Hot Dystopic: Orwell and Huxley at the Shanghai’s World Fair

By Jeffrey WasserstromMay 20, 2011

Hot Dystopic: Orwell and Huxley at the Shanghai’s World Fair

Who, we sometimes ask, at the dinners and debates of the intelligentsia, was the 20th century's more insightful prophet — Aldous Huxley or George Orwell? Each is best known for his dystopian fantasy — Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 — and both feared where modern technology might lead, for authorities and individuals alike. But while Huxley anticipated a world of empty pleasures and excessive convenience, Orwell predicted ubiquitous surveillance and the eradication of freedom. Who was right?

— William Davies, New Statesman, August 1, 2005


THE LONG-STANDING Huxley vs. Orwell debate got a 21st century New Media makeover in 2009, courtesy of cartoonist Stuart McMillen. In May of that year, he published an online comic entitled "Amusing Ourselves to Death" that quickly went viral. At the top of this strip, which has been tweeted and re-tweeted many times and can now be found posted on scores of websites, we see caricatures of the two authors above their names and the respective titles of their best-known novels. Below that comes a series of couplet-like contrastive statements, accompanied by illustrations. The top couplet reads: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books; What Huxley feared was that there would be no need to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one." The first statement is paired with a picture of a censorship committee behind a desk, with a one-man "Internet Filter Department" off to one side, a wastebasket for banned books off to the other. The illustration for the second statement shows a family of couch potatoes waiting for The Biggest Loser to return after a word from its sponsors.

McMillen's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" might best be called an homage, or perhaps a reboot, for the lines in it all come straight from media theorist Neil Postman's influential 1985 book of the same title, which made the case for Huxley's famous 1932 novel being a superior guide to the era of television than Orwell's from 1949. But Postman himself was far from the first to play the Huxley vs. Orwell game. The tradition of comparing and contrasting Huxley and Orwell goes back to, well, Huxley and Orwell, two writers who (though this is not mentioned as often as one might expect) knew one another from Eton, where Orwell was Huxley's pupil in the 1910s.

Orwell had not yet written 1984 when he first questioned his former teacher's prescience. In the early 1940s, a reader of his newspaper column solicited Orwell's opinion of the danger that consumerism and the pursuit of pleasure posed to society. Orwell replied that, in his view, the time to worry about Brave New World scenarios had passed, for hedonism and "vulgar materialism" were no longer the great threat they once had been.

In October 1949, just a few months after Orwell published 1984 (a work that presumably spelled out the more pressing threats he had in mind), Huxley wrote to his former pupil to make the opposite point. Orwell's book impressed him, he said, but he did not find it completely convincing, because he continued to think, as he had when crafting Brave New World, that the elites of the future would find "less arduous" strategies for satisfying their "lust for power" than the "boot-on-the-face" technique described in 1984.

Huxley wrote that letter in Britain during a month that began with a momentous event taking place at the opposite end of Eurasia: the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The author did not mention this to Orwell, nor indeed did he bring up any specific country to illustrate his claim. Rather, he contented himself with ruminating in a general way about the contrast between what we now sometimes describe as the divide between "hard" authoritarianism (the kind associated with, say, present-day Burma) and "soft" authoritarianism (for which present-day Singapore, which science fiction author William Gibson memorably described in Wired as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty," is often considered the poster child).

Over time, though, the PRC, the country I teach and write about for a living, would start to be brought into the Huxley-Orwell debate quite regularly, nearly always to make the point that 1984 was a more prophetic text than Brave New World. This is hardly surprising, given that Orwell's book is usually taken as an allegory of Stalinist Communism, and the PRC was founded, and still is run, by a Communist Party. For though Orwell was a fierce critic of imperialism and Fascism as well as state socialism (and actually claimed to draw inspiration for some aspects of 1984 from his time working for the BBC), soon after the start of the Mao era (1949-1976) it became an article of faith of critics of Communism that countries run by Leninist parties were the quintessential "Big Brother" states.

The idea that Orwell rather than Huxley was the one to turn to if one wanted a fictional lens through which to peer at China went virtually unchallenged throughout the Cold War; except, it is worth noting, by Huxley himself. In Brave New World Revisited (Harper, 1958), he argued that Mao had created a system that synthesized elements of Brave New World and 1984. Most foreign analysts, though, would have none of this. They took it for granted that Communist Party leaders, including those in Beijing, offered the classic examples of rulers who made everyone accept (or at least pretend to accept) that 2 + 2 equaled 5. And dissidents in various Communist countries who managed to lay their hands on and read forbidden editions of 1984 generally agreed with this assessment.

