Wednesday, December 29, 2010

UK Wants a "Cultural Revolution Just Like the One They've Had in China"


I can't quite describe my feeling.  Words fail me at a moment like this.  So let me just point out one eerie thing:   Mr. Gove appears to be very well suited for the role of "Cultural Revolution" education secretary.  During that wondrous period, you know, uneducated people took over the leadership of China's educational system.  Universities were closed to the public for 10 years.  High schools closed for 6 years. Elementary and middle schools closed for 3 years. Not to mention libraries were sealed and books were burned. I can see why Mr. Gove thinks this was definitely the cause of China's academic success today.

Great. Let’s watch the UK have at it!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Boxer-Murder Mystery in Hainan: Part 2

by Maple, guest blogger

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

A brief history of Christianity in China before I go further:  Catholics first entered China in the 7th century; now there are about four million Catholics in the country, commonly distributed in the suburbs around cities big and small.  Protestants entered China in early 19th century; their missionaries often settled in remote and backward areas. Many never returned home, but became common residents of villages, unknown to the public. They struggled to make a living in adverse conditions, just like the locals, until they died and were buried in the wilderness. Along the Yunnan-Tibet, Yunnan-Burma, and Sichuan-Tibet borders, I've often seen tombstones like this: "Allen Thompson, English missionary, 1805-1886."  Currently China has about ten million Protestants.

*

A little after 10 am, we arrived at the town of Jiaji, in Qiong Hai city’s jurisdiction. I hadn't been here for four or five years, and was a bit surprised by its change. The rural dirt roads had developed into a four-lane asphalt highway. The farm fields on the roadside had changed into beautiful residential enclaves. Carrefour and Kentucky Chicken replaced farmers markets. Four- or five-star hotels neatly lined up.

Situ asked: "Therefore each year the Boao Forum for Asia (博鳌亚洲论坛会) is held here? Didn't Ms. Clinton stay here a few days ago?"  I laughed: "You are a China Hand! Even this you have heard. Who knows, tonight you guys might stay in the same hotel Hillary did." "That's impossible," Situ said, "we booked the hotel online. It's an average one, about 700 yuan." He took out the receipt to show me – it was exactly the Sofitel Hotel where Hillary had been! Situ laughed loudly: "Therefore Hainan people are really fortunate! In Beijing hotels of this caliber would cost two or three thousand yuan a night."

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Boxer-Murder Mystery in Hainan: Part 1

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation, 阅读中文原文]

Hainan, China –  One evening near the end of November, I got a call from Beijing. My friend DL asked if I could help an American trace his ancestor in Hainan.

DL's friend, Doctor Cai, who practices Chinese medicine in the US, is the nephew of Chen Lifu and Chen Guofu, brothers of one of the "four big families" in Nationalist China. Many of Doctor Cai's patients are Americans fond of Chinese traditional culture. Every year, a portion of those follow Doctor Cai to visit China, hoping to learn about this age-old and mystical country through first-hand experience.

This November, as usual, Doctor Cai brought a dozen or so Americans to Beijing. After the group activities were finished, all but one returned to the US. Karl, a Los Angeles real estate developer, stayed for a reason.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

American Conspiracy in China – A Review for Rock Paper Tiger

Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann, Soho Press, $25, hardcover

Reviewed by Bob Eberlein

Lisa Brackmann has put out a terrific thriller that runs us around China on an adventure including sightseeing, espionage, terrorism, torture and, of course, art. Rock Paper Tiger is the never-boring, fast moving story of a woman wounded in Iraq finding unexpected refuge in China, only to have the nightmares of the Iraq war revisit her.

It starts with the innocuous meeting of Ellie, the protagonist, with her occasional boyfriend Lao Zhang, and a Uygur man from Xinjiang who some believe is a terrorist. The meeting itself would never have happened but that Ellie’s cell phone ran out of money. That small failure in life management is pretty typical for Ellie. An encounter with an IED in Iraq has also left her with a leg that causes constant pain and a disposition that is often downright skittish. Those bits of her characters, along with the general impulsiveness that seems to be her trademark, lead Ellie into lots of trouble very quickly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Chinese Immigrant Reads Yiyun Li

The China Beat,  commentary,  Xujun Eberlein, published: October 18, 2010

Editor's Note:  Among the twenty-three people who received MacArthur Fellowships last month was Yiyun Li, a fiction writer based at the University of California, Davis. Born and raised in Beijing before coming to the United States for graduate work (first in immunology, later in creative writing), Li is one member of a growing community of Chinese authors now writing in English. We asked Xujun Eberlein, also part of that group, to reflect on Li’s writing.


I first encountered Yiyun Li’s work in the fall of 2003, in the form of “Immortality,” a longish short story published in The Paris Review that was the first piece of writing by her to make a splash in the literary world. It is about the ups and downs of a Chinese man who is born with a face resembling Mao’s. He makes good use of his unusual feature and enjoys a fortunate life when others are suffering during the Cultural Revolution, but becomes a loser in the post-Mao era. Coming from an area that produced many eunuchs for the imperial court, the man castrates himself in the end.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Nobel Prize Jokes

In my childhood, during the CR, there were no fun books to read, so one of my great entertainment pleasures was to tell and retell international political jokes.  These were jokes I heard from others, or read in Reference News (参考消息,a Party newspaper my parents subscribed to).  The subjects mocked by those jokes were, almost exclusively, the United States and the Soviet Union.  Sometimes the jokes were so clever and funny my playmates and I would roll around on the ground laughing.  Nobody then would have imagined that one day China itself could become a subject of political jokes.

In the vociferous reactions to this year's Nobel Peace Prize, there is a lighter side:  a number of political jokes have been circulating on overseas Chinese websites.  The following is my translation of one of those.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Liu Xiaobo's Detractors

It is never interesting if there is only one voice on a subject, especially a hot one.  The hot topic at the moment, needless to say, is the awarding to Liu Xiaobo of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Outside China, acclamations can be heard everywhere, in mainstream media and on Twitter. 

The interesting question: is anyone saying anything different?  (The Chinese government doesn't count, and its blocking of the news and discussion is plain stupid given the 1.39 million Chinese students studying abroad and emailing constantly to their families and friends, which makes the blocking hardly effective.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembrance 58

In Issue 58 of Remembrance (in Chinese) , one of its editors Qizhi (Wu Di), who is also a historian, contrasts Western and Chinese standards and practices for writing history. Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, this very important historical volume most highly regarded by both Westerners and Chinese, would have been sentenced to death by academics in China, even in Hong Kong, says Qizhi.  And he is not talking about political issues. He is talking about academic criteria for historical books and argues that there is something very wrong with those in present day China.

Bu Weihua, in "On Several Problems with Mao's Last Revolution," points out a number of mistakes, inaccuracies and improprieties in that book while expressing admiration for its achievement.

Hao Jian provides a detailed analysis of the documentary Morning Sun, on its composition style, camera language, and moral principle.

Ran Yunfei, a well-known Chengdu blogger, reviews He Shu's new book Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》).

There are much more, including the news of a book by a woman author that lauds the Cultural Revolution (which really is news to me!).

If you can read Chinese, read this issue here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It Is the Moon Festival

Today is the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar – the Mid-Autumn Festival, what people here call "the moon festival."  If you look up at the moon tonight, chances are you'll find it the roundest, brightest of the year.  When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell us that if you place a basin of clear water under the moon on this day, you'll see the jade tree and the jade rabbit in it.  I tried, and I always saw a vague shape in shadow, which could be interpreted as almost anything. (Image from http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap070926.html)

Ancient Chinese poets seemed to have a special sentiment for the moon, as evidenced by numerous poems intoning it. One of the most well-known perhaps is Su Dongpo's "Shui Diao Ge Tou," in the form of Song ci, a rhymed verse composed of lines of three to seven characters which first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and reached its perfection in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). It was 934 years ago today that Su Dongpo wrote this classic masterpiece.

