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.


Shanghai Mysteries: A Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I read a new Qiu Xiaolong Inspector Chen mystery, I often find myself thinking back to the first college course on China I took. This is because the professor offering the class, historian Michael Freeman, included a whodunit by the Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulick on his syllabus. That book was part of a series featuring Judge Dee, an upright magistrate based on an actual historical figure, Di Baoan. In writing his Judge Dee mysteries, van Gulick, a versatile author whose other publications included a study of ancient Chinese sexual practices, opened intriguing windows onto the social and cultural history of imperial China — comparable to those that Qiu’s Inspector Chen novels open onto contemporary Chinese politics and society. When we read the novel for that UC Santa Cruz class in the late 1970s, I was intrigued by its depiction of a beggar’s guild, which had a clear hierarchical structure and developed astutely pragmatic methods for getting alms from local merchants. Similarly, one thing that will surely stick in the minds of readers of Qiu’s new book, Shanghai Redemption, is its depiction of a wild evening in one of the eponymous city’s most hedonistic nightspots — an anything goes sort of club of the kind that existed in the metropolis before 1949. They ceased to be part of the local scene during the Mao years and early part of the Reform eras, but have gotten a new lease on life in the boom times of the last two decades.

To write his detective stories, van Gulick often took an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point. He would then move elements of it around and make other alterations in order to craft a narrative he thought would be easier to follow and more satisfying to Western readers of detective stories than a straightforward translation. He also altered the identity of some villains; in too many of the original stories the Buddhist monk was the culprit, which took some of the, well, mystery out of the original Chinese mysteries. The Missouri-based Qiu, by contrast — a native of and frequent return visitor to Shanghai, where most of his Inspector Chen novels are set — often takes things he has experienced, heard, or read about and reworks them into whodunits. In Shanghai Redemption, for example, he fictionalizes some features of the scandals and purge of Bo Xilai, someone who rose to great heights within the Chinese political system before being tried and incarcerated — and Qiu met when they were attending the same university.

I recently caught up with Qiu by email. I asked him about Judge Dee, Bo Xilai, and also, as regular readers of this post will expect but others may find surprising, about Aldous Huxley:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Have you ever read the van Gulick Judge Dee novel, or read Chinese works or seen Chinese films featuring Di Baoan?

QIU XIAOLONG: I had read van Gulick’s Judge Dee novels before penning my Inspector Chen novels. His encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and society really impressed me. You’re surely right about his taking “an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point.” In Poets and Murder, for instance, I recognized the poet as none other than the famous Tang dynasty courtesan / poet Yu Xuanji (844?-871?). I like her poems, having translated one for a classical Chinese poetry collection. The poem is titled “To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness” (the Zi’an in the title being the man who married her as a concubine; his wife made him dump Yu by sending her into a temple). Myriads of maple leaves / upon myriads of maple leaves / silhouetted against the bridge, / a few sails return late in the dusk.//How do I miss you? // My thoughts run like / the water in the West River, /flowing eastward, never-ending, / day and night. Van Gulick must have been inspired by the real-life crime of passion committed by the gifted, ill-starred beauty, but the fiction seems to be too harsh on her. After all, the investigation could have been colored by the prejudice against an independent, intelligent woman in the social and moral discourse of the time, and the judge who sentenced her was said to have tried to date her but got rejected. Dean Barrett, another novelist writing about China, recently suggested that I write new Judge Dee books, but with van Gulick before me, how do I dare? Still, I may try my hand at a novella about Inspector Chen reinvestigating the Yu Xuanji case, following the clues through her poems to a different conclusion, though it’s possible that the new conclusion could have been colored, in turn, by his own incorrigible romantic inclination. Also, in rereading Judge Dee and other gong’an novels, I’ve noticed something hardly discussed in the studies of the Chinese genre. Dee is a Judge, not a cop or a detective, and in real life, he once served as a prime minister; for that matter, in other Judge stories as well — the “judge,” not in the ordinary sense of the word, but in reality a high ranking official. That in itself speaks about the fact that, lacking an established legal system, a detective could do so little, it has to take a resourceful well-connected official to make a difference. So the suspense comes not just in whodunit, but also in the almost impossible mission to have the criminal punished against odds in the complicated power struggle. And I wonder whether my writing has been influenced, subconsciously, by that tradition. As for the present-day Chinese TV movies featuring Judge Dee, I have watched just an episode. The cultural depth and width animating the characters in the original work appear to be totally missing on the screen.

Did you know you would write a novel linked in some ways to Bo Xilai when he was riding high as head of the massive city of Chongqing or when you first read of his fall? Or did you only think of working him into a novel later?

When Bo Xilai began riding high in China’s political landscape, it did not come into my mind to write a novel linked to him, in spite of us being schoolmates at the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the early ’80s. I could have totally forgotten about him but for his failure to return my favorite Double-Happiness racket after a Ping-Pong game there, though that was not something too surprising for the mentality of a “red prince” who would take whatever he liked as rightfully his — with his father being one of the most powerful Communist Party officials in the Forbidden City. But then with his frantic attempt to grab for more power by launching the political movement of “singing the red and smashing the black” — the “red” referring to the revolutionary songs of the Cultural Revolution, in praise of the Party or Mao, and the “black,” to the people targeted by the Party authorities for whatever political reasons — I began to pay closer attention. I shuddered at the memory of my father being persecuted with a blackboard hung around his neck, trembling in the midst of those red songs. Was Bo really trying to pull the clock back to the Cultural Revolution? If so, why? I started contemplating a new adventure for Inspector Chen with those questions hovering in the background. What propelled me into the book project was, ironically, a “private kitchen” dinner with friends about two or three weeks before the official announcement of Bo’s fall. During that suspenseful period, as you may remember, stories about the Bo’s scandal surfaced now and then online without being instantly blocked by the netcops. That’s extremely uncommon, suggesting something sinister at the top. As we talked about it, an American friend challenged me, “No publisher would accept it if you wrote a book with those unbelievable details, which would beat the wildest fantasy for any mystery readers.” So I started researching and writing in earnest. While fictionalizing, a writer usually intensifies by adding imagined twists and turns into the murderous conspiracy, but those real blood-congealing details in Bo’s case could too easily work into the third-or-fourth rate pulp fiction. I had to subtract instead. For instance, the overdramatic turn when Bo slapped Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief and Bo’s one-time right-hand man, who, supposedly a secret lover of Bo’s wife, then fled for fear of his life to the American Consulate, carrying criminal evidence against the Bos, particularly that of Bo’s wife murdering a Western businessman. Hence an international scandal too huge for the Beijing authorities to cover up. But here I would like to add: this is a book inspired by the Bos. It’s not about any specific persons or things; rather, it’s an exploration of the social and political circumstances that could have produced such hearts of darkness in Shanghai Redemption.

