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.

Writing about China and Eponymous Adjectives

By Paul French

In the wake of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Third Plenum” — the first policy-focused general meeting he’s presided over since being anointed a year ago — the term “Orwellian” is once again getting a work-out.* It’s long been and remains a great favorite among China writers: the Great Firewall is Orwellian, censorship is Orwellian, the Chinese police are Orwellian, Beijing’s policy pronouncements are Orwellian Double Speak. But while Orwellian may be the most overused eponymous adjective (an adjective derived from a real or fictional person, as you’d know if you’d been paying attention in your English grammar class), plenty of others are available to the writer on China, beginning with that derived from the name of Orwell’s one-time French tutor at Eton, Aldous Huxley, who has been in the news lately due to sharing the anniversary of his death with JFK (and C.S. Lewis).

There has been, in fact, a lively eponymous adjective debate lately among foreign writers and journalists covering China over whether the PRC is Orwellian (repressive and brutal as in 1984), Huxleyite (psychologically manipulative, a society bought off by consumer goodies and where stability maintenance is the primary concern, a la Brave New World), or a bit of both. Over the years, and over numerous events from Tiananmen Square to the riotous opening of a new Apple store, views have swayed between emphasizing Huxley’s “velvet glove” and Orwell’s “iron fist” (as opposed to Jack London’s capitalistic Iron Heel).

Those looking for more nuanced eponymous adjectives can reach for other terms. When discussing society the Chinese people can be Brechtian and detached from the action, or Pinteresque with extreme detachment in the face of absurdity (you could substitute Beckettian if you prefer). Certainly more than one Chinese Foreign Ministry official faced with an awkward question from a foreign journalist has displayed an admirable Pinteresque pause in the past. The unkind see Chinese society as full of Asimovian robots performing endless Olympics opening ceremonies. For the new China commentator faced with the overwhelming onslaught of China, Daliesque – denoting the surrealism of the whole show – is popular (some have suggested mixing surrealism with alienation to become Murakamiesque, but it hasn’t caught on yet), and the science-minded eponymous adjective lover might see the whole thing as a Baconian cipher (the message being hidden in the presentation rather than the content).

The China debate of course moves fast, and so can at times appear almost Joycean (in the sense of rapid subject change as opposed to lyricism – China is rarely lyrical) and more than one commentator has displayed a Vonnegutian approach, relying on gallows humor to try to decipher Beijing. I myself admit to having reached for the notion of understanding China as akin to going “through the looking glass,” though Carrollian sadly doesn’t really work as an eponymous adjective.

Business writers really like Kafkaesque (well, his books were short) and all that endless shunting from office to office for permits, opaque laws and never getting a straight answer is reminiscent of poor old K. as he strives to untangle the bureaucracy of The Castle. Younger commentators might go for Gilliamesque (surreal and a tad Kafkaesque, in a Discworldy sort of way).

The debate around China’s future brings forth a whole new slew of eponymous adjectives, often written in a Hemingwayesque style. China could be seen as Byronic (seemingly ideal but with a hidden dark side). More often the analysis tends to the Lovecraftian, courtesy of the early H.P. Lovecraft and portending horrible future prospects, or Ballardian, envisaging a definite dystopia with a veneer of science on top (a Ballardian coffee with a Huxleyite cream if you like). Ballard may be onto something as he was at least born in Shanghai; and all those empty swimming pool motifs engendered in his childhood during the Japanese occupation still seem of-the-moment when writers tour those half finished luxury villa developments on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road. Of course those looking for The Shape of Things to Come in China often reach for Wellsian — and that includes those who predict it’ll all end in a War of the Worlds.

The Victorians are useful when describing China’s factories – Dickensian is perennially popular. But if you really can’t make your mind up about China, then, without doubt, Shakespearian is the eponymous adjective for you. Take your pick – comedy, tragedy, farce? King Lear gets dropped a lot when the leadership is being discussed, as does Julius Caesar, but I don’t think Romeo and Juliet got a mention in the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai saga.

Of course all this can get a bit tedious, a bit boring, a bit Franzenesque (okay, I made that one up). One hopes of course that the best writing about China should be Proustian (ornate, detailed, rich with memory and recollection), but it’s not always, sadly. And finally, do remember the eponymous adjectives that nobody outside China uses are Marxist, Leninist, and certainly not Trotskyist – but none of them wrote fiction so they’re no fun.

So go ahead next time you’re asked to write an article on China (and with so many words spilled on China you will eventually be asked) – select an eponymous adjective, press send, sit back and relax – someone out there will agree with you.

A very partial list of Orwell-related commentaries on China can be found by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Gene Luen Yang on Relying on Stories, Creating Boxers & Saints

By Angilee Shah

It’s not that the concept of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is complex: two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two perspectives.

But within this simple structure, Yang’s graphic novels build a compelling story around a war of identity, set 100 years ago in China. It combines mysticism with the very concrete ways that people decide who they are, in this case a leader in a secret fighting society and a Chinese Christian convert. It has the remarkable effect of allowing readers to explore how stories — saints and spirits — can shape physical events — the blood, gore and battles of history.

A book like this, both approachable and profound, could not come at a better moment. When you can imagine China’s history with foreigners this way, it becomes very difficult to oversimplify the mix of views Chinese people might have today about their spectacular entrance onto the world stage.

Gene Luen Yang spoke with the “China Blog” about Asian and Asian American identity and how people come to embody their stories, and the empathy he felt while investigating the Boxer Rebellion.

Shah: [One of your earlier books] American Born Chinese is about identity and stereotypes in a head-on sort of way. Is Boxers & Saints also about understanding identity?

Yang: I think so. Both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints come from the same root. Issues of identity and how people construct identities for themselves really interest me. Specifically, I’m really interested in the way people who are caught in between cultures end up negotiating for themselves.

