More foreign devils in the flowery kingdom: China books I have reviewed in 2013

A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xiaolu (Anchor, 2008). If there was ever a story with an extreme cultural divide to navigate, it’s this one. A young woman from rural China is plopped down in London for a year on a study visa with little English ability or understanding of Western culture. Soon an Englishman she meets in a cinema seduces her and she moves in with him. He’s not your typical British chap (if there is such a thing) but an unpindownable bisexual eccentric and failed sculptor with leftist anti-establishment leanings and a Luddite distaste for the trappings of modern society. He’s also twenty years older than her but handsome and fit enough that she falls for him – her first significant relationship with a man. However, his aloofness and conflicted attitude towards traditional monogamous relationships perplexes and tortures her, and she only makes things worse by overwhelming and smothering him with her love and attention. He avoids her and disappears for days at a time, leaving her abandoned and distraught in his flat. To cultivate her independence, he sends her off on a trip to the Continent alone for several months. Reluctant at first, she discovers she extracts much enjoyment out of her picaresque adventures (including spontaneous sex with strangers). These chapters become a turning point and centerpiece of this Bildungsroman novel, where naive country girl emerges as liberated female.

The book’s masterstroke is its captivating style. The author made the risky but astute decision not simply to write it in English but to exploit her inevitably imperfect control of the language as a vehicle for depicting her personal transformation. The early chapters employ a delightfully entertaining broken English fashioned out of Chinese grammar: “I standing in most longly and slowly queue with all aliens waiting for visa checking. I feel little criminal but I doing nothing wrong so far.” Or, “Even when I see a beggar sleeping in a sleep bag I am scared. Eyes wide open in darkness staring at me like angry cat. What he doing here? I am taught everybody in West has social security and medical insurance, so, why he needs begging?” By the later chapters, her English has improved considerably, and her expanding vocabulary reveals the correspondence between linguistic and real-world knowledge, the almost claustrophobic relationship between language and awareness, the recognition – captured in the book’s title – that words are as important as money, food and shelter for surviving in an unfamiliar society.

The strength of the book, its effective fusing of linguistic texture and real-world experience, is also its weakness. Just as the narrator is stuck in the narrow world of her little red Concise-Chinese English Dictionary (I carried around the very same dictionary in my early years in China) without which much around her would remain incomprehensible, she is also stuck in the fraught space between her marital expectations with this enigmatic man and his refusal to rescue her with a marriage visa and a happy ending. Many details of the narrative are too true to life, and I assume the novel is autobiographical. This is where Guo falters, as it’s never clear where fiction and artistic objectivity fall off into personal grievance. We never learn the man’s name; he is referred to throughout in the second person as “You.” I’m not sure what the author intended by this device, but to me it lends the book the quality of a long, desperate love letter, as if it had been written not for a readerly audience but him alone. The funny early chapters give way at the end to a humorless despair after the author’s visa application is rejected and she is forced to return to China. Her evident failure to comprehend the significance of the previous year and achieve some kind of psychological closure leaves us hanging as well.

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People's Pornography

People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet by Katrien Jacobs  (Intellect Ltd, 2012). There are unfortunately and rather inexplicably all too few books on contemporary sexuality in mainland China. Richard Burger’s recent Behind the Red Door: Sex in China comes to mind; I scratch my head to think of any others. And I can’t think of any other topic so vital and pressing: the flashpoint of a huge burgeoning population freer than it has ever been in its entire history, at the precise moment it is simultaneously thrusting up against the outside world both virtually via the internet and in the flesh. Katrien Jacobs can be commended for confronting the topic head-on with sex-positive openmindedness. Too bad the book was rushed to print with lousy, hasty editing.

The present era has converged in a number of technological breakthroughs resulting in an explosion of DIY (“do it yourself”) pornography and personal sexual expression: affordable home video cameras, a proliferation of internet pornography, blogs and sexblogs, and social networking sites of all types from dating to countless x-rated pages for the kinky. The Chinese Government has tried to hold off this deluge through haphazardly effective online censorship but is facing a losing battle and has effectively resigned itself to accepting the lesser evil of sexual freedom of speech in favor of a more open and productive society. It could even be described as evolving its own brand of friendly fascism or “repressive desublimation” (Herbert Marcuse), in which sexual freedom is exploited by the powers that be and channeled into useful forms of monetization and control, proving far more effective in quieting a restless population than the obsessive sexual oppression of traditional communist regimes.

