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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.

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The Other Shore: On Virginia Pye’s River of Dust

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Virginia Pye wrote her debut novel, River of Dust, in only 28 days. But as she recently explained during a session that I moderated at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the book was a hundred years in the making.

Pye’s family has a long history in China. Her grandparents served as missionaries on the dry, dusty North China plain in the early twentieth century, an inhospitable environment that challenged even the staunchest believers in the missionary enterprise. Pye’s grandmother suffered two miscarriages before a daughter was finally born, only to die as a young girl. Reverend Watts O. Pye died a year later, leaving Virginia’s grandmother a widow who remained in China to raise her only surviving child, Lucian. Lucian grew up in the mission compound, then departed for college in the United States. (He would later become a prominent political scientist and leader in China studies.) Her grandmother stayed until she could not stay any longer, reluctantly leaving after Pearl Harbor put the United States at war with Japan.

For decades, Virginia Pye admits, she wanted nothing to do with this family history; a child of the radical 1960s, she distanced herself from her grandparents’ involvement in colonial missionary work. Only when she was cleaning out her father’s papers as he moved to an assisted-living facility did she discover Reverend Pye’s letters and journals, in which he described the stark beauty of rugged North China and his observations of daily life among the Chinese. A self-proclaimed “sucker for a good writer,” Pye found inspiration in these old documents and drew on her grandfather’s lyrical writings to create the setting for River of Dust.

Although River of Dust contains echoes of her grandparents’ lives, and snippets of Reverend Pye’s writing, the book is a work of fiction. Set in 1910, it follows an American couple as they grapple with the challenges of reconciling the ideals of missionary work with the reality of life in North China. Reverend Watson and his young wife, Grace, arrived in China with a clear vision of their role and confidence in the absolute correctness of their worldview. But the kidnapping of their toddler son and their desperate search for him turns the Watsons’ world upside down. Reverend Watson spends more and more time away from the mission compound as other foreigners whisper that he has “gone native,” while Grace, weakened by grief and a risky pregnancy, withdraws further and further into her own interior world.

It’s not a happy story, but Pye tells it skillfully, her complex plot drawing me in so completely that I stayed up far too late one night finishing the book so I wouldn’t fall asleep wondering what happened to the Reverend and Grace. Because she had her grandfather’s words to guide her, Pye has been able to offer a fully formed view of life on the North China plain, one that incorporates both its small beauties and large tragedies.

We find it difficult now to look on the missionary work of a century ago as anything but arrogance, borne out of a conviction that Westerners could “fix” the Chinese by introducing them to Christianity. The missionaries in River of Dust undoubtedly see the world from a high-handed and often condescending perspective. But they also have a deep appreciation, even love, for China and the Chinese in their community. Like Virginia Pye’s own ancestors, her characters question their assumptions about the differences between East and West and find their previously rock-solid convictions on shaky ground.

In many ways, I think Pye could not have written River of Dust if she hadn’t previously rejected, and later become engrossed in, her grandparents’ missionary work in China. If she’d been an uncomplicated supporter — or uncompromising opponent — of her family history, her novel would have been far less nuanced and sensitive. By coming to the story via a circuitous route, however, she enjoyed the benefit of a balanced perspective that lacked any particular ideological agenda. For a story this subtle, a century is not too long to wait.

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A Short Look at the Long Literary History of Spies in Asia

By Paul French

One of the most noteworthy books set to hit the U.S. market next week is Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne’s English translation of bestselling Chinese espionage author Mai Jia’s latest thriller, Decoded, which was published in other markets last year and has already generated a good deal of interest in the U.K.  This is just the latest development in a broader publishing tale: the resurgence of interest in Asia generally, and China specifically, as a settings for stories of intrigue.

