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.

Funny Bones: A Q&A with Jesse Appell About Comedy in China

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

By Alec Ash

Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.

What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?

I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.

So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?

Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.

Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?

There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.

Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.

I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.

But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].

What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?

A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.

The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.

That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.

Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.

Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.

Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.

Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.

Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?

My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.

But the material still steps on toes, right?

It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.

The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.

Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?

There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.

Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.

Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”

I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.

Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.

What Foreigners Do in China

By Xujun Eberlein

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements — Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Marking Time in China and the West — A New Year’s Post

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.”  So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.

— Gideon Rachman, “Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?” Financial Times blog

Today’s China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago.

 — Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference December 31, 2013

You can learn a lot about how globalization has changed the world from thinking about how time was reckoned in different places a century or so ago, at the moments of the past flagged in these two quotes, and how it is marked now.  For example, in 1900, as UCLA doctoral student Maura Dykstra and I note in a chapter we’ve just finished for a forthcoming world history volume on the Fin-de-Siècle, few Chinese thought of themselves as living on the cusp of two centuries. Neither the date “1900” nor the concept of a “century” meant much in a setting where years were still generally described in terms of the reigns of emperors and movement through 60-year cycles that involved combinations of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the five elements. Flash forward to the present, and in China, as in nearly all other places, people think of themselves as living in a year called “2014” that belongs to the second decade of the 21st century.

Holidays tell a similar story, in ways that are interesting to ponder this week, with the biggest American celebratory season just completed and the biggest Chinese one about to begin.  Very few people in the China of 100 or 120 years ago thought of December 25 as a day of any special importance or associated January 1 with the start of the year.  Now, however, while lunar New Year celebrations remain most important, images of Santa Claus proliferate in China’s cities in late December, and Chinese friends who email me on January 1 are sure to wish me a Happy New Year.  Things have reached the point where I’m sure it seemed thoroughly unremarkable when the spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry ended the December 31, 2013 press briefing quoted from above by wishing the journalists who had come a “Happy New Year” and telling them that, after a day off for the next day’s holiday, the first 2014 session would be held on January 2.

All this would seem to fit in with a way of thinking about the cultural aspects of globalization that might be categorized in the Friedman Flattening variety. This approach, which I’ve named in honor of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his most famous book, The World is Flat, assumes that the dominant trend has been the smoothing out of differences.  One way to symbolize this is to invoke the interchangeability of the Big Macs served up wherever the Golden Arches soar, from Beirut to Boston and from Bristol to Bangalore.

In addition, while the flattening of the world is often seen as going along with Americanization, flows from East to West can also be worked into this Friedman Flattening vision. After all, circa 1900, very few Americans, except those of Chinese ancestry, paid attention to the lunar New Year or the zodiacal animals associated with it; whereas now many people across the U.S. are aware that the Year of the Horse is about to arrive.  As the image above shows, the tie between the animal and the year is even recognized by the U.S. postal service.

There have always been alternative views of contemporary globalization, including one that, turning again to alliteration and the name of a famous author, might be called Pico Proliferation.  This approach, named for Pico Iyer (someone I happen to know, so I don’t think he’ll mind the familiarity of playing off of his first rather than last name), emphasizes how highly differentiated experiences remain even as fads, fashions, films, and goods move ever more rapidly around the world.  To go back to McDonald’s, contra the Friedman Flattening view that a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, a Pico Proliferating one stresses that ordering and eating this burger can mean something totally different in Tokyo as opposed to Toledo, Managua as opposed to Munich.

Ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu — And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Iyer’s seminal 1988 travelogue-cum-analysis of cultural flows in globalizing times, I’ve known that my allegiance in this debate is firmly with Team Pico.  I’ve periodically found ways to illustrate this in my writings, such as a recent memoir-infused commentary on the strange life in global circulation of the song “Hotel California”.  This hit by The Eagles, as I note in my article for BOOM: A Journal of California, is popular in far-flung parts of the world but often understood in distinctive ways.  In Asia, for example, it tends to be thought of as a celebratory rather than cynical take on my home state — in spite of lines likening those residing in the eponymous building to being “prisoners” (who can “check out any time” they like, but “can never leave”) and a menacing reference to a “beast” being stabbed with knives.

Returning to time and holidays, I said above that the information I began with about China circa 1900 and today would seem to fit in with a Friedman Flattening vision, but on closer inspection there are Pico Proliferation dimensions aplenty.  Take Santa Claus, for example: while he is now very well known in China, as journalist Max Fisher and others have noted, the jolly old elf is almost always portrayed there playing a saxophone, for unknown reasons.