You often allude to T.S. Eliot in your novels, due to Inspector Chen being, like you, a translator of the poet. Am I right, though, in saying that you make the ties between the Chinese crime solver and Western writer a more central element of this novel than it has been in any earlier one?

I am a fan of T. S. Eliot. I allude to him frequently not just because I’ve learned a lot of the modernist techniques while translating his poems in the ‘80s, but also because his impersonal theory enabled me to write in a way different from the romantic tradition, i.e., the poet should not, and cannot, identify himself with the persona or speaker of the poem. And that, eventually, led to the creation of Inspector Chen — not me in spite of some idiosyncratic traits allegedly of mine, embracing the tension between the impersonal and personal. So you may say that’s like my way of paying tribute to Eliot. Incidentally, a new Chinese edition of Eliot came out about two years ago, including some of my translations, just like in Shanghai Redemption. Now it’s perceptive of you to note “the ties between the Chines crime solver and the Western poet as a more central element” of Shanghai Redemption than of the earlier books in the series. Indeed writing Shanghai Redemption repeatedly drew me back into The Waste Land, as the redemption theme runs through both the poem and the novel. In the dedication page, I quote, “Because I do not hope to turn again” by Guido Cavalcanti, a line which Eliot also quoted and used. It speaks so eloquently about Inspector Chen’s despair as he stands by the grave of his father, who envisioned an academic career for him, but he becomes a Party member cop instead, trying to justify his career with the belief that he could make a difference by working within the system, even though increasingly beset with doubts. (Almost a century ago, Eliot also felt so terrible about letting his father down for choosing a literature career in another country.) At the beginning of Shanghai Redemption, however, his illusion shattered, his position deprived, Chen comes to the realization that “the system has no place for a cop who puts justice above the interests of the Party.” So his is not just a personal crisis, nor was Eliot’s. Rather, about their times respectively. Here the haunting images of “the unreal city” get juxtaposed with those of the present-day Shanghai, where the system corruption, materialist decadence, sexual dissipation, brazen hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy overwhelm the “living dead.” If the ending of the poem still suggest hopes for redemption of humanity through spiritual quest, the ending of the novel is cynical, where Chen quotes a Tang dynasty poem about redemption through contingency of history (like the “Chinese history-changing slap” Bo gave Wang in fury with all the unexpected developments), the only possible hope under the authoritarian one-Party regime.

Okay, the question you know I’m going to ask: Have you read any or all of the Aldous Huxley books I brought up in my last post, which I know you read when it went online? These were, just to jog your memory, Brave New World, which I’ve often brought into my commentaries on contemporary China; After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which as in your book a memorable visit to a cemetery take place; and the non-fiction work Brave New World Revisited.

In 1978, at the entrance test for the MA program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I was asked to write an essay about a Western book, one of the options flashing through mind was Brave New World, which I had read in the Shanghai Library in preparation for the test, but not being that brave, I ended up playing safe and choosing another book instead — for reasons you may easily understand. Also, it was just after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, a period when a number of young people were still somewhat drawn toward the utopia of Marxist idealism. Like Chen in his pre-inspector days, I found myself too busy writing and translating poems, hardly having time to worry about anything else. It was not until years later, when I found myself staying in another country, working on one of the Inspector Chen novels that I felt the urge to revisit the Brave New World. It’s because of the political catchword “stability” or “stability maintenance,” which enables the Beijing government to justify the unjustifiable, making the investigations practically impossible for Inspector Chen. But the word is not a Chinese invention, I recalled, for I had caught it much earlier in Aldous Huxley’s book. Now when he wrote it, he did not exactly have China in mind. But a lot he predicted are realities now, like political propaganda, psychological manipulation, classical conditioning, all these a totalitarian regime uses to keep the people subservient and under control. A ready example in Shanghai Redemption is the political movement of singing the red, and I saw with my own eyes an old, feeble worker appearing instantly transformed, radiating with euphoria on TV after mumbling just half a red song. The battle Huxley waged against the loss of individuality and autonomy under the authoritarian government remains an uphill one in China today. In the next Inspector Chen novel, when he is just state-assigned to the Shanghai Police Bureau, Party Secretary Li gives him a political lecture: “Each of us should be like a screw, fastened contentedly wherever the Party government wants us to, functioning, shining on the State machine.” Seen in a totally positive light, it’s an echo from Diary of Lei Feng, a communist role model advocated by Mao in the ‘60s, and quite recently, by the government under Xi too, but what a night coming true for Huxley’s metaphor about the deprivation of the human individuality by the state like in a factory assembly line. A soulless screw indeed! I have not yet read Brave New World Revisited nor After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. I’m going to, and thank you for reminding me of them.

Finally, what are you planning to write next? Some readers may take it for granted that you’ll pen another Inspector Chen novel, but you’ve also done some quite different books lately. For example, you collaborated with Howard French on Disappearing Shanghai, a book made up of photographs and poems that Ting Guo recently discussed in a two-work Los Angeles Review of Books that also dealt with Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes, and you wrote Red Dust Years, a charming collection of vignettes of life in an alleyway, which I reviewed for Time magazine. So I’m not taking it for granted that your next publication will be a mystery.

