Why Aren’t You Banned Yet?

This is the second in a series of “Provocations,” produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016), scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. All contributors are also participants in the conference. If you feel provoked, please add a comment.


By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

My provocation will take the form of a self-criticism. I want to come clean about an incident that haunts me, which found me altering my plans for publishing a commentary due to concern over possible repercussions. Aware that I am a China specialist, you might think you know where this is heading, especially given the intentionally misleading title I’ve chosen for this piece. I’m not, though, going to confess to an act self-censorship carried out due to wanting to maximize my odds of continuing to get visas to go to the Chinese mainland. Instead, I’ll describe a time that I worried about how people living on this side of the Pacific would respond to a U.S.-China comparison that I was convinced some Americans would not appreciate.

Let me begin, though, with the issue of my not being banned by Beijing, since colleagues and friends periodically express surprise that I keep being able to get PRC visas. This is natural. They’ve heard that some people in my field have had trouble getting them. They know I’m interested in hot button topics, such as the events of 1989, which Beijing’s leaders think should be avoided or talked about only in very circumscribed ways. This leads to them to make some or all of the following assumptions about me:

  • I must spend a lot of time worrying about getting denied a visa. (I don’t.)
  • I take for granted that being banned by Beijing would hurt my career. (No).
  • I must steer clear from writing about Xinjiang; in a famous incident, all contributors to a volume on that region had trouble getting new visas, even those whose chapters had dealt with issues far removed from contemporary unrest there. (Nope: I discuss violence and repression in Xinjiang in a recent book.)
  • I probably regularly avoid the taboo three Ts — Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan — in my public talks. (I do, but only in public talks I give on the mainland.)
  • When referring to the time in early June of 1989 when soldiers killed civilians, I use waffle words like “incident” rather than “massacre.” (Never.)

When I explain all this, some people leap to two erroneous conclusions. One is that I am brave (not particularly). Another is that the Chinese authorities are unaware of what I write and say (not true). The reality is I can’t be considered courageous in the way I write about China precisely because I am not worried about being banned. Even if I were permanently denied access to the mainland, I could do just fine, given my career stage, field, and aspirations. I am a tenured professor; I have no desire to become a high level administrator; and I have books planned that could be written without visas. I’d be showing more bravery if I did what I did and was untenured, had a research agenda for which traveling to China was crucial, or longed to be considered for an administrative post for which — and I can think of several — being unable to travel to Beijing might be seen as problematic.

In addition to all this, it is not courageous of me to write what I have so far in this essay, even though doing so has called attention to my disregard for the Chinese government’s druthers. The Chinese authorities definitely know about my interest in taboo topics and use of verboten terms — Beijing certainly keeps track, for example, of who testifies at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which focuses on the human rights situation in the PRC and holds sessions that are open and filmed and documented via published transcripts. I spoke before that group in 2014 and referred, per usual, to what had happened twenty-five years before as the “June 4th Massacre” not the “Tiananmen Incident,” and to the official version of events as part of a “Big Lie” campaign. My last visa application was made after I gave my testimony — and was successful.

Some might interpret all this as meaning that the Chinese authorities aren’t as strict when it comes to visas as some imagine them to be, or that the process is simply very hard to figure out and quirky. My own sense — since I keep getting visas while some people, including a few of the contributors to that Xinjiang volume, have gotten banned despite crossing fewer lines than I have — is that both these things are true. They aren’t as heavy-handed as we sometimes think and it is a mysterious system.

I do self-censor when giving public talks on the Chinese mainland, choosing my words carefully and avoiding some controversial subjects completely, but I do not do so out of fear or for self-protection. What leads me to hold my tongue when I give talks (except in very special and not-quite-public settings, such as at schools affiliated with Western institutions where international academic freedom rules are supposed to apply, and where only those with certain kinds of I.D. cards can get in the door) is the concern that venturing into taboo territory might cause significant problems for others. I don’t want to risk making trouble for friends who live in the cities where I am presenting, or for people I don’t know well who have invited me to give talks on their campuses.

Those moments of self-censorship don’t bother me, but one time I limited publicizing my views here, on my native soil, gnaws at me. In the immediate wake of 9/11, I became disturbed by how much the public sphere in the United States had started to resemble that of China during a political campaign, with all the main newspapers seemingly following the same basic line and newscasters breaking with standard norms of objectivity by using the first person plural, talking about how “we” felt and how “we” needed to respond. Things came to a head when my nine-year old daughter told me about a class session spent drawing American flags, in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of what might happen during a Chinese “patriotic education” drive.

I became obsessed with wanting to find a way to respond to this. I first thought of trying to start a campaign to get schools to encourage students to draw the flags of the dozens of countries from which those who died in the Twin Towers had come or to which they had ties.

Then I reconsidered and concluded that the best thing I could do was write an essay about how much I had always valued the sense I had when I came back from the PRC of feeling that I was some place where there was a more robust public sphere. I would describe how unsettling it was to have China flashbacks in my own country. I would also note that, while some diversity of opinion and space for disagreement soon returned to the American public sphere, the response to the terror attacks was a useful reminder of its fragility.

What I didn’t do was send the essay to an American periodical, even though there were one or two I had written for before that might have wanted to run it. This was because, in my first enthusiasm for the flags-of-many-nations idea, I had called the homes of two people who had written bold essays critical of the groupthink and jingoistic tone of the moment. I did not know either personally, but I had friends who did, and who had forwarded their numbers. They were worried by my call — the pieces I admired had inspired angry responses and personal threats, and being rung out of the blue by someone else the authors didn’t know was disturbing.

The main points of my piece were reinforced rather than challenged by those phone calls and underscored the potential value of sharing my views with Americans. I decided, though, not to try to place it in a domestic publication where, arguably, it could have done the most good. Instead, I sent it to an Australian magazine where, as the web had not yet really taken off and social media had not yet been invented, I could be confident it would not come to the attention of many of my compatriots.

