Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interview on Writing Neuroses

Kay Sexton, a talented British writer, interviewed me for her blog Writing Neuroses ... mine are rare, yours may be legion, and also wrote a thoughtful review of my book. Kay asked very good questions which I enjoyed answering. Her first question is:
Apologies Forthcoming has a central theme, or perhaps a central reef onto which all the stories are somehow driven - and that theme is the Cultural Revolution and its effects on Chinese society. Many Westerners, myself included, have had a one-sided view of this amazing social phenomenon. How much did it affect you, growing up in China?
Read the complete interview here.

"Five Star Literary Stories"

If you are interested in reading short stories, there is a very good website that you can turn to. The Five Star Literary Stories website, hosted by T. J. Forrester, puts a selection of stories together in a comprehensive and continuous manner. It not only reprints excellent stories recommended by editors of on-line literary magazines, but accompanying each story are also comments from the recommending editor and a detailed review from another writer. So far the site has published 25 stories and reviews, and the number will continue to grow. Because the stories are selected from a variety of magazines and reviewed by a variety of writers, the selection has a rare breadth of taste. I'm sure you can find something to your own liking. Enjoy the latest post on Five Star Literary Stories.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bailing Out the Leaky Boat

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

(Photo by nikok)

Everyone keeps talking about the bailout, but it is interesting to me that nobody continues with the analogy to talk about the leaks in the boat. On the water, when you bail out a boat because something has gone wrong, it only makes sense to do so if you can get the water out faster than it is coming in. If that is the case, you get to keep bailing until the boat gets to shore, or it can be repaired. So, if we are going to have to keep bailing in order to forestall catastrophe, the real question people should be asking is how long that 700 billion will last.

On and off over my lifetime I, like many other people with a background in economics, have spent a great deal of time thinking about the great depression, its causes and ways it might have been avoided, even the desirability of avoiding it. On the financial side, some of these are obvious and fairly well understood. Large scale insider trading, which was business as usual at the time, loose credit, and a general adolescent feeling of invulnerability caused a remarkable run up in stock prices that eventually collapsed. On the real side – what politicians are calling Main Street these days – things are a lot more muddy, a funny thing in a time we associate with the dust bowl. While there is some consensus that there was not enough demand to keep up economic activity, why is not so obvious. Some say there was simply not enough money. Others point to a disconnect between what America was tooled to produce, and what people wanted.

The bailout is, to my mind, an absolutely fascinating, and incredibly expensive, test of the theory that there was not enough money. A long time ago, back when Paul Volker was heading the Fed, there was a great headline in the wall street journal that read something like “What happens if you throw a credit crunch and nobody comes?” The reigning assumption then, as now, was that easing credit will allow people and businesses to borrow money and get things moving. But really, beyond a few anecdotal assertions, there has not been much evidence presented that those who want to borrow money can’t. Just listening to the radio, and the ads from banks that want to lend me money, seems to suggest otherwise to my simple mind. If credit is eased, and still nobody borrows, what then?

While people in America are painfully aware that the price of gasoline is high, all of the talk is about how to make it lower. Almost nobody wants to acknowledge even the possibility that there is a new game afoot. But what if it is just that, a new game, rather than the turmoil in the financial markets, that is really driving down Main Street. What if, what we are feeling now, is the fundamental mismatch between and unlimited ability to consumer and a finite ability to produce. Mark Twain is often attributed with the saying “buy land they aren’t making any more of it,” and in his time others were buying people. Well guess what, they are still making people and in the world of supply and demand that means they should be getting cheaper.

Stepping out of slavery, all this boils down to less going into the hands of those that do the work. While this effect can be lessened, potentially even avoided, by rapid changes in technology, there is no guarantee, or evidence, that this will be sustained. In fact, if you look at the last 20 years in America, the amount earned by most people has not allowed them to lead increasingly better lives. More ironically, if you look at China over the same period, land is probably the single biggest factor in concentrating the wealth into a tiny fraction of the population. It is ironic, because the land was socialized when the communists took over precisely in order to prevent that.

So perhaps the bailout can be paid for by the Chinese who are now rich because land, in fixed supply, is getting progressively more expensive while labor, with unlimited supply, is relatively cheaper and thus Wall Street can keep itself intact while the residents on Main Street and Renmin Road work their butts off just to survive.

A postscript on this. After reading through the proposed bailout bill, the whole activity is being put under the acronym TARP for Troubled Asset Recovery Program. I am not sure if the new metaphor is intentional. But if it is, apparently those in the know think all of this is simply the result of too much rain, and has nothing to do with a leaking boat. Funny though, I did not see anyone named Noah involved in writing the bill.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Dark Matter

Orville Schell's essay "China: Humiliation & the Olympics" in the New York Review of Books is well-researched, informative, and insightful, one with rare high quality. However, it is a pity that even such a serious China scholar was at times unable to break away from his own presumptions. Just as I was immersed in his eloquent analysis of the way China's historical humiliation by foreign powers shaped the country's modern identity, and brought forth extreme nationalistic sentiment visible today, something in the following passage stuck in my eye:

What was surprising was that many of the most indignant counterdemonstrators were young Chinese, born during the post-Mao era. Better educated and more worldly than older Chinese, one might have expected them to have been exempt from the China-as-victim syndrome. But, perhaps because they, too, were products of the Party's propaganda, many of them have turned out every bit as nationalistic, perhaps even more so, than their elders.[*]

Then, as if an after-thought, Schell hesitantly adds a footnote:

[*] Daniel A. Bell's China's New Confucianism, an account of teaching at elite Tsing-hua University, where classroom discourse has proven far more open and students far more reflective, reminds us that not all Chinese students are xenophobes.