There are also differences, as well as convergences, relating to chronology, since in China, while centuries are now noted and seen as significant markers, this has not replaced but rather been added to the idea that 60-year cycles are important.  In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date.  More recently still, last year saw events commemorating what would have been Xi Jinping’s father’s 100th birthday and also lavish marking of the passage of 120years (a rough equivalent to a bicentennial, as it meant the completion of two cycles) since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping relates to how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective.  In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I.

In China, though, as the second quote that begins this post indicates, which finds the government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, just as there are two kinds of New Years marked, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play.  Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict.  The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme).  When the official spokesperson made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies.  “Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China.  This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people.”  It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought “to a standoff” in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then.  Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters.  More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.

India in China

By Tong Lam

The relative absence of India in Chinese public discourse is an interesting curiosity. Indeed, while there has been a growing public interest in China among the Indian public in recent years, there is no similar level of reciprocal fascination flowing across the Himalayas in the other direction. Instead, most members of the Chinese public seem more eager to learn about and travel to the United States, Japan, and Europe. Similarly, within the Asian context, Chinese often care more about happenings in other parts of East Asia or Southeast Asia than in South Asia.

In addition to the perceived cultural and historical differences, a major reason for the absence of enthusiasm about India is China’s relentless desire to catch up with nations that are thought of as more advanced — and India is not one of those.  In addition, whereas Pakistan is a longtime ally, India is not widely viewed as either a “friend of China” or a significant threat, something that can also inspire intense interest, in spite of the fact that the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 over a still unresolved border dispute. China is more preoccupied at present with the challenges from neighboring countries that line the Pacific coast.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

Meanwhile, the Indian public is keenly aware that China’s economic development has significantly outpaced that of India in the past two decades, and that China’s rise could pose a threat to their country. At the same time, Indian elite commentators and officials alike have been awed by China’s vast investment in infrastructure, and there has been a swirling debate among them about the pros and cons of the so-called “Chinese model” of governance, which prioritizes state-guided economic growth rather than political liberalization and social justice.

Still, in spite of their asymmetrical interests in each other, as well as their historical enmity, the world’s two most populous nations have a long history of economic and cultural contacts. Furthermore, both China and India are highly conscious of their long civilizations, and both are imbued with a strong sense of cultural and national pride. Significantly as well, their senses of history are still very much shaped by their shared experience of colonialism and imperialism, and by something less often noted by Westerners as a common trait: the fact that both were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union in their immediately post-WWII modernizing projects. Likewise, the two Asian giants are both nuclear powers and now have ambitious space programs. The list of commonalities goes on and on. One way or another, these two ethnically and linguistically diverse nations are going through rapid economic development and urbanization, as they are also grappling with serious disparities and widespread corruptions. And their actions today will have important consequences, within Asia and in every corner of the planet.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

Missing the Harmony Express

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

“There is NOTHING,” I typed, “that makes me miss China more than dealing with @Amtrak. Our rail system is ridiculous.” A quick click on “Tweet” and I sat back in my chair in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, content that I had fully conveyed my frustration with American mass transit — at least, to the thousand or so people who follow me on Twitter.

Like all tweets written in a fit of anger, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have sent, or that I should at least have thought about more carefully before posting. No one from Amtrak responded to my whining, so I had done nothing more than scream into a void. But having traveled the length of the Northeast Corridor (Boston to D.C.) in the past two weeks, my patience for rattling old Amtrak trains has been exhausted, and I long for the quiet, even glide of Chinese high-speed rail. I miss trains that run on time, clear announcements at each station arrival, inexpensive tickets, and free hot water for my instant coffee (though Amtrak’s $2 brew is surprisingly good, I’ve found). Amtrak definitely has the advantage in seat size (roomy in every dimension) and ease of ticket purchase (done online in only a few minutes, a move that China hasn’t been able to make), but otherwise — God, do I miss Chinese trains.

And who would have ever thought that I’d say that?

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted it nine years ago, when I stepped onto a sleeper train to travel from Beijing to Xi’an, my first time riding the Chinese rails. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but was still taken aback by the thin beds and poorly maintained bathrooms, to say nothing of the trash that seemed to bloom on the floor of the car as soon as passengers settled in with snacks whose wrappings they discarded freely. I slept poorly and spent much of the 12-hour trip trying to deter curious fellow passengers from starting conversations that my introverted self cowered at (I’ve mostly gotten past that — a freckled redhead in China can’t also be an introvert).

