Category Archives: The China Blog

LARB’s China Blog covers the life, culture, politics and literature of China. It is edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, please visit our China Blog tumblr page.

landlady

The Red Guard and the Landlady

By Alec Ash

My landlady drops by unannounced at eight in the morning. It’s a bittersweet surprise. I’m familiar with the early-bird rap-tap on my door by now; the first thing I do before opening it is put on the kettle. Sometimes she comes to collect the rent. Sometimes wants to check if the heating came on, or to write down the electricity meter digits, or to switch off the water supply to the roof so the pipes don’t freeze in the cold, twiddling with hidden knobs under the kitchen sink.

This time, rap-tap-tap, she just wants to talk. She had ambushed my downstairs neighbor for rent while he was still in bed. He asked for an hour to shower and wait for the banks to open. So she came up one floor to pass the time at mine. Sixty-four-year-old Beijingers tend to assume that everyone begins their day as early as they do.

I live in a dazayuan, or “miscellaneous courtyard,” in the hutongs. The complex can hold up to 20 households inside a labyrinth of doors tucked away behind the street entrance. Mine is on the third and top floor of a compact new building, knocked up in the summer of 2012, just before I moved in. My landlady is squat, honest, with plump cheeks and a lopsided smile. She’s also relatively willing to talk about her life. — and I’m nosy by nature and profession.

I was having breakfast in my pajamas when she knocked. I threw on a ratty dressing gown for decency’s sake. She stubbed out her cigarette in the narrow stairwell and kicked off her sneakers before coming in. It wouldn’t do to get ash or dirt on her property.

The first thing that happens when my landlady visits is a short survey of what I’ve done with the place. A new shelf, a painting on the wall, different fish in the tank — any change is commented on with a taciturn “hao” (good) or “bu hao” (not good). No further explanation is offered, and her criteria for judgment are a mystery. This time she asked what the contraption behind the sofa was. I said it was a movie projector, and pointed at the blank wall opposite it. After a nerve-racking pause … “hao.”

To fill the silence as she waited on the couch, I take out some photos of my family back in Oxford. As usual, we talked about my romantic prospects. She’s keen to see me settle down with a nice Chinese girl, and reminds me with a hand on my shoulder that it’s good to marry early, “or else when you’re old who will you have to give your money to?” I ask after her one-year-old grandson, Chen Jiaming, to whom I gave an English name (Jamie).

We talked about Chinese youth, a topic I’m always interested in discussing with older generations. “They haven’t eaten bitterness,” she said, a familiar refrain. “They just think about eating, drinking, smoking, clothes.” The kids these days — if they weren’t kenlaozu (the “bite the old tribe,” living off their parents), they were yueguangzu, spending all their monthly wages. Here was my opening. A nudge, a prompt, and she started talking about her own youth.

*

Auntie Wang — as she likes me to call her — was born in the spring of 1949, and grew up with the People’s Republic of China, founded in the same year. Her family is from Jiangtai in northeast Beijing, an area now home to the fashionable 798 art district and overpriced Lido hotel. Back then it was mostly farmland; she helped her parents to plant and harvest wheat each year.

Auntie’s memories of those years are of hard times. Her family was poor, she said, and couldn’t afford enough wool for new clothes. She was pulled out of school during the famine of the Great Leap Forward and remains illiterate — something I first discovered when we went over my lease three years ago. When I asked further, she cut me off. “Let’s not talk about it.” After the famine at 17 years old, she joined the Red Guards and cut short her hair. When she was a girl it reached her waist. But she has never grown it out again.

I asked what she did as a Red Guard, and Auntie waved vaguely in the direction of the hutongs to the south. “We struggled against landlords.” They hung heavy wooden signs over the landlords’ necks, denouncing them as capitalists, and made them take the “airplane” position — body bent forwards at the waist like a crowbar, arms held stiff and straight behind the back, one hand clasping the other. Then: “da si tamen le.” We beat them to death, she said.

