapped out in detail and implemented a crucial series of major strategic moves and national policies that have ensured the continuity and further evolution of socialism with Chinese characteristics. … At each step and in every struggle, he has been the kind of commanding general and field-marshal overseeing operations from the nation’s command centre. Throughout, General Secretary Xi Jinping has demonstrated magnificent political courage, a profound understanding of his historical responsibilities and boundless solicitude for the People. In the process he has truly proven himself to be a Marxist Political Leader, Thinker and Strategist.

‘How has China, our magnificent ship of state called “The Renaissance”, been able to steer a steady and ongoing course despite the turbulent storms that roil the international arena? How has China, this proud high-speed train called “The Renaissance”, been able to zoom ahead economically despite ongoing global financial uncertainty? It is entirely because of the validation of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s as Core Leader. China is thus ensured a helmsman, a spiritual mainstay and a guiding star.’ (my translation.)



Xin Ming, ‘The Decisive Significance of the “Dual Validation” for the Great Renaissance of the China Race’ 辛鳴, 「兩個確立」對中華民族偉大復興具有決定性意義, 《光明日報》, 2021年11月16日

Having accrued titles like a North Korean general amasses medals, and occupying more administrative roles than any previous Communist or imperial ruler, it is possible that in the 2022-2023 Year of the Tiger Xi Jinping will be showered with further accolades and laurels. Perhaps the farrago of the role of Party General Secretary will, after a hiatus of four decades, be replaced with that of Party Chairman. Then, finally, like Mao before him, Xi will be hailed with suitable imperial enthusiasm:

‘Ten-thousand Years to Chairman Xi!
All Hail Chairman Xi!’


Xi Jinping receiving Carrie Yuet-ngor Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in the Hanyuan Hall, Yingtai, Zhongnanhai 中南海瀛台涵元殿, on 22 December 2021. Source: New China News Agency

When, in late December 2021, Xi Jinping granted an audience to Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong who was in Beijing to report on the resounding success of the rigged Special Administrative Region’s Legislative Council election, he again did so in the Hanyuan Palace Hall on Yingtai Island in the party-state compound of Zhongnanhai. Now used for official receptions and banquets, Hanyuan Hall was from 1898 to 1908 used as a jail for Aisin Gioro Zaitian, the Guangxu Emperor who had been sidelined by the Empress Dowager Cixi following his failed attempt to institute sweeping political and social reforms.

‘China emperor watchers’ were quick to notice that Xi Jinping was, yet again, seated on a ‘mock dragon throne’ 龍椅 in the commanding position in the hall with imperial yellow tea mugs decorated with dragon motifs 龍杯 arrayed on the conference table. Online wags observed that the only thing the General Secretary lacked was some new clothes: a dragon robe 龍袍.


In the late 1920s, Jing Hengyi (經亨頤, 1877-1938), a radical politician and teacher, proposed that the former palaces of the Ming and Qing ruling houses be razed and that all of the dragon thrones 寶座 in the defunct imperial capital be broken up and burned to discourage those with imperial predilections. Both suggestions, which Jing formulated as bills presented to the parliament of the Nationalist government, were rejected. A few years later, Henry Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, mounted a dragon throne in Xinjing 新京 (modern-day Changchun), the capital of the newly established puppet state of Manchukuo.


The opening line of Qian, the first hexagram in the Book of Changes, the famous classic of divination, reads ‘Flying dragon in the sky’, first translated into the Latin draco volans est in coelo by Jesuit missionaries. The last line of the hexagram is 亢龍有悔 draco transgresses est, est quod poeniteat, ‘the arrogant dragon will have cause to repent’ (see Feng Chongyi 馮崇義, ‘A Scholar’s Virtus & the Hubris of the Dragon’China Heritage, 22 May 2019).



  • The description of the dragon, and the potted history of the dragon as a symbol in China are adapted from my In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The quoted material from Hou Dejian, Bo Yang and River Elegy first appeared in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.153-155

See also:

The Tiger’s Arse

‘Portrait of the Master of Monologue Hall’, by Hua Junwu, 1979


The scales or lamella under the dragon’s long, serpent-like neck grow in reverse. According to the ‘Dark Prince’ Han Fei 韓非, a dragon would kill anyone who dared ‘poke the reverse scales’ 攖逆鳞 yīng nì lín of the dragon, that is challenge the views of the emperor. Ministers, advisers and commoners were practiced in keeping the peace with those in power, but there were always a few principled stalwarts who could not avoid provocation. As one writer put it:


If you are to challenge authority, you cannot avoid the threat of overwhelming power,
If you are to confront the ruler, you cannot avoid touching the dragon’s scales.

