OCTOBER 10, 2014
“IS IT NOT CRYSTAL CLEAR, then, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings? Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost overnight we could become rich and free.”
These words were whispered at Manor Farm in the conspiratorial opening chapter of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s dystopian novel on power, revolution, and corruption. Spoken by Old Major, an elder and revered pig at the farm, they presaged the animal revolution that would upend the order of things and put the animals in power. In Orwell’s famous tale, the revolution for animal rights is short-lived, for soon the pigs walk upright and institute laws and regulations that favor the two-legged. The leaders of the oppressed in turn become the oppressors, and in a society of equals, some — namely, the pigs — are declared to be more equal than others.
The promises of Old Major and the failings of the new order form the backdrop for Hexie Farm, a comics series from Crazy Crab, an anonymous comics artist from China. The title of his comic makes direct reference to Orwell’s seminal book; indeed, Animal Farm skewered the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, but it could just as well be poking fun at the Chinese Communist Party.
In June of 1945, in the midst of war between Japan and what was then the Republic of China, Mao Zedong gave one of many speeches that would set the tone for the newly established Party. He told an ancient allegory of a “foolish old man” who set out to move two mountains by his home. The man knew he couldn’t move the mountains by himself, not in his lifetime, but he surmised that over time and through generations of his family working together, the mountains could gradually be dismantled. Said Mao:
Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese Communist Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these mountains be cleared away?
Much like Old Major’s did, Mao’s revolution started as a conspiratorial whisper — during the First Party Congress in Shanghai in 1921. There were many exchanges of power in China in the 20th century: Japanese occupation, the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang, the Qing Dynasty. By 1949, the Chinese Communist Party emerged as preeminent, establishing the People’s Republic of China with revolutionary fervor.
The hexie (pronounced “huh-syeh”) in Crazy Crab’s Hexie Farm is a pun and popular internet meme in China, one that predates Crazy Crab’s comic series. On the one hand, it means “river crab,” and so an English name for the series might be “River Crab Farm.” On the other it also sounds like hexie, or “harmony.” This references the Socialist Harmonious Society, a vision for China set out by then-President Hu Jintao that was meant to create a more stable, equal society after the rapid economic growth established under Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping.
Like the porcine offspring of Old Major, the contemporary Chinese Communist Party continues to solidify its power with a mix of euphemism and force, privileging those in the Party over the common person they purport to celebrate. Hu’s Harmonious Society policy led, among other things, to the censored, harmonious internet that Chinese netizens know so well. Thus, to speak of eating river crabs (using a phrase that sounds like “harmony”) is to poke fun at this particular Party euphemism, and, in so doing, to poke a hole in the country’s censorship regime.
In a 2009 Guardian interview about a wide variety of critical internet memes like river crab, internet scholar Rebecca MacKinnon noted, “Basically, [netizens] were saying the government has a lot of annoying slogans we want to make fun of.” And make fun of them they do.
Excerpts from the popular Hexie Farm series make up Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream: Political Cartoons, 2012-2013, a new digital ebook compilation assembled by China Digital Times (CDT), with explanatory text from CDT Executive Editor Sophie Beach. The book title is yet another reference to Party rhetoric: the Chinese Dream was established in 2013 by the newly appointed President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s successor, meant to inspire young people to work hard and better the country. It didn’t take long for many netizens to see through the euphemism.
“Xi’s Chinese dream is a dream without freedom of expression,” notes Crab in a brief interview with Beach in the book’s introduction. Crab’s words capture the cynicism of many netizens and critics of the ruling Party. “It’s so surreal for me. I have to pretend that I’m having a happy dream, even though I know Xi the Vampire is sucking my blood and soul. I can’t have my own dream, I can’t wake up, and I even can’t open my eyes and scream.”
The book takes us through Crazy Crab’s comics, which he says are inspired by both Orwell and The Far Side. A collection of single-panel works he produced specifically for China Digital Times in 2012 and 2013, the book is organized in five chapters. Each section highlights a different aspect of the cartoonist’s work, from his skill with literary allusions and skewering of Party euphemism, to his thematic explorations of Tibet and walls both visible and invisible, and an imagining of the Party as a literal ship of state. Each panel comes with English interpretations, with descriptions and links for those who may not be familiar with contemporary Chinese politics and social issues.