One sign of this phenomenon has been the appearance of recent thrillers with present-day Asian locales, such as Charles Cummings’s Typhoon (2010) and Ridley Pearson’s The Risk Agent (2012).  Both of these were set in a contemporary Chinese milieu where shopping malls proliferate, post-socialist but still Communist surveillance mechanisms are in play, and industrial espionage is a feature of the international business scene.  Scandi-crime top sellers Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell have recently made brief excursions to East Asia.  A China of the near future features in the thrillers Dragon Strike (1997) and Dragon Fire (2000), both by Humphrey Hawksley.  And even Asia as it was, rather than as it might soon be, can still cast a spell, as shown by David Downing’s choice of pre-WWI Shanghai as the place where the plot of his recent Jack of Spies (2013) unfolds. Old Shanghai has long held a special allure for espionage writers, and other recent books prove that its attractiveness endures:  cases in point range from Adam Williams’s trilogy The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure (2004), The Emperor’s Bones (2005) and The Dragon’s Tail (2007), to Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain (2002), or Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) — all of them set in the city between the 1920s and 1950s.

Given this recent interest in China and Asia among writers interested in spies, this seems a good time to look back at some of the Asian adventures conjured up by greats of the espionage writing game of earlier generations. Here is a sampler of choice works, a mix of novels by famous past masters and noteworthy books, by now little known, but in their time influential or at least popular contributors to the genre:

The 1930s saw China emerge as a destination for espionage in novels. Now almost forgotten, but popular at the time, was Francis Van Wyck Mason’s The Shanghai Bund Murders (1933) — full of warlords, gunrunners and damsels in distress. Van Wyck Mason, a Bostonian novelist, had a long and prolific career spanning 50 years and 65 novels. His mysteries were filled with characters from the American government’s intelligence services, a world he knew well, having lived in Berlin and then Paris, where his grandfather had served as U.S. Consul General. As a teenager he served in first the French, and then in the American army as a Lieutenant during World War One. After the War he attended Harvard where he was mistakenly arrested for homicide after borrowing a dinner jacket; he was wrongly identified as a waiter wanted on murder charges. He published his first book in 1930 featuring his proto-James Bond character Captain Hugh North, a detective in G-2 Army Intelligence. This was his seventh in the Hugh North series and he eventually ends up solving the Shanghai Bund murders and nailing the western gunrunning baddies who were clearly based on the many westerners running guns along the China coast at the time.

Shady foreigners in Peking who might just be involved in espionage also feature in Vincent Starrett’s Murder in Peking (1946). Set before the war, murder strikes an elegant foreign dinner party in Peking. During the course of the investigation the enquiries move in and out of the Legation Quarter, into the temples of the Purple Mountains where the foreigners picnic, and through the backstreet hutongs of the city. Starrett visited China many times and knew Peking well, and it shows.

Wartime China is the setting for any number of novels but the most widely read at the time, and one for which espionage is at its heart, is Jan Maclure’s Escape to Chungking, published in 1942 and a popular book in Britain in what would nowadays be called the ‘YA’ market. It’s a sort of World War Two Kim with 14-year-old Christopher, or Kit, discovering that his mother is party to hidden military secrets in Japan. Kit finds his mother’s friend nearly dead after trying to take secrets to the British and is handed a package containing the formula for a new kind of explosive before the friend dies. He takes this on a long journey from Japan to Chungking to deliver the secrets to the Chinese government battling Japan from the head of the Yangtze. The author remains a mystery, with no other books listed under her/his name, but was obviously someone who knew China, Japan and Asia well, as the descriptions of the Chinese countryside, as well as Tokyo, Singapore and Malaya, are spot on.

I inherited my mother’s old wartime book club copy that she read as a young teenager in Blitzed London and in these days, when it’s fashionable to say that China was a forgotten element in World War Two, the bestselling success of Escape to Chungking perhaps indicates a greater awareness of the war in China than many assume.

