Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Few Anecdotes about My Hexagonal Pavilion

On its last day, let me end 2011 with a personal note.  After two laborious years, the hexagonal pavilion (六角亭) Bob and I started in September 2009 is finally finished (actually, I can only take credit for the inspiration, design and quality control; Bob is the one who built it):

To compare, here is a photo of it in the first winter:

From the beginning I racked my wits trying to come up with a good name for the pavilion. After many failed tries, the name arrived without effort. In December 2009, I emailed the above photo to a friend, Wang Yan, in China. He replied:
In translation:
In the Song Dynasty, whenever a pavilion was built, notes were written to record it.  I love such notes as those for "Happy Rain Pavilion," "Huangzhou Pleasure Pavilion," etc, but what I love the most is Su Dongpo's "Notes on the Terrace of Transcendence."
Terrace of Transcendence,  Shandong

I had forgotten all about it: The Terrace of Transcendence (超然台), in Shandong Province, was where the great Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo wrote his eternal verse "Bright Moon, When Was Your Birth" (明月几时有). (Some translate the poem title as "When Will the Moon Be Bright," which is clearly incorrect to me as the poem itself indicates that it was written during a full moon.)

The word "超然," besides "transcendence," can also be translated as "detachment,", "aloof," and so on.  "Transcendence" seems to fit our mood the best and, on reflection, it must be more than coincidence that we live in the area where the 19th century "transcendental movement" originated.  It was sitting by Walden Pond one day in 2010, for example, that Bob wrote his letter of resignation to the company where he had worked for two decades. (Later, when discussing the pavilion name, I asked him, jokingly, what we are transcending, and he said, "The chaos of office politics." In that case, I “transcended” seven years earlier than him, when I quit my job as an algorithm developer with steady income and became a writer with two sleeves of clear wind (两袖清风). :-))

Looking back, my whole life seems to be a struggle between aspiration for some sort of transcendence and failure in achieving it. No matter.  Don't you know a classic Chinese saying, "Though unreachable, my heart longs" ("虽不能至,心向往之")?

Thus we settled on the name for our pavilion:  超然亭, or "The Pavilion of Transcendence."

The last touch to complete the construction requires an engraved plaque, or (bian), with the name inscribed.  I decided to use seal script (篆字) for the inscription, and easily found an on-line generator for the three characters. But the color combination for the background and the characters was a bit difficult to figure out, even with computer simulation.  I asked around for opinions among Chinese friends, but they were as varied as our own.  Alas, one friend convinced us that "only black characters on a wooden background would match the meaning of the words."

I sent the specification for the plaque to my sister and solicited her help to have it made in Shanghai. She took my request seriously.  A few days later, she wrote back (in translation):
At first I thought this would be simple, because on Puxi's Fuzhou Road there are all kinds of culture and art stores that make anything and everything. When I went to the store that made frames for my paintings, however, the wood-master who has worked on this 'culture street' for more than 30 years told me no store makes bian (). 

I didn't believe him, and walked through the entire Fuzhou Road to look. I found several engraving shops that make metal or plexiglass seals.  The workers, all young men in their 20s, had their mouths gasped in the shape of the question mark on hearing the word bian (), clueless as to what kind of thing it is. A nice young man called the storeowner for me. The owner asked, 'What is bian?'  I had no choice but say, 'It is a piece of wood engraved with words.' 'Aha,' he said, 'store sign!' I was speechless.  He then said if I provided a piece of wood he could engrave the words for me, 60 yuan a character.  Well, where do I go to find the wood?  Not to mention the wood for a bian requires certain machine processing.

I called directory information asking where to find a store that makes bian.  The operator was even more amazing. "Bian?" she said, 'you mean shoulder pole (bian dan 扁担)?'

I hadn't thought that Shanghai, the so-called international cosmopolitan center, would be so culturally ignorant.

I searched the internet with no results. An entire day was wasted.
The next day, my sister (who lives in Pudong) went to Puxi again and randomly looked around.  When she almost gave up, she ran into an auction store, above its door hanging an antique plaque with the inscription of "青莲阁," looking cultured.  She ran to the third floor asking if anyone knew where that plaque was made, and everyone thought her absurd. Fortunately she ran into a passerby, Mr. Dai, who said he knew which contractor made the plaque, and he helped to find their phone number. The very kind Mr. Dai also advised her that elm would be the best material for making a bian.

My sister then called the number Mr. Dai gave her, and found a Mr. Shen, who said he wasn't the right person and provided another number. Through that number my sister reached a Ms. Li, who told her to meet at a far place, nearly an hour's subway ride away. It turns out Ms. Li is a Fujian migrant worker in the business of antique imitation. My sister had finally found someone who is not a Shanghaies and knows what a bian is.

And certainly, the bian is made of elm, just as Mr. Dai advised:

I can't wait to hang it up on the pavilion next spring.

Btw, Bob is writing a series of posts on the process of building this beautiful monster.  His first post is already up here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Shanghai

by Maple, guest blogger,  December 25, 2011

[in translation, 中文原文附后]

At Jing'an Temple in Shanghai
I don't know when it started, but my Chinese countrymen have increasingly lost feeling for traditional festivals and become more and more heated up by Western holidays. Even economic depression and "End of the World" panic can't hold back Shanghai's fervor to welcome Christmas.

At a mall in Shanghai
In a place that always leads the fashion trend and where there is no shortage of foreigners and foreign enterprises, it may not be so strange for some people to take this ride for a bit of fun, but when an entire city collectively goes crazy for a foreign holiday, it is a different matter indeed.  Here is the humility that goes with Christianity—such respect for others' cultures must be an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise to the 0.5% of the population in Shanghai that is foreign. So harmonious.

In Shanghai's Zhengda Square
 Each year, when Christmas approaches, the joyful atmosphere seeps to every corner of the city like overflowing water. When nights fall, the city is ever so gorgeous with lit-up trees, silver flowers and colorful embroideries of light, while Christmas music incessantly drones on. Excited young people dress exquisitely, like flowering branches vying for attention. No matter a big department store or small supermarket, no matter a bank or restaurant, no matter a foreign-invested or domestic enterprise or even a government organization, at every building's door there is a Christmas tree fully decorated with neon lights and bags of  presents. Even small residential enclaves and ordinary hospitals are not spared. So what if you are a Buddhist or Muslim, when you go home or go to the hospital, you get to celebrate Christmas.

