Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics: An Introduction and Reading

The Last Bookstore and the Los Angeles Review of Books are pleased to present the editors and translators of Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics. Join Olivia C. Harrison, Guy Bennett, and Lia Brozgal for this special book launch event on Thursday March 24 at 7:30 PM, sponsored by the Los Angeles Review of Books, and learn about an incandescent corpus of experimental leftist writing from North Africa — now made available in English for the first time.

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics makes available, for the first time in English, an incandescent corpus of experimental leftist writing from North Africa. Founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and several other avant-garde Moroccan poets and banned in 1972, Souffles-Anfas was one of the most influential literary, cultural, and political reviews to emerge in postcolonial North Africa. An early forum for tricontinental postcolonial thought and writing, the journal published texts ranging from experimental poems, literary manifestoes, and abstract art to political tracts, open letters, and interviews by some of the period’s most important artists and intellectuals, including Abdelkebir Khatibi, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Albert Memmi, Abraham Serfaty, Etel Adnan, Sembene Ousmane, Amilcar Cabral, René Depestre, and Mohamed Melehi.

This talk charts the journal’s evolution from Francophone poetry review to French and Arabic tribune of the radical left and highlights its interventions into key postcolonial debates, including the uses of French and Arabic in the Maghreb, studies of the Maghrebi Jewish diaspora, and the question of Palestinian sovereignty. Reflections on the journal’s resonances with the recent pro-democracy protests across North Africa and the Middle East as well as the renewed struggle for civil rights in the United States will allow us to assess the journal’s enduring legacy in Morocco, the Maghreb, and the decolonizing world.

For more information, visit The Last Bookstore.



‘The Oxford English Dictionary’: A Great Read in Alphabetical Order and Otherwise

By  Edward Finegan

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary” David Bowie exclaimed to an interviewer in 1999 — and, in tribute, added, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” It is about everything — everything with a name — and it is really long. Nor is it a stretch to regard it as poetic: Shakespeare is the most frequently cited author of the OED’s illustrative quotations. David Bowie may not have read the whole OED, but a furniture mover named Ammon Shea recently did just that. He read all of its 21,730 pages — and judged it “a great read.” In the OED he found “all of the human emotions and experiences … just as they would be in any fine work of literature,” even if, as he wryly noted, in the OED those emotions and experiences “just happen to be alphabetized.”[1] Plainly, Bowie and Shea were blessed with a touch of onomatomania!

Other “onomatomaniacs” regularly grab the headlines. News outlets run stories about the word of the year, or WOTY, chosen by one organization or another. In January 2016, members of the American Dialect Society anointed they as their WOTY. Its utility as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person — a substitute for the gendered pronouns he and she — won this 800-year-old humble pronoun that commendation! Besides simple words like they, the American Dialect Society accepts compounds and phrases as candidates and even hashtags and emojis. Last year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter won their vote, and two years earlier hashtag itself was the winner. If dictionaries are alphabetized repositories of words, we might ask what kinds of expression are eligible to appear in them. With the Oxford English Dictionary announcing revisions to its latest version every three months, we can address that question by reviewing recent additions.

About 500 updates were announced in late 2015 — expressions and senses added just in the preceding quarter: words like improvisor, locavore, phablet, subcommittee, and truther, along with compounds like attack ad, bankroller, commitment ceremony and commitment ring, exit interview and exit polling, firepit, fire hydrant, and fire sale, granny chic and granny gear, improvised explosive device and IED, location scout, strength training, and true believer. Among newly added phrases were fight fire with fire and be firing on all cylinders. Some updates captured expressions that had appeared only recently in print: locavore in 2005; phablet in 2010. While truther may seem novel, it’s been around for over a century, and bankroller dates to 1930, improvisor to 1830, and firepit to 1500. For a surprising number of updates, then, the OED is merely catching up. Dictionaries are linguistic laggards, not leaders!

Among recent “blends” added to the OED are autotune, bromance, photobomb, cybrarian, sext, sexploit, shockumentary, staycation, hacktivism, voluntourism, and twerk (a word since 1820, possibly blending twitch or twist and jerk); among compounds, Blu-ray, crowdfunding, pageview, stir-fry, tan line, tea partier, hoverboard, and the verb waterboard; among words derived by prefixing, declutter and retweet. More liberal now than in its first edition, the new OED contains foodie, gazillionaire, artsy, carb, trash talk, party animal, street cred, prenup, shopaholic and infoholic, app, McJob, studmuffin, LOL and OMG, shout-out, tighty-whities, wackadoodle, fashionista, schwag, blamestorming, selfie, 24-7, and about 8,000 other colloquial expressions. It also contains over two hundred “coarse slang” terms and senses, including dipshit, hump, Masshole, pissy, pole, screw, shag, and dozens that include the F-word. A 60-year-old euphemism itself, F-word first appeared in the OED only in 2008.

So how do editors decide what goes into the OED — and when? Well, the primary data upon which the OED relies for definitions and for tracing the evolution in a word’s meaning are real-life quotations. To nourish the first OED, volunteer readers around the world submitted slips of paper, each containing an illustrative quotation — a sentence with a single word underlined (and including details of its source). Today, via the Internet anyone anywhere can furnish quotations in response to editors’ appeals, and modern-day crowdsourcing provides the authoritative basis for OED definitions. Contributors tackle newspapers and diaries; specialist magazines (treating, say, jazz or pop culture) and journals (treating, say, medicine or astronomy); cook books, movie scripts — any venue where a vibrant English is in use. More than three million quotations breathe life into the OED, reflecting in words an evolving view of the world shaped for English-speakers by their adaptive language during the past thousand years. Beyond that, inquiries by people visiting the online dictionary — words typed into its search function — provide a heads-up about new and trending words that can indicate those missing from the dictionary. Editors may then seek published quotations containing previously unnoticed expressions or senses, and assess how widely they are used. Editors also mine other dictionaries — such as the Dictionary of American Regional English — to detect overlooked words.

Today, the vast resources of language on the Internet provide illustrative quotations that document a word’s meaning, origins, and utility. As a consequence of its reliance on real-world quotations, the OED is a descriptive dictionary — it illustrates and explains how English speakers actually use their language, and it doesn’t prescribe how editors — or anyone else — think they should use it. While many a language priss or fuss-pot may lambaste a dictionary that fails to prescribe, the OED prides itself on describing the living language and its history.

Despite an abundance of online language materials and mammoth computing power, lexicography — like language itself — remains a creative enterprise. Being a historical dictionary, the OED endeavors to document the development of English words from their beginnings to the present day. When the project was conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, its visionaries couldn’t imagine what labor and time their “New English Dictionary” would require. The first unbound “fascicle,” covering the letters A to Ant, was published in 1884, and by time the 128th — and final — fascicle appeared in 1928 the treatment of many words at the head of the alphabet had become outdated, and other words in widespread use were missing.

