Searching for a People

In the 1921 play by Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author, six members of a dysfunctional family disrupt a play rehearsal.

Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in Buzz Podewell’s production at Tulane University’s Lupin Theatre in Louisiana in 2008. Image source.

In the 1921 play by Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author, six members of a dysfunctional family disrupt a play rehearsal. Presenting themselves as unfinished characters, they demand that someone complete their story. This task falls to the producer who, as a replacement author, follows the instructions of the characters to stage their story ad hoc.[1]

When Pirandello reflected on the reasons for writing this surreal work, he offered that the six characters (the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Step-Daughter, the Boy and the Little Girl) were not only literary and psychic archetypes, but ‘personalities’ that, having been wilfully excluded from his earlier works, now compelled him to write about them. They pressed him to bring to life the torments and passions of their relationships, ‘the tie of events experienced together.’[2]

The Happy Life Chairman Mao Gave Us (1954).
Image source.

The disaffected characters of Pirandello’s work offer us perhaps a way to understand the complaints and parodies of Communist Party rule that abound on the Chinese Internet. If unelected rule had previously allowed China’s party-state to claim omniscient authorship of the nation’s history, censoring and tailoring the narrative as it pleases, the present era of instant digital publicity and micro-blogging has enabled a legion of voices to point out inconsistencies in the Party’s account and to parody the clichés of official story-telling.

The online clamour jostles alongside the government’s celebration of China’s rise as a global power.[3] Meanwhile, the patriotic narratives of school history textbooks and nation-building messages promulgated in the state-run media constantly remind the citizenry that ‘the Party and the People’ 党和人民 are forever conjoined.

On the Internet, we frequently encounter what I think of as voices in search of a people. By this, I mean the following: In mainland public culture, there is much discussion about what it means to be ‘the people’, whether understood in terms of a citizenry 公民/ 人民 or common people 老百姓. Given that Chinese public culture has been moulded around official projections of what exactly constitutes an ideal national character for over six decades this is hardly surprising. Thus, with the ease of publication/publicity that the Internet affords, people have given vent to their feelings in multifarious ways about the imagined, and changing, collective persona scripted by the party-state.

To the extent that what we say and write draws on our background, education and experience, the ways in which people express themselves on the Chinese Internet reveal habits of mind and speech learnt under one-party tutelage. These habits in turn point to ‘the tie of events experienced together’. Those who speak in one form or another about ‘the people’ partake of the spirit of Pirandello’s six characters. A language ‘speaks’ them, to recall the German philosopher Heidegger: it is a language that is not of their choosing, yet it is one that defines them; it gives form to their grievances and makes their communication meaningful.[4]

An image from the People’s Daily titled ‘Beijing Art Printing Factory Workers Celebrate the birth of “The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China”‘

In formal terms, the current Chinese Constitution is the authoritative source regarding what exactly constitutes ‘the people’, and it is that definition that informs all others. In the Constitution the people are lauded as having become ‘the masters of the country’ in 1949, a time when they ‘took state power into their own hands’. Thereafter, the People’s Republic has been ‘a unitary multi-national state built up jointly by the people of all its nationalities.’ The Constitution further defines the nation’s primary goal as one of turning ‘China into a socialist country with a high level of culture and democracy’, led by the Chinese Communist Party and guided by Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Citizens are required ‘to adhere to the people’s democratic dictatorship and follow the socialist road, steadily improve socialist institutions, develop socialist democracy, improve the socialist legal system and work hard and self-reliantly to modernize industry, agriculture, national defence and science and technology.’[5] Dissenters frequently appropriate this wooden language and stylized vocabulary and lambast it; they represent this language as being a form of expression that has been foisted on them.

Parodies of Party language, as well as the broader mainstream discourse termed ‘New China Newspeak’ 新华文体 by critically-minded writers in the 1980s (see the Lexicon entry on this site), enjoyed a vogue in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the most famous authors to turn Party propaganda against itself was the Beijing-based writer Wang Shuo 王朔. His biting and ribald depictions of life under one-party rule became a best-selling art form that attracted numerous imitators.[6] He created a precedent for the satirical re-inventions of official Party discourse that have proliferated on the Internet.