Many English translations exist, however none could convey to me the sentiments wafting through the Chinese words.  As an example, the following are three different translations of Su Dongpo's lines "人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺,此事古难全":

Men know joy and sorow, parting and reunion;
The moon lacks lustre, brightly shines; is al, is less.
Perfection was never easily come by.

  • As translated by Xu Zhongjie (1986):
The moon has weather that change,
Fine or foul; it wax and shine.
Mankind is sad at parting;
Happy at reunion again.
From the utmost ancient time,
Down to our own very days,
The imperfection of all things –
Has for ever been the case.

  • As translated by Yang Yixian etc (2001).:
For men the grief of parting, joy of reunion,
Just as the moon wanes and waxes, is bright or dim;
Always some flaw – and so it has been since of old.

All are fine translations, but whereas the Chinese sounds extraordinary, the English makes it dull.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language. This is the reason I almost never attempt to translate ancient poems – I simply can't get the succinct beauty, the exquisiteness, and the sonorous sound across.  An ancient Chinese poem can make my heart tremble, but an English translation of it never does.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language.

Some say a pictographic language is more primitive than an alphabetic one – or in other words, an alphabetic language is progress in civilization.  Mao seemed to agree with this.  I still remember a Mao quotation from my childhood: "Chinese language should go the common alphabetic direction of other countries in the world."  I am glad this did not happen.  I'm sure an alphabetic Chinese would never give me the joy and intimacy the square characters do.

I recently read a very enjoyable book, Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows. Her experience in learning the Chinese culture through learning the language – the frustration and triumph, the pain and pleasure, the questioning and understanding –  are presented from a refreshing angle, often surprisingly so to a native Chinese speaker like me. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's new to things Chinese.  In one of the chapters the author asks a legitimate question, "Why do the Chinese hang onto this difficult character-based writing system?" She points out its disadvantages: cumbersome, hard to learn, awkward to look up in dictionaries, etc.  She also recognizes its merits, mainly its historical and cultural significance.  I want to add a personal perspective:  I think Chinese is the richest language in the world.  For me, as probably for most Chinese, its merits clearly overweigh the inconveniences.  (As a native speaker I actually never felt the inconveniences anyway.)

Why then, you might ask, am I writing in English now?  In fact several editors who interviewed me have asked that question. The answer is:  for communication.  I live among English speakers and I feel the need to communicate.  (If you want to know why I came to the US, the short answer is "for love."  Read the story here if you are interested.)  In other words, Chinese is a passion, English is a tool.  Today I still prefer to read Chinese books over English ones, and in fact I can read Chinese 30 times faster.

It is a pain to love one language and use another in daily life. It causes a schism in my consciousness.  But that's imperfection of life, and I accept it.  Su Dongpo has said it, 此事古难全.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

To Remember or Not to Remember

Issue 57 of Remembrance (in Chinese) arrived yesterday, on the second anniversary of this important e-journal.  The current issue focuses on the “one crackdown, three counterings” (一打三反) campaign that took place in  1970, during which a large number of innocent people and young thinkers with dissident thoughts were executed, including the extraordinary 27-year-old  Yu Luoke.  Today few young people in China are aware of this dark time when words and thoughts cost one’s life.

The first article in this issue by Wang Rui is titled “Zhou Enlai and the ‘One Crackdown, Three Counterings’ Campaign,” claiming it was Zhou Enlai, not Mao Zedong, who launched this cruel campaign. Another article, titled “The 40th Anniversary Memorial of Nanjing’s March 6 Public Verdict” by Fang Zifen, gives a heart-wrenching eye-witness account of the tragic day four decades ago, when 11 “counter-revolutionaries”  were given a sudden death verdict in public and executed on the spot, with 100,000 people looking on.  The execution was so abrupt and unexpected that the families of the victims had no means to collect the ashes, which were then forever lost.  A decade later, every case was overturned – 100% wrongly executed. This is the city well known for "The Rape of Nanjing."  “Now every year on December 13, Chinese mourn with deep grief those countrymen killed in the [1937] Japanese massacre, but for unknown reasons the victims of the smaller massacre on March 6, 1970 are gradually forgotten. Not me!” – The author writes. He was one of the more fortunate victims that day, getting only a life sentence.

Fang’s lamenting reminds me of a conversation I had with a Japanese several years ago.  My sister and I were site-seeing Yunnan’s terraced fields around the time of the Spring Festival. One early morning we, like many other tourists, got up about 4 am trying to catch the spectacular sunrise.  In the dim dawn a luxury bus of Japanese tourists arrived at the cliff we were all standing atop. The sun did not rise, and somehow I got into a chat with the nice Japanese gentleman by my side, who looked to be in his sixties. He was carrying a set of expensive-looking cameras, and spoke fluent Chinese.  At the time the news had spread that the Japanese government erased from school textbooks any mention of their invasion of China during the 1930s-40s, and Chinese resentment of this was running high.  I don’t remember how we got to that topic, but at one point I said, either trying to explain the sentiment, or being provocative as sometimes a journalist would do , “Japanese did lots of bad things to Chinese during the Second World War, you know.” The man replied – to my complete surprise – “Chinese did lots of bad things to Chinese too. People do bad things everywhere.”

I was tongue-tied, for a moment didn’t know how to respond. In retrospect, I was upset not only because his tone was unapologetic but also because there was a slice of truth in his words.  Finally I said, “That does not excuse the Japanese atrocities.” “No it doesn’t,” he agreed.

Should the Chinese’s own killing be excused or forgotten, then?  The reality is, we’ll probably never see a public mourning of those innocent people killed by their government during the 1970s.

If you can read Chinese, read the new issue of Remembrance here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If You Can Read Chinese, Read This E-Journal

The new issue of Remembrance (<记忆>) continues to review  Mao’s Last Revolution (by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals; Chinese translation can be found here). The four articles in issues 55 and 56 discuss the book from different angles, with thoughtful comments and legitimate questions.  All are well worth reading.

Coincidentally, nearly two years ago, it was Michael Schoenhals who had this to say about the journal (阅读中文):
Remembrance (记忆, jiyi) is an electronic journal edited by Cultural Revolution historians in China in the May 4th tradition of the joint intellectual venture that does not so much put a premium on uniformity of opinion – and even less on common party political affiliation – as on a shared desire to explore a subject without prejudice in the pursuit of historical truth. ... The journal is a Chinese venture, but in the 21st century that no longer prevents it from being a globalized one.
Schoenhals nailed the main characteristic of the e-journal precisely: it is non-partisan and it is without prejudice. One can often find opposite opinions in feature articles and readers’ letters to the editor.  Meanwhile, the journal consistently provides high-quality research and well-written memoirs.  For anyone who is interested in learning about the true history of China’s Cultural Revolution, or contributing to the research, Remembrance is the one reliable place to go.

Another book discussed in the current issue is Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》) by He Shu, newly published (in Chinese) by Joint Publishing (H. K.). I’ve read He Shu’s articles on this topic before, and I believe his new book is a significant contribution to the CR research. It is a valuable book to possess and I certainly am going to buy it.