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church that still meets in the San Francisco Bay Area. My home church was really excited about these canonizations because this was the first time that this deeply western church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way.

When I looked into the lives of these saints, many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion and their canonization was actually very controversial. The Chinese government issued a letter of protest to the Vatican saying that the Roman Catholic Church was honoring people who had betrayed their Chinese culture. That tension between eastern and western world views and how they existed within the same community, within these Chinese Catholic communities, really interested me.

Shah: If the impetus for your interest in the Boxer Rebellion was the canonization of these saints, how did you come to understand and get into the nuance of this complex event in history?

Yang: From what I’ve read, it seems like the Boxers went through different phases of how they were perceived. Immediately after their defeat, they were seen as backward groups who had succumbed to superstition. Once the Communist Revolution in China got underway, it seems like Communist leaders recast them as patriots, almost as people to be admired. Nowadays, it seems like most modern scholars see them as more complex figures. They embody both some xenophobia and also patriotism.

When I was reading about them, I just felt like their motivation was really understandable to me. It made a lot of sense. I had also read a little bit that compared the Boxer movement to Ghost Dancers here in America. Native American groups, when their cultures were under attack and they felt that they were dying as a people, they came up with this thing called Ghost Dancing. It was really similar to the Boxers, where they believed they could achieve mystical powers by going back to their roots and relying on their stories.

When it feels like a culture is existentially threatened, not just with defeat but with annihilation, these types of things come out. In one way, it’s an act of desperation. But it another way it’s like the stories of the culture embody themselves within these people. I was pretty fascinated by that idea as well.

Shah: Speaking of stories being embodied in people, how much has changed since you began creating graphic novels for representations of Asians?

Yang: I’ve been doing it for 15 years, which seems like a long time to me, but in terms of history it’s a blink of an eye. We’re in the midst of a developing Asian American culture. The term “Asian American” hasn’t been around for a long time. My parents, I don’t think, would call themselves Asian Americans. They call themselves Chinese Americans. It’s only pretty recently that we started thinking of ourselves as Asian Americans.

But there is an emerging Asian American culture where we are starting to tell our stories and make our own music. We’re starting to create a culture that is a subculture of American culture that draws heavily from Asian cultures but is distinct from the cultures of our parents and our grandparents.

Shah: When you starting working on American Born Chinese in 2000, do you think there would have been a market for a book like Boxers & Saints?

Yang: Maybe not. In 2000, it wasn’t just comics about Asian and Asian American issues that weren’t selling. Comics in general just weren’t selling. In the late ’90s, my friends and I would go to these comic book conventions and we’d listen to publishers and artists and authors talk about how we were about to see the death of the American comic book. Marvel Comics, which was — it still is — the biggest comic book company in American, was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. [They went into bankruptcy in 1996.] People were predicting that if they just blinked out of existence, it would take down the entire American comics infrastructure, that all of the comic stores in America would shut down. The ’90s overall were seen as good times, but within the comic book industry it was a little bit apocalyptic. People were predicting some pretty dire things.

To go from there to now, where every book store has a pretty substantial graphic novel section — where people know what a graphic novel is — it’s pretty remarkable. I do think that some of the reasons that happened are tied into Asian American issues. One of the reasons why comics revived was the growing popularity of Japanese culture in America. Japanese anime and comics, manga, became really popular. For a while, manga was the fastest growing section of the American book market.

It’s gotten to the point that nowadays, I’d say any cartoonist 30 or under draws in a heavily manga style. If you watch TV and look at the American-produced cartoons, like Avatar Last Airbender, which is a Nickelodeon production, and even the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, you can see heavy manga influence on the drawing styles. There’s a blend within modern American cartoon culture, both in animation and comics, of eastern and western styles. So there’s interest in both eastern and western cultures and the way they come together.

Boxers & Saints probably has benefitted from both those things, that comics are no longer a dead media and that there’s this interest now in Asian cultures.

Shah: For people who are interested in China’s history, what’s your number one Boxer Rebellion book?

Yang: The one that I relied on most heavily when I was doing my book? It was Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick. That was the only one that really took the Chinese side. There were other ones out there but it seems like they were always either mixed in terms of their perspectives or they were heavily European and American. Esherick’s had the most fascinating little details too.

There’s also another one by Ignatius Press that isn’t about the Boxer Rebellion in particular, but it’s called Christians in China. It talks about the movement of Western religion throughout Chinese history. That was helpful as well.

Angilee Shah is an editor and journalist. She co-edited Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (UC Press, 2012), a book of essays about everyday life in China. You can find her on Twitter @angshah.

Art and Globalization

By Tong Lam

In recent years, the number of applicants to Chinese art schools has increased dramatically. Earlier this year, for example, nearly 10,000 candidates submitted applications to the Shandong University of Arts and Design, a mid-tier institution. The number of applicants to top art schools is no doubt even higher. Generally, in order to gain admission, an art school applicant has to pass several levels of exams. In the end, only a tiny portion of applicants will be admitted, and about 70% of them will be eliminated in the first round alone

This increase in the number of aspiring art students in China seems quite curious, given that the overall number of Chinese university applicants has been dropping in recent years. This trend is even more unusual if one compares China with more developed economies, whose students generally flock to the so-called “practical disciplines” of business, law, and medicine rather than the arts and humanities.

 

Art students practicing outdoor sketching in Yixian, Anhui Province. In China, outdoor sketching has been an important part of training for painters since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Art students practicing outdoor sketching in Yixian, Anhui Province. In China, outdoor sketching has been an important part of training for painters since the beginning of the twentieth century.

