Modern Chinese History: What Every Student Needs to Know

By Austin Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neither a Beggar nor a Borrower

By Stephen Dau

Ali sits in a tent with his brother-in-law, who we’ll call Ahmed, scrolling through photos on his mobile phone. He is stocky and well-built and looks like a former soldier, which, as it turns out, is what he is. He refuses the offer, again, of a cup of tea, just like he refused an offer to be taken out for breakfast earlier that morning.

“I am not a beggar,” says Ali.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, doesn’t say anything.

After nearly a full minute of scrolling on his phone, Ali’s face lights up. He’s found the picture he’s been looking for. It’s a photograph of a piece of paper, a certificate that looks a lot like the one your child’s elementary school might send home after a spelling bee. Underneath Ali’s name, it says:

“Kellogg Brown & Root, operation mission Iraq, MHE Department, takes pleasure in presenting this certificate of appreciation in gratitude for your professionalism and dedication to duty.”

The word “professionalism” is misspelled.

Ali flips through pictures some more, holding up the phone every few seconds. He has certificates and letters of recommendation from several previous employers, including KBR, PAE, and Sallyport, a Michael Baker International Company. Mostly they look hastily typed or photocopied. But one stands out. It’s on letterhead from the US Embassy in Iraq, a confirmation of employment in the State Department’s General Services office, and says that Ali has been “an excellent employee while employed there.”

He keeps flipping through the photographs on his phone.

He has pictures of himself in an American-supplied uniform from the four years he spent with the Legion Security Force. He has pictures of himself in front of the mechanical diggers and excavators he operated for a variety of American companies in Iraq after leaving the LSF. He takes pleasure in presenting these certificates, these credentials, this proof.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, still doesn’t say anything.

Rumors have been floating around the camp, and the latest one has Ali scared. He has heard that everyone from Baghdad is being sent back to there en masse. Baghdad has been declared safe. On the question of whether or not any particular refugee will be granted asylum, those from Baghdad appear to not have a chance.

“I’ll show you something else,” says Ali. He looks over at Ahmed and says something in Arabic. Ahmed nods a tired nod, as though reluctantly giving permission.

The pictures he holds up next are horrific. It’s Ahmed, but it’s not Ahmed at the same time. His face is beaten and nearly unrecognizable. There are cuts above his eyes. His arms are black from bruises, and massive welts and lacerations cover his back. One might be tempted to wonder what techniques could possibly create such injuries.

“This is what happens in the safety of Baghdad,” says Ali.

This morning Ali is going to the offices of the International Organization for Migration. The IOM administers a program that aids refugees who choose to voluntarily repatriate themselves. The program gives them a plane ticket and a small cash stipend of 250 euro. But rumors are rife in the park, and Ali has heard that the IOM might be able to help him get to America, which, after working for America and American companies for the past seven years, is where he really wants to go. He has an appointment at IOM for nine o’clock this morning. Although “appointment” might be too strong a word. One of the volunteers in the park has called the IOM and then told Ali, somewhat cryptically, that he needs to be there at nine sharp.

At the IOM office it is clear that Ali is not expected. Nonetheless, the people there are kind and generous and sit down and talk with him for the better part of an hour. They explain that, contrary to what he heard in the park, the voluntary repatriation program is the only one they run in Belgium. They appear to really want to help. But they work for an organization, after all, with a mission and goals and procedures, and there is little they can do outside its rubric.

Trying to offer something else, something helpful, they mention that there is another program that helps the US government screen potential asylum candidates, but that it is run out of Iraq.

“I know,” says Ali. “I applied for it. But all they tell me when I call to check is that I must wait, and it has now been two years.”

In addition to the horrific beating Ahmed received, Ali is scared because one of the leaders of the same local militia that beat his brother-in-law has stopped him several times on the street, the last time telling him that if he was ever seen there again, he would be killed.

So he left, taking the same route most of the asylum seekers have taken, through Turkey and across Greece and Macedonia and through Hungary and Austria and Germany and now to Brussels, where he has met up with his brother-in-law and another friend of theirs. The journey cost him five thousand dollars, much of it in fees paid to human traffickers. Only after arriving did he learn that the asylum process here can take months, even years. He has left behind a wife and two young children. Here are their pictures. Aren’t they beautiful?

“They don’t have any money,” he says, referring to his family, “and my wife is now sick. She just tells me yesterday.”

The people at IOM tell him that he might also be eligible for re-integration assistance, which could include job training and a stipend of up to two thousand dollars if he returns to Iraq. In response, Ali stares at the table top. He is a tough man, but it looks like he might cry.

“It is very dangerous,” he says. “Baghdad is very dangerous.”

A consensus is reached around the table that at this point Ali appears to have two options from which to choose: he can formally undertake the asylum application process in Belgium, which gives him a roughly ten percent chance of success, and which requires him to leave his young family to fend for themselves in Baghdad for what could well turn out to be years, or he can accept the offer of repatriation, which will get him a plane ticket back to Iraq this week, two hundred and fifty euro at the airport, and the possibility, but not the guarantee, of a stipend and job training.

Out on the street after the meeting, Ali is quiet. He stares at the ground as he walks. When he looks up he has tears in his eyes.

