Thursday, July 31, 2008

Korean TV Exposes Olympics Opening Ceremony Rehearsal

China's official online media reported yesterday that Korea's SBS TV station prematurely exposed scenes from the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony rehearsal, and the video clip, 2 minutes 9 seconds in length, is now circulating on the internet (note: I haven't seen it). The report says Chinese netizens who saw it marveled at the splendid performance, but were also angered by the unacceptable early exposure. How scenes of the rehearsal, which was under strict security, were divulged is still unknown. Read the Chinese report here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"English Is a Bloody Nightmare, Isn't It?"

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Guo Xiaolu
Anchor Books, 283 pp., $13.95
A Review by Xujun Eberlein
BlogCritics, Published: July 28, 2008
About one third into Guo Xiaolu's novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a man at an English pub says to the confused protagonist, a young Chinese woman named Z, "English is a bloody nightmare, isn't it?"
Yet the author, who writes in her second language, is capable of turning a nightmare into muse. Have you ever talked to someone who did not speak your language very well and wondered about their innermost thoughts? By narrating those thoughts in semi-expressive broken English, Guo Xiaolu has brought us some insight into that. In what might be called stream of expressiveness writing, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers makes fun of English, the second language Z is studying in London. This is precisely what makes the book so enjoyable to read. To borrow a line from the reputed literary critic James Wood, who describes English as a wan cousin of French, in Guo's novel English becomes a wan neighbor of Chinese.
Guo has intentionally broken from the eloquent flow of Yiyun Li's stories or the dogged correctness of Ha Jin's latest novels to present something that is both fresh and at the same time awkward. It is awkward, for precisely the reason that people that are different from us are awkward; they speak a different language, have a different culture or simply have had different experiences. Reading, of course, is all about bridging those gaps and arriving at an understanding, so the question becomes how far should the reader stretch to achieve that understanding. Guo, in a sense, meets us half way, as demonstrated in those lines that open the book:
"But I at neither time zone. I on airplane."
"I not met you yet. You in future."
This is the way Chinese sentences are formed. Though Chinese, with its many complex square pictographs, is one of the oldest and richest languages and might make Westerners step back in apprehension, its grammar is remarkably simple and non-confusing. No tense, no pronoun-based verb inflexion, no "to be" verbs before preposition words to worry about – the Chinese language is actually a more natural form of speaking. One piece of evidence that those English grammar elements are non essential is that, even when they are omitted in a sentence, it does not prevent one from understanding.
And that becomes the legitimate basis of Guo's language game in the novel, and she plays the game well. When her protagonist Z comments that "We bosses of our language. English is boss of English users", or makes fun of the plural grammar rule by saying "everybody know jeans or trousers always one thing, you can't wear many jean or plural trouser," or taunts English as a "sexist language. In Chinese no gender definition in sentence", or observes the sensibility that in "Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place" while in English the person is always first, Guo demonstrates cultural differences in a playful manner. What can one do but laugh fondly?
Yet it is a risky approach for a novelist – there is certainly the question of what and how a novel that is full of incorrect English can contribute to English literature. And this was exactly the question I had as soon as my eyes passed the first five lines. Impressively however, Guo manages to maintain a lyrical quality in her protagonist's broken English throughout, which makes one admire the ingenious idea underlying the boldness of this approach. After all, what can demonstrate cultural differences more convincingly than differences in language nuance?
But any approach has its limitations. Having taken that great leap of form, the story Guo conveys is somewhat mundane. It is essentially the story of the sexual awakening of a young Chinese woman who gets involved with an older English man. While entertaining, it does not get to the depth of thought and feeling that I was hoping for when I started reading. The idea that a person could have the greatest mind in history, but only rudimentary ability in English, is quite fascinating to me. As I got started I was hoping to see that contrast of clumsy language and clear thought brought out more and more as the story progressed. This does not happen, and perhaps is not possible, as expressing clarity of thought depends on the sophisticated use of language.
Another limitation of this approach is the predictability of the plot. From the beginning I expected two things: the evolution of the protagonist Z's English fluency and the doomed future of Z's foreign love. In other words, the plot is limited to the natural progress of the language learning progress and disappointment of sexual awakening.
So the protagonist eventually learns to express herself clearly, if not eloquently or grammatically correctly, in the language of her studies. Ultimately though, there was not the progression of thoughts I was looking for. In fact, it may be that Guo was intentionally trying to hook the reader into that way of thinking, only to turn the tables. Rather than blossoming into eloquence, or drawing us into her world, language and all, the narrator shows her humanity. Sinking, in a sense, into the weaker moral standard she finds herself surrounded with she changes her behavior to adjust. In the end it seems that the character is brought down to the level of the language rather than the language being brought up to the level of the character.
The book has a decidedly British flavor, but many of the wry commentaries are applicable, or at least easily transferable, to American culture. The protagonist’s lover is a soul searching artist, if somewhat weak in personality, who drives a delivery truck to make ends meet and never sells his artwork. He presents a decidedly bohemian attitude toward life, which is a good contrast with the stereotypical Chinese man. The story moves along with realistic characterization, though the imagery of the scenes is weak. Again, the latter may be a limitation of the prose style.
As we conclude, it is worth noting an interesting phenomenon: the number of Chinese authors who write in English seems to have leapt up quite significantly in recent years. Why they choose to write in a difficult non-mother tongue rather than waiting for their Chinese works to be translated is a good question. For earlier writers like Ha Jin, political concerns have been at play, but such concern is not evident among those of the younger generation such as Guo Xiaolu. This phenomenon, therefore, might have something to do with deliberately reaching for a Western audience, a welcome attitude change from the once isolated Middle Kingdom.
Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, says in a March interview with China's Southern Weekly that Americans don't read much literary translation, less still when translated from Chinese. Making the matter worse is the fact that there are few qualified Chinese-to-English literary translators. It seems that the undercurrent of direct English writing by Chinese authors is threatening to overtake translation.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Olympic Investment Vanity Spending?

