My First Afropunk Festival

By Imogen Teasley-Vlautin

At most punk shows, or any alternative music show, there are only a few other black people amidst a sea of white faces. But during one extraordinary weekend each year at Commodore Berry Park in Brooklyn, the Afropunk Festival brings all of these few black people from scenes all over to this one place. It is the only weekend where we get to see the evidence that, yes, all different kinds of beautiful black people exist, and here they celebrate their art and culture with love. It is a celebration of the freedom to be you — while also being black — and that is revolutionary.

As soon as I saw that Bad Brains was playing Afropunk Festival this year, I bought my flight to New York City from Oakland. Living Colour and Fishbone opened and sang for their heroes, a dream come true for us all. For so many, Bad Brains is the first black band they saw playing punk. When Living Colour hit the stage, an enormous mosh pit of black punks erupted with volcanic energy, and I immediately started sobbing. In the words of Flying Lotus, Tyler the Creator, and several other Afropunk artists: Never have I seen so many black people at a show! I felt so loved, so special, so at home, and so normal. I felt the freedom to live and express, and that was the most comfortable thing I’ve ever experienced in my twenty years.  For Bad Brains, growing up in segregated DC where the buildings were white and the people were black, it wasn’t about young black kids trying to play the music that white people played, but rather about them being fearlessly themselves. Black people invented rock and roll anyway — from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to the lesser known Big Mama Thornton, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Afropunk Festival celebrates the black legacy of music and demonstrates that we are free. It creates a unique environment where there is no fear in just being. It lures a crowd that wants to bask in the energy of a wide array of artists like the legendary George Clinton, superstar CeeLo Green, to powerful punk rock rap group Ho99o9, and incredible rapper Angel Haze, who captured my attention and imagination with the line: “I opened up my third eye and the view is amazing.”

Check out these photos of the festival from Essence and Teen Vogue.


KB - Nam June Paik Show 1

A Society of Screens: the Korea, and the World, Envisioned by Nam June Paik

 By Colin Marshall

Video monitors started appearing on Seoul’s subway trains long before I arrived here. More video monitors — or, to be precise, old televisions — started appearing on those video monitors a few months ago, announcing a big show of the work of video artist Nam June Paik. (Paik made his name in the West, literally, with not just unconventional Romanization but a Western-style re-ordering that put his given name first and family name second.) The straightforwardly titled Paik Nam June Show (백남준 쇼), which runs through October at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, commemorates the tenth anniversary of the death of the most creative old-television enthusiast ever to live, as well as, for a time, the most famous Korean artist — and quite possibly the most famous Korean — in the world.

“I start in 1960, first time television sets become cheap, become secondhand, like junk,” said Paik in a 1975 profile by New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins. “I buy thirteen secondhand sets in 1962. I didn’t have any preconceived idea. Nobody had put two frequencies into one place, so I just do that, horizontal and vertical, and this absolutely new thing comes out.” He refers to his discovery that manipulating the electronics television sets use — or then used, anyway — to produce an image could produce, in an unpredictable fashion, another, stranger image.

This led to his creation, with Japanese engineer Shyua Abe, of the more controllable Abe-Paik Video Synthesizer, and ultimately to his status as the father of video art, builder of television robots, television cellos, television-watching Buddhas, and television maps and flags of the United States of America. While other artists began to use video around the same time he did, when the gear came down in size, down in price, and out of the studio, none displayed quite the same intensely zealous interest of the early adopter.

Paik’s embrace of the moving image as displayed on consumer electronic devices now looks prescient, as do several of the futuristic ideas upon which he speculated. He even coined, in a 1974 proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation (a major source of funding for early video artists), the term “electronic superhighway,” imagining a time in which “we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics.”

Tomkins, in the New Yorker profile, wrote of Paik’s vision for a familiar-sounding “’global university’ — a place where vast quantities of up-to-date information on every conceivable subject can be stored, with computers to provide instant retrieval, so that a student of any age can pursue his own education at his own pace.” And so it feels highly appropriate to see him celebrated in his homeland, a place whose high internet speeds and rates of connectivity get it routinely described, in the 21st century, as the most wired country on Earth.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 3

His countrymen tend to seize upon each new device as soon as it comes to market, and even among Koreans close to Paik’s own generation (he was born in 1932, with the end of the Japanese colonial era still nowhere in sight), one sees much less of the kind of technological foot-dragging common among older people in the West. American youth might just have got around to teaching their grandmothers how to use a smartphone; in Korea, grandma’s already in line for the next one. Those screens on the subway already seem superfluous; who can get bored enough to watch the advertisements they play between station announcements with a personal screen in the palm of their hand?

Often enough I’ve looked up on a subway ride to see literally every other passenger absorbed in what Koreans call their “handphone,” texting, gaming, and scrolling through page after page of one kind of information or another. Sometimes, on these occasions, I’ve looked up from my own, an iPhone so bashed and so many generations behind that, here, its ownership almost violates some sort of social taboo. Besides, for every (newer) iPhone user in Korea, several have a local model made by Samsung or LG instead — companies that also manufactured more than a few of the many screens glowing from within the works on display at the DDP.

Paik’s sculptures, made of not just wood-grained and dial-controlled sets of long-forgotten brand but paint, neon, cameras, and many kinds of non-televisual junk, present what museum professionals call a “preservation challenge.” Peer around the back of the hulking, friendly-looking robots that greet you as soon as you enter, and you see that someone has hollowed out the bulky, even-then-obsolete televisions that compose their bodies and mounted outward-facing flat-panel displays of various sizes up against the glass.

Paik could hardly have known, putting his television robots together in the 1980s when the Korean economy still grew itself — and with astonishing rapidity — through industries like shipbuilding, that flat-panels (surely a term soon to go the way of “computerized” and “portable”) would do much to make his homeland a global economic power. Had by that time spend a decades away from that homeland, in a kind of exile. “Because of South Korea’s stringent military-conscription law,” Tomkins wrote in 1975, “he could technically be arrested as a draft dodger if he ever returned.”

He’d left with his family in 1950, after their luck at home finally ran out — a luck that came in large part due to his merchant family’s open collaboration with the Japanese occupiers. They managed to retain their status for a time even after liberation, albeit not for long. “Growing up in a very corrupt family in a very confusing time,” he later said, “I learned how to survive, and survive well.” Paik’s family settled in Japan, where he graduated from the University of Tokyo before moving to Germany to study avant-garde music composition.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 4

The Japan connections continued throughout the rest of his career and life. He and Yoko Ono both once counted themselves as members of the Fluxus artistic movement (there exists a later photograph of Paik, Ono, Shuya Abe, and John Lennon standing in front of a wall of televisions). He married Shigeko Kubota, a Japanese colleague in video art. His work incorporated many pieces of Japanese technology, like Pioneer’s LaserDisc media and Sony’s Watchman handheld televisions, still flickering away after all these years.

Paik eventually made it back to Korea in 1984, writes scholar Robert Fouser in “Having Fun with New Toys: Nam June Paik and the Aesthetic of Jaemi.” This homecoming “started a broad shift in Paik’s work. Despite the immense change in Korea during the intervening 35 years, the jaemi of the streets of Korea brought back memories of the street jaemi that Paik had known as a youth.” The what? Fouser quotes the Minjungseorim’s Essence Korean-English Dictionary‘s definition of jaemi (재미) as “interest; amusement; enjoyment; fun.”

