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

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel, the Occupation, and the Literary Life

By Toby Lichtig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you American?” he asks.

“British.”

“And you’re not Jewish?”

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soldier remains impassive. Eventually she waves me through.

British-Nationalism

Can Hong Kong #ACCELERATE?

By Alfie Bown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KB - The Seed of Joy 1

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

 

By Charles Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Without spoiling anything, tell us about your book.

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

Have you read any of the Korean books about Gwangju? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long were you in Korea?

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

What were your overarching feelings/impressions of Korea?

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Related Korea Blog posts:

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

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

China Blog 6:28

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

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watching Our Words: on Brexit

By David Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Qiu Xiaolong

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

— Jeff Wasserstrom

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Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

By Charles Montgomery

The Korean relationship with big cities, particularly Seoul, mixes love with a strong undercurrent of hate. The love of Seoul is often clear: when I first got a job in Korea, which was in Daejeon, I called my best friend, who is Korean. Happy to hear that I got a job, he told the news to his wife, also Korean. “Where is the job?” he then asked. Woosong University in Daejeon, I replied, which he also dutifully relayed to his wife. In the background I could hear a small commotion, which was shortly interrupted by my best friend’s wife grabbing the phone from his hands and loudly yelling into it, “Why didn’t you get a job in Seoul? You won’t understand Korea unless you live in Seoul!”

Having come from Gwangju (another major city that, for historical reasons, I will talk about in my next piece), she regards Seoul with suspicion, if not contempt, but apparently still regards the capital the heart of Korea. Consider that, if you count the suburbs, Seoul contains nearly half of all South Korean citizens. Most high school students dream that they will someday attend one of the prestigious “SKY” universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, all in Seoul. Of the top ten universities in Korea, seven are in Seoul; of the top five, four are.

Most chaebol, the Korean version of the multinational, have headquarters in Seoul, and when the Korean government tried to move itself to Daejeon, the resulting foot-dragging and lamentation were so powerful that, in the end, only twelve of its offices made the move. Koreans even have a dismissive term for the land that is not in the city, sigol. The first literal meaning of this word is the countryside, but it more or less evokes the “sticks” or “backwoods.” The cities — and again, Seoul in particular — are also strongly associated with modernity, economic progress, and sophistication. Yet Korean modern literature has almost unanimously portrayed cities as uncaring dens of corruption, socially and/or economically destructive, and dangerous in every incarnation.

Yi Kwangsu, whom it is fair call one of the fathers of Korean modern literature, not only wrote extremely modern fiction for his time, but also wrote two extremely influential essays that defined the boundaries of modern literature. He was a proponent of modernization, education, and free love (as in, the ability to choose one’s own romantic partner). Yet in his fiction Seoul is nearly eviscerated, despite its apparent position as urban argument for all that he himself argued. Soil, his most entertaining novel, fully expresses his arguments and themes, strongly affirming the need for social and political change, but unexpectedly emphasizing the importance of the countryside in creating the modern world for Korea. Seoul, conversely, is portrayed as evil. In a close relationship to nature truth and beauty are found, and Seoul represents a turn toward a far worse, more Western world.

Its protagonist Heo Sung returns to his village and falls in love with a local girl whose down-to-earth virtues the story frequently contrasts with the corruption of the city girl whom he finally marries. He may admire the life of the villagers, but still has to return to return periodically to Seoul. The meaning of this is expressed in a concluding passage in the book: “When he got out at Seoul Station, he felt as if he had awakened from a dream. The swarms of fussy taxis, buses like frenzied women, toy-like rickshaws, the crowds of cold people who seemed to spread an iciness around them.” While Yi is a proponent of modernization, he astonishingly locates it in the rustic life of the countryside instead of the bballi-bbali hustle and bustle of Seoul, which only stands for the ruination of the Korean people.

Japanese colonialism and World War II turned Korea’s focus toward bigger and more immediate problems, and the overwhelmingly tragic reality of the Korean War and its bifurcated aftermath determined the course of literature in the 1950s and 60s. But with cessation of hostilities and the beginning of the regularization and modernization of the nation, the issue of the city returned — and the city was almost uniformly cast as the villain.

