jericho st george's monastery

The Road to Jericho

By Joanna Chen

Photograph by Joanna Chen. All rights reserved. 

Today we go to Jericho, Raz and I. It’s a brilliant summer’s day, and the garden twinkles. Grapes are ripening on the vine that grows to the side of the house. They’re pale purple and hard to the touch. I pop one in my mouth anyway and make a face as the sour juice hits the roof of my mouth.

We drive from our home in the Ella Valley, following the lead of our car’s GPS. Barely one hour later the landscape surprises; fields of melon and dull green slopes are exchanged for pale gray earth, an equally pale sky, and the arid air of the Judean desert.

The GPS guides us off the main sweep of road that leads steeply down towards the Dead Sea. I falter for a moment, wondering if this is a good idea. I know the way and have been to Jericho several times, never leaving the main road. But it’s the weekend and we’re willing to give it a go. For a moment I feel as if I’m on vacation and very far from home.

I drive. The road becomes bumpy and dusty. There are numerous potholes and part of the road isn’t really a road at all, more like a dirt track. I drive slowly through the twists and downwards plunges. Jerusalem, just 20 miles from Jericho, is about 2000 feet above sea level. But the level drops sharply to just under one thousand feet below sea level at Jericho. Donkeys plod along the side of the road and a couple of people wander down on foot. They look like they know where they’re going.

After some time, we reach St. George’s Monastery, a building that literally hangs off the side of the wadi. It dates back to the fourth century when a group of monks settled in what was then a cave, hoping to experience seclusion in the desert like the prophet Elijah did before them. Today, Greek Orthodox monks inhabit the monastery, but they are nowhere to be seen.

What we do see is a coach parked outside, glinting in the bright light. A stream of tourists wearing baseball hats and big sunglasses tumble out. Two camels, suitably festooned for the tourists with bright red saddles and gold baubles, stand with their owner, chewing lazily. I stop the car and roll down the window.

“Is this the way to Jericho?” I ask the driver, who’s leaning against the coach lighting a cigarette. I’m beginning to wonder if the GPS works down here. “Yes,” he says, then shakes his head. “Don’t go that way unless you know how to drive.” I laugh. I know how to drive. “Turn back,” he says, pointing up the hill from where we just came.

But we continue. There’s a rule in my family from when I was a kid: never turn back unless you’ve forgotten your passport or your makeup. Only then can you turn back. I have my British passport, and I’m not wearing any makeup.

Raz is Israeli-born and does not have a foreign passport. Israelis are forbidden entrance to Jericho, located in area A, but we have friends there, and the stalemate political situation is not going to stop us. We both glance back.

Our hosts, Nuha and Khader, tell us by phone the day before that there will be no problems at the checkpoint. For the last few weeks rules have been relaxed, they say, and cars enter and exit Jericho freely. When I worked as a foreign journalist for Newsweek I would cross these checkpoints regularly. I became accustomed to the long line of cars, the knock on the car, the slow lowering of the window, the handing over of documents, the hand waving us on.

I am British by birth and can enter Jericho using my British passport. I am also Israeli, having been automatically given Israeli citizenship when I was sent here by my parents at the age of 16. At the time, I had no wish to be in Israel. I am Jewish, and it is, apparently, my right — although I am aware of the injustice. There are Palestinians who are denied entry and who are split from their loved ones despite the fact that they were born here or their families lived here for generations. Judge me for this right to live where I want and where others cannot — the least I can do is offer the hand of friendship where it’s taken. In the Gospel of Luke, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan (traditionally located within this desert landscape), a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Martin Luther King, accompanied by his wife, traveled this same road to Jericho from Jerusalem in 1959. He mentions it in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, recasting the parable into modern terms, underlining the importance of extending friendship to others, even those we do not know. How can we even recognize our neighbors if we do not visit them? The Palestinians are my neighbors and I want to know them, however twisted the road may be.

So, we wave goodbye to the coach driver, shaking his head at us, and manoeuvre around the tourists, who are now buying bottles of water and trinkets. It’s noon by now and the sun beats down on us. I turn the air conditioning up a notch.

