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Refusing Islam in Dhaka

By Faisal Devji

Poor countries like Bangladesh, with their large labor diasporas and internationally connected or aspirational elites, tend to be far more globalized than rich ones. Given the highly visible role that foreign trade, philanthropy, and development play in their societies, such nations stand at the forefront, if not on the front line, of globalization. The brutal events at Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery on the first day of July serve as an instructive illustration of this reality. The “artisanal” restaurant, with its European and Latin American chefs, its clientele of diplomats, aid workers, and NGO interns from American universities, and, indeed, the internationally educated students from affluent families who attacked them — all were global citizens. It was as if Dhaka provided an arbitrary site for their collision. There was nothing very local about any of the concerns animating the restaurant’s visitors — least of all the murderers, for whom Bangladesh itself was of no particular interest.

Of course, the globalized form of militant Islam that unleashed this savagery didn’t just touch down in Dhaka randomly. In some ways it illustrated the dark side of the humanitarian enterprises that motivated many of the Holey Artisan Bakery’s diners, with their focus on addressing injustice and inequality globally. Moreover, the jihad inspiring some half a dozen Bangladeshi youths to kill these well-meaning men and women had as its context the absence — in fact, the repudiation — of a local or national politics. For both the NGOs and terrorists, who work outside political institutions they often despise and seek to transcend, were matched in Bangladesh with an authoritarian government dedicated to eliminating its parliamentary opposition, which is itself rather unsavory, thereby creating a depoliticized state. Perhaps militant politics, then, is a preliminary or self-annulling practice, whose language of conflict is simply meant to replace government with governance, essentially mirroring Bangladeshi authoritarianism. Or maybe its concern with fighting for the global community of Muslims it sees as under attack is anti-political by definition.

The problem of identification

If both the leftist Occupy movements and rightist anti-immigrant parties in Europe and America represent a protest against globalization, then militant Islam today may be a protest in favor of globalization’s fulfillment. After all, the anti-globalization movements seek to reclaim a lost politics of class or nation, while Muslim terrorism, despite its deployment of political categories like states, peoples, and conflict, does just the opposite, trying to achieve a depoliticized society under an unalterable and unquestionable divine law. In fact, Islamist and militant groups have always been mistrustful of the state and its politics. In this way they resemble, at least in their aims, otherwise very different projects — ranging from the authoritarian state to the neoliberal market-driven Islam of places like Malaysia or Turkey.

Like all globalized phenomena, Islamic militancy often escapes the arenas of national or even international politics, and can move easily from one context to another. It remains unclear whether movements like Al-Qaeda or even ISIS want to found a global politics or destroy its very possibility, an ambivalence manifested in the violence they both wreak. Militancy, as much as philanthropy, is obliged to speak in the name of vast and supposedly victimized constituencies like the “global South” or the “Muslim community,” which cannot represent themselves in any formal way because they don’t enjoy any kind of political existence. And just as with international NGOs, which claim to speak for humanity while remaining unaccountable to all but their donors, militant Islam struggles with the contradiction of identifying with victims who can never acknowledge this fellowship.

The French sociologist Luc Boltanski defined this problem as one characteristic of the media-diffused spectacle of “distant suffering” that serves as a call to humanitarian action. In the absence of an immediate political solution to this suffering, the spectator’s outrage is turned inwards, into a searching examination and criticism of his own guilt, pity, or sentimentality. It’s easy to see how self-sacrifice in its various forms — including dedicating time, money, and skills, as well as weapons or violence in the victim’s defense — might emerge as the strongest response to the call of such suffering. This is especially true when the victim in question is a rather abstract entity, lacking any political reality, like humanity or the Muslim ummah. To sacrifice oneself is to eliminate, willfully, the distance between oneself and the suffering of others. But in the absence of politics this enterprise remains deeply narcissistic, so that today’s militants also compel others to share in their suffering, as if desperate to make visible a real community of victims and spectators.

Hannah Arendt traced the violence with which such pity sought to annul itself in sacrifice to the French Revolution, and so to the historical beginnings of terror. In her view it was the “social question” posed by large-scale inequality, poverty, and oppression that gave rise to pity and its peculiar forms of violent identification, which sought to resolve suffering’s apparently intractable reality through revolution. However, she believed that to address the social question through politics in such a direct fashion was to destroy the latter’s institutions and integrity. But today, with the globalization of identification, suffering seems to have been removed from the province of political institutions and even revolutions altogether. Now suffering can be addressed only in unmediated forms of “moral” outrage and social violence, an approach far worse than even the most cynical of politics.

Politics after globalization

Recognizing its violent potential, Gandhi was one of global identification’s most important critics. He consistently refused to speak or act in the name of humanity, considering this a deeply hubristic and narcissistic enterprise, precisely because it was a politically impossible one. And yet the Mahatma didn’t condemn the idea of universality, and thought that nonviolence, for example, was capable of global expansion. But this was only possible by way of personal example and without making a mission out of it. Instead, as the project of nonviolence spread, control over it had to be constantly resigned. Gandhi described this process of expansion by way of resignation as constituting an “oceanic circle,” where the self-rule of single villages spilled over into that of districts, provinces, the nation, and beyond, without any central authority.

Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence as a practice of sacrifice spread by example, without requiring a central authority for its propagation, appears to describe the very way in which Islamic militancy works in our own time. But in his view this similarity would have allowed for the conversion of one kind of sacrifice into another, drawing out the common idea of goodness by which he thought evil was sustained, and so causing the latter’s collapse. The Mahatma, in other words, would have understood the attraction and even heroism of the terrorist’s sacrifice, as he did its manifestation among the militants of his time, but he would have tried to demonstrate that its most sublime form lay in nonviolence. However, this could only be done by linking sacrifice to what was politically possible.

One way in which the heroism of sacrifice can be made politically salient is by rendering oneself invulnerable to feelings of horror at the sight of suffering and the imperative to action it provoked. This also entails remaining indifferent or rather stoical about the kind of suffering over which one has no control. Such an attitude was, of course, implicit in Gandhi’s idea of resigning responsibility to others. It is an attitude that goes completely against the expansionary and even imperialistic spirit of humanitarianism, which he, like Arendt, thought only encouraged violence of various kinds. The Mahatma always maintained that the responsibility for one’s neighbor’s suffering took precedence over that of more distant victims. He was also highly critical of industrial technology — for instance, the railways — which permitted people to escape their neighbors and localities and to imagine a false identification with abstractions like humanity.

Martyrs and Muslims

It is neither possible nor desirable to return to a time before globalization, as far-right nationalists and others would like to do. But refusing an abstract identification with global entities like humanity, or the Muslim community that militants claim represents its victimization, is crucial to recovering the capacity for politics. Just as Gandhi rejected the idea of humanity as a project, so too might Muslims today refuse that of the Muslim ummah, if they are to do anything more than squabble with militants about theological semantics.

Tunisia’s Ennahda, the only successful Islamist party in the Arab world, has recently done just this after taking power in that country through the only successful revolution of the Arab Spring. Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, seems to have realized that militant outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have stolen radicalism and thus global influence from older Islamist groups like his own, and that the traditional resort to Pan-Islamic activism has, at the same time, become dangerous and meaningless. Ghannouchi has therefore forsaken the internationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the global mission of terrorism, to define his Islam in purely Tunisian — which is to say, political — terms, hoping that this serves as an example for others in the region and beyond.

And in Dhaka we saw even more remarkable instances of such repudiation, when a number of Muslim hostages at the Holey Artisanal Bakery refused to identify with Islam and save their lives. A Bangladeshi-American student named Faraaz Hossain is being celebrated on social media for refusing to abandon his friends and dying alongside them, though he had apparently recited enough scripture to be freed by the terrorists. Even more interesting is the case of Ishrat Akhond, a young woman who refused even to identify herself as Muslim and court release. Here was a truly Gandhian sacrifice, one demonstrating its superiority to the one exercised by the militants. For Ishrat Akhond abjured Islam itself as a global identity and mission, and in doing so recovered her particularity as a Muslim.

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Watching Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea, Fifty Years Later

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here. Previously featured movies include Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su (1988) and Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (1975).

“Yasujiro Ozu,” writes critic Donald Richie in his study of the prolific and influential midcentury Japanese filmmaker, “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” The best-known of his many domestic dramas like Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Good Morning dramatize that dissolution of the Japanese family as vividly as they capture its context – those decades after the second world war when Japan seemed to turn more modern, and look more Western, by the day. Korea underwent a similarly heady period of reconstruction and development in the 20th century, but the Korean family – as many Koreans can tell you – remains a relatively robust institution even now.

Then again, Korea’s modernization got started later and had less to work with in the first place.  While Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its colonial rule over Korea, the problems of the newly divided Koreas had only just begun. Five years later, the North attacked the South, sparking the Korean War that would leave much of the peninsula in ruins by the time it stalemated in 1953. On the very first day of the very next year, in a South Korea still struggling to get on its feet, Jeong Bi-seok’s serialized novel Madame Freedom (자류부인) began its 215-part run in the Seoul Daily News, quickly drawing a huge readership by telling a story of romantic intrigue tied up with the trends of the day, from the emergence of underground dance clubs to the craze for luxury goods to the entrance of women into the workforce.

All of those are presented in Han Heyong-mo’s 1956 screen adaptation of the novel, dubbed “the most controversial film in Korean cinematic history,” as phenomena of essentially foreign origin. Throughout Japan’s longer history of engagement with the outside world, it could exercise some discretion about what to pick and choose how it wanted to assimilate into the local culture. South Korea, though, had to take it all in more or less at once, as it was presided over by a highly Westernized new president, relied on American funds for the initial phases of its reconstruction, and was keen to implement any societal model under which people would no longer go hungry.

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Thus, much Korean cinema of the 1950s and 60s deals with the disorientation that results when new ways displace old ones, and a deeply-rooted culture struggles to keep up with changing attitudes — or futilely attempts to stifle them. Ozu’s films did that for Japan, but displayed as much emotional restraint as Korean films displayed (what often strikes foreign audiences as) emotional excess. Jeong’s novel provides the movie prime material for melodrama: accepting the household’s need for some extra money, Professor Jang Tae-yeon grants his wife Seon-yeong the freedom to take a job behind the counter at a boutique, a choice that before long leads her into the arms of other men — the collegiate playboy next door, the husband of the boutique’s owner — as well as complicity in the smuggling operation run by a member of her alumni club.