I rationalized this choice in two ways. It wouldn’t be fair, I told myself, to open up members of my family to the kind of hostile responses those writers and their families experienced. And a foreign publication might be particularly interested in the essay, since it would offer a look at two settings that might seem intriguingly exotic: China in campaign mode and the United States in a moment of crisis. Neither of these rationalizations was completely off base: there could have been some sort of negative fall out for family members, especially perhaps for my daughter if I had led with the vignette about her classroom, and the Australian editor I sent the piece to immediately accepted it. In spite of this, and the fact that years later I included a version of the essay in a book published in the United States, I’ve always wondered if I made the right initial decision.

That remains a particularly distressing instance of holding back, but there have been others. In fact, I wrestled with a “can this be said without negative consequences” issue while writing this piece. In an earlier draft, I wrote that I’d feel differently about visa issues if I had been born in or had familial ties to China. This seemed at first a natural point to make, since I’m quite sure I’d assess risks differently if I thought that being banned would mean not being able to see a parent or, if my spouse were Chinese, the grandparents of my children. I decided, however, to leave that part out, lest it be misconstrued as implying that I thought colleagues who are Chinese or have partners of Chinese descent are more prone than I am to self-censorship. I’ve been mildly annoyed when people have presumed that, since I keep getting visas, I must pull my punches when dealing with human rights issues. I could imagine being much more annoyed if someone seemed to be suggesting that my background or that of my partner led me to bite my tongue. So, not wanting to cause offense or be seen as somehow bigoted, I left that whole part out.

At least, though, I didn’t wait years this time before mentioning the choice I made.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2010), and the co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012). He will participate in the Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said conference.



Editor’s Note: This is the fourth interview of several we’ll be publishing this month, all with our section editors. Like the rest of the LARB ecosystem, their work depends on the generous support of everyday readers who keep LARB going;  we hope you’ll consider giving this month for our winter fund drive. 

Meet Stephanie Cha, Noir Editor.

What do you do and why? 

I’m the new noir editor for LARB, but mostly, I’m a novelist. I write about L.A., particularly Korean-American L.A., and so far I’ve found it useful to do that through noir.

What is your favorite place to write/edit outside of your home?

I’m a homebody.

What is your favorite thing to drink while writing/editing?

Diet Cokes. I’m a fiend for them.

NASA asks you to select one piece of art/literature/music/film to send into space that will explain our civilization to aliens. What do you chose and why? 

This is a hard question! But for some reason The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty comes to mind.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really enjoyed. 

So many! I go to a lot of readings and other book-related events, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. I guess outside of the literary sphere, I did love attending the finale taping for season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really didn’t enjoy. 

I went to the Integratron in Joshua Tree and a white dude in toe shoes and a coolie hat ruined it for everyone.

What is the one question you always wish people would ask in interviews? Now answer it!

What did you eat for lunch and why? I had some Thai food because I wanted some Thai food.



Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part Two

We started with a simple plan. We’d get six people to suggesting a pair of books apiece, making a dozen in all — maybe a baker’s dozen, if one person couldn’t resist slipping in a third title. In the holiday spirit of excess, though, things got out of hand. As three of the four core members of the old China Beat team came together to make their suggestions, we couldn’t resist seeing if the final member of the quartet, Kenneth Pomeranz, would chime in too. Only one of us managed to limit ourselves to two titles.

Anyway, here’s the list which, combined with last week’s, is now well beyond a dozen, baker’s or otherwise:


Kate Merkel-Hess

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

This is the 2014 Ken Liu translation of a 2008 book that was a bestseller in China and stands out as a prime example of the country’s lively science fiction genre. It is classic SF — multi-page tangents on math, physics, and technology dot the text, and crucial components of the book take place in a virtual online world — but it is the context, and its presentation, that I found so stunning. The book, the opening installment of a trilogy, toggles between the stories of secret scientific installations during the Cultural Revolution and the present day, and while the Cultural Revolution is key to the set up, the politics of the period are never the point of the book itself. Liu, like many sci-fi writers, creates stories where the vastness of space and (mini spoiler!) encounters with alien life raise questions about our shared humanity and what it means. But in the science fiction that most Western readers are familiar with, those encounters take place against a Western backdrop. The Three-Body Problem neatly displaces us, while, indeed, successfully demonstrating the universality of appealing sci-fi themes and questions. For those who get hooked, the second Three-Body Trilogy book is available in English (it came out last summer as The Dark Forest, with Joel Martinsen doing the translation) and the third, Death’s End, is slated to be published in 2016 (with Liu back as the translator).

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer

When I was in college in the late 1990s I spent a semester studying Chinese in Manchuria, so I was looking forward to Michael Meyer’s new book, which chronicles his time living in a little village in Manchuria called Wasteland. The book is part love story, part ethnography, and part history. Meyer ends up in Wasteland because it is the hometown of his wife, Frances, but for much of the book she is working as a lawyer in Hong Kong, only visiting infrequently, as Meyer navigates the sometimes-confounding social dynamics of a close-knit village.

Interwoven with Meyer’s stories of life in Wasteland and his reflections on the changing nature of rural China are his investigations of the rich history of Manchuria. As he shows, a place that many readers will probably initially view as a backwater has actually been a critical crossroads in some of the modern world’s most important stories. Meyer is also the author of the well received 2008 book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, and taken together, the two volumes demonstrate his fascination with the way that the past is entwined with present and future. For a historian, that’s a comforting and natural way of looking at the world, but in the hands of a storyteller like Meyer it is also evocative and moving, a reminder of the way we live with the past and also change it.


