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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Jason Y. Ng’s Street-Level View of Hong Kong’s Year of Umbrellas

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Before my visit to Hong Kong in mid-October 2014, I was worried. The Occupy Movement was two weeks old and I’d booked a room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, site of the Xinhua News Agency Headquarters and de facto PRC embassy before the 1997 Handover. It was a building rich in somber history, where mainland officials had worked during the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and Tiananmen protests five years later. The Cosmopolitan is located in front of a large cemetery, and to get to the rest of Hong Kong you need to take a tram or bus. But with the Occupy Movement in nearby Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the trams weren’t running and the buses were re-routed.  When I arrived, I noticed the irony of banners near the hotel celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which occurred just days after students in Hong Kong shut down major thoroughfares around government headquarters in protest. I had a more immediate concern, however, than politics: How would my husband and I get to my three book events without public transportation?

We ended up walking to Causeway Bay’s MTR station for some trips and leaving an hour earlier than usual when traveling by cab for others. It wasn’t a big deal for four days. But what surprised me most about the Umbrella Movement was that my local friends — in their 40s,50s, and 60s — all seemed fine with the disruption. They encouraged us to visit Occupy and see the tent city on what was once the main artery of Hong Kong Island.

This was not the Hong Kong I knew in the 1990s when I was in college and grad school, and later an editor in academic publishing. Back then very few Hong Kong residents cared about politics, my field of study. In fact, not a few acquaintances declared my studies a waste of time. If one was going to give up precious work time to earn an advanced degree, they reasoned, it should be in business or finance.  Protests weren’t unheard of in Hong Kong then. But the annual June 4 vigils in Victoria Park dropped from 150,000 people in 1990 (the first anniversary of the massacre, and my first year in Hong Kong) to 35,000 in 1995. I didn’t know anyone who went to the protests, or even talked much about them.

Two decades later, I found the atmosphere in Hong Kong drastically changed, as had the politics and Hong Kong’s relationship with China. I knew that students and other activists had taken to the streets in support of universal suffrage. But it wasn’t until I read Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (Blacksmith Books, 2016), which was recently published in Hong Kong and is the first significant English language book on the 2014 movement, that I fully grasped all that is now at stake.

During the protests, Jeff Wasserstrom reported on the events for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He also revisited the movement in a commentary, written during a return visit to Hong Kong one year on, in which he reflected on what a difference the intervening 12 months had made.  He described a talk about the protest he gave at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: “The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.”

That also describes Ng’s book — thinking through the topic profoundly and in ways that mattered. Ng was a participant-observer. Although the Umbrella Movement is generally associated with student protesters, older activists, including legislators and clergymen, were also instrumental in starting it. Ng spent a lot of time in Admiralty, site of the tent city. He provided free homework assistance in English, essay writing, and law; he slept on the street and then returned to his law office during the day; his first-hand experiences of the Umbrella Movement bring his book’s pages to life.

Ng starts with a play-by-play account of September 28, 2014, when Occupy Central began. But he quickly moves into Hong Kong Politics 101, going back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the contract that set into motion Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1, 1997. The political system in Hong Kong is odd, according to Ng, and I would agree. Of the 6.5 million residents at the time of the Handover, only 800+ people could vote for the newly created chief executive of Hong Kong, the successor to the old London-appointed Governors of the colonial system. Those numbers have both increased over the years: now Hong Kong has 7.2 million people, yet a mere 1200 people and groups elect the chief executive.

As Ng explains, the reason the Umbrella Movement blossomed was because in 2007 Beijing had promised Hong Kong residents that they would be able to choose their chief executive by direct elections in 2017 and that representatives in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, would be directly elected in 2020. But Beijing threw a curveball on August 31, 2014, issuing an edict on electoral reform stipulating that the central government would form a Nominating Committee that would, according to Ng, “nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive in accordance with democratic procedures. Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the Nominating Committee…” So much for free elections: the candidates selected would surely be those most amenable to working with Beijing. It was this “8/31 Framework” that brought out student protesters a couple weeks later. Before a month had passed, the Umbrella Movement was paralyzing the central district, generating admiring headlines in the international press, and being denounced by Beijing as an illegitimate struggle creating “chaos” that was tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and bad for business.