Artistically, it means that “a work or performance needs to entertain and stimulate an audience through amusement and fun. Humor, sarcasm, and visual stimulation all qualify as jaemi,” which also “contains the element of surprise and keeps audiences slightly off balance with jocular spontaneity.” According to Fouser, “jaemi best summarizes the dominant aesthetic of Korean modernism,” and to my mind also summarizes the enduring appeal of Paik’s art. His robots, grinning or raising a glowing arm in salute, exude, and possibly define, late-20th-century techno-whimsy.

Even his more austere pieces, such as those Buddhas staring eternally into their own motionless images reflected by television screens, draw chuckles from their viewers. As for the element of surprise and jocular spontaneity, Paik began using that well before he entered the secondary market for TV sets, driving nails into pianos on stage (one critic called him “the world’s most famous bad pianist,” a title in which he delighted), snipping ties and shirttails with scissors off of it, and, with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, staging topless or otherwise scandalous musical performances (some of which had her wear a “TV Bra” of Paik’s invention).

Despite his start in the avant-garde, his work has retained plenty of relevance in our time when the term “avant-garde” itself no longer means much of anything, and when new technology, especially new technology related to the display of images, no longer impresses on anything like as deep a level as it once did. But to the younger generations who’ve started to regard VHS cassettes as nostalgia objects, images out of a cathode ray tube look compellingly unusual and rich with imperfection. Twenty years ago, sheer availability had rendered the household electronics Paik made his signature materials almost invisible. In the 21st century, they’ve regained the something of the strangeness — now accompanied by echoes of the past instead of messages from the future — he must have sensed when first he discovered their artistic potential.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 2

Call it a kind of “authenticity,” an aesthetic quality much prized by the retromaniac hipsterism of the West, a movement that has so far shown few signs of penetration into the neophiliac un-irony of modern South Korea. Though possessed of a formidable sense of humor, Paik’s work has never exuded irony. In that, the Japanese-educated artist who spent most of his life in Europe and the United States — as well as the Buddhist who never drank, smoked, or drove — represents the sensibility of his people more than he might at first have appeared to.

Korea almost automatically celebrates its native sons and daughters who’ve won acclaim for themselves abroad, and thus acclaim for their country, no matter how aberrant their behavior or unfashionable their creations. Fouser sees Paik, who accomplished what no other Korean artist could by “influencing the West with a subverted view of its own culture,” as “a combination of Paik the inheritor of Korean modernism and Paik the inheritor of bourgeois careerism.” Having drawn his first feelings of “techno-jaemi” from listening to the radio, riding in the car, and playing the piano in his youth, he went on to observe his family “use its wealth and power to maintain the status quo after liberation,” learning that “systems have to be manipulated for self-protection, and that ideals matter less than practicality.”

Fouser credits Paik’s use of jaemi as having “helped to desanctify art and make it fun again.” Asked by Tomkins why he doesn’t make boring art, Paik himself replied: “I come from very poor country and I am poor. I have to entertain people every second.” Not that you’d know, strolling through Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza and into the Paik Nam June Show, that either Paik or South Korea came from poverty. It even ends in with a genuine spectacle, in a room built for a huge sea turtle made entirely out of 1990s-style television sets, all boxy yet rounded. Every few minutes, much newer projection technology, still impressive in itself, sends the entire floor around the electronic reptile through a rippling metamorphosis, from solid to liquid, concrete to abstract.

From there you exit straight into another room containing (this being Korea, after all) a pop-up coffee bar and a display of all the Nam June Paik merchandise available for purchase. The hallway outside that contains a video work built in tribute to Paik by the media artist Choi Jongbum — making use, the signs tell us, of the latest models in Samsung’s lineup of “quantum dot display” ultra high definition TVs — and a lounge area bristling with cables loungers can use to charge their handphones. They might well need to, having drained their batteries snapping selka (샐카, or the Korean version of “selfie”) with friends standing beside Paik’s robots, or in silhouette against the colorful video collages of his not-quite-regular grids of monitors.

All this does little to actively refute the notion, long held by Paik’s critics without seeming to bother the artist himself, that his work wasn’t quite serious, that it was a little too much fun. As the standard translation of “fun,” jaemi, sound like a highly specialized cultural concept though it may, is one the very first vocabulary words a student of the Korean language learns. If you want to say you enjoyed something, you say “Jaemi isseosseoyo,” literally something like “There was fun.” If you want to say you didn’t enjoy something, you say “Jaemi opseosseoyo,” or “There wan’t fun.” This becomes something of a crutch later on, when people begin to expect more specific responses, but later in the day I’d seen the Paik Nam June show, when a friend asked how it was, my response — jaemi isseosseoyo — sounded a great deal more meaningful than usual.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

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

Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (and Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

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


“Welcome to the New Depression”: A New Song by Darryl Holter

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Carter Family had a hit with “No Depression in Heaven.”  It proclaimed that the Depression meant that the end of the world was coming, the latter days had arrived, and we would soon face the final Day of Judgment.

Out here the hearts of men are fading
These are latter days we know
The Great Depression now is spreading
God’s words declare it must be so.

I’m going where there’s no Depression
To a better land that’s free from care
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home’s in heaven, I’m going there

I wanted to write about the current state of the American economy but, in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, present it as an “answer song” — one that responds to an older song by offering a different perspective on economic policy.

— Darryl Holter

BLOG Akhtar Dear Trump TL RFP Khans

Dear Mr. Trump: An Open Letter from Jabeen Akhtar

By Jabeen Akhtar

Dear Mr. Trump,

Don’t laugh, but we have much in common. You may be wondering what, since I’m a female Pakistani immigrant with about $1,200 to my name and you’re a white man with $10 billion (a fuzzy number from your camp but let’s roll with it). I’m a nobody and you’re a Presidential candidate. I chop off heads and you create jobs. If we were pantry items based on our skin color I’d be cocoa powder and you’d be dried apricots. We’re different. I get it. But hear me out.

After these past few weeks, I’ve never felt closer to you. We’re kindred spirits now, two peas in a pod forever bonded over an experience not many in this world have shared: the Pakistani parental scold.

When an unassuming man with a foreign name stepped up to the microphone at the Democratic National Convention in July, I’m sure you turned to your staff and said: Who is this guy? Who let him in? Not the convention. I mean America. Who let him in? Who let this guy in? Who let this guy in our borders? I’d said I’d build a wall. I said I’d build a wall over there at that border. I build great walls. Believe me. There’s a hole. Where’s the wall with a hole that let this guy in? CNN. They drilled a hole.

“Donald Trump,” the speaker said.

Your dried apricot ears perked up.

“Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?”

The speaker had an accent, but strangely, the audience didn’t care. In fact, the more he spoke, the more people arose from their seats, screaming out, enraptured. He held up a copy of the Constitution and they lost it. This man, who you learned is a Pakistani-American named Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Captain who died saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in Iraq in 2004, was igniting a fire at that liberal snooze fest like no one who had come before him, even all those career politicians. “You have sacrificed nothing,” Mr. Khan said directly to you. “And no one.”


I mean, lots of people at that convention said nasty things about you. They called you a demagogue, a hypocrite. Said you had no clue, were full of malarkey. But Mr. Khan’s speech? It torpedoed through your poll numbers, Neilson ratings, private jets, tailored suits, campaign rallies, KKK supporters, Twitter account and Putin snapchats and reached your vulnerable, spray-tanned underbelly. You felt it was vicious. You felt attacked. I know because you tweeted “I was viciously attacked!”

Pardon me for invoking the words of your opponent’s husband, Mr. Trump, but I feel your pain. I really do.