Her tone was casual. If she saw the shock in my eyes, she didn’t let on. To her it was just another memory, common for her generation, told to pass the time while waiting for the banks to open. In Chinese, the phrase she used could have simply been to add emphasis, or it could be literal. I didn’t say anything, or ask her to clarify which. She went on talking as if ambiguously admitting to murder was nothing to comment on.

Auntie remembered Zhou Enlai’s death in January 1976, and how everyone cried. She remembered Mao’s death too, nine months later. That wasn’t so sad — the people remembered how poor they had been under his rule, she said. The Cultural Revolution ended, and in 1978, at the age of 29, Auntie married. She had met her husband through a friend. He was 35, also from Beijing. The land I was living on was his, and when he died four years ago she inherited it from him.

Now she is old, and forgetting things. The changes have come fast in the last decades — health care is so expensive, she complains, and there are too many cars. In the evenings, she said, pointing apologetically to her head, she can’t remember what she did that day. But the distant past is still clear.

I made the obvious point. “The changes really are big, Auntie. Before you were struggling against landlords. And now you’re a landlady.”

“No I’m not,” she said, simply. “I’m not a landlady, I just collect your rent.”

The thought was alien, rejected with ease. Auntie Wang is a landlady, of course. I’ve seen her name on the property deed. But whenever I handed her a fat rent envelope, I also felt her faint unease at the situation, after a life of ingrained prejudices. To her, landlord is a class, not an income source.

I didn’t ask again about her time as a Red Guard. It was hard to bite my curiosity, but felt like too much of an intrusion. What if her phrase really was meant literally? Would I be able to look her in the eye? We chatted idly until my neighbor knocked on the door, cash in hand. Auntie put on her sneakers and went downstairs, telling me she would drop in again some other time, to show me little Jamie. I said I would be sure to be up early, in case.

*

China is full of stories like Auntie’s. They fade like old clothes, and everyone over 50 has one in the closet. I find it difficult to connect the horrors of the Cultural Revolution as we read about it in textbooks to the people around me. Whether they were victims or perpetrators can be hard to tell; the line between the two, I suspect, is blurred. I’m also fascinated by the collective amnesia which allows this society to put such recent crime behind it and move on.

But those crimes and their repercussions are still in living memory. Last month, an 80-year-old woman told me how she was sent to Sichuan for hard labor for 10 years, along with her three sons, all because her husband was from a “bad family background”: he has Qing dynasty officials in his bloodline. In China in Ten Words, Yu Hua describes how as a schoolboy he and his vigilante classmates ambushed a young peasant who was illicitly selling food coupons, pushed him to the ground, and hit him over the head with bricks until he was covered in blood.

Admitting this past is difficult — especially to a new generation that has no understanding of those times, let alone to a foreigner. Does Auntie’s daughter know what she did? Will Jamie? My distance from it all, in age and culture, means there’s little comment I can give. I don’t have the right to judge her generation without having lived in those times, and any disapproval I feel is muted, a dull banging behind heavy insulation. I still like Auntie, with her enigmatic “hao” or “bu hao” and her lopsided smile.

What I do feel is ever-deepening respect for those older Chinese who have publicly apologized for their actions during the Cultural Revolution. Like Chen Xiaolu, son of a high-ranking general, or Liu Boqin, a former Red Guard from Shandong. In a magazine article Liu named nine victims in particular he had wronged, and tracked down some of them to apologize in person. He’s the same age as Auntie. Here’s what he wrote:

“I want to apologize to all victims and their families to obtain psychological relief. An open letter is simple and clear. … I was naive, easily bamboozled, and never distinguished good from bad. … As I grow older, I have a more profound understanding of the sins of the Cultural Revolution. I cannot forget what I’ve done wrong.”

 

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Copycat Travels

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

While traveling last summer, I asked for directions to get to the room in which I would be staying for the night, and was told to “cross the Bridge of Sighs” and make a right. I wasn’t in Venice, in spite of how it might sound, or in China —a country now famous for faux architecture sites, one of which, Thames Town, features a church and a fish and chips shop that look just like doppelganger locales in England. I wasn’t in Las Vegas, the American city most closely associated with shanzhai (copycat or counterfeit) versions of European iconic structures, thanks in part to a miniature Eiffel Tower. I wasn’t attending a World’s Fair-like international exhibition or visiting a theme park, such as Epcot Center — two settings often rife with replicas.