Murder and espionage in pre-revolutionary China became popular themes, and remained so until the Bamboo Curtain fell and the idea of a white spy running round Mao’s China became impossible to imagine. Authors could not get access to research and writers looked elsewhere — to other countries and other historical events — for inspiration.

Pre-revolutionary China would have been perfect territory for “Greeneland”, but it was not to be. Early in his career, Graham Greene did pen a play featuring spies and kidnapping in Manchuria, but never finished it, didn’t like it and destroyed it. He had been fascinated with China since he was a boy and read the now long forgotten Captain Charles Gilson’s The Lost Column, a book published in 1909 about the Boxer Rebellion. After school Greene joined British-American Tobacco in the 1920s and enrolled in Chinese language classes at London’s School of Oriental Studies, where his teacher was none other than a young Chinese writer sojourning in the capital, Lao She. Of course Greene did eventually return to Asia in the masterpiece that is The Quiet American (1955) where, around the time of Dien Bien Phu and the French retreat from Indo-China, the hard bitten English hack Fowler drinks away his career on Saigon’s rue Catinat, until he encounters the mysterious American, Alden Pyle.

That early retreat from empire in Indo-China was to inspire other writers, not least Nicholas Freeling, the creator of Amsterdam’s Commissaris Van der Valk, who in Tsing-Boum! (1969) uncovers a murder in sleepy Holland that takes him back to the disaster at Dien Bien Phu and trouble with the French intelligence services.

China was closed but South East Asia and Hong Kong were still accessible to writers, and one master of the spy genre, Eric Ambler, ventured across the region, taking in the newly free state of Indonesia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong in Passage of Arms (1959). The clients are different after the war but western gunrunners are still active and the British and American intelligence services still want to be part of the action. Ambler’s descriptions of Hong Kong are particularly acute. Speaking of Hong Kong, of course, it’s worth re-reading James Clavell’s under-appreciated follow up to his best seller Tai-Pan (1966) — Noble House (1981), where the taipan of Struan’s trading company, Ian Dunross, finds himself in the 1960s struggling to maintain the family firm from interference by Soviet, American and British spies.

We can’t not acknowledge Ian Fleming and Bond, despite being so well known. Fleming himself knew Asia reasonably well. Of course his brother, Peter, was an inveterate traveller to China and wrote his own bestselling books on the country (News from Tartary (1936) and One’s Company (also 1936)). Less well known, though recently republished, is Fleming’s collection of travel articles for The Sunday Times, Thrilling Cities (1963), where he visits Hong Kong, Macao and Tokyo, among others, in 1959-1960. Profitable research time!

We end our short trip into the earlier years of Asian espionage writing, with a true classic — John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the only outing by George Smiley to Asia and the second book in the Karla Trilogy. Hong Kong as the western listening post on Red China, British intelligence determined to hang on and still count in an American-dominated Cold War espionage world, opium still a valuable commodity to China and a truly memorable description of little known Vientiane. Any (male) visiting espionage fan to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club will have stood at the club’s urinals and looked out the windows over the view that greeted the gangly twenty-seven-year-old, and badly hungover, Vietnam War reporter Luke as he stands in the same spot, watching a typhoon approach to engulf the Colony, in the opening pages of the novel.

China and Asia are still “sweetspots” to western espionage authors and now, it seems, they are being joined by a new crop of Chinese spy writers. Long may the tradition continue!

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

Grassroots NGOs

By Tong Lam

For many Chinese people, their exposure to the concept of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their potential for civic action can be traced back to 1995, when Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. In early September that year, thousands of international NGO delegates arrived in Beijing to discuss issues of equality, development, and peace, and the event was widely reported in China’s national media. However, NGOs actually have a relatively long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of foreign NGOs, such as private foundations and public health organizations, were already operating in China. Also, soon after it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to organize semi-autonomous civic associations as part of its mass mobilization campaign. Although these were not NGOs in the narrow sense of the definition, they were the predecessors of the new “government-organized NGOs” (commonly known as GONGOs) that have emerged in recent years.