Letter from Shanghai by Paul Armstrong-Taylor

Hi Xujun,

I guess this email will be shorter than usual, but I often think that. Let's see! :-)

(Quotes from your post "The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (3)")
The Chinese government remains very strongly focused on urban development, and seems to think the way to help farmers is to make it easier for them to get to the city. To me, it is not at all obvious that this is true. It seems like redirecting just a small amount of the urban investment to rural areas could have a much more profound impact. This is clearly not a simple topic to come to grips with, but I do think it should have received more attention in the series.
This is interesting. I went to an excellent conference on Inequality in China at Harvard Law School three of four years ago. There were several interesting presenters, including a professor of economics from MIT. I forget his name, but he was Chinese. Anyway, the main point of his research was that the rate of return on investment in the underdeveloped areas of China was higher than in the developed areas. If there was a truly free economy, you would expect the capital to flow to the areas where it earned the higher returns - in other words you would expect capital to shift from developed areas to underdeveloped areas. If this was not happening, it must be because capital was being channeled away from the underdeveloped areas to the developed areas by other factors. His argument was that this was being driven by government policy. He argued that the 1980s were much freer from an economic perspective than the 1990s. As a result, there had been a great deal of investment in underdeveloped regions (e.g. the west of China) during this period. However, in the 1990s, the state owned banks focused lending in the coastal cities, there were tax breaks for certain special development areas, etc. In short, government policy was clearly biased to promoting growth in the developed areas at the expense of the underdeveloped areas.

This is not exactly the same as your point as he was arguing at the regional level - e.g coastal versus central provinces vs west - rather than urban versus rural, but I think similar points hold. In fact, I guess the urban-rural difference maybe even starker than the regional difference.

Just to digress a little bit: From this point of view, the Beijing Olympics really are a big waste of resources and destructive to the environment. I understand the Chinese government and people who take the event as a way to boost China's international image and view it as a matter of national bride. But, while I was disgusted by those violent attempts to damage the torch relay, one good thing I learned from twenty years of living in America is a practical attitude over vanity. To me a better life for people is the ultimate way to improve a nation's image.
I agree with this. I think if you look at democracies, there tend to be fewer "vanity projects". Projects that are spectacular but ultimately have small benefits to ordinary people relative to their costs. Of course, there are some such projects even in democracies - e.g. the Channel Tunnel for UK / France. Of course, you might argue that the ridiculous level of military spending in the US also falls into this category. But I think you tend to see more in non-democracies. Having said that, I am not sure if the Beijing Olympic investment is all vanity spending. Just this evening, I saw a brief news segment on London's preparation for the 2012 Olympics. Sebastian Coe who is organizing the London Olympics emphasized that they were following the Beijing example in making sure that all the facilities developed for the games would be designed to be useful after the games were over. He also mentioned that this has been a focus of the Olympic committee when choosing a city to host the games. I am not to familiar with the Beijing investment, but I guess some of it will be useful after the Olympics. For example, the improved subway infrastructure might help slow the growth of car ownership. I heard they are planning to turn the Olympic village (where the athletes will stay) into a hotel and conference center. Maybe that will not have direct benefit to ordinary people, but at least it will not be wasted. Hopefully some of the sporting facilities will be open to the public and / or used to host other sports teams or events. If so, maybe the Olympics investment is not too bad.

That is it for now!


(posted with permission )

Friday, July 25, 2008

Catherine Sampson's top 10 books on Beijing

In anticipation of the Olympic Games, the Guardian's book blog showcased "Catherine Sampson's top 10 books on Beijing":
  1. Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
  2. Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo
  3. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
  4. The Uninvited by Yan Geling
  5. The Crazed by Ha Jin
  6. The Last Empress by Anchee Min
  7. Serve the People by Yan Lianke
  8. I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen
  9. The Dragon's Tail by Adam Williams
  10. Beijing Doll by Chun Sue
Read the complete post here.

Actually, I'm not sure why The Crazed is recommended. Any of Ha Jin's other novels would have been a better choice.

Boss Yang and Teacher Gene

Following my previous post, there was curiosity on how I "got that American professor sacked." Actually, he wasn't a professor. He was an elementary schoolteacher in America who greatly leapt forward to being a graduate school teacher in China. So here is the story about an uneducated Chinese boss, an incompetent American teacher, and nasty, judgmental students in the mid 1980s.

* * *

The head of the Education Office at my graduate school, Boss Yang, was himself uneducated. He had come to his position, elevated by his lack of education, during the Cultural Revolution and there he stayed. Rumor had it he was a relative of General Yang Shangkun, soon to be China's President. He certainly acted like it. The first story I ever heard about him was how he gained his glorious nickname by yelling at an American teacher who dared to argue with him, screaming curses at the frightened foreigner as the latter fled his office.

Apparently, Boss Yang believed that the only qualification required of a graduate school English teacher was nationality. He hired an American, Gene, to teach us. A gangly man in his late-thirties, Gene the erstwhile elementary school teacher walked into our classroom twice a week and hung a white flipchart on the blackboard. On each page of the flipchart were simple English words that we had learned in middle school. Each word, hand-written in large black ink block letters, occupied a line. His pointer crossing the letters, he would read humorlessly aloud, "Hello" "World", and wait for us to repeat after him. Whether this was his way of teaching elementary school in America, we did not know, but it certainly was not something we appreciated. We looked at each other, shrugged, and kept silent. We waited for him to change his teaching method. He didn't. After two weeks, my roommate and I stopped attending Gene's class.

Then one day a fellow student told me Gene had invited our entire class for lunch in his apartment. I couldn't believe it – that meant anywhere between 10-20 people, and I had heard that Gene was stingy. "Maybe he wants to buy us back to his class," my roommate said. In any case, we were curious to see what an American ate for lunch, or what he would make for us, so the whole class went—not a single absence.

We jammed inside, near the door of Gene's apartment, which was quite spacious, the envy of his Chinese colleagues. "Please sit and help yourselves," Gene said to us, and began to eat his peanut butter sandwich. None of us sat down – there were only a few chairs in his room. Nor did we help ourselves to lunch – there was only a cold loaf of sliced bread on his coffee table, sitting beside an open photo album flaunting his water skiing youth. No dishes. No rice. No bowls or chopsticks. Not even a jar of peanut butter. Gene bit his bread leisurely, ignoring our silent existence. Frustrated and insulted, we quietly left his room one by one and he made no attempt to persuade anyone to stay.

Gene's reputation of stingy evilness ran apace; soon his classroom was as empty as the wilderness. Gene complained to Boss Yang about us not attending his class, and my roommate and I were summoned for questioning. We sensed an opportunity to get rid of the incompetent American teacher. My roommate, Wang, was a conservative Chongqing girl, and she resented Gene for patting her back during a school party. Knowing that Boss Yang would not give weight to the incompetence of Gene's teaching, Wang and I complained about Gene's "improper behavior" toward female students, which effectively upset Boss Yang – he easily took issues with a foreigner's behavior. I don't know how much our trick had contributed to Gene's departure, but his contract was not renewed after that term.

