Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: The Beijing of Possibilities

The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel
Other Press (June 30, 2009), 208 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Xujun Eberlein

Chinese stories can be exotic to foreigners, while a foreigner telling stories about China can be exotic to the natives of the land as well. In recent years, there has been no shortage of nonfiction books set in Beijing written by expats, but fiction in the same category remains sparse. Jonathan Tel's new story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities, stands out as a notable exception, its twelve stories displaying a gripping juxtaposition of realism and allegory.

Tel's prose treats serious themes in a romantic, humorous, at times mystical way. He is evidently very familiar with Beijing's settings, geographically and culturally, having lived in the capital city as early as 1988. The stories, set in places and with characters the author has clearly experienced or observed, present Beijing's distinctness in an enjoyable combination of realistic detail and imaginative musing. Often a story starts by building up a picture of a very real situation, only to surprise the reader by the sudden twist to parable. Or vice versa.

One familiar with Chinese literature might see traces of influence from the classical novel Journey to the West, a hybrid between a fictionalized historical event (a Tang Dynasty Buddhist's journey to India to fetch the holy scriptures) and the myth of Monkey King (who helped the monk completing the perilous journey). Tel's opening story, "Year of the Gorilla," features an unnamed migrant worker in a Monkey King suit. But that is hardly the only connection.

Among the so-called "four greatest Chinese classics" – A Dream of Red Mansions, Three Kingdoms, and Out Laws of the Marsh being the other three – only Journey to the West is a fantasy with a happy ending. In Chinese literature typically filled with great tragic stories, that is a rare presence. In world literature, though written some 350 years earlier, Journey to the West belongs to The Lord of the Rings category. It seems that its fantastic nature makes Journey to the West more easily resonate with Westerners than the other Chinese classics.

It may not be a mere coincidence that The Beijing of Possibilities opens with the line "It's been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West." In more than one way, many of Tel's stories apparently continue the literary tradition of Journey to the West, bringing the reader into a fictional dream where reality, parable and fantasy can hardly be told apart.

One of my favorites is "The Three Lives of Little Yu," which tells the story about a childless country couple's life-long attempts at adopting a daughter. Each time they name the girl "Little Yu," and each Little Yu is "as delightful and talented as the previous versions," but each dies unexpectedly young, until time turns to the mid 1980s. At last, to the reader's relief and fascination, the third Little Yu grows up, her "health couldn't have been better," and she has memory of her previous lives:

She remembers her first childhood: the precious spoonfuls of sorghum gruel and how in her hunger she chewed bark off the trees. She remembers the coughing, the ache in her chest, the fever and the fading away of her body. She remembers her second childhood too: the entire school dancing the Loyalty Dance – left hand up, right hand out, "Loyal loyal loyal / to Chairman Mao! / Boundless boundless boundless / Forever forever forever!" – while the commune secretary kept time, taping a spoon on the desk."

Thus, in a clever, parable-like structure, the story reflects a three-decade history realistically.

Another amusing story is "The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch." It starts as a time-travel sort of tale, about a relationship across four centuries, between a Ming Dynasty princess and a modern-day young man who works at an advertising agency in Beijing. The cross-century communication between the two is certainly entertaining, but it is the turn at the end that is the drollest yet totally realistic: their dialogue that has been exuding tenderness and love unexpectedly turns into a text message war. Both characters' personalities change, a common phenomenon we can't be more familiar on today's internet.

Tel's stories are full of contrasts. The past and the present are comingled in the romance across time. The city and countryside are blended when the two farmers arrive in Beijing to collect baby Yu on the words of a soothsayer. Right and wrong are confused when the man dressed as a monkey is punished for his good deeds. Adventure and duty are probed when a boy tries to collect a cotton-candy machine for his grandfather. The underlying theme in all of this, not surprisingly, is that Beijing offers opportunities both real and imagined for those who come. That the opportunities are fraught with peril, and that the people taking them are both good and bad is as it should be.

Americans are said to be an optimistic people. The Chinese are accustomed to millennia of calamities. Perhaps the biggest contrast between Chinese and American authored stories is pessimism vs. optimism. From China's classical literature to its contemporary counterpart, it is rare that a novel or story has a happy ending. In contrast, none of the stories in The Beijing of Possibilities ends tragically. For those readers who have had their fill of Chinese "scar fiction," this book should be a pleasant change. On the other hand, while the descriptive details about the Chinese lives usually ring true, the musings and imaginative reality that occupy in the stories seem more akin to Western perceptions of China than to the way Chinese people think. A reader should not expect to gain significant insights into Chinese thinking, but he or she will certainly get a good glance at the Beijing life through an observant expat's eye.

Friday, September 11, 2009

ChinaGeeks' Review of "Apologies Forthcoming"

ChinaGeeks has an excellent review of Apologies Forthcoming. As another writer commented on Facebook, this review is "one that can be taken seriously by prospective readers."

Here's the conclusion of the review:
Apologies Forthcoming is not perfect, but parts of it are. Florid praise draped over the back cover as it is, I think I shall put it more simply: it is a book you should read. Eberlein has done what we so often forget to do, she has put people into history and let them tell their own stories. These are not stories about Mao. They are stories about Shanzi, Sail, Wang Qiang, Wei Dong, and many more. The names may mean nothing to you now, but given a chance, some of them will surely find a place in your heart.
Read the complete review here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Anomie in the New China

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

Reviewed by Xujun Eberlein, published: Women's Review of Books, September 2009

The Chinese say, “The River is in the east for thirty years, then in the west for thirty years.” The adage uses the unpredictable behavior of the Yellow River as an analogy for periodic upheavals in Chinese life and society.