While doing research for Shanghai Redemption, I was rereading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which I was particularly impressed by a sentence, “The process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.” For the next book, consequently, it is tentatively titled Becoming Inspector Chen, or Constructing Inspector Chen (perhaps you may tell me which you like better). In postmodernist theories, one’s subjectivity is not a given, but in a continuous process of being constructed and reconstructed through the circumstances, in an intricate interrelationship of action and reaction with others. So it’s still a mystery — in a more general sense of the word — about things happening to Chen and others around him in his pre-inspector days. For the structure, it’s a novel with each chapter of an independent story related to Chen, directly or indirectly, linked in a chronological way, from the traumatic experience in his childhood, to the cases he unwillingly takes when first joining the force. The narration unfolds through a variety of angles, involving the first, second, and third person perspectives, juxtaposing the characters as “no man is an island, entire of itself.” Here you may be reminded of Years of Red Dust, but the new book is different for being more thematically unified. It is more experimental, also more rewarding, at least so to myself. As for the other book projects, Years of Red Dust II was completed, translated, published, and well-received in French and Italian. But the English manuscript remains unpublished because of its profit margin not comparable to the crime novels for the publishers. The same with The Poems of Inspector Chen, a collection of poems in the persona of Inspector Chen, which too is scheduled to come out in French and Italian first.

Brookes Spy Games cover

The Spy Game’s Afoot

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Journalists leaving long-term assignments in Beijing routinely get asked, “So, when are you going to write your China book?” It’s something of a joke, but not quite; experienced China journalists, after all, have generally seen and heard enough over the years to compose a compelling book-length analysis of the country’s economy, or society, or politics, or whatever other topic they choose. And many of those books, I should add, are among the best we have on China today.

But when longtime BBC Beijing correspondent Adam Brookes left the China beat and moved to Washington, DC, he wrote a different kind of China book: a spy novel. That was 2014’s gripping thriller Night Heron, which introduced readers to British journalist Philip Mangan. When Night Heron opens, Mangan is drifting along in a stable if not cushy life in Beijing. He needs a spark — something to jolt him out of the rut in which he has gotten stuck — and that spark comes in the form of Peanut, an escaped Chinese prisoner who seeks out Mangan and uses him as a conduit to British secret intelligence. The ensuing action blasts Mangan’s rut to smithereens; now his problem is not boredom or predictability, but flashbacks and guilt — plus the occasional wisp of longing for the spy life.

Spy Games, the second volume in what I believe will be a trilogy, finds Mangan in Ethiopia, trying his best to lie low and stay out of trouble. But when he’s approached by a Chinese man who calls himself “Rocky” and slips him classified documents, the temptation is irresistible, and Mangan dives back into the intelligence world. While in Night Heron Mangan unwillingly got drawn into the action, Spy Games sees him making the choice to get more deeply involved. Guided by his handler, soldier-turned-agent Trish Patterson, and her boss, Valentina Hopko, Mangan follows Rocky down the rabbit hole.

Rocky, however, isn’t simply handing over designs for a secret missile; the information that he has to offer holds much more explosive power. Rocky and his co-conspirators want nothing less than to bring down one of the most influential families in China, a clan whose web of power and corruption extends across China’s political, military, and corporate worlds. If successful, Rocky’s group could threaten the survival of the Chinese government itself.

And it’s here, in the end game that’s so much larger than Mangan imagines, that Brookes’s time in China turns Spy Games into his own version of a China book. Because I presume it’s his years reporting on Beijing politics that enable Brookes to give a depth and a history to the elite infighting that helps the story, for me, ring true. As any old China hand knows, there’s nothing straightforward about Zhongnanhai power struggles, and the events of forty years ago are just as important as what happened last week.

With its intricate plot, multiple locations, and large cast of characters (far more than those I’ve mentioned here), Spy Games requires a bit of focus to follow; I found myself wondering how in the world Brookes mapped everything out to ensure the disparate threads would join together in the end. But he does an excellent job of keeping the action moving and the tension high, making Spy Games a difficult book to put down. Here, again, is a way that Brookes has separated himself from the pack: I’ve read a lot of very good China books by excellent journalists, but I’ve never before stayed up far too late on a work night to finish one, unwilling to go to sleep until I knew how it ended.


Aldous Huxley Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I am busy with a book project, the period between the end of the spring quarter and start of the fall can mean a welcome chance to make major headway. But it also means periodically searching out fiction to read that offers a complete break from the book’s subject matter. Usually, this has involved steering clear of all novels relating to a place: China. This summer, since I am working on a book about the Boxers and the international invading force mustered to fight that messianic anti-Christian group, it meant searching for novels that had nothing to do with a year: 1900.

One work of fiction that is presently providing me with the kind of diverting temporal break I desire is Shanghai Redemption, the latest novel in Qiu Xialong’s successful Inspector Chen series. I’m enjoying reading an advance copy of this book, partly because its action takes place in the recent past and present rather than more than a century ago. In addition, at least so far, it has been blissfully free of even passing allusions to the Boxers, who did some brutal things, and the international invasion, which also involved some horrendous acts of violence. It may seem silly to imagine that either the Boxers or the Baguo lianjun (Eight Countries Allied Army), as the 1900 invading force is known in Chinese, would make their way into a contribution to a series that has focused on Shanghai from the 1990s on. But you never know. Allusions to them show up in some very surprising places.

In a 1990 speech, “We Are Working to Revitalize the Chinese Nation,” for example, Deng Xiaoping brought up, seemingly out of nowhere, the Baguo lianjun. He said that, when he heard that seven foreign countries were planning to use economic measures to punish the CCP for the previous year’s June 4th Massacre, this immediately made him think of the time 90 years earlier when a slightly larger set of foreign powers, including some of the same ones, had invaded China.