While I must give him credit for including this footnote, Schell's convenient presumption that today's students in China are as much products of the Party's propaganda as earlier generations lacks a basis in reality. Apparently, he was very familiar with China in the 1970s, and many of the then-concepts got stuck in his mind as immutable. I visit China every year and talk to all sorts of people, including college students. They appear very well connected to the outside world and not at all as xenophobic as Americans imagine. Their nationalism has a lot more to do with the good economy they enjoy than Party propaganda.

Of course, Schell is not alone. As recent as last week, during the Q&A session of a book event, a woman asked me, "Do the Chinese know about things outside their country?" "Oh yeah," I replied. Such a question came often, and it is understandable, and reasonable, when it comes from someone who doesn't follow China regularly. But it is a bit disappointing to hear it from an expert like Schell, or the BBC anchor who said, "How did they even know we have biases? The Chinese government blocked us!"

Which reminds me last summer when I toured a mountain in Sichuan, an old peasant lady sitting under a tree asked me, "Are you from the city? Do you have trees there?"

If you skip this small disappointing spot, Schell's essay is well worth reading. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the Chinese people's cultural insecurity caused by the continuous "large-scale, but never definitive, makeovers" occurring in China during the 20th century. Coincidentally, a few days ago when I gave a talk at the Harvard Coop, an American man who had lived in Taiwan for several years told me that the Taiwanese are the most culturally secure people in the world, with no identity issues at all. The reason? The Taiwan Chinese, while deeply rooted in the five-thousand years of rich culture, didn't experience any of the upheavals of the mainland each rejecting the concepts of its predecessor. A very interesting observation.

By the way, Schell's article makes me really want to see Dark Matter. If any of you have seen the movie, would you please tell me what you think of it?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another Review of "The Man on Mao's Right"

This review, "China's Tell-Nothing Ethos" by Foster Winans, made some reasonable points in his rebuttal to Nathan. I also found it amusing that a "reader" who did not read the book nonetheless chose to criticize it. One of those weird things.

"Books for Barack"

A writer's innovative, and successful, approach to fundraising for Obama through other writers' donation of books: "Books for Barack."

A review of "The Man on Mao's Right"

From Memory Writers Network by Jerry Waxler: "Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ideology or Not?

In response to my Friday post "Why Does China Have a Morality Crisis?" a blogger named Demin says in "What do we need? A new ideology?":

But what I know is that, you can take hold of an ideology, but you can't take hold of people's inner conscience. I would say, conscience is the last area of a living soul. It is always free. All we need to do is to choose: honestly accept this freedom, or pretend that we can control it.

He obviously does not think people in China need any ideology whatsoever. He is not alone. Some comments below my Friday post reflected a similar sentiment. Wuming, for example, commented:

I am not sure the lack of a dominant ideology is a bad thing at all. The last 30 years of China is a repudiation of the revolutionary ideologies of the first 30 years of the communist rule. I think we Chinese are quite allergic to at this kind of political ideologies.

Well said. I must say Wuming's comment resonates with me on the personal level. I had been a sincere believer in communism during my childhood and youth – not much different than the way an American child from a devout Christian family becomes a sincere church goer. But my re-education in the countryside after high school changed all that. For a number of years after I abandoned communism, I felt a sort of spiritual barrenness, as if my soul no longer had a settling place. On the other hand the breach of a deep belief was like the most effective vaccination – nothing could make me a believer again. And after a while I got used to my incorrigible soul.

But, away from the personal, what about at the society level? Does a society need an ideology or not?

Recently, after my book was published, I found it interesting many interviewers took notice on the following passage, a question asked by a character in one of my stories:

"Which is better: to have a false belief and be content, or to break the false belief and be empty?"

And readers too. People asked me about this passage on various occasions. Evidently, this character's question touched on a common concern. Yet I don't think as the author I have a sure answer to it.

A novel I read years ago, The White Mandarin by Dan Sherman, made interesting observations on what had led to the defeat of the Chinese Nationalists (or KMT) by the Communists in 1949. Among other things, one reason identified was that the Communists provided Chinese intellectuals an ideology that was lacking in the Nationalist's appeal. I think this is a pertinent point. The experience of my parents and their friends who joined the eastern Sichuan underground CCP in the 1940s and risked their lives for the communist revolution is proof of that.

On a related note, a few years ago in an on-line writing forum I posted a question, or a hypothesis: what if no one believed a religion? What would the world be like then? Some American writers took offense and accused me of wanting to suppress religions. But, I asked again, what if no one wanted to believe in a religion? Then a writer pointed me to a book of academic research – the title of it now escapes me – which I did find and read. Based on biologic research, the book concluded that the need for a religion exists in human genes, which effectively destroyed the basis of my hypothesis.

Perhaps people like Wuming, Demin and I don't need a belief or religion to live well. But we are probably a small minority; many others do. Without a dominant and "legal" (I find this word very ironical here but nonetheless necessary) ideology or religion to hold a society's spirit, many will either get lost or seek refuge in a foolish cult like FLG.

