Friday, October 31, 2008

Testing Your Unconscious Biases

A fellow writer discovered a Harvard webpage presenting tools for testing unconscious biases. You can find many tests there, the featured one on Election 2008. I had thought I knew all my own biases and didn't even need a test, but I took the "Asian American" test just for the sake of it. I chose the answer to the first question as "I like Asian Americans and European Americans equally." And to another I chose "I consider … descent equally American." After going through some image selections, this was what I got:

Your Result

Your data suggest a moderate association of Asian American with American and European American with Foreign compared to European American with American and Asian American with Foreign.

That was a surprise! Because consciously, for me, it is the opposite. It seems the test reaches its conclusions based on the number of mistakes you make. If you don't make any mistake, it probably won't let you finish. I am not sure how reliable the interpretation is, but it's kind of interesting.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Absentee Voting

Because I’ll be out of town next week, I went to cast my absentee ballot this afternoon. Several people were already there doing the same. When asked by a voter, the town clerk who handled our ballots said this year the early voting is especially heavy. And she believes this is because the general participation is going to be a lot higher.

I think all the talk about early voting contributed to the higher participation. I was surprised at how easy it was. I have never had to wait in line to vote in my small suburban town, but I can understand the charm of an absentee ballot to those that have.

Letter from Harvard China Care

(This letter reached me through my web contact page. - Xujun)

On behalf of Harvard China Care, I cordially invite you to The Harvard China Care Third Annual Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction on November 12th, 7 – 9:30 pm at the Lenox Hotel in Boston.

Harvard China Care is a student group on campus that raises money and awareness for orphans in China both through Boston-area programs and by coordinating summer volunteers to orphanages in China. I became involved with HCC after an amazing volunteering experience in a foster home in Beijing last summer.

This year, we are proud to announce our Third Annual Fall Benefit and Silent Auction. We'll be featuring award-winning documentary producer Thomas Lennon and his Oscar-winning film, "The Blood of Yingzhou District." Mr. Lennon's groundbreaking and powerful work focuses around raising awareness and education efforts of AIDS in China. It is a cause close to our hearts at Harvard China Care, and we are proud and honored to feature Mr. Lennon as the centerpiece of the event.

We would be delighted if you could join us for the evening! To reserve seats, simply fill out the order form ( and email it back to me. You may also purchase tickets online at or by sending a check to our mailing address: Harvard China Care, c/o Sherri Geng, 179 Kirkland Mail Center, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Thank you very much for helping us to improve the lives of Chinese orphans! Please let me know if you have any questions.

We hope to see you in November, and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Warmest wishes,

Shuang Annie Yao

Monday, October 27, 2008

Spider Web in Tiananmen

(photo from

Last week, many Chinese websites reprinted an article from China Newsweek titled "How the Tiananmen Incident was Redressed." This title is a bit eye-shocking because the term "Tiananmen Incident" in Chinese has also been used to refer to the 1989's June 4th massacre. This article, however, is talking about an earlier "Tiananmen Incident" that took place on April 5th, 1976, also commonly referred as the "4/5 incident."

Common Americans may not be aware of this first "Tiananmen Incident." It happened after Premier Zhou Enlai's death in January 1976 and before Mao's death in September that same year. In the name of the Qingming Festival in April, the traditional time to mourn the dead, Beijing people spontaneously gathered on the Tiananmen Square, placing flowers, wreaths, poems and essays on the "People's Heroes Monument," mostly to grieve the death of Zhou Enlai, some also (in subtle and obscure ways) expressed resentment against members of the "Gang of Four" and hopes for Deng Xiaoping's return to power. The government of the time responded to the peaceful, largely literary, activities with a curfew and armed repression. An unknown number of people were killed and many arrested or denounced. The incident was declared a "counterrevolutionary riot."

I was in the countryside then as an urban "sent-down youth." Some of the best Tiananmen poems and essays, hand copied on notebook paper, circulated through the grapevine to my hand. I still remember the excitement I had in reading those beautifully written poems. After Mao's death and the Gang of Four fell out of power, people began to demand a redressing of the incident. But that did not happen right away.

