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.

Xi Jinping’s Peculiar Packaging of the May 4th Spirit

By Rebecka Eriksson

Early this month, Chinese top leader Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to China’s most prestigious university.  While there, he had photographs taken with students and gave a speech that showcased, in revealing and sometimes bizarre ways, his penchant for drawing inspiration from a dizzyingly diverse array of parts of his country’s past, with Confucius and Mao Zedong and events of the early twentieth century all getting shout outs.

The setting for the speech was important.  It took place at an institution known internationally as “Peking University,” in Chinese called Beijing Daxue or simply “Beida,” for short, and sometimes described as China’s counterpart to Harvard.  The many claims to fame of Beida, whose website now features photos of Xi’s visit and a summary of some themes from his speech, include the central roles it has played in student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre.

The timing of Xi’s visit to Beida was notable.  He went to the campus to help the university mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, which is important not only to the university but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949.  His comments to students, not surprisingly, focused on the need to carry forward the patriotic “spirit of May 4th,” and, equally unsurprisingly, called on educated youths to follow the CCP’s guidance in doing this. Continue reading

A Trip Back to Beijing — Courtesy of Xu Zechen and Eric Abrahamsen

By Megan Shank

Step out of the Beijing airport, and taste the tang in the air. For the remainder of your time in the capital, it will linger, metallic, on the back of your tongue. Is it burning plastic? Coal? The sweat of migrant workers who have come to chase dreams and money? The boozy breath of corrupt officials? The hot asphalt poured for wide boulevards? The lingering dust of razed neighborhoods, a powdery earthen scent that haunts like an odiferous ghost? Pop music blares. Repairmen bike through neighborhoods with megaphones advertising their services. Garlic hits food vendors’ woks with a sizzle. Amateur opera singers warble in the park. Buses belch fumes. Modern subway doors swoosh open, people smoosh together. Old men with t-shirts rolled up over their bellies sit on stools in alleyways and chat. Young lovers wearing matching outfits interlace fingers and stroll in shopping malls. More than a million smokers could be lighting their cigarettes at any given moment. With enough of a spark, it almost feels like the atmosphere could burst into flames and smolder.

Xu Zechen’s slim 2008 novel Running Through Beijing, recently translated into an English version published by Two Lines Press (2014), transported me back to that city and all its colorful inhabitants. The novel captures the taste and tension of Beijing better than any I’ve ever read. I felt the grit from Beijing’s frequent sandstorms sting my eyes. I savored on my tongue again the spicy mutton of a hotpot joint. Readers will internalize the restlessness and loneliness of young strivers. And Eric Abrahamsen’s translation is so deft, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t originally written in English. He especially executes slang-filled dialogue with pizzazz. Continue reading

Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi

By Mengfei Chen

Is it still a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Perhaps he’d rather spend that fortune on bottle service and club bunnies. Certainly, modern day Lily Barts need not die young, alone and poor because they nixed a number of suitable suitors — not if Sheryl Sandberg has anything to say about it. Continue reading

What Do Chinese Women Want?

Photo: Mary Guo in Beijing, April 15, 2014.

By Lu-Hai Liang

Let’s start with Mary. Well that’s her English name anyway. We met seven years ago in Yangshuo, a pretty little town in southern China where she was studying English. I liked her sparky personality and sense of fun, and we became friends. I was teaching English, taking a year out before I started university. I was 18, Mary 21.

Skip forward seven years to the present, and I’m back in China, this time to work in Beijing. I am British, of Chinese heritage. Mary is Chinese and her heritage is that of rural dwellers, known in Chinese as “nongmin” or farmers.

I’ve never known Mary to have a boyfriend but she recently told me, after I asked about her relationship status for this article, that she has had two, including the one she is currently seeing. I was surprised to hear this, since Mary had not mentioned any of this in our previous meetings (she works in Beijing). She is 28 now, which, according to the general consensus within Chinese society, makes her more-than-ready for marriage. Continue reading

Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.

Goodbye, Chiang!

