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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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)

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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.

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Qufu Road, Zhabei District 2014 (p. 60)

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 61)

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

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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.

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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.

Red_Guards

The Cultural Revolution at 50: A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part One)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the first of a two-part roundtable interview we invited Alexander C. Cook, editor of the well-received Cambridge University Press book Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, to conduct with four scholars who have been doing important work on the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule and were part of a recent American Historical Association panel that he chaired.]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning, and the 40th anniversary of the end, of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the passage of time, the Cultural Revolution remains one of most controversial and least understood periods of modern Chinese history. I have invited Denise Ho (Yale University), Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona), Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg), and Yiching Wu (University of Toronto) to look back and help make sense of what we know — and what we still don’t know — about the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the standard “textbook” view of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE HO: When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.

YICHING WU: The problem of mass politics has fascinated scholars, as well. Mao’s attempt to cleanse the Communist Party of pernicious “bourgeois” influences involved the mobilization of a ferocious mass movement. Many ordinary Chinese who responded to Mao’s call for rebellion had long been discontented with the established system and were eager to take advantage of the newly sanctioned “right to rebel.” For several decades, we have examined how the charismatic mode of mass politics mobilized existing societal antagonisms and effectively undermined the ruling party’s bureaucratic authority.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

DENISE HO: One interesting thing is that the standard view in the West and the standard view in China overlap a great deal. Both our textbook version and the Chinese Communist Party’s official verdict (published in 1981) offer similar explanations: that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s responsibility, that it was a period of great chaos, and that it was an ideological movement gone terribly wrong.

DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity.

DANIEL LEESE: Yes, and while Mao is blamed for having committed many mistakes, not everything of that 10-year period is officially negated. There were many continuities. It was not all chaos. The party continued to exist. Economic growth picked up as of the early 1970s. Also, China achieved foreign policy successes such as its 1971 entry to the United Nations.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So the real picture is more complex than we have previously assumed?

YICHING WU: Very much so. First of all, the sociological interpretations that previously dominated the study of mass factionalism have been seriously challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This new research contends that mass political conflicts were not derived from preexisting sociopolitical grievances, but rather were shaped by contingent events and dynamic interactions between the masses and the political leadership. Second, scholars interested in the ideological aspects of the Cultural Revolution have challenged existing views for their tendency to over-systematize and over-interpret late Maoism. The newer works highlight areas of incoherence in the official ideology and explore how ambiguities became exacerbated by the chaotic political circumstances in which ideology was interpreted and deployed.

DANIEL LEESE: While a powerful coalition of party members and intellectuals victimized during the Cultural Revolution has dominated public discussions of the period — and, understandably, emphasized the ordeals experienced — some other aspects of the period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary idealism for example by way of singing “Red songs.” Former Cultural Revolutionary activist Qi Benyu recently expressed the hope that current Chinese president Xi Jinping would become a second Mao Zedong, meaning he would curb corruption and lead China back on the path of socialist revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: The Cultural Revolution has been romanticized from the beginning, and not just in in China. Why is that?

FABIO LANZA: In the 1960s, Maoism provided the vocabulary to describe and express new political ideas around the world. The global fascination with the Cultural Revolution has usually been viewed as orientalism of a sort, with Gauloises-smoking rive gauche intellectuals mesmerized by a revolutionary East they really did not know anything about — the “China in our heads.” But I believe we should take seriously the interest that activists and intellectuals around the world demonstrated for the experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Why should we? Precisely because they took it seriously at the time and because, no matter how misunderstood and misinterpreted it was, the experience of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be tackling head-on many of the issues of the day.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What globally relevant issues did the Cultural Revolution touch upon?

FABIO LANZA: First, the Cultural Revolution addressed directly the relationships between learning and teaching, politics and education, theory and practice. It was then not strange for student protestors in Paris, Turin, or New York to see similarities and connections between the Red Guards’ attacks against stultifying university learning and their own actions against the school system in the spring of 1968. Similarly, the integration of politics and education that the Cultural Revolution proclaimed echoed the political challenge that student organizations spearheaded against supposedly “neutral” pedagogy in Mexico, Chile, and across Europe. Second, the blossoming of the Red Guards in 1966 signaled that people could independently organize themselves outside of the Party-State and even use those organizations to attack the Party or other centers of political power (“Bombard the headquarters,” as Mao said). Third, Maoism seemed to embody an alternative to the existing development models, either capitalist or Stalinist. This was an alternative that was described and perceived as more humane, one that potentially could produce progress without sacrificing the quest for equality.