One explanation is perhaps the astronomical surge in Chinese art prices in recent decades. Soaring art prices, and the financial benefits enjoyed by well-known Chinese artists, have undoubtedly resulted in the elevation of artists’ status. Since the 1990s, Chinese art—especially contemporary art—has been firmly integrated into the global art market. Culture and economy, in other words, have become more and more intertwined, if not synonymous. As a result, leading Chinese contemporary artists have suddenly found their works among some of the hottest commodities in the art market. An obvious example of this is artist Ai Weiwei, who has become well known in the West by branding himself as a standalone renegade hero fighting against an authoritarian regime, an image the Western media loves to embrace and celebrate.

The success of Chinese artists in the global capitalist art market is a reminder that globalization is not only about the spread of McDonald’s and Starbucks chains. Rather, the process often involves local actors trying to claim ownership of the changing global culture. At the same time, no matter how critical and creative their artwork appears to be, artists themselves, with their reliance on sales and fame for success, are often complicit in the very same structures that they try to overcome. Moreover, in spite of the stream of aspiring art students seeking entrance to Chinese art schools, the logic of neoliberalism places great emphasis on distinction and hierarchy. As such, only a tiny portion of art students who successfully enter the university will ultimately succeed in the global marketplace.

Censorship, Translation and the Chinese Market

“To me the choice was easy…I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, statement made during a Chinese book tour.

“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family.”

Rebecca Karl, author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.

“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing.
[All quotes appeared in Andrew Jacobs, “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China,” New York Times, October 19, 2013.]

Here are some questions that students, friends, and people who introduce themselves to me after I’ve given a public talk on China often ask:

Are you sorry that none of the books you’ve written have come out in Chinese editions?

How much would you be willing to let Chinese publishers cut from your books, if told that allowing some things to get intentionally lost in translation was what it would take for these works to be sold on the mainland?

Would you balk at cutting a few sentences, be fine with deleting a whole chapter, or perhaps even be okay with trimming segments here and there throughout a book?

How strongly would you push back if asked for other sorts of changes, like allowing your book to have a dramatically different title in the Chinese edition?

I’ll likely get asked things like this more often now, thanks to Andrew Jacobs, whose recent article on the publication of Western works in mainland China has generated a lot of buzz. It’s no surprise that the article has caught the interest of China specialists. Many of us are fascinated by the challenge of sorting out what has and hasn’t changed about Chinese publishing and censorship in recent years. Jacobs draws attention to both novelties of the present (not long ago, books dealing even in part with sensitive issues simply would not be translated) as well as things that are holdovers from past times, such as the paranoia about protecting Party officials’ images that led to a reference to Deng dropping a dumpling being cut from Vogel’s book, and a text about a mayor and a mistress ending up one of the very few things excised from Meyer’s. And Jacobs focuses on three different sorts of members of our tribe: sociologist Vogel (whose Deng biography is selling briskly in China), historian Karl (whose book will likely be published soon by Hunan People’s Press), and journalist Meyer (whose book was retitled Zaihui, Lao Beijing, or “See You Again, Old Beijing,” in an effort, Jacobs writes, to make an often dismayed look at destruction seem a “nostalgic love letter”).

What is more notable is how much interest in the article there has been beyond specialist circles. On October 23, for example, the Guardian ran a follow-up article, “Author Bows to Chinese Censorship of his Deng Biography,” which zeroed in on Vogel’s relatively easy acceptance of modifying his work so that it could appear in China. The next day, “The Banal Reality of Censoring Books in China” appeared on the History News Network website. This article began with HNN editor David Walsh describing the battle Karl fought — and won — to keep Hunan People’s Press from going forward with their initial plan to present her book to Chinese readers as a straightforward biography of Mao, with an altered title to match.

Reading these three articles on censorship has made me appreciate anew a basic fact about the questions regarding translation, accommodation, censorship and so forth I sometimes get asked: at least for me, these queries usually cannot be answered as simply as people would like. And the same will be true now if I’m asked whether, like Vogel, I’ll be happy if “90 percent” of one my books can make its way into the Chinese market. It all depends, I’ll say, on which book we are talking about.

In the case of China’s Brave New World — and Other Tales for Global Times, which is comprised of separate though thematically connected essays, I was ready at one point to try to get a version published on the mainland that was only about 70% as long as the original, with several chapters that would clearly have created problems left out. (A friend found a publishing house that initially seemed ready to go forward with the book in that form, but then higher ups within it had second thoughts and the plans to bring out the translation were scrapped.)

With my first book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, which is mostly about pre-1949 events but has an “Epilogue” (perhaps making up 7% of the text) stressing parallels between those struggles and upheavals of the 1980s, on the other hand, I would view cutting out 10% as far too much. I would rather it not be published than come out sans that “Epilogue” and also stripped of passing comments in other chapters about the clear links and parallels between the “good,” in Chinese Communist Party eyes, protests that helped it rise to power and the “bad” ones that challenged its legitimacy in 1989.

Or, rather, I’d only consider going forward with a version like that if the press in question agreed to a condition I can’t imagine it would: marking each cut with an ellipsis to show that something in the original was no longer there, and putting a warning on the cover, like those you see when R rated movies are shown on an airplane, noting that the work has been modified for presentation in this particular setting. Without something like that done, I would worry that the book could too easily be read as supporting notions that I don’t agree with. For example, such cuts would eliminate the parallels I draw between protests of the 1940s, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Nationalist Party government of that era, and those that erupted four decades later, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party government of that time.

