March 2008

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By Nicole Barnes

In just a few days, famed translator Howard Goldblatt’s latest book, Wolf Totem, will be released to eager readers of Chinese literature in English translation. Having proven his mettle as translator of Xiao Hong’s angsty prose and Mo Yan’s morbidly lascivious novels, Goldblatt has now tried his hand at a certain piece of nostalgic drivel that leaked from the pen of Jiang Rong, a newly acclaimed novelist whose original work, Lang Tuteng, appeared in 2004 after more than 30 years of labor and immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists, selling two million bookstore copies and countless more pirated copies. Although he hid his unorthodox ideas behind a pen name, Jiang Rong’s endeavors earned him the very first Man Asian Literary Prize.

This semi-autobiographical novel follows the young Chinese intellectual, Chen Zhen, in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. Chen’s drunken admiration for the steppe leads him to kidnap and raise a wolf cub. The novel essentializes ethnic identity as utterly contingent upon nature, and identifies Mongols with the wolf (bold and brave), and Han Chinese with the sheep (meek and, well, sheepish). Despite its artless plot, Lang Tuteng appealed to millions of Chinese readers who found double happiness in its pages: romanticization of the Mongolian “wilderness” as the urbanites’ playground, and a symbolic reversal of the woes produced by internal colonization: wolves don’t lose to sheep. The novel’s closing scene underscores the limited capacity of this symbolic reversal, as Han immigration and resource exploitation turn the last of Inner Mongolia’s majestic grasslands to desert and a foreboding sandstorm shrouds Beijing. The ecological disasters of internal colonization come home to roost on Beijingers’ windowsills.

Jiang Rong is following in the footsteps of a veritable army of intellectuals who fanned out across “northwest China” in the first few decades of the twentieth century, most of them traveling on behalf of the Nationalist government. Their published journals evince the same mixture of admiration and befuddlement that makes Wolf Totem the latest literary expression of a long-lived Chinese political identity crisis in which fear of emasculation drives Han men to their nation’s cultural frontier in an existential search for virility and assertiveness, qualities believed to be more abundant among the ethnic minorities than among China’s Han majority.

Ten of these early twentieth-century journalists—nine men and one woman—will be featured in my presentation at the upcoming Critical Han Studies conference organized by Tom Mullaney. Among them was the famed intellectual Gu Jiegang, who in the late 1930s stated matter-of-factly that the idea of the Han people as a unified “race” is a mere fiction—an argument that later appeared in Mao Zedong’s 1956 speech, “On the Ten Major Relationships,” and which was of course used to gloss over the
very real exploitation of minority groups in the construction of a “unified” nation with the vast majority of power and wealth in Han hands.

Although the Republican-era intellectuals’ prose would put Jiang Rong to shame, none of their journals ever sold two million copies or sparked a pop-culture revolution with global proportions—Penguin is simultaneously launching Wolf Totem in the US, the UK, and Australia, with the Indian and South African editions hot on their heels. Their travel journals also may not have had the ability to spark thousands of blogger debates on the bestial origins of the Chinese race—dragon or wolf?

Despite Goldblatt’s best intentions to enhance Western understanding of China by introducing a Chinese bestseller to an English readership, Wolf Totem is likely to appeal to an Orientalist audience. It is already hailed on as “an epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor.” We know where that leads. Now that China’s eastern seaboard is packed to the gills with people, congested roads, and belching factories, it seems that we can all locate our nostalgia in Mongolia and Tibet (protests and their violent quashing aside, tourism in the Dalai Lama’s homeland is on the rise). At least in this regard urbanites the world over can be united.

Ma Ying-jeou’s convincing victory in Taiwan’s presidential election shows that the politics of fear are no match for the politics of the pocketbook. While the sight of four KMT legislators trying to force their way into the DPP campaign headquarters raised the specter of a return to the dreaded days of the White Terror, a majority of voters seem to have been convinced by the slew of apologies that followed, and assumed that Ma’s victory would end eight years of government gridlock that had contributed to Taiwan’s economic slowdown. While Ma’s hesitancy to explain whether he had formally renounced his green card might have caused some to wonder if he might jump ship in a crisis, most people do not appear to have considered this a legitimate issue in today’s hard times. And, while images of Chinese troops suppressing Tibetan uprisings brought back bitter memories of the 228 Incident (see my previous blogpost), voters appear to have reasoned that the benefits of KMT rule far outweighed any risk of seeing the PLA marching through the streets of Taipei in the future.

