George Orwell’s 1984 is the classic Western description of totalitarianism, while Laozi’s Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Virtue) is a foundational text of Chinese culture and thought. 1984 was published in 1949, and the Dao De Jing appeared over two millennia earlier.
Orwell never concerned himself with China; he had written 1984 in response to fascist and communist totalitarianism, a decidedly 20th century phenomenon. So what if I were to say that 1984 and the Dao De Jing are an intellectual debate between Orwell and Laozi? And what if I were to also say that George Orwell’s dystopia was in fact Laozi’s utopia? A look at the two texts says a great deal about why China and the West may be destined to disagree—or worse.
The similarities between the two classics are striking. Orwell’s masterpiece describes an England under the Ingsoc (English socialism) system, which is held together by Newspeak, doublethink, and the slogan ‘War is Peace/Freedom is Slavery/Ignorance is Strength.’ All three have equivalences in the Dao De Jing, but are rendered more poetic, subtle, and acceptable: Laozi was Big Brother’s propagandist.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language,’ Orwell described how vital language was to vibrancy of thought, and in 1984 he continues the theme to its logical extreme: without language there could be no thought. Thus, Newspeak:
‘Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’
Newspeak aims to destroy and negate language, to strip away the nuances and subtleties, beauty and elegance of a language. It becomes only functional and thus a strait-jacket: the person must do—he can neither question nor doubt nor change because there aren’t words for such dissent.
Although the Dao De Jing never discusses language specifically, its attitude towards language, like Big Brother’s, is one of suspicion and hostility.
Big Brother and Laozi share a fundamental logic, worldview, and attitude: proscribe language, destroy thought, and negate the self. Big Brother understands that doublethink actually means no-think, for if everything is a contradiction, there’s no point in believing in anything. The Dao De Jing is nothing but doublethink, full of flux, instability, and contradictions in its praise of flux, instability, and contradictions:
As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful,
There is already ugliness.
As soon as everyone knows the able,
There is ineptness.
In 1984, Winston Smith cries for truth and freedom by insisting on the rationality, stability, and determinacy of things. But both Big Brother and Laozi would laugh at and pity Smith’s stubbornness. In the climax to 1984, Smith is captured by Big Brother’s spymaster O’Brien, who enlightens the delusional and misguided Smith through the ‘purifying’ technique of torture. O’Brien wants Smith to negate his memories and thus negate all who is—once Smith’s sense of self is vanquished he will submit automatically to the ‘truth’:
‘Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston…When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.’
If you were to substitute Winston Smith with Orwell, O’Brien with Laozi, and the Party with Laozi’s The Way, this passage would clearly express the ideological divide between Orwell and Laozi—and between West and East.
Of course, Laozi is far more subtle and poetic than O’Brien, but he celebrates ignorance, passiveness, humility, and subservience, and in one passage he even mirrors the syntax and logic of the slogan ‘War is Peace/Freedom is Slavery/Ignorance is Strength’:
Credible words are not eloquent;
Eloquent words are not credible.
The wise are not erudite;
The erudite are not wise.
The adept are not all-around;
The all-around are not adept. (Chapter 81)
How ironic is it that in trying to describe the most intolerable unforgiving hell, Orwell has re-written the Dao De Jing for a Western audience? The sort of philosophy that repels a Western writer is in fact too often the culture of China.
So why should China and the West get along? It’s not just that their value systems, as underscored in these two classics, are different—they’re fundamentally at war with each other.