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.


Looking for Ghosts in the Quietest Place in Beijing

By Jonathan Chatwin

On my first visit to Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery – China’s national cemetery, and resting place of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party – I had been refused entry at the gate by a zealous teenage guard, who, somewhat incredulous at my pressing for an explanation, had simply observed “Ni shi waiguoren” – “You’re a foreigner” – and walked back to his hut. I thus decided, for my return attempt, to enlist my Chinese friend Christy, who, experience had taught me, could generally talk her way into most places, and out of most situations.

Christy was not keen, however. She had heard stories about Babaoshan. “My friend knows a girl who was possessed there,” she told me matter-of-factly. The girl had worked in a mall beauty salon near to the cemetery.  Early one evening, the story went, she was sent by her manager to distribute some promotional leaflets on the streets nearby with a male colleague. The two were gone for hours, finally returning at around 11.30pm, to the consternation of their coworkers. Their colleagues noticed that they were both behaving secretively and strangely, and overheard the girl instructing her companion that he was not to tell anyone about their visit to Babaoshan cemetery. Both the boy and the girl refused to leave the salon to go home, even though the mall was now long closed, telling their coworkers that they were waiting for someone.

“So the manager called the girl’s aunt, who wasn’t surprised by how she was behaving at all,” Christy told me. “She said her niece had been possessed a few times before – she was skinny and weak, and an easy target for a ghost.” The aunt came to collect the girl, and everyone eventually returned home. The next day, both the boy and girl were unable to recall anything that had happened the previous evening.

“Isn’t that scary?” Christy asked, wide-eyed. Christy is herself rather skinny. I asked her, if she was to be possessed by a Communist leader, whom would she least like it to be? “Lin Biao,” she replied without hesitation. Lin Biao had once been Mao’s heir apparent; a PLA general who had done a great to popularize the Little Red Book, and who, after losing his patron’s favor, had died in a mysterious plane crash that many assume was a politically motivated assassination. She said the name with a look of real fear on her face.

We agreed that we would visit in the middle of the day, and I promised to do my best to protect Christy from malevolent spirits – and to buy her a coffee afterwards. We prepared a cover story – she was visiting the grave of an uncle, and I was a sympathetic boyfriend – but my young acquaintance was not on duty, and we passed through the gates without attracting any notice. We were the only visitors. As we walked down the drive through the sweltering August heat, Christy whispered to me: “This must be the quietest place in Beijing.”

The grounds of Babaoshan extend across a large hillside about fourteen kilometres west of Tiananmen Square, and just north of Chang’An Jie, the long thoroughfare that cuts through the center of Beijing. Only a small section of the whole site is given over to the revolutionary cemetery; there is also a public crematorium and a large burial ground for native and overseas Chinese. Altogether, there are now around 60,000 graves at Babaoshan.

The site was, for centuries, a Daoist temple, occupied mainly by retired eunuchs. It was repurposed by the CCP in 1951, following a proposition by Zhou Enlai; government guidelines instructed that the site was to be dedicated to those “revolutionary soldiers or personnel who had made distinguished contribution to the revolution and had been killed in some form of revolutionary activity or passed away later as a result of illness.”

The revolutionary cemetery is organized into hierarchical zones, with the ashes of the highest ranking figures interred in grand, private vaults or under imposing headstones at the top of the hill. These include Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” of Chinese communism (an octet of revered revolutionary leaders), and father of disgraced former Politburo member, Bo Xilai; Zhu De, founder of the People’s Liberation Army; and even Peng Dehuai, the former Defense Minister purged by Mao and persecuted to death, who had his ashes reinterred at Babaoshan after his eventual rehabilitation in 1978. Space at the revolutionary cemetery remains in high demand; the cemetery receives around 1,000 applications each year, and has had to expand a number of times, despite some longer term residents having been disinterred and returned to their hometowns. The most celebrated figures of the Communist movement are, of course, not at Babaoshan; Mao’s body continues to reside in his mausoleum at Tiananmen Square – providing something of a headache for China’s modern leaders who will, at some point, be faced with a decision as to what happens to his remains in perpetuity – whilst Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping both had their ashes scattered elsewhere; Zhou’s were dispersed at various locations across China, whilst Deng, ever outward-looking, preferred to have his cast into the sea.

We walked amongst the graves. Cypress trees shaded the dusty path through the headstones; only the oscillating noise of crickets disturbed the peace. The air was utterly still. From the top of the hill, where the grandest memorials sit, neat rows of gravestones cascaded down the incline. “It isn’t scary at all,” Christy said.

It wasn’t. It was orderly, and human, and tastefully grand in a manner I was unused to in China. The largest gravestones were almost monuments, bespoke carved marble edifices which must have cost enormous sums. “Which do you think is better,” Christy asked me as we looked at one particularly elaborate memorial, “Communism or capitalism?” I said I thought that communism was a good idea that had never worked very well in practice. “I don’t think everybody wants to be the same,” she commented. I agreed, and we stood silently in the heat for a moment.

“Let’s go and get a Starbucks,” she said.

Dr. Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin. He is currently working on a travelogue based on a journey across Beijing.


From Vancouver to Tiananmen — A Review of Madeleine Thien’s Latest Book

By Michael Rank

The extraordinary upheavals that China has undergone over the past fifty years call for an epic novel depicting great suffering as well as hope and joy.  Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which focuses on the experiences of a family of musicians from the time of the Anti-rightist Campaign of the late 1950s to the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989, attempts to be that novel.

The book, which is short listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, starts off in modern-day Vancouver, the hometown of the author, who is the daughter of Chinese-Malaysian parents. The novel begins arrestingly: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” The narrator, Marie Jiang, or Jiang Li-ling, is like the author a Canadian born to Chinese parents, but in the novel they are from China itself rather than from the overseas community. Marie was a small child when her father killed himself in Hong Kong and for many years she knew little about him, but by the time the book opens she has discovered that he was born in a small village outside Changsha and against all odds became a renowned concert pianist.

But before finding out much more about the narrator’s father we are introduced to Ai-ming, the wise and beautiful daughter of his best friend and sometime lover, the composer Sparrow. She has fled to Canada after the June 4th massacre, staying with Marie and her mother. But Ai-ming then leaves for the United States where she disappears without trace, and we hear little more of her until a final Coda in which the story backtracks to tell how she managed to escape from China through central Asia and eventually make it to Vancouver.

But Ai-ming and her flight do not form the focus of the novel. The book centres on Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, and Sparrow, who both attend the Shanghai Conservatoire, together with their friends and relatives in the late 1950s and early 60s. They play and listen to a wide range of western music from Bach – they have a special love of Glenn Gould’s recordings – to Shostakovich, but as the Cultural Revolution sets in all such music is banned, Sparrow’s female cousin Zhuli commits suicide and the rest of the group are sent to factories and “re-education” camps. The novel mixes social and political realism with a heavy dose of symbolism, much of which hangs on a mysterious document called the Book of History that is sent chapter by chapter to Swirl, a widowed former singer in teahouses. “On the surface,” we are told, “the story was a simple epic chronicling the fall of empire, but the people inside the book reminded [Swirl] of people she tried not to remember: her brothers and parents, her lost husband and son. People who, against their will, had been pushed by war to the cliff’s edge.” This “simple epic” – whatever that is supposed to mean – keeps recurring throughout the novel, and we are told at one point that its aim is to “populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.” This seems to suggest that the Book of History is intended at least partly to correct the Communist Party’s disgraceful distortion of recent Chinese history, if this is so the point becomes lost as references to the epic become increasingly obscure.

The main body of the novel ends in realist mode with a vivid description of the events leading up to the 1989 massacre, in which Sparrow is killed just as he is planning to emigrate to Canada to be reunited with Jiang Kai. The students are full of hope as they begin their sit-in, but their hopes are soon shattered as their ideals drown in bloodshed.