The idea of government-organized “grassroots” organizations may sound oxymoronic, but these newly emerged non-profit organizations represent an important mechanism for the government to gain popular support and claim political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, many of the GONGOs established in recent years are civic associations dealing with issues related to the business and professional communities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of international NGOs have also been allowed to operate in China.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development. © Tong Lam

In addition to these GONGOs and foreign NGOs, there has also been a surge of real grassroots NGO growth in the past decade. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, many of the private and spontaneous rescue and relief efforts soon cohered into professional organizations, and began to offer long-term recovery and mobilization programs, both in the disaster zones and beyond. Generally, these homegrown NGOs are small, local, and poorly funded. Many of them are keen on addressing urban middle-class concerns such as environmental protection, charity, cultural preservation, citizen participation, and community development. In short, their agendas are not incompatible with those of the government, and, by law, they have to be supervised by government agencies. Indeed, by playing a role in vital areas where traditional government-sponsored civic organizations have failed to serve meaningfully, these domestic NGOs help to maintain much-needed social and political stability. In a way, their existence is even consistent with the neoliberal trend of downloading the government’s responsibilities to the private sector.

Still, by cultivating citizens’ awareness of local affairs and establishing international links with foreign NGOs, grassroots Chinese NGOs are sometimes seen as competitors by local officials and even higher levels of the government. As such, Chinese NGOs often have an ambivalent relationship with the state. While it is not uncommon for them to receive funding for specific projects, it is also not unusual for them to run into government-placed obstacles in their work. In the long run, it remains to be seen how the government will interpret the kind of bottom-up social mobilization and citizen participation advocated by these domestic NGOs with mostly middle-class initiatives.

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. © Tong Lam

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LARB Launches the Second Issue of the Quarterly Journal

This Sunday, please join the Los Angeles Review of Books in celebrating the launch of the second issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal. With readings by Geoff Nicholson, Dinah Lenney, Alice Bolin, and Victoria Dailey at the Mandrake in Los Angeles.

The LARB Quarterly Journal is a testament to the fact that print is still thriving as readers continue to have a profound appetite for curated, edited, smart and fun opinion, written by the best writers and thinkers of our time.

We’ve carefully selected these articles, poems, interviews and essays—all written exclusively for this publication—for readers of just about any interest. The new issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal includes:

  • Victoria Dailey tells a true adventure story of how the two most famous escapees from Devil’s Island made it to Los Angeles.
  • Bruce Robbins considers the connection between reading novels and falling in love.
  • Dinah Lenney braves the cultural mores of cell phone behavior.
  • John Rechy juxtaposes fictional characters and real life.
  • Featuring James Welling’s artist portfolio.

Including articles, shorts and original poetry by Geoff Nicholson, Francesca Lia Block, Laila Lalami, Leo Braudy, Alice Bolin, George Prochnik, Jack Pendarvis, Colin Dickey and more.

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Netizens Unite: A Q&A with chinaSMACK Blog Founder Fauna

By Alec Ash

Fauna (a web name) is the founder and editor of chinaSMACK, a website that translates popular and trending Chinese digital content and online comment threads into English. It’s been around for over five years, and has hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. The content is taken from a range of Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks, and ranges from serious social stories (Dongguan Anti-Prostitution Campaign) to the downright silly (Girl’s Rabbit Facial Expressions Amuse Chinese Microbloggers). As such, it’s a valuable window into what Chinese Internet users or “netizens” think. Often, what interests them is plain puerile – but that in itself is a useful reminder that most netizens are after distraction more than sedition, and their attitudes can also offer insight into hot button social issues that higher-minded analysis often misses. 

When did you start chinaSMACK? I know you prefer to remain anonymous, but can you say anything more about yourself and why you chose to do this work?