Throughout his book, Ng writes about the different student groups involved, including both university and high school groups, and how there was never one single leader who could unify the protesters. (Joshua Wong, who has received the lion’s share of attention in the Western press, was one leader among many.) The author does a great job of outlining the structure of these groups and their leaders, and in a way that reads like a thriller.

The last part of the book includes an analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what’s to come. The students and other activists Ng met were dedicated at first, but as time passed and the protesters and public opinion started to change, the lack of leadership left the struggle without a chance for the kind of success seen in places like Tunisia several years earlier, where protests brought changes in governing structures.

Politically, Hong Kong is unique, Ng stresses. It’s not a city-state like Singapore, and, he claims, only a tiny minority would wish it to become that. It’s also not like other big PRC cities: Britain and the Beijing agreed in the Joint Declaration that it could retain a great deal of autonomy for 50 years after the Handover, or until 2047. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws and courts, and its own regional government. Ng writes that the Basic Law, which protects these rights in Hong Kong until 2047, is vague when it comes to direct elections. It mentions one person, one vote, but doesn’t spell out how that’s to happen.

The year and a few months since the streets of Hong Kong were cleared have seen troubling incidents occur. A growing fringe element has turned to violence — against the government and mainland shoppers — although it receives very little public support. Five Hong Kong Chinese booksellers were abducted and detained in China at the end of last year; two held overseas passports at the time of their disappearance. The government has also made moves to repress discussion of the Umbrella Movement. When I contacted Ng, he told me that every one of the Chinese books published about the Umbrella Movement has been pulled from Hong Kong bookstore shelves — not just the ones that present the struggle favorably, they are not even stocking books that criticize it. “It is as if the Movement had never happened,” says Ng.

His publisher, Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, had a difficult time securing a printer for Umbrellas, he says. He finally found a local one that would cooperate after two — one on the mainland, one in Hong Kong — had turned him down. But Spurrier never thought about withdrawing publication of Umbrellas in Bloom, which is the third book in a series of Hong Kong books by Ng.  “Mainland authorities won’t worry too much about English-language books ‘spiritually polluting’ China,” Spurrier wrote in an email to me . “But still, I strongly feel that freedoms only exist while people continue to exercise them. We have freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong, but the moment we feel too scared to exercise them, then they are gone. So we have to carry on publishing.”

At the end of his book, Ng sums up what I’d been thinking in Hong Kong during the Movement. People born after the 1980s are engaged in civic life more than ever before, with record numbers of registered voters. They are forming political parties and running for public office. As Ng writes toward the conclusion, “the seed planted by the Umbrella Movement…has taken hold.” The next Chief Executive election will be held next year, and still only 1200 people and organizations can vote. I will be interested in seeing what politically engaged Hong Kong youths do in the coming year, and know that, whatever tack they take, I can count on Ng, an astute tracker of local politics, to weigh in insightfully on their actions in essays and perhaps even in an epilogue to a second edition of Umbrellas in Bloom.

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‘Ten Years’ — More than Just a Lesson in Despair

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The more that I heard about the Hong Kong independent film Ten Years during the first months of this year, the more certain I became that I would need to see it. The film was made on a tiny budget, not just a single movie, but five films-within-a-film, each by a different director, offering a multi-sided dystopian take on what Hong Kong would or at least might be like a decade from now. Mainland censors were so worried that Ten Years would win a prize at the Hong Kong film awards — as indeed it did — that they decided to prevent the ceremony from being streamed into the mainland. And I learned that there were vignettes in the film that touched on the history of Hong Kong social movements, as well as brought in tactics associated with protest in other parts of the People’s Republic of China.

As someone who has been concerned with censorship and demonstrations throughout his career, who has often written about dystopian works (albeit more often novels than films), and who has written several pieces in recent years on inspiring and distressing Hong Kong events, how could I resist feeling duty-bound to see this?

I worried, though, that dutiful would be precisely the word for what I might feel while watching Ten Years. When I see a film, I like it to appeal to the cinema lover as well as the scholar in me, and I wasn’t sure this one would do both. So, once I got a copy of the film loaded onto my computer, I found it hard to work up the enthusiasm to actually start playing it, fearing that seeing it would not just be depressing but would seem like a chore. Thankfully, though, I was ultimately proved wrong.

This didn’t happen immediately. The first two section of the film, while having their merits, both felt a bit didactic. The opening segment, about an orchestrated act of violence designed to allow stringent security measures to be introduced, was well done but predictable. The second part, meanwhile, which offered a more surreal look at the disappearance of local culture, felt too self-consciously symbol-laden.

