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The Noodling Narratives of Our Lives

By Liz Carter

Several years ago, though I can’t remember when exactly, my Chinese language learning took a turn for the serious. I went from barely reading anything regularly — skimming a few pages of a novel or reading a few news articles, taking breaks to look up unfamiliar characters — to reading voraciously, sometimes for hours at a time. I was learning new characters left and right, and even my conversational Chinese was improving.

I owed it all to people complaining about their lives on the internet.

The complaints I read were mostly on SMTH BBS, a forum run out of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and one of the oldest such online spaces in the country. There are various corners of the site set aside for discussion about online shopping, the stock market, studying abroad, and — of course — interpersonal drama. People post all day long about their problems, their dreams, and their frustrations, while others chime in to offer advice and comfort, sarcasm and snark. A friend of mine who scours the web for online shopping deals first pitched the site to me as a place where people shared e-commerce tips and tricks. I came for the Taobao sales, but stayed for the good old-fashioned gossip.

The beauty of studying Chinese in such a way is that you’re simultaneously learning about people. The “Family Life” subforum often shines a light on how people deal with their problems, and no stone is too mundane to be left unturned. Take, for instance, one 79-character complaint from earlier this month about a bowl of noodles. The original poster wrote that she was upset her mother-in-law hadn’t cooked a nicer dinner when she and her husband arrived in town.

Even with the picture of the noodles in question attached, this complaint could have fit into a tweet. But it triggered a 1,438-post debate in that thread alone about entitlement, love, self-awareness, and regional traditions. (It’s customary in parts of Shandong province to serve family members dumplings before they leave on a trip and noodles when they return home.) In the end, analysis from all angles often reveals to the original poster a truth found in the best literature: we are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Lurk long enough on forums like these, and you’re bound to learn a little more about humor as well. Much of it is quite similar to quibbling on English-language sites, though no less pleasing: “What does everyone worry about at 35?” one thread asked recently. “We’ll I’m not even 30,” another user replied. “I didn’t ask about your IQ,” the original poster retorted sharply. But some of it is downright educational. Even the slang used tells you more about social realities than most news articles. Posters often lament their status as diqing, “underground youth” who can only afford subterranean rents, or sanwunan, “three-no men” possessed of no house, no car, and no money. The matchmaking board is vicious toward men deemed to have zhinan’ai, or “straight-man cancer” — symptoms include a sense of entitlement, a lack of self-awareness, and incredibly high standards for potential mates. These men lash back at the perceived pickiness of women by saying they have gongzhubing, or “princess-itis.”

And then there is the unexpected literature. Browsing a subforum dedicated to matchmaking earlier this year, I stumbled across what seemed to be a prosaic request for love advice: “Let’s say you have a boyfriend, and you’ve been together for five years,” it began. “You’re well-matched and love each other. This guy is healthy, decent-looking, reliable, and hard working. You’re getting to be that age where you talk about marriage, and both of your parents are on board.”

This forum is rife with such posts. You’re expecting, “Should I marry him, even though I prefer spicy food and he can’t stomach anything hotter than wet toast?” or “Do you think we should get married first and then buy an apartment, or wait until we’ve got the apartment before we tie the knot?” Instead: “One day, your boyfriend suddenly begins to feel funny. You go with him to the hospital to get X-rays done. Under the light of the X-ray, your boyfriend’s flesh suddenly undergoes a dramatic transformation, and in the blink of an eye he becomes a 6-foot-tall giant worm before your eyes.”

Ultimately, the post asks, do you marry your worm-boyfriend? Yes, he’s a worm, but he still loves you — and he’s been offered a well-compensated position at a museum of natural history.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of traditional reading habits, just arguing that a diet of classics alone is not enough. Too often, we assume that the pleasurable and productive are mutually exclusive — but in my own experience, lurking on message boards has been an education in its own right. And perhaps, if I’m being honest, it’s not just about getting a well-rounded education or increased language proficiency. Perhaps, like the boyfriend-turned-worm of the aforementioned debate, I find myself strangely transformed through these encounters with the mundane, the sublime, and above all, the unexpected. And perhaps even more strangely, I like it.

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Let 100 Voices Speak: A Q&A with Author Liz Carter

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Today’s Q&A introduces LARB readers to the China Blog’s newest contributor, Liz Carter. Carter is author of the recently published book Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Classic Netizen Language. Based in Washington, D.C., Carter works as a translator and writer, and also tweets prolifically (@withoutdoing), sharing fun Chinese language tidbits and phrases that aren’t always taught in class. We’re pleased to welcome her to the China Blog team. Look for Carter’s first post next week.

MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: First, can you tell China Blog readers how you got interested in China, and a bit about your background as a translator and writer?

LIZ CARTER: It’s a pretty mundane story! I began studying Chinese during my first year of college and really enjoyed it. My interest in China and Chinese just snowballed — the more I studied, the more I wanted to study. After I graduated, I moved to Beijing and found jobs to support myself while I continued to work on my Chinese. Translation, I learned by doing — there’s a lot more to it than just language proficiency, and that’s something I had to learn on the job. As for writing, I started writing for Tea Leaf Nation as a hobby and that snowballed as well. I credit my experience with National Novel Writing Month for training me not to let perfect be the enemy of good, and I’ve learned a lot from my editors at TLN and IB Tauris.

Your book discusses the evolution of social media in China over the past decade or so. What do you consider two or three landmark events that really changed the social media landscape there?

I think the rise and fall of various platforms, as well as the intermittent government crackdowns, have had the greatest effect. The blocking of Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Facebook definitely restricted the social media sphere, while the subsequent rise of China’s own Sina Weibo marked a period of really open discussion, debate and criticism. Finally, the crackdown on social media that began in 2013, which coincided with a rise in mobile internet use and the increasing popularity of WeChat, changed the way people use the internet and restricted the space for free expression.

I’ve noticed over the past two years that Weixin, or WeChat, has become the de facto form of communication in China — lots of people really don’t even email or text anymore, but do everything through WeChat. Why do you think WeChat has taken off the way it did? And is it here to stay?

In this age, I don’t think anything is really here to stay, and that goes double for China’s internet sector. Assuming it doesn’t piss off the Chinese government, though, I think it’s here to stay for a while. I think the app became popular because it can replace a number of apps at once — it offers a Facebook-like status feature, free texting and voice messaging, and even the ability to transfer money. As long as you don’t care whether your communications are being monitored, it’s a great app. That said, it’s not really a replacement for Weibo, because it’s built on private networks, not public discussion.

You discuss in your book the crackdown on Weibo that took place in 2013, which sucked a lot of energy out of this once-vibrant discussion space. What’s the Weibo landscape now? Is it still a place where people virtually congregate and talk about things, or has it gone the way of MySpace and Friendster?

Weibo is fairly depressing these days — a lot of the top trending posts are just gifs from reddit, soft advertisements for boy bands, and celebrity selfies. Occasionally something will surface, but it’s not even a shadow of what it was back in 2011 or 2012. It’s possible that Weibo will resurrect itself, especially if the government scales back censorship, but equally possible that it will just fade away.

And finally, what types of posts can China Blog readers look forward to from you in the future? What are some areas that you plan to write about?

LC: My favorite rabbit holes are online slang, internet literature, pop culture and science fiction. Lately I’ve been researching the history of English-language television fandom in China and watching Nirvana in Fire, a Chinese period drama based on a popular internet novel — I will probably write about both of those in the near future. And I look forward to reading and reviewing interesting books about developments in Chinese fiction and social media — I’m always open to suggestions!

Fence

The Holdouts

By Stephen Dau

The refugee camp in the center of Brussels is nearly gone. The police have formed a cordon and are making preparations to clear it by force, should that prove necessary. They have erected a six-foot-tall wire fence around the entire park and are inviting the fifty or so people left inside the fence to leave. Outside the fence, a small crowd has gathered to watch the proceedings. From there, everyone can see how this is going to go. It’s almost over.