See, when I was sixteen, I failed pre-calculus. Despite forging my father’s signature on my report card and hiding it in my blue, dolphin-themed Trapper Keeper, he called me into his study one day and there was my report card on his desk, fat circle around the “F”. I prepared my defense. I would explain to my father how bad my teacher was, how ridiculous it was to have to learn complex math when I wanted to be a Julio-Claudian era history scholar. How the school was wasting resources. How the American educational system was failing me.

Peering down at me through thin, gold-framed glasses, my father questioned my intelligence, integrity, motives and character within the span of eighty seconds. Peppered throughout were rhetorical questions about why he gave up everything in Pakistan just to immigrate to America to see his kids fail. I never learned my parents’ native tongue of Urdu, but he said something in that language that I think translated to “loser.” He lifted his hand as he spoke to me, just like Mr. Khan. He used few words with razor sharp precision to slice at me deep, just like Mr. Khan. I felt viciously attacked. His scolding burned and infuriated me and I fought back with every argument, pout and declaration of how unfairly I was being treated.

Just like you.

And how did that work out for you, Mr. Trump?

Let me guess…

Mr. Khan hit back at you so fiercely and effectively you begged other Republicans to jump in and help. Then, proving himself too formidable an opponent, you pivoted towards the mother, Ghazala. Standing on the DNC stage quietly submissive to her husband with her head covered as their religion dictates… what an easy target. You could say she “wasn’t allowed” to speak—a personal dig at the Khans while reinforcing negative images of Islam. It was a two-for-one deal no businessman who changes the skyline of Manhattan would turn down.

But she schooled you too.

You must be so confused. When you entered this race, you had a list of opponents: the Clintons, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, the media, Priorities USA. The Khans were not on that list. They’re Muslims, and Muslims are ISIS-loving low-lives running by the thousands across the Syrian border with Wisconsin to kill Americans and blow up their cul-de-sacs. They’re not supposed to be intelligent, dignified, well-spoken individuals capable of resonating with other Americans. If only your anti-immigration policy was enforced years ago, maybe the Khans wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.

I wish you would have come to me first, Mr. Trump. I would have warned you what it was like going up against Pakistani parents, especially ones who have immigrated to this country. See, the thing about people like my parents and the Khans is that they’ve been through some tough shit. They’ve lived through wars and dictatorships in their home countries and readily forfeited their degrees and whatever status and income they once had to start over in America with nothing. Once here, they’ve faced institutional discrimination, ridiculed for their accents, harassed on the street, told to get out. They have to prove they belong here, or at the very least, are not societal burdens. They must keep quiet, work hard, continually showcase their loyalty to America. Pass the model minority test. They are held to a higher standard of conduct and productivity in this country than everyone else, so when they hold others to a high standard, whether it’s their children or their Presidents, it’s kind of fair, don’t you think?

That’s what my father did to me, and that’s what the Khans did to you by asking you to adhere to the principles upon which this country was founded. Hold us to higher standards than we were exhibiting.

I was failing school and you’re failing a Presidential candidacy. You needed scolding, Mr. Trump, and the Khans were always going to be the ones to do it. They’re Pakistani Muslim immigrant parents who have higher stakes in the outcome of this election than you. They’ve lost their boy. Now they might lose the country they love, the one they’ve risked so much to live in. You would simply lose.

“Am I not allowed to respond?” you asked.

Well, you tried, Mr. Trump. And you sounded like a 16-year-old girl. Try sounding like a President instead.


Finding a Common Thread: A History of Chinese Language

Anne Henochowicz*

Sitting in the hushed, stained-glass light of my university’s architecture library, I made stacks of flashcards. I reverently copied the characters onto one side, the pinyin Romanization and English definition onto the other. Most of these words were two characters long, and as I quizzed myself on pronunciation, translation, and handwriting, I hoped that one day I would understand the meaning of each and every one of those characters on their own—not bound up in modern words, but singular, ancient, profound.

Only towards the end of college did I learn that many of these words cannot be picked apart. Take the word for butterfly, hudie 蝴蝶. Hudie is not a compound word. Those two characters used to write it mean nothing on their own—neither character is used apart from the other in any other word. The great mystery of many characters lies not in their individual meaning, but in their phonetic value.

And so, like so many students of Chinese, I was disabused of yet another fanciful notion. It may sound like the magic was gone, but in the end knowing the reality of the writing system and its connection to the spoken language was more profound than anything I’d imagined.

If only I’d had David Moser’s fantastic new book, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, to open my mind. In barely more than 100 pages, his contribution to the Penguin China Specials series brings clarity to common misunderstandings about spoken Mandarin, its relationship to other Chinese dialects, and the inner workings of its writing system. (A Billion Voices is currently available globally as an ebook and in non-digital formats in some, with the American paperback releasing, coindentally or not, on October 1, the People’s Republic of China’s National Day.) It also tells the story of how a century of ideologies and egos shaped China’s “common speech,” Putonghua. (Mandarin is the cluster of northern dialects on which Putonghua is based.) Moser’s love of this language, the product of decades of committee meetings and infighting, shines through in his lively narration of Putonghua’s coalescence.

One reason I wish I had had this book available to me sooner is that it would have helped me when I found myself, as I often have, explaining to friends and strangers at dinner parties that many so-called “dialects” of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, and would be considered languages in their own right if the people who spoke them were politically divided. Moser confirms my tipsy tirades, comparing Chinese dialects to the Romance languages, whose distinctions are reinforced by national boundaries.

But I usually go on to insist that, say, Cantonese is actually a language. It turns out this claim is more fraught than I’d realized. “The truth is, there is no universally accepted criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects,” Moser explains. Dialects radiate out from one another geographically, along a continuum of mutual intelligibility. The farther two dialects are from each other, the less speakers will be able to understand each other. A native Mandarin speaker cannot understand Cantonese, but that’s not enough to define Cantonese as a language.

As for the origins of Putonghua? It actually began as no one’s native tongue. In the early days after the fall of the Qing empire, the fight for a common language was white hot. The north-south linguistic divide raged at the Conference on the Unification of Pronunciation in 1913, which eventually settled on a standard combining bits of all major dialects. This standard was later overridden by Guoyu (the “national language”), based on the northern dialect spoken in Beijing (but not the same as Beijing dialect). Putonghua, spoken in the People’s Republic of China, is essentially the same as Guoyu. The major difference is that Putonghua is not defined as being based on the speech of “educated” people.

The story of the formation and promulgation of a standard language in China proves to be a history of the nation, from the later years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the present. It is a story of representation and democratization, especially with regards to improving literacy. The writing system, which requires years of dedicated study to master, was for millennia a barrier to literacy for most residents of the empire. Unintentionally, Chinese characters staved off the “taint of democracy” that comes with mass literacy. To control a populace, “apparently no threat is more salient than the thought of ordinary citizens freely acquiring and sharing information.” The Catholic church certainly learned this lesson, as Gutenberg’s printing press begat more Bible readers, which begat doubt in church teachings, which begat the Protestant movement.

While the warlords of the 1920s and 1930s, who claimed bits of the Republic of China as their own domain, feared the specter of a literate public, both the Republican and Communist governments worked to increase literacy. Many new writing systems for Chinese were proposed in the first half of the 20th century, but none has ever replaced Chinese characters. In the end, the writing system has not held China back from mass literacy or technological development, a truth that Tom Mullaney is now promoting with an exhibition of Chinese typewriters at Stanford University. But the Chinese writing system, unlike a phonetic one, breaks the “virtuous circle” of the spoken and written word. The phonetic element of characters is weak, and thus learning to read and write continues to be an arduous task.