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Not all literature, of course, portrayed Seoul or other cities as malign. Sometimes it could be neutral, or even charming, as in Park Taewon’s A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, a slice of Kubo’s life in downtown Seoul. In a very modern stream of consciousness, occasionally interspersed with forays back into memory, Kubo takes us on a tour of the city, traveling to Gwanghwamun (the area around the main gate of Geyongbokgung pakace), bars, teahouses, a train station, and even past a row of prostitutes.

Little black and white drawings by the well-known author (and Park’s friend) Yi Sang capture aspects of the vignettes Kubo relates, which make up of a story that lasts part of the day and late into the night. Kubo is looking for “joy” and companionship, though he sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his sometimes agitated mind. As Kubo wanders, mostly as an observer, with poet friends or bargirls, he contemplates his own history, which leads the setting of his final, bargirl-surrounded semi-epiphany in which declares his rededication to writing and the happiness of others.

A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist presents Seoul as a kind of charming backdrop, but in general, the bleak view of the big city dominates. In Sung-ok Kim’s 1965 story “Seoul: 1964, Winter,” three men meet just as atoms might collide, and just as when atoms do collide, they create a short heat before careening apart. These characters are Kim, a 25-year-old-clerk; Ahn, a 25-year-old student; and an unfortunate 30-year-old salesman who has just received payment for selling the corpse of his just-dead wife to a hospital.

Seoul is a randomizer; it can bring people physically together, but it cannot have them bond. The three men never get past idle chitchat, even though the oldest is obviously traumatized and funding their time together. Whereas in the village long-standing relationships would have established the bonds, in Seoul there are no relationships, and therefore no bonds. At the end of the evening, the salesman does all but beg the two younger men to share lodgings with him, but they both opt for private rooms, a substantial breach of protocol on several levels that eventually leads to tragedy. Even though the three men have been brought together by circumstance, they do not have the tools connect.

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (1978) continues along these lines. The work centers on the government-mandated redevelopment of Seoul’s Hangbuk-dong neighborhood during the 1970s. “Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell,” notes a character in the book’s very first paragraph. “But since the five of us lived in hell, we dreamed of heaven… Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost a battle.” The eponymous dwarf is physically handicapped, only 117 centimeters tall and 32 kilograms in weight, and his family — father, mother, siblings Yeong-su, Yeong-ho, and Yeong-hui — stand for the entire Korea working class of the 1970s: oppressed, marginalized, and if need be discarded by the new economic structures of production, consumption, and distribution that the Korean state is avidly building.

The family’s house, built in an unauthorized area, is due to be razed. The government offers a “recompense” for the loss insufficient for the dwarf’s family (or any of the other families displaced) to rent new housing. His family sundered, the dwarf becomes ill and dies in a factory smokestack, most likely in an act of suicide. His children are forced to go to work in soul- as well as body-crushing factories, and the daughter eventually prostitutes herself in order to get the deed to the families’ property back. Every character is in some way reduced, and one gets literally whittled down. (It is worth noting that the kind of forced redevelopment portrayed in The Dwarf continues, albeit on a reduced scale, to this day.)

The Dwarf is an example of yeonjak soseol, a kind of novel form of intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together, as is Yang Kwija’s stunning, well-translated A Distant and Beautiful Place. Its stories were originally published in Korean literary journals between 1985 and 1987 under a rather less interesting title that translates to People of Wonmi-dong.

Situated in Bucheon, south of Seoul, Wonmi-dong sits in the shadow of Wonmi Mountain, and there those who have failed in Seoul and consequently been ejected from it struggle, mostly without notable success, to build lives for themselves and their families. Beginning with a rather obvious symbolic chipping of a prized piece of furniture, one story focuses on the small “chipping” price that such forced departure from Seoul extracts from family members,. It ends ambiguously, and also ominously, with the family safely in place in their new home but watched by an unknown observer who brings an air of creepiness to the conclusion.

No survey of Korean city literature in English would be complete without a consideration of Kyung-sook Shin’s worldwide success Please Look After Mom (2008), translated by Chi-young Kim. Telling the story of a family coming to the realization of what their mother has sacrificed and what she meant to them, this book is so anti-Seoul that NPR titled its review of the book “A Guilt Trip To The Big City.”

“Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house,” one character notes during a sometimes overly nostalgic and romantic reverie of what life was before Seoul intervened and split the family geographically (that old trope of Korean literature). “A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.”

Seoul is presented as a threat to this family unity: “At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, ‘Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.’” And “eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.” The family’s sundering occurs at Seoul Station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there… Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.”

When the daughter returns to find her mother, she is similarly buffeted: “So many people go by, brushing your shoulders, as you make your way to the spot where Mom was last seen. You look down at your watch. Three o’clock. The same time Mom was left behind. People shove past you as you stand on the platform where Mom was wrenched from Father’s grasp. Not a single person apologizes to you. People would have pushed by like that as your mom stood there, not knowing what to do.” In breaking all traditional social relationships, Seoul has broken the family as well, both  physically and psychologically.

Hwang Jung-Eun’s Kong’s Garden (2013), translated by Jeon Seung-hee, offers a glimpse of the experience of the postmodern city for the worker. In this future, the single unnamed female narrator never becomes anything more than that. Though education has historically meant everything in Korea, she comes to realize that this is not true. The recognition of this fact does not surprise her at all: when the narrator does realize that she has been nothing but a worker all her life, in a world of similarly little people working and dying, she displays no particular reaction beyond acceptance.

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This equanimity is particularly dystopian in that this narrator also physically loses her mother during the events of the book. She metaphorically moves from a land of light, a bookstore gloriously lit with 200 light bulbs, to a dingy sub-basement that might be shrinking due to mold, but which also seems to have a mysterious tunnel leading to an even deeper, darker, room. That sub-basement, it is strongly suggested, is tied by another tunnel to an even deeper world, one from which a stench-laden breeze occasionally wafts out. Beneath the darkness of the city lies an even darker underworld.

A larger story draws the narrator in when she refuses to sell cigarettes to Jinju, a young woman in the company of two intimidating men. The young woman immediately goes missing, and it is only this tragedy that makes the narrator important at all, even as it minimizes her. As the police question her about her final interaction with the vanished girl, the narrator realizes that “the more important the questions were, the more often I told them I didn’t know.”

With life little more than a long, boring economic calculation, the narrator’s father plans to die when he feels himself an economic burden. She herself, when not idly searching the internet for evidence of the corpse of the missing Jinju, finds herself — with her romantic options, economic opportunities, and number of relatives dwindling away — agreeing with George Orwell’s suggestion that, in such circumstances, you should “just die poor and with anyone,” an ending to which the book seems to be drawing her.

Another dystopian view, this one of what would happen in Seoul if the continuing trends of family decay and income separation were taken to their full extremes, appears in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Homecoming (2014), translated by Jeon Miseli. The book opens with everyone north of the Han River living as pathetic wards of the state, with a strong market in human organ trafficking a partial result. These so-called “blankets” wait in line to submissively accept abuse and vouchers, which they need for food and other necessities. On the other side of the river live the ten percent of the population who are employed, clasped to the bosoms of conglomerates.

One blanket, the father of a young boy whose mother left home years ago, is indirectly approached about his half-Korean child. Adopted children have become myeongpum, or valuable goods, with a child who appears in good health at a premium. The father attempts to buy drugs for his asthmatic son, but the prices have gone up because “some of the rich are up to tricks,” buying up steroids because of their usefulness against diseases of aging. Driven to despair, the father decides he must sell his son. As a goodbye, he dressed up, puts on a “badge” (proof of being an office worker, which he has luckily found) and goes out for one last grand dinner with his son so they can share at least one last happy memory.

When the bill comes and the father cannot pay, it is suddenly taken care of for by an old man at sitting the bar. The ending, either a surprise or a deus ex machina depending on the reader’s outlook, allows Cheon’s final point: this is the Korean tendency to insist on long work hours taken to its ultimately absurd extreme. “I haven’t been able to come home because I haven’t finished my work yet,” says one character who hasn’t been home in many years. In this vision of Seoul, even the “successful” are not winning.

Korean modern literature has, in some ways, always been reactive, focusing directly on real issues of its era, and so serious literati might naturally choose to take on Seoul, attacking the very concept of the big city. For while Seoul, on one hand, symbolizes the tremendous prosperity Korea has attained, also symbolizes the destruction of the previous social systems that had seen Korean society through times of extreme hardship.

Thus, in the works discussed here, the authors to some extent assume the successes of the city, proceeding from that point on to comment on the failures that have resulted. This means that Korean literature asks particularly strong questions about modernization, economic progress, commodification, and even the creation and status of the financially unstable “precariat” class — which means these books should hold great interest to readers everywhere as the same economic and social trends that have swept over Seoul in last century sweep over us, and will continue to sweep away for the foreseeable future.