Inside the fence is a group of several dozen people who are called different things by different people, the words used saying as much about the categorizers as the categorized. They are homeless people, the at-risk, the sans-abri in French. They are the undocumented, the wrong-documented, the illegal immigrants, the aliens, the étrangers en situation irrégulière, the clandestin. They are the sans-papier. They have come to the park, and stayed in the park, to protest their situation, to demand regularization. Naturalization. Legalization. Amnesty. They have been present in the park from the beginning, and are vowing not to leave. The police are there to make sure they do.

In truth, the situation in the park had become untenable weeks ago. The onset of the Belgian rains had sparked an increase in the number of bronchial infections being treated in the Médecins du Monde facility. Rats had been spotted raiding the kitchen. The sans-papier had taken over a large area in the center of the camp. Prostitutes had begun strolling its fringes. There were at least two reports of rape.

Early last week, the Plateforme Citoyenne, the Facebook-organized group of volunteers which had set up the camp and had been running it since its inception, suddenly declared they were leaving. In a statement, the group said that it no longer wished to act as an “alibi for government inaction.” The statement said that nearby warehouse space had been acquired, into which the Plateforme’s operations were being moved.

The Plateforme had originally been created with a flat organizational structure that encouraged broad citizen participation. But over time it had become increasingly hierarchical, as a core group of volunteers spent vastly more time on the ground in the park and therefore commanded greater sway over the group’s actions. The decision to abandon the camp was made by a tiny clutch of insiders. Their announcement sparked an immediate backlash that threatened to split the group, with many volunteers declaring their intention to stay. It seemed to them as if the Plateforme was trying to become a real NGO, with office space and facilities and a distinct corporate culture, like Google for refugees. They smelled a sellout.

It had been obvious for some time that the city was planning to clear the camp, and may have given the Plateforme an ultimatum. Some even suspected that the warehouse space had been a quid-pro-quo in return for abandoning the park. The Plateforme, for its part, seemed eager to assure everyone that it was not giving up the fight, merely moving to better quarters. All this week a large whiteboard sat outside the administrative tent, reading, in French, Dutch, English and Arabic, “We don’t give up! We move…”

The effort to reduce the camp’s population began almost as soon as the camp itself began. From the start, as many women and children as could be accommodated were taken from the camp and housed in shelters, many run by Caritas, a Catholic relief charity. Additionally, five hundred beds were opened in a nearby office building, this number gradually increasing to about seven hundred and fifty and facilities added: showers, food. Together with the onset of the weather, these efforts gradually reduced the camp’s population from a high of over a thousand to about two hundred and fifty by early last week.

Beyond the health and safety concerns, there were security concerns. Access to the camp in the park was entirely unregulated, allowing anyone and everyone to come and go with ease. But to get into one of the shelters, you needed a paper given out by the Office for Foreigners when you registered there. This ensured that only “legitimate” refugees had access to the shelters.

An interesting notion, legitimate refugees.

Inside the fence, the camp’s population now includes about a dozen people who recently traveled to Europe in the mass migration from Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, but whose asylum claims have been denied by the Belgian government. They began their journeys as refugees, arrived in Belgium as refugees, but with a single administrative act, a judgement rendered by a bureaucrat, they are now categorized, without recourse, as illegal immigrants. Sans-papiers. They are not permitted to work. They are not entitled to social benefits. From a legal perspective, they are non-entities. They do not exist. They join a substantial class of individuals in Belgium so situated, sometimes for multiple generations.

The refugee crisis has always been highlighted by a long-running tension between humanity and bureaucracy. Bureaucracies thrive on categorization, definition, and certainty, but the camp was begun in a display compassion, tolerance, and creativity. Humanity provided the foundational impulse behind the camp, but needed to invent a bureaucracy to administer it. While it’s probably an oversimplification to say that humanity created the camp and bureaucracy destroyed it, it’s also not too far from the truth.

Two days after the Plateforme announced they were leaving, they began to do so, putting out a call for two hundred volunteers to aid the effort. All day Tuesday lines of yellow-vested volunteers shuttled back and forth between the park and the newly acquired warehouse beside the canal. That night only a hundred and fifty people slept in the park. The next night it was down to about a hundred. Thursday morning a pair of bulldozers showed up and unceremoniously razed the kitchen, which had been painstakingly built over the course of the previous month from recycled palette wood. By noon nothing was left of the kitchen but two dumpsters loaded with debris, donated refrigerators lying on their sides beside them.

This morning a six-foot-high metal fence was erected around the entire park and everyone in it, save an eight foot gap that served as both an exit and an entrance. The park feels intimidating now, surrounded by a fence and a police cordon. It feels like a place you don’t want to go into. It feels like an arena, or a firing range, someplace better observed from a safe distance.

The police have given the holdouts until five o’clock to clear the park, while the police themselves have been given until seven to talk them out. After that they will be ordered to clear the park by force.

You have to feel for the police, especially in Brussels. More so than in other European capitals, they suffer abuse, and occasionally projectiles, hurled at them by innumerable protests and demonstrations. Just a week ago, dairy farmers from all over Europe converged on Brussels, using their tractors to clog the roads, hurling raw eggs at police in riot gear, and using combine harvesters to spray hay all over the ranks of policemen before setting the hay on fire. All this to protest low milk prices. A week later, the police will be pelted with paving stones and fight running street battles with a group of anarchists that infiltrates an anti-austerity rally.

Now, in the park, someone has found a megaphone and begins using it to shout in the faces of the police. A group of fifty holdouts marches over to the fence that separates them from the police cordon and begins singing protest songs. It has become a demonstration. The megaphone goes dead, so they continue chanting without it. Then someone gets it working again and the megaphone squawks to life. The songs begin anew, the chanting, the shouting, everyone trying to get everyone else fired up.

The operation to clear the park is an impressive example of restraint and de-escalation. None of the police officers is armed with anything more lethal than pepper spray, and even this is never used. Two canine units patrol at a distance, careful not to incite anyone by coming too close. At six o’clock the chief of police wanders into the enclosed area and speaks with the holdouts, who now number about fifty. In threes and fours they wander over and pick up their bags and file out through the opening left in the wire fence. For most of them, arrest would mean almost instant deportation. Unlike the dairy farmers, who wield the political power of their union, the sans-papiers are caught between their anger and their legal non-existence.

The chief of police spends more than an hour talking to the last few dozen people in the park. Person by person they begin picking up sacks and duffels and plastic shopping bags and filing out, leaving behind several tents and a plywood shack that last week housed Sans-Papiers Freedom Radio. The moment they’re out of the fence, two massive dump trucks roll in and city maintenance workers begin filling them with detritus.

“The park will be like new come morning,” says one of the police officers in the cordon.

By seven thirty it’s over. A place that a week ago contained hundreds of tents housing more than a thousand migrants, administrative offices, a medical facility, a radio station, storage areas and a working kitchen, are nothing more than trees, newly-planted grass, a packed stone path, a football pitch, and pigeons.

Outside the fence, the sans-papier and the homeless, the last group of holdouts, watches the dismantling of the camp with an air of resignation. The camp had been in the news nearly everyday for the past month. It had provided them with their own platform from which to air their grievances. For as long as the camp existed, they existed. Now, the camp no longer exists.

Someone in the group seems to remember he is holding a megaphone and flicks it on. He raises it to his lips and begins chanting. He is quickly joined by the rest. The sans-papier are here to stay. Someone unfurls a banner and it is held up in front of the group. It says “The sans-papier continue the fight.”

The police chief comes over and tells them they have to move along, now. It’s all over, he says. Time to go. As they begin moving away en masse, the megaphone strikes up a song, and they all join in. It’s another protest number. It echos from the surrounding high rises, follows them as they march down the street, lingers behind them as they head reluctantly away from the park, singing their song into the night.

