Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembrance 58

In Issue 58 of Remembrance (in Chinese) , one of its editors Qizhi (Wu Di), who is also a historian, contrasts Western and Chinese standards and practices for writing history. Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, this very important historical volume most highly regarded by both Westerners and Chinese, would have been sentenced to death by academics in China, even in Hong Kong, says Qizhi.  And he is not talking about political issues. He is talking about academic criteria for historical books and argues that there is something very wrong with those in present day China.

Bu Weihua, in "On Several Problems with Mao's Last Revolution," points out a number of mistakes, inaccuracies and improprieties in that book while expressing admiration for its achievement.

Hao Jian provides a detailed analysis of the documentary Morning Sun, on its composition style, camera language, and moral principle.

Ran Yunfei, a well-known Chengdu blogger, reviews He Shu's new book Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》).

There are much more, including the news of a book by a woman author that lauds the Cultural Revolution (which really is news to me!).

If you can read Chinese, read this issue here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It Is the Moon Festival

Today is the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar – the Mid-Autumn Festival, what people here call "the moon festival."  If you look up at the moon tonight, chances are you'll find it the roundest, brightest of the year.  When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell us that if you place a basin of clear water under the moon on this day, you'll see the jade tree and the jade rabbit in it.  I tried, and I always saw a vague shape in shadow, which could be interpreted as almost anything. (Image from

Ancient Chinese poets seemed to have a special sentiment for the moon, as evidenced by numerous poems intoning it. One of the most well-known perhaps is Su Dongpo's "Shui Diao Ge Tou," in the form of Song ci, a rhymed verse composed of lines of three to seven characters which first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and reached its perfection in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). It was 934 years ago today that Su Dongpo wrote this classic masterpiece.

Many English translations exist, however none could convey to me the sentiments wafting through the Chinese words.  As an example, the following are three different translations of Su Dongpo's lines "人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺,此事古难全":

Men know joy and sorow, parting and reunion;
The moon lacks lustre, brightly shines; is al, is less.
Perfection was never easily come by.

  • As translated by Xu Zhongjie (1986):
The moon has weather that change,
Fine or foul; it wax and shine.
Mankind is sad at parting;
Happy at reunion again.
From the utmost ancient time,
Down to our own very days,
The imperfection of all things –
Has for ever been the case.

  • As translated by Yang Yixian etc (2001).:
For men the grief of parting, joy of reunion,
Just as the moon wanes and waxes, is bright or dim;
Always some flaw – and so it has been since of old.

All are fine translations, but whereas the Chinese sounds extraordinary, the English makes it dull.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language. This is the reason I almost never attempt to translate ancient poems – I simply can't get the succinct beauty, the exquisiteness, and the sonorous sound across.  An ancient Chinese poem can make my heart tremble, but an English translation of it never does.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language.

Some say a pictographic language is more primitive than an alphabetic one – or in other words, an alphabetic language is progress in civilization.  Mao seemed to agree with this.  I still remember a Mao quotation from my childhood: "Chinese language should go the common alphabetic direction of other countries in the world."  I am glad this did not happen.  I'm sure an alphabetic Chinese would never give me the joy and intimacy the square characters do.

I recently read a very enjoyable book, Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows. Her experience in learning the Chinese culture through learning the language – the frustration and triumph, the pain and pleasure, the questioning and understanding –  are presented from a refreshing angle, often surprisingly so to a native Chinese speaker like me. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's new to things Chinese.  In one of the chapters the author asks a legitimate question, "Why do the Chinese hang onto this difficult character-based writing system?" She points out its disadvantages: cumbersome, hard to learn, awkward to look up in dictionaries, etc.  She also recognizes its merits, mainly its historical and cultural significance.  I want to add a personal perspective:  I think Chinese is the richest language in the world.  For me, as probably for most Chinese, its merits clearly overweigh the inconveniences.  (As a native speaker I actually never felt the inconveniences anyway.)

Why then, you might ask, am I writing in English now?  In fact several editors who interviewed me have asked that question. The answer is:  for communication.  I live among English speakers and I feel the need to communicate.  (If you want to know why I came to the US, the short answer is "for love."  Read the story here if you are interested.)  In other words, Chinese is a passion, English is a tool.  Today I still prefer to read Chinese books over English ones, and in fact I can read Chinese 30 times faster.

It is a pain to love one language and use another in daily life. It causes a schism in my consciousness.  But that's imperfection of life, and I accept it.  Su Dongpo has said it, 此事古难全.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

To Remember or Not to Remember

Issue 57 of Remembrance (in Chinese) arrived yesterday, on the second anniversary of this important e-journal.  The current issue focuses on the “one crackdown, three counterings” (一打三反) campaign that took place in  1970, during which a large number of innocent people and young thinkers with dissident thoughts were executed, including the extraordinary 27-year-old  Yu Luoke.  Today few young people in China are aware of this dark time when words and thoughts cost one’s life.