Then, though, the third segment began and I was won over completely. It focuses on the tribulations of a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver in a Mandarin-dominated Hong Kong to come, in which mastery of the language of power separates haves from have-nots as clearly as ethnicity and race can in other sorts of colonial or quasi-colonial settings. Bullied and finding it increasingly difficult to ply his trade, the lead character becomes a kind of 21st-century counterpart to the rickshaw puller in Lao She’s classic Camel Xiangzi. But the director steers clear of didacticism, skillfully using nice touches of intergenerational drama (youth are shown having none of the trouble switching into Mandarin that plagues their elders) and sly bits of dark humor (for example, when the driver’s GPS stubbornly refuses to recognize the addresses he gives it, due to his accent and use of the local patois) to keep us engaged with the story and caring about the character.

I made it through the first three segments on an early May domestic plane flight, but only watched the rest of Ten Years very recently. This was because, though I had initially planned to finish it the day after I had watched the first parts, I got an email from a friend right as I landed, in which she told me that there would be a fundraising screening of the film in London late in May when we would both be in the city, and suggesting we go to that. I liked the idea of watching the rest of the film, which has not been released widely yet, on a big screen, so decided to wait to see whether the fourth and fifth parts were more like the first and second segment or the more engaging third one.

As it turned out, the London screening was cancelled, and due to how filled my time in England was with events and research, I didn’t get around to seeing those last two segments until my plane ride back to California. This timing, as it turned out, was eerily appropriate. I left England on June 3 and began watching the final parts of Ten Years right around the point, Beijing time, when June 4, the date associated with the 1989 massacre, was beginning, and each of the last two parts provided appropriate food for thought during the passing of this highly charged anniversary.

The fourth segment, the most discussed and most controversial part of the film, deals with an act of self-immolation, suggesting that Hong Kong’s predicament may become more and more like that of Tibet. One thing that activists in this segment set in the middle of the next decade ponder when discussing self-immolation is whether previous Hong Kong struggles, such as those of these last few years, would have somehow been more effective and powerful if one or more participants in them had died.

The final segment, another very effective one, also made appropriate June 4th viewing, but it would have been even more apt to have seen it a couple of weeks earlier. This is because it includes youth brigades who bear a strong resemblance to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, an event whose fiftieth anniversary was marked in mid-May. The difference between the youthful militants of this imagined future as opposed to the Red Guards of history is that, while the latter directed their iconoclastic energy not at things dubbed “bourgeois” or “feudal,” the former are shown lashing out against all that is seen as dangerously “local,” with a seller of carefully grown and healthful “local eggs” becoming a particular target of abuse.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the centrality of eggs in this segment until, after landing, I did some additional reading around about the film on the web and came to a smart review of it that Maggie Lee wrote for Variety. The “short’s egg motif,” she claims, “pays homage to Haruki Murakami’s manifesto about the egg that breaks against the high wall — a metaphor for the individual’s clash with the system.” Lee’s interpretation is open to debate, of course, but it struck me immediately as compelling, in part because in early June, I always think of a man standing his ground before a line of tanks, and Murakami’s line — “Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg” — captures so evocatively one reason that this Tiananmen image remains so enduringly powerful.

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Loving It or Listing It in China

By Austin Dean

A sure sign of adulthood is an interest in real estate. There comes a moment when you’re home with your family over the holidays, watching television with your mom, and think to yourself, “That was a good episode of House Hunters, but I can’t believe they paid that much for that house.”

Spending time in China only catalyzes this change, as it often seems that the entire country is participating in a never-ending conversation about real estate. At the individual level, your friends tell you about their plans to sell, buy, swap, and trade up, and question you about American real estate prices and practices: “How big of a house could I buy in San Antonio for $200,000?” (Don’t underestimate the soft power of the San Antonio Spurs.)

Everyone also argues about the big picture: Is there a real estate bubble? If so, what would that mean for the Chinese economy? Is the real estate developer Evergrande too big to fail? Why are Chinese companies buying so many trophy real estate assets abroad? Of course, like any question with lots of money at stake, people disagree.

Let’s actually elide these questions and talk about a related but under-explored area: interior decorating and home remodeling.

