Dire straits

Shuishen huore

Source here.

In China my vocabulary—acquired at a time when the commune system was still a recent memory—is absurdly peppered with classic expressions from the Maoist era, like “not taking a single needle or thread from the masses”. My Chinese colleagues have been known to exclaim, “Steve, you sound like a bloody village Party Secretary from the 1950s!”

Of course my usage (like much convoluted Oxbridge-speak) is partly satirical—but only partly.

One handy phrase is actually ancient, going right back to Mencius:

shuishen huore 水深火热
“waters deep, fires raging”—or simply “in desperate straits”

Used in imperial times to describe the abysmal sufferings of the common people, it was applied under Maoism [by Mao? source?] to the plight of populations under capitalism, in need of rescue. Elaborating on the motto, here’s an instance of the lively critiques going on these days (this is from a US-based site, but it’s no longer unimaginable within China):

During the Cultural Revolution there was a famous slogan, “The happy Chinese people are deeply solicitous for the American people, who live in desperate plight”. Experience tells us that the standard of living of the American people living in desperate plight far exceeded that of the happy Chinese people, and that the American people living in desperate plight didn’t seem to need the concern of the happy Chinese people. Under the theory of the great class struggle, tens of millions of happy Chinese people starved to death.

Again, when I use the phrase “waters deep, fires raging” about life in the UK or the West, I’m not being entirely satirical. It partly ties in with that “typical” English self-deprecation, and as the above quote shows, the irony of applying it to the USA can have been lost on few Chinese, even under Maoism. But the expression can be genuinely useful—it is worth reminding some Chinese people (who may still have a rose-tinted view of life in the “Western paradise”) about homelessness, alienation, strains on social care, and so on. If we can be honest about our problems, perhaps China can be too—let’s dispense with the platitudes.

Anyway, “waters deep, fires raging” never came in so handy as now—to describe the current turmoil amidst environmental degradation and moral turpitude, with civilized values widely threatened. Finally its time has come.

7 thoughts on “Dire straits

  1. Professor Rong Xinjiang of Beida (grew up during the Cultural Revolution) remarked to me that our generation was no good at politesse, having been brought up to shout things like chedi piping 彻底批评 etc


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