We quickly discover what the coach driver was talking about. The road narrows, and below there is a sheer drop into Wadi Kelt. There are more potholes than road; the GPS says we have two and a half miles to go until Jericho. Raz, who knows his stuff, tells me that this is the old road taken to Jericho by the Romans. Wadi Kelt is rumoured to be the Valley of the Shadow of Death from Psalm 23. When Raz was a student, he used to hike there regularly, even staying overnight in sleeping bags with friends. Back then it was regarded as safe territory for everyone. But in 1993, just before the Oslo Agreements, three Israeli hikers were murdered down in the ravine, an incident that put an end to this idyll.

A donkey wanders along up the hill, sure-footed and confident, carrying a small boy on his back. The boy waves to us and Raz waves back. I keep both hands firmly on the steering wheel, as if this will keep us from plunging over the side of the wadi.

We already know we won’t be taking this road on our return. We travel down the steep track slowly, painfully, from west to east, into the continuing wilderness. Occasionally I glance down into the ravine and feel vaguely dizzy. I can drive, I remind myself. We both fall silent in the car, concentrating on staying the course.

We pass a flock of sheep, watched over by a shepherd. He sits on a rock, gazing ahead at the cloudless sky. I wonder what he’s looking for. We pass a couple of broken-down dwellings and a small estate of houses under construction, deserted as if someone decided to stop building suddenly. A few minutes later, we enter a narrow alley of houses huddled together, and a small convenience store with rolls of toilet paper and bottles of Sprite stacked outside. Finally, we hit a main road with street lighting and a gas station and I recognize where we are: already inside Jericho.

From afar we see the checkpoint leading off from the main road. A long line of cars snakes along. Had we entered through the checkpoint, Raz would have been turned away. We have arrived and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Ahead of us lies a beautiful day with our gracious friends. They meet us at the gas station and lead the way to their home on the other side of Jericho. We pass through the center of town, buzzing with life. Once again I am struck by how close it is to where we live, but so very different. We’ll talk poetry, politics, and we’ll crack jokes about Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll take the easy road home.

Dragonfruit cover

Expat Identities

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

In my last China Blog post, I interviewed Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young, who talked about both her recently published memoir and a 2014 collection of essays she edited, titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. That volume, Young explained, “gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed,” their lives stereotyped as a parade of coffee dates, shopping expeditions, and yoga classes with other expatriate wives while their husbands work in government or business and their children attend international schools.

There are indeed plenty of women who move their families overseas at the behest of their husbands’ employers, though their lives are unquestionably more complex than the shallow vision I’ve just described. And there are also plenty of women who move abroad for other reasons: to learn a new language, to pursue their careers, to experience life in another country, or to leave behind an unsatisfying routine at home. Whether they live overseas with families, with partners, or alone, all expat women face a similar question, as Young writes in the foreword to Dragonfruit: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”

Some of the 26 women whose stories are included in Dragonfruit describe how they find freedom in their new homes. Sometimes this freedom is literal: Neha Mehta writes of feeling a greater sense of personal safety in Bangkok than she ever did in her native India, and of how this enables her to take public transportation and move about without her husband. For other women, freedom is figurative, as experiences abroad help them let go of lives that aren’t working for them anymore. In “Giving in to Mongolia,” Michelle Borok describes how at age 34, she took a vacation from her demanding job in Los Angeles to ride horses in Mongolia, where “I just got to be in charge of me, and I rediscovered how happy I could be with only myself for company.” No longer satisfied with her life in the United States, Borok moved to Mongolia and married a local man.

Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.

One of the trickiest aspects of putting together an edited collection is achieving balance in the voices represented. Young writes in the foreword that she received 86 submissions for Dragonfruit and selected 26; of those, 13 essays are by women who live or have lived in Greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the PRC). Many of these essays — especially the ones by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Kaitlin Solimine, Christine Tan, Jocelyn Eikenburg, and Susan Blumberg-Kason — are the ones I liked the most in Dragonfruit, though I’ll admit that I’m surely biased toward China stories, and also that I was previously familiar with most of those authors (and in a couple of cases, have met them in person). But while I enjoyed the China essays, I wish a greater range of countries were represented in the collection. Just as “there are as many kinds of stories as there are expat women” (in Young’s words), the size and diversity of Asia means that expat women living in its different countries will have very different stories to tell. Dragonfruit offers a taste, but I’d welcome a second volume that features a broader assortment of women wrestling with the eternal expat question: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”

Summer Interns

Help the LARB Summer Interns Bring Their Magazine to Print!

