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.


Documenting Public Space in China

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Americans tend to expect privacy in their public spaces. My enjoyment of a park is, in some ways, contingent on not being bothered by anyone else’s loud music, conversations, or sports activities. Riders in Amtrak’s quiet cars are infamous for shaming those who violate the rules of the rails (just ask New Jersey governor Chris Christie). And I’m instantly on guard whenever a fellow passenger on the Bolt Bus or an airplane attempts to strike up a conversation (though I’ll admit that some of those encounters have turned out surprisingly well). Even when surrounded by others, we Americans expect to be left alone.

Public spaces in China simply don’t work the same way, as documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki demonstrates in two of his feature films, People’s Park (2012) and The Iron Ministry (2015). The former is a real-time exploration of activities in Chengdu’s central People’s Park; the latter splices together footage from three years of Sniadecki’s train rides in China. Both films demonstrate that people in China use public spaces in a fundamentally different way than Americans do: the park is a massive outdoor living room, the train a rolling restaurant/bar/hotel/community center. Privacy? Solitude? Personal space? There’s no such thing.

A Harvard-trained anthropologist who is affiliated with the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki does not produce your standard talking-heads-style documentaries. In People’s Park, Sniadecki and fellow filmmaker Libbie Cohn created a “digital homage” to the renowned Song-dynasty scroll painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival; the film explores the park in one uninterrupted 78-minute take, meant to mimic in 21st-century fashion the experience of walking and viewing the 17-foot scroll. To achieve this effect, they first had to get to know the park, its people, and its rhythms; the two spent many days walking around and talking with the retirees who frequent the space. Once they had formulated a list of things to feature and noted the times at which those activities usually occurred, Sniadecki and Cohn constructed an itinerary that would get them to all the places they wanted to cover at the moment when the most action was happening. They carried out the filming itself by taking turns sitting in a wheelchair, armed with a small video camera and a set of microphones, while the other pushed the chair at a snail’s pace along the park’s paths.

The results of all this prep work — and 23 separate attempts at capturing the single take without mishap — are stunning. People’s Park leads the viewer on a slow tour of the lush green space, moving through different zones of activity as conversations ebb and flow around the camera. There are no subtitles or captions; the content of the discussions is not important. At points, Sniadecki and Cohn stop to linger in a particular spot, showcasing the ballroom dancers, singers, and artists who use the park as their performance venue. The highlight of these interludes is the closing dance sequence, which is unexpected and enormously fun.

Although Sniadecki and Cohn cite Along the River during the Qingming Festival as their inspiration, People’s Park reminds me just as much of an earlier China documentary, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 Zhongguo (Cina), which also features long, slow takes of people’s everyday lives and their interactions in public spaces. Similarly, The Iron Ministry brought to mind another, more recent, feature documentary, Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009). Fan’s wonderful film has a more noticeable structure and narrative than Sniadecki’s, but the two share an interest in the common experiences of millions of travelers on the Chinese railway network. The Iron Ministry offers peeks at nearly every class and type of train running in China today, from hard-seat on the rusting old “iron roosters” of the 1980s to the quiet hum of the high-speed rail (I’ve written here before about the contrast between the different types of service.)

As in People’s Park, Sniadecki emphasizes the sensory environment of the train — especially its sounds — but The Iron Ministry is less experimental than the earlier film. It’s also more interactive than People’s Park; Sniadecki can be heard asking people questions, and small bits of conversation are translated in subtitles. Passengers discuss Tibet and modernization, China’s policy toward minorities, the challenges of finding a wife when you don’t own a home, and the changes one cutesy young woman hopes to make in her life by moving to Hangzhou.

People’s Park and The Iron Ministry are both challenging and heavily theorized films, the documentary equivalent of an academic monograph. For anyone who has lived in or studied China, they will surely resonate; both contained more than a few moments that brought back memories for me. Audience members without a China connection or interest in documentary filmmaking might find these works less accessible, but my hope is that viewers don’t let themselves be intimidated, as both films are well worth the investment of time and focus. Sniadecki’s immersive, sensory-intensive approach comes as close as I can imagine is possible to replicating the experience of walking through a Chinese park or riding in a hard-seat train carriage. For an American who prefers a comfortable buffer of personal space at all times, these activities can bring on an episode of sensory overload. But taking a deep breath and pushing through it is usually worthwhile; you never know when you’ll stumble upon a mass dance performance that completely revises your understanding of what a park is used for. And after a few good conversations on a Chinese train, you’ll never choose the quiet car again.


In Praise of Chinese Gossip Rags

By Austin Dean

I really like reading Chinese gossip magazines. That is something few foreigners in China do, and even fewer admit to. Inspired by Liz Carter’s recent post about reading Chinese online forums and the importance of moving beyond “a diet of the classics,” I’ve decided to come clean.

When in China, I make regular trips to the local newsstand to buy an odd mix of publications: serious newspapers like Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) and The Economic Observer (Jingji guanchabao) as well as the Chinese equivalent to US magazine. As one guy at a newsstand remarked as he looked at my haul of reading material, “you have strange tastes.”

But it is reading with a purpose. At least, that’s my rationalization.

The chief benefit of reading Chinese gossip magazines is that it gives me a lot to talk about. Conversations with Chinese colleagues and acquaintances in big Chinese cities like Beijing or Shanghai tend to cycle back to the same themes: traffic, pollution, and real estate prices. That’s even more the case when your job is researching, writing, and teaching about Chinese history. When I reveal that information to a new acquaintance in China, the response I’m likely to get is along the lines of “China has 5,000 years of history….” When James Fallows, journalist for The Atlantic, was based in China and heard that phrase, he wondered, “Where is that auto-text key?” It’s an automatic response, and from that point forward, the conversation is unlikely to go in an interesting direction. I find that’s a good time to ask if my interlocutor is watching a current television show or has seen a new movie.

It also opens up an avenue for the unexpected, and it’s a way to build my street cred. These days a lot of foreigners have pretty good Chinese, but when I reveal that I can discuss actress Yao Chen’s divorce (her husband cheated); the seemingly endless shenanigans and feuds of Wang Sicong, son of the richest man in China; and the current crop of reality television shows, it sets me apart. Very few Chinese people expect to have in-depth discussions with foreigners about the parenting techniques of different fathers on the reality television show Dad! Where Are We Going? (For the record, in season three of the show I think boxer Zou Shiming is the best dad).

Of course, I faced an initial problem when I first started reading these magazines — I didn’t know who anyone was. The diet of Chinese gossip rags must be complemented with a committed course of television- and movie-watching. Embracing the “low-brow” is actually a great way to get to a high level of Chinese.