My first post was July 9th, 2008. I had the idea a few months before and a friend helped me choose the name. To begin with, chinaSMACK was a personal project to practice my English. I used the Internet a lot and there were a lot of funny or interesting things on it that I wanted to share with friends, including foreign friends. I used Chinese discussion forums (BBS) for a long time. Now they are not so popular because of Weibo [the microblogging service] and Weixin [the social messaging app], but when I first started chinaSMACK they were very big. You could learn a lot of news and information from other netizens, and the comments were often very funny.

I’m surprised chinaSMACK has become so popular. Along the way, I have met a lot of people and made new friends who share my interests. Many of them have also contributed to chinaSMACK, and I think today chinaSMACK represents the interests of more people than just me.

What have you learned from translating comments from Chinese netizens on news stories? Was there anything about their attitudes that surprised you?

What I usually learn is just new information, but information on the Internet is also unreliable. So I think what is most interesting is just the different reactions from different people, especially if they are unexpected or creative. But after a lot of time, there is nothing very surprising anymore. I am more surprised by the comments and attitudes of chinaSMACK netizens than those on Chinese sites.

What do you think blogs like chinaSMACK can help people understand about China and its society that conventional Western journalism can’t?

I think chinaSMACK can help people see a part of the Chinese Internet as it really is. Normal Western journalism tends to reflect the journalist’s perspective or interpretation of what they see. We want to show more of what Chinese netizens see, including pictures, reports and anything else Chinese netizens are saying – because these all influence what the Chinese netizens think.

For example, if I read a CNN article about something, what I learn will be different from what I learn if I read the comments about that same thing on Reddit. I can understand the same thing in different ways. Should I learn more about America from its news or from its TV shows? Should I learn about America from its journalists or from its netizens? I think that these different ways of learning things will all present a richer and maybe more accurate picture of a country and society. BBS was popular in China because Chinese netizens could learn from each other and not just from CCTV or People’s Daily. It is not always accurate, but it is still part of our life.

Do you think there are preconceived notions or biases about China in the Western media? What are they, and have they changed in the last five years?

Of course, and the same is true in Chinese media also. Media is people and people are this way, so media must be this way. If people are not perfect then media will not be perfect. I do not read or watch Western media very much, so I don’t know if my feelings about notions or biases are accurate. I am afraid that my feelings are too much influenced by Western netizens commenting on chinaSMACK, but I also know that they are not representative of all Western media. If Chinese netizens do not represent Chinese media, how can Western netizens on chinaSMACK represent Western media? Can one CNN or Daily Mail article represent Western media?

The change is that there is more attention about China, both good and bad attention. But if there is more attention, then there will be more information, and people and the media will become more familiar with China. If Western media pays more attention to China, maybe their first reports will have preconceived notions or biases but after more time they will become more accurate and fair. That is my hope. I know Chinese views about the West which are not very accurate, and I think Western views about China are often not very accurate also.

Some of the stories you run are about spoiled youths, the so-called second generation rich (fuerdai) behaving badly, or showing off their wealth. A lot of the netizen comments below are very angry. Is this the general attitude towards them?

Nobody likes arrogant people who show off.

Other netizen comments on stories about Japan or the US are very nationalistic. What’s your impression of the “angry young men” (fenqing) who write them? Are they really die-hard nationalists, or just ordinary young people venting their anger?

Fenqing is also used to describe netizens who criticize the Chinese government. It is just “angry young people”, and there are real people like that. But many are wumao [the “50 cent-ers”, who are allegedly paid to post pro-party comments on news stories]. There are more wumao than foreign netizens think, but less than Chinese netizens think. After reading so many of this type of article and comment, it is easy to know when they are real or fake.

How do you react to the stereotype that young Chinese are materialistic and selfish?

That depends on who has this stereotype and why they think it. Is it a Chinese person? How old are they? Where do they live? Is it a foreigner? What is their background? No matter what, I think it is true that many young Chinese are materialistic and selfish. But there are different kinds of expressions and reasons for this. For example, a materialistic and selfish rich second generation Chinese is different from a middle class Chinese. Their reasons can be very different too. And are young people who are not Chinese less materialistic and selfish?