Gene did have followers, three of them, all girls in their final year of graduate school. The girls were pretty; their behavior was not. They followed Gene everywhere like his dogs, while Gene barely spoke to them. According to gossip, all three girls wanted to marry Gene so he could take them to America. I, like most of my fellow students, was disgusted.

Gene took none of his entourage with him; instead, he married a classmate of mine, a newly divorced Beijing girl he had been secretly dating. It had to be secret because foreign teachers needed Boss Yang's permission to visit student dormitories. The girl dropped out of graduate school to go abroad with Gene; when she was leaving not a single person on campus said goodbye to her. We watched, from our dorm windows, her lone back disappearing from our sight with no sympathy. The last thing we heard about her was no sooner had she got her green card that she divorced Gene.

Little did I know that I myself would one day fall in love with an American.

(Excerpted from "On Becoming an American," Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2008)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Why Did You Come to America?"

A reader named "anonymous" questioned me, "So why then did you come to America? Most immigrants from Europe LEFT Europe behind, but you did not leave China behind." He seemed very upset about that.

Well, since there is some interest in knowing why I came to America, I might as well tell the story. Actually, I've already told it in a personal essay titled "On Becoming an American," recently published in the Michigan Quarterly Review's issue on China. The essay has 6000 words, too long to reprint in this space. So I'll just post an excerpt here. You can probably find the magazine in your local Barnes & Nobel.

"On Becoming an American" (Excerpt)

I went to graduate school in the Chengdu Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the mid-1980s. Though our once fomenting childhood slogan "Down with American Imperialist!" had become simply a cue for laughter, even then I would find my bile rising at the most random of triggers. (An incompetent American man who was teaching our English class might have been fired because of a trick my roommate and I played against him.)

It should be explained here that at the time, among mainland Chinese people, any balanced attitude toward foreigners, especially Americans, was rare, and I was not an exception. The veneration of white foreigners for their superiority was as common as the revulsion for their vile actions, and the roots of both could be traced back to the Opium War. I was in the latter camp, a heritage from my parents whose hatred toward America developed in the 1940s.

Studying the work of American and other western scholars and scientists had given me respect for their intellectual achievement. Still, my attitude toward Americans was recalcitrant, and it was only reluctantly that I agreed to go and listen to a foreigner's lecture on a warm spring afternoon in April 1987. The lecture, at a neighboring university, was on System Dynamics, a subject I was studying.

Imagine my astonishment when the lecturer jumped down from the stage, walked against the dissipating crowd toward a back seat in the auditorium, and spoke tender English to me. In instinctive panic, I ran away from the tall American, who wore a shy, childish smile. But the determined man found me again the next afternoon, and, as we toured downtown Chengdu on bicycles with two other friends, Bob and I had a chat in my broken English and his pidgin Chinese, an intelligent and humorous chat that would change my impression of Americans forever. Many years later when I read the late American journalist H. L. Mencken's noted essay, "On Being an American," I could not help but be amazed how the author's general depiction of Americans matched perfectly my first impression of Bob: "They are, by long odds, the most charming people that I have ever encountered in this world. They have the same charm that one so often notes in a young girl, say of seventeen or eighteen, and perhaps it is grounded upon the same qualities: artlessness, great seriousness, extreme self-consciousness, a fresh and innocent point of view, a disarming and ingratiating ignorance." That was the portrait of Bob.

In retrospect, it was love at first sight, despite politics, despite nationality, despite myself. But I wouldn't admit it. I did not trust my intuition. A classical dogma I’d adhered to from birth, whether I realized or not, was die-hard.

Two months later, in June, my institute sent me and a classmate to Shanghai to attend the International System Dynamics Conference, which Bob was helping organize. One day after dinner Bob asked me for another chat. We were in Shanghai Mechanical College, and we climbed up a small hill covered with privet bushes, which seemed to be the only green place on the campus. At first I thought we were alone. A while into our conversation, some slight but discernible rustling sounds led to my discovery that hidden behind every bush on the small hill was a student couple kissing. I was stunned.

Before I recovered from my discovery, a new couple climbed up the hill. They paused briefly when passing us; I could feel their inquisitive eyes. Even in the dimness, a foreigner, especially with Bob's big puffy beard, was easy to distinguish. Did they think I was dating an American? I began to panic.

At that moment Bob said, clear and calm, "I love you."

"But you are a foreigner!" I burst out. "I'm a man. You are a woman," he said, a bit surprised by my reaction, with his charming ignorance of my crisis. It was a genuine shock, what he just said. For the first time I became aware of the sharp difference in our way of thinking: growing up as Chinese I had always placed political identity ahead of gender, ahead of the person. He was himself and I had not been. And that was the turning point for me to begin separating the individual identity from the political identity—the country, the race, or the religion.


The first time I told my mother about Bob, she was shocked. Her shock quickly turned to a deep worry. "American men can not be trusted," she said, "he is playing with you!" Her inveterate opinion had probably been formed from her early experiences, but by then I knew Bob well enough not to listen.

Bob proposed a year later, after a long and winding underground courtship, after my parents had gradually altered their view of him from that of an abstract American to a dear person, a handy young man who could fix their broken shower head and leaking sink. My Communist father's condition for allowing him to marry me was "do not let my daughter get involved in any politics!" Which Bob gladly accepted. Bob probably would have accepted any condition that day, as long as he was not asked to live in China for the rest of his life, but to him my father's requirement was such an easy one because I was apolitical. Or so he thought. I had actually asked Bob—quite hopefully—if he'd like to live in China with me. He answered in an end-of-discussion tone, "No." Why, I asked, and he said simply, "I love America." As much in love as I was with Bob, it was still strange for me to hear that.

After being married in Chongqing we returned to Chengdu, so that I could finish my Master's degree. Upon learning about our marriage, Boss Yang summoned Bob and me for questioning. Always dour, with cigarette stained yellow teeth, Boss Yang was verging on angry. He was evidently very unhappy about my choice, probably because I had never asked for his approval. During the meeting, Boss Yang had a translator stand by his side while he asked us all sorts of personal questions. At one point he changed his authoritative tone to a fatherly voice and said to me, "Why do you want to marry an American? He'll divorce you in no time. We know American men always divorce their wives. I'd hate to see you be abandoned in an alien land like that." I just smiled and said, "He won't." Boss Yang wasn't alone in this opinion– to Chinese, the concept of American freedom meant an arbitrary attitude toward sex and marriage. Today, 19 years later, Boss Yang's prediction about my marriage has still not come true, and during the years I've seen more divorces among Chinese couples (including my sisters) than our American friends. So we were married (not without trouble), moved to Boston, and, though I would have liked to say "we lived happily ever after," the story is not over.