Reading these gossip rags and watching reality television shows also makes it harder to dismiss Chinese entertainment offerings. It is easy — and common — to do this: Chinese television series aren’t as good as Korean dramas, Chinese movies don’t do well overseas, everything always returns to the same topics of the war against Japan and conflict between a mother-in-law and a wife. All that may be true, but millions of people still enjoy it. We should take it seriously (but not too seriously).

At the most cynical level, an acquaintance with Chinese gossip magazines actually makes you quite skeptical of most attempts at “Pekingology” — trying to pin down what leaders in China think and do, and why they do it. Is person X out to get person Y? Do person A and person B get along? Did person C and person D have a feud? What is the exact relationship between person E and person F? Is person G the patron of person H? It doesn’t matter whether you fill in the blanks with the names of movie stars or Chinese Communist Party officials; they make sense either way. The similarities are even more evident with the recent corruption crackdown: the fall of an actor’s reputation and the end of a party official’s career always seem to come back to money and sex.

At a more sinister level, both gossip and Pekingology are liable to analytic pitfalls, chief of which is allowing preconceived notions and opinions to color new information. No, I thought, Yao Chen’s husband could not have cheated on her because I liked the one series he was in and during interviews he seemed like a good guy. But he did. Likewise, it looks like Chinese premier Li Keqiang is being frozen out of power and might even be replaced in 2017. New pieces of information tend to feed into this narrative. Seldom is the opposite question asked: What are the strengths of his position? Gossip and Pekingology suffer from a similar narrative fallacy: connecting disparate facts to form a coherent narrative when perhaps the points are unrelated.

My goal here is not to equate Pekingology with celebrity gossip, but only to point out they are more similar than they seem on the surface.

So, if you’re in China, don’t be afraid to pick up a gossip rag or two. Gossip, counterintuitively, is rather serious business.

Umrbella 1 yr on HK

Hong Kong Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I visited Hong Kong earlier this month, I did some of the same things I had done six and a half years earlier during a similar short stopover. In March 2009, as in November 2015, I arrived midway through the local literary festival, which used to be held in the spring and now is held in the fall. Then, too, I took part in several different festival panels, one of which was devoted to trends in media; spent a lot of time at the Fringe club, one of the festival’s main venues; and did an interview with a reporter from RTHK, a local radio station, on a subject I had spoken about at a festival event. This way of repeating history led me to reflect on another visit to Hong Kong in November 2014. The literary festival had been underway then as well, but that was not why I was in town. I had come to see firsthand the Umbrella Movement, whose dramatic rise I had been following closely due both to my longtime professional interest in the history of protests, and the fact that I had found the ideals and symbols of the struggle so inspiring. Whether famous writers were in town seemed irrelevant to me then; what was happening in the streets was bound to be more significant.

My most recent trip began on the exact same day, November 5, and in the same way as the one from the year before. I arrived at the Hong Kong airport late, grabbed a quick dinner, and went sleep to prepare for a full slate of activities the following day. This time my first full day in Hong Kong started with a morning cab ride through the city’s crowded Central District en route to meet up with colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which is beautifully situated across the harbor on a hillside overlooking Clearwater Bay. I looked out the cab window towards the colorful visuals of the passing street: the typical billboards touting products of every variety.

On the morning of November 6, 2014, by contrast, I had walked rather than driven through downtown Hong Kong, for the freeways were still part of a pedestrians-only “Occupy” zone: dotted with tents, featuring a community garden, a people’s library, and a special study area for student activists determined to keep up with classwork while they fought to expand democracy in Hong Kong. As I walked through the Central District I came arcross one-of-a-kind protest posters. Some of these expressed fervent hopes for Hong Kong’s future; some attacked the local Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, for failing to take seriously his constituent’s interests; some chided Beijing’s leaders for being unwilling to let the city truly go its own way for the promised 50 years following the handover; and some simply expressed solidarity with the Umbrella Movement’s goals in languages ranging from Spanish to Welsh to Esperanto. The sight that captivated me most was the ersatz “Lennon Wall” (a name borrowed from a Prague display area but given local twists), made up of a kaleidoscopic array of pastel colored Post-It notes covered with slogans, wishes, and brief personal testimonies.

I’m not sure what I will remember most vividly about my 2014 trip as time goes on (click here for my more in-depth essay about the trip, “Hong Kong Visions,” published in the main pages of the Los Angeles Review of Books); it might be seeing the Lennon Wall up close instead of just online, or the conversations I had with protesters among the tent-dwellers of the Central District occupy zone, and then later the temporary residents of the related but quite different occupy zone across the harbor in the Mongkok neighborhood of Kowloon.

I do know, by contrast, the one thing I will remember longest about my recent Hong Kong trip: the festival talk I gave on “The Umbrella Movement: One Year On” (click here for my interview following the talk, which summarizes its main points). The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.

To give a talk on protests in a room not far from the scene of history-making rallies and demonstrations, to a crowd containing many who had participated in the events and some journalists and scholars whose insightful writings on the protests I had read and learned from, was a unique experience. As someone who has spent much of his career speaking and writing about the Chinese protests wave that preceded the June 4th Massacre of 1989, I have sometimes daydreamed about doing a similar sort of public event in a mainland city. At least for now, that’s something I can still only daydream about doing in Shanghai or Beijing. And while there are many reasons to be deeply worried about Hong Kong’s future, it is important to remember that, at least for now, a public lecture focusing on protest and featuring a large group of citizens thinking together about their city, their politics, and their future, is still possible in that very special city.


The Poetry Scene in China: A Q&A with Poet and Translator Eleanor Goodman

By Austin Dean

Eleanor Goodman is an acclaimed translator who recently completed a stint as Artist in Residence at M on The Bund in Shanghai. Before that, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Beijing and a recipient of a Henry Luce Translation Fellowship. Her first book of poetry,
Nine Dragon Island, will be published by Zephyr Press later this year. As her time in Shanghai recently came to a close, I asked her to reflect on the current state of the poetry scene in China. After reading this Q&A on the Chinese poetry today, you might want to look back to the recent post on Ezra Pound and China.

AUSTIN DEAN: What are the differences between the literary scenes in Beijing and Shanghai? Or, are they actually quite similar? 