Today, disaffected people often refer to themselves ironically as caomin 草民, literally ‘grass-people’, an old expression meaning commoner, as well as pimin 屁民 (‘fart-people’).[7] These terms, widely used since the late 2000s, gained viral popularity when, in an interview with the Southern Metropolis Weekly 南都周刊 published in January 2010, China’s literary celebrity Han Han 韩寒 used them in the quip:

We have no citizens, only people [as common] as grass and farts.

What Han meant was self-evident: that ‘the people’ meant nothing to the ruling elite; they were disposable. Such derogatory also highlighted the absurdity of official pronouncements that celebrate the people as the nation’s collective masters.

The term pimin 屁民 circulated widely in April 2012 around the time of the breaking scandal surrounding Chongqing’s erstwhile Party Secretary Bo Xilai 薄熙来 and his entrepreneur-lawyer wife Gu Kailai 谷开来. It appeared in a play on words:

Village level cadres drink yellow wine, use yellow words [obscenities] and watch yellow discs [pornography]. County level cadres drink white liquor, fondle white legs [fair-skinned prostitutes] and write white slips [IOU’s]. City level cadres drink red wine, kiss red lips [keep mistresses] and receive red envelopes [bonuses and bribes]. Provincial level cadres drink foreign alcohol, drive foreign cars and seduce foreign girls. The cadres above them drink famous wines, produce famous sayings and have sex with famous stars. As for ordinary folk, they drink beer [pi jiu], listen to bullshit [pi hua, literally ‘fart-talk’] and count as much as a fart [pi min].


The ditty mimics the tone used in the Party’s national character-building catechisms, such as the ‘Eight Honours and Eight Shames’ 八荣八耻 that Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 announced in March 2006. However, the ditty only inverts the official image of the ‘Party and the people’. It spotlights corruption only to treat it with flippant resignation. While one-party rule is presented as dysfunctional, questions of its longevity or necessity are avoided, but the ditty invites listeners to identify with the mood of discontent that it ascribes to the people who don’t matter. Such nihilistic humour presents ‘the people’ as irredeemably fated to trudge behind the party-state, envying the spoils of patriarchal power. Empathy takes the form of a shared sense of exclusion from conspicuous male consumption.

Pimin’, an invented double-character for ‘fart people’ 屁民 circulated on the Internet. Image source.

At one level, bawdy jokes and puns of this kind pose no direct threat to the government for they reflect daily frustrations rather than intense anger. Indeed, celebrated authors of such humour always blur the distinction between criticism and entertainment. They separate the political from the cultural.[10] At another level, the swear words and self-debasing language evident in so much online humour must cause the authorities unease for they convey popular longings for release from the strictures of Party language and, in so doing, hint at the distant possibility of breaking free of Party rule altogether.

Despite the use of such expressions as ‘deliberative democracy’ and related ideas that the Party and its supporters have used in recent years, there is no getting around the fact that one-party rule – for all of the recent talk about the importance of political reform – remains by its very nature coercive. This is why Party language also remains an insistent presence in mainland public culture.[11] No matter how benign it can be made to sound it remains inexorably an instrument that informs, instructs and prescribes. Hence suggestive resistance, called playing ‘edge-ball’ 擦边球, is commonly employed to avoid censorship.

The mainland Internet carries many varieties of suggestive resistance. For instance, there are academics who speak of political democracy in abstract theoretical or speculative terms; they hint at the problems caused by one-party rule but do not confront them directly. Then there are the reports of dispossessed villagers, such as those in the Guangdong village of Wukan 乌坎 in December 2011, who used the felicitation ‘Long Live the Communist Party!’ 共产党万岁! to protest against the failure of local Party elites to compensate them for the appropriation of their land.[12] The villagers presented a counter-demand to the government’s insistence on obedient citizenship: they ask that local government officials live up to the ideals of the Party.

