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.

China Story Yearbook 2014

A Q&A with Jeremy Goldkorn

By Liz Carter

Jeremy Goldkorn is a researcher, writer, speaker, and podcaster on Chinese politics, economics, and society. He moved to China in 1995 and stayed in the country for 20 years, during which time he covered developments there for a number of prominent media outlets and founded Danwei, a popular media tracking website that grew into a research firm and was later acquired by the Financial Times. Involved with the Australian Centre on China in the World since its inception in 2010, he has been part of the three-person editorial team, the other members being Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, who have edited each of its China Story Yearbooks. Via email, he answered some questions about the recently published Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny, as well as his own take on recent developments in China.

LIZ CARTER: You’ve been involved with China Story Yearbook since its first edition. Can you talk a little bit about how it got started, how you got involved, and what it brings to discussions of China in media and academia? What do you think people have to gain by looking at years in review, as opposed to just following the news on a regular basis?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: The China Story Yearbook is a project of the Centre on China in the World at Australian National University. Both the China Story project and the Centre were founded by the noted Sinologist Geremie Barmé.

The intention of the Yearbook is to provide a historical record of the events, intellectual discussions, politics, economics and everyday life of each year covered. Although most of the writers are scholars and academics, not all are, and the intention is to make the work accessible to anyone interested in China.

Looking at a year in review allows for a broader view of current events than following the daily torrent of news does and allows us to expand on themes that are important to understanding China but may not make it into a news story.

How do you see the overall climate of the Chinese internet (specifically social media)? 

Although there are an extraordinary number of people on the Chinese Internet saying an extraordinary range of things about all kinds of subjects, the space for those who differ from the Party line of Xi Jinping’s propagandists seems to be getting smaller by the week.

Do you have any ideas about how this might change in the next year or two?

I don’t see any reason to believe that current trends will change. The recent “World Internet Conference” was merely the latest example of the government’s growing confidence in presenting censorship in a positive light: the Chinese internet is a great place to buy stuff or to be entertained, but there is no indication that the strict controls on it will be loosened.

Regarding the portion of the Yearbook you wrote about “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” do you think the crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents is the new normal? If so, how can media covering these issues adapt without sounding like they are beating a dead horse?

I believe this is the new normal. I think the only way to cover such issues to make sure that each case is handled as an individual case with an individual story rather than a mere statistic. But there is no way to avoid the fact that readers of news about China will get what one might call oppression fatigue.

What brought you back to the US? And what is it like watching China from here, as opposed to Beijing?

Not back: I am from South Africa. Arriving in the US for me is a little like going to China was: I have to adapt to a whole new culture, much of which I do not yet understand.

I am quite enjoying observing China from afar, but I do love going back. I was in Beijing in September for the first time since I left in February and I enjoyed it very much.

When compiling the 2014 Yearbook, what events or trends reviewed gave you the most cause for optimism, and which were the most distressing?

In the last half decade, the Chinese government has done a complete turnaround on environmental problems and now recognizes the threats of global warming, pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices and other dangers to the earth. That is a great cause for optimism.

On the other hand, the Party has over the last few years made clear that they explicitly reject individual rights such as freedom of expression as hostile foreign ideas: it’s hard to feel good about that.


Consolations of History: A Q&A with Yan Geling

By Alec Ash

Yan Geling is a Chinese novelist, born in Shanghai, who lives in Berlin and travels frequently to China. Her novel The Flowers of War was made into a film starring Christian Bale, and she has won wide acclaim both inside and outside of China. Her new novel in English, Little Aunt Crane (translated by Esther Tyldesley) is a wonderfully empathic story of a young Japanese girl, Tatsuru, who stays behind in China after the end of World War Two. Tatsura becomes the second wife of a Chinese heir, and befriends the first wife Xiaohuan during the decades of political tumult that follow. It’s an enjoyable read and a fresh narrative perspective on Chinese history. I asked Yan Geling some questions on email about her process, intentions, and themes.