ELEANOR GOODMAN: People ask me this question a lot, including my Chinese friends. I think the difference in the scenes is subtle but real. First and foremost, the Beijing scene is very large. Beijing is an enormous city with more universities than anywhere else in China. Poets tend to congregate around universities for the same reason they do in the US: it’s one of the few places they can make a living (at least in part) via their writing. But of course, there are plenty of poets outside of academia as well, and as Beijing is still a center of art and culture, they tend to migrate there.

The Shanghai scene is smaller. Everyone knows everyone else, even if they mutually disapprove of each other’s writing. The scene in Shanghai also tends to skew younger, in my experience. There are more established poets in Beijing, while Shanghai is dominated by some young but prominent poets born in the 1970s and 1980s. It gives a very different flavor to the parties, at least. 

What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned about the literary community in Shanghai during your stay? 

I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I’m always struck by how completely disconnected the expat literary scene is from the Chinese one. There is virtually no interaction between the two. The English-language events are attended almost exclusively by expats, with exceptions of course, and the Chinese-language events are attended by Chinese audiences. Obviously, language plays a role here, but I think it goes deeper than that. There’s a social element too. In my experience, and that’s certainly limited, the expat/Chinese social scenes are highly segregated as well, so it goes well beyond the literary world. I almost never see other foreigners in my Chinese social and professional circles. I could speculate all day about why that is, but I certainly have no definitive explanations.

On a similar theme to the first question, do you see work from younger and older poets dealing with very different themes or is there actually a lot of overlap? What about differences between male and female writers? 

Poets across the world tend to be occupied with similar things: love, wonder, nature, human experience, language itself. I don’t see a huge difference there. But I do see a rather large difference in how these themes are dealt with. The poets born before, say, 1970 experienced the Cultural Revolution. They had very limited educational opportunities. Many of them are essentially self-taught. Poets born in the late 1970s on tend to be college graduates, many of them from very prestigious institutions. They have read widely — not just poetry, but philosophy, Western theory, history, and so on. They’re savvy, and they view writing as something to study in and of itself, much in the way the West has been totally consumed by the MFA fever. So I see a pretty clear distinction in term of style and approach. I hesitate to go so far as to say that the younger poets are more sophisticated. No one could be more well read and complex than Zang Di, who was born in the 1960s. But member of the younger generation wear their erudition lightly; they take it for granted. That’s not true at all for the older cohort.

To what extent is being a poet a full-time job in China or do you see people doing a lot of other things to support their poetry? If the latter, what kinds of things to they do? Have you met any T.S. Eliot style figures — clerks at the Bank of China by day, poets by night?  

You can certainly make poetry a fulltime gig, but you’ll starve pretty quickly. Aside from the guanfang (official) poets, who are part of the Writer’s Association and are paid by the government to write — and because of that are generally not taken seriously, with the exception of the prominent poet Lan Lan and perhaps a few others — everyone has to have a day job. As I said, many choose academia, although academics here are paid a pittance compared to their Western counterparts. Otherwise, poets are everywhere. I personally have translated poetry by people who make a living as a pilot, philosophy grad student, editor, entrepreneur, real estate mogul, high school teacher, lawyer, Foxconn factory worker, coal miner, doctor, legal translator, and the list goes on and on. They represent a cross-section of society, if you as a reader are willing to seek them out.

What aspects of the lives and works of Chinese poets and writers are under-reported or under-acknowledged in English-language writing on China? In other words, what types of question should we be asking that we aren’t currently thinking about? 

This is a wonderful question because it assumes that there are aspects that are widely reported and acknowledged. I would say the American reading public lacks virtually any exposure to or understanding of the contemporary poetry scene in China. Part of this is the paucity of translations (let alone of quality translations), and part of this is a lack of interest. Compared to Chinese readers, American readers tend to be incredibly narrow in their choices. We don’t like to read literature in translation, we aren’t curious about other literary scenes, and we’d rather just be fed something sweet and simple than work to extract something from a foreign text. This is all a vast over-generalization, but I think it holds true writ large. If you go into a Chinese bookstore, perhaps a quarter of the shelf space will be taken up by translated books, many if not most of them recently translated into Chinese and prominently displayed. If you walk into an American bookstore (does anyone still do that?), you’re unlikely to find anything similar.

That said, if I step off my hobbyhorse for a moment, I wish more people understood that Chinese poetry has progressed past the Tang Dynasty. There’s some incredibly sophisticated, avant-garde, topical writing going on in China right now that bears little resemblance to the distant mountain-and-river scenes of Li Bai and Wang Wei. My goal in translating is to bring some tiny percentage of those rich materials to the English-speaking world.


The Noodling Narratives of Our Lives

By Liz Carter

Several years ago, though I can’t remember when exactly, my Chinese language learning took a turn for the serious. I went from barely reading anything regularly — skimming a few pages of a novel or reading a few news articles, taking breaks to look up unfamiliar characters — to reading voraciously, sometimes for hours at a time. I was learning new characters left and right, and even my conversational Chinese was improving.

I owed it all to people complaining about their lives on the internet.

The complaints I read were mostly on SMTH BBS, a forum run out of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and one of the oldest such online spaces in the country. There are various corners of the site set aside for discussion about online shopping, the stock market, studying abroad, and — of course — interpersonal drama. People post all day long about their problems, their dreams, and their frustrations, while others chime in to offer advice and comfort, sarcasm and snark. A friend of mine who scours the web for online shopping deals first pitched the site to me as a place where people shared e-commerce tips and tricks. I came for the Taobao sales, but stayed for the good old-fashioned gossip.

The beauty of studying Chinese in such a way is that you’re simultaneously learning about people. The “Family Life” subforum often shines a light on how people deal with their problems, and no stone is too mundane to be left unturned. Take, for instance, one 79-character complaint from earlier this month about a bowl of noodles. The original poster wrote that she was upset her mother-in-law hadn’t cooked a nicer dinner when she and her husband arrived in town.

Even with the picture of the noodles in question attached, this complaint could have fit into a tweet. But it triggered a 1,438-post debate in that thread alone about entitlement, love, self-awareness, and regional traditions. (It’s customary in parts of Shandong province to serve family members dumplings before they leave on a trip and noodles when they return home.) In the end, analysis from all angles often reveals to the original poster a truth found in the best literature: we are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Lurk long enough on forums like these, and you’re bound to learn a little more about humor as well. Much of it is quite similar to quibbling on English-language sites, though no less pleasing: “What does everyone worry about at 35?” one thread asked recently. “We’ll I’m not even 30,” another user replied. “I didn’t ask about your IQ,” the original poster retorted sharply. But some of it is downright educational. Even the slang used tells you more about social realities than most news articles. Posters often lament their status as diqing, “underground youth” who can only afford subterranean rents, or sanwunan, “three-no men” possessed of no house, no car, and no money. The matchmaking board is vicious toward men deemed to have zhinan’ai, or “straight-man cancer” — symptoms include a sense of entitlement, a lack of self-awareness, and incredibly high standards for potential mates. These men lash back at the perceived pickiness of women by saying they have gongzhubing, or “princess-itis.”