But do you think that, broadly speaking, young Chinese genuinely care about their society and politics, or only about themselves?

There are idealistic people, there are bored people, and there are indifferent people. I think most people care about their own life most of all, but will say this is bad or this is good when they see the news about a social or political problem. Maybe Western young people are more active in politics because their government provides them with more opportunities to do political things. In China, like any society, I think most young people want their society to become better.

The celebrity blogger Han Han, who is also known for his novels and career as a racecar driver, has said in interviews that just because netizens seem angry about national issues, it doesn’t mean they would actually do anything about it. Do you agree?

Of course, this is common sense. On the Internet especially. It is easy to express an opinion. It is easy to grumble, denounce or judge. But it is difficult to stay angry and really try to change a national issue. What national issue is more important than our personal issues?

Finally, are netizens representative? Do you think that the kind of people who comment on the posts that China Smack translates represent their generation’s opinions?

Chinese netizens and their comments do not represent everything but they do represent something. Most people do not comment, they only read. The comments only represent the commenters (unless they are fake comments). I think the opinions of commenters are often shared by many non-commenters, but there is already a difference between someone who will share their opinion and someone who has an opinion but does not share it. Internet opinion represents and influences public opinion. This is important, but it is not perfect.

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Equatorial Guinea’s Most Important Living Writer Forced Into Hiding

By David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel is Equatorial Guinea’s most important living writer, but he’s often been persecuted by his own state for his outspokenness regarding their blatant disregard of human rights. This week that disregard has turned dangerous, as Malabo’s infamous security forces have forced Avila Laurel, 48, into hiding for his work as activist. Avila Laurel had planned a sit-in protesting a recent wave of police brutality, and had requested official permission to stage the event, as required by national law. Soon after being denied the requested permission, Avila Laurel was informed that political party El Elefante y La Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], which had made the official request, had been declared dissolved by the Guinean government, and that he was one of several activists targeted for arrest without formal charges. The government crackdown centers on the political party El Elefante y la Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], known for its peaceful protests of police and government brutality, and is officially focused on the arrest of party founder Salvador Ebang Ela.

Avila Laurel, whose first book in English is forthcoming from And Other Stories in a superb translation by Jethro Soutar, is no stranger to government harassment. After declaring a hunger strike in February 2011, he eventually sought exile in Spain at the recommendation of national and international observers concerned for his safety, where he lived for two years before having his request for asylum denied. Since his return to Equatorial Guinea, Avila Laurel has been active in organizing peaceful protests of the Obiang regime, especially its police brutality.

Under the leadership of Guinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest-serving head of state in Africa, Equatorial Guinea continues to rank among the most corrupt states in the world. Its human rights record is particularly concerning. The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2013 reports:

Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture.

Avila Laurel’s extensive work includes novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, like this newly translated poem from his collection Intimate History of Humanity:

Guinea

Panfleto de
Reyes godos
en boca de pelinegros
de seso torcido.

Ni evangelismo
ni patronatos
de indígenas indigentes
de fe y bravía.

Al color rojo lo llaman sangre
porque desconocen
la púrpura de los prebendados.

Bantúes con lengua negra
y con todos los pecados capitales en la punta
de los pies y labios carnosos.
Eso sí, no murió el gran Cristo entre nosotros.
Y playas, ríos, plantas y otras plantas que atraen
el vicio
de ladrones de ilusiones ajenas.
¿Un nombre?
Muchos citan el refrán del río.

Guinea

Satire of
gothic Kings
in the mouth of black-haired men
with twisted brains.

Not evangelism
nor patronage
of the indigent indigenous
of faith and savageness.

To name the color red blood
because they don’t know
the purple of the prebendary.

