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Financial Times journalist Richard McGregor is this year’s recipient of the Asia Society’s Bernard Schwartz Book Award for his 2010 investigation into Chinese leadership, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. If you haven’t caught up with McGregor’s book yet, here are a few links about it to whet your appetite:

• At China Beat, we’ve previously featured an interview with McGregor, conducted by site editor Maura Cunningham, as well as a review of The Party by Thomas Kellogg of the Open Society Institute.

• Jeff Wasserstrom reviewed the book at The Daily Beast and also interviewed McGregor for the Asia Society blog.

• The Washington Post also ran a review of The Party, this one by Andrew Higgins:

At first glance, a book about the Communist Party seems curiously old-fashioned, a throwback to a time when scholars and journalists scoured the People’s Daily for hints of who was up or down in the Politburo and competed to decipher party gobbledygook. The red flags, the portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square and the occasional retro-slogan about “workers of the world” can sometimes seem as quaintly removed from present-day reality as the portraits of Queen Elizabeth that grace the offices of British civil servants working for what is, in name at least, “Her Majesty’s government.” However, it is a measure of how much China has changed that McGregor has been able to write such a lively and penetrating account of a party that, since its founding in Shanghai as a clandestine organization in 1921, has clung to secrecy as an inviolable principle.

• Subscribers to the New York Review of Books can read a review essay by Ian Johnson that deals with The Party, in addition to a number of other China-focused titles.

• Watch McGregor discuss his work in a talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations:

• And don’t forget that The Party, in addition to being an Economist best book of 2010, also made another “top China books” list—Donald Trump’s.

As 2010 draws to a close, many media outlets have begun releasing their year-end “best of” lists. We always take a careful look at these to see which China-related titles appear, and have seen more than a few familiar names pop up. At the New York Times, the “100 Notable Books of 2010” include Peter Hessler’s Country Driving and Yunte Huang’s biography of Charlie Chan, as well as Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling. Spurling’s work is also celebrated by Margaret Drabble at The Guardian, while both Pankaj Mishra and AS Byatt include Yiyun Li’s short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, on their Guardian lists. “Books of the Year” at The Economist included The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor, Country Driving, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikötter, and Pearl Buck in China.

We’d also like to draw the attention of China Beatniks to another recently lauded book: Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange by Alexander C.Y. Huang, which won the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies. Competing against titles from all fields of comparative literature (not just Asian), Chinese Shakespeares was recognized for its innovative approach to examining the movement of cultural forms across space. In its citation commending his work, the award committee notes that Huang “examines the way movement across geographical and geopolitical fault lines reaches into cultural forms and changes their meanings from the inside, often revealing possibilities that had lain dormant, unnoticed, or submerged in the texts’ cultures of origin.”

Huang, a faculty member in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Comparative Literature, is also a co-founder and co-editor of two digital archives, Global Shakespeares and Shakespeare Performance in Asia. To learn more about Chinese Shakespeares, see Colin Mackerras’s review of the book at MCLC, as well as “Old Man Sha in the Middle Kingdom,” an article about Huang’s work at Research Penn State.

By Wang Chaohua

1. The Nobel Peace Prize

What does a Nobel Peace Prize stand for politically? We probably can’t take the written words of Alfred Nobel himself and of the awarding committee at face value. In the past century, the prize has stirred up numerous controversies. For example, a war-mongering, coup-conspiring politician like Henry Kissinger was chosen to be honored, leaving the rest of the world with jaws dropped and the winner himself reluctant to revisit the moment in public. After all, the prize was decided and awarded by a committee of five retired politicians. In addition, no matter how politically balanced each of the actual committee members might be, there could hardly be universal consensus in today’s world as to which candidate is more worthy than the others, and on what grounds. Controversy is almost an integral part of the peace prize.

