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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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

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Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

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Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

Goodbye, Chiang!

By Tong Lam

One of the most iconic scenes in the 2003 German tragicomedy film Goodbye, Lenin!, which depicts drastic changes in daily life in the former East Germany soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is a gigantic Lenin statue being flown away by a helicopter over East Berlin. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has triggered a wave of historical reinterpretations. Godlike founders and paramount leaders of many former authoritarian states, once seen as national heroes and state guardians, were quickly recast as dictators and tyrants. The de-mytholigization of these personality cults led to the removal and even demolition of many of the publicly displayed big statues of former political and spiritual leaders.

Taiwan’s democratization in the last two decades of the twentieth century, itself driven by the changing local and global political landscapes, likewise resulted in the removal of the island’s numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) from schools, military bases, and public spaces. Although Chiang was the leader who led the Republic of China in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), he and the Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in a bitter civil war. During the Cold War, the Republic of China in Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth, similar to that of other U.S. client states in East Asia. Yet, despite its economic success (and also not unlike many other U.S. client states), Taiwanese politics under Chiang were oppressive and monolithic. So, when external pressures and internal reforms finally turned Taiwan into a vibrant democracy in the early 2000s, the island went through a period of “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification” and even de-sinicization. In particular, many of the Chiang statues were dismantled and removed during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when an opposition party came into power and the Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan’s government. The process of removing the Chiang statues all over Taiwan was often highly contentious, triggering not just painful memories of violent political repression under the Nationalists, but also bitter identity politics between those who identified themselves as Taiwanese and those as Chinese.

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Although there are still Chiang statues in some Taiwan universities and public spaces, those that had been removed and dismantled were collected and re-erected in a public park near Chiang’s final resting place in Daxi, Taoyuan County. These reassembled, repainted, and rearranged Chiang statues are often placed so that multiple statues are staring at each other in a humorous way. In this clever exercise of massaging history through public art, there are even a few statues of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the founder of the Republic who had handpicked Chiang as his successor, looking at Chiang from behind.

Interestingly enough, many tourists visiting the Cihu Memorial Statue Park where these Chiang statues are located are mainland Chinese tourists. One wonders what they are thinking when confronted with Taiwan’s complicated and entangled historical relationship with mainland China over the past few centuries. Some of these Chinese tourists no doubt think about the future fate of those oversized statues of the former Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) back home. Others perhaps pick up on the subtle desires for cultural and historical reconciliation within Taiwanese society that are embodied in this statue park.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter. © Tong Lam

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, although the Chinese government is still occasionally erecting new Mao statues, many others have been quietly taken down from universities and outdoor spaces in recent years. The politics of museum-ifying the past and the big statues in China are certainly different from those of Taiwan. Nonetheless, one wonders whether China will one day donate some of its overstocked Mao statues to Taiwan, so that Mao and Chiang can quietly look at each other and create a new symbol of historical and political reconciliation.