One famous example involves appendicitis. The word had first appeared in print in 1886, but OED editor James Murray excluded it: too erudite and rare. Then, in 1902, when the coronation of Edward VII was postponed to accommodate an attack of appendicitis, his subjects — and English speakers worldwide — were left to wonder what it was! Changed by World War I, the English language and the dictionary encapsulating it needed to reflect new realities, incorporating military and war terms and a wide range of cultural expressions, and a supplement appeared in 1933. Again, in 1957, following another world war and great cultural changes, work started on a new supplement, which appeared in four large tomes between 1972 and 1986. The second edition of the OED, incorporating the four-volumes, included a huge expansion of 20th-century terms, especially in science and technology, and far better coverage of English outside Britain. On a tour of the United States, R. W. Burchfield, the supplement’s editor, acknowledged that “The center of gravity for the English language is no longer Britain” and conceded that “American English is the greatest influence on English everywhere.”

English may be said to have started in the middle of the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain. Since that time, English speakers have come into contact with peoples speaking hundreds of languages, and as a consequence English has “borrowed” tens of thousands of words from scores of languages. Names of foods are among the most obvious borrowings. In cities around the world, ethnic restaurants familiarize English speakers with terms to spice up their wordhoard. As examples, miso, ramen, sashimi, shiitake, soy, sushi, tempura, teriyaki, tofu, and wasabi come from Japanese; kimchi from Korean; tahini, falafel, harissa, shawarma, tabbouleh, halal from Arabic; and dal, ghee, and chutney from Hindi. Reflecting various historical and cultural touchstones are other borrowings: from Korean, tae kwon do; from Arabic, alcohol, alcove, algebra, alkali, almanac (all beginning with the Arabic definite article), and mujahidin, hijab, loofah, fedayeen, jihad, medina, and intifada; from Hindi, jungle, rupee, raj, yoga, guru, veranda, cot, thug, sari, dinghy, bangle, cheetah, loot, chintz, sangha, ganja, gunny, and swami; and from Japanese, Zen, samurai, tsunami, kimono, tycoon, haiku, karate, rickshaw, shogun, geisha, judo and ju-jitsu, kamikaze, bonsai, kanji, ginkgo, karaoke, sumo, futon, koi, origami, kudzu, honcho, ninja — and over 500 more.

Visitors to the OED Online can readily discover that from American or Mexican Spanish come abalone, Apache, charro, Chicana and Chicano, coyote, gringo, hoosegow, and stampede (alongside food names like burrito, chilli, fajita, taco, and tamale). Given the prominence of Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, it’s no accident that the Spanish word quinceañera first appeared in an English-language newspaper published in Van Nuys (in 1972). Los Angeles also has a significant Persian-speaking community, through whose language directly or indirectly have come ayatollah, baksheesh, bazaar, caravan, cummerbund, dervish, dinar, divan, khaki, kiosk, pashmina, seersucker, shah, sherbet, taffeta, and turban. From Hawaiian comes wiki (shortened from wikiwiki ‘quick quick’), while hickory, hominy, moccasin, skunk, sockeye, tepee, toboggan, tomahawk, wickiup, and woodchuck come directly or indirectly from Native American languages, as do place names like Illinois, Oklahoma, and Malibu.

Not all words have known origins, and OED Online makes it easy to identify posh, gizmo, honky-tonk, reggae, nifty, jalopy, bonkers, bozo, smidgen, boondoggle, pizzazz, barf, fuddy-duddy, and boffin as terms seemingly from nowhere. But such informal words aren’t the only ones that thwart etymologists: the origins of girl, big, dog, beach, and other core words also remain baffling.

In print dictionaries we rely on the alphabet to locate a word and its meaning, and the 21st-century OED Online remains alphabetical, with meanings organized chronologically (and by part of speech) within its entries. Alphabetically, abalone follows abalienation and desk follows desize, but there is no shared meaning within the pairs. Our discussion above peeked at words through the lenses of word type (blends and compounds) and language source (Persian and Hindi). Within language sources we discussed foods, a semantic category of words. Had it suited our purpose, we could have organized the discussion solely by categories of meaning: food (sushi, taco, kimchi, chutney), sport and recreation (tae kwan do, karate, sumo), combat (kamikaze, mujahidin, tomahawk), fabric (chintz, khaki, taffeta), and dress (cummerbund, sari, turban). Even a dictionary that lists meaning relationships like synonym (shut for close) and antonym (close for open) doesn’t allow meaning connections to be systematically pursued. Instead, the job of organizing words according to their meaning falls to a thesaurus, and despite Roget’s influential lead it’s a gigantic challenge to systematize meanings meaningfully.

To help in that endeavor, OED Online links to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2009 after decades spent designing a suitable system other than the alphabet. In the end, the Historical Thesaurus organized words under three top-level categories of meaning — the external world, the mind, and society, each with subcategories and subcategories of subcategories. As an example, alongside the OED’s definition of Hollywood (“The American film industry, its characteristics and background; (also) a film produced in Hollywood”), a link to the thesaurus yields two kinds of information: the hierarchy categorizing this meaning of Hollywood (society > leisure > the arts > performance arts > cinematography …) and — in historical order — the words in the OED that share that meaning: filmland, Hollywood, Tinseltown, and la-la land. A monumental work itself, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reorganizes all the OED’s words in accordance with their meaning.

Our discussion of the OED, citing so many categories of words, could not have been written using only a print edition customarily found in a library reading room. Online search capabilities were crucial. With links to the thesaurus and a fistful of search functions, OED visitors can access a vibrant language in a dynamic historical dictionary that remains alphabetical in its organization but invites exploration in a dozen alternative ways as well. With frequent announcements of revisions and with fascinating search options, OED Online is the most stimulating and informative window on the development of English vocabulary and, over the course of a millennium, the evolution of the notions, concepts, and meanings captured in English words. Beyond linguistic matters, today’s OED invites social, cultural, and historical exploration in ways hardly imagined before the 21st century. Visits to the OED, traveled along the alphabet or alternate routes, have the power to reshape how we organize our knowledge of the world through words: the Oxford English Dictionary is about everything — everything with a name!

[1] Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008)

Edward Finegan is Professor of Linguistics and Law, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California.

This essay is connected to Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary, a Library Foundation of Los Angeles project. The project will also host an unprecedented dual language English and Spanish spelling bee in the Mark Taper Auditorium of Downtown LA’s  historic Central Library this Saturday, March 19.

Image courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

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We All Had a Hard Time Back Then: Lee Seung-U’s ‘The Private Lives of Plants’

By Colin Marshall 

This is the first in a series of posts on the Library of Korean Literature, a series of modern novels and books of short stories in English translation published by Dalkey Archive Press in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

I once heard the Korean filmmaker Lee Sang-woo make a remark that shed a lot of light on the expectations of an international “art” filmmaker. He named Titanic as his personal favorite movie and claimed to want to do nothing more than make a silly romantic comedy, yet to that point had a filmography full of grim microbudget features set among Korea’s more desperate classes with names like Father Is a Dog (아버지는 개다) and Mother Is a Whore (엄마는 창녀다). He’d made them, he said, because film festivals go for them; they want to see the “dark side” of the places their movies come from, so he’d obligingly darkened it up every time. (He said it at a Q&A following his latest picture, a high-school story of drugs, prostitution, cancer, and sex addiction.)

