Saturday, May 31, 2008

Apologies Forthcoming Triggers Discussion on Cultural Differences

Last December I met with the director of our town library and set up a reading from my new book Apologies Forthcoming. She was happy to accommodate me but warned that it was hard to draw a crowd, that even well-known authors have shown up to empty rooms. She was, thus, pleasantly surprised when a roomful of people showed up and, she told me afterwards, very impressed with the animated discussion.

The event took place this week. I ended up not doing a reading, instead giving a short description of my motivation for writing the book, and some history on a couple of the stories, before opening up the room for questions and discussion. The conversation that followed ranged from questions like what the Dalai Lama would think of the book to whether Chinese or Americans are more judgmental and one-sided.

An important theme that emerged was the value of fiction in keeping social and cultural knowledge available to outsiders and new generations, and whether my stories would make such readers understand the cause of the Cultural Revolution. My take was that, as fiction, the stories depict human nature across cultures and times rather than providing an analysis of events. In general, fiction is more engaging, thus can reach a broader audience than scholarly nonfiction, and helps to increase inter-cultural understanding in a perceptual way; though in order to thoroughly understand an historical event, a reader would need to look at other research on the subject.

We also spent a good deal of time on trying to explain cross-cultural differences. Many of the people in attendance were Chinese immigrants who moved to the US as adults. One difficulty they face is having to explain to their friends in China why Americans behave the way they do. One example given for this was a woman who had been asked “Why on earth would Americans elect Bush twice?” (The question triggered uproarious laughter from both Americans and Chinese.) Her answer was that "it's too complicated to explain." That question, it seems, is an epitome for the assumption that people in a foreign country are homogeneous in their beliefs, one of the cornerstones of cultural misunderstanding.

After the discussion I signed books – delighted to see so many people were interested in reading Apologies Forthcoming.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sichuan Earthquake Relief Update

  • Beijing – I was surprised to learn that the Chinese government has requested, or is at least discussing logistics for, earthquake relief from Japan. If this happens it will be the first time the Japanese military has entered China since WWII. It is significant for two reasons. First it shows that the governments of both countries recognize the importance of helping people in need. Secondly, it shows that the Chinese leaders are finally coming to grips with how to behave sensibly on the world stage. This latter is very important because there have been so many things said, and done, by the Chinese government to promote its international image that have had exactly the opposite effect. Somehow, China's top leaders have begun to understand that asking for, and receiving, aid can be viewed as a sign of strength in the eyes of much of the world. This time, they are not "dropping the stone to crash their own toes."
  • Chengdu – The Chengdu Area Military Command, Earthquake Relief Headquarters gave a press briefing on May 29 at 5:00 PM. The following was reported: Through 6:00 PM on May 28th the total number of people rescued from collapsed buildings by the army was 3,666. There were 305,000 wounded people treated and 656,000 victims relocated. There have been 44 temporary schools built, including 14 middle schools and 30 primary schools, as well as 148 temporary residence buildings constructed. There were 506,000 tons of relief goods delivered by land and 5,360 tons air dropped. There were 4281 kilometers of road repaired and 139 million square meters of polluted ground sanitized. There were 119,000 tents erected and 2,000,000 cubic meters of rubble removed. This was done with a total of 133,000 troops coming from military commands all over China.
  • Boston – Within two weeks, through May 28th the Boston-Aid-Sichuan Committee has collected $613,000 toward the $1,000,000 goal set for June 14th. The relief concert held at MIT on Sunday May 25th alone collected $150,000. There will be a fund raising walk scheduled for Saturday May 31st in the Boston Common. On site registration starts at 9:00 AM in the Boston Common, or for advance registration contact GBCCA (617) 232-0377.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Why Do I Blog?"

by Jerry Waxler

(Jerry Waxler is obsessed with memory and remembering. For both literary and personal reasons he is intensely curious as to how events transform themselves into memories, and the process by which those memories become written works. Jerry has put together a tremendous collection of writing and thinking on this topic. Valuable stuff for anyone trying to write a memoir, or even record memories, and also for fiction writers. In his interview with me we touched on the relationship between memory and imagination, a pretty fascinating topic. More to this is that his Memory Writers Network blog is full of well-written, informative, and interesting essays. I asked Jerry about his motivation for blogging, and the following is his answer. – Xujun)

The television show, Grey’s Anatomy, is about a group of medical interns. Even though they seem to be clumsy, barely born doctors, their status as “beginners” takes place at the end of an arduous struggle through high school, college, and medical school. They are reaching the top of a mountain they have been climbing their whole lives. After much striving and competition, one of the interns wins a coveted spot scrubbing into her first surgery. She watches what to the rest of us looks like blood and guts, but to her is the dance of life, healing a body by cutting and reorganizing some of those messy tissues. She floats out at the end of the surgery, totally saturated with this peak moment, a climax of the endless desire that brought her to this point. She turns to a fellow intern and asks “Why would anyone do drugs?” I feel the same wonder after my first year of blogging. It is the culmination of a lifetime of desire.

For my whole life, I’ve been intrigued by the variety of human experience. I also love to write. Over the years, these two passions have persisted and grown. I want to understand people, and I want to write. But until recently, I have been unable to combine these desires into one, so I wrote about other things. My first two books were about writing. When I was 52, I received a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. After imbibing this rich array of insights into ways that people could grow, I wanted to put it all in writing, but I didn’t want to just keep it in a drawer, and I didn’t think it would be a publishable work. So I wrote it on my first website,, which thanks to the magic of the internet is still out there.

