Elephants & Anacondas

This is the second of a pair of essays in China Heritage devoted to the codependent relationship between the party-state and Chinese artists and thinkers. The first is titled Less Velvet, More Prison.


The trope of the split personality has featured in essays and reflections by Chinese writers and thinkers for over a century. In a famous ‘confession’ 懺悔錄, the journalist Huang Yuanyong (黃遠庸, 1885-1915), who for a time supported the despised government of Yuan Shikai, said that he felt as though his soul 魂 was dead while his body 形 lived on. The great essayist Zhou Zuoren 周作人, brother of Lu Xun 魯迅, declared ‘two demons 兩個鬼 live within me… . One is a gentleman, the other a hooligan 流氓… .’ Even Mao Zedong admitted that his conflicted animus was part tiger 虎氣 part monkey 猴氣.


In 1980, a nationwide debate was sparked by the publication of a letter signed ‘Pan Xiao’ 潘曉 in the popular magazine China Youth. Although it was later revealed that, along with heavy editorial intervention, it was the work of two writers, Pan Wei 禕 and Huang Xiaoju 黃菊. The letter was simply titled: ‘Why is Life’s Path Increasingly Narrow’ 人生的路呵,怎么越走越窄 and its appearance led to six months of national soul searching as China Youth received tens of thousands of letters. For, although generation gaps had been a feature of Chinese life and intellectual debate from the late-Qing era (and never more stark than first in the May Fourth period, 1917-1927, or the early Cultural Revolution, 1964-1967), the Pan Xiao letter gave voice to an identity crisis among China’s young during an era of ideological and social tumult following the collapse of canonical Maoism. The letter read, in part:

I turned twenty-three this year. You could say that my life has only just begun, and yet all of life’s mysteries and attractions don’t appeal to me anymore. It seems like I’ve already reached the end. When I look back upon the path I’ve already taken, the road changes from red-violet into grey, from hope to disappointment. It is a path of despair. It is a river flowing from a source of selflessness and purity into a self-centered end… .

Some people say that time is pushing forward, but I don’t feel a part of it. Some people say that life has meaning, but I don’t know where it is. I see few options for myself. I am so very tired. [For more, see here]

Ten years later, in 1991, not long after the Beijing Massacre and on the eve of China’s next wave of radical economic reform and mass commodification, a similar debate unfolded around two quotations related to the meaning of life (known in Chinese as: 焦裕祿與三毛兩句名言你作何選擇). One was about Jiao Yulu 焦裕祿, the model Party secretary who died in selfless service (and who is focussed on obsessively by Xi Jinping and his propagandists):

In his heart he had a place for all the People, but no room for himself. 他心中裝著全體人民,唯獨沒有他自己。

And the other from the Taiwan writer and singer San Mao 三毛:

If you give everything to others, you will discover you’ve spent your life abusing one person: yourself. 假如把一切都獻給了別人,那麼你在一生中就虐待了一個生靈——那就是你自己。

Most correspondents approved of San Mao, while many also paid lip-service to Jiao Yulu. Over a quarter of a century later, the authoritarian party state continues to promote Party values of service, collectivity and sacrifice that are to a great extent completely at odds with actual, lived ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. In so doing, the authorities deepen the social schizophrenia of post-1976 life, entrenching ever further the mendacity that lies at the heart of party-state rule. Under the harsh policing regime of the Xi Jinping era, ‘the Pan Xiao paradox’ in new ways confounds even some of the country’s most perceptive and adaptable critics, one of whom is Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠.


The following essay is a meditation, a confession of sorts, by a leading essayist and biblio-entrepreneur. Zhiyuan has been a friend for many years. It is ten years since he published Trading on Heritage 一切都是可以交换的, an essay which appeared in translation in China Heritage Quarterly, the precursor to China Heritage, in 2009.

‘The Python and the Elephant’ 巨蟒与大象 was published on 12 January 2016 under somewhat prolix title ‘When Totalitarianism Transforms from being a Python Curled Overhead to an Elephant that Leaves One Numb’ 當極權從盤旋頭頂的巨蟒,變成令人麻木的大象 (there are also earlier, shorter ‘iterations’ of this material). Zhiyuan uses the original, shorter title for the present text.