It is ironical that Mao Zedong, the most emperor-like of China’s post-dynastic rulers, popularised the modern equivalent of ‘poking the dragon’ 攖逆鳞. In his affected earthy style, Mao said that those in power believe that ‘their tiger’s arses can’t be touched’ 老虎屁股摸不得, a similar expression to ‘twist the tail of the lion’ in English.

In January 1962, during a rambling speech at an unprecedented gathering of Party leaders known as the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference which had been convened to dissect the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward years, Mao made a half-hearted self-criticism before turning things on their head in his trademark  ‘switch-and-bait’ style. ‘Those who refuse to accept responsibility, are scared of being held accountable’ he declared, completely ignoring the analysis of his comrades the Great Leap disaster that had killed tens of millions of people was ‘thirty percent natural disaster and seventy percent man-made devastation’ 三分天災七分人禍. Mao continued:

‘Those of you … who do not allow people to speak, who think you are tigers, and that nobody will dare to touch your arse, whoever has this attitude, ten out of ten of you will fail. People will talk anyway. You think that nobody will really dare to touch the arse of tigers like you? They damn well will!]


Mao Zedong, ‘Talk At An Enlarged Working Conference Convened By The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China’, 30 January 1962 (published for the first time in 1978)

As it turned out, the only tiger’s arse that really could not be poked was that of Mao himself.

At the Conference of the Seven Thousand Lin Biao, the military leader whom Mao had promoted over his critics at Mount Lu in the summer of 1959, declared that no matter what policy errors were made due either to leftist or rightist deviations, Mao Thought was always correct and to deviate from it led to disaster. Lin’s remarks were tolerated as being acceptable hyperbole, in particular since Mao praised them lavishly. Nonetheless, the congress led to Mao being sidelined and during a short-lived period of liberalisation from 1962 to 1964, the national economy began a painstaking recovery and even some writers and artists dared to indulge their creative license. One of them was the cartoonist Hua Junwu, a man whose circumspection had long spared him the obloquy suffered by most of his colleagues.

‘If you never start walking, you’ll never have to fall over’, by Hua Junwu. Originally made in 1962 during a short live period of cultural relaxation, Hua repainted this work a number of times in 1979-1980

It was not until 1979, however, two decades after Mao had launched the Great Leap Forward and three years after his death, that Hua Junwu felt emboldened to envisage the tiger’s arse for himself.

In his inscription of his ‘Portrait of the Master of Monologue Hall’ (above), Hua Junwu writes:

‘People have said about this painting that the no-go zone 禁區 jìnqū [of the tiger’s arse] is not absolute. Although it can’t be touched, it certainly may be licked.’


Cats and Tigers Share a Common Ancestor

‘Cats and Tigers Share a Common Ancestor’ 貓虎同宗, by Hua Junwu 華君武, 1980

‘Cats and tigers are of a kind: When a tiger becomes the leader it is much given to willful self-importance and no one can criticise it [lit. “you can’t touch its arse”]. That’s why everyone calls it the Master of Monologue Hall. Cats are far more likable and their meowing is winsome. When they become artists they are popular with everyone. There are those who lavish them with praise and those who spray them with perfume, as well as others who caress them. But, be warned: when a cat turns on you for no reason and spits in anger, you’d better not try touching its arse. It’s then you realise that its original “tiger nature” still lurks within.’

For the amusement of Comrade [Dong] Qizhong’s amusement. Hua Junwu, Summer, 1980


from Dong Qizhong, ‘In Memory of Hua Junwu, Master Manhua Artist’
董其中, ‘《貓虎同宗》成了我的座右銘——懷念漫畫大師華君武’, 2010年8月23日


‘All opposed (to me), please raise your hands’ 反對(我)請舉手, by Ding Cong 丁聰, May 1986



C’est lui, le parti-état

‘Who would have thought that, after four decades of Economic Reforms and the Open Door, our Sacred Land would witness a new Personality Cult? … [W]e need to ask how a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a Personality Cult [that of Mao Zedong], has no resistance to this new cult, and this includes the droves of “Theoreticians” and “Researchers” who acquiesce to it. In fact, they are outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour [舔癰吸疽, literally “licking the carbuncles and sucking liquid from the ulcers” (of the Power-Holder to gain favour and solicit reward)]. It’s as though hundreds of millions of Chinese are oblivious; people tolerate the New Cult and allow it unfettered freedom; they are powerless in the face of the arse-kissing bureaucrats.’

