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.

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The Great American (in China) Novel

By Robert Foyle Hunwick

Fiction by foreigners in China has lost its sheen considerably since the days of André Malraux’s Shanghai classic La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1933 despite being, frankly, turgid. (It also later emerged that Malraux had concocted many things relating to his claims and his research.)

Modern spy novels, such as Adam Brookes’ Night Heron, still make for great reading, but a surfeit of homegrown Chinese writing and, perhaps, fear of “cultural appropriation” has diminished an appetite for serious fiction-writing by foreigners, with some notable exceptions: Susan Barker’s The Incarnations and Jack Livings’ short–story collection The Dog.

Over in China, the “expat novel” is considered a punchline among old hands; last year’s publication of one particularly hopeless memoir prompted a friend, and fellow LARB contributor, to sarcastically wonder if, somewhere in Beijing “a nondescript borderline-alcoholic English teacher might be polishing off the manuscript of the China equivalent to The Sun Also Rises.”

While I can’t speak to author Quincy Carroll’s current drinking habits — for all I know, he might be a perfectly reasonable dipsomaniac — his debut Up the Mountains, Down the Countryside is probably as close to that novel as we’re likely to get, or want. (Carroll is an MFA graduate who’s worked for an NGO teaching in Hunan; the title is an elegiac reference to the dispatch of Red Guards to provincial farming communities during the Cultural Revolution.)

In this assured, if occasionally florid debut, the author deftly skewers two symbolic opposites who wind up teaching together at a no-mark suburban school in the equally dreary Hunan city of Ningyuan.

Thomas, the elder, is a 60-year-old Minnesotan deadbeat whose charmless cynicism might be his only (vaguely) redeeming quality; enthusiastic Sinophile Daniel, meanwhile, is a bright-eyed youth with stretched earlobe piercings and bright-red hair, whose fondness for strumming the guitar, while crooning folk songs to his adoring students, marks him out as an irritant of an altogether different calibre.

While idle Thomas, “arrogant, lewd and racist,” regards the didactic enterprise with little more than a rapacious, occasionally salacious eye, Daniel prepares lesson plans from scratch, tries to institute a library (it gets taken over by a divorced faculty member as a crash pad), and hikes the outer hills of Ningyuan like it’s the Lake District, viewing even the most mundane details of rural Chinese existence with the keen-eyed interest of the amateur anthropologist.

If that sounds familiar to some readers, it’s fair to say that Daniel’s sections — the plot is divided into chapters alternating between viewpoints –occasionally evoke a fictionalized version of Peter Hessler’s Peace Corps memoir River Town (2001), albeit with erotic dimensions missing from that famous work: one of the novel’s less-imaginative chapters involves a boozy boys’ night out in Changsha and Daniel’s eager encounter with a prostitute.

Clearly, the novel’s two male leads are set for some form of explosive collision, the catalyst for which proves to be Bella, a naïve and overfamiliar student whose urgent wish to ingratiate herself, and enjoy the full “Western” experience by studying abroad, is almost as wearying as Thomas’ studied surliness. While Daniel is likeable, even charming by comparison, Carroll takes care to salt the conflict with some yin to his yang. He’s prone to mildly absurd gestures, such as handcrafting an Aeolian harp out of reclaimed wood, and his excessive idealism is punctuated by a needy self-regard (“his students appeared to love him, and Daniel had no idea why, over the course of a year, the two of them had not become better friends”).

The denouement to this near–allegorical clash of the totems comes over a Spring Festival meal at Bella’s family home, which includes a divisive and revolting braised dog’s paw — the ensuing fallout is contrived yet satisfying: At just over 200 pages, Up the Mountains doesn’t outstay its welcome.

If the idea of two teachers feuding in Asia sounds as hackneyed as a tell–all Shanghai sex memoir, consider that, in another era, this could just have easily centered on the rivalry between a noble missionary and a foreign mercenary in war-torn Qing times. The supporting Chinese cast, moreover, is certainly more deeply drawn than Thomas and Daniel, who sometimes feel like vehicles for Carroll’s deeper point.

Via email, Carrol explained he “felt like there wasn’t a lot of honest fiction out there about foreigners in China,” and the book was a reaction to his own self-doubts about those who seemed “either complete failures or totally lost in life.”

Examining the inclination for Westerners to gravitate toward (or occasionally repel) each other overseas, Carroll deconstructs the belief that waiguoren, foreigners, are imbued with some mutual heritage — a fallacy not unlike Beijing’s presumption that “all Chinese” (all Han, at least) are obligated toward an ancient, mystic kinship that transcends nationality or upbringing. Meanwhile, back on Earth, here’s to the renewed quest for the Great American (in China) Novel.

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com. Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 224 pp, $15.95 rrp) is available at Barnes & Noble, independent bookshops, and Amazon.

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It’s Time to Get Over QWERTY — A Q&A with Tom Mullaney on Alphabets, Chinese Characters, and Computing

Jeffrey Wasserstrom inverviews Tom Mullaney

Last month, I was one of two speakers at a lunchtime event on China held at Microsoft’s main campus outside of Seattle. The audience seemed to like my talk on censorship and other issues just fine, but another presenter, Tom Mullaney, set the room buzzing with what he had to say about Chinese characters and typewriters, telegraph codes and computing.

Afterwards, I asked him to do this Q&A with me to share some of his ideas with a wider audience. Mullaney is a professor of history at Stanford University who wrote a widely praised first book on ethnic minorities in China. For the past decade, he has been conducting pioneering research on Chinese interactions with information technologies that depend on characters instead of alphabets. His research will be showcased in two books that will be published by MIT Press. The first will focus on the Chinese typewriter, a topic he has published on in venues ranging from leading academic journals such as Technology and Culture to blogs including the China Beat. The following book will be about computing, a topic that obviously had special interest for the Microsoft crowd.

