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.

larb blog harold fry

The Unlikely Success of Harold Fry’s Pilgrimage

By Paul French

A boring Englishman leaves home one morning to post a letter while his wife runs the vacuum cleaner over the upstairs carpets. He doesn’t come back. Instead he walks from one end of England to the other. Not, one would think, an immediately attractive scenario for a novel that has been read by millions of Chinese readers in the PRC and Taiwan and topped the book charts in both countries. Yet it has. Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, got rave reviews in the UK when it was first published in 2012, became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker. Fine, but what’s got Chinese readers so captivated about boring English everyman Harold Fry? Continue reading

larb blog 1940s china

Remembering the 1930s and 1940s, or Reliving Them?

By Austin Dean

The writer Xiao Hong is everywhere in China these days. Her face recently graced the covers of a score of newspapers and magazines; the publication Sanlian Weekly devoted over thirty pages to her; billboards advertised the recently released film about her career. In fact, the new film The Golden Era is the second Xiao Hong biopic to come out in the space of just two years—the first one, Fallen Flowers, hit theaters in March 2013. A remarkable accomplishment, particularly since Xiao published most of her work in the 1920s and 1930s and passed away in 1942. Continue reading

larb blog pera palace

Istanbul and Shanghai Between the Wars – Two Sides of the Same Coin

By Paul French

We generally think of Shanghai between the world wars as unique, a one-off city forming a crossroads between East and West. It was, according to this line of thinking, unique in being a place representing the modern in a country largely composed of the ancient. This vision of it is compelling, but one can’t help reading Charles King’s excellent new biography of inter-war Istanbul – Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul  – without drawing comparisons between the city on the Bosphorus and the city on the Huangpoo. The similarities are legion: in general, both were forward-looking cities in countries that had suffered long-term decline in economic and political power; both were cities that, although not capitals, became the fulcrums of their national politics; and both were cities that sought modernity with a humongous appetite for the novel and the cosmopolitan. Continue reading

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Connecting and Comparing the Taipei and Hong Kong Struggles

By Lorand Laskai

October 3: While the world is watching Occupy Central, one group has gone beyond mere spectating. Six nights ago when students in Hong Kong braved waves of tear gas, after days of trying unsuccessfully to occupy the park in front of the government headquarters, another site of the Hong Kong government came under occupation: the Hong Kong Economic and Cooperation Exchange office in Taipei. The occupiers—Taiwanese students. Continue reading

larb blog han han

On the Road in Chinese History

By Austin Dean

Han Han—author, blogger, high-school drop out, racecar driver, provocateur, and spokesperson for a car-seat manufacturer—recently branched out into movies, directing The Continent. The film follows the story of three young men from an island off the east coast of China as they travel together to take one of their ranks to his new teaching position in the far west of China. Along the way, they meet up with old friends and come across new acquaintances of dubious character; hijinks and reflections on life, love, and friendship, ensue. The film has drawn a good deal of criticism. There have been accusations that Han Han is stealing ideas from others in the film, and commentaries on what he symbolizes in the current Chinese cultural moment. In other words, it was a pretty normal news cycle for anything involving Han Han. Overlooked in these larger debates, however, is a subtler point: that the road trip is now a part of the Chinese as well as the American imagination. Continue reading

larb blog generalissimo

The Generalissimo’s Ghost

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

“In Taiwan, Teens Protest Statues Honoring Former Ruler Chiang Kai-shek,”

Los Angeles Times headline, August 11, 2014

Like other historians of modern China, I give a fair number of class lectures that deal with Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), aka “The Generalissimo,” who was the most powerful man on the Chinese mainland from the late 1920s until 1949 and held that position in Taiwan from that point until his death.  Not many of us, though, really warm to him.  I know I never have.  He comes across in most accounts as stiff and autocratic, and even sympathetic biographers seem impatient to switch from talking about him to telling stories about his glamorous Wellesley-educated wife, Soong Mei-ling.  I’ve always been left cold by his speeches and writings, feeling they awkwardly tried to fuse two things that don’t really go together: adulation of Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary vision, on the one hand, and veneration of traditional values and orderliness a la Confucius, on the other.  And yet, seeing that Los Angeles Times headline last month, I almost felt sorry for the Generalissimo.

Continue reading

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Take Me Out to the Ballgame, in Taipei

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

At precisely 6:35pm on a Thursday night, exactly as scheduled, the ChinaTrust Brother Elephants took the field at Taipei’s Xinzhuang Stadium, their bumblebee-yellow uniforms sharp against the deep green of the grass. Alone, with nearly an entire section of the outfield stands to myself, I leaned back in my seat and watched the first Uni-President 7-Eleven Lion step into the batter’s box. I had no idea who he was or how his season was going. I didn’t know who was pitching, or which team had the better record.

I didn’t care. I just wanted to watch a baseball game. Continue reading

larb blog china ally

China’s Forgotten World War II: A Q&A with Rana Mitter

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As my last China Blog column was on China’s forgotten World War I, I decided that an examination of the country’s involvement in World War II would make for a logical follow-up post. There’s no one better to discuss this topic than Oxford historian Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945, newly out in paperback. In this sweeping but highly readable history, Mitter traces the story of China’s eight-year battle against the Japanese—a conflict that continues to resonate in Sino-Japanese relations today, yet which has been largely forgotten on the global stage. I sent a few questions to Mitter, who responded by email. Continue reading

larb blog chinese nostalgia

Blasts from the Past: Chinese Nostalgia for the 1980s in the Era of Xi Jinping

Photo: Scene from American Dreams in China

By Austin Dean

In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, a linguist and Academic Director of Beijing’s CET study abroad program who is one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conversation with a friend. He asked his Chinese classmate which word best summed up the 1980s in Beijing. The classmate, without hesitation, responded: romantic. As Moser reflected on his days exploring Beijing and studying Chinese, showing pictures of his old bicycle and mounds of cabbage piled high in preparation for winter, he decided his classmate was correct. For the duration of Moser’s speech, the next speaker, Shi Yigong, who is now a professor at Tsinghua University and was a student at the institution from 1985 to 1989, smiled and nodded his head. Moser was right. Continue reading

larb blog the dog

Finding One’s Own Way Through the Woods: A Q & A with Short Story Writer Jack Livings

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

One of the best works of fiction I’ve read in recent months is The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings, who taught English in China in the 1990s and sets all of the short stories in his collection in that country. The book’s longest story, “Crystal Sarcophagus,” is set in the immediate wake of Mao’s death and follows the lives of people set the seemingly impossible task of producing, in record time, a glass coffin for the Chairman’s corpse that would be superior to those already occupied by deceased Communist leaders in Moscow and Hanoi.  Several other stories deal with politically charged issues as well, such as tensions between Han and Uighur residents of Beijing, but some focus on totally different things, such as a day and a night in the life of a friendless and not especially likable American exchange student. The Dog has been been getting enviable reviews, such as one by Michiko Kakutani that begins by calling it a “stunning debut” collection and later praises Livings for his ability to evoke the “predicaments” of varied kinds of individuals “with an emotional precision that is both unsparing and oddly forgiving.”  In interviewing Livings, I steered clear of “why set these stories in China when you’re an American who lives in the U.S.” sorts of questions, in part because he’d answered these well in earlier interviews for the China Real Time blog, for which Brittany Hite asked the questions, and for The Nervous Breakdown blog, where the person quizzing him was, well, Jack Livings. Continue reading