In Shanghai's hotel
A while ago there was a joke circulating on the internet: in a contest for the most enigmatic department on the earth, the winner is China's "relevant department" ("有关部门").  I suspect, to place Christmas trees in every corner of Shanghai is the glorious mission of a "relevant department."
In a residential enclave of Shanghai

Perhaps people so exhaust their enjoyment during Christmas, that when it actually comes time for our own spring festival, the reaction from both businesses and the populace is fatigued.  Besides the dull red lanterns, sausage and smoked pork, plus the CCTV Gala Show that gets worse and worse every year, there is nothing else. Compared with people's enthusiasm for Christmas, spring festival no doubt is cast in the shadows.

In Shanghai's supermarket
Nowadays when commenting on something interesting, the Shanghai idiom goes, "That has some tunes" ("老有腔调的").  Is it because we Chinese are so insipid and constrained in nature that our traditional festivals are spent with fewer and fewer tunes?  Otherwise why, when the fun and relaxing foreign holidays such as Halloween, Valentine's Day, and Christmas are introduced,  do we progress from fascination to enthusiastic talk  to glad acceptance?  As to why Halloween involves masks, where Valentine's originated or whose birth Christmas is celebrating, no one cares as long as there are big meals to eat, discount goods to buy and colorful decorations to see.

But let's cut the cackle. On Christmas day, real Christians go to church to hear sermons, sing hymns, and read the Bible. There you will again run into situations between laughter and tears.  At the gate of the following church, for example, a bunch of Henanese sit there begging—

On Christmas Day, beggers at a Shanghai church

Even beggers in Shanghai know today is Christmas. That adds some tunes. They must have their simple logic – merciful Christians probably won't refuse to give charity on this special day.  That is why they deploy the most primitive ruse of bodily suffering:  on a frigid winter day, sitting on icy cement ground, wearing patched clothing and a faint smile, they languidly chant to the church goers: Please do something kind, bosses, please do something kind!

The foreigners pass by unfazed, but how can the fellow Chinese bear it? One digs into his pocket and hands money to a begging woman.  The woman takes the bills and says loudly, Thank you, you the good heart! You really are a living Buddha!

The Good Heart sighs looking up to the heavens, Oh my Lord!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yang Rebuts Dikötter on Famine Research

[Note:  I don't know either Frank Dikötter or Yang Jisheng, but I have read both China's Great Famine (in English) and Tombstone (in Chinese), two books I'll be reviewing.

For research purposes, I'm intensely interested in finding out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  According to Dikötter, Mao made the speech on March 25, 1959, in a secret meeting in Shanghai, but the source Dikötter cites in his book is "Gansu" – Gansu's provincial archive. If Dikötter can show us the complete speech of Mao that contains those words, or the complete context if they are words attributed to Mao by someone else, that would be a great help to all researchers of the subject. – Xujun]

Update:  my review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"

In Response to Mr. Dikötter's Comments on Tombstone

by Yang Jisheng 
Independent Chinese Pen Center, November 16, 2011

[In translation]

Not long ago, when I heard that Mr. Dikötter's book on China's great famine had been published, I was very happy: with one more comrade researching China's great famine, I felt in my heart the consolation of not being alone. Later, when I heard his book had received an award, I was again very happy, for our research field had attracted serious attention from international academic circles.

I got to know Dikötter in 2007.  I was visiting the Chinese University of Hong Kong, mainly to make use of its various chorographic resources for my final proofreading and correction of the Tombstone manuscript. Beijing’s Library on Wenjin Street also has chorographies, but does not allow open-shelf reading; one has to check out a single book a time to read, which is very inconvenient. 

One day perhaps in May 2007, through the introduction of Prof. Cao Shuji of Shanghai Jiaotong University, Dikötter found me at CUHK. I told him about my research.  He said, "You study about death; I study about survival."  I thought his angle was original.  We also discussed the number of [starvation] deaths. I said 36 million is only an approximate number; it is impossible to find an accurate count. Later I gave a talk at a lunch meeting on China's great famine; I remember Mr. Dikötter was also there.

Tombstone was published in May 2008 in Hong Kong by Cosmos Books, and it triggered unexpectedly strong reaction.  Sometime later, probably in 2009, Dikötter's assistant Ms. Zhou Xun visited me in Beijing. I gave her some information and methods for gathering famine data.  I half joked, "With your Chinese face and pure Sichuan dialect, maybe you could sneak into Sichuan's Provincial archives!" 

I have not read Mr. Dikötter's book (note: Mao's Great Famine has not been translated into Chinese – Xujun), and can't make comments except to congratulate. But I'll have to say a few words in response to his comments on Tombstone. I read his comments from the October 30, 2011 issue of Asia Weekly.  This is an influential journal; if I don't provide a bit of the necessary response, it will be difficult to clear up its many readers' misunderstanding of Tombstone.  A few things are discussed in what follows.

1.  Mr. Dikötter speaks of the causes of the Great Famine: "This is a system or structure issue, not that of a certain person.  That's the biggest difference between my book and Yang Jisheng's."  Anyone who read Tombstone knows that, from the introduction through every chapter, the book talks about the system issue; it never says the cause for the great famine was the problem of "a certain person." In addition, Chapter 26 focuses on analyzing systematic causes of the famine, and Chapter 27 explores the theoretic roots of the system. I always think that, to inculpate Mao Zedong alone for all China's problems in the 30 years before Reform, such as anti-rightists, the great famine, and the Cultural Revolution, is contrary to historical facts, and is superficial.

2. Mr. Dikötter says, "He [Yang Jisheng] writes Mao Zedong as very bad, the Communist Party as very good."  Tombstone neither says "Mao Zedong is very bad" nor "the Communist Party is very good," of course it does not say Mao is good either.  Not only are there no such words, but also no such meaning, in my book.  Readers who have read Tombstone must think Mr. Dikötter remembered wrong.  Tombstone just objectively writes the historical course as it occurred. When writing about several leaders of the Party central, the book does not give any evaluation of "good" or "bad," because that kind of simplified evaluation is not scholarly thinking, and is not scientific.  Especially for such a large-scale catastrophe as the great famine, the roots are in the system, it can't be the consequence of whether a certain person is "good" or "bad."