Where Ozu might look on all this with a sigh of resignation at the bittersweetness of inevitable change, Madame Freedom slaps Seon-yeong down hard, ending with her denied passage through the gate of her own home, tearfully begging her husband and young son for forgiveness out on the street. (Things end even more grimly for her old college friend.) “If you were Professor Jang Tae-yeon, what decision would you make regarding your wife?” asked the movie posters at the time. Though, perhaps under modernity’s sway himself, Professor Jang Tae-yeon does get awfully close to one of his former students who asks him to teach grammar to her and several other young ladies, all of them employed as typists at the local office of a Western company. But whether out of morality or cowardice, he rejects her advances; his wife, by contrast, goes so far as to kiss a potential paramour — the first act of its kind ever shown on a Korean screen.

This shock of the new has, despite what many modern viewers will see as an unsubtle dramatic style and implicit endorsement of patriarchal assumptions, kept the film fresh. It routinely screens in retrospectives of and courses on Korean cinema, and DJ Spooky once even re-scored the film live, drawing samples from music old and new, Korean and American. He once described Madame Freedom as Korea’s first postwar jazz movie, a category it might fall into, among other reasons, for its dancehall set piece in which a jazz orchestra plays a mambo while a dancer writhes in front of them, surely a scandalously brazen display by the standards of the time — the standards prevailing in movie theaters, anyway, if not in such cutting-edge (and police raid-subject) venues themselves.

Everyone in that scene wears Western attire, from the dancer in her comparatively revealing dress, of course, to the jazz men with their matching suits to that boy next door, whom Seon-yeong has surreptitiously met there, his patter inflated with Western loanwords (such as the “Madame” of the English title, which he calls Seon-yeong) and, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the hopeless Chil-su of Chil-su and Man-su, talks of his plans to go to America. Everyone, that is, but Seon-yeong herself, who still wears a traditional Korean dress. But that soon changes; from then on, her Westernization of her appearance indicates the extent of her downfall.

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Some of the film’s morality-play qualities owe to an appeasement of the strict censorship then in force. As Han explained, “If the audience saw any scenes of deviation, they will accept it as a lesson, which means this film could be a good, enlightening film.” The question of whether the wife of a professor ought to work no longer occasions so much hand-wringing, and rightfully so, but some of the other concerns the films raises remain concerns today: to what extent, for instance, must modernization mean Westernization? To the extent that this movie issued a warning about how the uncritical embrace of things foreign can turn into a deforming fetish, Korea — a land now continually swept by consumer fads for Norwegian strollers, Birkenstock sandals, churros, and so on — arguably didn’t heed it.

But this Westernization-wary substance comes packaged in a distinctly Western cinematic form. Madame Freedom made Korean cinema history with not just what it dared to depict, but the techniques used to depict it: along with Korea’s first on-screen kiss came its first domestic use of such filmmaking tools as the crane and dolly (Han used his industrial connections to get them custom-built) as well as sound design elements essential for a story in which music plays such an important role but heretofore unheard, or at least underused, in domestic films. The combination of envelope-pushing content, lavish production, and an adaptation of foreign storytelling to Korean concerns continues today, especially in the work of Park Chan-wook, whose grim, transgressive, and Japanese comic book-based Oldboy kicked Korean cinema up to a new level of international recognition in the early 2000s.

Just this year, Park drew much acclaim, and no small volume of tut-tutting, with The Handmaiden, a transposition of Sarah Waters’ novel The Fingersmith from Victorian England into colonial-era Korea. Its wince-inducing torture scenes, and even more so its frank and enthusiastic depictions of lesbian love, have understandably drawn most of the attention. But look deeper and you find it deals with some of the very same issues as Madame Freedom: deception, female empowerment, the fraught engagement of Korea with the world outside it. The lovers at the center of The Handmaiden (아가씨), a wealthy heiress and the young thief who takes the titular role at first to swindle her, also attempt to break away from the societal structures that bind them — but unlike the hapless Seon-yeong in her movie of half a century earlier, they get away with it.

Related Korea Blog Posts:

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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Q&A with Terry Lautz, Author of ‘John Birch: A Life’

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Terry Lautz is the author of John Birch: A Life (Oxford, 2016). He is interim director of the East Asian Program at Syracuse University and former vice president of the Luce Foundation.

We’ll get to your fascinating book in a minute, but you’ve spent a long time thinking deeply about U.S.-China relations, both as a scholar and in your capacity until recently as a leading figure in the Luce Foundation, so I want to begin with some general questions relating to the tensions and ties between the two countries.  We are at a delicate moment in U.S.-China relations and a tricky point in time when it comes to images that Chinese and Americans have of one another. What strikes you as most interesting and most dangerous about this juncture?

From a U.S. perspective, I think the most interesting development is a growing sense of disappointment, disillusion, and even alarm over China’s current direction. I’m wary of the growing chorus of pundits who say China has made an irreversible choice to reject more liberal policies. From a distance, Westerners tend to view China as a monolith that moves in lockstep on orders from Beijing. China is more like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, an imaginary animal with two heads and two minds pointing in opposite directions. One is pushing toward openness and reform, while the other is pulling toward control and repression. At this juncture, the second head seems to be winning out, and we should be concerned about a more authoritarian direction under President Xi Jinping. But China is in a state of constant social, economic, and political change.

I think the greatest danger in terms of Sino-American mutual perceptions is the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If both sides perceive the other as an enemy, it increases the possibility that we will actually become enemies. Despite significant mutual interests — ranging from trade and investment to climate change to nuclear proliferation — the relationship is in a downward cycle right now. So it’s more important than ever to stay engaged and try to address the sources of distrust. Americans need to adjust to China’s status as a major world power, and Chinese should understand the hazards of anti-foreign nationalism.

Do you hear echoes of past rhetoric about China in current discussions of the threat that the country poses to the United States?

The idea of China as a threat has been a steady theme in American perceptions, alternating with more positive, often romanticized views. Early on, it was the racist dread of a Yellow Peril. After Mao seized power, it was the specter of a Red Menace. These stereotypes assumed that all Chinese look and act alike. Fortunately, as our two nations have become inter-connected, U.S. public opinion has evolved. Stereotyping still exists, but Americans are mostly worried about practical issues such as the loss of jobs, trade deficits, and cyber attacks as well as China’s impact on the environment and its growing military power.

We hear a lot about China as a threat in the South China Sea. While this is a source of concern, I think it is mainly a test of wills. China is deeply ambivalent when it comes to the U.S. presence in East Asia. On the one hand, many Chinese believe that the United States opposes China’s rise and seeks to undermine its political system through “peaceful evolution.” According to this line of thinking, America’s arms sales to Taiwan are evidence of a U.S. policy to prevent China’s unification. On the other hand, China’s leaders realize that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region could lead Japan and South Korea to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. So Beijing resents the United States as a “hegemon” but understands the stability that continued U.S. presence brings to the region.

In terms of the rhetoric coming from the other side of the Pacific relating to pernicious “Western” ideas and values, how concerned are you about official pronouncements in China about the need to be more vigilant in protecting the country from these and about new regulations regarding non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a category that includes civil society groups and apparently also educational institutions with ties to the United States?

The current campaign against so-called Western values is perplexing. At the same time Chinese students are being warned about the risks of glorifying foreigners, they are flocking to Western universities in record numbers. China has become a global power, yet it practices extensive censorship of the internet. Contradictions like these reflect a confusing mixture of confidence and insecurity on the part of China’s leadership. What seems clear is Xi Jinping’s determination to avoid the fate of the former Soviet Union, which means that advocates for constitutional democracy and freedom of speech will not be allowed to challenge Party rule.

The recently announced foreign NGO management law looks like part of a broader movement to control and limit outside influence. International as well as Chinese organizations that support activities such as poverty relief, healthcare, and education should be able to continue their work. But advocates for legal and human rights will face an even more restrictive environment. The silver lining in this dark cloud may be that China’s civil society sector will grow stronger as it becomes more self-sufficient. It is worth noting that China is following others, including Egypt, India, and Russia, in limiting the influence of foreigners.

No one can predict the future, but a couple of things seem clear. First, China is no longer a weak supplicant subject to well-meaning American (or Western) paternalism. And second, there is no viable alternative to Communist Party rule in China for the foreseeable future. This means we have to revisit the longstanding assumption that sooner or later China will follow a liberal, democratic path and become more like us. Whatever the path, history tells us it won’t be a smooth and straight line.

Turning to your book, for Americans, like me, who grew up during the Cold War, the name “John Birch” immediately calls to mind one thing: a staunchly conservative organization. Your biography of the man shows, though, that the chain of associations conjured up by the term “John Birch Society” has little to do with the historical figure. Who exactly was he? And why did you feel that having a background in Chinese studies made you a particularly appropriate person to write his biography?

Like you, I grew up thinking John Birch was a right-wing fanatic, and was quite surprised to discover that he had absolutely nothing to do with naming the John Birch Society. Birch spent five years in China during World War II, first as a Baptist missionary and then as a military intelligence officer, working for Claire Chennault, who commanded the Flying Tigers and then the 14th Air Force. Ten days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Birch was shot and killed in an altercation with Chinese Communists in North China. It was later claimed that he sacrificed his life to show that the Communists were enemies of the United States, even though they were cooperation with the U.S. against Japan at the time. I argue in the book that Birch had no desire to be a martyr and his name was misappropriated.

I’ve long been interested in U.S. relations with China during the Second World War and the origins of the Cold War in Asia. This started when I lived in Taiwan as a teenager. After college, I served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and concluded that Americans needed to learn much more about Asia. I was also drawn to the story of Birch as an idealist young man whose life personified the basic American impulses to save, rescue, and defend the Chinese people. Through various twists and turns, he then became a symbol of America’s fear and rejection of China.

The biggest challenge in writing the book was educating myself about the history of the U.S. conservative movement. I wanted to understand why the Birch Society, which is now viewed a predecessor to the Tea Party and even the conspiracy-minded Donald Trump, was popular with many middle-class Americans during the late 1950s and 1960s. I also wanted to know how it became so controversial.

