The China Blog Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

Funny Bones: A Q&A with Jesse Appell About Comedy in China

| by

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

By Alec Ash

Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.

What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?

I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.

So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?

Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.

Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?

There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.

Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.

I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.

But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].

What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?

A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.

The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.

That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.

Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.

Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.

Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.

Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.

Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?

My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.

But the material still steps on toes, right?

It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.

The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.

Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?

There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.

Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.

Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”

I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.

Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.


20 Minutes into the Future Infinity

Technology, Entertainment, Design: SyFy’s Helix

| by

DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.

Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.

Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.

Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.

In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.

These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”

Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.

What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.

Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?

Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?

¤


Naked Bookseller WillyVlautin

Where in the World is Willy Vlautin?

| by

By Juliet Suess

Have you heard of Willy Vlautin? If you haven’t yet, and are in the Bay Area this weekend, the Naked Bookseller recommends you stop by Green Apple Books on Saturday.

Mr. Vlautin made a name for himself in the Nineties as frontman of Portland-based Richmond Fontaine. With its clear alt-country bent and lyrics that have sparked critical comparisons to Raymond Carver, it’s no surprise that Vlautin is also a writer.

The FreeLike any literary troubadour worth his salt, Vlautin is visiting San Francisco for what promises to be more than your usual book reading and signing.

“Willy is a great reader and speaker,” Kevin Ryan of Green Apple Books told us, “And as value added, he will be bringing his guitar, and he blends reading and guitar picking in a way that turns a regular old author reading into a transformative event.”

Author of three previous books including Motel Life, his new novel The Free is the number one Indiebound book for February.

“Several of us here have been big fans of Willy’s since his first book, and always look forward to his next one,” Ryan of Green Apple Books said. “He’s gotten outrageously glowing quotes from Ann Patchett and Ursula LeGuin, and it seems that this is poised to be his breakout book.

In addition to his four novels, Vlautin has released has released nine studio albums with Richmond Fontaine.

Green Apple Books was founded in 1967 by Richard Savoy. On his first day of business, he logged $3.42 in receipts. Starting in 1999, three individuals (Kevin Hunsanger, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill) started a gradual buyout of the business. It has been voted the best bookstore in the Bay Area perennially by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Francisco Weekly, and others.

Their recommended books this month include: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Flappers by Judith Mackrell, and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

How LARB Helps Independent Bookstores

Through our Naked Bookseller Program, we want to collaborate with independent bookstores to tell their stories, and broaden their reach so that fans of a store can support it no matter where they live. Learn more here.


Tags:

The China Blog unsavory-elements-cover-V03-20mm

What Foreigners Do in China

| by

By Xujun Eberlein

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements — Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.


Uncategorized Jericho

Back to the Post-Apocalypse: Jericho on Economic Politics

| by

By Jonathan Alexander

SINCE 9/11, several SF television series, from the one-season Threshold (2005-6) to the more recent Continuum (2012-present) have grappled with the specter of terrorism.  Many, like Threshold and Continuum, play out hyperbolic scenarios of terrorist infiltration and attack, variously alien or from the future, to speculate on governmental and individual responses to terror.  At their worst, such series offer us terror as spectacle, with all the perverse thrills of mass destruction.  At their best moments, they become gripping meditations on the ethics of our various responses to terror.  What price security?  What sacrifices of freedom, individually and collectively, are we willing to tolerate to feel secure?  And, most provocatively, what critiques lie latent or ignored in terror attacks—critiques that, had we paid sufficient attention to them, might not have become manifest so destructively?

Currently available on Netflix, Jericho is one such series that deserves another look.  Running for two seasons (September 20, 2006 through March 25, 2008), Jericho is a frequently powerful drama about a small town in Kansas trying to survive in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on the US that nukes 23 major American cities, including nearby Denver.  What’s perhaps most interesting about Jericho is how much narrative force comes from not knowing who the “enemy” is.  Islamic terrorists?  The Chinese?  Homegrown traitors?  Midway through the first season, the Chinese make a food drop, with notes saying “Do Not Fight”—but this seems a red herring.  And we eventually learn it is.