Speaking of Mao Zedong, I will have to point out, one piece of information Dikötter introduced to prove "Mao Zedong is bad" is not reliable. Dikötter quotes Mao as saying "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." Based on my many years of research on the great famine and Mao Zedong, I am positive that Mao did not say such words.

3. "He [Yang Jisheng] says Zhou Enlai is wonderful, Liu Shaoqi is wonderful, Deng Xiaoping is wonderful; as such this cuts apart the history of the relationship between Mao Zedong and the Party."  Readers of Tombstone can testify, my book absolutely does not have any such words as Dikötter says it has. Not even a hint of such. Tombstone only states historical facts and the systematic systemic causes that made them happen; it does not evaluate credits and faults of any particular leader. In addition to describing Mao's words and behavior, Tombstone especially spends many pages describing Liu Shaoqi's speeches during the Great Leap Forward, and then states: "When I list here a series of speeches by Liu Shaoqi that led to the 'Five Winds,' it is not to say that the source of the 'Five Winds' was Liu. It is also not to reduce Mao's responsibility; rather it is to illustrate that, after the criticism of 'countering rash advance,' the majority of the then Party leadership was in keeping with Mao’s attitudes and was supportive of Mao. Among them, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai were in tune with Mao; sometimes they even spoke more radically than Mao."

4. Dikötter says, "On the so-called three-year natural disasters, in fact there weren't big natural disasters." In fact, it is not that there weren't big natural disasters.  There were natural disasters. To research the impact of the natural disasters on farm crops, I went to the National Meteorological Administration five times to gather information and seek advice from meteorological experts.  My conclusion: "Natural disasters occur every year; those three years were normal years. The cause of the Great Famine was a man-made disaster."

5. Dikötter says, "His [Yang's] book rather emphasizes on how many deaths occurred in which province, which place. To use a not very appropriate word,  I feel that's a bit stupid (无聊)." 
Dikötter calls my research on each province's death numbers "stupid"; to this criticism I would rather not respond. Readers please make your own conclusion. But I do want to make clear that, for this "stupid" thing, I indeed expended great efforts. For example, I sought advice from many demographers, and had in-depth discussions with them. I collected nearly all foreign and Chinese demographers' research data on China's famine death figures, studied their methods, and analyzed their calculation results. Further, I hand-copied each province's relevant data, book by book, from the 30 books of  Population of China, drew up tables to organize the data,  and then calculated the data province by province.  Each day, I calculated the data after work; one evening was enough for only one province. Why did I devote such big efforts in such a "stupid" thing? I treasure life. Behind every figure is an array of lives from birth to death.

6. Dikötter said many times that, his biggest discover is that besides starvation deaths, many people were beaten to death.  Is this his new finding?  Readers of Tombstone know this well, readers of Ms. Qiao Peihua's Xinyang Incident know this well, too. Both books described many cases of peasants being beaten to death.  Tombstone was published three years earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.  Xinyang Incident was published over a year earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.

7. Mr. Dikötter said many times that China's archives are now opened, he visited China's inland archives and read over a thousand documents relating to the great famine, and said his book is based on the archive materials.  I went to 10+ Provincial Archive Establishments as well as the Central Archive, hand-copied and Xeroxed several thousand original documents; the hardship I experienced is unspeakable. I had the status of Xinhua Agency's senior reporter, and the help from many high-ranking friends, and still I ran into lots of trouble and setbacks; some provinces did not let me in. … As far as I know, China's famine archive is not opened. Some Archive Establishments opened other files, but those related to the famine have a small rectangular stamp on them with the word "restricted", and reading is not allowed. Mr. Dikötter is a foreigner with distinctive exterior and language, who'd have thought he could access over a thousand files of the famine archives!  There must be some tricks.  If he could tell of his experience, it would be a great help to all scholars of China.

Yang Jisheng, October 28, 2011

(Update: Thanks to  Joshua Rosenzweig for pointing out that Mao's Great Famine has been translated into Chinese  – Xujun)

(Update 2: My review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"   – Xujun)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review

First a full disclosure: I have not read Ezra F. Vogel's Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. In this post I'm going to discuss the reviews of it I've read, not the book itself.

Naturally, a question arises: are you qualified to talk about reviews of a book when you haven't even read the book?  The answer:  it depends on why you read reviews in the first place. I will elaborate on the different motives later, but it suffices to say that, part of the reason I was reading reviews of Deng Xiaoping is I wanted to identify reviewers whose writing on China I'd like to follow, and for this purpose the way they approach a subject I know pretty well serves as a good touchstone.  My other motivation was that, though I'm interested in the book's topic, reading 928 pages would demand a lot of time, so it makes sense to first check out the reviews to see  if the book is worth the time.

Below are the reviews I've read so far (h/t The China Beat for the links), and my evaluation of them follows. (I don't know any of the reviewers personally, which makes it possible for me to be candid.)

• John Pomfret's review in The Washington Post
• Edward Steinfeld: “The ‘Steel Factory’” (Harvard Magazine)
• Jonathan Mirsky: “How Deng Did It” (New York Times
• The Economist: “The Great Stabliser”
• Christian Caryl: “The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet” (Foreign Policy)
• Fang Lizhi: “The Real Deng” (The New York Review of Books)

John Pomfret's review in The Washington Post opens with fun anecdotes (two American vice presidents, across 26 years, addressing Chinese students in the same university of the same city in Sichuan), and it provides a clear assessment on what Vogel's book does well and where it falls down (for the latter: "Vogel is so effusive in his praise of Deng that the book sometimes reads as if it came straight from party headquarters").

However, I was taken aback by one thing:  Pomfret seems to have a tendency to brand ("… Chairman Mao Zedong, who, with Hitler and Stalin, made up the trio of great 20th-century tyrants,"  "Mao might have been a monster, but he was a monster with a back pocket,…" etc.)  When Pomfret does this, my interest wanes:  once a "monster" dunce cap is placed on Mao's corpse, is there anything interesting left to say about him? And, by the way, a "monster" dunce cap was exactly what the Red Guards ("Mao's shock troops" as Pomfret simple-mindedly calls them) used when denouncing a person. Frankly, it occurs to me branding is an indication of narrow thinking.