And then there is the unexpected literature. Browsing a subforum dedicated to matchmaking earlier this year, I stumbled across what seemed to be a prosaic request for love advice: “Let’s say you have a boyfriend, and you’ve been together for five years,” it began. “You’re well-matched and love each other. This guy is healthy, decent-looking, reliable, and hard working. You’re getting to be that age where you talk about marriage, and both of your parents are on board.”

This forum is rife with such posts. You’re expecting, “Should I marry him, even though I prefer spicy food and he can’t stomach anything hotter than wet toast?” or “Do you think we should get married first and then buy an apartment, or wait until we’ve got the apartment before we tie the knot?” Instead: “One day, your boyfriend suddenly begins to feel funny. You go with him to the hospital to get X-rays done. Under the light of the X-ray, your boyfriend’s flesh suddenly undergoes a dramatic transformation, and in the blink of an eye he becomes a 6-foot-tall giant worm before your eyes.”

Ultimately, the post asks, do you marry your worm-boyfriend? Yes, he’s a worm, but he still loves you — and he’s been offered a well-compensated position at a museum of natural history.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of traditional reading habits, just arguing that a diet of classics alone is not enough. Too often, we assume that the pleasurable and productive are mutually exclusive — but in my own experience, lurking on message boards has been an education in its own right. And perhaps, if I’m being honest, it’s not just about getting a well-rounded education or increased language proficiency. Perhaps, like the boyfriend-turned-worm of the aforementioned debate, I find myself strangely transformed through these encounters with the mundane, the sublime, and above all, the unexpected. And perhaps even more strangely, I like it.

Let 100 Voices Speak cover

Let 100 Voices Speak: A Q&A with Author Liz Carter

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Today’s Q&A introduces LARB readers to the China Blog’s newest contributor, Liz Carter. Carter is author of the recently published book Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Classic Netizen Language. Based in Washington, D.C., Carter works as a translator and writer, and also tweets prolifically (@withoutdoing), sharing fun Chinese language tidbits and phrases that aren’t always taught in class. We’re pleased to welcome her to the China Blog team. Look for Carter’s first post next week.

MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: First, can you tell China Blog readers how you got interested in China, and a bit about your background as a translator and writer?

LIZ CARTER: It’s a pretty mundane story! I began studying Chinese during my first year of college and really enjoyed it. My interest in China and Chinese just snowballed — the more I studied, the more I wanted to study. After I graduated, I moved to Beijing and found jobs to support myself while I continued to work on my Chinese. Translation, I learned by doing — there’s a lot more to it than just language proficiency, and that’s something I had to learn on the job. As for writing, I started writing for Tea Leaf Nation as a hobby and that snowballed as well. I credit my experience with National Novel Writing Month for training me not to let perfect be the enemy of good, and I’ve learned a lot from my editors at TLN and IB Tauris.

Your book discusses the evolution of social media in China over the past decade or so. What do you consider two or three landmark events that really changed the social media landscape there?

I think the rise and fall of various platforms, as well as the intermittent government crackdowns, have had the greatest effect. The blocking of Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Facebook definitely restricted the social media sphere, while the subsequent rise of China’s own Sina Weibo marked a period of really open discussion, debate and criticism. Finally, the crackdown on social media that began in 2013, which coincided with a rise in mobile internet use and the increasing popularity of WeChat, changed the way people use the internet and restricted the space for free expression.

I’ve noticed over the past two years that Weixin, or WeChat, has become the de facto form of communication in China — lots of people really don’t even email or text anymore, but do everything through WeChat. Why do you think WeChat has taken off the way it did? And is it here to stay?

In this age, I don’t think anything is really here to stay, and that goes double for China’s internet sector. Assuming it doesn’t piss off the Chinese government, though, I think it’s here to stay for a while. I think the app became popular because it can replace a number of apps at once — it offers a Facebook-like status feature, free texting and voice messaging, and even the ability to transfer money. As long as you don’t care whether your communications are being monitored, it’s a great app. That said, it’s not really a replacement for Weibo, because it’s built on private networks, not public discussion.

You discuss in your book the crackdown on Weibo that took place in 2013, which sucked a lot of energy out of this once-vibrant discussion space. What’s the Weibo landscape now? Is it still a place where people virtually congregate and talk about things, or has it gone the way of MySpace and Friendster?

Weibo is fairly depressing these days — a lot of the top trending posts are just gifs from reddit, soft advertisements for boy bands, and celebrity selfies. Occasionally something will surface, but it’s not even a shadow of what it was back in 2011 or 2012. It’s possible that Weibo will resurrect itself, especially if the government scales back censorship, but equally possible that it will just fade away.

And finally, what types of posts can China Blog readers look forward to from you in the future? What are some areas that you plan to write about?

LC: My favorite rabbit holes are online slang, internet literature, pop culture and science fiction. Lately I’ve been researching the history of English-language television fandom in China and watching Nirvana in Fire, a Chinese period drama based on a popular internet novel — I will probably write about both of those in the near future. And I look forward to reading and reviewing interesting books about developments in Chinese fiction and social media — I’m always open to suggestions!


Ezra Pound and China: A Q & A with Ira Nadel

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Later this month, Penguin will publish Cathay: Ezra Pound’s Orient, a short book by biographer and literary specialist Ira Nadel that examines Ezra Pound’s interest in China and Chinese poetry. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Nadel’s book, which arrived just as I was preparing to interview Qiu Xiaolong for this blog. It was a fitting bit of timing, as one theme I explored with Qiu was his enduring interest in T.S. Eliot; the author of “The Wasteland” had famously asserted once that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” I caught up with Nadel by email, for whom that claim of Eliot’s is an important jumping off point: 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: First of all, since not all of our readers may be familiar with just how central Ezra Pound’s interest in China was to the writer’s career, could you just, in the spirit of the lists often associated with blogs, list five or 10 facts, or just tidbits worth knowing about where his engagement with Chinese poetry or the country generally are concerned?