In this essay, Xu describes his own dilemma, a split personality wending a way through the regime of increased ideological vigilance and party-state censorship under Xi Jinping and his deadening apparat. Zhiyuan acknowledges that the system also worked under the previous regimes of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (1989-2012), but writers like him could negotiate a viable relationship with the state’s soft cultural authoritarian. After all, it was an era during which ‘line ball’ 擦邊兒球 gambits of cultural transgression that had evolved from the late 1970s were refined over time to become a high art. For many writers self-censorship allowed for quite lot of room for the self as they skilfully skirted the censors. Today, however, the suffocating embrace of ‘the anaconda’ (an image taken from the scholar Perry Link) has become all but intolerable.


There is honesty and self-justification in Xu’s plea for understanding. For a reader who has followed the ebbs and flows of China’s ‘opening up’ since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, it is a grim reminder of the profound cost of one-party rule over the majority of one of humanity’s great civilisations: a corruption of the spirit, a stunted critical environment, a curtailed life of the mind (and the heart) as well as an unavoidable reality with global ramifications, that is, under Communist Party paternalism China’s is a society that, even with all of its hard-won Wealth, Power and Afflatus, is one that is simply not allowed to mature. Similar points were made by such critics in the 1980s as Liu Xiaobo, and of course this kind of stagnation is familiar to students of the Soviet experience or Eastern European intellectual history. In recent years, Ai Weiwei has been making this case with his art, in his essays and through his online outbursts.

The confessional essay by Xu Zhiyuan that follows adds to the bibliography of Chinese protest and accommodation. It is a companion piece to Less Velvet, More Prison, also published by China Heritage. ‘The Anaconda and the Elephant’ was translated by Callum Smith, the designer of the China Heritage sites.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
28 June 2017

The Anaconda and the Elephant

Xu Zhiyuan

Translated by Callum Smith

‘So, do you plan to write two different versions, or just the one?’, Miklós Haraszti asked. We were sitting in a noisy restaurant in the centre of Vienna shrouded in cigarette smoke. The obsession with personal health hadn’t made it there yet; people were talking loudly, drinking and smoking as the spirit moved them. A copy of Haraszti’s classic, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, lay on the table between us. It’s a modest volume, a mere 163 pages including the preface and an author’s profile. The dust jacket had long since disappeared, revealing a red cloth hard-cover embossed with a gilded imprint of the author’s signature — a flourish hinting that the author had been a poet.
「那麼,你是寫兩個版本,還是只寫一個?」米克洛斯·哈拉茲蒂(Miklos Haraszti)問道。我們坐在維也納市中心的一家鬧哄哄、煙霧騰騰的餐廳裏。虛偽的健康崇拜還沒蔓延至此,很多人興致勃勃地談天、喝酒、大口抽菸。餐桌中間擺着《天鵝絨監獄》(The Velvet Prison),哈拉茲蒂的一本舊作。一本薄薄的書,算上前言與作者簡介,也只有163頁。原書的封皮已經丟失,只剩下是紅色絨布面硬殼,上面印有燙金的作者簽名,潦草、有力,似乎表明作者曾是個不羈的詩人。

‘Sightseeing Highlights of Vienna: Café Central’. This cafe cum-salon was once a centre of the city’s intellectual and cultural life.

The Velvet Prison is about the relationship between state censorship and artists and intellectuals. When Haraszti wrote it in the late 1970s [it was circulated as a samizdat in the early 1980s], a kind of Hungarian Model was on the rise. In the mid-1960s, the Hungarian Communist government had introduced a market economy and gradually relaxed its social controls; in the process it came to a tacit understanding with the average citizenry: I’ll improve your material life, if you give up your challenges to us. The fundamental Communist system hadn’t changed, but compared to other, more unwavering Eastern European countries (including Poland, Czechoslovakia, not to mention Romania), Hungary was paradise, wealthier and more liberal. Some dubbed it ‘Goulash Communism’.

Artists and intellectuals also occupied a new kind of space, albeit one that was inherently dangerous. Artists relinquished their independence and not only did they reach a compromise with the system but over time it evolved into co-dependence. Over time, with the bars of the prison cell sheathed in velvet people forgot they were still in a prison.

[Although introduced to the book years earlier,] I’d happened on a copy of The Velvet Prison at a small library in Cambridge. Initially, I found the style difficult, lapidary; it was a work comprised almost entirely of declarative statements, no questions, just resolute and decisive judgements. Apart from one mention of John Milton the author doesn’t quote anyone else; it’s as though the book exists in a vacuum. Yet it had a particular force; reading it I felt as though a veil had been torn aside, like accumulated filth had been scoured by a potent disinfectant. The author illuminates chaotic reality with unflinching certainty. For a Chinese reader, however, he’s not describing the Hungary of three decades ago; it is as though he is describing things right now.