Thien sometimes comes up with vivid similes, as at the very beginning when Marie recalls her father wearing “glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest or curtains.” And another character is described as having “gotten plump in the belly but not in the legs and he resembled a pear on toothpicks” (although “and he resembled” rather than “making him resemble” is rather clumsy, see below).

At her best Thien convincingly melds the personal and the political, as when Sparrow wants to write a symphony that reflects the way “Time itself, the hours, minutes and seconds, the things they counted and the way they counted them, had sped up in the New China. He wanted to express this change, to write a symphony that inhabited both the modern and the old: the not yet and the nearly gone.” But his efforts are not appreciated. The Union of Composers declares that the symphony “suffered from formalism and useless experimentation; the solemnity of the third movement did nothing to elevate the People; and the meaning, overall, was not immediately clear.” This kind of Stalinist condemnation sounds all too likely, and incidents like this make the novel utterly believable. But much of the time I felt that the author was being over-ambitious, weighing it down with obscure symbolism, and I got lost in the welter of characters with names such as Big Mother Knife, the Old Cat and Biscuit whose role was unclear to me.

The book also contains some inaccuracies, most seriously several times referring to Deng Xiaoping as Mao’s successor as Party Chairman. In fact Deng never assumed this title even though he was China’s paramount leader from 1978 until he retired in 1989. And on a musical note, I seriously doubt whether a concert shortly after Mao’s death in 1976 would have featured Mahler, Beethoven and Aaron Copland (Beethoven alone would have been pretty daring so soon after the downfall of the Gang of Four).

The author has done her homework, and the book has seven pages of endnotes, quoting sources ranging from biographies of Bach and Brahms to the works of Mao and eyewitness accounts of the June 4th massacre. She has also read books on the fate of Western music under Mao, and two real-life musicians, the head of the Shanghai Conservatoire, He Luting, and the best-known conductor of the Mao era, Li Delun, have walk-on parts in the novel. Both suffered badly in the Cultural Revolution, and He is widely remembered for having on live television defied the Red Guards who beat him, denying that he was a counter-revolutionary or traitor.

Thien sometimes cites Chinese characters in the text, but these seem mainly based on dictionary knowledge of the language rather than familiarity with Chinese as it is actually used. To quote just one example, Big Mother Knife misunderstands someone saying xíng lù “executed like criminals” as meaning “travelling – like criminals”, as the words for “executed” and “travel” are said by Thien to be homophonous, xíng lù, written 刑戮 and 行路 respectively. But the word xíng lù “execution” is highly literary and rarely if ever used in speech, and xíng lù 行路 “travel/walk” is also literary and is not used in modern spoken Mandarin. In context, this misunderstanding makes even less sense, with Big Mother thinking she “had mistakenly heard” one for the other – if she was aware of having misunderstood something, then surely she hadn’t misunderstood it in the first place?

Not only is Thien’s Chinese often askew, but so sometimes is her English. She several times refers to “writing” rather than “taking” an exam, and she occasionally uses odd phrases, as when she tells of a character who kneels down “to reach her [a child’s] height.” I find this puzzling, and think she could have done with a better editor.

Some readers may find such criticism nitpicking, but I found these errors distracting and rather irritating. This novel — the first chapter of which can be found here – has garnered enthusiastic reviews, for example in the Guardian, Financial Times and Toronto Globe and Mail.  Yet, in my opinion, it tries too hard and often seems to be grasping at something which I could only guess at. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel of enormous scope that movingly portrays the bravery and suffering of musicians during the Cultural Revolution, but it is hampered by a rather diffuse plot that veers uneasily between realism and a vaguely mythical epic quality.

Oh, and the book’s title: it’s said to a line from the Internationale, but it’s not in any version I can find (see here for a number of English translations). Another puzzle in a rather puzzling book.


Michael Rank graduated from Cambridge University in Chinese Studies in 1972, studied in Beijing and Shanghai during the last years of the Cultural Revolution decade, was a Reuters correspondent in China in the early 1980s, and is now retired. Deeply interested in linguistics and in the relationship between George Orwell and China, his recent writings on these and other subjects, as well as his book reviews, can be found at his blog.  


Being Helen Foster Snow: A Q&A with Elyse Ribbons

By Paul French

As part of Chinese TV’s efforts to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Long March this year, a dramatized 30-hour version of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China has just wrapped filming. The book, which recounts the months in 1936 that Snow spent with the Chinese Red Army, is well known in China. The personal lives of its author and his wife Helen Foster Snow, however, are little known beyond their relationship to the famous Chinese leader Mao,  who died forty years ago this week and whose record continues to be described as 70% good and only 30% bad, despite catastrophes like the Great Leap Famine. Red Star Over China is the first domestically produced series to star two non-ethnic Chinese actors. The series is also partly biographical, retracing the early days of Edgar and Helen’s romance in Shanghai in the early 1930s and following their adventures in China through to the early 1940s.

The enduring popularity of Red Star Over China (and the Communist Party’s official embrace of Edgar Snow as a “Friend of China”) has ensured that Edgar has remained well known. However, Helen (who also wrote under the pseudonym of Nym Wales), remains far less well known and their personal relationship and marriage quite obscure. Edgar and Helen met in Shanghai shortly after her arrival in the International Settlement in the early 1930s where they were both carving out journalistic careers. Helen agreed to marry Edgar after multiple proposals. They moved to Peking, where Helen wrote, modeled furs, and became part of the city’s social set. Helen later followed Edgar to the “Red Areas” to report on the Communists and wrote about her impressions of them separately.

Red Star Over China‘s initial success (followed by state promotion of the show) has rather obscured Helen’s own literary work, Inside Red China (1939). Together they founded the short-lived Democracy magazine in their Peking courtyard home and became involved in the INDUSCO co-operatives project (a left leaning movement in the 1930, involving various Western expatriates, to promote grass roots industrial and economic development in China). Helen and Edgar split in 1940 and finally divorced in 1949. After her return to America Helen’s literary output continued with, among other books, Red Dust (1952) and her excellent memoir My China Years (1984).

Elyse Ribbons is an American actress who’s been working in China for 14 years and is well known to Chinese TV audiences by her Chinese name Liu Suying (柳素英). She recently spent the first five months of 2016 starring as Helen in Red Star Over China. During filming she became an ardent fan and somewhat of an expert on Helen Foster Snow and has been keen to promote greater awareness of Helen’s life, experiences and writings.  I caught up with Elyse shortly after filming finished…

Red Star Over China and Edgar are still so well known in China, but Helen has rather slipped from history and her books are rarely republished these days. Did you come to the part with any prior knowledge of Helen?

Of course I had read Red Star Over China in college, and was sitting with some rather famous Old China Hands (and their children/grandchildren) many years later at an event in Beijing and heard stories about Helen Snow, though her impression in my mind was vague at best before beginning the production. Mostly I knew that my life had inadvertently echoed her own:  She had moved to China on her own in her early 20s, she dreamt of being a writer, worked at the US Consulate (while I wound up at the Embassy) and she fell in love with China.

Both in Shanghai in the early 1930s, and then in Peking, Helen and Edgar were really part of a fun expatriate set of journalists, writers and sojourners. They partied a lot in Shanghai and even owned a racehorse in Peking…is this, much less well-known in China, side of Helen’s China experience brought out in the series?

A little bit, there are several scenes of parties and hints at the excesses, but the series is a bit of a propaganda piece so there was a lot of fighting on my part to portray the vibrant, fun, life-of-the-party Helen that those on the social scene in Peking and Shanghai knew. Chinese audiences really only have the vision of Helen in Yanan, in a Red Army uniform, in their minds. I had to constantly refer to historical texts and photos to convince the directors to move in my direction.