Update: A related story -- Boss Yang and Teacher Gene

Friday, July 18, 2008

The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (3)

In my previous post on Ted Koppel's documentary, "The People's Republic of Capitalism," I focused on the interesting differences, mostly on political issues, in opinion between Koppel and people he interviewed. When it came to economics, however, there was only one dissenting voice: a man being forced to move out of his home because of new construction - and it really looked like he was just holding out for more money. Environmental and safety issues were raised, but they did not seem to damp anyone’s optimism about economic growth.

When I look at China today, I worry about the toll the rapid urban development, and the emphasis on getting rich, is taking on the social structure. I am also concerned that China is pursuing many economic policies that are basically a dead end. There have been quite a few posts on this blog related to these topics – Confucianism, coal and oil etc, some by guest blogger Larry Mongoss.

Some of these issues did not come out very clearly in Koppel's series, and it is worth reflecting why that might be.

First, many of the people who worry about these things in China are in academic pursuits. They are not engaged in the economy at the top (i.e. owners and bosses) or at the bottom as laborers. They are, rather, in the middle and largely ignored by the two ends. They have also not seen as dramatic a change in the lifestyle (and even though they have interesting ideas many are boring to listen to), and thus are less attractive as interview candidates. 

Second, not many people are publicly critical of rapid economic development. Some are talking about the environment, but not really in a way to suggest changing the path. This is not so much out of fear of government reprisal. Self-interest strongly motivates people to go along, and speaking out in the contrary would not be popular. Still, it is worth reviewing the content of Koppel’s documentary as a platform for discussing whether the economic path China is pursuing is a right one.

The First Episode

The first episode deals primarily with globalization and the movement of goods and jobs. This episode was especially interesting to me, because when I left Chongqing in 1988, almost everything was locally produced. And by local, I mean really local. I worked in a bus factory after I graduated from college – buses for Chongqing from Chongqing. In stores, which had a limited variety of goods, almost everything was made in Chongqing. Even within China, very little moved to or from Chongqing. It was quite a surprise to come to Boston and find out my vegetables were coming from California. Today, globalization is with us and it definitely has good and bad things – as Koppel pointed out by showing the job fairs and disenfranchised workers.

The Second Episode

In the second episode, Koppel was trying to highlight some of the troubling things – prostitution, drugs and drinking, that are now prevalent in Chongqing. Unfortunately, without any real historical baseline, he had little to say about whether this was new, or had always been. Sure some people talked about the good old days of the Cultural Revolution, but it was really just middle aged people reminiscing about their youth. I find myself doing the same thing sometimes – and all of my friends love to sing the songs from that time just for fun, for being young again. It is also the wrong period for comparison. The golden age of Communism in China was short lived – basically the 1950s before the anti-rightists movement and the Great Leap Forward, and then an even shorter rejuvenation in 1963-64 after the country recovered from the three-year famine. During that time there was little corruption among party members and significant improvement to the lives of the poorest people.

Still, to be a poor farmer in China is hard. My mother was born into such a family in 1929, the only one of 13 children to see a second birthday. I also lived with very poor farmers for several years as a 知青 ("sent-down youth" as sometimes referred, but I prefer to translate the term as "insert") in the 1970s, and know what they go through. Hard rural life has been part of China for thousands of years. It is not something attributable only to Communism, as Koppel offhandedly suggested, though the three-year famine from 1959-61 certainly was. Improving that life is a worthy goal indeed.

Koppel repeatedly presents the idea of bootstrapping 300 million people (not sure what this number is referring to) out of poverty. He talked to some of the poor peasants, and found that they preferred now to then – when "then" was any time in the past. While that does suggest economic development is working for them, for most the local improvement in rural conditions is more the result of land reform and de-collectivization in the 1980s – 90s than urban economic growth. In fact, the emphasis on urban development has been the source of many of the bitter rural protests that Koppel refers to. To my mind, the link between urban economic growth and improvements in rural conditions is not as clear as the series suggests.

The Chinese government remains very strongly focused on urban development, and seems to think the way to help farmers is to make it easier for them to get to the city. To me, it is not at all obvious that this is true. It seems like redirecting just a small amount of the urban investment to rural areas could have a much more profound impact. This is clearly not a simple topic to come to grips with, but I do think it should have received more attention in the series.

The Third Episode

Cars and roads are what the third episode is all about, and I feel uncomfortable that so many people seem to buy into a single vision. I can still remember a conversation I had with a government planning official in Beijing about ten years ago. I had boldly stated that China has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes made in the US and develop more effective public transit, which was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation. He absolutely bristled at my suggestion and furiously proclaimed that Chinese had every right to the same life that Americans enjoy. To him, and apparently many others, that means cars.

In the early 1980s, when I was a university student in Chongqing and China was newly opened to the outside world, once-prohibited Western thoughts began to be introduced in great quantity. At the time the books from the "20th Century Series" were most popular among us hungry students and scholars. Among those translated books, The Limits to Growth was most talked about. Three decades after the book's first publication in 1972, its many prognostications (of the negative consequences of population and economic growth) based on a system dynamics model have come true, yet the government and business people, both in the US and China, continue to ignore it. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

There are clear signs that oil won’t continue to be cheap, that carbon is having a significant global climate impact, that urbanization is destroying ecosystems and that many of the negative environmental impacts are actually reinforcing themselves. China seems to be trying to emulate America – big roads and big cars (along with the business practices of the railroad barons). If China, with four times the population, matches the current American lifestyle, the implications are enormously frightening. At the same time, my red faced friend is correct – Chinese have as much right to the good life as anyone.

That is a dilemma that would make a very interesting follow up to this series. It seems to me a more reasonable model would be to really slow down the urban development while pulling resources together to help improve the rural life and developing mass transit and alternative transportation (such as electric bikes) instead of a car-oriented life style.

