Foreign Elements: A Q & A with Photographer, Author and Editor Tom Carter

Foreign Elements: A Q & A with Photographer, Author and Editor Tom Carter*
By Alec Ash
There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?
Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.
I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.
Alec Ash: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?
Tom Carter: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat  bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. Thats how Unsavory Elements was conceived.
Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008  generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners)  and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures  the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And thats when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.
AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?
TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. Ive lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavells novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What weve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of Chinas economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. Theyve come to make their fortunes and then get out  which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that Chinas economy shows signs of faltering].
The darker side of Chinas history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of foreign devils and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again  perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last years poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for foreigner and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders  our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.
AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?
TC: I expect its tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasnt been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and weve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.
Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings  seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New Chinas incessant construction. I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. Ive been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasnt quick enough to escape the reach of this 64 foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.
AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China  for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.
TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way its been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside its nice to be invited in for tea by villagers whove never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai youre bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized rock star status was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West  the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually theres nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because its assumed that youre wealthy. And theres certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.
In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008  during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for Chinas  our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And theres a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit Chinas low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…
TC: I honestly couldnt tell you. Ive only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is home now. Im not that laowai who skips out on China when its convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. Im also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis  I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work  my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded enclave expats who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.
I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wifes native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife  who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met  it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.
AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldnt help but come back. Is China a drug?
TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But Id venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the users own state of mind. If were making metaphors, for old China hands Id imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.
Id liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river  in outer space. Now Im one with Chinas cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe Im not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …
AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?
TC: Its been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew Id be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boys night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public Peoples hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain womens reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I patronized teenaged prostitutes.              
And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit  especially not in print. And considering the Partys penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I cant help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution  an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town  by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

Im not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story  it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. Well see.
*Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

By Alec Ash

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

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The Ordos Dream

A mural depicting Genghis Khan, making a welcoming gesture, and his expansive empire; in the departure hall of Ordos International Airport. Below it, a McDonalds welcomes its customers.

Statues of Genghis Khans two legendary horses in the middle of the central axis of Ordoss Kangbashi new district, with the municipal government headquarters in the background.

by Tong Lam

When travellers enter the terminal building of the Ordos airport, they immediately see a mural at the base of the ceiling featuring a smiling Genghis Khan, who seems to be welcoming them into his empire. The departure hall, which looks like a yurt, further conveys a sense of local history and culture as imagined or perhaps invented by its architects. This idea of Ordos being an all embracing, outward-looking, expansive, and ambitious Inner Mongolian city is equally prevalent in Ordos’s Kangbashi new district, an instant city that has been designed to showcase the region’s newfound wealth.  

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The Wonderful World of Books

 
The Wonderful World of Booksby Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
The last time I saw a line this long, I thought to myself, I was in Anaheim at the Magic Kingdom. But, no, Shanghais long planned Disney theme park still hasnt opened, so I wasnt waiting my turn to ride its version of Splash Mountain, as welcome as a log ride might have been on that steamy Saturday afternoon in August. Instead, hundreds of other line-dwellers and I were getting gently misted by hoses strung overhead as we awaited our chance to enter the Shanghai Exhibition Center and visit the citys Book Fair, a weeklong event celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
Scalpers paced up and down the line, offering tickets at 20RMB (approximately $3.25), double the face value. When prospective buyers complained about the price markup, the ticket scalpers had a ready explanation: You dont have to wait in line! It was an attractive offer; even with the misting apparatus that had been installed to keep temperatures down in the queue, the hundred-degree afternoon was hitting all of us with full force. For half an hour, the line barely seemed to move, and I realized that Shanghai has more book enthusiasts than I had suspected.
Since I am both frugal and patient, I stuck it out and handed over a 10RMB bill at the official ticket booth outside the gate of the exhibition center. As soon as I walked into the west wing of the hall, I had another Hollywood-related thought: Were gonna need a bigger boat.
If the expo serves as any indication, Shanghai has considerably more book enthusiasts than I had suspected, even though just a couple of days earlier The Atlantic had published an article about the decline of reading in China. The exhibition hall was jam-packed, and on my first pass through it, I didnt even bother trying to wedge my way into three-quarters of the booths lining both sides of the main aisle. Senior citizens navigated wheeled cloth shopping carts, usually employed on daily grocery runs but now filled with reading material, through the crowds, while small children happily selected stacks of books they hoped their parents would buy. Patrons competed for space at display tables, reaching across each other to grab volumes that caught their eye. Though everything was offered at a 20 percent discount, in this age of Amazon delivery and e-readers, I was completely unprepared to encounter sample-sale behavior at a book fair.
After I had acclimated myself to the chaos (somewhat), I made a second turn through the exhibition hall, this time fighting my way into publishers booths to see what, exactly, people were going to such lengths to buy. With hundreds of booths, the expo offered a little of everything, from translated Stephen King thrillers to coffee-table books of artwork from the Shanghai Museum. One publisher had reprinted school texts from the 1950s and 80s, and people crowded around the display table flipping through the books and commenting on passages they remembered from their childhoods. Todays children could have their pictures taken next to cardboard cutouts of characters that I recognized from my own juvenile bookshelves: Care Bears and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Nearly every booth, regardless of which press it represented, had stacks of a recently published collection of speeches by Zhu Rongji, Chinas former premier and onetime mayor of Shanghai. I did spot one person buying it, but when I returned to the fair several days later just before it closed, there were still plenty of copies of Zhus book available. The same was true for two other thick tomes about Chinese politics: translations of Henry Kissingers On China and Ezra Vogels biography of Deng Xiaoping. Though both are books that Chinese academics have enthused about to me, they didnt seem to capture the attentionor open the walletsof fair-goers. (And Ill confess that I have both books, in English, but havent made it more than a quarter of the way through either.)
Other foreign books in translation, though, were much more popular. Between my initial Saturday visit and follow-up on Tuesday, the Foreign Languages Press sold out of Peter Hesslers River Town and Country Driving, Leslie T. Changs Factory Girls, and Michael Meyers The Last Days of Old Beijing, which had all sat together in prime territory at the front of the main exhibit table. I often recommend these four books to American friends and relatives who want to know more about China, but it seems that Chinese readers are just as curious to find out what foreign authors write about their country.
By late Tuesday afternoon, the crowds had thinned and the fair seemed tired: books slumped against each other on half-empty shelves and a cashier reluctantly looked away from her cell phone to ring up my purchases. The expo would be closing at nine oclock that night, and as I bought a cup of caramel corn and wandered around the now-empty booths and their picked-over tables, it seemed that it was limping to the finish.
But when I left the exhibition center and began walking home a little after 6 p.m., I realized that once again, I had underestimated the Shanghainese interest in books. As it had on Saturday afternoon, a line stretched down the block, people fanning themselves as the overhead hoses released their cooling mist, and ticket scalpers once again called out to potential customers. If anyone involved in planning the 2014 Shanghai Book Fair is reading this, Id like to make a Disney-inspired suggestion for next year: FastPass.

by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The last time I saw a line this long, I thought to myself, I was in Anaheim at the Magic Kingdom. But, no, Shanghai’s long planned Disney theme park still hasn’t opened, so I wasn’t waiting my turn to ride its version of Splash Mountain, as welcome as a log ride might have been on that steamy Saturday afternoon in August. Instead, hundreds of other line-dwellers and I were getting gently misted by hoses strung overhead as we awaited our chance to enter the Shanghai Exhibition Center and visit the city’s Book Fair, a weeklong event celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

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If You Are the One

By Alec Ash

Fei Cheng Wu Rao is a hugely popular TV dating show in mainland China, which first hit the air in 2010. The title is an idiom that means “If not sincere then do not disturb,” but the English name for the show is “If You Are the One.” On the show, male contestants try to impress 24 young women who are there throughout the season, unless they like a guy and go off with him. They show their approval or disapproval by keeping on or switching off a light on the podium in front of them.

A new phenomenon is the number of Western contestants, living in China and fluent in Chinese, who go on the show. Here’s an interview I did with an American and a Brit - Lauren Hallanan and Mark Pinner - who were in the latest season of Fei Cheng Wu Rao.

As you read, it helps to know that the show has come under fire for promoting a materialistic attitude to romance. One female contestant, Ma Nuo, famously said on air: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle,” and young guys have shown off their bank statements to try and impress. But that’s only one way in which the dating world in China is distinctive.

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Urban Control and the “Modernist City” — Featuring a Translation by Nicky Harman from a Work by a Hong Kong Critic

Photo © Gao Yuan
Urban Control and the Modernist City  Featuring a Translation by Nicky Harman from a Work by a Hong Kong Critic
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Chinese to English translation was the focus of my recent interviews with Julia Lovell and Brendan OKane, and one organization praised in both of those posts was the Beijing-based Paper Republic group.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to bring China Blog readers a sample of the kind of translation work being done by people affiliated with that organization and featured on its website.  With this in mind, I asked OKane to put me in contact with translator Nicky Harman, and then asked her if shed be good enough to allow us to run the piece below.  She agreed immediately.
Harman is based in the U.K. and, in addition to being affiliated with Paper Republic, shes a regular contributor to Pathlight and Chutzpah — two magazines mentioned in those recent Q & As — as well as the excellent online magazine Words Without Borders.   The sample of her work provided here is a slimmed down version of one of several chapters from the book Common Sense she has done that can be found on the Paper Republic site. Common Sense, which was published by Guangxi Normal University Press in 2009, is a set of commentaries by a Hong Kong-based cultural critic and commentator.  The writers name is generally Romanized as Leung Man-tao (to capture the sound of the Cantonese pronunciations of the characters in it), but regular readers of the Los Angeles Review of Books will have recently seen him referred to as Liang Wendao (an alternative spelling that reflects the way the same characters are pronounced in Mandarin), in an August 16 blog post that included an excerpt from a recent commentary on the pros and cons of different Western literary reviews that he wrote for a Hong Kong newspaper.
The excerpt below is a pared down version of a short essay on street vendors and urban control that Leung wrote back in 2006, but which has taken on a new relevance this summer, due to the online commentary generated by and media coverage of the beating to death in Hunan of a watermelon seller.  (For details on the event and reactions to it, see “China Blog” contributor Maura Cunninghams essay for Dissent.)  It also seems a particularly appropriate excerpt to run in the LARB.  The only North American urban theorist Leung alludes to is Jane Jacobs, but the line of argument he pursues dovetails at times with that which Mike Davis explores so powerfully in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.   Here, then, is the excerpt (with spellings and punctuation changed to conform to house style):
What’s more important for Urban Control Officers: Appearances ir Livelihoods?
At a time when almost all Chinese cities proclaim that they want to bring themselves in line with international standards and give themselves a civilized, modern image, they have  probably without realizing it  fallen behind again. Jane Jacobs, the godmother of urban design studies who died in 2006, devoted her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities to demolishing the theory (ubiquitous in the early 20th century) of the modernist city. In fact, this thinking has long been consigned to the rubbish bin throughout Europe and America, yet it is still the guiding principle behind the way Chinese cities are designed and run.
As Jacobs describes it, the modernist city is clean and bright and crisscrossed with highways, interspersed with appropriately sited parks and decorative features. The entire urban development looks as if it has been laid out to enable a deity to look down from on high and take it all in at a glance. [&]
Such a perfect city may exist in heaven, but on earth is to be found only in planning exhibitions.  As soon as it becomes reality, things inevitably go wrong. This is followed by decay and dilapidation, and the end result is a whole series of ungovernable problems. Why? The answer is very simple: this city is the dream of town planners and architects, and conforms to the desires of those who want to exert overall control from above. However it also happens to ignore the basic needs of ordinary people. [&]
What are its citizens basic needs? The answer is itinerant unlicensed hawkers. The goods they sell are cheap, and provide the bargains that many people are looking for, especially people on a low income who want to scrimp and save so as to spend more on health and education. Hawkers are good at gauging where the market is going, and whatever goods are popular, they will sell them. They give people what they want. And they are quick on their feet too  there when people are arriving and leaving their offices, there where the crowds are thickest. In other words, hawkers cannot be legislated out of existence precisely because there is a market need, and a human need, for them.
There used to be no distinction made between hawkers with or without a license. Licensing is something set up and administered by the government. In a relatively mature market economy like Hong Kong, tightening up on licenses and hitting unlicensed traders is a way of safeguarding big chain stores and businesses which pay exorbitant rents. In mainland China, however, over and above simple profit-sharing, many municipalities are also concerned with high-sounding (but ill-thought-out) principles such as protecting public order and cleaning up the city. As far as public order is concerned, we have never seen a serious study of the relationship between unlicensed hawkers and public order, so we cannot say whether an increase of the former causes a deterioration in the latter. But it is only common sense that if you cut someone off from their livelihood, it may push them outside the law. As for beautifying a citys appearance, thats quite simply a matter of aesthetic taste. What gives us the right to use violence to prevent a section of the population from making a living, stand in the way of the natural demands of the market, and paper over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and town and country, all in the name of more orderly, more beautiful cities?
I recognize that many of the problems which Chinese cities currently face cannot be resolved at the local level by city councils. But I also know that using Urban Control Officers to get rid of unlicensed hawkers is not the solution, in fact it simply aggravates the situation. Urban Control Officers are the embodiment of the modern city mentality so popular in China, yet they are the most hated by its citizens. […] It is not entirely their faultthey are at the sharp end of law enforcement, but their work depends on outdated concepts of social control. [&]
Recently, there have been a string of attacks on Urban Control Officers, and complaints against the violence with which they enforce the rules are a daily occurrence. There have even been fatalities. Such incidents are extremely distressing because to a greater or lesser extent, every one of these victims has met their death in the name of a concept which is both totally abstract and completely meaningless: keeping up appearances.