More recently, at the August 2012 trial of Gu Kailai in which the key players (the accused, the lawyers, the judiciary and other court officials) were assigned their scripts beforehand, there were reports of people milling outside the courthouse shouting slogans such as ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ before they were taken away by the security forces. According to one account, these unscripted chants came from supporters of Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, who had travelled from the Northeast to show their support for the embattled Bo family.[13] As with the Wukan protests, the use of Maoist salutations was a protest against the Party. In presenting the Maoist-era slogan as something worth shouting about, the protestors were implying that present-day Party formulations lack authenticity.

The fact that the Party language of the past is used to speak back to the party-state today reflects a fatal contradiction at the heart of ‘New China Newspeak’. Oscillating between justifying capitalist economics under one-party rule and paying homage to the posthumous and resolutely communist Chairman, this language lacks political authority. Nonetheless, its imposed dominance ensures that the Chairman’s idiolect finds multiple uses among those who seek to ‘flourish their scattered passions’ in the face of China’s power-holders today.[14] We should be careful not to confuse present-day invocations of Mao with calls for political radicalism; there is no evidence of any groundswell of support for an egalitarian communist politics.

Advance Victoriously Along Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line in Literature and the Arts (1968). Image source.

What is being invoked is the aura of Mao. Bo Xilai understood the potency of summoning Mao and put it to effective use with his ‘Sing Red’ 唱红 campaign that brought him sustained media publicity during his political rise. All the same, his ‘repetition’ of Mao has now become fatally complicated by the conviction of his wife for murder, speculations about his involvement in related wrongdoing, and revelations of the unethical methods that he had endorsed to convict and execute suspected criminals as part of the Strike Black 打黑 campaign. Rumour and gossip about Bo has also circulated relatively freely on the mainland Internet, arousing suspicion among observers that his adversaries in the Politburo seek to ensure that his downfall is permanent.

The fact that the Realpolitik of factional rivalries and leadership struggles are reflected in minor adjustments and recalibrations of Party doctrine points to a situation of political impoverishment in the midst of material plenty. As Pirandello well understood, the power of a dictator lends itself to aestheticization like the creative force of an author: the difference being that the dictator does not deal with imagined characters but with real people whose fate he contemplates and decides in line with the national story he has spun. Political impoverishment thus results from the imposition of a national form.

There are those who actively seek to be seen as exemplary conformists to a greater national will. Pirandello was one of them. He was an ardent Fascist who, writing in 1923, said: ‘Mussolini cannot but be blessed by someone like me who has always felt this inherent tragedy of life, which in order to hold together needs a form.’ He made a point of noting that Six Characters in Search of an Author was one of Il Duce’s two favourite Pirandello plays.[15]

In China, Mao is often cited as an inspiration in anti-Japanese chants, the most recent of which erupted on the mainland Internet in mid-to late August 2012. The latest wave of cyber-hatred was a reaction to the detention and subsequent deportation of fourteen Chinese activists from China, Hong Kong and Macau who had landed on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Administered by Japan, the uninhabited and potentially natural gas-rich islands are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The subsequent arrival of Japanese nationalists and their planting of the Japanese flag on the islands, following the deportation of their Chinese counterparts, further angered the mainland public. Anti-Japanese protests were held in several Chinese cities on the weekend of 18 and 19 August resulting in violent damage to Japanese cars, Japanese restaurants and ‘businesses perceived to have a Japanese connection.’[16] Anger was also directed against the Chinese government for not taking a more militant stand against Japan. In 2012, hostility against Japan had mounted since mid-April when Tokyo’s nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara 石原慎太郎 first announced that he intended to buy three of the islands from their owners, the Kurihara 栗原 family. Chinese nationalists were unhappy that their government’s formal condemnation of Ishihara’s plan in April was not accompanied by military action.[17]

‘If Grandpa Mao were still alive, he would lead China to get rid of America and obliterate little Japan’ – when people vent their spleen in this way on the Internet they are by inference attacking the Party.[18] As one commentator wrote: ‘Old Mao, you’ve gone, why did you take your spirit away as well?’, a question preceded by the remark: ‘Old Hu is too bloated.’[19]