An exhibition on Chinese typewriters he curated is running now at Stanford, and he has organized a conference on global computing that will take place on his campus this weekend.

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JEFF WASSERSTROM: When we spoke at Microsoft, you stressed that many things about China’s current place in the IT world fly in the face of past conventional wisdom about characters and alphabets. What exactly did you have in mind?

TOM MULLANEY: When it comes to technologies of communication and the Chinese language, we live in a time that hardly anyone could have anticipated at the dawn of the 20th century. Not only are Chinese characters still with us — they are one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages of the digital age. More than ever before, Chinese is a world script, and China is an IT giant. This would shock the many people who, for the past two centuries, assumed that such an outcome was conceivable only if China got rid of character-based writing and went the route of wholesale alphabetization — which it did not. This outcome was not supposed to have been possible — and yet here we are. What did we miss?

You argued at Microsoft that once we get to computers, any notion that using Chinese characters rather than letters is a disadvantage gets exploded. Would you elaborate on this — and, for those who haven’t followed these issues, say a little about the long history of claims that using characters inevitably impedes adopting new technologies ?

This is a really important question, and one that comes up a lot when I give lectures and do consultations at tech companies like Google and Microsoft. In the Q&A to my Google Tech talk back in 2011 — “A Chinese Typewriter in Silicon Valley” — we spent a good two hours on this, in fact. This is also a major inspiration for the computing and conference this weekend at Stanford (Shift CTRL: New Perspectives on Computing and New Media).

Ever since the mass manufacture of typewriters began in the U.S. in the 19th century, engineers and entrepreneurs imagined a day when this new technology would conquer the Chinese language and open up a vast new market to Remington, Underwood, Olivetti, and more — just the way it had other languages and markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

It never did (for reasons I explain in my new book coming out soon from MIT Press), and yet the fantasy didn’t die. It was renewed in the age of computing and, by the 1990s, seemed to many to have come true: computers throughout China began to look “just like ours,” even including the familiar QWERTY keyboard, which today is ubiquitous in the Chinese-speaking world.

In the Western world, people began to assume that the Latin alphabet had finally “conquered” Chinese — just like they assumed it always would. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What actually did happen?

If anything, Chinese conquered the alphabet, not the other way around.

Let’s look closely at the QWERTY keyboard in China. When we do, we find that it’s not at all how one might expect. In the Western world — or really in the “Alphabetic World” — we use the computer keyboard in a dumb, what-you-type-is-what-you-get kind of way. In all but rare instances, we assume a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols on the keys we strike and the symbols that we want to appear on the screen. Press the button marked ‘Q’ and ‘Q’ appears. It’s just that simple.

And that’s not what happens with Chinese?

No. Chinese “input” uses the QWERTY keyboard in an entirely different manner. In China, the QWERTY keyboard is “smart,” in the sense that it makes full use of modern-day computer power to augment and accelerate the input process. First of all, the letters of the Latin alphabet are not used in the same limited way that we use them in the alphabetic world. In China, “Q” (the button) doesn’t necessarily equal “Q” (the letter). Instead, to press the buttons marked Q, W, E, R, T, Y (or otherwise) is, strictly speaking, a way to give instructions to a piece of software known as an “Input Method Editor” (IME), which runs quietly in the background on your computer, intercepts all your keystrokes, and uses them as guidelines to try and figure out which Chinese characters the user wants. Using the most popular IME around today — Sougou Pinyin — the moment I strike the letter Q, the system is off and running, trying to figure out what I want. With the first clue, the IME immediately starts showing me options or “candidates” in a pop-up menu that follows me along on screen — in this case, Chinese characters, names, or phrases whose phonetic value begins with Q, such as Qingdao or Qigong.

The moment I hit the second button — let’s say U — the IME immediately changes up its recommendations, now giving me only characters that have pronunciations starting with “Qu.” There is no set, standard way to manage this process, moreover. There are many IMEs on the market, and each IME has many customizable settings. Some IMEs don’t use phonetics at all, in fact, but instead use Latin letters to indicate certain shapes or structural properties of the Chinese characters you want. And on top of all of this, there are countless abbreviations and shortcuts you can use to speed up the process (e.g., typing “Beijing” will get you the capital of China, but so will “bjing,” “beij,” or simply “bj”). And then, of course, there is “predictive text,” which as I have shown elsewhere, was developed and popularized in China decades before it was in the West.

This is a history that really no one had looked at before, though I do see my research as in dialog with stimulating work that others have been doing on related subjects, such as China specialist Chris Reed and Japanese historian Raja Adal, in their cases on the history of Chinese publishing and of Japanese typewriters, respectively. It’s been quite exciting to introduce work on the Chinese typewriter to technologists, China scholars, and students alike. You mentioned the museum exhibit I curated and opened at Stanford — well, surprisingly, this is the first exhibit in history to be dedicated to modern Chinese information technology! That’s pretty amazing to think about, particularly when considering what an IT powerhouse China has become.

Is China then in a better position than most other countries when it comes to moving forward technologically in our information age? Or are there things that could lead to the advantages that characters can provide being squandered?

