December 2008

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As New Year’s is often a time of glitz and glamour (and last-minute holiday giving), we thought we would feature a few books that often include text with smart things to say, but would also be worth getting just for the pictures.


1. Lynn Pan’s Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars
An examination of the polyglot artistic influences in early twentieth century Shanghai, by one of the city’s acute observers.


2. Claire Roberts and Geremie R. Barme eds., The Great Wall of China
This book features essays by many scholars about the varied history and uses of the Great Wall, alongside photographs and interviews with people who live with the Wall on a daily basis.


3. Marcia Reed and Paola Dematte eds., China on Paper: European and Chinese Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century
We have mentioned this book before at China Beat—created to accompany an exhibit of works at the Getty Museum, this volume canvases artistic works that depict the interactions between East and West during a vital period of exchange.


4. Antonia Finanne, Changing Clothes in China
Reviewed by Nicole Barnes at China Beat earlier this year, Finnane’s book is a stylish tour through Chinese fashion. Focused particularly on the modern period, Changing Clothes explores the interplay of fashion, social movements, and politics.

5. Melissa Chiu, Art and China’s Revolution
Like China on Paper, this book was based on an art exhibit (that we have mentioned at China Beat before), and includes essays by various contributors like Roderick MacFarquhar as well as interviews with artists. The book argues that we must see Cultural Revolution era art as more than just propaganda, but instead an artistic movement that has shaped the contemporary Chinese art world.

By Paul Katz

As we prepare to ring out 2008, here are a few thoughts about some of the leading stories that have shaped Taiwan during the past year:

1. Back and Blue: Ma Ying-jeou sweeps into office as Taiwan’s new president, winning a convincing majority of the popular vote based on a platform promising a more stable relationship with China, economic prosperity, and clean government. Cross-Straits tensions have declined markedly, while the opening of direct links should bring great benefits to the citizens of both China and Taiwan. At the same time, however, the economy remains in the doldrums (see #2) and there are also concerns about the future of the judicial system (see #3). The KMT’s return to power has also witnessed the rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek’s reputation (plus the name of his memorial hall), attempts to interfere with the mass media, and occasional expressions of anti-Japanese nationalism.

2. Hard Times: The TAIEX, once expected to top 10,000, is now languishing in the 4,000s, but it’s the working class that is truly suffering. As of November, the number of men and women who had lost their job had topped the half million mark, with Taiwan’s 4.6% unemployment rate being one of the highest in East Asia and having the dubious distinction of topping the four little dragons. Other workers are being forced to take long periods of unpaid leave, which allows them to keep their jobs but not earn enough money to make ends meet. It looks to be a cold, dark winter, but hopefully things will improve once the world economy rebounds.

3. Justice For All? The vigorous prosecution of corruption cases involving current or former DPP officials (including unprecedented reliance on pre-trial detention), extensive use of police force against protestors, and switching of judges during judicial proceedings all suggest that Taiwan’s legal system is at risk of being transformed from a means of furthering the growth of civil society into a tool for the state to silence its rivals. Meanwhile, investigations into allegations of corruption against KMT figures appear to be going nowhere, while a KMT legislator shown to have dual citizenship is still enjoying plenty of perks from her prestigious and powerful position.

4. And Then There Were Four: Now entering its 20th year, Taiwan’s professional baseball league (CPBL) has shrunk to its original size of just four teams, with two others having been disbanded due to financial losses and gambling scandals. The local basketball league (SBL) is rumored to be in trouble as well, but baseball has always been at the heart of this country’s sporting scene, embodying both the best (exuberance, dedication) and the worst (inefficiency, corruption) aspects of Taiwanese culture. However, the smaller number of teams, combined with an influx of players returning from abroad, may spark improvements in the quality of the game and a return of its fan base. There is always hope.