The value of Chinese characters as a symbol of the nation is so potent as to have dissuaded even Mao Zedong from totally scrapping the system. Mao at one point did advocate for a phonetic script, but “Chinese traditionalists tended to ascribe almost mystical semiotic power to the characters, seeing them not just as symbols for semantic meaning, but as embodying the essence of Chinese culture itself.” Mao opted instead for a simplified character system, aided by pinyin romanization. The Vietnamese, by contrast, experienced a relatively smooth transition from Chữ-nôm, based on Chinese characters, to Quốc Ngữ, the system of Latin alphabet and diacritics created by missionaries and used here. When the writing system is not your own, it’s easier to choose.

This book is not just for students of Putonghua. Moser assumes no knowledge of Chinese, walking the reader through thorny subjects, such as the “language-dialect continuum” of Chinese, with poise and humor. A native speaker of Mandarin—or any Chinese dialect, for that matter—could also learn a lot from A Billion Voices. Many of the myths Moser dispels are perpetuated by those steeped in the language from birth. Not that Westerners, with our Chinese character tattoos and other regrettable appropriations, have done much to clear things up. This is a book for anyone who wants to cast off romantic and Orientalist notions in exchange for insight into the language spoken and written in China. These days, that should be just about everyone.

* Anne Henochowicz is the China Digital Times translations editor. She favors purple ink when making flashcards.

The Story of Hong Gildong

What Shaped Korean Translated Literature?  

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here.

Korea’s long-standing literary tradition has always occupied a position of high cultural importance. In all its forms, its history is thoroughly represented, often in order to make arguments about that history. Korean literature is normally intended to mean something, and so to be taken quite seriously.

According to Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per capita. This massive literary production has occurred despite the relative recency, only really emerging after World War II, of Korean literary history as an object of formal study and concern. Modern literature is also constrained by the “official” process that actively limits who can be considered an “author.”

Still, there is plenty of Korean literature about, and it is broadly divided into two eras: classical and modern. Classical literature lasted, roughly speaking, until the end of the 19th century, and modern literature began around the beginning of the 20th. Across these eras, Korean literature has had five major philosophical influences: Shamanism/Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Shamanism is expressed in emotionalism and ties to nature. Confucianism laid primary cultural importance on reading and writing, and thus has also had a profound impact on how seriously Koreans still take education and literature. At the same time Confucianism valued order and contemplation, and these two influences are also strong in Korean literature. Buddhism has had an influence that led to a certain kind of cyclicality, and sometimes passivity, that one often finds in Korean literature. Taoism also had some hand in this. In addition, Koreans were very deeply tied to nature and their land, and though not a formal philosophy, this is deeply reflected in Korean literature. In the modern era, Christianity has also had a strong influence.

These produced an oral literature portraying a love of and relationship to nature, within which an individual man was just one part of a much larger picture, an often quite mannered literature with evil deeds punished and good deeds (eventually) rewarded in a world of relationships structured by loyalty – to the King, to parents, to elders, to friends and to “proper” sexual relations (entailing chastity and male domination).

One interesting aspect of classical Korean literature is the question of the two “alphabets” used in Korean literature. For centuries in Korea, to use Chinese characters, to read, write and study was the mark of a cultured man, written Chinese being to the Korean intelligentsia exactly as Latin and Greek once was to the educated man of the West. Consequently, much early literature in Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese thought. There has been critical controversy over whether Korean literature written in classical Chinese counts as part of Korean literature, narrowly defined. For the purposes of this book, however, all literature written by Koreans, in any language, is considered “Korean literature.”

Its geographical location between the historical superpowers of China and Japan has made Korea fiercely independent, and though the country does have a history of internal strife, it has also fought to maintain its autonomy. This gives impetus to certain literary, including a strong internal definition and focus as well as a fear of separation and alienation. At the end of the classical period (roughly the turn of the 20th century), Korean literature began to struggle towards modernity, strongly influenced by “Western” ideas not directly imported from the West, but rather introduced through Japan and China.

The onset of Japanese colonial rule had effects that sped up the economic development of Korea in areas that supported Japanese expansionist desires, while crushing and distorting native development (particularly cultural and social development) in ways both predictable and unpredictable. The literary themes and approaches resulting from Korean philosophical and political history are multiple and, as in most societies, sometimes contradictory.

In order to better understand this, it might be best to first list these themes and approaches, then attempt to group them into logical categories. Here are some of the most important themes in Korean literature, most of which proceed from the philosophical bases of the society at the times, Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and far later, Christianity:

  • Loyalty
  • Order
  • Relationships
  • Fear of alienation
  • Fear of separation

These themes result from the relationship between a society based on a predetermined and fixed social structure (primarily developed from Confucian and Buddhist beliefs) and one constantly subject to the threat threat of dissolution or invasion, and one that from the three dynasties, until today has always been divided or threatened by division. Korean literature explores these themes repeatedly, resulting in another emergent theme: resentment at all of the above, despite the fact the culture embraces it.

Some resentment in Korean literature stems from the idea that a fixed social structure such as Confucianism is not flexible enough to deal with the alienation and separations it creates within its social structure. The Korean classic The Story Of Hong Gildong tightly concentrates on these inequities, and it is not alone: that theme resounds through literary history, finding different social inequities and different political and geographical schisms to focus on from era to era.

Over time these historical circumstances have included oppression by Japanese in the colonial era; a lack of opportunities for educated Koreans of both sexes in the colonial and post-war periods; the North-South and Communist-capitalist split in the postwar and industrial periods; the emerging schism between the classes, the countryside and city, and men and women as development took place; and during the postmodern ara, the removal of what reassurance fixed social structures once offered. This laundry list of unfortunate circumstances has in turn led to certain ideas that, it is generally fair to say, continue to affect Korean literature today, even as that literature turns, controversially, toward things more international and less specifically Korean. These ideas include those of xenophobia, natural literature, and han.

Xenophobia results, of course, from the kind of international-relations history Korea has experienced: essentially, other nations have rarely had good intentions with respect to Korea, and Korea has internalized this as defensive tactic. Koreans often refer to the nation as uri nara, or “our country,” and all non-Koreans, whether in Korea or in their homelands are known as waegukin, or “foreigners.” Given this attitude towards outsiders, and the historical difficulties Korea has faced, it comes as no surprise that Korean literature has largely been an explicitly national one, based on, and often didactically approaching, the issues that have confronted the nation.

The Korean word han carries a mixture of meanings, but it might be summed up as the sadness and resignation one feels knowing that few things will go as well as they could or should — that life is often externally dictated (by social status, religion, political exigencies, and so on), and that it contains deep-seated, unresolvable problems. In balance, the concept of jeong has to do with the relationship and feelings amongst people; it reflects, to put it perhaps too simply, a Korean desire for harmonious relationships even when things may not be completely harmonious themselves. It contains elements of affection, empathy, sympathy, and unspoken community.

Korean literature strongly reflects both han and jeong, and a fuller understanding of those concepts makes understanding the literature much easier. Even so, Korean translated literature can present difficulty to international readers, who run into obstacles like a lack of character agency in comparison to Western fiction; the prominence of relationships over plots; sometimes-flat characters; no requirement for conclusions, and genres based on a different set of social conventions and shared understanding.
Lack of agency, or the reduced role of the individual or hero, was until recently one of the signal qualities of modern Korean literature. Even for heroes like Hong Gildong (something like Korean equivalent of Robin Hood), “heroism” is essentially forced on them. The notion of an anti-hero has been nearly impossible. Korean characters put up with situations and conditions that would cause a Western character to snap because social situations are so strongly determined and han is so deeply embedded. Korean characters often let social expectations determine their actions, which can be difficult for English-language readers to understand.