Israel, the Occupation, and the Literary Life

By Toby Lichtig

LAST MONTH I published a piece in the TLS about a recent trip I took to the Jerusalem Writers Festival. Print being print, I had to keep to certain space constraints; but Israel, I find, is not a country that lends itself well to brevity in contemplation, and so there was a certain amount of surrounding material that had to go. Now LARB is kindly offering that material a home. Below is an unexpurgated version of my original TLS piece: an account of an edifying, depressing, convivial, and politically charged few days spent at a very unique literary event.

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“We are not pacifists. I’m willing to die for my country. We just believe the Occupation is morally indefensible.”

We’re in a minibus heading south from Jerusalem. Our guide is Yehuda Shaul, a bearded and thickset 33-year-old former commander in the Israeli army. Our destination is Hebron in the West Bank — ancient city of the Canaanites, sacred resting ground of the Patriarchs. My biblical history is sketchy but my Bar Mitzvah portion — Genesis 23, verses 1–20 — happens to concern Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land there, including the cave of Machpelah, in which he and his family are buried. Today Machpelah stands in the center of H2: the section of the city administered by Israel and studded with Jewish settlements. The largest of these, on Hebron’s outskirts, is Kiryat Arba, with a population of between seven and eight thousand; the smallest and newest, established in 2014, shelters just three families. 850 soldiers are permanently stationed to protect the settlers.

In 1994 the religious extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Machpelah — a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. In the Arab rioting that followed several so-called “sterile zones” were established around the Jewish settlements to keep the two communities apart. During the Second Intifada (2000–2005) these zones were extended. The story will be familiar to anyone with the least interest in the conflict: Palestinians are forbidden to drive down certain streets, or to walk down others; they are cut off from their neighbors, their local amenities; their markets have been closed. Many have moved away. This section of the city is, in the words of Shaul, a “ghost town.”

Our first stop is to a municipal park which houses Goldstein’s grave. The sun has come out and we wander around the scrubby, arid grounds squinting at the dubious attractions. Some of the more fanatical settlers have provided a plaque commemorating this “saint” who “gave his life for the people of Israel” (Goldstein was eventually beaten to death by the guards of Machpelah). Nearby is a statue honouring Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist rabbi of whom Goldstein was a disciple. Kahane was himself assassinated in New York in 1990. One of our party — the novelist Gary Shteyngart — shows great interest in the statue: “So that’s Kahane. When my parents emigrated from Russia to America we had no money. But my father gave the first hundred dollars he earned to that jerk.”

I’m not in Israel to write about Hebron or the occupation, but the lure of what Israelis euphemistically refer to as the Hamatzav (the Situation) is irresistible. It isn’t just a matter of prurience or preconception: it pervades every aspect of the Jerusalem Writers Festival at which I am a guest. Our host, Uri Dromi — the charming director general of the Jerusalem Press Club and the former press spokesman for the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres — seems especially keen for us to engage with the conflict. He explains to me that foreign visitors always want to ask about it anyway and so he deliberately puts the subject at the top of the agenda. After that his mission is to demonstrate that Israel is about so much more.

Our itinerary for the week is helpfully marked out with events we are “expected” to attend. Revealingly few of these concern the festival itself. There is a tour of the ancient city; a visit to the National Library; a trip to Yad Vashem. In Old Jerusalem our guide points out instances of “fascist” anti-Palestinian graffiti stickered to the walls. Arabic street signs have been scrubbed out and the nose on King David’s statue is broken — “idolatry” being, to the religious Jews who live here, even more unacceptable than the presence of the Palestinians. We are led through the winding streets and across a schoolyard game of football to a view of the infamous separation wall (or “security fence,” depending on your politics). It is, says our guide, a necessary evil: “The wall is bad. Terrorism is worse.”

Near the entrance to the city’s Armenian quarter there are posters commemorating the centenary of the Armenian genocide — an atrocity unrecognized by the Israeli Government, which has shrewd political reasons for keeping good relations with both Turkey (the perpetrators) and Azerbaijan (a country that has its own dispute with Armenia over the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh). Before descending to the base of the Western Wall, where Jewish tourists cram paper scraps of prayer into the overloaded cracks, only meters away from Muslim visitors to the Dome of the Rock above, we take in the view of this many-layered city, storeyed and storied, seemingly every yellowed hunk of Jerusalem stone drenched in history, mythology, blood. The Christian population here has dwindled to less than two percent but the Muslim one is on the rise — a fact the official demographers do their best to fudge. The total official population here is 850,000, but in reality, says our guide, it’s more than one million.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we are provided with a meticulous description of the six warring Christian denominations that control the building. The bickering is so great, and so petty, that nobody can agree on who should change the light bulbs outside the Edicule of Christ’s tomb (an Israeli security guard tends to do the job). As with seemingly everything in this country, the anecdote has a wider resonance: “So you can see, it isn’t just the Israelis and Palestinians who can’t agree,” says our guide. On the subject of a two-state solution he is broadly positive but unable to see past certain obstacles: “I’m in favor of the division of Jerusalem. But how?”

The following day, at the National Library, we are shown a series of atlases drawn by visitors to the Holy Land over the past half-millennium — a reminder of just how long people have been coming here and recording their impressions, often with scant regard for scale and perspective. Dr. Raquel Ukeles, the curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection, describes the current project to digitize the library’s copious Arabic material. The library, we are told, used to be located atop Mount Scopus. When the site was cut off from Israel by the Jordanians during the 1948 war, the books had to be smuggled out. Another survivor put before us is a trampled novel by the great Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon, the damage sustained during Kristallnacht. We are shown the suicide note of Stefan Zweig.

The next morning we are taken to Yad Vashem. There is an uncomfortable moment when our guide takes us to the section on the Łódź Ghetto and one of our party pipes up: “It’s just like Gaza.” Most of our party see that the comment does a disservice to both the victims of the Holocaust and to today’s Gazans, whose suffering has its own unique character and cause. Our guide — a retirement-age historian — declares himself deeply offended, and the Muslim woman who made the comment apologizes. The Holocaust equivalence game is never very edifying, and yet I can see where the outburst has come from, can sense the frustration behind it. I have never been to an arts festival that so insistently attempts to sell the host nation to its visitors. The propaganda isn’t sinister, perhaps not even unwarranted. It betrays a justifiable anxiety: an anxiety from the left-wing organizers to demonstrate to the visitors that Israel isn’t what they think it is; that Israel, despite its faults, is a thriving democracy and regional necessity.

Many of the events are in Hebrew but some are in English and all that I attend address the Hamatzav. At the festival opener even President Reuven Rivlin is at it, introducing the theme of “international collaboration” with an admirably loaded warning about the “danger” of only having one story to tell. It is a refrain that will crop up time and again throughout the week. As the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez will later comment: “Good writing is always saying the world is more complicated than you think.”

The speakers at this opener are David Grossman and Colum McCann. Grossman is a national hero in Israel, and the marquee — set against the Judean hills, the horizon framed by the wall — is packed. The two discuss the parallels between separatism in Ireland and in Israel. Reacting to Grossman’s despair about his country’s lurch to the political right, McCann provocatively asks him: “So, why don’t you leave?” His interlocutor patiently explains that running away from Israel’s problems is not the answer.

McCann’s question is a paraphrase of one asked earlier in the week by J. M. Coetzee — a writer who willingly abandoned his own divided nation. A few miles up the road in Ramallah, Coetzee has been attending the rival PalFest, a literary festival timed to compete with the Jerusalem one, at which his final address will include a comparison between South African apartheid and the Israeli occupation. The Nobel laureate was once invited to the Jerusalem Writers Festival but politely declined. “When there’s peace call me,” he told Dromi. There is no collaboration between PalFest and the JWF — a result of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign against Israel. I can see the point of BDS, even in this context: the playing field isn’t level and thus any cooperation between the two sides will be tainted from the start. And yet I can’t help thinking how a partnership between the two festivals might be fruitful, that such division can only maintain the status quo. Later, at a private author briefing, Grossman will agree. The simple matter, he says, is that BDS “won’t help.”

The author briefings are perhaps the most enjoyable and edifying parts of the week. Grossman chats to us for an hour about his life, his work, and, of course, the Hamatzav. So does Etgar Keret, who tells an illustrative anecdote about the public response to a short story he once wrote. The tale describes an assault by an Israeli soldier on a Palestinian fighter: “Someone wrote in to attack me for being a left-wing liberal. Someone else accused me of being a fascist.” Another author, Meir Shalev, claims not to like “political” literature. But we still end up talking politics. Shalev was serving as a soldier when Israel “liberated” the Golan Heights in 1967. He describes himself as being on the left but seems less despairing than Grossman and Keret. When he finds out the rest of the program he jokes with Dromi: “Didn’t you have any right-wing authors to talk to them?”

A. B. Yehoshua is not a right-wing author but he is a hardliner when it comes to Jewishness. “Diaspora Judaism is masturbation,” he has said, declaring that a “full Jewish life” can only be had in Israel. At the author briefing he repeats this claim and I object.

“Are you American?” he asks.

“British.”

“And you’re not Jewish?”

“I am.”

He looks mildly taken aback, and I realize he was expecting me to say no.

I wonder how his argument might differ if I were a gentile. But I am not a gentile and I thus find myself, time and again, overcome by a heightened sense of involvement in the debates we are engaged in: about Israeli security, Israeli history, Israeli demography. My perceived stake in this country is equivocal (I tell Yehoshua that ambivalence is central to my own experience of a “full Jewish life”) and not always comfortable. I have mixed feelings about the fact that I, a UK passport holder, have a right to live in a land, based on my ethnicity, from which several hundred thousand former inhabitants are barred, based on theirs. And yet the pull is also irresistible. My grandfather was a Zionist who helped to build the roads in 1920s Tel Aviv, and, despite my disdain for many elements of early settler mythology, I find it hard not to be seduced by what Grossman’s calls the “miracle” of Israel. “But are we loyal to that miracle?” Grossman asks. “I’m less and less sure.”

¤

There is little that is miraculous about Hebron. And as we make our way on foot through the “ghost town” of H2, Yehuda points out, street by street, the intricate daily indignities faced by its remaining Arab citizens. You can see it all around you: the emptiness, the lack of life. Shops are shuttered up, houses abandoned. There is a lone water seller, near the cave of Machpelah, and when we approach his children rush to help. A few kids play football in the streets, watched on benignly by soldiers, who occasionally punt a stray ball back. An imaginary line, at the intersection of a street leading to a Jewish settlement, demarcates where the kids are not allowed to pass. On another residential road, barred to access by Palestinians (but not to settlers or tourists) some of the front doors have been sealed. Five Arab families remain inside the homes. They must come and go via the roofs.