By Tong Lam

One of the most iconic scenes in the 2003 German tragicomedy film Goodbye, Lenin!, which depicts drastic changes in daily life in the former East Germany soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is a gigantic Lenin statue being flown away by a helicopter over East Berlin. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has triggered a wave of historical reinterpretations. Godlike founders and paramount leaders of many former authoritarian states, once seen as national heroes and state guardians, were quickly recast as dictators and tyrants. The de-mytholigization of these personality cults led to the removal and even demolition of many of the publicly displayed big statues of former political and spiritual leaders.

Taiwan’s democratization in the last two decades of the twentieth century, itself driven by the changing local and global political landscapes, likewise resulted in the removal of the island’s numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) from schools, military bases, and public spaces. Although Chiang was the leader who led the Republic of China in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), he and the Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in a bitter civil war. During the Cold War, the Republic of China in Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth, similar to that of other U.S. client states in East Asia. Yet, despite its economic success (and also not unlike many other U.S. client states), Taiwanese politics under Chiang were oppressive and monolithic. So, when external pressures and internal reforms finally turned Taiwan into a vibrant democracy in the early 2000s, the island went through a period of “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification” and even de-sinicization. In particular, many of the Chiang statues were dismantled and removed during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when an opposition party came into power and the Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan’s government. The process of removing the Chiang statues all over Taiwan was often highly contentious, triggering not just painful memories of violent political repression under the Nationalists, but also bitter identity politics between those who identified themselves as Taiwanese and those as Chinese.

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Although there are still Chiang statues in some Taiwan universities and public spaces, those that had been removed and dismantled were collected and re-erected in a public park near Chiang’s final resting place in Daxi, Taoyuan County. These reassembled, repainted, and rearranged Chiang statues are often placed so that multiple statues are staring at each other in a humorous way. In this clever exercise of massaging history through public art, there are even a few statues of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the founder of the Republic who had handpicked Chiang as his successor, looking at Chiang from behind.

Interestingly enough, many tourists visiting the Cihu Memorial Statue Park where these Chiang statues are located are mainland Chinese tourists. One wonders what they are thinking when confronted with Taiwan’s complicated and entangled historical relationship with mainland China over the past few centuries. Some of these Chinese tourists no doubt think about the future fate of those oversized statues of the former Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) back home. Others perhaps pick up on the subtle desires for cultural and historical reconciliation within Taiwanese society that are embodied in this statue park.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter. © Tong Lam

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, although the Chinese government is still occasionally erecting new Mao statues, many others have been quietly taken down from universities and outdoor spaces in recent years. The politics of museum-ifying the past and the big statues in China are certainly different from those of Taiwan. Nonetheless, one wonders whether China will one day donate some of its overstocked Mao statues to Taiwan, so that Mao and Chiang can quietly look at each other and create a new symbol of historical and political reconciliation.

Ping-Pong Powerhouses and Table Tennis Tales

Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Foundation

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The 1971 “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and the United States is often treated as a mere historical footnote, a quirky prelude to Richard Nixon’s path-breaking trip to the People’s Republic a year later. In his recently published book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, journalist Nicholas Griffin, whom I saw speak about his book at Capital M’s literary festival in Beijing last month, seeks to redress that oversight. The result is an informative and entertaining book that covers far more ground than the single week of Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself.

Griffin begins with the history of table tennis (there were many early names for this small-ball sport, including “gossima” and “whiff-whaff”), a game that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Edwardian England before dying out when the next fad came along. The man who almost single-handedly revived ping-pong, and turned it from an after-dinner game into a global sport, was Ivor Montagu, son of a prominent Jewish banking family that had climbed into the British aristocracy only two generations before. But Montagu, a character tailor-made for a cameo on Downton Abbey, had a rebellious streak that led him to communism. He also loved ping-pong, and ping-pong, curiously, would lead him to prominence within the communist world. Montagu relentlessly promoted the game, which he touted as the ideal activity for the masses, as equipment was inexpensive (and could be improvised) and a ping-pong table took up only a small amount of space (compared to the large fields necessary for sports like soccer and polo). He introduced table tennis to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and quickly saw the sport take off in countries around the globe.