ALEC ASH: How did you first begin to learn about Japanese colonists left behind in China after the end of World War Two, and why did you want to write about it as a subject for your novel Little Aunt Crane?

YAN GELING: Years ago, one of my childhood friends told me a story about twin brothers in her class who intrigued her. Her classmates discussed them behind their backs, saying that there was a woman in their house besides their mother who seemed to have a mysterious position in their family. This woman would kneel down to tie the boys’ father’s shoelaces and make everybody take off their shoes before entering the house. Later my friend and her classmates discovered that this mysterious woman was not a Chinese but a Japanese who was sold to this family in a sack during the Japanese retreat from China, and she was the twins’ natural mother. I was amazed by the story and couldn’t help imagining how all of them had lived in secrecy and harmony in a Chinese neighborhood. After I moved to the U.S., I told the story to many friends in artistic and literary circles, and they all thought it was good material for a novel. One of my author friends even bought me a kimono to encourage me to write it, but not until 2007 did I muster enough courage to create a novel whose main female character was Japanese. What also made it possible to carry out expensive research in Japan was that my husband was reinstated in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat, and we moved to Taiwan in 2006. By then our financial situation allowed me to hire interpreters to help me do research in a village in central Japan that had been divided in two, with one half of its farmers going to Northeast China as colonists in the early 1930s.

History is hugely important in understanding contemporary China, especially its fraught relations with Japan. What can Tatsuru and Xiaohuan’s friendship teach us about China today?

I don’t know. I don’t think a novel has a function or a mission such as teaching somebody something. Instead, I think a novelist, by writing a story in the most vivid way, with poetry of language and by sharing it with the public, is willing to discover the truth about the story together with the readers. I have written stories about women suffering during wars and after wars, because I think that no matter who wins or loses, women on both side are the ultimate victims. Their bodies are the last part of a defeated country to be conquered, to be violated. They are the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers whose lost lives leave voids in the women’s lives, too deep to be filled. In this sense, Xiaohuan and Crane (Tatsuru) have a shared understanding and sympathy with each other beyond their own knowledge.

In both this novel and in The Flowers of War, finding humanity in the midst of chaos is a recurring theme. So much of China’s recent past has been a litany of horrors, yet you focus on small acts of kindness and bravery. Does this mean you’re an optimist?

I think the Chinese are a people of survival. We are all wonderful survivors. We have risen in population during the last century, a century in which wars and famines have happened all the time. We have survived natural and political disasters almost every other year during the last sixty years. Without optimism I don’t think my people could live until today. I have gone to poor rural areas in China and seen destitute people joke and jest and laugh. I can imagine Chinese at the bottom of society, surviving like them over thousands of years. They must have a good sense of humor to go through hardship, and they must have learned how to steal whatever small pleasure they can to hold on to their dear life. I can’t imagine that any people could survive so many centuries of sorrow if to live only means to suffer. They have learned to steal joy, however little, out of the overall suffering.

You served with the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution as a dancer in an entertainment troupe from the age of 12. What were some of your other experiences in the PLA, and how did they influence your writing later?

I think my becoming a writer has much to do with my tough upbringing, including my experience in the army. When the Cultural Revolution took place, I was seven, and it was human nature playing itself out before my eyes. Unfortunately, I was too young for that. And because my father, a writer and a freethinker, had an unpopular political status, I was ostracized and felt very marginal in the army performing troop. It bothered me at the time, but I discovered later that I benefited from it when I started to write. I believe all artists and writers should be independent from the mainstream, so they won’t take the values system or moral standards of the mainstream for granted. On the contrary, they should make it their duty to question and doubt the way of life and way of thinking of the mainstream. Now I am glad to live overseas as a Chinese writer, to remain independent and critical of both sides.

Who are some of your favorite Chinese authors, both in the past and today, and why?