KB - What Shaped Korean Lit 2

Similarly, plots can be perfunctory or even absent, foregrounding instead the relationships between the characters. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, written in 1936 by Lee Hyo-seok, might be the best example. Two men, one old and one young, traveling the rural salesman circuit of that era, meet a third “greenhorn” peddler. It becomes obvious that the latter two men are father and son, but by the story’s end this reality has never been admitted. The point is the relationship between them and — nature almost constituting the fourth character — the inevitable turning of the seasons.

Similarly, Hwang Sun-won’s 1954 The Descendants of Cain ends with the decision of the protagonists to attempt an escape from their village, but the reader never sees the attempt itself, even after scores of pages of the two main characters ignoring their own love and the possibility of escape itself. Korean literature doesn’t insist upon a formal plot or climactic ending, but in some cases, to Korean readers they may indeed have clear endings, ones based on a cultural and social understanding not always clear to non-Korean readers. From a Western perspective, flat characters can result from these influences, particularly under didactic authors. Acceding to the wishes of larger society or manipulated to further the authorial aims, they can seem much less than fleshed out, their individual motivations unclear.

Some genres do not match. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom represents something like a pastoral reverie, a genre that retains some importance in Korea, though primarily as a historical vestige. It has largely not existed in English literature since the time of Thoreau, if even then. The same can be said, to a great extent, of the Korean literature of separation (pundan munhak), which has no direct equivalent in English-language literature and a history unknown to most English-language readers.

Korea’s is nonetheless a remarkable literature produced from a remarkable history. In its particularly interesting modern form, it reflects the raw speed at which Korea has catapulted itself into the modern world. In less than eighty years, Korean literature has attempted to reprise a process that took the West’s at least three centuries. Fortunately, merely by knowing a very broad and simple outline of Korean history and society, this opacity can turn transparent, and translated Korean literature can open to a wide range of readers while at the same time introducing them to an immensely entertaining intersection of history, society, and culture.

Even better, publishers have in recent decades includes useful forewords, authorial comments and essays, afterwords, biographies, and critical commentaries in their books. All of this “external” text helps make the fiction more accessible to readers not intimately familiar with Korea and its culture. At the same time, more accessible books are being chosen for translation, and the translators themselves have grown increasingly adept at rendering their stories in easily readable English prose. That last is particularly relevant and amusing in its effect on what has been translated: the original absence of comedy and folk tales in translation is tied to the notion of the national nature of Korean literature, but in an unusual way.

Comedy is not absent in everything written the Korean language, but it usually has been absent from the works chosen for translation. This is for two reasons: first, that comedy is the hardest kind of writing to effectively translate, and second, that the importance of a “national” literature to Korea has favored certain kinds of mainly serious works for translation. Humor, most often broad or satirical, can be found in translation: the collection A Ready Made Life, for instance, while focusing on the effects of colonization, manages to include stories that both broadly humorous and genuinely witty.

A kind of “gatekeeping” has also gone on, primarily performed by educated Koreans who decided what should be represented in translation. The renowned translator Brother Anthony of Taizé has assembled Eerie Tales from Old Korea, a compilation of stories collected by 19th-century missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale. Hulbert and Gale’s fondness for ghost stories had them spending many years fruitlessly chasing down the Korean varieties, but local scholars at first insisted that such stories did not exist, presumably because of their association with folk beliefs, and therefore their insufficient “seriousness” to count as literature.
Thankfully, Hulbert and Gale persevered, eventually collecting a selection of yadam, short stories particularly popular in the Joseon period between the 14th and 19th centuries. To be fair, this kind of artificial gate-keeping has declined as translators, publishers, and organizations such as the Korean Literature Translation Institute have begun to widen the breadth of what is considered appropriate for translation. It seems fair to predict that, in the years to come, English-language readers will see more translations of Korean romances, comedies, “low” fiction, and other genres ignored in the past.

This chapter may be mistakenly read as calling Korean literature difficult or inaccessible, but that is not the intended point. Like all translated literature, a little judicious choice about what to read is advisable, particularly at the outset. The rewards of the ending far outweigh any confusion at the beginning. Once a reader wets their feet wet in the river of Korean literature, and if that reader understands why some things may initially seem strange strange, that reader has a world of discovery ahead of them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

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.


How Long Do You Intend to Stay? Via New Haven-Dieppe and John Berger

By John Shannon

In 1939 Henry Miller published a humorous autobiographical sketch in the forgotten pacifist journal Phoenix (Vol. 2, No 1) called “Via Dieppe-New Haven,” chronicling his failed 1935 attempt to ferry himself over the Channel to visit England. Having little cash on hand, he was sent straight back.

In 1973, knowing nothing about that illustrious attempted journey, I was living without much cash on hand in Southern England, also writing. I regularly ferried the exact reverse of Miller’s trip, from nearby New Haven to Dieppe, in order to stay in France a day or two, allay the Foreign Office’s suspicion, and then renew my two-month tourist visa with a big innocent smile. That’s the first irony.

I’ve always resisted writing anything like autobiography, because who the hell am I? But during that special year, the accidental influences, the social changes going on, and sheer dumb luck dropped me among people, issues, and books worth talking about.

In case you’re getting impatient, the books in question are by the great British art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger, who will turn 90 in November of this year. By my count Berger has written 35 books of essays, 11 novels, five screenplays, and several plays and collections of poetry. At least three of these are modern classics, picking apart the Swiss watch of the world to show where the springs are hidden. These are A Fortunate Man (1967), Ways of Seeing (1972), and A Seventh Man (1975), books that radically changed my life. Oh, yes, radically. But wait a bit. First, more ironies.

“He was in his mid thirties: at that time of life when, instead of being spontaneously oneself, as in one’s twenties, it is necessary, in order to remain honest, to confront oneself and judge from a second position.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

From 1968 to 1970, I taught school in Africa for the Peace Corps, and on school holiday I fell in love (well, sort of) with a beautiful young blonde I met in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. Later, on my way home through England, we met again as she was starting med school at Sussex University near Brighton.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer and I corresponded warmly on and off for years while I saved up enough money at meaningless writing jobs back home to escape Nixon’s America for good. We agreed that I would come to live with her. I saved, I scrimped, I borrowed — and bought a cheap one-way charter flight. But the day I showed up in Brighton I discovered what she’d neglected to tell me: she’d fallen madly in love with a charismatic German student named — let’s call him Rainer. That may not be an irony, but it was a shock. I had sold off and dismantled my life in America.

Rainer had been a student of Jürgen Habermas, the last of the great Frankfurt School critical theorists and post-structural Marxists. Rainer was also one of the leaders of the 1968 student uprisings in Frankfurt, a magnetic character, and a superb writer in both English and German (he ended up with Der Spiegel.) Within a day of my arrival Rainer and I were close friends and collaborating on translating Bertold Brecht’s allegorical Me-ti stories, humorous episodes that disguise Brecht’s practical non-dogmatic Marxism. (They weren’t in fact fully translated into English until 2016.)