Edward Steinfeld's review in Harvard Magazine opens with a good question ("What to make of the elfin man who in 1979 charmed Americans by donning a cowboy hat during his visit to a Houston rodeo, but 10 years later ordered an all-out military assault on unarmed protestors in his own capital?"), but proceeds with little insight. Steinfeld does not brand, but neither does he exhibit any critical spirit.  He basically summarizes some content of the book (and that not even from what sound to be the  interesting parts).  He appears to be validating Vogel's opinion that Deng ordered the Tiananmen massacre for good reasons, i.e., the prosperity of China, and that it worked.  Steinfeld seems to forget that, early on, he has criticized Mao for "the complete disregard for …catastrophic consequences" and is trying to portray Deng as the opposite of Mao, and now he is contradicting himself. The review did not generate much interest in either the book or the reviewer for me.

In “How Deng Did It,” Jonathan Mirsky is the opposite of Steinfeld:  he is extremely critical of Deng Xiaoping, and he highlights material from the book that supports his viewpoint, but is awkwardly quiet about that which does not. While Mirsky holds an unequivocal stand toward Deng ("for most of his long career Deng Xiaoping did less for China than he did to it"), he is a bit too vague about Vogel's position ("Vogel provides no evidence that Deng objected to Mao’s monomaniacal policies"; but does Vogel actually avoid the facts that Deng was sometimes even more monomaniacal than Mao in the 1950s?), as such Mirsky might be giving the reader the false impression that Vogel  is as critical of Deng as he is. His review comes across as far more about the reviewer's voice than the book's. 

The anonymous writer of “The Great Stabliser” in The Economist has a unique angle ('[Vogel] could have subtitled the book not the “transformation” but the “stabilisation” of China,…'), and teases out some interesting details from this book ("Deng thought Mikhail Gorbachev was an 'idiot' …") and another book ("In 1975 he ordered the army to crack down on a Muslim village in Yunnan province, an action which resulted in 1,600 deaths including those of 300 children").  Since I don't know who the writer is, I will have to continue to read The Economist.  (Isn't that the magazine's purpose in not providing bylines?)

Christian Caryl's “The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet” in Foreign Policy appears to offer the most complete and level-headed coverage of Vogel's book on both its achievements and shortcomings, and the reviewer is fair when criticizing Vogel's tendency to over-praise Deng: "Vogel is not always officious. He does mention some of the darker sides of the story. It's just that he is often a bit too eager to tiptoe around them." Caryl also seems to give equal attention to Deng Xiaoping's accomplishments and "black spots," with insights and an unassuming attitude. His review has managed to raise both my interest in his future writing and in the book.

I read Fang Lizhi's “The Real Deng” in The New York Review of Books (which I subscribe) mainly because I knew that Fang had personal dealings with Deng, and thought he would again bring up some interesting anecdotes like he did when talking about Kissinger's book. He does, but his review very much disappoints me in its extremity. Fang's name was well known among my generation of university students in the 1980s China; at the time he had an unusual reputation of being both a good scientist and a good thinker.  But here Fang seems to let his personal grudges get in the way of clear thinking. While he raises a good question on why the place of human rights is not addressed by Vogel's coverage of Deng's leadership, his conclusion that Deng's active push for the economic reform "was aimed to bring wealth to the Party-connected elite" is out of place.  Such wealth is indeed a result of the economic reform, but to baselessly mix results and motive does not bode well for either a scientist or a thinker. How would Fang explain, for example, Deng's push for the rural reform? Because Deng regarded the peasants as the Party elite?   

Fang's review also gives the reader the impression that Vogel's book has no merits except one: "Vogel’s materials will be very useful to students of elite power struggles in China." As such he manages to take an extreme position against both the book's author and its subject.

In summary, among this round of my reading, the winners appear to be Christian Caryl in Foreign Policy and the anonymous writer in the Economist.  The two extremes, on the one end Edward Steinfeld in Harvard Review, who is all positive about Deng and the book, and on the other end Fang Lizhi in NYRB, who is all negative about Deng and the book, are off my radar for now.  The other two writers I'll have to watch a bit further.

Now a few more words on motives for reading reviews.

To be honest, until recently I had not given much thought to the different motives of readers in relations to the styles of review writing, but I was inspired to do so by Jeff Wasserstrom's "Why Read Book Reviews." In that piece, Jeff relates his thoughts to two essays: Elizabeth Gumport's "Against Reviews" and Tom Lutz's response to it, "Odious and Unpleasant." Jeff says that he often reads reviews to update his knowledge of a particular topic, while skipping the books themselves. Likewise, when he writes a review he assumes most of his readers are not interested in buying the book.

This changes my views on something that has long puzzled me:  why do some long essays in The New York Review of Books talk about the subject of a book at length, but speak so little to the book itself that I can't tell what is covered in the book and what by only the reviewer. I remember more than once thinking, Is that a book review?

It all makes sense now:  there are readers for those kinds of reviews. In fact we can categorize review readers by their interests as:

-          to select a book to read or to decide whether to read a particular book
-          to look for help understanding or judging a book that has been read
-          to acquire/update knowledge related to the subject covered by a book, without necessarily wanting to read the book
-          to identify good  reviewers/writers/publications (like what I did today)

There might be other motives, so feel free to provide yours if it's not here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

China's Officialdom Novels: Translators Pay Attention!

There is a rumor on the Chinese internet that, at various government levels, Party bosses are requiring their secretaries and subordinates to make a new novel their "must-read." This novel, which I'm reading right now, is titled "No. 2 Boss." (By the way, the Chinese word "首长" is a bit difficult to translate precisely in this context.  I'm using "boss" for the moment.  If anyone has a better suggestion, I'm all ears.)

In China's "officialdom" jargon, "No. 2 boss" refers to the boss's secretary (administrative assistant), and this novel's protagonist is the secretary of a provincial Party chief (roughly the equivalent of a governor). Such a character's wide perspective on the Chinese officialdom sphere, from the central government and Party apparatus to the local bureaucrats, supports a plot that is never dull.