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Ezra Pound and China: A Q & A with Ira Nadel

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Later this month, Penguin will publish Cathay: Ezra Pound’s Orient, a short book by biographer and literary specialist Ira Nadel that examines Ezra Pound’s interest in China and Chinese poetry. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Nadel’s book, which arrived just as I was preparing to interview Qiu Xiaolong for this blog. It was a fitting bit of timing, as one theme I explored with Qiu was his enduring interest in T.S. Eliot; the author of “The Wasteland” had famously asserted once that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” I caught up with Nadel by email, for whom that claim of Eliot’s is an important jumping off point: 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: First of all, since not all of our readers may be familiar with just how central Ezra Pound’s interest in China was to the writer’s career, could you just, in the spirit of the lists often associated with blogs, list five or 10 facts, or just tidbits worth knowing about where his engagement with Chinese poetry or the country generally are concerned?

IRA NADEL: Below, some key moments in EP’s Oriental education:

  1. Growing up in Philadelphia, he studied an 18th century-Chinese screen book of prints and ideograms owned by his parents which would become important in his well-known “Seven Lakes” (Canto 49) from his long work, The Cantos.
  2. He frequently visited the growing Asian collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  3. Attended lectures on Oriental art by Laurence Binyon in London beginning in 1909 and soon became friends with Binyon, who was an Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
  4. Became fascinated with Japanese Noh drama and spent three winters with Yeats at Stone Cottage (1913-16) in Sussex, partly preparing an edition of Noh drama published in 1916.
  5. Meeting the widow of the American sinologist Ernest Fenollosa in 1913, Pound impressed her with, first, his oriental-styled English poems, an essay on Tagore and then, with his knowledge of Oriental aesthetics, learned from attending various Oriental art exhibits in London ca. 1912 and 1913.
  6. Based on the work of Fenollosa, Pound published Noh; or, Accomplishment, a Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in 1916. That same year Pound and Yeats’s Certain Noh Plays of Japan
  7. In 1928, Pound’s translation of Confucius, To Hio: The Great Learning
  8. Late in his life, Pound studied Confucius and wrote the “Chinese Cantos” as part of his long work, The Cantos. He also incorporated various Chinese ideograms in these poems.
  9. He read Chinese badly but persisted in its study.
  10. When arrested by Italian partisans and handed over to American troops at the end of WWII, he took a Chinese dictionary and a volume of Confucius which he would translate while in a detention camp in Pisa before being flown to Washington, DC to stand trial. He continued to work on Confucius while in the St. Elizabeths hospital for the mentally disturbed in Washington.
  11. Throughout the 1950s Pound published a series of works by Confucius including The Great Digest and the Unwobbling Pivot, 1951, The Analects (1951) and The Classic Anthology, Defined by Confucius (1954).

You describe efforts he made to learn Chinese or at least figure out how the language worked, but works such as his Cathay aren’t really “translations,” in the ordinary sense —  at least the sense I tend to have in my mind of a translator, who is bilingual, doing a close reading of a text in one language she knows and then creatively yet faithfully strives to create a text that reads well in another language. So what is Cathay? Do you think of it like, for example, some translations of Homeric epics by poets who don’t know ancient Greek?  Or are there other, better parallels that come to mind?

Cathay is definitely NOT a translation. It is a creative reworking of Pound’s sense of Chinese and Japanese from a set of literal, stiff translations by a variety of hands beginning with the two Japanese assistants of Fenollosa, whose own Japanese was good but his Chinese almost non-existent. Pound did the same with his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” a work that provides the sense of the original but is not the original. The importance of this process is that Pound “made it new,” his Confucian mantra, for the Chinese texts, new in a way that influenced a generation of English poets who understood, perhaps for the first time, the elegance of Chinese poetry but now in contemporary English. Direct translations of the text would have likely had no impact upon writers but what Pound did, with a sense of adventure and originality, set a new bar for lyrical English poetry in opposition to the work of the Symbolists and Georgians. This was poetry that was direct and coincided with his development of Imagism best seen in the work of H.D.

Many decades ago, Wai-Lim Yip wrote this about Cathay: “One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.” Would you say your approach challenges or complements that interpretive stance — or simply veers off in a very different direction?

Context, not clairvoyance, provided Pound with the insight and originality to remake Cathay into an important collection of modern poetry. His sense and understanding of an Oriental aesthetic allowed him to not only “make it new” but to fashion an entirely new set of poems that, nonetheless, conveyed the literary attitude of the Orient. This was not an unconscious process but one that evolved from his genuine belief in the importance of an Oriental style summarized in his edition of Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry,” where Pound argued that metaphor is “at once the substance of nature and of language” and that poetry is “finer than prose because it gives us more concrete truth in the same compass of words.” Pound also importantly believed that the Chinese written language had a “pictorial visibility” which allowed it to maintain its originality with “more vigor and vividness than any phonetic tongue.”

I had never thought about the fact that, thanks to Pound, 1915 can be seen as an important year for the flow into the West of ideas about and texts that were created in China. This interests me because, as others have noted (see, for example, Peter Zarrow’s commentary for the History News Network) it was exactly a century ago that a journal that played a special role in introducing Chinese readers to Western ideas was founded. Anything else you find interesting about 1915 as a special year in either the history of modernist literature or in Western thinking about China?

1915 was a crucial year in modernism since it saw the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s narrative experiment, The Good Soldier, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, immediately prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Conrad’s psychological novel Victory also appeared: set on an Indonesian island with a Chinese assistant to the hero Axel Heyst, it plays off Oriental stereotypes against Western adventurers. Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, also appeared in 1915, while Dorothy Richardson published Pointed Roofs, the first complete stream of consciousness novel in English. Kafka publishes The Metamorphosis and finished writing The Trial, although it would not see print until 1925, the year after his death. T.S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Joyce, Tzara and Lenin all took up residence in Zurich, later to be turned into Tom Stoppard’s engaging play Travesties (1974).

1915 was also the year the Chinese Great Dictionary, the Zhonghua Da Zidian, an unabridged Chinese dictionary with more than 48,000 entries for individual characters, appearing in 4 vols. However, offsetting such scholarship were popular stereotypes as in Sax Rhomer’s mystery The Yellow Claw, the story of an Oriental villain who attempts to hold the cream of London society at his mercy. The German writer Alfred Döblin, later known for Berlin Alexanderplatz, published The Three Leaps of Wang Lun that same year, a well-researched novel written in an expressionist manner. Many consider it the first modern German novel and the first western novel to show China untouched by the West. It focuses on a doomed rebellion during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the late 18th century. As a postscript, during WWI, the Allied Army of the Orient (Armées alliées en Orient) formed in 1915, made up of troops from Serbia, Russia Italy, Greece, Portugal and Albania, a rather broad interpretation of the Orient. So yes, the Orient definitely permeated the cultural environment in 1915 in a variety of ways.

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Modern Chinese History: What Every Student Needs to Know

By Austin Dean

That headline is a play on the title of the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, the second edition of which, published in 2013, was a collaboration between this blog’s co-editors, Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham. The book opens with an author’s note by the older of the two collaborators, Wasserstrom, in which he looks back to his undergraduate days in the late 1970s when he took his first class on Chinese history. He did so on a “whim,” he writes, at a time when it seemed “purely optional” to pay attention to China.

The country only made headlines occasionally in America back then. “What a difference thirty years can make,” the author’s note continues, “in the life of a country — and in the amount of global interest it generates.” These days, it is hard to escape stories about China. But even now, as Wasserstrom writes, quoting the historian and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash, “we readers in Western countries still get much less thorough coverage of China than we need.”

While Wasserstrom and I belong to different generations, my own experience is not that different from his. When I first signed up for a Chinese history course in my sophomore year of college early in this century, it was very much on whim. I did not know much about China, let alone about other countries in East Asia. But a lot of things can change in 10 years: Now I’m teaching East Asian history.

With Wasserstrom’s comments and my own experiences in mind, I was curious to find out what kind of background knowledge and opinions my own students brought with them as we began our course.