A few years ago, this was actually a big topic, and one framed around a very specific question: Why did Home Depot fail in China, and why was IKEA succeeding? One theory held that when you go to Home Depot “you’re asking for help to solve an existing problem that you have — you want to install a ceiling fan, you want to put new windows in or you want to build a deck.” But perhaps many Chinese were not that interested in solving those problems by themselves. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it “Home Depot Learns Chinese Prefer ‘Do-It-for-Me.’” IKEA, on the other hand, was selling an experience: that of walking through showrooms and trying out furniture, eating Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce in the restaurant, and piling one’s cart high with inexpensive knick-knacks in the marketplace.

Beneath the debate about the different fates of Home Depot and IKEA in China is a deeper truth: given the choice, most people would like to change something about their homes. That is where home remodeling TV shows come in.

One show, Jiaohuan kongjian (Switch a Room), concentrates mostly on decorating, with a few smaller projects requiring drills and saws thrown in for good measure. Somewhat surprisingly, it airs on the finance channel of Chinese Central Television. To use lingo people at the finance channel would understand, you get the idea that this type of show is outside the network’s “core competency.”

Each episode focuses on improving the look and feel of two apartments. Usually based in a big city — Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai — most of the apartments are pretty unremarkable: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The people living in them often have a kid.

The show doesn’t do a good job fleshing out these people as characters. As Mao Zedong might say (and HGTV understands), a good home-decorating show needs “contradictions”: there must be tension and conflict, even if it’s only about what color to paint a wall. These contradictions, and how they get resolved, are at the core of any decorating show. It’s not really about the color of the paint, but the people making the decisions. Because the characters on Jiaohuan kongjian aren’t well drawn out and developed, you won’t find yourself hoping that the couple featured in the show end up with more light in their living room or a cool new dinner table.

The producers of Dragon TV’s Mengxiang gaizao jia (Dreams Transform a House), on the other hand, must have watched their HGTV, as they really know what they’re doing. Each episode usually begins with some kind of drama: a couple fighting, an accident, or problems with remodeling. It sells itself not simply as a decorating show, but a reality-decorating show. The remodel is simply a setting for the rest of the drama.

The other big difference is the homes themselves and what the renovators do to them. There are no cookie-cutter apartments on Mengxiang gaizao jia. Instead, as a real estate agent might say, the properties featured on the show have character: an old-walk up in Shanghai, a six-story house in Guangzhou, a Beijing courtyard complex. (Others, choosing a less charitable adjective, might say the houses are crappy.) The show is about major overhauls: ripping down and rearranging walls, changing the layout, and building a new house around an old frame. Naturally, this isn’t cheap. While Jiaohuan kongjian generally spends 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) on redecorating each place, Mengxiang gaizao jia spends a lot more, often between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan ($30-45,000).

Mengxiang gaizao jia also highlights the conundrums faced by ordinary Chinese. The show excels in giving the micro-history of a family, a house, and a neighborhood. In one episode, it chronicles the story of three generations of a family living in one quarter of an old Beijing courtyard-style house in the center of the city. Husband and wife, daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter all crowd together in a 39-square-meter apartment. They don’t even have a proper bathroom. The son-in-law and the daughter actually have access to a much larger apartment in a different part of the city. So why are they living in such cramped quarters? The schools in that area of the city happen to be excellent. It’s a classic case of people living in a small, cramped apartment in a good school district (Xuequ fang).

The “contradictions” in Mengxiang gaizao jia arise both naturally and with the help of the producers. In the episode with the 39-square-meter apartment, a neighbor objects to many of the changes proposed by the person in charge of the renovation. And, as it happens, that person in charge is actually from Japan. As the Beijing couple note at the beginning of the show, how can a Japanese person redesign a home in China? The people have different styles of living! Now we have multiple layers of “contradictions” and a very watchable program. Naturally, the “contradictions” get worked out over the course of the episode. The neighbor backs down and the Japanese architect wins over the Beijing couple.

As Home Depot found out the hard way, China isn’t yet a nation of rehab addicts. But there are quite a lot of fixer uppers waiting for a property brother to come along and do a solid renovation. At the end, their owners will face that classic HGTV conundrum: love it or list it?