Kenneth Pomeranz

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform, by Meg Rithmire

Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft, by Stephen Halsey

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, by John Osburg

There’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but my first choice is almost too easy: Amitav Ghosh’s superb Flood of Fire. As a novel, it’s completely engrossing; as a history of the 19th century opium trade, it’s remarkably accurate and comprehensive; as a vivid reminder of the human dimensions of those events, and the fact that the participants cannot be reduced to just victims and villains (or just Britons and Chinese), it is unsurpassed. You can read it without having read the first two books in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, but if this gets you to read them, so much the better.

For highly readable and important academic work on China, three new or at least newish works by younger scholars come to mind. First, Stephen Halsey’s Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft reminds us that for all the battering China took in the late 19th century, it was never formally colonized. Building on lots of other recent scholarship, Halsey shows that the last decades of China’s final dynasty, the Qing — sometimes written off as a long succession of failures — should instead be seen as an important period of innovation in Chinese statecraft, resulting in a military-fiscal state with many resemblances to those of early modern Europe. Of course, the dynasty ultimately fell anyway, but Halsey shows that the influence of its efforts lingers: among other things, in a distinctive understanding of sovereignty, which colors Beijing’s internal and external policies even today.

My other two books should particularly interest those who want a deeper understanding of the contemporary Chinese economy, and sense that economics alone won’t provide it. John Osburg’s Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich is an excellent ethnography of elite businessmen (and a few women) in Chengdu. Osburg focuses on the endless “night work” of these entrepreneurs: the entertaining of customers, suppliers and other contacts without which they could not succeed. The book shows vividly how connections are made through providing others with drinks, parties, and sometimes women; how those connections matter, and why it’s too simple to call it all “corruption.” You also hear the participants in this world, both men and women, reflect on the toll this system takes, what “merit” and “competition” mean within it, and how they might like to see things change, both in their own lives and in Chinese society.

Meanwhile, to see how one very important feature of China’s economy came to have its distinctive shape, read Meg Rithmire’s Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform. (This one is brand new, and I confess I haven’t read all of it yet myself.) Excepting a few petro-states, China today is almost unique in the degree to which government relies on revenue from state-owned assets, rather than taxes on private transaction; the biggest single such asset is the land itself, which can be leased for long periods, but not privately owned. This often-overlooked fact shapes Chinese development in many, many ways, and Rithmire provides an eye-opening account of the evolution and implications of land policy in three big Chinese cities, from the onset of reform in 1978 forward.


Maura Cunningham

Spy Games, by Adam Brookes

Dragon Day, by Ellie McEnroe

The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill

There’s nothing more satisfying than settling in at the end of a dark winter day with a hot cup of cocoa (or something stronger) and a thick spy thriller. Help someone in your life realize this by giving them two or three juicy volumes to enjoy while the snow falls outside and the fire roars. I recommend the latest offerings by Adam Brookes and Lisa Brackmann, who both write compelling spy novels with a China twist — though their books should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good thriller, regardless of their level of China knowledge.

I reviewed both recent books in previous posts for the China Blog: Brookes’s engrossing Spy Games (reviewed here) continues the story of world-weary journalist Philip Mangan and his international exploits, while Brackmann wrapped up her phenomenal Ellie McEnroe trilogy with Dragon Day (reviewed here). To ensure that your gift recipient gets the full arc of both stories, bundle the new books with copies of their preceding ones — Night Heron (Brookes) and Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (Brackmann).

I’ve got one more suggestion, which stays in Asia but is not China-focused and came out some time ago, though I only recently discovered it: The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill. I just finished reading this first book in a 10-volume series, which is set in Laos in 1976 and follows the adventures of Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 70-something reluctant coroner with a wry sense of humor. With nine more books to go in Cotterill’s series, my winter reading list is set.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When True Love Came to China, by Lynn Pan

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, by Rian Thum

The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, by Nile Green

My first reading suggestion is Lynn Pan’s extraordinary When True Love Came to China, which is available in Asia now and will be out in other markets this spring. Pankaj Mishra singled it out in the Guardian as one of his books of the year, describing it as “a rich and gripping account of how the first generation of modern Chinese intell­ect­uals and writers discovered the pleas­ures — and sufferings — of romantic love.”

I’ll also let someone else tell you what is so good about my second selection, Rian Thum’s The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, a beautifully crafted work. In his review of the book for this publication, Central Asianist Nile Green writes that while Thum’s book offers much to the reader seeking a better understanding of contemporary problems in Xinjiang, at its “core it is not political study” and goes beyond “the familiar ideologies of modern times toward older ways of knowing and belonging.” The result he says is a “humanist project” of “empathy and magnitude” which explores “the experience of the past in a society few have tried to understand in its own terms.”

Following some of my colleagues in slipping in extra works and moving beyond books that focus on China, I’ll close with a shout out for Green’s own new book, The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. Original in format and gracefully written, it could be described with many of the same adjectives its author used to refer to The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, for it, too, is deeply empathetic and humane. And while it does not engage with Chinese history, I look forward to teaching it someday beside Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat or Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu, memorable books by China specialists that take us back in time and move between Europe and another part of the world in a similarly engaging and creative fashion.

KB - Cruel State 1

America Has School Shootings, Korea Has Sinking Ships

By Colin Marshall

You still see the yellow ribbons here and there around Seoul. I remember seeing them even in Los Angeles, pinned up by the hundred outside the Korean consulate building on Wilshire Boulevard. I got a couple yellow ribbons of my own last week, freebies that came with admission to Kin Jin-yeul’s new documentary Cruel State (나쁜 나라), which follows the quest for answers undertaken by the parents of the high-school students who perished last April in the sinking of the MV Sewol, the disaster which precipitated the yellow-ribbon flurry.