Remembrance is published every two weeks.  To manage in the reality of China’s internet censorship, the journal maintains a low-key, high-quality policy, and it does not have an official website in the mainland.  As such I volunteered (with the editors’ permission) to host the journal on my website. I will update every two weeks as soon as the e-journal arrives in my inbox.

My only regret is that I don’t have the time to translate all the articles into English. Hopefully, as the journal content gets compiled into books, professional translations will also become available.  For now, those of you who can read Chinese have the clear advantage of “a waterside pavilion getting the moonlight first.”

Related posts:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What Everyone Needs to Know about China

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Oxford University Press, USA, $16.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Xujun Eberlein

Being surprised is something I expect from a good work of fiction, but not necessarily from nonfiction, especially when I am familiar with the subject – or so I thought.

Thus it was a treat when I found plenty of surprises in Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s new book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, such as the following passage from the section titled “What is the alternative to viewing Mao as a monster?”:

There are many alternatives to thinking of Mao as a fiend who was China’s Hitler. One useful one is to see Mao’s place in China today as comparable to that of Andrew Jackson’s in the United States. Though admittedly far from perfect, the comparison is based on the fact that Jackson is remembered both as someone who played a significant role in the development of a political organization (the Democratic Party) that still has many partisans, and as someone responsible for brutal policies toward Native Americans that are now often referred to as genocidal.

Both men are thought of as having done terrible things, yet this does not necessarily prevent them from being used as positive symbols. And Jackson still appears on $20 bills, even though Americans tend now to view as heinous the institution of slavery (of which he was a passionate defender) and the early 19th-century military campaigns against Native Americans (in which he took part).

This comparison is refreshing, and it could only come from someone who knows both American and Chinese history intimately. Admittedly, I have limited knowledge about President Andrew Jackson. Growing up in China before “reform and opening,” the most familiar images of US presidents to my generation then were Johnson and Nixon – the former a caricatured warmonger and the latter a chameleon suddenly changing from China’s number one enemy to the hero who normalized Sino-America relations to the world’s biggest scandal maker. (If you find those one-sided images laughable, perhaps it sheds some light on why many images of China commonplace in the West make no sense to Chinese.) 

On the Chinese internet today, however, when searching for “President Jackson,” glorious descriptions fill my eyes: “people’s friend,”  “the bank killer,” a war hero who defeated the British army, a wise politician who prevented the US from splitting apart. No mention of his not-so-glorious role in killing Native Americans.  You wonder how an average internet surfer in mainland China can get a complete picture of this controversial American president.

But, before you feel fortunate to have the benefit of a free press and internet, hold on a second. Can the average American reader get the whole picture of Mao? This really depends on what you happen to read or hear. If you have only read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005, and see my review here), for example, then Mao was born a monster. If you have only read Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China (1937), on the other hand, then Mao was a legendary hero of the Chinese peasants. The actual Mao, of course, was a more complex historical figure than either of those works portray.  

Chinese in the Tang Dynasty already understood “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened; heed only one side and you will be benighted” (兼听则明,偏听则暗), but it is never easy to consistently follow this practice. The few American writers I know of who write about China with this maxim in mind include James Fallows, Peter Hessler, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. If you are interested in China and don’t want to be benighted or brainwashed, read books with different views before forming your opinion. Or, as a short cut, start with a book like China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. The parallel between Mao and Andrew Jackson might be imperfect, as Wasserstrom has noted, but it is a big step up from good-evil dichotomy that seems so pervasive.

In fact, one of the most appealing characteristics of Wasserstrom’s new book is that it does not sidestep controversial issues and opinions.  On the contrary, it deliberately provides the reader with views from opposite sides, in a rather straightforward and balanced manner.  Here’s another example. In addressing the question “How does the reputation of the [Boxer] crisis differ in China?” Wasserstrom writes:

In the West and in Japan, the Boxer Rebellion is presented as a tale of the rise and fall of a violent Chinese group. Emphasis is placed on the Boxers’ superstitious beliefs, including their notion that they could make themselves impervious to bullets and that railway tracks should be torn up to appease local gods. In China, by contrast, while the violence and superstitions of the Boxers are sometimes criticized, there is more emphasis on other aspects of the crisis, such as the grievances that led to the insurrection. These injustices included decades of foreign powers’ extending their reach into Chinese territory, and the atrocities committed during the “Invasion of the Eight Allied Armies,” including the looting of Chinese national treasures and the revenge killing of thousands of northern Chinese. In Chinese accounts now, the Boxer Protocol is described as one of many humiliating and unjustly one-sided treaties.

Perhaps no viewpoints are as starkly in contrast as those on the so-called “Boxer Rebellion” crisis. I still remember the shock, just after moving to the US, of hearing how Westerners view the Boxers as nothing more than a frenzied mob engaged in slaughtering and burning. In China, now as then, a common view is that the Boxers were patriots, though perhaps too superstitious and prone to violence.  In other words, they were regarded as flawed and tragic heroes. Tales of a bare-handed Boxer, with his outstanding kungfu, beating an armed foreign bully are still greatly entertaining among common Chinese.  There has been a change over the past three decades though: today when people talk about the historical event itself, more emphasis seems to be placed on how stupid the Boxers were to use bare-hands to fight firearms, and how backward China was then in terms of national defense.

The official view has changed more dramatically. As a deeply cultured Chinese writer, Feng Jicai, whose novel about the Boxers was very popular in the 1970s and who is now unhappy with the portrayal in that book, says in an interview earlier this year, Chinese understanding of the Boxer movement has never been free of political utilitarianism. During the Cultural Revolution, to meet the political needs of the time, the Boxers were portrayed as revolutionaries consciously anti-imperialistic. Today, on the other hand, to comply with the reform and opening policy “we treat the Boxer movement as a typical case of blind xenophobia.” As such, Feng believes no historian has really touched the truth of that history, which he is trying to find. A native of Tianjin, a city with rich stories of the Boxers, Feng says the subject is always a knot in his heart. He has been writing new stories about it.

I like what Feng said, that the truth has yet to be found, because it whets my appetite to learn something new about an old topic. In a sense, Wasserstrom’s book has a similar effect on me. In recognizing differences between Western and Chinese views, Wasserstrom helps break stereotypical perceptions and opens the reader’s inquiring minds. He does so throughout the book.

The breadth of this relatively short, 150-page book is amazing. Starting with “Who was Confucius,” it continues without pause to  “What was the Dynastic Cycle,” “What was the Opium War,” “Why did the Qing Dynasty Fail,” and much more. Given the brevity and the format, there is a necessary lack of nuance, but there is a great overview of the backbone of Chinese history presented in the blink of an eye.

Building off of the past, the book devotes a chapter to the post-Mao development of China into the modern state it now is. Then it outlines “U.S. –China Misunderstandings,” and finally presents a chapter on what the future holds, providing useful insights into the different ways that Americans and Chinese view one another and how differently they interpret the same events.

Understanding what is happening in China, or America, is difficult for even the best informed people on both sides of the globe. If you are trying to get real insight into the Boxer Rebellion, Mao Zedong, Tibet or a host of other issues relating to China, one short book is surely not enough. But whether you are new to things Chinese or are an old China-hand, something said in China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know will make you think twice, and the references included should carry you quite a way. If you feel a bit lost for not getting a definitive answer to some questions, then you might be one step closer to learning the truth.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sichuan: Land of Abundance or Emptiness?