Helen and Edgar’s relationship, and rather quick marriage after meeting, have always been fascinating. On one level they seem a very fun couple, very much in love and enjoying their shared China adventure. However they drifted apart. Everyone always says it was the war, the Japanese, Edgar’s commitment to the Left…did you get any sense of their actual personal dynamic?

Well, their relationship started out very much as a bit fangirl on Helen’s part, but then Edgar quickly became enamoured and proposed to her many, many times before she eventually agreed. I get the sense that if they had lived in this era she might have played the field a lot more (and she does hint at other lovers in her memoir). I think that their love and later marriage was fueled in large part by their career aspirations and the adrenaline-fueled rush of living it up in wartime China while the Great Depression raged at home. The true “third wheel” in their relationship came in the form of Mao Zedong, who certainly entranced Edgar to the point where he allowed himself to somewhat knowingly become a propagandist (even though he had railed against this earlier in his career). But their passion for each other, while not filmed (this is China, so the few times the actor playing Edgar – George Tronrsue – and I kissed or acted too romantic, the whole crew would start giggling and blushing) was definitely something that lasted. But I don’t think Edgar wanted the quiet American life that Helen craved by the end of the 30s, and he moved back only grudgingly, spending much time away covering the war in Europe. But I definitely got the sense from Helen’s writings, and mentions of her in other texts, that she was vivacious and much-admired by many men, and not as often by her husband as she would have liked.

Edgar is invariably shown as the more political of the two, very sympathetic to communism. Helen often portrayed as his loyal follower. Yet she wrote extensively on the communists, as well as Korean nationalists, and the role of women in China, among other subjects. In the series do we have a sense of her own politics, as distinct from Edgar?

I think that Helen was not a Communist so much as a practicalist. She saw that China needed better leadership than the KMT could offer, and better connectivity to the “People”. She was definitely inspired by what she observed in Yanan and the other Red areas during her trip. A good portion of the Founding Fathers of the PRC also felt that Communism was just a tool and Deng Xiaoping is a good example of that train of thought. She was mostly impressed with the efforts that the Communists were making to include and empower women – a smart move, she noted, as they made up so much of the populace. Certainly I feel that China’s economic rise (and its entire future) relies heavily if not entirely on its empowerment of women.

It was tough being in China and reporting in the 1930s and presumably even tougher for a woman. Aside from the cult of Edgar in China and the downplaying of Helen did you get a feel for her as a woman experiencing that time?

Admittedly part of the cult of Edgar is Helen’s own fault. Like many women, she put her husband’s career above her own and spent her time and energy managing him, typing his notes, organizing his writings, efforts and correspondence. She is also uncredited for much of her work on Red Star Over China. But despite this, and despite the era, she embraced her life and her role with more verve than many a modern American girl. Really the problem was that when the INDUSCO project failed, she believed that all her efforts over the years had come to naught – and that broke her heart. As an entrepreneur here in China myself I am all too familiar with this heartbreak, and in all honesty found much strength in embodying her over this past Spring. If she could do all that she did with her limited resources and societal assumptions, surely I can keep fighting on.

It’s fantastic that the producers of the TV series have included Helen as a major role, and sought to portray the Snows China experiences in their entirety, and not just meeting Mao. How do you think a modern audience in China will react to this new, more rounded, Helen? What reaction are you expecting to the show in general?

As the show is still suffering through the rounds of censorship at CCTV as we speak, it’s really hard to say what will even make it into the final cut. But certainly having a lead character who is a known Old Friend of China (this is an actual title that the government has bestowed on several lucky foreigners) be the embodiment of all that feminine energy and aspiration I think will ring very true with the young women of modern China. Really the show is a love story, and one with a not-so-Hollywood ending for the couple, but certainly their love for China and personal friendship endured long after their marriage ended.  I wish that it could have been filmed by a Netflix, BBC or HBO crew, there’s so much more to the story that was overlooked but which makes for very good TV, a mix of House of Cards, Newsroom and a BBC historical drama.


Finding a Common Thread: A History of Chinese Language

Anne Henochowicz*

Sitting in the hushed, stained-glass light of my university’s architecture library, I made stacks of flashcards. I reverently copied the characters onto one side, the pinyin Romanization and English definition onto the other. Most of these words were two characters long, and as I quizzed myself on pronunciation, translation, and handwriting, I hoped that one day I would understand the meaning of each and every one of those characters on their own—not bound up in modern words, but singular, ancient, profound.

Only towards the end of college did I learn that many of these words cannot be picked apart. Take the word for butterfly, hudie 蝴蝶. Hudie is not a compound word. Those two characters used to write it mean nothing on their own—neither character is used apart from the other in any other word. The great mystery of many characters lies not in their individual meaning, but in their phonetic value.

And so, like so many students of Chinese, I was disabused of yet another fanciful notion. It may sound like the magic was gone, but in the end knowing the reality of the writing system and its connection to the spoken language was more profound than anything I’d imagined.

If only I’d had David Moser’s fantastic new book, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, to open my mind. In barely more than 100 pages, his contribution to the Penguin China Specials series brings clarity to common misunderstandings about spoken Mandarin, its relationship to other Chinese dialects, and the inner workings of its writing system. (A Billion Voices is currently available globally as an ebook and in non-digital formats in some, with the American paperback releasing, coindentally or not, on October 1, the People’s Republic of China’s National Day.) It also tells the story of how a century of ideologies and egos shaped China’s “common speech,” Putonghua. (Mandarin is the cluster of northern dialects on which Putonghua is based.) Moser’s love of this language, the product of decades of committee meetings and infighting, shines through in his lively narration of Putonghua’s coalescence.

One reason I wish I had had this book available to me sooner is that it would have helped me when I found myself, as I often have, explaining to friends and strangers at dinner parties that many so-called “dialects” of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, and would be considered languages in their own right if the people who spoke them were politically divided. Moser confirms my tipsy tirades, comparing Chinese dialects to the Romance languages, whose distinctions are reinforced by national boundaries.

But I usually go on to insist that, say, Cantonese is actually a language. It turns out this claim is more fraught than I’d realized. “The truth is, there is no universally accepted criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects,” Moser explains. Dialects radiate out from one another geographically, along a continuum of mutual intelligibility. The farther two dialects are from each other, the less speakers will be able to understand each other. A native Mandarin speaker cannot understand Cantonese, but that’s not enough to define Cantonese as a language.

As for the origins of Putonghua? It actually began as no one’s native tongue. In the early days after the fall of the Qing empire, the fight for a common language was white hot. The north-south linguistic divide raged at the Conference on the Unification of Pronunciation in 1913, which eventually settled on a standard combining bits of all major dialects. This standard was later overridden by Guoyu (the “national language”), based on the northern dialect spoken in Beijing (but not the same as Beijing dialect). Putonghua, spoken in the People’s Republic of China, is essentially the same as Guoyu. The major difference is that Putonghua is not defined as being based on the speech of “educated” people.

The story of the formation and promulgation of a standard language in China proves to be a history of the nation, from the later years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the present. It is a story of representation and democratization, especially with regards to improving literacy. The writing system, which requires years of dedicated study to master, was for millennia a barrier to literacy for most residents of the empire. Unintentionally, Chinese characters staved off the “taint of democracy” that comes with mass literacy. To control a populace, “apparently no threat is more salient than the thought of ordinary citizens freely acquiring and sharing information.” The Catholic church certainly learned this lesson, as Gutenberg’s printing press begat more Bible readers, which begat doubt in church teachings, which begat the Protestant movement.

While the warlords of the 1920s and 1930s, who claimed bits of the Republic of China as their own domain, feared the specter of a literate public, both the Republican and Communist governments worked to increase literacy. Many new writing systems for Chinese were proposed in the first half of the 20th century, but none has ever replaced Chinese characters. In the end, the writing system has not held China back from mass literacy or technological development, a truth that Tom Mullaney is now promoting with an exhibition of Chinese typewriters at Stanford University. But the Chinese writing system, unlike a phonetic one, breaks the “virtuous circle” of the spoken and written word. The phonetic element of characters is weak, and thus learning to read and write continues to be an arduous task.