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Mao Badges — Red, Bright and Shiny (And Open to Every Form of Capitalist Speculation)

By Helen Wang and Paul Crook

In his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, historian Frank Dikötter devotes almost two pages to Mao badges. “By 1968, the national output stood at more than 50 million badges per month,” he writes, but even that “was not enough, and a thriving black market emerged to compete with the state.” He notes that there were “illegal markets” that were in reality “hardly hidden from view, a few of them attracting crowds of over 10,000 punters, spilling over on to the streets and blocking the traffic.” Even though “(l)ocal officials decried these capitalist activities as ‘extremely disrespectful towards our great leader’… there was not much that they could do, since Red Guards and other revolutionary organisations policed the markets.”

I’m grateful to Dikötter for reminding readers of the importance of Mao badges and drawing attention to the economic activity associated with them. They are objects I’ve thought about a lot, especially since the early 2000s, when the British Museum was offered a donation of over 200 Mao badges (duplicates from a private collection in China) and my Head of Department, after agreeing to accept the gift, told me to write a catalogue. At the time, the most relevant English-language sources were Bill Bishop’s 1995 M.A. thesis “Badges of Chairman Mao Zedong (毛主席像章),” the first in-depth analysis of Mao badges ever written in English; and Melissa Schrift’s book, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge (2001), an anthropological account of collecting Mao badges. I consulted various other sources, including catalogues of Chinese collections of Mao badges, but these tended to take a huge amount of background knowledge for granted. My catalogue, Chairman Mao Badges. Symbols and Slogans of the Cultural Revolution (2008), was designed along the lines of a traditional British Museum coin catalogue, i.e. an object-based work that could be used as a reference guide. When I sent a copy to a Mao badge expert in Beijing, he wrote back, confused as to why the British Museum collected such material, and why it would go to the trouble of producing a catalogue of a collection that was, frankly, not very impressive. I explained that the British Museum was a museum of history, that these were historical relics of the 20th century, and that the catalogue was written so that non-specialist English readers could access the history behind the objects.

The British Museum collection of Mao badges currently stands at about 350 pieces. It’s part of the UK’s national collection of badges from all over the world. Since the catalogue of Mao badges was published, every so often I receive emails from people who have their own Mao badge collections, often numbering in the hundreds or thousands. One such person is Clint Twist, who, with only a little encouragement a couple of years ago, set up what is probably the first English language website devoted to Mao badges — and tweets a Mao badge almost every day @clinttwist.

More recently, I discovered that one of the British Museum volunteers, Paul Crook, had been a teenage Mao badge dealer in Beijing in the 1960s! Paul — who was recently interviewed by the BBC for a segment on posters from the Mao era — kindly agreed to talk about that time, vividly confirming Dikötter’s statement that “badges were the most hotly traded pieces of private property during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, open to every form of capitalist speculation.”

Helen Wang

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My parents were teachers at the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing, and when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and all the schools were closed, they thought it would be a good idea to take us on a trip to England until it blew over. If nothing else, it would give my brothers and myself a chance to brush up on our English. But when we returned, the situation was even more chaotic than before.

I had just finished primary school and had yet to start middle school, so was “between schools.” Although drawn in to various activities, including a month’s work experience at the No 2 Machine Tool Plant (at the age of 13), I was often at a loose end for over a year, until schools started again for me at the beginning of 1968. So I just kind of hung around. I discovered a Mao badge market that was open a few afternoons a week. It was near the zoo, and the Russian Exhibition Centre it may even have been in the taxi yard opposite the zoo. There were about three or four places in Beijing which I frequented to trade Mao badges: there, Qianmen, and a couple of other places. Mostly I used to go the one near the zoo, and take my badges pinned to a piece of cloth. Some traders had their badges pinned to the insides of their Mao jackets, and would open out their jackets so people could see the badges.

The value of badges at these markets was never to my knowledge measured in money, but always in Xiao Maotou (literally: Little Mao Heads); a fairly plain larger badge might be worth 3 or 4, but at the top end some newly designed ones of good quality could easily go up to 20 or 30. The valuation fluctuated daily, so the shrewd dealer who could anticipate trends in the market could make quite a killing.

I never excelled in this, but engaged in a bit of “insider dealing” which brought advantage because, as a foreigner, I had access to the Friendship Store, which always had a supply of rather elegant badges that weren’t generally available. It began when a friend wanted me to buy some of those badges for him. I started out doing it as a good turn, but then got the idea of taking some advantage by asking a premium: to be given one badge I did not already have for every 10 badges I bought for people from the Friendship Store. This seemed a neat way to get round the handicap of my communist education, which had taught me I should not charge more for anything than I had paid myself. Still, when my father found out about my stealthy capitalist tendencies sometime in the summer of 1967, I had a stern lecture, and eased up. In any case, schools were starting up again soon after that, and the badge markets were clamped down on in ’68 or ’69.