For thousands of years Sichuan, "Land of Abundance," has been recognized as China’s most fertile agricultural base. A new development model being pushed by the provincial government may forever change that. Yesterday I received an email from Maple describing a “pilot program” :

(In translation; 阅读中文原文)
My husband and I were in Chengdu’s Qingcheng Mountains last week, and visited some newly built peasant residences, all beautiful two-story small villas. A woman in her thirties very politely invited us into her house, and answered all my questions in detail.

Monument for a new peasant residence (photo by Maple Xu)


These new peasant residences were built after the [2008’s] earthquake. They look very handsome, however the residents are not victims of the earthquake – they did not have personal or property losses from the disaster. Rather, the new houses are the result of a pilot project taking advantage of the post-disaster rebuilding momentum. These “urban-rural synthesis overall planning” developments are government programs currently ongoing in Sichuan and Chongqing. Simply put, the peasants provide the land, and the government selects a developer to do the unified planning, design, and construction in an urban style. Each participating peasant contributes 2 fens(133.3 square meters) of land, and after the construction is complete, each gets 35 square meters of housing in return. The developer can use the remaining land in any way he wants. Thus, neither the peasants nor the government have to pay a penny, and the developer also gets practical benefits. All are happy.

The family we visited is a household of five. Using 10 fens (666.7 square meter) of their land, they exchanged for a small villa of 175 square meters with a beautiful interior. When asked how they’d make a living without land, the woman replied: 打工- migrant work. They still have a small portion of their land left, and they use it to plant vegetables for sale. Apparently, the woman and her family are very satisfied with their current living condition. After visiting her, I talked to two other people in the neighborhood, and got similar answers.
New peasant residence in Chengdu's Qingcheng Mountains
(photo by Maple Xu)

No farmland could be seen around the residences. There were only a few stalks of corn planted by the “rural home inn” (农家乐) where we stayed, in a small yard, probably smaller than your flower garden.

In my eyes, their life style is no different from that of city people. The peasants themselves also work in the city. But I don’t know if this is a good change. Farmland all turning into villas, vegetable patches become parking, where do we get food and vegetables from? My husband disagrees. He says peasants have the right to live the city people’s life. It is a trend of China’s agricultural reform: centralizing peasants’ scattered residences, and centralizing rural land management so as to bring it to scale. He also says nowadays China imports lots of grains, because the cost is lower than domestic production.

I can only speak intuitively that, when rural is not like rural, city is not like city, it is problematic. Now if you go to Sichuan’s rural areas, you rarely see a piece of farm land, let alone pigs and cows. That’s why when tourists come to Hainan, a relatively backward region, and see water buffaloes pulling plows in paddies, they exclaim, "Exotic!" The media and propaganda keep shouting about building great metropolises, about bringing China’s economy more in line with world standards, about world as one community and the earth as flat, et cetera – I can agree with none of them. If one day Shanghai becomes a clone of Paris, Chongqing a mirror of New York, wouldn’t life becomes meaningless? Look at today’s Chongqing, where hills are dynamited to flatten land, the rubble is used to fill in valleys, and the numerous high rises stand up like a forest. The “mountain city” has no mountain. The “fog capital” has no fog. Isn’t this extremely sad?


And here is a headline from last week’s media: “Sichuan forcefully advances rural tourism and the development of vacation agriculture.”

“Vacation agriculture”: instead of working the fields, peasants take care of tourists from the city. Nothing gets growing – can you call that agriculture at all?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Writings about the Cultural Revolution


Random Thoughts on Writings about the Cultural Revolution
(excerpt in translation; read the Chinese text here.)

Chinese often say, “Misfortune of the country is the fortune of poets.”  Actually, this depends on time and place. WWII brought disaster to many countries, but also provided endless source material for writers and artists. The Cultural Revolution brought China a catastrophe, but only increased the never ending troubles of [Chinese] artists and writers:  A painter’s oil painting “Shouting Long Live” can only be hidden in a corner of 798 art zone.  A sculptor who made a statue of Lin Zhao was summoned by the government many times. Writers wrote novels about the Red Guards and no publishers dared to publish. A director who made a movie called The Blue Kite,

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chinese Social Sci-Fi Follow-Up

Since my essay, “The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China,” appeared in Foreign Policy, I’ve heard from a number of readers seeking further information on Chinese Sci Fi.  Interested readers should check out Joel Martinsen’s blog post "Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others" for a more complete picture of the present Chinese SF scene.  I find the post, in which Joel (dubbed by a reader as "truly a Chinese SF fan") noted a number of recent SF works that are “socially conscious,” is very interesting and informative.  Joel concluded that, Chen Guanzhong’s China 2013 “may be the first political fantasy to take such direct aim at the modern social order and to discuss politics in such depth, but these and other science fiction stories also engage with contemporary Chinese society in

Friday, August 6, 2010

Literature and the Cultural Revolution

Remembrance (<记忆>) is a Chinese e-journal devoted to the Cultural Revolution research.  Its latest issue (54) is titled “Literature and the Cultural Revolution,” which contains interviews with three Chinese authors (including me), and reviews of their works.  I’ve posted this issue (in Chinese) on my website to share with interested readers.

The first two authors interviewed have novels you won’t normally find in China’s bookstores,  but you may be able to read excerpts on the internet . The novels are:
  • Traces of History by Tian Jianmo  (<史迹>, 田建模)
  • Lonely Curse  by  Xin Cunzhe  ( <孤独的咒语>, 行村哲)
The reviews of the above novels are very interesting to read (though I might not necessarily agree with everything they say).  One of them, Mu Ting’s “Random Thoughts about Writing on the Subject of the Cultural Revolution” (穆汀: “文革题材创作随感”) , contains comments on Yu Hua’s Brothers and Yan Lianke’s Serve the People.  I’m translating the first part of the review below:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China

My essay about social sci-fi in China and Chen Guanzhong's recent novel, China 2013, is now up on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. It seems to be getting quite a few reads. I've already gotten questions about an English translation of the book. It is not yet available; if you need further information about a translation, someone in this podcast, "Science Fiction in China," might know more than I do.
 
There was also a reader question as to whether Lao She's suicide was real or only an "official version" of the story. As far as I know, that is the fact. Lao She's son, Shu Yi (舒乙), has written many articles about his father's suicide; you can read one of them here (in Chinese).

If you are interested, here are some other English reviews of China 2013:
(Indeed there are different translations of the book title and even the author's name, the latter depending on whether Cantonese or Mandarin is in use for pronunciation.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lost in Translation: Chicken with Bones in Korea

by Bob Eberlein

(Time for something light. Bob is in Seoul attending the System Dynamics annual conference this week. He emailed me this and said, “Thought you would be amused.” And I was.  – Xujun)

Last night, I decided it would be good to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in Seoul as well as watch the town. So far, my experience this time had been limited to the conference hotel, the surrounding park and morning runs along the river. All of this was very pleasant, and it was fun to see all the Koreans out and moving around, but their direction was consistently purposeful. Not to get to someplace quickly, nor to explore some new area, but really to walk because they knew it would be good for them to do so. I applaud the sentiment and the devotion they have to their duty – I saw very few overweight people, at least till we got to the chicken with bones.

As I was leaving the hotel, I ran into a young man from India, who was also attending the conference. He suggested a good place to go, by subway, to do souvenir shopping. That sounded good and, when he suggested he might come along, I offered to buy him dinner.

So we set off on Seoul’s subway, a marvelously complicated contraption, and a few train changes later found ourselves in Myeong-dong, the shopping epicenter of Korea. Lots of stores, lots of street vendors and lots of people. Though some were walking with purpose, it was clear that purpose was not exercise. It was a new Seoul for me, and I like to think other parts of the city would be equally different.