Yehuda points up the valley to a school building perched over a cliff. Fifteen years ago, during the Second Intifada, he was stationed in the building from where his task was to send “preemptive” fire from a grenade machine gun into the Palestinian neighborhood below. The fire was largely “indiscriminate”, he tells us. “At first it was very difficult. I’d pull the trigger and hope nobody was harmed. By day five it had become like a computer game.”

Experiences such as this led Yehuda to question the nature of his service — and of the occupation. He went on to form, with several fellow comrades, the charity Breaking the Silence. The charity’s main function is to collect confidential testimonies from soldiers who are serving in the Occupied Territories (OT). For this work, it was recently awarded the prestigious Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding by the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University. The prize was rescinded only days later, however, by the university’s president, Professor Rivka Carmi, who concluded that the charity’s aims do not belong to “the national consensus.” This followed what the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz called “a vicious incitement campaign against the organization,” waged for its ability to undermine the Israeli military occupation — something the current government seems more than capable of doing all by itself.

The charity’s reach is long — and getting longer. Four years ago it brought out a book of these soldier testimonies — Our Harsh Logic — in English. To mark 50 years of occupation, another Anglophone book will be published next year, made up of over 30 firsthand reports from authors who have been taken by Yehuda and his colleagues on visits similar to this one. The contributors will include Mario Vargas Llosa, Colm Tóibin, and Eimear McBride. It was McBride who put me on to Yehuda in the first place. My visit to Hebron has nothing to do with the festival but when I mention it to Dromi he tells me he is in favor of invitees seeing the “other side.”

As well as its various restrictions, Palestinian life on this “other side” involves rather more invasive measures. Yehuda describes the army’s tactics of “making your presence felt” and “showing sovereignty.” This may involve random domestic searches in the middle of the night, or many other forms of basic intimidation. Outside of direct conflict, however, it is not the soldiers whom the Palestinians have to fear. They are frequently attacked by their Jewish neighbors; the settlers loot their homes and seize empty properties in the area, necessitating further “sterile zones.”

The night before our visit, a group of settlers celebrating the “bonfire” festival of Lag B’Omer raided a Palestinian house, stealing furniture for the flames. The owner was inside. It is, says Yehuda, a fairly common occurrence, and the soldiers are impotent to intervene. “They are here to protect the settlers,” he comments, and military law makes it illegal for the IDF to come to the Palestinians’ aid. All they can do is call the municipal police, by which time it is often too late. We get a taste of the tensions when a settler approaches us. “It’s all lies,” he shouts at us in English. Behind him are the deserted remains of H2’s once-thriving vegetable market. He stands on a street adorned with pristine signs in Hebrew — the location’s Arabic name fast fading into memory.

On the way out of Hebron I arrange for a taxi to transport me to a moshav near Beersheba where I will be having dinner with my cousins and aunt. My aunt is in her late 80s and made aliyah to Israel in the 1950s; unlike anyone at the Jerusalem Writers Festival she steadfastly refuses to discuss politics. Leaving the West Bank we are stopped at a checkpoint. “Where have you come from?” an Israeli officer asks me. I tell him and he gestures for us pull into a clearing. My taxi driver, an Arab Israeli, looks a little weary. “It is best in these situations not to say you’ve just been to Hebron,” he tells me. I sheepishly apologize but I’m secretly rather pleased. I’ve been keen to see how checkpoints around here operate — even if my experience will have little in common with that of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories seeking entry into Israel.

A group of affable Arab Israelis is in front of me and we strike up conversation. The atmosphere is relaxed, despite the setting. Eventually it is my turn. My bag is searched and I’m questioned. To save time and avoid further irritating my ride I lie and say I’ve just been to visit Machpelah. “And where are you going to now?” the soldier asks. “To Beersheba,” I reply. And then: “I’ve been invited by my aunt to Shabbat dinner.”

I could pretend to myself that I’m just being friendly, conversational, but really there’s something else at play. I want her to know that I am Jewish. I could also pretend that this is a matter of expediency, a way of smoothing my passage, but really it’s something more. I seem to want to emphasize my tie to this land: I who have just strolled through an Arab town denuded of its Palestinian residents because of the actions of a group of illegal Jewish settlers and their protection by the IDF.

The soldier remains impassive. Eventually she waves me through.

British-Nationalism

Can Hong Kong #ACCELERATE?

By Alfie Bown

I CAME TO Hong Kong twelve months ago from a Europe in political turmoil. Fundamentalist attacks and the refugee crisis, symptoms of a failing global system, were hitting Central Europe the hardest, while the UK, my own place of birth and residence, was experiencing its own fallout from the same phenomenon: the rise of right-wing nationalism. One year on, I am still just beginning to learn about how nationalism and politics work in Hong Kong and China, so I can’t speak as an authority of any kind on the topic, but some things strike me about the situation in my new home that may be useful to bring into discussions of the place I left behind, which now dominates the news cycle due to the Brexit vote. It also seems only right that, since global crises require global solutions, we look for connections and possibilities wherever we can find them. What I suggest here is that the political identity proposed by some Hong Kong citizens might provide a hopeful alternative to trends we are seeing in the UK, other parts of Europe, and the US.

A period of crisis is also a period of great potential. When the old is folding and the new has not yet fully emerged, there is the chance to influence the new terms that will replace the old ones. Simultaneously, such times are periods of great potential danger: the wrong forces can easily take hold. The recent Brexit vote, where 52% of the British public opted out of the EU, is a perfect example. While non-nationalist voters who wanted out of the EU cited the exciting potential for change and increased freedom from European restrictions, those who wanted to remain in the EU were more attentive to the (plainly obvious) danger that the real winners from Brexit would be the hard right nationalists.

What most troubles me and many Britons I know who similarly identify with the Left is that in this threshold time of crisis when the new is out but the old is not yet in, the Right is having the most success in offering “solutions” to current problems and outlining a plan for the future. The Right’s plans are backwards-looking, seeking the return to the nation-state, demanding increased national sovereignty and tighter borders. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson are perhaps the most prominent figures to harness this imaginary nostalgia for national serenity and sell it, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, as a solution to the present predicament. Most European nations, though, have a counterpart right-wing representative whose popularity is similarly on the rise. Brexit itself seems to have already emboldened some of them, such as Marine Le Pen in France. Hong Kong is a totally different context, but it is also in a fascinating moment in which we wait to see whether nostalgia for the nationalist past will dominate its political future.

To my mind, the most inspiring call to arms for the Left made in response to this problem is #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, a 2013 philosophical tract by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which implores progressives to embrace a speeding up of various forces. This manifesto takes the notion of “acceleration,” which critical theorist Benjamin Noys had quite rightly used as a negative descriptor of recent trends, and gives it a boldly positive new spin. The premise of the document, whose relevance for Hong Kong I’ll get to below, is that we should seek an internationalist anti-nostalgic and future-looking politics that embraces speed rather than trying to slow everything down in a protection of what we already have. In short, Srnicek and Williams are for everything that Trump and Farage oppose. They write:

In contrast to […] ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.

Thus we are confronted with the task of overcoming a politics which looks only backwards and attempts to slow things down, tasking us with re-scheduling the cancelled future and taking control of what it might look like.

The BBC have already reported on the position of the Brexpat in Hong Kong, but I would like to give a different and more positive left-wing interpretation of the situation here. Hong Kong, despite the vast contextual differences with Europe, is also at a threshold moment, poised between the old and the new. Given Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997 for a 50-year period, Hong Kong will officially lose its separate political system 30 years from now when it will become closer to Mainland China, a prospect explored so powerfully by Wong Kar-wai in the film 2046. Hong Kong is therefore a very clear example of a temporal space that is in contest, concerned about the dangerous forces that may take hold in the years ahead, but also aware of being in a moment that has potential for positive change.

This gives a sense of urgency to actions by Hong Kong youths, who have become increasingly politicized in the last decade in struggles dealing with everything from local, social, and educational issues to globalization and elections. In my first year of university teaching in Hong Kong, I have been struck most powerfully by some of the students’ willingness to change their minds about political issues — showing both the danger that the wrong forces could take hold and the potential for a powerful political force to do something positive. Most important, my students are willing to recognize the way that national identity is harnessed and used by politicians both here and abroad. While my former students in England might agree with me on this in class, they would immediately take to the streets to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee or the wedding of William and Kate directly after our seminar. On the contrary, I’ve found my students here tend to develop a real suspicion of nationalism in all its forms.

It seems to me that while the Right has made concrete gains in the UK by looking backwards, Hong Kong has the potential to suffer less from nostalgia and to “#accelerate” more effectively via its global political identity. An internationalist solution to the present global crises is the only possible solution –— and is something Trump in the US is and the Brexit campaign the UK was working to prevent, instead using any crisis to justify and implement right-wing change. While there is at least one group at the other end of Eurasia, DiEM25, which has begun the task of building international collaboration in Europe and imagining a new European identity, Hong Kong is a place in both space and time that can potentially contribute to globalizing this struggle.

Neither “localism” nor “nationalism” is the word for this potentially radical construction of Hong Kong’s identity, which often — but not always — involves something more political than things provided by birthright, bloodline, or even citizenship. Some aspects of the pro-independence camp in Hong Kong are indeed nationalistic, and some regard them as not unlike Trump and Farage. One recent “pro-independence” group actually suggests that Hong Kong should first go back to British sovereignty before it claims its independent status, which is obvious nostalgia. Others still advocate a yearning for a China and a return to Chinese identity as it was before 1949, again looking backwards just as Britain tends to do. But there is also another possibility among those I have spoken to here, both teachers and students: a desire to develop an identity that refuses to look backwards, but instead looks to the politics of the future, accelerating away from nationalism. For these people, the “great traditions” of both British and Chinese identities are washed away by the combined influence of America, Korea, Taiwan, and others. Following this line, one academic suggested to me that Scotland might be a more useful model for Hong Kong to follow than England, since their independence bids are borne out of a political necessity to respond to its neighbors rather than nationalist “roots.”