“I die four times every day I don’t see my kids,” he says. He shakes his head. “Tell me, if you were me, what would you do?”





Politics as Usual

By Stephen Dau

Working for an NGO is a little bit like running for elected office: no matter what high-minded goals you hoped to achieve, nor what level of idealism got you involved in the first place, you generally spend most of your time raising money. Crisis breeds opportunity; visibility equals funding. Donations to charitable organizations vary with the news cycle. To not have your name associated with a humanitarian event that is getting daily play on television is practically the equivalent of malfeasance.

The first turf battle to play out in the refugee camp in the center of Brussels came after only a few days, when SAMU Social, the social services organization that has been working with homeless, addicted and otherwise marginalized people in Brussels day in and day out for the past fifteen years, attempted to take over the operation of the camp from the Citizens Platform for the Support of Refugees, a group of ordinary citizens who had organized on Facebook and were by all measures doing a remarkable job of looking after the needs of the refugees in the park. Accounts of what actually happened on that Monday afternoon a few weeks ago vary. Some say there was merely a heated exchange between the two groups over who was running the show, others that there was nearly a fistfight. It was short lived, however, and today the two groups are working together in a cordial, if occasionally tense, relationship. They get along well enough that some of the Platform volunteers even work occasional shifts in the SAMU tent. It was a different story when Oxfam showed up a week in with, as one volunteer put it, “a few boxes of clothes and wanted to put up this huge sign at the front of the camp.” (Long story short: they didn’t.)

But such divisions among the organizations on site are minor when compared with the political faults this crisis has opened, both within Belgium and across Europe. Like tremors lighting up a seismograph, the refugee influx highlights and exacerbates fault lines that already exist.

Attempting to fully understand Belgian politics is a quagmire for the foolhardy, but suffice to say that the country is divided into a Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and a French speaking south (Wallonia), and that the two populations don’t much like each other. The Platform volunteers in the park are overwhelmingly French-speaking. The Secretary of State responsible for asylum seekers and refugees belongs to a conservative Flemish separatist party (the New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA).

(Although the term “conservative” here is relative. One measure of how far to the right the United States is compared to Belgium, and much of Europe, is that one of the debates over immigration here currently revolves not around whether to give full citizenship status to people granted asylum, but whether to do so after four years of residency, as the N-VA proposes, or immediately, as the French Socialists want.)

The fireworks began pretty quickly. During the first week of the camp’s existence Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister, who is Flemish, demanded that the mayor of Brussels, who is a French speaking socialist, clear the refugees out of the park immediately. The mayor replied, grandiosely, since it’s not what had been proposed, that he would never send in troops against the “people of the park.” The mayor of Antwerp, who is also the president of the N-VA, called the mayor of Brussels “totally incompetent,” to have let the camp develop in the first place, and said that the reason the park was not being cleared was that it had become a “hot bed of extreme left activists”. The mayor of Brussels responded that the entire crisis has been created because the federal government has not done its job, i.e. allowing only two hundred and fifty asylum seekers to register each day, and failing to provide sufficient shelter for the rest.

Political pyrotechnics aside, it has been pretty obvious from the beginning that Belgium, like all of Europe, has two options in response to this crisis: increase its capacity to take in refugees and process asylum claims or slough off numbers of refugees, whether by shipping them to other, more receptive EU countries or back to wherever they came from. They appear to be doing both. Belgium recently announced that it would grant asylum to a little more than four thousand asylum seekers in the coming year. But with anywhere from forty to fifty thousand migrants in the country, this represents an acceptance rate of less than ten percent, the remainder being shipped back to their countries of origin. Also, it was announced last week that accommodation for eight thousand migrants will be added to the 28 thousand already created since the summer, these to house refugees between the time they register their asylum claim and the time their petition is formally adjudicated, which can be anywhere from three months to a year. Generally, these people are housed in camps run by the Red Cross, often located near airports, presumably to enable speedy deportations once asylum status has been denied.

The federal government is making concerted moves to clear the park, not with the stick of sending in troops, but with the carrot of providing facilities superior to camping in tents, like showers, food and warmth. Now that the weather is setting in, more and more refugees are packing their hand-me-down belongings into donated blue Ikea bags and moving indoors. In addition to being better, in the long term, for the refugees themselves (a point even the Platform volunteers acknowledge) the move inside will benefit the Center-Right coalition government by denying the park as a rallying point for “radical leftists,” as the mayor of Antwerp recently put it, and making the refugee situation less public. The scale of the migration caught the politicians off guard, but they are beginning to recover.

Across Europe the divisions are starker. Turkey has built a series of state-of-the-art refugee camps along its border with Syria, featuring three-room units for each family, with electricity and running water and a fully stocked supermarket where the residents (they are more residents than refugees, there) shop with debit cards funded monthly by the Turkish government. But these camps are only for Syrians. The Iraqis in Brussels talk about the level of discrimination they faced in Turkey, where they are payed below-market wages and kicked out of apartments the moment higher-paying tenants are found.

In Greece, many citizens go out of their way to help refugees who make it ashore after the human-trafficker roulette of the sea crossing, tacitly ignoring a recently passed law making it illegal to aid migrants. But in Greece, no political party has benefitted from the influx of foreigners so much as Golden Dawn, a party whose official symbol is a repurposed swastika.