More thoughts from you wise people?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chinese Black Humor

中国人在食品中完成了化学扫盲:从大米里我们认识了石蜡,从火腿里我们认识了敌敌畏,从咸鸭蛋、辣椒酱里我们认识了苏丹红,从火锅里我们认识了福尔马林, 从银耳、蜜枣里我们认识了硫磺,木耳中认识了硫酸铜,今天三鹿又让同胞知道了三聚氰胺的化学作用。

How do Chinese learn chemistry? We study our food:
We learn to recognize paraffin in rice,
to recognize DDVP (dichlorvos - an insecticide) in ham,
to recognize Sudan Red in salted duck eggs and hot pepper sauce,
to recognize formaldehyde in hot pot,
to recognize sulphur in tremella (yin er) and candied dates,
to recognize copper sulphate in edible fungus (mu er).
Today we learn the chemical effect of melamine from Sanlu milk.

外国人喝牛奶结实了,中国人喝牛奶结石了

Foreigners drink cow milk to be strong;
Chinese drink cow milk to have stones.

日本人口号: 一天一杯牛奶,振兴一个民族;
中国人口号:一天一杯牛奶,震惊一个民族!

Japanese slogan: a cup of milk a day, invigorate a nation;
Chinese slogan: a cup of milk a day, eviscerate a nation!

(Note: I'm not satisfied with the last translation. Improvement anyone?)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why Does China Have a Morality Crisis?

In the wake of the Sanlu melamine milk powder crisis, I can't help but recall the “dark-heart milk powder” incident four years ago. In a commentary published in January titled "China Has a Morality Crisis" I wrote:
China’s moral crisis exists not only in marriage, but also in business practices. A representative case is the so-called “dark-heart milk powder” incident. In April 2004, the media exposed an infant food business in Anhui Province that had been selling counterfeit milk powder causing the deaths of 13 babies and permanent illness in 171 others. The incident enraged the entire nation, but unfortunately it was not an isolated case.
Given the public outrage at the time, to be honest I did not expect the same calamity to repeat itself so soon and on an even bigger scale. While I'm glad to see a thorough investigation on China's entire dairy industry is taking place, punishment alone will not be sufficient.

A fundamental question begs to be answered: why is China having such a big scale morality crisis? I am reprinting a few more passages from the aforementioned article on this topic, just to cast a brick in order to attract jade.
The Chinese expression “quede” (缺德) , meaning “short of virtue,” used to be one of the most vicious insults in verbal arguments. Nowadays, the expression seems to have lost its admonishing power and has simply become a portrait of reality. Last year, a Chinese blogger cyber-named “David” attempted to analyze this. In his widely read article “Why have Chinese become ‘quede’ now?” he lists a few representative views on the Chinese moral sphere: all citizens worship money; no more baselines exist for minimal morality; today is the worst time of moral degeneration in China’s history; China should return to its traditional values.

“David” has his own ideas on the reasons behind the moral degeneration: while China imports the Western-style market economy, it fails to establish corresponding ethics, and the traditional Chinese moral principles no longer apply in the completely new economy. He recommends Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” but fails to suggest how to carry out such a theory.

An influential contemporary Confucian, Jiang Qing, has a more appealing proposal. To him the essential problem is the lack of state ideology and a corresponding political system. Since the Cultural Revolution led to the self-destruction of Communism, that once ideological monopoly has lost its past aureole, and common Chinese have been unable to find the ultimate meaning and value for their individual lives.

“The problem isn’t that people don’t follow moral standards; the problem is that there no longer exist moral standards,” says Jiang Qing. He attributes the loss of morality to five decades of atrophy under Communist political power, plus two decades of corrosion under the money and wealth brought by the Western market economy.

After many years of research and various attempts at commitment to promising ideologies, including Christianity and Buddhism, Jiang Qing concludes that Confucianism is the only ideological solution for Chinese people. He and his followers are pushing to restore Confucianism as China’s state ideology. There are signs that China’s national leaders are also increasingly promoting Confucianism, albeit for considerations different from Jiang Qing’s. How far the government is willing to go in this direction remains a big question.
My question remains: to reestablish moral standards that have binding power, does China need a new ideological system, or the rebirth of an old one such as Confucianism? I'm not really a fan of any institutional religions, but it seems to me a healthy society does require some sort of shared ideological system to hold it together.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Discussion on Out of Mao's Shadow

I'm reading Philip Pan's Out of Mao's Shadow between my book events, and enjoying it very much. The book is extremely well written and interesting to read. I do have questions, which I will raise in this space if I haven't found answers when I finish.

For now, anyone who is interested in the relationship between China's economic growth and its political future might want to take a look at the discussion that took place on TPMCafe Book Club. Note: read the posts from bottom up.

"Anger as China Quake Donations Left Sitting in Bank"

Read this in the Epoch Times. I surely hope my donation has long reached the quake area.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jack He and the Media: Running in Circles

(image from secretchina.com)

In February of this year I analyzed the case of Anna Mae He with sympathy to the He family and hoped their return to China would bring peace to the young girl. After my article was published on New America Media, one of the reader emails I received was from Ann Marie Curling, who had been corresponding with the He family. "I find him a very charming and kind man. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance," Ms. Curling commented on Jack He (贺绍强) in her email to me. In the next email she mentioned that she might be contacting me for help on one thing on that subject in the next week or so, "with Mr. He's permission of course."

Half a year later, one day in August while I browsed the Chinese oversea students and immigrants forum, mitbbs.com, I was surprised to see a post that reprinted a report from wmctv.com, "Anna Mae He: Coming Home?" That Chinese post itself was titled "给挺贺绍强的爱国人士一记耳光" – A slap on the face of patriotic supporters of He Shaoqiang [Jack He]. Under the post were quite a few comments that derided Jack He's "shameless" behavior. (Now the link to that post no longer works.)