I kept writing and learning about people, and a few years ago I stumbled on memoir writing as a system into which I could pour all my passions. Memoir writing turns attention inwards, where we can examine our own journey. And it also turns our attention outward, learning how to shape a story that makes sense to others. This is what happens in a therapist’s office. During therapy people authentically share their lives and in the process they improve their own self-understanding. I wanted to extend this from individual therapy to include everyone who is looking for deeper meaning within their lives.

I did not study the value of memoir writing in school. I had to develop the ideas myself, so I began to study, reading memoir after memoir. Each one teaches me two things: what it was like being that one person, and what it was like turning that life journey into a story. The lessons poured in, and I began to organize what I was learning. Again, I did not want my ideas to sit in a drawer, so I turned to blogging. At first I thought this would simply provide an easy way to publish my essays. That turned out to be only the beginning. I continue to find more and deeper rewards.

The longer I blog the more advantages I discover. By receiving comments and visiting other blogs, and finding people interested in memoir writing, I was both discovering and creating a micro-community of like minded individuals. The opportunity to write, then publish my ideas, and get feedback and community from others has been enormously empowering. Like the radicals who printed brochures during the American Revolution, I can put together and hand out my ideas, and I don’t have to stand on street corners.

What is the revolution I am fomenting? I suppose in one way, blogging itself is a revolution. Turning your individual, unique knowledge, passion, and wisdom into story and publishing it to the world is one of the neatest ways I have ever seen to incite deeper understanding and sharing of self. By blogging our life stories we can learn about each other and perhaps improve world peace. Hopefully it will work better and more creatively than trying to promote understanding through street protests.

The blogging world is highly diverse and diffuse, and so it requires exploring to discover blogs that convey this passion but they are out there, sharing worlds, connecting and empowering people. Some are empowering politically, giving people a chance to express views they wouldn’t have a way to publicize any other way. Some are empowering culturally, because sub-communities, outsiders, cliques, ethnic minorities, or in fact any group can band together and share ideas. And others are empowering creatively, because the creative spark becomes brighter when it connect with people in the world. Is blogging the only and true revolution? I don’t think so. Blogging and writing are just tools. The revolution that interests me most is to grow, individually and collectively towards greater wisdom.

One of the most surprising things about blogging is that it’s a form of performance. I have always been shy, preferring to avoid the public. Now, as I blog, I am learning how to extend myself towards strangers. Some become friends, in this new internet sense of friendship, while others remain onlookers. This means I am a performer, which is a mindboggling expansion of my social skills that I never expected to be achieving in my sixties. (I just turned 61 so I’m in the thick of it now.)

What’s next? As I learn more about life story telling, I realize that stories become powerful not just because of external events, but because the storyteller found the power in the events. This has caused me to look more closely at situations in my life that I always assumed were mundane, and what looked like blood and guts becomes the powerful, exhilarating struggle to find meaning within the ordinary. I intend to reveal more of what I discover through my blog and perhaps someday in a book. Over time I expect my investigation will lead in new directions. I find that, in a way, aging is a spiritual experience and at some point I may shift from finding the wisdom in the past into finding wisdom in the future. For now, what’s next is my next blog entry. I’m on deadline every week, under pressure to learn and grow, and find words that let me share myself with the world.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Local Paper Reporting "Apologies Forthcoming"

A local paper, Wayland Town Crier, interviewed me about my book. Read the report titled "A Look Back at China's Lost Generation" here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Heroism, or Humanity?

Like my three sisters, I was named after a hero. In fact all of our names take the form “like so-and-so,” where "so-and-so" is the name of a (dead) hero who was receiving significant posthumous praise around the time of out births. In the 1960s heroes were abundant, and they put the cause – in this case the creation and construction of a Communist China – before their personal interest, including life. We were proud of these paragons of social virtue and their deaths didn't seem to be a sad thing. "Convert sadness to strength!" was a universal slogan. A hero always dies a proper death and thus it is weightier than the Tai Mountain, as Mao put it. As such we wouldn't cry for him or her with tears. We would shout "Learn from so-and-so!" instead.

When my big sister died at age 16 as a Red Guard, her comrades called her a "hero." As a child I was very confused by the notion that a life was tradable with the title "hero." I just wanted my dear sister back – who cared what her title was?

I think my aversion to heroism probably stemmed from that. I was certainly alone in this – but not any longer.

The Sichuan earthquake has created many stories of both heroism and survival, and several things are strikingly different from anything in my experience. Many have commented on the swiftness of the official response in proportion to the crisis, which seems to signal a significant evolution in the relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens. There is, however, something more subtle happening that is worthy of comment.

Right now one of the most hailed heroes in China is Jiang Min, a 28-year-old police woman from Beichuan (almost completely destroyed) working in Pengzhou. The earthquake took her two-year-old daughter, her parents, grandparents, and other relatives living at home. In total she lost 10 family members during those short minutes of devastation. Of course she did not know this at the time, but could only fear the worst. After her fear was verified the next morning, in the days that followed she worked nonstop in her duties with fellow officers dealing with the disaster from Pengzhou.