Bantus with a black tongue
and with every cardinal sin on the tips
of their feet and fleshy lips.
It’s true, the great Christ didn’t die among us.
And beaches, rivers, plants and more plants that attract
the vice
of thieves with foreign illusions.
A name?
Many cite the refrain of the river.

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel’s safety is currently at risk; he faces dire conditions if captured by Guinean security forces. The international visibility of his situation is an important protection. Follow his case and learn more about what you can do at the PEN Center USA and EG Justice websites.

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Remembering Jack London’s Oriental War

By Paul French

“I am disgusted! I’ll never go to a war between Orientals again. The vexations and delay are too great.”

     — Jack London

He’d sailed his broken down sloop Razzle Dazzle as an oyster pirate; he’d crewed the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland along the coast of Japan; he’d served with Kelly’s Army and tramped the western United States; he’d dropped out of UC Berkeley. He was just 19. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush; he became a socialist; in 1903, at just 27, he published The Call of the Wild and with it gained money and success (10,000 copies flew off the shelves the first week of publication). And then, in early 1904, the San Francisco Examiner asked Jack London if he’d like to go and report on a war between Asia’s rising power, Japan, and Europe’s largest, but crumbling, monarchy, Russia. Though the war was between the armies of Tsar Alexander and the Meiji Emperor, it was to be fought largely on Korean and Chinese soil. London, in the midst of a protracted divorce from a four-year marriage, thought “why not”? He embarked for Yokohama.

London’s time as a war correspondent in Asia has rather slipped from his popular biography. The “big books” (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel), his leftist politics, the man’s-man adventurer persona — these are what have come to dominate.  The same goes for the conflagration he covered, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  It, too, has rather slipped from history. It shouldn’t have. Indeed it should be front-and-center right now as we commemorate the centenary of World War I and, in some parts of Asia, as a recent post to this blog emphasized, attention is also being paid to the 120th anniversary of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.  We need to make room for the big event that fell halfway between the two.  This month marks the 110th anniversary of still another war — one that not only shook the solidity of Western right and might (the first time an Asiatic power defeated a European one) but offered a first taste to the Generals and politicians of Europe and America of what the more globally famous and infamous modern, mechanized wars to come would look like.

The Russo-Japanese War surely made it impossible for anyone to be seriously shocked by these classic elements of World War I: trench warfare stalemates; the deadly impact of modern artillery; aerial warfare (balloons and kites used to drop bombs); the futility of old guard cavalry against new hi-tech machine guns (Maxim Guns, the so-called “Devil’s Paintbrush” cut down swathes of soldiers); and the ferociousness of sea battles involving modern battle cruisers, torpedo boats and submarines (threatened, but never eventually deployed, by the Japanese Imperial Navy who, incidentally, had just taken delivery of their first subs from their suppliers — Electric Boat of America).

The Russo-Japanese War was also a precursor for World War I in terms of press coverage. Photography, newsreels, “embedded” reporters on both sides, wandering freelancers supplying “the wires” and telegraph services to send reports quickly down to Shanghai, east to New York, and west to London. For the first time, a war on the far side of the world was reported to Americans and Europeans with their morning pancakes or kippers.

Of course, for London it was all at first one big adventure. He was one of a group of American journalists who travelled together from San Francisco to Yokohama on the SS Siberia specifically to cover the war. They called themselves the “Vultures,” descending upon the mayhem, chaos and death of the conflict initially with a frathouse-like glee. The fun didn’t last long. London soon got himself in trouble. He hopped from Japan to Korea, where most of the fighting was occurring, and made his way to Pyongyang. His first reports for the Examiner covered the battles raging across the Korean peninsula and were sent scribbled on rice paper.  London had brought a camera and managed to smuggle out photographs from the Japanese front at Chemulpo, a major staging-post for Japanese ground forces in Korea.