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Chinese to English translation was the focus of my recent interviews with Julia Lovell and Brendan O’Kane, and one organization praised in both of those posts was the Beijing-based “Paper Republic” group.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to bring “China Blog” readers a sample of the kind of translation work being done by people affiliated with that organization and featured on its website.  With this in mind, I asked O’Kane to put me in contact with translator Nicky Harman, and then asked her if she’d be good enough to allow us to run the piece below.  She agreed immediately.

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Of Literature and Laureates, Translations and Trends: A Q & A with Blogger, Tweeter, Translator, and “Model Worker” Brendan O’Kane 

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

There are multiple reasons that Brendan O’Kane’s been on my list of people to interview someday for this blog.  One is that Megan Shank, who co-edits the Asia Section with me, has been singing his praises for a year now, saying he’s one of the smartest translators of Chinese literature out there and that we need to find a way to get him into the LARB.  Another is that, last October, he wrote one of the most buzzed about—and most provocative as well as most provocatively titled—commentaries on Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win: “Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?” There’s also the fact that I find him one of the most interesting people to follow on twitter.  (I’m not alone in this assessment — his twitter feed just won a coveted “honorable mention” nod in the Twitter category from the excellent website Danwei, in its annual divvying up of “Model Worker” awards for those who use digital media of various sorts to demystify Chinese political and cultural phenomena.)

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Black Earth

by Tong Lam

Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land. 

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Material Girls

Material Girlsby Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Tiny Times (Xiao shidai), a Chinese summer blockbuster based on a book of the same name, ranks as far and away the worst movie Ive ever seenand I sat through all of Sex and the City 2, because Ill watch almost anything to distract me on the Detroit-Shanghai flight. Even allowing for the fact that the target audience of Tiny Times is teenage Chinese girls, and I am decidedly neither a teenager nor Chinese, its still a terrible movie, an hour and fifty-five minutes of meandering plot and cringeworthy moments, occasionally interrupted by musical montages. The nicest thing I can say about it is that some of the songs are rather catchy.
Tiny Times has more in common with Sex and the City 2 than being awful: the film follows the lives of four female friends in Shanghai as they struggle to find professional, personal, and romantic satisfaction. The four young women are college studentsthough they dont appear to attend classwho live in a sumptuous on-campus loft apartment that bears no resemblance to the cramped Chinese dormitories Ive visited. Precocious and successful, the foursomes members write a magazine column, run a major fashion show, and design a line of clothing. Though only one of the girls is described as rich, the other three dont lack for material possessions. Watching Tiny Times becomes far more entertaining once you start playing I Spy the Luxury Good: the slick red sole of a Louboutin pump; the curvy metallic rectangle of an iPhone; the interlocking LV logo on a Louis Vuitton handbag. (Warning: Dont turn this into a drinking gameno ones liver could survive the entire movie.)
Although a commercial hit, Chinese viewers havent failed to notice that Tiny Times is awful, many deriding its obsession with high fashion and material goods. At Douban, a popular reviewing site, more than 146,500 users have given the movie an overall rating of 4.8/10; over 50 percent of them awarded Tiny Times only one or two stars. As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore discusses in a post at the Economist website, the film has laid bare Chinas generation gap, leading forty- and fifty-year-olds to lament the crass consumerism of those born in the 1980s and 90s, whose enthusiasm for Tiny Times has induced the director to move up the release of a sequel by four months. Only Chinas media regulator, the General Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television, can prevent Tiny Times 2 from being inflicted on the world (this officially marks the first time Ive ever hoped that the Chinese government would censor something). 
Having read a number of reviews, I knew all along that Tiny Times would be terrible, but I decided to endure it anyway. Why? Because its set in Shanghai, and I wanted to see how important that locationthe city where I liveis to the film. What I concluded is that although Tiny Times is very much a movie about the present, it continues a century-old tradition of thinking about Shanghai as a decadent global city populated mostly by Chinese but with strong ties to the West.
Critics have repeatedly compared Tiny Times to Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, and Gossip Girl, three vastly superior productions whose influence on the film is clear. As those three are all inseparable from their New York setting, Tiny Times could really only take place in Shanghai, the sole mainland Chinese city with the requisite glitz and glamour to make the characters lives even semi-believable (which still requires a massive suspension of disbelief). Going back to the citys heyday during the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai has long been associated with conspicuous consumption and cosmopolitan lifestyles. In the long-running, sometimes-friendly debate between the Jingpai (Beijing loyalists) and Haipai (Shanghai supporters), the Jingpai represents cautious conservatism, while Haipai stands for exuberant commercialism. Whether or not thats a bad thing depends on which faction one belongs to.
The four young women of Tiny Times hearken back to this earlier golden age in the citys history. Theyre descendants of the Shanghai girls of pre-World War II advertisements used to sell cigarettes, soap, alcohol, and other products; artists painted their models wearing stylish form-fitting qipaos (or less), Western high heels, and elegant jewelry. The movies leads are Shanghai girl advertisements come to life, modeling a lifestyle that young viewers might aspire to, even if few have realistic expectations of achieving such a level of consumption.
Tiny Times is a bad movie that will, with any luck, go the way of Sex and the City 2 and be quickly forgotten. The uproar about it, though, is significant for the window it offers into the concerns that many Chinese have about their society: its materialism, its treatment of women, its shallowness. For the past two decades, Shanghai has led the charge toward economic growth and improvements in living standards, measured first by the purchase of regular consumer goods and now by the acquisition of luxury products.
If ticket sales are any indication, younger Chinese are still enthusiastic about the type of global urban lifestyle portrayed in Tiny Times. But through their criticisms of the film, older Chinese are questioning the government economic modelthe triumph of the Haipaithat has driven China for much of their adult lives. If the end result is a generation obsessed with material goods but lacking in depth, they seem to be asking, where is China headed? Tiny Times and its vacuous cast of characters arent the stuff of lighthearted comedy in this scenario; theyre a glimpse of Shanghais, and Chinas, dystopianthough impeccably dressedfuture. 

by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Tiny Times (Xiao shidai), a Chinese summer blockbuster based on a book of the same name, ranks as far and away the worst movie I’ve ever seen—and I sat through all of Sex and the City 2, because I’ll watch almost anything to distract me on the Detroit-Shanghai flight. Even allowing for the fact that the target audience of Tiny Times is teenage Chinese girls, and I am decidedly neither a teenager nor Chinese, it’s still a terrible movie, an hour and fifty-five minutes of meandering plot and cringeworthy moments, occasionally interrupted by musical montages. The nicest thing I can say about it is that some of the songs are rather catchy.

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China’s “Age of Ascendancy”: A Q&A with Chan Koonchung

Chinas Age of Ascendancy: A Q&A with Chan Koonchungby Alec Ash
Chan Koonchung is the Shanghai born, Hong Kong raised author of The Fat Years (2011), a near-future soft science fiction novel about a China closely resembling todays. He has now been living in Beijing since 2000. In his book, China has entered a Golden Age of Ascendancy, after a second economic crisis has crippled the West. But noone within China can remember the crackdown that preceded it, and everyone is oddly and unnaturally euphoric.
The novel alludes to contemporary China very closely, and is banned in the mainland. It has been accused of telling not showing, but I would still highly recommend it as a literary exaggeration of Chinas political truths, in the same vein as Brave New World. I sat down with Chan Koonchung in a Beijing Starbucks, to ask him some pointed questions about what he meant by the book, and what he really thinks about todays China.
ALEC ASH:You came up with the idea for your novel in 2008. Why set it five years later?
CHAN KOONCHUNG: In 2008, I realized something significant had happened to Chinas perception of itself and the worlds perception of China. I thought I had a story. I call it the new normal. The title of The Fat Years in Chinese is Sheng Shi, which means the golden years of ascendency and prosperity. This phrase was not used to describe China for at least a century and a half. Now, suddenly everyone is using sheng shi to describe China.
But as I started writing the book in 2009, my intellectual friends in Beijing didnt agree  they didnt feel that China was entering an age of ascendency. They emphasized the dark side of China. I wanted to write about what was happening before my eyes, but I didnt feel my writer friends would agree. So I set it in the not-too-distant future, 2013, so I could come up with fictional events to describe my view of what was happening. In fact, its all about the present.
AA:Well, here we are in 2013 now. How has China today lived up to your imagination?
CK: Sheng shi was never meant to be perfect. Its not a real utopia. The last sheng shi was during the Kangxi era of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century. And that was when China had the most intense persecution of free speech and a very aggressive war in what is now Xinjiang. So sheng shi was never a peaceful, humanitarian idea. But the fact that people are again using those two words, after a century and a half of degeneration, is something new.
During the Chinese New Year in 2010, I was invited to give a speech at Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekend newspaper]. My title was China is one of the great powers. I said it was number two after the US. They all disagreed, for different reasons. Some said I was praising the Communist party, so I was a "fifty center” [apologist for the regime]. Others said I was an idiot, that we still didnt have an aircraft carrier and didnt control the South China Sea. None of them thought that China was a great power. Then just a few years later, everyone is saying Chinas a great power, from Hong Kong to the mainland to the rest of the world.
AA: In The Fat Years, everyone is experiencing a mysterious mild euphoria. Is that a comment on high happiness polling rates in China?
CK: At the time I wrote it, the polling rates were not that high in China. But in 2008, industrial chemicals were found in milk products including baby milk powder. Some babies died from it. This was known to the state for months, they just covered it up. So I thought, if you can do that, you can do anything. In China everyones a little bit too happy for what they are facing  bad air, unsafe food, but still theyre so optimistic. Most people think tomorrow will be even better.
AA: Another storyline of the book is that everyone has collectively forgotten a crackdown that began the Age of Ascendency.
CK: I tried to do that in a literary way. Of course, people forget things all the time, everywhere. But in China youre not allowed to remember or make a fuss about certain subjects. Theres a generation gap though. Older people think everyone will remember incidents such as June 4th, but the younger generations genuinely do not know about it. When you show them a picture of the tank man, they cannot recognize it. So its a literary trick, that people dont remember a disaster only two years ago. That was a controversial indictment of my own people, in a way.
AA: Do you think that Chinese citizens are still willing to accept the deal to forget or not mention politics if the economy is doing well?
CK: I almost made that statement. Because its a novel, I could say it in a tricky way. People are making compromises, being reluctant conformists. Many people are genuinely in the dark. But even people in the know are compromising, and others choose not to know. For instance, I personally know some middle level bureaucrats. They dont know a thing. Why? They choose not to know, because knowing could get them into trouble. Their computers at their office trace what websites they visit, so they never visit any sites apart from publicly sanctioned ones. They dont care, but they have a good life. They stop you when you try to tell them things. They didnt even know Chen Guangcheng went to the United States  thats my true experience.
AA: He Dongsheng, the fictional top-level bureaucrat in your book, implies that if you dont have a strong government above the law, then there would be chaos.
CK: I think many people buy into that argument, even if they think its not moral. I know some young dissidents who told me that if China devolves into chaos, they would be in trouble because their parents pensions would be gone, and they cannot afford to support their parents. Thats their honest reaction to the situation. But the argument that without a strong government China would devolve into chaos, like a Hobbesian state, is not a justification for one party rule. Of course we need government, but who said the government needs to be one-party rule?
AA: The government might argue that without this strong, Leviathan-like state, China could never have entered its Age of Ascendency and got richer.
CK: Well, the state is getting richer. But what would have happened if there was no Communist rule? What if in 1946 the Civil War was won by the Nationalists? Probably, as [early Republic era Chinese scholar] Liang Qichao predicted, sometime around the 1970s China would be just like it is today  a capitalist state with tons of cheap labor for export. China would side with the US not the Soviet Union, and the US would not have to support Japan or Korea or Taiwan. China would be an Asian tiger, getting quite prosperous by the sixties or seventies. There would be inequality. It might still be a kind of authoritarian state, but it would not be poor. It would be just like now, but without a thirty year detour.
AA: A more minor character in your book, Wei Guo, is a fascist young nationalist. Are you worried about people like him?
CK: Yes. The fenqing [angry youth] are very aggressive. Some academics are becoming more aggressive too. The Party has very cunningly changed the narrative to justify its own existence. In the early years of the fifties, the Communist Party always emphasized class struggle, and getting rid of feudal influences. Now they never talk about it. Instead they talk about national revival  the hundred years of humiliation under Western imperialism, and how the Party saved China from it. So they have changed the narrative to a kind of nationalism, and many people buy into that story.
But of course, in reality the Chinese did more harm to themselves than anyone else. Western imperialists contributed to it, but the main culprits are the Chinese themselves, for instance in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Civil War, or even in the nineteenth century with the Taiping rebellion, in which 20 million people died. We did all kinds of terrible things to ourselves, but they are not mentioned, and especially what was done by the Communist Party is buried. The only story now is new power after a century of humiliation.
AA: What is your reaction to Jackie Chans statement that China is unsuited to democracy, that we Chinese need to be controlled?
CK: That argument is of course long refuted by the experience of Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Im not sure this Chinese state will evolve naturally into a constitutional liberal democracy. Its now realizing another kind of government, which I call an oversized corporatist state. The corporatist state of Mussolini only lasted two decades, so there is no serious precedent, but in the 1920s Mussolini was praised as the third way between Western democracy and Soviet communism. China is fulfilling that third way, and theres no reason why it cannot be sustained.
With the communist system almost gone, its not only liberal democracies that can survive. There may be another serious challenger to liberal democracy  a capitalist economy with lots of consumer freedom, but state intervention and a one-party authoritarian rule. There are all kinds of interest groups, like capitalists, workers, farmers and others, but what I mean by a corporatist state is that its all incorporated in and controlled by a single party. The state still controls everyone.
AA: After the financial crash in the West, more credence was given to this state capitalism model of Chinas as an alternative. Do you agree?
CK: I think theres no reason why it cannot be sustained, because in China we have the scale. In other countries, the China model is not repeatable. You cannot generate the kind of massive Party animal like the Communist Party anywhere else. The world has become more cynical and less idealistic. In other countries such as India or Indonesia, they will not support the idea of one-party rule. So the Chinese political model is very difficult to export. There are stories about why this type of system cannot ultimately be sustained, but I think it could continue for many years.
AA: You imagined what China would be like in 2013. What are your predictions now for the years to come?
CK: In the medium term, ten to twenty years, I would say Chinas rise will be unstoppable, in spite of the economic hiccups. There will be ups and downs of course, but in general its going to expand and its influence will grow relative to the world, and it could still all be under this one-party rule.
AA: So thats what you think will happen. What about what youwant?
CK: I wasnt a very political person until I got here, but one thing I cannot stand is that justice is not a value here. Like the headmaster sexually assaulting school girls  instead of punishing him, they said you shouldnt make a fuss out of this case, and the girls better change their identity so we can cover it up. That makes you mad. If there was only some justice, I wouldnt be writing this kind of novel. I could write about other things, and have a happy life in Beijing. Im sure the Chinese have a sense of justice, but because of the way things are organized, justice is not a value  its all organized around the state.
If the government could follow the 1982 constitution, and avoid anti-humanitarian behavior, most of my critical friends will be happy. I use the metaphor that the constitution is like an electrical appliance without electricity. Its just for show. Sometimes the government pays lip service to it. But if you pass electricity through it, and activate it, then it will improve governance a lot, and not allow the Party to dictate. If they move in that direction, I think everyone will be happier.