Immediately to the north of Greece, Macedonia seems to be aware that all the refugees want to do is cross it, and seems to be facilitating that procession as rapidly as possible. Hungary probably understands that transit is all that is being sought from it, too, but has a grandstanding president who seems determined to make examples. (Many refugees in the camp in Brussels say that the people of Hungary are actually pretty nice. It’s only the government and the military and the border police and the roving bands of criminals who stalk the forests mugging those who have money and beating those who don’t who are mean.)

Serbia, too, seems to understand that it is simply an area of land to be traversed, but just can’t seem to help itself, and is impishly sending refugees the long way round, via its old adversary Croatia, as though playing a game of human hot potato. “We are like water,” said one refugee on the Serbian border with Hungary, “when we encounter a rock, we flow around it.”

Croatia, for its part, briefly stuck its head up over the dike last week and opened its border like a spillway, allowing migrants to pass unchecked around Hungary. But just as quickly, it realized the flow was a tsunami, and ducked back behind a dam of border controls.

Austria, for those refugees fortunate enough to make it there, is acting as a distribution center, the O’Hare Airport of this hub-and-spoke network, taking in and then sending on thousands of asylum seekers to France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and especially Germany. Germany. It’s where everyone wants to go who hasn’t wound up somewhere else. Germany recently announced that it would process eight hundred thousand asylum applications this year alone, and would take in up to half a million asylum seekers each year for the next five years. Germany, they all say. They want to go to Germany.

Germany is exorcizing its demons.

The refugees in the park seem to be excruciatingly aware of the geopolitics. Apparently the first group of them, the occupants of those fifteen lonely tents pitched in the park the beginning of September, wound up in Brussels purely by chance, their traffickers liking the odds here better, or blocked off from some other, preferred route, or simply running low on fuel and paranoid. Then that first group of arrivals radioed back down the line, FaceBooking and emailing and Twittering the under-ways and the yet-to-embarks that they were being received amicably, and the faucet was opened. But now they closely monitor the news, weigh options, plan contingencies.

But how great is the flow? It’s the question posed incessantly by the conservatives, the xenophobes, and the Prime Minister of Hungary. Will we not soon be inundated? The Muslim population of Europe now stands at about four percent of the total population. If Europe were to accept every single refugee currently seeking asylum on the continent, the total Muslim population of Europe would rise to about five percent. On such fine political and demographic calculations hinge, apparently, the political future of the European Union.


Shanghai Mysteries: A Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brookes Spy Games cover

The Spy Game’s Afoot

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aldous Huxley Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I am busy with a book project, the period between the end of the spring quarter and start of the fall can mean a welcome chance to make major headway. But it also means periodically searching out fiction to read that offers a complete break from the book’s subject matter. Usually, this has involved steering clear of all novels relating to a place: China. This summer, since I am working on a book about the Boxers and the international invading force mustered to fight that messianic anti-Christian group, it meant searching for novels that had nothing to do with a year: 1900.

One work of fiction that is presently providing me with the kind of diverting temporal break I desire is Shanghai Redemption, the latest novel in Qiu Xialong’s successful Inspector Chen series. I’m enjoying reading an advance copy of this book, partly because its action takes place in the recent past and present rather than more than a century ago. In addition, at least so far, it has been blissfully free of even passing allusions to the Boxers, who did some brutal things, and the international invasion, which also involved some horrendous acts of violence. It may seem silly to imagine that either the Boxers or the Baguo lianjun (Eight Countries Allied Army), as the 1900 invading force is known in Chinese, would make their way into a contribution to a series that has focused on Shanghai from the 1990s on. But you never know. Allusions to them show up in some very surprising places.

In a 1990 speech, “We Are Working to Revitalize the Chinese Nation,” for example, Deng Xiaoping brought up, seemingly out of nowhere, the Baguo lianjun. He said that, when he heard that seven foreign countries were planning to use economic measures to punish the CCP for the previous year’s June 4th Massacre, this immediately made him think of the time 90 years earlier when a slightly larger set of foreign powers, including some of the same ones, had invaded China.

When it comes to the Boxers, they are referenced in, among many other works of fiction, Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic The Diamond Age. The action in that 1995 novel unfolds in a hypermodern Shanghai, just as Qiu’s new novel does, but had I chosen to read it rather than Shanghai Redemption to get away from the events of 1900 this summer, it would not have given me the same kind of complete break from the book I’m writing. The characters in The Diamond Age include neo-Victorians, who have eccentric habits like reading things written on paper rather than screens, long after this stopped being common, and also neo-Boxers. The latter are eager to succeed in driving foreigners out of China, something that their namesakes of an earlier time had failed to accomplish.

While Shanghai Redemption, which was just published earlier this week, is providing a welcome break from my current book project’s subject, its opening chapters set me thinking yet again about an author whose work obsessed me while writing an earlier one. Namely, Aldous Huxley whose best known novel, a futuristic foray into science fiction published in the early 1930s, inspired the title of my 2007 book, China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times.

