Thursday, February 25, 2010

Food to Die For

In the March 1st issue of the New Yorker, the most fun piece to read is "Where's Chang?" by Calvin Trillin. Despite being a big eater of Szechuan (Sichuan) cuisine, I'd never heard of Peter Chang before, but I’ve converted to a "Changian" afterwards. :-) I also didn't know a restaurant critic's writing could be as delicious as the food –  just read Todd Kliman's description of Chang's Roast Fish:
…really, a heaping plate of expertly fried fish, dusted with cumin, topped off with chopped ginger, fried parsley and diced chilies and served in a thatched bamboo pouch.
And John Binkley's comment on an off-the-menu special provided by Chang:
…crispy eggplant cut like French fries and salt-fried with scallion greens, a hint of cumin, and hot pepper. To die for!
Why not.  From now on I'll be searching for Peter Chang whenever I travel.

Calvin Trillin is such a poised essayist, who is capable of turning a food piece into a thriller. This essay about Peter Chang is structured like a detective story, following each clue from Chang's frequent disappearances and his loyal followers' persistent efforts at tracking him down.  

Those eaters' faithful following of Chang's authentic cooking seems to indicate an increasingly more sophisticated taste for Chinese food among Americans. As a Sichuanese living in New England, one thing I hate the most is the pervasive existence of take-out places that produce Americanized, fake Sichuan food. Whenever I hear an American praising that kind of food I immediately get a toothache. Worse, the majority of Sichuan chefs fall into the awful demand trap and cater to American’s taste expectations; as a consequence it has become very hard to find great Sichuan cuisine in the Boston area.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in a previous post, an excellent newcomer in the Framingham area is Red Pepper, whose chef is a down-to-earth Chongqing man nick-named Old Black, who really knows how to cook. He doesn't use cumin often, as cumin was not commonly used in traditional Sichuan dishes, but Red Pepper does offer a dish named "Cumin Flavored Beef with Chili Sauce," which sounds like a variation of something that might be on Peter Chang's menu. It tastes great.

Even Red Pepper sometimes caters to American tastes. When we lived in Sichuan, one dish Bob and I loved was Dan-Dan Noodles. Naturally that was the first thing we ordered from Red Pepper. The noodles tasted not bad, but were unlike their Chongqing namesake, without even the signature ingredient of sesame butter. The manager told us "Americans don't like real Dan-Dan Noodles," so they modified it.  Thankfully, under our persistence, they’ve added back the sesame.

On a related note, if you are interested in international recipes, it might be worth checking out Matthew Lubin's blog The Laowai Kitchen, written in both English and Chinese.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Where and What to Eat for Chinese New Year

Today is the lunar New Year's Eve and tomorrow starts the year of the Tiger. It is the Chinese tradition to have a great feast today (and for three contiguous days) to celebrate. If you are in the great Boston area, I recommend two restaurants that are the best for Sichuan cuisine:

  • Red Pepper (重庆食府), (508) 620-9998, 17 Edgell Road, Framingham, MA (off Rt. 9)
  • Chili Garden (川王府), (781) 396-8488, 41 Riverside Ave, Medford, MA
We are going with a bunch of friends to one of them. Can't wait!

One of the must-have traditional New Year dishes is smoked pork (腊肉). The restaurants above smoke the pork themselves to make this wonderful dish and it tastes great. Also, when you go to any Chinese restaurant, don't forget to ask if they have sweet-rice balls (汤圆), a must-have dessert to celebrate the New Year. Not every Chinese restaurant offers it, but good ones should.

smoked pork 

sweet-rice balls in rice-wine

四川凉粉 (Sichuan's cold rice noodles)

By the way, my old townsfolk in Chongqing believe a Tiger Year will be severe. I don't think the young generation would buy that. Apparently the older generations have a more pessimistic world view.

Among all the Tiger Years I have lived through, the one that stands out is 1974.  In January that year I finished high school, without any graduation ceremony. In May I was sent down to the countryside as an "insert," and labored in the fields with peasants for nearly four years, until universities re-started in spring 1978.  Life was really harsh in the countryside. But unlike many of my peers, I don't resent that time. I treasure that experience; it opened my eyes to the reality of how people at the bottom of society lived. One of the stories in my book Apologies Forthcoming, "Disciple of the Masses," has parts based on my own experience. Check it out.

Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Turning Winds in Chongqing's Crackdown

Have you ever heard a Chinese adage "Going too far is as bad as not going far enough" (过犹不及)?

Chongqing people's attitude toward the campaign of crackdown on gangsters is changing. A little more than a month ago, when I called friends in Chongqing, I heard genuine praise of Bo Xilai and the crackdown he led. Now people either speak hesitantly or refuse to give an opinion.

A few days ago an American journalist reporting on the crackdown wrote me from Chongqing, asking for help finding local people to interview, so I called a few Chongqing friends who I think might have something to say. One friend first could barely contain her discontent with the latest death sentences and then politely turned down my request. "We'd better not talk about this sensitive topic," she said. "We don't want to get any trouble." Her words surprised me because not long ago she had happily praised the crackdown.  

The second friend said, "If speaking truthfully [about the crackdown], then everyone has psychological hindrance. If speaking untruthfully, then what's the point?" His conclusion: better not speak at all.

The third person advised me to stay away from politics (remotely familiar advice I haven't heard expressed since the early 1980s!). "Don't you see the left wind in the media all the time now? Sweep yellow [porn], crackdown black [gang crime]. But what's yellow what's black is not up to us laobaixing [ordinary names] to decide. We are afraid to be trapped again, like the anti-rightist campaign in the '50s. Chinese know about fear. Things now don't smell right; to involve one more thing is not as good as to involve one less."

All those people are ordinary citizens not in any important position. I haven't seen this amount of fear for quite some time. In Chongqing, this seemed to have begun with the Li Zhuang case, with which Bo Xilai's image is turning from that of an enlightened leader to a Maoist despot. He might be neither, but the campaign-style move is what frightens people, because it recalls bad memories of the Mao era. Only the youngsters who have no knowledge of (and are not told about) that time stay enthusiastic – and this is equally scary.

There is also a rumor that Bo Xilai might be out of favor with the central Party, because his name did not show up in a recent high-rank event where all other politbureau members appeared. This seems to me more a wish than concrete evidence.  Analyzing name appearances in the media was what people used during the Cultural Revolution to guess which direction the political wind would blow, much like technical analysis is used on Wall Street to guess which way the stock market will move. Neither is really predictable, but the return of such guesswork in politics may be another warning sign.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Are Li Zhuang and the Chongqing Government Up to?

Like most, at first I was surprised that lawyer Li Zhuang opened his February 2 appeal hearing by admitting to the crime of fabricating evidence for his alleged gangster client.  Only a few weeks ago, Li had made a vehement and heroic proclamation that he was willing to exchange his freedom for progress in China's rule of law.  His unexpected admission of guilt shocked not only his numerous supporters (mostly people outside of Chongqing) and defense lawyers, but even the prosecutor.

Part of the initial confusion, though, came from a few media outlets' early reports that included Li's words for abolishing the reasons for his appeal but omitted any mention of his insistence on keeping the appeal. I wouldn't be surprised if this omission was intentional. It gave the false impression that Li Zhuang was withdrawing his appeal all together. The predictable consequence was that many of Li's supporters, who had made Li a sort of hero, got very upset by his "betrayal." 

However, as more complete coverage from independent media such as the Economic Observer appeared, it becomes evident that Li did not admit guilt genuinely, and that he tried to present obvious clues to that effect wherever he could. Here's a small example: at one point, when examined by the prosecutor on how he incited Gong Gangmo, his client, to fabricate evidence of torture, Li said he leaned over an iron bar and whispered into to Gong's ear. This is in complete contradiction to what Gong had told the court and CCTV, that Li gave him hints by "blinking his eyes."  Later, Li's defense lawyer asked a police guard whether there was an iron bar in that room, and the witness said "no." When it was Li Zhuang's turn to question one witness, he asked, "Now there are two versions of how the 'fabrication' took place, so which is true?"  Aha! He had created the 2nd version himself in order to ask this question. Though the witness evaded the question by answering "I don't know," Li fulfilled his purpose in revealing conflicting evidence.