The value of Chinese characters as a symbol of the nation is so potent as to have dissuaded even Mao Zedong from totally scrapping the system. Mao at one point did advocate for a phonetic script, but “Chinese traditionalists tended to ascribe almost mystical semiotic power to the characters, seeing them not just as symbols for semantic meaning, but as embodying the essence of Chinese culture itself.” Mao opted instead for a simplified character system, aided by pinyin romanization. The Vietnamese, by contrast, experienced a relatively smooth transition from Chữ-nôm, based on Chinese characters, to Quốc Ngữ, the system of Latin alphabet and diacritics created by missionaries and used here. When the writing system is not your own, it’s easier to choose.

This book is not just for students of Putonghua. Moser assumes no knowledge of Chinese, walking the reader through thorny subjects, such as the “language-dialect continuum” of Chinese, with poise and humor. A native speaker of Mandarin—or any Chinese dialect, for that matter—could also learn a lot from A Billion Voices. Many of the myths Moser dispels are perpetuated by those steeped in the language from birth. Not that Westerners, with our Chinese character tattoos and other regrettable appropriations, have done much to clear things up. This is a book for anyone who wants to cast off romantic and Orientalist notions in exchange for insight into the language spoken and written in China. These days, that should be just about everyone.

* Anne Henochowicz is the China Digital Times translations editor. She favors purple ink when making flashcards.


Nuts! The Bursting of the Chinese Walnut Bubble

By Austin Dean

Walk down the street in Beijing and you’ll encounter a certain type of character: buzz cut, paunchy stomach, probably tattooed, likely taking drags from a cigarette as he barks into a cell phone. He’s probably also sporting a bracelet or necklace (or both) made of walnut shells strung together. This guy might be a gangster; more likely he’s plain old Chinese nouveau riche.

The walnut jewelry links him back to beliefs and practices from imperial China, though he might not realize the extent of this cultural inheritance. He probably selected these accessories simply to demonstrate that he can afford them. This guy and his peers have made walnut-shell jewelry and other products hot commodities—creating the Great Chinese Walnut Bubble. Like so many other bubbles before it, the bubble has now popped.

The price of walnuts in China exploded between 2008 and 2013, driven by demand not for the edible meat, but the outer shell. Big, symmetrical, colorful shells became prized items. As one farmer remarked at the height of the craze, a pair or shells could be more “more expensive than gold, in terms of weight.”

There’s a lot you can do with walnut shells besides crush them to get at the meat inside. Some people twirl two of them across the palm of their hand, often while walking; others wear walnut bracelets or necklaces that have been carved with intricate designs of Daoist figures or natural scenes. As one walnut carver explained, his designs focus on “longevity, safety, reunion, faithful love, health, and wealth.” But some prefer to forego any carvings and leave the shells as is because “no craftsman can create anything as beautiful as these natural patterns.” With so much money at stake, the aesthetics of walnut design is a serious topic.

There are numerous ways to get involved in the market. You can buy the end products, you can get into the wholesale business or, most speculative or all, you can buy the rights to future walnut shells while they’re still hanging from the tree and covered in green skin. You could end up with prize shells or with duds—the nut business is a risky one.

As with any bubble, there were historic, cultural, and economic reasons behind the sky-rocketing walnut prices.

Chinese emperors and officials rotated pairs of them in their hands to promote circulation. Walnuts became a gift traded among the Chinese elite, part status symbol and part health remedy. As one walnut farmer remarked, “Mainly the walnuts are good for the body, that’s why people play with them.” In fact, the very act of twirling the walnut shells will, over time, give them a red, glossy polish, making them even more valuable, or so the thinking goes.

And let’s not forget our friend from Beijing with his walnut jewelry. He represents the segment of the population for whom this cultural inheritance became cool, As one article from the height of the bubble observed, buying, wearing, and speculating in walnut shells was “especially popular among the newly wealthy and gangsters profiting from Beijing’s grey economy.” The walnut craze also had a gendered aspect; though it’s impossible to cite statistics, it seemed to be primarily a male pastime.

At the level of individual decision-making, the walnut bubble reflected a shortage of assets to invest in. The Chinese stock market is a mess, rates on bank deposits are abysmal, and average citizens are only allowed to move a certain amount of money out of the country each year. As a result, a lot of investment goes into housing. But if you already have an apartment (or three) and you want to put your money to work in some way, then walnuts (as well as tea, garlic, and jade) might start to look quite appealing. If you think wearing walnut-shell necklaces looks cool and prices are likely to rise, then, well, all the better.

But the good days are likely over for walnut speculators. As a number of Chinese media outlets have recently reported, the walnut market is not the same as it once was. Walnut shells themselves are quite fragile—easily scratched, broken, or damaged—and so is the walnut market.

One of the traditional homes of walnut carving is in Zhoushancun, near Suzhou, on the east coast of China. It has been epicenter of change in the walnut market during the past few years. As prices rose, people flooded into the business: stay-at-home moms and former fruit vendors learned how to carve walnuts; teenagers entered the trade; famous walnut carvers swamped with orders farmed out production; walnut bracelets and necklaces designed using computer programs emerged.

In 2014, the Chinese walnut crop was 35% higher than normal. Supply went up. Quality, or perceived quality, went down—and so did prices and sales volume.

At the height of the walnut craze, growers and vendors didn’t even have to bring their goods to market. The market came to them, with waves of cars from urban areas descending on the countryside. That’s no longer the case.

At the retail level, a store that grossed 2-3 million yuan in monthly sales in 2012 or 2013 is now doing a small fraction of that. One shop owner told a television reporter that she now has to call up former customers to see if they’re interested in the most recent arrivals. In 2013, she wouldn’t have had to chase customers for their business.

With sales down, the retailer is naturally pickier about what types of walnut shells she displays. On her rounds to various walnut carvers, she rejects a number of samples as too poorly designed. This change filters down through the walnut industry. One walnut carver (a former fruit vendor) noted that she’s trying to renegotiate her rent payments on her small carving studio and store. Carvers, in turn, are more demanding about the types of walnut shells they procure for wholesale merchants—not just any pair will do.

The nut business, clearly, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.


Thinking and Writing about Inner Asia: A Q&A with Rian Thum

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China.  Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB.

What trends have you noticed in the kinds of books on Inner Asia that have been coming to you as Journal of Asian Studies Book Review Editor for that part of the continent?   And since this is an interview for something called the “China Blog,” perhaps focus most on the works that deal with places that are now at least partly encompassed in the PRC, though if there has been a massive surge in English language studies of the Central and Inner Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union that would be interesting to know!

I’ll have to go region by region here, because there’s relatively little recent work that straddles the various Inner Asian cultures. There are exceptions, for example a new edited volume that looks at ethnic conflict in both Tibet and Xinjiang and a very important new book that examines reincarnation as a political phenomenon linking Tibet, China, and the Mongols, but most new work focuses on a single culture.

Of all the Inner Asian regions, Tibet has always received the most attention, which means that there are enough books on Tibet to really identify consistent trends. Lately scholars have taken an interest in Tibetan biography, analyzing both the genre in its particular Tibetan forms and its potential to open windows on the experiences of Tibetans of the last millennium or so. This is an exciting turn, because it injects very personal and human elements into the abstract institutions and ideologies that have featured so prominently in the study of Tibet.

For the Mongolic-speaking traditions, the last couple of years have seen some important books on religion, both Buddhism and shamanism, Mongol and Buryat. This is, I think, a reflection of the kinds of sources that are available, but also of an attention to the ways Mongolic-speakers frame their own experiences. However, there’s also a pair of books out that examine violence in Mongolia, reflecting a nascent tendency to mine Inner Asian materials for insights into universal social phenomena.