Qiu’s new novel opens with Inspector Chen, a literary minded policemen who writes poetry and translates T.S. Eliot, visiting the cemetery where his father is buried. He is amazed upon arrival at the evidence it provides that conspicuous consumption, ostentation, and crass forms of materialism have begun to affect even the realms of burial and mourning in today’s booming, status conscious China. There is much about the scene at the cemetery that speaks to its distinctively Chinese setting, such as elements of the dialog that refer to ideas of Confucian filial piety. Still, when Qiu describes this resting place for the dead as having been given new touches that “add to” its “pompous appearance” and thereby help it to conform to the dictates of a “materialist age,” I immediately thought of the early pages of Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. In that work, written at the end of the 1930s, a British visitor, presumably based on Huxley himself, visits a Southern California cemetery and is struck by the way that it encapsulates all that is strangest about nouveau riche American excess.

Here are some excerpts from Qiu’s novel:

Chen hadn’t been to the cemetery in several years, and it, like everywhere else in Suzhou, had changed. The sign at the entrance appeared to have been recently repainted, and a new arch stood over the entrance, redolent with the grandeur of a gate to an ancient palace. It added a majestic touch to the scene, standing against the verdant hills stretching to the horizon…. He walked down the hill to the office and pushed open the door. Inside he saw several small windows where people were paying their fees, and along the opposite wall, a row of chairs where customers sat waiting. Next to the row of chairs were two or three sofas marked with a sign reading VIP AREA. That section was probably for the people responsible for the luxurious new graves on the hillside.

Here, meanwhile, are some sample lines from Huxley’s:

The car turned a shoulder of orange rock, and there, all at once, on a summit hitherto concealed from view, was a huge sky sign, with the word BEVERLY PANTHEON, THE PERSONALITY CEMETERY, in six foot neon tubes and, above it, on the very crest, a full scale reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only this one didn’t lean…

An hour later, they were on their way again, having seen everything. Everything. The sloping lawns, like a green oasis in the mountain desolation. The groups of trees. The tombstones in the grass…a miniature reproduction of Holy Trinity at Stratford-on-Avon, complete with Shakespeare’s tomb and a twenty-four-hour service of organ music played automatically by the Perpetual Wurlitzer and broadcast by concealed loud speakers all over the cemetery…

I now have a new item on my to do list for my next trip to the Chinese mainland: see if any of the bookstores there I have visited in the past stocks a translation of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. It seems as though it might well speak to some issues of the day. In addition, its surrealist nature might appeal to the same Chinese readers drawn to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has sold well in China. Chinese familiar with Huxley’s Brave New World might also enjoy it, as even though After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is set in what was then present-day American rather than in the world of the future, it contains a similar concern with issues of hedonism and social stratification.

One thing I discovered while shopping for books in China last year is that Brave New World is available in two different Chinese language packaging. Not only can you still buy a translation of it standalone volume, as you have been able to for year, but you can pick up a three-volume dystopian classics value pack that includes it. One of the volumes in this set is a two-in-one George Orwell pair, with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm bundled together. Another is a Huxley combo: Brave New World combined with Brave New World Revisited, a non-fiction work written in the 1960s that assesses trends that the author saw as confirming to or suggesting the need for modification of the predictions he had made in the early 1930s. The third volume is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a 1921 Russian work that is often described as a major precursor to and influence on the writing of both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is interesting to note the ability of people living in a country still run by a Communist Party to buy this value pack, made up as it is of works that satirize in different ways collectivist states and totalitarianism. And though I have only dipped into rather read closely the Chinese language texts it includes since buying the set at a Shenzhen bookstore in 2014, the translations of the novels, at least as far I have been able to determine, all seem unexpurgated.

This is not the case, however, with the one non-fiction work in the collection Brave New World Revisited. In the English language version, Huxley includes a section on brainwashing that refers to things being done in the People’s Republic of China. Those and other sections that specifically refer to China have, not surprisingly, been left out of the Chinese language edition. It is one thing to allow readers to make up their own minds about whether an allegorical dystopian work could be relevant to the country in which they are living, quite another to have a writer come right out and say that China in Communist Party rule had become a place where some things Huxley wrote about as part of a nightmarish possible future had actually been realized.

One reason I secured a copy of the new Inspector Chen novel was that I thought that after reading it I could see if Qiu would do an author Q & A for this blog. After reading the opening chapters, I know I will want to do that — and that one thing I’ll ask is which if Huxley novels he has read. He may find it odd that I’d bring up an early 20th century Western author who moved in the same circles as Virginia Woolf in an interview about a novel set in today’s Shanghai. If he doesI’ll remind him that he begins his latest book with a nod to a famous line by someone other than Huxley who fits into just that category. “April is a cruel month,” Shanghai Redemption begins, “if not the cruelest.”

This bit of allusive word play paves the way for a short disquisition on the most important Chinese holiday relating to the dead falling in early April. And that’s just the sort of toggling between cultures to be expected from Qiu, a Shanghai-born but now St. Louis-based author whose protagonist is so attached to the work of T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis but lived most of his adult life in London. The poet and Huxley moved in related circles in England — until, that is, the latter crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in the 1930s, choosing to live out the rest of his days in the consumerist California whose foibles he satirized so brilliantly in After Many Summers Dies the Swan.