I never use the word favorite when it comes to literature, because I like too many authors whose styles are very different from one another. I like Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber. I also like my contemporaries, such as Mo Yan, Wang Anyi, Yu Hua, and Jin Yucheng.

For another sample of Yan Geling’s writing, read Disappointing Returns, an extract from her latest novel in Chinese, translated by Dave Haysom on Read Paper Republic


Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part Two

We started with a simple plan. We’d get six people to suggesting a pair of books apiece, making a dozen in all — maybe a baker’s dozen, if one person couldn’t resist slipping in a third title. In the holiday spirit of excess, though, things got out of hand. As three of the four core members of the old China Beat team came together to make their suggestions, we couldn’t resist seeing if the final member of the quartet, Kenneth Pomeranz, would chime in too. Only one of us managed to limit ourselves to two titles.

Anyway, here’s the list which, combined with last week’s, is now well beyond a dozen, baker’s or otherwise:


Kate Merkel-Hess

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

This is the 2014 Ken Liu translation of a 2008 book that was a bestseller in China and stands out as a prime example of the country’s lively science fiction genre. It is classic SF — multi-page tangents on math, physics, and technology dot the text, and crucial components of the book take place in a virtual online world — but it is the context, and its presentation, that I found so stunning. The book, the opening installment of a trilogy, toggles between the stories of secret scientific installations during the Cultural Revolution and the present day, and while the Cultural Revolution is key to the set up, the politics of the period are never the point of the book itself. Liu, like many sci-fi writers, creates stories where the vastness of space and (mini spoiler!) encounters with alien life raise questions about our shared humanity and what it means. But in the science fiction that most Western readers are familiar with, those encounters take place against a Western backdrop. The Three-Body Problem neatly displaces us, while, indeed, successfully demonstrating the universality of appealing sci-fi themes and questions. For those who get hooked, the second Three-Body Trilogy book is available in English (it came out last summer as The Dark Forest, with Joel Martinsen doing the translation) and the third, Death’s End, is slated to be published in 2016 (with Liu back as the translator).

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer

When I was in college in the late 1990s I spent a semester studying Chinese in Manchuria, so I was looking forward to Michael Meyer’s new book, which chronicles his time living in a little village in Manchuria called Wasteland. The book is part love story, part ethnography, and part history. Meyer ends up in Wasteland because it is the hometown of his wife, Frances, but for much of the book she is working as a lawyer in Hong Kong, only visiting infrequently, as Meyer navigates the sometimes-confounding social dynamics of a close-knit village.

Interwoven with Meyer’s stories of life in Wasteland and his reflections on the changing nature of rural China are his investigations of the rich history of Manchuria. As he shows, a place that many readers will probably initially view as a backwater has actually been a critical crossroads in some of the modern world’s most important stories. Meyer is also the author of the well received 2008 book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, and taken together, the two volumes demonstrate his fascination with the way that the past is entwined with present and future. For a historian, that’s a comforting and natural way of looking at the world, but in the hands of a storyteller like Meyer it is also evocative and moving, a reminder of the way we live with the past and also change it.


Kenneth Pomeranz

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform, by Meg Rithmire

Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft, by Stephen Halsey

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, by John Osburg

There’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but my first choice is almost too easy: Amitav Ghosh’s superb Flood of Fire. As a novel, it’s completely engrossing; as a history of the 19th century opium trade, it’s remarkably accurate and comprehensive; as a vivid reminder of the human dimensions of those events, and the fact that the participants cannot be reduced to just victims and villains (or just Britons and Chinese), it is unsurpassed. You can read it without having read the first two books in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, but if this gets you to read them, so much the better.