Though the game had its adherents in China (American journalist Edgar Snow slept on a ping-pong table while making the visit to the communist base in Yan’an described in Red Star Over China), table tennis didn’t become identified with Chinese dominance until the 1950s. The new communist government wanted to find sports that Chinese athletes could win to prove their nation’s strength, and elite ping-pong status seemed within reach — if China could topple Japan from the top spot it occupied. It took less than a decade for the New China to assert itself as a ping-pong powerhouse. In 1959, the PRC won its first gold medal in any sport with a victory at the World Table Tennis Championship. Two years later, in the midst of the calamitous Great Leap Forward Famine, Beijing hosted the World Championships, where the Chinese beat the Japanese team to take the men’s cup, while the Chinese government managed to keep visiting teams from realizing that mass starvation was the order of the day in many parts of the country.

Ping-pong fell out of favor during the early years of the Cultural Revolution decade (1966 – 1976); the Chinese team’s victories were now derided as “trophyism,” and its travels around the world regarded not as soft-power diplomacy but rather dangerous exposure to foreign thoughts and practices. But when Mao and Zhou Enlai decided to find a subtle way to approach the United States and begin the process of mending relations in 1971, they chose ping-pong. The PRC sent a team to the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where Chinese players followed what seems to have been a carefully prepared script on making overtures to the Americans. Glenn Cowan, a colorful Californian who was far better at self-promotion than ping-pong, allegedly boarded the Chinese team’s bus by mistake (he claimed he was waved onto the bus by one of the players), and then struck up a conversation with Zhuang Zedong, China’s ping-pong star. Zhuang just happened to have a gift to present to Cowan — not the standard Mao pin that other foreigners received, but a silk-screened portrait of Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. The next day, Cowan approached Zhuang and gifted him with a t-shirt printed with a peace sign, American flag, and the words “Let It Be.” The lines of communication thus opened, Mao sent a message to the head of the Chinese delegation and ordered him to invite the Americans to China — on a trip that would begin in only 36 hours.

The State Department scrambled to figure out what, exactly, was happening. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had in fact been secretly working on establishing contact with the PRC, and they were eager to see the trip go forward, though not officially endorsed by the U.S. government. (The American ping-pong team was less a squad of national champions than a rag-tag group of above-average players who had managed to self-fund their journey to Nagoya.) Finally, a U.S. Embassy official in Japan informed the American manager that the U.S. government was “open to athletic exchanges” with the PRC and would not consider it against policy if the team made the trip.

A remarkable week followed, as the American team toured Beijing and Shanghai while pursued by crowds of curious Chinese and a few excited foreign reporters. Although the Chinese press downplayed the trip, treating the Americans as one more visiting athletic delegation, the rest of the world was watching. The Chinese team played carefully, winning some matches and losing others, always keeping the score close. Glenn Cowan was the star of the show, envisioning the pile of endorsement deals he anticipated would be waiting for him upon his return to the U.S. (Sadly, the ping-pong excitement that the trip sparked soon faded, and Cowan was diagnosed with mental illness not long after; he died in 2004.) Watching from Washington, Nixon and Kissinger saw the possibilities that the trip had opened. Only months later, Kissinger embarked on a secret mission to Beijing, where he arranged Nixon’s February 1972 trip, described in Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.*

It’s probably no coincidence that Griffin’s and Macmillan’s books share similar subtitles. Both Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Nixon’s China trip did change the world, jointly helping to reestablish U.S.-China relations and ending two decades of deeply entrenched hostilities. But while Nixon has gotten all the glory for opening up China, Griffin shows that the Chinese were controlling the game all along. In both ping-pong and diplomacy, the Americans were woefully outmatched.

* For more on ping-pong diplomacy and the Nixon-Mao meetings, see the website of the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR), an organization that played a crucial role in the diplomatic breakthroughs of the early 1970s. Particularly interesting are the photos and videos of the second round of Ping-Pong Diplomacy—the visit to the U.S. by Chinese table tennis players in 1972 that the NCUSCR coordinated.

