Dwarves in China

By Deborah Fallows

A story from the Jinan Times caught my eye at breakfast one morning this week in Beijing. Here it is in full, as rendered in English by the world's greatest newspaper, the China Daily:

Beggar pulls knife on dwarf as street dispute turns nasty

A furious fight between two street beggars in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, on Saturday ended with the winner robbing the loser of all his belongings.

A bald beggar, in his 50s, who had no feet, started the fight, claiming that the other beggar, a dwarf in his 40s, had stolen 600 yuan ($90) from him. The dwarf denied this. A passerby, surnamed Zheng, said the bald man snatched a 30-centimeter-long knife from the dwarf, beat and robbed him. The "trophies" included a portable DVD player, Zheng said.

The police later confiscated the knife from the bald man and launched an investigation.

We'll get back to the dwarf reference, but first a digression. Nearly every newspaper article I've read in China identifies someone by his surname only. In this case "a passerby, surnamed Zheng". This is an example of preposterous non-identifying identification. It points to a curious issue about names in China. A few millennia back in time, the common people--not just the royalty -- finally took on family names. Initially there were thousands of family names, but over time, a lot were lost or simplified. Today, a small fraction of the original names cover the bulk of the population.

Right now, 85 % of the Chinese people -- a billion or so -- share the same 100 family names. Wang, Zhang, Chen, Li, and so on. So, you can imagine the mix-ups. Even narrowing the pool by adding in a generational middle name to sets of siblings or cousins, and even a first name, goes only some distance. Another more effective tactic (at least among your friends-and-family circle) is to identify people by their profession. We say Mrs. White, Colonel Mustard, and Professor Plum. But the Chinese love to call people by their professional labels and use many all the time: like Nurse Wang, Teacher Meng, Driver Fang, Engineer Li.

I still don't understand the point of identifying someone as "a passerby, surnamed Zheng," which could be any one of tens of millions of people in China. (Zheng, unlike Zhang, is not one of the top 100 names, but the point still applies.) And anyway, a person who is a "bald beggar, his 50s, who had no feet" is much more identifiable, even without a name.

The real story here is about the situation of dwarves in China. Airen, 矮人, or small people. When we lived in Shanghai a few years ago, I happened to be walking behind a dwarf, on a lane near where we lived. Everyone coming our way slowed down to point and laugh at him. Later many people explained to me that laughing is the behavior of embarrassment, and that the Chinese were uncomfortable and embarrassed at seeing someone who looked unusual and so different from the norm.

OK, maybe, but I don't think this can be the whole story. I think there has to be something more. About 18 months ago, a theme park opened up in the hills above Kunming, a big city in the southwest of China. The park is a tourist attraction where over 100 dwarves dress like fairytale characters and live year-round in houses shaped like mushrooms. The dwarves claim to be happy here, living among their own, away from public discrimination, and earning good money as performers of sorts. (The NYTimes had a story about it last year, here, which included many pictures like this:)


I asked around a little about dwarves in China. One of most interesting comments came just today from a young woman in her 30s whom I would describe as a modern, youthful, savvy nationalist. She said she thinks the reaction to dwarves is part of a traditional mindset where beliefs run deep, even subliminal. It's about Buddhism, she said. Doing good in this life is rewarded. Doing bad is punished, in this lifetime or the next. Maybe, she said, seeing a dwarf makes people wonder for the briefest instant whether this diminished stature is somehow "deserved," and makes them uncomfortable because of the negative history that might be attached to such a person.

I don't know. It is darkly curious that this explanation was even proferred.

Deborah Fallows, a linguist, is the author of Dreaming in Chinese. Her site is here.