Yet, bolstered by its sister prizes in other fields — fields of natural sciences in particular — as well as following historical trends towards social justice, democracy, and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural co-existence for “peace,” the Nobel Peace Prize has indeed built up a certain international reputation for itself by awarding the prize, for example, to Martin Luther King, Jr. of the U.S. in 1964, the International Labor Organization in 1969, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in 1991, Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala in 1992, and Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he set up in Bangladesh in 2006. Not surprisingly, the prize’s influence has grown, with matching expectations around the globe. Some activists overlooked by mainstream Western media have tried to draw attention to their causes by lobbying for the prize for one of their own. Likewise, both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were nominated right after they launched the second Iraqi War in 2003; if either had won, it could have indicated an international consensus on the war’s legitimacy. The prize’s symbolic meaning matters to those who oppose the committee’s decision no less than to those who congratulate the chosen laureate(s).

This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident I know personally from the heady days of the Tiananmen protest of spring 1989. When the news of his winning the prize came through on October 8, it was an exciting and moving moment for me. It is true that we have not seen each other for more than twenty years, though we did maintain some contact before he was arrested in late 2008. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison a year later.

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Among the twenty-three people who received MacArthur Fellowships last month was Yiyun Li, a fiction writer based at the University of California, Davis. Born and raised in Beijing before coming to the United States for graduate work (first in immunology, later in creative writing), Li is one member of a growing community of Chinese authors now writing in English. We asked Xujun Eberlein, also part of that group, to reflect on Li’s writing.

By Xujun Eberlein

I first encountered Yiyun Li’s work in the fall of 2003, in the form of “Immortality,” a longish short story published in The Paris Review that was the first piece of writing by her to make a splash in the literary world. It is about the ups and downs of a Chinese man who is born with a face resembling Mao’s. He makes good use of his unusual feature and enjoys a fortunate life when others are suffering during the Cultural Revolution, but becomes a loser in the post-Mao era. Coming from an area that produced many eunuchs for the imperial court, the man castrates himself in the end.

In that story, Li’s English could well be mistaken for a native speaker’s, with only the Chinese content belying that perception. I was impressed by her language, but not the content. The narrative is loaded with knowledge common to Chinese that might be unfamiliar to Americans, and the Chinese clichés overwhelm the story the author is trying to tell. To me, it gave the impression that the story, loud as could be, was relying mainly on foreign oddities — not to mention a gimmicky ending — to appeal to American readers. While there’s nothing wrong with an immigrant writer taking advantage of the information discrepancy between two countries (I do the same), a good literary work must offer insights into the human condition regardless of the reader’s familiarity with cultural backstories. But “Immortality” says nothing new to a Chinese immigrant like me. In all fairness, it is not a bad story, but hardly a great one to my Chinese eye. The writing, though fluent, lacked the natural and unrestrained strokes displayed by some other immigrant writers I was reading at the time, such as the Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nonetheless, “Immortality” showed promise and it went on to win Li the Plimpton Prize for New Writers, the first in a long string of top literary prizes lining up to crown her works.

Shortly after that, another story of Li’s, “Extra,” appeared in The New Yorker. Its main character, a widowed Chinese woman in her 50s, falls in (sexual) love with a six-year-old boy in the nursery where she works. At first I was glad to see that, unlike the previous story, this one wasn’t overloaded with common Chinese knowledge. However a doubt soon arose in my mind: could the author write without relying so much on gimmicky oddities? Toward the end of “Extra,” the protagonist, fired by the nursery, puts all her money (about 3000 Yuan) in a lunch pail, which she holds in her hand. On her way out of the nursery, she is robbed by a man who grabs her duffel bag and runs away. Shocked to have been mugged yet relieved to still have her small fortune, she “sits on the street and hugs the lunch pail to herself.” Next, this line caught my eye:

“Hungry as people are, it is strange that nobody ever thinks of robbing an old woman of her lunch.”

What a sharp observation! Now that is an insight into human nature. The line sheds a whole new light on the story; it made me thump the table. This writer is up to something, I thought.

During the next a few years I read more of Li’s short stories and personal essays here and there, in magazines and newspapers. While I shook my head at some of her essays, I nodded more often with her fiction. Increasingly in her stories, the role of foreignness (or the use of Chinese information) moved from serving as the main attraction to being an unobtrusive prop, helping mold the characters who, like Li’s language, began to display a subtle complexity. The early loudness in Li’s narration was also fading into dispassionate observation.