Following this prodigious effort, Jiang Min was interviewed about her situation. She answered questions stoically in the local dialect, then collapsed. Soon video clips of her interviews showed up everywhere on TV channels and the internet. The formal media tried to portray her heroism and hold her up as a role model. On the other hand, the informal reaction, manifesting itself through blogs and online forums, was divided. Some sided with the formal media declaiming Jiang Min a hero. A few blamed her as heartless to be able to continue to work when such a horrible thing had happened to her family.

The clearest voice, however, was that of sympathy. Many people commented that what she did is a natural way to deal with tragedy – by clinging to the familiar and going through motions. Heaping neither praise nor blame on Jiang Min, they simply said that their hearts went out to her and others like her. Some angrily condemned the cruelty of a reporter who asked Jiang Min, "Do you miss your daughter when you are helping other children?" Some called on the reporters to leave her alone and urged Jiang Min to say "No" to interviews.

This kind of sensitive feeling and great sympathy being expressed surprised me in a very positive way. While that type of response might seem natural in America, it was anything but for the China I grew up in.
Yet more reporters continued to rush to Jiang Min like bees to flowers. She was also invited to Beijing to attend CCTV's big benefit performance Sunday, an honor that surprised her. In Beijing high government officials shook her hands while speaking bureaucratic jargon to praise her heroism. This again provided more pollen to the reporting bees.

A new video clip I saw last night showed that, in Beijing, Jiang Min seemed to be getting used to the role imposed on her by the journalists and officials. This time she was speaking Mandarin, and in a more confident and comfortable manner.

Jiang Min's role aside, the divergence in attitudes between common people and the official media signals an important shift.

So, what has changed? What is different now? It is not simply the magnitude of the tragedy. I can remember Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 during my youth. The death toll then was even higher. We learned the news long after because the official media did not reveal it immediately. There was a great shock and grief, but it was a sadness we took upon ourselves, not a sadness we felt for others. China’s history is full of suffering, and almost all Chinese have felt that suffering weigh on them personally, even when they were not directly involved. Has material affluence in China pushed the people over a barrier where they recognize the suffering of others is not directly impinging on them, and is that the source of sympathy? Or is the expressed sympathy a result of the guilt that they are not sharing in the suffering? Or is it simply that the value of Chinese lives is finally on the rise?

When I heard that the CCTV benefit telethon Sunday night had, in a few hours, raised over 200 million US dollars to help the earthquake victims, I could not believe it. That is an amount that goes beyond duty and obligation, the two mainstays of Chinese support. Something has changed.

More to this is that people are no longer passively following the official media, like my parents did. The common audience's level of understanding has surpassed the journalists, and I cheer for that.
It is when people do good things without any agenda that something special happens. Concerns originating from humanity instead of propaganda-heroism will go a much longer way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hard Work Ahead for Boston-Aid-Sichuan

Newton, MA – In the wake of Sichuan's catastrophic earthquake last Monday, 85 Chinese organizations in the Boston area jointly set up an interim "Boston-Aid-Sichuan Committee" last Wednesday to coordinate relief activities. As reported here, the committee's first meeting set the goal to raise a million dollars in a month. Within five days, by Monday night, the member organizations have collected $170,000.

"It is still far away from our goal," the committee's elected convener Jiang Hong says. "We must work harder."

Jiang Hong says she is heartened by Beijing people's successful relief fundraising. has reported that CCTV's benefit performance on Sunday night raised over two hundred million dollars, "the largest relief fundraiser in history." Internationally acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou donated $15,000.

Working toward the goal they have set, a member organization of Boston-Aid-Sichuan, the MIT Chinese Students and Scholars Association, will hold a benefit concert, to be performed at MIT on Sunday, May 25.

Another member organization, the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association, is planning a three-mile walk around Boston Common on Saturday, May 31 from 10am to 2pm. A $10 registration fee, which includes a T-shirt, and a minimal $25 donation are required for each adult participant.

For information on relief donations in general, contact Jiang Hong (蒋红):

Monday, May 19, 2008


A letter from Beijing

Dear Friends,

I am writing to appeal for help of any kind for the victims of the catastrophic earthquake that hit Southwestern China on May 12th. Initially estimated at 7.9, the quake has now been revised to an 8.0 magnitude, but the devastation it has wrought is fundamentally unmeasurable.

While the Western media has covered this event to an extent, information will surely begin to peter off as other "news," like Paris Hilton's latest hairdo seizes the media's fickle attention. Meanwhile, the human suffering caused by this colossal natural disaster is only just unfolding and the need for aid in the form of money, medical supplies, expertise and assistance, clothing, shelter, clean water, food, baby formula, and other basic life necessities will only increase and become more urgent as time goes by.

I hope that each one of you can reach inside your heart and offer whatever kind of support and assistance you can to help ease this devastating calamity.

A few basic up-to-date facts and info about the current situation.

To date, over 32,000 people have been confirmed dead. This number is expected to reach 50,000 as the 7-day mark passes and the chance of surviving in the rubble declines precipitously. At 150 hours, the soldiers and relief workers are are still digging survivors out of the rubble. People are not giving up hope.