5. The Pandas Are Coming! Actually they’re here, having arrived as an early Christmas gift on December 23 aboard a chartered 747 from Chengdu. Currently under quarantine in their lavish US$9.24 million Panda House at the Taipei Zoo, Tuan Tuan 團團 and Yuan Yuan 圓圓 (whose combined names mean ”reunion”) are scheduled to be available for their adoring admirers just in time for the Lunar New Year. Some people have raised concerns about sovereignty (according to CITES, the panda gift is an ”internal/domestic trade” transfer), but who could resist such cute and cuddly comfort from concerned communist cousins? Moreover, their arrival should do wonders for the local economy, especially in and around the Taipei Zoo.

So let us end the year on a note of optimism. Despite the troubles it has faced during the past year, Taiwan remains a symbol of openness and opportunity. Let us hope that the future brings tidings of comfort and joy.

In late October, the European Parliament announced that it would award this year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Hu Jia, an activist for HIV/AIDS and the environment currently imprisoned in Beijing. Hu and his wife, Zeng Jingyan, have been adept at using new media to share their message of human rights activism with an international audience, making Hu Jia better known outside China than inside it.

The award ceremony was held December 17. China has continued to protest the award.

Zeng Jingyan, who remains under surveillance at the couple’s apartment, accepted the award via video, subsequently posted on YouTube. Both installments of the video are below.

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China Beat has been faithfully following James Fallows’s reports for the Atlantic from first Shanghai and now Beijing since he moved to China in 2006. His reports have covered topics from China’s international image to the financial crisis to the Great Firewall, and he blogs regularly at the Atlantic‘s website. Fallows’s reports have now been gathered together in a collection, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, that will be available for purchase tomorrow. Over email, Fallows chatted with Kate Merkel-Hess about the new book and his thoughts about reporting from China.

Kate Merkel-Hess: Your forthcoming book Postcards from Tomorrow Square is a collection of essays about China that cover some of the same topics you have touched on in your writings for the Atlantic over the past two years. One of the overarching themes you mention in your introduction is the diversity and variety in China—something you say you suspected before coming to China in 2006 but that was confirmed for you as you did your reporting. What other China myths are most in need of debunking, and which did you have the most fun exploding in the book?

James Fallows: I know that for a lot of people based in China, or who have far deeper familiarity with China than I do, my emphasis on the diversity and individuality of modern Chinese life could seem obvious, or banal. It might also seem that way to people with no China experience at all. One American with whom I was talking recently said, “Well, of course, every human being is an individual.”

And of course that is true. But I have found the emphasis important when talking about China for several reasons. One is that, in my judgment, this universal truth about humanity is more vividly true about China than about some other countries and cultures. Partly that’s because of China’s scale, in all senses—geographic reach, regional difference, range of individual experience in the last twenty years and the thirty years before that, and so on. Simply to be true to the spectacle I’ve seen here, I’ve found it worth pushing this theme.

Another important reason to stress the diversity of modern Chinese experience is that it takes some nudging to get many Western readers thinking that way. People freely talk about “China” doing this and “the Chinese doing that,” and I think the starting Western assumption is that there’s one big unified mass. While admiring the technical achievement of the Olympic opening ceremony, I actually thought it served the country ill in projecting the image of countless hordes all doing the same thing under central control.

Oh, yes, to answer your question: the other main assumption I found myself working against is that “rising China” is something that should be feared. Taken seriously, yes. Not condescended to. But the tone in much US and European discussion is that China has solved all its problems and its marching unstoppably onwards. It’s not quite that way, I’ve tried to explain.

KMH: Did you move to Shanghai in 2006 with the intention of writing a book about China? And did that book resemble what eventually became Postcards?

JF: My wife and I left Washington, D.C. for Shanghai with a combination of assumptions and uncertainties similar to those with which we’ve begun other similar long-term reporting stints. There were some things I knew that I wanted to learn about China. How should outsiders feel about the economic miracle underway there? How seriously, really, were its environmental problems? How much, if any, of the old Communist era did people miss – as people miss some of the old days of Soviet glory in Russia? Etc. But mainly we wanted to see and learn about the things we hadn’t known we should be interested in – the things that are obvious and important once you’re on scene but that don’t always make their way into journalistic accounts.

