Veteran Asia correspondent Michael Schuman, now living in Beijing, has reported from various parts of East Asia for a range of publications. He was writing for Time Magazine when I met him in Hong Kong several years ago. Confucius and the World He Created, his most recent book, was published by Basic Books in March. I caught up with him last month by email with a few questions about the philosopher who has come to intrigue him so greatly — and with whose life and ideas, he’s convinced, anyone interested in the changes taking place in East Asia should be familiar.
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin with a broad question: Why another book about Confucius? After all, there have plenty of translations of his writings. In addition, in recent years several scholars, such as Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson in Lives of Confucius and before that Annping Chin in The Authentic Confucius, have tried their hands at writing books about him aimed at least partly for general readers. What made you feel inspired to take him on as a subject — and what is unique about your approach to his life, work and influence?
MICHAEL SCHUMAN: My goal in writing Confucius and the World He Created was to explore the real-life influence Confucius has had on history and modern society. I thought there was a need for a book not just about the philosopher and the tenets of his doctrine, but also about Confucius’s impact — how the ideas and the legacy of China’s most famous philosopher have shaped the world we see around us every day. Some 2,500 years after Confucius first fashioned his doctrine, his ideas still hold tremendous sway in East Asia over how government treat their citizens, how CEOs manage their employees, how children get educated, how husbands, wives and children interact, and how people in the region see themselves and their role in society. We can’t understand East Asia today, therefore, without an appreciation for Confucius. That ranks the sage with Jesus, Mohammad, the great Greek philosophers, and the Buddha as one of the founders of human civilization.
Yet despite his role in history, I don’t think many in the West know all that much about Confucius. That, I decided, was actually quite dangerous. Amid the history-altering shift of power from West to East, enhanced knowledge of Confucius is critical for making sense of global affairs. China, South Korea, and other East Asian societies are wielding greater and greater clout in international politics and the global economy, and if Americans intend on dealing with the region’s ascent, we must become much more familiar with Confucius. Simply, we ignore Confucius at our own peril. It was important, I felt, to bring him to vibrant life, to introduce the sage, his teachings, and his impact through straightforward language and colorful anecdotes so any reader could understand the sage — and in the process, the world today and in the future.
I know from both your book and from a recent commentary you did for the Financial Times that you don’t accept Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Confucian thought. What do you see as the main misleading way some modern heads of state, from Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to Hu Jintao and now Xi in the People’s Republic to Chiang Kai-shek on the mainland, have approached “Confucian” ideas of governance and rule?
Singapore’s Lee and now China’s Communist leadership have advocated a very self-serving reading of Confucian political doctrine. Their position has been that democracy is not universal as we in the West assert, that Chinese have a different political tradition — based on Confucianism — and that, therefore, Chinese societies are better served by top-down, illiberal regimes. Reading Confucian philosophical texts, you can see how Lee, Xi, and others have arrived at that conclusion. In Confucius’s ideal government, authority was to be held by one person: a “sage-king” who was so wise and virtuous that his rule would uplift the common man not just materially, but spiritually. Confucius also saw society as a hierarchy of superior-inferior relationships, in which people were to be deferential to authority.
Lee and Xi have latched onto these concepts to suggest that authoritarian rule is rooted in traditional Chinese culture. But in doing so, they sidestep some other, critical aspects of Confucius’s political thought. The perfect Confucian government was based on benevolence, not coercion. A truly virtuous ruler would have no reason to resort to force — the people would cherish his leadership and follow him willingly. Confucius is very clear on this point in the Analects.
For instance, an official once asked Confucius if he should kill all those who didn’t follow the proper path, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?” Confucius responded: “Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”
Elsewhere, Confucius also insisted that good rulers should be open to advice and criticism. In The Classic of Filial Piety, another important ancient text, Confucius recoils in horror when his interviewer asks if always being obedient was the way to be filial. Confucius said that a minister had a duty to “remonstrate” to his ruler to ensure good government.
However, President Xi today is intensifying a crackdown on dissent, freedom of speech, and civic action of all types. By Confucian standards, that means Xi is not a benevolent ruler. Xi desires absolute power for himself and his Communist Party and hopes to use Confucius to achieve it; the sage’s ultimate goal was to constrain absolute and arbitrary power. What Lee and Xi have done is twist Confucius’s teachings to make it appear the sage favored autocracy, when in reality he opposed it.
You emphasize the importance of going back to the Analects when assessing Confucius, so I’m curious about which translation or translations of them you relied on and why.
I relied on translations by James Legge and D.C. Lau, mainly because they are both widely available and read. I thought it was also important to use Dr. Lau’s version to get a Chinese perspective on the translation.
Finally, I’d like your thoughts on Qufu, the hometown of Confucius that I visited in 2014. What do you think the sage himself would make of the place in its latest incarnation as a tourist draw and pilgrimage site?