Within a thirty-year time span, China has seen two grand-scale migrations, each involving many millions of young people. The first began in the late 1960s and continued through most of the 1970s: more than seventeen million urban youths took part in the so-called “sent-down” movement—most against their will. I was one of them. After my 1974 high school graduation in the city of Chongqing, I spent nearly four years toiling in the rural fields of Fuling, leaving only when the end of the Cultural Revolution provided me the opportunity to enter university in 1978.

By the end of the 1970s, nearly all the “sent-down” youths, miserable and desperate, had managed to return to the city by one means or another. Barely catching our breath, none of us could have foreseen the reverse migration that would begin in the mid-1980s, when young peasants spontaneously left their rural homes to find jobs in the urban areas. >> continue reading

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chongqing Brothers Risk Prison for Ailing Mother

New America Media, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Sept. 1, 2009

Zhang Fangshu holds a knife at the hostage's neck; the hostage is crying while making cellphone calls.

(photo from Nanfang Daily)

On Aug. 27, the criminal trial of two migrant worker brothers in Guangzhou, China, drew unusual media attention. A prosecutor alleged that the two brothers from Chongqing kidnapped a white-collar woman from a busy street on April 21. The Zhang brothers pleaded guilty, but said they only wanted to raise money to save their sick mother and had no intention of hurting the victim. The brothers' filial devotion attracted sympathy from many Chinese, including lawyers. Working pro-bono, three lawyers from Chongqing presented the Zhang brothers' defense.

The brothers are from a remote rural village in Kaixian, Chongqing, some 1,200 miles away from Guangzhou. They lost their father early, left home to work as teenagers, and have now been migrant workers for over a decade. With little skill and only an elementary school education, however, they have not made enough money to live on. They have incurred a debt of 45,000 yuan (about $6,600) over the years.

At home, on the evening of April 20, their 53-year-old mother suddenly collapsed while working in the fields. She was admitted to a local hospital in critical condition and diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage, but lacking money she could not receive the life-saving treatment. The village doctor called the patient's two sons in Guangzhou. The next morning, the Zhang brothers went to a busy street and kidnapped a woman at knife point. Meanwhile, they held a hand-written sign that stated they were asking the government for a loan of 18,000 yuan. At first, police tried to convince them to let go of the hostage. When it did not work, the police overwhelmed the Zhang brothers and rescued the hostage unhurt.

In court, the older brother, who had held the knife to the hostage's neck during the short standoff, said the purpose of the kidnapping was not to commit a crime but to get the media's and society's attention. He was careful not to hurt the woman, he said: "I wanted to take the knife away from her neck, but I was also worried that I wouldn't be able to raise money." He cried several times and expressed remorse. According to reports, many in the audience also shed tears. The victim testified that the kidnappers had treated her carefully. A security guard testified that it was when the older brother was wiping tears from his eyes that the police took the opportunity to end the standoff.

The prosecutor told the brothers "your situation deserves sympathy, but the law does not excuse crimes," and suggested a prison term of 5-10 years for the older brother, and under 5 years for the younger brother.

Back at home in April, their mother remained unconscious for days, and three times her medical treatment was nearly stopped because her poor relatives could not collect enough money to pay for it. The situation changed on April 24, when 20,000 yuan raised by sympathetic Guangzhou media workers arrived. She was sent to a better hospital to be treated and eventually gained consciousness. The brothers' criminal action actually achieved their goal.

The day before the trial, when the heartbroken mother, who was slowly recovering at home, learned about the sentences her sons might serve, she asked if it was okay to sentence only one of the two. "If both were in jail, how could the family get by?" she reportedly said. According to reports, she had been the only working force of the family before she fell sick. Beside herself she was supporting her second husband, who is said to be developmentally disabled, and a four-year-old grandson, whose mother had run away.

In court, following the prosecutor's statement, the defense lawyers suggested a delayed incarceration for the younger brother. The sentencing will be decided at a later date.

China's official media website,, is running a poll: "Two brothers kidnapped a hostage in order to raise money to treat their mother's illness; how do you view their action?" At the time of this writing, 1,397 readers have voted, with the following results:

"Deserves sympathy; for their mother they don't even fear prison, that is a great filial devotion": 40.52 percent

"It's pitiful and detestable; using this way to raise money is a stupid filial piety": 41.59 percent

"Don't want to make any judgment": 17.9 percent

Filial devotion is considered one of the most important virtues in Chinese society. Throughout history, many emperors have promoted and practiced the tradition of "governing the world by the filial piety."

This case provoked a heated discussion on the Internet as to whether the brothers' filial devotion should reduce their sentence. While there is a consensus that the brothers have committed a crime, some law experts say the punishment should take into consideration their motivation as well as their social and family background, while others consider kidnapping in a public place a very odious crime that deserves heavy punishment. Still others point out that the case reflects serious problems in China's health care system and welfare system.

China's rural health care is far behind that of the cities. Research from 2007 indicates nearly half of the rural population do not have any form of health care coverage, and have to bear any medical costs completely on their own. In recent years, the government has been trying to expand coverage by developing a co-op system, which requires peasants to pay small insurance premiums, while the government provides a larger subsidy. Apparently the Zhang brothers and their mother have not participated in such a co-op.

An official from the Zhang brothers' hometown told the media they would consider including the family for welfare provision, but the decision has to wait till next year because the quota of welfare recipients is adjusted only once a year.