The China Newsweek article now cites a "thorough redressing" that came two years later. I don't remember the timeline of the redressing exactly, however my own experience contradicts this conclusion. After the Cultural Revolution I was a first-batch undergraduate student at Chongqing University, from spring 1978 to spring 1982. Through those four years I was the chief editor of the student literature journal published on the wall of our main classroom building. We were required to have every piece of prose and poetry approved by the university's Party authority. But knowing the authority's backward and bureaucratic view toward anything and everything, as the editor I always tried to "execute before permission," or 先斩后奏. Sometimes we got away with it, sometimes we got in trouble. One trouble resulted from a student's essay, I think it was either in1979 or 1980, praising the justice expressed by the participants of the "4/5 incident." A Party leader scolded and threatened me and required that I remove the essay, which was already up on the wall and had been read by numerous students. I made all the excuses I could to delay the removal, until two weeks later when a new issue was due. We got away that time, but were watched much more closely thereafter.

I mention this to say by the end of the 1970s or early 1980s, there still hadn't been a "thorough redress" of the 4/5 incident, at least that was the situation at Chongqing University. For all the years after, the topic of that incident remained sensitive. Authorities avoided any mention of it in public, as it wasn't a glorious page in the Party's history.

There are many similarities between the two Tiananmen Incidents that occurred 13 years apart. For example, in both incidents, people demanded political change. In the first one Deng Xiaoping was accused as the "behind-the-scenes backer" of the demonstrators, while 13 years later he made the same accusation against Zhao Ziyang. The surface difference is the lack of tanks in the first crackdown; guns were enough that time. It is a big irony that, in 1976 people called for Deng Xiaoping to return to China's political stage, and in 1989 it was the same Deng Xiaoping who ordered people shot. While Deng is certainly credited with China's economic reform, this is an unwashable stain on his name.

All the above is nothing new to my Chinese readers. However the purpose of this post is actually not a mere review of history. My question is, why does the sensitive term "Tiananmen Incident" - 天安门事件 - (instead of using the term "4/5 incident," for instance) appear in such a prominent way in an official magazine? Why has the report been published now, a time that has no relation to April 5th? Is this a foreshadow to the redressing of the second Tiananmen Incident?

Of course I might be fussing over nothing that has any actual significance. However one thing I learned growing up during the Cultural Revolution is to follow the thread of a spider and tracks of a horse in political weather change. Call it PCRPD (Post-CR Political Disorder). I rather hope I'm right this time though.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

How Can China Support America

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

When China lowered its interest rate on October 8th, people outside of China attributed the action to an attempt to fall in line with what the central banks in Europe and the United States had done. There was actually no reason given for the change, and it was done in conjunction with a reduction in reserve requirements, suggesting that the effort was part of an attempt to buffer the Chinese banking system rather than really fall in step.
(photograph by Maple Xu, ©2008, all rights reserved)

Regardless of the motivation, however, there was some negative reaction inside China on the grounds that China should forge its own path, and not follow the lead of the West. When later there was a rumor that the Chinese were considering injecting $200 Billion into the US financial system by buying Treasury notes, that reaction heightened immensely. Unfortunately, I have to bug other people to look at Chinese web sites so I never really got to the bottom of where that rumor started, though I do find it ironic that adding $200 billion to the current Chinese holdings would give the central bank $700 billion, just matching the size of the bailout plan.

More to the point, though, people started asking the question what China should do to help in this crisis. The very fact that people are asking that question is breathtaking to me. Some ten years ago, during the Asian Financial crisis, China did its best (pretty successfully for the most part) to simply avoid the pain. The current attitudes are a testament to the progress China has made economically, its own housing boom, and the much higher reach of the internet. People not only hear about, but talk about, almost everything and almost all of them are thinking about home ownership.

The most prevalent answer, if you are curious, is no, the Chinese should not be worrying about the rest of the world. Not a big surprise, most concerns are closer to home, quite literally. There is more interest in figuring out whether the experience in the US housing market has some lesson in it for the people in China. If past experience worldwide is any indicator, the answer is almost certainly yes, but almost none will learn it.

What is really interesting about all this though is that the real lesson may be exactly the other way around. The US, and European governments responded loudly, and hopefully effectively, panic stricken that the financial markets would collapse and leave everyone jobless. To look at the Shanghai Stock Exchange Index, which dropped from 6000 last October to 2000 this October, you would definitely conclude that China is headed into a depression. Not so. Nobody is talking about anything except for abnormally low, which is to say less than 10%, growth in the next year. While things may yet turn out less rosy than people expect, the connection between stock prices, and housing prices, is much weaker in China than it is in the US. Part of this is relative size – a much bigger portion of the US economy is represented by these two things – but part of this disconnection is the command nature of the Chinese Economy.