My guess is that Confucius would be a bit horrified by how he is perceived and treated today. In the Analects and other ancient texts, such as the famous biography of the sage compiled by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius is often portrayed as humble and self-deprecating, always doubting his virtue and seeking more knowledge. I think he’d be mortified by the way in which he has been praised and venerated over the past 2,000 years. His embarrassment would be even more pronounced since the governments that have adopted him as a symbol, both in imperial and Communist times, take his name in vain. They claim to honor him but don’t abide by his principles.
By E. Jane
Throughout July, The Offing observes National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month with a spotlight, across genres and departments, on work that considers the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental health and illness. This is one of those spotlighted works.
Working through a number of digital mediums, conceptual artist E. Jane interrogates what it means to be Black and Feminine and living in America in the age of the internet, where we can just as easily hide as we can connect.
E. Jane lives with Bipolar I Disorder, and though it isn’t addressed directly in her/their art, it informs the work — and reminds me of how the symptoms of the bipolar patient mirror those of any Othered person who has been confronted with an aversion to who they are.
Shannon Young doesn’t content herself to work in only one genre. I first came across her name last year when reading the personal-finance website, The Billfold, where she wrote about paying off nearly $80,000 of student debt in under five years (Young recounts a longer version of the story in her ebook, Pay Off). Not long after, I downloaded How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia and realized that the same Shannon Young had edited the excellent collection of essays. Checking out Young’s website, I saw that she had also written short fiction about Hong Kong as well as a travel memoir about her trip to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But if none of the above titles pique your interest, perhaps you’d prefer a post-apocalyptic adventure story? Young can deliver that too: she’s currently publishing a trilogy called The Seabound Chronicles under the pen name Jordan Rivet.
Young, however, didn’t originally plan to spend her life writing; she wanted to be an editor. But after graduating from college in 2009, she found many of her plans upended. Publishing jobs were nearly impossible to find in the midst of the economic downturn, her student loans were looming, and she had fallen in love with Ben, a Hong Kong native whom Young had met while on a semester abroad in London. Asia offered the chance for both economic security and personal happiness, so Young packed up and moved to Hong Kong — only to see Ben suddenly transferred to London a month after her arrival. In a new memoir, Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong, Young recounts the ups and downs of her first twelve months in Hong Kong as she grappled with a life totally different from the one she had planned.
After reading Year of Fire Dragons, I interviewed Young by email, eager to hear more about her work and her experience as an expatriate woman in Asia.
MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: I saw in one blog post you wrote that the working title for your memoir was Hong Kong Limbo. Why did that seem like a good title for a time, and what ultimately led you to change it?
SHANNON YOUNG: When I started writing this memoir, I didn’t know whether I’d be leaving Hong Kong at the end of the year or whether the central relationship in the story — and in my life — would work out. Limbo felt like an apt description. That year I learned a lot about living with uncertainty, something that was tricky for me because I always prefer to have a plan. When I signed my book deal, the publisher suggested that we go with a different title. We brainstormed together and decided Year of Fire Dragons more accurately reflected the sense of wonder that ultimately resulted from my experiences. In hindsight, it fits with the finished book much better than the working title I chose while living in the tension of that year.
You spent a lot of time (and money!) educating and preparing yourself for a career in New York’s publishing industry, only to end up a writer in Hong Kong. What’s the Hong Kong literary scene like? Who are some of your favorite local authors?
The literary scene is much smaller in Hong Kong, especially for those of us writing in English, but it’s also quite friendly. It’s easier to meet and get to know people working in all aspects of the industry than it would be in New York or London. Even though I’m a relatively new author, I’ve had the chance to speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and compete in Literary Death Match, which I may not have been able to do in New York at this early stage in my career. Some of my favorite local authors are Nury Vittachi, Jason Y. Ng, and Xu Xi. All three support the local literary scene in various ways, and they are genuinely willing to encourage and advise their fellow authors.
In addition to your own memoir, you’ve also edited a collection of writing by other female expats in Asia. How did you come up with the idea for How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?, and what do you hope to accomplish with the book?
Credit for that idea actually goes to Xu Xi, who suggested it to Marshall Moore at Signal 8 Press, where I had been getting some work experience. The topic was in line with my own writing and interests, so I jumped at the chance to edit the collection. The book gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed. In fact, many of the women who move to Asia come by themselves for a multitude of reasons, and those who do accompany a spouse have experiences and challenges that are more nuanced than people realize. The collection includes expatriates from other Asian countries (a woman from the Philippines living in South Korea, for example) and members of the Asian Diaspora who identify as expats even though they look just like the people around them (such as a Chinese American woman living in China). The collection is a snapshot of the modern expatriate experience for women and demonstrates the vast diversity of challenges they face. I hope it also encourages those who are embarking on a life abroad.