by Alec Ash

Chan Koonchung is the Shanghai born, Hong Kong raised author of The Fat Years (2011), a near-future soft science fiction novel about a China closely resembling today’s. He has now been living in Beijing since 2000. In his book, China has entered a “Golden Age of Ascendancy”, after a second economic crisis has crippled the West. But noone within China can remember the crackdown that preceded it, and everyone is oddly and unnaturally euphoric. 

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On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell


On Zhu Wens Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovellby Jeffrey Wasserstrom 
Early in 2009, I joined other core members of the China Beat group blog in sending out queries to a variety of people we knew, or simply decided to contact out of the blue, asking them to offer suggestions on what President Obama should read while preparing for his first trip to Beijing.  We then published the results of our survey in a pair of posts that ran on January 20 and January 25.  Not surprisingly, most of the recommendations stressed the need for the President to read works of non-fiction, but Pankaj Mishra caught my attention by slipping in a plug for an excellent collection of short stories, I Love Dollars.  These tales by Zhu Wen, he claimed, like other recent Chinese fiction he liked, offered penetrating insights into Chinese society of a sort not provided by even the most astute scholarly and journalistic works. 
His comment, as well as good things Id heard about Zhu from specialists in Chinese literature, inspired me to get ahold of a copy of the book and read it; and after doing so I was in complete agreement with Mishras assertion that Obama could enjoyably and profitably spend some of the many hours of the flight to Beijing reading the slim volume. I was taken with the books verve and humour, and I was also struck by the liveliness of the translation.  This was the work of the versatile Julia Lovell, who maintains active profiles as a cultural historian and literary critic, as well as translator.  She had first caught my attention via the spirited reviews and commentaries she contributed to the Times Literary Supplement while still in graduate school, and she would later write about Zhu Wen and other topics for the China Beat.  
Needless to say, when I heard that a new collection of short stories by Zhu, which would once again be translated by Lovell, was due out this year, I was determined to get my hands on a copy right away.  Im glad I did, for The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, is as compelling and entertaining in its own way as was I Love Dollars.  Its appearance was also welcome in that it gave me an excuse to ask Lovell to do a Q & A for the LARB, which she kindly agreed to do, sending me the answers below to the queries I shot her by email:
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories" is “both darker and denser than the first."  Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?
Julia Lovell: I think thats a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection  in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. Thats less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the Peoples Republic  Da Mas Way of Talking and The Apprentice  are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrators sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.
But Im still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, Im working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists  all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the books hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha.
JW: When I first encountered Zhu Wen, while struck by the originality of his voice and approach, I did think of parallels to the “hooligan fiction" of Wang Shuo that I was initially introduced to by reading Geremie Barmes take on him.  Does Zhu Wen acknowledge being influenced at all by Wang Shuo’s early work?  Does he place himself in a different sort of lineage, either an international or distinctively Chinese one?
JL: Hes never mentioned that to me as an overt influence, but at the same time I think that Wang Shuos broader, more diffuse influence on Chinese culture in general at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s is hard to escape his role in dissipating some of the intellectual earnestness of the 1980s in particular, and in establishing irreverence towards the state and towards society as a keynote in contemporary Chinese fiction in general. Wittingly or no, Zhu Wen has assuredly extended that project. 
When I first got to know them around 2000, some of the Chinese writers of Zhu Wens particular literary grouping  termed the xin shengdai, or New Generation, of writers (a rather loose classification that referred to authors born in the late 1960s to early 1970s and who started publishing in the 1990s)  publicly, and perhaps a little brattishly, liked to reject influences from other Chinese writers, both past and present. Lu Xun, for example, was dismissed as an old stone. But this generation of writers are readier to admit foreign influences. Kafka and Borges, for example, are two of Zhu Wens acknowledged inspirations. Visiting Zhu Wen in his apartment in 1995, an interviewer noticed a portrait of Kafka hung on one of the walls. 
JW: Readers who turn to Chinese fiction looking for political parables or clear insights on how to think about China’s Communist Party are likely to be frustrated by Zhu Wen.  Part of what draws me to him is that, reading him, I can treat him simply as a talented writer telling unusual tales, which are set in the distinctive milieu of contemporary China, yet are not first and foremost striving to reveal truths about Chinese politics and culture.  This doesn’t mean, though, that the works have nothing to do with politics.  How would you describe the political implications of these stories, if you see them as having any that is?
JL: When we were planning this collection, I think that Zhu Wen wanted me to include some stories that showed a greater political engagement than those in the previous book, and I believe that the context does come through more strongly in this volume: in particular the moral vacuum resulting principally from the protests and bloody suppression of 1989, but more broadly from post-Mao disillusionment with the Communist political experiment. I hoped that readers would have exactly the response that you had: Zhu Wen has no pretensions to diagnosing the state of the nation here, but his work does compel the reader to engage with a highly personal, maverick and critical response to Chinas present and recent past. He forces us to acknowledge the complexity and individuality of contemporary Chinese experiences and perspectives. I think this is particularly valuable when approaching a country like China, whose sheer vastness can sometimes obscure individual detail. 
JW: Switching gears a bit, around the same time that this book featuring your work as a translator came out, Penguin sent me a copy of the new edition of Lao She’s London-set novel Mr. Ma and Sons, which has so far come out in China and Australia.  Its translated by someone else but comes with an introduction by you that I found very interesting and informative.  On the surface, Lao She and Zhu Wen would seem totally different sorts of writers, but in toggling between their work, did any connections or parallels strike you?
JL: Of course, the two writers are historically and tonally very distant from each other, which is one of the reasons it was very stimulating to think and write about Lao She. But I think there is at least one piece of common ground. Reading both Lao She and Zhu Wen reminds us importantly of the powerful dissenting tendencies of twentieth century Chinese writers, thinkers and ordinary citizens: their anger at the poverty, injustice and political violence that have scarred their country for much of the past 100 years. Lao She was a patriot who hated imperialism, but who was also critical of his fellow countrymen, as showcased in both Mr. Ma and Sons and his dystopian Cat Country. [NB: Penguin also has a new edition of Cat Country in the works.] Similarly, the darkness of Zhu Wens fiction, at both its grimmest and wryest moments, expresses an intensely critical vision of China today and, by logical extension, of the political architects of this society. 
JW: I ended a recent interview with the Hong Kong-based Chinese literature specialist Sebastion Veg by asking him if there were any Hong Kong writers hed like to see become better known in the West. Are there mainland authors you wish more people were reading?
JL: Well, at the moment Im delighted to say that there are more and more exciting new translation projects in the pipeline. China-based literary magazines like Chutzpah and Pathlight are featuring the short fiction of a variety of authors from several generations  Id suggest that readers interested in the diversity of language and theme in contemporary Chinese writing start there. Id recommend also two translations of writers who focus on the experiences of Chinas migrant workers: Sheng Keyis Northern Girls and a forthcoming volume of Xu Zechens fiction, translated by Eric Abrahamsen. Theres also a great deal of stylistic and tonal experimentation on the Internet, in blogs and other forms. So far, this is only available to Anglophone readers to a limited extent. For example, Han Hans This Generation is comprised of a selection of posts by that much-discussed and, in China, much-read novelist cum race car driver cum blogger.* In general, Id warmly advocate that audiences wanting to take the measure of China today engage as much as possible with contemporary Chinese literature. Of course, works of history, politics, sociology and economics are crucial to understanding the Peoples Republic, but fiction offers insights into individual experience and response that give vital human detail to the big analytical picture.  
JW: Given your activities as a translator, it’s been fitting to focus on Chinese language works, but I’d like to end with a couple of questions about publications in English, as you regularly review these for various periodicals.  Let’s begin with one about fiction.  In Lao She’s heyday, some of the first fictional works set in China that many European and American readers encountered were by Pearl Buck, and there are contemporary novelists and short story writers, some of them quite high profile, albeit none as famous as Buck, who set English language tales in the country.  Is there any recent English language work of fiction set in China you found particularly interesting or compelling?
JL: I was extremely impressed by Tash Aws new novel set in contemporary Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire.  Of course, Shanghai has long fascinated both Chinese and Western writers, from Mao Dun to J. G. Ballard and beyond. But until now, perhaps the stories of Shanghai best known to Anglophone readerships have concerned Chinese people or Westerners. In Five Star Billionaire, Aw focuses instead on the migrations of Southeast Asians to Shanghai, in search of the Chinese dream. The novel dazzled me because it managed to express Shanghais confounding combination of glamour, brutality and tawdriness through five brilliantly drawn Malaysian Chinese voices. In other words, it managed to humanize an inhumane city. 
JW: Sticking with English language works, but shifting to non-fiction, the Chinese studies book making the biggest splash in the U.S. just now seems to be Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, which was co-authored by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell and Los Angeles Review of Books contributor John Delury.  It had a big roll out last week, complete with a segment with the authors on NPR’s “Morning Edition," an interview with them in the New York Times and then a positive write-up of it in the papers Sunday Book Review, and Jonathan Spence joining them on stage for an Asia Society event in Manhattan.  Is it also seen as the “Big China Book" of the season on your side of the Atlantic?
JL: Im looking forward to reading Wealth and Power; it sounds fascinating. But from my own perspective, the Big China Book of the season so far in the UK has been Rana Mitters outstanding new history of Chinas Second World War.  Its out here already as Chinas War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, but wont be published in the U.S. until September, and will appear there under a different title, Forgotten Ally: Chinas World War II, 1937-1945. I would recommend the book for many reasons: for its clarity in describing the horror of the conflict and the impact of these events on East Asia right up to the present day; for the way that it humanizes the wars chief protagonists; and also for its excellent use of detail to evoke the traumatic experiences of ordinary people. 
*See Angilee Shahs and my China Stories, a Los Angeles Review of Books digital edition, for reviews of both Northern Girls and This Generation, written by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Helen Gao, respectively.