Rebellion is Passé, Long Live the Censor

It was the winter of 2009, and China was revelling in her new international brand. Owing to the success of the Beijing Summer Olympics the previous year, and given the fact that the United States and Europe were embroiled in a financial crisis, it seemed as though Beijing had successfully developed a ‘China Model’, one that married political repression to economic growth. No more was the Chinese Communist Party to be seen as a moribund remnant of the twentieth century, rather it was a revitalised historical force. But Beijing wasn’t satisfied with mere material strength or military might; it also yearned to have cultural influence. The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony — an extravaganza that involved many of the country’s most famous directors and artists — was symbolic of this effort.

I recognise my own world in Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: a place where artists and intellectuals crowded under the banner of nationalism and were rewarded with official approbation, popular acclaim and material benefits. The traditional system of censorship was withering away; seldom did we now witness direct confrontation between the state and its artists and intellectuals. Rebellion was passé: with a nod and a wink everyone knows what can be exhibited and published.

When Miklós Haraszti asked if I was going to ‘write two versions’, I knew I’d been caught out. Over the past ten years, I have consciously policed myself. Nearly everything I’ve written has been allowed to appear in the People’s Republic; I know just what strategies I need to employ so I can get away with saying the almost unsayable. Even when criticising the regime, I know just where the line is, or at least I think I do. There are obvious things: best avoid naming names; don’t be too specific in your critiques; and, when you make sweeping statements about the regime, the government, society and suchlike, be sure never to mention Tibet, Xinjiang or June Fourth.

A self-censoring reflex is not just about the terror generated by political power, it is equally rooted in the temptations of new social realities. China is not merely an autocracy, it is also a booming economy with an ever-expanding urban population. There’s no dearth of pressing, non-political issues worth writing about. And, of course, there’s the ever-present anxiety that you could end up becoming a dissident. The genuine dissidents I know are fixated by the forbidden zones; they ignore all other major social issues. In effect, they impose another, insidious form of self-censorship on themselves.

But, then there are glaring examples of increased political intolerance. As early as the summer of 2009, a widely respected rights lawyer — a friend of mine — was incarcerated for helping social activists. This man was no criminal; he was mild and his behaviour was constructive. His crime for assisting education equality activists was to dare advocate in support the growth of a healthy civil society. When a trusted friend is arrested, you can’t avoid taking a stance. I started writing regularly for magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I soon discovered the delight of being able to discuss political issues directly and frankly, and the need to protest the arrest of an innocent friend in public.

I became aware of my previous self-deceit, of having wasted time and energy honing an ambiguous writing style, part and parcel of my self-censorship. Up until then, I’d imagined I was wrestling with an anaconda. I’d tried grabbing it by the throat and pushing it away. Instead, I found myself entangled in its coils. I’d now woken with a start.

Encountering Miklós Haraszti in Vienna ushered in a relatively freewheeling period in my writing career, one that was in stark contrast to my previous a-political writing. I started publishing many things critical of Beijing authoritarianism. It was something of a late blossoming for me, something akin to a middle-aged adolescent rebellion against my past obedience and meekness. Needless to say, my new work could only appear in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the winter of 2013, I published a book in Taiwan about political protesters on the Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau — from Taipei’s Shih Ming-te 施明德 to Hong Kong’s Kwok Hung Leung 梁國雄 and Beijing’s Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 — each of them rebelled against the system in which they lived. In my book I tried to find some ‘Chinese commonality’ in their stance. Inspired by Albert Camus’ The Rebel it was more about literature than politics. In fact, I’m not all that interested in political resistance as such or in its practical outcomes; rather, what fascinates me are the life choices people make when facing momentous challenges, and why, despite their solitary stance, they manage to stay true to their beliefs. The book couldn’t be published on the Mainland.

A Question of Balance

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a kind of balance between censorship and self-expression. In the global Chinese world, I write freely and publish politically sensitive work, while in Mainland China I produce non-political prose. For a time I thought I could straddle these two worlds, to be the kind of author Miklós Haraszti described as ‘writing two different versions’.

Yet, I soon found myself experiencing a different kind of anxiety. Following on from what is euphemistically called the ‘transfer of power’ in Beijing from late 2012 [when Xi Jinping became party-state leader], the intellectual shackles had been brought out once more. The phoney freedom enjoyed by the Chinese for nigh on two decades gradually faded. Previously, so long as you didn’t challenge the regime directly, there was at least the possibility of measured public discussion. Now, you either pledged unequivocal loyalty to the authorities, or you shut up. All kinds of issues, from constitutional rule, to civil society and the environment crisis, were no-go zones.

