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

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

Out Of Body: Freedom, Chaos, and Puppetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Emily Hunt

My first experience with A Midsummer Night’s Dream was watching Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film production. I’m sure the visually gorgeous cast had something to do with it – what 12-year-old girl can ignore the charms of Michelle Pfieffer, Rupert Everette, and Christian Bale? – but it was more than that: something entirely new had taken place on the screen. For the first time in my adolescent life, a work of art had induced a feeling of liberation, a distinct, excited sense of possibility.

Every production I’ve seen since has been aesthetically unique. With its magic, fight scenes, fairies, the backdrop of a seemingly opaque forest, and the changeable world of its play-within-a-play, – A Midsummer Night’s dream begs reinvention, much as its mercurial characters change while they delightfully, aimlessly wander through the woods. Nothing is definite: the four young Athenian lovers — Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander — speak in absolutes yet are characterized by anything but. They escape into the forest in the middle of the night, where Titania, a righteous and strong fairy queen, is duped into falling in love with an ass, part of a magical revenge plot by the seemingly heartless fairy king Oberon, so touched by the unrequited love of Helena that he attempts to enchant Demetrius, her wayward lover, into returning her affections. The mischievous sprite Puck mixes everything up, and the rampant, secret love affairs that drive the foursome into the forest devolve into a brawl.

And yet, somehow, in traditional Renaissance fashion, we wind up with a wedding-and-a-marriage happy ending. Continue reading

Letter from the Chairman of the Board

AlbertLitewka3bHelp Us Make History

Several years ago, Tom Lutz, the founding editor of LARB, and I sat down to lunch to discuss a gleam in his eye: The Los Angeles Review of Books. Listening to Tom describe his vision, I experienced a “EUREKA!” moment. LARB was a brilliant idea whose time had come.

From that Eureka on, it has been my mission to support Tom’s vision, to help bring it to life, structure it, build it out, and sustain it. As Chairman of the Board, I have thrown myself into this effort, as have many others, ranging from volunteers to contributors to staff to subscribing members to Board members.

One of the original justifications for LARB was that the book review in printed form, especially in review sections in newspapers around the country, was dying out. As we developed our mission and strategies, we realized that there was a much larger role for LARB to fill. In the field of visual arts, Los Angeles has in the past 25 years evolved into a world class city. The same has happened on the music and performance scene. While these things were happening, the global recognition of LA’s literary scene had not risen to the level of the facts on the ground: LA has a population of educated, talented, and cultured readers and writers equal to any in the world.

Book publishing in the US has always been centered in New York. So have the major reviews. But the country has moved West. It was time for a Los Angeles Review of Books to counterbalance the East Coast hegemony and to provide a world class venue devoted to the culture of writing.

Recognition and praise of LARB as a major new force on the cultural landscape has come from many well-regarded publications, writers, and critics. The New Yorker called LARB “One of the instant jewels of the internet.”

LARB is an “all in” effort. In the past year alone we have published 1,270 essays, reviews, podcasts, and short films. In addition, we’ve launched two well received print publications, held very successful LARB Luminary Dinners, and conducted a variety of other activities. LARB is currently being read in all 50 States and in 150 countries around the world!

All this effort and output costs money. LARB is a nonprofit, but our monthly expenses are considerable. To cover our operating costs, we rely on gifts, donations, and grants. Mostly, we subsist on individual donations. Your donations.

The content we present takes hundreds of people to write, and dozens of people to edit, design, and otherwise support the product. We are delighted that so many readers enjoy LARB. We need each reader to support that which they enjoy.

To donate to LARB, CLICK HERE. You can become a member at any of the basic program amounts, or you can give any larger amount — $1,000, $2,500, $25,000 — whatever your capacity and commitment dictate. We are strongly committed to you, our readers, and are deeply appreciative of EVERY contribution, regardless of amount.

The timing of this appeal has special significance. After operating as a sponsored project under the aegis of UC Riverside Foundation and now PEN Center USA, LARB is finally going out on its own. There is considerable expense involved in the transition to an independent status. We need your help in supporting this next phase.

The Los Angeles Review of Books is making history. There has never been anything like it, and it has changed the cultural landscape. If you believe in Tom’s vision and in the team that works hard every day to realize it, as I do — if you believe what we’ve done with LARB deserves support — then please give your full support. We can’t do it without you.