Just to digress a little bit: From this point of view, the Beijing Olympics really are a big waste of resources and destructive to the environment. I understand the Chinese government and people who take the event as a way to boost China's international image and view it as a matter of national pride. But, while I was disgusted by those violent attempts to damage the torch relay, one good thing I learned from twenty years of living in America is a practical attitude over vanity. To me a better life for people is the ultimate way to improve a nation's image. 

The Fourth Episode

The fourth episode explores corruption and business. It came as no surprise that these often go hand in hand. The main case discussed involved a lot of land, and lot of money. In a high-profile corruption case, the government official who accepted big bribes was sentenced to death (though delayed), while the business people who provided the bribes were not punished. Troubling, but it is no surprise given that the Chinese government is so vocally pro business. This case was highly publicized, but it is the widespread, but smaller scale corruption that should be given more attention. Koppel did allude to the discussion of the schools that collapsed in the earthquake, but that was not his focus. As the adage goes, 天高皇帝远 – when the sky is high and the emperor is far, people do whatever they want. And when offered many years salary to look the other way, it is no surprise that some can’t resist. With all the focus on the cities, very few will hear the cries of those suffering in the countryside.

I do applaud Koppel for his diligence and persistence in creating this series. I was very impressed that he was willing to go down into a coal mine – I admit I would be very afraid to do that. I hope that he will follow up on it, and perhaps address some of the threads that I have pointed out in this post. There are interesting times ahead.

Previous post:
The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (2)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (2)

Thanks to Izzy Forman at the Discovery Channel, who sent the DVDs that provided me the opportunity to see Ted Koppel's 4-hour documentary, "The People's Republic of Capitalism."

For three evenings I watched the DVDs with great interest. Not only because I was from Chongqing; as a journalist myself I was amazed by Koppel's true journalist capacity. Koppel apparently has his own strong opinion about China, about what a country China is and what it should be. This is evident in his persistent questioning, sometimes even coaxing, of certain interviewees, trying - more often than not unsuccessfully - to get the answer he wants to hear. His biases, however, do not stop him from providing all points of view. That, to me, is a true journalist virtue. He has my admiration for that.

So, it is the disagreement that is the most interesting. As a friend once said, "If you agree with someone, you can't say much more than 'I agree' but if you disagree, there are lots of things to say!" In this, Koppel's documentary is thought provoking.

One of the curious characters Koppel repeatedly interviewed is an artistic fashion photographer, who speaks quite good English and goes by the name Alan. The young man, looking to be in his mid-twenties, apparently is very gifted in his art, but is either politically naïve or is 装糊涂 – playing dumb. Here is an amusing dialogue between the two:

Ted Koppel: My question is, if people want to get together, let's say in the countryside, and protest corruption, and the police will come, and break up the demonstration, and they will not allow it…
Alan: (innocently) Oh really?
Ted Koppel: You say 'oh really,' you don't know that?
Alan: I don't know that. I have never seen that…
Ted Koppel: I know. I know you haven't seen it. You know why you haven't seen it?
Alan: Why?
Ted Koppel: Because television can not report it, because the newspaper can not report it, because anyone who's there, if they take photograph, they will be arrested. That's why you don't know about it.
Alan: Okay.
Ted Koppel: I don't want to get you in trouble, but you don't seem to care about it.
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: You don't?
Alan: Not very care about that part, I don't.
Ted Koppel: Because?
Alan: There must be a reason for the government to do that. And, I really believe in the Chinese government. Because we can see that people here living a better life than before. And I don't think people who wrote something on the street or sitting on the street are smart. I don't think that's the best way to do that.

Despite Koppel's obvious disapproval of Alan's view, he nonetheless includes the conversation in the program, which, in my opinion, shows his quality as an honest journalist who respects a variety of viewpoints, and such respect precedes his own opinion.

Another scene that amazes me is when Koppel visits a 93-year-old in a rural area of Chongiqing. "She's an old lady, she has seen many things," Koppel narrates. Then he asks the old lady, "When was the best time to live in China?" "Right now," the toothless woman answers in local dialect, sitting on her bed. "We have clothes to wear, we have food to eat. It is right now."

Does this surprise you? If Koppel was surprised, he did not show it.

It occurs to me it's true that those common folks don't care much about the big political picture – democracy or not. "Food is the god of man" – 民以食为天, so goes an ancient Chinese adage. A higher level of political concern comes after a certain sufficiency of food and clothing. This brings me to a question that I'm sure has come up time and again: Is China doing the right thing to have the economic reform before political reform? Does a successful political reform require the foundation of good economic conditions? Or, could political reform succeed in the face of harsh economic conditions? From a slightly different angle, looking at the poor, struggling people in China, do they care what the "correct" political system is as long as their economic life is improving?

Somehow, those who think as long as China has democracy then everything would be fine and everyone would be happy remind me of a Cultural Revolution slogan: "We would rather have socialist weeds than capitalist seedlings" – in other words, a correct political system is everything.

In any case, Koppel is certainly not satisfied with the answers related to this question he has heard in his interviews. Toward the end of the program, after a businessman says that the Chinese government is the most pro-business government in the world, Koppel voices over the segment closing - "But pro-business is different from pro-democracy."

That businessman is Vincent Lou, a billionaire developer and one of the biggest investors in Chongqing. As if an old country lady and a young city artist were not enough, Koppel brings in the Western educated, mid-aged man with an elegant bearing. Vincent Lou has the appearance of a Chinese ethnic who is brought up in the West. On the wall of his spacious, beautiful office hang rolls of traditional Chinese calligraphy. That is where the following conversation takes place:

Vincent Lou: I believe the political system for China is very effective for this country.
Ted Koppel: I'm always told what the Chinese government fears the most is chaos.
Vincent Lou: I'm sure that's something we are all concerned, not just the government. If this is very chaotic, I don't think I'll be investing billions of dollars into the city. We need stability so we can do business.

Later Vincent Lou again says, "I've studied and lived in the Western world for about 40 years. Democracy, of course, it sounds good. But in practice it doesn't always bring the results. A lot of criticism has been put on China, saying it is a one-party system, human rights and everything else. But this is the system that has helped China come to where it is in such a short time, in the past 30 years." He does not sound very keen to have democracy for China.

Speaking of human rights, here is another dialogue between Koppel and the young artist, Alan, after a crashing Falun Gong scene:

Ted Koppel: It's okay for you to become a Christian…
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: …that's no problem.
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: But if you want to join Falun Gong…
Alan: (shaking head rapidly) Oh no no no…
Ted Koppel: …that will be a big problem.
Alan: Yeah!
Ted Koppel: Why?
Alan: Why? Because the government said it's bad…
Ted Koppel: (smile knowingly) I understand.
Alan: …We are citizens. It's (our) responsibility to follow the government's orders. And I think the government's order should be respected. There must be a reason for them to do it. I believe in my government… (a cute smile). Yeah.