Cruel State covers, in roughly captured but often striking handheld video images, the year and a half after the incident, during which time a group of these parents spent beating on the Korean government’s door, seemingly full-time, marching to various official buildings and camping out on their steps, confronting a host of blank-faced representatives, heckling the president and even making their way up to her house, all the while demanding to know why their children had to die on a field trip. It should hardly count as a spoiler to tell you that the parents end the film in possession of as few answers as they had at the beginning.

In a sense, we know exactly why those kids died, having long had the facts laid out for us: the overloaded cargo hold, the underloaded ballast tank, the sudden turn, the nearly untrained crew, the captain not even asleep at the wheel but nowhere near it. But nobody has yet explained to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone to that of the families of the deceased, why the nation watched the ship sink on live television while an ineffective and seemingly incompetent rescue operation flailed around it. Absent a thorough explanation, the parents would at least like someone to take credible responsibility for those 304 lives lost.

“I take full responsibility,” announced the suicide note in the pocket of the school’s principal, and the Prime Minister said it too when he resigned over the matter, but they meant it in a more traditional East Asian fall-on-your-sword kind of way, while the families want to know who actually caused the disaster. But no one group of people, let alone one individual, could have brought about the fate of the Sewol themselves, and given that, I can almost understand the South Korean government’s tendency toward stonewalling and blame-deflecting circumlocution. Nobody thinks they did their job overseeing the cargo ferry industry, but could anyone in charge of running the country, even those most filled with shame by the incident, imagine that any decision of their own sank the ship?

Even those in charge of running the ship itself must see the blame as widely dispersed. Thoughts of disproportionate culpability no doubt haunt the surviving crew members directly involved in that fateful turn, but even they stand at the end of a long causal chain, one that may stretch all the way back to the early development of South Korea, the country that found a way to do the seemingly impossible: raise itself from the status of half a poor, ruined, and thoughtlessly divided remote peninsula to that of a modern economic powerhouse more first-world, in many ways, than much of the first world.

KB - Cruel State 2

Yet the Sewol was a third-world accident, and not the first — not even the eighth, ninth, tenth — in South Korea’s short history. Cruel State opens with a title card listing off the dates and death tolls of the Sewol‘s precedents, and only those specifically involving ferries: as the country’s economy grew, so did its propensity to generate horrifying news stories of not just boats sinking but jetliners crashing, trains catching fire, bridges and buildings falling down. 1995’s Sampoong Department Store disaster, the most memorable example of that last category, took 502 lives in the deadliest building collapse since antiquity.

It also brought the first major wave of the reflection of which the Sewol has brought the latest, one that forces people to ask, Is this the price Korea must pay for its relentless — and, looking back now, reckless — drive to do ever more, ever faster, ignoring procedure, law, and threat to life and limb if it meant one more step up the economic ladder toward that prized distinction of “developed country”? And for all the pains Korea has taken, can it even consider itself a member of the developed world, where buildings don’t collapse and boats don’t sink due to sheer irresponsibility?

The documentary’s English title of Cruel State highlights the conflict between the Sewol parents and unresponsive Korean officialdom, but the point clarifies further with a direct translation of its Korean title: “Bad Country.” That echoes a sentiment you’ll hear from many Koreans who left their homeland before the 1990s, whose first-hand memories of their homeland, which vividly retain the simultaneous drabness and fierceness that once characterized the place, stop well short of the period after the country’s impressive recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when Korea looked like a shining city on the hill to the rest of Asia and, as time went on, to the wider world as well. But then came the Sewol, resuming the pattern of tragedies that have not only killed thousands but, in a sense, indicted the entire South Korean project.

The United States of America has an obvious equivalent in its increasingly frequent mass shootings. Cruel State made this especially clear to me, so closely does the Sewol parents’ struggle mirror, especially in its Sisyphean appearance, that of some parents of the elementary schoolers gunned down at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Those parents have worked, needless to say, for stricter gun laws, a cause with which I can only agree, though I can’t be the only American who wonders whether his country long ago opened Pandora’s box.

America has more firearms, one often hears, than it does people. No plausible gun law, no matter how strict, could bring that ratio very far down in anything like the near future — and if one did, I fear it would only give a certain segment of America reason to believe, and react accordingly to the belief, that the president really is coming for its guns. And sometimes I wonder whether the National Rifle Association, the standard target for blame whenever an American shoots up a school, a theater, a church, a postal facility, or a government office, has it entirely wrong when they insist that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

KB - Cruel State 3

I can’t call myself one of Michael Moore’s biggest fans, but his documentary Bowling for Columbine put forth a question all too rarely asked: what if the guns aren’t the problem — what if we’re the problem? We regard America’s routine shootings and the guns used to execute them as the disease when they could just as well be the symptom, the natural consequences of a violent, introverted culture, just as the Sampoong, the Sewol, and all of South Korea’s other high-profile catastrophes may have come as the natural consequences of the unceasing pressure for higher and higher performance — deliver more cargo per run, do them faster, forget the safety training, just ship out — that pervades so much of life here. At this point, Americans and Koreans alike might well ask themselves if they simply live in, well, a bad country.

Still, Korea has shown that it learns more from failure than America does. Malcolm Gladwell took some flak when he framed Korean Air’s streak of crashes in the 1980s and 90s as a cultural problem addressed with a cultural solution, but something has kept their planes properly in the air (“nut rage” and the like notwithstanding) these past fifteen years. The citywide post-Sampoong investigation revealed that one in seven Seoul towers needed rebuilding, and none of them have collapsed since (though an auditorium at a Gyeongju resort did last year, killing ten). 2003’s badly mishandled Daegu subway fire resulted in 192 deaths, while 2014’s Busan subway fire resulted in none at all.