The Friendship Store had a good stock of Mao badges, but here I had to pay for them in cash (7 to 8 fen for the plain Xiao Maotou; and 10 to 20 fen for fancier badges). My clients had a keen eye: they would distinguish between Beijing Maotou (Beijing-style Mao’s head, with softer lines) and Shanghai Maotou (Shanghai-style Mao’s head, with sharper lines). But what people really wanted to collect were the series of badges, and gather a full set, just like collecting sets of stamps. When young people set off to travel the country in search of new experiences and see places associated with Mao’s rise, they would collect badges wherever they went. Badges from the revolutionary sites of Yan’an, Gutian or Zunyi, had extra value, as they came from further away. It was a kind of revolutionary pilgrimage.

There were the army sets the basic one being the five-pointed-star badge above a bar badge reading Wei renmin fuwu (Serve the People). These were made in four batches, and it was desirable to get one from each batch. You could tell the batch by the number on the back of the badge.

Then the army, navy, and air force started issuing their own badges. And new stylistic variations crept in. And there were fakes of some of the particularly prized issues around that time too, in ’67-68, because of the margin they traded at: where one issue might trade at a mere 15 “small Mao heads,” another might fetch 20 or 30, or even more.

Then the ministries started competing on the badge front. And you got the nuclear works badges as well.

Sourcing was the key thing the geographical and political significance – things like the launch of the satellite in 1970, when they played the first lines of the music of the Maoist anthem Dongfang Hong (The East is Red).

The really big Mao badges I have are from 1969, and the time of the 9th Congress, when everyone made sure to wear nine badges. I think it was some time around then when Mao made his famous comment “Huan wo feiji!”(Give us back my airplanes!), having calculated that the amount of aluminum used to make badges could have made three planes!

I’ve still got about 400-500 badges, including a hundred from a US collector who wanted to swap his entire collection of badges for a chunky Korean War medal I had somehow acquired. He wanted it badly it may have been a precious metal one, and he may have got a good deal, but I can’t remember now.

Paul Crook

 

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From Sichuan to Shanghai: A Q&A with Marketplace Correspondent and Street of Eternal Happiness Author Rob Schmitz

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Rob Schmitz has witnessed enormous changes in China since he first lived in rural Sichuan twenty years ago. For the last six years, he has been based in Shanghai serving as a correspondent for Marketplace, a radio program produced by American Public Media that enjoys 12 million listeners each week, receiving multiple awards for his stellar reporting. His first book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, was just released yesterday. Set along the shady street where he and his family live in Shanghai’s former French Concession, his book is one of the best I’ve read about China’s sweeping social and economic transformations. I recently caught up with him via email to ask the following series of questions.

Susan Blumberg-Kason: You served in the Peace Corps in Sichuan in the 1990s and returned to Chengdu for a year in 2000. A decade later you moved to Shanghai as the China correspondent for Marketplace. After you left in 2000, did you ever think you would live in China again?

Rob Schmitz: The Peace Corps planted the seed, and China has prominently figured in my work as a journalist ever since. During the decade following my service, I made numerous trips back to the country for a number of reasons. I shot documentaries in Beijing and Tibetan parts of the country for The Learning Channel and the CBC. I returned to report stories for NPR affiliates KPCC and KQED. I followed California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his trade mission through the country. I led an educational tour of Yunnan province. When Marketplace posted their Shanghai Correspondent position in 2009, it seemed like a natural fit.

How well did you know Shanghai before you moved there with your family?

I’d visited Shanghai several times, but my stops were scattered over a 10-year period. Each time, the city looked and felt completely different. In retrospect, Shanghai was one of the world’s largest construction sites for the better part of that decade. When I moved there in 2010, I was accompanied by my wife and son, and the city was largely complete. Shanghai was hosting the World’s Fair, and I was starting a new life in China as a foreign correspondent.

In your reports for Marketplace, you have profiled the goings-on along the Street of Eternal Happiness. When did you decide you wanted to write a book and how did you choose to frame it as a profile of the people you’ve met on the street?