I think China is in a better position, yes. Chinese “Input” is arguably the future of IT — not only in China, but globally. As I put it just now, “input” takes far greater advantage of the QWERTY keyboard than conventional “typing” does in the alphabetic world, with our century-old what-you-type-is-what-you-get mentality. The QWERTY keyboard in China is a “smart keyboard”: a device used to oversee a rapid two-part process of finding and choosing characters from a database, using ever-faster and more sophisticated techniques. This “finding and choosing” aspect of modern Chinese IT is one of the most exciting and surprising discoveries I made in my research, in fact. Namely, modern-day Chinese computing owes a tremendous debt to the work of Chinese library scientists and others back in the 1920s through 1940s — figures like Du Dingyou, Chen Lifu, and others who never knew that the computer would be invented, of course, but who obsessed over the question of how to design faster and faster ways of organizing Chinese library card catalogs, phone books, and filing systems! Little could they have known that, decades later, major companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sougou, and others would dust off their methods and turn them into the engine of China’s rise as an IT giant!

By contrast, the Latin alphabetic world has spent more than two centuries congratulating itself for “Our Glorious Alphabet,” and yet at the same time has done far less to explore and push the Latin alphabet to its fullest potential. In fact, Silicon Valley is having a really hard time now convincing average computer users in the West that the keyboard is in fact an obstacle — that it’s somehow broken and that average users need to start exploring more of the clever English-language input devices now available on the market — like the absolutely brilliant ShapeWriter system invented by my friend Shumin Zhai.

What do you see happening in the future where all this is concerned?

I keep wondering how the Valley expects Western computer users to react when they realize there’s so much more to the story than the myth our IT culture came of age believing: that the alphabet was the very pinnacle of human ingenuity, and that writing systems like Chinese paled by comparison. We are like children who grew up receiving trophies every day of our lives, being told by society that we are far more advanced than the neighbor kids — what kind of effect does that have after 200-plus years?

Sure, it might be possible for the Valley to convince “early adopters” of this need to experiment — technology enthusiasts who are always looking for the next thing, and scour Maker Fair and tech summits to try and find it — but for workaday computer users like you and me, Silicon Valley is now facing a major cultural problem — not with China, but actually with the “alphabetics” of the world. We are dismissing and resisting all kinds of technological possibilities that exist now for English, French, Russian, and other alphabetic languages, simply because we unconsciously subscribe to the powerful idea, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“Input” is a slightly tricky thing for people to understand in the alphabetic world, and so let’s close with a metaphor from electronic music: MIDI, or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. With the advent of computer music in the 1960s, it became possible for musicians to play instruments that looked and felt like guitars, keyboard, flutes, and so forth but that — thanks to digital computing — produced the sound of drum kits, cellos, bagpipes, and more. Just as one can play a cello with a MIDI piano, a drum kit with a MIDI woodwind, or a piano with a MIDI guitar, everyday computer users in China today use QWERTY and the Latin alphabet to “play” Chinese.

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Following the Money with Ma Yinchu

By Austin Dean

Who pays for what? This is an eternal source of disagreement in public administration.

It’s the question behind recent debates in New York about how much money the state should allocate to the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Since the 1970s, the state of New York has paid the operating funds of CUNY’s “11 senior colleges, or four-year institutions, and at its six graduate and professional colleges,” just as it does for the State University of New York (SUNY). New York City has been the main funder of the CUNY’s seven community colleges. In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a state budget that would cut $485 million to the CUNY system. It was, he argued, time for the city to pay more. At the end of March, and after much opposition, Cuomo dropped his proposals to cut state funding to CUNY’s budget.

Cuomo’s decision would have been of interest to Chinese students studying in the United States a century ago. Many of these students were obsessed with the details of local and municipal finance in the United States — with good reason.

The finances of the late Qing dynasty and early Republican periods were constantly in flux. Which taxes belonged to the national government? To local governments? What should be taxed and how much? How should the system of budgeting work? Could waste and corruption be eliminated?

One person particularly preoccupied with the question of municipal finance in the United States was Ma Yinchu, later famous as the intellectual father of the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China. Ma studied economics at Yale before getting his PhD from Columbia. Appropriately enough, he wrote his dissertation in 1914 on the public finances of New York City.

The topic had a practical purpose. As Ma wrote in the preface of the dissertation, “the finances of the Empire City of New York and those of the Empire and Republic of China have many points of resemblance.” Corruption was rampant; waste was all too common; debt levels skyrocketed.  He thought the “scientific methods” the city had recently adopted for budgeting and auditing could “afford a valuable lesson for China’s benefit.” In fact, he hoped the dissertation would be translated into Chinese.

Interestingly, in light of the current debate about funding for CUNY, Ma repeatedly returned to an example from higher education to show how things should not be done. Here is the text of the 1905 New York City appropriation for higher education:

For salaries of professors, tutors, and other in the Normal College and in the Training Department of the Normal College, for scientific apparatus, books, and all necessary supplies thereof; for repairing and altering the college building, and for the support, maintenance and general expenses of the same — $220,000.

Ma thought this type of lump-sum appropriation was egregious. With a scale “so comprehensive” and “indefinite,” the funds might be spent on anything. Take the term “supplies.” If the school spent $30,000 on educational supplies, no one would complain. But what if it spent the same amount on office supplies? Surely most people would think there was significant skullduggery at work. A general appropriation such as New York had been giving its higher-education institutions would be impossible to audit. Ma thought this old system of doing things mirrored the one in China.

Much better, Ma wrote, was the new system of budgeting in New York City that segregated expenses according to functionality. Instead of a lump-sum appropriation, the budget designated funds to be used for specific purposes: general salaries, equipment purchases, office supplies, etc. With this system in place, it was much easier to track and audit the use of funds.

But making the budget was only one step: it had to be funded by taxes. Ma devoted another part of his dissertation to this eternally complex topic.

Ma was particularly interested in the property tax. As he wrote approvingly of the system in the United States, the taxation of real estate “must be delegated to the county, city or town exclusively” because they are the “source from which the land value springs.” His own country had no such system.

