Monday, November 4, 2013

"Better to Let Half of the People Die," said Mao?
Nearly two years ago, when I translated Yang Jisheng's response to Dikötter's strange comments on Tombstone, I said I was intensely interested to find 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.  I received a couple of clues, but none provided the complete context, and I have been left wondering since. I even sent an email to Yang Jisheng asking if he knew about this Mao quote, but did not hear back – perhaps the email address I got from a journalist friend was no longer valid.

Amazingly, last week the answer came to me by accident, as I was reading a scholarly article written by Anthony Garnaut, a historian at Oxford, published in the journal China Information. 

In his article, "Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China's Great Famine," Garnaut finds out that the Mao quote in question is not from a speech Mao delivered on March 25, 1959 as Dikötter claims, but it represents an impromptu response Mao made to Bo Yibo's report on the implementation of the industrial plan in the days that followed. "The comment is preceded by several remarks by Mao about Party oversight of the industrial sector, none of which touch upon agriculture or rural welfare." Mao was weighing in on how many projects should be undertaken to accomplish the plan set forth in Bo's report. Mao says:

If we want to fulfill the plan, then we need to greatly reduce the number of projects. We need to be resolute in further cutting the 1,078 major projects down to 500. (要完成计划,就要大減项目。1078个项目中还应該堅決地再多削減,削到500个。)

To distribute resources evenly is a way to sabotage the Great Leap Forward. (平均使用力量是破坏大跃进的办法。)

If all are unable to eat their fill, then all will die. It is better for half to die, so that half of the people can eat their fill. (大家吃不飽,大家死,不如死一半,給一半人吃飽。)

"The ‘people’ whom Mao was willing to let die of starvation turn out to be not people at all," Garnaut concludes, "but large-scale industrial projects."

I'm glad this fact is clarified, not because it mitigates Mao's guilt (it doesn't), but it supports the conclusion I reached in my LARB review of the two books by Yang and Dikötter respectively, that "the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information." This distinction is important if there are any lessons to be learned for today's leaders.

Another China scholar once wrote me – after reading my LARB review – that Mao's
monstrous moral failing was not in the motivation of starting the Great Leap Forward which turned out to be disastrous, but in his attitude toward criticism of his policies in the aftermath. I couldn't agree more with this assessment.

A question remains:  did Dikötter know what Mao meant but intentionally misinterpret it for wanting a smoking gun, or was his Chinese not good enough for him to know what he was doing?

By the way, Garnaut's article also analyzes Dikötter's repeated assaults on Yang Jisheng and his unacknowledged use of Yang's research results. I must say that, to date I still don't quite understand Dikötter's motivation in turning around on someone who had helped him generously with his research.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reviews of Unsavory Elements

I have gotten good feedback on compiling reviews for a book (example: "Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review").  So here is another one - today for Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. Some of these reviews (as well as the comments they triggered) are surely interesting to read.

I also plan to write a review myself, and I can tell you beforehand that I honestly enjoyed reading most of the book. But since translation issues will be beyond the scope of my review, here I'd like to briefly discuss the translation of two Chinese phrases, which I happened to encounter in two of my favorite stories in the book. 

"思想汇报" -- in the book it's translated as "thinking reports,"  but "thought reports" might be more accurate, and read better.

"哪里哪里" -- as a modest response to praises, this is humorously translated as "Where? where?" in the book.  If you have read my posts on translation before, you would know I'm often in favor of literal translation, but here I agree with one of the book reviewers below that "Nah, nah" would be a better rendition. Note also that the question marks don't exist in the original Chinese phrase. As a bilingual reader I enjoyed and appreciate the writer's humor, but for English readers who don't know Chinese the confusion caused by  "Where? where?" might trump the humorous effect.

Now, here is my compilation of reviews as well as interviews with Tom Carter the editor, in reverse chronological order of their publication dates --

(Updated 11/5), Nov. 5, 2013

LA Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2013

The Peking Duck, Sept. 13, 2013

Caixin Online, Aug. 24, 2013

Asian Review of Books, Aug. 17, 2013

Business Insider, Aug. 2, 2013, July 22, 2013

That's,  June 17, 2013

Chengdu Living, June 1, 2013

The Beijing Cream, May 21, 2013

Beijing Bookworm: "A Q&A with Tom Carter," May 21, 2013

Time Out Shanghai, May 10, 2013

The Beijinger, May 9, 2013

Shanghaiist, May 8, 2013


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reading: Harper's on Bo Xilai

For much of 2012, the year of China's political earthquake, I waited to read Harper's analysis of the Bo Xilai saga, but never got the chance. As a long-time subscriber, I'm glad to see a report this year, even if it's a bit late.  In her informative article "The Unraveling of Bo Xilai – China loses a populist star," Lauren Hilgers provides balanced coverage of the divided public opinions on Bo, and convincingly shows how information unavailability helped to veil the fact that a Chinese politician who once appeared to be the most accessible "had been no more candid than any other Party secretary."  