These exaltations of Mao interwoven into hate speech provide us with the most poignant evidence of what happens when public uses of language have, for decades, been forced to conform to state propaganda. Mimicking the militarized language of the Maoist era enjoys a special license in China for it resonates with the patriotic ardour so frequently extolled in official storytelling. Thus, when discouraging the use of verbal and physical violence, the government must nonetheless find a way of affirming patriotism as integral to the identity of ‘the people’. This difficulty is reflected in an editorial in the state-controlled China Youth Daily of 20 August 2012. Acknowledging that Japan’s ‘wrongful attitude and actions have consistently hurt the Chinese people’s feelings’, the editorial goes on to describe vandalism as ‘a stupid act that isn’t patriotic and that damages the nation’, adding that ‘this way of “loving the nation” never wins applause and would only cause true patriots to feel ashamed.’[20]

In its careful qualification of patriotism as necessary and commendable yet ever at risk of being turned into ‘the refuge of scoundrels’, the editorial presents us with the Pirandello-like irony of a would-be author confronted by the excesses of characters who seek more eagerly than others to live up to their creator’s conception of ‘the people’. After all, those who fetishize power are best adapted to benefit from the arbitrary constraints of one-party rule, and thereby they are the first to justify violence in the name of a fierce devotion to the nation and the Party. But when ‘patriots’ fail to read from the approved script, they find themselves recast as ‘scoundrels’.


Gloria Davies is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Monash University, Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU and co-editor of The China Story Journal. Her research covers several areas of Chinese thought and culture from the 1890s to the present. Her new book, Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence will be published by Harvard University Press in 2013. She is currently completing a project on dissent in China’s digital age. She thanks Geremie Barmé for his comments on a draft of this essay and Jeremy Goldkorn for suggesting the accompanying images.


