Outside the Pigsty Looking In, Two Views

In 2019, the Fifteenth Day of the First Month 正月十五 falls on the 19th of February. It marks the first full moon of the Lunar New Year and it is a festive day generally known as Yuanxiao 元宵, literally ‘First Evening’.

In 2019, the Yuanxiao / Shangyuan Festival celebrating the full moon on the Fifteenth Day of the First Month of the Lunar New Year 上元農歷正月十五 coincides with the start of ‘Rain Waters’ 雨水, one of the twenty-four jieqi 節氣 that define the traditional agricultural year. The calligraphy is in the hand of Liu Gongquan 柳公權 of the Tang dynasty and is taken from the ‘Stele Commemorating the Imperial Guard’ 神策軍碑 (843CE). Source: 19 February 2019, Palace Museum Calendar 故宮日曆

China Heritage celebrates the First Evening of the 2019 Year of the Pig in the company of the writers Wang Xiaobo and Liu Xiaobo, translated by Sebastian Veg.


Sebastian Veg is a professor of twentieth-century Chinese intellectual history at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris. He is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong. His research has focussed on the history of intellectuals, publications and public spheres. Beyond elite intellectuals and institutionalised knowledge, he is also interested in unofficial texts that circulate among social ‘counter-publics’ in what is known as ‘minjian’ 民間. After completing doctoral research on Lu Xun and May Fourth notions of literature and democracy and following a move to Hong Kong in 2006, he turned to contemporary China. He was Director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Hong Kong from 2011 to 2015.

Veg’s latest work — Minjian: the Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, Columbia University Press, 2019 — is devoted to the turn towards society among China’s post-1989 intellectuals (in it, he touches on both Liu and Wang Xiaobo, the authors translated below). He has also published an edited collection titled Popular Memories of the Mao Era — from critical debate to reassessing history, Hong Kong University Press, 2019, as well as having produced a series of articles on cultural and political activism in Hong Kong in the decades since the 1997 handover.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage

The Fifteenth Day of the First Month of the
2019-2020 Jihai Year 己亥年正月十五

19 February 2019

Out of the Pigsty:
Of Pigs, Swine and Independent Thinkers


Although pigs are a symbol of prosperity and opulence, the Year of the Pig (and the many anniversaries that crowd the Chinese calendar during 2019) inevitably also brings to mind the more unpleasant side of the porcine, traits of personality that in Hong Kong are associated with the dreaded ‘Kong Pig’ 港豬, a term used to describe those who are so occupied with material pursuits that they have no time for politics or society.

Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波, 1955-2017) depicts a similar creature in ‘The Philosophy of Swine’. Writing eleven years after the June Fourth crackdown, Liu was haunted both by the magnitude of the tragedy and the speed with which it had been forgotten. In talking about the memory of the Massacre as being ‘diluted to the point of nothingness’ 被淡化得幾近於空無, Liu may well have been recalling Lu Xun’s 魯迅 prose poem ‘Among faint traces of blood’ 淡淡的血痕中, written in April 1926 to mourn the death of his student, Liu Hezhen 劉和珍.

Liu saw China’s era of peace and prosperity 太平盛世 in the new millennium crowded with a motley crew of old and new ‘courtesans’ — statists, memorialists 奏折派, farewell-bidders to the revolution (such as the philosopher Li Zehou 李澤厚), the new left and the new right — who collectively celebrated the state of political amnesia. To describe the right to ‘be without history’ — a right claimed by this diverse group — Liu employed an expression which, in hindsight, would have an uncanny resonance: it was ‘the right to leave the seat of history vacant’ 歷史缺席權. After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the award ceremony became an Internet meme and remains a powerful symbol.

The extract I have chosen from Liu’s essay ends with a daring comparison between the random confluence of ‘new courtesans’ mired in the moral pigsty of post-Massacre cynicism and the random confluence of participants in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests themselves. As we contemplate the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in the 2019 Pig Year, Liu’s remains a prescient and thought-provoking conclusion.