When it comes to the Boxers, they are referenced in, among many other works of fiction, Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic The Diamond Age. The action in that 1995 novel unfolds in a hypermodern Shanghai, just as Qiu’s new novel does, but had I chosen to read it rather than Shanghai Redemption to get away from the events of 1900 this summer, it would not have given me the same kind of complete break from the book I’m writing. The characters in The Diamond Age include neo-Victorians, who have eccentric habits like reading things written on paper rather than screens, long after this stopped being common, and also neo-Boxers. The latter are eager to succeed in driving foreigners out of China, something that their namesakes of an earlier time had failed to accomplish.

While Shanghai Redemption, which was just published earlier this week, is providing a welcome break from my current book project’s subject, its opening chapters set me thinking yet again about an author whose work obsessed me while writing an earlier one. Namely, Aldous Huxley whose best known novel, a futuristic foray into science fiction published in the early 1930s, inspired the title of my 2007 book, China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times.

Qiu’s new novel opens with Inspector Chen, a literary minded policemen who writes poetry and translates T.S. Eliot, visiting the cemetery where his father is buried. He is amazed upon arrival at the evidence it provides that conspicuous consumption, ostentation, and crass forms of materialism have begun to affect even the realms of burial and mourning in today’s booming, status conscious China. There is much about the scene at the cemetery that speaks to its distinctively Chinese setting, such as elements of the dialog that refer to ideas of Confucian filial piety. Still, when Qiu describes this resting place for the dead as having been given new touches that “add to” its “pompous appearance” and thereby help it to conform to the dictates of a “materialist age,” I immediately thought of the early pages of Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. In that work, written at the end of the 1930s, a British visitor, presumably based on Huxley himself, visits a Southern California cemetery and is struck by the way that it encapsulates all that is strangest about nouveau riche American excess.

Here are some excerpts from Qiu’s novel:

Chen hadn’t been to the cemetery in several years, and it, like everywhere else in Suzhou, had changed. The sign at the entrance appeared to have been recently repainted, and a new arch stood over the entrance, redolent with the grandeur of a gate to an ancient palace. It added a majestic touch to the scene, standing against the verdant hills stretching to the horizon…. He walked down the hill to the office and pushed open the door. Inside he saw several small windows where people were paying their fees, and along the opposite wall, a row of chairs where customers sat waiting. Next to the row of chairs were two or three sofas marked with a sign reading VIP AREA. That section was probably for the people responsible for the luxurious new graves on the hillside.

Here, meanwhile, are some sample lines from Huxley’s:

The car turned a shoulder of orange rock, and there, all at once, on a summit hitherto concealed from view, was a huge sky sign, with the word BEVERLY PANTHEON, THE PERSONALITY CEMETERY, in six foot neon tubes and, above it, on the very crest, a full scale reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only this one didn’t lean…

An hour later, they were on their way again, having seen everything. Everything. The sloping lawns, like a green oasis in the mountain desolation. The groups of trees. The tombstones in the grass…a miniature reproduction of Holy Trinity at Stratford-on-Avon, complete with Shakespeare’s tomb and a twenty-four-hour service of organ music played automatically by the Perpetual Wurlitzer and broadcast by concealed loud speakers all over the cemetery…

I now have a new item on my to do list for my next trip to the Chinese mainland: see if any of the bookstores there I have visited in the past stocks a translation of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. It seems as though it might well speak to some issues of the day. In addition, its surrealist nature might appeal to the same Chinese readers drawn to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has sold well in China. Chinese familiar with Huxley’s Brave New World might also enjoy it, as even though After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is set in what was then present-day American rather than in the world of the future, it contains a similar concern with issues of hedonism and social stratification.

One thing I discovered while shopping for books in China last year is that Brave New World is available in two different Chinese language packaging. Not only can you still buy a translation of it standalone volume, as you have been able to for year, but you can pick up a three-volume dystopian classics value pack that includes it. One of the volumes in this set is a two-in-one George Orwell pair, with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm bundled together. Another is a Huxley combo: Brave New World combined with Brave New World Revisited, a non-fiction work written in the 1960s that assesses trends that the author saw as confirming to or suggesting the need for modification of the predictions he had made in the early 1930s. The third volume is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a 1921 Russian work that is often described as a major precursor to and influence on the writing of both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is interesting to note the ability of people living in a country still run by a Communist Party to buy this value pack, made up as it is of works that satirize in different ways collectivist states and totalitarianism. And though I have only dipped into rather read closely the Chinese language texts it includes since buying the set at a Shenzhen bookstore in 2014, the translations of the novels, at least as far I have been able to determine, all seem unexpurgated.

This is not the case, however, with the one non-fiction work in the collection Brave New World Revisited. In the English language version, Huxley includes a section on brainwashing that refers to things being done in the People’s Republic of China. Those and other sections that specifically refer to China have, not surprisingly, been left out of the Chinese language edition. It is one thing to allow readers to make up their own minds about whether an allegorical dystopian work could be relevant to the country in which they are living, quite another to have a writer come right out and say that China in Communist Party rule had become a place where some things Huxley wrote about as part of a nightmarish possible future had actually been realized.

One reason I secured a copy of the new Inspector Chen novel was that I thought that after reading it I could see if Qiu would do an author Q & A for this blog. After reading the opening chapters, I know I will want to do that — and that one thing I’ll ask is which if Huxley novels he has read. He may find it odd that I’d bring up an early 20th century Western author who moved in the same circles as Virginia Woolf in an interview about a novel set in today’s Shanghai. If he doesI’ll remind him that he begins his latest book with a nod to a famous line by someone other than Huxley who fits into just that category. “April is a cruel month,” Shanghai Redemption begins, “if not the cruelest.”

This bit of allusive word play paves the way for a short disquisition on the most important Chinese holiday relating to the dead falling in early April. And that’s just the sort of toggling between cultures to be expected from Qiu, a Shanghai-born but now St. Louis-based author whose protagonist is so attached to the work of T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis but lived most of his adult life in London. The poet and Huxley moved in related circles in England — until, that is, the latter crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in the 1930s, choosing to live out the rest of his days in the consumerist California whose foibles he satirized so brilliantly in After Many Summers Dies the Swan.


