Category: China

Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

With the Communists fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Guomindang reactionaries in a triangular war, the 1930s-40s was a tumultuous and extraordinarily violent period in the country’s history, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, mostly civilians. Such an earth-shaking era was story-worthy to say the least, and revolutionary authors applied their firsthand experience of the war years to penning firey, action-packed pageturners in the tradition of socialist realism. Among the best-known of these novels were Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying (红旗谱), Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth (青春之歌), Liu Qing’s Builders of a New Life (创业史), and Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag (红岩), all written in the late 1950s-early 1960s (also published in English by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing). This flowering of communist fiction dried up during the Cultural Revolution. To Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, nothing was quite revolutionary enough to pass muster and she banned virtually everything, including the aforementioned novels.

The decades since have presented a quandary for Chinese writers. With socialism firmly established and war and devastation a thing of the past, in the absence of some new vital struggle or national emergency, it must have been, and continues to be, a tall order to revisit the authentic socialist realist novel. That is until the contemporary female writer Zhang Lijia saw what was staring at us all along and has now fashioned into an impressive new work of socialist realism, the novel Lotus (Henry Holt & Co., 2017). What momentous cause was this up-and-coming author the first to bring into urgent focus? None other than the great scourge of prostitution and sex work.

The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members

You’re nine years old and showing off your new iPad on the school playground, and the class bully snatches it out of your hands. Now, there are two things you can do. 1) Deal with it. Snatch it back. This is what normal kids do. 2) Scream and cry. This is what the 1.3 billion-strong country of China does everytime it’s poked in the eye, like the recent Hague Tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea. Snatched it right out of its hands and we hear the whole nation stamping its feet and squealing: “Waaaahh! Go away, Opium War bullies! Waaaahh!” Hurting China’s feelings has become established as a pastime, a sport. When China lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics to Sydney it went, “Waaaahh!” The Olympic torch is snatched out of the hands of disabled bearer Jin Jing in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. “Waaaahh!” The swimmer Sun Yang is poked fun at in the Rio 2016 Olympics for his doping history, and the whole country goes “Waaaahh!” The Rio organizers get the stars misaligned on the Chinese flag. “Waaaahh!”

Now the sport has taken the form of a novel. Lots of people aren’t going to like Arthur Meursault’s Party Members: Chinese customs officials who find reasons on every page to blacklist the book; patriots who don’t tolerate anything that puts their country in a bad light; cynics who freely disparage their own country but can’t stomach a single criticism by a foreigner; the humorless; sinophiles grateful for the privilege of being allowed into China; the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face.

Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande

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Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.

The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.

The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.

The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd

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The clown I would have preferred seeing on the cover of Ash & Pellman’s While We’re Here.

I have to say Alec Ash and Tom Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China, While We’re Here (Earnshaw Books, 2015), has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.

In praise of concubines: Interview with Lloyd Lofthouse

imageA distinction must be made before I get off on the wrong footing with many readers (which I inevitably will) between the system of domestic sexual slavery in China that lasted up to the mid-20th century known as concubinage, and concubines. I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For a particular concubine, the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too. Say you encounter the woman of your dreams — one with your ideal “10” body. I mean the kind of body that would make you cheat on your wife or girlfriend for the very first time. You know what kind of body I’m talking about. There’s not a man around who doesn’t secretly fear this future catastrophe. She also happens to be smart, cultured and talented — poet, belly-dancer, Derrida fan, you name it. And here’s the clincher: she’s into you as well. But there’s a catch. In her country, where you’ve met, you are not allowed to lay a hand on her unless you buy her. No, not a one-shot gig like a prostitute, but really buy her, for good. You can have her all for your very own, provided, of course, you set her up and take care of her, ensure her welfare. On the other hand, she is affordable (credit cards accepted). By purchasing her you will be considerably improving her economic circumstances, and thus her ability to develop her talents and self-actualize to her fullest potential. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? (In fact, this scenario is not all that different from what already exists. It’s called marrying up. The terms are just not so cut and dry.)