IRA NADEL: Below, some key moments in EP’s Oriental education:

  1. Growing up in Philadelphia, he studied an 18th century-Chinese screen book of prints and ideograms owned by his parents which would become important in his well-known “Seven Lakes” (Canto 49) from his long work, The Cantos.
  2. He frequently visited the growing Asian collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  3. Attended lectures on Oriental art by Laurence Binyon in London beginning in 1909 and soon became friends with Binyon, who was an Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
  4. Became fascinated with Japanese Noh drama and spent three winters with Yeats at Stone Cottage (1913-16) in Sussex, partly preparing an edition of Noh drama published in 1916.
  5. Meeting the widow of the American sinologist Ernest Fenollosa in 1913, Pound impressed her with, first, his oriental-styled English poems, an essay on Tagore and then, with his knowledge of Oriental aesthetics, learned from attending various Oriental art exhibits in London ca. 1912 and 1913.
  6. Based on the work of Fenollosa, Pound published Noh; or, Accomplishment, a Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in 1916. That same year Pound and Yeats’s Certain Noh Plays of Japan
  7. In 1928, Pound’s translation of Confucius, To Hio: The Great Learning
  8. Late in his life, Pound studied Confucius and wrote the “Chinese Cantos” as part of his long work, The Cantos. He also incorporated various Chinese ideograms in these poems.
  9. He read Chinese badly but persisted in its study.
  10. When arrested by Italian partisans and handed over to American troops at the end of WWII, he took a Chinese dictionary and a volume of Confucius which he would translate while in a detention camp in Pisa before being flown to Washington, DC to stand trial. He continued to work on Confucius while in the St. Elizabeths hospital for the mentally disturbed in Washington.
  11. Throughout the 1950s Pound published a series of works by Confucius including The Great Digest and the Unwobbling Pivot, 1951, The Analects (1951) and The Classic Anthology, Defined by Confucius (1954).

You describe efforts he made to learn Chinese or at least figure out how the language worked, but works such as his Cathay aren’t really “translations,” in the ordinary sense —  at least the sense I tend to have in my mind of a translator, who is bilingual, doing a close reading of a text in one language she knows and then creatively yet faithfully strives to create a text that reads well in another language. So what is Cathay? Do you think of it like, for example, some translations of Homeric epics by poets who don’t know ancient Greek?  Or are there other, better parallels that come to mind?

Cathay is definitely NOT a translation. It is a creative reworking of Pound’s sense of Chinese and Japanese from a set of literal, stiff translations by a variety of hands beginning with the two Japanese assistants of Fenollosa, whose own Japanese was good but his Chinese almost non-existent. Pound did the same with his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” a work that provides the sense of the original but is not the original. The importance of this process is that Pound “made it new,” his Confucian mantra, for the Chinese texts, new in a way that influenced a generation of English poets who understood, perhaps for the first time, the elegance of Chinese poetry but now in contemporary English. Direct translations of the text would have likely had no impact upon writers but what Pound did, with a sense of adventure and originality, set a new bar for lyrical English poetry in opposition to the work of the Symbolists and Georgians. This was poetry that was direct and coincided with his development of Imagism best seen in the work of H.D.

Many decades ago, Wai-Lim Yip wrote this about Cathay: “One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.” Would you say your approach challenges or complements that interpretive stance — or simply veers off in a very different direction?

Context, not clairvoyance, provided Pound with the insight and originality to remake Cathay into an important collection of modern poetry. His sense and understanding of an Oriental aesthetic allowed him to not only “make it new” but to fashion an entirely new set of poems that, nonetheless, conveyed the literary attitude of the Orient. This was not an unconscious process but one that evolved from his genuine belief in the importance of an Oriental style summarized in his edition of Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry,” where Pound argued that metaphor is “at once the substance of nature and of language” and that poetry is “finer than prose because it gives us more concrete truth in the same compass of words.” Pound also importantly believed that the Chinese written language had a “pictorial visibility” which allowed it to maintain its originality with “more vigor and vividness than any phonetic tongue.”

I had never thought about the fact that, thanks to Pound, 1915 can be seen as an important year for the flow into the West of ideas about and texts that were created in China. This interests me because, as others have noted (see, for example, Peter Zarrow’s commentary for the History News Network) it was exactly a century ago that a journal that played a special role in introducing Chinese readers to Western ideas was founded. Anything else you find interesting about 1915 as a special year in either the history of modernist literature or in Western thinking about China?

1915 was a crucial year in modernism since it saw the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s narrative experiment, The Good Soldier, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, immediately prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Conrad’s psychological novel Victory also appeared: set on an Indonesian island with a Chinese assistant to the hero Axel Heyst, it plays off Oriental stereotypes against Western adventurers. Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, also appeared in 1915, while Dorothy Richardson published Pointed Roofs, the first complete stream of consciousness novel in English. Kafka publishes The Metamorphosis and finished writing The Trial, although it would not see print until 1925, the year after his death. T.S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Joyce, Tzara and Lenin all took up residence in Zurich, later to be turned into Tom Stoppard’s engaging play Travesties (1974).

1915 was also the year the Chinese Great Dictionary, the Zhonghua Da Zidian, an unabridged Chinese dictionary with more than 48,000 entries for individual characters, appearing in 4 vols. However, offsetting such scholarship were popular stereotypes as in Sax Rhomer’s mystery The Yellow Claw, the story of an Oriental villain who attempts to hold the cream of London society at his mercy. The German writer Alfred Döblin, later known for Berlin Alexanderplatz, published The Three Leaps of Wang Lun that same year, a well-researched novel written in an expressionist manner. Many consider it the first modern German novel and the first western novel to show China untouched by the West. It focuses on a doomed rebellion during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the late 18th century. As a postscript, during WWI, the Allied Army of the Orient (Armées alliées en Orient) formed in 1915, made up of troops from Serbia, Russia Italy, Greece, Portugal and Albania, a rather broad interpretation of the Orient. So yes, the Orient definitely permeated the cultural environment in 1915 in a variety of ways.


Modern Chinese History: What Every Student Needs to Know

By Austin Dean

That headline is a play on the title of the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, the second edition of which, published in 2013, was a collaboration between this blog’s co-editors, Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham. The book opens with an author’s note by the older of the two collaborators, Wasserstrom, in which he looks back to his undergraduate days in the late 1970s when he took his first class on Chinese history. He did so on a “whim,” he writes, at a time when it seemed “purely optional” to pay attention to China.

The country only made headlines occasionally in America back then. “What a difference thirty years can make,” the author’s note continues, “in the life of a country — and in the amount of global interest it generates.” These days, it is hard to escape stories about China. But even now, as Wasserstrom writes, quoting the historian and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash, “we readers in Western countries still get much less thorough coverage of China than we need.”