Confucius, Mao, and the Little Red Book

All Photos by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve just returned from a trip to China that began with a week in Shanghai, where I participated in one literary festival, and ended with a few days in Beijing, where I had a small role in another bookish event of the same kind.  It was good to go back to those cities, which I’ve visited regularly since the mid-1980s, especially since temperatures were higher and smog levels lower than I’d feared they might be, and the panels at Shanghai’s M on the Bund and Beijing’s Capital M went as well as I’d hoped they would.  But as satisfying as returning to each metropolis was, I was particularly glad to be able to slip in a side trip to Qufu, a small city in Shandong Province, best known for its ties to Confucius, that I’d never been to before.  This visit has changed forever the way I think about the historical treatment of the ancient sage and how I think about a canonical modern Chinese text, Mao’s Little Red Book.

I decided to go to Qufu, which is still home to many members of the Kong lineage of which Confucius was part, as soon as I realized how simple it would be to fold this place I’d long been curious to see into a rushed itinerary.  Thanks to the opening of a new bullet train route, I could set off from Shanghai in the morning, get to Confucius’s hometown after being whisked along the rails for three hours, spend the afternoon seeing the main local sights (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and the massive Kong family cemetery that includes the philosopher’s tomb), and then continue on by rail to Beijing the same evening, getting to the capital two hours later.

Qufu had been high on my “to see” list for years due to my interest in the dramatic about-face the Chinese Communist Party has made regarding Confucius.  He is now treated as a kind of national saint but, to borrow from sports writing parlance, his posthumous career has had the ups and downs of a classic comeback kid. Most significantly, as Maura Cunningham and I note near the beginning of our China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, second edition, 2013), as recently as the 1970s he was “excoriated in a mass campaign that presented him as a man whose hide-bound, anti-egalitarian ideas had done great harm to many generations of Chinese men and even more damage to generations of Chinese women.”  How, I wondered on the train to Qufu, would sites associated with Confucius deal with the various reversals of fortune that have been experienced by the sage, who was out of favor among intellectuals in the 1910s, only to be exalted by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, before being reviled throughout the Mao years (1949-1976) and then surging back into official favor under the Chairman’s successors?  In symbolic terms, might Qufu be that most unusual sort of contemporary Chinese locale — a completely Mao-free zone?

QufuTrainStation

 

Qufu Poster

My first fifteen minutes in Qufu were frustrating ones.  They were spent circling the train station with a friend, who was also shuttling between the Shanghai and Beijing literary festivals and had agreed to join me in some Confucius-themed sightseeing, trying to figure out a way to leave our bags in a safe place while venturing into the city.  My initial impression, captured in a couple of photographs I took during breaks from our quest to find lockers or a secure luggage room (the closest we got was a waitress pointing to a closet in her restaurant that she thought might be a good place to stow our bags), was of a city that was all about Confucius and had no room for Mao, and was unconcerned with the ups and downs of the former’s career.  Bigger than life in the station’s main hall was a statue of Confucius that gazed down on all visitors and was described simply as a revered figure from ancient times.  And when I stepped outside, I saw the same visage gazing down at me benevolently from a giant poster that placed Confucius between a needle-nosed bullet train (suggesting that Qufu is a place that honors venerable traditions but is part of a modern country) and a hillside (nodding to the city’s only claim to fame unrelated to the Kong family, which is its proximity to Mount Tai, a leading attraction for Chinese lovers of nature).

Mao came into the picture, though, as soon as we gave up on leaving our bags at the station and decided to hire a taxi with a decent-sized locked trunk for the whole afternoon.  Hanging from the cab driver’s rearview mirror was the same good luck medallion emblazoned with the late Chairman’s face that one sees in taxis across China.  As he drove us to our first stop, the Confucius Temple, he pointed to rows of buildings going up along the highway and cranes in the distance that were part of still grander development plans.  Qufu, the voluble man insisted, was destined to become a major tourist site and a bigger city, since travelers from Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as from all parts of China would want to come and pay homage to Confucius.  Was he sure, I asked, that the population and local tourist trade would grow enough to justify all the building underway?  Definitely, he said, nodding his head vigorously, and then offered two pieces of evidence to back up his confidence.  First, the Shangri-La luxury chain had recently opened a hotel in Qufu.  Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, had close ties to the area, so money was bound to flow into the region.

QufuTaxi

 

QufuCrane

Responding to my other questions, he said that he wasn’t part of the Kong lineage, to which an estimated 20% of the just over half-a-million people living in the greater Qufu are said to belong, but he was a local.  And as such, he was very proud to be from the same place as a great sage and hero of Chinese history.