If memory serves me right, early this year when the He family was about to leave for China, Jack He said in an interview that he would never return to the US again. I had thought that vow was a bit too dramatic, but I certainly did not expect him to change face so soon. After reading the wmctv report and watching the video, I shook my head at Jack He's plea for help to bring his family back to the US. There is a Chinese adage ‘事不过三’ – nothing passes the third time. First Jack He solicited the Bakers' help to raise his daughter, which led to a seven-year lawsuit between the two families; second Jack He plead for, and received, the American Chinese community's help to finance his lawsuit, which he eventually won while the Bakers who got no outside support went bankrupt; now, the third time, Jack He is pleading for help from his American sympathizers so he can return. Whether to return to America is his personal choice, but why he has to get a lot of people to open their purses time and again, that's beyond me. Apparently generosity from kind hearts can also feed greed.

Still, at the time I regarded what Jack He was doing as an individual affair. Just as I thought my personal curiosity was waning on this subject, two weeks ago the Chinese Y-Weekend interview brought another twist to the case, in which Jack He categorically announced that "I definitely don't want to return to the US." Despite the interviewer's obvious reservations on Jack He's accusations against the wmctv report, the published interview is nonetheless titled 美媒扭曲报道"贺梅回国" – American media's distorted report "Anna Mae He: Coming Home". In the interview Jack He denied his own words broadcast in the wmctv video, however he was hardly consistent or convincing in doing so: at first, under the interviewer's persistent questioning, Jack He admitted that he did say it was a mistake to bring Anna Mae back to China in a hurry; a moment later he changed his words, saying the word "mistake" was used when he was talking about Anna Mae's entering an international school, not about her returning to China.

On the other hand, Jack He's criticism of Americans as "megalomaniacs" and "psychologically unbalanced" could easily resonate with many Chinese. "In their [Americans'] eyes," Jack He said, "America is the best in the world. Everything America does is good. Any thought different from theirs is wrong. … They think they are considering [my] kids' interest; in fact the interest is according to their standard." There is a bit of truth in this, but he applied the criticism to the wrong reporter and I think he knew that.

Two days after the Y-Weekend interview appeared, a journalist blog in Memphis titled Mediaverse published a partial English translation of the Chinese interview and a response from wmctv's reporter, Brook Sanders, who did the story "Anna Mae He: Coming Home?" Sanders said,

Since our most recent story, Anna Mae Coming Home, Mr. He has contacted me several times requesting help to return to the US, even asking me to get the show "Friends" on dvd so that he may use it as a tool to teach English.

Meanwhile, on September 11th, Chinanews.com published a commentary titled "看美媒如何导演罗生门" or "Look How American Media Directed Rashomon", in which the commentator claims that, after reading the Y-Weekend interview, he found the wmctv video indeed had traces of editing and agenda setting. The article, in turn, echoed Jack He's accusation of how "American media" distorted the story and on purposely changed the complaint about an international school to the complaint about the country (China).

At this point it occurred to me, now that the media in two of the world's largest countries were running in circles painted by one man named Jack He, or He Shaoqiang, the case no longer belongs to the category of personal life style choice. Rather I wanted to know what was really going on, and who was reporting it correctly. I decided to contact Ann Marie Curling again in search for the truth.

And here is one of Ms. Curling's emails (quoted with permission) in response to my question whether it is true that Jack He was trying to bring his family back to the US:

"Well, according to the latest news story out of China he denies ever trying to do that. But, what I find very strange is that he contacted me twice within the past two months begging for my assistance to do just that. So I put out feelers all over the internet contacts that I know, etc. Even searched for people in Memphis through my LinkedIn contacts. Now he's saying that some reporter took what he said out of context which is so incredibly pretentious because that's indeed what he was trying to get me to assist him with. It's all strange, I think in some ways that Jack He loves the limelight. In another email he asked me to purchase DVDs for him so he could play them on his computer since the ones he gets over there don't work on his American computer. I don't know what to think of him truthfully."

Consequently, Ms. Curling forwarded me her email correspondences with Jack He, who wrote Ms. Curling 5 times between June 3rd and August 4th. In four of his emails Jack He requested Ms. Curling's help to return to USA, which she did try, and one email requested that she buy him DVDs of the TV series "Friends." She told him that it would cost her a lot of money in shipping, etc, and she wasn't sure what to get. She never got another response on that subject.

I must point out that Jack He did express his motivation as the concern of his American-born kids. In one of his emails, Jack He wrote: "My kids miss USA very much, and they don't have the peace of mind in China. Please help us return." Judging from those emails, I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his concern for the kids.

However such genuineness was all lost when he lied to the Y-Weekend reporter by betraying his American sympathizers, including Brook Sanders and Ms. Curling. This way he effectively burned the bridge for his kids to return to the US.

Ms. Curling later wrote me again: "The more I think about this now (that you’ve brought it to my attention again) this guy is definitely a media hog. It just doesn’t make sense to me. How he would say that a reporter is mischaracterizing what he said when he was actively asking me to help him find work in the US. It just doesn’t jive."

Jack He's motivations for lying could be anything; it could be for media attention, or for saving face (as Mediaverse reasoned), or even for fear of practical or political consequences. But at this point I'm less interested in that than in how he has so easily fooled the media – apparently reporters in both countries had bought into his sincerity.