Any study of contemporary sexuality that fails to latch onto the exciting intersection of sex and technology as its starting point is quickly irrelevant, and thankfully Jacobs is right on the mark. She covers everything potentially germane to sex discourse in China since the turn of the millennium when the internet caught fire on the mainland: the return of the made-in-China (post-Liberation) underground porn film industry, the explosion Chinese porn sites and their aggressive dismantling by the authorities, iconic sex propagandists and internet protest personalities including Mu Zimei, Li Yinhe, Han Han, and Ai Weiwei, internet sex scandals (a la Edison Chen) that occur with such regularity they seem factory-produced, and the ever-present influence of Japanese porn and idol stars and the pro-gay manga and Cosplay cultures. Jacobs even gets ethnographically creative by posting her nude body on an adult sex networking site to meet and interview subjects and delve into the mindsets of some of Hong Kong’s more daring youth subcultures.

I wish I could say it was a gripping read, but I found myself slogging through much of the book, which is written in the relentlessly turgid academic style of a novice scholar, reading much like a dissertation. In fact I’d wager it was a dissertation, one that prematurely got a leg in a mainstream publisher and filled a gap and need for this kind of study. In Jacobs’ better moments the PC-academicspeak attains a certain stodgy felicity, as when we are reminded of the appropriate definition of “Queer”: “originally an umbrella term for non-heteronormative expressions of gender and desires, including LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexuals and transgender) and non-normative heterosexual people.” Elsewhere, her prose is riddled with stylistic awkwardness and typos which would never have gotten past your typical dissertation committee (mine at least), along with certain nonnative-seeming turns of phrase, as her name hints. The lack of a good, astute editor is to blame for these lapses in what is otherwise a welcome publication.

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Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China by Tom Carter (Editor) (Earnshaw Books, 2013). Even before this book came to press it was already in the thick of polemic and controversy – for all the wrong reasons. Some advance-copy reviews by feminist editors in the expat zines of Beijing and Shanghai were withering, particularly of editor Tom Carter’s “exploitative” and “juvenile” contributing story on a brothel visit. It is actually one of the best pieces in the book, its tawdry, slapstick style perfectly suited to a group of clumsy foreigners haggling in the shabbier variety of Chinese brothel. It is the only story in the entire collection, in fact, that merits the book’s title. Before I came to the book, I was expecting and hoping for just that, something unsavory, stories of a refreshingly seedy and disreputable nature, peeling back a new layer of reality in Chinese society as more and more foreign pioneers venture deeper into the country. Inevitably, someone would take it upon himself to dredge up a collection of lascivious or discomfiting encounters and slap it together as a book.

What we have here instead is, alas, a much more banal take on “unsavory elements”: “the communist propaganda machine” use of the phrase (as Carter first recalled it) to describe anyone of questionable, less than revolutionary morals. Foreigners – formerly “foreign devils” – are by definition unsavory; their mere presence in the Middle Kingdom unsavory. It is not possible to be a foreigner in China and not simultaneously bumbling, gauche, vulgar and unsavory. Thus any random collection of nonfiction stories of foreign devils wandering around or working and living in China will do. The 28 contributors represent quite a spread, scattered about the country in pretty much all walks of life, but what cannot be said about most of them is that they are unsavory. They are, on the contrary, painstakingly polite, respectful and normal. They are strenuously family-friendly; nine of the stories – those by Levy, Paul, Muller, Bratt, Arrington, Washburn, Solimine, Watts, and Conley – concern actual families and children or the teaching of children. The pieces are all good clean fun, worthy of inclusion in Reader’s Digest or those bland, antiseptic Intensive/Extensive Reading textbooks for freshmen English majors in Chinese universities.

