Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China

My essay about social sci-fi in China and Chen Guanzhong's recent novel, China 2013, is now up on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. It seems to be getting quite a few reads. I've already gotten questions about an English translation of the book. It is not yet available; if you need further information about a translation, someone in this podcast, "Science Fiction in China," might know more than I do.
 
There was also a reader question as to whether Lao She's suicide was real or only an "official version" of the story. As far as I know, that is the fact. Lao She's son, Shu Yi (舒乙), has written many articles about his father's suicide; you can read one of them here (in Chinese).

If you are interested, here are some other English reviews of China 2013:
(Indeed there are different translations of the book title and even the author's name, the latter depending on whether Cantonese or Mandarin is in use for pronunciation.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lost in Translation: Chicken with Bones in Korea

by Bob Eberlein

(Time for something light. Bob is in Seoul attending the System Dynamics annual conference this week. He emailed me this and said, “Thought you would be amused.” And I was.  – Xujun)

Last night, I decided it would be good to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in Seoul as well as watch the town. So far, my experience this time had been limited to the conference hotel, the surrounding park and morning runs along the river. All of this was very pleasant, and it was fun to see all the Koreans out and moving around, but their direction was consistently purposeful. Not to get to someplace quickly, nor to explore some new area, but really to walk because they knew it would be good for them to do so. I applaud the sentiment and the devotion they have to their duty – I saw very few overweight people, at least till we got to the chicken with bones.

As I was leaving the hotel, I ran into a young man from India, who was also attending the conference. He suggested a good place to go, by subway, to do souvenir shopping. That sounded good and, when he suggested he might come along, I offered to buy him dinner.

So we set off on Seoul’s subway, a marvelously complicated contraption, and a few train changes later found ourselves in Myeong-dong, the shopping epicenter of Korea. Lots of stores, lots of street vendors and lots of people. Though some were walking with purpose, it was clear that purpose was not exercise. It was a new Seoul for me, and I like to think other parts of the city would be equally different.

After wandering a while and picking up a couple of souvenirs, we decided to look for dinner. The first place we looked at was pure Korean beef. Neither of us had objections, my friend’s Indian heritage notwithstanding, but neither did it really appeal. So we wandered a bit more, past an old woman who was selling things from the sea, which looked more like decorations than food to me, and came across a really crowded restaurant that had a picture that looked really good.

The crowding, it turns out, did not slow us down much. We watched as people ate, briefly paused to wipe their mouths, then abruptly stood up, paid and departed. While I have often noticed Chinese people being impatient to get up and out after a meal, I had never seen anything like this. I suspect it was the restaurant, and not just Korean culture at play here. This was a serious eating place and, if your weren’t eating, you just didn’t blend.

They sent us upstairs, sat us down and gave us a menu. It was all in Korean and the only things I could understand were the prices. There was a picture of something that looked delicious, but it was not obviously associated with anything on the menu. Soon, however, they brought out their “English” menu. In reality it was Korean, English and Chinese. The main entries were “chicken without bones” and “chicken with bones.” My rudimentary Chinese allowed me to figure out that there were two sizes, for 1-2 people and  for 3-4 people. The chicken without bones was a couple of dollars cheaper and this puzzled us. Wouldn’t it be more expensive to debone the chicken?

When the waiter returned we pointed to the picture, still not associated with any entry, and asked which one it was. We then pointed to the smaller size “chicken with bones” and ordered that, though neither of us was very fond of picking over bones. When it arrived, it included the chicken, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, potatoes and rice noodles all cooked up in a really nice, and somewhat spicy, sauce. Between the two of us we managed to finish about half the food that was there.

With the bones, it seems, comes an awful lot of seafood. That restaurant was, in fact, one of the few places I noticed a number of overweight people. Perhaps they were capable of finishing the serving size that was offered.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Speak of Motivation

People were asking why I had not commented on Wang Hui’s plagiarism scandal.  It’s not that I didn’t care. Truth is, I had selfish reasons for keeping silent.  The two recent open letters that stirred the water, one by Chinese scholars and the other by international scholars, have been dubbed as tit for tat, and I have friends in both camps of signatories.  Is my opinion on this more important than friendship?  For a while I was unsure. That was the main concern.  Another – somewhat petty – motivation was to steer clear of suspicion of personal grudge.

Not that I know Wang Hui personally.  Not really. I was a long-time reader of Du Shu (读书) magazine, and I liked it so much that I even subscribed from the US, which is quite expensive.  In my opinion it was during Wang Hui’s tenure as the editor that the magazine was the most interesting, thought provoking, and richest in content.  (With a different editor now, the magazine has become somewhat boring.)  I had always thought it’d be fun to chat with Wang Hui if there were a chance.