For his part, Frank Hsieh and his allies proved unable to overcome disappointment with DPP rule, while corruption scandals contributed to a “throw the bums out” mentality. The DPP may also have engaged in a bit too much negative campaigning against Ma and his family, while not placing enough emphasis on the substantial achievements made while in power (including the completion of the High Speed Railway, the reform of the banking system, etc.) as well as their vision for Taiwan’s future.

In the end, the people of Taiwan voted for Ma in hopes that this would lead to greater stability and prosperity in the future. His new government, supported by a nearly three-quarters majority in the Legislative Yuan, will have an opportunity to enact its policies that the DPP never enjoyed, but little excuse should campaign promises go unfulfilled.

What the KMT’s return to power means for Taiwan’s future remains to be seen, but one should give utmost credit to the maturation of its democratic system. Unlike what happened following the presidential election of 2000, when the KMT lost power, this time there were no protests or riots, just tears and concern for what may lie in store. The day after the election, my family and visited the venerable Huang Kunbin 黃崑濱 (affectionately known as ‘Uncle Kunbin’ or Khun-pin peh 崑濱伯 in Southern Min) at his some in Tainan County. The star of the touching documentary about Taiwan’s farmers entitled “Let it Be” (Wumile 無米樂), Khun-pin-beh is a symbol of all that is good about Taiwan. He was philosophical about the results, noting that: “When the curtain comes down, it’s time for the play to end.” We also hung out with a group of college students who were active Hsieh supporters. They had ridden over on their motorbikes to comfort Uncle Kunbin, managing to keep their spirits up despite their disappointment.

It is time to move forward, and Taiwan is ready.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

I recently received two new travel books (of sorts) in my mailbox, one of which I wrote a few short bits for. Beijing Time by Michael Dutton, with Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo and Dong Dong Wu, (due out in May from Harvard University Press) and Urbanatomy: Shanghai 2008, edited by Nick Land (published by China Intercontinental Press in 2007) fall at opposite ends of a rather loosely envisioned “travel book” spectrum, but both promise an on-the-ground look at “new” China.

Beijing Time, by Goldsmiths, University of London Professor of Politics Michael Dutton and independent scholars Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo and Dong Dong Wu (the advance copy I read did not clarify how research and writing was split between them), is a theory-driven investigation of Beijing as both location and symbol. The authors explore Beijing through layout and buildings, investigating how Beijingers interact with their city’s built environment, and asking, ultimately, what that interaction says about the city’s (and by extension, China’s) past and future.

The book begins from a premise that has almost achieved the level of trope in writings about China: the idea that contemporary China is full of strange juxtapositions—from the linguistic to the economic—and that out of these ironies a deeper truth and meaning can be excavated. For instance, in describing a series of buildings along Changan, the authors write that “in a very Chinese way they are examples of what Mikhail Bakhtin might have called ‘grotesque realism’—that is, the absurdist, carnivalesque ‘turning of the tables’ on the good-taste aesthetic realism of the ruling elite.” That China does indeed mirror Bakhtin’s dreamscape/nightmare carnival vision is apparent to anyone who has spent more than a few days in China. But I feel that not only has this idea been extended almost as far as it can go, but that, in its worst forms, it veers toward an Orientalist celebration of China as so potentially “other” as to be incomprehensible.

Dutton et al., clearly familiar with the city, manage to avoid such an extreme, as the goal of this book is—in a pursuit that will certainly be replicated in many different media as this summer’s Olympic Games draw closer—to uncover a “hidden” Beijing. To that end, the most interesting section of Beijing Time is the final two chapters, in which the book considers the varied meanings of authenticity and inauthenticity in Beijing. This is a theme others have explored as well: Peter Hessler, for instance, deployed this same theme in Oracle Bones (2006). “Authenticity” does not take quite the same manifestations in China as it does in the West, and this is indicated here through various illustrations of the authentic and the inauthentic in China. This is a topic with clear room for further work, however, as the many Beijing Olympic stories that litter publications these days have at their heart a narrative of trust/distrust and authenticity (Will Beijing have clean air, as the government promised? Is the government trying to hide the real China behind glossy new buildings and freeways? Etc.). This tension deserves more thoughtful consideration than it is currently getting in the popular press, and requires a heavy dollop of self-reflection in addition to articulation of these issues as they play out in China.