The answer seems: by combining lies and truth. When part of what he says rings true, we tend to believe in the entire thing and ignore the false part. We believe what we want. For Americans, and American reporters, it is obvious he should want to return. For Chinese, and Chinese reporters, it is obvious he should want to stay. What he really wants, who knows, but we should not give much credence to the words he says, much less tie his words to our feelings toward either country.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What A Free Life

A Free Life by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 672 pages, $26
(cover image from Amazon.com)

A book review by Xujun Eberlein

A couple of weeks ago a Chinese friend – an IT professional and an avid reader of fiction – dropped by and saw Ha Jin's A Free Life open on my kitchen table. "I couldn't even pass 30 pages," she commented on the 670-page novel. When I asked why, she said, "It lacks taste - no salt, no flavor (无盐无味)."

I could hardly blame her. I missed the days when I immersed myself in Waiting, which has one of the most captivating openings of all novels: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." What a smart opening line! When the reoccurring time modifier "every summer" is applied to the singular action of divorcing one wife, you sense a great yet subtle emotional drama ahead. That opening not only whets the reader's appetite but also provides the fundamental key to the entire story. And I was never disappointed as I was drawn in the beautiful language and emotional depth of Waiting.

But gone is the beautiful language; gone is the emotional depth. The now Ha Jin is no longer the then Ha Jin.

"I honestly wanted to write a letter to tell Ha Jin – you need an editor!" my friend later added another comment on A Free Life.

I had started reading several months ago with the intention of writing a thorough review. Soon I found it hard to will myself to turn the page. I don't believe in reviewing without finishing a book, and I had every intention of writing a positive review. Perhaps the book would get more interesting next page, I kept telling myself.

To make the laborious reading a bit more bearable, I placed the book in a fixed position on my kitchen table and set my eyes upon it for 15-20 minutes every day while eating lunch. It took me three months of eating to finish reading the book. When the obligation finally ended, it came as a true relief.

As I began to pen a review, I realized there weren't many positive things I could say. What could I praise, really? That at least half of the 670 pages could have been easily cut? That after a while you got eye sore seeing Nan Wu's bad pronunciation such as "zer" and "zat" repeated on every page? That, after you've read four or five of Ha Jin's novels, you finally realized all his male protagonists have exactly the same weak boring personality, as if cast from the same mold despite different names, and you began to wonder if the author is capable of creating anything new? That when he uses the same sentence pattern such as "if only he had…" on every other page, you can't help but wish if only the famous author were able to write with a bit more sentence variety? And if only the characters had not been so flat and fragmented, and if only the plot had not been so dreary…

Two questions have been bothering me since I finished reading the book two nights ago. One, why such deterioration in Ha Jin's writing? Two, what made the characterization in A Free Life a failure?

I suspect the answer to the first question is a simple one: success has overwhelmed the author. In A Free Life Nan Wu, the protagonist, thought of an artist friend's new work: "They reminded Nan of a Chinese buffet that offered numerous choices, none of which was refined or sumptuous. Obviously Bao,cashing in his own success, had diffused his energy and lost his creative center." How ironical that Ha Jin wrote this passage.

And the characters in A Free Life – "none of which was refined."

Years ago a writer friend recommended the National Book Prize winner Three Junes by Julia Glass to me. I asked my friend why she liked the book. She gave that some thought and answered, "I just really cared about Paul." Paul McLeod is one of the main characters in Three Junes. I thought that was an excellent reason.

Borrowing my friend's reasoning, A Free Life failed to make me care about any of the characters. Using the author's own words on a character's paintings, "They don't have enough life in them." You would've thought 670 pages would provide enough space for in-depth characterization, especially when the entire book is focused on one man.

The protagonist, Nan Wu, is a boring yet judgmental and selfish character who does not love anyone in his family – not his parents, not his wife, not his son. And there is no friend he doesn't disdain in someway. But a character full of flaws is not the problem. My own characters are full of flaws. The problem occurs when Ha Jin tries to make Nan Wu a more sympathetic character than he actually is, and provides justifications for him on conceptual basis rather than using in-depth depiction. In the novel Nan Wu is artificially given high moral grounds: despite his unloving nature, he is dutiful to his family; despite his indifference to anything but his own desires, he chose to make "honest living" by running a restaurant; despite his deep grudge toward his native China, he maintains the traditional Chinese virtue by being a responsible family man. Those high moral grounds, however, come without roots or basis and thus are not convincing.

And consistent with the protagonist's self-centered characteristics, none of the supporting characters are shown with any depth. All fall flat to the floor.

It's not that Ha Jin did not have a chance. There is one powerful scene, the only one that actually touched me. After Nan Wu had beaten up his young son he became ashamed and asked the boy to call police to arrest him for child-abuse. The boy refuses by holding the telephone tight while crying. Reading that scene made me want to know more about the boy and his true feelings toward his father, however the boy virtually disappears from Nan Wu's (thus the author's) sight and thoughts after that. Then, when the author mentions the son again in passing, the boy has become a remarkably good young man. Except we readers are deprived of the joy of knowing how that has happened.

A Free Life has been named by reviewers as Ha Jin's most autobiographic novel. Ha Jin has also mentioned in various speeches that much of the details, with the exception of the restaurant experience, are based on his own life. The author's motivation to justify Nan Wu is, thus, somewhat explicable. However, one would expect an accomplished novelist like Ha Jin to know better than to impose forced virtues on a flawed character. As a result, even though most of the details of Nan Wu's life ring true, the character is dead flat. As another friend commented, "Nan Wu is selfish, yet not selfish enough to be interesting."