Though many people are calling for the Chinese government to do something about the stock market, it has not been quick to take drastic action. I have no doubt though, that should producers find demand dropping away for their product, the government would step in. Certainly such steps would be clumsy, the norm for a command economy, but they would be strong. The knowledge that this would be done might very well be enough to mean the action never needs to be taken. McCain and Obama talk about hatchets and scalpels. What the Chinese government holds in reserve is more like a bulldozer. That level of control is often problematic, but at times like this it comes in handy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

No Internet Regulation on Human Flesh Searches

New America Media, News analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Oct 17, 2008

Vicious online gossip was blamed for pushing South Korean film star Choi Jin Sil to hang herself in her bathroom. The news that the Korean government now plans to enforce a “Choi Jin Sil law” to regulate the Internet has triggered another wave of debate on internet regulation in Chinese cyberspace.

Cyber rumors, apparently, were a direct cause of Choi's suicide, and Korean police have arrested a rumor spreader involved in the case. Even long before this event, cyber violence prompted the Korean government to implement the so-called "real name system." This system requires all commercial websites with 30,000 or more users, and all media websites with 20,000 or more users, to verify a user's real ID before allowing them to post any message. The "Choi Jin Sil law" extends the real-name system to any website with 10,000 or more users.

Now some Chinese netizens are wondering if China needs to follow suit. China has been rocked by stories of “human flesh searches” which are basically Internet vigilantes unleashing a cyber equivalent of lynching.

More people, however, are worried that such regulation would heavily restrict freedom of speech. Their worries are not without basis. Read the complete article>>

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sushidog's Review

I'm very moved that someone who lives as far away as Tokyo has read Apologies Forthcoming. Thank you, Sushidog!

By the way - this is not a big deal - I've never been a tech writer, though several reviewers have assumed that. My previous career was in algorithm development. It seems the misunderstanding was stemmed from a line in my bio, "I gave up tech for writing," which could easily be read as "I gave up tech writing." For clarification I've just changed that line to "I gave up algorithms for writing."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

James Wood Words Palin

Read this in the New Yorker and get some good laughs. James Wood, by the way, is my favorite literary critic.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mischievous Dubbing (恶搞): US and China

Saturday Night Live's latest, 7-minute parody is an excellent and uproarious summary of Thursday's vice presidential debate. The best performer is Tina Fey, who looks totally like the real Palin, to the turn of her hair, or lip. CNN has a good comment on this – "It's starting to feel like Tina Fey is running for vice president."

Considering that Fey's normal picture is quite easily distinguished, I'd say she has the talent of an Oscar actress. She parodied Palin's body language and facial expressions extremely true to form; I had a very hard time telling her from Palin. But what made me laugh the most was how she captures Palin's incoherent and evasive speaking style. At one point the Fey-Palin says, "We are not afraid to get mavericky in there, and not got to allow that, and also to the great Ronald Regan." This way of randomly throwing together words and phrases without regard to grammar or meaning, was exactly my impression of Palin's speaking when I watched the debate Thursday night. Palin is worse than George Bush in this regard – though both appear uncultured, and Bush probably more often pronounces words incorrectly, he at least seems to genuinely mean what he says, even when I am almost sure he does not. Given how old McCain is, I would be extremely worried if McCain got sick and this lady became our president. Apparently this is also a main reason that many of my Chinese friends won't vote for McCain. Call it a shallow and intuitive way of reasoning. But what more can common voters do if not judge based on impression? I think McCain made his biggest mistake by choosing such a (...) running mate.

Now let's return to entertainment, and China. Such parody of public figures is one of those things I enjoy about America, a relaxed political culture that is missing in China. But in recent years, there has been a sort of Chinese equivalent called "e-gao" (恶搞), or, as a direct translation, "mischievous dubs." The Chinese Wikipedia interprets the term as "to disintegrate a serious topic and reconstruct it as prank entertainment, either comedic or satiric in style." The main difference to me, however, is that the Chinese dubbing videos, usually based on domestic and foreign movies and TV shows, almost never name real individuals, and avoid mocking political figures. Instead they focus on fictional characters or events, entertainment products, or businesses. Another notable feature is that nearly all of those Chinese dubs use the original video clips but switch the voices and subtitles, a creative approach to cut down the cost. The wide availability of the internet, of course, provides the platform for the "mischievous dubs" to reach its audience.