DANIEL LEESE: In China in the early 1980s former participants in the Cultural Revolutions began to argue that the elite power struggles between Mao and his rivals need to be differentiated from the “public” dimension of the movement, with its salutary elements of mass democracy and anti-bureaucratism. These aspects are still held up by many old and new critics of capitalist exploitation as an alternative path to modernity.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So they feel there are positive things we can salvage from the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: The global appeal of Maoism was made possible by the fact that it did not offer a fixed model, a set of steps to follow, or a rigid scheme to apply. Rather, Maoism presented itself and was viewed as a method of analysis of reality and as the lived experience of revolution. The lesson of the Cultural Revolution was not one of easily transferrable programs, but one of a massive, and still open experiment; a localized but inspirational experience. In this sense, it was not a “Chinese thing”: as one French Maoist worker quipped at the time “we don’t give a f — about China.”

DENISE HO: And yet the Cultural Revolution was, and continues to be, very much a product of Chinese culture. The Cultural Revolution has “culture” in the title, and yet in the past scholars have often written off cultural explanations for why the Cultural Revolution happened. Recent scholarship has tried to put culture back into the conversation.

YICHING WU: That’s right. Conventional wisdom has portrayed the Cultural Revolution as merely an era of chaos and violence, in which culture, education, and literature and art were ruthlessly destroyed. The reality, however, was far from one-dimensional. Several recently published studies have carefully examined films, drama, music, dance, fine arts, and popular literature during the Cultural Revolution, arguing that Mao’s last decade, rather than a cultural wasteland limited to a few hyper-politicized revolutionary plays, in fact witnessed considerable cultural innovation and artistic success.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Then we will pick up next time with the problem of culture….

Zhou Enlai book cover

The Secret Sexual Life of Zhou Enlai and the Limits of Historical Knowledge

By Jeremiah Jenne

Zhou Enlai remains one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Chinese history. For nearly five decades, he served the Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. He was the original technocrat, orchestrating foreign policy and stabilizing domestic politics in an era of campaigns and the chaotic whims of Mao Zedong.

He might also have been gay. At least so claims Hong Kong journalist Tsoi Wing-Mui in her new book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai de mimi qinggan shijie).

The retroactive outing of somebody of Zhou’s stature is sure to court controversy, and this could well have made Ms. Tsoi’s book the most buzzed about title on the private life of a Chinese leader in years — had it not appeared around the same time that Hong Kong booksellers associated with salacious works on Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s behind-closed-doors activities began mysteriously disappearing.

Homosexuality was illegal in the PRC until 1997. Before then, men who had sex with other men risked the charge of “hooliganism.” And it was only in 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatry Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. While social mores are changing, especially in China’s cities, it is still far from unusual to encounter members of the older generation who believe that homosexuality is a foreign vice, an unfortunate by-product of China’s opening to the outside world.

An admittedly unscientific poll in my neighborhood park resulted in several mocking dismissals of any notion that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, plus one stern lecture regarding foreign slanders of China’s leadership.

Ms. Tsoi is not the first to raise questions about the nature of the fifty-plus-year relationship between Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, for their marriage has previously been the subject of whispers and speculation. The pair famously never had any children, and Zhou’s courtship of Deng — he proposed with a postcard after having not seen her in over five years — was singularly unromantic.

Ms. Tsoi claims, however, that there is textual evidence — in the form of Zhou’s diary — to support her claim that his deepest love was for a member of his own sex, and that he was generally more attracted to men than women.

That diary, written in 1918 when Zhou Enlai was a 20-year-old student in Japan, contains numerous passages that suggest that the relationship between Zhou and some of his classmates was less than platonic.

In the very first entry, dated January 1, 1918, Zhou wrote: “For the first time in my life, I am immersed in this word ‘love,’ as to the heart of the passion […]” The last line is then blurred with a thick brush stroke across the page.

There is always interest in the sexual lives of famous historical figures, even more so when that sexual life runs counter to popular perception or official history. From Alexander the Great to Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, history’s alleged closet would seem to be a crowded space.

But retroactively outing a historical figure remains problematic, not because of the sex — Zhou Enlai may well have had erotic relations with other men — but because such studies are often methodologically flawed. Too often, contemporary understandings of romance and sexuality, gay or straight, are read into texts from another time period. But doing so can prejudice the data and lead to shaky conclusions. It is an error of perception when we use present-day standards to judge or categorize evidence of past behavior.

Richard Burger, whose own research into the subject led to the 2012 book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, knows the pitfalls well. “It is tempting to project our contemporary attitudes about homosexuality onto men in China who enjoyed sex with other men,” says Burger, whom I interviewed by email. “But it is important to understand that these men did not identify as gay. They were family men who enjoyed having sex with boys, who under the Qing were commonly referred to as ‘song boys’ (they often read poetry, danced and sang songs for their patrons).”

