Mary Guo, April 15, 2014 -- in Beijing

What Do Chinese Women Want?

Photo: Mary Guo in Beijing, April 15, 2014.

By Lu-Hai Liang

Let’s start with Mary. Well that’s her English name anyway. We met seven years ago in Yangshuo, a pretty little town in southern China where she was studying English. I liked her sparky personality and sense of fun, and we became friends. I was teaching English, taking a year out before I started university. I was 18, Mary 21.

Skip forward seven years to the present, and I’m back in China, this time to work in Beijing. I am British, of Chinese heritage. Mary is Chinese and her heritage is that of rural dwellers, known in Chinese as “nongmin” or farmers.

I’ve never known Mary to have a boyfriend but she recently told me, after I asked about her relationship status for this article, that she has had two, including the one she is currently seeing. I was surprised to hear this, since Mary had not mentioned any of this in our previous meetings (she works in Beijing). She is 28 now, which, according to the general consensus within Chinese society, makes her more-than-ready for marriage. Continue reading

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Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

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Dear LARB Supporters:

Last week we celebrated the third anniversary of our first review, on our temporary Tumblr site, and the second anniversary of our official launch.

In those three years, we have published 1,275 reviews, 985 essays, 435 interviews, 22 ebooks, 5 tabloid print magazines, and 3 quarterly print journals. We have produced 60 short films, 50 podcasts, 27 live events, 12 radio segments, and 2 streaming book club meetings.

The community of writers, editors, and supporters who make this possible has grown from a small handful of enthusiasts to, as this incredible collection of work suggests, the equivalent of a small village of people dedicated to literature, ideas, art, and culture.

We have expanded as a community of readers, too, and we now have as many as 30,000 visitors a day from all over the world. Over a third of these readers are overseas — in 150 different countries — and the rest are spread across all 50 states.

Los Angeles has never before had a literary institution of this breadth and reach, and it has been made possible by the generosity of this community of readers. We are reader-supported in the same way that our NPR stations are listener-supported, in the same way that all our cultural institutions are supported — our orchestras, our opera houses, our dance companies, our libraries, our art museums. Like these other institutions, the Los Angeles Review of Books is the expression of a community’s belief in the importance of art and ideas. LARB is your work as much as it is the work of our contributors and staff.

We began our life under the aegis of the University of California, Riverside, and have spent the last year aided by PEN Center USA, but we are now starting to fly solo, as an independent nonprofit organization, which means we are paying 100 percent of our own way, with your help.

We launched our membership program as a way to thank our contributors and supporters, sending magazines and books as premiums to show our appreciation. This membership program, as we hoped, is now one of our main pillars of support.

We have 600 members today, a very good start on the 2,000 we need. Those of you who have already signed up have made our work so far possible. Those of you who become members during this drive will ensure that we continue our work of bringing you some of the most exciting, provocative, and intelligent writing about books and culture available 

Sincerely Yours,
Tom Lutz

chinanoir

Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

Goodbye, Chiang!

By Tong Lam

One of the most iconic scenes in the 2003 German tragicomedy film Goodbye, Lenin!, which depicts drastic changes in daily life in the former East Germany soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is a gigantic Lenin statue being flown away by a helicopter over East Berlin. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has triggered a wave of historical reinterpretations. Godlike founders and paramount leaders of many former authoritarian states, once seen as national heroes and state guardians, were quickly recast as dictators and tyrants. The de-mytholigization of these personality cults led to the removal and even demolition of many of the publicly displayed big statues of former political and spiritual leaders.

Taiwan’s democratization in the last two decades of the twentieth century, itself driven by the changing local and global political landscapes, likewise resulted in the removal of the island’s numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) from schools, military bases, and public spaces. Although Chiang was the leader who led the Republic of China in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), he and the Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in a bitter civil war. During the Cold War, the Republic of China in Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth, similar to that of other U.S. client states in East Asia. Yet, despite its economic success (and also not unlike many other U.S. client states), Taiwanese politics under Chiang were oppressive and monolithic. So, when external pressures and internal reforms finally turned Taiwan into a vibrant democracy in the early 2000s, the island went through a period of “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification” and even de-sinicization. In particular, many of the Chiang statues were dismantled and removed during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when an opposition party came into power and the Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan’s government. The process of removing the Chiang statues all over Taiwan was often highly contentious, triggering not just painful memories of violent political repression under the Nationalists, but also bitter identity politics between those who identified themselves as Taiwanese and those as Chinese.

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Although there are still Chiang statues in some Taiwan universities and public spaces, those that had been removed and dismantled were collected and re-erected in a public park near Chiang’s final resting place in Daxi, Taoyuan County. These reassembled, repainted, and rearranged Chiang statues are often placed so that multiple statues are staring at each other in a humorous way. In this clever exercise of massaging history through public art, there are even a few statues of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the founder of the Republic who had handpicked Chiang as his successor, looking at Chiang from behind.

Interestingly enough, many tourists visiting the Cihu Memorial Statue Park where these Chiang statues are located are mainland Chinese tourists. One wonders what they are thinking when confronted with Taiwan’s complicated and entangled historical relationship with mainland China over the past few centuries. Some of these Chinese tourists no doubt think about the future fate of those oversized statues of the former Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) back home. Others perhaps pick up on the subtle desires for cultural and historical reconciliation within Taiwanese society that are embodied in this statue park.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter. © Tong Lam

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, although the Chinese government is still occasionally erecting new Mao statues, many others have been quietly taken down from universities and outdoor spaces in recent years. The politics of museum-ifying the past and the big statues in China are certainly different from those of Taiwan. Nonetheless, one wonders whether China will one day donate some of its overstocked Mao statues to Taiwan, so that Mao and Chiang can quietly look at each other and create a new symbol of historical and political reconciliation.

Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Foundation.

Ping-Pong Powerhouses and Table Tennis Tales

Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Foundation

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The 1971 “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and the United States is often treated as a mere historical footnote, a quirky prelude to Richard Nixon’s path-breaking trip to the People’s Republic a year later. In his recently published book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, journalist Nicholas Griffin, whom I saw speak about his book at Capital M’s literary festival in Beijing last month, seeks to redress that oversight. The result is an informative and entertaining book that covers far more ground than the single week of Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself.

Griffin begins with the history of table tennis (there were many early names for this small-ball sport, including “gossima” and “whiff-whaff”), a game that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Edwardian England before dying out when the next fad came along. The man who almost single-handedly revived ping-pong, and turned it from an after-dinner game into a global sport, was Ivor Montagu, son of a prominent Jewish banking family that had climbed into the British aristocracy only two generations before. But Montagu, a character tailor-made for a cameo on Downton Abbey, had a rebellious streak that led him to communism. He also loved ping-pong, and ping-pong, curiously, would lead him to prominence within the communist world. Montagu relentlessly promoted the game, which he touted as the ideal activity for the masses, as equipment was inexpensive (and could be improvised) and a ping-pong table took up only a small amount of space (compared to the large fields necessary for sports like soccer and polo). He introduced table tennis to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and quickly saw the sport take off in countries around the globe.

Though the game had its adherents in China (American journalist Edgar Snow slept on a ping-pong table while making the visit to the communist base in Yan’an described in Red Star Over China), table tennis didn’t become identified with Chinese dominance until the 1950s. The new communist government wanted to find sports that Chinese athletes could win to prove their nation’s strength, and elite ping-pong status seemed within reach — if China could topple Japan from the top spot it occupied. It took less than a decade for the New China to assert itself as a ping-pong powerhouse. In 1959, the PRC won its first gold medal in any sport with a victory at the World Table Tennis Championship. Two years later, in the midst of the calamitous Great Leap Forward Famine, Beijing hosted the World Championships, where the Chinese beat the Japanese team to take the men’s cup, while the Chinese government managed to keep visiting teams from realizing that mass starvation was the order of the day in many parts of the country.

Ping-pong fell out of favor during the early years of the Cultural Revolution decade (1966 – 1976); the Chinese team’s victories were now derided as “trophyism,” and its travels around the world regarded not as soft-power diplomacy but rather dangerous exposure to foreign thoughts and practices. But when Mao and Zhou Enlai decided to find a subtle way to approach the United States and begin the process of mending relations in 1971, they chose ping-pong. The PRC sent a team to the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where Chinese players followed what seems to have been a carefully prepared script on making overtures to the Americans. Glenn Cowan, a colorful Californian who was far better at self-promotion than ping-pong, allegedly boarded the Chinese team’s bus by mistake (he claimed he was waved onto the bus by one of the players), and then struck up a conversation with Zhuang Zedong, China’s ping-pong star. Zhuang just happened to have a gift to present to Cowan — not the standard Mao pin that other foreigners received, but a silk-screened portrait of Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. The next day, Cowan approached Zhuang and gifted him with a t-shirt printed with a peace sign, American flag, and the words “Let It Be.” The lines of communication thus opened, Mao sent a message to the head of the Chinese delegation and ordered him to invite the Americans to China — on a trip that would begin in only 36 hours.

The State Department scrambled to figure out what, exactly, was happening. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had in fact been secretly working on establishing contact with the PRC, and they were eager to see the trip go forward, though not officially endorsed by the U.S. government. (The American ping-pong team was less a squad of national champions than a rag-tag group of above-average players who had managed to self-fund their journey to Nagoya.) Finally, a U.S. Embassy official in Japan informed the American manager that the U.S. government was “open to athletic exchanges” with the PRC and would not consider it against policy if the team made the trip.

A remarkable week followed, as the American team toured Beijing and Shanghai while pursued by crowds of curious Chinese and a few excited foreign reporters. Although the Chinese press downplayed the trip, treating the Americans as one more visiting athletic delegation, the rest of the world was watching. The Chinese team played carefully, winning some matches and losing others, always keeping the score close. Glenn Cowan was the star of the show, envisioning the pile of endorsement deals he anticipated would be waiting for him upon his return to the U.S. (Sadly, the ping-pong excitement that the trip sparked soon faded, and Cowan was diagnosed with mental illness not long after; he died in 2004.) Watching from Washington, Nixon and Kissinger saw the possibilities that the trip had opened. Only months later, Kissinger embarked on a secret mission to Beijing, where he arranged Nixon’s February 1972 trip, described in Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.*

It’s probably no coincidence that Griffin’s and Macmillan’s books share similar subtitles. Both Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Nixon’s China trip did change the world, jointly helping to reestablish U.S.-China relations and ending two decades of deeply entrenched hostilities. But while Nixon has gotten all the glory for opening up China, Griffin shows that the Chinese were controlling the game all along. In both ping-pong and diplomacy, the Americans were woefully outmatched.

* For more on ping-pong diplomacy and the Nixon-Mao meetings, see the website of the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR), an organization that played a crucial role in the diplomatic breakthroughs of the early 1970s. Particularly interesting are the photos and videos of the second round of Ping-Pong Diplomacy—the visit to the U.S. by Chinese table tennis players in 1972 that the NCUSCR coordinated.