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Early in 2009, I joined other core members of the China Beat group blog in sending out queries to a variety of people we knew, or simply decided to contact out of the blue, asking them to offer suggestions on what President Obama should read while preparing for his first trip to Beijing.  We then published the results of our survey in a pair of posts that ran on January 20 and January 25.  Not surprisingly, most of the recommendations stressed the need for the President to read works of non-fiction, but Pankaj Mishra caught my attention by slipping in a plug for “an excellent collection” of short stories, I Love Dollars.  These tales by Zhu Wen, he claimed, like other recent Chinese fiction he liked, offered “penetrating insights” into Chinese society of a sort not provided by even the most astute scholarly and journalistic works. 

Read more.

Honk Kong Headlines: A Q & A with Literary Scholar Sebastian Veg


Hong Kong Headlines: A Q & A with Literary Scholar Sebastian Veg*by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The main purpose of my early March trip to Asia was to give a pair of presentations, one in Shanghai at M on the Bunds literary festival and another in Hong Kong at a leading local university.  I also took advantage of my time in each city to expand my knowledge of current cultural and political issues by talking about them with old friends and new acquaintances and attending a couple of public events, most memorably a panel on Chinese legal and penal system reforms that took place while I was in Hong Kong.  Given the fascinating things that have happened there since I left to head back to California, I decided this would be a good time to send some questions about Hong Kong to Sebastian Veg, the moderator of that panel.  Veg, a French specialist in Chinese literature now based in Hong Kong, had interesting things to say at the panel and also at the lively meal with speakers that took place afterwards that he was good enough to invite me to crash.  I was already grateful to him for that excellent meal, and for the series of pieces Id convinced him to do for the China Beat blog back when it was up and running, and now I have another reason to be in his debt: the time he took to send the thoughtful answers to my questions provided below.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Hong Kong’s been in the international headlines more often than usual lately, thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s choice of it as a first stopping point after leaving the United States.  Can you fill LARB readers in on how his Hong Kong sojourn was thought and talked about in the city?
Sebastian Veg: Interestingly enough, Snowden’s presence was immediately absorbed into the ongoing debate on the One Country Two Systems structure, which is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy from Beijings dictates. The idea was that any extradition request from the US would need to go through the local courts; the Chief Executive’s role would have simply been to sign the extradition order at the end. Beijing could only have intervened at this very last stage, and only by invoking the diplomatic dimension of the case, which might have ruffled quite a few feathers in the city. In addition Snowden could have applied for asylum via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR (in an interesting twist, while Hong Kong is not party to the International Convention on the Status of Refugees, a local court ruled just this March that the Hong Kong government was under an obligation to create a mechanism whereby applicants denied asylum by the UNHCR could challenge such a decision under local law). In both scenarios, there could have been a lengthy procedure highlighting the rule of law in Hong Kong. That’s why local democrats immediately seized on Snowden’s case as a way of proving that Hong Kong was fully capable of handling such a case within its own legal framework, and that Beijing should not interfere (former Democratic Party leader Albert Ho was recruited as Snowden’s lawyer). A young Civic Party lawmaker representing the legal sector, Dennis Kwok wrote an inspired plea in defense of Hong Kong’s common law system as the most impartial in handling a case like Snowden’s. Unfortunately (but to many people’s relief), Snowden didn’t provide that chance.
JW: While I can’t think of any real precursors to Snowden’s visit, some of the other Hong Kong-related stories in the news of late have a more familiar ring to them.  There were big protests on July 1, as there have been in many previous years, and there is talk that Shanghai may be making economic moves that will have an impact on Hong Kong’s position in the region.  Do you have any thoughts on either or both of these?  
SV: I recently attended a forum celebrating 10 years of civil society in Hong Kong.  While in some ways this title may be unfair to all the activity that took place during the colonial period, the 2003 mass protests against the proposed Article 23 legislation (a tough anti-subversion of state security law that was ultimately withdrawn), marked a turning point in Hong Kong’s civic development. Last year’s anti-National education protest, led by a non-partisan student and parent group called Scholarism, drew huge support from the population at large. While Hong Kongers continue to identify with aspects of Chinese culture and civilization, and continue, for example, to attend the June 4th candlelight vigil in large numbers, there is growing impatience with the insistence by Beijing that PRC-style ‘patriotism’ is a precondition for the rule of law and democracy in the further development of Hong Kong. The current Chief Executive, CY Leung, is seen as an insincere and inefficient lackey of Beijing, whose popularity ratings have been consistently low by Hong Kong standards since he took office. Universal suffrage, discussed since late colonial times and repeatedly deferred, may be introduced for the Chief Executive election in 2017, but there has been no firm promise on the principle or methods. Therefore, there is a growing sense of annoyance at the idea that it might never happen. Hence the mass protests on July 1st of this year, when several hundred thousand  protesters marched to show their determination to preserve Hong Kong’s special status. Obviously, this kind of political protest is impossible in the mainland.
JW: In my recent piece on Hong Kong for this publication, which dealt with Snowdens visit and the protests against patriotic education measures, and should probably have had something to say about the Article 23 protests of 2003, I looked at some past and present differences between the city you live in and various mainland urban centers — especially Shanghai, the Chinese metropolis I know best.  I wrote from the vantage point of someone who is primarily oriented toward the mainland but makes periodic trips through Hong Kong.  Are there different sorts of contrasts that strike you as someone based in Hong Kong and making occasional visits to the mainland?  
SV: In 1997 there was obviously a lot of anxiety about whether the One Country, Two Systems formula would be viable or whether China would roll back the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers as a paradoxical legacy of colonialism. Things didn’t happen quite as expected: it’s true that there have been attempts to erode (rather than roll back) these freedoms, and also quite a bit of self-censorship (in the sense of newspapers and politicians factoring Beijing’s view of hot button topics in when taking public positions on those issues). On the other hand, because of the boom I mentioned in Hong Kong’s civil society, and the continued pressure it has applied on the Hong Kong government, the basic freedoms (information, speech, private property, rule of law, judiciary independence) have been very largely upheld. This is what still sets Hong Kong very much apart from the mainland. The rule-of-law framework, the free press, internet, the transparency in business procedures, the strong presence of international think tanks and NGOs — all of this puts Hong Kong completely out of reach of places like Shanghai, no matter how many pilot plans the central government announces. The international press often seems strangely uninterested in these ‘details’ — it seems the popular line is that Hong Kong has reverted to the mainland: end of story. However, June Fourth is still commemorated by a candlelight vigil every year which has been attended by growing numbers of younger and younger local participants since the 20th anniversary in 2009. Most recently, somewhat like Taiwan in the 1980s, the pro-democracy movement has grown local roots, so to speak, with a stronger discourse on local identity; the importance of Hong Kong’s urban heritage; interest in the far off rural past (some activists have settled in the New Territories to grow rice and organic crops); and defense of the Cantonese language. This may be Hong Kong’s ultimate reply to the old dilemma about how to resist normalization by Beijing without cultivating a misplaced nostalgia for a far-from-ideal colonial period, during which many of the inequalities and social problems of Hong Kong first appeared.  
JW: Last but not least, lets talk about Hong Kong authors.  Are there ones you think it important for LARB readers to know about?  Weve run a review of Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (a book you also reviewed insightfully for Modern Chinese Literature and Culture), a work thats both by a Hong Kong author and about the city itself.  And I included a passing nod to The Fat Years, by Chan Koon-chung, who is now based in Beijing but was for years a mainstay of the Hong Kong literary scene, in a blog post I did on notable 2011 China-related publications.  Beyond that, though, we havent yet paid much attention to Hong Kong literature.  Are there writers linked to the city you wish were better known internationally?  While Hong Kong film has gained a global audience, the same isn’t true for its writers.  What are we missing by not having them on our radar screen?
SV: It’s true that Hong Kong literature has probably not received as much attention in comparison with mainland writers, who always seem more exotic to Western readers and publishers. Hong Kong seems more similar to the contemporary urban literature popular in the West. However, as I tried to argue in that Modern Chinese Literature and Culture essay you mentioned, the poet Yesi (PK Leung) and the fiction writer Dung Kai-cheung (the author of Atlas) both offer an interesting perspective on the identity issues that have been pushed to the front of Hong Kong politics. Of course, Chan Koon-chung, since he has recently written about China in The Fat Years, received quite a bit of international attention; but he has also written about Hong Kong. Generally, I enjoy the lively intellectual debate that takes place in essays and a vibrant print media, as well as online. If I were to point to one fiction author who should receive more attention, it would be Liu Yi-chang, who turns 95 this year; the great Hong Kong modernist who, after leaving his native Shanghai in 1948, wrote in just about every genre imaginable to make a living during the harsh post-war years. His love-hate relationship with Hong Kong as a place both within and outside the Chinese cultural circle still makes for fascinating reading.
Photo: "Hong Kong Autonomy Movement" flags during the July 1st march in 2012. © Sebastian Veg. 

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The main purpose of my early March trip to Asia was to give a pair of presentations, one in Shanghai at M on the Bund’s literary festival and another in Hong Kong at a leading local university.  I also took advantage of my time in each city to expand my knowledge of current cultural and political issues by talking about them with old friends and new acquaintances and attending a couple of public events, most memorably a panel on Chinese legal and penal system reforms that took place while I was in Hong Kong.  Given the fascinating things that have happened there since I left to head back to California, I decided this would be a good time to send some questions about Hong Kong to Sebastian Veg, the moderator of that panel.  Veg, a French specialist in Chinese literature now based in Hong Kong, had interesting things to say at the panel and also at the lively meal with speakers that took place afterwards that he was good enough to invite me to crash.  I was already grateful to him for that excellent meal, and for the series of pieces I’d convinced him to do for the “China Beat” blog back when it was up and running, and now I have another reason to be in his debt: the time he took to send the thoughtful answers to my questions provided below.

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Disaster Tourism

by Tong Lam

A massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing more than 90,000 people. In response to the disaster, the Chinese government launched the largest rescue mobilization in recent history. While the government’s swift response initially elicited widespread praise from domestic and international media, the shoddy construction of many of the collapsed buildings, particularly schoolhouses, soon became a focus of public attention. According to official estimates, more than 5,000 students perished in the earthquake due to the fall of school buildings alone. Tormented by unspeakable pain, many parents of deceased children spoke out against greedy local officials, construction companies eager to cut corners, and the cozy relationships between the two groups. These parents called for inquiries into the engineering failures and forms of corruptions that may have contributed to the fall of hundreds of school buildings.