For several years following that initial journey, I regarded train travel in China as something to be endured in the service of getting from one cool destination to the next. But around 2007 or so, I realized something: the trains between Nanjing, where I lived, and Shanghai, where I liked to be, were getting faster. The interiors were getting nicer. People were cleaning up their trash and spending most of their time listening to iPods or texting on their cell phones, not asking me questions about my life in China. (The bathrooms were still kind of gross, but so are Amtrak’s.) Absorbed in the drama of my mid-twenties life, I had barely noticed the arrival of high-speed rail, one of the most important developments in Chinese infrastructure over the past decade.

China has finally accomplished what Mao Zedong set out to do in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 — surpassed the United States in something big and ambitious. High-speed rail lines spiderweb across the country, from Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south. New lines are being built to reach Kunming in the southwest and Urumqi in the northwest. In the U.S., on the other hand, plans for a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another one in the Northeast Corridor, have repeatedly gotten tangled up in political maneuverings and concerns about building costs — two things that China’s Railway Ministry hasn’t had to worry about as it has embarked on its massive construction spree. We might eventually get a few lines built here, but it will be a long, slow project, measured in terms of decades, not years. Speaking at a panel titled “Will China Rule the World?” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which I attended in D.C. the first weekend in January, Yale professor Peter Perdue joked that “China’s GDP will surpass [that of] the U.S. before America has high-speed rail.”

Of course, China-watchers know that the country’s switch from the “Iron Rooster,” as older trains are known, to the sleek new Hexie Hao, or “Harmony Express,” hasn’t gone completely smoothly by any means. The July 2011 collision between two high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou, which killed 40 people, sounded a note of alarm, and many Chinese asked whether the country needed to slow down as it surged ahead. The arrest and conviction of Liu Zhijun, former Minister of Railways, for bribery and abuse of power signaled that the days of unbridled rail growth with no questions asked were over, though the leadership still plans to double the current high-speed network. Amtrak has a long way to go before it catches up.

The high-speed rail lines that radiate out from Shanghai enable me to travel easily and frequently — even Beijing is only five hours away — and I’ll trade a ride on the Harmony Express for a trip on Amtrak pretty much any day of the week. But as much as I wish that the U.S. were a little more like China in its rail infrastructure, I have to admit that China is also losing something in its switch to high-speed trains. Overnight trips on the “Iron Rooster” were once the quintessential getting-to-know-China experience for foreign students and backpackers, and though I always had to steel myself for those trips before they began, they also comprise some of my most vivid early memories of China. Journeys on the Harmony Express, on the other hand, tend to be so quiet and routine that one blurs into the next, as indistinguishable as the landscape rushing past the window at 300 kilometers an hour.

For a glimpse into China’s railway past, check out Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China, Paul Theroux’s account of his travels across the country in the 1980s. 

Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

Image from ChinaSmack.

By Paul French

After a hiatus of a couple of decades China’s love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is apparently back on. The BBC’s hit show Sherlock is a smash with Chinese viewers – Youku, a Chinese video-hosting website similar to YouTube, is screening the series and within hours of it screening in the UK on New Year’s Day, some 4.72 million Chinese had logged on to watch the latest installment, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they resemble the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

Holmes mania however is not new in China…It may have been a bit muted of late, owing to the range of books to read and programs to watch dealing with other characters since the burgeoning of popular culture consumption options in recent decades, thanks both to liberalization and piracy.  The Chinese love affair with the famous residents of 221B Baker Street, now renewed, goes back much further than crazes for other imports, from sitcoms like Friends to more recent shows like Breaking Bad, which have carved out sizable viewing niches in China.

I can illustrate this clearly via a personal anecdote from the mid-1990s.  A colleague and I found ourselves wandering along a deserted back street in Beijing in what were then the wild desolate areas of the city beyond the Second Ring Road (nowadays considered quite central, since the city extends out past the Sixth Ring Road!). We were on a quest to solve a mystery – did a couple of tough looking Beijing guys we’d met in London a year before really want to set up a joint venture with a British firm to disseminate Chinese statistics to the world? In London the two had seemed a bit shabby, with ill-fitting suits, scuffed shoes, and a fair bit of dandruff and in the course of a meeting they had smoked more cigarettes than London has tube stations. Nobody had taken them seriously and they’d been politely shown the door at every big market research firm in town. We thought they might be interesting to work with.