Seven very talented college students spent the summer at the Los Angeles Review of Books learning how to make a magazine of their own. We offer the LARB Publishing Course every year as part of our summer internship program, which teaches undergraduate students everything from editing to copyediting to layout and design, including acquiring and editing their own articles, and working with artists, galleries, and museums to bring in original illustration and art.

As part of the course, the students take over our print magazine and make their own edition. They then finance it themselves through a Kickstarter campaign in order to learn about the financial realities of independent publishing. If they succeed, they take their very own real world magazine to press for a print run of 10,000 copies, which get distributed to coffee shops, libraries, bookstores, and restaurants throughout Los Angeles.

Please consider supporting their Kickstarter campaign, which launches today, and help them bring their magazine to print!


Reading Material for the Rails

By Austin Dean

Chinese high-speed railway stations are overwhelming places, simultaneously cavernous and crowded. The main terminal usually spans one huge space with no divisions or branches. Look up to the ceiling and the station looks empty. But you shouldn’t do that. Down on the ground, there are people everywhere, and you need to pay attention to where you’re going.

Places to eat and shop line the edges of most stations, or fill the basements and second floors. You’re guaranteed to find two establishments: KFC and Starbucks. In China’s major cities, you’re never far away from fried chicken or coffee. In fact, at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station there is a Starbucks on the second floor directly above a Starbucks on the first floor. As comedian Lewis Black once riffed, a Starbucks right next to a Starbucks is a sure sign of the end of the world.

There are also a number of clothing stores whose names don’t seem quite right, especially to people (like me) who don’t know much about fashion. Is Good Luck Gladius supposed to be a rip-off of a foreign brand, or a purely Chinese creation? It requires some research for me to find out it’s the latter.

The most interesting place, in my mind, is the bookstore.

As a general rule, if you’re abroad and can read at least a little bit of the local language, you should always pop into a bookstore when you come across one, regardless of whether it’s on a main thoroughfare or in a railway station. It’s fascinating to see what types of books are prominently displayed, and it increases your chances of having an interesting conversation with a local.

On a recent visit to the small bookstore in the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, the first thing I notice are not books but people: a group of about 12 stare up at a television. Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, is giving a speech. With deep-set eyes and unrelenting intensity, Ma is a charismatic speaker, and his audience at the small bookstore is hooked. Beneath the television where Ma lectures about the secrets of success are collections of DVDs for sale, all of which feature other people likewise delivering discourses on how to make it big. They might know what they’re talking about — but they also look like hucksters. The box sets are quite clunky, exactly what you don’t want to lug around with you on the train. It doesn’t look like they’re selling well.

More than half of the small store is devoted to books about business, but there are several sub-genres. The first consists of translations of the same books you see in American airport bookstores. The top-ranked book at this outlet is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. This prompts questions about who is buying this book and why — do travelers on Chinese high-speed trains think they lack self-control? But I realize it’s probably best not to probe this ground too deeply, the publisher likely just paid for the book to be prominently displayed. Another popular title is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. There are also a handful of books about Warren Buffet; the Oracle of Omaha is big in China.

The next set of books focus on similar topics, but are written by professors at top Chinese universities; volumes center on Jack Ma instead of Warren Buffet. One of these, Understanding the Chinese Stock Market, sticks out as quite ambitiously titled. Given everything thats happened in the Chinese stock market in the past two months, it’s a bold claim and one that’s surely outdated.

The most interesting Chinese business books to me are those that mask themselves as history books. One volume prominently featured in the store is Records of the Relationship between Government and Business in the Late Qing Dynasty. The point of the book is to understand the subtle (weimiao) relations between the government and the business community in historical perspective, with the goal of gaining greater insights into the situation today. This title must have found a wide audience — it is the second of a two-part series.

A number of other biographies cover similar strategies of making the past serve the present. One book promises to deliver the secrets of success from a wealthy entrepreneur in the Ming dynasty, Shen Wansan. Another book about Genghis Khan attributes the Mongol leader’s success to will power (yizhi) instead of wisdom (zhihui). A similar genre exists in America — How to Think Like Steve Jobs — but they don’t usually find inspiration in the 13th century.