Rainer and I recruited another student, call him Mike, and the three of us found a derelict nineteenth-century farmworker house (“tied cottage” is the British term) a half-mile outside a tiny village north of Brighton named Ringmer. The farmer was happy to let us fix it up. We painted, plastered, hammered, and furnished it from the dump (“the tip”) and various rummage sales (“jumblies”). And then Rainer, who had his eye on another woman, decided not to let Jennifer move in with us. Now that qualifies as irony. For me, anyway.

Mike was from a political family, too. His oldest sister was deeply involved in anti-racist politics in Birmingham and a leader in the Militant stream within the Labour Party. She became an MP and eventually entered Tony Blair’s cabinet, but she split with him over Iraq, bless her. Her whole combative family spent many weekends around our bright red kitchen table in Ringmer, arguing politics. Her younger sister was even more radical. This is all foreshadowing, if you stick it out with me.

Left-wing politics were as prevalent in England in the early 1970s as drizzly grey skies. You couldn’t step out of any tube in London without a dozen radical newspapers being thrust at you. I’d grown up in San Pedro alongside the children of Communist longshoremen, so none of that put me off. But by then an elite college (Pomona) had wrung most of the political thought out of me.

What the hell, I thought. I sat down at my upstairs desk — a door on bricks — and dove back into politics. In addition to working on a novel and journalism, I read Marx’s Capital and took careful notes. (Calling it Das Kapital in America is just the Cold War way of making it seem strange and alien, believe me. It’s Capital in England, Le Capital in France.) Then I read more Marx, a bit of the Frankfurt School, plus Gramsci and the post-structural Marxists. We all argued day in, day out, and my inner political ice shelf began breaking up during thaws and then refreezing in new shapes.

“Vulnerability may have its own private causes, but it often reveals concisely what is wounding and damaging on a much larger scale.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

The nub: As I started to situate myself within a new notion that social class can actually influence the way we see and think (it promotes a particular ideology, to be precise), a part of me rebelled. Way too crude, I thought. That famous Communist Manifesto doesn’t speak to me. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Hell, I’m not a proletarian waving a red banner. Brothers and sisters in manual labor, hell. (Though a few years later, back in America, I would choose to work in an industrial factory for two years. It’s okay, you can smirk.)

My inner American ice shelf was still largely intact in mid-1973 when I visited a friend in Brighton for a drink (probably Brendan Behan’s brother Brian, but that’s another story). He was preoccupied in his sitting room with a BBC TV show called Ways of Seeing. We didn’t have a telly out in Ringmer so I missed all of Monty Python, too! My eye caught on an almost lisping guy in a pointy disco collar who was talking about the hidden ideologies in advertising images that we don’t notice because we’re so overwhelmed by similar images.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“John Berger, arsehole. Our only real radical thinker— except me, of course.”

You’ll soon know a lot more about John Berger, if the loving four-part documentary film by Tilda Swinton and others titled The Seasons in Quincy ever finds American distribution. It was a hit at the last Berlin Film Festival, but that means little in the States. PBS has never shown John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It is, as far as I know, the only BBC show about art that was turned back at Ellis Island.

I immediately bought as many of John Berger’s books as I could find in Brighton. Berger has won a Booker Prize for a novel called G (1972) that I find quite odd but also fun and readable, despite the fact that “odd” has never been my thing in novels. But mostly he’s a stunning aphoristic essayist about art and our world. And he’s gone on writing his essays even after retreating four decades ago to the life of a peasant farmer in the middle of nowhere in France — in Quincy, pronounced “Keen-sy.” He has documented this life, too, in his novelesque trilogy Into Their Labors (1991), probably better known by the title of the first book, Pig Earth (1979). Yeah, geniuses get to go off into caves and do stuff like that.

Here’s my take on Berger’s most powerful books, in the order that they came at me:

1. Ways of Seeing. This is the one that crashed through my ice shelf for real. The most important thing it taught me is that critical theory and social analysis is not that crude Stalinist nonsense about tractors and heroes of labor. It’s a painstaking and scrupulous analysis of the assumptions that lie under the surface of our lives, and of the art that arises from it. For me this idea took off in essays 2 and 3, which concern artistic depictions of women and men. Berger talks about how men are usually shown in Western art in terms of what they can do to you or for you. Women, on the other hand, are forced to pose in terms of what can be done to them: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought as the success of her life.”

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Go ahead, Berger challenges, look at any famous painting of a nude woman — say, Goya’s The Naked Maja (1797-1800) — and imagine a man’s face on it: “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

I guess this insight has become almost a commonplace in feminist studies now, but 40-some years ago, it staggered me.

The next essay (No. 5), about how European oil painting reduced the world to things and materiality, was less affecting, but still convincing: “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. […] What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the luster, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”

Finally, after another photo prelude, there’s the written version of the piece that caught my eye on the telly. Essay 7 is about advertising images. “No era before ours,” writes Berger, “has constructed such a dense assault of imagery on its citizens. “ Ads rarely tell you the advantages of a specific product (there probably aren’t any). They’re meant to make you envy the glamorous world you’re looking at, where handsome models are never unhappy and possess a VIP pass to everything. These images make us nebulously dissatisfied with who we are and subtly suggest that buying whatever commodity is shown will change it all. Buy and be!

(The TV version of Ways of Seeing is on YouTube, if you want to watch in small bites. You’ll get to see that embarrassing disco shirt.)

2. A Fortunate Man. Not the first Berger I read, but maybe the most powerful. It starts out as the tale of a compassionate country doctor in an isolated community in Gloucestershire near Wales. In the book he’s called Dr. John Sassall. I hear now that many medical schools in England make the it required reading.

Berger looks at specific examples from the doctor’s practice, some quite astonishing, but gently and gradually the focus shifts to unraveling the cultural and economic deprivations that have been visited upon the villagers he treats: “They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. […] The culturally deprived have far fewer ways of recognizing themselves. […] Their chief means of self-expression is consequently through action: this is one of the reasons why the English have so many ‘do-it-yourself’ hobbies.” The men speak to one-another endlessly about “a motor-car engine, a football match.” Some critics of Berger consider this attitude condescending, but I grew up in the American suburbs, with men wandering from open garage to garage on weekends, beer can in hand, discussing their “projects,” and I find it acutely perceptive.

Dr. Sassall is a “fortunate man” because he’s the village’s healer, their shaman, their personal witness, and, more importantly, because he’s been able to examine his own life and its pains as most of them cannot: “The privilege of being subtle is the distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate.” Indeed, Berger’s analysis accounts for the anti-intellectualism of the working poor, which so many of us find so frustrating: “[A]ll theory seems to most of the local inhabitants to be the privilege and prerogative of distant policy-makers. The intellectual — and this is why they are so suspicious of him — seems to be part of the apparatus of the State.”

By the end, Berger’s book has taken a turn — one almost unnoticed, because he writes so artfully — toward an insightful deconstruction of Western Civilization.

In assessing Sassall, Berger says, “I do not claim to know what a human life is worth — the question cannot be answered by word but only by action, by the creation of a more human society. All that I do know is that our present society wastes and, by the slow draining process of enforced hypocrisy, empties most of the lives which it does not destroy.”

Dr. Sassall’s real name was Dr. John Eskell, and, alas, the human needs of the residents of St. Briavels, as well as his own inner needs, finally consumed him. At age 62 he killed himself by gun and was reportedly denied a cemetery plot in the village where he served as healer and witness for years.

