I recently hit upon a translation conundrum. One interpretation leads to communist totalitarianism or at least extreme social engineering; the other to a far more benign traditionalist reading rooted in historical cultures and languages. One is Western/English, the other is Russian and Chinese. It’s highly relevant today because President Xi Jinping and Wang Huning, the chief ideologist or philosopher king of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have used it to convey the notion of a model teacher. The phrase in question is: “the engineers of the human soul” or “人類靈魂工程師”. Right off the bat, to a Western ear, it sounds sinister. That was how it initially sounded to me. And I had plenty of push down that path from several Western China specialists and scholars. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. It has been educational, for me anyway. The sinister Western version Writing in the web magazine The Article , American literary critic Jeffrey Meyers observes how Stalin demanded artists and poets be “engineers of the human soul” while simultaneously liquidating a great number of them. He wrote: “[Stalin] thought that influential and dangerous authors had to be brutally suppressed and vaporised. Whenever his torturers in the Lubyanka failed to extract immediate confessions, Stalin would ask, ‘Is this a hotel or a prison?’” Setting the record straight about an essay wrongly attributed to Wang, David Ownby, translator and editor of an influential translation website, “Reading the China Dream”, wrote that the piece on the Cultural Revolution was actually a forgery. Besides publishing a corrected version of Wang’s essay, he also offered an amended introduction by sinologist Matthew Johnson. Ownby quoted his comment approvingly: “As Matt Johnson has persuasively argued, Wang Huning is powerfully connected with the idea that the CCP sees itself as the “engineer of China’s soul”. This is what Johnson wrote: “Wang’s role in China’s history may end up being that of another would-be ‘engineer of the soul’, who for both political and nationalistic reasons envisions the salvation of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics as attainable only through the unceasing transformation of those who live within and beneath it.” Interestingly, Johnson is a visiting fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the research director at Garnaut Global, a consultancy founded by John Garnaut, who proudly wrote in his CV that he was “Senior Adviser to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Principal Adviser (International) at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where he led the Australian government’s inter-agency analysis and policy response to Chinese Communist Party interference in Australian politics, business and academia”. When it comes to Canberra’s anti-China policy, Garnaut has had great influence. You can’t find a greater anti-China hawk in Australia than him. The passage I just quoted above from Johnson in fact carries a footnote that refers to a speech, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China”, that Garnaut gave at an internal Australian government seminar in 2017. Here, Garnaut draws a direct line from the dictatorship of Stalin to Xi’s alleged “totalitarianism” via “engineering the soul”. It’s a long speech, but a few quotes will suffice: “The totalitarian machine works to a predetermined path. It denies the existence of free will and rejects ‘abstract’ values like ‘truth’, love and empathy. It repudiates God, submits to no law and seeks nothing less than to remould the human soul.” “Xi was arguing for a return to the Stalinist-Maoist principle that art and literature should only exist to serve politics. Not politics as we know it – the straightforward exercise of organisational and decision-making power – but the totalitarian project of creating unity of language, knowledge, thought and behaviour in pursuit of a utopian destination. “‘[Xi said:] Art and literature is the engineering that moulds the human soul; art and literary workers are the engineers of the human soul.’” “Among the many things that China’s modern leaders did … those who won the internal political battles have retained the totalitarian aspiration of engineering the human soul in order to lead them towards the ever-receding and ever-changing utopian destination.” Xi tells China’s writers and artists to ‘practise morality and decency’ A native benign phrase I consulted a local Hong Kong journalist who is an expert on Soviet and Chinese communist and classical literature. But to avoid controversy, he prefers to stay in the background. He lamented that so much is lost in translation. Everyone agrees that Stalin used the phrase during a meeting with writer Maxim Gorky in 1932 and it was widely reported in the Soviet world. But the conduit for the phrase to communist China was less Stalin and more Mikhail Kalinin, the Soviet head of state: “Kalinin popularised the term in a well-known speech in which he said: ‘Many teachers always forget that they should be an educationist, while the educationists are engineers of the human soul.’” Many Chinese leaders were educated in the Soviet Union and heavily influenced by Kalinin. The soul-engineering metaphor ﬁrst appeared in an editorial published in the People’s Daily in 1951. “As the engineers of the human soul, teachers must be strict with themselves and remould thoughts carefully, in order to deserve the honourable title of ‘People’s Teacher’.” In the same year, when China designated the “Teachers’ Day”, it again ran an editorial saying “the People’s teachers and educationists are the engineers of the souls of children and youths in new China. They assist the working class in leading the country. To a great extent, teachers decide the nation’s future”. In June 1957, Zhou Enlai said at the fourth session of the 1st National People’s Congress that “teachers are soul engineers to educate the younger generation. Based on the previous thought-remoulding, they shall continuously conduct self-education and self-transformation on a voluntary basis”. It means “shaping a student’s character”. Every Chinese leader since then has used the term. Deng Xiaoping cited it and Jiang Zemin used it in a 2000 speech. Hu Jintao used it at the national education assembly in 2007. What they meant is that teachers are the character-builders of youth. In this, they are also echoing classical Chinese education philosophy, according to which teachers should be the role model (為人師表, 以身作則), that is a combination of “soul, example and deeds” to shape the character of students with high moral standards. That is not necessarily about ideology. Xi is following an old tradition here; there is no special meaning to it. The confusion may have come from the different understanding and interpretations of the word “soul”. A bit of context is necessary: The Western tradition is very much centred on the body-soul dualism – first developed by Plato, religionised by Christianity and philosophised by Descartes. The Soviets, of course, were atheists and rejected the concept of spirits and this “soul-body” dualism. But Soviet leaders and writers continued to use the word “soul” because, in Russian literary tradition, the word soul has another meaning of a distinctive character, the consciousness and principle of a being. There is a whole body of work on the “Russian soul” (русская душа), which is in fact talking about the Russian character. In fact, during the Emancipation period, “soul” was used to mean “serf”. Writers such as Dostoevsky saw the character of a serf as innocent, resilient and earth-loving, the quintessence of Russia. When Stalin or any Russian used the term soul, the reference to a traditional meaning was very different from what a Western Christian would understand it. In Russian, the phrase “engineer of the soul” would be understood as the one who shapes someone’s character and consciousness. Western critics of Soviet culture and Chinese communist ideology often approach the subject from their fixed perspective and use their own terminology to interpret it, creating an unnecessary and sinister image.