Where was I? Cambridge, England. The man directing me to cross the Bridge of Sighs worked in the porter’s lodge of St. John’s, the college where the organizers of the local World History Seminar had arranged for me to stay while in town to present.

I had come to Cambridge from Oxford, where I spent part of last summer as a Visiting Research Fellow at Merton College. I mention this because, had I come to Cambridge directly from the United States, being told to cross a bridge with the same name as one famous in Italy would have seemed very strange indeed. As it was, it seemed only a bit strange, for earlier in that same week, when asking directions in Oxford, I had also been told to use the Bridge of Sighs as an orienting landmark. Yes, that university town also has a shanzhai version of the same Italian icon — though curiously, one that spans a road, not a waterway.

Bridge of Sighs 1

During my month in England, I didn’t mention my interest in faux Italian bridges to anyone, but my guess is that if I had, those to whom I told the story might well have found it curious that I found it curious. After all, some old English estates contain follies meant to call to mind ancient Roman ruins. But given my interest in China and having read many articles over the years about the craze for shanzhai buildings in that country, which boasts replicas of structures ranging from the White House to Sydney’s famed Opera House, the case of the bridges seemed worth noting and pondering.

In thinking about the situation, I was reminded again of how easy it is to overstate the exoticness of contemporary China, and of the need to differentiate carefully between things going on there that are utterly sui generis, on the one hand, and those that represent a recurrence, sometimes with very distinctive features, of things that have happened or are happening elsewhere. Is Thames Town peculiar? Yes. And so, too, is the faux Great Wall that Wuhan University is building. But can such fakes also be fit into a long tradition of look-alike structures scattered in locales far beyond China, such as the massive Parthenon dating from 1897 that was built in Nashville, Tennessee, for a World’s Fair-like international exhibit? Again, yes.

*

Well before I went to England, I already had shanzhai buildings on my mind due to a trip to China I had made the previous March. I still haven’t managed to make it to Thames Town (maybe next time), but I had stopped in at unusually interesting replica sites in three different cities. While in Shanghai, I’d gone to the 221B Baker Street Café. This, as its name suggests, is a shanzhai version of a place that never actually existed except on paper, in the theater, in film, and most recently on television. That globally famous address, of course, is one that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented to go with the place of residence for his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. This particular example of Shanghai shanzhai was not based on the flat described in Conan Doyle’s books. Rather, it was inspired by the one featured in the BBC contemporary-set series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — something that showed through in many ways, including the presence of some memorabilia associated with the recent films based on The Hobbit, in which the two actors also have roles.

The second shanzhai site I saw in March 2014, which also had a “Britain transplanted to China feel,” was in nearby Ningbo. I went there with fellow China Blog editor Maura Cunningham to give a tag-team talk on the 2013 edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, on which we had collaborated, at the local branch of the University of Nottingham. One of the main sites we saw on the brief campus tour that preceded our talk was a building with a clock tower that is a replica of the one on the original British campus.

Ningbo

Last but far from least, while in Beijing, I went to a mock-up of the Central Perk coffee shop made famous by Friends, the American sitcom that, as regular readers of this blog know, has many fans in China. Located in a shopping center in China’s capital, it replicates several features of the show’s set — though, unlike the Central Perk seen by viewers of the show, this one’s orange couch sits in front of a television set. When I visited it, some young Chinese sat at tables chatting or working on their laptops, while others lounged on that couch watching the eponymous friends — Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey — making jokes and getting in and out of scrapes.