It might seem that at least one question mentioned at the start of this post would lend itself to a straightforward answer — the one about whether I’m frustrated that none of my books has come out in a Chinese edition yet. Of course, since I share Karl’s desire to be read broadly, I’d love to have all my books available in as many translations as possible, and since I write about China, reaching Chinese readers is particularly desirable. Still, this question needs clarification and contextualization, even though neither of the books just mentioned has been translated into simplified characters by a Chinese publisher, and the same goes for the other two books I’ve written, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The most important thing to note is that there is a Chinese-language version out of China in the 21st Century, just not a simplified-character one. A complex-character translation of the book’s second edition, which I updated in collaboration with fellow LARB “China Blog” regular Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published this summer. It’s now readily available for sale in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some copies could already be making their way into the hands of readers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, even if this edition can’t be sold in mainland bookstores. So, it’s not quite true that there are no “Chinese editions” of my works. It’s not even accurate to say none of them can be sold openly in the People’s Republic of China, since Hong Kong is now a part of that country, albeit one where distinctive rules on publishing apply — something demonstrated by such things as there being a Hong Kong translation of Vogel’s biography of Deng that I’ve been told includes passages snipped out of the mainland edition.

Finally, what about sticking to your guns on titles? I admire Karl’s determination not to have her Mao book, which is very different in aims and scope than a standard biography, recast to seem like it was just that. I can also see, though, why Meyer might have felt differently about The Last Days of Old Beijing becoming Zaihui, Lao Beijing. If you are interested in making a living as an author in the present era, there’s a need to pick your battles, and he also might well have felt that going along with the title change provided him more leverage in working to keep parts of the book’s content he cared about from being cut. Added to this, there’s a basic difference between Karl and Meyer’s past experiences with publication, since the former’s articles have most often been published in scholarly venues, the latter’s in magazines and newspapers. If you write for general interest rather than academic venues, you simply get used to having titles other than the ones you came up with placed above your work. In my relatively amphibious career, I try to keep this in mind, so I can roll with the punches when my articles for non-scholarly periodicals are retitled (though ones that seem to me to veer too far from my original meaning certainly annoy me) yet ready to push back if anyone tries to get me to give up on a title I like for something I’ve written for an academic journal.

As for books, I was so happy to see one of my books finally come out in a Chinese-language edition of some kind, that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even consulted about what China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know would be renamed. And just in case any Chinese publisher is reading this post, I’d like to make it clear that I’m open to having Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 retitled. It’s hardly a “nostalgic love letter” to the city that is its focus, but it does have a sense of old patterns returning in novel forms in the metropolis; so, especially if Meyer’s work sells as well as it should (it’s a really good book), I’d even be willing to consider Zaihui, Lao Shanghai. Hell, with a title like “See You Again, Old Shanghai,” someone might even bid for the movie rights.

* For more on the Chinese translations of The Last Days of Old Beijing — in the plural, since Taiwan and mainland editions have both come out — and the author’s experiences touring to promote these books in Asia, check out Michael Meyer’s “See You Again, Old Beijing,” an engaging and thoughtful memoir cum commentary published in SLATE. Also of interest are two “Letters to the Editor” inspired by Jacobs’s article that have appeared in the New York Times. One of these, from China specialist John Israel, recounts an interesting experience the author had with a sensitive issue of translation. The other is from the President of Ohio Wesleyan University, noting that Vogel “passed on all rights to income from mainland China sales” of his Deng biography to that school, his “alma mater.”  The proceeds are to be used to establish “a permanent endowment to support Ohio Wesleyan students engaged in international study, with a preference for research and travel involving East Asia.”

Hong Kong, Beyond the Neon Lights

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I doubt anyone goes to Hong Kong specifically to explore the Ping Shan or Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trails. After all, this former British colony (now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, or SAR) offers visitors a plethora of other attractions: world-class dining, exciting nightlife, a spectacular skyline, and high-end shopping, just to name a few. The two heritage trails, both located in the outlying New Territories section of the SAR, lie far from the center of Hong Kong’s gravity.

I’m not really into shopping or eating fancy meals, and I’ve already done most of the standard Hong Kong tourist items (traveled up to the Peak, visited Chungking Mansions for Indian food, crossed the harbor on the Star Ferry), so when I arrived for a long weekend in the SAR earlier this month, my itinerary was pretty much blank. I wanted to relax, eat good street snacks, and explore Hong Kong beyond the neon lights. The two heritage trails (both listed in the Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook) fit the bill perfectly: easily accessible by public transportation, yet still far enough off the beaten path to provide peace and quiet while I soaked in some of the territory’s lesser-known history.

The Ping Shan Heritage Trail is undoubtedly the more popular of the two, and I saw several other foreigners and a couple of organized tour groups during my excursion there on Saturday afternoon. The trail, a little over a kilometer and a half, winds through several old villages that formerly all came under the oversight of the area’s Tang Clan, which settled in Ping Shan around the twelfth century. The trail links together a number of older structures (or rebuilt versions of the same), such as the Tang Ancestral Hall and several temples, that together provide insight into traditional life in a Hong Kong village.

I was even more interested, however, in present-day village life. As I walked along the trail, which leads visitors through small clusters of apartment buildings, little details captured my attention: the vaguely familiar music emanating from a storefront Christian church opposite a temple dedicated to a local god; colorful flowers planted in container gardens outside nearly every apartment; the incense burner attached to someone’s mailbox. The residents of these apartments appeared comfortable with the large number of visitors that the trail had brought to their community, and nearly everyone I encountered smiled or said hello to me (one man added, presumably at random, “Are you from California?”).

I encountered a very different situation the next day when I set off on the much longer, and much less polished, Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail. While the Ping Shan trail had a visitor’s center and numerous signs to guide me from one historic landmark to the next, Lung Yeuk Tau featured only spotty signage, and both the starting and endpoints of the trail were unmarked. (I found the former with the help of Lonely Planet and decided on the latter when I came to a bus stop and saw that the minibus waiting there would take me back to the metro station.) The trail passes by a number of old walled villages and takes the visitor on a pleasant, though not physically taxing, hike along tree-lined roads.