3. A Seventh Man. Before the recent flood of Syrian war refugees to Europe, every “seventh man” doing manual labor in Germany or England, and every fourth in France, was a guest-worker, almost invariably from the shores of the Mediterranean. To put it crudely — Turks to Germany and North Africans to France.

The word “man” is basically accurate. Most left their wives and children at home, in their impoverished villages, waiting for their men to return with a tiny bit of saved capital. Sometimes enough to build a house or start a small business. At its most poignant, this is as little as the money needed to buy a home bathroom scale and set it up in the village square as “Your weight for a penny.”

A large portion of this book is theoretical, about how the Third World has been systematically “underdeveloped.” (It was the Cubans who decided that was a verb.) Most of Berger’s statistics and theory about globalization are dated now. But what remains moving is the impressionistic access he proposes to the thoughts and feelings of the bewildered migrants themselves, faced with an opaque world that sees them as inferior beings. Or doesn’t see them at all.

“Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station,” he writes. It’s a kind of magic connection with home, a place of activity where they are accepted, though only as spectators. They come “[t]o talk in groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news from their home, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.” Berger takes us to the station’s exit, where a worker finds others “talking in his own language. The words of it are like foliage re-appearing on a tree after winter.”

A village butcher becomes a worker in a giant abattoir, slaughtering cattle so rapidly he nearly hallucinates: “[T]he flow of heads to be washed and hoofs to be shifted never ceased, he began to have the impression that the machines were multiplying the animals: that they took one and turned it into a hundred.” After work he wanders the city, a bit stunned: “[H]e became more and more conscious that there were no animals to be seen.” From the nature of the village to the artifice of the city — in a single leap.

Another worker tacks up photos of women around the bunk in his crowded rooming house, “a votive fresco of twenty women, nude and shameless. The prayer is that his own virility be one day recognized.” And everything he is and knows.

The book’s argument is this: “To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its center. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment. What is being done to him, even with his own complicity, under the cover of normalcy?”

These three books of John Berger examine the ideologies hidden in the ways we perceive the world, in the ways we value or can’t value human lives, and what our system does to those from the third world without us even thinking about it. John Berger made me think about that for the rest of my life.


John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is:


Shifting Towards Clinton: A Voter’s Evolution

By Da Chen

During my recent visit to China, I was astounded by the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, the orange-haired, China-bashing, abrasive Westerner. But rather than hating him, the general feeling was more like the tolerant affection one might have toward a spoiled child — or toward someone who might benefit China because of his greed for profit and disdain for human sensitivity.

The Asian media was no less excited about Hillary Clinton, whose Chinese name is Xi Lai Li, literarily meaning: Hope arrives with beauty. Books on Hillary Clinton, however, are few in China due to her political unpopularity with the government. In America, they are much more abundant. Among that long list, I discovered online this elegant volume called The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, written by Sonya Huber.

The blurb for this book claims that “Sonya Huber’s short and accessible book takes a ‘balanced’ look on Hillary,” and I find the tone of the book delightful. It provides us with a highly personal and intimate look into the woman called Hillary Clinton.

The author, Huber, is a college English professor and a labor activist who switched her party from Unaffiliated to Democrat, for the sole purpose of voting for Bernie Sanders. She originally rejected a publishing proposal to write a guide book on Hillary Clinton, repulsed by how much Bill Clinton had slashed welfare two decades earlier, while claiming to be a Democrat. But her curiosity was piqued.

Although she voted for Sanders in the Connecticut Democrat primary, she was chafed by the increasing centrality of “Bernie Bros” to Sanders’s campaign and the nagging perception of mansplaining by the candidate himself. In contrast, “Clinton became an anchor point, a concrete representation for women about the struggles of women in the United States and she became appealing because of the very dynamics of the conversation about her.”

The hate Trump supporters have for Hillary, for instance, are what Huber calls “a mix of retrograde sexism and anti-establishment resistance.” It was this stench of sexism that motivated her into writing this book.

Huber dissects Clinton’s political commitments, while chronicling her own political evolution. Clinton is Coca-Cola to the Bush family’s Pepsi, she writes, accusing Bill Clinton of creating the New Democrats, a group that undermined welfare and brought about mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.

Huber is also critical of Clinton’s early history in Arkansas, when she served on Wal-Mart’s board, where Sam Walton called Hillary “a very strong willed young woman.” But Huber notes that in a state notorious for its weak labor movement, Clinton did nothing to help.

On Hillarycare, an issue dear to the author’s heart, Huber wrote that, it was not the profit interests that derailed Clinton’s healthcare reform; rather it was the fact that as a woman and First Lady, she was seen as overstepping her role, and her power thus interpreted as “evil”; her gender toppled her legislation. Of course that “failure” nonetheless served as the template that President Obama used to draft the Affordable Care Act.

As time passes, Huber notices her attitude toward Hillary changing. She concludes by saying:

I find myself surprised by how much I am drawn to Hillary as a leader: she’s not a show-boat who plays politics for the sake of racking up points. She seems much less interested in exacting revenge than her husband was. She works hard, she’s intelligent, pragmatic, and experienced. She has been through decades of continuous public scrutiny and crashing humiliation, and yet manages to get up and smile in a way that seems genuine […]. Hillary isn’t just any woman; she is a woman who has taken good positions as well as bad with regard to women’s lives. Those positions are what her supporters are excited about.

By the closing pages, I found myself moved by the passion in her words. Although it is a long way off in China, maybe it’s time we Americans had our first female president.


Author bio: Da Chen, a graduate of Columbia Law School, is a New York Times bestselling author from China, who lives in Temecula.


The Union Libel: On the Argument Against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed

By Emmett Rensin

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed itself for the second time in this century: graduate student instructors at private universities once again have the right to unionize. With the ranks and working hours of non-tenured faculty far exceeding what they were twelve years ago, and interest among graduate students in unionizing far higher too, the decision represents a significant and hard-won victory for what remains of the American labor movement.

The administrators of elite private universities have responded to the decision with all the enthusiasm of their assembly-line-owning ancestors. In the past several days, many have begun issuing open letters to their students, discouraging them from taking advantage of their newfound right to collective bargaining. They are very concerned, you see. The private university is a special place, and formalizing the relationship between administrators and the non-tenured faculty who now perform roughly half of the undergraduate education in this country might spoil the rarified air.

What is remarkable — as the political theorist and CUNY professor Corey Robin has pointed out — is how similar all these letters are, how each, despite its excessive personalization and focus on the individual needs of the university, manage to raise the same three or four specters every time: “You’re students, not employees.” “You’re privileged educational elites, not poor laborers.” “A union will come between you and the faculty that wants to love you (but can’t, if you let a union get in the way).”

It is this last item that I am particularly interested in, this notion that a special, intimate relationship exists between graduate students and tenured faculty that could not possibly survive a collective bargaining process. A particularly shameless example of this line comes from Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago — the university where I was once an undergraduate. In light of the NLRB’s decision, he informed a university-wide listhost on Wednesday, it is “more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education.”

“Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors,” Zimmer wrote. It wasn’t the fundamental unwillingness of managers throughout human history to embrace unionization efforts, but rather “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” that had him worried. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities. […] It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.” A labor union “will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students” by focusing “on the collective interests of members while they are in the union,” something that “could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.” Decisions made based on the “collective interests” of a labor force? My god.