The Seoul subway also had a blessedly death-free incident last year, a collision on its busy Line 2 just weeks after the sinking of the Sewol. But many of the passengers involved, well aware that the students on the boat who survived were the students who disobeyed the order to stay in their cabins — evidence of a frightening gap between the reality of their country and the follow-the-leader mentality their country had instilled in them — pried open the doors and fled the moment the voice on the loudspeaker told them not to. “It’s unlikely South Koreans will ever again trust the voice on the intercom,” wrote novelist Kim Young-ha.

Each big shooting in America does spark a renewed debate, though, America being essentially an accretion of rules, always a legal debate, with one side arguing that more laws will prevent more such incidents, and the other arguing that more laws will not prevent more such incidents. (Nobody dares imagine the possibility a country whose people, irrespective of the laws they live under, don’t want to shoot each other in the first place.) This sort of thing may deepen America’s national resignation on both sides that the general phenomenon will only get worse, but in Korea, I can at least believe that a ferry will never again sink in the same manner as did the Sewol.

Still, the focused but inconclusive Cruel State, neither first movie about the disaster (Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong’s The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol/다이빙벨 came out last October) nor, surely, the last, recognizes the consequent psychological shift as lasting — a shift, at least, away from complacency rather than toward it. This portrait of agony brings to mind the words of Martial joylessly watching lions devour slaves at the Coliseum, words Alistair Cooke quoted on Letter from America when he faced the Columbine High School massacre, which in retrospect began a grim era: “These are my times, and I must know them.”

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



Editor’s Note: This is the third interview of several we’ll be publishing this month, all with our section editors. Like the rest of the LARB ecosystem, their work depends on the generous support of everyday readers who keep LARB going;  we hope you’ll consider giving this month for our winter fund drive. 

Meet Michael Marder, Founder of The Philosopher’s Plant.

What do you do and why?

Thinking, writing, sharing the results with others. I used to answer the question “Why?” with another question: “Why do you breathe?” It’s a calling.  

What is your favorite place to write/edit outside of your home?

I do not often have the luxury of choosing where to write: planes, trains, buses, bureaucratic line-ups have all been the backdrops for my writing. I like working in cafés occasionally, but they ought to have excellent views and as little background noise as possible.

What is your favorite thing to drink while writing/editing?

Green tea, preferably with jasmine.

NASA asks you to select one piece of art/literature/music/film to send into space that will explain our civilization to aliens. What do you chose and why?

A CD of Bernardo Sassetti Trio titled “Motion”. It speaks for itself, in the language of music.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really enjoyed.

Attending Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix at the Kennedy Center in DC

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really didn’t enjoy.

Watching “007: Spectre”, the new James Bond movie: not so much because of a flimsy plot but because of its utterly naive conception of power, which remains centralized and traceable to a single person or institution.

What is the one question you always wish people would ask in interviews? Now answer it!

Do you like being interviewed? Not that much…

Korea Blog - Right Now Wrong Then

Korea Through the Eyes of Hong Sangsoo, the Éric Rohmer and/or Woody Allen of Korean Cinema

By Colin Marshall

When we moved to Seoul, my girlfriend and I, not unstrategically, chose an apartment located near several major universities. This guaranteed a robust level of cultural amenity; imagine, if you will, the features of several American “college towns” all stacked up within a few square miles. One morning after getting settled in, we took a walk up toward the Film Forum, a kind of miniature art-house multiplex right across the street from Ewha Womans University. There we caught a screening of what, for me, made for the ideal first movie with which to begin my life in Korea: Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다).

Koreans often ask me what got me interested in their country, a question that inevitably leads to Hong Sangsoo. Nothing has motivated me to immerse myself in things Korean as much as the language itself (about which more another day), but my first exposure to the language came through the movies. I got that exposure when Korean cinema enjoyed its first international boom in the early 2000s, which flung out into the world such slick but thematically and tonally distinctive pictures as Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) and Oldboy (올드보이), Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) and The Host (괴물), and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) and 3-Iron (빈 집).

Having watched through the filmographies of those Korean auteurs, I found my way to Hong, perhaps the auteur-iest of all Korean auteurs. By that I don’t mean to call him the absolute best filmmaker of the bunch (though I do follow his work with by far the most enthusiasm), but the one who — having made a movie a year for almost the past two decades now, each on a shoestring budget and some with scripts written shooting day by shooting day — has arrived at the most developed style, one he uses to examine, with clear eyes from many different angles, the stories that unfold when a certain type of man (often an filmmaker or academic) and a certain type of woman (often an artist) collide in modern Korea.

This has increasingly drawn accusations that Hong “makes the same movie over and over again,” a charge I can accept, but only to the extent that, say, Mark Rothko painted the same pictures over and over again. Or maybe I should compare Hong to one of the Cubists, so intently has he concentrated on viewing his subject matter in as many ways as possible in a single work, telling a story several times over but with slight variations, or from one character’s perspective and then another’s, in order to shed light from all possible directions.

Hong has kept with this impulse in Right Now, Wrong Then. A director named Cheon-soo arrives in the city of Suwon, twenty miles south of Seoul, to speak at a screening of his movie. But he’s come a day early, and while killing time at a nearby historical site happens to meet Hee-jeong, a painter, who hasn’t seen his work herself but still displays some excitement at meeting a director of some renown. He invites her to coffee, then she invites him to her studio. He takes her to a soju-soaked dinner during which he professes his love for her, and then she brings him along to a party (otherwise attended only by a trio of middle-aged women) she’d previously promised to attend.

Then the story starts over, but with variations. This time Hee-jeong, who’d previously seemed so hesitant to reveal to the filmmaker her work in progress, now shows it more confidently. This time Cheon-soo offers constructive criticism (emphasis on the criticism) rather than the fulsome praise he heaped upon her canvas in the first version. This time, as Hee-jeong sleeps off her drink in another room, Cheon-soo sees fit to suddenly, drunkenly undress in front of the horrified ladies at the party. This time Cheon-soo gets along with his interlocutor at the screening’s Q&A the next day, whereas the first time he wrote him off as an incompetent. The second reality, on the whole, ultimately feels preferable to the first, if only as a 51% positive outcome versus the first reality’s 49%.