Urbanatomy: Shanghai 2008 guidebook is just the thing backpackers might make room for (particularly those who are planning to stay in the area a while). I wrote two very brief historical pieces for this book last year—one on the author Ding Ling and another on May Fourth in Shanghai—though I have absolutely no financial stake in whether any of you buy it. (Jeff Wasserstrom, another China Beat contributor, also wrote for the guidebook, as did a number of other scholars and journalists.) The book is thick—almost 600 pages of glossy type and pictures, so it’s not easily toted around during the day (my favorite for this is an old standard—the Lonely Planet Shanghai City Guide—if you have favorite guidebooks, please feel free share your suggestions).

One of the nicest features of the book is its breakdown by neighborhoods, with an occasional listing of shops, museums, and hotels along their respective streets. Most guidebooks, of course, organize their materials in this fashion—but 600 pages leaves room for a lot of detail, and the historical background and interviews with prominent Shanghai figures (both expat and Chinese) sets this one apart. As those who have visited and lived in Shanghai know, its neighborhoods do have distinct characters, and it is refreshing to see that reflected in a guidebook, both in text and in image. Moreover, many of the guidebook’s writers are based in Shanghai (those familiar with Shanghai’s English-language That’s Shanghai will recognize a number of names in the guidebook, including the book’s editor, Nick Land; That’s Shanghai is one of Urbanatomy’s publications) and the book’s features reflect this easy familiarity with the city’s young expat life, from an interview with Chinesepod’s Ken Carroll to recommendations for yoga studios and fashion boutiques.

This is a reference to the lively book by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, which was originally published in 1965 and published in English translation in 1993. The book analyzed the novels of French Renaissance author Francois Rabelais and defines in them two strains of thought that Bakhtin believed had been overlooked in previous readings: “carnival” (a time during which European masses felt free to subvert the hierarchy through humor), and “grotesque realism” (basically, scatological and sexual humor; the main means by which subversion of hierarchy was accomplished).

A third installment of readings on Tibet.

1) This insightful piece on the economic roots of discontent in Tibet by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian intellectual who wrote an illuminating essay in the New Yorker last year about the impact of the new railroad through the Himalayas and recently was in China.

2) A careful day-to-day reconstruction of events, which highlight violence done by both sides on dramatic individual days such as March 14.

3) A fascinating look at the life and thought of the Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer, who has just published a book based on many years of conversations with the Tibetan leader in exile.

4) This news wire report of Chinese dissidents and critical intellectuals calling on the Beijing leadership to “directly engage in dailogue with the Dalai Lama.”

5) Also of interest is this piece by the official Xinhua news agency that, in an effort to counteract any sense that the international community tout court is critical of Beijing at this moment, lists the countries around the world (North Korea, Syria, Nepal, Fiji, etc.) that have “expressed support to the Chinese government in its efforts to ensure social stability and the rule of law in Tibet and to defend the fundamental interests of the Tibetan people.”


Tibet: Further Reading

A few days ago, we published a handful of links to websites providing good or unique coverage of events or history related to the situation in Tibet. Here are six more.

1) A very timely joint review of two new books (one by noted travel writer Pico Iyer) that place Tibetan history and the Dalai Lama’s life into perspective have just appeared on the Economist‘s website.

2) An interesting extended look at how the current unrest compares with and is linked to events of the 1950s and 1980s, written by an adviser to the Tibetan government in exile.

3) If you would like to read further on the complex implications of the Tibetan events for the Taiwan election (further, that is, than Yong Chen’s commentary below), they are introduced well in this piece by a Financial Times correspondent in Taipei.

4) A blog tied to Wired magazine has good updated coverage of the flow and blockage of information on the web.

5) The Nation’s website has just published a take on recent events by China Beat‘s Jeff Wasserstrom.

6) Newsweek has an exclusive new interview with the Dalai Lama here.


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