Lee Seung-u’s The Private Life of Plants (식물들의 사생활), which opens with its narrator driving around looking for working girls for his disfigured brother who, without regular sexual activity, goes into thrashing, terrifying fits — and this as an alternative to the brother’s former practice of having his mother carry him on her back to the brothels — at first struck me as an example of the same phenomenon. If world cinema has this festival-driven bias toward extravagant misery, might smaller and more “serious” publishers have incentivized the same thing in world literature? But the more I read, the more the novel deviated from my expectations — and the more pleasingly strange it became.

We learn that the narrator, Ki-hyeon, feels responsible for the loss of his brother Woo-hyeon’s legs. It happened due to an explosion during a military training exercise, and he got sent off to the military as a punishment for have taken the wrong pictures during his brief time as an avid photographer. “I remember the days when my brother was always on the streets with his camera,” remembers Ki-hyeon. “It was a time when Seoul often teemed with demonstrators and the air was filled with tear gas. His eyes watering and nose running, he devotedly clicked his shutter. He took photos of the police throwing tear gas bombs and wielding their clubs wile charging against protesters. He snapped shots of protesters throwing firebombs against the police shields, and photos of grimacing passerby, running for safety to avoid exploding tear gas bombs.”

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This could only have been the mid-1980s, when clashes in the street between between the people and the government, one side usually represented by college students and the other by equally youthful troops of riot police, gained both frequency and intensity. These and other disturbances would ultimately force South Korea into a kind of democracy, but not without serious loss of life and abuse of power. Lee dramatizes the heavy hand of the state in the fate of Woo-hyeon, arrested and forcefully enlisted after a police raid of the family home discovers what he’d been photographing. Their authorities had got their tipoff, it seems, from an unfinished roll of film left in Woo-hyeon’s Nikon after Ki-hyeon, effectively kicked out of the house and feeling vengeful, sold it to a camera shop for pocket money.

“I learned the truths of our times through your photos,” says an apologetic Ki-hyeon to the legless, vocationless Woo-hyeon years later. “I didn’t read newspapers; I didn’t need to, because nothing was more honest than your photos. I saw the raw truth in them. Through your photos I learned of the sadness and despair of our reality and I saw its anger and tears.” But Woo-hyeon has long since left photography behind, along with almost everything else but the fits, the prostitutes, and the occasional haunting, dissociative monologue about trees. He seems not even to think any longer of Soon-mee, his girlfriend from before the arrest and the wedge driven between the two brothers that, in a way, motivated Ki-hyeon to steal the camera in the first place: since he couldn’t have the girl on whom he’d developed a romantic fixation, he’d take the object of his brother’s intellectual fixation.

Having moved back into the family house, Ki-hyeon, whose ne’er-do-well ways had never benefited from comparison to those of the formerly serious, high-achieving Woo-hyeon, finds the motivation to start his own business, a one-man errand-running agency called Bees and Ants (“a name I greatly admired”). No sooner has he installed a phone line and bought a few ads than a client rings him up hiring to tail his own mother. Unable to resist taking the lucrative case, in this way finds out about her facilitation of his brother’s brothel habit. “I felt nauseous,” he says. “No mother should do something like that! My inner rage was so strong that I felt my heart would explode.”

By Ki-hyeon’s standard, that doesn’t count as great emotional hyperbole. Time and again he tells us of situations where “unable to control my anger, I began to shout at him,” or where “despite all logic I was helplessly consumed by a raging envy,” or where “my strange passion gripped me tightly and inflated by self-confidence to a dangerous degree.” But readers of Korean literature might expect such heightened passions and characters consumed by them, especially when those characters describe those passions as leading them inexorably into regrettable acts of violence, crime, sex, or some combination thereof — micro-tramas ultimately caused, to some degree, by the macro-traumas of Korean history.

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But some of the characters in The Private Life of Plants find a refuge from this inner turmoil, down near a seaside town on the other side of the country from Seoul. When his mother seems suddenly to decide she needs to go town there, Ki-hyeon follows her, eventually witnessing a meeting between her and a frail old man, not long for this world, who turns out to have been her lover of thirty-five years before. It happens under an enormous palm tree (in and of itself a bizarre enough sight to Ki-hyeon, who’s never left his homeland), planted by the couple back when she was just a young waitress, and he  a high-powered official who frequented her restaurant.

Just as Woo-hyeon and Soon-mee wound up a kind of casualty of South Korea’s troubled political climate, so did Ki-hyeon’s mother and this man. Fingered by a colleague as a North Korea sympathizer, he had to go into a sudden but prolonged period of political exile. The accuser himself, overwhelmed by the guilt of decades, arranges this long-separated couple’s reunion: “He repeated, over and over again, that he was the one to blame. He also said how he was ashamed of still being alive and not getting what he really deserved — death. But at the same time he didn’t resist giving an excuse for his conduct. ‘But as you know,’ he said, ‘we all had a hard time back then.’”

As often in Korean literature, hard times then beget hard times now, but by the end of this short novel, the characters find themselves heading toward a kind of broken redemption. Nothing has fully absolved Ki-hyeon of his guilt; nothing has extinguished the candle his mother holds for the man who came before his devoted but taciturn and botany-obsessed father; nothing has brought back Woo-hyeon’s legs. And though the clouds of tear gas in Seoul and elsewhere have long since dissipated, nothing has cleared up the ambient distrust between the powerful and everyone else.

Having tracked down Soon-mee with the skills that serve him so well at Bees and Ants and put her up in the empty house beside the palm tree, Ki-hyeon prepares to deliver his brother there, to the spot just outside reality that provided a temporary paradise to his mother and her lover those thirty-five years ago. Whether it will offer such a state of being to Soon-mee and Woo-hyeon as well Lee leaves open. “I loved Soon-mee the way that my father loved my mother,” concludes Ki-hyeon. “But she loved my brother, just as my mother loved another man. But just as it can’t be said that Mother doesn’t love Father, it also can’t be said that Soon-mee doesn’t love me.” And while it can’t be said that they’ve all arrived on the bright side, exactly, nor can it be said that they remain on the dark one.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


The Mermaid

By Austin Dean

First released in China on February 8th, The Mermaid (Meiren yu) took less than two weeks to become the highest-grossing film in the history of mainland Chinese cinema. The same day it passed that milestone in China (February 19th), the film opened in limited release in the United States. Playing on only 35 screens, the movie brought in just over a million dollars at the weekend box office.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it put The Mermaid 16th out of the 50 films playing that weekend, and its average take per screen was a very high $29,000. It was actually the biggest opening weekend for a Chinese movie in the United States in more than a decade. By the first weekend in March, the movie had grossed just over $2.5 million at the American box office. The Columbus, Ohio AMC theatre where I saw it on a Sunday afternoon was nearly full, and not just with Chinese viewers.

The Mermaid is the latest in a series of Chinese blockbusters like Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong to get a limited U.S. release. In fact, the release of The Mermaid was so limited that apparently some executives at Sony — which distributed the film — didn’t even know it was playing in the United States. As critic Simon Abrams wrote, “Sony ought to be ashamed for keeping such a good film from American viewers who aren’t already part of the Chinese diasporic community.”