Simon Says

By Stephen Dau

This is the fourth in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

He does not want you to take his picture. He does not want you to mention which village in Iraq he comes from. He doesn’t really even want you to use his real first name, even though it is a common one. He doesn’t want to say or do anything that might jeopardize his asylum application or endanger his family. What shall we call him, then?

“Call me Simon,” he says. “That’s what the American soldiers used to call me.”

Simon speaks softly and is not prone to exaggeration. He was an economics student when America invaded his country in 2003. He liked school. He got good grades. He had a job lined up after graduation. He was recently married. But the Iraqi economy, which had already been hobbled by decades of Western sanctions, collapsed entirely when the war started, and he found himself unemployed with few prospects. His English was pretty good, so he signed on as an interpreter for the US Army. He was hired in 2007 by Global Linguist Solutions, a subsidiary of DynCorp, one of the largest US defense service contractors.

“It was dangerous work,” says Simon. “Interpreters got killed all the time. If the militias ever recognized you…” his voice trails off. “It was hard. We had to wear bandanas over our faces, and sunglasses and helmets so no one could recognize us. My name tag even said ‘Simon’.”

“Simon,” was the name US troops often gave to their interpreters, or “‘terps,” as they were also called, as a sort of inside joke. Simon says. Get it?

When the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Simon tried to apply for a visa that would have allowed him and his wife and their infant daughter to emigrate to the US. Everyone could see what was going to happen after the pullout, he says. “All that is happening in Iraq right now was entirely predictable.”

But when he went to the US embassy to apply for the visa, he was told that he needed an employment verification certificate. So he contacted his former employer, GLS, to request it.

“It’s just this piece of paper,” he says, putting out his hands as though holding onto it. “But [GLS] told me they were no longer operating in my region, and that I would have to go to Baghdad to request it.”

By this time, GLS was in the process of pulling out of Iraq. They had been awarded a $4.6 billion contract by the Department of Defense in 2007, and now they were leaving, their money banked. At considerable personal risk and expense, Simon traveled to Baghdad to request his employment verification.

“The man at the office said they no longer had any of my paperwork. He told me it had all been burned for security reasons.

Simon showed the man his name tag and a copy of his employment contract and pay statements and even photographs of him working with US troops. He had kept all these things, even though possession of them could have gotten him killed by the militia groups that were dividing up Iraq after the US pullout.

“I asked the man what I could do, and he told me I could open an appeal file and obtain a case number. He sent me over to another office. At that office they said, ‘sure, we can give you a case number, we just need your employment verification.’ So, you understand me? To obtain a case number, I need an employment verification. To obtain an employment verification, I need a case number.”

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?

“Yes,” Simon says. “It’s a joke.”

He wearily shakes his head and holds up four fingers.

“Four years. This is a joke for four years.”

Problems of this sort are nothing new for GLS, which still operates out of Falls Church, Virginia. Even a cursory internet search reveals numerous instances in which GLS is reported to have shortchanged, mismanaged, or outright defrauded its local Iraqi staff.

Eventually Simon felt so threatened in Iraq that he decided to flee the country. He made his way to Europe, leaving his wife and infant daughter behind in the hope that he could bring them over later.

“It is a dangerous journey,” he says. “I didn’t want to put them through it.”

So he made his way north, through Iraq and Turkey and eventually to the Aegean coast.

“There,” he says, “I paid more than one thousand euro to these,” he searches around in his mind for the right word, “people. These traffickers.”

When it is pointed out to him that you could rent a boat in Turkey for less than half that price, and make your own way across the Aegean Sea, Simon flashes the only sign of anger he has shown all afternoon.

“Yes, you could,” he says. “But the Turkish mafia patrols the coast, looking for us. Any refugees they catch trying to go their own way,” he makes an imaginary gun with his hand and puts an imaginary bullet into his head. “They are protecting their market.”

After crossing the sea in an overcrowded rubber dinghy, Simon spent five days in the back of a truck that was packed so full of refugees that they had to stand the entire time.

“One night they let us out in the woods to walk around for twenty minutes, but only after several people fainted and we started banging on the sides of the truck.”

He looks away and eventually it becomes obvious that he is not going to say anything more about the truck ride.

“I have no idea what route they took driving us, but eventually we wound up in Brussels.”

He plans to file an application for asylum. But there are so many other applicants now that a thousand of them are camped in the park across the street from the Office for Foreigners, waiting while the staff there try to catch up with the backlog. For now, Simon lives in a tent pitched on a low rise in the northern part of the camp, which he shares with three other men.

Since arriving, he has become increasingly concerned. Rumors swirl around the camp. One rumor has it that everyone’s application is being stamped with the words “Dublin Agreement,” a reference to the European Union law that requires any asylum seeker to apply for asylum in the first EU country he or she entered. For many refugees, this could mean being sent back to Greece, where there are already tens of thousands of them waiting to be processed in squalid camps. Another rumor is that anyone coming from Southern or Eastern Iraq, as Simon does, is being immediately sent back, on the assumption, based largely on assurances by Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi, that everything is safe there now. But Simon scoffs at this notion.

“Nowhere is safe in Iraq,” he says. “Not for me. Not now.”

So he waits, joining thousands of other refugees all across the continent, a stream of humanity that seems to have no end in sight. He has been here four days already. Even if all goes well and he is granted temporary asylum status, he faces what could be a years-long wait to have his case formally adjudicated. His initial interview for asylum protection is scheduled for tomorrow.