[1] Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, translated by Frederick May, London: Heinemann, 1954.
[2] Luigi Pirandello, ‘Pirandello Confesses: Why and How He Wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author’, The Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 1925).
[3] For an in-depth analysis of the national spectacles that have marked China’s ‘re-emergence’, see, for example, Geremie R. Barmé, ‘China’s Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008’, The China Quarterly, vol.197 (March 2009): 64-86
[4] What Heidegger wrote was: ‘Language speaks. Man speaks in that he responds to language.’ See Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, p.210.
[5] See the official English translation of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, adopted 4 December 1982.
[6] See ‘New China Newspeak’ in The China Story Lexicon. As this lexicon entry points out, the first writer to draw attention to the language of Cultural Revolution-era China was Chen Jo-hsi 陳若曦, whose stories based on her experiences in the People’s Republic, were published in Taiwan in 1976. The first published mainland writer to satirize such language was Li Jian 李剑. See his 1980 story ‘Drunk in the Rapeseed Patch’.
[7] The term caomin has long been in use as a reference to the common people as those without office and hence are the led. Pimin is a recent coinage based on an outburst by a Shenzhen Party official by the name of Lin Jiaxiang 林嘉祥. In 2008, Lin was caught on a surveillance camera grabbing an eleven-year old girl by the throat in a local restaurant. He had asked the girl for directions to the toilet and the attack occurred when she led him there. The girl escaped and ran back to her parents who were dining in the restaurant. They confronted Lin who promptly shouted: ‘Do you know who I am? I was sent here by the Ministry of Transportation in Beijing. My rank is as high as your mayor’s. So what if I squeezed the child’s neck, people like you are nothing [“worth about a fart”]! Mess with me and I’ll fix you.’ 你知道我是谁吗?我是北京交通部派下来的,级别和你们市长一样高。我掐了小孩的脖子又怎么样,你们这些人算个屁呀!敢跟我斗,看我怎么收拾你们. Footage of the incident and Lin’s remarks were posted online. As public outrage grew, a police inquiry was conducted and Lin was subsequently sacked. The coinage, ‘fart-people,’ soon became widely used. There are numerous articles about this incident. See for instance AFP, ‘Online Uproar Over Video of Boorish Official’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 2008; China News 中国新闻网, ‘A man behaving indecently toward an eleven-year old girl describes himself as “a high-ranking official from Beijing” ’ 男子猥亵11岁女童自称‘北京来的高官’, 30 November 2008. As pointed out in the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, pimin is also used to suggest that the Chinese people want democracy, as in the popular statement: ‘Without the vote, we are just a fart!’ 没有选票, 我们就是个P! See China Digital Times. While this is an effect of the compressed shorthand style favoured in text-messaging, it is sometimes a deliberate tactic of evading censorship as terms like pimin are periodically censored.
[8] Han did not discuss what these terms meant to him personally nor did he indicate whether his fortunate circumstances and popular influence excluded him from being considered as a caomin or pimin. See Han’s interview with Southern Metropolis Weekly, 4 January 2010.
[9] The translation is modified on the basis of Charles Custer’s version.
[10] See Han Han: ‘I can accept the fact that there’s no real democracy or multiparty system in this country in the foreseeable future. There are more urgent and realistic issues, such as press and cultural freedom. At least those issues are not hopeless. And I prefer doing things that are not hopeless.’ Simon Elegant, ‘Han Han: China’s Literary Bad Boy’, Time, 2 November 2009.
[11] On practical and potential applications of theories of ‘deliberative democracy’ in China, see Ethan J. Leib and Baogang He, eds, The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
[12] On Wukan, see for instance Michael Bristow, ‘China Protest Worsens in Guangdong after Villager Death’, BBC News, 14 December 2011.
[13] Flora Sapio, ‘Law as Liturgy: The Show But Do Not Tell Case of Gu Kailai’, The China Story Journal, 11 August 2012; and, Donald C. Clarke, ed., ‘Unofficial Report of Proceedings in the Gu Kailai Case’, China Law Prof Blog, 10 August 2012.
[14] The phrase is Pirandello’s: ‘At once they [the six characters] began telling me their misfortunes, first one, then another, each in turn silencing all the rest, as each in turn shouted out his story; and there they were flourishing their scattered passions in my face, just as in the play they flourish them in the face of the thoroughly misunderstanding Manager’ (see  ‘Pirandello Confesses’).
[15] Quoted in Mary Ann Frese Witt, ‘Fascist Discourse and Pirandellian Theatre’, Jody McAuliffe, ed., Plays, Movies and Critics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993, p.78.
[16] Keith Bradsher, et al, ‘Anti-Japan Protests Erupt in China Over Disputed Island’, New York Times, 19 August 2012.
[17] On the background of the dispute, see Wani Yukio, ‘Barren Senkaku Nationalism and China-Japan Conflict’, translated by John Junkerman, The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol.10, issue 28, no.4 (9 July 2012). See also He Qinglian 何清涟, ‘Patriotic Protests Over the Diaoyu Islands and the Games of the State‘ 钓鱼岛爱国游行与国家游戏, Voice of America Chinese Blog 美国之音博客, 20 August 2012; and the article attributed to Voice of America, ‘Anger and Claims of Conspiracy over the Diaoyu Islands’ 钓鱼岛的愤怒与阴谋, 22 August 2012.
[18] The original reads: 毛爷爷在世,肯定带着我们,干掉美国,灭了小日本, posted 28 August 2012, see here. The United States was criticized because of long-planned joint military exercises between US marines and Japanese troops that were held in the West Pacific in August 2012. See Patrick Goodenough, ‘China Bristles Over U.S.-Japan Military Drills’, CNS News, 22 August 2012.
[19] The original reads: 老胡臃肿了… ‘人若犯我,我必犯人’, 老毛您老人家去了,为啥把你的精神也带走了, posted 19 August 2012, now archived. See here.
[20] ‘The Stupidity of Damaging Japanese-made Cars Owned by Fellow-Chinese is not Patriotic – it damages the nation’, 打砸同胞日系车的蠢行非爱国是害国, China Youth Daily 中国青年报, 20 August 2012.