The trouble — London was arrested and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation by the Japanese, who suspected him of being a Russian spy. However, the drinking sessions on the Siberia en route to Japan turned out to be useful. Some of the other “Vultures” were connected. The urbane Richard Harding Davis called on his friend, Lloyd Griscom, the US minister to Japan, who managed to secure London’s release.

Back at large, London used his sailing skills to hire a boat and catch up with the Japanese First Army, by now advancing into Manchuria. Trouble followed him. London managed to get himself arrested again and was forced to enlist Harding Davis’s support to secure his release once more. He got to see the ferocious Battle of the Yalu (a Japanese victory but at the cost of over a thousand dead out of 40,000 combatants), but then, yet again, he got himself arrested by the Japanese, who finally decided enough was enough. Eventually the Japanese released him after the intervention of no less a personage than Teddy Roosevelt in the White House! But that was that —  and he was sent back to America.

London opted for a slightly less exciting life after returning. He bought a thousand-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. He was now decidedly more anti-war than he had been before his “Vulturing” adventures in Asia. In his 1911 short story, War, he describes the anonymous battle for an unspecified piece of land and chooses not to dwell on the causes, or the righteousness of any cause, other than simply the waste that conflict brings.

Another of the “Vultures” who eventually returned from the Russo-Japanese War was New York Herald correspondent Charles Edward Russell, a muckraker who inspired Upton Sinclair. Russell summed up the effect on witnessing the Russo-Japanese War, the mechanized war that might have warned everyone just how bad the trenches of France and Belgium would be barely a decade later:

“I question much if any of the correspondents that followed the Russo-Japanese War are enthusiastic supporters of the theory that modern war has been humanised…I was in Japan just after the close of the war, and saw some of the remains of Japanese soldiers brought home for burial, an arm or a foot or a cap (being all that could be found after the shell exploded), and there was nothing about these spectacles that appealed much to one’s senses as remarkably humane.”

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

Funny Bones: A Q&A with Jesse Appell About Comedy in China

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

By Alec Ash

Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.

What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?

I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.

So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?

Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.

Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?

There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.

Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.

I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.

But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].

What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?

A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.

The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.

That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.

Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.

Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.

Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.

Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.

Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?

My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.

But the material still steps on toes, right?

It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.

The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.

Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?

There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.

Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.

Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”

I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.

Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.

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Where in the World is Willy Vlautin?

By Juliet Suess

Have you heard of Willy Vlautin? If you haven’t yet, and are in the Bay Area this weekend, the Naked Bookseller recommends you stop by Green Apple Books on Saturday.

Mr. Vlautin made a name for himself in the Nineties as frontman of Portland-based Richmond Fontaine. With its clear alt-country bent and lyrics that have sparked critical comparisons to Raymond Carver, it’s no surprise that Vlautin is also a writer.

The FreeLike any literary troubadour worth his salt, Vlautin is visiting San Francisco for what promises to be more than your usual book reading and signing.

“Willy is a great reader and speaker,” Kevin Ryan of Green Apple Books told us, “And as value added, he will be bringing his guitar, and he blends reading and guitar picking in a way that turns a regular old author reading into a transformative event.”

Author of three previous books including Motel Life, his new novel The Free is the number one Indiebound book for February.

“Several of us here have been big fans of Willy’s since his first book, and always look forward to his next one,” Ryan of Green Apple Books said. “He’s gotten outrageously glowing quotes from Ann Patchett and Ursula LeGuin, and it seems that this is poised to be his breakout book.

In addition to his four novels, Vlautin has released has released nine studio albums with Richmond Fontaine.

Green Apple Books was founded in 1967 by Richard Savoy. On his first day of business, he logged $3.42 in receipts. Starting in 1999, three individuals (Kevin Hunsanger, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill) started a gradual buyout of the business. It has been voted the best bookstore in the Bay Area perennially by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Francisco Weekly, and others.

Their recommended books this month include: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Flappers by Judith Mackrell, and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

How LARB Helps Independent Bookstores

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