Life Is a Circus
By Wang Yu-Ching & Nan Jun ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

Notes from the Author

This story isn’t just dedicated to Tyke the elephant, but also to all animals that suffer at the hands of human society and every child who has ever been harmed, as well as to you and me. Tyke was captured from the wild and sold to a circus. Unable to bear the abuse she endured for over 21 years, Tyke tried to escape and killed a human in the process, then was eventually shot and killed.

When I read about the case it put me into a deep sense of despair. After reading more about circus animals, I was shocked to learn that animals had endured such unimaginable cruelty in the human world. I hope with all my heart that Tyke is in a better place, somewhere that she has freedom and dignity, where she has the care and support of her family so she can relax and just be an elephant.

We often hear that analogy that “life is a circus”. In human society, we frequently find ourselves going against our own natures to fulfil the expectations of others, whether it be in life, or in school or work, and even in our dreams and genders. We are confined and tormented, and in spite of ourselves we end up performing all kinds of circus acts. A lot of the time, we not only perform but also become tamers ourselves, forcing others to perform as well, and forgetting that we were originally all peers, friends, and family.

Many people would agree that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. In a society where utilitarianism and credentialism are still rampant, we usually set out under a banner of love and care, but we become circus tamers without realizing it. As parents, do we really want what’s best for our children, or do we just want to fulfil our own expectations? Are we willing to try and genuinely understand, respect, and accept our children’s nature and true selves? It’s the family members who truly make up a home. Our houses should be places full of the utmost comfort, reassurance, and tolerance, but what becomes of our homes and our children when we become tamers?

In real life, the injuries and repression we suffered leave a shadow, be it subtle or obvious, that never really fades. As much as we all want to have the strength and courage to be ourselves, the attitudes of those around us are still incredibly important. Indifference, neglect, and conformity don’t just prevent healing but can even deepen the wounds, while genuine support, understanding, and companionship can nurture the faint flicker of healing and help us feel happiness again beyond the pain.  

Even though human society inevitably makes tamers of us all, if we’re willing to stop and look at ourselves, we can go back to being friends and family who impart warmth and strength, offering the kind of compassionate support that helps other people feel better. When we know we can all rely on each other, maybe then we can feel free to be ourselves and rekindle our own inner joy.

Notes from the Illustrator

I once read a news story about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus canceling the elephant show that the company and its predecessors had been running for over 140 years and how they gave one final performance in May 2016. To this day, I still have vivid memories of that news story.

When I received the text for Wang-Wang, the Elephant several years later, I was shocked but also pleasantly surprised. What shocked me was how I kept associating the character in the book with the news story I’d read. Just like the herd of elephants in the article, Wang-Wang should have been running happily across wide open plains but instead he had been confined to a circus cage for reasons unknown, perhaps due to either poaching or illegal breeding, and spent his days performing the same acrobatic tricks over and over again for human entertainment.

I was pleasantly surprised that Wang Yu-Ching had been able to write Wang-Wang, the Elephant as a cute, fun book for children, while also including a lot of thought-provoking messages hidden beneath the story’s surface. Even after I’d finished reading it, the text had left a lingering feeling in my heart. Perhaps it was because deep down I felt like Wang-Wang, the Elephant was a true story. 

The circus is still a happy place for a lot of people, but I wonder if they would feel the same way if they found themselves in the animals’ position? Is there a sad hidden story behind what the animals do to entertain the audience? I don’t know and I can’t say for sure since I’m not one of them, but it can’t be a happy place for them.

I once witnessed a circus show but the animal was a lion rather than an elephant. In the performance on stage, the lion was forced to into various movements and postures such as sitting on a chair or obediently lying down. It was forced to listen to the tamer’s instructions, and why did it obey? The trainer had a whip in his hand, and if the lion didn’t listen the trainer would threaten to use it or crack the whip towards the sky. I found it hard to imagine the animal as a majestic lion in the savannah, king of beasts, when I could clearly see the inner helplessness and fear in its facial expressions while the trainer took the time to bask in the audience’s applause.

That show was an upsetting and deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and to this day it remains the last circus performance I’ve ever watched. Animal rights is probably too heavy and a complex issue for me to give a concrete answer about since there are often a range of structural problems involved. However, I think the most direct way to deal with it is to refuse to watch performances like that. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was disbanded in 2017 after the cancelation of the elephant show. It makes me happy that the retired elephants, like Wang-Wang in the story, can finally get the peace and freedom they deserve at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.