In his narrative voice, Koppel then comments Alan's belief as "blind faith." He continues in a mocking tone, "Things in China are getting better, therefore, what the government is doing must be right."

While Alan's reasoning does sound naïve, many people in the US more mature than him use a logic that my teenage daughter would term "same difference." Taking Falun Gong as an example. People here in the States are sympathetic and supportive not because they know much about it, but simply because the Chinese government represses it. Using Koppel's tone of voice, "The Chinese government hates it, therefore, what Falun Gong is doing must be good."

This reminds me Chairman Mao's famous admonition, "Anything the enemy opposes, we must advocate. Anything the enemy advocates, we must oppose." :-)

Most Western media is one sided and that makes learning different views difficult. My mother-in-law, for example, only realized another side of Falun Gong after she read Lisa See's novel Dragon Bones. This time it is fiction that is doing the job of journalism.

On politics overall, though Koppel's voice is pretty strong in this series, he has given fair play to the voices of many others. One question that remains with me is what the people watching it, who know and trust him, will hear. Will his voice dominate, or will they hear the variety that he presents? I hope the latter, but I am unsure.

(I have more to say on economics. Coming soon.)

Related posts

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Apologies" Trailer

A writer friend, Kim McDougall, designed a trailer for my book. Thought you might want to take a look. It's fun.

(For high resolution go to YouTube.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dream Left on Covered Bridges 廊桥遗梦

by Maple Xu

(Note: Maple, an avid traveler and photographer, just sent me another interesting travelogue. It makes you wonder how many mysteries exist in Chinese cultural history, just like the Yuyuan Taiji Celestial Village she wrote about last time. – Xujun)

Immortal Resident Bridge, built in 1453

[In translation]

Many years ago I read 廊桥遗梦 ("a dream left on covered bridges" – the Chinese translation for The Bridges of Madison County). That little book touched me deeply, even today I still remember some of the words Robert said to Francesca.

I was young and couldn't understand why Francesca would choose to stay instead of go with Robert. I felt sad and dejected for Robert. I took the novel as a true story, and wanted to go look for that covered bridge with blooming butterfly flowers at its foot.

At the time I did not have any idea what a covered bridge was.

Wenzhong Bridge, 1745

Three years ago when I traveled to Nanxi River, two backpack travelers from Beijing told me there were over a hundred covered bridges in Taishun County (泰顺县), located on the border between Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. This information gave me palpitations; for a while I was speechless. I couldn't imagine what the landscape would look like with so many covered bridges scattered in the fields. Would there be butterfly flowers blooming by them? Would Robert's love be there waiting? Even though this is a different country, covered bridges are covered bridges, right? Their existence itself suggests romanticism more than utility.

Today I'm in Taishun. Traversing the quiet villages one after another, looking for the different charming bridges one after another, I am baffled. Why has this remote, rather poor countryside assembled the largest number of covered bridges in China? Who designed them? Who first got the idea? Who built them? Were they for practical use or for recreation?

Three Woods Bridge, originally from Tang Dynasty, rebuilt 1843. An ancient poem inked on it

Records show that, fleeing from disasters or war, bit by bit many historical figures and worthy people had migrated to Taishun, an unfrequented area with undulating mountains, a utopia. They created many pastoral local cultures, and the covered bridges are representative of those.

The Taishun Transportation Chronicle records that a total of 476 bridges built before 1949 still exist, including over 30 covered bridges made of wood or stone from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Six of the covered wooden bridges hold important positions in world bridge history.

Here what amazes me the most are the flying wooden arch bridges built without pillars. They are constructed of relatively short pieces of wood, horizontally and vertically woven, with beams interpenetrating and pinned to shape the arch. The ingenious structure is simply marvelous!

I run into several old men sitting sunbathing on the stone steps of Yongqing Bridge. This bridge is unique in its beams carved with carp feelers.
Yongqing Bridge, 1797, including 12 bridge houses; carp feelers carved on beams

One of the old men, with an expression resembling a smile yet not smiling, asks me, "Is the bridge good to look at?" "Yes!" I answer. "Nothing that good," he says. I want to question more, but he turns his head and says nothing further.

I think he means NOW the bridges are no longer good. Long, long ago, when there was no highway, the air was clean and fresh, the mountains were bright, the water was beautiful, the woods were lush, and the meadows were green. It was to this other-worldly place the covered bridges added rosy color.
Perhaps the old man wanted to tell me the bridges were good to look at only then.

Now the covered bridges are beaten and mutilated. The branches of the old camphor tree at the bridgehead are wizened and the leaves sparse. The most sorrowful scene is the assortment of plastic garbage thrown in the river under the bridges, and the white ceramic tile walls of the cement houses surrounding them.
But all that seems no longer important. The important thing is the covered bridges are still here. Like Robert's love.

Sister Bridges – East Bridge, 400 years old

Sister Bridges – North Bridge, 300 years old

Liu House Bridge, 1405, the oldest "flat" wooden bridge

Wenxing Bridge, 1857, asymmetric structure, 51 meters long, 5 meters wide; the most well-kept

Yuwen Bridge, 1839, stone arch, wooden corridor; the most beautiful

Claiming Clouds Bridge, Ming Dynasty, Zhengde Reign

(Photo copyrights 2008 Maple Xu)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing

Since when has Chongqing regained attention from the West? The last time the world eyed my home city was the 1940s - when it was China's wartime Capital.

So here's the news, and I would look forward to seeing this if I had a TV with the Discovery Channel.

Starting tonight, and continuing for 4 nights, the Discovery Channel will show Ted Koppel's documentary on China, The People's Republic of Capitalism. Filmed almost entirely in Chongqing over the course of a year, the series consists of four one-hour-long programs in which Discovery Channel Managing Editor Ted Koppel and his team of producers explore America's economic relationship with China as well as capitalism's effect on the Chinese people.

KOPPEL ON DISCOVERY: THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CAPITALISM, Discovery Channel, Wednesday July 9 at 10 PM (ET/PT) through Saturday, July 12.