改革開放四十年,沒想到神州大地再度興起領袖個人崇拜。… 此間不僅需要反思為何當事人如此弱智而好名,更需要檢討為何曾經遭遇此種戕害的偌大國家,包括她的芸芸「理論家」「研究者」,居然對此毫無抵抗力,卻不乏舔癰吸疽之徒。而億萬人猶如虛無,竟然容忍其大行其道,奈何不了那幾個馬屁精大員。

from Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待

Xu Zhangrun uses the expression 舔癰吸疽 tiǎn yōng xī jū in his famous July 2018 critique of Xi Jinping’s New Epoch. A more popular form of this four-character phrase is 吮癰舐痔 shǔn yōng shì zhì, literally ‘suck puss and lick piles’. It is a reference to the ancient sycophant Cao Shang 曹商:

Cao Shang & the King’s Piles

A man of Song, one Cao Shang, was sent by the king of Song as envoy to the state of Qin. On his departure, he was assigned no more than four or five carriages, but the king of Qin, greatly taken with him, bestowed on him an additional hundred carriages. When he returned to Song, he went to see Zhuangzi and said, ‘Living in poor alleyways and cramped lanes, skimping, starving, weaving one’s own sandals, with withered neck and sallow face — that sort of thing I’m no good at. But winning instant recognition from the ruler of a state of ten thousand chariots and returning with a hundred of them in one’s retinue — that’s where I excel!’

Zhuangzi said, ‘When the king of Qin falls ill, he calls for his doctors. The doctor who lances a boil or drains an abscess receives one carriage in payment, but the one who licks his piles for him gets five carriages. The lower down the area to be treated, the larger the number of carriages. From the large number of carriages you’ve got, I take it you must have been treating his piles. Get out!’



Lie Yukou, trans. Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu
《莊子》雜篇·列御寇, romanisation converted to Hanyu Pinyin

In modern Chinese, the age-old art of suck-up is summed up as 舐痔得車; in English one thinks of a quotation from David Rakoff’s essay ‘Beach Bummer’:

‘…maybe it’s just low self-esteem, but it turns out that I’m very good at the hyper-polite, obsequious bow and scrape. In the right situation, highly formalized, high-suction ass-kissing not only comes all too naturally to me, it makes me breathless with a feeling of penitential power.’


’Removing a Brain Tumour’ 腦瘤手術, by Fang Cheng 方成, 1980


Xi Jinping on Can-do Cadres

‘After being assigned to Party Central, Xi Jinping had occasion to offer his evaluation of the cadres he worked with during his posting to Shanghai. They were, above all, he said “not mere flunkies” [不黏人bù nián rén, that is, “not tenaciously sticky individuals”]. That is to say, they were not obsequious; rather than focussing their energies on currying favour with the leadership, or forging close ties to their superiors, they were relatively pragmatic. …

…. Whether or not you end up being a toady is not merely a matter of personality, it is also a question of character. The cadres who abjure fawning behaviour emphasise achieving results; they pursue practical outcomes; they admire independence of mind and autonomous action. Their work style reflects an unsullied and clearcut way of thinking. These are extremely valuable and praiseworthy qualities.



Xu Wenxiu, ‘How to Think About and Utilise People who are Straight Up-and-down

Author of the 2014 book On the Road of Xi Study 走在學習路上, Xu Wenxiu works in the policy office of the Party’s Central Organisation Department, an instrumentality that oversees the nomenklatura. Like so much official bombast, Xu’s unctuous praise for Xi Jinping’s political virtues should, perhaps, be read ‘against the grain’; we would venture that they daresay reflect in directly inverse proportions widely acknowledged lived experience.

Throughout its post-1949 history the international port city of Shanghai has variously been feared, admired and manipulated by the Beijing authorities. As China’s most international and freewheeling city before 1949, in the early 1950s, Shanghai was subjected to radical proletarian transformation: the city’s industrial might was brought to heel; its business community ravaged (resulting in many businessmen, even loyalists and avowed patriots, being driven to commit suicide); its working class tethered to the state; and, its cultural and intellectual worlds drained of vitality.