Sometimes color, sometimes black and white, Crab’s pen and ink drawings create expressive figures in the form of animals and humans. At times, we see pigs, chickens, and wolves vying for power in the allegorical world of Hexie Farm. But Crab doesn’t shy from making direct caricatures of Politburo members with squat bodies and dim eyes (a particularly striking gesture given Chinese leaders’ limited media appearances) or from referencing real world news events and controversies through collage. Lest any of his symbols be mistaken, he often draws explanatory text directly on the figures — a strategy, perhaps, to ensure his comics will be understood as they float around the web far from their original context.
The years 2012 and 2013 figure significantly in the collection, not just because they represented a flowering of creativity from the prolific comics artist. These years also marked the transition of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, a tumultuous period that included the toppling of Chongqing Party leader Bo Xilai and the near-crisis of international diplomacy brought about by the escape of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng from illegal detention and into the hands of the US Embassy.
Shedding light on the machinations of the Party and its effects on Chinese citizens, Crab’s comics often reference both Western and Chinese mythology and fables. In “Frogs in the Well,” one frog in a deep well declares to his compatriots, “China dream is the best!” Similar to Plato’s Cave, the Frog in the Well is a popular tale from the Taoist sage Zhuangzi (a.k.a. Chuang Tzu) about our ignorance of the limitations of our own worldviews. In “A Chinese Red Riding Hood,” Crab tears at Xi Jinping’s call for the Party to accept more criticism. The Party’s promises take the form of the wolf in grandma’s clothing, while a Little Red Riding Hood character inches forward cautiously with the torch of freedom.
Other comics demand direct comparison to Orwell. As if playing directly into Crazy Crab’s Animal Farm obsession, the Party issued seven “Don’t Mentions” to university professors in 2013. These included discussions about human rights and press freedom. In Orwell’s tale, the pigs issued Seven Commandments, like “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy” and “No animal shall drink alcohol.” Though not quite the same — the Commandments are more about rights than censorship — they gave plenty of fodder for Crazy Crab to illustrate a picture of chickens reading over the seven “don’t mentions” under the watchful gaze of a pig.
Crab’s comics need to be understood in the context of heavy censorship on the Chinese web. Though Crab published these comics on China Digital Times, an English-language publication based in the Bay Area, the site is blocked in China, as are the words “Hexie Farm.” With a combination of machine algorithms, human censors, government-sponsored trolls, and other methods, the Chinese internet has perhaps the most sophisticated web censorship regime in the world. The methods are designed to allow maximal social sharing and commerce while limiting possible threats and criticism of the government and its policies. (I highly recommend James Fallows’s long, if dated, exploration of the whys and hows of China’s so-called Great Firewall or, for a more contemporary take, David Wertime’s look at the sentencing of professor Ilham Tothi in Xinjiang and Jason Q. Ng’s Blocked on Weibo. These takes on censorship should be balanced with Tricia Wang’s dissertation on how Chinese youth are using social media today with unprecedented opportunities for self-expression.)
But Crazy Crab’s comics nonetheless find their way around the Chinese web, thanks in part to the simple fact that they are images — difficult for machine algorithms to catch and not always recognizable as political to human censors. They also benefit from the virality that the internet encourages. With such critical attacks of the Party, the comics present dangerous views, but they’ve found an audience of both Chinese and foreigners. As Crab notes in his interview with Beach, he’s made many friends on the web: “They encourage me to draw and they also try to support me. When I say thanks to them, they reply, ‘To not stop cartooning is the best thanks.’”
Crab could be considered a master of proliferating images on the censored web. As I wrote in an essay for The Atlantic, he orchestrated a selfie meme campaign for the blind Chinese activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Asking supporters to don sunglasses as a show of support for Chen, he posted the selfies on his website Dark Glasses. Portrait. The project played a critical role in raising awareness of Chen’s plight while deftly sidestepping censorship. (For more on this particular project, please read my interview with Crazy Crab in The Civic Beat.)
Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream is available only in electronic format, either via direct download from the CDT website or the usual digital publishing outlets. The PDF version has a spare design, a decision that lets his powerful illustrations tell their own story. However, the book loses the context in which they would have had the most impact, i.e., on the Chinese internet. This is not a fault of the book per se — it’s hard to imagine a digital recreation of the cat-and-mouse censorship game on sites like Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, where dissenting content quickly appears and disappears. It is nonetheless important to remember that both making and sharing political comics can be quite dangerous in China.