In my class on Modern East Asian History (China, Korea, and Japan), there is a near 50-50 split of domestic and international students — mainly from China, but with a handful from Canada, Russia, and Singapore. In the first week of classes this semester, I asked my students to name the most important thing a person should know about modern Chinese history, 1600 to the present. Of course, there were no right or wrong answers; they could identify a person, event, idea, belief, or anything else. They had to answer the same question for Korea and Japan, too, providing reasons for all their selections. (This activity is a little easier to do for the modern history course that I’m teaching. In the first week of a pre-modern history class, students don’t have much of an opinion on, say, the Korean peninsula before 1600.)

On the whole, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the range and quality of the responses, especially since it was due the first week of class and the activity was meant more as a survey than an assignment. None of the students resorted to the phrase that Wasserstrom thinks is all too common when discussing China — the country is “inscrutable.”

Most of the answers were notable for their presentness — almost all the responses named something in the 20th century; there was not much mention of anything before the middle of the 19th century, and no specific mention of the Qing dynasty. The most surprising answer was someone who argued it was most important to know about the Cairo Conference of 1942 because it shaped the post-World War II order in Asia. And, if you are wondering — yes, the student who wrote that is a history major.

Most students selected a person. One named Sun Yat-sen, a key political figure in the early 20th century, because “he was important in the revolution that ended imperial China and paved the way for the eventual creation of the People’s Republic of China.” Answers that focused on a person were generally split between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. One response argued that it was most important to know about Mao Zedong because “he played a major role in making China as powerful as it is today.” Others made essentially the same argument about Deng Xiaoping. A number of American students had not heard of Deng, and that’s fine; it is why they are taking the class. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Deng Xiaoping was in my freshman year of college, either.

Some responses were quite thematic. One student reflected that the most important thing to know about Chinese history is that “the Chinese have an incredible national pride in their rich history … they have a belief that they are the continuation of the great and powerful Chinese story written by no other hand than their own.” Another response argued that in order to understand Chinese culture, one had to comprehend that it is really a mix of three elements: “Marxism culture, western culture and Confucian culture.” On the whole, pretty profound stuff for the first week of an introductory history class.

At a geographic level, one student wrote that it was most important to recognize “China’s size and diversity” because that seems to be “the most overlooked aspect of China in the Western world.” As one of the Chinese students in the class pointed out, the observation is equally true for most Chinese views of the United States. When he told his family and friends that he was going to Ohio for university they were confused because they thought ”Ohio” was how you say “good morning” in Japanese (ohayo gozaimasu) — not the name of a place in the United States.

We will do this activity again in the last week of the class to see if — after the duration of the course — the students have changed their minds and have different answers to the question. Of course, by that time, I hope some content issues will be cleared up: students will know who Deng Xiaoping is and that writing that “the Great Leap Forward can essentially be credited for China’s powerful economic influence in the present day” isn’t exactly correct. But, for the first time around, their responses were quite insightful, especially since no one had read China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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Neither a Beggar nor a Borrower

By Stephen Dau

Ali sits in a tent with his brother-in-law, who we’ll call Ahmed, scrolling through photos on his mobile phone. He is stocky and well-built and looks like a former soldier, which, as it turns out, is what he is. He refuses the offer, again, of a cup of tea, just like he refused an offer to be taken out for breakfast earlier that morning.

“I am not a beggar,” says Ali.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, doesn’t say anything.

After nearly a full minute of scrolling on his phone, Ali’s face lights up. He’s found the picture he’s been looking for. It’s a photograph of a piece of paper, a certificate that looks a lot like the one your child’s elementary school might send home after a spelling bee. Underneath Ali’s name, it says:

“Kellogg Brown & Root, operation mission Iraq, MHE Department, takes pleasure in presenting this certificate of appreciation in gratitude for your professionalism and dedication to duty.”

The word “professionalism” is misspelled.

Ali flips through pictures some more, holding up the phone every few seconds. He has certificates and letters of recommendation from several previous employers, including KBR, PAE, and Sallyport, a Michael Baker International Company. Mostly they look hastily typed or photocopied. But one stands out. It’s on letterhead from the US Embassy in Iraq, a confirmation of employment in the State Department’s General Services office, and says that Ali has been “an excellent employee while employed there.”

He keeps flipping through the photographs on his phone.

He has pictures of himself in an American-supplied uniform from the four years he spent with the Legion Security Force. He has pictures of himself in front of the mechanical diggers and excavators he operated for a variety of American companies in Iraq after leaving the LSF. He takes pleasure in presenting these certificates, these credentials, this proof.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, still doesn’t say anything.

Rumors have been floating around the camp, and the latest one has Ali scared. He has heard that everyone from Baghdad is being sent back to there en masse. Baghdad has been declared safe. On the question of whether or not any particular refugee will be granted asylum, those from Baghdad appear to not have a chance.

“I’ll show you something else,” says Ali. He looks over at Ahmed and says something in Arabic. Ahmed nods a tired nod, as though reluctantly giving permission.

The pictures he holds up next are horrific. It’s Ahmed, but it’s not Ahmed at the same time. His face is beaten and nearly unrecognizable. There are cuts above his eyes. His arms are black from bruises, and massive welts and lacerations cover his back. One might be tempted to wonder what techniques could possibly create such injuries.

“This is what happens in the safety of Baghdad,” says Ali.

This morning Ali is going to the offices of the International Organization for Migration. The IOM administers a program that aids refugees who choose to voluntarily repatriate themselves. The program gives them a plane ticket and a small cash stipend of 250 euro. But rumors are rife in the park, and Ali has heard that the IOM might be able to help him get to America, which, after working for America and American companies for the past seven years, is where he really wants to go. He has an appointment at IOM for nine o’clock this morning. Although “appointment” might be too strong a word. One of the volunteers in the park has called the IOM and then told Ali, somewhat cryptically, that he needs to be there at nine sharp.

At the IOM office it is clear that Ali is not expected. Nonetheless, the people there are kind and generous and sit down and talk with him for the better part of an hour. They explain that, contrary to what he heard in the park, the voluntary repatriation program is the only one they run in Belgium. They appear to really want to help. But they work for an organization, after all, with a mission and goals and procedures, and there is little they can do outside its rubric.

Trying to offer something else, something helpful, they mention that there is another program that helps the US government screen potential asylum candidates, but that it is run out of Iraq.

“I know,” says Ali. “I applied for it. But all they tell me when I call to check is that I must wait, and it has now been two years.”

In addition to the horrific beating Ahmed received, Ali is scared because one of the leaders of the same local militia that beat his brother-in-law has stopped him several times on the street, the last time telling him that if he was ever seen there again, he would be killed.

So he left, taking the same route most of the asylum seekers have taken, through Turkey and across Greece and Macedonia and through Hungary and Austria and Germany and now to Brussels, where he has met up with his brother-in-law and another friend of theirs. The journey cost him five thousand dollars, much of it in fees paid to human traffickers. Only after arriving did he learn that the asylum process here can take months, even years. He has left behind a wife and two young children. Here are their pictures. Aren’t they beautiful?

“They don’t have any money,” he says, referring to his family, “and my wife is now sick. She just tells me yesterday.”

The people at IOM tell him that he might also be eligible for re-integration assistance, which could include job training and a stipend of up to two thousand dollars if he returns to Iraq. In response, Ali stares at the table top. He is a tough man, but it looks like he might cry.

“It is very dangerous,” he says. “Baghdad is very dangerous.”

A consensus is reached around the table that at this point Ali appears to have two options from which to choose: he can formally undertake the asylum application process in Belgium, which gives him a roughly ten percent chance of success, and which requires him to leave his young family to fend for themselves in Baghdad for what could well turn out to be years, or he can accept the offer of repatriation, which will get him a plane ticket back to Iraq this week, two hundred and fifty euro at the airport, and the possibility, but not the guarantee, of a stipend and job training.