Inevitably, the collection is uneven. The pieces by Peter Hessler and Simon Winchester are the most assuredly written, though they don’t really tell us anything we can’t get from their own books about China. Meyer, Polly, Earnshaw, Spurrier, and Kitto are good, competent writers but fail to particularly stand out, unlike Watts’ piece on the German botanist and eccentric Josef Margraf, and Fuchs on Tibetan muleteers, which benefit from their intriguing subject matter. Stevenson mars his intriguing subject matter of life in a Chinese prison with snideness (here I direct readers to Robert H. Davies’s account of life in a Chinese prison in his extraordinary Prisoner 13498, reviewed in my Irreducible: China books of 2012). Humes’ horrific depiction of being violently mugged suffers from his gratuitous histrionics while recovering in the hospital; the tantalizing question and cliffhanger of how he was able to pay for the huge medical expenses (without any cash or insurance) is hinted at and then forgotten. Some pieces lack contextualization, like Eikenburg’s story of her daring courtship with a Chinese male, but what decade is she referring to, exactly? Interracial relationships on the Mainland are far more ubiquitous and accepted now than two or three decades ago, when I imagine her relationship took place; a reader unfamiliar with China might wrongly assume things are as stringent and racist today as ever.

Personally, if I had been given the same anthology project with the same title and the same contributors to choose from, I would keep three. I would start the book off with Winchester’s piece as a prologue (instead of its current slot as epilogue), then proceed with the spicy if innocuous account of KTV escorts among China’s privileged by Susie Gordon, followed by Carter’s aforementioned piece. For the succeeding stories, I would have to find alternative, more intrepid contributors willing to challenge bourgeois readerly expectations and really get down and rock ‘n’ roll in China’s seamy, truly unsavory underside. After all, I would only be doing what China’s own writers have already long been doing, like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa and Zhu Wen (the latter reviewed below) back in the 1980s depicting life among hoodlums and lumpen elements at large, or the graphic accounts of casual sex and drug use by Hong Ying, Wei Hui, Mian Mian and other female writers of the 1990s. Until that happens, pass on the word of Tom Carter’s enticing new collection at the local bake sale or church group back home when queried on a latest wholesome introduction to China to curl up at the fireplace with.

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I love dollars

I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen (Penguin, 2008). Like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa, Liu Heng and other outcast authors born in the 1960s-70s who came of age in the 80s-90s, Zhu Wen maintains an uneasy, on-off relationship with his present milieu, having a great deal to say that few seem to want to read about. The Chinese audience for domestic fiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not much interested in realist or ironic descriptions of their society, in contemplating unflattering mirrors held up to them showing the dark side of their country’s meteoric prosperity. Instead, as with most readers everywhere in our age of US cultural hegemony spearheaded by Hollywood, Disney and Apple, contemporary Chinese who read at all are more interested in fiction that appeals to their desires and longings, in escapist and fantasy writing, formulaic romances and mysteries, inspirational biographies, self-help books and get-rich-quick guides, in books that manage to combine all of these aspirations to some degree: the Harry Potter series, Dan Brown’s tomes, or word-of-mouth bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (all widely popular in China). It’s not that there is no potential readership for serious or “literary” fiction. It’s just that few publishers have the financial incentive to venture into such dicey territory, not to mention the toxic byways of political satire in this country. The result is that the audience for Chinese realism and satire is largely relegated to the foreign readership in translation. It is also noteworthy that the title novella I Love Dollars and the five other stories in this collection were all published in the original almost two decades ago.

The packaging for the English readership is curious and (I feel) somewhat disingenuous, with the blurbs playing up the comic selling points ad nauseum: “an absorbing portrait of the go-go years in China…extravagantly funny”; a “hilarious send-up of China’s love affair with capitalism”; “as penetrating as Kafka, as outrageously funny as Larry David, and with a slangy swagger all Zhu Wen’s own”; “…would make anyone laugh…classic comic fiction of the highest order.” I did not find the stories particularly funny; sad, poignant, and telling perhaps, or black humor at its grimmest, but not laughter-inducing. The narrator of the title story seeks a prostitute to entertain his father in his middle-aged lassitude and when that fails, asks a girlfriend if she would offer herself to his father for generosity’s sake (she angrily refuses). The narrator’s girlfriend in “A Hospital Night” bullies him into standing watch until dawn in a hospital ward over her irascible father after his gallbladder operation, which involves repeatedly sticking the man’s penis into a plastic bottle to enable him to urinate while repeatedly being fought off, in front of all the other staring patients in the room. The narrator of “A Boat Crossing” gets lodged in a ferry cabin with a rough trio of men bearing a dead body in a sack; it’s unclear whether the cadaver is to be used for medical instruction or is a murder victim. Meanwhile a woman tries to sell her 17-year old niece to him for $500, and that’s not to have sex but really to sell her and convey the money back to the girl’s destitute family. “Wheels” spins the street accident theme increasingly notorious in the Chinese press these days, as the narrator unknowingly “brushed against some old man’s arm as I rode down the hill” on his bicycle, and his ignoring this slight makes for dour consequences.