A few months ago, I attended the “Red Legacy in China” forum at Harvard University;   Wang Hui was one of the speakers. This was the first time I saw Wang Hui in person.  After the meeting, I went up to say Hello in the hallway.  I had already heard about his plagiarism scandal then, but I had no intention of mentioning it (and never did).  All I wanted to say was how much I enjoyed Du Shu under his editorship, with a slim hope for an intelligent conversation.

What I got was totally unexpected.  Wang Hui showed nothing but rudeness to me.  So much so that later Bob, who was waiting for me aside at the time, said, “Wow, that guy’s a real asshole. Either that, or he really needed to go to the bathroom.”

What was Wang Hui’s motivation for treating me, a stranger and a “fan” no less, so rudely?  Perhaps because he is too important to be polite to someone not as famous as he is?  Or maybe because I’m a Chinese, not an American who could be of more use to him?  (If so, he might be right about that.)  Of course, equally possible is that I just happened upon him at a bad moment, when he was too upset about the plagiarism accusation to behave normally.

Look, I have no basis to second guess his motivation. I simply don’t know him well enough, so what happened in the halls of Harvard is moot.  Though my personal impression of him was crashed by that brief encounter, my conscience tells me as a writer I shouldn’t allow the unpleasant experience to dictate my opinions on his plagiarism accusations.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the support letter from the eighty-some international scholars suggests that Wang Hui is the victim of “unmotivated attacks from the media culture” and that “ordinary cultural politics inside the university are criminalized.”  A signatory believes that “the ‘real reason’ Wang Hui came under attack was his political opinions.”

This is certainly possible, but again I don’t have enough evidence to verify it.  As such I decided to ask a friend, a signatory of the Chinese letter calling for an objective investigation, why he signed the letter.  Here is his answer:
[in translation]
“I know a letter like this may not do much, but I am too disgusted by current academic corruption and counterfeiting.  To make a small sound is still something.  I read the joint letter by the overseas scholars who support Wang Hui; [they] seem to be either Wang’s students or from the New Left?  Why does the left also play factionalism? Don’t they know what a thing China’s present-day universities really are?  In their letter they completely equate China’s universities to those in developed countries."
This friend, by the way, is not in any political faction, though at times he showed sympathy to the New Left. From our many years of acquaintance, he is an honest scholar who has my trust.  At least in his case as a signatory, there isn’t a political motivation.

Now, what is my opinion on Wang Hui’s plagiarism accusations? When first reading Wang Binbin’s article, I was put off by his unconcealed pleasure in finding a big target.  There is a Chinese saying, "Words are like the writer (文如其人)".  Judging from his writing style, Wang Binbin is not someone I would admire.  Given the history of Wang Binbin as I read from the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised if his motivation was more personal (fame-thirst?) than political.  Also, at least half of the evidences Wang Binbin provided against Wang Hui is pretty weak IMO.

This said, one or two of the pieces of evidence could be potentially damaging, not to mention that a couple of internet researchers have added more findings supporting the plagiarism charge.  Without reading Wang Hui’s dissertation/book, I can’t really make a confident judgment, but an objective investigation makes sense to me.  Motivations might not be measurable, plagiarism should be.  As the Chinese open letter says, if Wang Hui is innocent, the investigation could clear his name.  At a minimum, the investigation would help establish the academic norm (which is lacking in present China) against counterfeit work.  To ensure objectivity, the investigation committee should invite scholars from both sides (of the debate, and the Pacific).

To end this piece, I must say it was only after great hesitation that I wrote it, for the reasons mentioned earlier.  I’m an independent writer who refuses to get involved in any political parties, and I intend to keep this position for the rest of my life.  As such please do not place me in a particular camp. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Matchmaking Morality

I'd thought that enough was written about the matchmaking show "If you are not sincere" (also referred to as "If you are the one"), until I got the following questions from a reader: 
Why do you think these remarks set off such a firestorm? More than a half century ago Marilyn Monroe could sing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in Hays code Hollywood and no one got too upset. Are the woman's comments troubling to you? What do you think about the government move? Is it a noble effort to try to encourage virtue or a hopeless attempt to impose an ancient moral code?  Does the government have any role to play in shaping public morality?
Actually, I was equally curious about who in particular ordered the censorship.  Was it from some sanctimonious leaders in The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), or from higher authority of the Party central (e.g. Hu Jintao)? The latter possibility is certainly more worrisome.  I have written in this space before that the Party nowadays, though still active in political censorship, seemed to have left people's lifestyle issues alone. The return of such control is not a good sign.

