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.

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.