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Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and This Book is Driving Me Crazy: The Five Stages of Reading Mo Yan

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and This Book Is Driving Me Crazy: The Five Stages of Reading Mo Yanby Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
For some time now, Mo Yans works have hovered on the long list of works I feel I should read, but just cant seem to get around to diving into. Ive long intended to acquaint myself with one or two of the novels written by this controversial Nobel Laureate*; after all, Im someone who lives in and studies China, so I think I should have something to say about his writing. The rub is that more attractive books have constantly come along to catch my eye, meaning Mo Yans never quite made it onto my nightstand.
I finally cracked open my first Mo Yan  Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006)  a couple of weeks ago, prompted not by an overwhelming desire to read the 540-page novel, but the fact that my book club had selected it for our next meeting, and I had agreed to lead the discussion. Life and Death recounts the many rebirths of Ximen Nao, a Shandong Province landlord who was executed during the Communist takeover in 1949. Ximen Nao goes down to hell, but refuses to admit his guilt, and the king of the underworld finally allows him to return to earth  as a donkey. Over the next fifty years, Ximen Naos donkey life will be followed by turns as an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and eventually, human again, a hemophiliac boy with an unusually large head. Much of the book is narrated by Ximen Nao in his various animal identities, but Mo Yan regularly switches things up and unexpectedly shifts to narration by another character, including one called, well, Mo Yan. Throughout the book, when Mo Yan isnt narrating the action, other narrators complain about an annoying child and later aspiring writer named Mo Yan, who is fond of interfering in peoples lives. 
Does that sound confusing? It is. The Nobel Prize committee lauded Mo Yans hallucinatory realism, which is on full display in Life and Death, as outrageous happenings take place against the backdrop of Mao-era and then Reform-period China. After finally making it through Life and Death  a battle as hard-fought as the one between humans and pigs in the middle of the novel  Im not able to say that I enjoyed the book, though parts of it kept me engaged enough to consider picking up another of Mo Yans works…someday. Maybe. This first encounter with Mo Yan has sparked an internal struggle over what I think I should read to consider myself a well-rounded China specialist, and what Id actually like to spend my time reading.
After I finished, I realized I could break down my Life and Death experience into distinct phases, presented here as The Five Stages of Reading Mo Yan:
1. Optimism: I have a week! I read fast! Ive heard this book is good! The early chapters are short, and I fly through 50 pages. Chapter 1 is extraordinarily violent and gross, but I get past it. Hallucinatory realism doesnt seem so intimidating.
2. Confusion: Wait, why is the narrator talking about Ximen Nao in the third person? I thought Ximen Nao was the narrator. Did the narrator change? (I re-read several pages.) I guess the narrator changed. All right, Ill go with it. Mo Yans an experimental writer, so this structure must be an example of that. 
3. Agony: How long is this book?? The pig life is boring. I cant keep track of all the characters. Allegedly, Mo Yan wrote Life and Death in 42 days. He couldnt take another week to edit it down a little? How much do I have to read to lead a credible discussion at the book club meeting? 
4. Bargaining/Goals: Ill read three chapters before I go to sleep. As soon as I finish the pig life, Ill get ice cream. If I finish the dog life before dinner, I can watch two episodes of Scandal tonight.
5. Relief: 60 pages to go. Oh, good, the monkey life only lasts two years. 30 pages to go. Even Mo Yan is bored; Ximen Naos lives are getting shorter and shorter. Monkeys dead! 10 pages left. Ximen Nao is human again, so Im almost done. FINISHED.
Maybe Mo Yan isnt my cup of tea, but I dont think Im alone in that feeling. Actually, I know Im not. Reading Life and Death reminded me of something Id heard Beijing-based writer and translator Brendan OKane say on a March episode of the Sinica Podcast devoted to Mo Yans works: 


I dont think hes a bad writer. I think hes a very accomplished writer and a very hard-working writer and he has a lot of skill and a lot of experience writing books that I dont like. 


I think I might be on OKanes side, at least after finishing one Mo Yan novel. But if anyone else would like to give Mo Yan and his hallucinatory realism a try, I have a lightly used copy of Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out that Id be happy to sell at a reasonable price. 
* Some Western commentators and Chinese dissidents have criticized Mo Yan for not being political (meaning explicitly critical of Chinas government), though he has also had defenders, who see subversive elements in his fiction, argue that too great a burden to be political has been placed on him, or both. After he won the Nobel Prize last year, a number of leading Western literary scholars debated his career and oeuvre. For a range of contrasting stances, see Perry Link, Does This Writer Deserve the Prize? and Politics and the Chinese Language; Charles Laughlin, What Mo Yans Detractors Get Wrong; Anna Sun, The Diseased Language of Mo Yan; the Sinica Podcast linked to above; and Sabina Knights comments in this publication.

by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

For some time now, Mo Yan’s works have hovered on the long list of works I feel I should read, but just can’t seem to get around to diving into. I’ve long intended to acquaint myself with one or two of the novels written by this controversial Nobel Laureate*; after all, I’m someone who lives in and studies China, so I think I should have something to say about his writing. The rub is that more attractive books have constantly come along to catch my eye, meaning Mo Yan’s never quite made it onto my nightstand. 

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Teaching for China: An Interview with Two TFC Educators

Photo: Liu Site and Yang Xiao. © Alec Ash 
Teaching for China: An Interview with Two TFC Educatorsby Alec Ash

Liu Site and Yang Xiao, both in their mid twenties, went to Peking University (Beida, for short) and Tsinghua University next door, Chinas Harvard and Yale. A degree from one of those can set you up for life. Its the castle on the hill for countless students hitting the books all over China, only a tiny proportion of whom will get in.
On graduating, instead of applying for a job or a PhD, they separately chose to teach for two years at hardship schools in the countryside of far southwest Yunnan province, as part of the Teach for China program  through which they met and became a couple, and where they now work, with desks next to each other.
Liu Site taught physics (she was even the subject of a feature for the Beijing Evening News), Yang Xiao taught chemistry. I sat down with them in Beijing, to hear why they went to the boondocks, and to glean their insights into Chinas education system having experienced the best and the worst of it.  


Alec Ash: Liu Site, what were your plans when you got into Peking University?
Liu Site: When I took the Gaokao [university entrance] exam I wanted to be a scientist, but at that time I didnt understand in the slightest what it meant to be a scientist. It just seemed a very noble profession. So I studied chemistry at university. In my last year I was applying to graduate schools overseas, for a chemistry PhD, and I was writing my personal statement for the application. But I didnt know if what I was doing had any meaning. I had doubts about its worth, so I decided to join Teach for China and go to Yunnan instead. 
AA: Why?
LS: I wanted to feel I was making a difference. I thought I could directly help the children there, change their lives  that sounded more cool.
 
AA: Yang Xiao, why did you make the same choice?
Yang Xiao: At Tsinghua university, my subject was fluid mechanics. After I finished studying, I was recommended to continue as a research student. But although my marks were pretty high, I didnt much like the subject. I realized I shouldnt do a PhD, and should follow my interests. At that time, I saw a poster for Teach for China, which really drew my interest. At university I had done some education outreach work, so I was very enthusiastic about the program. I thought I should give it a try, and maybe I would find a different way of life.
AA: What were both of your expectations before going to Yunnan? 
YX: I grew up in the countryside with my grandfather and grandmother, while my father and mother worked away from home, opening a small shop. So I grew up in a village, but in reality it was a reasonably well-off area, no-one was too poor. Before going to Yunnan I figured it would be about the same as the countryside I knew. I had never been to Yunnan, and had no particular concept or imagination of it.
LS: I just thought, as its the countryside, conditions must be a bit worse.
AA: And were they?
LS: Actually, there were two and three story buildings, and it was better than what I had imagined. In Chinese media reports, countryside schools are all shabby and single story, so I was surprised when I arrived. But the toilet was really dirty. When school started, they didnt even have a proper toilet.
AA: What was your daily routine?
LS: Preparing class and teaching class took up a lot of time. On weekends, I would also go to teach at students homes. In my free time I would go online, and eat out. Yunnan food was hotter than I expected. I couldnt stand it at first. But I could also cook my own food.
AA: How did you two come to meet and start dating?
YX: The schools we were teaching at were pretty close, so the Teach for China teachers would often meet up on weekends to eat together, watch films, and talk. We [Liu Site and I] would also go traveling during the winter and summer breaks, for instance to Dali. Then after we knew each other better, for over a year, we started to go out.
AA: Have your attitudes to education in China changed because of this experience?
LS: They definitely changed. I always thought Beijing students were very lucky. I knew my education was very privileged, to get into Beida. But later I realized how unequal resources are. Now I know how far removed the school conditions of my students in Yunnan are from what my own were. I realized that for children in the countryside, if they want to have a life like mine, its incredibly difficult for them.
A lot of them think theres no point in studying. For me and other people who went to a good school, if you feel like that then thats just because youre lazy. But if you want a colorful life, its very easy. But for my students, there was only one choice of upper school, its really tough, and you cant necessarily get into university. The education system in Yunnan has no attraction to it. So many of them choose the easier route, to work, and dont study hard at school.
AA: Yang Xiao, what are your thoughts?
YX: My own primary school was in the countryside, then my middle school was in a township, my upper school was in Changsha [a provincial capital], and I came to Beijing for university. I studied really hard. Every time you move up from a small place to a big place, its difficult. The more I thought about this, the more I felt it was unfair. The students in Yunnan are in a small place, like I was, and if they want to go study in a big city then they have to work very hard. From experience I know how unfair educational resources are to countryside students.
My upper school was a really good upper school, and Im proud every time I mention it. It was because of that school that I had the opportunity to go to Tsinghua [university]. But now I think that having these privileged upper schools isnt a good system or policy. The teachers there are all poached from smaller places. This means that good teachers never stay in small schools. When I was teaching in Yunnan, a lot of the regular teachers werent all that great, and I wondered why. Its because the good teachers are poached by privileged schools.
AA: Besides inequality, what are your opinions about education in China?
LS: Some people think that in our [Chinese] education, we were imbued with the same views too much. Now weve read more books, they think our previous education was a kind of brainwashing. They hope that future students have critical thinking abilities. That is, not to blindly believe everything you are told, but to be more critical or to look at it from different angles. [In school in China] noone tells you to analyze something, or question if its rational or not. When I was little, when I learned politics or history, my teacher just told me to memorize something and write it down. I never thought, is there another explanation or possibility? Is it right or wrong?
We want to pass on this idea to a new generation of students.
AA: How did the experience change you personally?
YX: Those two years completely changed my outlook. Back in university, I was going to become an engineer. But now in Teach for China Ive found a direction in life I like. I certainly wont be going back to study fluid mechanics!
LS: Ive realized how lucky I am. I see now that the kind of people I knew in upper school and university were all rich and urban. All my female friends followed fashions, chasing after designer labels and other dazzling things, or going abroad. But two years in the countryside made me realize what is most important in life. Now, fashionable things have no meaning to me. Before, if I saw some migrant worker in dirty clothes on the subway, maybe I would have backed away from him. But now, I remember the children I taught saying that their parents went away to big cities to work hard. That made them like heroes, and my students respected them, so I think I should respect them too.
AA: What else did you feel when you returned to Beijing?
LS: That the air is really terrible! And that the ambience and rhythm of the city is so much quicker. Everyones in such a rush.

by Alec Ash

Liu Site and Yang Xiao, both in their mid twenties, went to Peking University (Beida, for short) and Tsinghua University next door, China’s Harvard and Yale. A degree from one of those can set you up for life. It’s the castle on the hill for countless students hitting the books all over China, only a tiny proportion of whom will get in. 

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Hour of the Rat: A Q & A with Noir Author Lisa Brackmann

 

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

In January, I headed up the freeway to L.A. to take part in a panel on “A Changing China,” which was sponsored by the Pacific Council on International Policy and organized by the prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. I had agreed to take part for two main reasons: it would give me a chance to share my ideas with and plug my recent books to an informed and engaged audience (this is the sort PCIP tends to draw), and the discussion would be steered in interesting directions (I’d been part of panels Mei had moderated before). I also thought I’d enjoy meeting and come away with some new food for thought after listening to the two other panelists: Joy Chen, author of the much-discussed Do Not Marry Before 30, which had been a bestseller in China, and Richard Burger, whose Peking Duck blog I’d been reading for years.  All those expectations were fulfilled, but I also got something very welcome but totally unexpected out of the day. One member of the audience was mystery writer Lisa Brackmann, and after I mentioned liking noir fiction, she gave me a copy of her then-forthcoming book and now just-published book, Hour of the Rat. I was pleased to get my hands on it, since I’d heard good things about her earlier book, Rock Paper Tiger, which like the new one is set in China.  I found her book a rollicking and engrossing read, so was very pleased when she agreed to do the following interview via email.

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Outdoor Film Screenings

by Tong Lam

In China, there is a long history of intellectuals and the government bringing literature and films to rural areas as part of nation-building projects. In the early 1950s, for example, right as the Communist government was consolidating its power, the party sent thousands of trained projectionists into the country to deliver entertainment as well as propaganda to China’s vast rural populace. In those days, villagers greeted projection teams with excitement, and outdoor screenings were among the most anticipated cultural events for them. In recent decades, rural film projections have dwindled drastically as a result of changing social and economic conditions, as well as the popularization of televisions, satellite discs, VCDs, DVDs, and the Internet.  The government has begun, however, to reactivate the program of rural film projections in the past decade. It even guarantees now that there will be at least one screening in each village in each month.