I asked if he saw anything strange about saying that while having an image of Mao in his car, since the Chairman, an iconoclast from an early age, had despised Confucius throughout his adult life. The driver just bellowed with laughter.  I asked if he even knew about the anti-Confucius stance of Mao’s day, and he nodded and, still laughing, shouted out “Pi Lin, Pi Kong!”  This is the shorthand for the most famous anti-Confucius campaign of all, which took place in the early 1970s.  Making use of the term “pi” for criticize, it targeted both the ancient philosopher (“Pi Kong”) and Mao’s erstwhile heir apparent, Lin Biao (“Pi Lin”).  Lin, a People’s Liberation Army leader, had been seen as a devoted follower of Mao and staunch defender of Mao’s interpretation of Marxism and iconoclastic critical stance toward Confucian ideas.  When the tide turned against Lin, though, he was accused of having been a secret supporter of all things reactionary, including Confucianism, which provided the tortured logic for a double-barreled “Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign,” which threw alleged ancient and contemporary enemies of the revolutionary cause into the same vile category.

Confucius Tomb Plaque

 

Qufu Temple

When we made our way through the city’s three major sites, the main focus of the texts aimed at tourists, from booklets to plaques, was simply the glories of Confucius and the rich legacy of the lineage to which he belonged and the imperial era he is often used to represent.  There was not any mention, at least in any text I saw, of the fact that Confucius had only been revered during part of the People’s Republic’s history.

Every now and then, though, the recent past would come into view, since both some official gift shops and many of the unofficial booths selling trinkets near to the key sites contained objects associated with Mao and his era in powers.  Inside the Confucius Mansion, for example, there was a shop selling various decks of cards: some featuring Confucius, others celebrating emperors, and still others honoring Mao. Meanwhile, between the Temple and the Mansion, there were different but equally promiscuous displays of statues, with Confucius, the Buddha, and Mao all jumbled together.

Qufu Playing Cards

 

Mao Buddha Kongzi Statues

Of all the curious juxtapositions of objects, though, there’s one that stands out most to me as I look back on my Qufu afternoon, which I spotted at a souvenir stall displaying, among other things, a lot of small books with red covers.  A set of four red booklets in particular caught my eye. Two were differently packaged versions of the classic Little Red Books containing Mao’s selected sayings; but the other two were similarly designed and titled copy-cat texts, made up, in this case, of quotations by Confucius.

The side-by-side placement of Little Red Books associated with Mao and Confucius seemed curious for so many reasons that it is hard to know where to begin in attempting to unravel or even describe them.  To try to sort them out, I spent some time on the plane ride home perusing an advance copy of Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, a wonderful anthology edited by Alexander Cook that Cambridge University Press is publishing next month.  The chapters in the volume, by talented scholars based in different countries and different disciplines, explore everything from the way the eponymous text was created and distributed within China to the meanings it took on when it made its way to foreign countries such as India, Italy, Albania and Peru.

Little Red Books

Here are two things the chapters by Cook and his collaborators suggest might be worth considering while pondering the apparent contradiction of different sorts of little red books placed beside one another on that table in Qufu.  Lin Biao, before being castigated as a closet Confucian, took a special role in promoting Mao’s Little Red Book and wrote a preface to the best-known edition of it.  And while the titles and even design features of the newly created Little Red Books of Confucian sayings imitate features of Mao-era creations (note the round images of the authors on some books), the original Little Red Books of quotes by Mao were themselves inspired in part by pamphlets and booklets from earlier times that brought together aphorisms from the Analects and other classical Chinese philosophical texts.

I thought that Qufu would be the sort of place I’d only want to visit once, but the more I ponder what I’ve come to think of as my Little Red Books photo, the more certain I am that I’ll need to go back there again.  I will want to see if the cab driver’s prediction of great things for the city comes true.  I may even see what it’s like to stay in a Shangri-La in Confucius’s hometown.  And I will definitely do something I foolishly forgot to do on my first visit: buy one of the copy-cat Little Red Books that has a picture on its cover of, and words inside by, a philosopher Mao thought of as having ideas that were the polar opposite of his own.