Does the government have any role to play in shaping public morality? It certainly did in the Mao era.  Not only "shaping," the government (which was the Party itself) defined morality for the public and the public sincerely followed its rules. However, that sincerity largely came from people's belief in Communism.  This is to say, administrative command alone wouldn't have been so effective.  But Communism as practiced by Mao suppressed human nature (e.g., desire for a better material life) to an extreme and thus was doomed to be short lived. The destructive Cultural Revolution, in a sense, was a violent release of suppressed human nature.  Consequently, the belief in Communism collapsed after the CR.  Now the situation is that the administrative command may be obeyed, but not sincerely.  As an observant reader commented on my previous post, "The woman from the Party School is totally superfluous, and people on the show seem to be protesting silently."
 
The "mammonism" being scolded upon today is actually a consequence of an earlier notion of Deng Xiaoping's that "to be rich is glorious," which, to my understanding, was a  hypercorrection of Mao's collective-poverty policy.  Now the government seems to be quietly trying to re-correct Deng's correction, probably motivated by concerns about social unrest caused by the ever larger wealth gap.  But as long as the wealth gap exists, there's no way to eliminate the poor's desire to catch up the rich.  The censorship itself seems laughable and, without sincere beliefs to back it up, can only result in a new immorality of hypocrisy.  This is a post-Communist dilemma that the authority must deal with.  Stop issuing such stupid commands.  If you are sincere, do something about the wealth gap. 

I should also add that, from the pre-censorship episodes of the matchmaking show I've watched, I only saw two women (among hundreds) who openly placed wealth as the top criterion for choosing a mate.  Both were, from time to time, mocked by Meng Fei  and Le Jia in a good-natured way.  Most women apparently considered the men's character and personality first, and economic condition second (certainly not ignoring it).  One thing that particularly touches me is that the majority men and women have mentioned as a condition for a prospect mate:  "Be filial to my parents." You often hear a statement like "It's my biggest happiness to make my parents happy."  This is sincerity. This is morality with "Chinese characteristics." 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Aftermath of Matchmaking Censorship

Yesterday, a reader gave me a heads-up on a Washington Post article titled "TV matchmaking show runs afoul of China's morality campaign" by Keith B. Richburg, which came 20 days after I wrote about the same subject in this space.  It does not add much new, but other than a couple of minor inaccuracies (for example the half-misquote “rather cry in a BMW than ride a bicycle while laughing”), the writing is alright.

I don't know if the author knows Chinese, or if he has watched the show himself, but since his report came so much later, it would have been more informative if he included updates about the show after the censorship.  Because he didn't, I'll take the opportunity to tell you about a few of the most obvious changes.

One is that the program ("If you are not sincere" or "If you are the one," whichever way you like to call it) now has a Party School teacher, a middle-aged woman, sitting on the stage, next to the popular commentator Le Jia. Whether this was government imposed, or the program's way to add protection, I don't know (it is for Keith Richburg to find out :-)).  Her presence reminds me of the "model Beijing operas" during the Cultural Revolution – in those there was often a female Party representative who could do nothing wrong.  Not surprisingly, the show’s Party School teacher dresses sedately in a politically correct way.  And she does not display the emotional personality that Le Jia does.  To her credit, her words so far have not been as doctrinaire as I had expected, but they haven’t offered much insight either.  With her sitting there, I'm sure all the women guests will behave themselves, and hide some of their true sides.  Too bad the contestants still dress multifariously – I wonder why the government has not required them to wear the same outfit, for example only blue or green like we did during the Cultural Revolution.

Another change is that now none of the male guests is allowed to state his income.  How does this stop the "mammonism" repeatedly scolded about in the government instructions?  The contestants  avoid using the word "money," but not "cars" or "houses."  I'm afraid the government will have to issue another set of instructions to ban those words as well.

Yet another change is that more hero-like male guests are appearing on the stage.  A selfless professional rescuer who kept saying "It is my happiness to rescue people and state property" (he failed to take away his choice woman), and a Canton policeman coming to help the pretty single-mother (whose bad luck with the male guests had made Le Jia cry), for example.  Both professions appeared for the first time, Meng Fei announced. 

The government ordered the exclusion of actors and disallowed any scripted interactions in matchmaking shows.  But the most noticeable consequence of the new rules seems to be that everyone must do some acting now.  "If you are not sincere" has lost some of the spontaneity it had before.