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What’s So Great About China

Image: Small produce and food vendors on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. © Maura Elizabeth Cunningham.
Whats So Great About Chinaby Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Ive just returned to Shanghai from a three-week interlude in the U.S., during which I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on Chinas 99%, held in New York two weeks ago. Co-produced by Dissent magazine and The New Schools India China Institute, the panel brought together two academics (Jeff Wasserstrom and me) and two journalists (Megan Shank and Ross Perlin) to talk about inequality in contemporary China.
Given the topic, its not surprising that our discussion, and many of the questions we fielded from the audience, touched on major problems that China faces: food safety, gender inequality, the challenges of urbanization and migration, disparities in the educational system, and environmental catastrophes, just to name a few. While these are all important issues worthy of discussion, I was relieved when an audience member prompted us to think positively and consider this question: Whats going right in China these days?
This isnt a question I get askedor think aboutfrequently enough. Due to the medias fondness for reporting on negative issues, my friends and relatives in the U.S. know a lot about Chinas air pollution, food safety scandals, and incidences of car accidents. As a result, they mostly seem to wonder why I keep coming back here.
But every now and then, its good to push back against the doom and gloom and think about Chinas achievements over the past three decades, as the country has grown in leaps and bounds. Just a few days before our panel discussion, ChinaFile had invited some of its contributors to respond to the same question, and I began my answer by recommending that conversation. Now that Ive had a bit more time to reflect, I thought I would briefly offer three of my own opinions about the positive side of life in China (which, I see, tend to involve comparisons to and critiques of the United StatesI suppose thats one consequence of bouncing back and forth between countries).
I feel extremely safe here. I travel a lot, and usually alone. Ive never hesitated to do this in China. While Im vigilant about pickpockets and avoiding illegal taxis at touristy places, Ive always felt the streets of China are far safer for a single (foreign) woman than almost anywhere else Ive been. Just as I arrived in Philadelphia to visit my family, news broke that there had been a string of armed robberies in my parents neighborhoodsomething nearly unthinkable in China, which has strict gun control. And while Ive had a few uncomfortable conversations with overly attentive male seatmates on trains and airplanes, China doesnt have a problem with random acts of sexual violence such as those that have made headlines in India over the past few months. (Domestic violence, sadly, is quite a different story.)
High-speed rail. In 2006, I rode a train from Shanghai to my new home in Nanjing; the journey took almost five hours. Now, the fastest trains cover the same distance in just over an hour (the same amount of time it took an Amtrak train to get me from Philadelphia to Newark Airportabout half the distance of the Shanghai-Nanjing route). The Chinese government has made a massive investment in rail infrastructure and shows no signs of slowing down; Im already thinking that I might make my first trip to Xinjiang in 2015, when a high-speed line to Urumqi is scheduled to open. The Chinese high-speed rail project is far from perfect, but its making travel in the country faster, more comfortable, and more convenient than anything Ive experienced in the U.S.
Small businesses still abound. I often dont realize until I really start looking just how many small stores and restaurants cram the streets of Shanghai, the majority of them occupying spaces not even as large as my apartment. Wulumuqi Road, crammed with tiny food stalls and produce vendors, is exactly what I imagined New Yorks Lower East Side to look like when I read Sydney Taylors All-of-a-Kind Family books, set in the early twentieth century, as a child. Despite Chinas ever-increasing problem with urban sprawl, the prevalence of small family-owned businesses brings the city down to a livable scale: its still possible to reside, work, shop, and eat without having to get in a car or patronize a chain. (I lived in Southern California for three years; clearly, I was a failure at it.)
These three points, while all things I find positive about China, arent the reason I keep taking that slow train up to Newark and cramming myself into an economy-cabin seat for the 15-hour flight to Shanghai. The countrys lure, as Orville Schell writes in his post at the ChinaFile Conversation mentioned above, is far more abstract, and often confusing. All of us who spend extended periods of time here, he writes, can be impressed at the same time as we endlessly carp over the long lists of things that are unjust, wrong, broken or just plain uncivilized. Every once in a while, its refreshing to balance out the reports on whats going wrong in China by explaining how many things areoften against the oddsgoing right.

by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I’ve just returned to Shanghai from a three-week interlude in the U.S., during which I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on “China’s 99%,” held in New York two weeks ago. Co-produced by Dissent magazine and The New School’s India China Institute, the panel brought together two academics (Jeff Wasserstrom and me) and two journalists (Megan Shank and Ross Perlin) to talk about inequality in contemporary China.

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The Golden Age of Hip Hop: An Interview with a Beijing Rapper


The Golden Age of Hip Hop: An Interview with a Beijing Rapper by Alec Ash

Nasty Ray, 25 years old, is a Beijing rapper straight out of the hutong. He lives in the west of Beijing with his mum, in building 22. (“Welcome 2 da hood, this is Tuanjiehu, I live in 20Two”, goes one lyric.) His walls are covered with basketball posters and his own hip hop sketches, and one room is a shedload of vinyls and decks. He greets me in baggy clothes, padded jacket and a Yankees baseball cap. Its 4pm, and hes just woken up.
I caught up with him about the (short) past and (thriving) present of Chinese hip hop. 
Alec Ash:When did you begin to listen to hip hop?
Nasty Ray: The same time I started watching the NBA, in the fifth or sixth grade. I read a lot of basketball magazines, and in interviews with NBA stars they all said they liked Jay Z. So I went to find his CD, and that was the start for me. It was a style and a feeling I liked.
AA: How did you come to start rapping yourself?
NR: In 2004, when I was 16, I joined MC battles at a really well known club called Good Luck on Lady Street [Beijing]. And since 2005 there was a place called Taboo Club in in Wudaokao which would also have MC battles, and there I won first place, when I was 17.
Then from the first year of university, I was already working as an editor for a hip hop website. In university I studied piano tuning. Now I can rely on hip hop to live, but the majority cant. They need a day job, they cant only do hip hop.
AA: Tell us about the parties that you organize.
NR: Every month I put on a party called Natural Flavor. So I spend a lot of time organizing and promoting that. Theyre parties, not concerts. If its the same word, people are misled. Beijing is all about concerts now, but a party isnt the same  maybe people only arrive at midnight and it goes on until four or five in the morning.
Beijing didnt have real hip hop parties, so I hoped that every month there could be a space for people to get together, listen to hip hop classics, make people happy and make more people understand hip hop and its history.
AA: Does Chinese hip hop have any special characteristics?
NR: Chinese has four tones, and English only one, its all the same intonation, so theres more scope for rhyming and wordplay in Chinese.
AA: Can you give us an example?
NR: Listen to my song Tuanjiehu.
AA: Whats it about?
NR: Its about this neighborhood, what this street is like, because Ive lived here since I was little. But in fact Im talking about a wider scope, about Beijing. The first verse is about the morning, the second verse is about the afternoon, the third verse is about the evening and night. I rap about what I see and do, like going out to buy bootleg CDs, with petty thieves and prostitutes around and so on.
AA: When and how did Chinese hip hop begin?
NR: About 10 years ago. Or at the earliest in the mid-nineties. At that time lots of people were going to nightclubs, which were playing all kinds of music, from rock to house to hip hop, including foreign rap. So brothers would go especially to those places, and listen right until the end. There was one club in especial called Glass House, with a black DJ who would play hip hop.
Then Chinese hip hop started out of that. Theres lots of restrictions in China, including on hip hop. Because its not a mainstream thing. Now hip hop culture includes rap, street dance, skateboard, graffiti.
AA: How do other Chinese on the street look at you?
NR: They look at the big clothes I wear, and dont understand it. Because my style is traditional, early New York style. In fact a lot of hip hop people dont dress like I do, they just wear normal clothes, like Mos Def.
AA: Does your mum support your music?
NR: Sure, because she can see that Ive had some success, and I can earn money. So if you can make a living doing what you like then thats great. She doesnt understand the music at all. But right from when I was little I did what I wanted, no one could control me.
AA: What do you think is the difference between your generation and the one before it?
NR: I think the post eighties [generation] are in a golden age. Theyve experienced more things, and received fresh new impressions, like from TV programs and other cultures. So this generation has a lot of talent. Most of the people doing music in China are post eighties.
AA: What about the post nineties generation?
NR: Actually, I dont like the post nineties. Theres a generation gap between us. Even if someone was born in 1991, theyre only three years younger than me, but there are lots of things they dont know. Like the animated films from when I was young, like GI Joe, my friends born in 1980 or 1981 have all seen them, but the post nineties havent heard of them. Its incredible!
 
For a taste of Nasty Rays music, see this video of him performing with his crew, taken by photographer Matthew Niederhauser, or click onto his promotional page (in Chinese) here. For an open sesame to more Chinese hip hop, also check out Yin Cang, Yin San’er and Hei Yun.

by Alec Ash

Nasty Ray, 25 years old, is a Beijing rapper straight out of the hutong. He lives in the west of Beijing with his mum, in building 22. (“Welcome 2 da hood, this is Tuanjiehu, I live in 20Two”, goes one lyric.) His walls are covered with basketball posters and his own hip hop sketches, and one room is a shedload of vinyls and decks. He greets me in baggy clothes, padded jacket and a Yankees baseball cap. It’s 4pm, and he’s just woken up.

Read more.

A Q & A With Pankaj Mishra

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Pankaj Mishra, whose latest book Drew Calver reviewed for this periodical, has surely been a familiar name to many Los Angeles Review of Books readers for some time now.  They may have first become familiar with him via one of the many pieces he has done for periodicals such as the New Yorker, through one of his earlier nonfiction books, such as An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, or by reading the profile Jennifer Schuessler did of him for the New York Times.  In my case, I first encountered his name while looking for something on his native India to assign in a survey of the world in the twentieth century.  Browsing in a bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was teaching at the time, I stumbled on The Romantics, his first and so far only novel.  I found it a wonderfully engaging read (and very teachable).

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The Ultimate Pleasure Dome


by Tong Lam

In the immediate wake of World War II, George Orwell published a short essay called Pleasure Spots in which he predicted the arrival of large-scale pleasure facilities that people would be able to visit to escape from the real world. The “pleasure spots” of Orwell’s imagination would be enclosed and mediated environments with regulated temperatures, constant music, and endless entertainment. It would be a place where sensual pleasures and excitements were generated, while the individual’s thinking and curiosity was desensitized. In our times, pleasure spots such as resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships are no longer novel.

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Mountaintop Retreat

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, May 2013

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, May 2013

by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Toxic air pollution, avian fludead pigs floating down the river, rat meat sold as lamb in local restaurants, bottled water that might not be safe to drink… Life in Shanghai is starting to feel like it brings a daily revelation of threats to our environment and health. Even the hardiest city-dweller might want to escape the chaos from time to time, and so when a friend offered me the opportunity to join a weekend trip he had organized to the mountaintop retreat of Moganshan, one of my favorite places in China, I jumped at the chance.

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Science Fiction in China: A Conversation with Fei Dao

Science Fiction in China: A Conversation with Fei Daoby Alec Ash
Fei Dao, a science fiction writer born in 1983, chose for his pen name the two characters for flying dagger (飞刀). When he achieved some success, he changed the second character to another, also pronounced Dao (氘), that made the nom de plume sound less jejune.
Science fiction in China is attracting special interest of late. The mind-bending trilogy Three Body by Liu Cixin has been selling strong for its genre. Sci fi is also a theme of the new edition of the Beijing-based (English language) literary magazine Pathlight, slated to come out next week. Alice Xin Liu, managing editor of the magazine, tweeted Chinese scifi is, politically, most daring genre in Chinese contemporary literature.
So, who should we be reading? Does this sci fi have Chinese characteristics? What is its history in the mainland? And does it matter?
I sat down with Fei Dao in Tsinghua university, where he is studying comparative literature, to ask him these questions and more. Here it is, straight from the horses mouth.