Benedict Anderson famously showed that nation-states should be seen as “imagined communities,” and while the UK and US seem to have never realized this or to have recently forgotten it, believing in the essential Britishness or Americanness of the people once again, Hong Kong — if it can resist the tendency for its criticisms of other cultures to slide into apolitical dislike of the other and essentialist nationalism — has the potential to embrace its identity as something politically “imagined” and help envision new identities, restoring the cancelled future. Identity in Hong Kong can at least potentially be less about an essential connection to a “homeland” and more about the pragmatic choices we face in contemporary politics. While it is mainland China that is charging into the future economically, Hong Kong could #accelerate when it comes to political identity in order “to confront and resolve the coming annihilations,” rather than seeking solutions in the imaginary past.

KB - The Seed of Joy 1

The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

 

By Charles Montgomery

When I first came to Korea, I was under the strong guiding hand of my best friend Ed and his wife. She was from Gwangju, and so it was that many of my first experiences in Korea occurred there, the city where I met my first “Korean family” with whom I set out to tour the region. They quickly whisked me to the Gwangju 5-18 Memorial Park, which sprawls across over 200,000 square meters and contains a library, cultural center, education center, the Daedong Plaza and Owoldae Tower, and a variety of memorials, sculptures and monuments. Laced with footpaths, the park also contains the Mugaksa Temple — a Buddhist temple for the military, oddly enough.

The park is a vast and solemn memorial to a tragic incident in modern Korean history. The Gwangju Democratization Movement (also known by UNESCO as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, in honor of the day it began) took place seven months after the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea since 1961. In the political confusion that followed, the local democratic movement in support of democracy rode on the back of a nationwide one, growing to such an extent that, in mid-May, the new President Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law across all of Korea.

In South Jeolla-do, of which Gwangju is the capital, this law involved the jailing of 26 politicians, including eventual Nobel Prize Winner and president of Korea Kim Dae-jung. Gwangju had a tenuous relationship with Seoul in the best of times and was also a historical nexus of political revolt, so even inside Korea it was one of the locations least likely to be happy with these actions by Chun’s government. In response, students began to mass at the closed gates of Chonnam National University. 200 students and 30 paratroopers initially clashed there, but the violence soon increased and quickly spread downtown.

When the protests became too much for the police to handle, over 500 more paratroopers were called in. They quelled the initial protests using tactics including clubbing and bayonetting; one Gwangju resident was clubbed to death during the battle. Events intensified over the next two days, with the army killing more civilians and residents burning down a radio station which had been broadcasting pro-government versions of the local events. May 20th saw the famous “taxi uprising,” in which infuriated taxi drivers led a pro-democracy parade, ferried wounded to hospitals, and used their cabs themselves as both barricades and weapons.

Just after noon on the 21st, the army fired on protestors again, and protestors ransacked local police stations and armories. Protestors acquired two light machine guns at the height of the battle, and eventually the military retreated from central Gwangju. From the 22nd to the 25th, Gwangju was “liberated,” and set up local governments and negotiating committees. At the same time, upon news of the events in Gwangju, local uprisings flared up and died down in other regions. On May 26th the army had been reinforced and was ready to re-enter the city. Democracy supporters prepared for one last stand, but on the 27th were decisively defeated in a 90-minute battle which began at about 4:00 a.m.

The Gwangju Democratization Movement was over, but its effects linger in the Korean psyche to this day, and as is traditional in Korea, what is made of the movement is largely depends on one’s political stance. That even affects casualty estimates, which, according to the BBC, the government put at 200 and other sources between 1,000 and 2,000. A few brilliant pieces of translated Korean literature centered on the Democratic Movement have been published, and we will discuss them here in two weeks. But as far as I know, only one non-Korean author has written a piece of fiction about this event: William Amos, whose book The Seed of Joy has recently been released on Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.

“Paul Harkin, a US Peace Corps Volunteer from Indiana, comes to Korea on his first trip away from home.” says the book’s Google blurb. “The Peace Corps gives him more than he ever bargained for — from a comically inept public health official, to violent political strife in the cities, to a hard winter in a leper colony. But when he falls in love with Han Mi Jin, a troubled, politically active schoolteacher, he defies the Peace Corps, the United States government, and the Korean martial law authorities to take up her cause. Caught up in the bloodshed of the Gwangju Uprising of May, 1980, he wrestles with love and loss, freedom and responsibility.”

If anything, that description undersells how well the book deals with the actual details of the uprising. Intrigued by how a U.S. citizen would know about this event and why they would write an entire novel about it, I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Amos online and discover he is nearly a next-door neighbor, as he and his Korean-born wife now live in Boise, Idaho. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea a year after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon his return, he attended Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, during which time he clerked for a Korean lawyer in Chicago. In the years since graduation from law school, he has worked as a federal investigator, a technical writer, a project manager, and a medical writer. He lives in Boise with his Korean-born wife. We sent a few messages back and forth, and he graciously consented to this interview.

* * *

Without spoiling anything, tell us about your book.

The Seed of Joy is a fictional account of a US Peace Corps volunteer who lives in South Korea during the turbulent years of 1979 and 1980. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee and the Gwangju Uprising serve as the historical events that bracket the story. The main character, a naive young man from Indiana, falls in love with a Korean woman who violently opposes the Park — and forthcoming — regimes; through her, he is drawn into the student democracy movement and takes part in the tragic Gwangju Uprising. Many of the details of life as an expat in Korea come from my own experiences in Peace Corps/Korea, as I was a volunteer there at the time the story takes place. My life as a volunteer was far less dramatic, though. Aside from getting stuck in a major demonstration and riot in Seoul, it was the smaller things that struck me: the dearth of news, the arrests in public of college-aged men and women, and the tanks and armed troops that were stationed on city streets, to name a few.

Have you read any of the Korean books about Gwangju? 

No, I haven’t. I wrote most of The Seed of Joy while hardly anything was being written in Korea about the Gwangju Uprising, much less in English translation. One of my first dates with my wife, who is Korean, was showing her an early documentary from Korea about Gwangju and having her interpret it for me ten years after the fact; she was horrified at what she saw. The first popular depiction of the Uprising that I saw was the Korean drama Sandglass, in the 90s. That program gave me some vivid suggestions of what the Uprising looked like — the beginnings of a visual vocabulary, if you will.

The Chun government really clamped down on information about Gwangju. How much did you have at the time and where did you get it?

We volunteers had very little information while it was going on. No news came out of Gwangju through the Korean media. Even AFKN (the US Armed Forces Korea Network) couldn’t tell us anything. We knew something was happening, and that it was huge, because we’d seen demonstrations — some violent — elsewhere in the country. A lot of the information came out after the fact. Volunteers who were in Gwangju during the Uprising came back up to Seoul and told other volunteers what they’d seen and done.

Articles from Time and Newsweek — which were ripped out of local editions — were brought in from outside the country and copies posted in the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Of course, the local media showed exactly what the Chun government wanted them to show. I went to a movie after the Uprising and saw a newsreel of happy young people sweeping up the “mess” that the rioters had made in Gwangju. By that time I knew that it was all nonsense.

The Peace Corps story is really interesting particularly the tension between your Korean handlers and Western staff and the notion that you were not to be involved in anything political or controversial. How much of this is real and how did it play out?

Peace Corps volunteers have to be completely neutral on any point of political controversy. We were forbidden to play any role in protests or act in such a way that could be construed as taking sides, especially with those who opposed the government. We could talk about politics privately with our Korean friends as long as we made it clear that we were speaking for ourselves, not for the United States government. Some volunteers did break the rules. One got involved with some dissident friends and their activities, and was sent home. For the rest of us, we were frustrated at seeing oppression going on openly all around us while being unable to say or do anything about it.

The Western characters play semi-heroic roles in your book. Is any of this history, or is it a literary way of getting them to the center of the story?

It’s both. Several of the volunteers I’ve spoken with really did rise to the occasion in Gwangju. Many of them helped bring the wounded to hospitals and served as the West’s eyes and ears to events that were poorly understood at home. And that’s really what I wanted my characters to be: witnesses and interpreters for a mainly Western audience who otherwise would know little about Korea or the Peace Corps experience. This influenced how I worked out the plot of the novel: I made a timeline of major historical events and then worked on getting the characters to the right places at the right times. This often involved putting them right in the thick of the action.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did, as part of the second wave of Westerners in the Peace Corps. How different was Korea then, both from the U.S. at the time and Korea now (if you have much knowledge of that)?

We all were affected by culture shock in a big, though somewhat unexpected way. By the time I served there, in 1979, Korea was no longer a third-world country, for the most part. The Peace Corps/Korea program was at least ten years old by that point, and the challenges experienced by previous volunteers had abated somewhat by then. For example, I worked in the tuberculosis control program at a municipal public health center. All my coworkers were public health professionals — nurses, doctors, and the like. I was the least experienced person there.

KB - The Seed of Joy 2

So we were living in a culture that was very modern on the outside, but still steeped in tradition on the inside. I loved the transportation system — it was easy to get just about anywhere by bus or train — and and I admired the Koreans’ spirit of self-sacrifice and hard work. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was blown away by the changes. Some of it was sad — Korea seems to have succumbed to the Western ideal of personal automobile ownership, for example, and the traffic everywhere is horrendous. On the other hand, the standard of living is much higher, and the country is now governed by a vibrant, messy, effective democracy.

And now the question you must have known you were going to get: were you really naked when you heard the news of Park’s assassination? Inquiring minds want to know.

Yes, I was! Houses didn’t have hot running water back then. If you wanted to take a bath, you went to a bathhouse, where you could get squeaky-clean using all the hot water you wanted. I had come up to Seoul on the evening of Park’s assassination and, of course, nobody knew about it until the next day. I went to a bathhouse near the Peace Corps office that morning, and, just as written in the book, I heard the news from a fellow volunteer while I was lounging in the tub. I felt doubly naked.

Coming out of the bathhouse, I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: Korean flags hanging everywhere and a shocked quiet among the people. Even the traffic seemed less bustling than normal. And, like the character in the book, I went out straight away to gawk at all the tanks on the street corners and the funeral shrine being built on the grounds of the capitol building.

How long were you in Korea?

My time in the Peace Corps was fifteen months, which is well short of the customary two years. I was sent home early for medical reasons. Years later, I went back for a few weeks in 1987 and for just over a week in 2010.

What were your overarching feelings/impressions of Korea?