By contrast, Wang Xiaobo (王小波, 1952-1997) — an altogether more carefree thinker — describes an unconventional pig that he encountered when he was a rusticated youth in Yunnan during the years 1968 to 1971. Wang’s indomitable pig stands out by virtue of its ‘nonchalance’ 瀟灑 — a quality the author often commends in his writing — something that allows the creature to resist the verdict of the political commissar who, having labelled the pig as a ‘Bad Element’ 壞分子, decides to subject the creature to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The pig’s return to nature represents a spirit of resistance shared by those who refuse the attempts of others to organise and control their lives.

The contrast between the two pigs, and the two Xiaobo’s — one the strident moralist and the other, a nonchalant observer — perhaps also leads us to reflect on the validity of our moral judgments over time.

The Lunar New Year is, among other things, a time to exchange messages among friends and colleagues 師友. The translations that follow, which create a dialogue that never took place between the two Xiaobo’s, were undertaken as an ‘irreverent homage’ to Geremie Barmé (who has also returned to nature) and his work. They are a modest contribution to an ongoing conversation between hemispheres North and South, as well as between 泰西 (‘The West’, that is me in France) and 遠東 (‘The Far East’, that is China Heritage in New Zealand).

Sebastian Veg


Further Reading:

An Unconventional, Independent Pig

Wang Xiaobo

translated by Sebastian Veg


When I was a rusticated youth, I raised pigs and herded cattle. Even if no one takes care of them, these two kinds of animal are fully capable of living their own lives. They roam freely at their leisure, eating when hungry and drinking when thirsty and, when spring comes, they even fall in love. Their standard of living is very low, nothing to boast about. When the humans came, they organised their lives for them: now every cow and every pig’s life was given a main theme. For most of them, the theme was quite tragic: for the former it meant hard labour, for the latter it meant being fattened up for slaughter.


… Here I’d like to mention a pig that was somewhat unique. By the time I started raising pigs, he was already four or five years old. In principle, he was being bred for meat, but he was dark and lean, with two bright, penetrating eyes. The fellow was as nimble as a goat, he could clear his one-metre-high enclosure with an agile leap and could even jump onto the roof of the pigpen, just like a cat — so he was always roaming around rather than staying in his pen. Since all the rusticated youths assigned to raising pigs thought of him as a pet, he was my pet too. That was because he treated us well and let us approach within a few metres of him; while if any others approached, he ran off.


… All in all, the rusticated youths who raised pigs liked him, they liked his unconventional and independent style, and his nonchalant demeanour. The locals weren’t so romantic; they said: this pig is not normal. The leaders hated him, but I’ll get to that in a moment. As for me, I not only liked him, I respected him; regardless of the fact that I was already in my teens, I called him ‘Older Brother’. As I mentioned earlier, this Older Brother Pig could imitate all sorts of sounds. I suspect that he even tried to learn human speech, unsuccessfully. If he had succeeded, surely we could have had a heart-to-heart conversation. But that wasn’t his fault. The sounds made by pigs and humans are just too different.


Later, Brother Pig learned how to imitate a factory siren, and that got him into trouble. There was a sugar factory where we were and its siren sounded at midday every day to mark a change of shift. If our division was working in the fields, when we heard the siren we’d stop work and return to our digs. Every morning at ten, Brother Pig would jump onto the roof of the pen and imitate the siren. On hearing it people working in the fields come back to the barracks — a full hour and a-half before the factory siren actually sounded. To be honest, we couldn’t entirely blame him for it; after all, a pig is no boiler and the sound he made was a bit different from the siren, but the locals swore they couldn’t tell them apart.


Because of this, the leadership called a meeting and determined that Brother Pig was a Bad Element who was interfering with the spring ploughing: dictatorial measures were called for — I had already grasped the spirit of the meeting, but I wasn’t particularly worried about him, because if by dictatorial measures they were thinking of using a thick rope and a butcher’s knife, that would never work. It was not for lack of trying, but one hundred men could not hold him down. Dogs were also useless: Brother Pig would shoot away like a torpedo, and a dog couldn’t get within several metres of him.

But this time it was for real, the political commissar took two dozen people with him and a Type 54 pistol; the deputy political commissar organised another dozen people and a rifle used for guarding the crops. They took two different routes so as to be sure to be able to surround and seize Brother Pig. I was conflicted: I should have rushed out with two butcher’s knives to do battle by his side by virtue of our friendship, but the idea seemed too extraordinary to me — after all, he was just a pig. Another reason was that I didn’t dare oppose our leader, I’m afraid this may really have been the crux of the matter.