A final note just for your amusement: Last November, the New York Times Sunday Book Review published an article titled "Pleased to be Here," which hailed A Free Life as "a serious patriotic novel." What an honor. Not even the young Chinese immigrants who died as US marines in Iraq had ever received such praise. That review opens with the following passage in a tone of somewhat baffled pleasure:

In the dispiriting age of Bush and Britney, with our military still bogged down in Baghdad and our media still bewitched by Beverly Hills, an accomplished, respected American writer (a recent National Book Award Winner, in fact) has published a serious patriotic novel. Its title, “A Free Life,” is not altogether ironic.

The reviewer's baffled pleasure becomes more understandable after you read a character's assertion – apparently echoed by Nan Wu and Ha Jin throughout the novel – that "China has run out of strength. It's already rotten to the core."

Does anyone think it is a bit too soon to declare the rotten death of China?

By the way, among the nearly uniform odes from the media, I found one dissenting voice: "Tongue-tied: Neither the author nor the protagonist in 'A Free Life' has what it takes." And I hope my own view above also helps a bit on balance.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Gay Tibet on Gay Beijing

A reader pointed me to the blog China Book Reviews and led my joyful discovery of a (seemingly unlikely) "colleague" of some sort. Jason Lee's latest review is on James West's Beijing Blur, which describes Beijing's gay scene. A well written review. You should also read the comments under it. It's kind of amusing that a Chinese shouted "only you westerners and sickos attracted to gay books. stop polluting our china!" (Is "li" a real person? I can't believe anyone is still so ignorant out there.) But it gets even more interesting when a reader named "Gay Tibet" turned the discussion around to Tibet topics, topics that we outsiders kept arguing about without any real basis. So we may as well read and listen to some first-hand observations, and see the complexity.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"When masses cast the classics"

An interesting discussion on the new, 50-episode TV serial adaptation of the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦):

"Sometimes producers are too literal and don't bother with originality and respectful updating. Sometimes they don't show enough respect to the originals and create parodies." Read the English report in Shanghai Daily.

Chinese Classic Now a Game

Cool. This is the first time I've ever heard that Three Kingdoms is made into a game, let alone in the West -- read Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI review (PC).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Olympics Aftermath: Food Animosity

After that remarkable description of the wonders of Olympic Beijing in my sister's letter, it was a bit of a shock to hear a medalist calling the Chinese people "sh*ts." The latest gripe came from a departing athlete. Wind surfing bronze medalist Shahar Zubari from Israel said about Chinese that "They don't speak the language..." An odd thing to say since everyone in China speaks the language, but perhaps he meant Hebrew.

Shahar Zubari's comment is certainly harsh and small-minded. On the other hand he spoke a small truth when he said "I don't eat pig." If he eats beef, he should be fine. But if he is a vegetarian, I can see how it could have been problematic for him. Common Chinese (unless one happens to be a Buddhist) generally don't understand or appreciate vegetarians.

I don't know about the Olympic food, but last time when I brought my American-born daughter to China for a visit, food was one of the biggest problems for her. She has been a vegetarian since age twelve, apparently a fashionable thing among American kids and teenagers, and she takes it like a religion.

In Chengdu, the food heaven to Bob and me, our daughter had a hard time eating. She never trusted what she received, even when we specifically requested a dish without any animal product, even when we were in a American-brand restaurant (staffed by Chinese).

Once, a dish of meatless, egg-fried rice came garnished with chopped pork. To our inquiry the waitress replied, "Our chef said it won't taste good without any pork." Another time our daughter ordered an olive-and-pineapple pizza in a Pizza Hut in Chengdu. When it came, between sparsely sprinkled black olives and yellow pineapple slices lay large red circles of Italian sausage. Even in Buddhist temples, to her disgust, the food, while made of soy products, imitates the look of meat dishes.

Shahar Zubari's small-minded animosity notwithstanding, if China wants to be a worldly country, food variety is one important aspect to work on.

Just another ironic twist. The Israeli Olympic Committee Chair promised an apology, but the Chinese Embassy in Israel still canceled the planned reception.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Funny Business in China

Book review by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Business Republic of China
Tales from the front line of China’s new revolution
by Jack Leblanc
Blacksmith Books, 248 pages, HK$118 / US$14.95

What do an academically oriented young man from Belgium with an interest in physics and a dour middle aged party secretary at a pipe factory in China have in common? Well, neither has ever had a mortgage, any entrepreneurial experience, or anything in the way of material well being. Still both were positioned to prosper greatly in the miracle that has seen China go from a business backwater to one of the biggest players on the block.

Jack Leblanc’s book Business Republic of China: Tales from the front line of China’s new Revolution provides a superb coverage of the challenges, mysteries and sources of success or failure for foreigners doing business in China. Covering a period of almost two decades, it also gives some insight into ways in which business in China has grown up, or failed to, in that time. This is a light and entertaining book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about doing, or just observing, business in China.

There are two threads that run through Leblanc’s book. One is very intentional and in the forefront, and that is the vast cultural and practical differences that exist between business in China and business in more developed countries. The other thread, that is much more in the background, underlines what happens when you turn a substantively socialist country upside down and desperately try to hold some of the pieces in place. In short, there are two ways to do well in business in China. Be smart, or use connections.