As for Xinjiang, what’s most striking is that we’re finally seeing more than one or two books per year. This is the culmination of a long process of developing linguistically competent scholars with experience living in Xinjiang, a slow process that only began with the reopening of the region in the late 1980s.

I’m also happy to see an ethnography of the Ewenki reindeer herders, a group that has not received much attention. Manchu books tend to work from the Qing imperial perspective, and so usually find their way to the China section of the book reviews, rather than Inner Asia.

Zeroing in on Xinjiang, the region that has been the main focus of your own work, what strikes you most about the style, range, and topical or chronological emphases of the works about it that have been coming across your desk?

Diversity, and that’s something new. When people started writing about Xinjiang again in the 1990s, a focus on ethnic identity or resistance to the Chinese state was de rigueur. But as the field has developed, authors have begun to explore a wider range of questions. 2016 is turning out to be the biggest year for Xinjiang books in a century, and coverage is all over the map. We have books on the contemporary experience of Han Chinese colonists in Xinjiang, on the development of the “Uyghur” idea across the Sino-Russian border, and on Republican-era politics in Xinjiang through the eyes of its Chinese rulers. Another forthcoming book re-imagines indigenous officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as capitalist entrepreneurs. These are all academic works, but they are also remarkably readable, which places them in a growing movement in the humanities away from tortuous prose and specialist jargon.

Largely for logistical reasons, the JAS, mostly reviews English language scholarly works, though it is certainly open to looking at works in other languages.  What are the most important languages other than English these days for scholarship on Inner Asia, and does it differ between, say, Tibet and Xinjiang?

You can get a sense of the history of Inner Asia scholarship from those kinds of linguistic divisions. Japan’s long tradition of research on Xinjiang, for example, and Soviet interest in the Central and Inner Asian cultures that fell under Russian rule are both reflected in publications in those languages. Tibet, on the other hand, tends to see more work in western European languages. There are of course important publications in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese, but the Chinese state, through its academic system and through its censorship regime, presents some pretty daunting obstacles to effective humanistic scholarship. Inner Asian and Chinese authors who manage to overcome those obstacles often end up publishing in English.

Okay, a couple of final questions beyond books.  First, is there uniformity in how people define “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia,” as it’s sometimes called, as in the “China and Inner Asian Council” of the Association for Asian Studies?  If not, how do you think about this region, in terms of its contours and shape?

These area divisions are always messy and always disputed, but there’s a clear center of gravity in defining both Central and Inner Asia. The Turko-Persian areas of the former Soviet Union tend to get called Central Asia, with Afghanistan sometimes lumped in. Inner Asia is a term that, to my mind, accommodates a China-centered view of the Asian interior: the steppe region to China’s north (most recently dominated by Manchus and Mongols), “Xinjiang” or “Eastern Turkestan,” and Tibet all have histories that are intimately entangled with China. The major point of overlap is Xinjiang. Culturally it looks more like former-Soviet Central Asia, but historically it has important connections to China.
Finally, turning to something associated with both Chinese and Inner Asian history, have you been surprised to by how passionate some Beijing authors have been in their denunciations of the “New Qing History,” treating it as something with major political implications, rather than the topic of purely scholarly interest that it might seem to be to the non-initiated?

Working, as I do, in a field in which historians have been banned from China for their writing, I can’t say I was very surprised. The party has taken upon itself the task of justifying the borders of the Inner Asian Qing Empire, borders which the PRC has inherited, in the language of Chinese nationalism. To a certain extent, the insights of “New Qing history” were spurred by taking seriously the Qing rulers’ explanations of how and why they maintained such a massive empire. PRC nationalist historians have great difficulty weaving this material into their narratives of China – of a primordial and continuous China, one that “unifies” rather than conquers and divides rather than contracts – without leaving some frayed edges. Those frayed edges are particularly visible in Inner Asia.


The Promised (Disney)land

By Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

I asked what he meant. “It’s the meeting point of Chinese and Western culture.”

We were on a Pirates of the Caribbean themed ship at Treasure Cove. Over the lake rose the spires of Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other attractions included Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Alice in Wonderland Maze and Marvel Universe. I saw the Western culture, I said. Where was the Chinese?

“Well,” he eventually responded. “It’s in China.”

Families like the Wangs are why Disney chose the mainland as the location for its newest resort park in ten years (Hong Kong already has one). The $5.5 billion site has been under construction for five years, a joint venture between Disney and the Shanghai development group Shendi, and since it opened on June 16 an influx from all over the nation has proved it a smart investment. Zhigang paid 499RMB ($75) for his peak period entrance ticket – a significant sum, which is why he was stinting on the Mickey burgers by bringing his own food in. Then again, disposable income and a rising middle class is part of the magic.

There are Chinese characteristics to the park, but they feel token. A pagoda-roofed restaurant, the ‘Wandering Moon Teahouse’, serves Shanghai-style braised pork and ‘eight treasure’ steamed rice with duck inside a lotus leaf. At ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are reconfigured as Disney characters – Pluto for dog, Kaa for snake, Abu for monkey, Tigger for … you get the gist. Yet domestic tourists aren’t there for that; they’re pulled by the soft power of Disney and the rest of the world, which Chinese society embraces all the while that its leaders assert China’s uniqueness.

For a thirty year old, I had a wonderful time in Disneyland. Mickey and his friends were stoically cheery inside furry costumes in the blistering heat. The Tron ride was amazing. We picnicked in a grassy park in Fantasyland that everyone else seemed to assume was off-limits. The light show on the enchanted castle at nightfall was everything my inner preteen hoped for. Even a three-hour queue for a ride called ‘Soaring Over the Horizon’, where our feet dangled over smellovision vistas from the Taj Mahal to the Australian outback, somehow seemed an essential part of the experience.

When the four-minute ride finished with fireworks over the Shanghai skyline, and our toes touched the ground once more, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Then I turned to my right, where eleven-year-old Li Jiayi from Shandong province was in conniptions. Shanghai was the furthest from home she had ventured, and she was biting her fingers in shrill excitement at the thrill of it all.

Xiasiwole!” she said. Shocked to death. “The world is so big!”

Great Wall

Talking Rural Reconstruction, Books, and Blogs with Kate Merkel-Hess

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Prelude: The Birth of a Blog

On a sunny day way back in the summer of 2007, when Kate Merkel-Hess was still a UC Irvine graduate student rather than a member of Penn State’s History Department, one of her professors posed an unexpected question to her.  Would Kate, he asked, consider joining him and her thesis adviser, Ken Pomeranz, in launching a digital publication aimed at trying to bridge the gap between the way journalists covered and academic analyzed China.  This could, he said, stumbling a bit over the word, be a sort of “blog.”  Perhaps she could be its lead editor, he proposed, as she was the only one of the three of them with any actual experience “blogging,” having launched a personal blog during her just concluded year doing research in Chinese archives.  He said that he and Ken had enjoyed reading her online commentaries, and this was part of what had inspired them to consider doing something similar, but with multiple contributors. Kate quickly said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  Meaning, in this case, the start of a four year run of a blog, plus the publication of a spinoff book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, of which Kate was the lead editor.