Eventually, he says, he would still like to go to the US.

“I really like America,” he says. When he says this, he does so with utter sincerity. “America is such a great country!”


Marxism and Matzo Balls: Sasha Abramsky’s Memoir of His Remarkable Grandfather

By Peter Dreier

Sasha Abramsky will be reading from his book on Thursday, October 1 at 7 pm at Book Soup Bookstore, 8818 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90069

During 1968 and 1969 I spent a year in London. I was supposed to be studying politics and sociology, but I spent more time at anti-war rallies and protests, at folk-music clubs and concerts, writing articles, and traveling around England and Europe, than I did in class. On a whim, however, I decided to take a course in Jewish history at University College.  The catalog indicted that the course would be taught by a professor named Chimen Abramsky, whom I had not heard of before.

Despite my general indifference to academic matters, I rarely missed a session of Abramsky’s course, which met in a tiny classroom. Abramsky was in his mid-50s but to me he appeared much older — perhaps because I was only 20, but perhaps also because he had an Old World look about him. He spoke in a thick Russian-Yiddish accent, which required students to listen carefully to his lectures, which he often delivered while sitting in a chair, dressed in a rumpled suit and tie. Abramsky was a tiny man who seemed quirky, eccentric, impish, and brilliant.

I remember the aura more than the specific content of the course. I was not educated enough in Jewish history, or history in general, to appreciate what he had to offer. I should have taken some more basic Jewish history courses — or read about it on my own — before venturing into this class. Intimidated by his erudition and embarrassed by my own ignorance, I unfortunately didn’t bother to talk with him after class or to learn anything about him or his life outside the classroom. Still, I was mesmerized by his presence, almost as if he was a performance artist.

A few years ago, at a conference of activists and academics, I met Sasha Abramsky, a British writer, transplanted to the United States, who has authored several excellent books, including Inside Obama’s Brain and The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. I asked Sasha if he was related to the professor I had taken a course with decades earlier. It turned out that he is Chimen’s grandson, and he told me about his grandfather’s fascinating life. From Sasha I learned that Chimen (pronounced “Shimon”) was an extraordinary historian and bibliophile, a world-renowned student of Marxism as well as Jewish history, and the center of a global network of scholars and activists.

Shortly after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha penned a wonderfully warm and evocative recollection of his grandfather in the British newspaper, The Guardian. Now he has expanded that essay into a book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, which brings his grandparents and their world to life. Published last year in England, it has just been released in the United States by New York Review Books. Abramsky has also produced a five-minute video that is worth watching on its own and will surely whet your appetite to read the book.

Chimen Abramsky was born in Minsk in 1916, the son of Yehezkel Abramsky, an esteemed Orthodox rabbinic scholar. Yehezkel arranged for Chimen to be schooled by private tutors at home, where he learned Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. In 1929, Stalin’s police arrested Yehezkel in Moscow and sent him to Siberia for treason, although his real crime was his opposition to the regime’s persecution of Jews. Thanks to a lobbying campaign by Jews around the world, Yehezkel was released, and in 1932 moved his family to England, where he became a prominent rabbi.

Chimen had no interest following in his father’s religious footsteps, but he absorbed his father’s love of books and scholarship. Arriving in London during the Depression, he took English lessons at Pitman College and was quickly drawn to the city’s circle of secular Jewish immigrant intellectuals, artists, and activists, as well as the radical students at the London School of Economics. Thus began his lifetime love affair with the study of Jewish history and culture as well as Marx, Marxism, and socialism.

In 1936, Abramsky went to Palestine to attend Hebrew University, where he became deeply involved in socialist politics. The campus ideological battleground was so intense that one day Chimen was beaten up by Yitzhak Shamir, then a leader of the right-wing Irgun faction and later Israel’s prime minister.

Abramsky returned to London in 1939 to visit his parents but was trapped by World War II and unable to return to Israel. He found a job at Shapiro, Vallentine & Company, London’s oldest Jewish bookshop. In 1940 he married the owner’s daughter, Miriam Nirenstein, and both became active members of the British Communist Party.  He joined the CP in 1941 after the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, and became a leader of the CP’s large Jewish wing and editor of its publication, the Jewish Clarion. Miram left the CP in 1956 (after the Soviet invasion of Hungary), but Chimen remained a member for another two years, finally acknowledging the atrocities that left many leftists disillusioned with Communism.

Although Abramsky left the Communist Party, he never left the left.  Moreover, his left-wing views didn’t thwart his remarkable entrepreneurial skills. The bookstore provided him with an opportunity to acquire a personal library of 20,000 volumes, primarily books on socialism and Judaism. His collection included first editions of Spinoza and Descartes, books that belonged to Leon Trotsky, manuscripts and letters by Voltaire and Marx, and even Marx’s membership card in the First International. He developed a global network of book collectors and, with a keen eye for a good deal and a remarkable ability to authenticate and judge the value of a book, made a reasonable living in the book business.  Sotheby’s hired him as a consultant on rare books.  He played an important role in the rescue of several Torah scrolls in Czechoslovakia that had been confiscated by the Nazis.