For highly readable and important academic work on China, three new or at least newish works by younger scholars come to mind. First, Stephen Halsey’s Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft reminds us that for all the battering China took in the late 19th century, it was never formally colonized. Building on lots of other recent scholarship, Halsey shows that the last decades of China’s final dynasty, the Qing — sometimes written off as a long succession of failures — should instead be seen as an important period of innovation in Chinese statecraft, resulting in a military-fiscal state with many resemblances to those of early modern Europe. Of course, the dynasty ultimately fell anyway, but Halsey shows that the influence of its efforts lingers: among other things, in a distinctive understanding of sovereignty, which colors Beijing’s internal and external policies even today.

My other two books should particularly interest those who want a deeper understanding of the contemporary Chinese economy, and sense that economics alone won’t provide it. John Osburg’s Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich is an excellent ethnography of elite businessmen (and a few women) in Chengdu. Osburg focuses on the endless “night work” of these entrepreneurs: the entertaining of customers, suppliers and other contacts without which they could not succeed. The book shows vividly how connections are made through providing others with drinks, parties, and sometimes women; how those connections matter, and why it’s too simple to call it all “corruption.” You also hear the participants in this world, both men and women, reflect on the toll this system takes, what “merit” and “competition” mean within it, and how they might like to see things change, both in their own lives and in Chinese society.

Meanwhile, to see how one very important feature of China’s economy came to have its distinctive shape, read Meg Rithmire’s Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform. (This one is brand new, and I confess I haven’t read all of it yet myself.) Excepting a few petro-states, China today is almost unique in the degree to which government relies on revenue from state-owned assets, rather than taxes on private transaction; the biggest single such asset is the land itself, which can be leased for long periods, but not privately owned. This often-overlooked fact shapes Chinese development in many, many ways, and Rithmire provides an eye-opening account of the evolution and implications of land policy in three big Chinese cities, from the onset of reform in 1978 forward.


Maura Cunningham

Spy Games, by Adam Brookes

Dragon Day, by Ellie McEnroe

The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill

There’s nothing more satisfying than settling in at the end of a dark winter day with a hot cup of cocoa (or something stronger) and a thick spy thriller. Help someone in your life realize this by giving them two or three juicy volumes to enjoy while the snow falls outside and the fire roars. I recommend the latest offerings by Adam Brookes and Lisa Brackmann, who both write compelling spy novels with a China twist — though their books should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good thriller, regardless of their level of China knowledge.

I reviewed both recent books in previous posts for the China Blog: Brookes’s engrossing Spy Games (reviewed here) continues the story of world-weary journalist Philip Mangan and his international exploits, while Brackmann wrapped up her phenomenal Ellie McEnroe trilogy with Dragon Day (reviewed here). To ensure that your gift recipient gets the full arc of both stories, bundle the new books with copies of their preceding ones — Night Heron (Brookes) and Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (Brackmann).

I’ve got one more suggestion, which stays in Asia but is not China-focused and came out some time ago, though I only recently discovered it: The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill. I just finished reading this first book in a 10-volume series, which is set in Laos in 1976 and follows the adventures of Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 70-something reluctant coroner with a wry sense of humor. With nine more books to go in Cotterill’s series, my winter reading list is set.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When True Love Came to China, by Lynn Pan

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, by Rian Thum

The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, by Nile Green

My first reading suggestion is Lynn Pan’s extraordinary When True Love Came to China, which is available in Asia now and will be out in other markets this spring. Pankaj Mishra singled it out in the Guardian as one of his books of the year, describing it as “a rich and gripping account of how the first generation of modern Chinese intell­ect­uals and writers discovered the pleas­ures — and sufferings — of romantic love.”

I’ll also let someone else tell you what is so good about my second selection, Rian Thum’s The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, a beautifully crafted work. In his review of the book for this publication, Central Asianist Nile Green writes that while Thum’s book offers much to the reader seeking a better understanding of contemporary problems in Xinjiang, at its “core it is not political study” and goes beyond “the familiar ideologies of modern times toward older ways of knowing and belonging.” The result he says is a “humanist project” of “empathy and magnitude” which explores “the experience of the past in a society few have tried to understand in its own terms.”