The property tax remains one of the more controversial duties in contemporary China. The transaction of buying and selling property is taxed, but there is no recurring annual tax levied on individual owners of real estate. It regularly gets discussed and has been tried out in small pilot programs, but a nation-wide introduction always seems to be a few years away.

Ma also had a lot to say about debt. This was natural, as both China and New York City owed large amounts of money, albeit for different reasons. China had massive indemnities to pay off from the Boxer Rebellion. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the new government under Yuan Shikai accumulated more debt by relying on loans from foreign creditors.

In New York City, Ma thought the debt burden arose from the “unsound financial practice of borrowing on long term for the acquisition and construction of improvements which shall entail no expense on the present taxpayer.” New Yorkers wanted a free lunch. He could see no reason why the city was in the habit “of selling 50-year bonds to pay for ten-year street paving, which last often for not more than five years!” It made no sense.

Ma Yinchu was an opinionated and prolific writer. His collected works span more than ten thick volumes; the dissertation on New York City finances was his first major undertaking. It’s hard to say which side of the recent debate about the CUNY system Ma would have taken. On the one hand, he was in favor of city expenses being covered by taxes under the control of the municipality. On the other, his own education benefited from funds allocated by the Qing government; sometimes a higher level of government has to provide funds for important purposes. Regardless of who supplied the funds, though, there’s no doubt that Ma would certainly want the money well accounted for.

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Bringing Empress Wu Back to Life (on the Page)—A Q&A with Weina Dai Randel

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Last year, Weina Dai Randel was virtually unknown. Now she’s causing a stir in literary scenes from the U.S. to China, thanks to the strong reviews venues such as Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal have given to her pair of books about Empress Wu: The Moon in the Palace (published in March) and The Empress of Bright Moon (just out this month). There are two unusual things about her series on China’s most famous and infamous pre-modern female ruler.  First, it’s not a traditional trilogy, but rather a duology. And, second, the two works in it were released just a month—rather than a year or two—apart.  There are already deals to translate both into four languages.  Weina, who I met through a writer’s group and sharing a publisher, was born and raised in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province. After working as a journalist and online magazine editor in Shanghai, she moved to Texas at the age of twenty-four. That was fifteen years ago. Now, married and a mother of two, Weina lives with her family in suburban Dallas, where I caught up with her via email to respond to the following series of questions.

SUSAN BLUMBERG-KASON: Can you tell us the philosophy behind writing two books in a series instead of three or more as well as releasing your books just one month apart?

WEINA DAI RANDEL: As far as I know, there is no philosophy behind this! The truth is rather plain: My agent initially negotiated with the editor at Sourcebooks for a trilogy of Empress Wu, but the editor was not sure how American readers would respond to a bulk of novels about a Chinese Empress who was relatively unknown in the U.S. But the editor was also fascinated with the rich life in the second book, so she decided to have two books instead. And she also decided to release them a month apart so readers wouldn’t have to wait too long for the sequel. That’s why there was a duology and why The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon were published a month apart.

You’ve stated in interviews that you wrote your books in response to novels set in China or those that feature Chinese characters in which women are portrayed in depressing terms. You specifically mention Maxine Hong Kingston, an author you were reading in graduate school in Texas. Besides the Empress Wu, which other Chinese women came to mind when you thought of strong females throughout Chinese history?

I can think of the famous Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China, who might also be the first female spy; the infamous Lu Hou of the Han Dynasty; and also the gifted poet Li Qingzhao, whose poetry I really like. But I can tell you, few of the strong women in the Chinese history were described in a positive light and even fewer had a happy ending.

In The Moon in the Palace, you mention that it took ten years to write this novel. Along the way, you’ve had a couple of children. Do you have any tips for juggling research, writing, and parenthood?

When I was taking care of my little ones, I found it very helpful to have a routine and set a structure for the day. For example, dinnertime was always at 5:30pm, then bath time at 6:30pm, then bedtime at 7:30pm. I usually wrote when my kids were taking a nap or sleeping, so I was very firm about putting them down at the precise hour for nap and bedtime. Once they awoke, I did my housework, took them to grocery shopping, parks, and play dates.

I also think it’s important to simplify your life and find serenity in your mind. Being a mother means you’ll have a busy schedule, but having a busy head filled with clogged schedules and activities can be detrimental for a writer. I narrowed my daily priorities to a few things, and I also eliminated social events as they conflicted with my writing hours. I think, like writing, parenting needs consistency and persistence – if you stick to a certain routine everyday, you’ll fall into the rhythm, and the people around you will fall into the rhythm with you.

You didn’t move to the US until you were twenty-four. It’s quite amazing that just fifteen years later you have published two novels in a language that’s not your mother tongue. I know you get asked this question a lot, but how did you decide to write your novels in English and not in Chinese?

The real reason that I decided to write in English is I couldn’t get published in China. I finished my first novel in Chinese when I was twenty-one and pitched it to an editor in Shanghai. He invited me over to the office, talked to me about how competitive it was to publish a novel, and rejected my manuscript. Later, some short stories I wrote were also rejected. Discouraged, I decided there was no future for me in writing Chinese. So I devoted to learning English, which I was also fascinated with.

When I came to the U.S., I spent every morning studying English, making notes, and always had an English-Chinese dictionary in my hands. My education at graduate school really helped me command the language.

After being away from China for a decade, you finally returned at the end of last year, husband and two children in tow. In the acknowledgements in The Moon in the Palace, you write that you can finally go home now that your books are published. Was there a reason you couldn’t go back before then?