That is how the “China Beat” came into being—at least, I think I’ve got it right.  To be honest, it might have been Ken (now at the University of Chicago), rather than me (still at Irvine), who asked Kate if she’d join the project.  It might have been early in the fall, rather than summer, when one of us broached the subject to her.  And being a sensible person, Kate might have taken a day or two to think about whether to sign on.  It was no simple matter to juggle completing her dissertation—which in dramatically revised form is about to come out from the University of Chicago Press as a book—and playing a key role in a blog whose other co-founders seemed to have only a vague idea about what exactly the publication would be like.  Some day I’ll quiz Kate about what her memory is of the origins of China Beat (a venture whose final editor would be the China Blog’s own Maura Cunningham), but I didn’t think of asking her about that until we had concluded the following email interview, which took up other, perhaps more interesting questions, related to Kate’s work, her hobbies, and her hometown:

Let’s begin with The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, your forthcoming book.  Can you tell our readers a bit about it?  Who are some of the main figures in it?  What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

In The Rural Modern I describe an incredibly vibrant effort to mobilize China’s rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort that contested the state’s prioritization of urban areas. When I describe it this way, at least some people will assume I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which built a revolution against the ruling Nationalist (Guomindang) Party in China’s rural areas at precisely this time. But the CCP wasn’t the only rural reform organization in China during this period. In fact, there were thousands of other rural reformers – urban intellectuals, government officials, missionaries, educators, public health workers, agricultural outreach specialists, committed social activists – who started hundreds of rural reform projects in rural China and experimented with efforts to reach out to rural people that look a lot like the rural outreach programs the CCP adopted. In the course of my research, I even found individuals who started in some of these neutral or Nationalist-affiliated programs who then took their expertise to the CCP base areas – very direct evidence of the connections between these two seemingly separate groups of rural activists. The Rural Modern tells the story of what I call the second most important rural reform movement of the period (second to the CCP, that is). Describing the breadth and depth of this undervalued movement complicates the notion that the CCP rural strategy “succeeded” and everyone else’s “failed” and places the CCP reforms within a much broader context of efforts to remake the countryside – the milieu in which the CCP actually functioned at the time and from which it drew a lot of ideas, personnel, and strategies of rural engagement.

This is a story with fascinating, charismatic figures, like the Yale-educated literacy evangelist Yan Yangchu (known as James “Jimmy” Yen in the U.S.) who worked his Ivy League connections to fund his outreach project in Dingxian, southwest of Beijing, but also many others who have been forgotten or who barely register in the historical record. I laced my book with these stories, as best I could excavate them, because these largely forgotten people were the ones who were engaged in generating an agenda of rural reform that I argue prioritized a specific process of self-transformation. First, reformers believed that people needed to be literate. This was part of a bigger trend in late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalism, where elites believed that being able to read profoundly changed the mind, made people more disciplined, and prepared them for civic participation. If many people learned to read, then reformers believed they would have the basis on which to draw together communities of reformed individuals who could collectively act for the social and economic good. Finally, these people would create self-governing communities that would be a part of but not completely subject to the nation. I want to emphasize how radical this idea was, particularly in comparison to some of the more hierarchical proposals for the construction of a nation that were floating around China at the time.

These ideas didn’t emerge from nowhere. Reformers grounded some of them in the ideas of earlier Chinese thinkers, like the early nineteenth century intellectual Feng Guifen. They also, however, were influenced by a set of ideas coming from abroad that contested the headlong rush to prioritize urban modernization. The Chinese rural reforms of this period – which were often called “rural reconstruction” (乡村建设) – drew on a global “rural reconstruction” movement that I have traced back to efforts in Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century, with iterations also appearing in South Africa and India, among other places. These global rural reconstruction movements, like the later Chinese one, argued for the importance of robust, self-governing rural communities. Their proponents, among them the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, believed that having lively rural communities mattered to the nation’s culture and identity, and they feared that corporate agriculture would wipe away that culture. Tagore, for instance, made the argument that such communities were proof that Britain had not eliminated a kind of native Indian spirit and tradition of self-reliance. Everywhere I have found it, rural reconstruction was about preserving rural communities and establishing them as a bulwark of localism against the state. It’s really important to make clear that these rural reconstructionists were not anti-modern. They embraced many elements of modernity. They were against a specific vision of modernity that prioritized urbanization and that made rural areas ancillary to some kind of center – whether it was colonial or national.

But, of course, their vision of the countryside did not triumph. In the past fifteen years in China we have seen both an emptying out of the countryside and also some half-hearted government efforts to bolster rural communities. I hope that readers will take away from my book that this contestation over the countryside’s role in the Chinese polity (and the polity’s role in the countryside) – and the efforts to keep the balance from tipping to the cities – has been going on for a very long time. The debates of almost a hundred years ago about the future of rural people and their livelihoods and communities remain very salient.

The book evolved out of your UCI dissertation.  What’s something interesting in the book that wasn’t in the thesis?

The book is significantly different from the thesis and I added a lot of new material to further fill out the story I’m telling. My favorite new part traces the emergence in the Republican period of organizational charts. Much of the research for the book was based on popular publications meant for cheap and easy distribution, social science reports, government reports, and reports to funding agencies. Few of these were things created to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing. So when I saw images, I got really excited because they were very rare. But these were hardly ever reproductions of photographs. Instead, the images I ran across were rough charts and graphs. The ones that struck me most were the efforts by the rural reformers I was studying to sketch out their visions of a new society or a reformed person – and how they rendered that process of transformation into a two-dimensional image. I think how they depicted it tells us a lot about how that process of remaking society was conceived.

What are you working on now?

I’m now working on a book on the history of the warlords in early twentieth century China. Every time I teach the modern China course at Penn State, I get tripped up on the warlords week. It’s just a mish-mash moment that gets treated like an aberration – there’s the effort to establish the Republic of China, and then things go haywire for a decade of warlord mayhem, and then Chiang Kai-shek comes back and now, yay, we’re back to a narrative with a center. I wanted to see if the warlords could be part of the narrative of modern China. And they are all such fascinating figures. There are a lot of great stories to tell about them that haven’t been told.

I’m particularly interested in the contributions the warlords made to shifting Chinese politics and political rhetoric in this nascent period of the Republic. Very quickly in my research, I realized this meant looking beyond the warlords as individual personalities and examining the people around them, particularly their families. For the first time, political wives were mobilized as public assets. They start to appear in pictorials and become engaged in philanthropy (particularly in the 1930s, as the war efforts kicks off). The networks of elite women who become acquainted through school and employment begin to matter to politics. When you use these descriptors, we all think of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Song Meiling. But she wasn’t alone. I found a journal article from 1928 that mused on who the first lady of China would be: Song Meiling, Feng Yuxiang’s second wife Li Dequan, or the wife of Zhang Zuolin. They were presented as equal possibilities (each with her own distinct style). The warlords were part of a broader and more public political class than had existed in earlier periods, and they began to experiment with how to court the public that now sustained them and kept them in power.

Are there thematic as well as chronological and geographical connections between this project and your first one or do you see it as a complete departure?

There’s a very direct connection, which is that in the course of researching rural reform in the 1920s and 1930s I ran across a number of initiatives that were funded by various warlords – supporting adult literacy programs, educating women, trying to improve public health – and I was surprised that the warlords had been involved in such things. At that point I just thought of the warlords as military strongmen – glorified local bullies. Some of them were that. But most of them were much more complicated leaders, and they thought of themselves as a new kind of Chinese ruler, and attempted new models of political leadership. So that led me to look at them more closely.

The other connection is my interest in localism and in narratives that disrupt our notion of the nation as real or coherent. During the warlord period the notion of a unified China breaks down – it continues to exist as a dream, but doesn’t exist in reality certainly from 1917 to 1927 and arguably is quite broken in important ways from 1911 to 1949. Many of the warlords put themselves forth as local or regional rulers. I track the polities they proposed in place of a unified China and what kind of political identities they mobilized to that end.

Going in a totally different direction, I can’t resist asking what the deal is with China historian-blogger-editors and knitting.  I recently came across your 2014 interview with the American Historical Association, which somehow I hadn’t seen before, and you describe knitting as a great passion of yours.  Now, Maura Cunningham has been very public about her own interest in knitting, working it into her tweets and blogs posts.  Coincidence?  Or is there some reason that China, blogging, and knitting might go together?