After wandering a while and picking up a couple of souvenirs, we decided to look for dinner. The first place we looked at was pure Korean beef. Neither of us had objections, my friend’s Indian heritage notwithstanding, but neither did it really appeal. So we wandered a bit more, past an old woman who was selling things from the sea, which looked more like decorations than food to me, and came across a really crowded restaurant that had a picture that looked really good.

The crowding, it turns out, did not slow us down much. We watched as people ate, briefly paused to wipe their mouths, then abruptly stood up, paid and departed. While I have often noticed Chinese people being impatient to get up and out after a meal, I had never seen anything like this. I suspect it was the restaurant, and not just Korean culture at play here. This was a serious eating place and, if your weren’t eating, you just didn’t blend.

They sent us upstairs, sat us down and gave us a menu. It was all in Korean and the only things I could understand were the prices. There was a picture of something that looked delicious, but it was not obviously associated with anything on the menu. Soon, however, they brought out their “English” menu. In reality it was Korean, English and Chinese. The main entries were “chicken without bones” and “chicken with bones.” My rudimentary Chinese allowed me to figure out that there were two sizes, for 1-2 people and  for 3-4 people. The chicken without bones was a couple of dollars cheaper and this puzzled us. Wouldn’t it be more expensive to debone the chicken?

When the waiter returned we pointed to the picture, still not associated with any entry, and asked which one it was. We then pointed to the smaller size “chicken with bones” and ordered that, though neither of us was very fond of picking over bones. When it arrived, it included the chicken, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, potatoes and rice noodles all cooked up in a really nice, and somewhat spicy, sauce. Between the two of us we managed to finish about half the food that was there.

With the bones, it seems, comes an awful lot of seafood. That restaurant was, in fact, one of the few places I noticed a number of overweight people. Perhaps they were capable of finishing the serving size that was offered.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Speak of Motivation

People were asking why I had not commented on Wang Hui’s plagiarism scandal.  It’s not that I didn’t care. Truth is, I had selfish reasons for keeping silent.  The two recent open letters that stirred the water, one by Chinese scholars and the other by international scholars, have been dubbed as tit for tat, and I have friends in both camps of signatories.  Is my opinion on this more important than friendship?  For a while I was unsure. That was the main concern.  Another – somewhat petty – motivation was to steer clear of suspicion of personal grudge.

Not that I know Wang Hui personally.  Not really. I was a long-time reader of Du Shu (读书) magazine, and I liked it so much that I even subscribed from the US, which is quite expensive.  In my opinion it was during Wang Hui’s tenure as the editor that the magazine was the most interesting, thought provoking, and richest in content.  (With a different editor now, the magazine has become somewhat boring.)  I had always thought it’d be fun to chat with Wang Hui if there were a chance.

A few months ago, I attended the “Red Legacy in China” forum at Harvard University;   Wang Hui was one of the speakers. This was the first time I saw Wang Hui in person.  After the meeting, I went up to say Hello in the hallway.  I had already heard about his plagiarism scandal then, but I had no intention of mentioning it (and never did).  All I wanted to say was how much I enjoyed Du Shu under his editorship, with a slim hope for an intelligent conversation.

What I got was totally unexpected.  Wang Hui showed nothing but rudeness to me.  So much so that later Bob, who was waiting for me aside at the time, said, “Wow, that guy’s a real asshole. Either that, or he really needed to go to the bathroom.”

What was Wang Hui’s motivation for treating me, a stranger and a “fan” no less, so rudely?  Perhaps because he is too important to be polite to someone not as famous as he is?  Or maybe because I’m a Chinese, not an American who could be of more use to him?  (If so, he might be right about that.)  Of course, equally possible is that I just happened upon him at a bad moment, when he was too upset about the plagiarism accusation to behave normally.

Look, I have no basis to second guess his motivation. I simply don’t know him well enough, so what happened in the halls of Harvard is moot.  Though my personal impression of him was crashed by that brief encounter, my conscience tells me as a writer I shouldn’t allow the unpleasant experience to dictate my opinions on his plagiarism accusations.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the support letter from the eighty-some international scholars suggests that Wang Hui is the victim of “unmotivated attacks from the media culture” and that “ordinary cultural politics inside the university are criminalized.”  A signatory believes that “the ‘real reason’ Wang Hui came under attack was his political opinions.”

This is certainly possible, but again I don’t have enough evidence to verify it.  As such I decided to ask a friend, a signatory of the Chinese letter calling for an objective investigation, why he signed the letter.  Here is his answer:
[in translation]
“I know a letter like this may not do much, but I am too disgusted by current academic corruption and counterfeiting.  To make a small sound is still something.  I read the joint letter by the overseas scholars who support Wang Hui; [they] seem to be either Wang’s students or from the New Left?  Why does the left also play factionalism? Don’t they know what a thing China’s present-day universities really are?  In their letter they completely equate China’s universities to those in developed countries."
This friend, by the way, is not in any political faction, though at times he showed sympathy to the New Left. From our many years of acquaintance, he is an honest scholar who has my trust.  At least in his case as a signatory, there isn’t a political motivation.

Now, what is my opinion on Wang Hui’s plagiarism accusations? When first reading Wang Binbin’s article, I was put off by his unconcealed pleasure in finding a big target.  There is a Chinese saying, "Words are like the writer (文如其人)".  Judging from his writing style, Wang Binbin is not someone I would admire.  Given the history of Wang Binbin as I read from the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised if his motivation was more personal (fame-thirst?) than political.  Also, at least half of the evidences Wang Binbin provided against Wang Hui is pretty weak IMO.

This said, one or two of the pieces of evidence could be potentially damaging, not to mention that a couple of internet researchers have added more findings supporting the plagiarism charge.  Without reading Wang Hui’s dissertation/book, I can’t really make a confident judgment, but an objective investigation makes sense to me.  Motivations might not be measurable, plagiarism should be.  As the Chinese open letter says, if Wang Hui is innocent, the investigation could clear his name.  At a minimum, the investigation would help establish the academic norm (which is lacking in present China) against counterfeit work.  To ensure objectivity, the investigation committee should invite scholars from both sides (of the debate, and the Pacific).

To end this piece, I must say it was only after great hesitation that I wrote it, for the reasons mentioned earlier.  I’m an independent writer who refuses to get involved in any political parties, and I intend to keep this position for the rest of my life.  As such please do not place me in a particular camp. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Matchmaking Morality

I'd thought that enough was written about the matchmaking show "If you are not sincere" (also referred to as "If you are the one"), until I got the following questions from a reader: 
Why do you think these remarks set off such a firestorm? More than a half century ago Marilyn Monroe could sing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in Hays code Hollywood and no one got too upset. Are the woman's comments troubling to you? What do you think about the government move? Is it a noble effort to try to encourage virtue or a hopeless attempt to impose an ancient moral code?  Does the government have any role to play in shaping public morality?
Actually, I was equally curious about who in particular ordered the censorship.  Was it from some sanctimonious leaders in The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), or from higher authority of the Party central (e.g. Hu Jintao)? The latter possibility is certainly more worrisome.  I have written in this space before that the Party nowadays, though still active in political censorship, seemed to have left people's lifestyle issues alone. The return of such control is not a good sign.