I might add here that if a Western male expat writer were to attempt similar themes in the Chinese context, particularly those involving Chinese females, he would lambasted as sexist and irresponsible at best, or exaggerated and implausible at worst, though that’s a conundrum of the English publishing world and is refreshingly irrelevant here. While I occasionally got bogged down in Zhu’s narrow, relentless Beckett-like focus on gritty and sordid minutiae, elsewhere his technique is assured and I found the stories largely memorable and instructive in their own way, vividly conjuring up scenes and locales I would rather not personally have to encounter.

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Undress me in the temple of heaven

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, but China in the 1980s was only just creaking open its doors to foreign travelers for the first time since before the Revolution – initially to package tours and later in the decade to individuals. But if the Government was ready to receive foreigners and their hard currency and quickly slapped together expensive hotels for this purpose (where backpackers on a shoestring often had no choice but to room), most of the rest of the country was not. It was a forbidding place, necessarily so, with the largest population in the world living in a bleak wartime-style economy as a result of decades of catastrophic policies of a lunatic leader. To handle so many people under such extreme conditions, such a society was structured very differently from what we are accustomed to, with drastically curtailed lifestyle choices (the very term “lifestyle” would have been incomprehensible to the Chinese then). I sampled the tail end of this era on my first visit to the country in 1990 for an exhausting two-week, six-city tour. The place was fascinating in its sheer strangeness. China is a much more foreigner-friendly place these days, to be sure, but it has been a long time in coming.

Enter in 1986, among that first wave of independent foreigners allowed into China, two spoiled young American females fresh out of college, the author Jane Gilman and Claire, her friend and classmate from a wealthy family, neither previously having set foot outside of the US and embarking on what they thought would be a yearlong worldwide tour, beginning with an indefinite stay on the Chinese Mainland. After a brief stopover in Hong Kong, they last a respectable six weeks before they are spat out, the worldwide tour abruptly ended after Claire goes psychotic on Jane and has to be accompanied on the flight home by a registered nurse.

Things get off to a shaky start with Jane freaking out on their shaky airline preparing to land in Hong Kong (neither has much flying experience), and things only get worse amidst the squalor of their Chungking Mansion room when she threatens to head right back home and needs to be slapped into reality by Claire. I worried that the author’s histrionics would prevent me from making it past the first ten pages. But it becomes apparent that this is a clever foil framing the rest of the narrative, as we discover that it’s Claire who has the major difficulties adjusting to their shockingly different reality on the Mainland. While the two are shunted around from one mysterious, disorienting location to another by shady locals who may or may not be trying to take advantage of them, dealing with hostile hotel staff with no English ability, unpalatable food and nothing to do, Claire grows increasingly paranoid of not just the Chinese but the CIA, Mossad and other nefarious agents she thinks are out to get her. She stops eating and becomes ill and delusional. By this time we are in the more hospitable surroundings of a Western hippie hangout in Guilin. Just as Claire meets and falls for a German traveler, Claire loses it and wades naked into a river in a suicide attempt. The tense final pages have Jane and the German frantically contacting the police to locate Claire. They find her and things are brought to a breathless and fraught conclusion.