The latter version of events certainly feels preferable for Cheon-soo, despite or possibly because of that impromptu, unwanted strip show. At least it goes better than the first iteration of the party, during which Hee-jeong repeats Cheon-soo’s praise of her painting, lines the other women at the table, fans of his, recognize from the descriptions of his own work he’d given before in interview after interview. This leads to talk of all the rumors floating around of his various affairs with female crew members. Thus his game unravels, and the first telling of this story (which the film presents as Right Then, Wrong Now) shows him up, like many a Hong film has shown many a male protagonist up, as the pathetic playboy he is.

“What can we do about this Korean man?” exclaimed one of the female characters of In Another Country (다른 나라에서), four Hong films ago, upon catching one of the male characters in the philandering act. We might consider that a driving idea of Hong’s filmography, which can sometimes seem like one big exercise in exposing the delusion and foolishness of men enslaved simultaneously by both their high, inflexible romantic ideals and their low, insatiable sexual desires. (Yet as much as critics have written much about the problems of Hong’s male characters, I believe the haven’t sufficiently acknowledged those of his female characters, who respond to the men’s buffoonish rigidity with a centerless passivity I find downright scary.)

KB - Right Now Wrong Then 2

The ideals of Hong’s men never get satisfied, but the desires occasionally do; he used to punctuate his movies with some of the least appealing sex scenes in modern cinema — an unblinking camera, bright lights, pale flesh, bare rooms, dialogue like “Can I moan?” — but has moved away, mercifully, from that terrible frankness. Right Now, Wrong Then, in fact, contains neither the image nor even the implication of sex, and for its particular story — or rather, for its particular stories — benefits from that: despite the varying particulars, Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong’s brief relationship sputters out both times, and feels all the more real for it.

Korean cinema as a whole first fascinated me for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that, even in this day and age, it so often accomplishes the rare feat of pulling off melodrama, or if not melodrama, what might otherwise Westerners as preposterously heightened emotion. Hong’s movies, apart from an outburst from an especially frustrated and/or inebriated character every now and again, succeed by doing the opposite, ratcheting down the Sturm und Drang until they become a mirror reflecting a certain segment of Korean society. (Even those who dislike Hong’s work never do so on grounds of implausibility.)

But given the way Hong constructs his films, I’d do better to describe each of them as a series of mirrors, attached but facing in slightly different directions, hence the comparisons commonly made between him and predecessors as different as Éric Rohmer and Woody Allen. A more accomplished writer friend once gave me this piece of golden wisdom: “If you focus on the structure, the content takes care of itself.” That could well be another driving idea of Hong’s filmography, though I don’t think he chose his subject matter of the miscommunications, pretensions, and humiliations that occur when man encounters woman wholly accidentally.

I often think of Anthony Lane’s words: “The landscape of desire, as laid out before Hong’s unflustered gaze, could scarcely be further from an idyll.” Whether that gaze applies only to Korea’s landscape of desire (Hong has set only one picture outside his homeland, in Paris, but he kept all the characters Korean) each viewer will have to determine for themselves. But I get the sense that Hong understands the universality of his work. I once heard him respond, at a Q&A, to the question of whether he would ever consider telling a different kind of story. He said that he finds nothing more fascinating than the relationships between men and women, and wouldn’t stop examining them until he understood them. “And if anybody tells you they understand them,” he added, “they’re lying.”

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



Editor’s Note: This is the second interview of several we’ll be publishing this month, all with our section editors. Like the rest of the LARB ecosystem, their work depends on the generous support of everyday readers who keep LARB going;  we hope you’ll consider giving this month for our winter fund drive. 

Meet Medaya Ocher, Deputy Fiction Managing Editor.

What do you do and why? 

I’m one of the fiction editors here at LARB. Why? How far back should I go? I really love fiction, I’ve worked on it for quite some time academically, but I wanted to bridge that divide that sometimes exists between academia and the rest of the world. I also wanted a literary community in Los Angeles, and I found one at LARB.

What is your favorite place to write/edit outside of your home? 

I rent a desk in an all-women’s work space near my house. There’s a huge cart full of tea and some very intelligent, cool women work there. It’s also very fun to tell men that they’re just categorically unwelcome. It really upsets them.

What is your favorite thing to drink while writing/editing

Sparkling water, because it feels very indulgent.

NASA asks you to select one piece of art/literature/music/film to send into space that will explain our civilization to aliens. What do you choose and why? 

What sort of question is this? Why would NASA ask me to do this? Just to make me miserable? No thank you NASA, go trick someone else.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really enjoyed.

I loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I read it on the plane, in the middle seat, and I was crying by the end, which was embarrassing. I wanted to hide my face but also just pass it down and tearily wave my hands, and make everybody read it.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really didn’t enjoy. 

I somehow found myself watching the MTV VMAs this past September and let me tell you, that was just awful. Somehow I sat through the whole thing, but I was just bewildered the entire time. What is anger? What are tears? Did Miley Cyrus just call Snoop her “Mammy”? It was just a series of events and emotions and performances that I could not understand at all.

What is the one question you always wish people would ask in interviews? Now answer it!

I wish people would ask about personal ghost stories. It would take too long for me to answer that here, but I’m happy to do it in person, always.