Does the government have any role to play in shaping public morality? It certainly did in the Mao era.  Not only "shaping," the government (which was the Party itself) defined morality for the public and the public sincerely followed its rules. However, that sincerity largely came from people's belief in Communism.  This is to say, administrative command alone wouldn't have been so effective.  But Communism as practiced by Mao suppressed human nature (e.g., desire for a better material life) to an extreme and thus was doomed to be short lived. The destructive Cultural Revolution, in a sense, was a violent release of suppressed human nature.  Consequently, the belief in Communism collapsed after the CR.  Now the situation is that the administrative command may be obeyed, but not sincerely.  As an observant reader commented on my previous post, "The woman from the Party School is totally superfluous, and people on the show seem to be protesting silently."
 
The "mammonism" being scolded upon today is actually a consequence of an earlier notion of Deng Xiaoping's that "to be rich is glorious," which, to my understanding, was a  hypercorrection of Mao's collective-poverty policy.  Now the government seems to be quietly trying to re-correct Deng's correction, probably motivated by concerns about social unrest caused by the ever larger wealth gap.  But as long as the wealth gap exists, there's no way to eliminate the poor's desire to catch up the rich.  The censorship itself seems laughable and, without sincere beliefs to back it up, can only result in a new immorality of hypocrisy.  This is a post-Communist dilemma that the authority must deal with.  Stop issuing such stupid commands.  If you are sincere, do something about the wealth gap. 

I should also add that, from the pre-censorship episodes of the matchmaking show I've watched, I only saw two women (among hundreds) who openly placed wealth as the top criterion for choosing a mate.  Both were, from time to time, mocked by Meng Fei  and Le Jia in a good-natured way.  Most women apparently considered the men's character and personality first, and economic condition second (certainly not ignoring it).  One thing that particularly touches me is that the majority men and women have mentioned as a condition for a prospect mate:  "Be filial to my parents." You often hear a statement like "It's my biggest happiness to make my parents happy."  This is sincerity. This is morality with "Chinese characteristics." 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Aftermath of Matchmaking Censorship

Yesterday, a reader gave me a heads-up on a Washington Post article titled "TV matchmaking show runs afoul of China's morality campaign" by Keith B. Richburg, which came 20 days after I wrote about the same subject in this space.  It does not add much new, but other than a couple of minor inaccuracies (for example the half-misquote “rather cry in a BMW than ride a bicycle while laughing”), the writing is alright.

I don't know if the author knows Chinese, or if he has watched the show himself, but since his report came so much later, it would have been more informative if he included updates about the show after the censorship.  Because he didn't, I'll take the opportunity to tell you about a few of the most obvious changes.

One is that the program ("If you are not sincere" or "If you are the one," whichever way you like to call it) now has a Party School teacher, a middle-aged woman, sitting on the stage, next to the popular commentator Le Jia. Whether this was government imposed, or the program's way to add protection, I don't know (it is for Keith Richburg to find out :-)).  Her presence reminds me of the "model Beijing operas" during the Cultural Revolution – in those there was often a female Party representative who could do nothing wrong.  Not surprisingly, the show’s Party School teacher dresses sedately in a politically correct way.  And she does not display the emotional personality that Le Jia does.  To her credit, her words so far have not been as doctrinaire as I had expected, but they haven’t offered much insight either.  With her sitting there, I'm sure all the women guests will behave themselves, and hide some of their true sides.  Too bad the contestants still dress multifariously – I wonder why the government has not required them to wear the same outfit, for example only blue or green like we did during the Cultural Revolution.

Another change is that now none of the male guests is allowed to state his income.  How does this stop the "mammonism" repeatedly scolded about in the government instructions?  The contestants  avoid using the word "money," but not "cars" or "houses."  I'm afraid the government will have to issue another set of instructions to ban those words as well.

Yet another change is that more hero-like male guests are appearing on the stage.  A selfless professional rescuer who kept saying "It is my happiness to rescue people and state property" (he failed to take away his choice woman), and a Canton policeman coming to help the pretty single-mother (whose bad luck with the male guests had made Le Jia cry), for example.  Both professions appeared for the first time, Meng Fei announced. 

The government ordered the exclusion of actors and disallowed any scripted interactions in matchmaking shows.  But the most noticeable consequence of the new rules seems to be that everyone must do some acting now.  "If you are not sincere" has lost some of the spontaneity it had before.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pleasure and Pain at Shanghai World Expo

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation; 阅读中文原文]

SHANGHAI, China Before the Shanghai Expo began, a friend and I made different predications on which month would be the most crowded. She said May, because it'd start with the three-day labor-day holiday period. I said June, because everyone would think the same way my friend did and thus try to avoid May. I was unfortunately right, but because of a chance circumstance, I myself ended up going there in the peak month.

My husband and I planned on a three-day visit: one day each to the Asia Square, Europe and America Squares, and the Urban Best Practices Area, respectively.

Friends who had been there before told us, if you don't want to wait for hours in line outside the Expo gate, noon is a better time to go. Indeed, we arrived at the security point around 11:30 am, and there was almost no line. When asked, a staff said that since 9:00, over 400 thousand people had gone in. My heart tightened: what a rumpus would 400 thousand people kick up inside! But when we reached the square, it was surprisingly empty. Where had all the people gone? Standing in lines all over the world.

Lines at Expo gate (photo by Maple Xu)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Translation of "Mob Mentality"

Yesterday I received an email from Beijing, which mentions in passing that a Chinese translation of my two articles (here and here) is circulating on the internet.  I took a look and saw that the translation was originated from China Digital Times (here and here). 

There is an error in the translation I'd like to correct. Before going there, however, I must say I have tremendous respect for China Digital Times, which has done a great job relaying China-themed news and commentaries between the English and Chinese worlds.  It appears to me that the translator of my articles is a young member of a Beijing voluntary translator group called 译者. I recommend you check out the 译者 website because it has rich, up-to-date information on China's current affairs.

The translation in question could use some polishing but is acceptable for the most part. One can't demand too much from volunteer work, which I appreciate very much.  As such I'm only going to address one error that, left uncorrected, makes parts of the article incoherent.  I've tried to contact the translator, but because the translation has been circulating extensively on the Chinese internet and can't be all corrected, I feel the need to post it on my blog.

Here is the part of the Chinese translation on China Digital Times I'm talking about:
毕竟,文革的一代中,没有几个人是完全清白的。 文化大革命是一场全民运动。 在那个时期,极少有人能逃脱思想煽动 即便是今天,一想到那时如果我岁数够大,可能也会铸成什么令我悔恨终生的大错,就会出冷汗。
作为一个作者,比起对当时的人们指指点点的评论,我总是对了解当时的思想煽动更感兴趣。 为了了解当时的情况,我们必须不断的挖掘历史真相。 我认为我们挖掘的还不够深,了解的还不够多。 今年早些时候,我听说当很多人指责张艺谋新排的贺岁片很蠢时,这位著名的导演声称中国人民有着太多像文革那样的沉重话题,他们所需要的是一些轻松的电影。 张艺谋只从自己这一代人的角度看问题的狭窄眼界让我非常震惊。 难道他没发现当代的年轻人对文革和1989年一类的事件完全无知么? 思想煽动这件事上,他们并未从父辈那儿接受任何教训,现在,因特网上已经开始出现新式思想煽动的苗头。
And here is my original text:
After all, few of the CR generation were completely innocent. The Cultural Revolution was an all-people movement. It was a time that few escaped the mob mentality. Even today it gives me cold sweats with the thought that, if I were old enough then, I could have done terrible things that I would regret for a lifetime.
As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in understanding the mob mentality than pointing fingers. To understand we have to keep digging through the past. I don’t think we have dug deep enough, have understand enough. I heard that, early this year, when Zhang Yimou made a New Year movie that many deemed too stupid, the famous director claimed that Chinese people had enough heavy topics like the CR, what they needed now were light-hearted, relaxing movies. It surprises me that Zhang’s sight is this narrow, from only the viewpoint of his generation. Has he noticed that today’s young people are very ignorant of the recent past such as the CR and 1989? Without learning the lessons from their parents, new signs of mob mentality have already began to show on the internet.
As you can see, the phrase "mob mentality," which means "暴民心态", is wrongly translated as 思想煽动 (meaning "thought demagogy"). A totally different concept.