Directed by Stephen Chow, whose previous movies like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer are equal parts slapstick and irreverent, The Mermaid has a strange alchemy of physical humor, tragedy, word play, violence, comedic symmetry, and cruelty. Leaving the theatre, it was hard to answer a seemingly common question: What kind of movie did I just see?

Like many aspects of China today, the film begins with a shady real estate deal. Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a property tycoon who started from nothing and now has everything except morals and taste, acquires a vast tract of land near the fictitious Green Gulf. The other bidders think the land can’t be developed due to environmental restrictions meant to protect dolphins. Liu, no stranger to underhanded tactics, manufactures a solution: the dolphins won’t need to be protected if they aren’t there. He installs a powerful sonar device that drives out the dolphins and secures a permit for reclamation and building. His solution could be a case study in “How to Do Business in China 101.”

The sonar, however, also killed a number of mermaids. The remaining mermaids, led by Brother Eight (Show Luo), a vengeful half-man half-octopus with dreadlocks, want Liu dead. They set up a honey trap using the young, beautiful, and naïve Shan (Lin Yun). After a series of double entendres, slapstick humor involving poisonous sea urchins, singing, and dancing, the two fall in love. Liu decides to cancel the project and turn off the sonar; the pretty mermaid has redeemed the corrupt billionaire. That doesn’t sit well with Ruo Lan (Zhang Yuqi), another property tycoon, who had set up a side deal with Liu regarding the reclamation project. But there are other factors at play. And the movie — interrupted by a Chinese-style traffic jam — comes to a gory crescendo.

The Mermaid is undeniably funny, but the changes in tone are abrupt, especially towards the end of the film. One moment the viewer is stuck in traffic and the next she’s watching young mermaids get shot. It can be a bit uncomfortable. The woman sitting next to me was laughing at the middle but crying at the end.

These shifts didn’t go unnoticed by critics. The reviewer at The Guardian notes that the film often finds itself in “troubled tonal waters.” Glen Kenny of The New York Times doesn’t think the movie falters under its undulating emotional landscape because “Mr. Chow’s signature is so sure that the tonal changes have a unity born of conviction.”

But there’s something more to be said about this. What’s distinct about The Mermaid is that watching the film gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be in China: full of incongruities, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre. The point here is not to exoticize the country, but rather to say that life there today can be hard to pin down.

Perhaps the most common question an American gets after returning from China is the predictable one: “What is China like?” The only honest answer I’ve ever been able to come up with to this query is to say “Pick any adjective in the English language. China, at a particular moment, is like that. Then, not long thereafter, it’s like another adjective.”

The same thing can be said about The Mermaid.

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Learning from the Korean City

By Colin Marshall 

Few books have changed the way I see cities Eastern or Western as much as Barrie Shelton’s Learning from the Japanese City. Were I an urban-planning academic, I’d want to write its counterpart for the Korean city myself. But until some urban-planning academic does take it upon themselves to write such a book, I actually recommend to those who arrive in and struggle to understand Seoul, or any less colossal Korean City, Shelton’s original. As I spend more time in Korea — punctuated by visits to its neighbor across the water, where I happen to sit writing this very post — the exercise of spotting the differences between it and Japan has become an exercise of spotting their ever-rarer similarities.

A great deal of work has gone into scrubbing away the imprint of the Japanese colonial rule, which lasted in Korea between 1910 and the end of the Second World War, including the demolition of structures built (no matter how well) during that time. Consequently, you don’t see much architectural similarity between, say, Seoul and Tokyo, but you do see a fair extent of overall urban similarity, beginning with the feelings both cities provoke in first-time Western visitors. “I was baffled, irritated and even intimidated by what I saw,” writes Shelton of his own early exposure to Japanese urban environments. “Yet at the same time, I found myself energized, animated and indeed inspired by them. The effect was liberating and my intuition was quick to suggest that further exploration of their chaotic vitality might be extremely rewarding.”

Tokyo and Seoul have long made this kind of unfavorable first impression, at least since, “to the ‘Enlightened’ Western eye of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the cities appeared drab, featureless and insubstantial,” and the observing Westerners, “almost without exception, could not see beyond the flimsiness of the individual buildings and the collective monotony of the cities.” Shelton even quotes the late nineteenth-century traveler Isabella Bird Bishop (about whose travels through Korea more in a later post) describing Tokyo as “‘a city of “magnificent distances” without magnificence’ meaning that it was an amorphous amalgam of grey featureless patches in a seemingly endless urban landscape.”

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That description will sound familiar to every Seoulite, as will Shelton’s quotation of the Australian novelist Hal Porter on the Tokyo of the 1950s and 60s: “makeshift and confused, a freak weed sprung from a crack in history, and drenched by a fertilizer that makes it monstrous but not mighty, immense but immoral, overgrown and undercivilized,” despite the “unparalleled opportunities” for reconstruction, when “it was incinerated flat by the 1923 earthquake and the World War II bombings, to disentangle and straighten out its Gordian knot of streets.” And even now, “to most Western eyes, Japanese cities lack civic spaces, sidewalks, squares, parks, vistas, etc; in other words, they lack those physical components that have come to be viewed as hall marks of a civilized Western city.”

You often hear the same complaints in Seoul, and though the complainers sometimes do it from a well-informed place of genuine urbanist concern, they often sound to me like non-readers of the Korean or Japanese languages moaning about how the pages of a Korean or Japanese newspaper don’t make any sense. Maybe they just need to learn to “read” these cities, or so I came to believe after reading Shelton’s book, since he bases much of his examination of the Japanese city on the notion of the urban fabric as a text. Most intriguingly, to my mind, he compares at length the way of Japanese city-building with the way of Japanese writing, in which two different phonetic alphabets (one of them dedicated exclusively to foreign words) coexist with the pictographic kanji descended from Chinese characters and even the Western alphabet.

“All appear alongside each other or interspersed as a matter of course in the newspapers, on the streets, etc.,” Sheldon writes. In Japanese, “each character has an areal base and an invisible centre of gravity. Since each bears meaning and is, to some degree iconic, it has a good measure of independence.” In Western writing, however, “our letters are abstract symbols without meaning and depend upon precise linear spacing to achieve it. Further, they are complete within themselves (finite in number) and can only be readily understood if written in a horizontal left-to-right format.” Thus “the most fundamental difference between the two ‘ways of seeing’ in these fields appears to be that the Japanese is based on area while the Western is on line, and it is from here that other differences tend to flow: namely the relative independence and flexibility exhibited by the parts in the Japanese systems.”

As with the Japanese text, so with the Japanese city, where one-dimensional streets have far less importance as places or even as wayfinding tools than do units of two-dimensional area, where the buildings that occupy those areas and the activities that take place in them bear little obvious relationship to the context around them, and where vastly different aesthetic styles, eras of history, and layers of “meaning” appear all at once, parseable only with great difficulty, if at all, to uninitiated foreign eyes. (Not to mention all the actual text visible all around, the “vertical and roof signs joined by massive flat and animated ones, not to mention large- scale screens complete with sound — in effect, street cinema.”)