It was the contrast between Korea and my home in the States that shaped most of my impressions. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the countryside. Coming from Wisconsin, where the landscape is relatively flat, I was enthralled with the wooded mountains that just seemed to pop out of the ground everywhere. The hillsides covered in pink flowers in the spring and the gorgeous reds and yellows of the leaves in autumn astounded me.

The people were amazing — generous, friendly, hard-working. I was taken aback by the lack of personal space, something the Peace Corps trainers had warned us about in advance. It wasn’t just the crowded cities that took some getting used to; it was also the tendency of Korean men — friends and strangers alike — to plop themselves down just inches away when talking to me. I became accustomed to it eventually, of course, and was fine with it, but it was quite an adjustment at first.

The strictly hierarchical social order threw me for a loop, too. I quickly learned when to bow, and to whom, among other things, but I was pleased to see that, despite the stodginess of the system, my Korean friends were easy to connect with. Overall, I still look at my time there as the best, most interesting months of my life.

* * *

As someone who came to the Gwangju Uprising and its history through friends, history, and literature, it was impressive to me to learn that Mr. Amos was only in Korea for slightly over a year. The Seed of Joy not only seems to catch the history and spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Movement, it also captures subtleties of Korean culture and the interaction between Korean culture and so-called “foreigners” with a roving and intelligent eye.

The book is not without its minor flaws (the framing structure and a sometimes obvious foreshadowing come primarily to mind), but those are insubstantial in the face of the much larger picture that Mr. Amos draws: one that catches both the joy and tragedy of a critical ten-day period in Korean history, one that paints a detailed picture of several loving but doomed relationships, and one that manages to capture an entire social system trapped in amber of its own production.

For a book from a completely unknown author, The Seed of Joy has a decent list of reviews on Amazon, many from Peace Corps volunteers of that era who boggle at how well Mr. Amos has caught the tenor of that time. It is good book for fans of recent history, romance, battles, and good storytelling in general, and one very interesting for me to read, particularly in light of the Korean fiction about this event that has been translated. And that is what we will turn to in two weeks, with a look at how Korean authors have weighed in on Gwangju.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Writing About Korea, in Korea, for Koreans — as an American: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

China Blog 6:28

Taking Stock of Xi Jinping: A Q & A with Kerry Brown

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with Kerry Brown, a prolific writer on Chinese affairs who has held a mix of diplomatic and academic posts and who recently moved to King’s College London to head its Lau China Institute.  I was eager to get him to reflect on Chinese politics, the subject he studies and the focus of a new book. It also seemed only natural to slip in one question dealing with Brexit, which has been dominating the international news cycle. 

Jeff Wasserstrom: A couple of years back, you published The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, a book I reviewed favorably for the Wall Street Journal that was about a group of Chinese elite figures known as the “Princelings”—a term for children of revolutionaries leaders who were connected to Mao Zedong and the founding of the PRC.  That book was partly an effort to explain how one Princeling, Xi Jinping, emerged as the group’s most powerful member.  Do you see your new book C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, which is out in the U.K. and available in the United States as an e-book (with the hardcover version to follow soon), as a sequel to that earlier work, which brings in events of the last couple of years?  Or did you view writing it as offering a chance to provide a different sort of explanation for Xi’s ascent?

Kerry Brown: Obviously we know a lot more about Xi Jinping and the contours of his leadership, his preoccupations, and driving vision now than we did in 2013-4 when I wrote and published The New Emperors. The mystery of his ascension to power, however, has not gone away. Xi was not a spectacular provincial leader – at least in terms of generating GDP growth. Nor was he a member of the A list of elite families – Bo Xilai really belonged to that class, with his father Bo Yibo a member of the so called “Eight Immortals” who had a huge impact on post-1978 China. The ways in which Xi Jinping has transformed into this seemingly all-dominating, all-powerful figure has been remarkable. It was hard to see this sort of drive before 2013. One thing I do wonder a lot about is what precisely the relationship is between Xi and the other so called princelings. In many ways, he seems to have attacked much of their vested interest, keeping the families of past leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng under close tabs, and using the anti-corruption struggle to wrestle whole parts of the state sector away from their control. You might almost say that he is an “anti-princeling” leader, a much more populist politician, trying to derive his appeal and power to the public, and instill fear and obedience in the Communist Party leadership and membership through that.

The fact that Xi looks and sounds so authoritative, however, is also something we have to be a bit careful about how we interpret. Appearances can be deceptive. Making oneself the “Chairman of Everything” can simply hide feelings of vulnerability and weakness. The simple fact is that there are real limits to what Xi can do. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up pragmatism in many ways still shape China, Xi has not articulated a new body of ideas that are proving transformational – not yet, at least. This might happen, but it would need to be in the one area that Deng’s ideas did not touch – that of political reform. Here, of course, a Chinese leader can really reset the agenda. So far, Xi has made clear that he absolutely won’t countenance any competition from another organized political force with the Communist Party. So in many ways, despite the radical tone and feel of his leadership, he still operates within the template supplied by his predecessors.

Sticking with the connections between the two books, the earlier one used an imperial metaphor in its title, while this one employs one drawn from the corporate world.  Could you tell us something about the thinking between those two choices?

 Politicians everywhere like to create narratives and masks they can present to the world. Xi seems to me to be an ambiguous figure. The most difficult thing to work out is his relationship with the Communist Party of China. Is he its servant, or its master? People state that Xi is a modern Mao. But the China of Mao Zedong with its mass mobilization campaigns, utopian idealism, and separation from the rest of the world, is long gone. The memory of Mao’s China for Xi too would not be a happy one – he was living in the countryside for most of it, with his father under house arrest. The one thing that Mao does offer is the model of how a Chinese leader can emotionally connect with the people. But, of course, the danger is that a charismatic, all-powerful leader can also start to turn on the Party, in the way that Mao did in the Cultural Revolution.

Since 1978, the whole objective has been to ensure that this sort of elite leader domination never happens. Leadership has been institutionalized. Succession and term limits have been introduced. Collective leadership structures set in place. If Xi is indeed starting to dominate, and create a power structure parallel to, and one day possibly dominating the Party, then I am surprised that there has not been much more internal dissent at an elite level. There would be people in the Politburo and Central Committee who would see this as undermining so much work the Party has tried to do in the last four decades. So the imperial and corporate models of Xi’s power are trying to find some kind of model we can make sense of him within.

Switching gears a bit, a lot of commentators have played with the idea of imagining what a reanimated Mao would think of today’s China, and I recently wrote an op-ed that played this what if game with a focus on how the former leader might view his latest successor as head of the Communist Party.  What, though, would you think that Deng Xiaoping, if somehow brought back to life, would make of Xi and the way he is steering the country?

Xi has not contested Deng’s central ideological position. In fact, he has sponsored the development of the idea derived from Deng’s mantra of market socialism, which is that the market is essential for reform, in the 2013 Plenum. He has also stuck by the utter centrality of the Party in China’s political life, and the need to maintain openness to the outside world on China’s terms. I don’t see Xi as being anything except a faithful follower of Dengism. He has articulated his central goals within the framework set out by Deng. So if Deng were to magically rise from his grave and look at what Xi is doing, I don’t see what he would object to. He certainly wouldn’t disapprove of the harsh treatment of rights lawyers, nor the clampdown on corrupt officials, nor the tolerance of a vibrant non-state sector. For people’s hearts, Xi might use the resources that Mao gives – but for their heads, he seems to me a Dengist through and through.

A final question, which brings in the issue making the most headlines globally just now.  Given your assessment of Xi and sense of what makes him tick, how do you think he is likely to feel about the Brexit vote?  

Xi reportedly stated to David Cameron when in the UK last October that he did not support an exit from the EU. Part of that was self interest. A UK which was potentially adrift from the European financial market and open trade area becomes  a far less attractive investment and currency destination. The UK is the largest host of Chinese students in Europe, and one of the largest technology transfer partners. Exiting the EU makes life a bit more complicated for China, because unless the UK can arrange a deal which preserves the openness of these areas, China will presumably have to look for another launchpad within the EU main zone.

Politically, though, nothing that Xi will have seen of the chaos in the UK immediately after the vote on June 23 and the clear lack of a plan B by the politicians to deal with what was happening will have endeared democracy to him. But he might have been impressed by the fact that despite this, so far at least, the UK remained stable, people get on with their lives, institutions are still able to function. China of course would be far less robust in dealing with a crisis like this. But I guess Xi would argue that it would never end up in such a position in the first place.

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Watching Our Words: on Brexit

By David Taylor

For many of us in the UK the past few days have been painfully difficult. Among those who wanted to keep Britain in the EU, there’s been a sense of shock, shame, and anger — not least at our own complacency. But the prevailing mood might best be described as elegiac. What I’m experiencing both personally and collectively seems to be something akin to mourning.

This might sound overblown, sentimental perhaps, but the truth is that we are grieving, for our disfigured present and, more profoundly still, for the array of possible futures — individually, politically, nationally, transnationally — that now seem suddenly and irremediably lost to us. These are the dissolving horizons I find myself tracing each time I look at my four-month-old daughter. Right now it’s impossible even to imagine what future we’re bequeathing her.

Such grief, as it’s wont to do, breaks apart our capacity for language. In speaking to my friends over the last four days, in reading and sometimes finding solace in their myriad thoughts and reflections on social media, what strikes me most is the desperate, self-acknowledged futility of our words as we attempt to give coherent shape to what’s happened and is still unfolding, as we search for ways to accommodate the referendum result to the nation — the Europe — we know or want.

We need this grappling. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Perhaps it’s really all we can do at the moment. But, however we voted last Thursday, we also need to remember the damage that words can and have caused. In thinking about the 52 percent — the 17.4 million people — who voted to Leave the EU, it’s vital that we keep in mind Raymond Williams’s sage words: “There are in fact no masses,” he tells us, “but only ways of seeing people as masses.” If this message reminds us how toxic are the images of “immigrants” pedalled by the likes of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, then it should also caution us against simply caricaturing all Leave voters as xenophobes or racists. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.

Words have done real harm over recent months. The Leave campaign called on us to “Make Britain Great Again”. Britain was never “great”, or rather when it was “great” it was murderously so. But the Remain campaign wasn’t much better. In its incessant talk of “safety”, “jobs”, and “prices”, its corrosive negativity and refusal to think of “cost” in anything other than economic terms, it determinedly effaced the history and cultural complexity of the European project.

