Monday, January 31, 2011

Guest Blogging for James Fallows

This week I'll be a guest blogger for James Fallows at his Atlantic site, together with Bruce Holmes, Chuck Spinney, and Andrew Sprung. See James' intro here. An impressively diverse group, as James said, and I expect to see some very interesting posts. So please go check it out.

I'll be writing a series of 4-5 posts, one each day, congruently titled "Another Kind of American History in Chongqing."  I will link to the posts as they are published.  Stay tuned.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Innocent Lang Lang and the Hyper Internet

I haven't paid much attention to news these days, burying my head in writing. This morning, Bob, who was reading the Wall Street Journal, asked me if I knew what song Lang Lang had played at the White House's state dinner for Hu, and why it is regarded as anti-American. 

Surprised, I checked it out on the internet, in Chinese and English. I didn't for a second believe that Lang Lang had any hidden political intention, so the extent of internet and media reaction perplexed me. 

It is true that the song in question, "My Motherland," was the theme song of a Korean-War movie, which I watched more than once as a child. The song's music is melodious and up-beat, and I still sing it occasionally with Chinese friends when we gather. When I sing it, however, I am not conscious of its origin and political connotation (like you might when singing songs such as the Internationale). The lyrics of "My Motherland" are mostly scenic descriptions, with only one line indirectly nasty ("When a friend comes, there is fine wine / When a wolf comes, a hunting gun is waiting"). 

I'm sure many of you often have experiences like this: a familiar melody gives you the mood to hum it regardless of its origin or the meaning of the lyrics. As such I totally believe Lang Lang's explanation: "I selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody."

If anything, this incident shows Lang Lang's innocence as an artist.  He is neither cynical nor politically savvy.  Apparently he did not think of the song's political origin when he chose to play it, as that is not the first concern of an artist. 

This reminds me the movie "Farewell My Concubine," in which the leading role, an artist of Beijing Opera, willingly plays for a Japanese invader who loves his art. For this the artist is later deemed as a Chinese traitor and suffers gravely during the Cultural Revolution. Yet until his death he always placed his love for the art higher than politics, to quite naïve extent. This detail of the movie moved me enormously. The man's devotion to art is inseparable from his political naivety, as tragic as that is. And that's what is moving.

Those who extract political pleasure or resentment from Lang Lang's playing of "My Motherland," are savoring their own sentiment, not Lang Lang's. That is my conclusion anyway.

Did Lang Lang make a mistake by playing that song?  I don't think so.  I, for one, advocate an artist to choose whatever music he loves to play.

On a related note, some Chinese netizens take a great pleasure to search for hidden political meaning everywhere. As a means of entertainment, I often find such speculations fun to hear about, for example I once blogged an instance during the Beijing Olympics, see "Hidden Code in the Opening Ceremony."

A more recent example is from the 2011 New Year Chinese movie "Let the Bullets fly," in which the 6th son of the main character, a Robinhood-like hero, dies to prove his innocence. At his funeral, the first man who mourns is his 4th blood brother. Some Chinese netizens speculate that this is the movie's hidden code for commemorating June 4th (6/4).  Borrowing a Chinese cliché, this is something that "exists if you believe; doesn't exist if you don't." (信则有,不信则无)

But in most cases speculations are just that – speculations.  In Lang Lang's case, there is little point for the media to take the speculation seriously, much less to blow it out of proportion.  

And I second Lang Lang's call: Don't politicize art.

Update 1/25: James Fallows –  "Sample convincing/exasperated detail, about the Korean War movie that introduced the song: 'This movie was like.. when my mother was two years old.'"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 and the Cultural Revolution

I haven't had the time to post much lately, too busy working on a memoir. But the latest issue of Remembrance (in Chinese) has something worth noting.  As a New Year tradition, the magazine lists ten things that happened in the previous year related to the Cultural Revolution. Below are a few highlights from the 2010 list:

  • In January 2010, media reported that the Chongqing City government approved inclusion of the Red Guard Cemetery in the list of protected historical relics. This news brought lots of reporters to visit the Cemetery. (I've written about Chongqing's Red Guard Cemetery in a personal essay "Swimming with Mao.")
Left: Liu Yuan; Right: Mao Xinyu
  • On July 20, 2010, General Liu Yuan conferred the rank of Major General to Mao Xinyu.  This news caused a big stir in and outside China, because Mao Xinyu is Chairman Mao Zedong's grandson, while Liu Yuan is the son of Liu Shaoqi. Once China's President, Liu Shaoqi died miserably in 1969 under harsh treatment from Mao.  The Chinese internet dubbed that the recent conferring of rank between  descendants of the two bloody enemies was a long plotted "reconciliation" scheme.
  • In October 2010, Southern Weekend published a series of articles about Red Guards apologizing to their victims (teachers). The reports stirred up various reactions on the Chinese internet, including praise and criticism alike. There was an opinion that, those Red Guards who beat up their teachers were products of the teachers' teaching, thus the question "who are qualified to receive the apologies."  The arguments attracted broad attention.
(P.S. Perhaps the list should also include the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove's moronic analogy to China's Cultural Revolution.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Boxer-Murder Mystery in Hainan: Part 4

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation, continued from Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 / 阅读中文原文]

"No fears, I can guide you there," an onlooker volunteered. "Just you alone, no others." The man said he knew a secret path into George's old residence. Karl followed the man without hesitation. Elder Wu, who noticed our uncertain expression, said with a smile, "Rest assured. Poison snakes don't bite their master."

Karl and Elder Wu

Soon Karl appeared on the other side of the wall, in the old cottage. He ran up and down the building excitedly, putting a finger by his lips to shush us. Situ shook his head, "Oh my God, I don't recognize him anymore. So excited!"

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Paris Commune Revisited

A French journalist Amanda Morrow, after reading my essay "The Wall of the Paris Commune" (Divide, 2005), interviewed me on the phone last week.  Her article "Truth buried as Paris cemetery sculpture is mistook for famous wall" appeared on the website of Radio France International's English section today. I learned something new about the history of the Paris Commune through her writing.

As a side note, in the part she quoted me, there is a tiny misunderstanding (this is not a big deal; it's just my writer's fussy nature that drives me to make a correction).  When I visited Paris in 2004, the official map of the Père Lachaise I bought at the cemetery gate did not have two points referencing the Commune. It mentioned only one.  In fact, it was the map seller who told me that Chinese visitors had been seeing two different spots.  

In the interview I also told Morrow that I liked the relief sculpture titled "Victimes des Révoluntions" very much. It is a beautiful sculpture with the beautiful concept that it is devoted to all victims of revolutions, regardless of the side they took.

Victimes des Révolunt (photo by me, 2004)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Boxer-Murder Mystery in Hainan: Part 3

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation, continued from Part 1 and Part 2 / 阅读中文原文]

I couldn't help but asking in a gossipy whisper: "The man behind us is George's grandson! How come you are not more excited to see him? Does he evoke any old memories? Does he look like his grandfather?" Elder Wu turned his face to me, eyes limpid and calm: "What kind of things have I not seen at this age? What's there to be excited about? Here you go, a castor leaf for you to block the sun."

I don't know whether I will live to 92, or if I did, whether I would no longer feel excited about anything. In any case I haven't woken to such a state in my current life. I trotted back to Situ and told him what Elder Wu said. Eloquent as Situ was, he stammered with widening eyes, "Therefore Elder Wu, he, he…" "Yes! Therefore hurry up, go tell Karl!" Watching Situ and Karl catching up with Elder Wu, Elder Zhou smiled tolerantly, "Disorder! I had planned to tell you guys at lunch."