Finally, if someone were traveling to Hong Kong for the first time and wanted some book recommendations from you, what would you suggest they read?
Martin Booth’s memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong is a great introduction to the city. It’s published under the name Golden Boy in the U.S. and Gweilo in Hong Kong and the UK. It gives a sense of the mystery and beauty of Hong Kong’s streets. For a more in-depth understanding of the city, I recommend Jason Y. Ng’s newest book of essays called No City for Slow Men. He’s a local who has also lived abroad for many years, so he offers a helpful “insider’s outsider” perspective for a newcomer. (For an “outsider’s outsider” perspective, visitors might enjoy Year of Fire Dragons.) And for those who prefer to get to know new cities through fiction, I recommend The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee or the classic World of Suzy Wong by Richard Mason.
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By Austin Dean
Recently in the main reading room of the Shanghai Municipal Library, the guy sitting next to me set up shop, though not to study or read. For most of the morning he had his eyes fixed on his laptop, keeping a close watch on the Shanghai stock market index and various individual stock prices. He looked about 19 years old.
Since last summer, it seems everyone in China has entered the market. As the Shanghai Composite Index continued to soar, it was too hard to resist taking the plunge, even as most indicators revealed an economic picture that was murky at best. By the start of this summer, the Shanghai market was up more than 100 percent since the last one; since the end of June the Shanghai index has fallen more than 30 percent from its peak.
Most theories about the market bubble connect back to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Take the CCP’s official nightly news show, Xinwen Lianbo. This program, the thinking goes, reveals important government policies that move the stock market.
As Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter and a close observer of the Chinese investing scene, noted on Twitter, a Chinese acquaintance said he was fully invested when the Shanghai index was at 4100 because “who dares insult the Party.” The implication was the Chinese Communist Party simply wouldn’t let the market fall below that point. And that is bascially what happened. After the Shanghai Composite Index dropped to a low of 3500 on July 8, the Chinese government rolled out a host of policies to arrest a further fall. China was “destroying its stock market in order to save it.” After a slight rebound that lasted three days, the Shanghai Composite dropped three percent on Wednesday , July 15, closing at 3805.
Even if you don’t watch the national news program, you are never far away from sources of investment advice in China, which in and of itself might be a sign of a frothy market: books, internet forums, WeChat groups, and word of mouth all tell you how to invest your money. The whole genre of investment advice in China has exploded since the reopening of the Shanghai market in 1990 (reopening because there was a stock market in Shanghai before the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. You can find more information on the performance of the old Shanghai stock market here).
The Market: The Kingdom of Psychology by Jin Xuewei, a self-taught investment guru, is one of the originals of the investment-advice genre. The book came out in September 1992; at that time the Shanghai market had been open for about a year and a half. Most of the book is a combination of practical advice — what types of information to read — and exhortation: “You are your own best financial advisor,” and, “You can only master the market by mastering yourself.” The most interesting part of the volume comes at the end, when Jin analyzed who was making money in the Shanghai stock market in 1992 and why they were able to do so.
The first group having success were “professional investors.” These weren’t Wall Streeters dressed in suits, but people operating in the shadowy and shifting grounds of the Chinese economy as it began to open up. They were huangniu — middlemen on the make always looking for an angle. Involved in enterprises of varying legality, they put a lot of the proceeds from these businesses into the stock market. The huangniu, in a nod to official communist rhetoric, brought to mind Shanghai traders in the “old society” (jiu shehui) before the establishment of the People’s Republic. The mythical and composite huangniu figure was “Yang One Million” (Yang Baiwan), a short, nondescript man in his 40s with a big belly who excelled at collecting and interpreting information and favored taking big positions in stocks with not that many shares available. By 1992, the author felt the huangniu were moving their money out of the market; they needed to diversify their investments and had an eye on other areas.
If you took a trip down to the stock exchange in the fall of 1992 (and you had to physically go there to trade shares then), you wouldn’t find many in the crowd fitting the description of huangniu. Instead, you would find lots of neatly dressed people sporting glasses and cultured looks: Chinese intellectuals, people who had attended university. For the past year and a half, some intellectuals had been in the market, but only in a secretive sort of way. Part of their hesitance was cultural. Chinese intellectuals, Jin wrote, had been taught to look down on commerce for thousands of years and did not want to be associated with the likes of the huangniu. Another factor was more practical: imagine if they saw someone they knew when going to trade stocks. How awkward! What would they say to each other back at their work unit?
But by the fall of 1992 this stigma had begun to fade. Intellectuals were doing well because they were hesitant and cautious by nature, only moving into the market when they understood what it was. Jin insisted that Chinese intellectuals — famous for empty talk (kongtan) and inaction — were making good returns in the market. Of course, there is an equally valid point about intellectuals as investors that the author ignored: an expert in one area might overestimate the transferability of that knowledge into a new domain. Conducting open-heart surgery does not have anything to do with picking stocks, but a hotshot surgeon might think it does. Apparently Chinese intellectuals in 1992 were immune from this psychological trap.