Apparently, in China the first notable "mischievous dub" occurred in December 2005, when an as yet unknown man named Hu Ge parodied the reputed director Chen Kaige's new movie, "The Promise," changing the story of an ancient Chinese prince to a modern murder case. Hu's short dub film spread apace, receiving more applause than the original movie. Chen Kaige, who apparently was unfamiliar with parody culture, bristled with anger and threatened to bring a copyright lawsuit against Hu. In February 2006, at the Berlin International Film Festival, where he was about to launch "The Promise" for Europe, director Chen said in indignation to reporters, "To be a man one can't be so shameless!"

The case attracted attention from lawyers nationwide, most predicted Hu would lose the lawsuit. From outside however, Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, concluded in an interview with a Chinese blogger that "Parodies like this one are legally considered 'fair use'. Courts have ruled that you don't need to get someone's permission before you make fun of him by parodying his work. It is lawful, pure and simple." The Chinese neitizens, meanwhile, were split. Supporters of each side argued noisily online.

In the end, there wasn't a lawsuit after all. The public debate calmed down after Hu made an apology to director Chen. But the damage was done: Hu's dub film started China's parody culture, which quickly became popular, and was everywhere by the summer of 2006. "Finally one day, someone could no longer stand it." NetEase reported in August 2006. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued an "anti-parody" regulation. NetEase mourned the new pop culture's immature death by publishing the list of the "top ten mischievous dubs." It also suggested, "If we can't mischievously dub, at least we can kind-heartedly dub."

Mischievously or not, despite the regulation, Chinese parodies did not simply go away. As recent as last month, a new one surfaced on YouTube mocking the Hong Kong movie Red Cliff and making fun of a Chinese company named Zhifubao. It is hilarious if you understand Chinese. (Thanks to Ji Haidong who pointed it to me.)

What I'm hoping though is to see political parodies like those on SNL begin to appear in China. The day when that happens would mark a new era of China's political culture.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Simmons International Chinese Poetry Festival

I attended one of the sessions today. One thing I found interesting was that, given China's morality crisis and the lack of a dominant belief system, some poets proposed having poetry as a replacement for religion. Poetry can purify the soul, they argued, and popularizing poetry education might improve morality. Perhaps I'm too cynical - I doubt that's a feasible solution. It seems we are getting fewer, not more, readers of poetry these days. And those who have engaged in the recent scandals are most unlikely poetry readers.

Another Interview

Donna George Storey, author of Amorous Woman and a writer friend, interviewed me for Eclectica, a cool literary magazine. Donna begins the interview with this question:
DGS     The first work of fiction I read about the Cultural Revolution was back in my grad school days—Wang Anyi's A Lapse of Time. This author wrote from the perspective of a privileged member of the generation who had already reached young adulthood in 1968. Thus, this ten-year period was like a long night of insanity sandwiched between two periods of "normal" life. Some of your older characters have similar experiences, like the father in "Men Don't Apologize." But many of the protagonists in Apologies Forthcoming were children and thus barely remembered any different life. Later they have to struggle with the death of the ideals they were taught. One narrator asks herself, "Which is better: to have a false belief and be content or to break the false belief and feel empty?" Do you have an answer to her question?
 Read the complete interview here.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Americans don't like to read translation?

Following yesterday's link to the report about the top Nobel judge's unfavorable comment on American literature and the reactions it stirred up, there is heated discussion on a writer's online forum I frequent. It's understandable that many American writers are angered by Engdahl's words, and they return fire by bombasting the Nobel committee's ignorance, which is quite effective.

Personally, however, I'm more interested in how much truth is contained in this particular statement:

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining." (AP)

In the discussion on the aforementioned online forum, at least one writer agrees that most American publishers shun translations due to the assumption that Americans don't like to read stories set outside the US, not even stories written in English set elsewhere.

As I noted in a book review earlier, 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. I wonder why. It is a bit difficult for an immigrant like me to comprehend this mentality, because in my youth I read far more literary translations from Europe (France, England, Russia, etc.) and America (such as Hemingway, Mark Twain and Jack London) than Chinese novels. My older sister, who doesn't even have a college education, loves to read translations too. The only literary magazine she subscribes to is Translation Forest (<译林>). We are hardly exceptions among our generation.

I hope some of you will offer insights into this: is it true that Americans are much less interested in literary translation than works written by Americans about America? If so, why? It seems to me "too isolated, too insular" is a bit too simplified, too trite a conclusion.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bad news for American writers...

Nobel judge: U.S. too ignorant to compete
09/30/08 04:18 PM, EDT
Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.