The author, Huang Xiaoyang, apparently has intimate knowledge of government business and its daily particulars. In this tremendously entertaining and stunningly detailed novel, Tang Xiaozhou, a journalist-turned-secretary, navigates the open strife and veiled struggles of provincial politics with great skill and craftiness.  While more or less maintaining the tenets of basic decency in a world full of corruption, the protagonist does not sacrifice his own opportunities for advancement.

I have finished reading the first two volumes of the long novel, which can be bought online and in bookstores everywhere in China. The author is still working on the third volume, and is publishing one page a day online as he writes it. Such serial installments as a form of novel publishing in China can be dated back to 1892, according to this study. The difference today is the internet has overtaken newspapers. I confess that reading one new page a day of a Chinese novel has added a certain addictive pleasure to my daily morning tea.

The political worldview expressed in "No.2 Boss," not surprisingly, has a heavy imprint from a Chinese politician's cynically pragmatic angle, and some of it might be unacceptable to American readers. At times, I also feel the book's excessive number of sex scenes undermine its literary quality. (I hope to address these issues more explicitly in a longer review later.) On the other hand, the novel's realistic and meticulous portrayal of Chinese political culture has irreplaceable value to anyone who is interested in understanding China.  Nowadays, an unprecedentedly large number of Western writers and journalists are working and living in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities,  publishing more and more books written in English.  These books make significant contribution for the world's understanding of China, and the viewpoint of  outside observers is often refreshing to Chinese readers as well.  However, no foreigner could have written a book like "No.2 Boss"; the nuance could only come from the hand of a cultural insider.  

By the way, officialdom novels are not a new genre in China as some foreign observers think. The genre flourished in the Qing Dynasty. In my youth I read with great interest several of those novels mentioned in this article. The genre disappeared in the Mao era, but has made a comeback in recent decades. It seems to be reaching a new peak now. The fact that the genre has become hot again might be a bellwether for the level of government corruption.

Update: here's my longer review in Foreign PolicyThe Rules of the Game

Related links:

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Will Chinese Go Alphabetic?

Yesterday, an email header in my inbox caught my eye, not because of its subject but its language. So I clicked the link.  Here is the screenshot of what I saw:

Note the English word "Hold" in the middle of the otherwise all-Chinese headline that translates to: "Can Real Estate Developers Hold Any Longer?"  The article is a commentary from the independent media group (a rare presence in China) Caixin's website,  

Though English words do show up here and there in Chinese blog posts nowadays, this is the first time I have seen a reputed Chinese publication mixing the two languages in an article.

Why does the author, who looks quite young from the photo, feel the need to repetedly use a particular English word in a Chinese article?  It's possible that he thinks it expresses his meaning more accurately than Chinese; it's also possible that he thinks this mixed language could be a more attractive style of writing for his readers. But, reading his headline makes my tongue feel utterly awkward.

It reminds me of a Mao quote that sticks from my childhood memory, when reciting Mao quotations was a fashion during the Cultural Revolution. "Language and writing must be reformed to go alphabetic, the common direction of languages in the world," Mao said.  And he indeed gave it a try in the 1950s.  Peter Hessler had an excellent piece in the New Yorker several years ago that tells the language reform history.  As it turns out, the reform attempt did not manage to alphabetize written Chinese, though it resulted in the official "pinyin" system that uses the Roman alphabet to assist the learning of Chinese pronunciation, as well as the simplification of some characters.

Since then, the debate on whether written Chinese should be replaced by an alphabet has never ceased.  By birth, I'm a big fan of the square Chinese characters, which hold cultural, artistic and semantic richness in strokes and structures. I am not eager to see them go. However, today's young generation of Chinese seem to be a lot less attached to their ancestral language, one of the consequences of globalization I suspect.  I had never believed our beautiful square characters would one day become obsolete; now I'm not so sure. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Own "9/11" Complex

... reposting a personal essay from three years ago.  

The Camphor Suitcase
(Published in Literal Latte, 2008)

In the recent Year of the Snake — I remember because it's my daughter's sign — the image of a maroon suitcase made of camphor wood began to follow me like a phantom. It became most vivid in the dusk as I drove home from work, when my mind was free from corporate politics and daily domestic troubles. Along the road from Newton to Wayland, the famous New England autumn painted my windshield with shifting hues of golden red, dark red, light yellow, bright yellow, eclipsing shades of green and other unnameable colors. For me, born in southwest China, New England’s icy five-month winter imposes an unjust imprisonment; spring is practically non-existent; summer plays the double role of benefactor and spoiler; only the brilliant and solemn autumn calms my soul. But it failed me that year.

I hadn’t set eyes on the camphor suitcase for 13 years. (>>read the complete essay here)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"9/13 Incident" Special Issue

Today is the 40th anniversary of the "9/13 Incident" that resulted in the death of Lin Biao, a man whose name was second only to Mao's during China's Cultural Revolution. Remembrance, a Chinese e-journal devoted to CR research, has published a double issue this week on the event and its aftermath. The editorial states:
The political earthquake that occurred on September 13, 1971 greatly changed China – the "thorough victory of the Cultural Revolution" myth,  the "proletariat headquarter" myth, the "united, victorious line of the Party's 9th Congress" myth,  and the myths of how wise and great Mao Zedong was and how his sharp eyes could perceive the minutest detail, all tumbled in one huge sound [of a plane crash] in Öndörkhaan. Most of the six hundred million Chinese then, no matter they were the "force" or "subject" of that "great revolution," no matter the differences between their social status and living conditions, felt the power of that quake. Because of it, many people's life trajectories were changed, and even more changed their thought trajectories. After 40 years, to recall the marks of "9/13" left on individual lives and to assess the main characters of the event and the related national history, is interesting and meaningful.
I was in middle school at the time, and I experienced shock and confusion. Even today there are still many unanswered questions about Lin Biao's alleged defection and the plane crash. Several articles in the special issue of Remembrance are written by children of the army generals accused as Lin Biao's co-conspirators. I heaved a deep sigh reading their memories. They provide a rare glimpse into the politics of China's highest echelon at the time. If you can read Chinese, click here.