In this regard, things have not changed all that much. The prologue to Charles Horner's recent book, Rising China & Its Postmodern Fate (University of Georgia Press, 2009), evokes this Cold War common sense about the PRC. Looking back to his school years, Horne, who would go on to become a longtime student of PRC politics, claims that "actually existing China" (as opposed to the mythic pre-1949 locale conjured up in Pearl Buck novels and stories told by widely traveled family members) "first appeared to me in an English class, where we read George Orwell's 1984." He recounts a teacher showing members of his class a "long article that had appeared in Newsweek describing a vast government-engineered upheaval in China called the Great Leap Forward." In this magazine piece, according to Horne, "Chairman Mao's campaign was described ... as an ur-nightmare of totalitarianism, right down to the naming of it with a perfectly Orwellian phrase."

1984 remains a common reference point in discussions of contemporary China. This is true even though the PRC has become, as Cold War era Soviet bloc countries never were (except right before their periods of Communist rule ended), a place where translations of the book can be purchased openly and dramatizations of Orwell's shorter fictional critique of totalitarianism, Animal Farm, can even be staged. The clearest sign of the continued hold of the PRC-as-Big-Brother-state line of thinking is what happens annually when the anniversary of the June 4th Massacre arrives: the international press can be counted on to bring up Orwell; and no wonder, since Beijing's denial that soldiers killed large numbers of civilians in 1989 is a classic illustration of "2 + 2 = 5" style Newspeak.

Similarly, the adjective "Orwellian" is used regularly in stories about Beijing's efforts to control the kinds of information people can access online in the PRC and monitor what people do in internet cafés. Allusions to 1984 also appear regularly when the authorities get tough with dissenters. Recently, for example, when the Chinese authorities, made skittish in part no doubt by the specter of events in the Middle East, launched a crackdown on political gadfly figures, this was described as a turn toward Big Brother modes of control. And a contributor to the Guardian called the April arrest of iconoclastic artist Ai Weiwei a reminder that Chinese dissidents can still find themselves "blackguarded and bullied with total impunity by a system that takes Orwell's 1984 as a handbook."

The continued allure of 1984 analogies to describe contemporary China has also been underscored lately in coverage of two specific topics: the very large number of state-controlled video cameras that are keeping tabs on what is done in China's public spaces (a New York Times piece from last summer noted that the new technologies of surveillance "raise the specter of genuinely Orwellian control") and the publication in Hong Kong of Chan Koon-chung's Shengshi Zhongguo 2013, a dystopian novel set in the PRC of 2013, which has been hailed as a rare Chinese work of social science fiction. Chan's novel, which is banned in mainland China, has been dubbed a "Chinese 1984" in many reports; partly due, perhaps, to its title containing the name of a year, but mostly to its portrayal of a tightly controlled China of the future. Shengshi Zhongguo 2013 (a title whose first two characters have been rendered into English different ways, as "The Fat Years," "The Gilded Age," "Prosperous Times," etc.) refers to all memory of a recent outburst of protest being expunged from the minds of China's citizens.

Even though ruminations on China's Orwellian features have not gone away, a countervailing trend toward looking at the PRC through the lens provided by Brave New World has gained steam in recent years. For example, Rana Mitter, an Oxford don, ends Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007) with a nod to Huxley. And in a 2009 assessment of the Chinese internet (published at the invaluable website he runs), media analyst Jeremy Goldkorn pointed out that most "Chinese net users, who go online primarily for entertainment, don't notice and don't particularly care about censorship, as long as they can chat to their friends, play games, listen to music and watch videos." He then concluded: "Their dystopia is more Brave New World than 1984."

I first became interested in Brave New World's relevance for China almost ten years ago, when asked to give a talk about the June 4th Massacre to a group of college freshmen who had all just read Huxley's famous novel. Later, I highlighted the idea that Huxley might be as good a guide or better to the PRC as Orwell in my book China's Brave New World — and Other Tales for Modern Times, which came out in 2007. I've returned to the subject a couple of times since, exploring from different angles the question of whether the PRC is best seen as a "Big Brother" state or, instead, a country of "vulgar materialism" like the one Huxley imagined.