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Shelton calls the layout of a Japanese magazine, and thus the layout of a Japanese city, “an intricate collage with no obvious centre and no clear edge,” words that remind me of any number of descriptions of Los Angeles, especially as it took its mid-twentieth-century form and struck so many observers as a brand new kind of metropolis. “When I imagine most Western cities, I think first of their streets and other spaces and the patterns of relationship between these: of major to minor streets, of monumental buildings to spaces, and of dominant centres to peripheral places. When I think of Japanese cities, I think of scattered points with no clear relationship between each other and often no clear form within themselves.”

And all throughout, “the Japanese city is quick to sever, discard, replace and re-form its parts according to the new needs of a rapidly changing world and without the Western concern for the wider visual context or pattern. Hence, the quality which so infuriates the Western observer seems also to be the Japanese city’s strength” — and the Korean city’s, and especially, with its famously short cycle of construction, demolition, and reconstruction, Seoul’s. Think of book whose text, already written in a variety of fonts, colors, and sizes (with pictures!), might change a word, a sentence, or a paragraph at a time even as you read it, but whose structure remains basically intact.

So it makes sense that Japanese and Korean cities would require their own navigational strategies. I’ve heard a fair few Western friends visiting Asia bemoan there countries’ lack of regular street grids, predictable street addresses, and even evident street names, but if they stay long enough, they start to internalize the necessary changes in perception. This comes especially quickly if they often ask for directions — which for these reasons they’ll need to do much more than they would in the West — and thus often get told to emerge from a certain subway station and walk toward the statue of the independence-movement freedom fighter, pass through a stretch of coffee shops, stop at the big bell and look for a couple of fried chicken places, then head up the winding path into the hill between them, and so on. The very terms used to give directions, especially in Korean, stresses context rather than path.

Hence, given “the haphazard nomenclature and numbering systems,” the importance of maps, a “common feature of regional and local newspapers, magazine and even billboard advertising” and an item commonly received along with an invitation to a private home. Shelton makes the point about Japan, of course, as did Roland Barthes when he wrote, in Empire of Signs, of how the Japanese “excel in these impromptu drawings” made to help recipients find their way through the cityscape. The Seoulite lives no less map-intensive an existence; several times a week, I come home to find a flier wedged in my door advertising my neighborhood’s newest yoga studio, hair salon, or Chinese food joint, its street address almost hidden away but a simplified (and usually self-aggrandizing, or at least self-exaggerating) map of its surroundings prominently placed.

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But over and above these details of life lived in them, why does a Seoul or a Tokyo immediately feel so different to someone coming from New York, London, or Paris? Shelton points out another different in language that sheds light on the question: the lack of a sharp distinction between “urban” and “rural.” He cites the scholar of Japanese geography Paul Waley as “at pains to stress that the Japanese language has no equivalent words for ‘city’ and ‘country’ and there is no strong idea that sets the two kinds of places in some sort of binary opposition.” The Japanese language has the word inaka (田舎) and Korean the word chonseureopda (촌스럽다), both evocative of “rural isolation and ignorance, but this is hardly a positive or even romantic image of the rural scene, rather a negative product of space and time.”

Not quite so in the countries of the West, most of whom insist upon a comparatively stark urban-rural divide not just in language but in planning. Waley, “searching for some vaguely related notion” to the Western glorification of the countryside, “was able to note only the home place or furusato (故郷) as a notion holding some positive out-of-the-city association for urban Japanese — for most do continue to retain some link with and affection for their ‘home’ place. This is, however, more a personal point of reference of family or home surroundings (which may be much more than a village) than a general concept of countryside.” Koreans have the very similar concept of gohyang (고향), referring to whatever smaller hometown they left for Seoul — but probably without too many reservations.

The same goes for the difference, much labored-over in English, about the difference between “public” and “private” space. “Just as Waley suggests that there are no equivalent Japanese words which pit the idea of ‘city’ against that of ‘country,’” Shelton writes, referring to the novelist and Japan researcher John David Morley’s observation that, unlike in the West where “‘public’ is a powerful term,” indicating “all those places to which the entire community has both access and for which it has responsibility” while “private is possessed by an individual or group and is not generally open to the public,” the Japanese language has no equivalent distinction, even having to import public from English as the loanword paburikku (パブリック).

As the classes of private and public lack a clear distinction in the Japanese language, so they lack a clear distinction in the Japanese city: activities that might seem to the Westerner to belong to public spaces might easily happen in parts of the city that feel more like private ones, and vice versa. Seoul, a city often criticized for the few-and-far-between-ness of such classic Western-style public spaces as parks, works just the same way. Whether there, in Tokyo, or in any other city in these two countries, we’d do well read what goes on in the city as much as we read the places it goes on it. It goes along with what Shelton frames as the fundamental difference in Western and Eastern “thinking about space”: the former’s affinity with area which has it “put greater emphasis in city place-making on content (information, activity and animation),” and the latter’s with line, which makes it “more preoccupied by form (object, physical pattern and aesthetic composition).”

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Shelton even assembles a list of all the organizational qualities that make Japanese cities the opposite of Western ones, from a preference for the patchwork over the network, decentralization over the centralization, temporariness over permanence, content over context, vague boundaries over clear ones, and fragments over wholes. No wonder Tokyo and Seoul seem illegible at first glance to someone who learned to read urban space in anywhere like a classical Western city, though I like to think that Angelenos — accustomed as they are to their city’s oft-criticized but unique interpretation of the decentralized, temporary, vaguely bounded and fragmentary patchwork — come with an advantage, however slight.

So many of Learning from the Japanese City‘s conclusions about its subject apply to Seoul as I experience it every day that I sometimes wonder if we even need a Learning from the Korean City. But the more thorough the similarities, the more glaring the differences, which brings us back to the analogy between the elements that make up a city and the language that makes up a text. Korea, needless to say, uses the Korean language, a different beast indeed than Japanese, and one without so much mixture of writing systems within. Korean texts, as well as Korean cityscapes, once incorporated a great many Chinese characters (and once, longer ago, had nothing but), though by now all but the most common have fallen into complete disuse. They also used the Japanese language, during the colonial period, but the process of de-Japanification has seen that it no longer makes up a substantial component of public life.

Pay a visit to a Seoul, then, and you’ll mostly see the distinctive — though linear, homogenous, and non-ideographic — Korean alphabet alongside, if not quite mixed with, ever more frequent splashes of English. What sort of a city does the thinking behind the Korean language, and the use of the Korean language as a visual texture, create? For the most part, we’ll have to wait and see. With every passing year, Seoul and the other cities of South Korea get a little farther from the decades of strong Japanese influence, and farther still from the centuries of strong Chinese influence before that. What sort of more fully Korean urban “text” will emerge down the line? Curiosity about the answer has, in part, brought me here myself. The text may undergo revision as you read the book, but the fascination of Seoul is that the language itself also gets invented. 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Real Life of Seoul, as Seen by Street Photographer Michael Hurt

By Colin Marshall 

How do you convince someone to spend their limited travel time and money in Seoul? The officials tasked with promoting South Korea abroad have racked their brains over that very question for years and years, coming up with little in the way of sure-fire selling points for their capital city. Even aside from the formidable challenge of competing against name brands like New York, London, and Paris, Seoul struggles to positively distinguish itself, even in broad strokes, from the other metropolises of Asia. The integration of a deep-rooted culture with advanced technology? Tokyo has long had that image sewn up. Rapid change? Beijing changes faster now, for better or worse. Cheap food and a pleasurable nightlife? Sure, if you’ve never heard of Bangkok. Ease of communication? Don’t get any given tourist started.