Li Zhaung in court (photo from

I'm now convinced that Li was forced to admit quilt in exchange for a more favorable sentencing from the appeal court. In previous posts I said that the hurried arrest of Li Zhuang had actually put the Chongqing government on the defensive (in fact I would now say it's "riding a tiger and hard to get off" or "骑虎难下"), and that if the government wanted a less damaging way out they could declare Li guilty without giving him jail time. However the lower court that held the 1st trial missed the opportunity. I didn't expect that judge to be smart or courageous enough to do it anyway. But apparently now someone higher up is recognizing the damage and trying to find a ladder off the stage (or tiger back). 

As part of the strategy change, the court has allowed six witnesses to appear for the prosecutor, which is in sharp contrast to the first trial when there were none. Is this progress toward the rule of law? Not really. It shows the government's desire to please criticizers and prove its own legitimacy. I would have given them credit if they hadn't done things so stupidly, but in the court, the answers (or methods used to evade answering the defense questions) from all the witnesses were so uniform it points to a certain kind of training prior to the trial.  I'd say it's kind of the court's trying to outsmart itself (弄巧成拙). Without judicial independence, no strategy can really help.

Meanwhile, Wang Lijun, the current police head who is credited with carrying out Chongqing's crackdown on gangsters, and apparently also the strategist behind Li Zhuang's arrest,  gave a surprising interview to The Beijing News that appeared on Feb. 2, the day of Li Zhuang's 2nd trial and Wen Qiang's first trial. Wang said that the evaluation of his predecessor Wen Qiang, Chongqing's highest official involved in "organized crime," should respect history, and that Wen "has many merits, made many contributions." It's odd that such positive comments should appear on the day of two heavyweight trials. It looks more like an effort to show his (and the government's) objectiveness. Why the need for such a show?  Because the Li Zhuang case has brought pressures from the outside public for Chongqing to prove the legitimacy of its crackdown practice. Wang had never made a public speech about the crackdown. He couldn't (or was unwilling to) soften the accusations against Li Zhuang, so he said some good words about Wen Qiang instead.  The timing of this interview shows it's a retreat, a compromise, just like Li Zhuang's admission of guilt. In this case the two sides are trying to reach a solution in which the government loses less face and Li Zhuang gets less jail time.

Why would Li Zhuang accept such a deal if he's not actually guilty?  Well, why not? The Chinese have sayings like "A great man can bend or stretch" and "a wise man knows how not to take imminent trouble." History provides no shortage of examples from greater people.  No need to look too far: as recent as Deng Xiaoping, the helmsman of China's economic reform, who wrote not once but three times to Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, to self-criticize, admit guilt in straying from Mao's revolutionary line, and promise that he would never ever try to turn the guilty verdict around. (Li Zhuang's promise to the court that he would never revoke his guilt admission certainly recalls Deng's story.)  Deng's strategy and persistence eventually worked, and Mao stopped his punishment. That's how Deng was able to turn China around later. Whether Deng had broken his integrity is anyone's take.  I will leave the question of whether China's economic success today justifies Deng's "bend" to historians, but personally, I would be more willing to say "yes" if Deng hadn't also shown his ability of "stretch" by giving the order to shoot students, something even Mao hadn't done.

There is a more well-known tale called "humiliation under crotch."  Han Xin was the greatest Han Dynasty general. When he was young, he once ran into a gang of local thugs on a bridge. The thugs teased him about his aspiration to become a general, and the thug's leader ordered Han Xin to choose between crawling under his crotch and being stabbed. Han Xin chose the former. He survived and, true to his wish, grew up to be one of the greatest generals in China's history. This tale of his youth has since become an admonition for Chinese man to take humiliation for a greater cause.

Li Zhuang might have accepted the humiliating deal for his family and his own freedom, not necessarily for a greater cause. If there is a wrong in this, it is more the government's than Li Zhuang's. It's truly sad that he had to go through this.