One woman, who escaped being crushed because her husband flung himself on top of her at the last minute, managed to stay alive only by drinking her own blood. In order to get out from under the tons of concrete pressing down on her leg, she had to saw off her own leg with a rusty saw and a pair of scissors that the relief workers were able to pass through a hole in the rubble. Of course she had no anaesthesia. She told reporters that the only thing that kept her alive was the thought that she had a responsibility to raise her teenage daughter into a decent, contributing member of society. There are so many others like her.

A primary school teacher refused to run for safety when she saw that her little charges were paralyzed with fear inside the classroom. She made three rescue trips back into the shaking building before it collapsed on her. She was dug out with children under each arm, over her shoulder and one in each hand. Elsewhere, a mother saved her infant by making a bridge over it with her body. She died in that position, and three days later the child was saved.

Another man, in one of the many regions not readily accessible by rescue teams, tells of trying with his bare hands to dig his 16 year old son out of the rubble, hearing his voice become weaker and weaker over the ensuing 4 days before rescuers were able to get through, by hiking on foot over the mountains. His boy called out one last time, "Ba," he said, "I'm sorry, I'm can't hold on any longer," and perished before the rescuers were able to dig him out. The impossibility of transporting cranes and other heavy-lifting machinery into such areas has led to the loss of an enormous number of lives.

Although there has been a laudable and prompt reaction from the Chinese government, markedly unlike the reaction of the US government during Hurricane Katrina (American soldiers are said to have stood by with their guns and refused to help, while the Chinese soldiers came armed with only shovels and tireless determination to save lives), the earthquake has devastated a huge area of mountain towns, villages and cities, making the rescue effort tortuous and extremely difficult. Dams have cracked or broken, roads and bridges have collapsed or been obstructed by mudslides caused by rainstorms, and falling rock from the sides of mountains that broke loose during the quake, making it almost impossible to airlift or otherwise transport goods and personnel to the innumerable stricken areas. Flooding is another imminent danger that has caused evacuations in a number of areas. Meanwhile, severe aftershocks and new earthquakes--this morning a 7.2 quake hit a nearby area, killing 3 and injuring another 1000 people--continuing to settle the rubble and hinder the rescue effort.

The Chinese people, too, have been admirable and moving in their relief efforts, already donating almost as much money as the government--somewhere in the ballpark of $180 million US dollars. Han Chinese and Tibetans (who form a significant part of the population of Sichuan) have worked together to save each other's lives. From sports stars (Thanks, Yao Ming) to companies, from contemporary artists and arts people holding relief auctions to ordinary citizens sending whatever they can, donating blood and volunteering to go help on the ground, the people here, including the huge expat population, have rallied together to do whatever they can. The victims themselves have also been heroic in their own attempts in the relief effort--turning aside food and help when it is more urgently needed elsewhere, and there is a conspicuous lack of disorder that often comes in situations such as these--no looting, raping, robbery and pillaging, just an incredible upsurge of mutual aid and selfless support.

But there is so much more work to be done before the lives of the victims can come even close to going back to normal.

Today, at 2.28 pm, exactly 1 week after the earthquake struck, a national period of mourning began with the wailing of sirens and honking of horns on streets across the country for three minutes. Here in Beijing, the moment was solemn and sorrowful. I went to the curb, along with everyone else in the area, and stood listening to the cacophony, weeping for those who could not be saved.

32,000+ are dead so far. 50,000 expected.

About 1/3 of this number are school children. The government is investigating corruption in what are called "tofu construction projects" made by greedy contractor with substandard materials and in violation of safety regulations that may have been resulted in the unprecedented number of schools and hospitals that collapsed completely, and has vowed to punish those responsible. It has also been much more open about the crisis than in previous situations, and welcomes assistance and support from all corners of the globe, for there is still so much left to do.

Over 200,000 people are injured, over 15,000 have sustained severe, life-threatening injury or have been maimed. There are huge numbers of orphans, and families whose children have died.

4.8 million people or more are homeless. Their livelihoods have been crushed into oblivioun along with their homes and places of work.

Millions of animals, from livestock to pets, have been rendered homeless or injured. Foreign Animal Protection Societies need to get involved to help these animals, and administer shots to the packs of homeless dogs that are now starving, hurt, disoriented and being shot for fear of rabies and other diseases.

MONEY, tents, blankets, first aid supplies and other medicines: especially: medicines to stop bleeding, antibiotics, pain-relief medicines, disinfectants rain gear (rain coats, umbrellas, boots), baby formula, food stuffs, feminine supplies, clothing, toilet paper, other basic life supplies. People with expertise in PTSD and who can offer basic training in psychological counseling are needed as well.

The threat of disease spreading in places where huge numbers of people are crammed together is enormous. The Chinese government and people has been admirable in its relief efforts, but this is a disaster bigger than any country can manage by itself, especially after the huge, and devastating blizzard that put South China under ice in February, and the enormous output of investment in infrastructure development for the Olympics, this kind of damage isn't going to be fixed quickly or easily.

Possible places to channel relief aid (their news is often quite out of date already, but they can help direct contributions to the right places):

This site has a plethora of good ways to donate and help out.

The RED CROSS CHINA site was hacked into by reprehensible vultures, so I won't offer a link to their site at present.



I have no idea which of these organizations is "best," but I think any kind of help at this point is of great value. Please act now and do or give whatever you can.

