Category Archives: The China Blog

LARB’s China Blog covers the life, culture, politics and literature of China. It is edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, please visit our China Blog tumblr page.

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Why Chinese TV Should Be More Like French TV

By Paul French

If you want to understand a country’s national obsessions and public concerns, watch their TV crime dramas. Cop shows, at least those with contemporary settings, reveal what the folks at home are worried about: they draw on popular tabloid stories and reveal the state of the nation’s concerns. This televisual truism is slightly skewed in China, however, where cop shows, censored and sanitized as they are, usually show what CCTV (the state-controlled broadcaster) thinks people should be worried about — invariably anything that threatens “social harmony.” In Chinese cop shows, the bad guys are usually either foreigners (often overseas Chinese from elsewhere), minorities (Uighurs from Xinjiang, mostly), or people with (unfounded, of course!) grudges against the Party. Chinese TV cops are clean-living, invariably uniformed, polite, and care only for the peoples’ welfare. Still, I can’t help wondering: What would a Chinese cop show be like if the censors took a holiday? Continue reading

THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT
By Amy Tan
589 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.

City of Reinvention: A Review of Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Shanghai is a city of reinvention. The metropolis has transformed over the past two centuries from a regional trading hub to a massive global financial center. Shanghai has become the site where China meets the world, a point of entry for alien goods and customs that transfigure the city into an environment that is neither entirely Chinese nor foreign, but rather a blend of the two. With this growth, millions of people have poured into the city: migrants from within China, hoping to find work that will put their families on firm economic footing, as well as arrivals from around the globe, each pushed or pulled to Shanghai by personal forces. Some seek money; some hope for adventure; others want to escape, to disappear into the crush of people and emerge with a new name and history — and in turn, a new future. Continue reading

Wang Zihao, photo credit Dou Yiping

Why Study Journalism in China?

Photo: Wang Zihao. © Dou Yiping

By Lu-Hai Liang and Dou Yiping

China’s journalism schools, like those in many countries, are packed full of students preparing to join an industry where the supply of graduates far exceeds the number of positions available.

The press may be perceived as the fourth estate in the West, but some journalism students in China follow a “Marxist view” that includes supporting party principles, criticizing the “bourgeois concept of free speech,” and maintaining correct “guidance of public opinion,” according to an article on the China Media Project’s website. Continue reading

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Graffiti in Beijing

By Cutler Dozier

A skinny 21-year-old Beijinger with shoulder length hair, wearing baggy jeans and a worn t-shirt, stares through his paint-speckled glasses, transfixed by the stack of multicolored graffiti cans arranged in front of him. He goes by the name WEK, and is deciding what colors he will use to paint his name on various walls and shop fronts around the city. He is part of a booming graffiti scene in Beijing and is possibly the most prolific graffiti writer in mainland China today. Continue reading

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Satire, Cyberspace and the 25th Anniversary of the June 4th Massacre

I learned several weeks ago that China Digital Times was about to publish Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream in Cartoons, an e-book featuring material by a satirist whose work I had enjoyed seeing displayed on their site. When I got my advance copy, I began looking through it eagerly, expecting to be amused or moved by cartoons that I hadn’t seen before as well as appreciating the chance to look at some old favorites again. I wasn’t disappointed. And an added plus was making my way through the accompanying explanatory material provided by Sophie Beach, a central figure at CDT, on topics ranging from the derivation of the cartoonist’s name to the symbolism of some of the harder to parse panels.

It was nice to learn as well that the proceeds from sales of the e-book, which was published on May 12, were to be split between the cartoonist and CDT. It’s a site worthy of support, as it’s one of the key online ventures that I rely on—as do many others interested in Chinese current affairs—to keep up to speed on how China is being covered by the media and on how the Party tries to scrub the web clean of the many things it fears or simply dislikes. Continue reading

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A Tale of Two First Books: A Conversation with NPR’s Louisa Lim and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos

In 2008, I wrote in the Guardian that there had recently been a “notable acceleration” in the frequency with which “illuminating books of reportage” on China had been appearing. It had become routine, I explained, after writers like Peter Hessler and Ian Johnson had come onto the scene, for two or three engagingly crafted books a year to come out that were by journalists who had spent considerable time in China and had sharp insights to share about the country’s recent past and current situation.  Still, the year of the Beijing Games was special, since it saw Factory GirlsThe Last Days of Old BeijingOut of Mao’s Shadow, and Smoke and Mirrors all published within a single twelve-month stretch.  I continue to admire that quartet of books, but the proximity of their publication dates no longer seems so striking.  Why? Because we are mid-way through a three-week period that, when it ends, will have seen the appearance of not just one but two major additions to the list of powerful books on China by talented journalists. I mean, of course, Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (just out from FSG and garnering very strong reviews, such as this one in the Washington Post) and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (which is officially published by Oxford on June 4, but is already available as an e-book, and getting positive assessments as well, such as this write-up in Kirkus Reviews).*

I caught up by email with Osnos and Lim — both of whom will be speaking in Southern California soon and both of whose books are reviewed, in the same article, in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review — and they generously agreed to not only answer a question from me, but also to play interviewer as well as interviewee and ask each other one question apiece.  My query for each of them is simple: What is in your book that you are proud of having there, but that you had no idea you would deal with when you started writing or planning the project?