So funny you asked that! Yes, there was a reason, and you might think I’m very stubborn! Twelve years ago when I had the idea of writing about Empress Wu, I told my friends in China about my ambition, and they were so surprised. “In English?” they asked me over the phone, and even though they were seven thousand miles away, I could tell the disbelief in their voices. My parents were not so subtle. My mom, a traditional Chinese woman, told me flatly to forget about writing and start having kids (I had not had kids yet).

You see, I was a person of pride, and it was hard to digest those discouraging comments and especially hard to hear that I was no good at anything other than producing babies. And the pressure continued to mount each time I talked to them. First, they would ask me, “When are you coming back to China?” After that, question would follow, “So are you still writing?” They meant well, I knew that, but I also knew they did not believe that I, a Chinese who was born and raised in China, could write a novel in English. So I silently made it a bet: I would return to China when my books were published; otherwise, I would not go back.

For twelve years, I resisted the urge to visit them and declined my kids’ requests to meet my family. When my novels were finally set to publish, I returned to visit my friends and family.

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Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution, Part 2 — Some Works of Fiction

By Jeff Wasserstrom

In our last post, we pointed readers toward a memoir, a narrative history, a collection of essays on visual propaganda, and a website, which all addressed the “Cultural Revolution Decade” (1966-1976).

For this second installment on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the start of that decade, I will highlight the value of two collections of stories set mainly or exclusively during the Cultural Revolution Decade, as well as (perhaps more surprisingly) a children’s book and a foray into speculative fiction, each of which has some scenes set during the same tumultuous period.

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Chen Ruoxi, the author of this collection of short tales, was born in Taiwan and now lives there, but in these fictions she draws on the period that she spent living on the mainland during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ably translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt, the English edition was first published in 1978 with an Introduction by Perry Link. Indiana University Press brought out a revised and updated edition in 2004, inspired to do so by the book’s enduring popularity as a classroom reading. I first encountered it as a student. Stories from the collection — especially “‘Chairman Mao is a Rotten Egg,’” which focuses on the way that even the chatter of small children could create political problems late in the Mao years — have stuck with me ever since.

Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not about Mao

Xujun Eberlein, a past contributor to LARB, grew up in China but is now based in the US. This set of evocative and well turned sketches of ordinary life during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath was originally written in English. Her present project, which she describes in a recent interview with Chris Buckley of the New York Times, focuses on her experiences in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. This work of nonfiction deals in part with her sister’s tragic death by drowning after jumping into a river to commemorate the anniversary of Mao’s famous swim in the Yangzi.

The Three Body Problem

In this first part of an acclaimed and popular trilogy (a work written by Liu Cixin and skillfully translated into English by Ken Liu that won the Hugo Award), most of the action takes place after the Cultural Revolution, but crucial scenes take place during it. All I can say without spoiling the suspense is that a scientist’s disgust with what she sees going on around her in the time of the Red Guards leads her to react differently than she would have otherwise to a signal from a distant planet.

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan is a recent winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s fiction. Here is what Helen Wang, a past contributor to LARB who translated Bronze and Sunflower from Chinese into English, has to say about this celebrated children’s book, which has been translated into many languages:

The friendship between country-boy Bronze and city-girl Sunflower comes about when she moves with her artist-father to the cadre school across the river from Bronze’s village. The villagers and cadres visit each other, but the interaction is fairly superficial. The villagers don’t really know what a May 7th cadre school is, and don’t really care. They’re intrigued by things like fish-farming, and appreciate being able to borrow equipment, but can’t understand why the city people have left behind city comforts to come and work long hours in the fields and burn the midnight oil with political meetings. When Sunflower’s father dies, the cadre school can’t look after her, and Bronze’s family, the poorest in the village, takes her in. She stays with them long after the cadre school has closed and the cadres have returned to the city. Life in the countryside is hard and matter-of-fact. Natural disasters are catastrophic. When crops fail, there is simply no food. The relief boat (bringing grain) never arrives. Schooling and medical treatment are expensive. Hard work, integrity and love pull the family through. But, when a new mayor takes office in Sunflower’s old city and discovers that Sunflower was left behind in the village, he is determined to rectify the situation, honor her parents, bring her back to the city and personally see that she gets a good education and a decent future. However, the situation is blurred, there were no formal adoption papers, and Sunflower’s parents have to be persuaded to let her go.

 

 

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Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution — A First Set of Suggestions

By Jeff Wasserstrom

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start and the 40th anniversary of the end of a period often known as China’s “Cultural Revolution Decade” or the “Ten Years of Chaos” (Shinian dongluan). Everything about the Cultural Revolution is up for debate, including its name (should it be called “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”?) and chronology (to some scholars, its opening moves began in 1964, for others, it concluded in 1969, and so on). Still, it makes sense to treat 2016 as a major anniversary year as far as the latter part of the Mao era (1949-1976) is concerned. The Red Guards were formed in 1966. Ten years after that, Zhou Enlai and then Mao Zedong himself died. Soon after that the “Gang of Four,” which included the Chairman’s wife Jiang Qing, fell from power. We have already begun marking the anniversaries here by running a two-part Q&A weeks ago with specialists, and we will be following this up here at the China Blog with occasional posts that flag new and old books and films of interest to those who want to get a fuller sense of the confusing events of 1966, 1976, and the years in between.

To begin this occasional series, I suggest four places where non-specialists seeking to know more about the Cultural Revolution might usefully turn. For those without a great deal of time, I flag the value of an excellent short narrative history; a lavishly illustrated book devoted to posters (a crucial artistic and propagandistic medium of the time); a poignant memoir (by a former Red Guard who now teaches in the United States); and a website with a wide array of things to read, watch, and listen to, which was created to accompany and supplement a powerful documentary film. None of the things I am flagging here are new, but perhaps posts still to come will focus on things that are coming out during this anniversary year.