In contrast to the outgoing community of Ping Shan, the Lung Yeuk Tau area seemed reserved, even unfriendly. Few people paid me any heed, and no one made any attempt to speak with me. I was virtually the only person traveling by foot, though people regularly passed me in cars and minibuses on the single-lane roads of the trail. No one mingled on the tiny concrete town squares, while a gleaming new basketball court lay empty and silent. Everywhere I looked, homes were surrounded by fences: three-story apartment buildings were encircled by walls whose tiles matched the homes’ exteriors, while residents of ramshackle single-story dwellings favored chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. The walled villages of old had given way to the walled houses of today.

But the quiet that hovered over the trail enabled me to hear what was going on behind those walls, and I realized that the area was far from deserted. Someone was cooking, I could tell, by the rhythmic sound of a knife hitting a chopping board; in another building, the plastic clack of mahjong tiles made me wish I could take a seat at the table and join in the game. Television sets offered forth snatches of Cantonese that my Mandarin-speaking brain couldn’t begin to decipher. I usually like to listen to music on my iPod while taking long walks, but I left the device in my bag while hiking the Lung Yeuk Tau trail, focusing instead on the small sounds of daily life around me. I finished the four-kilometer hike feeling grateful for the anonymity and peace that the trail had offered—a rare thing to find in China.

Readers may have noticed that I’ve said comparatively little about the historic sites that are the reason for these two trails’ existence. To be honest, I didn’t find many of the sites particularly interesting; perhaps I’ve been jaded by my time in China, but small temples and ancestral halls are a dime a dozen, and nothing about the ones I saw along the trails stood out in any special way. The real pleasure I found on both of the trails came from the opportunity to wander around the contemporary versions of traditional villages and get a glimpse of life in the New Territories.

Would I recommend that a traveler with a free day or two in Hong Kong consider filling that time with a visit to these trails? Absolutely. The gleaming skyscrapers and bustling streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are exciting; no first-time visitor to the SAR should skip them. It’s just as fascinating, however, to explore the territory’s quieter areas — only a short train ride away, but a world apart, from the neon lights of central Hong Kong.

Further reading: Since the 1960s, anthropologists James L. Watson and Rubie S. Watson have conducted research in the New Territories village of Yuen Long, which is similar to the towns I visited along the heritage trails. Many of their articles about the region have been compiled in Village Life in Hong Kong: Politics, Gender and Ritual in the New Territories.

Jogging the Memory

By James Carter

With Fall Break relieving me from teaching for a few days, I recently spent a week in Shanghai researching a new book that uses the events of a single day at the local horse-races to explore a variety of questions about China’s 20th-century history. I’m interested in that particular place at that particular time (late in 1941) in part because I like projects that draw attention to how porous seemingly basic boundaries separating cultural groups and periods can be. Shanghai spent a century (1843-1943) subdivided into Chinese-run districts and two foreign-run enclaves, a French Concession and an International Settlement, which were all interconnected even though each was governed differently. The racetrack, for example, was in the International Settlement, which was usually dominated by British interests, but people from all parts of the city and of all nationalities came to bet on the ponies.

Why is 1941 special? Because when writing about Chinese history, 1937 — when Japan invaded North China, occupied many coastal cities, and carried out the brutal Rape of Nanjing — is usually regarded as the start of “the war.” Yet, in Shanghai, while the Japanese took over the Chinese-run parts of the city that year, most Western nations remained neutral in the Pacific theater until December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other centers of Western power in Asia. In the foreign concessions, life went on more or less as usual after 1937, at least for a while. The race that interests me would be the last “championship” one run before Japan took over the International Settlement, but the 20,000 people who went to bet on the horses did not know that: for them, the drama of the day focused on the rivalry between top stables, not geopolitics.

Long-dead horses and jockeys, though, weren’t the only racers on my mind during this trip, as it came just five weeks before I was set to run my first marathon back home. That meant I wanted to log not just time in the archives but also some miles — ideally a lot of them, even if doing so would require breathing air much smoggier than what I am used to in Philadelphia.

Undaunted by PM 2.5 warnings (nothing Beijingers would fear, mind you), encouraged by jetlag, I set out early most mornings on the pedestrian walkway that runs 1.5 miles along the banks of the Huangpu River. The view was spectacular as the sun came up through the skyscrapers of Pudong, illuminating now-clichéd architectural contrasts: to the West, China’s past (the 19th- and 20th-century buildings of the Bund); across the river to the East, its future (the towering glass skyscrapers, including the world’s second-tallest, nearing completion).

So compelling is the view that it makes the clichés easy to accept at face value. Even the clock on the Customs House, hammering out “The East is Red” (Mao Zedong’s personal anthem) for the tourists seated at Starbucks or Subway, seems contrived to reinforce ironic observations that oversimplify just how it is that, Kipling notwithstanding, East and West meet in Shanghai.

Fortunately, a handful of virtual running companions complicated and illuminated the interactions between China and the West over the past several centuries. Podcasts have long been one of my favorite information sources, and listening to them makes commutes and runs both productive and entertaining. For those with an interest in China, the sources are many. Three reliable standards helped me pass the miles and at the same time situate my research, so I left Shanghai with both a productive research trip and about 30 miles under my belt. I’d recommend all three without reservation for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of China.

The most provocative of my choices was Carla Nappi’s interview with Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison, talking about her recent book, The Missionary’s Curse. Harrison is one of the leading voices in the field, and this book deftly undermines many of the clichés that make the Bund waterfront so appealing. She writes here about Shanxi, traditionally regarded as one of China’s poorest, most isolated provinces. Running past the European icons of Shanghai’s gilded age, like HSBC, AIA, and the Peace Hotel, it was easy to think that relations between China and Europe were best observed here. What could show this blending better than the Chinese-style roof atop the Art Deco Bank of China, for instance? Yet Harrison’s study — subtitled Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village — demonstrates that the mutual influence of Chinese and Western institutions and ideas has gone on for longer, at a much subtler and grassroots level, than is evident in the Art Deco monuments along the Bund.