The third group of people able to make money in the market but faced the most risks and needed the most help — hence the purpose of writing the book — were the average investors. These investors did not have the connections and daring of huangniu or the caution and logic of the intellectuals. Their biggest enemy was themselves. Unfortunately, as Jin constantly reminded readers, the hardest person to control is oneself.
The final group Jin describes — a group that didn’t need his book to guide their investments — were the “mysterious institutional investors” (shenmi de jigou touzizhe). These institutional investors had lots of money and resources that usually came from public money (gongkuan), bank loans, or loans provided by a certain work unit (danwei). Jin didn’t come out and say it clearly, but the money and the personnel behind these institutional investors mostly traced back to the government. It paid to be associated with officialdom.
Jin Xuewei is still in the business of giving investment advice. On June 29, he posted a piece on his blog titled “Why I Say the Bull Market Isn’t Over.” Oops.
I hope the guy sitting next to me at the library wasn’t listening to him.
By Joanna Chen
I’m in the lotus position above Iceland. I have two seats to myself and one more whenever the guy next to me totters down the aisle for another whiskey on the rocks. Whenever he does this, I stretch my legs out onto his seat as well. Sometimes I go stand at the back of the plane, where the airline attendants are snacking on potato chips and laughing together. They adjust their smiles as I come towards them. I’d like a cup of tea, I say. The tea is handed to me in a plastic cup and I continue to stand there, moving from one leg to the other, stretching as unobtrusively as I can. Do you need the bathroom? The flight attendant asks me brightly, and I shake my head and obediently return to my seat.
My legs crave movement but the rest of me loves this limbo, this hovering above the sea, this island that is me, surrounded by whimpering babies and businessmen in open-necked shirts popping peanuts and watching movies on their personal screens. I love watching other peoples’ movies as they flicker in the darkness, without knowing what the actors are saying but trying to guess. I love these poems I am translating, scattered on the empty seat beside me, their Hebrew syllables easing into English, shaking off the heavy “r” at the back of the throat, the gutturals.
I am heading to New York. I will try to shake off the jet lag and then fly on to Vermont for the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. I think of home longingly. I think how the leaves fell from the trees yesterday all at once, as if they were in a hurry to fall before I left, to show me that they are truly sorry I am going.
I lingered at home until dusk. I listened to the birds that visit the valley where I live in early summer, calling to each other, settling for the night. By the time I left, the old wooden table on the front porch was covered in leaves of green and yellow. I considered brushing them off but decided against it. There was no point. The leaves would continue to fall after I left.
The man in my row offers to buy me a drink and I smile and say no, thank you. He shrugs, orders himself another one and ignores me for the rest of the flight. Later, he switches places with a woman sitting further down the plane. I can’t work out if she’s his wife; he brings her over, points to the seat and shrugs his shoulders in my direction again. Her head is covered with a pale scarf and she wears an enormous amount of mascara on her eyelashes. She stares at the screen in front of her, at the icon of an airplane moving across the globe on a yellow line that turns green when the distance is covered. Under the airplane is a vast sea, indicated by the kind of blue you see on the balmiest of days at the beach. The woman reaches out long, tapering fingers to the screen and plays with the picture until it becomes a twirling globe and the airplane is flying on top of the globe, against an inky sky scattered with stars.
She manipulates the screen again and the landscape moves, revealing green furrows and what appear to be deserts; we’re flying over Kazakhstan. She draws the globe together with her fingers and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran crowd in together at one end of the globe. She moves around the globe, this time very quickly, as if she is afraid to lose something. Japan, North Korea, and the East China Sea become visible, their names floating in an indigo crater. Our eyes meet for a second across the empty seat. She keeps turning the globe this way and that, her fingers hovering over Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and I imagine the people of Bolivia looking up for a moment at the sky, wondering who is moving it. The globe spins, and the woman leans forward, minimizing the distance we are traveling so that Amman appears on one side and New York on the other, divided by a short yellow line. We are almost there.
I sleep badly on my first night in New York. The next day I head out with my friend, Ali, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I linger over an E. E. Cummings abstract painting, “Noise Number 13,” at the swirling colors and conical shapes that appear to expand and contract, a visual depiction of sound. I didn’t know E. E. Cummings painted. I think of the woman on the plane, expanding her own boundaries. Later Ali and I stand on the terrace and look down at people moving like ants along the High Line and I watch the trees, green against the drab, vibrant metropolis, swaying eloquently in the wind.