The narrative history

The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is the work of political scientist Richard Curt Kraus. Like all works in the popular Oxford University Press VSI series, this is small enough to slip into your back pocket. It is deeply informed, written in a clear and lively style, and covers an enormous amount of ground in a small number of words.

The book on art and propaganda

Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: The Posters of the Cultural Revolution comes with a generous set of color prints and additional black and white images taken from the University of Westminster’s important collection of Chinese visual materials. Co-edited by historian Harriet Evans, who contributes a chapter on representations of women, and cultural studies scholar Stephanie Donald, whose focus is on children in her chapter, the book includes essays by a prominent journalist (John Gittings), a leading art historian (Craig Clunas), an influential scholar of literature and drama (Chen Xiaomei), and a respected political scientist (Robert Benewick).

The autobiography

What makes Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters: A Memoir stand out to me is its candor, her discussion of issues relating to gender, and her willingness to go beyond describing the violence she witnessed or suffered to wrestle with her own complicity in disturbing actions. (First published in 1998, it was reissued with a new preface by the author in a 2013 fifteenth anniversary edition — a move reflecting its enduring popularity as a classroom text.)

The website

This site was created to accompany “Morning Sun,” a documentary directed and produced by Carma Hinton, Geremie Barmé, and Richard Gordon. A creation of The Long Bow Group — the same organization responsible for “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a prizewinning documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989 (full disclaimer: I was a central consultant to that film and an adviser on “Morning Sun” as well) — this online resource needs to be seen, or rather dipped into and played with, to be appreciated. It is special, including such things as a radio dial that can be turned to play different songs from the era, as well as materials that emphasize in direct and indirect ways that passionate fealty to Mao took on religious and indeed millenarian dimensions.

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

“Wallpaper: The Shanghai Collection” — A Q&A with James Bollen

By Anne Witchard

The title of James H. Bollen’s new book — Wallpaper: The Shanghai Collection — makes an ironic gesture towards the materialism and consumerism that drives the ongoing destruction of Shanghai’s domestic heritage. This collection of wallpapers is available only as torn remnants clinging to half-demolished walls. The conceptual framework of this project could not be more apt. The images are grouped according to quotations from the essays of William Morris, genius both of wallpaper design and of a bygone socialist optimism. The peeling layers of bulldozed homes reveal the declining fortunes of successive generations of Shanghai’s shikumen tenants. Where once papers from Morris & Co. might indeed have graced these walls, the touching reminders of more recent adornment — Western Christmas decorations, movie posters, girlie calendars or children’s scribbles — seen through Bollen’s lens, are an arresting comment on history, architecture, and aesthetics in the context of contemporary Chinese aspiration.

ANNE WITCHARD: Can you tell us how you first made the connection between what you were seeing in Shanghai and what William Morris was thinking about in the 1890s?

JAMES BOLLEN: As I’ve written in the foreword to the book, seeing the V&A’s Aestheticism: The Cult of Beauty 1860-1900 exhibition in 2011 set me off thinking about the connections between the abandoned decorations of derelict Shanghai housing and the subjects William Morris discussed in his lectures published in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).

You take a total of ten quotations from Morris’s Hopes and Fears for Art — can you tell us how you chose to group the images according to the quotes?

The photographs are like a visual echo of the main subjects Morris talked extensively about in his lectures, namely aesthetics, architecture, history, and art. My book begins with his ideas about aesthetics and one of his most famous sayings: “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Following that are Morris’s views on architecture and history. Many of the interiors of the homes I photographed were in Shanghai’s less wealthy areas. Others, particularly the ones with wallpaper, were in the city’s more prosperous ones downtown. I feel that Morris would recognize their destruction in some cases as being the result of what he called “profit mongering.” The final group is tied to the previous subjects and Morris’s ideas about and views on art. In his biography, E.P. Thompson wrote that Morris stated the “death of all art” was preferable to its survival among an elite.

Could you say a few words about these three images that are grouped under “Modern civilisation is on the road to trample out all the beauty of life”?

Xuejia St, Huangpu

Xuejia St, Huangpu

Xuejia Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p. 42)

Lufeng Rd, Zhabei

Lufeng Rd, Zhabei

Lufeng Road, Zhabei District 2010 (p. 43)

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Gongping Road, Hongkou 2010 (p. 45)

The timber of the housing on page 42 would have been stripped away, and so the nude woman on page 43 is a play on that. I found quite a few Christmas decorations, though given that Shanghai is mainland China’s most international city this isn’t really surprising. This one of a pair of Bambi lookalikes pulling Santa on his sleigh is by far the most imaginative.

The book’s central section is of eleven consecutive images under this quotation from “Art Under Plutocracy”: “So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last forever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say civilisation will die.” Can you say something about this selection?

In this section the photos sequence the process of demolition in Shanghai. The newspaper (p. 58) is a stand-in for the eviction notices pasted outside people’s homes when they are slated for demolition. The red painted character for “to be demolished” (p. 59) is also painted outside them.

Kunming Road, Yangpu

Kunming Road, Yangpu

Kunming Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 58)

image5

Huimin Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 59)

The following photos (pps. 60-63, 65) refer to the various tactics used to drive people from their homes. One is to smash in their roofs and windows (which I discuss in the book’s introduction) resulting in water damage, eventually condemning the buildings as uninhabitable.

image6

Qufu Road, Zhabei District 2014 (p. 60)

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 61)

image8

Fuxing Middle Road, Huangpu District 2013 (p. 62)

image9

Shunchang Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p.63)

Moganshan Rd, Puxi

Moganshan Rd, Puxi

Moganshan Road, Putuo District 2010 (p. 65)

Also mentioned in the introduction is that these homes have everything of any value stripped from them — in the case of page 67, the copper from the electric wiring and plastic from the socket.