Like a Hudson News shop in an American airport, the bookstore in a Chinese railway station is not necessarily the kind of place to find more academic tomes. But China always surprises.

Set between two books about the rise of China, I find a translation of The History of the American People by famed Columbia University historian Charles Beard. The Chinese translation juices up the title a little bit, calling it American History: From the Age of Wilderness to the Age of Imperialism. The Chinese publishers also build up the book’s pedigree: “Translated into over 30 languages” and “Over 100 million copies sold.”

But most of the people in the store weren’t interested in Charles Beard — Jack Ma was still holding forth on the screen.

Confucius Book

The Impact of Confucius: A Q&A with Michael Schuman

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Veteran Asia correspondent Michael Schuman, now living in Beijing, has reported from various parts of East Asia for a range of publications. He was writing for Time Magazine when I met him in Hong Kong several years ago. Confucius and the World He Created, his most recent book, was published by Basic Books in March. I caught up with him last month by email with a few questions about the philosopher who has come to intrigue him so greatly — and with whose life and ideas, he’s convinced, anyone interested in the changes taking place in East Asia should be familiar. 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Let’s begin with a broad question: Why another book about Confucius? After all, there have plenty of translations of his writings. In addition, in recent years several scholars, such as Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson in Lives of Confucius and before that Annping Chin in The Authentic Confucius, have tried their hands at writing books about him aimed at least partly for general readers. What made you feel inspired to take him on as a subject — and what is unique about your approach to his life, work and influence?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: My goal in writing Confucius and the World He Created was to explore the real-life influence Confucius has had on history and modern society. I thought there was a need for a book not just about the philosopher and the tenets of his doctrine, but also about Confucius’s impact — how the ideas and the legacy of China’s most famous philosopher have shaped the world we see around us every day. Some 2,500 years after Confucius first fashioned his doctrine, his ideas still hold tremendous sway in East Asia over how government treat their citizens, how CEOs manage their employees, how children get educated, how husbands, wives and children interact, and how people in the region see themselves and their role in society. We can’t understand East Asia today, therefore, without an appreciation for Confucius. That ranks the sage with Jesus, Mohammad, the great Greek philosophers, and the Buddha as one of the founders of human civilization.

Yet despite his role in history, I don’t think many in the West know all that much about Confucius. That, I decided, was actually quite dangerous. Amid the history-altering shift of power from West to East, enhanced knowledge of Confucius is critical for making sense of global affairs. China, South Korea, and other East Asian societies are wielding greater and greater clout in international politics and the global economy, and if Americans intend on dealing with the region’s ascent, we must become much more familiar with Confucius. Simply, we ignore Confucius at our own peril. It was important, I felt, to bring him to vibrant life, to introduce the sage, his teachings, and his impact through straightforward language and colorful anecdotes so any reader could understand the sage — and in the process, the world today and in the future.

I know from both your book and from a recent commentary you did for the Financial Times that you don’t accept Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Confucian thought. What do you see as the main misleading way some modern heads of state, from Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to Hu Jintao and now Xi in the People’s Republic to Chiang Kai-shek on the mainland, have approached “Confucian” ideas of governance and rule?

Singapore’s Lee and now China’s Communist leadership have advocated a very self-serving reading of Confucian political doctrine. Their position has been that democracy is not universal as we in the West assert, that Chinese have a different political tradition — based on Confucianism — and that, therefore, Chinese societies are better served by top-down, illiberal regimes. Reading Confucian philosophical texts, you can see how Lee, Xi, and others have arrived at that conclusion. In Confucius’s ideal government, authority was to be held by one person: a “sage-king” who was so wise and virtuous that his rule would uplift the common man not just materially, but spiritually. Confucius also saw society as a hierarchy of superior-inferior relationships, in which people were to be deferential to authority.

Lee and Xi have latched onto these concepts to suggest that authoritarian rule is rooted in traditional Chinese culture. But in doing so, they sidestep some other, critical aspects of Confucius’s political thought. The perfect Confucian government was based on benevolence, not coercion. A truly virtuous ruler would have no reason to resort to force — the people would cherish his leadership and follow him willingly. Confucius is very clear on this point in the Analects.