Here are some clips from the program (looks familiar):

Cultural Revolution Dinner Theater:
The People's Republic of Choreography:
More Here:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Gas Prices and China’s Feast from Famine

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Last year when I was in Chengdu, a bicycle brushed by me as I was walking along the sidewalk. I was surprised to see the rider was not pedaling. A second look brought my attention to the two wheeled things that I remember so fondly and I noticed that most had batteries and a little electric motor down where the business gets done. I was also surprised at how quiet the scooters were until I realized that they too were battery operated. I had fun counting old fashioned bicycles – still lots around but it seems like there were more of the new kind. So I went window shopping and saw that they were available everywhere and, while not downright cheap, priced quite reasonably. A nice convenience for those that can't afford cars.

So what does this have to do with the price of gas in China?

When the Chinese government recently announced that gas prices were going up, I, like many people, was surprised. Mostly, cynics that we are, we didn’t expect something that might anger people to happen before the Olympics. But I guess, when the alternative is long lines at the pumps, and taxis that won’t go, the early price increase seemed reasonable.

Taking a longer term perspective, which is what I am more interested in talking about anyway, gasoline and diesel prices are on the rise. This recent 20% increase is pretty muted relative to what we have seen in the US, but things will catch up. There is enough market influence in China now that having a state set price on anything that effects more than a few select cadres is no longer practical. Make the oil companies sell cheap and they simply stop refining. The days of rice coupons and rationing, though not forgotten, are looked back upon and not part of the future. Expensive oil, on the other hand, is.

High energy costs are not new to China. In fact for anyone over 30, both energy and the things that use it have been generally costly. I can remember taking a taxi in China some 20 years ago and being surprised at how quickly the driver would shift into third. I was thinking dirty valves and poor acceleration; he was thinking two more kilometers on my tank of gas. Though prices have gone up, the steadily increasing income of the rising middle class has made energy, cars and air conditioners seem affordable.

Most likely, though, that flirtation with cheap energy is coming to an end. In China cheap oil has just started its seduction of a generation. This is in contrast to the US where, since the Second World War, we have been shaping our lives to the idea that traveling farther-faster-cheaper is what we do. Our highways, suburbs and shopping malls all have the reliance on cheap oil built into them. While China’s growth over the last two decades has been frenetic, and much of it imbued with this same bigger-faster-further mindset, there are few in China who do not know what a shoulder pole is used for.

So – and this is a question I have been pondering for the last five years – what happens when gasoline finally reaches $10/gallon in the US and China? For me the obvious answer has always been bicycles and trains – and that brings the US right back to China as I first met it. I may be wrong about the exact technology. It is electric cars and not bicycles that people talk about in the US. While, as I pointed out in the opening, in many of China’s cities electric scooters and bicycles significantly outnumber the pedaled kind. But this latter observation kind of makes my point. China is, ironically, much closer to a reasonable end state for dealing with high energy costs than the United States.

The real question, then, is whether the leaders of China, both political and business, will recognize this and change course. It is actually a tricky thing to do, because the technology is not all there. China, like Japan in the 1960s, is quickly gaining on the richer countries copying the way things are done in those countries, but that path is becoming obsolete. The current increase in the price of oil makes it a dead end. Copying what works in the US to deal with this would mean a very long wait. Grappling with the issue head-on, however, is something that China is well positioned to do. The solutions, from a social perspective, resemble more closely China of two decades ago then America of today. The technology required to make it work is still unknown, but it is knowable, and China is a great place to try it out. Perhaps then, the US can start copying what happens there.

A Fun Contest at LanceReviews

Several months ago, I reported about an independent film review site, LanceReviews. At the time, that amazing site with a daily traffic up to 1000 was only seven months old. Now that it is approaching its first anniversary, Lance Berry is hosting a contest.

Check out LanceReviews' 1st Anniversary Contest. LanceReviews is an ads-free site, a labor of love that is applauded by movie fans. Check it out – you might be surprised.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Random Talk on Three Kingdoms

Earlier this week, I was searching looking for good new books about China to read. The key words "China books" turned up 542 lists in the Listmania! category, and "best China books" resulted in 237. After a quick browse, I was a bit surprised that Three Kingdoms did not show up in those lists, though it was ranked #2 in Books > Literature & Fiction > World Literature > Chinese.

I had to create my own list of best China books to include Three Kingdoms it is my very favorite. I'm not sure how this English translation got its high ranking though, as none of the Americans I have asked were even aware of it.

Once, before I quit my high tech job, the company's president, a Jewish businessman with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England, asked me to recommend a book about China. Apparently, hiring me had whetted his appetite for more Chinese employees. I lent him my copy of the first volume of Three Kingdoms. About a month later I asked him what he thought of the book. He said, "I did not know people fought so much in ancient China!"

My American husband, Bob, absolutely loved Three Kingdoms as well – I guess our marriage is indeed well founded. :-)

And, had I not stolen the book (a Chinese edition of course) from a sealed library during the Cultural Revolution, I would never have gotten my Ph.D. from MIT.


It was 1970 when I entered middle school. Schools had been closed for several years before they reopened to a different authority—the Workers’ Propaganda Team. Red banners hung everywhere in the schoolyard: “The Working Class Rules Everything!” They marked a new era in which books were burned or sealed instead of being read.

Master Yoe, a taciturn lathe worker in his late forties, was the WPT member stationed in my classroom. Without notice, he would randomly walk into our chatty classroom holding his hands behind him and sauntering around between desks. Wherever he stopped, the noise in that corner also stopped. Whenever I asked a teacher about anything, class schedules or other activities, the answer was invariantly, “Ask Master Yoe.”

I had never seen Master Yoe read anything, not even a newspaper. I suspected that he was illiterate. Until I was caught by him one day, that is.

I had had no books to read for several years. As soon as the Cultural Revolution began, my mother, the superintendent of a school district, sold all her books (except the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao) as waste paper to a salvage station. If we did not get rid of the books, the Red Guards would come to raid our house. Those books were “four olds”—old thought, old culture, old tradition, old custom—and must be swept out.

One day during my first year in middle school, I noticed a crack on the seal across a library door. This one-room library was on the second floor of the office building at which my father, before his disgrace, had been an institute head. Like all other libraries then, its door was sealed by two diagonal strips of white paper with black dates and red stamps on them. But for some reason, there were still shelves full of books inside—that much I could see through the chink in the door. Every once in a while, I would peek inside when no one was watching and fantasize about owning all those books.