Also, see info on the Three Shadows Earthquake Relief Benefit Silent Auction (this info is only partial, as of May 13th, other artists including :
RongRong & inri
Adou (Sichuan native)
Xiong Wenyun (Sichuan native, donating a 1999 photograph from Wenchuan county, the earthquake epicenter)
Zhao Lian
Han Bing,
Huang Lei
Gao Bo (Sichuan native)
He Yunchang
He An
Mo Yi
Jiang Zhi
Yu Bogong
Alberto Garcia-Alix have also donated works to the benefit
Others are welcome to join!).

If you are in Beijing, or elsewhere, I urge you to make donations and come to the Benefit on the 25th.

Other info on the crisis and numerous links:

We have gone through our home and donated an array of things from clothes to cooking utensils, photography art works and signed books (for the benefit auction being held by Three Shadows Photographic Arts Centre in Beijing) and cash. None of this can possibly comes even close to enough, so I hope I can rally some of you to lend a hand.

Times like these are reminders of both the incredible fragility and also indefatigable resilience and tenacity of human life. I am reminded of the last lines of a poem by Marge Pearcy, For Strong Women. She writes, "Until we are all strong together, a strong woman is strongly afraid." I think the sentiment holds for all of us human beings, and is a reminder of the need to overcome the petty, artificial boundaries of nation, gender, age, religion, and even, way of life, and stand together in the face of adversity.

Let's be strong together in supporting those people whose lives have been devastated and yet are standing bravely side by side, struggling to overcome unthinkable obstacles.

Wishing you peace, love and the good fortune to live your lives unobstructed by disaster, disease, war and other catastrophes--humanly created and naturally occurring alike. It's easy to forget just how good we've got it.

With respect,

Maya Kóvskaya
Art Critic, Curator, Writer

People in Dark Times

"Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in theirlives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth."

Hannah Arendt (From: Men in Dark Times)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Boston Chinese to Collect One Million for Relief Funds

Cambridge, MA, May 14 – Initiated by the board members of the Sichuan and Chongqing Folk Association in Boston, about fifty Chinese organization representatives met tonight in Building 56 of MIT, to coordinate support and relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake disaster that occurred two days ago in Sichuan, China.

The animated discussion lasted for three hours, from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm, and the attendees reached a confident consensus on raising a million dollars to help the Sichuan earthquake victims. The meeting recommends three relief fund accounts to all who intend to donate, namely the Chinese Red Cross' Emergency Fund (by check), the American Red Cross' China Relief Fund, and Tzh-Chi's Sichuan Earthquake Relief Fund (by check). The organizers will either collect checks to be sent to these organizations, or receive information on donations made to determine progress toward their goal.

Zhu Zhenya, a researcher at MIT, Jiang Hong, chairwoman of Yanhuang Performing Arts, and Tao Kai, principal of the Cambridge Chinese Language School moderated the discussion.

Represented in the meeting were Chinese language schools in various towns and cities, Chinese student associations in colleges such as MIT, Harvard University, and Boston University, Chinese professional societies such as the Enterpriser Society, Internet Society, etc., and several organizations for overseas alumni from China's universities.

The attendees also agreed to report daily to Jiang Hong on their fundraising results.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Chongqing: "City on Steroids"

(Added: I was just off the phone with my parents in Chongqing and am relieved that they are okay. The center of the earthquake was near Chengdu. I am still in big shock that so many people died. My heart is with the thousands of victims...)

Over two decades ago, one morning in July 1987, I was awakened by loud shouts from four floors below calling my name, “A foreigner is looking for you!" I had recently returned to my parents' apartment in Chongqing for summer vacation from my graduate school in Chengdu.

I grabbed a hairbrush and ran downstairs. Outside our building, on the sidewalk of River Overlook Road, formed a thick circle of onlookers under the already hot Chongqing sun. In the center of the circle stood a six-foot-tall American man in a red McGill University T-shirt. Those onlookers, the townsmen of mine, silently gazed at the foreigner’s sweaty face and his heavily loaded touring bicycle, as if he were from Mars. The American looked at this person and that in amusement, making inquiries in both English and crude Chinese: “What? Shenmo?” He tried to move in one direction then another; the crowd retreated and advanced with him like a unbreakable giant rubber band.

The young American, who later became my husband, was likely the first foreign tourist who rode a bike across China from Harbin to Chongqing, at a time when foreigners were still exotic animals in my hometown.

Not any more, and this is one of the biggest changes shown (albeit indirectly) in the video "City on Steroids" by Now the Chongqing people barely throw the foreign reporters a glance. They don't even bother to stop playing cards. The exotic animals have switched hands. Does this mean significant progress has taken place?

The video tries to find answers to that question and it captures several characteristics of today's Chongqing, one of them the "bang-bang army."

"Bang-bang" in this case means wooden shoulder-pole. Because of Chongqing's mountainous geography, there are too many nooks and crannies that can't be reached by truck or tractor. You don't even see bicycles in the city. Men and their shoulder-poles have always been a necessary means for transporting goods at ports. However the expression "bang-bang army" is new; this name has been bestowed on the throng of migrant workers who have nothing else but a shoulder-pole. When I visited my parents in recent years, I saw those men huddled in groups, standing or squatting outside newly constructed residential enclaves, waiting for the house-owners' call for help to move furniture or other goods. I had never seen such a big "army" carrying "bang-bang" everywhere during my childhood and youth in the city. Those men come from the countryside, because the Three Gorges dam forced their migration, or their farmland was squeezed, or life on the farm was much worse.