Out on the street after the meeting, Ali is quiet. He stares at the ground as he walks. When he looks up he has tears in his eyes.

“I die four times every day I don’t see my kids,” he says. He shakes his head. “Tell me, if you were me, what would you do?”

 

 

 

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Politics as Usual

By Stephen Dau

Working for an NGO is a little bit like running for elected office: no matter what high-minded goals you hoped to achieve, nor what level of idealism got you involved in the first place, you generally spend most of your time raising money. Crisis breeds opportunity; visibility equals funding. Donations to charitable organizations vary with the news cycle. To not have your name associated with a humanitarian event that is getting daily play on television is practically the equivalent of malfeasance.

The first turf battle to play out in the refugee camp in the center of Brussels came after only a few days, when SAMU Social, the social services organization that has been working with homeless, addicted and otherwise marginalized people in Brussels day in and day out for the past fifteen years, attempted to take over the operation of the camp from the Citizens Platform for the Support of Refugees, a group of ordinary citizens who had organized on Facebook and were by all measures doing a remarkable job of looking after the needs of the refugees in the park. Accounts of what actually happened on that Monday afternoon a few weeks ago vary. Some say there was merely a heated exchange between the two groups over who was running the show, others that there was nearly a fistfight. It was short lived, however, and today the two groups are working together in a cordial, if occasionally tense, relationship. They get along well enough that some of the Platform volunteers even work occasional shifts in the SAMU tent. It was a different story when Oxfam showed up a week in with, as one volunteer put it, “a few boxes of clothes and wanted to put up this huge sign at the front of the camp.” (Long story short: they didn’t.)

But such divisions among the organizations on site are minor when compared with the political faults this crisis has opened, both within Belgium and across Europe. Like tremors lighting up a seismograph, the refugee influx highlights and exacerbates fault lines that already exist.

Attempting to fully understand Belgian politics is a quagmire for the foolhardy, but suffice to say that the country is divided into a Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and a French speaking south (Wallonia), and that the two populations don’t much like each other. The Platform volunteers in the park are overwhelmingly French-speaking. The Secretary of State responsible for asylum seekers and refugees belongs to a conservative Flemish separatist party (the New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA).

(Although the term “conservative” here is relative. One measure of how far to the right the United States is compared to Belgium, and much of Europe, is that one of the debates over immigration here currently revolves not around whether to give full citizenship status to people granted asylum, but whether to do so after four years of residency, as the N-VA proposes, or immediately, as the French Socialists want.)

The fireworks began pretty quickly. During the first week of the camp’s existence Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister, who is Flemish, demanded that the mayor of Brussels, who is a French speaking socialist, clear the refugees out of the park immediately. The mayor replied, grandiosely, since it’s not what had been proposed, that he would never send in troops against the “people of the park.” The mayor of Antwerp, who is also the president of the N-VA, called the mayor of Brussels “totally incompetent,” to have let the camp develop in the first place, and said that the reason the park was not being cleared was that it had become a “hot bed of extreme left activists”. The mayor of Brussels responded that the entire crisis has been created because the federal government has not done its job, i.e. allowing only two hundred and fifty asylum seekers to register each day, and failing to provide sufficient shelter for the rest.

Political pyrotechnics aside, it has been pretty obvious from the beginning that Belgium, like all of Europe, has two options in response to this crisis: increase its capacity to take in refugees and process asylum claims or slough off numbers of refugees, whether by shipping them to other, more receptive EU countries or back to wherever they came from. They appear to be doing both. Belgium recently announced that it would grant asylum to a little more than four thousand asylum seekers in the coming year. But with anywhere from forty to fifty thousand migrants in the country, this represents an acceptance rate of less than ten percent, the remainder being shipped back to their countries of origin. Also, it was announced last week that accommodation for eight thousand migrants will be added to the 28 thousand already created since the summer, these to house refugees between the time they register their asylum claim and the time their petition is formally adjudicated, which can be anywhere from three months to a year. Generally, these people are housed in camps run by the Red Cross, often located near airports, presumably to enable speedy deportations once asylum status has been denied.

The federal government is making concerted moves to clear the park, not with the stick of sending in troops, but with the carrot of providing facilities superior to camping in tents, like showers, food and warmth. Now that the weather is setting in, more and more refugees are packing their hand-me-down belongings into donated blue Ikea bags and moving indoors. In addition to being better, in the long term, for the refugees themselves (a point even the Platform volunteers acknowledge) the move inside will benefit the Center-Right coalition government by denying the park as a rallying point for “radical leftists,” as the mayor of Antwerp recently put it, and making the refugee situation less public. The scale of the migration caught the politicians off guard, but they are beginning to recover.

Across Europe the divisions are starker. Turkey has built a series of state-of-the-art refugee camps along its border with Syria, featuring three-room units for each family, with electricity and running water and a fully stocked supermarket where the residents (they are more residents than refugees, there) shop with debit cards funded monthly by the Turkish government. But these camps are only for Syrians. The Iraqis in Brussels talk about the level of discrimination they faced in Turkey, where they are payed below-market wages and kicked out of apartments the moment higher-paying tenants are found.

In Greece, many citizens go out of their way to help refugees who make it ashore after the human-trafficker roulette of the sea crossing, tacitly ignoring a recently passed law making it illegal to aid migrants. But in Greece, no political party has benefitted from the influx of foreigners so much as Golden Dawn, a party whose official symbol is a repurposed swastika.

Immediately to the north of Greece, Macedonia seems to be aware that all the refugees want to do is cross it, and seems to be facilitating that procession as rapidly as possible. Hungary probably understands that transit is all that is being sought from it, too, but has a grandstanding president who seems determined to make examples. (Many refugees in the camp in Brussels say that the people of Hungary are actually pretty nice. It’s only the government and the military and the border police and the roving bands of criminals who stalk the forests mugging those who have money and beating those who don’t who are mean.)

Serbia, too, seems to understand that it is simply an area of land to be traversed, but just can’t seem to help itself, and is impishly sending refugees the long way round, via its old adversary Croatia, as though playing a game of human hot potato. “We are like water,” said one refugee on the Serbian border with Hungary, “when we encounter a rock, we flow around it.”

Croatia, for its part, briefly stuck its head up over the dike last week and opened its border like a spillway, allowing migrants to pass unchecked around Hungary. But just as quickly, it realized the flow was a tsunami, and ducked back behind a dam of border controls.

Austria, for those refugees fortunate enough to make it there, is acting as a distribution center, the O’Hare Airport of this hub-and-spoke network, taking in and then sending on thousands of asylum seekers to France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and especially Germany. Germany. It’s where everyone wants to go who hasn’t wound up somewhere else. Germany recently announced that it would process eight hundred thousand asylum applications this year alone, and would take in up to half a million asylum seekers each year for the next five years. Germany, they all say. They want to go to Germany.

Germany is exorcizing its demons.

The refugees in the park seem to be excruciatingly aware of the geopolitics. Apparently the first group of them, the occupants of those fifteen lonely tents pitched in the park the beginning of September, wound up in Brussels purely by chance, their traffickers liking the odds here better, or blocked off from some other, preferred route, or simply running low on fuel and paranoid. Then that first group of arrivals radioed back down the line, FaceBooking and emailing and Twittering the under-ways and the yet-to-embarks that they were being received amicably, and the faucet was opened. But now they closely monitor the news, weigh options, plan contingencies.

But how great is the flow? It’s the question posed incessantly by the conservatives, the xenophobes, and the Prime Minister of Hungary. Will we not soon be inundated? The Muslim population of Europe now stands at about four percent of the total population. If Europe were to accept every single refugee currently seeking asylum on the continent, the total Muslim population of Europe would rise to about five percent. On such fine political and demographic calculations hinge, apparently, the political future of the European Union.