I SEOUL U booth

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love I.Seoul.U

By Colin Marshall

Just before I came to live in Korea, the capital introduced a brand new English-language slogan, the fruit of a much-publicized process wherein real, everyday citizens — alongside a panel of nine “experts” — got to vote on ideas submitted by other real, everyday citizens. The victorious entry, which originally came from a philosophy student, won over not just 682 of the 1,140 Seoulites who turned up to Seoul Plaza to cast their vote, but the entire expert panel as well. And so, beating out rival candidates “Seoulmate” and “SEOULing,” emerged the city’s next global banner: “I.Seoul.U.”

I watched all this happen from a distance, back in Los Angeles, and when I say “watched,” I mean I watched my Facebook news feed explode with ridicule. (One wag wasted no time Photoshopping a version of the slogan for the village of Fucking, Austria.) I.Seoul.U proved controversial from the get-go, but I daresay that the loudest of the controversy — and even my view from Facebook made this clear — erupted among Seoul-based expatriates, especially those from English-speaking countries, a group on whom you can always count to get powerlessly worked up over matters of Korean policy.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” goes the mildest of the objections. Indeed not, but that just puts I.Seoul.U on the long list of the English slogans adopted by Korean cities that hit the native English speaker’s ear somewhat askew. These range from the bland (“Amazing Iksan,” “Beautiful Gyeongju,” “Good Chungju,” “It’s Daejeon”) to the unpromising (“Fine City Hwaseong,” “Just Sangju,” “Namyangju: The Slow City”) to the ungrammatical (“Amenity Seocheon,” “Do Dream Dongducheon,” “Wonderfull [sic] Samcheok”) to the threatening (“Bucheon Hands Up!”).

This whole body of branding, more than any work in particular, no matter how amusing, does raise a rarely asked question: why does any city in Korea, let alone an out-of-the-way small town like Iksan, Sangju, or Samcheok, need a slogan in English at all? For all the interest in English-language media here as well as all the time and money poured into English-language education, the day where Korea can call itself a widely English-speaking society in the manner of European countries like Germany or Denmark lies, to my mind, at least a century off. British, American, and Canadian travelers have only just begun to put Seoul on their bucket lists, and I don’t see them flocking to Namyangju, the Slow City any time soon.

So who are these slogans meant to attract? The Korea Times‘ Andrew Salmon, a rare Western defender of I.Seoul.U, argues that “the target demographic for Seoul tourism promotion efforts is not the U.S., U.K., Canada or anywhere else in the Anglosphere. The obvious, natural focus for Seoul tourism promotion is China and Japan. The stark simplicity of I.Seoul.U may well speak to tourists hailing from these high-potential target markets ― tourists who have, on the whole, a poor command of English.” Here we have, in other words, a use of English not as English, exactly, but as what Salmon calls “the international medium of communication.”

I SEOUL U photo gallery

We might better understand the I.Seoul.Us of the world if we regarded them not as English-language slogans, but as Global English-language slogans — or, to use the appropriate neologism, Globish-language slogans. An ugly term, yes, but then Globish is an ugly thing, as anyone knows who’s turned an ear toward everyday conversations between non-native English speakers from different countries, the kind of thudding exchanges of nouns (and nouns pressed into verb duty) going on even now in hostels across Asia. I.Seoul.U belongs to an English stripped of its expressiveness and nuance, a language painfully reduced from the one with which the slogan’s most ardent detractors grew up.

But Seoul’s making such a fuss over its branding in English, even perfect English, might signal a certain desperation. Let me ask you this: do you know Tokyo’s English slogan? I bet you don’t, and neither did I, until a bit of digging revealed that Japan’s capital rolled out a new one of its own in October: “& TOKYO,” a puzzling half-phrase surely even less catchy to English speakers than I.Seoul.U. But what does it matter? Everyone knows Tokyo. Nobody knows it because of its crack ad campaigns, and certainly not because of Japan’s mastery of English; we’re talking about the country, remember, of T-shirts emblazoned with such nonsensical messages as “MONEY IS LIKE MUCH NOT NOT” and “SOMEWHERE I HAVE NEVER BEEN SOMETIMES I AM.”

Or they seem nonsensical, rather, if you try to parse them as English. Japan, a country that sometimes seems to have recused itself from the burden of communication in that or any other foreign language, prefers to repurpose bits and pieces of English as, effectively, a form of Japanese. This, as part of the larger phenomenon of Japanese insularity well scrutinized over the past 400 years, has its downsides, but at least Japan knows where it stands with regard to English. Korea looks less sure, and whether it becomes another Japan or another Denmark, linguistically speaking, counts as one of the many questions whose answers I moved here to watch emerge.

If Seoul insists on branding itself in English but wants to ruffle fewer feathers, I suggest simply translating its Korean-language slogans from now on. The graphic design of the official I.Seoul.U logo actually includes, right below the Globish, a superior Korean-language version: 나와 너의 서울, or “My Seoul and Yours.” I.Seoul.U’s predecessor “Hi Seoul — Soul of Asia” remained in office for a dozen years (despite China’s ban on the use of the phrase “Soul of Asia” within their own borders), but it already had a considerably more cogent slogan in “함께 만드는 서울, 함께 누리는 서울,” or “Seoul We Create Together, Seoul We Enjoy Together.”

Still, I have to admit both that I laughed along with the rest of the Westerners when I.Seoul.U made its debut and that, about a month after it went into action and I moved to Seoul myself, I’ve come around. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity — a highly non-Korean notion, granted — and I have just wide enough a contrarian streak to prefer an awkward slogan that gets people talking, or even just grumbling, to a frictionless entry like “Surprising Seoul,” which wouldn’t get anybody doing anything. The broad references to current internet trends in its phrasing and presentation (it does surprise me that the submission came from an undergraduate and not one of the middle-aged men who tend to hold the cards in Korea) will date instantaneously, but for the time being, I, for one, will stay to get Seouled with pleasure.

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


Coming of Age in Turkey

By Charles Whitney

Marketed as a young adult book, Özge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, isn’t particularly one. It is better described as 13-up, for adults as well.