Just as much as Harrison’s scholarship, this interview showcased the fine work being done in the New Books in East Asian Studies series. Nappi, an accomplished historian in her own right (author of The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China), posts interviews every week or two and shows a remarkable familiarity with her subjects, as well as an engaging interview style. Most interviews run more than an hour, allowing for in-depth and detailed discussions of recent books on China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The New Books Network also has counterparts of other sub-areas, including History, Critical Theory, Philosophy, and dozens more. If you want a book review mobile and thorough, this is a site for you.

Nappi’s interviews feel like joining two very smart people for a cup of tea (and at least one recent interview actually was done over tea, though more commonly they take place over Skype). No less smart, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn’s Sinica Podcast is more like gathering for a pint (or two) with the most well-informed expats in China. Readers with more interest in news stories than academic debates might find this the best place to start. Sinica — now archived at the Asia Society’s ChinaFile site — bills itself as a weekly discussion of current events in China, yet that is only part of its portfolio. Kaiser and Jeremy (forgive the familiarity, but the podcast frowns on pretension in all its forms) gather together journalists, authors, academics, and businesspeople, either based in Beijing or passing through. Top China-based journalists, including The Economist’s Gady Epstein, The New York Times’ Ed Wong (and in back episodes, Mary Kay Magistad of PRI and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, both now relocated to the USA) are regular guests, making the podcast a source of insight and reportage, not just rehashing of yesterday’s headlines.

Keeping with the Sino-Western theme, the installment I listened to during one morning’s run featured author and diver Steven Schwankert, whose new book Poseidon details the story of HMS Poseidon, a British submarine that was lost in 1931, but secretly salvaged in 1972 by the Chinese navy. Schwankert’s insights on China and the West, like Harrison’s, complicate what we think we know. For me, the idea that a British submarine could be salvaged in the 1970s without any British knowledge whatsoever was surprising. Just as surprising was the fact that the submarine’s fate was revealed not through espionage or high-level diplomacy, but through the pages of a Chinese popular magazine that Schwankert came across while searching for information about the sub’s location for a possible dive: no such dive was possible, since the vessel was raised from the bottom 40 years ago!

Last up was the China History Podcast, which businessman Laszlo Montgomery has researched, produced, and presented for nearly four years. Its somewhat haphazard approach to several millennia of China’s history make for entertaining and unpredictable — but always responsible — glimpses into China’s past. My accompaniment on the Bund adhered to the theme of the week, detailing the life of Hong Kong shipping magnate Y.K. Pao, who counted Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders — West and East — among his friends.

So, about five hours of running between the clichés of Shanghai’s waterfront provided not just fine views, but also fresh understanding of the current state of scholarship and writing about China’s relationship with the West. I also renewed my appreciation for the range of new sources, and new formats, available for today’s China watchers, and deeply grateful to the people who provide these (free!) services, strictly as volunteers. And of course there are lots more podcasts too: one recent addition is The China Hang-up, from the Economic Observer, that follows the Sinica model, taking on current issues in a group discussion format, with call-ins! Podcasts have now matured to the point that there is a “new generation” to challenge the establishment.”

Laszlo Montgomery, Carla Nappi, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Kaiser Kuo — as well as their guests — are crossing another boundary that has never been as solid as some would believe. The lines separating journalism, scholarship, punditry, and analysis are blurred on the Internet as never before. While some fret (with cause) about the degradation of standards that accompany the rise of citizen-journalism and open-source scholarship, the voices on these podcasts show that quality analysis and entertainment is now available on a scale never before seen.

Abandoned Theme Parks

By Tong Lam

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has begun to try to boost the domestic economy by encouraging citizens to spend more on non-essential items. As part of this initiative to forge a consumer society, the Saturday-Sunday two-day weekend was introduced in 1995. By the end of the decade, the government even began to rearrange weekends around major public holidays such as the Lunar New Year festival, Labor Day in May, and National Day in October so that weeklong holidays, commonly known as Golden Weeks, were created.

However, China’s rising middle class was still relatively small in the 1990s, and urban citizens did not have the resources to travel abroad. Even domestic tourism was often confined to travels within one’s own region. At the same time, after decades of living in a closed socialist economy, the Chinese desire for foreign things and experiences was stronger than ever before. Amusement parks featuring foreign cultures and buildings emerged as popular places for members of the middle class to go to spend their newly acquired wealth and increased leisure time.

In spite of the growing demand for theme-based entertainment, many attractions failed due to overdevelopment and overinvestment — itself a characteristic of capitalism. For example, investors once planned to build the largest amusement park in Asia, which was to be called “The Wonderland” and located on the outskirts of Beijing.

Since the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the Wonderland theme park near Beijing has been a roadside landmark for China’s overheated theme park industry. The theme park was “discovered” by social media a few years ago and became a popular local attraction for young and adventurous tourists, both locals and those from far away. It has since been demolished.

Because of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, however, as well as land disputes between the developer and the local villagers, the park was never completed.  When the by then abandoned theme park was demolished in early 2013, the haunting, unfinished castle and other skeletal buildings stood as monuments of China’s first major encounter with global financial crises in the post-socialist era.

Meanwhile, even though many well-heeled Chinese consumers now flock to major foreign countries to shop, the appetite for theme-based entertainment among China’s steadily expanding middle class remains strong. In recent years, the theme park industry has become even more competitive. In addition to theme parks showcasing foreign cultures, there are also amusement venues that make use of characters and settings tied to ancient Chinese folklore, martial art fiction, video games, and so on.  In addition, the Disney Resort in Shanghai is set to open in 2015. Not surprisingly, the fast changing theme park scene has driven out many older, smaller theme park establishments left over from the previous era. The abandoned but once popular theme park at the edge of Chengdu in Sichuan Province is one such story.