Many studies of homosexuality in Chinese literature or history have relied on texts, poetry, and letters, which require close reading and are open to considerable interpretation. The relative absence of gender signifiers in classical Chinese language adds to this challenge. Bret Hinsch’s 1992 Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China is a well-known example of the limitations inherent in this approach. While homosexuality was known to have been commonly practiced in China, in a variety of forms, into the modern period, evidence for specific individuals or circumstances can be frustratingly vague.

For example, an entry in Zhou’s 1918 diary includes this passage:

In these months, the moon or the morning breeze, the rain against my window, and flowers; all make me long for my family, and thinking of my brother Hui, I suffer terribly!

Ms. Tsoi argues that the object of Zhou’s passionate sentiment (“Brother Hui”) was a younger classmate named Li Fujing, who had moved to Hong Kong during Zhou’s time in Japan. But while the passage clearly shows Zhou’s emotional attachment to Li, it doesn’t say very much about the nature of their relationship.

In an American Historical Review (December 2000) essay on “The Male Bond in Chinese History and Culture,” historian Susan Mann argued that patterns of education and career advancement ensured that men spent the better part of their working and social lives interacting almost exclusively with other men.

Many male relationships were homosocial — the strongest emotional bonds felt by the individual were toward someone of the same gender — but not necessarily sexual. One imagines a continuum from non-sexual emotional attachment to sexual and romantic attachment. This continuum might also include cultural practices such as the “gifting” of concubines or, as is sometimes still the case today, sexual expression in a group setting as described by author James Palmer in his 2015 ChinaFile article “The Bro Code: Booze, Sex, and the Dark Art of Dealmaking in China:

Perhaps that’s why some bosses demand a more public performance. The ultimate are what participants describe as frequent forays into group sex, often with more male than female participants. Sharing women appears to bring men closer to each other, in a perversely familial fashion. As one northeastern saying goes, “Once two men share a woman, they’re brothers.”

These wildly disparate examples of male bonding suggest why it can be difficult to find the kind of definitive evidence necessary to out a historical figure who, by all other accounts, presented as straight.

Even the tepid nature of Zhou Enlai’s married life is in danger of being misread. Many descriptions of Zhou borrow heavily from Confucian tropes: he was devoted to his work. He was a loyal official. He was upright in his personal life. In this way, Zhou’s lack of an overt romantic or sexual life contrasts favorably with the notoriously libertine Mao. In the male world of Confucian (and later revolutionary) officialdom, excessive interest in women could be construed as a weakness.

This conflation of devotion to duty with resistance to feelings of romantic or sexual attraction to women could, in some cases, tip over into open misogyny. One of the unfortunate tropes that surround women who get too close to power in China is that these women have an over-developed desire for sex, particularly transgressive sex. The most recent example is Gu Kailai, the imprisoned wife of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was accused of orchestrating the murder of her foreign lover in 2011.

In this way, hagiographic depictions of Zhou that borrow from the tradition of the official unsullied by preoccupations of romance and sex can be read, in another context, as Zhou Enlai living an uncomfortable life as a closeted gay man prohibited from the open expression of his true sexuality.

This critique is not to detract from the intention of Ms. Tsoi’s project. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as researchers need to take care not to impose contemporary understandings of gay-ness back into history, it’s equally important not to assume heterosexuality as a historical norm. The onus is on Ms. Tsoi to refute a relatively large body of textual and other evidence, including what we know of how Zhou Enlai presented his own sexuality. But wishing for more evidence to support Ms. Tsoi’s claim that Zhou Enlai was gay is not the same as wanting to suppress that evidence or a desire for additional credentials to boost Zhou’s “straightness.”

Zhou Enlai may well have had sex with other men. It’s even possible that his greatest romantic and erotic attractions were toward other men. Certainly that is the case with many historical figures. If this were the case with Zhou, it would be an important insight into not only his life and career, but also the limits of the historical record.

According to Richard Burger, “If Zhou was indeed gay he must have been careful to leave no trace of it, and documenting such a thesis would be extremely difficult. Homosexuality was such a taboo under Mao (and continued to be until the 1990s), it would be unthinkable for Zhou to have left any evidence that would have incriminated him as being gay.”