But who are the terrorists?  Jericho plays a teasing version of hide-and-seek here.   A whole subplot revolves around the character Hawkins, an FBI agent in hiding who relocated with his estranged family to Jericho just days before the bombs detonate.  His background and intentions are shrouded in mystery.  Indeed, for much of Jericho we don’t know what’s happening, with Hawkins particularly or the situation more generally.  More curiously, we are also asked to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the plight of Hawkins, whom we are led at times to believe might actually be one of the terrorists, now trying to protect his family in the aftermath chaos.  The confusion of identification is a striking aspect of many of these terrorist-themed, post-apocalyptic shows.  Whom, ultimately, can we trust?  Such questioning certainly builds narrative interest, but it also gestures toward conspiracy theories and plays to a sense shared by many viewers that we never really have the full picture—on the show or in real life—when it comes to global politics.  The most we learn in Jericho’s first season comes late in the plot development: apparently “cells” set off the bombs in a coordinated attack to “change the world.”  But who controls these cells, and to what purpose?

Jericho started airing in 2006, shortly before the economic collapse and right at the height of the Iraq war, which increasingly seemed run by—and for the economic benefit of—corporations.  The plot of the show interestingly follows suit.  An entire background story slowly emerges about one of the main characters, Jake, a badboy played by Skeet Ulrich, who gets stuck in Jericho after the attacks and eventually turns from punk and prodigal son to hometown hero.  We learn that he had been a mercenary with shady dealings in Afghanistan, including arms running and association with a Blackwater-style company named Ravenwood (in a nice play on words).  This background steadily becomes important, particularly as the town has to deal with Ravenwood, which has gone rogue as a gang of mercenaries (in the absence of government employers) to collect and control increasingly scarce resources.  Jake’s association with Ravenwood is a sore spot, one he seems to spend much airtime regretting and trying to make up for.

Seemingly in contrast to this comment on government and corporate complicity, much of the first season is taken up with a kind of romance of the small town, whose isolation is its primary saving grace as it’s largely out of the way of most mercenary and predatory interests.  The townsfolk use their relative safety to try to keep American traditions alive, such as celebrating holidays and hosting communal picnics.  But those traditions keep running into their own economic issues.  There’s a whole subplot about the local supermarket and the management and distribution of increasingly scarce resources.  Who, or what, should control such management and distribution?  What’s “fair,” particularly at a time of scarcity?  The fight for mayor–between the salt mine company-owning Gray, who wants to take a hardline on crime as well as who’s in and who’s out of the community, versus the recently ousted patriarch Johnston Green, who seems to want more “state” control over the distribution of resources but who also talks a lot about democracy–seem to reference different approaches to economic policy (not to mention immigration) in the mid-2000s.  Gray’s insistence on giving away all the available food seems to map onto Bush’s tax cuts and refunds and the conservative desire to deregulate more broadly: spread the wealth so it can trickle down.  Johnston’s more city-controlled policies of food distribution harken back to Clinton’s sometimes austere fiscal management while maintaining more liberal policies of state support and social welfare.  In the penultimate episode of the first season, the townsfolk make deals with the supermarket folks and the mercenaries to protect the town and its resources, primarily farmlands. At times of resource uncertainty, odd compromises must be made.  It’s hard not to read such a plot as referencing the “compromises” made in the early 2000s: we went to war to protect our interests, but whose interests, ultimately?  And at what cost ethically?