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Shanghai Mysteries: A Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I read a new Qiu Xiaolong Inspector Chen mystery, I often find myself thinking back to the first college course on China I took. This is because the professor offering the class, historian Michael Freeman, included a whodunit by the Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulick on his syllabus. That book was part of a series featuring Judge Dee, an upright magistrate based on an actual historical figure, Di Baoan. In writing his Judge Dee mysteries, van Gulick, a versatile author whose other publications included a study of ancient Chinese sexual practices, opened intriguing windows onto the social and cultural history of imperial China — comparable to those that Qiu’s Inspector Chen novels open onto contemporary Chinese politics and society. When we read the novel for that UC Santa Cruz class in the late 1970s, I was intrigued by its depiction of a beggar’s guild, which had a clear hierarchical structure and developed astutely pragmatic methods for getting alms from local merchants. Similarly, one thing that will surely stick in the minds of readers of Qiu’s new book, Shanghai Redemption, is its depiction of a wild evening in one of the eponymous city’s most hedonistic nightspots — an anything goes sort of club of the kind that existed in the metropolis before 1949. They ceased to be part of the local scene during the Mao years and early part of the Reform eras, but have gotten a new lease on life in the boom times of the last two decades.

To write his detective stories, van Gulick often took an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point. He would then move elements of it around and make other alterations in order to craft a narrative he thought would be easier to follow and more satisfying to Western readers of detective stories than a straightforward translation. He also altered the identity of some villains; in too many of the original stories the Buddhist monk was the culprit, which took some of the, well, mystery out of the original Chinese mysteries. The Missouri-based Qiu, by contrast — a native of and frequent return visitor to Shanghai, where most of his Inspector Chen novels are set — often takes things he has experienced, heard, or read about and reworks them into whodunits. In Shanghai Redemption, for example, he fictionalizes some features of the scandals and purge of Bo Xilai, someone who rose to great heights within the Chinese political system before being tried and incarcerated — and Qiu met when they were attending the same university.

I recently caught up with Qiu by email. I asked him about Judge Dee, Bo Xilai, and also, as regular readers of this post will expect but others may find surprising, about Aldous Huxley:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Have you ever read the van Gulick Judge Dee novel, or read Chinese works or seen Chinese films featuring Di Baoan?

QIU XIAOLONG: I had read van Gulick’s Judge Dee novels before penning my Inspector Chen novels. His encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and society really impressed me. You’re surely right about his taking “an extant Chinese literary text featuring Di Baoan as a starting point.” In Poets and Murder, for instance, I recognized the poet as none other than the famous Tang dynasty courtesan / poet Yu Xuanji (844?-871?). I like her poems, having translated one for a classical Chinese poetry collection. The poem is titled “To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness” (the Zi’an in the title being the man who married her as a concubine; his wife made him dump Yu by sending her into a temple). Myriads of maple leaves / upon myriads of maple leaves / silhouetted against the bridge, / a few sails return late in the dusk.//How do I miss you? // My thoughts run like / the water in the West River, /flowing eastward, never-ending, / day and night. Van Gulick must have been inspired by the real-life crime of passion committed by the gifted, ill-starred beauty, but the fiction seems to be too harsh on her. After all, the investigation could have been colored by the prejudice against an independent, intelligent woman in the social and moral discourse of the time, and the judge who sentenced her was said to have tried to date her but got rejected. Dean Barrett, another novelist writing about China, recently suggested that I write new Judge Dee books, but with van Gulick before me, how do I dare? Still, I may try my hand at a novella about Inspector Chen reinvestigating the Yu Xuanji case, following the clues through her poems to a different conclusion, though it’s possible that the new conclusion could have been colored, in turn, by his own incorrigible romantic inclination. Also, in rereading Judge Dee and other gong’an novels, I’ve noticed something hardly discussed in the studies of the Chinese genre. Dee is a Judge, not a cop or a detective, and in real life, he once served as a prime minister; for that matter, in other Judge stories as well — the “judge,” not in the ordinary sense of the word, but in reality a high ranking official. That in itself speaks about the fact that, lacking an established legal system, a detective could do so little, it has to take a resourceful well-connected official to make a difference. So the suspense comes not just in whodunit, but also in the almost impossible mission to have the criminal punished against odds in the complicated power struggle. And I wonder whether my writing has been influenced, subconsciously, by that tradition. As for the present-day Chinese TV movies featuring Judge Dee, I have watched just an episode. The cultural depth and width animating the characters in the original work appear to be totally missing on the screen.

Did you know you would write a novel linked in some ways to Bo Xilai when he was riding high as head of the massive city of Chongqing or when you first read of his fall? Or did you only think of working him into a novel later?

When Bo Xilai began riding high in China’s political landscape, it did not come into my mind to write a novel linked to him, in spite of us being schoolmates at the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the early ’80s. I could have totally forgotten about him but for his failure to return my favorite Double-Happiness racket after a Ping-Pong game there, though that was not something too surprising for the mentality of a “red prince” who would take whatever he liked as rightfully his — with his father being one of the most powerful Communist Party officials in the Forbidden City. But then with his frantic attempt to grab for more power by launching the political movement of “singing the red and smashing the black” — the “red” referring to the revolutionary songs of the Cultural Revolution, in praise of the Party or Mao, and the “black,” to the people targeted by the Party authorities for whatever political reasons — I began to pay closer attention. I shuddered at the memory of my father being persecuted with a blackboard hung around his neck, trembling in the midst of those red songs. Was Bo really trying to pull the clock back to the Cultural Revolution? If so, why? I started contemplating a new adventure for Inspector Chen with those questions hovering in the background. What propelled me into the book project was, ironically, a “private kitchen” dinner with friends about two or three weeks before the official announcement of Bo’s fall. During that suspenseful period, as you may remember, stories about the Bo’s scandal surfaced now and then online without being instantly blocked by the netcops. That’s extremely uncommon, suggesting something sinister at the top. As we talked about it, an American friend challenged me, “No publisher would accept it if you wrote a book with those unbelievable details, which would beat the wildest fantasy for any mystery readers.” So I started researching and writing in earnest. While fictionalizing, a writer usually intensifies by adding imagined twists and turns into the murderous conspiracy, but those real blood-congealing details in Bo’s case could too easily work into the third-or-fourth rate pulp fiction. I had to subtract instead. For instance, the overdramatic turn when Bo slapped Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief and Bo’s one-time right-hand man, who, supposedly a secret lover of Bo’s wife, then fled for fear of his life to the American Consulate, carrying criminal evidence against the Bos, particularly that of Bo’s wife murdering a Western businessman. Hence an international scandal too huge for the Beijing authorities to cover up. But here I would like to add: this is a book inspired by the Bos. It’s not about any specific persons or things; rather, it’s an exploration of the social and political circumstances that could have produced such hearts of darkness in Shanghai Redemption.

You often allude to T.S. Eliot in your novels, due to Inspector Chen being, like you, a translator of the poet. Am I right, though, in saying that you make the ties between the Chinese crime solver and Western writer a more central element of this novel than it has been in any earlier one?