One of my favorite pieces of hers is a story titled “The Proprietress,” which was published in a 2005 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story. The protagonist is a private businesswoman in her late sixties who lives next to a county jail and collects hapless wives and children of prisoners into her own house. The contradiction in the character’s personality, the co-existence of kindness and self-righteousness, the simultaneous desires to help and to control, is at the same time unbelievable and true. I was once again impressed by the author’s discerning eye in observing human nature; whether the character is Chinese or not no longer mattered.

As much as I was impressed by Yiyun Li’s writing, however, some public behavior of hers made me wary. The Chinese say, “The writing is like the writer.” I had always believed the wisdom of that saying while in China, but it seemed less true about many writers here (or perhaps just now).

From December 2005 to spring 2006, major papers — the Washington Post, the New York Times, and others — made a big deal of the fact that Yiyun Li’s petition for permanent residency in the United States on the grounds of “extraordinary ability in the arts” had been denied by the Immigration Services, even though Li had requested many big-name authors to provide testimonials to her “extraordinary ability.” Li turned to the press and more writers for further support.

The fuss in the media struck me as over the top. Numerous Chinese students have successfully gone through the normal immigration process after graduation: first find a job, then obtain a green card through that employer. Li certainly had no trouble getting a teaching job. I didn’t know what made her so keen to get the special visa instead of going through the normal process — I’m sure she had her reasons. After all, she has talked more than once about her longing for America since childhood. But to take the matter to the press and — as a writer friend put it — make it sound like she was a victim? And to publicly involve many other writers who hardly knew her? The seeming egoism of the whole matter certainly contradicted Li’s description of herself as an “always shy and private” person. Was gaining too much of a name at a young age going to have a negative impact on Li’s writing as well?

But Li proved to be exceptional as a writer. It seems that her curiosity about human nature, more than anything else, plays a dominant role in the evolution of her writing. I once read an interview with her in the Michigan Quarterly Review, as part of a special issue on China where my own personal essay “On Becoming an American” also appears. When answering a question about her literary influences, Li speaks of William Trevor:

“He doesn’t carry a message in his writing, he’s an observer, and I like that because I know so many writers who are not observers but who have an agenda. He doesn’t have an agenda, he’s just very curious about human beings. I share that curiosity and I share his interest in the mysteries of human nature.”

This deeply resonates with me as a fiction writer: writing without an agenda other than an interest in human nature. I suspect it is William Trevor’s influence that has made Li’s transition from her early ethnic-driven fiction to a more universal exploration of human nature.

Li’s writing is getting more mature in recent years and she goes ever deeper into her characters’ insides, even though some of them no longer sound Chinese to me. That is much less a problem, I think, than a story holding true ethnically but lacking inspiration and universal resonance. A story of Li’s published in a 2008 issue of the New Yorker, for example, portrays a gay man who has lived in the US for two decades before returning to Beijing for good and obeying his widowed mother’s wish for him to marry a female student of hers. Knowing the much less favorable social conditions for homosexuals in China, this character’s behavior does not ring true to me. Nonetheless, the different — yet somehow shared — loneliness of the three characters in the story is rendered in such intimate detail and emotional depth, and in such markedly dispassionate language, that I was practically swallowed by their moods. The characters, though Chinese, seem to have transcended their ethnicity. In comparison, Ha Jin, another heavyweight Chinese immigrant author who writes in English, has repeatedly claimed that loneliness is the biggest burden of an immigrant, yet that remains a claim he has never made me feel intimately in his characters.

Coincidentally, Li’s early literary talent was first celebrated by The Paris Review, the same magazine that first published Ha Jin. Unfortunately, after Ha Jin went on to win the 1999 National Book Award for his excellent novel Waiting, his later works such as The Crazed and A Free Life have disappointed. I don’t know if the fame of a top literary award played a role in this deterioration, but I’m happy to see that Yiyun Li seems to be on a different path. I look forward to reading her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China. Her reviews of China-themed books can be found in Foreign Policy, Women’s Review of Books, The China Beat, and elsewhere.

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By Paulina Hartono

Liu Xiaobo is, and now is probably much more so after Friday’s announcement, one of China’s most well-known dissidents—or activists, depending on the term you prefer. Most people who have heard of him know about his hand in penning part of Charter 08, a manifesto based on Charter 77, which advocates broad democratic political reform and human rights protections in China. Those who are more familiar with Liu’s name know of him for his hunger strike in Tian’anmen, or his prolific number of essays published in print and on the Internet.