I sleep badly (again) and fly to Vermont the next day. On the drive up there from the airport, I sit in the front seat clutching my bag. The driver tells us there are bears in the woods. “If you see a bear,” he says, “don’t move. Just freeze.” “One person was killed by a bear in the woods,” the guy in the back chimes in, winking at me. I peer out of the window at the dark spruce trees. The road winds up to the mountain and I’m filled with foreboding. A whole week ahead of me and there are bears in the woods.
The next morning, still jet lagged and unable to sleep, I check out the schedule and decide to join what is listed on the handout as a bird walk. I go down at 6:30am to the entrance of the Bread Loaf Inn. It’s raining a little and mist rests lightly over the mountain. A small crowd is gathered under the yellow porch. I’m the only translator here on this first walk; everyone else is from the parallel Orion Environmentalists Writers’ Conference. They’re sipping coffee in biodegradable cups and chatting together. Some have binoculars around their necks. The packet I received prior to coming to the conference said to bring a jacket. I‘m here for the translators’ conference and here is my first error in translation: I brought a blazer, not a jacket; I’m British. I begin blessing my friend, Ali, for lending me something more subtle as we cross over the meadow in a long line, the damp squelching under our feet. I am also wearing her boots. We walk to the middle of the meadow. We are looking for migratory birds that pass through this area in the month of June. And then, the sentence that resonates for me throughout the conference: “Let’s see what we can hear,” Orion conference co-director, Chip Blake, says, cocking his head to one side and placing a hand to his ear. Everyone follows suit. “Hear that?” Chip asks. Everyone nods. I hear nothing. All I can hear is the wind and the faint sound of water gurgling along down below in the woods. “Anyone know what that is?” Chip asks. We stand there. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” he explains. He repeats this on every morning walk and the answer is always the same; it really is a red-eyed vireo. The idea of seeing what can be heard, like E. E. Cummings’s synesthetic painting, breaks through boundaries, translating sound into a visual dimension. And these beautiful bird walks, that open every single morning at the conference, become the real gateway for me to the act of translation. These are the woods of Robert Frost and his words echo in my ears as I take these walks:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
These walks into the woods of Vermont are all about translation. They reveal how the sparrow marks its territory between trees by squawking, how the hairy kingfisher’s notes pierce through the wind in the treetops, undecipherable by human ears. It’s the difference between a jacket and a blazer. It’s the thin, high call of the waxwing, and the witchety-witch call of the yellow-rumped warbler, whose young form what are known as punk flocks, before drifting southward. Week-old punks, but not the punks I know, up here on the mountain. It’s the winter wren, whose loud voice carries above the rushing water, close to where it nests in winter. I saw very few of these birds with my own eyes, although Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator and Bread Loaf faculty member, hands me his binoculars on the fourth day so I can see an eastern kingfisher dive-bombing a crow. Like translation, bird-watching demands close reading.
Later that day, in Johnston’s lecture on The Quest for a Voice, I think less about the role of the translator striving to capture the authorial voice, and more about those birds, traversing continents, flying in on the weather system, dropping onto Bread Loaf Mountain as if they are standing on the platform in a subway, waiting for a fast train, as one of the people on these walks remarked. I want to know where they are going and how they talk to each other.
We translators talk to each other a lot. We discuss the lure of language prisms. We critique translations from unfamiliar languages: Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and my own Hebrew, among other languages. We listen not just for meaning but for tone, pitch, rhythm, and texture. You cannot see it but you can hear it if you listen, and look, carefully.
In the middle of the week, we all walk over to Robert Frost’s farm for a long and delicious picnic. On the way, a translator friend and I take a detour to Frost’s cabin, where we peek through the windows. Turning to leave, we catch a yellow-striped ribbon snake slipping lazily through the grass. On the last day, I listen to Alison Hawthorne Deming talking about the importance of place in our writing and how everything comes down to animals, plants, and rocks. I understand how all these translate into feelings and rhythms, how the snake has its own unhurried language. Up here in the mountains of Vermont, there is time to learn other methods of communicative translation. For this, after all, is what translation is all about. It’s about migration to other worlds and other cultures, to the hidden lives of others.
The conference ends. The networking is over, the barn socials are over, the walks and readings too. My notebook is full of email addresses; my head is full of ideas. I’m still not sleeping properly, and rise early to take a final walk, this time on my own. I help myself to coffee and exit the Inn, crossing the road to the meadow where we went on the first day. I want to reenter the woods we visited and feel the soft, dense ground under my borrowed rain boots. I begin walking across the meadow and there it is, just ahead of me, a tiny bird with gray, black and white markings. It rises into the air, chirping like Morse code, and I lift up my head and follow with my eyes as it flies across the meadow and beyond. Finally, a red-eyed vireo.
By Fran Ross
Oreo, Fran Ross’s ground-breaking satire, was originally published in 1974. It is being re-issued this week by New Directions, with an introduction by Danzy Senna and a foreword by Harryette Mullen. Mat Johnson of NPR called it “one of the funniest books I have ever read” and writer Paul Beatty deemed it “hilarious.” We are honored to present an excerpt of this extraordinary novel.