Of course it never hurts to have both of these, but there is enough variety in the stories Leblanc tells that in most cases the dominance of one over the other does come out. Mr. Li, the motorcycle magnate, presumably the same person that Ted Koppel interviewed in The People's Republic of Capitalism, stands out as superbly capable. So does Mr. Zhang, the widget maker, who manages to buy the brand of the German make previously dominant in his market. On the other side, Ms. Luan, the party secretary turned public relations head mentioned above, and Smile, who got Leblanc into all of this in the first place demonstrate that connections can be enough.

The book itself is written up almost as a series of informal case studies. While the writing is not quite what could be called literary, several of the cases could belong to the mystery genre and I enjoyed greatly watching the cases unfold. Leblanc is called in to troubleshoot a number of joint ventures that have not worked out as expected. He typically starts by trying to get to know the management team on the Chinese half of the joint venture. He seems to be surprisingly successful in doing this, so I suspect he understates his own personal charm in the telling of his stories. Whether from frank conversation, or just checking to see how the numbers add up, he uncovers some interesting activities. The great delight is just how varied these activities are. I won’t spoil the endings by reveling them here, but the pipe factory, and a bottled water factory are especially interesting.

Still, my favorite chapter was actually the first, in which Leblanc goes to China to teach physics, and finds himself in the literature department. The description of his arrival in Beijing in 1989, is so reminiscent of my own arrival in China around the same period, that I couldn’t help but be touched. His ignorance of Chongqing, and the train ride from Beijing that took him there are also great introductions to China. Most important though, his lack of understanding of what was happening and the handling by his Chinese hosts is a compelling insight into what it felt like to be adrift in that land and time. Fortunately for me, I actually ended up teaching what I thought I would, but not so for Leblanc. The request that he teach English literature, his response to it, and his hosts reaction to that are both comical and telling.

His drift into business is unplanned, and does not seem particularly well executed. But that is the beauty of the story. Leblanc, like most Chinese at the time, did not really know what made sense, and just hoped for a good outcome. In this case he got one, making a big sale of European glass for a new hotel. From all appearances the result was largely luck, but may have been related to Leblanc’s own likability. Either because he did not have a real preconceptions of business, or because of a natural empathy, Leblanc learned early on to simply go along with the way people around him did things. That is an important lesson.

Not all of the mysteries facing a person doing business in China come from a deep cultural divide. Many of them rest on the simple ability to put yourselves in the shoes of the people you are talking with. Many people fail to do this. Leblanc, and almost all the honorable outsiders he worked with, were European. As an American it is nice to hear how people from those more civilized places would also make stupid self-centered assumptions about the way the world should work. In the end it is the person, not the place they come from. Perhaps western business rewards insensitive people, so that a disproportionate number of those trying to do business in China really don’t belong there.

My biggest complaint about the book is the continual reference to those from outside China as barbarians. The more idiomatic translation of the two most common terms used to refer to non-Chinese are “honorable outsider” and “foreign person.” It is true that both of these can, and often are, used derisively, but they are also used both affectionately and, most commonly, as simple monikers. Keep in mind that people from Shanghai make fun of people from Beijing, there is no shortage of outsiders.

All in all, I would have to say this book is both entertaining, and informative. It is not a complete guide to doing business in China and plainly says that. Still, it probably tells more about this subject in its few pages than many lengthier tomes. If, after reading it, you come away frustrated at how fickle, chaotic and unfathomable things can be in China you have learned a great lesson.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Red Cliff (赤壁) Does Laughter

There is a Chinese expression, 搞笑,whose direct translation is "do laughter." This expression, an infection from Hong Kong that did not exist on the mainland before China opened up in the 1980s, is often used to describe a ludicrous movie. Now the expression is applied to Red Cliff, the most expensive Asian-financed film to date.

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff reportedly cost US$80 million. As a fan of the classic novel Three Kingdoms, I was very eager to see what a difference such a big budget could make on a repeatedly filmed story. Adding to my eagerness was the fact that one of my favorite actors, Tony Leung, plays a starring role, Zhou Yu.

Because (a shortened version of) the movie for the US theaters will not be shown until early 2009, I called my sister in China and asked her to buy a Chinese DVD for me. It turned out she had just seen the movie. She used the expression "do laughter" when commenting on it. "Be prepared," she warned me.

I couldn't connect the notion of "do laughter" with the grand war scenes of Red Cliff. On the other hand, I have seen how some Hong Kong movies turned traditional imperial stories into jokes. Not having grown up with the Hong Kong culture though, these renderings could never make me laugh.

Impatient, I ended up buying the DVD from a Chinese online store in the US. As expected, there are grand battle scenes, which at times are too long. Toward the end, in a scene Zhu Geliang, the great war strategist, sent a pigeon into the enemy camp to extract information. The scenes of the enlarged flying bird obviously were computer-generated animation, which reminds me of Hollywood techniques used in fantasy movies such as "Lord of the Rings," not the least bit like ancient Chinese.

Yet copying Hollywood movie techniques is the least of the problems. The character Zhu Geliang, who is supposed to be the wisest, acted by Takeshi Kaneshiro, is way more handsome than intelligent – that is a bit more of a problem. In a battle preparation scene, the actor uses Zhu Geliang's signature goose feather fan – the symbol of wisdom – to cool a pigeon on a hot day as if the bird was sweating. Asked what he is doing, the gorgeous-looking actor (I refuse to connect him with Zhu Geliang) answers, "I need to keep cool." Silly behavior and language like this, which fill up the movie whenever it's not showing a drawn out battle scene, really are "doing laughter." My reading of audience reaction from the Chinese internet afterward confirmed this perception.