They don’t really come to Seoul for its the renowned cultural institutions or its distinguished architecture, and certainly not for its history or diversity. What, then, makes this city so very compelling? I’ve had plenty of similar conversations about Los Angeles, another city which provokes in me (and a select but growing number of others) a fascination bordering on obsession, but whose appeal doesn’t always present itself to the first-, second-, or even third-time visitor. In the cases of both Los Angeles and Seoul, the answer always comes down, unsatisfyingly though it may sound, to a kind of unromantic vitality: though the basic elements of both cities can seem dull, dysfunctional, and even dangerous, the life lived among them, filled with boundless amounts of energy often flowing at cross purposes, offers a bottomless and ever self-refreshing subject of study.

In Seoul, few see this as clearly as Michael Hurt, a Korean-black American photographer who grew up in Ohio and first came here to live in 1994 as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program. After completing a graduate program in comparative ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 2002, he returned to Korea and spent the next few years taking his camera to the streets in a serious way, capturing whatever struck him as the real visual and social texture of life in the city. Street photography had already established itself in Los Angeles and other cities across America and Europe, but in Seoul, apart from a cameraman named Kim Ki Chan who documented neighborhood activity in the 1960s and  70s, it remained a virtually unknown tradition.


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“Outback Girls” (2004)

Hurt shot all the pictures selected here during the early 2000s, the most street life-focused period of his photographic career. The image just above comes from a time, he says, “when I began noticing that Outback Steakhouses were a highly gendered space, dominated by twentysomething women.” This led to the realization that “what Koreans called ‘family restaurants’ were actually spaces for young women to socialize. This is about when my camera going in the direction of ‘gender performance’ and young women.” His photography and research in those areas has since led him to develop the field of visual sociology with Korea as a subject, a project further documented at his site Deconstructing Korea.


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“Post-Protest” (2003)

“I took this in after one of the big anti-American protests in Gwanghwamun,” Hurt says of the image above, “when the streets were blocked off but people were still milling about, lending a street festival-like vibe only extant for short periods of time.” I’ve come to Korea at a far less anti-American era, but should that sentiment arise again, it would no doubt make itself felt in this very same monument-scaled downtown space. “It’s no coincidence that Gwanghwamun was the site for the 2002 World Cup festivities and the big anti-American demonstrations. It was a natural site for mass gatherings charged with strong emotions,” whether of celebration or condemnation.

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The name Gwanghwamun refers to the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the reconstructed 14th-century compound that Seoul promotes as a prime tourist attractions. Some visitors find it interesting and some don’t, but I always like seeing a historical (or at least historically styled) structure amid a forest of gleaming high-rises. This makes me a predictable Westerner in Korea, since our eyes tend to get caught by all the old-and-new contrasts the city offers up, such as the one above. “I came across this dude standing there looking like he had stepped out of time machine,” Hurt says of this 2002 shot. He liked it at the time, but having realized the cliché inherent in the contrasts, admits that he’s “not very into this picture anymore” — but I, a much more recent arrival, still am.


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“Furlough” (2002)

While no longer as militarized as it was in the decades right after the Korean War, South Korean society still has a faintly martial tint that might surprise and even discomfit travelers from the West or other east Asian countries. Some of this has to do with the constant presence, here and there, of uniformed young fellows enlisted in their mandatory military stint but temporarily free to go out on the town. The picture above captures a moment when Hurt passed by one such soldier “who had seemingly taken his short leave from the military a bit past the limit. I slowed down the shutter and held the camera steady to get the motion in the back, which added a dreamy feel.”


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“Seoul Nights” (2003)

Those who would object to the portrayal of one of the country’s defenders in such a defenseless state might have an even stronger objection to the picture above, which Hurt snapped on the way through  Seoul Cheongnyangni 588 red-light district. “This was when prostitution was getting into the news,” he remembers, “and the statistic that the industry was four percent of the GDP was getting some play, but there was still a strong social dislike for bad news about Korea, and this picture was flagged as ‘anti-Korean’ when I exhibited it.” But urban redevelopment has had its way with Cheongnyangni, as with many other neighborhoods, hollowing out the venerable 588 — as much an institution, in its way, as Gyeongbokgung.


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“One Night in Hongdae” (2013)

In Korea, as Hurt well knows, depictions of “bad things” about the country can hit a nerve (“good things,” by contrast, can include sights that play up the glories of the country’s distant past, the modernity of its buildings, its bounty of upscale commerce, and its industrial and technological prowess). But nobody can actually extricate the “bad things” about any place worth visiting, let alone living, from the “good,” and Seoul provides just about the richest mixture of the two going today. The more recent picture above, taken in the youth-oriented art-school district Hongdae, provides a rich glimpse into the Seoul experience, capturing, as Hurt says, “what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call the ‘decisive moment.’ All the elements come together, and catching it requires a real feel for and knowledge of both the area and the people within it, combined with an instinctual familiarity with one’s equipment and the technical limits of one’s camera to capture that moment when it happens.”

In this case, Hurt explains, “you have to already be pushing the shutter button when she upchucks, having known she was going to do that before the fact. This is quintessentially Hongdae on a Saturday night, no matter what anyone says about this being a ‘negative image of Korea’ — which it most certainly is not. It is just a fact of life and a part of the culture. This is a shot across the bow to anyone who only wants the world to know about Korea as what I call ‘Arirang and hanbok.’ Korea is what it is, and it ain’t always fan dances and fairy tales about fishermen. This picture is me ‘keeping it real.’ That’s the only thing I ever wanted to do with my camera in Korea.”

You can see more of Michael Hurt’s photography on Instagram and Flickr, and in future posts here on the Korea Blog.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.

The Vegetarian (2/2/16)
by Han Kang

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

By Colin Marshall 

Friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances often ask me if they should make a trip to South Korea, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all of them — all of them except, perhaps, the vegetarians. I do know a handful of non-meat-eaters living here, all either foreigners or Koreans who grew up abroad, all living proof that a vegetarian can technically find a way to get by in this country. But the all-important social culture here, centered in large part on rounds and rounds of pork, beef, and squid grilled over an open flame, offers few points of entry to those who those who would stick to carrots and tempeh. (And as for the accompanying rounds and rounds of cheap liquor, teetotalers will find this a difficult land as well.) Once, I tried to explain veganism to a lady I met at in language-exchange group. “Oh,” she replied, in less a tone of judgment than of sheer bewilderment, “I think I cannot be friends with someone like that.”