The first article in this issue by Wang Rui is titled “Zhou Enlai and the ‘One Crackdown, Three Counterings’ Campaign,” claiming it was Zhou Enlai, not Mao Zedong, who launched this cruel campaign. Another article, titled “The 40th Anniversary Memorial of Nanjing’s March 6 Public Verdict” by Fang Zifen, gives a heart-wrenching eye-witness account of the tragic day four decades ago, when 11 “counter-revolutionaries”  were given a sudden death verdict in public and executed on the spot, with 100,000 people looking on.  The execution was so abrupt and unexpected that the families of the victims had no means to collect the ashes, which were then forever lost.  A decade later, every case was overturned – 100% wrongly executed. This is the city well known for "The Rape of Nanjing."  “Now every year on December 13, Chinese mourn with deep grief those countrymen killed in the [1937] Japanese massacre, but for unknown reasons the victims of the smaller massacre on March 6, 1970 are gradually forgotten. Not me!” – The author writes. He was one of the more fortunate victims that day, getting only a life sentence.

Fang’s lamenting reminds me of a conversation I had with a Japanese several years ago.  My sister and I were site-seeing Yunnan’s terraced fields around the time of the Spring Festival. One early morning we, like many other tourists, got up about 4 am trying to catch the spectacular sunrise.  In the dim dawn a luxury bus of Japanese tourists arrived at the cliff we were all standing atop. The sun did not rise, and somehow I got into a chat with the nice Japanese gentleman by my side, who looked to be in his sixties. He was carrying a set of expensive-looking cameras, and spoke fluent Chinese.  At the time the news had spread that the Japanese government erased from school textbooks any mention of their invasion of China during the 1930s-40s, and Chinese resentment of this was running high.  I don’t remember how we got to that topic, but at one point I said, either trying to explain the sentiment, or being provocative as sometimes a journalist would do , “Japanese did lots of bad things to Chinese during the Second World War, you know.” The man replied – to my complete surprise – “Chinese did lots of bad things to Chinese too. People do bad things everywhere.”

I was tongue-tied, for a moment didn’t know how to respond. In retrospect, I was upset not only because his tone was unapologetic but also because there was a slice of truth in his words.  Finally I said, “That does not excuse the Japanese atrocities.” “No it doesn’t,” he agreed.

Should the Chinese’s own killing be excused or forgotten, then?  The reality is, we’ll probably never see a public mourning of those innocent people killed by their government during the 1970s.

If you can read Chinese, read the new issue of Remembrance here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If You Can Read Chinese, Read This E-Journal

The new issue of Remembrance (<记忆>) continues to review  Mao’s Last Revolution (by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals; Chinese translation can be found here). The four articles in issues 55 and 56 discuss the book from different angles, with thoughtful comments and legitimate questions.  All are well worth reading.

Coincidentally, nearly two years ago, it was Michael Schoenhals who had this to say about the journal (阅读中文):
Remembrance (记忆, jiyi) is an electronic journal edited by Cultural Revolution historians in China in the May 4th tradition of the joint intellectual venture that does not so much put a premium on uniformity of opinion – and even less on common party political affiliation – as on a shared desire to explore a subject without prejudice in the pursuit of historical truth. ... The journal is a Chinese venture, but in the 21st century that no longer prevents it from being a globalized one.
Schoenhals nailed the main characteristic of the e-journal precisely: it is non-partisan and it is without prejudice. One can often find opposite opinions in feature articles and readers’ letters to the editor.  Meanwhile, the journal consistently provides high-quality research and well-written memoirs.  For anyone who is interested in learning about the true history of China’s Cultural Revolution, or contributing to the research, Remembrance is the one reliable place to go.

Another book discussed in the current issue is Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》) by He Shu, newly published (in Chinese) by Joint Publishing (H. K.). I’ve read He Shu’s articles on this topic before, and I believe his new book is a significant contribution to the CR research. It is a valuable book to possess and I certainly am going to buy it.

Remembrance is published every two weeks.  To manage in the reality of China’s internet censorship, the journal maintains a low-key, high-quality policy, and it does not have an official website in the mainland.  As such I volunteered (with the editors’ permission) to host the journal on my website. I will update every two weeks as soon as the e-journal arrives in my inbox.

My only regret is that I don’t have the time to translate all the articles into English. Hopefully, as the journal content gets compiled into books, professional translations will also become available.  For now, those of you who can read Chinese have the clear advantage of “a waterside pavilion getting the moonlight first.”

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