A defunct but once highly popular theme park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. As in many other major Chinese cities, the theme park industry in Chengdu has exploded in recent years with new venues opening almost every year.

Indeed, not unlike the newest theme parks, the ruins of old or unfinished theme parks also open an illuminating window onto China’s changing consumer desires, real estate market, and tourism trends.

Recommending readings:

Tong Lam. Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013)

Bianca Bosker. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. (University of Hawaii Press, 2013)—recently reviewed in the LARB here.

Troubled Waters

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

On a recent visit to Beijing, I spent a few hours one Saturday afternoon wandering the grounds of Yiheyuan, or Summer Palace, in the city’s northwest. The “palace” — generally called the “New Summer Palace” to differentiate it from an earlier one that foreign armies destroyed in 1860 — is not a European-style royal complex, with one massive central building anchoring the site. Rather, the grounds are sprawling and dotted with small pavilions where the emperor would relax in the company of his family and friends. Kunming Lake serves as the center of gravity in the garden, inviting visitors to sit and contemplate its depths or venture out in one of the boats available for rental.

I, as always, wound up at the lake’s oddest feature: a marble paddleboat permanently “docked” along the northern shoreline. The Marble Boat is a legacy of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), one of the most reviled characters in modern Chinese history. Cixi entered the imperial household as a concubine before rising to serve as co-regent for her young son upon the Xianfeng Emperor’s death in 1861; when her son died in the mid-1870s, she installed her toddler nephew on the throne, assuring herself another regency period. Cixi, therefore, was de facto ruler of China for almost all of the latter half of the nineteenth century, an era when the country faced unprecedented foreign threats and mostly failed to handle them. Even before her death, which would come only three years before the Qing Dynasty fell, Cixi found herself the object of blame for the country’s troubles.

The Marble Boat has long served as shorthand for all that was wrong with Cixi’s rule. A scenic spot for small parties, it was constructed with funds intended for the imperial navy, which Cixi convinced her nephew’s father to divert to the Summer Palace project. Cixi hoped that the palace would be completed in time for her sixtieth birthday in 1894. The celebration had to be canceled, however, when China became entangled in a war with Japan that year — a war that China would lose, in part, because the Japanese were the superior naval power.

It makes for a good story: “We needed a navy, and all we got was this marble boat.” But it’s a simplistic narrative that draws Cixi as a one-dimensional Dragon Lady, a demonic figure who seized power and then didn’t know how to wield it. Further contributing to this sinister vision of Cixi is her allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, rumors of which were spread by Sir Edmund Backhouse, a British con man who claimed to have had an X-rated affair with the empress (recounted in a lurid memoir not published until 2011, Decadence Mandchoue, though his stories circulated earlier).

Make no mistake: Cixi was certainly a ruthless politician, and it’s possible that she played a role in her nephew’s death, which preceded her own by a day (in 2008, forensic scientists found that he died of arsenic poisoning). But over the past century, Cixi’s reputation has been so blurred by a film of “Confucian chauvinism and Orientalist aspersion,” as Orville Schell and John Delury aptly put it in their new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, that few inside or outside of China have recognized her efforts to right the country’s course, halting and incomplete as they were.

Cixi is the only female figure that Schell and Delury spotlight in their book, each chapter of which is a capsule biography of a personage who sought to further China’s pursuit of wealth and power between the early nineteenth century and today. The pair present an evenhanded assessment of her rule, pointing out that while Cixi failed to sponsor a massive overhaul of the Chinese government similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan—which might have helped steer China through the rough waters of the late 19th century—she did approve smaller reform projects and was far from the knee-jerk conservative that her detractors, both past and present, have claimed. Cixi’s biggest shortcoming, Schell and Delury suggest, was not a blindness to China’s struggles in a changing world, but a lack of decisiveness concerning how best to address them.

Schell and Delury make a solid, if cautious, case for rehabilitating Cixi, but their chapter on the empress dowager will likely be overshadowed by China-born but longtime Britain-based author Jung Chang’s just-released biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (which I have not yet read). Chang, author of the mega-bestselling Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and co-author of a controversial biography of Mao Zedong published in 2005, promises readers a complete reassessment of Cixi, one that emphasizes the empress’s forward-thinking, outward-looking moments. She speaks of Cixi as a champion of women’s liberation and China’s modernization, and absolves the dowager empress of guilt for all her alleged sins, including her nephew’s death.

It is surely past time for new insight into Cixi, to look beyond the Dragon Lady archetype and consider her years in power with a fresh eye. But to give her credit for “launching” modern China seems to me a step too far. Popular opinion might have allotted Cixi a disproportionate amount of blame for the Qing Dynasty’s fall, but she does deserve at least some of it. Though she tried to navigate China through the turbulence of the late 19th century, Cixi’s efforts were hindered by her blind spots and hesitations, as well as her desire for personal glory and love of luxury. The Marble Boat’s presence in the New Summer Palace stands as an all-too-real reminder of Cixi’s shortcomings and Marie Antoinette-like episodes.

In interviews linked to her new book, Jung Chang makes clear that she wants us to see Cixi as a fearless seafarer, heroically leading China as the country embarked on an epic journey. Schell and Delury favor the view that I also support: of Cixi as a nervous sailor, curious about what lies beyond the horizon but unable to shake the conviction that in the end, she and her country would be safer if they remained at port.