"How hard are the roads in Shu / as hard as climbing the sky" – when Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai wrote those oft-quoted lines, was he near Chengdu or Chongqing? I suspect it was the latter. "Shu" () is the abbreviated name for Sichuan, whose jurisdiction for a long time included Chongqing, until Chongqing became one of China's four provincial-level municipalities (直辖市) in spring 1997, nearly a decade after I moved to the United States. This ascendance – the price of it the Three Gorges migration burden – made Chongqing the world's largest municipality with a population over 30 million. (When I lived there as a child, the population was 8 million.) Now the city no longer needs to fight neighbor Chengdu over funding from the central government. Its construction goes on at an unprecedented speed.

Not only does speeding construction squeeze surrounding farmland, as the video shows, it has also squeezed the two rivers surrounding it. My townsmen have filled in along the rivers to make the "riverside avenues." When I visited home last year, I was brought to a famous scenic spot, a man-made one, on a new segment of road along the Yangtze River, to watch the "beautiful night scene" – colorful neon lights lining high-rises on the other side of the river. The river looked thin and the mountain city no longer looked like it is poised on mountains. I wasn't happy and did not linger, disappointing my jubilant Chinese family and friends in a big way. But my disappointment was even bigger: I could no longer see the beautiful natural mountains and rivers that I have loved since my childhood.

I suppose not all mountains surrounding Chongqing will or can be dynamited and flatted. Otherwise the "bang-bang men" will lose their rice bowl again.

The overheated construction also makes Chongqing's already badly polluted air worse. There is a Chinese idiom, "the Shu dog barks at the sun," describing how rarely the sun is seen in Sichuan, but once upon a time that had not been because of the pollution. In my childhood, fog and rain were what made the city's sky gray. The morning fog hanging on the rivers had been beautiful. Today, as you can see from the video, it is a totally different kind of fog. The Shu dog won't be barking at the sun because its throat hurts.

There is another essence of today's Chongqing captured by the video: the ever increasing gap between wealthy and poor. The contrast of this aspect is well shown. The poor include not only the rural migrants but also laid-off factory workers from the city. In the video, one of the men interviewed says in Chongqing dialect – indicating that he's local instead of a migrant – "Opportunity is never ours."

Aside from policy issues, too high a population density has been a dominating factor in creating the problems. I hope by now those Western human-rights fighters fussing over China's one-child policy has realized their own one-sidedness.

One thing I wish's reporters had asked is what the struggling "bang-bang men" think of the Beijing Olympics. Do they care about it or do they not? Wouldn't it make better sense for China to spend the huge money instead on raising the living quality of its rural population, hence stabilizing the turbulent migration flow into cities? The city of Beijing itself has already been over-constructed and over-populated. And water shortage has become a huge concern there. The new Olympic construction has made the situation more severe than ever.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NBCC's Spring 2008 Good Reads List

Books that get top votes from members of the National Book Critics Circle as well as former finalists and winners of NBCC awards –


1. Richard Price, LUSH LIFE, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Knopf
3. Steven Millhauser, DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Knopf
*4. Charles Baxter, THE SOUL THIEF, Pantheon
*4. Peter Carey, HIS ILLEGAL SELF, Knopf
*4. J. M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, Viking
*4. James Collins, BEGINNNER’S GREEK, Little, Brown
*4. Brian Hall, FALL OF FROST, Viking
*4. Roxana Robinson, COST, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
*4. Owen Sheers, RESISTANCE, Nan A. Talese: Doubleday


5. Susan Jacoby, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON, Pantheon


1. Grace Paley, FIDELITY, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Frank Bidart, WATCHING THE SPRING FESTIVAL, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
3. Eric Gansworth, A HALF-LIFE OF CARDIO-PULMONARY FUNCTION, Syracuse University Press
5. Robert Pinsky, GULF MUSIC, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What? Five Chinese Novels in NYT Sunday Book Review

Did the sun rise from the west today? This week's New York Times Sunday Book Review has five articles, written by well-known authors and critics, on novels from China! Even the current issue of Poets & Writers talks about "literary Beijing," the first time in my many years as a writer.

What has done the trick? Not cheap goods or tainted food, not the trade deficit or politics. It must be the Beijing Olympics then. Otherwise, why would America's predominant publications suddenly be showing solicitude toward Chinese novels, three short months before the Games? If nothing else positive comes out of the summer event, calling the West's attention to Chinese literature is at least one good thing.

This attention is in sharp contrast to a recent complaint from Wolfgang Kubin, one of the most renowned Sinologists in Germany. Kubin, who claimed in 2006 that China has not had any great writer since 1949 and "contemporary Chinese literature is trash," lashed out again in February of this year. In an interview with Oriental Outlook, he says he and Chinese writers have nothing to talk about. Judging from the interviews, he has been too busy to read Chinese books for quite some time. I wondered if the problem was his or Chinese writers'. Personally, Kubin lost credibility in my heart when he dismissed the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms, which happens to be my very favorite.

Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, disagrees with Kubin. Among the five novels reviewed in NY Times Sunday Book Review today, two were translated by Goldblatt recently. In a March interview with China's popular newspaper Southern Weekend, Goldblatt says it's not that China lacks great literary work; the problem is that there is not enough translation of it.