Thus a word of warning. This is not travel fiction for uninitiated readers expecting a comprehensive or in-depth account of the PRC by someone with extensive knowledge of China. It’s a fast-paced and, perhaps appropriately, breezy description of a country experienced as a nightmare from the get-go – a country itself still caught in the nightmare of its recent past. At times I wasn’t sure if the melodrama and emotional hysterics, whether Jane’s or Claire’s, were contributing to or getting in the way of the book. Nevertheless, I did find myself being briskly pulled along by the narrative as the girls lurch from one shock to the next.

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The Beijing of Possibilities

The Beijing of Possibilities: Stories by Jonathan Tel (Other Press, 2009). I found my experience reading this slender volume of slenderly conceived stories like the old Etch A Sketch toy – each new creation erasing my memory of the previous one. Several do stand out for me as mildly imaginative achievements, e.g., “The Glamorous Heart of Cosmopolitan Beijing,” in which a trio of pickpockets who work the Beijing buses are tracked down by the foreign owner of the shopping bag they swipe and chased by the police around an abandoned building as the thieves toss out one colorful silk dress after another to distract the pursuers and lighten the load. The time-slip conceit of “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch,” in which a dating service mysteriously enables a man in contemporary Beijing to communicate with a Ming Dynasty princess by cellphone text message – here too brings to life the imaginative “possibilities” promised by the title. The final, weightiest story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in China,” is a nested creation like a Russian doll or a Chinese box: an ancient tale of an Emperor’s virgin wife given in sacrifice to the Huns overlaid with a story of a promising Beijing violinist sent to Africa after refusing a bribe, which are in turn framed by the apparently real-life story of the Beijing poet Helan Xiao and her abusive treatment by a composer named Tang Jiangnu who hired her to write the libretto of his opera titled after the story (and mirroring her own evident sex scandal mentioned in the author’s preface).

Tang is described as a “leading composer of his generation,” residing primarily in the US since the 1980s, whose aforementioned opera was commissioned by the Met in New York. The name and personal details appear to be fictionalized. The only actual person who could fit this bill is Tan Dun, unanimously regarded as the leading composer of his generation and the only Chinese composer to have an opera commissioned by the Met. I don’t know if the real Tan Dun is mixed up with any of this behind the scenes, but the ambiguities are further complicated by the interesting twist, again hinted at in the author’s preface, that all the stories in the collection except for the final one were originally written by Helan Xiao and jointly translated by her and Jonathan Tell into English. If that’s the case, then why isn’t she listed as the author and Tell as the translator? Or am I missing the joke?

Despite these intriguing (or perplexing) puzzles, I found many of the stories to be ephemera. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the element of magical realism, which separates real-life, three-dimensional experience from the concrete familiarities of the contemporary Chinese metropolis, leaving accumulated impressions floating disembodied in abstract space. Moreover, the overly sympathetic treatment of the characters, often the rural or disenfranchised living precarious existences in their adopted city, reduces them more to predictable, stock types associated with simple tales than memorable people. Finally, the third-person point of view (keeping the author himself out of any trouble), the sentimental, light-hearted tone, the intimate domestic atmosphere all seem calculated to ensure safe territory and harmless consumption, precisely fulfilling the expectations of Chinese Government “soft-power” ideology, according to which the arts serve up a defanged, soothing pablum for foreign consumption.

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Harvest Season

Harvest Season by Chris Taylor (Earnshaw Books, 2010). A third of the way into this novel there’s an unlikely sex scene of a sort that seldom occurs in fiction, so fleeting, awkward and intimate I don’t want to describe it, except to say that while not a direct cause, it heralds a sequence of events that gradually spin out of control into disaster by the end. Matt, the narrator, a British expat living in an idyllic mountainous region of southwest China, is torn between two women, Fei-fei and A-hong, but unable to act decisively with either of them. Likewise the community of hippie expats wile away their days hanging out in Shuangshan, their self-styled Shangri-La, doping themselves up with beer, ganja, acid, ecstasy and anything else they can get their hands on. The direct catalyst that moves events toward the inexorable, Greek tragedy-like conclusion is the arrival of a Western anarcho-hippie contingent from Thailand, aka. the “Family of Light” or “Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes,” extreme lifestyle communalists, dreadlocked vegans who live in tepees, don’t believe in bathing and also don’t know what they’re getting into by setting up shop in China. I myself have attended two Rainbow Gatherings, in Kentucky in ’93 and the French Pyrenees in ’03, enough to know what they’re about and found them likable but a bit too strange for my own comfort. Euro and American local authorities already have to contend with them (I recall the police helicopters hovering over us at the Kentucky gathering); one can imagine the incomprehension of both the authorities and locals in China, of all places.