Their office didn’t inspire confidence – a jerry-built rookery covered in white lavatory tiles, with blue-tinted windows, rickety furniture, extremely large telephones, overflowing ashtrays and not a computer in sight. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we did a sort-of deal and then retired, inevitably, to a restaurant to seal our new shaky partnership. The place served Tibetan food and after all the talk of percentage splits, royalties and company formation details we entered the dangerous waters of small talk. We got off to a bad start by mentioning Tibet. The Chinese were ready for that and countered with British policy (as it then was) in Northern Ireland. We changed tack – soccer. Our new Chinese best friends were all Crystal Palace fans. (Note to American readers: that’s a rather obscure –it’s not at all obscure! – British team based in South London that had for some reason signed a Chinese player and so had a disproportionately large number of hard core Beijing fans.) That kept us going for a bit, but not all that long.

Soccer trivia exhausted, things finally picked up when one of their party – a large, jovial man who looked more like he’d come to fit you a new water boiler than one of China’s chief statisticians – leaned across the table and informed us that he was the Chairman of Beijing’s Sherlock Holmes Society. Everyone at the table nodded effusively as if he’d just announced he was China’s new Ambassador to the UK. As former English schoolboys we felt that at last we were on safe ground – Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson and Victorian crime solving. What didn’t we know about England’s greatest consulting detective, the good doctor and the canon of Conan Doyle? Well, quite a lot, as it turned out. The guy was a Holmes genius – every story, character, detail memorised. But he was sad – during his trip to London their itinerary had been so busy he hadn’t had a chance to visit Baker Street and pay homage to his idol (to be honest, he didn’t seem altogether clear that Holmes was fictional).

On a trip back to London a couple of months later I stopped by the rather tacky Sherlock Holmes gift shop on Baker Street and picked up a bag of Sherlockian  (as Holmes fans are known) souvenirs – key rings, fridge magnets and, at the time, a wonderful new invention: a mouse pad with a picture of a deerstalker hat on it. A return visit to the boondocks of Beijing ensued, the bag was handed over and our exciting statistical joint venture was sealed with copious amounts of beer in a bar with a bunch of random members of the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society who quizzed us (in those days before Chinese outbound travel became a hot topic) on how bad London fog was these days and whether we’d got round to paving the streets yet. Quite honestly it worked far better, and was a lot cheaper, than a Rolex and a Montblanc pen!

Ultimately my outlay of about the equivalent of US $20 at the Sherlock gift shop got us nowhere. A couple of months later the two guys disappeared; their offices were empty, their phones disconnected and I’ve never heard trace of them since. Still, I like to think that Sherlock mouse mat still gets a bit of use and that my old business partner of about fifteen minutes was tuned in to Youku to watch Curly Fu the other night.

As my brief business partner could have told you, Sherlockian deduction first came to China in 1896 – about a century before my Baker Street key rings arrived! That’s when Holmes was first introduced to Chinese readers in translations of four stories published in the Current Affairs newspaper. So popular were they with readers that in 1916 the Zhonghua Book Company published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, which included 44 stories that rendered Conan Doyle’s prose into classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Holmes was a hit! Conan Doyle’s late nineteenth century English logical reasoning was popular with an early twentieth-century Chinese government’s desire to encourage more empirical investigation of issues within a country that in 1911 had changed from dynastic to republic rule. Conan Doyle’s characters moved to the screen, too, when director Li Pingqian directed (and starred in) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1931 – a film that wasn’t pure Conan Doyle by any means (it swapped London for Shanghai as a setting) but featured a lot of pensive thinking and logical deduction. In the 1920s and ‘30s Holmes was reinvented, copied, and adapted in various ways. Cheng Xiaoqing was a bestselling author who created Huo Sang, a Shanghai Sherlock Holmes complete with a sidekick, Bao Lang who, like Dr Watson, narrates the stories and provides a useful foil. There’s a nemesis of Moriarty-like proportions too – “The South-China Swallow.”

Holmes was also to survive The Curious Case of the Falling Bamboo Curtain and went on being published after 1949. The Maoist spin was that Holmes often battled evil brought about by capitalist greed and bourgeois injustice, which he sort of did, sometimes, if you think about it. In a time of relative hunger for foreign literature, as well as much else, Holmes and Watson retained their Chinese fan base. The men and women I was later to meet for beer in the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society all began their love affair with Conan Doyle’s stories in the dark days of Maoism.

And Holmes never really left China. A new economic era in the 1980s saw a raft of new translations and re-issues as well as, once we got into the internet age, the emergence of Sherlockian fan fiction, much of which evidently focuses on one possible aspect of the Holmes-Watson relationship not usually played up in the West: the homo-erotic.