Alec Ash: How did you start writing science fiction?
Fei Dao: When I was at middle school, 16 or 17, I started to read a lot of sci fi. I read the magazine Science Fiction World, and became more familiar with sci fi literature. I liked it because there was a lot of imagination and novelty in it. At that time, my dream was to become an author. When I started out, I didnt think at all about writing science fiction. Back then I felt sci fi was very difficult to write, and needed some knowledge of science, so I could only appreciate it but not write it myself.
Like many post 80s authors, I started out writing campus stories about young people in school. But I couldnt get them published. Until one day in university, I wrote a science fiction story on the side, and sent it in to Science Fiction World. I was just giving it a go, I had no idea that that first story would get published [in 2003]. A year later, I had another idea, and that second story also got published. So that encouraged me, and I started writing sci fi.
AA: How popular is sci fi in China?
FD: In my opinion, its mostly popular among young people. This has a big connection to Science Fiction World, because a lot of students at middle school and university buy that magazine. It has a very large readership. But after people graduate and start to work, most people dont read science fiction. They think its just youth literature and that grown-ups should read more mature stuff, not childish stuff.
AA: How do you feel about that?
FD: Of course I dont think its childish literature. But Science Fiction World is, after all, for young readers. The whole feel of the magazine is like that. So while there is lots of mature science fiction for grown-ups, the readers are still mostly young.
I feel lots of people are prejudiced against sci fi. They think that if youre a certain age and still read sci fi, thats immature and unrealistic, like you are letting your fantasies run wild. So I think that prejudice is a problem. But now that Three Body (三体) [by Liu Cixin] has been publically praised, I hope that is slowly changing peoples opinion.
AA: Who are the Chinese authors we should read?
FD: The most popular authors now are Liu Cixin, Han Song and Wang Jinkang. Those three are the most famous at this time. Some people jokingly call them the three generals.
AA: What is unique or particular about Chinese science fiction?
FD: Chinese sci fi has about a hundred years of history. When it started, in the late Qing dynasty around 1902, it was chiefly concerned with the problem of bringing ancient China into modernity. At that time, Liang Qichao [translated sci fi] because he thought it would be beneficial for Chinas future … as something that could popularize scientific knowledge. And Lu Xun thought that if you gave ordinary people scientific literature to read, they would fall asleep. But if you blended scientific knowledge into stories with a plot, it would be more interesting. [He thought that] in this way, the people could become more modern.
So at that time science fiction was a very serious thing to do in China that could allow ordinary people to get closer to modern scientific knowledge, and serve as a tool for transforming traditional culture into modern culture. It played a very important role, and had a serious mission to accomplish.
Today, there is a commercial publishing market for sci fi, and people dont have such weighty expectations of literature, yet authors are still discussing serious topics. Three Body by Liu Cixin or Subway (地铁) by Han Song both have many reflections about the direction of this country and of humanity. So this kind of writing can convey concerns about the future, or discuss the current situation in China.
For example, Han Songs Subway is about a subway station. In China, subway systems are an emblem of modernization. Many cities in China are building huge subway systems, because to have one or not is the standard of a citys modernity and development. So in discussing this symbol, Han Song seized on a sensitive point. After publishing Subway, he wrote another book called Highspeed Rail (高铁), another emblem of technological innovation. So Han Song is consistently concerned with the potential catastrophes of the process of modernization.
Liu Cixin, on the other hand, is expressing a more grand feeling of the universe in the tradition of Western sci fi. In doing so, he wants Chinese people to look up at the sky, and not just be concerned with earthly matters. The mainstream of Chinese literature is about real-world subject matter, such as the countryside or urban life. Very few people are concerned with the fate of humankind, the future of the universe, or even aliens. These things are themselves alien to Chinese readers, but can be introduced through this kind of writing.
I think that the key theme of Chinese science fiction, no matter how it develops, is how this ancient country and its people are moving in the direction of the future.
AA: What is the relationship between Chinese sci fi and the culture and censorship authorities?
FD: Because Im an author not a magazine publisher, Im not sure precisely what the relationship between them and the censorship department is. But in China, no matter what the subject matter of literature is, you have to communicate with the censorship department. For example, if you write realistic fiction about a sensitive subject, youll also come up against objections. Its the same for sci fi.
AA: Is there a big Western influence on Chinese sci fi?
FD: Science fiction is a new variety of literature [in China]. Before a hundred years ago, it had no frame of reference, so it just studied Western works. Of course there were native influences too, but in the end the learning process was from the West. [Chinese] sci fi writers today have also read a lot of Western sci fi. Theyre very familiar with it, and its given them a lot of inspiration. For example, Liu Cixin emphasizes his admiration of Arthur Clarke.
AA: What are the other main influences?
FD: Theres also a big influence from Japan. Historically there were a lot of Japanese [sci fi] stories translated into Chinese. Jules Verne was also first translated from Japanese into Chinese. And contemporary Japanese sci fi, for example Japan Sinks (日本沈没) by Sakyo Komatsu, is very popular in China. Anime and manga are also an influence, but only starting from the post 80s generation … because that is the generation where TV shows began to become popular.
Another big influence on Chinese sci fi is Soviet sci fi. Especially after 1949, when China had less connection to the West and more connection to the USSR, the most famous Chinese sci fi authors were most influenced by Soviet sci fi with communist themes. So there are three big influences: the West, Japan and the USSR.
AA: Who are your biggest influences?
FD: Ive been influenced by a lot of non science fiction writers, and Ive read classic Western sci fi such as [Arthur] Clarke and [Isaac] Asimov. But when I was young, one of the works that most subtly influenced me [was] a novella by Ted Chiang (姜峯楠) called Tower of Bablyon. That story gave me a new understanding of science fiction  i.e. that it doesnt have to be just about technology.
In the story, they built a high tower in Babylon that became a world with different floors and people living inside. They built it bit by bit, until it reached the top of the sky. Then they burnt through the sky, and the protagonist entered into the heavens, where there was water and a sandy shore. So this world was cyclical  you arrive in the heavens and its like the seabed. Its hard to explain, but this was a very serious science fiction or fantasy story, and it opened up a large imaginative space for me.
AA: Do you think sci fi is important?
FD: I do. I think that imagination is very important. People must preserve a curiosity about the future. Many people, because of everyday pressures, dont have the time or the energy to care about things that dont seem to be about everyday reality. But I think that to be curious is very important, and so is sci fi.
Read last week’s interview with Mara Hvistendahl at The China Blog here.

by Alec Ash

Fei Dao, a science fiction writer born in 1983, chose for his pen name the two characters for “flying dagger” (飞刀). When he achieved some success, he changed the second character to another, also pronounced Dao (氘), that made the nom de plume sound less jejune.

Read the whole interview here.

"From Maternity Wards to the Bird Flu Beat": A Q&A with Mara Hvistendahl

Photo: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Shanghai, March 2013.

My first contact with Mara Hvistendahl, a talented Shanghai-based journalist who is a contributing editor and writer for Science and the author of the acclaimed book Unnatural Selection, goes back to 2008.  At the beginning of that year, we both grew fascinated by Shanghai’s first Not-In-My-Backyard protests.  The goals of most Chinese NIMBY actions have been to force the closing or relocation of toxic factories, but early 2008 was an effort by residents of central Shanghai to stop the extension of the city’s magnetic levitation train line into their neighborhood.  Crowds took to the streets, in part because they were worried about the noisy superfast train hurting local property values, in part because of vague rumors about the lines posing health risks, but largely because people living in the affected area simply felt that they should have had a chance to weigh in on an urban redevelopment project that would have a dramatic impact on their lives.  The protests succeeded: the line has never been built.  This high profile action also probably helped inspire some of the other demonstrations in different Chinese cities that have taken place since early 2008, just as 2007 protests in Xiamen that succeeded in forcing a noxious chemical plant to be relocated played a role in emboldening the Shanghai protesters.

Read More.

Cute Policing”

A cute-looking police vehicle with surveillance cameras at the center of Shenzhen. Police surveillance vehicles like this are now common sights in Chinese cities. © Tong Lam
A cut-out police figure advising the public to stay vigilant and to respect law and order. © Tong Lam

by Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)

A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of policesoft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.

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"A Tale of Two Viruses"


By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Despite public concern about the emergence of H7N9 bird flu in Shanghai, only a handful of pedestrians walking along the waterfront Bund on Monday, April 8 chose to don face masks. Those who did opt for the protective gear likely did so not out of pandemic-related fears, but because of the light smog hanging over the city; at 5pm, when this photo was taken, the air quality was rated as “Unhealthy” by the U.S. Consulate’s Twitter feed. Image © Maura Elizabeth Cunningham.

April, 2003 - I am almost finished with my junior year of college, working evenings and weekends and any other hours I can squeeze out of the day as a clerk in the emergency department of a South Philadelphia hospital. I am desperate to escape Philadelphia and have signed up for a summer course in Beijing; I’ve never been to China before and am not even entirely sure I want to go, but am drawn by the fact that Beijing is literally on the other side of the world from my hometown, precisely twelve time zones away.

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"Travels in China": A Brief Encounter with a Mountain Mystic


Photo by Alec Ash, Wulong Mountain, Liaoning Province, February 2013.
Travels in China: A Brief Encounter with a Mountain Mystic 
by Alec Ash 
The Taoist priest looked at me askance and guessed correctly that I was British.
I was in his temple three days before the Chinese new year, following a friend from the area who was there to light incense and drop money into the collection box for good luck in the year ahead. The red-faced deity guarding the box stroked his meter-long beard and accepted the bribe.
We were halfway up Wulong mountain outside Dandong in northeastern China, 16 kilometers from the North Korean border. A golden Buddhist temple higher up the hillside overshadowed its more humble Taoist brother, with low grey walls and a roofed red gate. Stenciled outside the entrance, two yin-yangs for punctuation, was 人能弘道 非到弘人  Man can enlarge the Way; the Way cannot enlarge Man.
Inside was a courtyard, a bronze censer for burning incense, a cramped shrine room, living quarters with kitchen, and a five-foot-nothing priest with a square chunk of jade tied to the front of his cap that looked heavier than him.
As soon as my nationality was uncovered, the priest ushered me into a back room and beckoned for me to sit on a stool, while he parked himself behind an oversized wooden desk and gathered scraps of blank paper around him. I had the creeping feeling that whatever Taoist magic I was going to witness was going to cost me something more material.
What astrological year do you belong to? the priest asked me in Chinese, picking up a Biro pen and scribbling his prediction on a scrap.
The ox, I said.
The priest crumpled up the paper he had written on, and threw it to one side.
How many brothers or sisters do you have? he asked, writing a number.
I have one older brother.
The priest hesitated for a long second. Then he showed me his scrap, the number two on it.
Including you, there are two brothers.
Sorcery. There were truly more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in my philosophy.
What floor of your building do you live on? he asked, scribbling again, spurred on by his success.
The third floor.
He had written the number three. Alright, that one was kind of impressive.
How old is your mother?
I told him my mothers age. He had gotten it wrong by three years, but sportingly he showed me his scrap anyway with a shrug of his shoulders, as if to say: meh, two out of four.
Having established his credentials so convincingly, we got to the advice portion of the session. When you choose a woman, he began, you must remember three things.
Lady tips. Always useful.
Number one: she should be Chinese.
Thats curious, I had been told the same thing by my landlady not two weeks ago. In fact, there was someone I had my eye on, and she was Chinese-born. He had my ear.
Number two: she should be born in the year of the rat or the dragon.
I did a quick calculation from the birthday of my romantic interest. Dragon. Score.
She should definitely not be born in the year of the tiger, sheep or horse.
Mental note filed and stored.
Number two: her nose should be like this  he made an indecipherable swoop of his hand over his nose  and not like this  another swoop in the opposite direction.
I asked for clarification. The tip of the nose, he explained more patiently, should point up rather than curve down. He even drew me a helpful diagram of correct and incorrect noses, with slit-shaped eyes above them, presumably to reinforce the first point.
Also, the eyebrows should be high, the cheeks should be low, and she should not have hair on her upper lip.
I would have to check all this when I got back to Beijing (or back on Facebook). But I was relieved that I was not destined to marry a mustachioed woman.
I looked to the priest, feeling that perhaps he had a final word of wisdom to impart. But the Way is mysterious, the priest was silent, and my last commune with the unfathomable enigmas of Tao was indeed related to female upper lip hair.


b
y Alec Ash

The Taoist priest looked at me askance and guessed correctly that I was British.

I was in his temple three days before the Chinese new year, following a friend from the area who was there to light incense and drop money into the collection box for good luck in the year ahead. The red-faced deity guarding the box stroked his meter-long beard and accepted the bribe.

Read more.

"From Pride and Prejudice to Who Moved My Cheese”: A Q & A with Helen Gao


Four weeks ago, this blog ran an interview I did with Xujun Eberlein
, in which the China-born but now American-based writer responded to questions I put to her about literature, translation, and the flows of books between her native country and the one she now calls home.  Her answers were so interesting that I decided to put similar ones to Helen Gao, who grew up in China a couple of decades after Eberlein, spent two years at an American boarding school, did an undergraduate degree at Yale, and is now a Beijing-based freelance writer.  Gao has written for various publications, including the Atlantic, and has a chapter on the controversial novelist-racecar-driver-blogger Han Han in China Stories, an e-book published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.  - Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Read the interview here.

Ghost Malls of the Instant Cities


by Tong Lam

When the South China Mall (later renamed the New South China Mall) opened its doors in Dongguan, Guangdong province in 2005, the Western media hailed it as a symbol of China’s new consumer age. With more than 7 million square feet of leasable space, the mall was supposed to have over 2,300 stores and was meant to be the largest in the world. The developers estimated that the mega mall would attract at least an average of 70,000 visitors a day. As a comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the US, is only about one-third of that size. Even the massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, the largest in North America, pales in comparison. In their initial promotional material, the developers boasted that the mall would become a “one stop consumption center” and “a global business model.”

Read more.


"The Good Wife
”: Reconsidering The Good Earth's O-lan

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Prequels, sequels, and alternate-perspective takes on famous novels abound in the publishing world today. In March, Geraldine Brooks imagines the life of Little Women’s absent father as his family awaits his return from the Civil War. The Wind Done Gone offers a slave’s viewpoint on the events of Gone With the Wind; a new book will soon recount Pride and Prejudice from the servant’s corner of the drawing room. Probably the most famous of these re-imaginings, Gregory Maguire’s best-selling Wicked (also a hit Broadway musical) reveals that the Wicked Witch of the West has been misunderstood by those who only know Dorothy’s side of the Wizard of Oz story. And while re-tellings have flourished in recent years, there are older examples of the practice, too: Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a play revolving around two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) both appeared in 1966.