In fact Chris Taylor’s whole account breathes with such realism I suspect it all really did happen as recounted, and I begrudge fiction publishers their standard but nonetheless annoying and disingenuous disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction and any resemblance…”, when it’s plain the only thing that’s been altered (I assume) is the names of the characters. Which brings up the question, why fiction? What makes it qualify as a novel?

The telling, of course: the melding of distinct characters and events into a unity forming its own little universe and unforgettable atmosphere. This is not quite literary fiction; there is not much in the way of the experimental vein or consciousness of novelistic form. The narrative is laid out in uncomplicated linear format, as if no other narrative style was appropriate for sorting out reality amidst the drug-and-booze haze. The style is clipped and concise, plain but economical (with the occasional tendency to telegraph too much into characters’ thoughts), the characters memorable in their own way. Above all, Harvest Season exemplifies why novels do a much better job than nonfiction at conveying the character of the times. It’s a small slice of some very odd people in this story, hardly a cross-section but on the contrary the extremes of a society, yet hitting home so much more than any recent nonfiction books about China I have read (and reviewed). I’m glad Taylor graduated from the writing of travel guides and look forward to his next novel.

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Chinese Lessons

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (Holt, 2007). The journalist John Pomfret recounts his stays in several cities at various points over several decades in China, plus isolated trips to remote Yunnan Province and Tibet. His long acquaintance with the country going back to the early ’80s, and the general narrative interest of his writing alone will make the book worth reading for many. The main narrative focus is not on himself but on the career trajectories of five classmates he spent the initial years with and kept in touch with thereafter. As for the author’s own experiences, he has much fascinating material to relate, notably during the early eighties after the Opening Up under Deng Xiaoping from 1978, when the first foreign students and tourists began trickling in the xenophobic country. A particularly gripping passage is his eyewitness account of the army’s crushing of the June 4, 1989 democracy protests, as he leads us on a mad bike run toward Tiananmen Square where he “climbed the steps of the martyr’s monument to get a better view, phoning in the events as I saw them.” He was identified and caught by the Chinese police, and not allowed back into China for another decade until an American ambassador pulled strings to get him visa clearance.

Pomfret has also detailed his sexual involvements with Chinese women – something rare in our politically correct age when it is somehow deemed inappropriate to admit of interracial relationships with Asian women that stop short of marriage. This honesty and willingness to take risks with people make his relations ring with authenticity and interest. He met his first girlfriend there in 1981, at a time when it was illegal for Chinese women to date, let alone sleep or cohabit with foreign men. Even on the street women seen with foreign men could be arrested, and those caught in real or supposed sexual relationships were charged with the same crime as bona fide prostitutes, “hooliganism,” and sent off to re-education camp for three or four years. This lends an air of excitement to Pomfret’s trysts with Fay, whom he met at a bar frequented by foreign students. He describes their delicate courtship process, out of caution than bashfulness, their excursions to secret spaces out of sight of prying eyes; their making love outside in alleys perched on his bicycle seat while he disguised himself in Mao attire; their lengthy trip to the southwest of the country when they had to pretend not to know each other on trains and couldn’t share the same hotel room (the police caught them trying to sneak into Tibet but fortunately they were soon released); her understandable falling for this tall, young handsome foreign man fluent in Chinese and her wishes to marry him, which came to nought.