My Taiwan publishers organised several symposia. The participants included prominent Taiwanese democracy advocates, men and women often labelled ‘Taiwan independence activists’ on the Mainland. Both the publication of my book and participation in those gatherings increased my anxiety; I wasn’t sure whether I would suffer ‘unintended consequences’: I might be given a warning by the authorities, or be blacklisted. That would mean I would no longer be able to publish on the Mainland. I’d never been entirely certain just where the line was, but I did feel I was inching closer to it.

During that particular trip, I met Perry Link. He is one of the most admirable Sinologists of the past three decades. His Evening Chats in Beijing is one of the best accounts of intellectuals in the 1980s. In 1989 [following the Beijing Massacre], he helped the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi 方勵之 secure political asylum in the US embassy in Beijing, and he was one of the founders of the Princeton China Initiative, which provided refuge to some of the intellectuals forced into exile after 4 June. He was also one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, a controversial book widely regarded as important primary source material for understanding 1989.
在那次行程,我還拜訪了正在台灣訪學的林培瑞(Perry Link)。他是過去30年最令人欽佩的漢學家之一。他的那本《北京夜話》是了解1980年代的中國知識分子的最佳讀物之一。他協助了方勵之在美國使館的避難,還是普林斯頓中國學社的創建人之一,這個學社旋是1989年流亡中國知識分子的主要收容站,他還是日後引起轟動的《天安門文件》的編輯者之一,這份文件普遍被視作理解天安門事件的主要文獻。

One rarely encounters foreigners with such a passion for China. He speaks Chinese with a Beijing accent, knows Hou Baolin 侯寶林 crosstalk, is enamoured with Cui Jian’s 崔健 rock music, and declares that his best years were spent in 1980s’ China. Perry was blacklisted by the authorities in 1996 and he hasn’t been able to visit the People’s Republic ever since.

Despite being deprived of direct contact with the Mainland, his acute observations still garner admiration. I recall in particular an article of his from 2002 titled ‘China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier’. In it he says:

…[T]he Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite ‘naturally.’ [11 April 2002, The New York Review of Books; reprinted by ChinaFile, online here.]


The image of the anaconda stayed with me. Today, the anaconda is more active; you can see its flicking tongue. In Taipei, the creature haunted my dreams. Later, in Hong Kong, it appeared again; one night when I was staying at Robert Black College at Hong Kong University I was even startled out of my sleep. The anaconda was slithering through the corridors.

My nightmare can be interpreted in a number of ways. The anaconda might be symbolic of the censorship system, the coils of which I’m scared with entangle me. But perhaps it also represents political authority. China’s dominating rulers have traditionally derived their mandate to govern from the notion that they are ‘descendants of the dragon’. Their dragon is merely a distorted representation of the anaconda that they really are. Having been independent of China during the second half of the twentieth century, Taiwan and Hong Kong enjoyed freedom and independence; it was a transient experience. In its ceaseless efforts to enforce compliance, the anaconda evinces no interest in their sense of estrangement.

A Cloak of Invisibility

I remember the day well. It was the first Saturday of November 2014. I was feeling gloomy and depressed, sitting in a café recovering from a hangover. Outside it was a drab Beijing day, though you couldn’t tell was a sandstorm or just smog pollution.

On a clear day you can see forever. A view south over the Palace Museum from Prospect Hill.

That’s when I got the call: it was a friend; he told me my name was on a list of banned writers. Suddenly, I was trending on Chinese social media along with the historian Yu Ying-shih 余英時, the economist Mao Yushi 茅于軾, the essayist Zheng Shiping 鄭世平 (better known by his nom de plume Ye Fu 野夫), the Hong Kong television presenter Leung Man-tao 梁文道 and the Taiwanese director Giddens Ko 九把刀. According to a Weibo posting by someone au fait with the inside news from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (they’d taken part in the Administration’s latest meeting), our books would either be banned from sale, or unpublishable.

Many people got in touch over the following days, both friends and the media. They were anxious to find out if knew why I had been banned; whether I had been notified; and how I felt about it. Since I only learned about it via social media I was, like them, at a loss. There was no official notification, let alone a phone call or a formal document announcing my censure. All I knew was it wasn’t just a rumour.