One wonders how deeply Zimmer must pity those poor public universities — Berkeley, Michigan, UW-Madison, obscure places, really — where unionization has long been a fact of life. When a newly-minted Chicago PhD secures an increasingly rare tenure-track position at an institution like Berkeley, does their advisor shake their hand, smile broadly, then whisper, “Just so you know, the union there will make it impossible for you to care for your advisees as I have cared for you”? The University of Iowa, where I am presently a unionized graduate student instructor, has seen twenty years of successive union contracts secure vastly superior working conditions. My advisor has not yet referred to me as “employee” in a distant way, sad memories of happier days scarcely hidden behind cold eyes — but perhaps I am the exception.

One also wonders how this all comports with The University of Chicago’s incessantly reiterated commitment to open inquiry and debate, a life of the mind unencumbered by emotional concerns (i.e., “special relationships” between human beings, one assumes). This is, after all, the institution which has just informed incoming undergraduates that it does not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” because such warnings and spaces undermine the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Is it possible that in the bustle of all that freedom, these high-minded academics failed to take a cursory glance at academic research into the question of graduate student unions? “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” is a subtle title, I know, but the conclusions of that study are not:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

I have not been a student at Chicago for some time now. I have never been a student at Yale, or Columbia, or any of the other top-tier academies so concerned by the chilling effect of union bureaucracy on the warm relationships between faculty and their adjunct servants. Perhaps they really cannot afford higher salaries or more generous benefits — they can’t even afford JSTOR subscriptions.

Yet surely access to academic databases is not beyond the reach of a man like Robert Zimmer, a man who saw his total compensation double over the course of five years, reaching $3.4 million dollars in 2014, and placing him atop the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents. Perhaps the “special relationship” truly imperiled here is the one between administrators and their universities. Being forced to negotiate fair contracts with the adjunct and graduate student instructors — who perform the bulk of daily labor, servicing undergraduate customers in exchange for their exorbitant, federally-subsidized tuitions — might cut into the cash pot elite universities ordinarily reserve for the hiring of new administrators and the subsidizing of profitable athletic programs. (The athletes themselves cannot unionize either, of course. They are not even paid.)

But then, as President Zimmer informs his charges in Chicago, none of this is necessary. “Recent experiences” — not research, mind you, experiences — “demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans, and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends […] increased remuneration for teaching […] expansion of health insurance coverage” and “child care grants,” among other benefits. In other words, there is no need to force our benevolence: you’ve already got it. But never forget, those gains are contingent on our benevolence. Under true negotiating conditions? “It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.”

Indeed — who knows what outcomes collective bargaining might achieve in the neo-gothic halls of Chicago, in Harvard Yard, or in Morningside Heights? Surely nothing so generous as the benefits that administrators like Zimmer have already granted by the magnanimity of their own spirits, by the kindness of every manager who has ever said We’re only against this union because we have your best interests at heart.

“We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union,” Zimmer writes. After all, it’d be a shame if anything happened to that pretty special relationship of yours.


Nuts! The Bursting of the Chinese Walnut Bubble

By Austin Dean

Walk down the street in Beijing and you’ll encounter a certain type of character: buzz cut, paunchy stomach, probably tattooed, likely taking drags from a cigarette as he barks into a cell phone. He’s probably also sporting a bracelet or necklace (or both) made of walnut shells strung together. This guy might be a gangster; more likely he’s plain old Chinese nouveau riche.

The walnut jewelry links him back to beliefs and practices from imperial China, though he might not realize the extent of this cultural inheritance. He probably selected these accessories simply to demonstrate that he can afford them. This guy and his peers have made walnut-shell jewelry and other products hot commodities—creating the Great Chinese Walnut Bubble. Like so many other bubbles before it, the bubble has now popped.

The price of walnuts in China exploded between 2008 and 2013, driven by demand not for the edible meat, but the outer shell. Big, symmetrical, colorful shells became prized items. As one farmer remarked at the height of the craze, a pair or shells could be more “more expensive than gold, in terms of weight.”

There’s a lot you can do with walnut shells besides crush them to get at the meat inside. Some people twirl two of them across the palm of their hand, often while walking; others wear walnut bracelets or necklaces that have been carved with intricate designs of Daoist figures or natural scenes. As one walnut carver explained, his designs focus on “longevity, safety, reunion, faithful love, health, and wealth.” But some prefer to forego any carvings and leave the shells as is because “no craftsman can create anything as beautiful as these natural patterns.” With so much money at stake, the aesthetics of walnut design is a serious topic.

There are numerous ways to get involved in the market. You can buy the end products, you can get into the wholesale business or, most speculative or all, you can buy the rights to future walnut shells while they’re still hanging from the tree and covered in green skin. You could end up with prize shells or with duds—the nut business is a risky one.

As with any bubble, there were historic, cultural, and economic reasons behind the sky-rocketing walnut prices.

Chinese emperors and officials rotated pairs of them in their hands to promote circulation. Walnuts became a gift traded among the Chinese elite, part status symbol and part health remedy. As one walnut farmer remarked, “Mainly the walnuts are good for the body, that’s why people play with them.” In fact, the very act of twirling the walnut shells will, over time, give them a red, glossy polish, making them even more valuable, or so the thinking goes.

And let’s not forget our friend from Beijing with his walnut jewelry. He represents the segment of the population for whom this cultural inheritance became cool, As one article from the height of the bubble observed, buying, wearing, and speculating in walnut shells was “especially popular among the newly wealthy and gangsters profiting from Beijing’s grey economy.” The walnut craze also had a gendered aspect; though it’s impossible to cite statistics, it seemed to be primarily a male pastime.

At the level of individual decision-making, the walnut bubble reflected a shortage of assets to invest in. The Chinese stock market is a mess, rates on bank deposits are abysmal, and average citizens are only allowed to move a certain amount of money out of the country each year. As a result, a lot of investment goes into housing. But if you already have an apartment (or three) and you want to put your money to work in some way, then walnuts (as well as tea, garlic, and jade) might start to look quite appealing. If you think wearing walnut-shell necklaces looks cool and prices are likely to rise, then, well, all the better.

But the good days are likely over for walnut speculators. As a number of Chinese media outlets have recently reported, the walnut market is not the same as it once was. Walnut shells themselves are quite fragile—easily scratched, broken, or damaged—and so is the walnut market.

One of the traditional homes of walnut carving is in Zhoushancun, near Suzhou, on the east coast of China. It has been epicenter of change in the walnut market during the past few years. As prices rose, people flooded into the business: stay-at-home moms and former fruit vendors learned how to carve walnuts; teenagers entered the trade; famous walnut carvers swamped with orders farmed out production; walnut bracelets and necklaces designed using computer programs emerged.

In 2014, the Chinese walnut crop was 35% higher than normal. Supply went up. Quality, or perceived quality, went down—and so did prices and sales volume.

At the height of the walnut craze, growers and vendors didn’t even have to bring their goods to market. The market came to them, with waves of cars from urban areas descending on the countryside. That’s no longer the case.

At the retail level, a store that grossed 2-3 million yuan in monthly sales in 2012 or 2013 is now doing a small fraction of that. One shop owner told a television reporter that she now has to call up former customers to see if they’re interested in the most recent arrivals. In 2013, she wouldn’t have had to chase customers for their business.

With sales down, the retailer is naturally pickier about what types of walnut shells she displays. On her rounds to various walnut carvers, she rejects a number of samples as too poorly designed. This change filters down through the walnut industry. One walnut carver (a former fruit vendor) noted that she’s trying to renegotiate her rent payments on her small carving studio and store. Carvers, in turn, are more demanding about the types of walnut shells they procure for wholesale merchants—not just any pair will do.

The nut business, clearly, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.