The Dwarf Empire: Ethics of the Kingdom of the Little People


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There are several crazy stories going around about China and the things Chinese do. Eating babies, among others. Most of these are hoaxes. The Dwarf Empire however, is not a hoax. It exists. It’s a village built for and inhabited by vertically challenged people, or dwarfs. It also goes by the name of the Kingdom of the Little People and it’s a theme park located near Kunming, that features performances by people with dwarfism. The correct term for anyone with dwarfism is: a person/people of short stature. I’ll say dwarf, as it’s shorter.

Quote from the Dwarf Empire flyer:

The biggest Dwarves Empire in the world, Dwarfs Empire is the magical refuge for the small people who now can live their lifes in peace, away from big city and also big people. Here they can able to be united and do the one thing that make them most happy: to sing and dance for you, spreading for you their Universal Love!

The Kingdom of the Little People is the brainchild of Chen Mingjing, a wealthy and flamboyant real estate investor. At the age of 44, he decided he no longer wanted to make money just for the sake of making money, he wanted to do something else with his life. Chen wanted to do good. So he did what anyone with a right mind would have done: he opened a dwarf theme park. According to Chen, the Dwarf Empire is a rare opportunity for dwarfs to find work and respect.

The current situation in China

Supporters of the park claim that it provides employment to people who would otherwise be unable to find work, but it has been criticized for treating dwarfism as a humorous condition. These opinions are pretty black and white. I think there’s a lot more to it. Read on to see what.

Attitudes toward disabled folk are getting a little better since China hosted the Paralympics along with the Olympics in 2008. This has moved disabled people into the view of the government. Healthcare and support for disabled people have improved since. However many of the Chinese still regard all disabled people as freaks. In smaller communities and bigger cities alike all around China they are often left without employment, healthcare, housing or any other help, ostracized by neighbors and stared at in the streets.

Many disabled people in China are degraded to beggars or to scrounge garbage dump sites. There’s just no one that will hire or help them. The Chinese are a very superstitious people, and some believe having a disabled around brings bad luck to a household. It sounds like the Middle Ages, but do not forget that even though Asia is in some fronts further advanced than Western countries, it lacks severely on others like healthcare and education.

Working at the dwarf empire

At the moment the Kingdom employs well over a 100 people. There are two requirements for being employed at the Dwarf Empire: you need to be aged between 19 and 48, and no taller than 130 centimeters to qualify for a job. The park receives 3 to 4 job applications every week from all over China. This does not necessarily mean the theme park is a popular employer among people of short stature, but I think it points out the bad job opportunities for disabled in China.

The employees of the Dwarf Empire pretend to live in the small, mushroom-shaped houses during the performances. In reality, they live in nearby dormitories, specially constructed for people of short stature. All necessary facilities are available. The employees are given English lessons and counseling/therapy during their employment. Even speed-dating sessions are being held among the employees of the park.

The employees make around ¥1000, or around €150 a month, including housing. University graduates in China make significantly less. Does this make up for the fact that these people essentially live in a freak show? Hard to say. Some interviewed employees claim to be genuinely happy.

They are proud to have a job where they are not extorted by their employers, they are proud they have learned to perform, and believe they entertain people by their skills, instead of how they look. They are proud for even having a job at all. They do not feel like they are living in a zoo. Many employees are happy to live and work with other people of short stature, they feel at home among themselves. They feel they gain self-respect by being able to provide for themselves and their family. According to the few interviewed dwarfs a fair share of current employees of the park had been considering suicide before they came to live at the park, and feel happy now.

So what about it?

I’m still in doubt. Is the Dwarf Empire a good thing or not? It’s a very ambiguous subject. There are obviously benefits to the place for its employees. Many of them lead good lives, happy to be among people they can relate too. Of course there is reason for critique as well. There is a semblance with a 1920’s freak show. People don’t visit the Dwarf Empire to admire the dwarfs’ dancing skills. But according the Kingdom’s inhabitants, they don’t really care. They are proud of their jobs, and their lives. There are lots of Western organizations that do not condone this park, but the question is whether these organizations look at the individuals involved and the dire circumstances some of these people have had to face before coming to the Kingdom of the Little People.

How much exactly can the Little People of America foundation say about the lives of people of short stature in a country that’s so vastly different from theirs in so many ways? The people working and living at the Dwarf Empire will probably never (at least not in their lifetimes) be accepted into China’s mainstream society, will never be given decent jobs, will never have equal opportunities. It’s unfair, but in the Dwarf Empire they are at least with like-minded people they can relate with. I respect the employees of the Dwarf Empire for making this choice for themselves. Their employment is voluntary, and they can quit when they want. The injustice that’s driven them to the Dwarf Empire is far greater than the injustice that’s being done to them there.

As long as rights for all humans in China are not up to par with those in Western countries, I believe the Kingdom of the Little People might be a safe haven for its inhabitants. So in this case, the ethics of this place may be related to human rights in China. As they change, ethics change. Ethics aren’t static, you need to view them through the specific characteristics of a region, that region’s culture and that regions development. I think anyone fighting the battle against the Dwarf Empire is fighting the wrong battle. Human rights in China should be your priority.

I’d love it if you share your thoughts! Respond in the comments section below.