These sites, when taken together, reveal the extent to which China and the West have become intertwined. It is worth noting, though, that a full account of shanzhai architecture requires moving not just outside of China but also back in time. Many decades before Shanghai got a café inspired by a BBC show, it had a Big Ben-like clock tower. And several centuries before Beijing got its Central Perk, it had the Yuanming Yuan complex, also known as the Old Summer Palace, which was, as works by Geremie Barmé and others show, a wondrous copycat-rich theme park avant la lettre. Spending time there, the Emperor, without leaving his capital, could take virtual tours of the world, viewing mockups of everything from Hangzhou gardens to Tibetan temples to, in the middle of one lake, a miniature version of Venice. There’s just one question about that last site I wish I could answer: Did it include a replica of the Bridge of Sighs?

Central Perk

*

How far back in history can we take the tale of shanzhai architecture? I’m not sure, but a recent trip to Rome convinced me that no discussion of the topic will be complete without bringing in things built long before the first Jesuits went to China. Scattered throughout the Italian capital’s ancient core are buildings roughly two thousand years old that were inspired by — and sometimes intended to reproduce exactly — Greek ones that predated them by several centuries. One particularly interesting structure located a bit outside of the core district, meanwhile, is a faux version of an Egyptian structure: a pyramid. It was built by a local man who wanted to be buried in the grandeur of pharaohs of old; one can imagine his plan inspiring some of the same eyebrow-lifting and disparaging comments about crude emulation of another place’s elite that has been generated lately by the nouveau riche Chinese man who has built a replica of the White House in which to live.

Pyramid Rome

obelisk

Perhaps the most interesting Roman shanzhai sites of all for me, given my interests, were the obelisks scattered around the city. Some of these are not fakes, but simply objects brought to Rome from Egypt. Others, however, were built outside of Egypt in an Egyptian style, something that could also be said of the Washington Monument, the most famous American obelisk. Still others are part genuine transplant and part fake, a reminder that the line between authentic and shanzhai creation can sometimes be fuzzy.

For example, at the top of the Spanish Steps stands a menhir — known officially as the Sallustiano Obelisk but also called the Trinità de Monti Obelisk, in honor of the name of a nearby church — that was apparently brought to Rome from Egypt, but has a hieroglyphic inscription that is a later addition, carved by Roman rather than Egyptian craftsmen. In chiseling it in, they used as a model the inscription on another obelisk that had made the journey from Egypt to Rome. They were not, however, as meticulous as they might have been, for errors snuck in, as sometimes happens in any form of shanzhai work. In this case, some images were carved upside down, meaning that they looked like hieroglyphics but, like the fascinating faux Chinese characters created by the artist Xu Bing, were actually nonsensical symbols. I will think about that inscription the next time I see a T-shirt for sale in Shanghai that is emblazoned with a slogan in Chinglish that verges on gibberish, or see a Westerner anywhere sporting a tattoo made up of Chinese characters that are drawn incorrectly or grouped together oddly.

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postcard

The shanzhai story is a complex, long, and global one, and new chapters are being added to it continually. This is especially true in years, like this one, when World Expos are held. The 2015 Expo will take place in Milan and be the first since Shanghai’s in 2010, which broke records for numbers of pavilions and visitors.

When the World Expo came to Shanghai, it gave a city already rich in permanent doppelganger objects a host of temporary new ones. The Indian pavilion, for example, was topped by a dome modeled on the one at a World Heritage site dating from the 3rd century B.C.; those taking a virtual tour of Switzerland were able to ride on a mock Alpine chair lift. As a visitor, I saw replicas of ancient Southeast Asian temples in Cambodia’s exhibit area. These were modeled on the Angkor Watt temple complex, but as someone who has never been there, they gave me a sense of déjà vu, not for any past trip to Southeast Asia but rather a past stop at Disneyland where a shanzhai version of the same site exists. (I wish I could say that the Venice city pavilion at which I stopped had a Bridge of Sighs, but it didn’t, though it did boast shanzhai canals.)