The often somewhat lumbering behemoth of the BBC has shown itself rather deft and fleet of foot in China with Sherlock. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, the Beeb has done some logical thinking and shrewd deduction of its own by screening Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) via Youku (which paid a licensing fee to the BBC) just hours after its British screening. Had they waited a few minutes more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets. Thankfully it seems today’s new crop of Chinese Sherlockians couldn’t wait even that long for their fix of the further adventures of Curly Fu and Peanut.

Why wait a few hours rather than make it available in China right when it first aired in Britain? Well, unlike a good Holmes mystery, China’s TV panjandrums don’t like surprise endings. The censors had to check for any anti-China content. This was a big issue, as this was Holmes’s return from the dead, and as any good Sherlockian knows he’d spent the years after his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls in that rather contentious spot of Tibet. Does our modern day Sherlock opt for a trip to Tibet and some “me time” in a monastery? Sorry, American viewers (without illegal DVD sellers on every street corner) will have to wait till January 19 for PBS to screen series 3 of Sherlock.

Photo by Eelco Florijn.

Foreign Elements: A Q & A with Photographer, Author and Editor Tom Carter

By Alec Ash

[This interview was originally published on the China Blog tumblr on September 25, 2013.]

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.

I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.

Alec Ash: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?

Tom Carter: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.

Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.

AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?

TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].

The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.

AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?

TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.

Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.

AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.

TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.

In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…

TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.

I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.

AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?

TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.

I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …

AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?

TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.

And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.

Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

Another Dozen China Gift Book Ideas (This Time to Buy for Yourself)

I recently joined with three other “China Blog” contributors to compile a list of 12 gift suggestions for readers seeking books to give China-savvy or China-curious friends and family members.  This is a sequel inspired in part by how tough I found it to limit myself to just the trio of titles we were each allotted, and in part by the thought that it might be useful to give those same readers some ideas on how to use Amazon gift cards or holiday checks to expand their own libraries of books on China.  Even limiting myself to 12 titles proved tough, so I imposed a few arbitrary rules of selection: no repeats from the other list, only works written in English and published in 2013, and only accessibly written titles – so scholarly ones could make the cut, but not if clearly intended just for specialists.  I also ruled out books about China’s future, since I tend to avoid these (sci-fi novels excepted), although one recent prognosticating work, In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade, while not making it onto this recommended list, has managed to slip onto my personal to-read one.  I’ve grouped the books into six pairs:

War Stories

1) Emma Oxford’s At Least We Lived: The Unlikely Adventures of an English Couple in World War II China offers a well crafted account of the author’s parents’ experiences in Hong Kong, from which her father made a dramatic escape as Japanese forces took control, and Chongqing, where her adventurous mother journeyed to work while in her mid-twenties.  It tells a story of love in the midst of battles and air raids, drawing heavily on the author’s access to family letters.

2) Tobie Meyer-Fong’s What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China provides a poignant look at the aftermath and memories of the violence associated with the Taiping Uprising (1848-1864) and its suppression.  Just out in paperback, its virtues were described well in “The World’s Bloodiest Civil War,” a review essay published in this publication last May.

Two if by Sea

1) Timothy Brook’s Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer is a short, complex book by an erudite scholar with an elegant writing style, whose narrative moves from efforts made by Chinese border guards to keep him from taking a seemingly ordinary map out of China in the 1970s to his much later efforts to unravel the mysteries of the very old eponymous cartographic creation recently discovered in an Oxford library.  Of topical interest is the book’s discussion of Pacific islands that different nations claim as their own.

2) David Igler’s The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush is an ambitious and richly detailed look at the way travel and trade via the sea connected the United States and China, as well as the neighbors of each and the islands in between them, from the mid-to-late 1700s to the mid-1800s.  Not a China book per se (and full disclosure: by a UC Irvine colleague), but one with much to offer those fascinated by any or all of the countries that ring the Pacific, and an important part of a new surge of work on that ocean, as David Armitage shows in the essay “From guano to Guantamo,” a TLS cover story focusing on Igler’s book and a related one by Gregory T. Cushman.

Cosmopolitan Currents

1) Henrietta Harrison’s The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village weaves together three centuries of stories from and about a small community in North China, deftly paying attention to local, imperial and later national, and even global forces and factors.  The author makes use of everything from Vatican archives to interviews with North China villagers, as she brings to life the ways that imported and indigenous beliefs and practices became entwined in a village that has been both Chinese and Catholic now for many generations.

2) Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh’s The Lius of Shanghai makes extensive and effective use of a large cache of letters that were exchanged between members of a prominent Chinese business family.  It is another work, like the last one, which is tightly focused in one sense yet expansive in another, in this case due to how robustly cosmopolitan Shanghai was in the early 1900s, when many of the letters were written, and the fact that the family’s members left the city to spend time in other parts of China and also in the West.