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.

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Outliving Dad

By Eric Lax

When my father died, in 1976, he had lived his allotted three score and ten years, plus two more. Two years and two months more to the day, to be precise. Six months before his death he looked like he would go on for decades. Then that February, a persistent cough led to the discovery of an enveloping mass around his lungs that was impossible to resect. On a hot August afternoon he rolled over to greet me when I walked into his hospital room and a minute later was dead in my arms.

Forty years later I still think of him many times a day: Wanting to have had more than 32 years with him; wishing he could have known the wonderful woman I married six years later and our two sterling sons; missing a conversation with advice as well as one of the long groaner jokes he loved to tell and told so well. And these days, I think of something else about him. On August 1, assuming that between now and then the bus with my name on it doesn’t stop to pick me up, I will have outlived him.

He was 40 when I was born and I saw it was not a drawback to have a father older than most, and so I was unconcerned that I was 42 and 45 when Simon and John were born. He taught me to love openly by telling me every day that he loved me, and he consistently demonstrated the bedrock importance of respecting others. Apart from the teenage periods when I felt he was completely clueless (I was amazed by how smart he got between my 17th and 18th birthdays), I hoped to be a lot like him and I measure myself and my abilities as a father and as a person against his, hoping to match them. For all those years he was ahead of me but soon he will be behind me. I’ll be the older with no more measurements against what he did at my then-current age.

He seemed immortal when I was a boy (for that matter, I thought I was immortal), and even for a while as the cancer consumed him it still seemed impossible that he would die, until suddenly it didn’t. By chance one day after the diagnosis, I reunited with a close friend since childhood on the M5 bus going down Fifth Avenue, a woman my father adored and who adored him as well, whom I had not seen in a couple of years. She invited me to dinner with her partner, a doctor. Over pasta and his exquisite red sauce, my friend and I reminisced about my father, all the while introducing him to someone new. We had drinks. We laughed a lot. Then midway through a sentence that I began in a light tone, tears erupted. “I don’t want him to die!” I wailed, and for the next 5 minutes I bawled and sniffled, unable to say more.

In the months after the surgery, optimism or disappointment—depending on the scans and X-rays—followed my father’s visits to the oncologist. In that time, we talked in bursts about our lives, catching up and filling in, saying what we wanted to say. I was with him the day after an appointment in mid-August. He asked me to answer the phone because his voice was weak from the chemotherapy. It was the doctor. His report was brief: the cancer had spread to the bones and there was nothing left to hope for, except an easy death. I struggled to keep tears at bay as I repeated the news to Dad. I told him I loved him very much and could not have had a better father. In an instant we had flipped roles; I was the father, offering succor. Then we flipped back. He was equally loving in reply but also remarkably calm, which stilled me. He was uncomplaining about his fate, I think in part because he had said some days before that life with the pain he felt wasn’t worth living, but also because, as an Episcopal priest with a deep understanding of and compassion for human frailty, he possessed abiding faith that there was something better ahead. He asked me to look out for my mother, and then, preferring pleasure to sorrow, suggested we get a beer and go outside to sit on a palisade overlooking the Pacific. I keep a picture in my office of him taken that afternoon, a broad smile on his face, a glass raised in salute. Two weeks later he was gone.

It is often said that one of the greatest lessons our parents can give us is how to die, and his grace carried to the end, as did my mother’s 20 years later through a torturous 2-year-long decline from ALS. Of course grace is something we hope to pass on to our kids in many ways, starting with how to live a life well. My sons are 26 and 29. I have not wondered much if or how they measure themselves against me or whether something I have done is a marker for them. (Although thinking on this, I am pretty sure that an evening involving a more than adequate sufficiency of Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s followed by jayrunning across a busy street is an experience they have resolved not to repeat with their teenage children.)

Many of us live in the shadow of our father. For some that shadow is an oppressive cloak that prevents us from either becoming or being seen for our own self. My father cast a long shadow but it at once sheltered me and offered a safe place to grow. His pride in any accomplishment I had was evident, even something as prosaic as growing taller than him. “A block off the old chip,” he would say. He looked a bit like the early film comedian Stan Laurel while my mother more resembled Ingrid Bergman. Sometimes he would add, “He has his mother’s looks, because I still have mine.” And I still have all he taught me as company for the mapless road ahead.