The second season heats up considerably as Jericho becomes part of the new emerging regime, the Allied States of America.  We quickly learn that the ASA has been set up by the orchestrators of the terrorist attack, who blamed (and then nuked) North Korea and Iran for the attacks. They’re re-writing history (literally, through new textbooks) to cast the former US as weak, lacking military force of will.  We also see Ravenwood, now backed by the ASA, assume policing responsibility for Jericho.  In a likely reference to Haliburton, Ravenwood is owned by Jennings and Rall, the company that serves as the bureaucratic arm of the ASA.  Interestingly, it’s worth noting that this season started airing in 2008, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, and, curiously, in that season we steadily see more focus on corporations and government complicity at the expense of democratic process and protection of civil liberties.  One of the farmers, for instance, is maneuvered into signing a really bad mortgage contract that essentially indentures him to Jennings & Rall.  Indeed, we slowly learn that J&R are behind everything, having created a plan in 1993 for the government to prepare for a disastrous attack—a plan that becomes the basis for an attack.  The company IS the government.  The government IS the company.

In some strange twists in the last episodes, we discover that “John Smith,” who’s been giving Hawkins information, has apparently set off the original 23 bombs in protest of corporate abuses.  He wants to detonate the remaining bomb in the ASA capital Cheyenne to destroy the new government, which is completely “corrupt” as a government set up by J&R to further its corporate interests.  He seems, though, like a psychopath, and we are not sure as viewers how to read his extraordinarily brief appearance in the second season.  It almost feels as though the series is backing away from strident anti-corporate critique to blame the whole apocalypse on one lone nut.  The series ends with two major characters, Jake and Hawkins, making their way to the Republic of Texas, which will apparently join forces with the former USA (headquartered in Ohio) against the ASA corporatists.  There is a comic that propels the story into a “third season,” but you’ll have to check that out on your own.  As is on TV, the story seems to end with the possibility that J&R and the ASA will eventually be brought down.

Jericho ultimately seems to play up some good old-fashioned American patriotism in its final episodes, simplifying its earlier narratives of and comments on the politics of economics.  Nonetheless, it’s still striking as a show that steadily blends, in just two seasons, concerns with corporate-investment in the Iraq War with more general fears that the government is fully a corporate state.  It’s hardly perfect in its latent critiques, and what’s not in the show is also odd.  Most notably, racial and religious conflicts are pretty much absent, although it’s clear that Jericho is a pretty white town, with the only visible black family (Hawkins’) one full of deceptions and secrets, and an Indian doctor who turns out to be a drunkard.  A more complex and compelling examination of government complicity with corporate greed might have woven in how frequently such complicity relies on religious rhetoric and racial bigotry.  But not in this small town.  Still, Jericho satisfies for the questions it raises and the buttons it pushes about the interconnectedness of politics and economics.  Absolutely worth another look.

¤


Tags:

The China Blog chinese_year_of_the_horse_postage_stamps-r3df594b0bd034e32aefe1ce82397d943_xjs8m_8byvr_512.jpg bg=0xffffff

Marking Time in China and the West — A New Year’s Post

| by

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.”  So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.

— Gideon Rachman, “Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?” Financial Times blog

Today’s China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago.

 — Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference December 31, 2013

You can learn a lot about how globalization has changed the world from thinking about how time was reckoned in different places a century or so ago, at the moments of the past flagged in these two quotes, and how it is marked now.  For example, in 1900, as UCLA doctoral student Maura Dykstra and I note in a chapter we’ve just finished for a forthcoming world history volume on the Fin-de-Siècle, few Chinese thought of themselves as living on the cusp of two centuries. Neither the date “1900” nor the concept of a “century” meant much in a setting where years were still generally described in terms of the reigns of emperors and movement through 60-year cycles that involved combinations of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the five elements. Flash forward to the present, and in China, as in nearly all other places, people think of themselves as living in a year called “2014” that belongs to the second decade of the 21st century.