Samanci comes of age in interesting times in an interesting place – Turkey as it veers from secular state under military rule, to proto-democracy turning to Islamist autocracy. The second daughter of schoolteachers in Izmir, a town on the Aegean coast, young Özge idolizes her older sister, develops a serious crush on her first-grade teacher, and like every other Turkish child of her era, becomes steeped in the mythos of Kemal Atatürk. Everyone except her sister Pelin and her Uncle Nihat, a ne’er-do-well free spirit, is too strict, too serious, too buttoned-down, oppressed. Mother and father – especially father – drive both girls to succeed in school with the dream of having better lives than the humble ones of schoolteachers in a provincial town. Both must go to the best possible schools – primary and secondary schools in Izmir, university in Istanbul – and both must aim for engineering. Pelin excels, Özge struggles. Her only route into university in the capital is in math, which she neither likes nor understands very well.

From primary school onward, a heavy hand is everywhere, from family, from the regime, and later at university, from an Islamized student body. An early catalyzing moment is when she is punished by her teacher whom she idolizes – and she is no longer perfect. Throughout, she remains under the eye of Mom, and a perpetually disappointed Dad. Flunking out of school, she is one afternoon attacked in a wooded area. She escapes, and it’s an epiphanic moment. She realizes she cannot be what she cannot be and must follow her own passion. Enrolling in drama school while continuing her math studies, she does well at neither. Faced with one more course before scraping by for the math degree, she comes to yet another defining moment when friends cramming with her admire the artwork in her math notebooks – and everywhere else. “in the midst of the noise I grew up with,” she says, “I could not hear my own voice.” She becomes an artist. An assistant professor of interactive media arts at Northwestern University, she remains an artist today, having begun a sketch blog, Ordinary Things in 2006. We were Northwestern colleagues from 2011 until my departure this past August.

Dare to Disappoint would have made an okay print-only memoir. It makes a compelling graphic novel, quite similar in subject matter, locale, and treatment to Riad Rattouf’s recent The Arab of the Future. Samanci is a better artist. Depicting children, including her young self, as exaggeratedly small, her work evokes that of Chris Ware. The work is at once emotionally fragile and strong, poignant and wry, heartfelt and ultimately optimistic.

Charles Whitney is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar.


Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part One

This first post in a two-part series continues a tradition of holiday gift suggestions that began at China Beat (2008-2012) — a blog that currently lives on as a Twitter feed (@chinabeat ) and is in the process of being archived by the Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska.

In this edition, we focus on 2015 publications dealing with Chinese themes. We have given contributors leeway to slip in titles that came out before this year, but they have only read recently. We also invited them to suggest books that veer partly or completely away from China, yet have elements that make them particularly interesting to anyone interested in knowing more about the country. While asking for two book ideas apiece, we sometimes got more than we bargained for.


James Carter:
@jayjamescarter, https://twitter.com/jayjamescarter

Of my two selections, the first “one” is actually three: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, the last of which (River of Fire) is published this year.

Full disclosure: I’ve not finished the trilogy, but the reason I recommend it is that (in addition to being great fiction) it breaks the “China vs. the West” dyad by showing the global nature of the opium trade and the realignment of economic and political power in the 19th century. The connections among India, China, and Britain are clear and nuanced, but also important are the roles played by East Africa, North America, and Southeast Asia.

My second selection is Howard French’s China’s Second Continent, which was published last year but I just taught this summer. I was really pleased with how it explained to students a lot about not only China and Africa, but the USA. as well. The book does a remarkable service to the diversity of African countries and the range of Chinese people living and working there. More than one student made comparisons about China’s imperialistic behavior in French’s book and the behavior of Europeans and (especially) Americans in China today, or at least recently.


Alec Ash
@alecash, https://twitter.com/alecash

A Perfect Crime
A Yi (trans. Anna Holmwood)

I’ve already interviewed the author of this novel for the blog, but can’t resist giving it another mention here. A Perfect Crime is perhaps best billed as China’s L’étranger, and it’s utterly fascinating — a visceral and (be warned) pessimistic engagement with Chinese society from a cop turned novelist. It’s readable in a single sitting, but you might finish that sitting a bit shaken up.

Point of Origin
Diao Dou (trans. Brendan O’Kane)

More contemporary Chinese literature for my second recommendation, as fiction is often the best way to get Chinese voices where non-fiction is castrated. Brendan O’Kane brings us a collection of stories from a less well-known author (also published in the great collection, Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China). Surreal, satirical, surprising. Fingers crossed that “Diaodou-esque” becomes an adjective.


Paul French
@chinarhyming, https://twitter.com/chinarhyming

2015 was a good year for China-related photography books and exhibition catalogues. The Met’s China Through the Looking Glass exhibition was a lavish feast of costume, ceramics, and objets for those interested in how China has influenced the imagination of western costumiers, artists, and filmmakers. The catalogue was equally lavish with photography from Platon and essays by curator Andrew Bolton and artistic director Wong Kar Wei, among others. For those intrigued by chinoiserie, it is essential to study a copy page-by-page with a mulled wine.

The number of beautifully conceived and self-published photography books concerning China is growing apace. Shanghai-based James H. Bollen (who’s photography book inspired by JG Ballard’s memories of Shanghai, Jim’s Terrible City, was the subject of a Q&A last year on this blog) has just published Wallpaper — The Shanghai Collection. Bollen has captured the remaining fragments of Shanghai’s condemned old buildings, revealed by the remorseless wrecking ball that continues to afflict the city. Photographs of shredded wallpaper, abandoned posters, calendars, and all manner of decorative ephemera are juxtaposed with apt quotes from William Morris’s 1870s lectures on Hopes and Fears for Art — ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ A good new year’s resolution I think.