— The Fiction Editors
Christine and Jimmie C.
From the Jewish side of the family Christine inherited kinky hair and dark, thin skin (she was about a 7 on the color scale and touchy). From the black side of her family she inherited sharp features, rhythm, and thin skin (she was touchy). Two years after this book ends, she would be the ideal beauty of legend and folklore — name the nationality, specify the ethnic group. Whatever your legends and folklore bring to mind for beauty of face and form, she would be it, honey. Christine was no ordinary child. She was born with a caul, which her first lusty cries rent in eight. Aside from her precocity at mirror writing, she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste.
Yan Lianke is an award-winning fiction writer in China, and has also been recognized internationally with the Kafka Prize, which honors authors for a body of work. He occupies a curious position in Chinese letters — he is typically unable to publish on the mainland, yet holds a faculty post at a prestigious mainland university. He has also been an outspoken critic of the toll that both official censorship and self-censorship take on the country’s authors.
One of his best-known novels is Serve the People!, a satirical work also available in English in Julia Lovell’s lively translation. Another one of his novels, Lenin’s Kisses, describes an idyllic Brigadoon-like village whose inhabitants, each handicapped in some fashion, but living contentedly in a self-contained community spared the ravages of Chinese revolutionary history. They are soon swept up into the machinations of a scheming official. Perhaps his most ambitious novel to date is The Four Books, a searing look at China’s Great Leap Forward famine, just published in English. The recently released English language edition of The Four Books benefits from skillful translation work by Carlos Rojas, who also provides a useful introduction, reprising things he did for the English language edition of Lenin’s Kisses.
I caught up with Rojas, who in addition to his translation work has published on topics ranging from the cultural history of the Great Wall to the fiction of literary laureate Gao Xingjian:
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin by talking about the two Yan Lianke novels you’ve translated, Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books. Both are experimental in form and wide ranging works, but my sense reading both in English is that the latter probably presented bigger challenges to you as a translator. Is that right?
CARLOS ROJAS: Actually, from a translational perspective, Lenin’s Kisses was more challenging. Most of Yan Lianke’s works incorporate a certain amount of local Henan dialect, but in Lenin’s Kisses this constitutes a key element of the structure of the novel itself. Beginning with the work’s very first sentence, the novel includes countless footnotes explaining local words and phrases with which it is expected that the reader will be unfamiliar. The accompanying notes, meanwhile, include not only straightforward definitions but also frequently include lengthy discussions of character’s backgrounds and the history of village. One challenge, accordingly, was to come up with English words and phrases that would feature the same combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity as their dialectal equivalents in the Chinese.
The Four Books does present a similar set of challenges, however. For instance, one challenge was how to render the Biblical language that runs through the novel, and specifically how to retain the flavor of the Chinese-language version of this Biblical language in the original version of the novel. Another challenge involved negotiating the repeated shifts back and forth between the four manuscripts that comprise the novel, given that each manuscript is written in a distinct voice and plays a different role in the overall work.
In structural terms, both works are experimental in different ways. Lenin’s Kisses is more aggressively non-linear in its narrative structure, with the repeated jumps back and forth between the main narrative plane, and the lengthy endnotes, which often function as extended flashbacks where much of the narrative development takes place. The relationship between these interwoven narrative threads is rather complex, and it was an interesting challenge to make sure that all of the chronologies lined up correctly. In The Four Books, meanwhile, the narrative jumps back and forth between the three component manuscript texts, which are all truncated and composed for very different sets of objectives. But while it was somewhat tricky figuring out how to negotiate the relationship between these different fictional manuscripts, strict issues of chronology were not as much of a problem, since each of the four manuscripts proceeds more or less chronologically.
What is most distinctive to you about Yan as a writer, setting him apart from other Chinese authors you’ve analyzed or translated? And I guess linked to this, do you see Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books as interrelated, broadly similar books, due to the gimlet-eyed view they both cast on the Maoist past, or very different, in that the former has more flat out farcical elements, while the latter takes bigger chances stylistically in weaving together four separate texts?
One of the things I like about Yan Lianke is that although there are a common set of concerns that run through all of his works (or at least his works since the mid-1990s), each of his novels tends to have a very distinct voice and narrative structure. While there are quite a few other contemporary Chinese authors who have been very experimental in their shorter works, many of them tend to adopt a more conventional narrative structure for their longer novels. In Yan Lianke’s novels, by contrast, structure consistently receives as much attention as content.
All of Yan’s works since the mid-1990s consistently engage with a set of sociopolitical issues relating to China during the Mao and post-Mao era, though often in very different ways. So, in this respect, I feel that all of his works from the past couple of decades are interrelated, and can be viewed along a continuum of literary expression. Part of the interest of his oeuvre, for me, is observing this negotiation between an attempt to explore a coherent set of concerns through an array of different works, and the ways in which artistic, political, and commercial factors have a differential impact on each individual work.