While Wasserstrom and I belong to different generations, my own experience is not that different from his. When I first signed up for a Chinese history course in my sophomore year of college early in this century, it was very much on whim. I did not know much about China, let alone about other countries in East Asia. But a lot of things can change in 10 years: Now I’m teaching East Asian history.

With Wasserstrom’s comments and my own experiences in mind, I was curious to find out what kind of background knowledge and opinions my own students brought with them as we began our course.

In my class on Modern East Asian History (China, Korea, and Japan), there is a near 50-50 split of domestic and international students — mainly from China, but with a handful from Canada, Russia, and Singapore. In the first week of classes this semester, I asked my students to name the most important thing a person should know about modern Chinese history, 1600 to the present. Of course, there were no right or wrong answers; they could identify a person, event, idea, belief, or anything else. They had to answer the same question for Korea and Japan, too, providing reasons for all their selections. (This activity is a little easier to do for the modern history course that I’m teaching. In the first week of a pre-modern history class, students don’t have much of an opinion on, say, the Korean peninsula before 1600.)

On the whole, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the range and quality of the responses, especially since it was due the first week of class and the activity was meant more as a survey than an assignment. None of the students resorted to the phrase that Wasserstrom thinks is all too common when discussing China — the country is “inscrutable.”

Most of the answers were notable for their presentness — almost all the responses named something in the 20th century; there was not much mention of anything before the middle of the 19th century, and no specific mention of the Qing dynasty. The most surprising answer was someone who argued it was most important to know about the Cairo Conference of 1942 because it shaped the post-World War II order in Asia. And, if you are wondering — yes, the student who wrote that is a history major.

Most students selected a person. One named Sun Yat-sen, a key political figure in the early 20th century, because “he was important in the revolution that ended imperial China and paved the way for the eventual creation of the People’s Republic of China.” Answers that focused on a person were generally split between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. One response argued that it was most important to know about Mao Zedong because “he played a major role in making China as powerful as it is today.” Others made essentially the same argument about Deng Xiaoping. A number of American students had not heard of Deng, and that’s fine; it is why they are taking the class. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Deng Xiaoping was in my freshman year of college, either.

Some responses were quite thematic. One student reflected that the most important thing to know about Chinese history is that “the Chinese have an incredible national pride in their rich history … they have a belief that they are the continuation of the great and powerful Chinese story written by no other hand than their own.” Another response argued that in order to understand Chinese culture, one had to comprehend that it is really a mix of three elements: “Marxism culture, western culture and Confucian culture.” On the whole, pretty profound stuff for the first week of an introductory history class.

At a geographic level, one student wrote that it was most important to recognize “China’s size and diversity” because that seems to be “the most overlooked aspect of China in the Western world.” As one of the Chinese students in the class pointed out, the observation is equally true for most Chinese views of the United States. When he told his family and friends that he was going to Ohio for university they were confused because they thought ”Ohio” was how you say “good morning” in Japanese (ohayo gozaimasu) — not the name of a place in the United States.

We will do this activity again in the last week of the class to see if — after the duration of the course — the students have changed their minds and have different answers to the question. Of course, by that time, I hope some content issues will be cleared up: students will know who Deng Xiaoping is and that writing that “the Great Leap Forward can essentially be credited for China’s powerful economic influence in the present day” isn’t exactly correct. But, for the first time around, their responses were quite insightful, especially since no one had read China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.


Shanghai Mysteries: A Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I read a new Qiu Xiaolong Inspector Chen mystery, I often find myself thinking back to the first college course on China I took. This is because the professor offering the class, historian Michael Freeman, included a whodunit by the Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulick on his syllabus. That book was part of a series featuring Judge Dee, an upright magistrate based on an actual historical figure, Di Baoan. In writing his Judge Dee mysteries, van Gulick, a versatile author whose other publications included a study of ancient Chinese sexual practices, opened intriguing windows onto the social and cultural history of imperial China — comparable to those that Qiu’s Inspector Chen novels open onto contemporary Chinese politics and society. When we read the novel for that UC Santa Cruz class in the late 1970s, I was intrigued by its depiction of a beggar’s guild, which had a clear hierarchical structure and developed astutely pragmatic methods for getting alms from local merchants. Similarly, one thing that will surely stick in the minds of readers of Qiu’s new book, Shanghai Redemption, is its depiction of a wild evening in one of the eponymous city’s most hedonistic nightspots — an anything goes sort of club of the kind that existed in the metropolis before 1949. They ceased to be part of the local scene during the Mao years and early part of the Reform eras, but have gotten a new lease on life in the boom times of the last two decades.

To write his detective stories, van Gulick often took an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point. He would then move elements of it around and make other alterations in order to craft a narrative he thought would be easier to follow and more satisfying to Western readers of detective stories than a straightforward translation. He also altered the identity of some villains; in too many of the original stories the Buddhist monk was the culprit, which took some of the, well, mystery out of the original Chinese mysteries. The Missouri-based Qiu, by contrast — a native of and frequent return visitor to Shanghai, where most of his Inspector Chen novels are set — often takes things he has experienced, heard, or read about and reworks them into whodunits. In Shanghai Redemption, for example, he fictionalizes some features of the scandals and purge of Bo Xilai, someone who rose to great heights within the Chinese political system before being tried and incarcerated — and Qiu met when they were attending the same university.

I recently caught up with Qiu by email. I asked him about Judge Dee, Bo Xilai, and also, as regular readers of this post will expect but others may find surprising, about Aldous Huxley:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Have you ever read the van Gulick Judge Dee novel, or read Chinese works or seen Chinese films featuring Di Baoan?