China from the Bottom Up

1) Peter Hessler’s Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West is a sort of bonus book for fans of this extraordinary writer, who finished a celebrated trilogy on China and then moved, first to Colorado and then to Cairo. This collection, which is made up of previously published, albeit reworked, material is not exactly something that turns his China oeuvre into a quartet, since it also deals with other places (Nepal, Japan, the United States), but with this special a writer, we will all happily take what we can get, and the book is a wonderful read for all the reasons I spelled out in the review of it I did for the Atlantic’s website.

2) Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz’s Restless China is the third in a series of edited volumes that shares with all of Hessler’s works on Chinese themes a focus on how ordinary people in that country are living through and helping to shape extraordinary times.  My personal favorites of its many fine chapters are ones that look, in turn, at the writer (and racecar driver) Han Han, a female folk healer, and the fun that online commentators have with coded terms and word play, but for more about the book’s contents and qualities, see “Jittery Nation,” a savvy review of it that my Asia Section co-editor Megan Shank did for this publication.

Digital Dilemmas

1) Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel finds the poetry-writing Shanghai detective back in action in the same morally murky milieu that has featured in so many of the previous installments of the series.  As usual, the Shanghai-born though now St. Louis-based author’s greatest strength lies less in his plotting than in his skill at evoking the feel of daily life and political tensions in his native city, and his knack for finding interesting ways to connect crimes to topical concerns, which in this case includes the shifting political and cultural role of the Internet in China.

2) Jason Q. Ng’s Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (and Why) is a book whose pleasures and smarts I have already written about in not just one but two places, having penned a brief review of it for the TLS and discussed it as well in a commentary on the complex nature of Chinese censorship systems I did for Dissent magazine.  The TLS review is behind a pay wall, so I won’t link to it here, but I will point readers interested in details about the book to look up the Dissent essay that’s freely available online.

Party Time

1) Peh Shing Huei’s When the Party Ends: China’s Leaps and Stumbles After the Olympics surveys major Chinese events from the spectacles of the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo to the Bo Xilai scandal and the rise of Xi Jinping.  It should appeal to readers fascinated by elite politics and its author, who did good reporting from Beijing for the Singapore Straits Times before moving back to Southeast Asia, knows when and how to enliven top-down views of China with human interest stories and engaging personal touches.

2) Rowan Callick’s The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Elite covers much of the same ground and has many of the same strengths as the last book, though it is less interested in Chinese mega-events (the “Party” in Peh’s title refers in part to the 2008 and 2010 spectacles) than in the Leninist organization that continues to run the country (“Party” in this work’s name just refers to that ruling group).  For American readers, who are most often exposed to works by journalists who come to China with ideas about it shaped by their having learned about it first while living or studying in the United States or the U.K., one thing that both of these final titles offers, since Callick is based in Australia and spent a long stint covering Beijing for the Australian, is an alternative perspective on Chinese affairs, influenced by viewing the topic from a different geographical and geopolitical vantage point.

Casino Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

By Tong Lam

Macao has long been known as the “Las Vegas of the East” and the “Monte Carlo of the Orient,” but ironically its reputation as a center of capitalist excess only really took off after it was reintegrated into a still-nominally Communist China as a Special Administrative Region. This happened in 1999 and a key part of the process was the opening of its gambling sector to foreign investors. Throughout the twenty-first century, Macao’s gambling industry has been expanding at an exponential rate. In 2012, the gambling revenue in Macao was six times that of the Las Vegas Strip.

The city has certainly come a very long way from the sleepy colonial outpost it was in the mid-1800s when gambling was first legalized there. Thanks to China’s surging economic development, it’s even come a very long way from where it was at the end of the last century. By now, instead of calling Macao the “Las Vegas of the East,” it might be more appropriate to flip the comparison and refer to the Nevada gambling hub as the “Macao of the West.”

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

Not surprisingly, thanks to the bustling local gambling and hospitality industries, money generated by tourism is now the driving force of the Macao economy. In addition to having casinos, shopping arcades, and hotels that are larger and more luxurious than their Las Vegas counterparts, Macao’s per capita GDP (according to the World Bank) is fast approaching $90,000, meaning it is just slightly below the world’s frontrunner Luxembourg.