Rabindranath Tagore, Pearl Buck, and Mo Yan: China and the Nobel Prize

The title of this post lumps together three writers I’ve begun to think of as a trio, though I can certainly understand why some readers might think of them as having precious little in common with one another. Only the first was a major poet, after all, only the second wrote a novel that became a major Hollywood movie, and only the third’s career has involved navigating the challenges of writing in a Communist Party-run state. Tagore published such a prodigious amount that his page count leaves even those of the other two very productive writers far behind; only Buck was a woman; and only Mo is alive. Lists of contrasts like these could be extended almost indefinitely. And yet, thanks to my recent activities as co-editor of the LARB’s Asia Section and a writer working on a book about China in 1900, respectively, I’ve been ruminating a lot lately on two very different connections between them.

Let’s begin with the LARB side of things and the more obvious of the two ties between Tagore, Buck, and Mo — namely, that all three are Nobel laureates. How does the LARB come in here? Well, I’ve been working with Megan Shank, my Asia Section co-editor, on commissioning and now editing a series of short essays on China and the Nobel Prize. Mo Yan’s 2012 win, in addition to dramatically increased global interest in his fiction, inspired some readers around the world to try to find out more about Chinese literature in general.* Soon, the 2013 winner will be announced, putting a new author in the limelight and perhaps leading to new or renewed international attention to the literary landscape of his or her nation. Initially, though, there will be a window of time when last year’s and this year’s winner and their respective countries will be compared and contrasted. We see this as a last opportune moment to use Mo Yan’s win to increase awareness of various writers with links to China who have been, could have been, should have been, or might someday be literary laureates. We’re currently editing an essay on Buck, who became a laureate in 1938, and we’ll be grandfathering into the series the interview on Mo Yan I did with Sabina Knight almost a year ago. We won’t be commissioning a piece on Tagore. But as the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize (exactly a century ago this year) and someone who met with leading Chinese writers while touring China and giving lectures ten years after becoming a laureate, his name is sure to come up somewhere — certainly, if nowhere else, in the introduction that Megan and I write for the e-book based on the series.

What then of the other tie between Tagore, Buck and Mo? Well, they will all be mentioned in the book I’m currently writing, which will tell the story of both the anti-Christian Boxer Rising and the invasion by armies marching under eight foreign flags that quelled it. Tagore, who followed the events in question closely, was dismayed at the brutality of the foreign invasion of China. Buck was part of a missionary family living in China that fled to escape from the Boxers. And the Boxers figure centrally in a recent Mo Yan novel, Sandalwood Death. At most, in past histories of the Chinese crises of 1900, you will find only one or two of the three authors listed in the index, but all members of the trio will make it into mine.

Of course, this is partly because most previous writers on the topic finished their books before Sandalwood Death had been written, but it also reflects some distinctive if not always unique aspects of my book’s approach. One thing I’m concerned with, for example, is how Chinese events of the time were understood in other parts of the world, including India — enter Tagore. I’m also fascinated by the rich afterlife that China’s 1900 has had in popular media, from early silent movies that included reenactments of Boxer attacks on Christians, to an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with a scene that takes place in Beijing in 1900, to a fascinating new pair of graphic novels that has just made the YA long list for the National Book Awards.** It is only natural, in light of this interest in fictional representations of the Chinese events of 1900, that I will be finding room in my book to talk about Mo Yan, who along with writing Sandalwood Death has told of growing up in a region where the Boxers had once been active, and as a result hearing stories about the insurgents in his youth. And it also makes it natural for me to discuss Pearl Buck, both as an author who wrote about the Boxers and the foreign invasion, and also as a character in a novel: Anchee Min’s Pearl of China, which includes discussion of her family’s experiences during the Boxer crisis.

It’s possible that some other laureates beyond Tagore, Buck and Mo will end up alluded to or quoted in my book. I still need to check, for example, if Gao Xingjian has ever written about the Boxers. Since I am interested in connections between the international conflicts underway in South Africa and China circa 1900, and since Winston Churchill was an eyewitness to the Boer War, he’s another laureate who may get mentioned. The same goes for Rudyard Kipling, whose Nobel Prize win preceded even that of Tagore, making him the very first laureate with significant ties to Asia. As Robert Bickers, the leading historian of British imperialism in China, has noted, Kipling’s poem “Recessional” meant a great deal to the Britons who were trapped, along with other foreigners, in Beijing’s legation quarter in 1900.

What is certain, as opposed to just possible or likely, is that two writers who have been described by some as having been unfairly passed over for Nobel prizes will make their way into my book. One of these is Mark Twain. A strong critic of imperialism, he wrote that, since the Boxers were just trying to get control of their country, if he had been Chinese, he might well have become one. He also had scathing things to say about the hypocritical way that Westerners, including participants in the often brutal campaigns of revenge that followed the lifting of the siege of the foreign legations, could carry out acts of savagery and say they were justified because “civilization” needed to be protected. The other great author who didn’t win a Nobel who will figure in my book is Lao She, the subject of a forthcoming contribution to Megan’s and my LARB series. How could he not get discussed? The Boxer crisis had a more profound impact on his life than it did on that of any other famous writer. His father was a soldier who was killed during street fighting in the capital. The author, who was born in 1899, was just an infant when that happened, but he remembers growing up hearing his mother tell stories about “foreign devils” who “were more barbaric” that the monsters in “any fairy tale.” Her stories, he claimed, had special power since they were not made up, but were instead “100 per cent factual” tales of events that “directly affected our whole family.”

* For a wonderful example of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, leading a reader to immerse herself in not just his work, but also that of many other Chinese writers, see Anjum Hasan’s “Chinese Whispers: Contemporary Chinese Fiction through an Indian Lens”, which just appeared in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture.

** The twinned graphic novels, which tell the story of China in 1900 through the eyes of two youths — a boy who became a Boxer (his version of the story is titled Boxers) and a girl who converted to Christianity (her version is title Saints) — are by Gene Luen Yang. Published September 10 by First Second, they are available both separately and as a single volume combined work, titled Boxers & Saints.