With deep appreciation,

Albert Litewka
Chairman of the Board
Los Angeles Review of Books

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. Continue reading

Letter from Central Idaho: 20 Years of Iconoclastic Bookselling

By Sarah Hedrickimage

Pictured above: Sarah and Gary, owners of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, appreciating the view.

Six years ago this month, Gary Hunt, owner of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, was killed in a car accident on his way home from one of the frequent events hosted in his store. He left behind a baby daughter, his wife Sarah and his three “bonus” children (from Sarah’s previous marriage), not to mention three regional stores including a new flagship store and coffee shop in downtown Ketchum, a warehouse for the internet side of the business, and an entire community of people (whether they were seasonal or full time residents) who relied on Iconoclast for its ever growing stock of new, used and rare books, as well as for its open-door policy when it came to matters of community organizing, events, and fundraising. On the sixth anniversary of Gary’s death, Sarah gives us the update from the place where Pound was born and Hemingway died, and the bookstore in Central Idaho that remains, despite everything, truly iconoclastic. – C.P. Heiser

T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, “mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” For me, May is possibly worse, and bittersweet, both personally and professionally. It holds both the anniversaries of my marriage to Gary as well as that of his death. Twenty years ago he brought Iconoclast Books to life and since his passing, I’ve honored the legacy of the store, stayed current with the needs of my community, and strived to find the right formula for Iconoclast Books to remain a vital part of both myself and the community; to stay open so that I can continue to do the work I love. Continue reading

The Brief and Wondrous Life of California Bookstore Day

The Naked Bookseller is proud to present the story behind California Bookstore Day (this Saturday May 3rd) — a grand notion incubated at the Bay Area’s legendary Green Apple bookstore, recipient of Publisher Weekly’s 2014 Independent Bookstore of the Year Award.

By Samantha Schoech

When you tell people you own a bookstore (or in my case, that my husband co-owns a bookstore) you get one of two responses. There are the delighted readers who imagine you live a life of cozy literary bliss, sipping tea and snuggling a cat in a sun-drenched room where bells on the door alert you to the arrival of an occasional customer. These people gush and tell you how wonderful it is that you own a bookstore.

By far the more common response, however, are the people who let out a little puff of a laugh and say something like, A bookstore? Do they still have those?  They think they are being funny. Continue reading

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

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.

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

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Dear LARB Supporters:

Last week we celebrated the third anniversary of our first review, on our temporary Tumblr site, and the second anniversary of our official launch.

In those three years, we have published 1,275 reviews, 985 essays, 435 interviews, 22 ebooks, 5 tabloid print magazines, and 3 quarterly print journals. We have produced 60 short films, 50 podcasts, 27 live events, 12 radio segments, and 2 streaming book club meetings.

The community of writers, editors, and supporters who make this possible has grown from a small handful of enthusiasts to, as this incredible collection of work suggests, the equivalent of a small village of people dedicated to literature, ideas, art, and culture.

We have expanded as a community of readers, too, and we now have as many as 30,000 visitors a day from all over the world. Over a third of these readers are overseas — in 150 different countries — and the rest are spread across all 50 states.

Los Angeles has never before had a literary institution of this breadth and reach, and it has been made possible by the generosity of this community of readers. We are reader-supported in the same way that our NPR stations are listener-supported, in the same way that all our cultural institutions are supported — our orchestras, our opera houses, our dance companies, our libraries, our art museums. Like these other institutions, the Los Angeles Review of Books is the expression of a community’s belief in the importance of art and ideas. LARB is your work as much as it is the work of our contributors and staff.

We began our life under the aegis of the University of California, Riverside, and have spent the last year aided by PEN Center USA, but we are now starting to fly solo, as an independent nonprofit organization, which means we are paying 100 percent of our own way, with your help.

We launched our membership program as a way to thank our contributors and supporters, sending magazines and books as premiums to show our appreciation. This membership program, as we hoped, is now one of our main pillars of support.

We have 600 members today, a very good start on the 2,000 we need. Those of you who have already signed up have made our work so far possible. Those of you who become members during this drive will ensure that we continue our work of bringing you some of the most exciting, provocative, and intelligent writing about books and culture available 

Sincerely Yours,
Tom Lutz