Likewise, the number of mainland tourists visiting Macao is approaching 20 million per year, more than a 20-fold increase from a decade and a half ago when the city was still under Portuguese rule. Yet, significantly, leisure tourism, especially by members of China’s burgeoning middle-class, is only part of the reason for the city’s rapid income growth. An equally if not more important part of the story is the use of Macao’s casinos to launder money for China’s filthy rich. In order to bypass China’s foreign currency exchange regulation, many wealthy Chinese deposit their money with junkets in mainland China and then withdraw and use those funds in the numerous VIP gambling rooms scattered across Macao’s casinos. In a way, Macao’s economic growth is at least partially a reflection of Beijing’s inability to enforce taxation and currency, as well as its inability to curb many forms of corruption.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

In light of this economic picture, two final things about Macao, which should come as no surprise, are worth noting.  A rising overall per capita GDP notwithstanding, the gap between the city’s haves and have nots has been growing dramatically; and despite all the official talk by Beijing of reining in corrupt practices in government and business sectors, and occasional crackdowns linked to this rhetoric, the rise of corruption in Macao shows no sign of abating.

Our Favorite Things

Before becoming part of the LARB’s “China Blog” team (indeed, before that publication even began), several of the people who have been writing for it were deeply involved in “The China Beat,” a digital publication based at UC Irvine that ran from 2008 to 2012 and was edited first by Kate Merkel-Hess and then by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. One thing we did this time of year at that blog was to provide China-themed holiday gift ideas (some collected here), and we’ve decided to reboot that tradition for LARB readers. What follows is a list of some of our favorite things published in 2013. Each of the four regular contributors to the “China Blog” was asked to suggest three, a dozen in total (fits in with the Twelve Days of Christmas and all). We will all, of necessity, have to leave some favorite books off our lists, due to limits of space and, at least in my case, because one of the works I consider among the best of the year, The China Story’s Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, is available for free — so, for anyone other than a truly Scrooge-like cheapskate, zapping the PDF to a friend or family member could hardly count as giving that person a “present”. Our list, as you’ll see, is an eclectic one, with suggestions that will work for those who are fans of fiction and fact-based works and, in Tong Lam’s case, those who can’t get enough of trash talk.

– Jeff Wasserstrom

Hour of the Rat 5 and 6

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham’s Three Selections (N.B. well, four really, but she’s a humanist so math isn’t her strong suit):

1. There are more than enough big books about World War II published every year, but Oxford historian Rana Mitter has written one that’s a must-read for all history buffs: Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Mitter has produced a work that is both an epic national saga and a deeply personal account of the war’s toll on China’s competing leaders, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Wang Jingwei (branded a Japanese collaborator after the war and today condemned as a traitor in China). Thanks to his beautiful writing style, Mitter manages the difficult feat of covering the country’s eight years at war in painstaking detail, yet never overwhelming or boring the reader.

2. Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury, is perhaps the most acclaimed China book of 2013. It’s indeed an excellent read, and perfect for the gift recipient on your list who is familiar with the broad history of China since the early 19th century but wants to learn more. Schell (full disclosure: my former boss) and Delury (a LARB contributor) structure each chapter as a capsule biography of a major figure in modern Chinese history, while setting that individual against the background of larger events happening during his (or in one case, her) lifetime. Like Mitter, they’re skilled writers whose way with words proves that history doesn’t need to be boring.

3. If you’re shopping for someone who enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books and is looking for something new to read, pick up the two Ellie McEnroe mysteries by Lisa Brackmann, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, which are set in China. Brackmann did a Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom for the China Blog earlier this year, and I have a short review of both books up at my own blog, so I won’t say more about them here. But the combination of a strong female protagonist, a China setting, and engrossing mystery plots results in books that I think any grown-up fan of Nancy Drew would enjoy finding in her Christmas stocking.

boxers+saints

Jeff Wasserstrom’s Three Titles (N.B. my third choice is a two-in-one book, so perhaps arithmetic isn’t my forte either):

1)      If you are looking for literary stocking stuffers, it’s hard to beat the “Very Short Introductions” that Oxford University Press publishes, including several that deal in part or completely with China. My pick for this year’s gift buyers is James Millward’s The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, which is under $10 and offers a deeply informed survey of this storied route, paying attention to the history and legends associated with it, and nicely combining attention to the standard topics, such as the flow of people and goods along it, with a good discussion of its role in the dissemination of artistic practices. It contains, for example, a memorable section on musical flows between Asia and other parts of the world. That’s no surprise, as along with being a leading historian of East and Central Asia, Millward is an accomplished musician who is part of the bluegrass band By & By – so if you want to be really creative with your stocking stuffing and have someone on your list interested in both China and music, toss in a copy of that group’s excellent debut album, too.