Over the decades, New Shanghai has nurtured some of the country’s  most influential intellectual courtiers, the best known of these being Yao Wenyuan (姚文元, 1931-2005), Zhang Chunqiao (張春橋, 1917-2005) and, more recently, Wang Huning (王滬甯, 1955-). Although Yao and Zhang held sway during the last decade of High Maoism (Yao was the literary firebrand who helped ignite the conflagration of the Cultural Revolution; Zhang was its leading theoretician), Wang Huning is the one who has proved to be uniquely 黏糊 nián hú, ‘sticky’. Wang, known unofficially as the ‘Intellectual Vizier during Three Reigns’ 三朝帝師, has not only successfully ingratiated himself with three leaders with strikingly different personal styles and proclivities, under Xi Jinping he has achieved the lofty status of being only the second theory-hack to sit on the Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee (the first was Zhang Chunqiao). Wang is one of the only courtiers in Chinese history to negotiate successfully the near-impossible task of flourishing under capricious rulers. It is no accident that the I Ching, the ancient divinatory text, devotes Hexagram X 履 ‘Stepping’ to the question of the tiger’s tail (卦辭:履虎尾,不咥人,亨。). After all, as the old adage puts it: ‘Serving a Ruler is as perilous as lying with a Tiger’ 伴君如伴虎.

We would also note that, despite Xu Wenxiu’s admiration for Xi Jinping and Xi’s own repeated emphasis on the need for Party members to ‘dare to think, dare to act, dare to forge ahead and experiment’ 敢想敢幹,敢闖敢試, it is perhaps no coincidence that it is on his watch that two new expressions have been added to the already tumefied Chinese lexicon of servility:

  • 跪舔 guì tiǎn: literally ‘kneel down to lick (arse)’, used to describe needy individuals bereft of all dignity and self-respect who debase themselves in pursuit of other people’s favour (be it with Party leaders, business managers, lovers or even friends); and,
  • 舔狗 tiǎn gǒu: a ‘lick-dog’ is a person who, although fully aware that the object of their fawning behaviour has no interest in or nothing but contempt for them, nonetheless prostrates themselves like a cur until they are utterly despised. In spite of everything they know they persist in ‘pushing their warm and needy face up close to cold and indifferent arses’ 用熱臉去貼冷屁股.

As we have seen in the above, where we quoted Xin Ming’s praise for Xi Jinping, the November 2021 Party Plenum signaled the start of the 2022 Year of the Tiger sycophancy stakes. Party leaders at various levels outdid each other in heaping praise on the leader as he continued at the dizzying heights of power. We will end our consideration of the Winking Owl, the Volant Dragon and the inviolable Tiger’s Arse with a passage from an essay by one Ma Jiantang 馬建堂, Party Secretary of the State Council’s Research Centre for National Development:

‘General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly demonstrated that a magnanimity of spirit, outstanding foresight and far-sight, as well as strategic sagacity. Time and again he has convincingly demonstrated how truly well suited he is to be a Great Leader for our Great Country. He is a man whose political wisdom, strategic acuity, deep sense of mission, profound understanding of the people and leadership skills have rightfully earned him the sincere devotion and love, as well as the absolute trust and confidence of the whole party-army and all of China’s peoples.

With Comrade Xi Jinping as their ultimate representative China’s Communists have created Xi Jinping Thought for the New Epoch of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; they have successfully launched into a new stage in the adaptation of Marxism to China’s unique national situation; they have demonstrated the leading role that scientific theory plays and have thereby enabled the shining beams of truth of Chinese Marxism to shoot out ever more brilliantly.


— 馬建堂,深刻認識「兩個確立」的重大意義,《人民日報》,2021年11月26日

Ma ends his encomium with a line of patent braggadocio from ‘Loushan Pass’ 憶秦娥·婁山關, a poem composed by Mao Zedong during the Long March:


Idle boast the strong pass is a wall of iron,
With firm strides we are crossing its summit.

All of this adulation and apple-polishing brings to mind the famous ‘rosebud passage’ in Décadence Manchoue, the salaciously unreliable memoir of Edmund Backhouse (see my Forbidden City, Harvard, 2008, pp.105-107) and demonstrates yet again why Xi Jinping’s China is often referred to as ‘West North Korea’ 西朝鮮.

We return to the topic of leader-obsession and obsequiousness in ‘The Miraculous Chairman Xi’, Chapter Twenty-One of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.


‘Just keep smiling and the years will drop away; ignore all the garbage and sleep it off’, by the ninety-two year-old Fang Cheng, 2010