QIU XIAOLONG: I had read van Gulick’s Judge Dee novels before penning my Inspector Chen novels. His encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and society really impressed me. You’re surely right about his taking “an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point.” In Poets and Murder, for instance, I recognized the poet as none other than the famous Tang dynasty courtesan / poet Yu Xuanji (844?-871?). I like her poems, having translated one for a classical Chinese poetry collection. The poem is titled “To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness” (the Zi’an in the title being the man who married her as a concubine; his wife made him dump Yu by sending her into a temple). Myriads of maple leaves / upon myriads of maple leaves / silhouetted against the bridge, / a few sails return late in the dusk.//How do I miss you? // My thoughts run like / the water in the West River, /flowing eastward, never-ending, / day and night. Van Gulick must have been inspired by the real-life crime of passion committed by the gifted, ill-starred beauty, but the fiction seems to be too harsh on her. After all, the investigation could have been colored by the prejudice against an independent, intelligent woman in the social and moral discourse of the time, and the judge who sentenced her was said to have tried to date her but got rejected. Dean Barrett, another novelist writing about China, recently suggested that I write new Judge Dee books, but with van Gulick before me, how do I dare? Still, I may try my hand at a novella about Inspector Chen reinvestigating the Yu Xuanji case, following the clues through her poems to a different conclusion, though it’s possible that the new conclusion could have been colored, in turn, by his own incorrigible romantic inclination. Also, in rereading Judge Dee and other gong’an novels, I’ve noticed something hardly discussed in the studies of the Chinese genre. Dee is a Judge, not a cop or a detective, and in real life, he once served as a prime minister; for that matter, in other Judge stories as well — the “judge,” not in the ordinary sense of the word, but in reality a high ranking official. That in itself speaks about the fact that, lacking an established legal system, a detective could do so little, it has to take a resourceful well-connected official to make a difference. So the suspense comes not just in whodunit, but also in the almost impossible mission to have the criminal punished against odds in the complicated power struggle. And I wonder whether my writing has been influenced, subconsciously, by that tradition. As for the present-day Chinese TV movies featuring Judge Dee, I have watched just an episode. The cultural depth and width animating the characters in the original work appear to be totally missing on the screen.

Did you know you would write a novel linked in some ways to Bo Xilai when he was riding high as head of the massive city of Chongqing or when you first read of his fall? Or did you only think of working him into a novel later?

When Bo Xilai began riding high in China’s political landscape, it did not come into my mind to write a novel linked to him, in spite of us being schoolmates at the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the early ’80s. I could have totally forgotten about him but for his failure to return my favorite Double-Happiness racket after a Ping-Pong game there, though that was not something too surprising for the mentality of a “red prince” who would take whatever he liked as rightfully his — with his father being one of the most powerful Communist Party officials in the Forbidden City. But then with his frantic attempt to grab for more power by launching the political movement of “singing the red and smashing the black” — the “red” referring to the revolutionary songs of the Cultural Revolution, in praise of the Party or Mao, and the “black,” to the people targeted by the Party authorities for whatever political reasons — I began to pay closer attention. I shuddered at the memory of my father being persecuted with a blackboard hung around his neck, trembling in the midst of those red songs. Was Bo really trying to pull the clock back to the Cultural Revolution? If so, why? I started contemplating a new adventure for Inspector Chen with those questions hovering in the background. What propelled me into the book project was, ironically, a “private kitchen” dinner with friends about two or three weeks before the official announcement of Bo’s fall. During that suspenseful period, as you may remember, stories about the Bo’s scandal surfaced now and then online without being instantly blocked by the netcops. That’s extremely uncommon, suggesting something sinister at the top. As we talked about it, an American friend challenged me, “No publisher would accept it if you wrote a book with those unbelievable details, which would beat the wildest fantasy for any mystery readers.” So I started researching and writing in earnest. While fictionalizing, a writer usually intensifies by adding imagined twists and turns into the murderous conspiracy, but those real blood-congealing details in Bo’s case could too easily work into the third-or-fourth rate pulp fiction. I had to subtract instead. For instance, the overdramatic turn when Bo slapped Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief and Bo’s one-time right-hand man, who, supposedly a secret lover of Bo’s wife, then fled for fear of his life to the American Consulate, carrying criminal evidence against the Bos, particularly that of Bo’s wife murdering a Western businessman. Hence an international scandal too huge for the Beijing authorities to cover up. But here I would like to add: this is a book inspired by the Bos. It’s not about any specific persons or things; rather, it’s an exploration of the social and political circumstances that could have produced such hearts of darkness in Shanghai Redemption.

You often allude to T.S. Eliot in your novels, due to Inspector Chen being, like you, a translator of the poet. Am I right, though, in saying that you make the ties between the Chinese crime solver and Western writer a more central element of this novel than it has been in any earlier one?

I am a fan of T. S. Eliot. I allude to him frequently not just because I’ve learned a lot of the modernist techniques while translating his poems in the ‘80s, but also because his impersonal theory enabled me to write in a way different from the romantic tradition, i.e., the poet should not, and cannot, identify himself with the persona or speaker of the poem. And that, eventually, led to the creation of Inspector Chen — not me in spite of some idiosyncratic traits allegedly of mine, embracing the tension between the impersonal and personal. So you may say that’s like my way of paying tribute to Eliot. Incidentally, a new Chinese edition of Eliot came out about two years ago, including some of my translations, just like in Shanghai Redemption. Now it’s perceptive of you to note “the ties between the Chines crime solver and the Western poet as a more central element” of Shanghai Redemption than of the earlier books in the series. Indeed writing Shanghai Redemption repeatedly drew me back into The Waste Land, as the redemption theme runs through both the poem and the novel. In the dedication page, I quote, “Because I do not hope to turn again” by Guido Cavalcanti, a line which Eliot also quoted and used. It speaks so eloquently about Inspector Chen’s despair as he stands by the grave of his father, who envisioned an academic career for him, but he becomes a Party member cop instead, trying to justify his career with the belief that he could make a difference by working within the system, even though increasingly beset with doubts. (Almost a century ago, Eliot also felt so terrible about letting his father down for choosing a literature career in another country.) At the beginning of Shanghai Redemption, however, his illusion shattered, his position deprived, Chen comes to the realization that “the system has no place for a cop who puts justice above the interests of the Party.” So his is not just a personal crisis, nor was Eliot’s. Rather, about their times respectively. Here the haunting images of “the unreal city” get juxtaposed with those of the present-day Shanghai, where the system corruption, materialist decadence, sexual dissipation, brazen hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy overwhelm the “living dead.” If the ending of the poem still suggest hopes for redemption of humanity through spiritual quest, the ending of the novel is cynical, where Chen quotes a Tang dynasty poem about redemption through contingency of history (like the “Chinese history-changing slap” Bo gave Wang in fury with all the unexpected developments), the only possible hope under the authoritarian one-Party regime.

Okay, the question you know I’m going to ask: Have you read any or all of the Aldous Huxley books I brought up in my last post, which I know you read when it went online? These were, just to jog your memory, Brave New World, which I’ve often brought into my commentaries on contemporary China; After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which as in your book a memorable visit to a cemetery take place; and the non-fiction work Brave New World Revisited.