With respect to the specific comparison of Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books, I think they both use a combination of realistic and fantastic elements to offer a commentary on contemporary Chinese society and recent Chinese society. The tone of The Four Books is somewhat darker than that of Lenin’s Kisses, but it too has its farcical moments. There is a cannibalistic theme that runs through both works — fairly literally in The Four Books, where the protagonist irrigates his crops with his own blood, and more metaphorically in Lenin’s Kisses, where the village of handicapped men and women are made to perform their disabilities for profit.
There has been a lot of discussion of censorship and Chinese publishing lately, both in general interest publications, including The New York Times, and in more specialized settings, such as on the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture list serve. Yan’s name sometimes comes up in these discussions, due to his unusual situation as a writer who has been unable to publish his recent works on the mainland and yet continues to live there and teach at a prominent institution. He’s also written powerfully about censorship and self-censorship. I’d like to invite you to jump into this ongoing discussion at any point. This could be to flag something particularly important that’s been said or written either by or about Yan, but could be something very different.
This is a long-standing issue, but the recent discussions you are referring to stems from a recent New Yorker article that quotes Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based translator and editor, who is quoted as claiming that in contemporary China dissidents are jailed for their political activities, but not for their creative writing. In subsequent discussions on the academic list serve you mention, Abrahamsen explains that he feels that while “art may have political content, but it is not political speech,” and that “art falls apart for me the instant that the message (be that political, moral, religious, etc.) pokes through the artistic fabric of the piece itself.” He concedes that some jailed dissidents are in fact authors, but contends that their writing — from a purely literary perspective — is actually not very good, thereby further invalidating them as authors. (Abrahamsen was also subsequently invited to write an op-ed for The New York Times on this topic, which I have not yet had a chance to read since I am currently and China and do not have easy access to the Times and other censored websites.)
While I understand the general impulse that drives Abrahamsen’s intervention — namely, the fact that different types of public speech are handled very differently by the Chinese authorities — I think that the distinction he is trying to draw between literature and political speech is a deeply problematic one. To begin with, as Terry Eagleton argues in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, the very attempt to specify a discursive space as purely aesthetic and outside of ideology, is itself a deeply ideological (and, by extension, political) gesture. Furthermore, none of the authors and public figures under consideration engages in only a single kind of discourse, but rather they each express themselves in a variety of different ways, some of which may be perceived as more literary or political than others. So, to identify one subset of authors as being situated within the literary arena and another as being situated within the political arena is a radical oversimplification, even if the distinction between politics and pure art were a sustainable one in the first place.
Rather than a distinction between literary and political expression, I think that what we are observing is a phenomenon wherein different types of political expression are being treated differentially by the Chinese state. Some types of political expression (be they presented as literature or otherwise) are discouraged, but may have relatively minor repercussions for the authors themselves. Other types of political expression (again, be they presented as literature or otherwise) meanwhile, are dealt with much more strictly. China’s censorship may be in the process or undergoing a transformation, as Yan Lianke argues, from a “hard” censorship regime to a “soft” one (which uses a variety of approaches to encourage authors, artists, scholars, and others to voluntarily comply with the expectations), but I think it is essential to remember that the regime definitely retains a very “hard” edge — particularly when it comes to certain types of public expression.
Yan Lianke is distinguished, I think, by a determination to try to work within the mainland Chinese system, while at the same time having an aesthetic and political perspective that is not always welcome by the Chinese authorities (or by the Chinese publishing industry, which often preemptively anticipates how something might be received by the authorities). He is also, I think, quite willing to speak his mind on a wide variety of topics, and has a deep commitment to the social and aesthetic issues that he interrogates in his writings.
Finally, anything you are working on now, as a translator or as an author, that you are particularly excited about?
I am currently translating new novels by Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa, and just completed a book-length collection of short stories of short stories by the Malaysian Chinese author Ng Kim Chew, which will be published by Columbia UP early next year. Ng’s stories are crazily imaginative explorations of issues of displacement and diaspora, and specifically the interwoven social, cultural, and political conditions that inform the status of Malaysia’s Chinese community. His stories are also very political in their own way, carefully exploring the contemporary legacies of the Malayan Communist Party and other mid-century developments. I have two co-edited volumes that will appear next year, including an Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, which includes 44 essays exploring a variety of different interpretative methodologies and taxonomical considerations (including one chapter by Yan Lianke himself, on state censorship). Finally, my new book, Homesickness, on the use of discourses of disease as a sociopolitical metaphor across the Chinese long 20th century, came out earlier this year. I’m currently working on two new monographs: one on thematics of time and temporality in modern Chinese cultural production, and the other on the contemporary Hong Kong director Fruit Chan.