Why Is There No Chinese Version of Jeopardy!?

By Austin Dean

The next time you’re in China, take a few minutes and flip on your television each night. Even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese, it’s not too hard to tell what’s going on. Reality television shows (zhenrenxiu) flood the airwaves and are easily intelligible. A show featuring a live studio audience, a number of singers, and people who appear to be commenting on their performances can only be an American Idol or America’s Got Talent clone. A guy standing in front of 24 women who look like they’re asking him questions is probably a dating show.

Some shows are adapted from the United States, others from South Korea, and some are home-grown; there are singing shows, dating shows, talent shows, travel shows, and programs that feature different, often mystifying, combinations of genres. With the adaptation of so many shows from abroad, one wonders why there is no Chinese version of the classic quiz show Jeopardy! In other words, why is there no Chinese Alex Trebek? After all, it’s a model that seems to work. The American show has been around in various iterations since the 1960s — a lot longer than reality TV, now only in its second decade (taking Survivor as a starting point).

Although there is no Jeopardy! equivalent, there are other types of quiz shows on Chinese television.

The crossword puzzle program I Know (Wo zhidao) recently began its second season on Sichuan provincial television. A co-venture between the station and the newspaper Southern Weekend, it features competitors trying to fill in crosswords. That might sound boring, but keep in mind that the American documentary Wordplay (2006) was essentially the same thing, and that found an audience. The hook to I Know is that three celebrities serve as “coaches” who select their “players.” When contestants run into trouble on a question, they can consult with their “coaches.” This season the “coaches” are Guo Jingming, author and director of the Tiny Times series, who was also on the first season of the show; the actress Liu Yan; and the actor Wang Gang. The competitors then square off for money prizes to put toward their education.

A popular show from last year, Chinese Spelling Hero (Hanzi yingxiong), like a spelling bee in the United States, was seemingly designed to make adults feel bad about themselves. The program featured middle- and elementary-school students writing out a series of progressively more difficult and obscure Chinese characters from memory. The show addressed a real issue: as more people rely on computers and mobile phones to input text, they forget how to actually write characters. The kids on this show didn’t have that problem and could leave adults (and foreign learners of Chinese) more than a little embarrassed. In fact, this concept could probably be expanded to something like a nationwide spelling bee after the American model. That would likely be a popular show, though it would also put more stress on the kids competing in it.

But there is no Chinese version of Jeopardy! Why? We should think about possible explanations for the lack of a Chinese Alex Trebek in terms of supply and demand.

On the supply side, a show like Jeopardy! would be awfully difficult to produce in the Chinese context because there are so many sensitive topics in the country. Entire categories in the arts and humanities — modern Chinese history, Chinese artists, political philosophers — would be subject to intense scrutiny. A 2014 miniseries about the life of Deng Xiaoping, covering 1976 to 1984, was in the works for quite some time, requiring approval from various layers of the Chinese government. Imagine how long it would take the Chinese bureaucracy to sign off on a category of questions based on “The Life of Mao Zedong” or “Culture of the 1980s.” That’s a committee that no one wants to be on.

On the demand side, there are already plenty of outlets for people to satiate their desire for a bit of mental exercise. Beyond the shows listed above, people can choose from a number of mobile apps. Take a trip on a subway in Beijing or Shanghai and you’ll likely spot at least a few people playing endless rounds of 2048. Offline, there are popular “escape the room” challenges, where a group of people are locked in a place and must solve a series of problems in order to get out. Why do you need a show like Jeopardy! when there’s so much else available?

A final factor is the most speculative. What we might term “quiz-bowl” culture does not seem as strong in China as in the United States. A lot of American high schools have quiz-bowl teams, and their competitions are featured on local television stations. Though certain aspects of American culture are seeping into high-school life for some Chinese students — such as prom and debate — it does not seem that “quiz-bowl” culture has made many inroads. And, again, there are plenty of other competitions that draw the attention of students and their parents, particularly the math and science Olympiads.

Earlier this year, Lorne Michaels, long-time producer of Saturday Night Live, and Sohu, a Chinese internet company, agreed to develop a Chinese version of the popular late-night sketch comedy show. Of course, one of the classic SNL skits is a parody of Celebrity Jeopardy! with Will Ferrell playing Alex Trebek. If the Chinese version of Saturday Night Live actually happens, there will be no similar skit to look forward to. But the other reality TV shows on the air in China should provide fertile enough comedic ground. Stay tuned.





Perfect Crime cover

Crime and Penmanship: A Q&A with A Yi

By Alec Ash

A Yi is a Chinese novelist with an unusual story. Born in 1976, he was a police officer until the age of 32, when he switched to writing full-time. Although he has published several story collections and novellas, A Yi is yet to break through into the mainsteam, partly due to his gritty themes. His first novel in English, A Perfect Crime, translated by Anna Holmwood, came out in June. Originally published in 2012 with the Chinese title “What Shall I Do Next?”, the story is of a provincial high school student who murders a female classmate. The narrator tells us dispassionately of his crime, flight, and trial, while everyone around him tries to make sense of what he did. It’s a short read that stays with you long after, and among the most thought-provoking new Chinese fiction I’ve read in a while. I asked A Yi a few questions to try and make sense of it myself.

ALEC ASH: Your novel A Perfect Crime is ostensibly a simple story about a criminal, but in the telling it raises much more complex social questions. What aspects of contemporary Chinese society did you want to reflect in particular?

A YI: Most importantly I wanted to reflect a kind of isolation. Solitude can be poetic in works of art, but in this novel it’s a more bestial kind of solitude, and hard to resist.