I of course have no objection to jocular treatment of any subject. The problem is that the director (and playwright) obviously did not mean to make the movie as a joke. The money, intent and effort were dead serious. Why it has resulted in such a laughable effect can only be explained by two things: one, the director and actors were unfamiliar with the history (I wonder if they have read any books about it other than the screenplay); two, with a long oral story-telling tradition of the Three Kingdoms, we Chinese audience can no longer accept a stupidification of historical figures. At least not Zhu Geliang!

I suppose the silliness in dialogues will be less a problem to American audiences. After all, the unintended effect might be lost in translation. Further, someone has made a wise decision to cut the length of the original film from 4 hours to 2½ for American theaters. I hope this will help improve the attractiveness of the battle scenes and also eliminate some "do-laughter" elements.


To be fair, there are also some creative and fun details in the movie, for example the association between a turtle's shell and Zhu Geliang's "eight trigram" battle formation. Zhou Yu, who was known in history to be proficient in music, stopped in the middle of training his army to tune a flute for a village boy. Still a bit overdone, but at least for a reason. And IMO Tony Leung did a better job acting Zhou Yu than Takeshi Kaneshiro acting Zhu Geliang, though my impression is that, judging by the two actors' appearances, switching their roles would better match our images of the historical figures. I heard that Tony was originally assigned the role of Zhu Geliang, but he refused, citing that he was not familiar with the role.

Overall I felt director John Woo had a tendency toward overkill, which resulted in humorless exaggeration in the acting. He needs to exercise a bit more control and incorporate a bit more subtlety next time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Two Sidneys in China

Read this interesting article (thanks to Aaron Gardiner who pointed me to it) about the two Sidneys (and two rivals) who had both participated in China's revolutions and lived nearly their whole lives in China.

I didn’t know anything about Sidney Shapiro before reading this article, but I had heard Sidney Rittenberg’s Chinese name Li Dunbai during my childhood and youth in China.

Three years ago, after reading Rittenberg’s book The Man Who Stayed Behind, I posted a review on Amazon. To my surprise, three months later, just before Christmas, I received an email – in Chinese – from Rittenberg, who not only read my review but also one of my short stories online. In his email with the subject "谢谢" (thank you), he called my review 公正 ("fair-minded") and generously praised my story "Second Encounter" as 诚实而深刻 ("honest and profound"). Rittenberg compared the story to He Dong’s Ask the Sun, also about the Cultural Revolution.

From our correspondence I learned that Rittenberg, already 84 years old in 2005, and his wife of 50 years, Wang Yulin, had been working as business and cultural consultants for several US companies doing business in China. The couple made business trips to China five or six times a year. “The reason I can still live healthily is largely due to my strong, outstanding and lovely wife,” Rittenberg wrote. I couldn’t help but admire this old couple. After all the tribulation, including 13 years in China’s prisons, Rittenberg seemed still full of hope and energy for life.

And again I highly recommend The Man Who Stayed Behind for anyone who’s interested in learning about China’s revolutions from the 1940s to 1970s.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Is this Beijing?"

by Maple Xu

[in translation]

My husband W and a friend H went to see the closing ceremony of the Olympics, and their conclusions were unusually uniform: it was fun and playful.

Zhang Yimou had put word out early on that the closing ceremony wouldn't have many performances; the goal was simply to delight and cheer the athletes, like throwing a huge party. So from the beginning W and H did not hold hope of seeing splendid performances. They just wanted to be there in person, to feel the ambience. 

They say the Olympic Village is big and beautiful, where one can spend days to tour around.

Though the closing ceremony was broadcast at 8 o'clock, on site the programs began about 6:00 pm, so-called "stage warm-up." Chen Peisi, Yang Lan, Zhou Tao etc. were performing. And, while the broadcast finished at 10:00 pm, on site people kept boisterous until after 11:00 pm - Chen Long, Liu Dehua and a bunch of Chinese singers bounced and sang.

 
As soon as W and H entered [the Bird's Nest], they were given a big bag of things: red-silk fan, rattle-drum, light-torch, national and Olympic flags, etc. Volunteers taught them how and when to use those things. After the ceremony began, volunteers led the audience play those props. One moment they shook the rattle-drum, the next they waved the toy torch. They even used the red-silk fan to form big waves. In short all the audience were kept busy, not sure if they were watching others perform, or others watching them.

Two days before W's trip, he had a leg problem. He boarded the plane with a bandaged leg. Unexpectedly, as soon as he boarded, he was invited to the first class cabin. After he landed in Beijing, volunteers held his arms to help him get on a taxi. When eating [in restaurants], he was exempted from waiting in line, and volunteers even made a special table for him. His impression of Beijing was that it was unusually pretty and tidy. Because traffic was strictly controlled, few cars or pedestrians could be seen on the streets. All ads that were irrelevant to Olympics had been removed. This clean-up resulted in a complete new face of the city, so much so it made him wonder – "Is this Beijing?"

And H the American Shanghaier even wondered "Is this China?" Because people in Beijing suddenly became super friendly, live Lei Fengs [a famous Samaritan] were everywhere on the streets, everyone's face was full of spring wind and wreathed in smiles, and our countrymen's usual numb, detached, or gloomy looks were completely wiped out. 

They both said that if you want to visit Beijing, it is the best time now. It is abnormally Heaven-like. I'm afraid that, after the Paralympics, everything will return to normal again.