It's likely that Li Zhuang may get a reduced sentence. At this point, however, unless the court admits that the evidence against Li Zhuang is inadequate, there will be no gain for the government's image or credibility. Before Li Zhuang's case the crackdown in Chongqing had enjoyed almost universal praise, now the clamor for procedural justice is on the rise. This, is what's significant.  #

Related posts:

Lawyer's Trial in Chongqing Rivets Public and Tests Chinese Courts
The People vs. Li Zhuang (2009)
Fortune or Calamity? A Gift for Chongqing's Indicted Police Chief

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Cultural Revolution Complex in Contemporary Chinese Art

…How the once brutal real suffering has now become romantic imaginary suffering
By Chen Dehong

[Note: I find the author's summary and criticism of contemporary Chinese art from the late 1970s to present involving the Cultural Revolution extremely interesting and well-formed. Translated with occasional comments (in italic) and annotation added. Original post is slightly longer with a few more images shown. – Xujun] (XNZKZXA4YWZH)

"x/x/1968, snowing" by Cheng Conglin (1979)

The Cultural Revolution ended 30 some years ago, but contemporary Chinese art continues to make a matter of it, as if it wouldn't be contemporary if the CR were not addressed. Reflections on, or utilization of, the CR requires a serious analysis.

1. "Scar Art" Launched the First Wave Displaying the CR

It marked the starting point of China's contemporary art.

"Why" by Gao Xiaohua (1978)

Representative works include Cheng Conglin's "x/x/1968, Snowing," Gao Xiaohua's "Why" and other works reflecting "armed fighting." He Duoling produced "Youth" in the 1980s, which became the epilogue of that wave. Scar art's attention to the CR has artists' commemorating and lamenting their brutal youth; though more of individual experiences, it was in tune with the time's rethinking. Scar art lacks deep reflection on the CR; it uses victim pathos to touch the audience, but is only superficial in its rethinking. At that time this was already difficult and valuable, but its obvious limitations come to show as time goes by.

[I don't completely agree – I view those works as deeper than most of their later counterparts. I still remember how, as a college student, I first saw He Duoling's oil painting "We Once Sang This Song", and how the feeling of shock it caused in me lasted for years. There wasn't  obvious "victim pathos" in that painting, only the scene of a bunch of young "zhi-qing" – city youth sent down to the countryside – singing a song, yet its impact was profound.  –  Xujun]

"We Once Sang This Song" by He Duoling (1980)

2. Early Trend of Modern Art in Reflecting CR

Part of the works in the "Stars" art exhibition [in 1980] criticized the CR's totalitarianism from a democratic perspective; the "Great House Head" series produced by southwest "stream of life" artist Mao Xudong echoed this trend. They touched the core issue of the CR, that is, the intrinsic connection between the CR and China's feudal dictatorships. This trend clashed with the mainstream ideology then; its artistic method is symbolic and metaphoric. This also reflected the sprouting of democratic awareness in the 1980s' ideological liberation movement.
(title and author unknown) "Idol" by Wang Keping (1979)

"Great House Head" by Mao Xuhui (1991)

3. Utilization of CR Symbols in Political Pop Art

This is represented by Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang.   Wang Guangyi's work directly borrows from posters of the "great criticism" era. It is a kind of commemoration of an unforgettable past; however, in reality, the big shift to a market economy makes that past more and more remote.  Wang Guangyi forcefully pulls that past back in sight, but he also realizes the irreconcilable conflict between the two. Is it a better choice to have Coca-Cola advertisements replace "great criticism" posters? [Good question.] It is difficult for us to give a positive answer. Wang Guangyi's work reflected the Chinese people's bafflement.

"Great Criticism" by Wang Guangyi (2003)

Zhang Xiaogang's "Big Family" series entered Chinese's collective subconscious. These yellowed old pictures induce a melancholic mood of nostalgia, like the melody of an old phonograph record that can't be waved away. This category of political pop art has been mistakenly interpreted as an insinuation of China's political reality, and improperly analogized with ex-USSR's political pop art, by some Westerners. [Interesting.]