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

Yulin Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 67)

The disturbing looking drawings of faces on page 68 to me symbolize those people who resist having their homes demolished.

image11

Miezhu Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p. 68)

 

The missing face of the baby twin on page 69 refers to their forced removal.

Ruihong Rd, Hongkou

Ruihong Rd, Hongkou

Ruihong Road, Hongkou District 2010 (p. 69)

The image on page 71 is the final destruction of the housing itself.

Xujiazhai Rd, Zhabei

Xujiazhai Rd, Zhabei

Xujiazhai Road, Zhabei District 2010 (p. 71)

It’s now more than 100 years since William Morris argued capitalism will end up destroying civilization, which brings me to the final quotation in the book: “The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make” (William Morris’s Preface to Mediaevel Lore (1905) by Robert Steele). We should pay attention to Morris’s assertion that the past, and with it his views and ideas, is not dead. After all so much of what he said and wrote is still relevant and rings true today, and the main reason why I have put his words together with the book’s photographs.

Finally — how might you explain the undoubted aesthetic appeal of urban demolition and decay?

I think it’s a combination of how surreal derelict structures look, particularly when surrounded by new developments, and their history. It’s emotional to think of “all the generations… that have passed through” buildings in a state of demolition and decay. And they are symbols of mortality — we like them will one day disappear. While quite gloomy to contemplate it’s interesting that these buildings share the same cycle of birth, life, and death as the people who lived in them.

James H. Bollen is a British photographer and author based in Shanghai.

Anne Witchard is Senior Lecturer in English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, London

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The New Life in English of an Old Eileen Chang Novel

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Eileen Chang’s fiction mirrored her life. Shanghai comes alive in her pages, from the political turmoil in the 1930s and 40s to the nightlife and fashion of the times. But Chang — a.k.a. Zhang Ailing — is best known for her love stories beset by family interference, betrayal, and melancholy reunions. Born and raised in Shanghai, Chang was unusual in that she wrote in both English and Chinese, often translating her own work. She also translated other authors’ books, including Han Bangqing’s massive tome, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai. This book and another classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, shaped her writing. But her life experiences in love and disappointment influenced her work more than anything.

It’s surprising that the book that has most often been adapted to film, television, and the stage in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Half a Lifelong Romance, has only recently been translated into English. This translation, the work of Karen S. Kingsbury, was published last year in the United Kingdom and came out just last week in the United States. Chang originally wrote it as a Chinese serial in 1950 titled Eighteen Springs, later turning it into a single volume and, after many revisions, publishing it in 1968 with the title, Half a Lifelong Romance.

The story follows the early adult years of Gu Manzhen, a young typist at a Shanghai factory who becomes friendly with male colleagues Shen Shijun and Hsu Shuhui. After several months, Manzhen and Shijun start dating, but she isn’t ready to marry quite yet. Because Manzhen’s father left her mother a widow with a handful of children, Manzhen fears Shijun would be in over his head if he took on the Gu family’s expenses while Manzhen’s brothers were still young. Shijun is a junior engineer at the factory and doesn’t earn a comfortable salary yet. But they are both happy with their relationship and are willing to marry a few years down the line, after Manzhen’s brothers complete their studies.

In true Eileen Chang fashion, Manzhen and Shijun’s relationship breaks apart due to family interference and misunderstandings. After Manzhen’s father passed away, her older sister, Manlu, broke off her engagement to a doctor and went to work as a taxi-dancer to earn money for her siblings’ education, including Manzhen’s. Saving Manzhen from a life in the red-light district, Manlu is willing to make these sacrifices for her family but is also resentful of the hardships she faced when she broke off her engagement to be with strange men. Although Manlu eventually marries an ill-mannered but wealthy man named Zhu Hongtsai, her past doesn’t sit well with Shijun. He insists that Manzhen’s family move away from Shanghai before his relatives learn about her sordid family history.

Chang’s female protagonists are typically independent women who still care about upholding their family’s honor even as they place importance on studying, working, and earning their own money. When Shijun makes this demand on Manzhen, she replies, “If you want to talk about immorality, I don’t know who’s more immoral: prostitutes, or the men who are their clients!” This argument drives a wedge between the pair, but what happens next will alter their relationship forever: Manzhen is brutally betrayed by her family and 14 years pass before she sees Shijun again.

This is where Half a Lifelong Romance resembles Chang’s other work. For a year, Manzhen is locked away in the home of her sister, Manlu, and brother-in-law, Hongtsai. When Chang was a teenager, her father and stepmother held her captive in their attic for half a year. She writes an autobiographical character in her novel, The Fall of the Pagoda, who is also imprisoned by her father and stepmother. In real life Chang escaped with the help of a maid; in Half a Lifelong Romance, Manzhen escapes her sister and brother-in-law’s wrath after befriending a kind woman she meets during a brief hospital stay.

Manzhen’s unexpected reunion with Shijun is not unlike the main characters in Chang’s novella Red Rose, White Rose, who bump into each other on a Shanghai tram many years after the end of their affair. In Shijun and Manzhen’s case, he married someone else less than a year after he last saw Manzhen. At the time the two reunite fourteen years later, Manzhen has been married and divorced. As with many of her other novels, Chang makes sure both the men and women in these doomed relationships feel the effects of their loss when they meet up again after many years. This is certainly the case for Manzhen and Shijun when they bump into each other years later. “He felt a prickling in his eyes as the tears came, and his throat was full. He stared hard at her. Her lips were trembling.”