In considering the contrast, I've tended to stress two basic distinctions. One is the contrast between Orwell's focus on the way governments watch people and Huxley's emphasis on how order is maintained in part by the things that people watch. The other is the need to keep in mind that different modes of control are in place in different parts of China. For example, the "hard authoritarianism" Orwell imagined is often the rule in frontier zones such as Tibet and Xinjiang, just as it is in North Korea, the country that is now most often described as the ideal, typical Big Brother state. In the booming cities of China's eastern seaboard, however, the "soft authoritarianism" of Brave New World, which brings to mind Singapore more than Pyongyang, is frequently the order of the day.

Last summer, I spent a month in Shanghai, the best known and most spectacle-driven of Chinese boomtowns. My time in the city came when it was mid-way through hosting the 2010 World Expo, which ran from May to October and was at once the most expensive, the largest, and the most visited World's Fair in history. It was also, alas, the one with the longest lines (more than three hours wait for the most popular national pavilions) and surely some of the worst weather (with record-breaking high temperatures recorded on a massive thermometer, of record-breaking height, made out of an old factory smokestack). Since Brave New World is a novel that has much to say about high-tech forms of entertainment (such as the pornographic "feelies" that help keep denizens of that dystopia distracted), the 2010 World Expo with its many (admittedly G-rated) state-of-the-art cinematic works seemed at first custom made for an analysis that drew heavily on Huxley. My stay in Shanghai — a city I lived in for a year in the mid-1980s and have visited regularly since — also coincided, though, with reports of stepped up surveillance methods in Xinjiang, as the first anniversary of a series of 2009 riots in that northwestern section of the PRC came and went. Reading stories about what was happening in that frontier area brought Orwell to mind.

It might seem from this précis that my summertime in China would have simply confirmed my previous sense of the PRC being divided up into Orwell and Huxley zones. But things are not so simple, and elements of the two writers' dueling dystopias often co-exist in the same space. The Shanghai Expo was just such a space. The Brave New World aspects of the World's Fair genre, and the Disney theme parks that should be seen as part of the same lineage of spectacle, are obvious enough: these mega-events, from the first one held in London's Crystal Palace in 1851 on, have always been largely about two things. One is consumption: this is why cultural critic Walter Benjamin famously referred to them as sites of "pilgrimage to the commodity fetish." The other is escapist entertainment: the first Ferris Wheel was a hit at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, as were performances by Buffalo Bill and company. The Shanghai Expo was not lacking in either of these features.

In addition, in line with Brave New World's focus on pleasure rather than fear, World's Fair and World Expo displays tend to be as upbeat as the Main Street and Tomorrowland ones at Disneyland. They typically stress the growing comforts of modern life and the prospect of a better world to come, and when looking backward, do so with nostalgia and a focus on how the past has prepared us to live better lives now. Their exhibits typically contain few mentions of the anxieties of war and the concern with enemies that Orwell imagined being a central part of our future. True, early World's Fairs often displayed state-of-the-art military hardware (one of the longest lines in Chicago in 1893 was made up of people waiting to see a massive piece of artillery) and a famous work of art showing war's devastation made its debut at the World of Tomorrow Exposition held in New York in 1939 (Picasso's Guernica). Still, the overall thrust has generally been (and remains), as the old song has it, to accentuate the positive.

The specific focus of the Shanghai Expo was the challenge to the world posed by rapid urbanization. This does not, however, mean that the displays lingered on dark environmental issues. Rather, the event's mission was to focus on how problems can be solved by people working together to achieve common goals. International cooperation was celebrated just as resolutely at the Shanghai Expo as it was in the "It's a Small World" ride that Walt Disney designed for New York's 1964/65 World's Fair, a ride that went on to serve as an emblematic attraction at the theme parks that bear its creator's name.

There was an optimistic feel to most of the national pavilions that were the main attraction of the Pudong (East Shanghai) side of the 2010 fairgrounds, which gave the setting an "Epcot-on-steroids" feel, with more than 200 countries being represented. The same went for most of the pavilions across the river in Puxi (West Shanghai). These were devoted not to nations but to corporations (GM had one), cities (the Liverpool pavilion, in which the Beatles made a virtual cameo, was a great crowd pleaser) and such topics as imagining the urban future.