Since the result was announced, we have new problem words to contend with. Take “divorce”, for example, which been doing the rounds across the media. “Who’s going to handle the divorce negotiations?,” I heard one journalist ask an MP on TV yesterday. “What will Britain’s divorce from the EU look like?,” ponders the Financial Times. The metaphor of a broken marriage is a mistaken one, not least given that Britain will be leaving a union of 28 member states, but what should worry us is the narrative that it quietly and insistently imposes on past, present, and future: the endless bickering, the long and drawn out struggle, the enduring bitterness. The more entrenched this metaphor becomes, the more we give space to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then there’s “revolution”, a word that’s been used over and over in the contexts of both celebration and shock in recent days — and by some distinguished political commentators and journalists. Whatever it is, the referendum result is not a strike against the political establishment by those who feel disenfranchised. I’m not suggesting that many of those who voted to take Britain out of the EU didn’t conceive of their choice in exactly these terms; I’m quite sure they did. But the political reality is somewhat different.

Let’s be clear. Concerns about immigration have come from the political centre in Britain. Over many years the likes of David Cameron and others have the deployed the rhetoric of soft xenophobia and British exceptionalism in order to score political points and win elections. Nigel Farage has pushed this rhetoric much further, of course, but he’s done no more than render explicit what was otherwise (barely) latent. Nor is he the outsider, the common man he claims to be. Rather, this privately-educated son of a stockbroker is a self-fashioned “maverick” who rhetorically positions himself against the very elite to which he in fact belongs (sound familiar, Americans?).

So there’s no revolution to be seen here — and, again, by using this word we accept a narrative that distorts and masks a reality that is far more disconcerting. For the referendum result shows just how effectively white, Oxbridge-educated men have sold their dangerous hyperbole to millions of people. Looking past the different campaigns and political parties, and the downfall of particular individuals, all I see is the strength, not the weakness, of the same old hegemony.

Call me a pedant, if you will. I don’t have any answers. I’ve no idea where we go from here, and yes, it hurts to admit this. But I do know something about words: their histories, their uses, their vital and perilous importance to us. And as we move forward I implore us all — whatever our nation, however we vote — to handle them with care.

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Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Korea scholar Matt VanVolkenburg writes one of my favorite blogs on Korean society and culture, Gusts of Popular Feeling. It takes its unusual name from a quote from the 19th-century writer Isabella Bird Bishop, who in her book Korea and Her Neighbors (which you can download free, in a variety of formats, at the Internet Archive) observed that “gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists are known only in Seoul.”  What can she have meant by that memorable if cryptic phrase?

“She was referring specifically to newspapers, what we consider modern public opinion as created through newspapers, through media,” VanVolkenburg told me when I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. “But ‘gusts of popular feeling’ — Koreans will sometimes ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I’ll be like, ‘naembi munhwa,’” a phrase often used to describe the national temperament. “A naembi is a pot that heats up very quickly and cools down equally quickly” — munhwa means culture — “and I just thought that was a very poetic way of describing it.”

The coiner of that poetic phrase turns out to have led a colorful life indeed. The daughter of a reverend educated at home due to poor childhood health, Bishop published her first written work, a pamphlet on the arguments for free trade versus protectionism, at the age of sixteen. She first went abroad to the United States six years later, sending home letters that would become the material for her first book, the 1856 travelogue An Englishwoman in America. Over the next four decades, volumes on Scotland, Hawaii, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, the Middle East, and Tibet followed, and in 1898, in her late sixties and a few years widowed, she would publish Korea and Her Neighbors, a thorough examination of a then-barely known land.

“Over three years, she made several visits,” said VanVolkenburg. “At first she didn’t really like it, but then on a return visit, she noted that Seoul had cleaned up quite a bit. She got to meet quite a few Korean people, and it definitely grew on her.” She made those visits between 1894 and 1897, “a very small window of time” during which Korea, having recently submitted to Japanese colonial rule, went through a big transformation. By 1904, the year of Bishop’s death, the capital “had streetcars, limited electricity, telephone, telegraph, waterworks were being installed — there were changes like that happening reasonably quickly.”

But the Korea on which she first set foot, a country more than half a century away from division into North and South and only just emerging from a long period in China’s shadow (which left Korea “but a feeble reflection of her powerful neighbor”), didn’t start from a high developmental baseline. “I thought it the foulest city on earth till I saw Peking,” she writes of her first impression of Seoul, “and its smells the most odious, till I encountered those of Shao-shing.” She considers its “palaces and its slums, its unspeakable meanness and faded splendors, its purposeless crowds, its mediaeval processions, which for barbaric splendor cannot be matched on earth, the filth of its crowded alleys, and its pitiful attempt to retain its manners, customs, and identity as the capital of an ancient monarchy in face of the host of disintegrating influences.”

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Though she brands the city as “the Korean Mecca,” she remarks that “the monotony of Seoul is something remarkable. Brown mountains ‘picked out’ in black, brown mud walls, brown roofs, brown roadways, whether mud or dust, while humanity is in black and white.” And though “to the Korean it is the place in which alone life is worth living” — a view quite possibly as widely held now as then — most any part of it bears a dispiritingly close resemblance to any other settlement in the country: “Take a mean alley in it with its mud-walled hovels, deep-eaved brown roofs, and malodorous ditches with their foulness and green slime, and it may serve as an example of the street of every village and provincial town.”

Yet she reserves even more revolting descriptions for the conditions in those villages and provincial towns where her treks around Korea require her to spend days, even weeks, staying in and traveling between by land and water. Of lodgings she finds in one such place north of Seoul, she writes that “the family room which I occupied, only 8 feet 6 inches by 6 feet, was heated up to 85 degrees, was poisoned with the smell of cakes of rotting beans, and was so alive with vermin of every description that I was obliged to suspend a curtain over my bed to prevent them from falling upon it.” She finds better classes of quarters elsewhere, but even they “would not at home be considered fit for the housing of a better-class cow.”

“As I sat amidst the dirt, squalor, rubbish, and odd and end-ism of the inn yard,” she writes, recalling a low moment, “surrounded by an apathetic, dirty, vacant-looking, open-mouthed crowd steeped in poverty, I felt Korea to be hopeless, helpless, pitiable, piteous, a mere shuttlecock of certain great powers, and that there is no hope for her population of twelve or fourteen millions, unless it is taken in hand by Russia, under whose rule, giving security for the gains of industry as well as light taxation, I had seen Koreans in hundreds transformed into energetic, thriving, peasant farmers in Eastern Siberia,” a time which, along with a stretch in Manchuria, makes up one of this long book’s interludes among the “neighbors.”

On her third visit to Korea, in 1897, Bishop finds much of Seoul, “literally not recognizable. Streets, with a minimum width of 55 feet, with deep stone-lined channels on both sides, bridged by stone slabs, had replaced the foul alleys, which were breeding-grounds of cholera. Narrow lanes had been widened, slimy runlets had been paved, roadways were no longer ‘free coups’ for refuse, bicyclists ‘scorched’ along broad, level streets, ‘express wagons’ were looming in the near future, preparations were being made for the building of a French hotel in a fine situation, shops with glass fronts had been erected in numbers, an order forbidding the throwing of refuse into the streets was enforced.” Seoul, she marveled, “from having been the foulest is now on its way to being the cleanest city of the Far East!”

Even then, Bishop describes a Korea in most ways not recognizable to the Westerners who arrive in Seoul today, marveling as they do at its outwardly greater development than that of the countries they came from. (They tend especially to like downtown’s restored Cheonggyecheon Stream, which Bishop describes, in its un-restored condition, as “a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed.”) But the ones who stick around tone down their marveling sooner or later, and the complaints they start to make have a way of echoing Bishop’s first displeased reactions to what had struck her as “the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in.”

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But Bishop, far from being a mere complainer — or in the parlance of her homeland, always more nuanced on the subject of negativity, a moaner — lived as one of the most accomplished members of one of the most accomplished generations of English travel writers, who remain, in the words of Christopher Tayler reviewing Colin Thubron’s last book, “one of the last types of writer on earth with a license to trade openly in the strange and beautiful.” At 459 pages plus index, appendices, and photographs (Bishop went nowhere in Korea without camera and tripod), Korea and Her Neighbors contains plenty of the strange and beautiful. It also spares few details of any other kind, assured that even the most adventurous of its 19th-century readership (who nevertheless require no further description of kimchi than as “an elaborate sort of  ‘sour kraut’”) needed all the help they could to imagine this remote country, would likely never see another image of it, and almost certainly wouldn’t even consider taking the trouble to go there themselves.

If the heyday of English travel writing mandated the duty of describing places vividly through a sheer volume of information, it also mandated the duty of evaluating them, of making as fair as possible an assessment as a representative of the world’s most proudly “civilized” nation. Bishop’s frankness in this undertaking, and indeed the perspective from which she performs it, render a book like this terribly unfashionable today: she writes up front of her “plan of study of the leading characteristics of the Mongolian races,” later of “the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness,” and later still of the superstition that “holds the uneducated masses and the women of all classes in complete bondage.”

Yet having invested an amount of time, effort, and endurance in Korea that any modern travel writer would consider well beyond their job description (let alone their pay scale), Bishop also places herself well to see the good in the country. Her position as a path-breaking female traveler, and one not only in a land with few foreigners but that did its utmost to keep even its own women behind closed doors, let her perceive clearly the relative safety that remains a real point of appeal today: “It says something for the security of Korea that a foreign lady could safely live in a dwelling up a lonely alley in the heart of a big city, with no attendant but a Korean soldier knowing not a word of English, who, had he been so minded, might have cut my throat and decamped with my money, of which he knew the whereabouts, neither my door nor the compound having any fastening!”

She also grasps Korea’s potential at a time when few others did. “With a splendid climate, an abundant, but not superabundant, rainfall, a fertile soil, a measure of freedom from civil war and robber bands,” she figures, “the Koreans ought to be a happy and fairly prosperous people.” She puts their deficiency of happiness and prosperity down to capricious law enforcement and taxation, as well as the economic “squeezing” of nearly the entire population by the country’s powerful classes of corrupt officials and ostensible scholar-aristocrats. She anticipates a time when, “with improved roads, railroads, and enlightenment, together with security for the earnings of labor from official and patrician exactions, the Korean will have no further occasion for protecting himself by an appearance of squalid poverty, and when he will become on a largely increased scale a consumer as well as a producer, and will surround himself with comforts and luxuries of foreign manufacture,” essentially the situation of the Korean middle class Korean today.