Unfortunately, while Tsoi’s is a much more carefully researched work than some of the most titillating recent books about Xi and Peng, such as one that claims to reconstruct the night the latter lost her virginity, the evidence presented on Zhou’s romantic inclinations is still too flimsy to be conclusive. The emotional life of one of China’s most respected leaders, like many aspects of just how the five Hong Kong booksellers ended up in custody on the mainland, remains a mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unicorn

The Next Unicorn?

By Austin Dean

It’s hard to keep up with Chinese economic news: CEOs being detained by the public security apparatus, the release of economic statistics that no one believes, the fluctuations between the Chinese yuan’s value on the mainland and offshore, the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market. It’s enough to keep you up at night, or for those of us in the United States, get you out of bed early to see what happened in Asia while we slept.

No one knows what will happen next. The cautious optimists do not see a Chinese financial crisis around the corner, while the pessimists think a hard landing is imminent. If you want to find the real optimists, though, watch Chinese reality TV shows about entrepreneurs.

The original show in this genre was Win in China, which aired on CCTV 2, the business and finance channel. As James Fallows chronicled in 2007, the program pitted entrepreneurs in a series of challenges to win funding for their ventures. As one of the producers told Fallows at the time, the show wasn’t just about money. There was a larger purpose: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams […] There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values. Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”

After the season finale in 2007, Fallows hoped the show’s place in China’s cultural landscape would eventually become “an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity” and not “another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.”

And that’s still the important quandary.

A more recent entry in the genre is We Are The Hero (Chuangye yingxiong hui), which began in late 2014 and also airs on CCTV 2. The most noticeable difference from Win in China is the age group — We Are The Hero is much more youth-oriented and aimed at the post-1980s and post-1990s generations. As one entrepreneur said in an early episode, his generation of post-90s youth is not only interested in making money, but also in doing something that that will make people remember them. Some might say this attitude comes off as arrogant, but it might simply reflect that people born in post-1990s China have only known economic growth. For them making money is a given. They want more.

Unlike Win in China, which followed contestants on a week-to-week basis, We Are The Hero runs through three to four entrepreneurs each episode. In that way, viewers don’t have as much of a chance to identify with a particular candidate as they did in Win in China. Win in China was more like The Apprentice, while We Are The Hero is a bit closer to Shark Tank.

After taking the stage on We Are The Hero, entrepreneurs give a pitch to a group of twenty investors who decide whether or not they’re interested in the idea being offered. The contestant moves on to the next round if they reach a certain threshold of investor interest. In the next segment, the contestants interview with two “tutors” (daoshi), who themselves are famous entrepreneurs. People serve as tutors on a rotating basis, and there have been some pretty big names, such as Yu Minhong, the founder of the English-language training school New Oriental, and Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China. If the entrepreneurs are able to convince the two tutors they have what it takes, they move on to round three, when investors from round one can make offers. It is at this point that other members of the company take the stage (they’re backstage during the first two rounds). If the entrepreneurs and investors agree in principle to a deal, they sort out the details off camera.

The other big difference between the two shows is what types of ideas entrepreneurs pitch to investors. In the first season of Win in China, one contestant wanted investment in order to expand production capacity for making lingerie; another wanted to get into “direct-response marketing,” which, as Fallows wrote, was “the polite name for the infomercial business.” In We Are The Hero, it’s all about smartphones and the app economy.

We Are The Hero is actually a bit tame compared to a show currently being filmed, The Next Unicorn (Xunzhao dujiaoshou). The point of this show is to find the next billion-dollar company, which in the lingo of Silicon Valley and venture capital are known as unicorns.

The Next Unicorn is also explicitly international in ways the others shows are not. Although Win in China had a handful of international contestants, most famously Henry Winter, it was still very much a China-based show. The Next Unicorn, on the other hand, is filming in Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, and other locales. Produced by CBN (Diyi caijing) and offering a $2.5 million dollar prize, the show will feature entrepreneurs based around the world. The Australian creator of an app that allows users to rate clothing flew to China at the beginning of the year to begin filming. As the founder said, “We’ve given our pitch a complete overhaul while keeping it obviously true to our vision. But it’s very tailored to the Asian market, its problems and how we would tap into that.”

Of course, The Next Unicorn is filming at a time when many are beginning to talk about “dead unicorns” or “unicorpses”—companies unable to continue raising money at high valuations that have to drastically shrink or close down their operations. In what venture capitalist Bill Gurley called a must-read article, Reuters chronicled the story of Shequ001, a Beijing start-up that delivered groceries ordered on smartphones. In less than a year, the company went from 2,000 employees to fewer than three dozen, with many of those who left still owed pay.

Maybe it is this show and not Win in China or We Are The Hero that will represent “the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.” Stay tuned. The Next Unicorn is set to air in early April.