I happen to agree with Goldblatt. Growing up in China, I read far more translated Western classics than Chinese novels in my youth. Everyone in my generation knew the names of Hemingway and Hugo. In contrast, during my two decades in the US, I met only one American writer who knew something about Chinese classics, let alone average readers. This imbalanced one-way flow used to astonish me, but I've become accustomed to it (it's life).

Now this weekend's NY Times Book Review astounds me again, this time in a pleasant way. Among the five novelists reviewed, Mo Yan and Wang Anyi are definitely the top novelists in China. I have been Wang Anyi's fan since my college time in the early 1980s. The complexity and quality of their works, both in terms of content and art form, are no lower than the best American contemporary authors I've read. I raise my hand to my forehead with relief that their works are being translated into English. Jonathan Spence's review of Mo Yan and Francine Prose’s review of Wang Anyi will make everyone want to read the novels.

Jiang Rong is new to the literary scene, though he's from the same generation as Mo and Wang, and I doubt that he will write another novel. I'm in the middle of reading the Chinese original of his Wolf Totem right now, and from what I've read, I have to agree with Pankaj Mishra that "the novel's literary claims are shaky," despite the international prizes it received. The novel is of a "concept-driven" type; it certainly lacks the level of emotional complexity portrayed in the works of Mo Yan and Wang Anyi. It, however, raises important ecological and racial chauvinism issues. The phenomena that Wolf Totem has become a record best seller – the highest among all books sold in China – seems to reflect Chinese's concern on urgent societal issues.

Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (a great title on a terrible cover) and Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem have both been translated by Howard Goldblatt. While the literary quality gap between these two authors is huge, I do think it is necessary to have both novels translated, and I recommend both to American readers. Wolf Totem, being a best seller in China, will tell the Westerners something about the mindset of contemporary Chinese readers, to say the least.

By the way, in the aforementioned interview with China's Southern Weekend, Howard Goldblatt says that, to understand how unpopular Chinese literature is in America, one only need look at the quantity of Chinese fiction published in The New Yorker: Null. (Goldblatt doesn't think Ha Jin's work counts as Chinese literature, because it's written in English.) This isn't quite accurate – the New Yorker did publish Gao Xingjian's stories after he received the Nobel Prize, and those stories were originally written in Chinese. Other than that one arguable instance (you could say Gao was already a French citizen then), Goldblatt is right about the New Yorker's discrimination.

The New Yorker notwithstanding, now you can read these translated Chinese novels.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Human Flesh Search (人肉搜索): Vigilantes of the Chinese Internet

New America Media, News feature, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Apr 30, 2008

The first time I noticed the term "ren rou sou suo" (人肉搜索) on a Chinese website, I was taken aback. "Human flesh hunting" is a literal translation, but the term, applied to the Internet, means a search engine that runs on people power – "human flesh searching engine."

Chinese netizens have made up their own cyber vocabulary. Some are "Chinesized" translation of words that Americans have turned into verbs meaning internet acts, such as "spam" and "friend." More are their own inventions that can perplex infrequent web users. A popular new expression, for example, is "very pornographic, very violent," used to describe something that is cool and interesting. Similarly, using the words "human flesh" (instead of, for example, "human powered") to modify "search engine" also reflects a fashion in diction. More>>

Related post: No Conversation on BBC
Update: Human Flesh Search: Old Topic, New Story

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Finalist Pamela Erens on LA Times Book Prize Events

by Pamela Erens

(Pamela's novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. The prize events and the LA Times Festival of Books took place from the evening of Friday, April 25 to Sunday, April 27, 2008. I invited Pamela to talk about her experience during the events. See also an interview with Pamela last month on this blog. – Xujun)

One of the things I was most anticipating about the Los Angeles Times Book Prize events and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was the chance to meet and get to know zillions of other writers. And one thing I learned during the evening and day that I was able to attend (unfortunately I had to fly home early on Day Two of the two-day festival) was that many writers are as fundamentally shy and socially inhibited as I am.

The awards/festival folks did their best to provide us Book Prize nominees with numerous chances to meet-and-greet: a pre-prize ceremony dinner, a post-ceremony reception, an “Authors Green Room” at the festival with an unending buffet of salad and desserts—but as far as I could tell, most of us hung together in small clumps, desperately glomming onto the few people we already knew, or had thankfully gotten introduced to by some mutual acquaintance. Still, with that many writers around, one couldn’t help but meet a few people. So I’ll report on that in just a minute.

There were nine prize categories: Biography, Current Interest, Fiction, First Fiction, History, Mystery/Thriller, Poetry, Science & Technology, and Young Adult Fiction. The pre-prize ceremony dinner mixed the nominees with interested parties from the “outside” (also known as “real”) world who simply enjoy reading and wanted a chance for some book chat. When the time came we all shuttled over to the prize ceremony at beautiful Royce Hall at UCLA. I was startled by the sheer size of the audience, and also by the fact that my face was periodically flashed on a large screen above the stage as a continuous video loop scrolled through the nominees’ books and persons.