He may have enjoyed the travel and the wheeling and dealing but at heart Abramsky was a scholar.  While he thrived as a bookseller and manuscript expert, he pursued his scholarly activities on his own, having no degrees or institutional affiliation. That changed after some noted British academics — including E.H. Carr, James Joll, and Isaiah Berlin — encouraged Abramsky to teach. After his book, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement (co-authored with Henry Collins) came out in 1965, he was invited, through Berlin, to teach at Oxford. The next year, at age 50, he was invited to assume a newly-created lectureship in modern Jewish history at University College-London (UCL), which is where I encountered him in that small classroom. In 1974, he became head of the UCL’s department of Hebrew and Jewish studies, keeping the position until he retired in 1983. Twice he accepted invitations to teach in the United States, holding visiting professorships at Brandeis and Stanford.

He was widely influential through his writings, his mentorship of generations of scholars, and his ability to bring people together at dinners and meetings at his home. His friends included some of the world’s leading left-wing historians, including Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson. In 1989, his students and colleagues published Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, a reflection of his impact and inspiration. In 2012, a donor established the Professor Chimen Abramsky Scholarship for undergraduate students at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College-London.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is part history (about his grandparents’ background and their social, political, and intellectual milieu) and part memoir (about how Sasha absorbed that world of Marxism and matzo balls). He describes the Abramsky home on Hill Way in London (not far from Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried) as an ongoing salon that attracted socialists and Jewish intellectuals who came to eat, exchange ideas, enjoy each other’s company, and examine Abramsky’s huge collection of rare books, which filled every room and staircase in the house.

Abramsky was both generous and stingy about sharing his remarkable collection of books.  He allowed scholars and fellow bibliophiles to visit the house to examine his books, but only those who Abramsky considered serious enough to merit entry in his working library. Although each room was dedicated to books on a different subject, his “system” was quite disorganized and he lacked the time, money, and will to turn the chaos into order and to adequately protect some of the rarest and most valuable books from the elements.

To retrieve his grandfather’s story, Sasha had to excavate the book collection, review the writings of Chimen, his correspondents, and other scholars, and interview family members as well as his grandparents’ friends and colleagues.    He writes with both love and respect, an understandable nostalgia, and with sympathy, if not total agreement, with his grandfather’s intellectual and political preoccupations.  His grandmother, an accomplished social worker and political activist, gets less attention than she deserves. Abramsky mostly focuses on her cooking and homemaking skills, the hostess at the endless gatherings of family, friends and colleagues from around the world.  Although his grandparents were secular radicals, they kept a kosher home, a legacy of his upbringing and his unwillingness to completely alienate his father, the strictly religious rabbi.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books tells the story of a world that no longer exists. I missed my opportunity to get to know Chimen Abramsky personally when I had the chance. But now others will get to know this extraordinary man through the eyes of his grandson.


Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).


Join Us at Book Soup for a Book Party with Karen Finley

Shock Treatment (City Lights Books) is Karen Finley’s first book, published just as she became internationally famous for being denied an NEA grant because of perceived obscenity in her work. In it, she captures the drama and fragility of the AIDS era and distills the emotional turmoil of that time with excoriating monologues and essays. With a new introductory essay by the author.

Join us at Book Soup on Saturday September 19 at 4:00 PM with Karen Finley for a discussion and signing of her book Shock Treatment: 25th Anniversary Edition


Rumor & Fact

By Stephen Dau

This is the third in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

Wooden shipping pallets make modern commerce possible. They’re cheap. They’re perfectly dimensioned to fork-lift shrink-wrapped products into steel shipping containers, like an automated game of three-dimensional Tetris played endlessly across the world’s ports and warehouses. Millions of pallets are right now stacked bearing goods on the decks of freighters and in the backs of trucks. And after they’ve been used a time or two, they’re usually thrown away or burned.

Today, the most pervasive sounds in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels are the high metal tapping of hammers on pry bars and the low wooden cracking of pallet boards being pried apart. In the tarped-over area that serves as a kitchen and food hall, rebuilt pallets are the tables and chairs, the storage shelves and serving counter. Pallet-wood picnic tables now dot the camp, and still the building continues. A request for pallets posted on Facebook yielded thousands. It’s satisfying, say the volunteers who do the work. Satisfying to tear apart out-usefulled things, even more so to build them anew. If whole buildings were to suddenly rise, each made entirely from pallet wood, no one in the camp would be much surprised.

For the past ten days the volunteers organized themselves online and cobbled together the camp, making things up as they went along, responding to what many of them see as the utter failure of their political class to deal with the mounting crisis. Now they are consolidating, creating an infrastructure to match their vision of a Europe that welcomes the dispossessed, rather than shunning them. There is a kitchen serving hot meals. There is a mobile phone charging station. There is a school and a small, open-air movie theater. There are plans to tap into the municipal water and sewage systems. More than simply a place to house refugees while they wait to register an asylum claim, the camp is quickly becoming a monument to a vision. It’s becoming a movement.