In earlier versions of Half a Lifelong Romance, the characters move north during the Chinese Civil War in the last half of the 1940s and end up with their original partners. But in the final 1968 version, which is what Kingsbury translated into English, Chang pared the story back to end in 1945, before the start of the Civil War, so that it would be free from politics other than a short passage about the war with Japan. This translation doesn’t end on a high note, but that’s trademark Eileen Chang.

An interesting note about the translation: the Chinese Romanization is a combination of Wade-Giles and pinyin. Kingsbury explains that she used both styles to make the pronunciation as easy as possible for the reader. So ‘c’ and ‘x’ in pinyin are ‘ts’ and ‘sh’ in this translation and give us names like Tsuizhi and Hongtsai. That doesn’t explain why most cities are written in pinyin except for Nanking.

In recent interviews, Kingsbury has suggested that Half a Lifelong Romance took this long to be translated because English readers weren’t ready for it until recent times, most likely due to Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Chang’s Lust, Caution. Chang herself was not satisfied with her reception in the west. She left China for Hong Kong in the early 1950s and settled in the United States in 1955. A decade earlier, she was married briefly to a Chinese editor fourteen years her senior, who was a Japanese sympathizer and passed away in Tokyo decades after their divorce. In the United States, Chang met American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher. They were married for eleven years until his death in 1967. During Chang’s four decades in the United States, she was never happy with the sales of her English novels. This could be why she didn’t translate Half a Lifelong Romance when she had the chance.

Chang, like many of her female protagonists, ended up alone in her middle adulthood and beyond. With no children or family members apart from her brother, she lived a secluded life in Los Angeles toward the end of her life. In 1995, Chang’s landlord found her dead in her apartment at the age of 74. It was determined that she had passed away several days earlier from cardiovascular disease. When she died, her neighbors in Los Angeles had no idea she was a celebrated author.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong a year before the Handover. She is now based in Chicago and can be found online at www.susanbkason.com and on Twitter at @Susan_BK.

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The Mermaid

By Austin Dean

First released in China on February 8th, The Mermaid (Meiren yu) took less than two weeks to become the highest-grossing film in the history of mainland Chinese cinema. The same day it passed that milestone in China (February 19th), the film opened in limited release in the United States. Playing on only 35 screens, the movie brought in just over a million dollars at the weekend box office.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it put The Mermaid 16th out of the 50 films playing that weekend, and its average take per screen was a very high $29,000. It was actually the biggest opening weekend for a Chinese movie in the United States in more than a decade. By the first weekend in March, the movie had grossed just over $2.5 million at the American box office. The Columbus, Ohio AMC theatre where I saw it on a Sunday afternoon was nearly full, and not just with Chinese viewers.

The Mermaid is the latest in a series of Chinese blockbusters like Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong to get a limited U.S. release. In fact, the release of The Mermaid was so limited that apparently some executives at Sony — which distributed the film — didn’t even know it was playing in the United States. As critic Simon Abrams wrote, “Sony ought to be ashamed for keeping such a good film from American viewers who aren’t already part of the Chinese diasporic community.”

Directed by Stephen Chow, whose previous movies like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer are equal parts slapstick and irreverent, The Mermaid has a strange alchemy of physical humor, tragedy, word play, violence, comedic symmetry, and cruelty. Leaving the theatre, it was hard to answer a seemingly common question: What kind of movie did I just see?

Like many aspects of China today, the film begins with a shady real estate deal. Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a property tycoon who started from nothing and now has everything except morals and taste, acquires a vast tract of land near the fictitious Green Gulf. The other bidders think the land can’t be developed due to environmental restrictions meant to protect dolphins. Liu, no stranger to underhanded tactics, manufactures a solution: the dolphins won’t need to be protected if they aren’t there. He installs a powerful sonar device that drives out the dolphins and secures a permit for reclamation and building. His solution could be a case study in “How to Do Business in China 101.”

The sonar, however, also killed a number of mermaids. The remaining mermaids, led by Brother Eight (Show Luo), a vengeful half-man half-octopus with dreadlocks, want Liu dead. They set up a honey trap using the young, beautiful, and naïve Shan (Lin Yun). After a series of double entendres, slapstick humor involving poisonous sea urchins, singing, and dancing, the two fall in love. Liu decides to cancel the project and turn off the sonar; the pretty mermaid has redeemed the corrupt billionaire. That doesn’t sit well with Ruo Lan (Zhang Yuqi), another property tycoon, who had set up a side deal with Liu regarding the reclamation project. But there are other factors at play. And the movie — interrupted by a Chinese-style traffic jam — comes to a gory crescendo.

The Mermaid is undeniably funny, but the changes in tone are abrupt, especially towards the end of the film. One moment the viewer is stuck in traffic and the next she’s watching young mermaids get shot. It can be a bit uncomfortable. The woman sitting next to me was laughing at the middle but crying at the end.

These shifts didn’t go unnoticed by critics. The reviewer at The Guardian notes that the film often finds itself in “troubled tonal waters.” Glen Kenny of The New York Times doesn’t think the movie falters under its undulating emotional landscape because “Mr. Chow’s signature is so sure that the tonal changes have a unity born of conviction.”

But there’s something more to be said about this. What’s distinct about The Mermaid is that watching the film gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be in China: full of incongruities, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre. The point here is not to exoticize the country, but rather to say that life there today can be hard to pin down.

Perhaps the most common question an American gets after returning from China is the predictable one: “What is China like?” The only honest answer I’ve ever been able to come up with to this query is to say “Pick any adjective in the English language. China, at a particular moment, is like that. Then, not long thereafter, it’s like another adjective.”

The same thing can be said about The Mermaid.

Red_Guards

The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.