"Big Family" by Zhang Xiaogang (1993)

 4. Satire Use of CR Images in Cynical Realism and Vulgar Artwork

The 1989 rumpus [i.e., the Tiananmen massacre] is the background of those works, which focus on China's social reality rather than historical rethinking. They have been labeled as "post 89", and show a political attitude through teasing those once sacred political symbols and images. In dispelling the lofty and disassembling grand narratives, they show a kind of criticalness; however such criticalness is more like a seasoning spice, its cynical attitude refuting serious thought. Thus these works often reduce to a superficial teasing of ideology, their awkward status of "embassy art” based on denying one ideology while having to rely on a different ideological pivot. [Well said.]

5. Post-80 Generation's Utilization of CR Images

The post-80 generation was born in the reform era after the CR, and they don't have the direct experience of CR like the "zhi-qing" (the sent-down youth) and Red Guards did. To them the CR was an incomprehensible comedy. CR symbols are cool extraordinary fashion as well as the art market's popular Chinese card. Using their familiar cartoon style to treat the CR symbols becomes those artists' common strategy.

6. Commercial Interest

Driven by commercial interests, the opportunistic use of CR symbols is largely a petty speculation of the art market. Those works completely lack the spirit and point of cultural criticism; all they present is shallow consumption and desire.

7. Middle-Aged Artists' Rethinking and Recalling

The 30th anniversary of the end of the CR [in 2006] was a symbolic time. The CR was again remembered. As a reflection of the society's mentality, the impulse to nail the coffin and give a final assessment of the CR is understandable.  Furthermore, the mainstream ideology's meticulous avoidance caused a backfire. The rethinking of the CR from middle-aged intellectuals broke through personal experience and rose to historical significance, restoring that history's heaviness and tragic nature. However, this rethinking more often than not stopped at ceremonial commemoration, not raising new questions, and often encounters a double misread from both power and capital.

Xu Weixin's "Chinese Historical Figures: 1966-1976," Sui Jianguo's "The Legacy Mantle," and Liu Yong's "Comrades" etc. are representative of this trend.

"Comrades" by Liu Yong (2006)


The Cultural Revolution was China's most enthusiastic and dreamy time, and it was also a time of broken dreams. In our lofty sentiments and happiness under brilliant sunshine, what we lived through was actually an unprecedented catastrophe. Contemporary new Confucians view the cleft in Chinese culture as formed by the May 4th movement [in 1919], but in fact following May 4th was a period of cultural prosperity with all-inclusive cultural trends and thought schools, which established the foundation of modern Chinese culture. But in the Mao era, especially during the CR, we abandoned traditional culture and denied foreign culture, everyone taking pride for being a rough uneducated person, culture falling into a deep abyss. That, was the real cleft of Chinese culture. […]

Today the CR remains a carefully guarded topic. The CR is far from entering history and still linked in a thousand ways to present China. Politics is an art of compromise. Deng Xiaoping oversaw Chinese society's rapid transmission to a new track without getting overly entangled with past issues. Today, despite China's great economic progress, it still faces huge pressure in its development as well as severe social conflicts.   Though the CR has ended for 30 years, historical truth still hasn't been completely revealed. It is not yet time to deliver the final assessment. Temporary avoidance is the practical choice for the incumbent party; however for intellectuals as a collective to rethink the CR is not necessarily a conflict. The first requirement, for such rethinking to have significance and strength, is that it must reach the level of rational historical judgment.

In the post-CR era, in China's art field, the CR has gradually changed from a serious social tragedy to an entertaining comedy for a consumer society. How we commemorate the CR today is a question Chinese can't avoid!!!  Fu Lei once said, "Only real suffering, is capable of driving out romantic imaginary suffering; only the brave tragedy of overcoming suffering, can help us to bear brutal fate; only when we hold the spirit of 'If not I to hell, then who?', can a dispirited and selfish nation be saved."  Fu Lei committed suicide in the CR; he took the hellish way to warn and try to save the nation he loved. However, he would not know that the once brutal real suffering has now become a romantic imaginary suffering, and what a dispirited and selfish soul today's Chinese have. [A powerful statement.]

The Cultural Revolutionunable to get aroundnot daring to face up;  no way to dispel; unwilling to forgeta thousand contradicting and complex feelings buried in the heart.#