In the end, I looked on from the sidelines. I admired his calm: he coolly skirted the line of people between the leader with the pistol and the deputy leader armed with the rifle. He let the men shout and the dogs bark, but never strayed from the line. In this way, if the man with the pistol opened fire he would kill the man with the rifle and vice-versa; if they shot at the same time, they would both be dead. As for the pig, being a small target, he would come out of it unscathed. They circled around each other several times, until Brother Pig detected a breach and broke out; he ran off in the most nonchalant way. Later, I saw him again in the sugarcane fields, he had grown tusks. Although he still recognised me he wouldn’t let me approach. His coolness towards me hurt, but I have to commend him for keeping his distance from unpredictable humans, including me.


In all my forty years I’ve never encountered another living being that dared ignore the strictures of life like that pig. But, then again, I’ve seen far too many people who want to organise other people’s lives, or who willingly accept being organised. That’s why I cherish the memory of that unconventional, independent pig.


 Sanlian Life Weekly 三聯生活周刊, November 1996


Online Source: https://baike.baidu.com/item/一只特立独行的猪/19968237

The Philosophy of Swine

Liu Xiaobo

translated by Sebastian Veg


The blood-stained terror of June Fourth left China bogged down in a swamp from which it couldn’t extricate itself. Although Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in 1992 broke the deathlike silence that engulfed us, the ‘miraculous soft landing’ achieved by Zhu Rongji’s economic iron wrist only served to postpone the storm of the deep-rooted economic crisis, rather than eradicating any of its systemic causes. Whether in the fields of culture, politics or thought, a poisonous atmosphere served to stifle all voices, immediately followed by the anaemic clamour, rampant corruption and suppression of dissent that heralded an imminent golden age of peace and prosperity.


Amid the massive influx of Hong Kong and Taiwan culture to the Mainland, the explosion of local mass culture, along with the ‘mainstream melody’ extolling the ‘three emphases’ [on study, politics and integrity, under Jiang Zemin] and patriotic education, people seemed absorbed by prosperity and pleasure. Deng Xiaoping used the promise of ‘moderate affluence’ to buy off the memory of the masses: not only were innumerable tragedies of history forgotten, but even the most recent bloodbath was diluted almost to the point of nothingness.


In this context of nation-wide amnesia and apathy, the elites, under the pretext of indigenising and professionalising scholarship, conspired with the dominant ideology to devise a ‘Philosophy of Swine’. Closely intertwined with the hegemonic discourse of ‘taking economic development as the centre’, it uses all knowledge as evidence to support the ‘philosophy of moderate affluence’ underpinning stability and economic growth to thereby rationalise a form of escapism that extols the ‘right to be without history’. It is, in a word, the rationale for allowing pigs to eat their fill until they nod off and, upon waking, to eat their fill all over again. At most, they might linger at the stage of lustfulness arising from material comfort, but never again will they entertain inappropriate ambitions.


In the context of China’s current system, any resolve to reform can only be a political resolve, any theoretical discourse in the humanities must reply immediately to the dictatorial coercion exercised by the system itself. How can economic reform be depicted as a ‘male virgin’ untainted by politics? How can pompous foreign theory be used to make an argument for cowardice?


In economics the statist theory of a ‘strong centre’ and its caucus of consultants, the ‘memorialist party’ of neutral economics; in politics the theory that [it is time to bid] ‘farewell to revolution’, the new left and pro-market factions; in culture the almost all-encompassing unbridled nationalism and indigenisation of scholarship … they are all constituent parts of the rising cynicism of the Philosophy of Swine.


What is indeed intriguing is that these elites from the Five Lakes and Four Seas have assembled without any common goal or premeditation; they have congregated involuntarily, coincidentally, spontaneously inside the pigpen, just as unwittingly as, eleven years ago, some of them became embroiled in the ‘1989 Movement’.


 Tendency 動向, September 2000


Online Source: http://www.liu-xiaobo.org/blog/archives/6026