I started to collect material for the novel in 2006, when there was a criminal case in Xi’an: a high school student murdered a female classmate. While he was arrested and put on trial, he had a sangfroid that seemed beyond his young years. What he said was like he was talking in his sleep. No-one knew the true motive of his crime — not the police, the prosecutor, the judge, the journalists, the psychologists, or the public. Perhaps even he himself wasn’t clear about it. I tried to use a novel to answer that question: Why did he commit murder?

Did you arrive at an answer?

I think it’s because he wanted to break free of that solitude that is so hard to break free from. The ennui and the emptiness. He’s a student who left his hometown, a parasite living off his relatives in the provincial capital, without any way to fit into city life, or to return to where he came from. So how did he break free? He wanted to play a game of cat and mouse with the police. He runs, they chase. To bait the police into following him, he killed a victim whose death would bring about the outrage of society: a talented model female student.

And so the novel is indulging in an extreme kind of speculation. It can’t explain the true facts of the Xi’an case, but the detachment and solitude which the real criminal expressed is hard to forget. That isolation was embodied in his vacant and cool demeanor. He was indifferent to others around him, and indifferent to himself. I think that in China, even in the world, there are more and more people like that who are unfathomably banished from society and can’t find the sense of true existence that they seek.

What reader did you have in mind for this novel, and did you hope that reading it would change their view of society?

I wrote it for anyone who is willing to think about current Chinese society. I hope they will think about the world they live in, and their place in society. There’s no question that people’s place in their society is increasingly remote, low, and useless. And I hope that my readers can find a sense of heroism from ancient times, and not just be pitilessly manipulated by their society. To be creative. To be responsible. And not to become like the protagonist of the novel, a shameful reptile.

But in reality, more and more people are giving up their sense of self. I call this “passive transference.” In today’s society, so many people have mysteriously transferred their sense of self elsewhere, like they don’t need their own identity. My protagonist is a classic model of this.

In his indifference to his own fate, even his desire to get caught and prosecuted publicly, does he want to make a statement to the world?

He doesn’t want to express anything. His crazed behavior is also a kind of idleness. He’s too lazy to explain himself to others. That’s the most frightening of all. He doesn’t care about himself; he doesn’t care about others. He hastily finishes is own life, with no feeling or pity.

The novel strongly reminded me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Was it an influence?

It was a huge influence. Before I started writing, I read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Stranger by Camus. Meursault [the main character in The Stranger] was in turn influenced by the main character of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. And my own protagonist was influenced by Meursault. They are both indifferent to their fate, excessively cold and detached. But Meursault is fundamentally good and honest, or at least what emerges from his life is good and honest, while my protagonist is more malicious.

As I was working on the novel, I also deliberately re-watched the US film Taxi Driver. For a long time I’ve been obsessed about writing something with an existential timbre.

The last word the protagonist tells us in the novel is “Goodbye,” although the Chinese literally means “See you later.” Do you think this kind of character, or a repeat of the Xi’an case, could reoccur in Chinese society?

There’s a secret: I never gave the protagonist a name. I did that because I naively thought that if he didn’t have a name then he wouldn’t be easily copied. I was worried that this kind of story could spread widely. I came to write this novel through a real case — to sum it up, analyze it, conjecture about, and invent it like it was a new model of crime in China. He didn’t kill for money or sex, out of anger or hate, but only because of a kind of regret in his spirit.

Some people call me a prophet for this. After publication, every time a hard-to-explain murder case happened, some readers thought that I had prophesied it. One after another they @ed me on Weibo, calling to my attention every time there was a murder that reminded them of A Perfect Crime. But in reality I don’t understand this new type of murderer at all.

On a less moribund note, what are your thoughts on contemporary Chinese literature? Do you think mainland authors are capturing the true flavor of Chinese society?

Contemporary Chinese literature is in a stage of rapid development. In the last few years, writing alone still can’t guarantee an author can make a living, but they are getting more prestige. Because of that, there are at least no fewer Chinese writers. I’ve noticed there are more and more post-90s authors [born after 1990], and their writing is very good. Maybe the next great author will come from their ranks. If not, it will be from the generation born after 2000.

But Chinese contemporary literature at present is still breaking into its own society. I think there are some outstanding works, but so far none that have honestly reflected this society, or genuinely thought it through. The masterwork that will move a whole generation of Chinese, and express what they find painful to endure, has yet to be written.

This interview was conducted on email in Chinese and translated into English

 You can read one of A Yi’s best short stories, The Curse, in English here, translated by Julia Lovell.

Dragon Day

There Be Dragons

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliché. If you ever go looking for books about China, you know how many of them have “dragon” in the title? Like all of them, practically.

As soon as I read the opening lines of Lisa Brackmann’s new China-set crime thriller, Dragon Day, I knew I was going to enjoy it every bit as much as I had anticipated. At initial glance, the book indulges in the two ultimate China clichés — that “dragon” title and its red cover —but with those first four sentences, Brackmann delivers a big wink to her readers: Don’t worry. You might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea.

This will come as no surprise to readers of the first two books in Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she previously discussed in a China Blog Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom). Anti-heroine Ellie is a Percocet-dependent injured Iraq War vet who moves to Beijing with her husband, Trey, an employee at a Blackwater-like security firm. After Trey leaves her for his young Chinese mistress (speaking of clichés …), Ellie decides to remain in China because she’s as at home there as she is anywhere — which is to say, not at all.

Her attempts to build a life as an art manager in Beijing are repeatedly interrupted by murder, politics, and conspiracy. But while in other mystery series the protagonists’ tendency to stumble upon dead bodies can strain credulity, this same plot move seems natural in Ellie’s case: operating in a world of dissident artists and super-rich collectors, and with her lingering ties to the American defense apparatus, Ellie is surrounded on all sides by people who work in the shadows. Sometimes, murder is simply the only way they know to get the job done.

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Ellie is not always a sympathetic protagonist. She’s wounded and closed-off, unable to accept the help that people offer. She should really be nicer to her mother, who has come to live with Ellie in Beijing. And she often makes the wrong choices, fully knowing that they’re mistakes but unable to stop herself. Still, I find Ellie — cynical, paranoid, and profane as she is — a compelling character with a unique voice.