Alas, the heyday of English travel writing came during the longer heyday of British imperialism, and Bishop’s sympathies with that project — though in many ways a woman ahead of her time, she was unavoidably of her time in others — will bother more than a few 21st-century readers. She credits what improvements she saw Korea make to Japan, an imperial power with resemblances to Britain: “The Japanese claimed that their purpose was to reform the administration of Korea as we had done that of Egypt,” she writes, “and I believe they would have done it had they been allowed a free hand.” But they did not, and she ultimately finds that Japan “was too inexperienced in the role which she undertook (and I believe honestly) to play, to produce a harmonious working scheme of reform.”

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“Failure in tact was,” as she sees it, “was one great fault of the Japanese.” In Korea, Japan “irritated the people by meddlesomeness in small matters and suggested interferences with national habits, giving the impression, which I found prevailing everywhere, that her object is to denationalize the Koreans for purposes of her own.” That, more or less, has become the official view in South Korea today, though it ascribes much graver faults to the Japanese than those of tact. Bishop’s lack of direct condemnation for the occupation itself puts her on the wrong side of the history books here, as does her revelation of the squalor and misery of the chaotic final days of an era much romanticized by historical films and television dramas.

She does convey the senselessness and brutality of the murder by Japanese agents of Empress Myeongseong, whom she knew personally (if not quite liked) as Queen Min, which occurred one night between her stays in Korea. I happened to read the chapter of Korea and Her Neighbors covering that grisly event in the cafeteria of the IKEA opened in a couple years ago just outside Seoul, perhaps the most incongruously modern and peaceful setting imaginable, one in which you can’t help but reflect on how much the country had changed. It made me wonder what Bishop, who didn’t live to see the Great War, let alone the Korean one, and who in a moment of optimism guessed that the whole peninsula “could support double its present population,” would think of the almost unfathomable developmental progress of the land she referred to as “southern Korea,” its population alone exceeding 50 million, has made over the past 120 years.

There are now plenty of newspapers, and though those gusts of popular feeling have gained force mainly on the internet, they still do blow through Seoul. While Bishop would recognize almost nothing about the city itself — its historic buildings tend to be 20th- or even 21st-century recreations — she would certainly recognize the attitudes of Westerners here. Korea and Her Neighbors documents how, as gradually as it may have done so, the country finally captured her imagination. Though many new arrivals these days go through a pre-complaint period of blind rapture over the amenities, the nightlife, and the the pop culture (none of which, apart from the ubiquitous underfloor heating, existed in the 1890s), it still holds true that “Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long to overcome the feeling of distaste which at first it undoubtedly inspires.”

In this sense, even more so than the American astronomer Percival Lowell, whose own book-length travelogue Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm came out in 1885, Isabella Bird Bishop stands as the prototypical long-term Westerner in Korea, for whom antipathy turns to fascination, and fascination turns to attachment, and attachment renders bittersweet the seemingly inevitable departure. “The distaste I felt for the country at first passed into an interest which is almost affection,” she writes near the book’s end, “and on no previous journey have I made dearer and kinder friends, or those from whom I parted more regretfully.” And somehow, at least to this long-term Westerner in Korea, its potential feels at once more fully realized and more untapped than ever.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The “Inspector Chen” Poems: A Look at the Man and His Verse

By Qiu Xiaolong

As fans of the “Inspector Chen” novels know, the Shanghai detective not only excels at solving crimes and navigating the complexities of politically tricky situations but also writes verse.  Now, thanks to Qiu Xiaolong, a poet and translator (as well as a writer of mysteries), a collection of Chen Cao’s poems has become available.  Here we provide an introduction to the volume penned Qiu, who unquestionably knows Chen and his poetry better than any other person on earth does—or ever could—due to the crucial role he has played in chronicling the versifying sleuth’s cases and writings.

— Jeff Wasserstrom

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Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen

The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically, to be more specific, in the order of their appearance in the novels in the Inspector Chen series. Less than half of the compositions in the collection appear in the novels, as fragments or whole poems, but even those published there in their entirety have been altered in small or substantial ways here.  Also worth noting is that some of the poems that appear in the novels could also have been written earlier, even in the days before Chen became an inspector.

Chen Cao started writing during his college years in the early eighties, a period sometimes described as a “golden” one for modern Chinese poetry.  After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a considerable number of young people burst confidently onto the literary scene. But Chen is more of an accidental poet. While majoring in English and American literature, he studied with the well-known poet and critic Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), and handed in several pieces written as a sort of homework. With Bian’s encouragement, Chen had them published in Poetry and other magazines. In the meantime, he started translating T. S. Eliot and other Western poets, which added to his visibility in the circle.  While doing research for his thesis on Eliot, he fell in love with a young librarian named Ling in Beijing Library. Some of his early poems turned out to be idealistic in spite of the modernist influence.

It did not take long for a different tone to be discernable in his lines. He parted with Ling after learning about her father being a powerful Politburo member.  He was concerned about his possible loss of independence in the event of such a family alliance. Then, after college graduation, he was assigned by the state to work at the Shanghai Police Bureau, an arrangement which was taken for granted in the then government policy: people were all supposed to work in the Party’s interests regardless of personal preference.

He worked as an unwilling cop, initially, translating police procedures, composing political newsletters, doing all sorts of odd jobs. His poems grew somber, leading him to be viewed as a “Chinese modernist,” a politically negative label. His membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association helped little.  Among his colleagues, he was seen as an unorthodox cop not dedicated to his real job.

But another surprising turn intervened. The Party’s new cadre promotion policy came with an unprecedented emphasis on a candidate’s educational credentials, thanks to which Chen was chosen to rise in the ranks. There was whispered speculation about his off-and-on contact with Ling, with some saying this contributed to his ascension. He was admitted into the Party, given real cases, and rose rapidly in bureau.  As the head of the Special Case Squad, Chen was fortunate enough to find a capable partner and close friend in Detective Yu.  In the early nineties, Chen was made the Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau. From then on, his investigations are represented in the nine novels so far in the Inspector Chen series.

Notwithstanding the strenuous caseload, he finds the police work widening the range of the poetic subject matter for him; case inspire him to compose lines in response to the unimaginable cruelties, irrationalities, corruptions, insanities as revealed in his investigations. In A Loyal Character Dancer, he comes to the crucial clue through a poem in the background of the educated youth movement; in The Case of Two Cities, a Prufrock-like parody helps to throw light on his predicament as a Party member cop; in Red Mandarin Dress, studies of comparative poetics lends insight into a complicated case; in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, examining the pollution of the nature as well as of the human nature prompts Chen into a sequence with a spatial structure; and so on. In each and every Inspector Chen novel, poems are produced or recollected.

Chen’s style is shaped by his police work too. In When Red Is Black, he comes across an incomplete manuscript of classical Chinese poetry translation by an intellectual murdered during the Cultural Revolution. To keep his pledge to the dead, Chen edits the manuscript, adding in some of his own translations, and has this published. Inspired by this process, he also introduces into his own poems a sort of dialogue with the Tang and Song masters, and this interplay between ancient and present-day China and sometimes shows up in snippets of old poems being inserted into his correspondence.

In his line of duty, Inspector Chen has to walk a lot, observing, canvassing, and thinking, around the city of Shanghai, particularly in the old sections of the shikumen houses and narrow lanes, coming upon not just clues that aid his investigations, but also sights that spur reflection in this man who is an independent-thinking intellectual as well as policeman.  He jots down fragments in a small notebook, like the Tang dynasty poet Li He who rode around on a donkey, dashing off the lines whenever obtainable, and dropping them into a cloth bag for composition later. That adds a touch of “found poetry” to Chen’s work.

In the meantime, poetry proves very meaningful for Inspector Chen in an unexpected way. It is not enough, he always believes, to merely focus on whodunit; it is imperative for him to try to reach a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which crimes and tragedies take place. With the Party’s interest put above everything else—above law—in the one-Party system,  he cannot but face the dire politics involved in investigations, staring long and frequently into the abyss (which in turn stares back). There is no way of solving completely the conflict between a conscientious cop and a Party cadre, but poetry-writing comes to provide a temporary escape from the mounting frustrations involved in confronting this problem. He compares the momentary break to the Song dynasty poet Su Shi’s metaphor about staying on the moon, much higher, but also much too cold to stay for long, though a necessary change for the moment.  A poetic perspective help keeps him from identifying himself with the authoritarian system, so that he may sees things from a much-needed distance.

His rise in the Party system brings about change in his experience as a poet. As an executive member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, he is often chosen as a Chinese representative to meet with western poets and writers, and on one occasions, to lead the Chinese Writers’ Delegation abroad, an experience chronicled in The Case of Two Cities.  Chen has a poetry collection published, but he soon discovers that it is done through a large amount paid by a Big Buck (influential figure) associate in secret, something done to curry his favor in the omnipresent cobweb of connections in China. It comes as a terrible blow to his conviction about the relevance of poetry in today’s society.

During the period, changes also occur in his personal life. Like in a proverb, however,  things go the wrong way eight or nine times out of ten, which cannot but somewhat inform his poems. But a follower of Eliot’s “impersonal theory,” he insists on separating the man who suffers from the poet who writes. In that, Chen also benefits from a tradition in the classical Chinese poetics, in which love poems are read as political allegories through the persona of a unrequited lover. For instance, “untitled poems” by Li Shangyin, one of Chen’s favorite Tang dynasty poets, are often interpreted like that, the way John Donne’s love poems are read for the metaphysical significance.

Along with the spectacular economic transformation in China, the literary scene too is changing dramatically. Not like in the early eighties, instead of being fashionable or politically meaningful with the authoritarian government persecution for any independent voice, a poet like Chen becomes marginalized. In the increasingly materialistic society, less and less readers have the time or interests for poetry. People no longer take it seriously. Even with occasional publishing still possible here and there, it’s more like decoration than anything else.

But with so much happening in the contemporary Chinese society, Inspector Chen has no choice but to continue investigating—and writing. He is becoming over time both a more cynical and disillusioned cop and a more cynical and disillusioned poet. He still remembers what his later father told him, quoting Confucius: “Knowing it’s impractical—almost impossible—to do it, you still have to do what you should do.”