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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 00:02 GMT
Chinese students stage Animal Farm
Chairman Mao's statue in Beijing
The central character could be Mao
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes

China may be one of the world's last Communist states but that is not stopping a group of students from performing the classic anti-Communist satire - George Orwell's Animal Farm.

The students are from the Chinese Central Academy of Drama, the country's most prestigious acting school.

The play starts with a group of animals led by two large pigs celebrating victory to the sound of a Jewish wedding dance.

After a titanic battle, the animals have taken over their farm and expelled the hated human exploiters.

As the animals celebrate, their new leader - the pig Napoleon - struggles up onto a bale of straw to declare the new animal society.

"We are free," the animals sing, "liberated from our bitter life. A new sun is rising in the East."

George Orwell
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a satire on Stalin's Soviet Union
As every schoolchild knows, the Animal Farm represents Soviet Russia and Napoleon the pig is Stalin.

But there are powerful undertones of China's own revolution here.

A new sun rising in the East - isn't that what Mao Zedong once said?

As the animals' paradise descends into dictatorship and repression, the play reaches its pivotal moment.

Napoleon confronts his rival for power, Snowball, who has criticised him for the way he treats other animals.

"Equality", Napoleon spits in disdain, "Snowball, you are so naive. Don't you know there's no such thing as equality?"

'Subversive'

Snowball is driven from the farm, just as Stalin drove his rival Trotsky from Russia and just as Mao Zedong destroyed his rivals for power in China.

This is subversive stuff.

China's media, including its theatre and films, are still heavily censored, so how on earth did Animal Farm get past them and onto the stage?

According to the play's director, it was no problem.

Many of us have lived through this experience in our lives, we've heard these same slogans - that we can watch this play now is very important

Audience member after play

"Up to now I can say and do whatever I want. I haven't received any intervention from whatever source," he says.

But what about the message of the play and the central theme that Communism is fundamentally corrupt?

"I don't have any hints to criticise Communism. The play doesn't focus on any one country or age, it's about the struggle of human society to progress," he says.

The actors gave the same reaction.

"He talks about human behaviour," says the actor playing Napoleon.

"I don't think it's about socialism or any particular political system. I'm not sure if they believe their own words. I know I don't."

The subtle changes the director has made to the plot only seem to make it more subversive.

Now Napoleon has an evil wife, a mean vindictive sow who treats all the other farm animals with extreme cruelty. Surely this is Chairman Mao's hated wife, Jiang Qing?

Mixed reaction

As the play ends I stand at the exit, microphone in hand, wondering what the audience made of it.

"I didn't like it at all. It was a mess. I have no idea what it's about," a young woman says.

But with older members of the audience the reaction is very different.

"I feel rather uncomfortable, it makes me feel very disappointed about society," says a middle-aged woman.

"I think it has very deep meaning for us," says another man.

"Many of us have lived through this experience in our lives. We've heard these same slogans. That we can watch this play now is very important."

Provocative language

It is certainly a surprise. Even as a foreigner I sat transfixed as the seditious phrases rolled off the actors' tongues in Chinese.

But does it mean that China is changing, loosening the strings of censorship, making room for political satire? Maybe, but I doubt it.

It is more likely the censors simply do not care. The handful of people who have come to watch this play are hardly going to start a new revolution.

Today, it is television and the internet that the Communist Party is worried about and government control over those is still as powerful as ever.

See also:

03 Jul 02 | UK
02 Apr 01 | Entertainment
04 Dec 02 | Technology
23 Sep 02 | Business
09 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
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