I completely agree with Hilgers that officialdom opacity is a big problem in China and, as I've discussed before, different social classes have different level of access to information. But her article sparked more thoughts. Suppose all the social classes received the same amount of information about Bo Xilai, would their positions toward him converge?   I doubt it.

Chongqing, where Bo Xilai last ruled, is my hometown and I visit it often. There has been a heavy divide between the locals even when confronted with the same promulgated information.  Intellectuals I spoke to disliked Bo's behavior and policies long before his downfall; this is consistent with Hilgers' report.  Many low-income, less-educated people, on the other hand, continue to advocate Bo even after his dark side has been exposed and the initial stage of disbelief has passed. What's interesting – and also alarming – is the latter's reasoning. So what if Bo was corrupt? They say, Which official in China is not?  But the others are corrupt AND incompetent, while Bo was capable of getting something done. So what if Bo's "Chongqing model" was causing local government bankruptcy?  Certainly it is a lot better to spend the money on local construction than let it fall into the pockets of corrupt officials. And, so what if Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun carried out cruel torture, unjust executions, and massive imprisonments of private businessmen and political dissenters during their "anti-mafia" campaign?  Since ancient times, "killing the rich to benefit the poor" has been justified.

So, the most urgent and fundamental problem as seen by the two groups of people is different. To those with low-income, it is the wealth gap.  To liberal intellectuals, it is the rule of law. Both are legitimate concerns, and both should be addressed.  Bo, however, for his own self-serving agenda chose to play the game of favoring one and trampling the other. While it is clear that he placed himself above the law during his rule in Chongqing, there is no evidence that his populist policies (the so-called "Chongqing model") actually reduced the wealth gap; further, the face engineering that pleased his supporters is unsustainable, as it was implemented with heavy borrowing that has put Chongqing's finances into dire straits. In fact, what the current division in public opinion reflects is that the Bo incident has become an anchor from which both sides can vent their discontent.

Hilgers also touches on a very interesting phenomenon: "[T]here were two groups who disliked Bo Xilai: Party leaders and liberal intellectuals."  I wish the author had explored this coincidence a bit further. When groups we think of as critical of Chinese authority find themselves on the same side of some issue, this is worth analyzing and understanding. But I realize it is also beyond the scope of Hilgers’ article.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Foreign Literature in China: Now and Then

In LARB:  In the Wake of Finnegan: A Q & A with Xujun Eberlein
This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.

I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was a commentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre.

She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me.

Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China?

Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs. I asked the young man how Finnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”

Read more.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Skylark": a Translated Story

Cover Image(Note:  This is a short story I translated for Pathlight issue No. 1, 2012, posted here with permission. I had not heard about author Jin Renshun before I got the assignment. Her writing is both beautiful and subtle, and I truly enjoyed translating the piece. I tried to be faithful to her original style and hope I've succeeded somewhat. – Xujun)

Jin Renshun:   Born in 1970 of Korean extraction, and now living in Changchun, Jin Renshun has published the novel Spring Fragrance, the short story collections Cold Front of Love, Moonlight Oh Moonlight, One Another, and The Glass Café, and the essay collections Like a Dream in Broad Daylight and Poisonous Beauties. Her work has been translated into Japanese, English. German and Korean. In 2010 she attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.


Each day at dusk, from six to eight, the third table by the window was reserved for Kang Joon-Hyuk. Occasionally he brought friends – perhaps employees – with him, but mostly he came alone, magazine in hand, to read a few pages before the dishes were served. He and Chun Feng spoke every day, but nothing beyond her asking what he’d like and his ordering of dishes, followed by a few pleasantries of the “Thanks,” “You are welcome” sort.

One day Chun Feng forgot to put the “Reserved” sign on the table. By the time she realized her mistake, the table was occupied by two middle-aged women who chatted nonstop from the second they walked in. They ignored Chun Feng’s apologies and requests.

“This is where we’re sitting,” they said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

While another waitress handled their order, Chun Feng went outside to wait for Kang Joon-Hyuk.

“I’m really sorry,” she bowed to him, tears spilling forth. “It’s all my fault.”

“Did I cause you any trouble?” he said. “You stood in the wind for so long, for such a little thing! It’s me who should apologize.”

(Read the complete story here)