His next girlfriend, or fling rather, was in 1988 (when puritanical restrictions on sex were beginning to thaw), with a divorced former actress, Nana, who managed to smuggle Pomfret into her PLA compound residence where she lived and worked. Actors in China have a long tradition going back centuries of being associated with the world of vice, and she seemed to fit this stereotype for the author, with her frank sexuality and open relationships with other Chinese men (even flirting with one of them on the phone while having sex with Pomfret). A decade later he meets Zhang Mei, a Harvard-educated Chinese returnee after years living in the US, fully conversant in the English language and Western culture, and the “love of his life,” a kind of fairytale triumph over the “floozies and opportunists” he calls his previous relationships (referring to Fay and Nana). Of the three princesses I find myself most drawn to the bad ones, these two earlier, remarkably liberated women, than to the good one who wins the prince, Zhang Mei, who comes off as a bit too normal and flat to be of interest, though perhaps appropriate for a fairytale ending.

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China Road

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford (Random House, 2008). Reporter Rob Gifford crosses the country in buses and rented taxis along Route 312, China’s version of US Route 66, from Shanghai all the way to the border with Kazakhstan. In the western half of the country, Route 312 roughly follows along the old Silk Road trail. The author frequently digresses onto issues and problems concerning contemporary China whenever he seems to run out of things to say on the immediate environs and its history. Much of this is critical; the terms “Communism” and “Communist” come up 84 times in the book. Yet he also strives for journalistic balance and objectivity in the customary praising-and-spanking manner, along with the usual splitting of China into two adversarial camps – the rich at the top and the rest of the country that is locked out of privilege. Then there is the exemplary Chinese urban underdog figure Western writers have long identified with and which Gifford targets as well, the taxi driver (formerly the rickshaw driver). It is a curious master-slave relationship, as no other Chinese personage are foreign travelers more dependent on for their most basic daily activity, namely getting around. Gifford meets a lot of taxi drivers, whom he pays to take him across the country when he is not on buses, along with many other folk as well, typically those with grievances against the Party (e.g. Henan Province AIDS victims, Christians). His concluding point after talking to a prostitute: “We often fail to see that Chinese people are living, breathing, loving, hating individuals, who do things for complex psychological reasons, just like Westerners.” Can he really mean to say something so platitudinous, or worse, racist – the assumption that the Chinese aren’t quite human, at least not as much as the rest of us are (even as he tries to correct this assumption)? Readers looking for a slick and often entertaining introduction to China may find this book useful; the more discerning will give it a pass.

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Country Driving

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler (Harper, 2011). This latest effort by the English-speaking world’s best-selling writer on China takes the Great Wall as its theme. He spends the first part of the book covering much of the extent of the Wall along neighboring roads by rented car. In the second part, he shacks up in a village outside Beijing for an extended stay with a peasant community hemmed in by rapid social change. In the third part, he hangs out in a small factory in Zhejiang Province that makes bra parts in order to observe the mindset of startup entrepreneurs. Hessler has many virtues as a writer. Instead of pronouncing generalities he tends to focus on what is immediately at hand, on the particular, and the cliché count celebrating the Communist Party’s achievements or condemning its excesses and outrages is kept to a minimum. He is usually engaging and always very thorough, delving deeply into all aspects of each new topic that comes his way, backed up by much homework (with I assume generous financial backing for his research needs from his heavyweight publisher Harper. On the subject of amusingly inaccurate Chinese road maps, for instance, he goes into engrossing detail on Western and Chinese cartography history – something a lesser writer would lack the curiosity or patience to pursue. And there is always something new to learn, such as the “strange stones” (soft rocks that have been carved into various objects) market Hessler unwittingly chances upon. The shops are all scams, set up to entrap customers into believing they are at fault for accidentally destroying the rocks and forcing them to pay for them.

This attention to detail also makes the book a long one (a smaller publishing firm might have hacked off substantial passages to reduce printing costs), and there are more than a few longueurs, notably in the rather static and uneventful middle section in Sancha village. Page after page of the minutiae of several peasant families’ lives may be fresh for the average reader unfamiliar with the country, but as a longtime China resident my own reading experience is obviously different and admittedly more jaded. I found myself putting the book down a lot, until the pace picked back up in the third part of the book, with the attention focused on the ups and downs of the bra parts business – though Hessler’s notorious lack of erotic interest in Chinese women should forewarn readers not to expect much discussion of the object bras are designed for.

Related posts:
The Literature of Paralysis: The China PC scene the expat mag crowd
Irreducible, like the country itself: China books I have reviewed in 2012
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo Travelogues of China

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