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.

Confucius Book

The Impact of Confucius: A Q&A with Michael Schuman

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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 where 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.

Young Year of Fire Dragons cover

Q&A with Shannon Young, Author of “Year of Fire Dragons”

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

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.

SecuritiesExchange

Seeking Alpha in 1992 Shanghai

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.

The-Four-Books-by-Yan-Lianke-on-Smithsonian-BookDragon

On Yan Lianke’s Fiction: Q & A with Translator and Literary Scholar Carlos Rojas

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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.

GreeningCover

The Greening of Asia — An Interview with Mark Clifford

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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.

Are You a Dark Horse?

By Austin Dean

On the first Saturday of June over nine million Chinese teenagers (and their parents) had something in common with the owners of the racehorse American Pharoah. Namely, all were among the most stressed out people in the world.

What was the cause of the stress for the group in Asia? Because years of preparation, worry and sleepless nights were about to come to an end, as Chinese high school students did their final cramming for the gaokao (college entrance exam). Their scores on this will determine if and where they go to university. The rest of their high school careers—grades and extracurricular activities—don’t count in admissions decisions. It is all about the test. Continue reading

John Brown’s Body Crosses the Pacific

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On the last two days in April, I got a pair of emails. Each asked me to answer a question relating to China: one the predictable predictive sort I dread, the other the idiosyncratic off-the-wall kind I relish. The April 29 digital missive, from an editor at Foreign Affairs who was putting the same question to a variety of China specialists for a feature, asked me this: “Can the Communist Party survive another ten years if it fails to make ‘major reforms’”? The April 30 email was from the gifted banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, someone I’ve long admired and recently become friends with; she wanted to know whether I could think of an old American song that had made its way into the Chinese musical repertoire in a particularly interesting fashion, and, if so, fill her in on things like when and how it had made its way to China. As I’m always leery of prognosticating, I answered the April 29 query quickly, spinning my response in a way that highlighted the foolishness of forecasting. The April 30 query has proven harder to answer. In trying to figure out what to write to Abby, I’ve found myself going off in different directions and heading down some initially promising byways that turned out to be dead-ends. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Quite the contrary: the fact that there wasn’t an immediately obvious answer to her question is one thing that made it such a welcome one to get. Continue reading

Sexpat Memoirs of China: 5 of the Best

By Paul French

Recently “sexpat” made it into the online urban dictionary —

Sexpat (noun), a compound of sex and expat or expatriate.

A sexpat is one who participates in tourism with the express intention of having sex.

Lately a number of “sexpat” memoirs concentrating on experiences in China have aroused some amount of curiosity and indignation on the internet. The most recent Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir: 1 (indicating that there may be more to follow!!) by Tom Olden (a pseudonym) recounts various sexual encounters between a young European in the Shanghai of the early 2000s and an array of women. It sparked a bit of debate, some outrage, a few laughs, and one of the most amusing literary spats in China for a while. However, when considering your position on sexpat memoirs, please do not think they are anything new. Here, then, is a list of five of the best (none of which were written under pseudonyms, incidentally):  Continue reading

Berlin to Beijing and Back Again

By Tong Lam

Near the northeastern edge of Berlin, in what was once part of East Germany (aka the German Democratic Republic or GDR), is a place called Mörderberg (Killer Mountain), which contains a cluster of derelict buildings. Abandoned since the 1990s, they were once the barracks of the GDR’s Volkspolizei-Bereitschaft (People’s Police on Standby), which was under the command of that now-extinct country’s fearful Interior Ministry. During the final weeks of the GDR when massive demonstrations broke out in Berlin and elsewhere in 1989, these buildings were at the center of action, serving as both the barracks of paramilitary riot policemen and as an overflow prison for anti-government protesters. These days, sitting quietly in the middle of a vast and tranquil green field, the buildings and their grounds are surrounded by a tall metal fence, lined with rusty signs in German warning that the site is off limits. Yet, not unlike the Berlin Wall in the period just before unification, the fence, however menacing-looking from a distance, is full of holes and gaps. For those who, like me, are interested in reading history against the grain, the combination of the warning signs and gaps are an invitation to explore. And when I finally visited this place with a German friend earlier this year, I was mostly drawn to the stories and memories hidden inside these otherwise charmless prefabricated structures. Continue reading

The Korea Conundrum and Chinese Soft Power

By Austin Dean

Aarif Lee is a movie star. Born to a mother from Hong Kong and a father with Malay and Arab ancestry, he was Chinese super-celebrity Fan Bingbing’s love interest in the 2013 movie One Night Surprise. There were even rumors that he and the pop singer and actress were an off-screen couple for a time. He currently is one of the leads in the reality television show Huayang Jiejie that follows four older female celebrities and two younger male ones on a trip to Turkey. Continue reading