Holidays tell a similar story, in ways that are interesting to ponder this week, with the biggest American celebratory season just completed and the biggest Chinese one about to begin.  Very few people in the China of 100 or 120 years ago thought of December 25 as a day of any special importance or associated January 1 with the start of the year.  Now, however, while lunar New Year celebrations remain most important, images of Santa Claus proliferate in China’s cities in late December, and Chinese friends who email me on January 1 are sure to wish me a Happy New Year.  Things have reached the point where I’m sure it seemed thoroughly unremarkable when the spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry ended the December 31, 2013 press briefing quoted from above by wishing the journalists who had come a “Happy New Year” and telling them that, after a day off for the next day’s holiday, the first 2014 session would be held on January 2.

All this would seem to fit in with a way of thinking about the cultural aspects of globalization that might be categorized in the Friedman Flattening variety. This approach, which I’ve named in honor of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his most famous book, The World is Flat, assumes that the dominant trend has been the smoothing out of differences.  One way to symbolize this is to invoke the interchangeability of the Big Macs served up wherever the Golden Arches soar, from Beirut to Boston and from Bristol to Bangalore.

In addition, while the flattening of the world is often seen as going along with Americanization, flows from East to West can also be worked into this Friedman Flattening vision. After all, circa 1900, very few Americans, except those of Chinese ancestry, paid attention to the lunar New Year or the zodiacal animals associated with it; whereas now many people across the U.S. are aware that the Year of the Horse is about to arrive.  As the image above shows, the tie between the animal and the year is even recognized by the U.S. postal service.

There have always been alternative views of contemporary globalization, including one that, turning again to alliteration and the name of a famous author, might be called Pico Proliferation.  This approach, named for Pico Iyer (someone I happen to know, so I don’t think he’ll mind the familiarity of playing off of his first rather than last name), emphasizes how highly differentiated experiences remain even as fads, fashions, films, and goods move ever more rapidly around the world.  To go back to McDonald’s, contra the Friedman Flattening view that a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, a Pico Proliferating one stresses that ordering and eating this burger can mean something totally different in Tokyo as opposed to Toledo, Managua as opposed to Munich.

Ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu — And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Iyer’s seminal 1988 travelogue-cum-analysis of cultural flows in globalizing times, I’ve known that my allegiance in this debate is firmly with Team Pico.  I’ve periodically found ways to illustrate this in my writings, such as a recent memoir-infused commentary on the strange life in global circulation of the song “Hotel California”.  This hit by The Eagles, as I note in my article for BOOM: A Journal of California, is popular in far-flung parts of the world but often understood in distinctive ways.  In Asia, for example, it tends to be thought of as a celebratory rather than cynical take on my home state — in spite of lines likening those residing in the eponymous building to being “prisoners” (who can “check out any time” they like, but “can never leave”) and a menacing reference to a “beast” being stabbed with knives.

Returning to time and holidays, I said above that the information I began with about China circa 1900 and today would seem to fit in with a Friedman Flattening vision, but on closer inspection there are Pico Proliferation dimensions aplenty.  Take Santa Claus, for example: while he is now very well known in China, as journalist Max Fisher and others have noted, the jolly old elf is almost always portrayed there playing a saxophone, for unknown reasons.

There are also differences, as well as convergences, relating to chronology, since in China, while centuries are now noted and seen as significant markers, this has not replaced but rather been added to the idea that 60-year cycles are important.  In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date.  More recently still, last year saw events commemorating what would have been Xi Jinping’s father’s 100th birthday and also lavish marking of the passage of 120years (a rough equivalent to a bicentennial, as it meant the completion of two cycles) since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping relates to how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective.  In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I.

In China, though, as the second quote that begins this post indicates, which finds the government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, just as there are two kinds of New Years marked, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play.  Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict.  The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme).  When the official spokesperson made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies.  “Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China.  This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people.”  It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought “to a standoff” in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then.  Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters.  More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.