I am a fan of T. S. Eliot. I allude to him frequently not just because I’ve learned a lot of the modernist techniques while translating his poems in the ‘80s, but also because his impersonal theory enabled me to write in a way different from the romantic tradition, i.e., the poet should not, and cannot, identify himself with the persona or speaker of the poem. And that, eventually, led to the creation of Inspector Chen — not me in spite of some idiosyncratic traits allegedly of mine, embracing the tension between the impersonal and personal. So you may say that’s like my way of paying tribute to Eliot. Incidentally, a new Chinese edition of Eliot came out about two years ago, including some of my translations, just like in Shanghai Redemption. Now it’s perceptive of you to note “the ties between the Chines crime solver and the Western poet as a more central element” of Shanghai Redemption than of the earlier books in the series. Indeed writing Shanghai Redemption repeatedly drew me back into The Waste Land, as the redemption theme runs through both the poem and the novel. In the dedication page, I quote, “Because I do not hope to turn again” by Guido Cavalcanti, a line which Eliot also quoted and used. It speaks so eloquently about Inspector Chen’s despair as he stands by the grave of his father, who envisioned an academic career for him, but he becomes a Party member cop instead, trying to justify his career with the belief that he could make a difference by working within the system, even though increasingly beset with doubts. (Almost a century ago, Eliot also felt so terrible about letting his father down for choosing a literature career in another country.) At the beginning of Shanghai Redemption, however, his illusion shattered, his position deprived, Chen comes to the realization that “the system has no place for a cop who puts justice above the interests of the Party.” So his is not just a personal crisis, nor was Eliot’s. Rather, about their times respectively. Here the haunting images of “the unreal city” get juxtaposed with those of the present-day Shanghai, where the system corruption, materialist decadence, sexual dissipation, brazen hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy overwhelm the “living dead.” If the ending of the poem still suggest hopes for redemption of humanity through spiritual quest, the ending of the novel is cynical, where Chen quotes a Tang dynasty poem about redemption through contingency of history (like the “Chinese history-changing slap” Bo gave Wang in fury with all the unexpected developments), the only possible hope under the authoritarian one-Party regime.

Okay, the question you know I’m going to ask: Have you read any or all of the Aldous Huxley books I brought up in my last post, which I know you read when it went online? These were, just to jog your memory, Brave New World, which I’ve often brought into my commentaries on contemporary China; After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which as in your book a memorable visit to a cemetery take place; and the non-fiction work Brave New World Revisited.

In 1978, at the entrance test for the MA program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I was asked to write an essay about a Western book, one of the options flashing through mind was Brave New World, which I had read in the Shanghai Library in preparation for the test, but not being that brave, I ended up playing safe and choosing another book instead — for reasons you may easily understand. Also, it was just after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, a period when a number of young people were still somewhat drawn toward the utopia of Marxist idealism. Like Chen in his pre-inspector days, I found myself too busy writing and translating poems, hardly having time to worry about anything else. It was not until years later, when I found myself staying in another country, working on one of the Inspector Chen novels that I felt the urge to revisit the Brave New World. It’s because of the political catchword “stability” or “stability maintenance,” which enables the Beijing government to justify the unjustifiable, making the investigations practically impossible for Inspector Chen. But the word is not a Chinese invention, I recalled, for I had caught it much earlier in Aldous Huxley’s book. Now when he wrote it, he did not exactly have China in mind. But a lot he predicted are realities now, like political propaganda, psychological manipulation, classical conditioning, all these a totalitarian regime uses to keep the people subservient and under control. A ready example in Shanghai Redemption is the political movement of singing the red, and I saw with my own eyes an old, feeble worker appearing instantly transformed, radiating with euphoria on TV after mumbling just half a red song. The battle Huxley waged against the loss of individuality and autonomy under the authoritarian government remains an uphill one in China today. In the next Inspector Chen novel, when he is just state-assigned to the Shanghai Police Bureau, Party Secretary Li gives him a political lecture: “Each of us should be like a screw, fastened contentedly wherever the Party government wants us to, functioning, shining on the State machine.” Seen in a totally positive light, it’s an echo from Diary of Lei Feng, a communist role model advocated by Mao in the ‘60s, and quite recently, by the government under Xi too, but what a night coming true for Huxley’s metaphor about the deprivation of the human individuality by the state like in a factory assembly line. A soulless screw indeed! I have not yet read Brave New World Revisited nor After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. I’m going to, and thank you for reminding me of them.

Finally, what are you planning to write next? Some readers may take it for granted that you’ll pen another Inspector Chen novel, but you’ve also done some quite different books lately. For example, you collaborated with Howard French on Disappearing Shanghai, a book made up of photographs and poems that Ting Guo recently discussed in a two-work Los Angeles Review of Books that also dealt with Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes, and you wrote Red Dust Years, a charming collection of vignettes of life in an alleyway, which I reviewed for Time magazine. So I’m not taking it for granted that your next publication will be a mystery.

While doing research for Shanghai Redemption, I was rereading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which I was particularly impressed by a sentence, “The process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.” For the next book, consequently, it is tentatively titled Becoming Inspector Chen, or Constructing Inspector Chen (perhaps you may tell me which you like better). In postmodernist theories, one’s subjectivity is not a given, but in a continuous process of being constructed and reconstructed through the circumstances, in an intricate interrelationship of action and reaction with others. So it’s still a mystery — in a more general sense of the word — about things happening to Chen and others around him in his pre-inspector days. For the structure, it’s a novel with each chapter of an independent story related to Chen, directly or indirectly, linked in a chronological way, from the traumatic experience in his childhood, to the cases he unwillingly takes when first joining the force. The narration unfolds through a variety of angles, involving the first, second, and third person perspectives, juxtaposing the characters as “no man is an island, entire of itself.” Here you may be reminded of Years of Red Dust, but the new book is different for being more thematically unified. It is more experimental, also more rewarding, at least so to myself. As for the other book projects, Years of Red Dust II was completed, translated, published, and well-received in French and Italian. But the English manuscript remains unpublished because of its profit margin not comparable to the crime novels for the publishers. The same with The Poems of Inspector Chen, a collection of poems in the persona of Inspector Chen, which too is scheduled to come out in French and Italian first.

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The Spy Game’s Afoot

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Journalists leaving long-term assignments in Beijing routinely get asked, “So, when are you going to write your China book?” It’s something of a joke, but not quite; experienced China journalists, after all, have generally seen and heard enough over the years to compose a compelling book-length analysis of the country’s economy, or society, or politics, or whatever other topic they choose. And many of those books, I should add, are among the best we have on China today.

But when longtime BBC Beijing correspondent Adam Brookes left the China beat and moved to Washington, DC, he wrote a different kind of China book: a spy novel. That was 2014’s gripping thriller Night Heron, which introduced readers to British journalist Philip Mangan. When Night Heron opens, Mangan is drifting along in a stable if not cushy life in Beijing. He needs a spark — something to jolt him out of the rut in which he has gotten stuck — and that spark comes in the form of Peanut, an escaped Chinese prisoner who seeks out Mangan and uses him as a conduit to British secret intelligence. The ensuing action blasts Mangan’s rut to smithereens; now his problem is not boredom or predictability, but flashbacks and guilt — plus the occasional wisp of longing for the spy life.

Spy Games, the second volume in what I believe will be a trilogy, finds Mangan in Ethiopia, trying his best to lie low and stay out of trouble. But when he’s approached by a Chinese man who calls himself “Rocky” and slips him classified documents, the temptation is irresistible, and Mangan dives back into the intelligence world. While in Night Heron Mangan unwillingly got drawn into the action, Spy Games sees him making the choice to get more deeply involved. Guided by his handler, soldier-turned-agent Trish Patterson, and her boss, Valentina Hopko, Mangan follows Rocky down the rabbit hole.

Rocky, however, isn’t simply handing over designs for a secret missile; the information that he has to offer holds much more explosive power. Rocky and his co-conspirators want nothing less than to bring down one of the most influential families in China, a clan whose web of power and corruption extends across China’s political, military, and corporate worlds. If successful, Rocky’s group could threaten the survival of the Chinese government itself.

And it’s here, in the end game that’s so much larger than Mangan imagines, that Brookes’s time in China turns Spy Games into his own version of a China book. Because I presume it’s his years reporting on Beijing politics that enable Brookes to give a depth and a history to the elite infighting that helps the story, for me, ring true. As any old China hand knows, there’s nothing straightforward about Zhongnanhai power struggles, and the events of forty years ago are just as important as what happened last week.

With its intricate plot, multiple locations, and large cast of characters (far more than those I’ve mentioned here), Spy Games requires a bit of focus to follow; I found myself wondering how in the world Brookes mapped everything out to ensure the disparate threads would join together in the end. But he does an excellent job of keeping the action moving and the tension high, making Spy Games a difficult book to put down. Here, again, is a way that Brookes has separated himself from the pack: I’ve read a lot of very good China books by excellent journalists, but I’ve never before stayed up far too late on a work night to finish one, unwilling to go to sleep until I knew how it ended.