(Note: I volunteer to host Remembrance on my website because the high quality e-journal has been publishing valuable materials on CR that can't be found elsewhere. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, the monthly journal does not have a website in China.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who Is the Guilty Party?

by Anonymous

(Note: I got this from a friend in China who asked to remain anonymous. – Xujun)

[In translation]

CHINA — Two years ago, I bought a tiny flat from a stranger. While making some minor changes to the old interior, the electrician I hired found problematic wires, and that the electricity meter outside did not work. The electrician, who had more than 20 years of experience, concluded that the previous owner had messed about with the meter in order to steal electricity. He pointed to a jumble of wires and tried to explain – why this wire did not connect to the meter and that wire did not connect to ground – only to make me further confused. Finally I got the gist of what he was saying: the previous owner installed a very small switch inside the apartment, and reconnected the meter to the switch, which fully controlled the meter's readings. As the result, if he had used 100 kwh of electricity, the meter would only read 10 kwh.

This was the first time I heard of such a thing, so I was at a loss as to what to do. I asked the electrician, "Could you please rewire the meter to its original design for me?" He teased me, "Why should I? Isn't it better for you to save electricity cost?" I waved my hand and said, "Drop it, I'm a coward, I won't be able to sleep if I steal. The money saved this way wouldn't even be enough to buy me sleeping pills."

The electrician fiddled with the meter, but in the end couldn't do much to help, because there was a red seal in it that said, "Do not remove seal, Electricity Bureau only; otherwise bear full consequences." He said he couldn't take the responsibility.

I called the previous owner, who neatly denied everything. His voice was full of surprise: "Really? Really? I had no idea! How could it be?"

With no choice, I went to the housing estate's property management, hoping they would help me solve the problem. The director was a young man who looked like he was just out of college. He patiently heard me out and calmly said, "Things like that are not our responsibility. We wouldn't dare to touch that seal either. Why don't you call the Electricity Bureau, perhaps they will send someone for you? But…" he hesitated a few seconds and then said, "For this kind of thing, you know, the Electricity Bureau is very hard to deal with…" He stopped again, his expression looked restrained.

Coming out of the property management office with a foggy head, I ran into Manager Zhou of the real estate agency. After listening to my story, he warned me against acting rashly. "I have heard things like this before," he said, "the Electricity Bureau only holds the current owner accountable. Change electricity wires without authorization? Fine 5000 yuan. You don't pay? They cut your electricity immediately."

I argued, "Can't they be reasoned with? I haven't even moved in, how can it be my doing? Plus, if it were me who did it, why would I take the trouble telling them? It only makes sense for them to consider it the previous owner's responsibility!"

Manager Zhou laughed in surprise: "My God! Are you from an alien planet? China's electricity is a monopoly trade, they are the boss, who do they fear? What's there to reason with them? They don't care to figure out who's right or wrong; it is the most convenient to just grab you. You want to live in this house? Then you have no way to escape. Even going to the court it is 100% your fault. Believe it!"

I didn't believe, but I took his advice to make the call from a public phone a few housing estates away. I explained the situation to the Electricity Bureau. The woman who answered had a flat tone like machine: Please provide your name, phone number, and address.

With Manager Zhou wagging his head to signal me, I hurriedly said this was for a friend, who just wanted to know what she should do in this case.

The woman's tone was unchanged: 5000 yuan fine. After the fine is paid we will send someone to fix the wires.

I couldn't help but raise my voice: "But this wasn't my friend's fault! It was the previous owner, don't you understand? Wouldn't you be wronging a good person and letting a bad one go?"

The woman's same cold voice held to the end: We only hold the current owner accountable. This is the procedure.

I almost cried out: Fuck the procedure! Are you a robot?

I also wanted to say, Are you forcing an innocent girl to prostitute herself (逼良为娼)?

Manager Zhou looked at me sympathetically: "You really don't need to care, let it be. It's not just one or two households stealing electricity. To tell you the truth, the house I rent now has the same situation. In our building 60% of apartment owners do this."

I was speechless for a while. Then I said, "No way! Thieves are in the open, and a moral person must sneak around, this is turning things upside down! I don't care what others do, I must correct the meter. Please help me find a way."

Manager Zhou gave me a wry smile: "Never seen one as stubborn as you are. Go look in the famers market, there may be someone specialized in this sort of thing."

I suspected he was toying with me. I often went shopping in farmers market, how come I never saw such a person?

In a corner of the market, I asked a fish seller if there was an electricity master who could change wires. He pointed behind without lifting his head. A fat man wearing oil-stained clothes took the hint and came to me, asking directly: "Where do you live?" and then simply said: "500 yuan."

I glared at him: "Are you robbing me? At most 200."

He did not get upset, but smiled: "What a temper! 200 then. Deal."

The fat man made a call, lowering his voice to give the other end my address. He then told me "Go wait at home. Arrival within an hour."

In less than half an hour, a slight man wearing the work robe of Electricity Bureau arrived. Within a minute of opening the electricity meter, he was done. Seeing suspicion in my look, the man said: "Rest assured. Wires corrected and the seal replaced. I'm from the Electricity Bureau myself and have done this job often. There will be no problem."

I was curious: "You are often asked to change wires?"

He said frankly: "Illegal changes are naturally more than corrections. I do all. 500 yuan for an illegal change, not a penny less. For corrections I can give better prices."

I saw a big wad of seals in his bag and suddenly understood: When the electricity meter was changed in the first place, the seal must have been removed; why did I see one that was intact? The only answer is: the Electricity Bureau's staff must be the thief who steal what they are guarding (监守自盗). Who knows, perhaps the one who changed the wires last time was the same man today?

I sighed about the shadiness when I handed the man the money.

He said modestly: "We are just giving a hand to help everyone, otherwise what's to be done? Everyone needs to be fed, right?"

Nearly two years passed. On a hot day last month, the power went off at noon. I called the Electricity Bureau, and a worker arrived in 5 minutes. He said the fuse was burned and needed to be changed to a thicker one. Then he discovered something and said: "The meter has been messed around with."

The adage goes that "A thief's guilty consciences make him cowardly (做贼心虚)." I wasn't the thief but was cowardly all the same. I tried my utmost to deny.