Brackmann has stated repeatedly that Dragon Day is her last Ellie book; there is a limit to the number of times a character can be endangered before a series jumps the shark (see: Outlander), and she doesn’t want to risk reaching that point. And while I understand that, I know I’m not alone among her readers in lamenting that we only get three volumes in Ellie’s story. Dragon Day is a more than satisfying end to the trilogy, wrapping up many of the long-term plot threads while resisting the urge to give Ellie an uncharacteristically happy ending. Ellie, after all, would never stand for such a cliché.


A New Biography of China’s Imprisoned Nobel Laureate: A Q&A with Jean-Philippe Béja

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Rowman and Littlefield recently published Steel Gate to Freedom : The Life of Liu Xiaobo, a translation of Yu Jie’s powerful biography of a man with whom he has long been friends. Liu remains China’s best known prisoner of conscience — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, he was unable to collect it due to his 11-year prison term for his bold call for expanded civil liberties. This new biography opens with an introduction by Jean-Philippe Béja, a leading French specialist on China, whose work often focuses on struggles for democracy. I caught up with Béja, whose recent books include The Impact of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (Routledge, 2011), to ask him some questions. (Note: as someone who has known Liu for decades and often interviewed him, Béja sometimes refers to Liu familiarly as “Xiaobo” rather than by his surname.)

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What are the kinds of things this book will tell Western readers about Liu Xiaobo that they would not likely have come across before, if their previous information about him had come only from pieces celebrating his win of the Nobel Peace Prize?

JEAN-PHILIPPE BEJA: Despite the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo remains quite unknown to the general public. I guess the biggest surprise will come from his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution. While it is described as a catastrophe in official discourse as well as in dissidents’ writings (including Liu’s), it comes out from the book as a period of freedom which provided this typical Northeastern lively youth with a number of opportunities to get into fights, and to assert his personality. This stands in contrast with the image of the thoughtful intellectual that came across in the 1990s, but it helps explain why he was not afraid of the provocations that later so shocked the progressive intellectuals used to political correctness.

Yu’s book also shows that Xiaobo was thrilled by all the crazes of the 1980s. Having become an ultra individualist in reaction to the “ultra collectivist” model imposed on youth by Mao in the 1970s, Liu tried everything: an admirer of Nietzsche, he seized every opportunity to assert his individuality. Besides — and this appears as a shock to Yu Jie — the young man who got married early was a strong believer in the sexual revolution that developed in the 1980s, a womanizer always surrounded by pretty young women. All these features remind the reader of Western 1960s activists. Except that, at the time, Xiaobo was not deeply involved in politics.

He changed after the June Fourth Massacre, which changed his life, and his role in China’s intellectual life. But this aspect of his personality, which is developed in Yu’s book, is more familiar to the public.

What do you think readers in mainland China who have only been exposed to denigrations of Liu as a traitorous and dangerous political figure (leaving aside the many who have never heard his name mentioned at all, as well as those who in critical intellectual and dissident communities), find most surprising to learn from this book? If, that is, they somehow got hold of Steel Gate to Freedom and perused it with an open mind?

They might be surprised to learn first of all that, within China, Xiaobo has not always been denigrated as a traitor. In the second half of the 1980s, he was very popular with students and young intellectuals who rushed to hear his presentations. The official media even published some of his provocative essays. But it is true that since 1989, he has been the target of official attacks.

I guess young people might be interested in the description of the 1980s intellectual atmosphere, that they pretty much ignore. They will also be interested in discovering the numerous facets of Liu’s personality, and will be impressed by his courage. His decision to “live in truth” whatever the consequences, will definitely appeal to the most politicized. But I guess that many a former “Little Emperor” — obsessed with career prospects and the will to make money — will find his idealism laughable.

How would you characterize the author, Yu Jie’s, goals in writing this account of his friend, which is clearly not meant to be a hagiography?

First of all, Yu Jie admires Liu Xiaobo, and is a good friend of his. I guess that if you write about a person who has decided to live in truth, you cannot depict him as a spotless figure. I think that Yu Jie wanted to show as much as possible the true nature of his friend’s personality, not neglecting its negative aspects. A literary critic himself who denounced the official Marxist literary theory, he was cautious not to paint the “typical character in a typical environment” (dianxing renwu, dinning huanjing) celebrated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In order to write Liu Xiaobo’s biography, Yu has traveled all over China to find people he had known at various stages of his life, despite the risks involved. Once he had been forced to go to the US, he interviewed almost all the Chinese people who had known him. I guess that to Yu Jie, the best tribute to his friend consists in giving a truthful image of his personality.

Were there new things that you learned from it, even as someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about the events of 1989 and their legacy?

Yu Jie presents a very informative account of many stages of Liu’s life. During my meetings with Xiaobo, we mostly talked about politics and about developments since 1989, therefore I didn’t know much about his personal life before the Tiananmen protests. I learnt a lot on this subject from Yu’s book.

So far as the 1989 movement is concerned, I learned much less, but those parts of the book remain valuable. Yu’s account of the last days of the sit-in in Tiananmen Square is very detailed. I knew this part of Liu’s life story well from my interviews with him, and others who have studied the June 4th Movement will find much that is familiar in that part of the book as well. Still, it is interesting to see from it what Yu’s distinctive take on these events is, and he is an intriguing figure in his own right. His book also underscores the importance of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in the history of the PRC, and this, too, is significant.

Dragonfruit cover

Expat Identities

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

In my last China Blog post, I interviewed Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young, who talked about both her recently published memoir and a 2014 collection of essays she edited, titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. That volume, Young explained, “gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed,” their lives stereotyped as a parade of coffee dates, shopping expeditions, and yoga classes with other expatriate wives while their husbands work in government or business and their children attend international schools.