What curious new chapters to the shanzhai story will this year’s far more modest World Expo, which opened May 1, add? I am planning to visit Milan in September to find out. And although I saw little while in Rome in April to suggest that locals were excited about a World Expo starting soon in another part of their country, there were some posters scattered around the city drawing attention to the event. Fittingly, one of the largest billboards I saw promoting a spectacle that will surely have its share of copycat dimensions was directly behind that obelisk atop the Spanish Steps that is adorned with upside down hieroglyphics.

old-gulou

In The Gulou Days

By Alec Ash

Nostalgia is hard to keep up with in China. That old bar, that old neighborhood, that old friend — memories accrue quickly along with the fast turn-over here, silt at the bottom of a swift river. Circumstances change, people come and go. Just count the number of new restaurants on your street. The way we talk about last year is the way folk back home talk about last decade. The constants — rent hikes, food poisoning, strangers taking selfies with you — are almost comforting.

The space I feel most nostalgic about in Beijing is the courtyard between the Drum and Bell Towers. I first saw it in the summer of 2007, a fresh graduate on my first trip to China. I was meeting my brother’s schoolmate Max Duncan (a videojournalist still in Beijing), the only person I knew in town, and the taxi dropped me off right in the middle of honking traffic at the south side of the Drum Tower. But just around the other side was a rectangle of quiet green fringed with stone slabs and grannies dancing to a boombox. Max was squatting to one side with a cigarette, nattering away with a grandad in Chinese. The next summer, I came back to learn Chinese and stayed. Continue reading

Bai Yansong

The Man Who Stayed Behind—At Chinese Central Television

By Austin Dean

Chinese Central Television (CCTV) likely provides more news to more people than any other media organization on the planet. As a 2012 book, which Christina Chiao reviewed for this site in 2013, put it in its title, CCTV, across its various channels, has the attention of “Two Billion Eyes.”

Recently, though, CCTV is making headlines as well as presenting them. A few weeks ago, Bi Fujian, long-time host of the network’s much watched and much mocked annual New Year’s gala, was taken off the air after a video emerged that showed him making snide remarks about Mao Zedong during a private dinner party whose attendees included foreign as well as Chinese guests. Before Bi’s off-hand comments, “at least 15 senior network employees” had “disappeared into the maw of party and state detention,” as part of a wider crackdown against corruption at the network. Continue reading

hutong door

Two Views of a Beijing Hutong

By Christina Larson

“Two dogs?”

A girl came up behind me wearing the bright blue and red track-suit school uniform of Beijing Number 5 high school, situated to the side of the alley I live on in central Beijing. She admired my larger dog, who came up to sniff her hand. In any country, walking dogs is a good way to meet strangers.

We heard a horn behind us, and moved out of the center of the narrow alley to the steps in front a small grocery, busy restocking.

“People are so aggressive these days!”

“These hutongs (alleys) aren’t really designed for car traffic,” I said, blaming the wealthy parents of her classmates for bringing their SUVs down our pedestrian streets. Continue reading

Hongkew police station

Into the Shanghai Trenches: A Psychogeography of Sin in Old Shanghai

By Paul French

Shanghai’s sin districts that catered to foreigners were many and varied. They appeared moments after the city became a treaty port in the 1840s and survived through to the 1950s. Whoring at the brothel shacks in Hongkew, gambling at the first race course on Honan Road, illicit betting at the adjacent Fives courts and knock-down-&-drag-out shamshu bars in Pootung (Pudong), were popular pursuits for sailors, all up and running by 1850. Sin existed across the city — in the French Concession and the International Settlement, around the edgelands of the foreign concessions in the Western External Roads (Huxi), as well as the Northern External Roads that ran across the Settlement’s borders from Hongkew (Hongkou) into Chapei (Zhabei). All of these districts shifted, morphed, rose, and fell over the decades thanks to a variety of factors — from suppression by the Chinese and/or foreign authorities, and as a consequence of the Second Sino-Japanese War after 1937, the liberation of Shanghai from the Japanese in 1945, and the arrival of the communists in 1949. All these places were the subject of legend and anecdote, exaggeration, and not a little official embarrassment. The sin districts fill the pages of the files of the Shanghai Municipal Police and the jotter books of the Garde Municipal in Frenchtown. They were patrolled by the Japanese Gendarmerie that, in the late 1930s, controlled the Western and Northern External Roads, and by the Chinese police that governed the fringes of the settlements beyond foreign control. All saw prostitution, drug abuse, and gambling alongside murders, mayhem, and bloodletting. The stories are legion, and the tale of the murder of Eliza Shapera in 1907, of which there is an excerpt below from a new anthology of true crime writing, is but one of the many, many unsolved murders among Shanghai’s floating multi-national foreign underclass. Continue reading