When I noticed the tear appearing on the sealing strip, I told myself it wasn’t because my forehead pushed it. The tear grew wider each day. I “accidentally” passed by the door more frequently and stole glances at its slow evolution. At last, one day, I saw that the sealing strip was about to snap. With a little extra push surely it would.

I don’t remember providing the push. It must have been a natural force that finally tore the seal. In any case, I found myself inside the dim, dusty library, standing in front of a spider-netted bookshelf. Not daring to stay long, I grabbed a thick, tattered book from the nearest shelf—it must be an interesting book if so many people had read it, I thought. Hiding the book under my shirt, I snuck out, heart pounding, and ran home.

The book was Three Kingdoms. While virtually all books belonged to “four olds,” this was their epitome—one of the oldest classic novels. Before the Cultural Revolution began, I had heard fragments of the novel in teahouses, told by folk storytellers holding a short piece of wood board, used to strike the table and make a loud noise whenever the story was approaching a climax. For several afternoons after school, I was immersed in the novel.

I laughed when Zhu Geliang, the greatest war strategist, tricked his enemy with “Empty City Ruse” and “borrowed” the enemy’s arrows using straw boats; I cried when he died of sickness on an autumn night with his army’s victory in arm’s reach. I saw nothing but the ancient regiment flags and shining spears, I heard nothing but the beat of battalion drums and the neighs of armored horses. I wished I had been born in that heroic time. My dream was broken only by my parents’ return home from their work units each day, at which point I quickly stashed the book under my quilt. My parents, laden with their own burdens, noticed nothing.

Against my better judgment, I brought the book to school a few days later, spellbound by the final chapters. I knew very well that the book had the stamp of my father’s work unit on it. If caught by the WPT, I would not only bring disaster on myself but also impose a new crime upon my father’s name. But I was dying to know if Zhu Geliang’s chosen successor, Jaing Wei, had won the war. Sitting down, I opened the book in the compartment under my desktop. I kept my head up, lowering only my eyes to read. Every few moments, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. But the classroom was the ruckus of a hornet’s nest—all my classmates were chatting, kidding, throwing chalk around, and no one paid attention to the poor teacher writing whatever on the blackboard, let alone me. More reassuring still, Master Yoe wasn’t in.

I could only stay alert for so long when reading such an enticing book. After a dozen pages I forgot everything else, until the blue veins on a big hand filled my eyes and took the book, almost gently, away. I looked up, panic stricken, meeting Master Yoe’s serious gaze. God knows when he had walked in.


One day a year later, a bunch of men arrived in green military dress. With their arrival, new slogans appeared on the campus walls: “Station troops to guard the frontier and cultivate the borderland!” The “troops,” it turned out, meant us middle school students. We were being recruited to go to Yunnan, China’s southern borderland neighbouring Burma, to plant rubber trees in the army reclamation farms. Anyone who had turned 16 was eligible, which meant most of the students, who had been delayed by several years without schools. And the recruiters did not mind if all of us joined them.

My best friend and I hit palms pledging to go together. We applied enthusiastically, as did many of our friends. Every regime has its own politically correct terms. What we did was politically correct, expected, and honorable, in our time.

When I handed my application—one page full of vehement words—to Master Yoe, he said, “You are not sixteen yet.”

“In three months I will be. Revolution does not discriminate by age!”

“We’ll need your parents’ agreement,” he said. His swarthy face showed no smile.

I was confident that my mother, a Party member, would support my correct decision. But she turned out to be tough. She said I was too young, Yunnan was too far, work in an army reclamation farm would be too hard, and much more. I pestered her day after day, alternating cajolement with coercion and crying, until she finally gave in.

In a few weeks, the list of approved students was announced, both in broadcast and on a big wall, the names studded the papers like ants. Everyone I knew who applied got their wish, including my best friend, but I did not find my name. Did this mean I was not trustworthy?

Master Yoe wore a sly smile when I confronted him. “Shhh. You are not going to Yunnan. You are going to high school.”

That was the first time I heard the news that high schools would reopen as well. High schools had not been needed because universities admitted only factory workers, peasants, and soldiers by recommendation, many of them semi-literates. Now, Master Yoe told me secretively, Premier Zhou Enlai had instructed an “experiment” (as if it were a novelty): to admit a small number of students to high school, and after graduation send them directly to university. (The second half of this plan, as it turned out, was never realized before Premier Zhou’s death in 1976.) As such, my school was in the process of selecting one student from each class to go on to high school. And Master Yoe singled me out from thirty-plus classmates.


That fateful day when Master Yoe seized my Three Kingdoms, I did all I could to plead with him to give it back to me. I vowed to become the most obedient, disciplined, and well-behaved student, and do whatever he asked me to do. I begged him not to implicate my father.

“I’ll tell you my decision in three days,” he said.

It was an odd thing to say. What would take him three days to decide? But a delayed decision was certainly better than an immediate execution. I nodded meekly, as if in a position to agree.

There is no need to describe how heavily time hung during those three days; it taught me the meaning of an old adage: “Live a day as if it were a year.” The third afternoon, I followed Master Yoe to a quiet corner in campus and timidly reminded him of the deadline. He handed me the book rolled in a newspaper and said, “Nice, nice. I’ve been looking for this book for some time. Never thought it could arrive so easily.” He smacked his lips like a glutton. “Here you are, girl, don’t let me see it again.”

He had taken the novel for three days to read himself.

Afterward, we discussed Zhu Geliang, the embodiment of Chinese wisdom. I believe this was why he wanted to see me go on to high school: for our shared secret love of Three Kingdoms.

That was how my infatuation with books frustrated my political correctness. With the help of a worker whose duty was to demolish old books, I went to high school instead of a rubber tree farm. Luckily, my high school years overlapped with Deng Xiaoping’s short-lived “second time up” as China’s vice-premier, and, under new policies issued by the practical leaders Zhou and Deng, I had an almost normal education in the sciences and literature. That is, if you discount my school’s relocation to the mountains for one year, hiding in preparation for the Third World War that Chairman Mao knew the American Imperialists would soon start.


Years later, after the Cultural Revolution ended and universities finally reopened to the public, in the winter of 1977, I went to the largest national college entrance exam in history, taken by a decade’s accumulation of wannabe students, many of whom had never set foot in high school. As it turned out, I was the sole person from my middle school class who got into university. Only then did I realize what a great favor Master Yoe, whose full name I did not even learn, had done for me.

(This post contains an excerpt from my personal essay, "Turning My Back on the Well," first published in Prism International.)