There are indeed plenty of women who move their families overseas at the behest of their husbands’ employers, though their lives are unquestionably more complex than the shallow vision I’ve just described. And there are also plenty of women who move abroad for other reasons: to learn a new language, to pursue their careers, to experience life in another country, or to leave behind an unsatisfying routine at home. Whether they live overseas with families, with partners, or alone, all expat women face a similar question, as Young writes in the foreword to Dragonfruit: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”

Some of the 26 women whose stories are included in Dragonfruit describe how they find freedom in their new homes. Sometimes this freedom is literal: Neha Mehta writes of feeling a greater sense of personal safety in Bangkok than she ever did in her native India, and of how this enables her to take public transportation and move about without her husband. For other women, freedom is figurative, as experiences abroad help them let go of lives that aren’t working for them anymore. In “Giving in to Mongolia,” Michelle Borok describes how at age 34, she took a vacation from her demanding job in Los Angeles to ride horses in Mongolia, where “I just got to be in charge of me, and I rediscovered how happy I could be with only myself for company.” No longer satisfied with her life in the United States, Borok moved to Mongolia and married a local man.

Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.

One of the trickiest aspects of putting together an edited collection is achieving balance in the voices represented. Young writes in the foreword that she received 86 submissions for Dragonfruit and selected 26; of those, 13 essays are by women who live or have lived in Greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the PRC). Many of these essays — especially the ones by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Kaitlin Solimine, Christine Tan, Jocelyn Eikenburg, and Susan Blumberg-Kason — are the ones I liked the most in Dragonfruit, though I’ll admit that I’m surely biased toward China stories, and also that I was previously familiar with most of those authors (and in a couple of cases, have met them in person). But while I enjoyed the China essays, I wish a greater range of countries were represented in the collection. Just as “there are as many kinds of stories as there are expat women” (in Young’s words), the size and diversity of Asia means that expat women living in its different countries will have very different stories to tell. Dragonfruit offers a taste, but I’d welcome a second volume that features a broader assortment of women wrestling with the eternal expat question: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”


Reading Material for the Rails

By Austin Dean

Chinese high-speed railway stations are overwhelming places, simultaneously cavernous and crowded. The main terminal usually spans one huge space with no divisions or branches. Look up to the ceiling and the station looks empty. But you shouldn’t do that. Down on the ground, there are people everywhere, and you need to pay attention to where you’re going.

Places to eat and shop line the edges of most stations, or fill the basements and second floors. You’re guaranteed to find two establishments: KFC and Starbucks. In China’s major cities, you’re never far away from fried chicken or coffee. In fact, at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station there is a Starbucks on the second floor directly above a Starbucks on the first floor. As comedian Lewis Black once riffed, a Starbucks right next to a Starbucks is a sure sign of the end of the world.

There are also a number of clothing stores whose names don’t seem quite right, especially to people (like me) who don’t know much about fashion. Is Good Luck Gladius supposed to be a rip-off of a foreign brand, or a purely Chinese creation? It requires some research for me to find out it’s the latter.

The most interesting place, in my mind, is the bookstore.

As a general rule, if you’re abroad and can read at least a little bit of the local language, you should always pop into a bookstore when you come across one, regardless of whether it’s on a main thoroughfare or in a railway station. It’s fascinating to see what types of books are prominently displayed, and it increases your chances of having an interesting conversation with a local.

On a recent visit to the small bookstore in the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, the first thing I notice are not books but people: a group of about 12 stare up at a television. Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, is giving a speech. With deep-set eyes and unrelenting intensity, Ma is a charismatic speaker, and his audience at the small bookstore is hooked. Beneath the television where Ma lectures about the secrets of success are collections of DVDs for sale, all of which feature other people likewise delivering discourses on how to make it big. They might know what they’re talking about — but they also look like hucksters. The box sets are quite clunky, exactly what you don’t want to lug around with you on the train. It doesn’t look like they’re selling well.

More than half of the small store is devoted to books about business, but there are several sub-genres. The first consists of translations of the same books you see in American airport bookstores. The top-ranked book at this outlet is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. This prompts questions about who is buying this book and why — do travelers on Chinese high-speed trains think they lack self-control? But I realize it’s probably best not to probe this ground too deeply, the publisher likely just paid for the book to be prominently displayed. Another popular title is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. There are also a handful of books about Warren Buffet; the Oracle of Omaha is big in China.

The next set of books focus on similar topics, but are written by professors at top Chinese universities; volumes center on Jack Ma instead of Warren Buffet. One of these, Understanding the Chinese Stock Market, sticks out as quite ambitiously titled. Given everything thats happened in the Chinese stock market in the past two months, it’s a bold claim and one that’s surely outdated.

The most interesting Chinese business books to me are those that mask themselves as history books. One volume prominently featured in the store is Records of the Relationship between Government and Business in the Late Qing Dynasty. The point of the book is to understand the subtle (weimiao) relations between the government and the business community in historical perspective, with the goal of gaining greater insights into the situation today. This title must have found a wide audience — it is the second of a two-part series.

A number of other biographies cover similar strategies of making the past serve the present. One book promises to deliver the secrets of success from a wealthy entrepreneur in the Ming dynasty, Shen Wansan. Another book about Genghis Khan attributes the Mongol leader’s success to will power (yizhi) instead of wisdom (zhihui). A similar genre exists in America — How to Think Like Steve Jobs — but they don’t usually find inspiration in the 13th century.

Like a Hudson News shop in an American airport, the bookstore in a Chinese railway station is not necessarily the kind of place to find more academic tomes. But China always surprises.

Set between two books about the rise of China, I find a translation of The History of the American People by famed Columbia University historian Charles Beard. The Chinese translation juices up the title a little bit, calling it American History: From the Age of Wilderness to the Age of Imperialism. The Chinese publishers also build up the book’s pedigree: “Translated into over 30 languages” and “Over 100 million copies sold.”

But most of the people in the store weren’t interested in Charles Beard — Jack Ma was still holding forth on the screen.

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 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.