Caged Birds and Turd Blossoms in Xi Jinping’s China

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium



On New Year’s Eve 2023, the online journal Matters published the latest entry in ‘Recording History in Calligraphy’ 用書法記錄歷史, a regular column featuring the work of Liu Chan 劉蟾, a Beijing-based artist and writer. The theme of the piece was ‘etching flowers on turds’ 屎上雕花, an expression that had gained online popularity through the year. It was used to mockingly describe the prodigious efforts by Beijing to sugarcoat, whitewash or otherwise conceal a state of affairs that was in fact a pile of shit.

It is said that the expression originated with the following online observation:

Working for a State-owned Enterprise really fucked me over. I was desperate to get out after only three months. It was bleeding my soul dry. I was faced with meaningless tasks that were like etching flowers on piles of turd. It nearly destroyed me.

We had originally believed that people working in an SOE were geniuses, individuals with grand ambitions who could use such a platform to give full scope to their abilities. What they really need is a stage, not piles of shite.


Elsewhere, it was claimed that the expression ‘etching flowers on turds’ was originally inspired by a remark that Barack Obama had made during his 2008 presidential campaign. He said that when his rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin talked about ‘change’ it was nothing more than cosmetic change. ‘You can put lipstick on a pig,’ Obama told a cheering crowd. ‘It’s still a pig.’ He added:

You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.

As for ‘caged birds’, for decades cautious Communist economic planners have advocated limiting economic freedoms.

In a bird cage, birds may think they are free but they are not. When the government feels good, they make the bird cage bigger, but when they are uncomfortable they make the cage smaller.

Andy Xie 謝國忠, April 2017


Shortly after the appearance of Liu Chan’s calligraphic observation about the state of affairs in China, the essayist Li Chengpeng 李承鵬 published his own envoi to the year 2023. Li observed that:

… when it all comes down to it, China has no real “new year.” Every new year now passes by just like all the old years that have come before. As such, there’s never been any real “renewal of life,” and that’s why what I have written here is not really a summation of the year 2023, nor a prospectus for the year 2024. Moreover, I believe that from here on in, many new years in China’s future will be pretty much a repetition of the same old year. That’s why I’ve titled this essay “202X,” meaning “the year 202-whatever.”

China Has No Real ‘New Year’, ChinaFile, 21 February 2024


In China, the expression ‘whitewashing reality’ 粉飾太平 has been in common use since the Song dynasty. In post-Mao China, propaganda cum PR has been integral to the Party’s reformist ethos. In the Xi Jinping era, clumsy acts of ‘etching flowers on turds’ are the new normal in the iron-clad velvet prison.


Reader #1 reminded me that US President George W. Bush referred to Karl Rove, his former political advisor, as a ‘turd blossom’. A nickname that was supposedly a term of endearment, the expression was an apt description both of a noxious individual and the kind of ideas that increasingly suffused American politics.

I would also like to thank Reader #2 for suggesting that I point out that ‘史上雕花’ — instead of 屎上雕花 — is presumably a deliberate act of typographical coyness on the part of the editors of Matters. I have also corrected three typos in the published transcription of Liu Chan’s original calligraphy (位 > 為; 後怡情 > 後疫情;負上行 > 下行).

For calligraphic works, essays and short videos by Liu Chan, see The Other China, also in China Heritage.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
1 March 2024

Caged Birds and Turd Blossoms

Liu Chan 劉蟾

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Liu Chan, 31 December 2023


‘Releasing a bird inside a cage,
Etching flowers on turds.’

Liu Chan’s Colophon:

The end of the year 2023 is upon us. Online friends have come up with an expression to describe jobs that are tedious, boring and vacuously repetitive. They say that such elaborate performances are like ‘etching flowers on turds’. It’s an inspired line.

Add to this the fact that, in the post-COVID era, the economy has been trending in the wrong direction. On one hand, they call for the growth of the private sector while, on they other hand, they impose a jumble of restrictions. The same holds true in regard to people’s basic rights. On one hand they claim that everyone can enjoy a full suite of rights while, on the other, they make sure you know the limits of those rights, and how much space you actually have in which to exercise them. What’s more, that space is constantly being eaten away.

It’s why the line about ‘releasing a bird inside a cage’ sums up the overall sense people have had through the year.

Dasheng Liu Chan
31 December 2023