Again, I really appreciate the volunteer work of those young people and their interest in the CR history.  Perhaps the error occurred because "mob mentality" is an unfamiliar concept to the young generation of Chinese, which in turn might partially explain why mob mentality has been commonplace on the Chinese internet. If so, I hope this post may serve as stimulation for young people's interest in studying, and recognizing, mob mentality.

And I hope the promising translator will not be discouraged by this. To become good at translation requires lots of practice, so this should be just one small experience.

By the way, I rather like this translator's translation of my book title, "酝酿中的道歉",which literally means "apologies in fermentation." I hope one day my book will have the opportunity to be published in Chinese, and this would be a good title for it.  

Update (6/27):  I received a kind email from the translator who says they'll fix the error on their website. I appreciate it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Matchmaking Censorship

For a moment, I thought my previous post  was the curse:  this past Sunday, PPStream ceased broadcasting the reality TV show "If You Are Not Sincere, Don't Bother Me" (非诚勿扰),  just three days after my post.  Not only that, much to my chagrin, all the previous episodes have also been removed.  Then I found an announcement on the PPS website saying they did this to comply with new instructions from The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), issued twice on June 2 and 8. (My ominous post went up on June 9.)

Here is the gist of the SARFT instructions:
婚恋交友类电视节目不能由演员、模特、节目主持人、富二代成功人士等身份的嘉宾占据荧屏;不得选择社会形象不佳或有争议的人物担当主持人;不得 以婚恋的名义对参与者进行羞辱或人身攻击,甚至讨论低俗涉性内容,不得展示和炒作拜金主义等不健康、不正确的婚恋观
[In translation]
Matchmaking TV shows may not let actors, models, program hosts, 'the second generation of the rich,' and 'the successful figures'  appear as guests to occupy the screen; may not choose those with disreputable social image or contentious characters as hosts; may not use the name of love or marriage to insult or make personal attacks against participants, or discuss vulgar sexual content ;  may not demonstrate or  promote unhealthy and incorrect marriage-love views such as mammonism.
Did the bureaucrats at SARFT eat too much and have nothing better to do?  What made them issue such superfluous and laughable restrictions on non-political, entertaining, and revealing TV shows?  Rumor has it that Ma Nuo, one of the earlier female guests in "If You Are Not Sincere," triggered the shot.  Ma Nuo's most infamous quote circling on the internet is "I'd rather cry in a BMW" – her reply to a male guest, a cyclist, who asked if she'd like to ride a bike with him.  (But Baidu has a post that says what she actually said was "a BMW is rather cool." In Chinese, "cry" ()  and "cool" () sound pretty much the same.) Because of this, Ma Nuo's name has become a synonym of "mammonism," and been attacked by numerous netizens.  And this, apparently, became the motive to restrict "the second generation of the rich" to participate in matchmaking shows.

Deng Xioaping, the "father of reform and opening," promulgated the notion that "being rich is glorious." No more, I guess, but wouldn't it be  more effective to simply order "the rich" to stay single, or have a "zero-child policy" for them and their children?
 
So what is next? Perhaps cooking shows that mention any meats other than pork, or any vegetable other than cabbage, will come under the lens. Or maybe weather programs that suggest anything but fine weather or needed rain are on the way will be nixed. Maybe business programs that discuss financial problems in the Euro-zone will be told to stop that and go along with the official position of expected stability.

Not surprisingly, the hypocritical call is met with hypocritical responses.  So far all the TV stations running a matchmaking show have made sonorous echoes that they "firmly advocate SARFT's instructions," while each and every one of them says they have nothing to do with the criticism. The shows continue; only we overseas audiences are deprived the pleasure of watching them at PPStream's mercy.

Times have certainly changed. It seems like those outside of China can be more strongly influenced by the edicts of Beijing than those inside. The government can continue to issue superfluous instructions that are not sincere, just don't expect everyone to be bothered as much as PPStream.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

If You Are Not Sincere, Don’t Bother Me

Sunday evening, June 6.  On the stage ablaze with lights stand 24 women, most in their early 20s, and not yet betrothed, waiting for their chance at “fast matchmaking.”  Before each of the women is a green-lighted podium with her number, her name and a switch.  A young man descends from a glass elevator:  first shoes, then pants, then the black jacket, black glasses, and a black hat hiding a lowered head.  Pop music and applause break out.

Meng Fei, the bald host aged 39, asks the 28-year-old handsome Shanghai man: “Why do you dress like a magician?”

We hear a nervous reply, ”Eh…they say I look a bit like Harry Potter…”

After some good-natured teasing, Meng Fei hands the young man a digital pad and asks him to choose one girl who “arouses your heart. “

We see the number he enters–  “1” – but it is concealed from the women on the stage.  Suspense immediately builds.  This woman, Xie Jia, is a college student 22 years young, who says she did not discover herself as a woman until age 21. Good looking, intelligent, she has nonetheless rarely been chosen by men, and has been standing there for many installments.  Judging by appearances, the two look like a match. I find myself hoping Xie Jia will be taken away in this man’s arms.

The women appraise him for a first impression.  Meng Fei turns to all, “Please choose.”

Ding, ding.   Two girls’ lights go off – “Not interested.” Most leave theirs on (I am relieved to see Xie Jia among them), watching the "magician" with open curiosity.  

Meng Fei asks the two girls why they turned off their lights.

”I have no interest in Harry Potter,” one woman replies.  Laughter ensues from the audience.

“He does not make me feel secure,” says the other, "not at all."

Three more thresholds await the man. If, after that, there are still lights on, he’ll be able to enter the final stage “rights reverse to the male.”   Otherwise he receives a “failure exit." The suspense is that of a well-plotted drama.

Only this is a reality show that is more engaging than most movies I’ve seen.  Titled after Feng Xiaogang's popular movie, “If You Are Not Sincere, Don’t Bother Me” (非诚勿扰), the weekend matchmaking show broadcast on Jiangsu Satellite TV is currently China's highest rated program.  I first heard about it shortly after its launch in January, but did not pay much attention because reality shows don't usually interest me.  Over time, however, more and more Chinese friends were telling me how fun it is to watch.  When I started to watch the re-made Three Kingdoms on PPStream, Jiangsu TV had bundled it with “If You Are Not Sincere, Don’t Bother Me” for weekend prime time.  Once I clicked it, I was hooked.

To my dismay, the young man who looked like Harry Potter did not pass the women's scrutiny.  Before he had a chance for "rights reverse to the male," all the lights had gone off, including Xie Jia's, who apparently was not aware of his admiration.  I'm not sure which of his statements, "I can peel lobster very fast," or "I love to hand-wash clothes on a washboard," had turned her off, except that those words did not demonstrate whatever quality Xie Jia was looking for in a man.

The program is one-hour long, and each male guest is given 20 minutes or so on stage. For the installments I've seen so far, the majority of male guests got a "failure exit."  Even for those lucky ones who enter the final stage, the remaining lights often do not include the woman "arousing his heart." Thus successful matchmaking remains rare.  At times, however, a happy ending can move the audience to tears.