That Crab continues to make and disseminate his cartoons reflects their ability to liberate. He is one of many Chinese artists who have understood the continuing popularity of comics as a form of online dissent. “Humor can amplify the power of the social media,” noted humorist Wen Yunchao in a 2011 New York Times interview. “If it hits a nerve, like a case of injustice or abuse, it can be contagious. It’s indirect — just a joke, right? — so people lose their fear of getting involved.”
But humor and virality only go so far. On a trip to Hong Kong in 2011, Wen was warned in an email from government officials not to return to Mainland China. Comics and the internet might have tremendous power, but not more power than a government armed with the ability to disappear its citizens in its labyrinthine detention system. Exile (for Wen Yunchao) and anonymity (for Crazy Crab) are sometimes the best alternatives to a lengthy prison sentence.
The scope of the book, focusing on Crazy Crab’s contributions to CDT, means that fans of his work will need to go elsewhere to see the full breadth of his creativity. Fortunately for his fans, he maintains Hexie Farm on WordPress, where he posts a broad range of cartoons. They include many of his explorations of Angry Birds, where he takes the theme of the pigs from Animal Farm and transforms them into the Bad Piggies from the popular video game. (It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to reimagine Orwell’s chickens as the Birds themselves.) In one scene, the Bad Piggies march onward as tanks against a solitary Blue Bird, which in this case could also be read as the bird logo of Twitter, blocked in China. In another, the Blue Birds attack a pen of Bad Piggies guarding Chen Guangcheng embodied as a sunglasses-wearing Blue Bird trapped in a cage.
The book’s accessibility for foreign readers lies in Beach’s ability to tell the story behind the comics, which are self-evident for China-watchers but dense and unreadable for others. I would have liked to see a little more explanation of the events the comics address and perhaps a lengthier essay to set the context, but there are enough hyperlinks in the book to start a more detailed search for resources. Beach does a good job explaining the Mandarin wordplay, which could go unnoticed on the Hexie Farm site, and other unfamiliar cultural references.
For example, in “Human, Rights,” Crazy Crab illustrates an incredible image of 人(ren), the Chinese character for “person” or “human” (it looks like a person with two legs), struggling under 权(quan), the character for “rights” or “power.” When put together with ren, quan means “rights,” as in “human rights,” a term considered sensitive on the Chinese web. But when quan stands over ren, it is better translated as “power.” It would be easy for non-Chinese speakers to lose the visual metaphor behind this powerful image in the book’s final comic panel, but Beach includes a quote from Crazy Crab: “Like Liu Xia or Du Bin, every Chinese citizen who is fighting for his rights will face political repression. However, they stand straight and never give up.”
This mixture of humor, horror, wordplay, fear, and hope gives energy to Crazy Crab’s comics, which dialogue with China’s internet wordplay culture and the Chinese government’s culture of euphemism. The book is a real treat, and I only wish it were also available in print, to give new life to Crab’s expressive characters. But that, perhaps, is for the best: his works were designed to live in an electronic context, where critical words and images appear and vanish, like a passing dream. The act of making political comics in China is an act of defiance, a declaration of visibility in a system of erasure. These images tell a powerful alternative narrative to the official State message, with plenty of wordplay to question and challenge Party propaganda.
In “The Nightmare of the Pen,” Crab depicts a series of scissor-headed figures walking back and forth in front of the Meridian Gate outside Tiananmen Square, with a sign declaring “Two Legs Better!” A lone pen-topped figure can be seen in the crowd, its head hanging low. These scissor figures are meant to reflect censors, and the pen a sole creative voice. The original, Mandarin-language version of the comic skewers the Party more directly, with a caption reading “The Republic of Scissors” and “Long Live the Two-Legged” in the background. (One of the slogans outside the Meridian Gate reads “Long Live the People’s Republic of China.”)
The lone pen could represent Crazy Crab, who to this day remains anonymous. But if I were to redraw the cartoon, I might pan out a little bit farther and show the rest of the scene behind the pen figure. Crab might have drawn a single scribe in a world of scissors, but in today’s China, there are many cameras, computers, and mobile phones standing ready to copy, paste, remix, and reinterpret what the pen creates. In this dream world, the pen’s creation doesn’t have to hide in the shadows; it has voice and virality pecking away at the increasingly porous gates of the mountainous, silencing firewall.