The story shows some of the negative consequences of a totalitarian system, in which the government controls every aspect of people’s lives, including how they behave and what they think. The minds of the townspeople are controlled by the Communist Party, which is their only authority for what is happening both in their own town and in the wider world. They show no ability to make independent judgments for themselves or to exercise common sense. They will believe almost anything. They are convinced, for example, that the famine is caused by sparrows and rats eating the food, simply because this is what the Communist Party tells them, its propaganda transmitted to them through loudspeakers in the town.
The system under which the townspeople live wipes out individuality. They always think and behave as a group, and the group mentality can make them dangerous, as when they set upon the boy who during the famine merely wants to take a sparrow home for his mother to eat. They lose their reason, thinking that the boy is committing some offense against them all, and they become like animals: “Some of us bare our teeth, ready to eat him alive.” The townspeople are also quite ready to condemn their own people simply because the Party tells them to, as when they celebrate the execution of the young carpenter—the father of the future impersonator—for some small indiscretion which resulted in his being branded as a counterrevolutionary. The townspeople thrust their fists into the air and hail a great victory for the People and chant revolutionary songs.
Since they are easily controlled by the Party and believe fervently in the personality cult of the dictator, the townspeople are ready to make any sacrifice that is demanded of them, even their lives. When the dictator defies the Americans to drop atomic bombs on China, the ordinary people in the town work themselves into a state of great indignation about the aggression of the Americans. They are ready for the bombs to fall, so they can “prove to the dictator [their] courage, and [their] loyalty.” The tyrannous nature of the rule to which the townspeople have submitted is everywhere apparent. The Party rigidly enforces the personality cult of the dictator, even sending parents of first-graders who make the mistake of misspelling the dictator’s name to labor camps. The people are terrified of doing or saying something that will get them into trouble with the government. They must make sure they express the sentiments that are officially approved. If for a moment they think anything that might call official doctrine or government practices into question, they instantly repress the thought. For example, when some of them go to see the memorial of the dictator erected after his death, they pay a “substantial fee” (the hint of exploitation is unavoidable) to buy a white paper flower to be placed at the foot of the coffin. Some of them wonder whether the flowers are collected at night and resold the next day, but “instantly we will feel ashamed of ourselves for thinking such impure thoughts in the most sacred place in the world.” Another example occurs when they watch national celebrations on television and see people dancing and singing with hearty smiles on their faces “like well-trained kindergarteners.”
For a moment, the brainwashing is not quite perfect: “At such moments, those of us who think a little more than others start to feel uneasy, haunted by a strange fear that our people are growing down, instead of growing up.” But that intuition quickly vanishes when the dictator’s impersonator appears on the screen. It is only when Western influences start to appear in China that the people start to think for themselves a little more, and doubts begin to appear. They realize the falsity of much of what they were taught in the early days of communist rule. But the communist system soon manages to reassert its hold over the people’s minds. In the aftermath of the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators (this is a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989), the people mindlessly echo the words of the new dictator, who has said that he is willing to kill two hundred thousand people in exchange for twenty years of communist stability: “Numbed by such numbers, we will echo his words and applaud his wisdom when we are required to publicly condemn those killed in the incident.” This suggests that in terms of how the people’s minds are controlled by the authorities, nothing much has changed since the 1950s.
When they first come to power, the communist leaders proclaim that communism is great, and they persuade the people that there will now be prosperity for everyone. But the story shows that in one respect at least, China continues as before. In the old days, the town used to castrate seven-and eight-year-old boys and send them to the capital city to serve the imperial family. The town is proud of its history of supplying the emperor with Great Papas, but the reader will find it hard to accept the notion that there is any honor in the practice of sacrificing boys’ masculinity so that they may better serve the ambitions and whims of the country’s leaders. The mutilation of the Great Papas serves as a powerful symbol of how individuals are emasculated in service of their rulers, and so it is with the young impersonator, who is a eunuch in everything but name even before he castrates himself at the end of the story. His status as a celebrity derives solely from his imitation of the dictator; in himself, he is nothing, his achievements nothing. All his power is derived from the dictator, on whom he is utterly dependent. The slightest sign of any individual expression would mean that he was no longer fit to impersonate the dictator. In this sense, he is as emasculated as the eunuchs of old, and like the eunuchs also, when he can no longer be of any use to his rulers, he is discarded. It comes as no surprise that eventually, because of sexual frustrations that derive in part from his life as an impersonator (he is too puffed up with ideas of his own greatness to accept a local young woman as a bride), he castrates himself and becomes literally a eunuch.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Yiyun Li, Published by Gale Group, 2006