In 1978, at the entrance test for the MA program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I was asked to write an essay about a Western book, one of the options flashing through mind was Brave New World, which I had read in the Shanghai Library in preparation for the test, but not being that brave, I ended up playing safe and choosing another book instead — for reasons you may easily understand. Also, it was just after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, a period when a number of young people were still somewhat drawn toward the utopia of Marxist idealism. Like Chen in his pre-inspector days, I found myself too busy writing and translating poems, hardly having time to worry about anything else. It was not until years later, when I found myself staying in another country, working on one of the Inspector Chen novels that I felt the urge to revisit the Brave New World. It’s because of the political catchword “stability” or “stability maintenance,” which enables the Beijing government to justify the unjustifiable, making the investigations practically impossible for Inspector Chen. But the word is not a Chinese invention, I recalled, for I had caught it much earlier in Aldous Huxley’s book. Now when he wrote it, he did not exactly have China in mind. But a lot he predicted are realities now, like political propaganda, psychological manipulation, classical conditioning, all these a totalitarian regime uses to keep the people subservient and under control. A ready example in Shanghai Redemption is the political movement of singing the red, and I saw with my own eyes an old, feeble worker appearing instantly transformed, radiating with euphoria on TV after mumbling just half a red song. The battle Huxley waged against the loss of individuality and autonomy under the authoritarian government remains an uphill one in China today. In the next Inspector Chen novel, when he is just state-assigned to the Shanghai Police Bureau, Party Secretary Li gives him a political lecture: “Each of us should be like a screw, fastened contentedly wherever the Party government wants us to, functioning, shining on the State machine.” Seen in a totally positive light, it’s an echo from Diary of Lei Feng, a communist role model advocated by Mao in the ‘60s, and quite recently, by the government under Xi too, but what a night coming true for Huxley’s metaphor about the deprivation of the human individuality by the state like in a factory assembly line. A soulless screw indeed! I have not yet read Brave New World Revisited nor After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. I’m going to, and thank you for reminding me of them.

Finally, what are you planning to write next? Some readers may take it for granted that you’ll pen another Inspector Chen novel, but you’ve also done some quite different books lately. For example, you collaborated with Howard French on Disappearing Shanghai, a book made up of photographs and poems that Ting Guo recently discussed in a two-work Los Angeles Review of Books that also dealt with Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes, and you wrote Red Dust Years, a charming collection of vignettes of life in an alleyway, which I reviewed for Time magazine. So I’m not taking it for granted that your next publication will be a mystery.

While doing research for Shanghai Redemption, I was rereading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which I was particularly impressed by a sentence, “The process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.” For the next book, consequently, it is tentatively titled Becoming Inspector Chen, or Constructing Inspector Chen (perhaps you may tell me which you like better). In postmodernist theories, one’s subjectivity is not a given, but in a continuous process of being constructed and reconstructed through the circumstances, in an intricate interrelationship of action and reaction with others. So it’s still a mystery — in a more general sense of the word — about things happening to Chen and others around him in his pre-inspector days. For the structure, it’s a novel with each chapter of an independent story related to Chen, directly or indirectly, linked in a chronological way, from the traumatic experience in his childhood, to the cases he unwillingly takes when first joining the force. The narration unfolds through a variety of angles, involving the first, second, and third person perspectives, juxtaposing the characters as “no man is an island, entire of itself.” Here you may be reminded of Years of Red Dust, but the new book is different for being more thematically unified. It is more experimental, also more rewarding, at least so to myself. As for the other book projects, Years of Red Dust II was completed, translated, published, and well-received in French and Italian. But the English manuscript remains unpublished because of its profit margin not comparable to the crime novels for the publishers. The same with The Poems of Inspector Chen, a collection of poems in the persona of Inspector Chen, which too is scheduled to come out in French and Italian first.

Brookes Spy Games cover

The Spy Game’s Afoot

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Journalists leaving long-term assignments in Beijing routinely get asked, “So, when are you going to write your China book?” It’s something of a joke, but not quite; experienced China journalists, after all, have generally seen and heard enough over the years to compose a compelling book-length analysis of the country’s economy, or society, or politics, or whatever other topic they choose. And many of those books, I should add, are among the best we have on China today.

But when longtime BBC Beijing correspondent Adam Brookes left the China beat and moved to Washington, DC, he wrote a different kind of China book: a spy novel. That was 2014’s gripping thriller Night Heron, which introduced readers to British journalist Philip Mangan. When Night Heron opens, Mangan is drifting along in a stable if not cushy life in Beijing. He needs a spark — something to jolt him out of the rut in which he has gotten stuck — and that spark comes in the form of Peanut, an escaped Chinese prisoner who seeks out Mangan and uses him as a conduit to British secret intelligence. The ensuing action blasts Mangan’s rut to smithereens; now his problem is not boredom or predictability, but flashbacks and guilt — plus the occasional wisp of longing for the spy life.

Spy Games, the second volume in what I believe will be a trilogy, finds Mangan in Ethiopia, trying his best to lie low and stay out of trouble. But when he’s approached by a Chinese man who calls himself “Rocky” and slips him classified documents, the temptation is irresistible, and Mangan dives back into the intelligence world. While in Night Heron Mangan unwillingly got drawn into the action, Spy Games sees him making the choice to get more deeply involved. Guided by his handler, soldier-turned-agent Trish Patterson, and her boss, Valentina Hopko, Mangan follows Rocky down the rabbit hole.

Rocky, however, isn’t simply handing over designs for a secret missile; the information that he has to offer holds much more explosive power. Rocky and his co-conspirators want nothing less than to bring down one of the most influential families in China, a clan whose web of power and corruption extends across China’s political, military, and corporate worlds. If successful, Rocky’s group could threaten the survival of the Chinese government itself.

And it’s here, in the end game that’s so much larger than Mangan imagines, that Brookes’s time in China turns Spy Games into his own version of a China book. Because I presume it’s his years reporting on Beijing politics that enable Brookes to give a depth and a history to the elite infighting that helps the story, for me, ring true. As any old China hand knows, there’s nothing straightforward about Zhongnanhai power struggles, and the events of forty years ago are just as important as what happened last week.

With its intricate plot, multiple locations, and large cast of characters (far more than those I’ve mentioned here), Spy Games requires a bit of focus to follow; I found myself wondering how in the world Brookes mapped everything out to ensure the disparate threads would join together in the end. But he does an excellent job of keeping the action moving and the tension high, making Spy Games a difficult book to put down. Here, again, is a way that Brookes has separated himself from the pack: I’ve read a lot of very good China books by excellent journalists, but I’ve never before stayed up far too late on a work night to finish one, unwilling to go to sleep until I knew how it ended.