The worker said: "Come and see – someone changed here. The ends are still here. We experts can tell with one glance. No need to deny. I'm going to call the Bureau and have them handle this."

He started to dial his cellphone. I was forced to ask pardon. I told him the whole story and hoped he would let me go.

I bet the man was just a big boy not even 23 years old. With plump cheeks and shining eyes, his face was full of innocent smile. He said: "I believe you. But the other guy did not do a thorough job. He must have been posing as an Electricity Bureau staff. Also possible he's a relative of a staff member, got the work robe, and used it to make money. You found me by calling the Bureau, so I can't be fake. I can redo the correction for you and ensure you can sleep in peace from now on."

Now seasoned, I asked: "How much?"

He said calmly: "At least 300 yuan."

I said: "At most 200. Please give me your name and cellphone number. I don't want to be endlessly extorted by you Electricity Bureau people."

He smiled brightly: "Don't get angry, we are only taking money to remove ill fortune (拿人钱财替人消灾)."

Two minutes later he declared everything was OK now. He left his cellphone number and told me to call him if there was any problem. "But there won't be any problem. Rest assured, there'll be problems no more." His smile was very warm.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"Grandpa Mao, I don't miss you at all"

By Maple, guest blogger

[in translation]

Only a week ago I had thought that Shanghai, the so called cosmopolitan city, wouldn't be so off the beam as Chongqing. 

Last week I went to the Shanghai Library and discovered the entire hall was decorated red: on walls were full of Party history file photos; from the broadcast came the song "the sun is the reddest, Chairman Mao is the dearest"; offered to patrons for free were red rice and pumpkin soup (Red Army food – Xujun).  Very ostentatious!

Many people left comments under the "red" photos; of course those were politically conscious old comrades who extolled the Party. Very interestingly though, below the photo of Comrade Mao Zedong was a line of childish writing:

"Grandpa Mao, I don't miss you at all, because I see you on RMB every day."

I was going to take a photo of it with my cell phone; immediately a staff member came to stop me, class struggle written all over his face.  I smiled at him: "I just want a memento of your propaganda. What's the big deal?"  He asked back directly, "What is your work unit?" I had to "run away with my tail between my legs."

(Note:  1. RMB is Chinese banknote; 2. "Imperialists ran away with their tails between their legs" is a line in the red song "Socialism Is Good." – Xujun)



Friday, June 24, 2011

My Block Booking for a Red Movie in Shanghai

by Maple, guest blogger

[Note:  July 1st this year marks the 90th birthday of China's Communist Party. To celebrate it, "red" movies and TV shows are sweeping the country, to the extent that popular spy shows are banned May through July. The biggest film made especially for this occasion is "The Great Cause of Founding the Party" (《建党伟业》), which, in the China-made English ad, is translated as "Beginning of the Great Revival." Its release day was June 15th.  Here is the experience of an ordinary moviegoer on June 17th. -- Xujun]

[in translation, 中文原文附后]

(Shanghai, June 17) I went to a movie theater this afternoon, to give myself a break after a week of intense painting. A French movie festival was ongoing, but I would have to wait until evening to see it. The 3D "Kung Fu Panda" was on, but that kind of fad is for teens with high-tech addictions and would only daze me.  

Coincidentally, the movie "The Great Cause of Founding the Party" (《建党伟业》) was about to start in 5 minutes. I bought the ticket, as if guided by a deity. Entering the screening room, I was stared at by the theater staff. They were whispering about me -- did they suspect my head was crushed by the door?

It turned out that,  in the whole screening room, with more than 400 seats, I was the only audience member, the only person who voluntarily dug into my own wallet to receive the "red" education.

To be fair, the movie is well made. The plot is tight, some details are moving, and the actors are high quality.  But to put more than a hundred of the most famous stars into one movie, that seems like a practical joke.

Last time when "The Great Cause of Founding the Country" (《建国大业》) was made [in a similar fashion], many people went to theaters driven by the urge to "identify famous faces." From the beginning to the end, every time a face appeared on the screen, the hundreds of audience would roar in one voice: "Tang Guoqiang!" "Liu Yiwei!" "Liu Dehua!"  For two hours, all were engaged in identifying, shouting, and guessing; identifying, shouting, and guessing. No one knew what the movie was about.  To call it "great education for all people" is not as precise as "great entertainment for all people."  Perhaps this was the leaders' real goal after all? Educating by entertaining?

Now once again the great entertainment comes, but the masses are tired, they don't want to play anymore. They have left me alone doing the identification and guessing. I still don't understand why Zhao Benshan (赵本山) would wordlessly stand in Yuan Shikai's (袁世凯) shadow, with an expression half laughing half crying, and why Liu Yunlong (柳云龙), an actor I admire, would be half hiding in the left lower corner like a shadow. This was too distracting! I identified this face and then that, couldn't hear at all what Zhou Runfa (周润发) was saying. What was the director's motive? I couldn't enjoy the movie itself, I was only thinking: Why is Wang Xuebing (王学兵) so haggard? Who is playing Xiaofengxian (小凤仙), so beautiful?
The most far-off thing was that all the scenes of Tang Wei (汤唯) were removed. She was acting Mao Zedong's first love (not Yang Kaihui), but because she had been all nude in "Lust, Caution," someone thought she would tarnish the great man's image.  Yet Liu Ye (刘烨), the man who plays Mao himself, had starred in the most well-known homosexual film "Lan Yu" (《蓝宇》), with many shots of him all-nude in bed. If the same logic were used, wouldn't he tarnish Mao's image more directly? If we were back in the Cultural Revolution, the director would certainly be executed twice.

My only consolation is that, as a big screen lover, I enjoyed 135 minutes of exclusive block booking of the theater all by myself. I sat there straight to the last minute, until all names of the actors, workers, and musicians ascended beyond the screen.

For a moviegoer like me who's sick beyond cure, the staff member at the door was very sad. He slowly shook his head, like an owl.

(Continue to read the Chinese text / 继续阅读中文原文)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Li Zhuang Returns Home; Fang Hong's Family Disappeared

After serving one and a half years in a Chongqing prison, former lawyer Li Zhuang returned home to Beijing earlier today.  His son, Li Yatong, posted on his micro-blog a photo of the family sitting in the airplane. I'm always happy to see a family reunion.