2)      For anyone on your shopping list particularly concerned about the fate of Tibetans in the PRC, Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong’s Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage, published by Hong Kong University Press and available for Kindle, is excellent. The authors, a husband and wife team of courageous commentators based in Beijing, weigh in powerfully on topics ranging from the destruction of Lhasa landmarks to acts of self-immolation. Violet S. Law is the skillful translator responsible for the book, and leading Tibetan history scholar Robert Barnett provides a gracefully written and very informative introduction to the Tibetan context and to the two authors.

3)      Finally, for anyone on your list who likes comics and graphic novels, there’s Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a two-in-one work that readers of this blog should be familiar with, thanks to Angilee Shah’s recent Q & A with its author. All I’ll add here is that it makes for enjoyable and engaging reading for young adults and the other kind alike, and academic China specialists will find particularly striking the way that some parts of the analysis are informed by scholarly works on the Boxers, several of which, including landmark studies by historians Joseph Esherick and Paul Cohen, are listed in a bibliography of books consulted.

Junkyard

Tong Lam’s Trashy Trio (N.B. one of these is actually five albums, so I guess this is another blogger who has a creative approach to numbers):

1. What will happen to the old and unwanted stuff cast into trashcans and recycle bins to make way for new gifts this holiday season? Adam Minter’s new book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollars Trash Trade, will fill you in, offering an insightful guided tour of a globally significant but little-known aspect of our economy and environment. While the book is not just about China per se, being the world’s largest recipient and generator of garbage, China is certainly central to the planetary circulation of trash and the enormous business associated with it. For readers who are interested in contemporary China and its inherent connection to global capitalism, Minter’s book is a fascinating and informative read. For more, see the LARB review by Susan Jakes.

2. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, as artist Thomas Sauvin’s photo book, Silvermine, makes clear, with its unique visual window onto China’s contemporary history. Silvermine is actually a set of five photo albums, each containing 20 photos published by the Archive of Modern Conflict. During the past five years, Sauvin salvaged, categorized, and edited over half a million photos taken from a recycling facility on the outskirts of Beijing, where old negatives are sent so their silver nitrate content can be extracted and recycled.

The Silvermine albums capture how ordinary Chinese people documented their everyday activities between 1985 and 2005, when silver film was in widespread use. These snapshots from numerous anonymous individuals, which depict activities like buying household appliances and visiting theme parks, offer a bottom-up view of China’s profound post-socialist transformation. This pricy book has been released in a limited edition (just 200 copies in all) and will surely make an impressive gift for any China junkie.

3. No list of trash-themed books would be complete without one that offers a broader understanding of our changing urban conditions, especially the accelerating pace of urbanization in the Global South. One notable 2013 book on this topic, with a China focus, is Xuefei Ren’s Urban China. Written for a general audience, this book surveys the unprecedented urban boom of a country that now has more than 125 cities with a population greater than a million. Ren’s book is not just about Chinese cities—It is also about citizenship rights, social hierarchies, inequalities, governance, political economy, and many other related issues.

ows_137236890088100

Alec Ash’s Selections (N.B. this is actually a trio of titles, pure and simple, so we finally have someone good at math.):

1. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler

Hessler became a must-read for China hands (and a favorite of many of the simply China interested) with his 1997 memoir from Sichuan, River Town. Over the next decade, he came out with two more books and was the New Yorker’s man in Beijing, providing us with a steady IV drip of narrative writing over one of China’s most transformative periods. Then he left us, and now he’s doing the same in Cairo. But he left behind one last hurrah — a collection of his longform stories, beginning with his first piece for the New Yorker, about eating a rat in Guangdong, and ending with a dispatch from small town Colorado. It’s perfect for dipping into.

2. The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell

Mo Yan was the Chinese novelist of choice last year, after he won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’ve always found him and his generation (Yu Hua, Ha Jin, Ma Jian, etc.) tiresome in that they mainly write about the countryside. For something more urban, and reminiscent of today’s China, pick up Zhu Wen. His collection I Love Dollars was a breath of fresh air — gritty, real, and relevant. This new collection of stories, also translated by Julia Lovell, is more of the same. It’s short, readable, and one of the best open sesames for contemporary Chinese literature.

3. For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

Liao Yiwu has had quite a life, and is quite a writer. Incarcerated in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, for writing a poem called “Massacre,” he went itinerant on his release, and the oral histories that resulted from his travels were collected in The Corpse Walker. Now he returns to his years in prison, and uses them as a springboard for a stark portrait of contemporary China. It’s grim holiday reading, but in the midst of the vibrancy and forward motion of China, a reminder not to forget those who are left behind for having the courage of their convictions.