Tags:

Uncategorized

Message From Ukraine

| by

By Yuri Andrukhovych 24.01.2014_Andruchovych_yuri

Dear Friends,

These days I receive from you lots of inquiries requesting to describe the current situation in Kyiv and overall in Ukraine, express my opinion on what is happening, and formulate my vision of at least the nearest future. Since I am simply physically unable to respond separately to each of your publications with an extended analytical essay, I have decided to prepare this brief statement which each of you can use in accordance with your needs. The most important things I must tell you are as follows.

During the less than four years of its rule, Mr. Yanukovych’s regime has brought the country and the society to the utter limit of tensions. Even worse, it has boxed itself into a no-exit situation where it must hold on to power forever—by any means necessary. Otherwise it would have to face criminal justice in its full severity. The scale of what has been stolen and usurped exceeds all imaginination of what human avarice is capable.

The only answer this regime has been proposing in the face of peaceful protests, now in their third month, is violence, violence that escalates and is “hybrid” in its nature: special forces’ attacks at the Maidan are combined with individual harassment and persecution of opposition activists and ordinary participants in protest actions (surveillance, beatings, torching of cars and houses, storming of residences, searches, arrests, rubber-stamp court proceedings). The keyword here is intimidation. And since it is ineffective, and people are protesting on an increasingly massive scale, the powers-that-be make these repressive actions even harsher.

The “legal base” for them was created on January 16, when the Members of Parliament fully dependent on the President, in a crude violation of all rules of procedure and voting, indeed of the Constitution itself, in the course of just a couple of minutes (!) with a simple show of hands (!) voted in a whole series of legal changes which effectively introduce dictatorial rule and a state of emergency in the country without formally declaring them. For instance, by writing and disseminating this, I am subject to several new criminal code articles for “defamation,” “inflaming tensions,” etc.

Briefly put, if these “laws” are recognized, one should conclude: in Ukraine, everything that is not expressly permitted by the powers-that-be is forbidden. And the only thing permitted by those in power is to yield to them.

Not agreeing to these “laws,” on January 19 the Ukrainian society rose up, yet again, to defend its future.

Today in television newsreels coming from Kyiv you can see protesters in various kinds of helmets and masks on their faces, sometimes with wooden sticks in their hands. Do not believe that these are “extremists,” “provocateurs,” or “right-wing radicals.” My friends and I also now go out protesting dressed this way. In this sense my wife, my daughter, our friends, and I are also “extremists.” We have no other option: we have to protect our life and health,as well as the life and health of those near and dear to us. Special forces units shoot at us, their snipers kill our friends. The number of protesters killed just on one block in the city’s government quarter is, according to different reports, either 5 or 7. Additionally, dozens of people in Kyiv are missing.

We cannot halt the protests, for this would mean that we agree to live in a country that has been turned into a lifelong prison. The younger generation of Ukrainians, which grew up and matured in the post-Soviet years, organically rejects all forms of dictatorship. If dictatorship wins, Europe must take into account the prospect of a North Korea at its eastern border and, according to various estimates, between 5 and 10 million refugees. I do not want to frighten you.

We now have a revolution of the young. Those in power wage their war first and foremost against them. When darkness falls on Kyiv, unidentified groups of “people in civilian clothes” roam the city, hunting for the young people, especially those who wear the symbols of the Maidan or the European Union. They kidnap them, take them out into forests, where they are stripped and tortured in fiercely cold weather. For some strange reason the victims of such actions are overwhelmingly young artists—actors, painters, poets. One feels that some strange “death squadrons” have been released in the country with an assignment to wipe out all that is best in it.

One more characteristic detail: in Kyiv hospitals the police force entraps the wounded protesters; they are kidnapped and (I repeat, we are talking about wounded persons) taken out for interrogation at undisclosed locations. It has become dangerous to turn to a hospital even for random passersby who were grazed by a shard of a police plastic grenade. The medics only gesture helplessly and release the patients to the so-called “law enforcement.”

To conclude: in Ukraine full-scale crimes against humanity are now being committed, and it is the present government that is responsible for them. If there are any extremists present in this situation, it is the country’s highest leadership that deserves to be labeled as such.