Despite that vision, the camp often feels like a high-proof distillation of reality, rather than any sort of idealized version of it. It’s a place where light and dark, generosity and greed exist side by side. Today, for example, a group of volunteers in yellow visibility vests is clearing gang members out of tents. The gangs have been stealing donated goods, which they then stash in the tents, waiting to move it out to nearby cars and vans under cover of darkness and sell it in thrift shops and flea markets. Once such a tent has been identified, ten or twelve volunteers surround it and ask the occupant, if there is an occupant, to leave. Then they empty it out, removing the contents back to the donation areas. It’s an exercise in miniature of raw power. Usually it doesn’t take much persuasion, but it also doesn’t seem to be a job many of the volunteers relish. They tend to be idealists, after all.

Because they are waiting to be registered, the refugees in the camp exist in a world outside the official legal system. Having yet to register, they are not yet asylum seekers. They are not immigrants. They are not temporary workers or students. Technically, they are what is known in French speaking countries as les sans papiers.Illegal immigrants. For years, organized groups of sans papiers have been agitating for regularization, for the granting of residence permits and working rights. They have taken over (or in many cases been invited into) churches and other buildings. They have staged hunger strikes. They have drawn attention to what they say is the sort of institutional racism that keeps many immigrants in Europe excluded from mainstream society, often for multiple generations. And herein lies the political lightning rod this refugee crisis presents to the European political establishment. Exactly as they have done in the United States, politicians here have staked out territory all over the immigration debate.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a group of sans papiers—or, more precisely, a group claiming to be fighting for the rights of the sans papier—have set up an area prominently within the camp and plastered it with literature. Sitting with the group, a man who says he is from Morocco talks to anyone who will listen.

“Imagine” he says, “living like the people in this camp, but there is not attention paid to you, no TV cameras, and you’re destined to live like this for your whole life.”

“Are you sans papiers, then?” someone asks.

“No, no,” he says, with a smile. “I’m only here on vacation.”

The television cameras that were ubiquitous have mostly gone now, with only a single crew left prowling for stories. As the press thinned, so did much of the carnival atmosphere from last week, when so many people, refugees and volunteers alike, simply seemed eager to get themselves onto television. All day Sunday one man wore a sign that said, in English, “I’m Desperate, Hug Me.” Another, seemingly more heartfelt, walked around for hours with a sign expressing gratitude to Belgium.

But with the carnival atmosphere came the rumors, the chaos. It was virtually impossible to get a firm estimate of the number of people sheltering each night, nor of the number of people arriving each day. The camp’s borders are entirely porous, delineated with only tape. Attempts are now made to register arrivals and departures, but the numbers—seven hundred and fifty now in place, one hundred arrivals each day—are still rough estimates. Last week, one rumor held that the federal government was going to try to clear the park. Another was that the Belgian army was poised to take over. One refugee says he has heard that Syrian intelligence operatives are present in the camp, keeping tabs.

The latest rumor is that the kitchen has run out of food. It’s not true, but it’s enough to cause a passing panic. Volunteers stand on the counter top and try to assure an agitated group of fifty hungry men that more food is being prepared. Picture a different country, with different resources, and it’s easy to see how the situation could quickly deteriorate.

One rumor proved true this past Monday when, in one of the buildings next to the park, called the World Trade Center, the federal government opened a five-hundred bed sleeping facility. Only fourteen people took advantage of it, which prompted Theo Francken, Belgium’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration, to comment, “They obviously don’t want it. The tent camp is apparently more comfortable. Perhaps we should have offered them a hotel?”

But even a cursory visit to the camp reveals the reasons why refugees might be hesitant to move into the shelter. For one thing, the WTC shelter is available only at night, meaning anyone sleeping in it would have to pack up their meager belingings and risk losing their tent space. For another, there is a community, of a sort, in the park now, support and camaraderie. In part, Theo Francken was right: the park is more comfortable. But his ignorance reflects another, darker side of the crises playing out across Europe. On Tuesday a journalist with a Hungarian television station was filmed kicking and tripping migrants, including a young girl. The Facebook page of the Plateforme Soutien, while filled overwhelmingly with messages of support and encouragement, is also marred by offers to donate pork to the mostly muslim refugees, and crude jokes about women in Hijabs.

“What are you going to do?” says one volunteer of the internet commenters. “It’s the internet. It’s full of assholes.”

Which is not to say there aren’t problems at the camp, too. Security and sanitation remain ongoing concerns. The presence of so many immigrants threatens to provoke a backlash against them, but this is an issue across Europe, not only in Belgium. And the core group of volunteers are exhausted. Many of them have been here every day since it started. Some have slept on site. They’re tired and often seem stretched thin. Yet overwhelmingly they are staying positive.

“We are inspired by these people who have come,” says one volunteer, a doctor from Leuven. “We’re giving to them, but they’re also giving to us.”

Then he tells the story of a man who arrived in the camp over the weekend, an English teacher from Syria. He had been crossing the Aegean Sea in a packed boat when it sank. He swam all night before eventually being picked up.

“When you’re stuck in the water and you don’t know where you are, what can you do?” he said. “You keep swimming.”

The camp is a place that alternately reinforces cynicism and removes all capacity for it.

“What are the cynics and the racists in the face of all this?” says another volunteer. “They’re nothing. I’m proud of what we’re doing here.”

After she finishes sorting piles of donated clothes, she’s planning to go over to the other side of the camp, pick up a hammer, and help the people who are trying to turn old pallets into a village.