But it’s one thing for a vegetarian foreigner to try living in Korea, where the locals know us by our often baffling lifestyle choices, and quite another for a Korean to decide to stop eating animals. Just such a conversion sets in motion the events of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (채식주의자), first published in South Korea as a cycle of three novellas starting in 2007, and just this month published as a single volume in English in the United States. The book has sold publication rights in twenty countries and in the Anglosphere received, especially by the standard of Korean novels in translation by authors unknown outside the homeland, a staggering amount of press, all of it positive, and much of it struggling for the right words to describe what, exactly, makes it so very compelling. “I was convinced,” as one character observes, “that there was more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism.”

Those words come from the plainspoken, unambitious husband of the titular vegetarian, a similarly nondescript-seeming woman in her thirties called Yeong-hye. “I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” he says at the beginning of the novel. “To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.” But “if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” And so their featureless union smoothly goes, until the morning he finds her taking the hundreds of dollars’ worth of meat in their refrigerator out and bagging it up for the garbage.

Yeong-hye can offer only one sentence to explain her actions: “I had a dream.” And she had quite a vivid dream, the glimpses of which we get involve her struggling her way through a seemingly endless, meat-packed tunnel and emerging in shamefully blood-soaked clothes. She makes no attempt to convey the full extent of its horror to those around her, and on some level knows it wouldn’t make any difference to them; a visit with her parents, sister, and brother-in-law turns into a wild suicide attempt after her father, enraged at her intransigence, strikes her after a futile attempt to cram a chunk of pork into her mouth as her panicked family looks on.

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But again, we have more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism: as time passes, Yeong-hye cuts out of her life not just all meat but most sleep, communication, reaction, and ultimately action of any kind. Kang has spoken of asking herself whether someone could live “a perfectly innocent life in this violent world” as well as the inspiration she drew from the poet Yi Sang’s pronouncement that “humans should be plants,” and in Yeong-hye we seem to have the result, examined from three different perspectives in the book’s three sections: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. (Here in Korea, each of those parts constituted one of the novellas.)

The novel only allows Yeong-hye the occasional opportunity to speak to us, or, given the italicized text and internal monologue-like tone of the passages, think at us. She remembers one childhood run-in with a dog and the violent folk remedy that followed: “The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog-bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”

The attitude Yeong-hye develops toward meat and humanity as a whole that reminds me, in certain respects, of that held by another title character: J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a respected novelist spending the twilight of her life on the lecture circuit who insists that her own vegetarianism “comes out of a desire to save my soul.” She’s made her choice but her inner turmoil continues: “I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.”

When she looks into the eyes of family, Costello says, “I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” Yeong-hye acts as if she sees nothing at all in the eyes of family or anyone else, and nothing raises any kind of desire in her until her sister’s husband, a video artist obsessed with her blue Mongolian spot, convinces her to participate in realizing an image that has come to obsess him: a man and a woman, their bodies painted with brilliantly colored flowers, having sex. At this point having got fairly deep into her own transition to living as a plant, Yeong-hye gladly obliges.

KB - The Vegetarian 2 (1)

Costello, so far as I can recall, engages in no experience quite like that, and also unlike Yeong-hye has only grown more outwardly stubborn and opinionated with age. Kang’s ever-withering vegetarian, who ultimately refuses to accept food of any kind, locks into what those around her see as an inexorable march toward non-existence. By the novel’s end, when everyone else has turned away in disgust or shame, only In-hye remains to futilely urge her sister her to eat, and even she reaches a breaking point, “no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The myriad strictures of Korean society, as well as their invisibility to those who have never known freedom from them, give this country’s literature one of its major themes. I sometimes hear Korean life described as the challenge of keeping the various groups — social, academic, familial, workplace — who claim you as a member constantly satisfied, and Yeong-hye manages to throw them all into chaos at a stroke. Taking stock of their reactions gives Kang the opportunity to touch on nearly all the other themes Westerners who read about Korea will recognize: not just meat-eating and suicide, but sudden bursts of rage (we learn that Yeong-hye’s father, made a habit of beating her, but never In-hye, throughout childhood), the unenviable position of women (In-hye escaped those beatings through sheer subservience, growing into “the kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive”), and the vast generation gap (that father, before dressing down Yeong-hye for her vegetarianism through it, had “never used a telephone in his life”).

Deborah Smith, who with her work on this book has made herself the young Korean-to-English translator to watch, doesn’t hesitate to speak of her admiration for Kang: “The great strength of Han’s work is that she gets to the universal through specificity,” she told the Guardian. “Historically, that’s been rare in Korea, which is such a homogenous country that the writing it produces has often been too inward-looking to travel.” The Vegetarian clearly can travel, though it also demonstrates that, no matter how astute the translator, awkward cultural artifacts will always remain: Yeong-hye calls In-hye “Sister,” In-hye prepares “side dishes,” and their family enjoys “yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar.” (Tellingly, the bits of Korean novels that don’t quite translate often have to do with food.)

English-language readers will no doubt hear more from Smith, Kang, and both of them in collaboration. The Smith-translated Human Acts (소년이 온다), Kang’s examination of the Gwangju massacre of 1980 which appeared in the United Kingdom last month, will certainly make its way to the United States sooner or later. Not long ago, I asked a friend in Japan, himself a friend of a very well-known Japanese novelist, why that novelist has attained such international success. “He’s created his own genre,” my friend replied without hesitation. We’ll have to wait and see whether Kang’s work will attain the same reach, but the readers of The Vegetarian who appreciate (presuming they can handle) Kang’s seamless union of the visceral and the surreal will surely sense another genre on its way.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

cemitas poblanas


By Jon Wiener

Twenty little kids, two by two, wearing matching blue T-shirts, are walking down Pico and chattering away, watched over by two teachers and five  moms – no dads.  The T-shirts say “Overland Avenue Elementary School, Mrs. Shaffer’s kindergarten class.”

“We’re going to Louise’s,” the teacher in the lead explains.  “To make pizzas.”

At nine in the morning, in kindergarten, you get to go out and make pizzas?

“That’s right,” she says.

Then, to the kids: “Okay pay attention now, this is very important: two by two holding hands crossing the street.”

*     *     *

The Cemitas Poblanas truck parks outside the Pep Boys every morning as soon as the tow-away parking hours end.  They serve tacos, but it’s not your usual taco truck: “Cemitas Poblanas are like a sandwich,” the good looking young guy inside explains, “with meat and cheese but no vegetables, except avocado and chipotle sauce.”

It’s clear he’s said this line hundreds of times to ignorant gringos like me.

At noon, half a dozen guys are waiting for their orders—they seem to be mostly from nearby construction sites.  I’m the only one here speaking English.

The cemita poblana starts with a great big roll, a special kind of crunchy egg bread with sesame seeds, almost six inches across.  They serve twelve kinds, including “Cemita Al Pastor”–marinated roast pork sliced thin; “Cemita de Cesina”–salted beef; and “Cemita de Milanesa”–thin pounded beef or chicken deep-fried in garlic breading.  There’s also “Cemita de Pata”–they say it’s some kind of meat from a cow’s foot.  They all come with shredded quesillo string cheese.