And now turning to your two questions which are traditionally the most difficult for me to answer: I don’t know what will happen next, just as I don’t know what you could now do for us. However, you can disseminate, to the extent your contacts and possibilities allow, this appeal. Also, empathize with us. Think about us. We shall overcome all the same, no matter how hard they rage. The Ukrainian people, without exaggeration, now defend the European values of a free and just society with their own blood. I very much hope that you will appreciate this.

Yuri Andrukhovych is a Ukrainian prose writer, poet, essayist, and translator.
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.


Tags:

Uncategorized Vint_SF

Journal of the Plague Season

| by

ALTHOUGH THIS MAY seem counterintuitive, science fiction is often one of the most realistic of genres. It may set its stories in future times or among weird alien species, but the best science fiction can often express political and social anxieties more openly than can realist drama. Sometimes this is a matter of escaping the notice of censors who don’t take the genre seriously, but it can also be an example of what television critic John Ellis describes as the capacity of the medium to help us “work through” the slings and arrows of contemporary life. Working through, a concept Ellis takes from psychoanalysis, allows us to analyze, repeat, interpret and otherwise engage with difficult experience in the displaced form of fiction, facilitating the process of coming to terms with disturbing thoughts and experiences.

A repeated pattern in this year’s science fiction television is plotlines about epidemics, suggesting that we are culturally working through some anxieties about our biological vulnerability. As early as 1995 Laurie Garrett published The Coming Plague, arguing that things such as overuse of antibiotics, lack of access to clean drinking water for much of the world’s population, the overcrowded conditions of urban poverty in the Global South, and massive refugee migration caused by warfare were producing conditions in which viruses and microbes would thrive. She anticipated that in the near future we would see new and devastating disease outbreaks as the microbial world travelled and mutated as never before. Recent outbreaks of diseases such as Sars and H1N1 have made us aware of the looming threat of a viral pandemic, and indeed it now seems as if we are sufficiently educated about such matters that this week’s episode of Helix could drop the term “zoonotic transfer” into the dialogue without even pausing to gloss. Dracula, too, includes an outbreak of sorts – although it is a deliberately caused by those evil oil barons – and even The Walking Dead supplemented their zombie infection with an outbreak of quotidian cholera for part of this season, a hint that contagion anxiety is about more than biological health. In our harsh economic times, zombies emerge more and more as our possible selves, expelled parts of the body politic – just as labor is expendable to global capital and migrant laborers are unwanted by many nation states. Indeed, this pattern is so prevalent that in 2009 Lev Grossman declared zombies “the official monster of the recession” in Time.

Revolution has added a viral contagion to its exploration of the sinister machinations of the Patriots in the post-electricity world. As one might expect, this is not a naturally occurring contagion – although, of course, by this I mean “expect in the conspiracy-thriller narrative,” because of course one might expect reasonably expect biological outbreaks in this frontier setting. The Patriots are using their engineered strain of typhus as a method for culling populations, deliberating infecting those who are physically or mentally ill and thus eliminating their non-productive drain on the community. There are no zombies on Revolution and its infected do not become zombie-like – they merely sicken and die. And yet there is something in this plot of viral eugenics that is reminiscent of the recent zombie theme about lives that matter vs. those that do not.

Helix is premised on a viral outbreak with its CDC characters, remote research station setting, and plotlines that are something of a cross between Steven Soderberg’s Contagion and The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth episode, Helix remains compelling, although not without its frustrations. The mysterious back-story is unfolding at a respectable pace and enough happens within an episode to avoid boredom, and yet the full picture is still only dimly lit and out of focus. Yet, while I understand the need to have secrets and competing agendas to keep some tension in the plot, I am finding the fact that a core CDC team member would hide both her own illness and that another person is infected (to protect this secret) strains credulity, particularly because the series went to so much trouble to make its CDC protocols seems “real” and not science fictional.