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Aldous Huxley Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I am busy with a book project, the period between the end of the spring quarter and start of the fall can mean a welcome chance to make major headway. But it also means periodically searching out fiction to read that offers a complete break from the book’s subject matter. Usually, this has involved steering clear of all novels relating to a place: China. This summer, since I am working on a book about the Boxers and the international invading force mustered to fight that messianic anti-Christian group, it meant searching for novels that had nothing to do with a year: 1900.

One work of fiction that is presently providing me with the kind of diverting temporal break I desire is Shanghai Redemption, the latest novel in Qiu Xialong’s successful Inspector Chen series. I’m enjoying reading an advance copy of this book, partly because its action takes place in the recent past and present rather than more than a century ago. In addition, at least so far, it has been blissfully free of even passing allusions to the Boxers, who did some brutal things, and the international invasion, which also involved some horrendous acts of violence. It may seem silly to imagine that either the Boxers or the Baguo lianjun (Eight Countries Allied Army), as the 1900 invading force is known in Chinese, would make their way into a contribution to a series that has focused on Shanghai from the 1990s on. But you never know. Allusions to them show up in some very surprising places.

In a 1990 speech, “We Are Working to Revitalize the Chinese Nation,” for example, Deng Xiaoping brought up, seemingly out of nowhere, the Baguo lianjun. He said that, when he heard that seven foreign countries were planning to use economic measures to punish the CCP for the previous year’s June 4th Massacre, this immediately made him think of the time 90 years earlier when a slightly larger set of foreign powers, including some of the same ones, had invaded China.

When it comes to the Boxers, they are referenced in, among many other works of fiction, Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic The Diamond Age. The action in that 1995 novel unfolds in a hypermodern Shanghai, just as Qiu’s new novel does, but had I chosen to read it rather than Shanghai Redemption to get away from the events of 1900 this summer, it would not have given me the same kind of complete break from the book I’m writing. The characters in The Diamond Age include neo-Victorians, who have eccentric habits like reading things written on paper rather than screens, long after this stopped being common, and also neo-Boxers. The latter are eager to succeed in driving foreigners out of China, something that their namesakes of an earlier time had failed to accomplish.

While Shanghai Redemption, which was just published earlier this week, is providing a welcome break from my current book project’s subject, its opening chapters set me thinking yet again about an author whose work obsessed me while writing an earlier one. Namely, Aldous Huxley whose best known novel, a futuristic foray into science fiction published in the early 1930s, inspired the title of my 2007 book, China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times.

Qiu’s new novel opens with Inspector Chen, a literary minded policemen who writes poetry and translates T.S. Eliot, visiting the cemetery where his father is buried. He is amazed upon arrival at the evidence it provides that conspicuous consumption, ostentation, and crass forms of materialism have begun to affect even the realms of burial and mourning in today’s booming, status conscious China. There is much about the scene at the cemetery that speaks to its distinctively Chinese setting, such as elements of the dialog that refer to ideas of Confucian filial piety. Still, when Qiu describes this resting place for the dead as having been given new touches that “add to” its “pompous appearance” and thereby help it to conform to the dictates of a “materialist age,” I immediately thought of the early pages of Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. In that work, written at the end of the 1930s, a British visitor, presumably based on Huxley himself, visits a Southern California cemetery and is struck by the way that it encapsulates all that is strangest about nouveau riche American excess.

Here are some excerpts from Qiu’s novel:

Chen hadn’t been to the cemetery in several years, and it, like everywhere else in Suzhou, had changed. The sign at the entrance appeared to have been recently repainted, and a new arch stood over the entrance, redolent with the grandeur of a gate to an ancient palace. It added a majestic touch to the scene, standing against the verdant hills stretching to the horizon…. He walked down the hill to the office and pushed open the door. Inside he saw several small windows where people were paying their fees, and along the opposite wall, a row of chairs where customers sat waiting. Next to the row of chairs were two or three sofas marked with a sign reading VIP AREA. That section was probably for the people responsible for the luxurious new graves on the hillside.

Here, meanwhile, are some sample lines from Huxley’s:

The car turned a shoulder of orange rock, and there, all at once, on a summit hitherto concealed from view, was a huge sky sign, with the word BEVERLY PANTHEON, THE PERSONALITY CEMETERY, in six foot neon tubes and, above it, on the very crest, a full scale reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only this one didn’t lean…

An hour later, they were on their way again, having seen everything. Everything. The sloping lawns, like a green oasis in the mountain desolation. The groups of trees. The tombstones in the grass…a miniature reproduction of Holy Trinity at Stratford-on-Avon, complete with Shakespeare’s tomb and a twenty-four-hour service of organ music played automatically by the Perpetual Wurlitzer and broadcast by concealed loud speakers all over the cemetery…

I now have a new item on my to do list for my next trip to the Chinese mainland: see if any of the bookstores there I have visited in the past stocks a translation of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. It seems as though it might well speak to some issues of the day. In addition, its surrealist nature might appeal to the same Chinese readers drawn to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has sold well in China. Chinese familiar with Huxley’s Brave New World might also enjoy it, as even though After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is set in what was then present-day American rather than in the world of the future, it contains a similar concern with issues of hedonism and social stratification.

One thing I discovered while shopping for books in China last year is that Brave New World is available in two different Chinese language packaging. Not only can you still buy a translation of it standalone volume, as you have been able to for year, but you can pick up a three-volume dystopian classics value pack that includes it. One of the volumes in this set is a two-in-one George Orwell pair, with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm bundled together. Another is a Huxley combo: Brave New World combined with Brave New World Revisited, a non-fiction work written in the 1960s that assesses trends that the author saw as confirming to or suggesting the need for modification of the predictions he had made in the early 1930s. The third volume is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a 1921 Russian work that is often described as a major precursor to and influence on the writing of both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is interesting to note the ability of people living in a country still run by a Communist Party to buy this value pack, made up as it is of works that satirize in different ways collectivist states and totalitarianism. And though I have only dipped into rather read closely the Chinese language texts it includes since buying the set at a Shenzhen bookstore in 2014, the translations of the novels, at least as far I have been able to determine, all seem unexpurgated.

This is not the case, however, with the one non-fiction work in the collection Brave New World Revisited. In the English language version, Huxley includes a section on brainwashing that refers to things being done in the People’s Republic of China. Those and other sections that specifically refer to China have, not surprisingly, been left out of the Chinese language edition. It is one thing to allow readers to make up their own minds about whether an allegorical dystopian work could be relevant to the country in which they are living, quite another to have a writer come right out and say that China in Communist Party rule had become a place where some things Huxley wrote about as part of a nightmarish possible future had actually been realized.

One reason I secured a copy of the new Inspector Chen novel was that I thought that after reading it I could see if Qiu would do an author Q & A for this blog. After reading the opening chapters, I know I will want to do that — and that one thing I’ll ask is which if Huxley novels he has read. He may find it odd that I’d bring up an early 20th century Western author who moved in the same circles as Virginia Woolf in an interview about a novel set in today’s Shanghai. If he doesI’ll remind him that he begins his latest book with a nod to a famous line by someone other than Huxley who fits into just that category. “April is a cruel month,” Shanghai Redemption begins, “if not the cruelest.”

This bit of allusive word play paves the way for a short disquisition on the most important Chinese holiday relating to the dead falling in early April. And that’s just the sort of toggling between cultures to be expected from Qiu, a Shanghai-born but now St. Louis-based author whose protagonist is so attached to the work of T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis but lived most of his adult life in London. The poet and Huxley moved in related circles in England — until, that is, the latter crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in the 1930s, choosing to live out the rest of his days in the consumerist California whose foibles he satirized so brilliantly in After Many Summers Dies the Swan.