Last Saturday, after two men exited with failure, an ordinary-looking, round-face young photographer with a collected, quiet humor took away his choice woman, Liu Huan, unexpectedly.  The outcome was unusual because of the beautiful young woman's odd situation: Liu Huan had been on stage together with her mother.  She had turned her light off early on, however the mother kept her light on. When Meng Fei asked why, the mother said the man would be an ideal son-in-law for her. Toward the end, six lights were still on. Meng Fei told the young photographer if he wanted one of those, he could take her hand right away. But if he insisted on Liu Huan, he might end up leaving alone. 

The young man insisted, and was given 30 seconds for a last-ditch pursuit.  "Do you know my situation?" Liu Huan asked. "Yes I do," the young man answered. Liu Huan (who apparently had turned down many pursuers) said she had joined the program to help her mother, and would not leave before her mother found a good match.  Her voice began to tremble; her mother covered her face as tears running down.  Applause and sobs could be heard from the audience.  "Today I'm surprised to see my mother kept her light on for me to the last minute. I’ve decided to be a good daughter," Liu Huan said. The young couple held hands; cheers and applause followed for a long time. The mother and daughter left together for good.

The show is a kaleidoscope of contemporary Chinese views of love, marriage, and life style.  I was especially amazed by the candid, openness of the young women, and their bravery to bear public scrutiny. The relentless internet spreads numerous comments on the looks, personality, and value system of the women, sometimes positive and more often negative. A righteous-sounding man even took his opportunity on the stage to scold a girl to tears, because she once said that to sit in a BMW would be more cool than riding a bike.   It is not easy to be oneself under such pressure. I recall my twenties in the 1980s, even to place an anonymous personal ad in newspaper was a disgrace.  Times have changed.

"If You Are Not Sincere" is not the only matchmaking show in China, however the others are not nearly as popular. Its success largely depends on host Meng Fei’s wit, sensibility, and broad-knowledge.  In researching his background, I was surprised to learn he was from my hometown Chongqing.  Between high school graduation and success as a TV program host, he had been a low-paid temp doing odd jobs for many years.  His story is that rare one of success for a self-learned man. 

As of last week, 160-170 thousand applications to participate in the show had queued up from all over China.  Meng Fei announced recently that, in response to keen overseas demand, this "fast matchmaking" program is going to be launched in London and other foreign cities as well.

I have seen several overseas Chinese men appear in the program (none with success), but not a single non-Chinese.   To those Americans who live in China and are single, would you like to give it a try?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Killing Children - An Act of War Against China’s Collective Future

New America Media, news analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: May 17, 2010

In Hanzhong, Shannxi, a mother-and-son team rented a rural property to open a private kindergarten for 20 children. One day the son found a snake inside and killed it. This disturbed the property owner, 48-year-old Wu Huanming, who had been suffering from a variety of diseases and had grown increasingly superstitious in recent years. Blaming the snake killing for the ineffectiveness of his medical treatment, Wu went into a frenzy. On the morning of May 12, Wu entered the kindergarten carrying a meat cleaver and hacked to death seven children, along with the mother-and-son proprietors, wounding another 11 children in the process. Wu committed suicide afterward.

Hanzhong police provided these details at a press conference a day after the killing, according to Xi’an Morning Post.  At first glance, it looked like another malignant but isolated crime. In fact, it was only the latest in a series of mass attacks on young children in different provinces of China that occurred between March 23 and May 12. Beijing police said last Wednesday they successfully interdicted seven criminal attempts targeting schools and kindergartens in that city alone.

All over China, people winced. Why are young children being slaughtered? Such massive attacks on children did not happen even in the Cultural Revolution, the most violent period of Communist China. And now China is experiencing unprecedented prosperity.

Despite the apparent similarities in actions and targets, there is no universal explanation of motive. Among the killers besides Wu Huanming were a doctor who could not find a job and, at age 42, had a history of failed relationships, a 40-year-old villager who had suffered mental illness for five years, a 31-year-old school teacher on sick leave for four years; a 46-year-old unemployed man with debts resulting from multi-level marketing, and a 45-year-old villager whose newly-built house faced demolition.

Two of the six suspects were said to have suffered mental illness, prompting concerns about China’s lack of mental health care. But insanity can hardly explain the other four cases.

Most of the suspects lived at the bottom of the society, leading observers to blame their anger and desperation on the wealth gap. The Internet is abuzz with questions about whether China’s economy should be characterized as that of a “rich state, poor people.” But even this does not explain why children were repeatedly targeted.

Chinese cherish children as the promise of their future and their defense against death. Though rare stories exist about “exchanging [dead] children to eat” (“易子而食”),  those were from disastrous periods of war and famine, when desperation was all there was. Has China today entered such a period of extreme disaster?

Harming children on a mass scale did not start this year. As early as 2004, long before the Sanlu milk scandal, there was the “dark-heart milk powder” incident in which counterfeit milk powder caused the deaths of 13 babies and permanent disablement of 171 others. It outraged the entire nation that someone would target babies to make a profit. That incident reflected a moral decay in China, but no one could have foreseen that child-harming would escalate to the raw violence seen this year.

In one of the six recent school attacks, 45-year-old Wang Yonglai was an even-tempered Shandong villager and a long-time party member. On the morning of April 30, Wang carried a hammer to the village’s elementary school, and pounded five preschool children on their heads. Wang then poured gasoline on himself, grabbed two children into his arms, and lit himself on fire. While Wang burned to death, the two children were pulled to safety by teachers.

This tragedy happened on the day Wang’s new house was to be demolished. According to an investigative report in the independent Caijing magazine, Wang’s greatest wish in life was to build a new house for his son, now 20 years old, so that he would be able to get a wife. Last year, after Wang spent his lifetime savings plus 60,000 yuan of debt, the new house was finally built. Wang had gone through all of the proper procedures. In June 2009, the local government issued Wang’s house the “rights certificate.” On the day of April 23, 2010, however, Wang received notice from a government department that his house was an illegal building and must be demolished in two days. Wang and his daughter called and went to many places trying to save the house -- the mayor’s hotline, the “law hotline,” the TV station -- to no effect.

“Wang Yonglai’s new house still stands right now,” the Caijing report says, “while the demolition day became the day of his death. Using his death, five little children’s blood, and the serial effect of other school attacks, he temporarily preserved the painstaking effort of his life.”

One office of the government approved Wang’s house’s legal status, but another government office judged it an illegal building. Wang was given only a few days notice before the demolition. The government was too powerful, and the ordinary villager powerless. Finally, “the weak take revenge on the weaker,” concludes a Chinese blogger. Robbed of his future by a state impervious to his plight, he took revenge by destroying others’ futures -- their children.

Wang’s plight is reminiscent of that of a Sichuan woman, Tang Fuzhen, who burned herself to death last November in a failed attempt to stop the local government from demolishing her house. After her death, the government judged Tang and her relatives to be criminals who “used violence to fight the law.” The government also tried to block media reports on the case. Tang’s death, and similar self-immolations in other Chinese cities, did not stop forceful house demolitions by the government and developers, nor did the tragedy rouse any remorse. Only about a month ago, a government official involved in demolishing Tang’s house was still saying the cause of the tragedy was that Tang “did not have knowledge of law.”

When suicide alone is no longer effective, the most horrific crime – mass killing of children -- becomes the most effective option to some of those desperate enough to end their own lives. More than a manifestation of individual problems or even of social injustice, it is an act of war against China’s collective future. It is a sign that now is a time of extreme desperation, for all China’s great strides toward prosperity.