While I was initially impressed with the diversity represented by casting in Helix, such diversity is being stripped away as the season unfolds: their non-stereotypically-attractive female character is dead, the Asian scientist is becoming more straightforwardly evil, it seems, and the remaining person of color is an infected, animal-like “vector,” which is basically Helix’s term for the zombie-like dangerous infected. When asked if he is just going to “abandon the sick and the dying” in order to restore order to the facility, the sinister Dr. Hatake says “yes” without pause, but he later also peremptorily executes some inconvenient non-infected, and so I hope that Helix is avoiding the binary logic of “humans” and “infected” that animates the zombie genre.

Despite these quibbles, I still find Helix to be among the best science fiction shows I have seen in a while. I acknowledge the appropriateness of the zombie as the monster of choice to express contemporary anxieties: zombies are hungry, relentless, flesh that we no longer want to consider human, that we see only ever as a threatening mass, and that serve no purpose other than to consume. As many critics have argued, zombies exemplify the poor as seen by the logic of neoliberalism. Yet I’ve become tired of the ubiquity of zombies and the quite literal dead end they seem to offer for thinking about global crisis. Helix promises to transform its vector-zombies into something else, posthumans made by the virus inserting new DNA into their genome, a new species simultaneously human and animal and other. This new strand of DNA, we are told, will force the infected to “express a new trait.” This is an apt metaphor for the hope I hold out for series overall, that it might enable science fiction television to express a new metaphor for anxieties about viral contagion and precarious human health, and thus we finally might escape the ubiquity of zombies.

¤


Tags:

The China Blog A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

India in China

| by

By Tong Lam

The relative absence of India in Chinese public discourse is an interesting curiosity. Indeed, while there has been a growing public interest in China among the Indian public in recent years, there is no similar level of reciprocal fascination flowing across the Himalayas in the other direction. Instead, most members of the Chinese public seem more eager to learn about and travel to the United States, Japan, and Europe. Similarly, within the Asian context, Chinese often care more about happenings in other parts of East Asia or Southeast Asia than in South Asia.

In addition to the perceived cultural and historical differences, a major reason for the absence of enthusiasm about India is China’s relentless desire to catch up with nations that are thought of as more advanced — and India is not one of those.  In addition, whereas Pakistan is a longtime ally, India is not widely viewed as either a “friend of China” or a significant threat, something that can also inspire intense interest, in spite of the fact that the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 over a still unresolved border dispute. China is more preoccupied at present with the challenges from neighboring countries that line the Pacific coast.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

Meanwhile, the Indian public is keenly aware that China’s economic development has significantly outpaced that of India in the past two decades, and that China’s rise could pose a threat to their country. At the same time, Indian elite commentators and officials alike have been awed by China’s vast investment in infrastructure, and there has been a swirling debate among them about the pros and cons of the so-called “Chinese model” of governance, which prioritizes state-guided economic growth rather than political liberalization and social justice.

Still, in spite of their asymmetrical interests in each other, as well as their historical enmity, the world’s two most populous nations have a long history of economic and cultural contacts. Furthermore, both China and India are highly conscious of their long civilizations, and both are imbued with a strong sense of cultural and national pride. Significantly as well, their senses of history are still very much shaped by their shared experience of colonialism and imperialism, and by something less often noted by Westerners as a common trait: the fact that both were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union in their immediately post-WWII modernizing projects. Likewise, the two Asian giants are both nuclear powers and now have ambitious space programs. The list of commonalities goes on and on. One way or another, these two ethnically and linguistically diverse nations are going through rapid economic development and urbanization, as they are also grappling with serious disparities and widespread corruptions. And their actions today will have important consequences, within Asia and in every corner of the planet.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.


Tags:

Dear Television mcconnaissance

The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

| by

Dear Television,

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offer the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring towards a masculine ideal of hard laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.

But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as man, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas… [READ MORE]


Tags: