As my last China Blog column was on China’s forgotten World War I, I decided that an examination of the country’s involvement in World War II would make for a logical follow-up post. There’s no one better to discuss this topic than Oxford historian Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945, newly out in paperback. In this sweeping but highly readable history, Mitter traces the story of China’s eight-year battle against the Japanese—a conflict that continues to resonate in Sino-Japanese relations today, yet which has been largely forgotten on the global stage. I sent a few questions to Mitter, who responded by email. Continue reading
One of the best works of fiction I’ve read in recent months is The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings, who taught English in China in the 1990s and sets all of the short stories in his collection in that country. The book’s longest story, “Crystal Sarcophagus,” is set in the immediate wake of Mao’s death and follows the lives of people set the seemingly impossible task of producing, in record time, a glass coffin for the Chairman’s corpse that would be superior to those already occupied by deceased Communist leaders in Moscow and Hanoi. Several other stories deal with politically charged issues as well, such as tensions between Han and Uighur residents of Beijing, but some focus on totally different things, such as a day and a night in the life of a friendless and not especially likable American exchange student. The Dog has been been getting enviable reviews, such as one by Michiko Kakutani that begins by calling it a “stunning debut” collection and later praises Livings for his ability to evoke the “predicaments” of varied kinds of individuals “with an emotional precision that is both unsparing and oddly forgiving.” In interviewing Livings, I steered clear of “why set these stories in China when you’re an American who lives in the U.S.” sorts of questions, in part because he’d answered these well in earlier interviews for the China Real Time blog, for which Brittany Hite asked the questions, and for The Nervous Breakdown blog, where the person quizzing him was, well, Jack Livings. Continue reading
I’ve known Adam Brookes since 1999, when we met in Beijing where he was covering China for the BBC, and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since. When I learned that Adam, whose latest reporting assignment has been the Pentagon, was trying his hand at a spy novel, I was intrigued. Then, after reading an advance copy of Night Heron, I was impressed. I found it a gripping read, well deserving of the strong reviews its been getting in varied periodicals. (In his review of the book for this publication, Paul French aptly described the book as a “genuine page turner” by an author who is “excellent at describing contemporary Beijing” and knows how to “grab us from the start” with clever plotting.) I recently caught up with Adam and asked him a series of questions about his shift from working in journalism to writing fiction, which he was good enough to answer via email in a thoughtful and detailed way: Continue reading
This week’s China Blog interview is with Julia Lovell, a British specialist in Chinese studies who teaches in London, lives in Cambridge, and has made her mark in several distinctive arenas. She’s a distinguished translator of fiction (e.g., Zhu Wen’s short stories); she writes lively reviews and short essays for leading newspapers and literary reviews (including this one); and she pens scholarly yet accessible books about China’s past. I caught up with Julia by email this summer, after talking with her in Cambridge, to ask her some questions about her activities wearing the third of those hats. More specifically, her book about the Opium War, which came out in other countries beginning in 2011 and which Isabel Hilton described as telling the tale of the events in question “lucidly and compellingly”, is due out next month in its first American edition. Here below are her answers to my question about a book that was short listed for the Orwell Prize and won France’s Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2012. Continue reading
This interview is from LARB Channel Marginalia, and is number 13 in their ongoing radio series.
Art Remillard talks with Randall Balmer about his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Balmer is the Mandel Family Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College, and author of more than a dozen books, including Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.
In 2008, I wrote in the Guardian that there had recently been a “notable acceleration” in the frequency with which “illuminating books of reportage” on China had been appearing. It had become routine, I explained, after writers like Peter Hessler and Ian Johnson had come onto the scene, for two or three engagingly crafted books a year to come out that were by journalists who had spent considerable time in China and had sharp insights to share about the country’s recent past and current situation. Still, the year of the Beijing Games was special, since it saw Factory Girls, The Last Days of Old Beijing, Out of Mao’s Shadow, and Smoke and Mirrors all published within a single twelve-month stretch. I continue to admire that quartet of books, but the proximity of their publication dates no longer seems so striking. Why? Because we are mid-way through a three-week period that, when it ends, will have seen the appearance of not just one but two major additions to the list of powerful books on China by talented journalists. I mean, of course, Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (just out from FSG and garnering very strong reviews, such as this one in the Washington Post) and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (which is officially published by Oxford on June 4, but is already available as an e-book, and getting positive assessments as well, such as this write-up in Kirkus Reviews).*
I caught up by email with Osnos and Lim — both of whom will be speaking in Southern California soon and both of whose books are reviewed, in the same article, in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review — and they generously agreed to not only answer a question from me, but also to play interviewer as well as interviewee and ask each other one question apiece. My query for each of them is simple: What is in your book that you are proud of having there, but that you had no idea you would deal with when you started writing or planning the project?
Here, in the order in which they will be coming out this way are their answers, with Evan Osnos (who’ll be doing two events at UC Irvine on May 27) weighing in first, and then Louisa Lim (who will be speaking at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on June 12) going next. After that will come Evan’s question to Louisa and her answer; and then, closing out the interview, Louisa’s question to Evan and his reply. Continue reading
By Alec Ash
Fauna (a web name) is the founder and editor of chinaSMACK, a website that translates popular and trending Chinese digital content and online comment threads into English. It’s been around for over five years, and has hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. The content is taken from a range of Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks, and ranges from serious social stories (Dongguan Anti-Prostitution Campaign) to the downright silly (Girl’s Rabbit Facial Expressions Amuse Chinese Microbloggers). As such, it’s a valuable window into what Chinese Internet users or “netizens” think. Often, what interests them is plain puerile – but that in itself is a useful reminder that most netizens are after distraction more than sedition, and their attitudes can also offer insight into hot button social issues that higher-minded analysis often misses.
When did you start chinaSMACK? I know you prefer to remain anonymous, but can you say anything more about yourself and why you chose to do this work?
My first post was July 9th, 2008. I had the idea a few months before and a friend helped me choose the name. To begin with, chinaSMACK was a personal project to practice my English. I used the Internet a lot and there were a lot of funny or interesting things on it that I wanted to share with friends, including foreign friends. I used Chinese discussion forums (BBS) for a long time. Now they are not so popular because of Weibo [the microblogging service] and Weixin [the social messaging app], but when I first started chinaSMACK they were very big. You could learn a lot of news and information from other netizens, and the comments were often very funny.
I’m surprised chinaSMACK has become so popular. Along the way, I have met a lot of people and made new friends who share my interests. Many of them have also contributed to chinaSMACK, and I think today chinaSMACK represents the interests of more people than just me.
What have you learned from translating comments from Chinese netizens on news stories? Was there anything about their attitudes that surprised you?
What I usually learn is just new information, but information on the Internet is also unreliable. So I think what is most interesting is just the different reactions from different people, especially if they are unexpected or creative. But after a lot of time, there is nothing very surprising anymore. I am more surprised by the comments and attitudes of chinaSMACK netizens than those on Chinese sites.
What do you think blogs like chinaSMACK can help people understand about China and its society that conventional Western journalism can’t?
I think chinaSMACK can help people see a part of the Chinese Internet as it really is. Normal Western journalism tends to reflect the journalist’s perspective or interpretation of what they see. We want to show more of what Chinese netizens see, including pictures, reports and anything else Chinese netizens are saying – because these all influence what the Chinese netizens think.
For example, if I read a CNN article about something, what I learn will be different from what I learn if I read the comments about that same thing on Reddit. I can understand the same thing in different ways. Should I learn more about America from its news or from its TV shows? Should I learn about America from its journalists or from its netizens? I think that these different ways of learning things will all present a richer and maybe more accurate picture of a country and society. BBS was popular in China because Chinese netizens could learn from each other and not just from CCTV or People’s Daily. It is not always accurate, but it is still part of our life.
Do you think there are preconceived notions or biases about China in the Western media? What are they, and have they changed in the last five years?
Of course, and the same is true in Chinese media also. Media is people and people are this way, so media must be this way. If people are not perfect then media will not be perfect. I do not read or watch Western media very much, so I don’t know if my feelings about notions or biases are accurate. I am afraid that my feelings are too much influenced by Western netizens commenting on chinaSMACK, but I also know that they are not representative of all Western media. If Chinese netizens do not represent Chinese media, how can Western netizens on chinaSMACK represent Western media? Can one CNN or Daily Mail article represent Western media?
The change is that there is more attention about China, both good and bad attention. But if there is more attention, then there will be more information, and people and the media will become more familiar with China. If Western media pays more attention to China, maybe their first reports will have preconceived notions or biases but after more time they will become more accurate and fair. That is my hope. I know Chinese views about the West which are not very accurate, and I think Western views about China are often not very accurate also.
Some of the stories you run are about spoiled youths, the so-called second generation rich (fuerdai) behaving badly, or showing off their wealth. A lot of the netizen comments below are very angry. Is this the general attitude towards them?
Nobody likes arrogant people who show off.
Other netizen comments on stories about Japan or the US are very nationalistic. What’s your impression of the “angry young men” (fenqing) who write them? Are they really die-hard nationalists, or just ordinary young people venting their anger?
Fenqing is also used to describe netizens who criticize the Chinese government. It is just “angry young people”, and there are real people like that. But many are wumao [the “50 cent-ers”, who are allegedly paid to post pro-party comments on news stories]. There are more wumao than foreign netizens think, but less than Chinese netizens think. After reading so many of this type of article and comment, it is easy to know when they are real or fake.
How do you react to the stereotype that young Chinese are materialistic and selfish?
That depends on who has this stereotype and why they think it. Is it a Chinese person? How old are they? Where do they live? Is it a foreigner? What is their background? No matter what, I think it is true that many young Chinese are materialistic and selfish. But there are different kinds of expressions and reasons for this. For example, a materialistic and selfish rich second generation Chinese is different from a middle class Chinese. Their reasons can be very different too. And are young people who are not Chinese less materialistic and selfish?
But do you think that, broadly speaking, young Chinese genuinely care about their society and politics, or only about themselves?
There are idealistic people, there are bored people, and there are indifferent people. I think most people care about their own life most of all, but will say this is bad or this is good when they see the news about a social or political problem. Maybe Western young people are more active in politics because their government provides them with more opportunities to do political things. In China, like any society, I think most young people want their society to become better.
The celebrity blogger Han Han, who is also known for his novels and career as a racecar driver, has said in interviews that just because netizens seem angry about national issues, it doesn’t mean they would actually do anything about it. Do you agree?
Of course, this is common sense. On the Internet especially. It is easy to express an opinion. It is easy to grumble, denounce or judge. But it is difficult to stay angry and really try to change a national issue. What national issue is more important than our personal issues?
Finally, are netizens representative? Do you think that the kind of people who comment on the posts that China Smack translates represent their generation’s opinions?
Chinese netizens and their comments do not represent everything but they do represent something. Most people do not comment, they only read. The comments only represent the commenters (unless they are fake comments). I think the opinions of commenters are often shared by many non-commenters, but there is already a difference between someone who will share their opinion and someone who has an opinion but does not share it. Internet opinion represents and influences public opinion. This is important, but it is not perfect.
By Alec Ash
[This interview was originally published on the China Blog tumblr on September 25, 2013.]
There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?
Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.
I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.
Alec Ash: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?
Tom Carter: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.
Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.
AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?
TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].
The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.
AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?
TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.
Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.
AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.
TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.
In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.
AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…
TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.
I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.
AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?
TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.
I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …
AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?
TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.
And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?
I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.
Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.
By Angilee Shah
It’s not that the concept of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is complex: two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two perspectives.
But within this simple structure, Yang’s graphic novels build a compelling story around a war of identity, set 100 years ago in China. It combines mysticism with the very concrete ways that people decide who they are, in this case a leader in a secret fighting society and a Chinese Christian convert. It has the remarkable effect of allowing readers to explore how stories — saints and spirits — can shape physical events — the blood, gore and battles of history.
A book like this, both approachable and profound, could not come at a better moment. When you can imagine China’s history with foreigners this way, it becomes very difficult to oversimplify the mix of views Chinese people might have today about their spectacular entrance onto the world stage.
Gene Luen Yang spoke with the “China Blog” about Asian and Asian American identity and how people come to embody their stories, and the empathy he felt while investigating the Boxer Rebellion.
Shah: [One of your earlier books] American Born Chinese is about identity and stereotypes in a head-on sort of way. Is Boxers & Saints also about understanding identity?
Yang: I think so. Both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints come from the same root. Issues of identity and how people construct identities for themselves really interest me. Specifically, I’m really interested in the way people who are caught in between cultures end up negotiating for themselves.
In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church that still meets in the San Francisco Bay Area. My home church was really excited about these canonizations because this was the first time that this deeply western church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way.
When I looked into the lives of these saints, many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion and their canonization was actually very controversial. The Chinese government issued a letter of protest to the Vatican saying that the Roman Catholic Church was honoring people who had betrayed their Chinese culture. That tension between eastern and western world views and how they existed within the same community, within these Chinese Catholic communities, really interested me.
Shah: If the impetus for your interest in the Boxer Rebellion was the canonization of these saints, how did you come to understand and get into the nuance of this complex event in history?
Yang: From what I’ve read, it seems like the Boxers went through different phases of how they were perceived. Immediately after their defeat, they were seen as backward groups who had succumbed to superstition. Once the Communist Revolution in China got underway, it seems like Communist leaders recast them as patriots, almost as people to be admired. Nowadays, it seems like most modern scholars see them as more complex figures. They embody both some xenophobia and also patriotism.
When I was reading about them, I just felt like their motivation was really understandable to me. It made a lot of sense. I had also read a little bit that compared the Boxer movement to Ghost Dancers here in America. Native American groups, when their cultures were under attack and they felt that they were dying as a people, they came up with this thing called Ghost Dancing. It was really similar to the Boxers, where they believed they could achieve mystical powers by going back to their roots and relying on their stories.
When it feels like a culture is existentially threatened, not just with defeat but with annihilation, these types of things come out. In one way, it’s an act of desperation. But it another way it’s like the stories of the culture embody themselves within these people. I was pretty fascinated by that idea as well.
Shah: Speaking of stories being embodied in people, how much has changed since you began creating graphic novels for representations of Asians?
Yang: I’ve been doing it for 15 years, which seems like a long time to me, but in terms of history it’s a blink of an eye. We’re in the midst of a developing Asian American culture. The term “Asian American” hasn’t been around for a long time. My parents, I don’t think, would call themselves Asian Americans. They call themselves Chinese Americans. It’s only pretty recently that we started thinking of ourselves as Asian Americans.
But there is an emerging Asian American culture where we are starting to tell our stories and make our own music. We’re starting to create a culture that is a subculture of American culture that draws heavily from Asian cultures but is distinct from the cultures of our parents and our grandparents.
Shah: When you starting working on American Born Chinese in 2000, do you think there would have been a market for a book like Boxers & Saints?
Yang: Maybe not. In 2000, it wasn’t just comics about Asian and Asian American issues that weren’t selling. Comics in general just weren’t selling. In the late ’90s, my friends and I would go to these comic book conventions and we’d listen to publishers and artists and authors talk about how we were about to see the death of the American comic book. Marvel Comics, which was — it still is — the biggest comic book company in American, was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. [They went into bankruptcy in 1996.] People were predicting that if they just blinked out of existence, it would take down the entire American comics infrastructure, that all of the comic stores in America would shut down. The ’90s overall were seen as good times, but within the comic book industry it was a little bit apocalyptic. People were predicting some pretty dire things.
To go from there to now, where every book store has a pretty substantial graphic novel section — where people know what a graphic novel is — it’s pretty remarkable. I do think that some of the reasons that happened are tied into Asian American issues. One of the reasons why comics revived was the growing popularity of Japanese culture in America. Japanese anime and comics, manga, became really popular. For a while, manga was the fastest growing section of the American book market.
It’s gotten to the point that nowadays, I’d say any cartoonist 30 or under draws in a heavily manga style. If you watch TV and look at the American-produced cartoons, like Avatar Last Airbender, which is a Nickelodeon production, and even the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, you can see heavy manga influence on the drawing styles. There’s a blend within modern American cartoon culture, both in animation and comics, of eastern and western styles. So there’s interest in both eastern and western cultures and the way they come together.
Boxers & Saints probably has benefitted from both those things, that comics are no longer a dead media and that there’s this interest now in Asian cultures.
Shah: For people who are interested in China’s history, what’s your number one Boxer Rebellion book?
Yang: The one that I relied on most heavily when I was doing my book? It was Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick. That was the only one that really took the Chinese side. There were other ones out there but it seems like they were always either mixed in terms of their perspectives or they were heavily European and American. Esherick’s had the most fascinating little details too.
There’s also another one by Ignatius Press that isn’t about the Boxer Rebellion in particular, but it’s called Christians in China. It talks about the movement of Western religion throughout Chinese history. That was helpful as well.
Angilee Shah is an editor and journalist. She co-edited Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (UC Press, 2012), a book of essays about everyday life in China. You can find her on Twitter @angshah.