The exhibits in all of these pavilions were designed to be distracting and immersive, like Brave New World's erotic "feelies," sans the sexuality. Some of the exhibits had elements that were interactive (you could ride a chair lift in the Swiss Pavilion, for instance, and get a panoramic view of a faux Europe made up of nearby national pavilions when it reached its greatest height), but most were designed for passive viewing (many countries, including the United States, relied heavily upon films to tell the story of their nations). Nearly all displays downplayed explicitly political subjects, and history was generally brought into the picture, as it was in a special pavilion devoted to history of World's Fairs and World Expos, in a tidy fashion, as great things that happened in the past that had paved the way for even better things to come.

All this may seem far removed from 1984, but there were many specific points during my visit when Orwell's novel came to mind. One of the most significant things about any World's Fair is that it affords visitors the opportunity to make imaginary forays to places they may never see in person. That (and the fact that lines to enter them were so short) made stopping in at the Iranian, Cuban, and North Korea pavilions a must for me. At the last of these I found, not surprisingly, a rosy presentation of the land of Kim Jong-Il. In her justly-acclaimed Nothing to Envy: Everyday Life in North Korea, which makes creative and effective use of extensive interviews with North Korean defectors, Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick portrays the country as a starkly Orwellian place. And late in the book she mentions that one of her interviewees, upon reading 1984 after relocating to Seoul, "marveled that George Orwell could have so understood the North Korean brand of totalitarianism."

The virtual North Korea that I entered at the fairground, by contrast, was anything but dystopian, filled as it was with video loops of well-fed people (no evidence of the famines Demick and others have detailed) and skies with rainbows. This simulation of North Korean life (artifical even by Expo, or Disneyland, standards) failed to convince me that Kim Il-Sung and his successor son have created a people's "paradise" (a term used in the exhibit). Still, watching the videos there did make me wonder whether I have been too hasty to embrace the idea that only Orwell has relevance; one piece of footage in particular jumped out to me, for it showed an amusement park, suggesting that even in generally Orwellian North Korea a "less arduous" bread-and-circuses approach can sometimes play a role in subduing the population (at least a very privileged segment of it).

The strongest sense of Big Brother's presence I felt while at the Fair came after I had left the North Korean exhibit. Walking toward my next stop in the Pudong section of the Expo, I got a text message on my cell phone (a Chinese one linked to the country's sole provider of mobile service), which listed some shows that would be starting soon in pavilions near me. Later that day, when I crossed the river, a new message came, which informed me, in Chinese of course, that, now that I was in Puxi, I should know about the special events taking place in that part of the fairground. It's fine to see a contrast between Huxley's focus on what we watch and Orwell's on who watches us, but as these unbidden texts reminded me, Big Brother can make his presence known in many ways, by giving entertainment advice as well as by issuing warnings. (Mass text messaging is sometimes used by the Chinese state to convey darker messages: initially tolerated nationalistic protesters have sometimes been told by China Mobile that the government's patience with them is getting strained, so that they would do well to get off the streets, unless they want to take the chance of being arrested.)

A final Orwellian experience I had at the Expo reminded me that there are many ways inconvenient bits of history can be airbrushed away. When I went to the pavilion devoted to past World's Fairs and Expos, I was especially interested to see how one great international exhibition in particular was dealt with: the 1964/65 fair held in Flushing, New York, that had provided me with my only previous World's Fair experience. Inside the pavilion there were visual reminders of many other World's Fairs (I walked beneath a mock Eiffel Tower, saw posters featuring Seattle's Space Needle, read about the ice cream cone being invented in St. Louis in 1904, and so on), but I came across no mention or visual allusion to the one I had gone to as a tot. Why? Because the 1964/65 World's Fair was not officially recognized by the Bureau International des Expositions, the official body that is to World Expos what the IOC is to the Olympics. It was held too soon after another American event, the Seattle World Expo, for the BIE's liking. Due to this, and the fact that Cold War politics led to only a smattering of countries participating in it, New York's last fair is sometimes seen as standing apart from the Expo lineage.

I'm not sure what role, if any, the BIE played in ensuring that I'd see no evidence of the one World's Fair I remembered while at the 2010 Expo. It would certainly not surprise me to learn that the Chinese organizers were asked to keep their officially recognized Expo free of all reminders of that earlier unofficial one, and complied happily. For there would be no novelty for them about pretending that a famous event had never happened.


LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!