Following some of my colleagues in slipping in extra works and moving beyond books that focus on China, I’ll close with a shout out for Green’s own new book, The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. Original in format and gracefully written, it could be described with many of the same adjectives its author used to refer to The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, for it, too, is deeply empathetic and humane. And while it does not engage with Chinese history, I look forward to teaching it someday beside Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat or Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu, memorable books by China specialists that take us back in time and move between Europe and another part of the world in a similarly engaging and creative fashion.


Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part One

This first post in a two-part series continues a tradition of holiday gift suggestions that began at China Beat (2008-2012) — a blog that currently lives on as a Twitter feed (@chinabeat ) and is in the process of being archived by the Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska.

In this edition, we focus on 2015 publications dealing with Chinese themes. We have given contributors leeway to slip in titles that came out before this year, but they have only read recently. We also invited them to suggest books that veer partly or completely away from China, yet have elements that make them particularly interesting to anyone interested in knowing more about the country. While asking for two book ideas apiece, we sometimes got more than we bargained for.


James Carter:

Of my two selections, the first “one” is actually three: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, the last of which (River of Fire) is published this year.

Full disclosure: I’ve not finished the trilogy, but the reason I recommend it is that (in addition to being great fiction) it breaks the “China vs. the West” dyad by showing the global nature of the opium trade and the realignment of economic and political power in the 19th century. The connections among India, China, and Britain are clear and nuanced, but also important are the roles played by East Africa, North America, and Southeast Asia.

My second selection is Howard French’s China’s Second Continent, which was published last year but I just taught this summer. I was really pleased with how it explained to students a lot about not only China and Africa, but the USA. as well. The book does a remarkable service to the diversity of African countries and the range of Chinese people living and working there. More than one student made comparisons about China’s imperialistic behavior in French’s book and the behavior of Europeans and (especially) Americans in China today, or at least recently.


Alec Ash

A Perfect Crime
A Yi (trans. Anna Holmwood)

I’ve already interviewed the author of this novel for the blog, but can’t resist giving it another mention here. A Perfect Crime is perhaps best billed as China’s L’étranger, and it’s utterly fascinating — a visceral and (be warned) pessimistic engagement with Chinese society from a cop turned novelist. It’s readable in a single sitting, but you might finish that sitting a bit shaken up.

Point of Origin
Diao Dou (trans. Brendan O’Kane)

More contemporary Chinese literature for my second recommendation, as fiction is often the best way to get Chinese voices where non-fiction is castrated. Brendan O’Kane brings us a collection of stories from a less well-known author (also published in the great collection, Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China). Surreal, satirical, surprising. Fingers crossed that “Diaodou-esque” becomes an adjective.


Paul French

2015 was a good year for China-related photography books and exhibition catalogues. The Met’s China Through the Looking Glass exhibition was a lavish feast of costume, ceramics, and objets for those interested in how China has influenced the imagination of western costumiers, artists, and filmmakers. The catalogue was equally lavish with photography from Platon and essays by curator Andrew Bolton and artistic director Wong Kar Wei, among others. For those intrigued by chinoiserie, it is essential to study a copy page-by-page with a mulled wine.

The number of beautifully conceived and self-published photography books concerning China is growing apace. Shanghai-based James H. Bollen (who’s photography book inspired by JG Ballard’s memories of Shanghai, Jim’s Terrible City, was the subject of a Q&A last year on this blog) has just published Wallpaper — The Shanghai Collection. Bollen has captured the remaining fragments of Shanghai’s condemned old buildings, revealed by the remorseless wrecking ball that continues to afflict the city. Photographs of shredded wallpaper, abandoned posters, calendars, and all manner of decorative ephemera are juxtaposed with apt quotes from William Morris’s 1870s lectures on Hopes and Fears for Art — ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ A good new year’s resolution I think.


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!