For instance, an official once asked Confucius if he should kill all those who didn’t follow the proper path, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?” Confucius responded: “Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”

Elsewhere, Confucius also insisted that good rulers should be open to advice and criticism. In The Classic of Filial Piety, another important ancient text, Confucius recoils in horror when his interviewer asks if always being obedient was the way to be filial. Confucius said that a minister had a duty to “remonstrate” to his ruler to ensure good government.

However, President Xi today is intensifying a crackdown on dissent, freedom of speech, and civic action of all types. By Confucian standards, that means Xi is not a benevolent ruler. Xi desires absolute power for himself and his Communist Party and hopes to use Confucius to achieve it; the sage’s ultimate goal was to constrain absolute and arbitrary power. What Lee and Xi have done is twist Confucius’s teachings to make it appear the sage favored autocracy, when in reality he opposed it.

You emphasize the importance of going back to the Analects when assessing Confucius, so I’m curious about which translation or translations of them you relied on and why.

I relied on translations by James Legge and D.C. Lau, mainly because they are both widely available and read. I thought it was also important to use Dr. Lau’s version to get a Chinese perspective on the translation.

Finally, I’d like your thoughts on Qufu, the hometown of Confucius that I visited in 2014. What do you think the sage himself would make of the place in its latest incarnation as a tourist draw and pilgrimage site? 

My guess is that Confucius would be a bit horrified by how he is perceived and treated today. In the Analects and other ancient texts, such as the famous biography of the sage compiled by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius is often portrayed as humble and self-deprecating, always doubting his virtue and seeking more knowledge. I think he’d be mortified by the way in which he has been praised and venerated over the past 2,000 years. His embarrassment would be even more pronounced since the governments that have adopted him as a symbol, both in imperial and Communist times, take his name in vain. They claim to honor him but don’t abide by his principles.


The Coded Body

Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel The Offing.

By E. Jane

Throughout July, The Offing observes National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month with a spotlight, across genres and departments, on work that considers the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental health and illness. This is one of those spotlighted works.

Working through a number of digital mediums, conceptual artist E. Jane interrogates what it means to be Black and Feminine and living in America in the age of the internet, where we can just as easily hide as we can connect.

E. Jane lives with Bipolar I Disorder, and though it isn’t addressed directly in her/their art, it informs the work — and reminds me of how the symptoms of the bipolar patient mirror those of any Othered person who has been confronted with an aversion to who they are.

Click here for the full article. 

Young Year of Fire Dragons cover

Q&A with Shannon Young, Author of “Year of Fire Dragons”

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Shannon Young doesn’t content herself to work in only one genre. I first came across her name last year when reading the personal-finance website, The Billfold, where she wrote about paying off nearly $80,000 of student debt in under five years (Young recounts a longer version of the story in her ebook, Pay Off). Not long after, I downloaded How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia  and realized that the same Shannon Young had edited the excellent collection of essays. Checking out Young’s website, I saw that she had also written short fiction about Hong Kong as well as a travel memoir about her trip to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But if none of the above titles pique your interest, perhaps you’d prefer a post-apocalyptic adventure story? Young can deliver that too: she’s currently publishing a trilogy called The Seabound Chronicles under the pen name Jordan Rivet.

Young, however, didn’t originally plan to spend her life writing; she wanted to be an editor. But after graduating from college in 2009, she found many of her plans upended. Publishing jobs were nearly impossible to find in the midst of the economic downturn, her student loans were looming, and she had fallen in love with Ben, a Hong Kong native whom Young had met while on a semester abroad in London. Asia offered the chance for both economic security and personal happiness, so Young packed up and moved to Hong Kong — only to see Ben suddenly transferred to London a month after her arrival. In a new memoir, Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong, Young recounts the ups and downs of her first twelve months in Hong Kong as she grappled with a life totally different from the one she had planned.

After reading Year of Fire Dragons, I interviewed Young by email, eager to hear more about her work and her experience as an expatriate woman in Asia.

MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: I saw in one blog post you wrote that the working title for your memoir was Hong Kong Limbo. Why did that seem like a good title for a time, and what ultimately led you to change it?