There’s also a long Chinese tradition of playing around with famous works of fiction. Dream of the Red Chamber, the country’s most famous novel, has yielded a dozen sequels or more, such as Shadows of Dream of the Red Chamber (1877) and The New Story of the Stone (1908). As far as I know, though, no one has yet given similar treatment to the most famous novel about China written in English: Pearl Buck’s 1931 bestseller, The Good Earth.

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"The Last Good Earth"

by Alec Ash

This Chinese spring festival, I read Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth in the perfect location – the farmlands of Anhui where the book is set. (Read my LARB co-blogger Maura Cunningham’s take on the book here, and check back next week for more analysis.)

Wang Lung, the protagonist, is a farmer who survives famine to strike it rich, eventually moving out of his old home on the land into a great house in town to establish his family in. The countryside of Anhui is no longer famine stricken, but is just about as poor, relative to the rich parts of China, now as then. An hour out of the nearest town (in this case Fuyang in the far northwest), you hit acres of maize fields and hamlets of unheated courtyard houses, still out of reach of paved roads.

So the land is still there – but the farmers are gone. It’s a familiar tale that over the last twenty years, urban migration has stripped the Chinese countryside of its able bodies, as they seek better paid work in the city. As one of them told me on the train to Shanghai, “Where there is money, that’s where my dream is.” Wang Lung, for all his professed love of earth between his toes, would have followed them – as indeed he did in the harshest winter, boarding a “fire wagon” to a rich southern city to work as a rickshaw driver.

Read more.

 

In the Wake of Finnegan: A Q&A with Xujun Eberlein

This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.

I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was acommentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre. 

She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me. 

Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China? 

Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs.  I asked the young man howFinnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”   

Read more.

 

by Tong Lam

Increasingly, civic leaders from around the world are using designer architecture to brand their cities as sophisticated global business and tourist destinations. China is no exception. The absence of a strong civil society to challenge these intrusive projects—which are often carried out in the name of “urban renewal”—means that in many cases Chinese cities have become a playground or laboratory for foreign architects, who normally would not be allowed to carry out such ambitious projects in their home countries.

In Beijing, the big-ticket buildings that saturate the city’s skyline include the CCTV Headquarters by Rem Koolhaas, the National Stadium by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Terminal Three of Beijing Capital International Airport by Norman Foster, and the National Centre for Performing Arts by Paul Andreu. Completed in 2007, Andreu’s curvy structure is particularly significant because of its proximity to Tiananmen Square, the capital’s symbolic center. While the building is colloquially known as the Giant Egg, some locals have also suggestively referred to it as a big “drop of tears,” which is a not-so-subtle reference to the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. 

Read more.

The Artist and the Factory

image

Image © Li Liao

by Alec Ash

On October 9th 2012, 30 year old Li Liao reported for his first day’s work at a Foxconn factory in southern China. The colossal electronics contract manufacturer, which makes our iPhones, Kindles and Wiis, provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of poor Chinese. It was also the center of controversy after a spate of worker suicides in 2010.

Li Liao was issued his identity card – worker F2356272 – overalls and cap. He was shown around. On the assembly line, he was to help manufacture Apple’s latest gadget, the iPad mini. He worked there for 45 days. Then he quit, bought an iPad mini with his wages, and displayed it and his overalls as part of a contemporary art exhibit in the fashionable 798 art district of Beijing.

His boss, presumably, didn’t see that coming.

Read more.

Don’t Bet on the House

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The port city of Dalian’s transformation into a major metropolitan center corresponded with Bo Xilai’s long tenure as mayor, and his rise to power.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham 

On Monday, a few dozen journalists assembled at a press conference in Guiyang to be told by local court officials what most of them had surely already figured out: China’s “trial of the century,” the prosecution of fallen politician Bo Xilai, was not taking place that day. The news reports that had sent media organizations scurrying to set up shop in Guiyang, a small city three hours southwest of Beijing that is part of Guizhou Province, were false; Bo’s trial date and location remain a mystery. The foreign correspondents who had made the trip didn’t return home with front-page stories about the country’s most eagerly anticipated courtroom appearance. Instead, they had to write about being sent on a wild goose chase

The reporters’ willingness to travel all the way to Guiyang on the basis of thinly sourced reports might seem odd to the casual observer. But for those of us in the China-watching business, it’s understandable: Bo Xilai has not been seen in public since his spectacular fall from grace on the Ides of March last year. Once the Party Secretary of Chongqing and a potential candidate for the super-elite Politburo Standing Committee, Bo has since been stripped of his membership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and accused of massive corruption, though the government has not yet filed formal charges against him. Whenever, and wherever, he is tried, Bo will assuredly be found guilty and face either life in prison or a death sentence.

Read more.

The China Blog: An Interview with Historian James H. Carter

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Historian James H. Carter recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books on a new “biography” of the “The Books of Changes,” an important Chinese classical text.  Asia Editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom caught up with Carter to ask him a few questions about, naturally enough, China and biography.

JW: You began your review of Richard Smith’s new “biography” of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) with some ruminations on the whole notion of biographies that don’t focus on individuals.  If there were one other book with a tie to China you think especially worthy of a “biography,” what would it be - and who would you like to see write it?

JHC: It’s hard to eschew “actual” biographies - ones about people - because there are so many lives in China’s past that are so rich and resonant.  Zhang Xueliang, who began life as the son of China’s most powerful warlord, and saw his homeland overrun by Japanese troops after his own commanders ordered him not to resist, played a key role in kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek and forcing him to cooperate with the Communists before living for decades under house arrest in Taiwan (eventually dying - at age 100! - in Hawaii), seems a more than deserving subject.

Read more.


A migrant worker cleaning the façade of a brand new designer building in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Image © Tong Lam

In recent years, China has increasingly tried to project itself as a cultural soft power. During the recent 18th Communist party congress, for example, party officials boasted about the numbers of new museums, art districts, cultural heritage sites, and other cultural infrastructures that had been created in the past decade. Yet, so far, the vast majority of Chinese migrant workers can merely participate in the country’s expanding cultural industries as unskilled service workers or physical laborers. Recommended pairings:

For reading: Michelle Dammon Loyalka's Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration (University of California Press, 2012), a work of reportage that profiles migrant workers in the city of Xi’an.

For viewing: Jia Zhangke's The World (Shìjiè), a 2004 film that focuses on the lives of migrant workers in an Epcot-like Chinese theme park.

This is the first of a series of posts by photographer Tong Lam, who will be a regular contributor to this blog. The contributions by this historian, author and visual artist based in Toronto - whose work I discussed on this site before - will present viewers with an image taken in China that focuses on the kinds of places, actors and actions that often get overlooked or treated superficially in mainstream coverage of that country. The images themselves will be accompanied, as this one is, by a description, a short gloss on the meaning of the shot or shots, and suggestions of books of films. - Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Asia Section Editor


The One About Shanghai

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Friends was already a huge hit among young Chinese viewers when I arrived in China for the first time, in 2005. I didn’t realize just how big a deal the show was here, though, until 2007, when I stumbled across an entire shelf of “Friends English” language-learning products in a Shanghai bookstore. Read more.

What a Difference Two Years Makes (Away from China)

by Alec Ash

As with dog years, so is it with China years – one here is equivalent to several in America and Europe. When it comes to pace of change, no one else holds a candle really. The Chinese just fit more in. (The velocity of change is evident everywhere, as per the above photo taken inside one of China’s new superfast trains.)

I returned to China after two years away. It’s like leaving London shortly after the millennium and coming back for the Olympics. Recognizable, but look closer and you notice all the new things.

It’s the same with people. In two China years someone will have moved town three times, burned through as many businesses, got married, had a kid, got divorced and become incredibly fat. Meeting old Chinese friends feels like like lunch with a schoolmate after a decade. Read More.

China and North Korea: A Conversation with John Delury

Welcome to LARB’s Asia Blog, edited by regular LARB contributor and co-editor of its Asia Section, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (his most recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, a review of Wiliam Gibson’s latest, can be found here). Each week, the Asia Blog will feature criticism, interviews and cultural reportage by an exciting group of writers and scholars. John Delury, a Seoul-based specialist in Chinese and Korean studies (who has also written about North Korea for this publication) recently sat down with Jeffrey Wasserstrom to discuss commonalities and differences between two of the last surviving communist states in the world.

JW: As someone who has written about and tracks changes in both China and North Korea, which was the subject of your recent LARB review, I was wondering what you think is an important but often misunderstood commonality between the two places?  

JD: Everyone knows that China and North Korea are among the last surviving Communist states in the world. What is less appreciated is that both regimes have continually drawn legitimacy from nationalist, anti-imperialist sources— and still do today. That is the shared Genesis story of the PRC and DPRK— Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were blood brothers, partisan guerrilas fighting first to repel the Japanese invaders in the 1930s, and then to push back the American imperialists in the 1950s. And both countries share a similar national telos— to achieve “wealth and power” (in Chinese, fuqiang 富强, in Korean, kangsong taeguk 강성대국/强盛大国)— that undergirds everything else. In the same way that Mao’s portrait remains on Tiananmen Square today even though so much of Maoism has been abandoned, I think Kim Il Sung will always retain his place as national founder in North Korea, and it’s because both embody the independence, sovereignty and pride of Chinese and Koreans, respectively, in modern history.

JW: In a related vein, as you’ve doubtless read a fair number of books about individual Chinese who suffered greatly and lived to tell the tale, either in their own words in a memoir or in an interview with a journalist, did the book you reviewed for this publication remind you of any of those?  Or was it just such a radically different sort of tale that that question seems off-base?

JD: As the book’s title suggests, Escape from Camp 14 probably belongs in the “escape from bondage” genre of something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin— and Harden shares Stowe’s moralistic drive to tell the story of a brave individual’s battle with evil. As I suggested in my review, Shin’s experiences both inside North Korea and after his escape could be told in a very different way. Due to his unusually horrific experience of growing up in a camp, he understood very little about his country as he headed for the China border. And once outside, he lies about his past and struggles to fit in anywhere- whether China, Seoul, or L.A. It’s interesting you suggest the comparison with “scar literature” or other personal tales of suffering in Communist China. Most of what comes to my mind along those lines is Cultural Revolution Red Guard era memoirs— but there, as you imply in your question, it’s the contrasts that are striking. Red Guards were making revolution, there is a violent, restless agency to their stories— however misguided in its goals and manipulated from above. But Shin’s tale is much more passive— in the sense that it’s about escape. And it’s ultimately deeply tragic, in a way that Harden doesn’t want to fully admit, because at the end Shin finds there is “No Escape.”

JW: Now that you follow China from a base in South Korea as opposed to the U.S., can you tell us something you find particularly interesting about the way Chinese news stories play out in the South Korean as opposed to the American press?

JD: There’s much less mystery to China here— whether of the “China threat” variety or the “China boom” type. China is not some far off, suddenly rising, future challenger. It’s a known quantity that’s been Korea’s next door neighbor for a couple thousand years. So the coverage tends to be more pragmatic and prosaic. Also less global— the focus is on how China is impacting Korea, whereas Americans tend to pay more attention to the global dimension of China’s rise— as a global superpower society naturally would.

JW: Finally, anything strike you as worth sharing about South Korean views of the nearly simultaneous 2012 leadership decisions and rituals in two big countries that matter a lot to South Korea?  I mean, of course, the events that the former Beijing-based and now D.C.-based Richard McGregor of the Financial Times has been referring to as the American election and Chinese selection?

JD: South Koreans are somewhat preoccupied by their own presidential election coming up in December, an interesting topic in itself. But to be sure there’s still lots of attention paid to what’s going on in the two “whales” that the Korean “shrimp” has to swim between— the US & China. Generally Koreans like Obama— the US-ROK alliance  reached new heights in his first term. So his victory was welcomed. The one caveat is that the majority of South Koreans want to change the approach to North Korea that Seoul and Washington have jointly pursued in the last four years. So there is some concern about how Obama will adapt to increased inter-Korean cooperation and a less hardline policy toward Pyongyang.

On China, the Hu Jintao era has not been a particularly warm one in terms of official relations, but the economic relationship is already absolutely critical to Korea and only growing in significance. So people here hope the new leader in Beijing will form a closer bond with the next leader in Seoul (the outgoing South Korean president has also been criticized for not working hard enough on the China relationship). If inter-Korean relations improve, that could help— since the differing approaches to North Korea have been a thorn in the side of China-South Korea relations in recent years.