I was attending with an old friend of mine, Brian Alexander, a wonderful writer and the author of the recently published America Unzipped (a hilarious and informative read about the state of sex in this country; I highly recommend it). We were seated in the very first row of the huge auditorium—so picture being at the movie theater and having to lean back to see the goings-on. A silver-haired woman was seated to my left and in the tunnel vision engendered by my nervousness I didn’t realize until the ceremony was just about underway that it was Maxine Hong Kingston, the guest of honor that night. Kingston had earlier been announced as the recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award, given to a living author who has made a significant contribution to the literature of the American West. By that time it was too late to turn to her and tell her that I’d read The Woman Warrior when I was 15 years old and that it was one of the books that showed me how beautiful and powerful literature could be. I did manage to blurt out a few words to that effect after the ceremony.

The presenting judges did an admirable job of summing up each book in a few brief, smart sentences. The two acceptance speeches that struck me most were Elizabeth Samet’s and Tim Weiner’s. Samet, who won in Current Interest for Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, talked of the challenges of teaching literature to young men and women who may soon be facing combat. Weiner captured the History category with Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and warned that the decline in newspaper readership in this country could result before long in our government becoming the primary purveyor of news and information. “Don’t let that happen,” he urged. In my category the prize was taken by Dinaw Mengestu, who battled jet lag all through the long evening due to his recent arrival from Paris, but who graciously accepted for The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a novel about three immigrant African men in Washington, D.C., and the white woman with a biracial child who becomes a neighbor of one of them.

Afterward we were treated to a reception on a big terrace with the Santa Ana winds blowing over us and a chocolate fountain inside in case we got a serious jones. I stood in my very high heels as long as I could bear it and then crawled back to my hotel for bed.

The next day, the first of the Festival, was very hot, but that didn’t stop the astonishingly large crowds. There was panel after wonderful panel, but I had various obligations to meet and so I’m embarrassed to say I missed all of them except, at the end of the day, my own (again, I flew home first thing Sunday and so had no chance to catch that day’s offerings). I appeared with Antonia Arslan and Ellen Litman, two of the other First Fiction finalists. Antonia’s novel, Skylark Farm, takes place during the Armenian genocide of 1915. It was written originally in Italian and has been translated into well over a dozen other languages so far (a Hungarian version has just appeared). Antonia, who is of both Italian and Armenian background, spoke movingly about hearing fragments of family stories about the massacre all of her life but not feeling as if she could tackle the material until late in her career as a professor of Italian literature at the University of Padua.

Ellen, the craftswoman behind The Last Chicken in America, a story collection about the lives of immigrant Russians in Pittsburg, explained the ways in which immigration changes a family’s dynamics and can make its members feel even amidst American abundance that “there is never enough.” (The panel was supposed to include Rebecca Curtis, a finalist for the story collection Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money, but she got sick and couldn’t attend.) Our panel moderator, Carolyn Kellogg (of the blog Pinky’s Paperhaus), kept thing bubbling along. Each of us read a short excerpt from our nominated work and I tried to make it sound like my book about an incredibly isolated and repressed man was really a ripping good yarn.

All right, here’s who else I did get to talk to at least briefly over the weekend:

*the affable Stewart O’Nan, who was staying in my hotel and with whom I swapped comments about New Haven’s crappy airport. O’Nan was a finalist in the “big” Fiction category for his novel Last Night at the Lobster.

*Marianne Wiggins, a co-finalist with O’Nan for The Shadow Catcher (the winner in the Fiction category was Andrew O’Hagen, for Be Near Me). Wiggins was warm and wonderful and made me feel simply very happy to be at the festivities.

* Daniel Smail, finalist in Science & Technology, who explained what in the world his book On Deep History and the Brain was about (answer: something very interesting).

* Mark Sarvas of the indispensable blog The Elegant Variation, who’s been wowing people with his new novel, Harry, Revised.

* Cecil Castellucci (Beige, The Plain Janes), whose name is pronounced Cee-cil, not Sess-il

* James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, My Dark Places), who opined on how much he hates it when people use the word “like.”

* the poet Stuart Dischell (Good Hope Road, Dig Safe). We talked about Joisey—as in New. (He was born there, and it’s my adopted state.)

* the irrepressible mystery/thriller writer Ake Edwardson (finalist for Frozen Tracks), who explained to my friend Brian and me how the Bronx got its name (it had to do with a Swedish explorer).

* the lovely poet Jean Valentine, finalist for her collection Little Boat, who offered to share her LA Times with me by the hotel pool.

* David Bell, finalist in History for The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. I tried to cover up my complete and shameful ignorance of the Napoleonic Wars by telling him (truthfully, of course!) that recently I had begun reading War and Peace. Bell revealed that Tolstoy is an historically faithful and insightful chronicler of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

* Lisa Fugard (Skinner’s Drift), one of last year’s First Fiction finalists and a panelist this year, who was dining with her adorable son.

* Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits), who moderated the panel “Not So Ordinary People” with Tony Early, Dinaw Mengestu, Stewart O’Nan, and Ann Packer.

* Babes in Paradise and The God of War author Marisa Silver, who was one of the judges for the First Fiction prize and to whom (along with fellow judges Susan Straight and Robert Roper) I am forever grateful.

Oh, yeah, I mistook Charles Bock for a salesclerk at Vroman’s Bookstore. You’d think I might have noticed the tall stacks of Beautiful Children that he was sitting next to and signing. It must have been the 90-degree heat. He was very nice about it, so I’m going out to buy his book tomorrow.