* To learn more about some of the topics brought up in this post, see the following three works:

1) Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Culture of the Great Leader. Page 33 of this pathbreaking work edited by Geremie R. Barmé contains a discussion of a Confucian “Little Red Book” published in Qufu in the early 1980s; page 86 has a photograph of one.

2) A Continuous Revolution–Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture.  This book by Barbara Mittler, which recently won the American Historical Association’s Fairbank Prize, has discusses connections between Confucian and Maoist texts and practices and has a good treatment of the Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign; see especially page 193.

3) “To Protect and Preserve: Resisting the Destroy the Four Olds Campaign, 1966-1967.”  This chapter by Dahpon David Ho in The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (a volume edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder) contains a fascinating and detailed account of Mao era activities in Qufu, including pitched battles between those trying to deface and those fighting to defend the Kong family cemetery.

The Other Shore: On Virginia Pye’s River of Dust

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Virginia Pye wrote her debut novel, River of Dust, in only 28 days. But as she recently explained during a session that I moderated at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the book was a hundred years in the making.

Pye’s family has a long history in China. Her grandparents served as missionaries on the dry, dusty North China plain in the early twentieth century, an inhospitable environment that challenged even the staunchest believers in the missionary enterprise. Pye’s grandmother suffered two miscarriages before a daughter was finally born, only to die as a young girl. Reverend Watts O. Pye died a year later, leaving Virginia’s grandmother a widow who remained in China to raise her only surviving child, Lucian. Lucian grew up in the mission compound, then departed for college in the United States. (He would later become a prominent political scientist and leader in China studies.) Her grandmother stayed until she could not stay any longer, reluctantly leaving after Pearl Harbor put the United States at war with Japan.

For decades, Virginia Pye admits, she wanted nothing to do with this family history; a child of the radical 1960s, she distanced herself from her grandparents’ involvement in colonial missionary work. Only when she was cleaning out her father’s papers as he moved to an assisted-living facility did she discover Reverend Pye’s letters and journals, in which he described the stark beauty of rugged North China and his observations of daily life among the Chinese. A self-proclaimed “sucker for a good writer,” Pye found inspiration in these old documents and drew on her grandfather’s lyrical writings to create the setting for River of Dust.

Although River of Dust contains echoes of her grandparents’ lives, and snippets of Reverend Pye’s writing, the book is a work of fiction. Set in 1910, it follows an American couple as they grapple with the challenges of reconciling the ideals of missionary work with the reality of life in North China. Reverend Watson and his young wife, Grace, arrived in China with a clear vision of their role and confidence in the absolute correctness of their worldview. But the kidnapping of their toddler son and their desperate search for him turns the Watsons’ world upside down. Reverend Watson spends more and more time away from the mission compound as other foreigners whisper that he has “gone native,” while Grace, weakened by grief and a risky pregnancy, withdraws further and further into her own interior world.

It’s not a happy story, but Pye tells it skillfully, her complex plot drawing me in so completely that I stayed up far too late one night finishing the book so I wouldn’t fall asleep wondering what happened to the Reverend and Grace. Because she had her grandfather’s words to guide her, Pye has been able to offer a fully formed view of life on the North China plain, one that incorporates both its small beauties and large tragedies.

We find it difficult now to look on the missionary work of a century ago as anything but arrogance, borne out of a conviction that Westerners could “fix” the Chinese by introducing them to Christianity. The missionaries in River of Dust undoubtedly see the world from a high-handed and often condescending perspective. But they also have a deep appreciation, even love, for China and the Chinese in their community. Like Virginia Pye’s own ancestors, her characters question their assumptions about the differences between East and West and find their previously rock-solid convictions on shaky ground.

In many ways, I think Pye could not have written River of Dust if she hadn’t previously rejected, and later become engrossed in, her grandparents’ missionary work in China. If she’d been an uncomplicated supporter — or uncompromising opponent — of her family history, her novel would have been far less nuanced and sensitive. By coming to the story via a circuitous route, however, she enjoyed the benefit of a balanced perspective that lacked any particular ideological agenda. For a story this subtle, a century is not too long to wait.