Here, in the order in which they will be coming out this way are their answers, with Evan Osnos (who’ll be doing two events at UC Irvine on May 27) weighing in first, and then Louisa Lim (who will be speaking at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on June 12) going next.   After that will come Evan’s question to Louisa and her answer; and then, closing out the interview, Louisa’s question to Evan and his reply. Continue reading

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Xi Jinping’s Peculiar Packaging of the May 4th Spirit

By Rebecka Eriksson

Early this month, Chinese top leader Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to China’s most prestigious university.  While there, he had photographs taken with students and gave a speech that showcased, in revealing and sometimes bizarre ways, his penchant for drawing inspiration from a dizzyingly diverse array of parts of his country’s past, with Confucius and Mao Zedong and events of the early twentieth century all getting shout outs.

The setting for the speech was important.  It took place at an institution known internationally as “Peking University,” in Chinese called Beijing Daxue or simply “Beida,” for short, and sometimes described as China’s counterpart to Harvard.  The many claims to fame of Beida, whose website now features photos of Xi’s visit and a summary of some themes from his speech, include the central roles it has played in student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre.

The timing of Xi’s visit to Beida was notable.  He went to the campus to help the university mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, which is important not only to the university but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949.  His comments to students, not surprisingly, focused on the need to carry forward the patriotic “spirit of May 4th,” and, equally unsurprisingly, called on educated youths to follow the CCP’s guidance in doing this. Continue reading

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A Trip Back to Beijing — Courtesy of Xu Zechen and Eric Abrahamsen

By Megan Shank

Step out of the Beijing airport, and taste the tang in the air. For the remainder of your time in the capital, it will linger, metallic, on the back of your tongue. Is it burning plastic? Coal? The sweat of migrant workers who have come to chase dreams and money? The boozy breath of corrupt officials? The hot asphalt poured for wide boulevards? The lingering dust of razed neighborhoods, a powdery earthen scent that haunts like an odiferous ghost? Pop music blares. Repairmen bike through neighborhoods with megaphones advertising their services. Garlic hits food vendors’ woks with a sizzle. Amateur opera singers warble in the park. Buses belch fumes. Modern subway doors swoosh open, people smoosh together. Old men with t-shirts rolled up over their bellies sit on stools in alleyways and chat. Young lovers wearing matching outfits interlace fingers and stroll in shopping malls. More than a million smokers could be lighting their cigarettes at any given moment. With enough of a spark, it almost feels like the atmosphere could burst into flames and smolder.

Xu Zechen’s slim 2008 novel Running Through Beijing, recently translated into an English version published by Two Lines Press (2014), transported me back to that city and all its colorful inhabitants. The novel captures the taste and tension of Beijing better than any I’ve ever read. I felt the grit from Beijing’s frequent sandstorms sting my eyes. I savored on my tongue again the spicy mutton of a hotpot joint. Readers will internalize the restlessness and loneliness of young strivers. And Eric Abrahamsen’s translation is so deft, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t originally written in English. He especially executes slang-filled dialogue with pizzazz. Continue reading

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Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi

By Mengfei Chen

Is it still a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Perhaps he’d rather spend that fortune on bottle service and club bunnies. Certainly, modern day Lily Barts need not die young, alone and poor because they nixed a number of suitable suitors — not if Sheryl Sandberg has anything to say about it.

Great nineteenth century novels built on the question of “will he propose and will she say yes” live on, but mostly as bonneted costume dramas on the BBC. They seem like historic relics in the age of the pre-nup and easy divorce.

When I took George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my trip to spend Spring Festival with my grandparents earlier this year, I thought I was packing a work of historical fiction. It was holiday reading. I wanted to take advantage of the long journey home (17 hours by train each way, bracketed by another two hours on the newly built two-lane highway dodging tractors, overloaded long-haul trucks and the occasional confused water buffalo) to cross the book Virginia Woolf called the only novel written for adults off my literary bucket list. I did not expect the book, which charts with great sensitivity the marriages, successful and otherwise, of several couples in a 19th century English country town, to resonate so powerfully with the lives of people living in a 21st century Chinese one. Continue reading

Mary Guo, April 15, 2014 -- in Beijing

What Do Chinese Women Want?

Photo: Mary Guo in Beijing, April 15, 2014.

By Lu-Hai Liang

Let’s start with Mary. Well that’s her English name anyway. We met seven years ago in Yangshuo, a pretty little town in southern China where she was studying English. I liked her sparky personality and sense of fun, and we became friends. I was teaching English, taking a year out before I started university. I was 18, Mary 21.

Skip forward seven years to the present, and I’m back in China, this time to work in Beijing. I am British, of Chinese heritage. Mary is Chinese and her heritage is that of rural dwellers, known in Chinese as “nongmin” or farmers.

I’ve never known Mary to have a boyfriend but she recently told me, after I asked about her relationship status for this article, that she has had two, including the one she is currently seeing. I was surprised to hear this, since Mary had not mentioned any of this in our previous meetings (she works in Beijing). She is 28 now, which, according to the general consensus within Chinese society, makes her more-than-ready for marriage. Continue reading