SHANNON YOUNG: When I started writing this memoir, I didn’t know whether I’d be leaving Hong Kong at the end of the year or whether the central relationship in the story — and in my life — would work out. Limbo felt like an apt description. That year I learned a lot about living with uncertainty, something that was tricky for me because I always prefer to have a plan. When I signed my book deal, the publisher suggested that we go with a different title. We brainstormed together and decided Year of Fire Dragons more accurately reflected the sense of wonder that ultimately resulted from my experiences. In hindsight, it fits with the finished book much better than the working title I chose while living in the tension of that year.

You spent a lot of time (and money!) educating and preparing yourself for a career in New York’s publishing industry, only to end up a writer in Hong Kong. What’s the Hong Kong literary scene like? Who are some of your favorite local authors?

The literary scene is much smaller in Hong Kong, especially for those of us writing in English, but it’s also quite friendly. It’s easier to meet and get to know people working in all aspects of the industry than it would be in New York or London. Even though I’m a relatively new author, I’ve had the chance to speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and compete in Literary Death Match, which I may not have been able to do in New York at this early stage in my career. Some of my favorite local authors are Nury Vittachi, Jason Y. Ng, and Xu Xi. All three support the local literary scene in various ways, and they are genuinely willing to encourage and advise their fellow authors.

In addition to your own memoir, you’ve also edited a collection of writing by other female expats in Asia. How did you come up with the idea for How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?, and what do you hope to accomplish with the book?

Credit for that idea actually goes to Xu Xi, who suggested it to Marshall Moore at Signal 8 Press, where I had been getting some work experience. The topic was in line with my own writing and interests, so I jumped at the chance to edit the collection. The book gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed. In fact, many of the women who move to Asia come by themselves for a multitude of reasons, and those who do accompany a spouse have experiences and challenges that are more nuanced than people realize. The collection includes expatriates from other Asian countries (a woman from the Philippines living in South Korea, for example) and members of the Asian Diaspora who identify as expats even though they look just like the people around them (such as a Chinese American woman living in China). The collection is a snapshot of the modern expatriate experience for women and demonstrates the vast diversity of challenges they face. I hope it also encourages those who are embarking on a life abroad.

Finally, if someone were traveling to Hong Kong for the first time and wanted some book recommendations from you, what would you suggest they read?

Martin Booth’s memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong is a great introduction to the city. It’s published under the name Golden Boy in the U.S. and Gweilo in Hong Kong and the UK. It gives a sense of the mystery and beauty of Hong Kong’s streets. For a more in-depth understanding of the city, I recommend Jason Y. Ng’s newest book of essays called No City for Slow Men. He’s a local who has also lived abroad for many years, so he offers a helpful “insider’s outsider” perspective for a newcomer. (For an “outsider’s outsider” perspective, visitors might enjoy Year of Fire Dragons.) And for those who prefer to get to know new cities through fiction, I recommend The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee or the classic World of Suzy Wong by Richard Mason.


Our Summer Pop-Up Membership Drive Is Here

The Los Angeles Review of Books is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. We depend on our readers to exist. That’s why we created a membership program, to bring our many smart and fun readers (that means you!) together in one place, not only to keep LARB going, but to create a true family of likeminded readers and writers.

For anyone that signs up to be a member between now and Tuesday at 11:59 PM, we’re going to select one lucky winner who will receive a specially animated bobble head image, designed to look like you!

Click here to find out how it works. And thank you so much for your support.


Seeking Alpha in 1992 Shanghai

By Austin Dean

Recently in the main reading room of the Shanghai Municipal Library, the guy sitting next to me set up shop, though not to study or read. For most of the morning he had his eyes fixed on his laptop, keeping a close watch on the Shanghai stock market index and various individual stock prices. He looked about 19 years old.

Since last summer, it seems everyone in China has entered the market. As the Shanghai Composite Index continued to soar, it was too hard to resist taking the plunge, even as most indicators revealed an economic picture that was murky at best. By the start of this summer, the Shanghai market was up more than 100 percent since the last one; since the end of June the Shanghai index has fallen more than 30 percent from its peak.

Most theories about the market bubble connect back to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Take the CCP’s official nightly news show, Xinwen Lianbo. This program, the thinking goes, reveals important government policies that move the stock market.

As Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter and a close observer of the Chinese investing scene, noted on Twitter, a Chinese acquaintance said he was fully invested when the Shanghai index was at 4100 because “who dares insult the Party.” The implication was the Chinese Communist Party simply wouldn’t let the market fall below that point. And that is bascially what happened. After the Shanghai Composite Index dropped to a low of 3500 on July 8, the Chinese government rolled out a host of policies to arrest a further fall. China was “destroying its stock market in order to save it.” After a slight rebound that lasted three days, the Shanghai Composite dropped three percent on Wednesday , July 15, closing at 3805.

Even if you don’t watch the national news program, you are never far away from sources of investment advice in China, which in and of itself might be a sign of a frothy market: books, internet forums, WeChat groups, and word of mouth all tell you how to invest your money. The whole genre of investment advice in China has exploded since the reopening of the Shanghai market in 1990 (reopening because there was a stock market in Shanghai before the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. You can find more information on the performance of the old Shanghai stock market here).

The Market: The Kingdom of Psychology by Jin Xuewei, a self-taught investment guru, is one of the originals of the investment-advice genre. The book came out in September 1992; at that time the Shanghai market had been open for about a year and a half. Most of the book is a combination of practical advice — what types of information to read — and exhortation: “You are your own best financial advisor,” and, “You can only master the market by mastering yourself.” The most interesting part of the volume comes at the end, when Jin analyzed who was making money in the Shanghai stock market in 1992 and why they were able to do so.

The first group having success were “professional investors.” These weren’t Wall Streeters dressed in suits, but people operating in the shadowy and shifting grounds of the Chinese economy as it began to open up. They were huangniu — middlemen on the make always looking for an angle. Involved in enterprises of varying legality, they put a lot of the proceeds from these businesses into the stock market. The huangniu, in a nod to official communist rhetoric, brought to mind Shanghai traders in the “old society” (jiu shehui) before the establishment of the People’s Republic. The mythical and composite huangniu figure was “Yang One Million” (Yang Baiwan), a short, nondescript man in his 40s with a big belly who excelled at collecting and interpreting information and favored taking big positions in stocks with not that many shares available. By 1992, the author felt the huangniu were moving their money out of the market; they needed to diversify their investments and had an eye on other areas.

If you took a trip down to the stock exchange in the fall of 1992 (and you had to physically go there to trade shares then), you wouldn’t find many in the crowd fitting the description of huangniu. Instead, you would find lots of neatly dressed people sporting glasses and cultured looks: Chinese intellectuals, people who had attended university. For the past year and a half, some intellectuals had been in the market, but only in a secretive sort of way. Part of their hesitance was cultural. Chinese intellectuals, Jin wrote, had been taught to look down on commerce for thousands of years and did not want to be associated with the likes of the huangniu. Another factor was more practical: imagine if they saw someone they knew when going to trade stocks. How awkward! What would they say to each other back at their work unit?

But by the fall of 1992 this stigma had begun to fade. Intellectuals were doing well because they were hesitant and cautious by nature, only moving into the market when they understood what it was. Jin insisted that Chinese intellectuals — famous for empty talk (kongtan) and inaction — were making good returns in the market. Of course, there is an equally valid point about intellectuals as investors that the author ignored: an expert in one area might overestimate the transferability of that knowledge into a new domain. Conducting open-heart surgery does not have anything to do with picking stocks, but a hotshot surgeon might think it does. Apparently Chinese intellectuals in 1992 were immune from this psychological trap.

The third group of people able to make money in the market but faced the most risks and needed the most help — hence the purpose of writing the book — were the average investors. These investors did not have the connections and daring of huangniu or the caution and logic of the intellectuals. Their biggest enemy was themselves. Unfortunately, as Jin constantly reminded readers, the hardest person to control is oneself.

The final group Jin describes — a group that didn’t need his book to guide their investments — were the “mysterious institutional investors” (shenmi de jigou touzizhe). These institutional investors had lots of money and resources that usually came from public money (gongkuan), bank loans, or loans provided by a certain work unit (danwei). Jin didn’t come out and say it clearly, but the money and the personnel behind these institutional investors mostly traced back to the government. It paid to be associated with officialdom.

Jin Xuewei is still in the business of giving investment advice. On June 29, he posted a piece on his blog titled “Why I Say the Bull Market Isn’t Over.” Oops.

I hope the guy sitting next to me at the library wasn’t listening to him.