Poblanas, meaning from Puebla. Puebla is south of Mexico City. I ask him, you’re from Puebla?

“My dad,” he says.

I get the chicken Milanesa.  Deep-fried meat, lots of string cheese, with avocado and sauce on a fresh roll—not terribly healthy, but of course it’s terrific.

*     *     *

fire station 92

The big doors are open at LA Fire Station 92—maybe they are waiting for a visit from a gaggle of schoolkids? Last night around eleven we went past a bad motorcycle accident on Olympic and Beverly Glen – the bike was on one side of Olympic, a bashed-in car on the other side, and a guy was lying in the street, helmet on, not moving.  I ask the guys if it was them pulling up.

“Yeah, that was us.”

What happened to the guy?

“Killed instantly.  Speed way too high, misjudged a car turning left in front of him, went right into the side of it, flew 50 feet through the air, broke his neck.  Sad.  But if you have to go, that’s not a bad way to do it.”

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the first entry in his diary here.


The Cultural Revolution at 50: A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part One)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the first of a two-part roundtable interview we invited Alexander C. Cook, editor of the well-received Cambridge University Press book Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, to conduct with four scholars who have been doing important work on the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule and were part of a recent American Historical Association panel that he chaired.]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning, and the 40th anniversary of the end, of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the passage of time, the Cultural Revolution remains one of most controversial and least understood periods of modern Chinese history. I have invited Denise Ho (Yale University), Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona), Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg), and Yiching Wu (University of Toronto) to look back and help make sense of what we know — and what we still don’t know — about the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the standard “textbook” view of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE HO: When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.

YICHING WU: The problem of mass politics has fascinated scholars, as well. Mao’s attempt to cleanse the Communist Party of pernicious “bourgeois” influences involved the mobilization of a ferocious mass movement. Many ordinary Chinese who responded to Mao’s call for rebellion had long been discontented with the established system and were eager to take advantage of the newly sanctioned “right to rebel.” For several decades, we have examined how the charismatic mode of mass politics mobilized existing societal antagonisms and effectively undermined the ruling party’s bureaucratic authority.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

DENISE HO: One interesting thing is that the standard view in the West and the standard view in China overlap a great deal. Both our textbook version and the Chinese Communist Party’s official verdict (published in 1981) offer similar explanations: that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s responsibility, that it was a period of great chaos, and that it was an ideological movement gone terribly wrong.

DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity.

DANIEL LEESE: Yes, and while Mao is blamed for having committed many mistakes, not everything of that 10-year period is officially negated. There were many continuities. It was not all chaos. The party continued to exist. Economic growth picked up as of the early 1970s. Also, China achieved foreign policy successes such as its 1971 entry to the United Nations.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So the real picture is more complex than we have previously assumed?

YICHING WU: Very much so. First of all, the sociological interpretations that previously dominated the study of mass factionalism have been seriously challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This new research contends that mass political conflicts were not derived from preexisting sociopolitical grievances, but rather were shaped by contingent events and dynamic interactions between the masses and the political leadership. Second, scholars interested in the ideological aspects of the Cultural Revolution have challenged existing views for their tendency to over-systematize and over-interpret late Maoism. The newer works highlight areas of incoherence in the official ideology and explore how ambiguities became exacerbated by the chaotic political circumstances in which ideology was interpreted and deployed.

DANIEL LEESE: While a powerful coalition of party members and intellectuals victimized during the Cultural Revolution has dominated public discussions of the period — and, understandably, emphasized the ordeals experienced — some other aspects of the period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary idealism for example by way of singing “Red songs.” Former Cultural Revolutionary activist Qi Benyu recently expressed the hope that current Chinese president Xi Jinping would become a second Mao Zedong, meaning he would curb corruption and lead China back on the path of socialist revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: The Cultural Revolution has been romanticized from the beginning, and not just in in China. Why is that?

FABIO LANZA: In the 1960s, Maoism provided the vocabulary to describe and express new political ideas around the world. The global fascination with the Cultural Revolution has usually been viewed as orientalism of a sort, with Gauloises-smoking rive gauche intellectuals mesmerized by a revolutionary East they really did not know anything about — the “China in our heads.” But I believe we should take seriously the interest that activists and intellectuals around the world demonstrated for the experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Why should we? Precisely because they took it seriously at the time and because, no matter how misunderstood and misinterpreted it was, the experience of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be tackling head-on many of the issues of the day.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What globally relevant issues did the Cultural Revolution touch upon?

FABIO LANZA: First, the Cultural Revolution addressed directly the relationships between learning and teaching, politics and education, theory and practice. It was then not strange for student protestors in Paris, Turin, or New York to see similarities and connections between the Red Guards’ attacks against stultifying university learning and their own actions against the school system in the spring of 1968. Similarly, the integration of politics and education that the Cultural Revolution proclaimed echoed the political challenge that student organizations spearheaded against supposedly “neutral” pedagogy in Mexico, Chile, and across Europe. Second, the blossoming of the Red Guards in 1966 signaled that people could independently organize themselves outside of the Party-State and even use those organizations to attack the Party or other centers of political power (“Bombard the headquarters,” as Mao said). Third, Maoism seemed to embody an alternative to the existing development models, either capitalist or Stalinist. This was an alternative that was described and perceived as more humane, one that potentially could produce progress without sacrificing the quest for equality.

DANIEL LEESE: In China in the early 1980s former participants in the Cultural Revolutions began to argue that the elite power struggles between Mao and his rivals need to be differentiated from the “public” dimension of the movement, with its salutary elements of mass democracy and anti-bureaucratism. These aspects are still held up by many old and new critics of capitalist exploitation as an alternative path to modernity.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So they feel there are positive things we can salvage from the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: The global appeal of Maoism was made possible by the fact that it did not offer a fixed model, a set of steps to follow, or a rigid scheme to apply. Rather, Maoism presented itself and was viewed as a method of analysis of reality and as the lived experience of revolution. The lesson of the Cultural Revolution was not one of easily transferrable programs, but one of a massive, and still open experiment; a localized but inspirational experience. In this sense, it was not a “Chinese thing”: as one French Maoist worker quipped at the time “we don’t give a f — about China.”

DENISE HO: And yet the Cultural Revolution was, and continues to be, very much a product of Chinese culture. The Cultural Revolution has “culture” in the title, and yet in the past scholars have often written off cultural explanations for why the Cultural Revolution happened. Recent scholarship has tried to put culture back into the conversation.

YICHING WU: That’s right. Conventional wisdom has portrayed the Cultural Revolution as merely an era of chaos and violence, in which culture, education, and literature and art were ruthlessly destroyed. The reality, however, was far from one-dimensional. Several recently published studies have carefully examined films, drama, music, dance, fine arts, and popular literature during the Cultural Revolution, arguing that Mao’s last decade, rather than a cultural wasteland limited to a few hyper-politicized revolutionary plays, in fact witnessed considerable cultural innovation and artistic success.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Then we will pick up next time with the problem of culture….