A little more than a month ago, Chongqing police had tried, but failed, to extend Li Zhuang's sentence with new charges. (For those of you who are not familiar with Li Zhuang's case, search keyword "Li Zhuang" on my blog and you'll find detailed posts, such as this one, following the trial last year.)

Li Yatong (middle), now in his third year of law school, has been firmly supportive of his father through the whole ordeal. His blog post "宣判" ("sentencing") was widely circulated on the Chinese internet last year.

While Li Zhuang is finally home, a Chongqing citizen, Fang Hong, was sent to labor reform for mocking Bo Xilai's handling of Li Zhuang. Fang also has a supportive and filial son, Fang Di, who hired a renowned lawyer, Yuan Yulai, for his father.  Yuan Yulai is reputed to be most interested in cases of "citizens suing officials." A couple of days ago Yuan wrote on his micro-blog that Fang Di and other family members have disappeared after being summoned by police to talk.

Fang Hong's arrest shocked me more than Li Zhuang's trial, for even the appearance of legal procedure is abandoned. It is a stark naked case of "speech crime." If I had had any illusions about Bo Xilai before, like the first time when I saw his handling of Chongqing's taxi strike in 2008, Fang Hong's arrest was the last straw to convince me Bo is a ruthless politician believing in Mao style iron-handed rule, and a political gambler who stakes all on a single throw.  I just don't know, 35 years after the Cultural Revolution ended, how far Bo can go in today's China.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Chongqing Impression

Some readers of my earlier post "Chongqing Nostalgia. Where Is It?" asked for more stories about Chongqing.  Here are two detailed pieces I wrote that appeared elsewhere last week:

Chongqing Dispatch - China Beat
Gingko Fever in Chongqing  - Atlantic / Fallows

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kissinger Encloses Many Sides of Mao – A Review of On China

On China by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, hardcover, 586 pages, $36

Reviewed by Bob Eberlein

“God has sent me an invitation, yet he [Kissinger] says, don’t go.”

So Mao Zedong reflects on the passing of his soul in a conversation with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1975. There is a chance that I have seen this quote before. If so, it passed me by. With limited knowledge of China and Mao at the time, I would not have understood the overwhelming irony embodied in the conversation.

Reading it afresh in Henry Kissinger’s new book On China - released today - I laughed and laughed. The conversation follows the riveting story of the opening of diplomatic relations between the US and China that was spearheaded by Kissinger. Though I knew how the story would end, I still found myself reading with great anticipation, for in this part of the book Kissinger has really managed to bring us into the moment, to show us things as he saw them then. And he certainly did not know what was going to happen next.

Friday, May 13, 2011

White or Red: Bo Xilai's Quandary

While in Chongqing last month, I heard this story:

Bo Xilai was puzzled why Taiwan businesses shy away from Chongqing, despite the fact he has "aggressively provided preferential policies to attract investment." The Taiwanese are around and nearby -- they have made the Sichuan province their most popular destination in western China – but they avoid Chongqing. Bo asked the question in a meeting, and he was told, well, it is the "Refuse Pit Prison."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Poll on How to View Chongqing's 'Sing Red Songs' Campaign

If a public poll from Chinese media means anything, here is one on the website of China's International Herald Leader titled "How to View Chongqing's 'Sing Red Songs' Upsurge." The questions and votes (as of this writing) are translated below:

  1. Is it still meaningful to ardently sing red songs in our new era? 
  • Yes, the spirit they represent is still worth promoting (39.02%) 
  • Yes, they are excellent musical works (6.13%) 
  • No, the background of the songs' time no longer exists (40.1%)  
  • No, most singers can't understand their connotation (11.04%)  
  • No, revised too much (1.54%)  
  • Don't know (2.2%)
    1. Can red songs arouse the lost belief?
    • Yes (17.13%)
    • No (55.89%)
    • At least some positive effect (24.81%)
    • Not sure (2.19%)

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    The Ambivalent Role of China's Middle Class -- A Book Review

    The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You by Helen H. Wang, Bestseller Press, $16.97 paperback, $9.99 Kindle edition

    "What do you think 'middle class' means in China?"  I raised this question to Chinese friends during my trip to Chongqing in April.  I was after a spontaneous answer.  From what I heard, the consensus seems that if you own a house and a car, you are in middle class.  An art professor, who owns neither, said that by classical definition a professional is middle class, but in today's China he is no longer sure if he is middle class despite the fact he is a professional.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Chongqing Nostalgia. Where Is It?

    I took the following photos earlier this month during my visit to Chongqing, where I could find few traces of anything familiar from my childhood.

    The Liberation Monument (解放碑)
    The Liberation Monument (解放碑)– Yes, that piteous little thing in the center – the Liberation Monument used to be the great landmark of Chongqing.  Is the towering building on the left purposely trying to mock and humiliate it?

    Flat Bread (烧饼)
    Flat Bread (烧饼) – Oh my childhood favorite snack! Street vendors of flat bread used to be seen in every block of downtown Chongqing . Now walking through the entire Central District I found only one, hiding in a corner of Eighteen Steps (十八梯). The couple who were making flat bread at first panicked seeing me taking photos; they thought I was a "cheng-guan" (城管) who came to seize their little business.

    Controversial Nude Sculpture
    Controversial Nude Sculpture – On Chongqing's first Yangtze Bridge, the four nude sculptures, "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn" and "Winter" sparked a big controversy that embroiled the entire city, even the country, in the early 1980s (I participated in the debate).  The artists eventually yielded to public pressure and added a sheer veil for each figure.  The one in this photo is "Spring." (It apparently has been moved because the bridge's width is now doubled.)

    The Obsoleted Ferry – In this photo, where a new bridge for light rail is being built, there used to be a ferry dock that I frequented as a child.  My home was on the south bank of the Yangtze looking down those rocks, my childhood haunts.  When I left China in 1988, there was only one bridge on each of the two rivers, Yangtze and Jialing, that surround the city, and ferries were the main connection between the three land areas (The South Bank, River North, and Central District).  Now the total number of bridges exceeds twenty, and all ferries have become obsolete.