One version of the story claimed that this latest list of outlaws consisted primarily of liberal intellectuals, as well as critics of the Beijing authorities (although this made the inclusion of Giddens Ko problematic). Another version of the story held that we were all tainted for having got involved in the recent ‘Occupy Central’ movement in Hong Kong. (‘Occupy Central’ was the first political crisis in the territory since its return to China in 1997, and it signified the bankruptcy of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model.) In the eyes of Beijing, Hong Kong was now to be listed along with Tibet and Xinjiang as being subject to ‘separatist’ tendencies.
一種說法是,這名單上的主要人都是自由派的知識分子,是北京政權的批評者(但九把刀為何在其列,又令人費解)。另一個說法是,我們都對於剛剛結束了香港的「佔領中環」行動有關,都作出了至少是道義與語言上的支持。「佔領中環」的抗議是香港迴歸17年以來最嚴重的一次政治危機,也是 「一國兩制」的破產。在北京眼中,香港正在進入新疆、西藏的行列,是令人不安的分裂因素。

But this was all just speculation. Censorship in China is like a black box, no one really knows how it works. At the same time, it’s remarkable how preposterous and pitiless it is. Unlike the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the past, and even 1980s China, being banned in China today makes you feel neither anger nor despair as such. Rather you feel like you’re in a farce. Being banned makes you fodder for the entertainment industry — although after the allotted fifteen minutes, you’re no longer newsworthy. When absurdity is so commonplace, and ceaseless, nobody cares about a few writers. Some people might even suspect that it’s all part of the marketing strategy of a clever publisher.

The Diary of a Nobody

For me at least, two metaphors have been reconfigured: the velvet has worn thin as the cold iron bars of the prison have been exposed; and, the anaconda has slithered out of fantasy and into reality.

The irony is that even if the ban on me is never officially confirmed, no one will dare publish me, even the writing I do that is completely apolitical. I’m simply taboo. It doesn’t matter that nobody knows how the taboo came about, or how it might end.

But that’s not the end of the story. Along with the atmosphere of oppression, fear and silence, China has been enjoying an unbroken tidal wave of entrepreneurship and consumption. Countless young people ride high on it and Chinese consumers travel the globe for pleasure and shopping opportunities. You get the sense that China is a place of boundless opportunity. I too am caught up in this paradoxical situation: I’m a persecuted writer, but I’m also riding the wave of entrepreneurship. I’ve formed a social media company with friends and I can avail myself to it to explore a new avenue for self-expression. The banned intellectuals of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, and Yangon never dreamed of such a thing. Today, we the oppressed have our own opportunities.

There’s another unsettling fact: I’m concerned that, at some point in the future, my status as a public intellectual will hurt our brand. I’m no longer just me, I’m responsible for a whole team and a company. In China everyone knows: to be successful in business, you need to be politically submissive.

The cover of Xu Zhiyuan’s The Protesters.

As a result, in effect I’ve abandoned my critique of politics and current affairs, and I’ve even distanced myself from some of my dissident friends. In late 2013, I had some reservations about publishing my book The Protestors 抗爭者 in Taiwan with Gūsa 八旗文化 [literally ‘Eight Banners Culture’, derived from the Manchu term ‘Eight Banners’, jakūn gūsa]; now, I’m fearful that some of my pointed opinion pieces might attract the attention of mainland censors. And there’s another side effect of my being banned: I’ve become insensitive to political violence in China. Since I can’t criticise or analyse it, I’ve come to pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. It seems that I’m content with this new kind of self-deception: I turn a blind eye to China’s authoritarian system: the ‘elephant in the room’.

Over the past two years, China’s locked-in syndrome has got worse. Not only has old-style ideological censorship become increasingly obvious by the day, the government has also achieved remarkable successes in controlling the Internet. What’s also evident is that average Chinese people have accommodated themselves to only having access to a restricted network. They accept the limited horizon with which they are presented. Such an environment can all too readily engender the cult of personality, statism, nationalism and bellicosity.

I feel humiliated; I’m ashamed of my cowardice. For the first time in my life I’ve started keeping a diary. In it I try to record my alienation from myself; I hope that this might act as a balm to my sense of alienation. Sometimes, Miklós Haraszti’s question comes to mind. If I see him again, I’ll tell him that I’m trying to write just the one version, but it’s hard.


Translator’s Note: My thanks to Geremie Barmé for introducing me to Xu Zhiyuan and for inviting me to translate this essay, as well as for his numerous suggestions and revisions. Subheadings have been added by the Editor.

Further Reading