Mark L. Clifford is executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. Clifford’s impressive resume includes periods spent as the South China Morning Post’s editor-in-chief and as Asia regional editor for Business Week. He’s been based in Asia since 1987, when he moved to Seoul to serve as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He chairs the editorial board and is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books. I caught up with Clifford via email and asked a series of questions about both his new book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, and recent news stories related to the topics his book addresses:
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What is your book’s biggest contribution to the debate on Asia and environmental issues?
MARK L. CLIFFORD: The Greening of Asia looks at the key role that businesses are playing to solve Asia’s environmental emergency. Businesses have money, technology, and people — and they are set up to get things done, to turn challenges into opportunities. Government policies are, of course, critical — governments need to set rules. Individual efforts and actions by NGOs and other parts of civil society are important. But the uniquely positive role that business can play is too often overlooked. Through detailed case studies in a variety of areas, I show why businesses are making efforts in everything from renewable energy to greener cities and buildings to more sustainable tropical agricultural practices. Sustainable growth is not just feasible — if this is going to be the Asian century, greener growth is mandatory.
In a related vein, what sets your book apart most, whether in terms of approach or argument, from some of the other books that have come out in recent years? Obviously, you are concerned with more than just China, but as books on that country are the ones I know best and perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog, how does your work diverge most from, say, that of Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump and Craig Simons in The Devouring Dragon? And do you draw heavily on those books or others published a bit earlier by people like Elizabeth Economy and Judith Shapiro?
China is key — it burns half of all the world’s coal and is responsible for almost one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions — and it is a big part of my book. Big as China is, it’s not all of Asia. My reporting spanned eight countries, from Japan to India to Indonesia — and, of course, China. I take the crisis as a given but try to point the way for a way out by looking at innovative, market-based solutions. Books by Liz Economy and Vaclav Smil lay the foundation for understanding China’s crisis, and Judith Shapiro’s China’s Environmental Challenges is a good up-to-date summary of many issues. Jonathan Watts’s book contains superb reportage that provides a vivid sense of China today. My book draws primarily on my own reporting combined with primary documents — and, of course, it is focused mostly on looking for solutions and looking at the ability of businesses to solve problems when the right economic and policy incentives are in place.
Since your book came out, there have been several news stories that have put Asia’s environmental challenges into the headlines, from the furor over the Chinese documentary Under the Dome, which Maura Cunningham wrote about for this blog, to reports underscoring that Delhi’s smog is even worse than the more commonly commented on Beijing variety. Could you comment on either of these stories, bringing in their relevance for your book?
Under the Dome was downloaded more than 300 million times during the few weeks it was available in China. [Note: 200 million downloads is the figure that is commonly used but according to our research it was more than 300 million]. This confirms the depth of public concern — and is a powerful reminder to Chinese authorities that they must meet public aspirations for cleaner air and a better environment. The revitalized interest in New Delhi’s air pollution is an interesting reminder that even in an open society, environmental issues are often fairly far down the list of issues that concern governments but that public concern can spike unpredictably. It will be interesting to see if India’s impressive investment in solar and wind reaches the ambitious targets set by Prime Minister Modi’s government — as well as the fate of his plan to dramatically increase coal production.
The Pope’s statements on climate change have also made news recently. Do you see his comments as being important in Asia, and, if so, in particular countries?
There is little debate about climate change in Asia, for there is almost universal acceptance that it is a serious problem. Asian countries like the Philippines — also the only majority Catholic country in Asia — are literally on the front lines of climate change, bearing the impact of more frequent and more severe storms. The Pope’s encyclical amplifies the sense of urgency, but it doesn’t have the same direct political impact that it does in, for example, the United States.
Word will come soon from the IOC on whether Beijing will be chosen as the host city for an upcoming Winter Olympics. Are there lessons about the environmental costs and issues associated with the 2008 Summer Games held in that city?
The 2008 Summer Games provided some interesting lessons. In 2008 there was a serious cleanup effort, one which showed the strengths and weaknesses of China’s top-down approach. Vehicle use was restricted, factories shut, clouds seeded — skies were reasonably blue, the rain fell at convenient times and it looked to many people as if the city had turned the corner and was about to embark on a path of more sustainable environmental policies. These hopes were dashed when it became apparent that the improvements were simply a matter of short-term measures. Shutting down factories and severely restricting traffic gave people a glimpse of what government was capable of. While the campaign raised awareness and was a short-term success, it didn’t create fundamental changes. Air quality has worsened dramatically. In recent years, China has implemented more sweeping changes, from extraordinary investments in wind and solar power to tougher restrictions on pollution sources in cities like Beijing.
Water is a key issue for the winter Olympics. If Beijing used the games to seriously reform its water policies, it would be a remarkable Olympic legacy.