1947.2009.Map Differences

The Case of the Mistaken Maps

By Austin Dean

Maps are at the center of every territorial dispute. My map says this parcel of land over here belongs to me and always has; your map says that same parcel of land has belonged to you since time immemorial. Armed with supposed cartographic confirmation of competing claims, border dispute can last for decades.

In the midst of a territorial dispute, it is important to put maps on display. During Chinese National Day festivities last October, a large exhibit titled “Diaoyu Islands: History and Sovereignty” dominated the first floor of the National Library in Beijing. The intent was to overwhelm. Featuring a number of old documents, manuscripts, and maps, the message was clear: these rocks in the middle of the sea belong to us and always have. Continue reading

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Dreaming the Chinese Dream

Image: A bridge under construction in Chongqing, China. For some time now, China has been a world leader in infrastructure investment. It sometimes uses infrastructure spending to hedge against economic downturns.

By Tong Lam

Since 2013, the Chinese government has been promoting the idea of the “Chinese Dream.” While the specific meanings of the dream remain vague, the official propaganda has repeatedly emphasized that a central part of it is a yearning for national rejuvenation. This narrative of national revival not only builds on persistent sentiments of victimhood and pride; it also highlights the role of the Communist Party in leading the country out of a “Century of Humiliation” said to have begun with the Opium War (1839–1842) and returning it to the status of a great power. Continue reading

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The People’s Republic of Amnesia and Age of Ambition Revisited: A Quick Q&A

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Many twelve-month periods witness the publication of one or two significant books by talented journalists with long experience covering China. 2014 was special, though, due to seeing not just an unusually large number but also a great variety of works of this sort appear. It was the year, for example, of Howard French’s China’s Second Continent, an ethnographically minded work based on interviews conducted with Chinese migrants in Africa, and also of the largely Beijing-set spy thriller Night Heron, by Adam Brookes. These two books have nothing in common save for the fact that both are by authors with a deep understanding of China, derived from their long experience covering the country — in French’s case for the New York Times, in Brookes’s for the BBC. And neither of those two 2014 publications were much like either of the ones flagged in the title of this post, which were part of the same bumper crop of China books. The first of these, by Louisa Lim, offers a detailed look at the legacy and contested memory of 1989’s protests and massacres, while the second, by Evan Osnos, provides a profile-driven survey of the current Chinese political and social scenes. Continue reading

1924 MIT Technique p286

Coming Home: The Problem of Haigui, Then and Now

By Austin Dean

The rhythms of social media are everywhere the same: a story goes viral, peaks, and fades away. A few weeks ago one of the biggest stories on Chinese social media was a comment made by Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s wealthiest men, Wang Jianlin. When asked about what kind of person he hoped to find as a girlfriend, the younger Wang replied that he really only has thing in mind: she must be quite buxom.

Even though Wang Sicong quickly dismissed the comment as a joke, it did not take long for Chinese media to pounce. The next day, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, posted a less-than-cryptic message that complained, “There are certain celebrities that recklessly disseminate vulgar information … from the worship of money to sex and violence.” They seem to have had the younger Wang in mind. Soon thereafter the scandal had a name: “Buxomgate.” Several days later the elder Wang wrote off his son’s comments as a function of spending so much time living and studying outside China: “He went overseas to study at grade one and he has a Western-style of thinking,” said Wang. “Maybe after spending five or eight years in China, he will truly become Chinese.” Meaning, presumably, either less appreciative of women’s breast size, or less apt to comment publicly on his admiration of it. Continue reading