After you’ve reported on China for a while, you begin to show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Things change so quickly on the ground, and the economy is growing so rapidly, that a correspondent’s job can become overwhelming. I struggled with how to capture the impact of all this change on everyday Chinese, and that became the inspiration for the Marketplace series. I’d take a year to focus on everyday people who work and live along a single street – the street I live on – to tell stories about the profound economic and social changes taking place in 21st century China.

The stories began as local snapshots, but soon I realized my characters exemplified universal narratives that apply to all Chinese. These stories were fascinating, at turns heartbreaking, and full of drama. For example, CK’s quest to become a sandwich shop entrepreneur on the Street eventually broadened into a search for spirituality as he learned that China’s material culture left him empty and wanting. The character Zhao Shilin worked her way from factory worker to a successful florist on the street to provide a better life for her sons, but their status as migrants have heartrending consequences on how their lives unfold. I was writing not just about a single street in a single city, but about everyday Chinese and their worries, doubts, hopes, and dreams.

It wasn’t so long ago that Chinese residents were hesitant to speak with foreigners. Was it awkward at first when you asked to interview your neighbors for the book? Which topics were the most difficult to bring up with them?

I’m not only a foreigner, but a foreigner with a very large microphone. If that didn’t scare them off, then little else did. I told people upfront I was interviewing them for a series, and later for a book. Some politely declined, but most people I approached thought my work sounded interesting, and they were open to answering questions about their lives. I soon became intertwined in the lives of a few, traveling back to their hometowns, joining a Buddhist pilgrimage, attending underground church services, and tagging along on pyramid-scheme investment meetings. The experiences reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’s line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” I obviously didn’t keep my feet.

Throughout the pages of Street of Eternal Happiness, you discuss the government’s campaign to promote high suzhi, a word describing people’s “quality” or level of education. You also write about the great influx of migrants to Shanghai (and other large cities in China) over the past two decades. What prompted the government to encourage its citizens to achieve high suzhi?

Elevating the suzhi level — or quality — of its people remains an ongoing goal of the Chinese government. In Shanghai, the campaign peaked during the run-up to the 2010 World’s Fair, which attracted millions of tourists. To prepare its citizens for being on the world stage, the city government published an etiquette guide entitled “How to be a Lovely Shanghainese” and sent free copies to my neighbors along the street. I consult my office copy whenever I’m in need of a good laugh.

Shanghai’s behavioral engineers left no stone unturned. They devoted sections of the guidebook to minutiae such as “How to style your hair correctly” and “How to properly sit.” A section entitled “eating at a lunch buffet” was one of my favorites: “Don’t dash for food.” “Wait for the host to announce that the meal has started.” “Adopt the strategy of going to the buffet multiple times.”

Clear rules were needed. Over the past two decades, nearly 300 million people moved from China’s countryside to the city. In fact, roughly 40 percent of Shanghai’s population comes from other parts of China. This incredible mass movement from farm to city happened so quickly that local governments struggled to ensure everyone plays by the same etiquette rules.

You mention in the book that this time in Shanghai parallels America circa 1900.

That’s right. Millions of immigrants from impoverished parts of Europe were streaming into Ellis Island, and, as it happens, etiquette guides were the most popular literary genre in America around that time, meeting a demand to fit in and to master the behavioral rules of their adopted homeland. The same phenomenon is repeating itself today in 21st century Shanghai, as millions of Chinese arrive straight from the farm, mingling with one another and with their urban countrymen in a big melting pot at the mouth of the Yangtze.

Circling back to your Peace Corps experience, you are one of a handful of former Peace Corps Volunteers in China to write books that introduce Americans to contemporary China. Was there something in the water back then that produced so many insightful writers?

I think it was a case of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. Most foreigners in China in the 1990s lived either in Beijing or Shanghai, and had come to study Chinese, report on the country, or make money – sometimes all three. Those of us in the Peace Corps had come as volunteer teachers, we were sent to the countryside, and we spent the next two years in isolation, teaching – and learning from – our students and Chinese colleagues. This was before the Internet was available in that part of China, and calls back home were prohibitively expensive, so there were very few distractions in the way of soaking up the language and culture, and if you didn’t want to do that, you were going to have a pretty miserable two years, because the places we were sent to were remote and undeveloped. It was a sink or swim type of situation, and I think many of us dove in headfirst.

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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.