KM: Knitting, blogging, and learning Chinese are all rather fussy projects, requiring persistence and an attention to detail, so perhaps there’s that. In addition, knitting is a great pastime in China because there are so many knitters there and it’s easy to find cheap yarn in almost any market. For me, though, it was also a conversation starter – I could pull out my needles on any train or bus and middle-aged and older women would chat with me about it. Sometimes, they wanted to correct the way I held my needles (since I was taught to knit by “throwing” stitches in what’s called English style, whereas most Chinese knitters “pick” in continental style), or they wanted to know how I had learned. This felt like a very safe group of people for me, as a woman often traveling by herself, to chat with on public transportation. I also felt the activity humanized me for the people around me. It doesn’t really fit the Chinese stereotype of the kinds of things that foreigners do and it opened the door to talking not only about the project on the needles – what it was and where I’d bought the yarn and why was I doing this or that with it – but also about family, craft, and tradition.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting little bits of historical details about hand knitting in China. I’m curious about the origins of Chinese knitters’ reliance on continental style, as well as their preference for fine gauge knits (which I’m guessing probably has to do with the desire to replicate machine knit goods; but it’s still an interesting contrast to Western hand knitters, who tend to knit in a wider range of gauges). Maybe someday I’ll have enough to write something about it.

I’m heading to Iowa soon to check out the holdings relating to the Boxer Uprising at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and also to give a reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore on August 30 to help launch the American edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, for which you and I co-wrote a chapter.  I can’t resist asking what I should be sure to see when I’m in your old stomping grounds of Iowa City.  Any thoughts?

I’ll give a few historical recommendations – a reflection of the fact that I haven’t spent more than a few weeks or days at a time in Iowa City in twenty years and thus have no business recommending current restaurants or institutions.

One of my favorite places in the whole world is Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa – just a little further east from West Branch (where the Herbert Hoover Library is located, itself just a little east of Iowa City). There are very few remnants of original Iowa “oak savanna” prairie left, but Rochester Cemetery is one of them. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and look at Civil War era (and earlier, and later) graves, but also to get a sense of the Iowa landscape and ecology. A lot of people think Iowa is flat, but it is actually quite hilly, particularly in eastern Iowa. By late August, you will still get a feel for the abundance the rich Iowa soil makes possible – not just the raspy, hot rows of corn but the riotous biological diversity that made those rows of corn possible. (To read a great article about it, click here—and, if you do go, make sure you do a tick check after you walk around in the tall grasses!)

Next, you could swing by Hamburg Inn No. 2 in downtown Iowa City – the famous home during caucus season of the coffee-bean caucus (where visitors get to vote for the candidates using coffee beans). If you are feeling brave, you can order a pie shake. It’s just what it sounds like. Iowans take their pie seriously … and in all other forms too.

Last, there are lots of historic homes in Iowa City. For a short visit like yours, I’d recommend a drive-by of the “Bloom County” house – the one that Berkeley Breathed modeled the boarding house for Opus and the gang on. It’s at 935 East College Street, just off downtown and not far from the New Pioneer Coop, where you can grab a quick bite to eat. Now it’s an upscale market with a super deli – but I remember when it was just a dusty warehouse selling bulk whole grains and carob treats (a serious disappointment when you are five years old). They have better candy now. If you are there on a Saturday morning, you can walk kitty-corner to the farmer’s market and check out the local produce.

You didn’t ask, but there’s a connection between Iowa and my research too – which is that though I grew up in Iowa City I remained throughout my childhood very connected to my mother’s laojia, her ancestral home (if there is such a thing in the US), in northeastern Iowa. I felt a great deal of affinity for the rural communities that I studied in China, which were so much like the little hamlet of Luxemburger Catholics that my mother’s family came from, and which has undergone some of the same dispersals and hollowing out that rural areas throughout the US have experienced since the 1980s (and really, of course, part of an ongoing process since the 1930s) and that Chinese villages have been experiencing over the past two decades. This is a global story, but for me also a personal one.

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Introducing the Hong Kong Review of Books: A Q&A With Aflie Bown

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Earlier this year, two literary scholars, Alfie Bown and Kimberley Clarke, founded the Hong Kong Review of Books, a lively and varied addition to the online publishing scene.  I recently emailed some questions to Bown, whose name should ring a bell with readers of the China Blog due to his recent contribution to it, to learn more about their joint endeavor.  Here are my questions and his replies.

From the Hong Kong Review of Books’ website, I see that you moved to Hong Kong a year ago. What inspired you to start the HKRB

Well that’s quite an easy question to answer. Kimberley and I both work in literature studies and are regular readers of other review of books sites like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the London Review of Books. When we arrived here last year we decided to check out the Hong Kong Review of Books, but when we tried to do this we realized that it didn’t exist! We assumed that a city with such a rich literary heritage as Hong Kong would have already had a site like this and so we just saw an opportunity to create it. There is the Asian Review of Books, which is great, but that is a very different project which focusses on books that are actually about Asia. Everyone seemed very supportive of the idea so we went ahead and launched the site with the simple ambition of proliferating some interesting discussion about radical literature!

What do you hope the Hong Kong Review of Books can accomplish in its first year?  

Well, we are six months old and we are very pleased with our growth so far. We’ve had dozens of contributors including poets, academics, novelists, journalists, and illustrators and we just want to keep growing the site as a platform.

We’ve basically got three main projects. The first and biggest is of course book reviews. We review several books per week, focusing on poetry, literary fiction, and (most of all) non-fiction. We aim for at least 1 in 5 books to be about Hong Kong or China, or to be written by Hong Kong or Chinese authors, but the rest of the things we cover are international. Our reviewers are from all over the world and we leave it up to them to judge what is worth reviewing. Unlike many other review sites, we don’t decide what to cover and nor do the publishers. Instead we invite reviewers to pitch books that they are interested in writing on.

Secondly, we have our HKRB Interviews Series which is our most successful feature because we have interviewed some of the very top philosophers and writers in the world. This is exclusively about ‘critical theory.’ Once per month we interview an author of a new book in theory and philosophy about their work, discussing politics, philosophy, and culture.

Finally we have a new feature, our HKRB Essays Series, which has just launched with essays on the refugee crisis and the singer Prince. We’re hoping to build this a lot more and solicit essays on Hong Kong politics and culture from our many contributors in Hong Kong.

We’re always looking to grow, and if any China Blog or LARB readers want to write for us they should get in touch! Details here.

Part of the mission of the Hong Kong Review of Books is “promoting radical discussion in challenging political climates.” Hong Kong is certainly in its most challenging political climate since the Handover, yet many in Chinese publishing there are shying away from any type of radical discussion. Do you think the English press is held to a different set of standards? Is there any fear that you’ll receive pressure from the Hong Kong government to abstain from controversial subjects? 

Yes, that’s a big part of our mission! This is a great question and, we think, the most important. First we should say the obvious: that the site is all about books. For some people this would be a way of saying that its relatively harmless – i.e. the idea that ‘it’s only books’ – but this is the opposite of what we think. We firmly believe that literature and writing itself is always political. So, in order to be a genuine site about literature and about writing, you would have to be engaged with politics.

By ‘radical discussion’ we mean new and innovative ideas which deal with the difficult times we live in. Like with our reviews, the political content is determined by what our contributors want to write on. We certainly don’t abstain from controversial subjects and we urge our writers to tackle them. As you say, we see Hong Kong as being in a very important political moment in which it is very important to be political and think about the future, so yes, we want to help provide a platform for such discussion.

What are your impressions of the English-speaking Hong Kong literary scene? How does the Hong Kong Review of Books fit into that scene?