For his role in drafting Charter 08, and writing six essays, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison on December 25, 2009 for state subversion. The sentence is an extraordinarily harsh one, considering other noted activists like Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia were also sentenced for state subversion, but received sentences of three and three-and-a-half years, respectively. (For more on “incitement of state subversion,” see Article 105 of PRC Criminal Law.)

There is a well-known phrase in Chinese, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu). Literally, it means “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” but should be more properly understood as “punishing one to warn the others.” Arguably, the state used Liu’s heavy sentence as a lesson to others as an example of what happens when one fails to adhere to Party ideology. In so doing, Liu was recast not only as a criminal, but as a pedagogical symbol.

Never mind that some people find the particular six essays to not be particularly reactionary, or wonder about whether Liu contributed so much to the Charter that his name appeared at the top, or if he just acceded to hedging the blow to come. These hinge on personal opinion and speculation, and are therefore moot. However, because Liu’s wishes for political change and human rights have not yet come into being, I think these documents remain firmly within the realm of political thought and speech. Though—or because—they are not concrete, they hold a lot of symbolic power, regardless of one’s subjective reception.

In some ways, the December 2009 sentencing seemed to be a layering of one symbol on top of the next. Now, the 2010 prize conferral appears to be yet another layer. This is largely because the goal of the prize is unclear. From Alfred Nobel’s will:

The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

The prize is in large part, a recognition of an individual’s or group’s efforts. However, it has either had, or has come to have, other purposes as well. I use the following quotes to probe more deeply at this issue.

From Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief,

An article [Liu] wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.

See also the Nobel Peace Prize press announcement:

China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.

Given the prize’s stated prescriptive aim (“this award will send about…”) and its instructive claims (“must entail”), it is arguably also a type of pedagogical symbol.

* * *

Symbols lie within a tricky territory because they are so open to interpretation. Earlier, I wrote that Liu’s work has a lot of symbolic versus concrete power. That is not to rob it of its value in the least. If anything, I think it speaks to the might that is harnessed by a seed of thought, as made manifest through open—while not yet free—speech.

So I do find it somewhat ironic that while the prize is a recognition of freedom of speech advocacy, there won’t be much human rights dialogue going on.

First, because many of Liu’s ideas are rather broad-based, there is no settled understanding of what kind of human rights need to be discussed, or what China’s “entail[ed] increased responsibility” is. Nobody disagrees that China should have better human rights, not even its central government. The points of contention are which specific rights should be protected, how following legislation should be implemented, and in what time frame reforms must take place.

But who are the actors to make such decisions? The international community, or the Chinese state itself? If this prize conferral does not bring human rights dialogue to the table, it will provide heated discussion on national sovereignty and international relations. For one, you will be hard-pressed to find news on Liu’s prize in Chinese-language newspapers. But you will find governmental condemnations of Liu as a criminal, as well as questions over the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize more generally.

Notably, these same articles refer to fractured ties between China and Norway; Norway has effectively become conflated with the Prize Committee. Granted, the Committee’s members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament (Storting), but I think most people conceive of the Nobel Prize Committee as being a supranational entity. Perhaps that is too naive. In any case, clearly the Chinese government does not perceive it as a supranational entity.

Not only this, but Chinese activists have hailed Liu’s selection as indicative of the “West’s recognition.” In this case, the Committee is the West.

Most recently, the U.S. has also been implicated in this symbolic fray; see an Associated Press report “US-China Ties Strained by Dissident.”

A quote from Ma Ying-jeou that states the award is for all Chinese people around the world also lends no clarification to this extremely tangled topic.

In essence, if any human rights dialogue is to happen, we need to know what is going to be talked about, and who is going to talk about it. These very important components have become obfuscated in the past two days.

* * *

In the short-term, I don’t expect any constructive developments. The long-term is of course the big question. But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say.

* * *

Note: My thoughts on this have been highly influenced by Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), and to a lesser degree, James Hevia’s English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003).

Paulina Hartono is a student in East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a frequent contributor to China Digital Times. The above post originally appeared at her blog, _mphatic, on October 9, 2010.

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