We think there is a great literary scene here and we are looking forward to being part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival later this year which shows just how much is already here. We just want to bring all this together and also join it up with other international discussions of literature really. Like LARB, we are a properly international review of books site, but we are also very interested in Hong Kong literature and culture and we want to really bring the two together.

Finally, what has surprised you the most about Hong Kong?

The fact that there was no Hong Kong Review of Books already. We were lucky!

KFC world tour

Chinese Nationalism and the Colonel’s Chicken

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever a new bout of state-sanctioned nationalist fervor in China makes headlines, I think back to the time in May 1999 when NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC and triggering protests. I happened to be in China then and spent an eventful week observing responses to the deaths in first Beijing and then Shanghai. I visited campuses to read and take photos of wall posters denouncing the United States and Britain, the two countries that had taken the lead in the moves against Serbia. I went near the American Embassy to watch a rowdy demonstration, and a few days later walked by the Shanghai Consulate where I saw its outer walls still festooned with the tatters of placards denouncing Washington that protesters had pasted on them, but also saw police lined up to make sure there would be no more further demonstrations there. At a Shanghai campus assembly devoted to the event, the main speaker, a faculty member, lauded students for having expressed their patriotism. He also said, in step with the party line of the moment, that the time for street action was over. He noted in closing (lest he seem insufficiently patriotic) that at times like that, when China was being bullied, he was glad that Beijing was among the countries to possess nuclear weapons.

These experiences, which I have written about before in essays and a 2007 book chapter, have been on my mind again in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines and against China in the maritime dispute involving the two countries. Some completely predictable things have happened. Chinese officials and the country’s state-run press have alternated between dismissing the verdict as irrelevant, on the one hand, and criticizing it as unfair and the result of bias, on the other. There has been the expected flurry of online jingoism, as a mix of ordinary people and “50 centers” (the term for those paid a token fee by the government to make comments supporting the party line) have denounced the decision, and made derisive comments not only about the Philippines but also Washington, which is seen as playing a crucial and nefarious part in trying to block Chinese claims to islands, specks of land, or reefs that other Asian countries say are theirs. All this has fit into a familiar pattern. So, too, in a way, have the very recent state media calls for some kinds of protests to stop, as there generally comes a time in these outbursts, as there did in 1999, when the authorities worry about popular agitations, once unleashed, being too hard to keep running in acceptable channels.

There have also been some things happening that have been novel, albeit not really surprising, given how they resonate with past reactions to real and imagined slights to Chinese national pride. For example, a slew of celebrities, the globally famous pianist Lang Lang among them, have put up identical patriotic postings showing a map portraying the PRC as big as it is ever imagined to be, including the stretches of water inside the “nine-dash line” that is used to describe maritime areas Beijing claims. Along with this image have been characters declaring that patriots should not let China shrink by even “one dot’s worth,” in the sense of letting go of even a single island or moving any of those nine dashes. (These expressions of patriotic pride have not gone uncontested, as little does in our thoroughly wired and complexly interconnected world; some Vietnamese Internet users, for example, have posted comments saying that due to their own love of country they cannot remain fans of the Chinese celebrities in question, while Taiwanese have objected vociferously to Taiwan being included as part of the PRC in the online maps.)

Another example of a mix of the expected and the novel involve reports that some Chinese have taken to smashing their iPhones to show anger at America while others have been calling for a boycott of Philippine mangoes to punish Manila. The destruction of iPhones is reminiscent of the destruction of Japanese cars when anger at Japan ran high a decade ago. The move against mangoes is new, in the sense that this particular fruit has not been boycotted before, but it fits into a very long term pattern, linked to both state-sponsored and partly genuine nationalist upsurges and the purely bottom-up variety, in that there have been calls for boycotts of foreign products before in China during many different sorts of movements. An important early case in point was the anti-American boycott of 1905, which was launched to show displeasure with discriminatory U.S. immigration laws. A very recent example, tied to purely online as opposed to digital and street actions, was a call for mainland consumers to eschew buying the products of the French L’Oreal cosmetic group until it distanced itself from Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, simply because she had expressed her support for her city’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 and later met with the Dalai Lama. (Historical point: U.S. immigration laws didn’t change for decades, but within days, L’Oreal cancelled a concert it had planned to hold in Hong Kong that would feature Ho, though the plucky singer has, as Elaine Yu and I detail in a recent commentary, found creative ways to protest the French company’s capitulation.)

One thing that has interested some scholars weighing in on recent events and also some journalists, including Adam Minter, is what could have happened, but didn’t, when the verdict came down. Most notably, there were no rowdy demonstrations in city centers, of the sort that took place during anti-Japanese upsurges earlier in this century and in 1999. There were also no angry gatherings outside of embassies comparable to the ones I saw seventeen years ago; this time, police worked to ensure there would be any protests at these kinds of sites right away, rather than waiting for a few days to do this.

At first, as I tracked the response to the verdict from this side of the Pacific, I was struck most by the differences between what I witnessed on the other side of the ocean in 1999 and the current chain of events, despite seeing some parallels and things that conformed to a familiar pattern. In 1999, Chinese lives had been lost, which gave the sense of outrage a more human aspect than in this fight over bits of territory. The 1999 protests also had deeper connections to longstanding traditions of campus unrest than have recent expressions of nationalist outrage in China, including those of this year, which have not generally been so rooted at universities. The rise of digital and social media has changed many things as well. In addition, the current government seems even more obsessed with control than its immediate predecessors, and quicker to try to curtail even loyalist demonstrations due to worry that, once started, they could move in what it considers the wrong direction.

One thing that began happening this week, though, has definitely triggered powerful 1999 flashbacks—protesters in various cities lashing out at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a symbol of America. KFC was also a target of protesters in 1999, though often it was paired with two other icons of the American food and drink world, McDonalds and Coca Cola. Don’t eat the Kentucky Fried Chicken, don’t eat Big Macs, don’t drink Coke was a tripartite theme in more than a few posters I saw.

Beijing 1999 Protest

Someday, this latest KFC boycott may become part of a master’s thesis on the political as well as business-related story of the Colonel’s brand’s Chinese adventure. I’ll end here, though, with just a few final thoughts relating to it, and some photos I took at the time that I’ve found interesting to look at again while the latest nationalist outburst in China is in the news.

Shanghai post 1999

I was not an eyewitness to China’s 1989, but learned from accounts by others that the KFC near Tiananmen Square sometimes served as a meeting point for participants in that important struggle. This led to a curious case of cultural miscommunication when Chai Ling, a leader of the 1989 protests, came to speak at the University of Kentucky in 1991, as part of an event commemorating the movement. Seeking to connect with the students and faculty of the school, where I was teaching, she brought up a key meeting held at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, assuming that the crowd would take pride in the state’s name being connected to efforts to make China freer. It was a natural assumption, but it was one part of her speech that fell flag, since many professors were from places other than Kentucky and some looked down on fast food franchises of all kinds, while more than a few people with ties to the state didn’t view KFC as a positive representative of it.

Beida Posters 99

US Consulate

My last comment concerns my experiences taking photographs in 1999. Fascinated by the call to boycott McDonalds and KFC, as well as being interested in how popular those places had become in China during the final years of the last century, I spent some time checking out the branches of both to see how they were faring in the wake of the Belgrade bombing. Within days of the first boycott calls, lots of people were back to getting their fried chicken and Big Macs in the usual way. What sticks in my mind most about visiting the franchises, though, was that when I took out my camera to take photos of crowds and also of the décor inside them, as I’ve always been interested in the strategies global brands make to adapt to local tastes and traditions, I got hassled more by security personnel than I had been the previous days on campuses. It turned out to be easier for me to take photos of protesters rallying to the cry of “Down with American-led NATO Hegemonism” (one of the movement’s main slogans, which doesn’t roll off the tongue in any language) than of the interiors of establishments seen as important symbols of U.S. capitalism.