In writing terms, this meant that I went assuming I’d do a series of articles for the Atlantic, as I have been doing – roughly half on topics I knew ahead of time I’d be looking into (environment, financial relations) and the other half on things I’d learned about on scene. While feeling strongly that I didn’t want to write a book just for the sake of writing one, I had my eye open for topics that I thought would support long narrative treatment. (“Long narrative” because I think there are already lots of good books offering overviews on China. I wanted to find specific stories that might shed light on larger trends.) I did find one of those themes, which I plan to explore in a second narrative book I hope to finish in the next year. I hadn’t anticipated that the Atlantic articles I did formed a kind of narrative sequence of their own. The idea to combine them, with new material, occurred to the publisher and made sense to me. That is the genesis of Postcards – which in my biased view does have a kind of coherence in trying to convey what parts of China looked and felt like at this stage in the country’s history.

KMH: This was not your first stint in Asia. How did the four years you spent in Asia in the 1980s inform your time in China? In your first piece for the Atlantic from Shanghai, you mentioned that your time in Japan in the 1980s coincided with the dollar’s collapse against the yen. Was it eerie to be in Asia for another economic crisis? Were there other ways that you drew on that earlier experience—practically or intellectually—to do your work this time?

JF: You’re right: the reason I’m in China in the 2000s is that I spent four years in the neighborhood twenty years ago. My wife and I actually made our first visit to several major cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, a few more – in 1986, when we were based in Japan and faked our way into China as part of the U.S. delegation to the World Esperanto Congress. (We had to learn the language as part of the deal; it’s easier than Mandarin!) I then came back to China three or four times over the next four years, while mainly learning about Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and places other than the PRC itself.

That experience had several residual effects. The main one was to make me interested in China – and aware (as I still am) of how little I know about it. Another was to give me the perhaps misguided confidence that my wife and I could make our way through a place where we had little previous experience and no well-developed connections. And of course it was an intellectual construct: in watching Japan’s rise and then its financial stagnation, we’d seen the last dramatic stage in East Asian economic development. The similarities in China’s approach – and, mainly, the differences – have been an important touchstone all the way through. And as I think will be evident to readers, I have found China’s economic rise to be a fundamentally more open phenomenon, for the rest of the world, than Japan’s approach was.

As for the latest crisis – hey, blame Alan Greenspan! Not me.

KMH: Many of your pieces for the Atlantic move forward from a premise of “Americans typically think X about China, but actually…” Did those pieces grow from your own surprise at discovering something new about China? What were some of your surprises or realizations about China that didn’t make it into your pieces?

JF: Ahah! You have cruelly revealed the trademarked secret of everything I’ve ever written for the magazine! Probably I find it easiest and most natural to write that way for two overlapping reasons. One is that I most enjoy learning about, and then writing about, things that are different from what I expected before bumping into them. I don’t really like writing, but I love reporting, because it gives me an excuse to satisfy my curiosity and often to change my mind. The other reason is that I feel there is some journalistic benefit in exposing people to information or ideas they don’t currently hold. I figure: if I hadn’t heard about subject X, maybe a lot of other Westerners haven’t heard about it either. So I’ll tell them about it and let them see if it changes their outlook as it changed mine.

As for what I haven’t conveyed yet – hmmmm. I have had pretty much a Just-In-Time strategy of getting out the ideas as soon as I learn them. But I have five or six more articles to do from China, and I’ll try to portion them out that way and in the next book.

KMH: In “The View from There,” which originally ran in the Atlantic last fall, you discuss the ways living abroad can change or clarify one’s ideas about the U.S. You argue there that openness to the world is a fundamental component of maintaining American prestige. What opportunities does Barack Obama’s election open for renewed or altered interactions with China? Are there concrete things you are hoping to see from the next administration that could make a real difference for future relations with China?

JF: As for the general prospect of America under Obama: I am sure that heartbreak and disappointment of various sorts lie ahead, just because no one can do as much as is expected from Obama just now. But I view the election results as having spared America a true disaster – by which I mean, ratifying rule by the party that, among other things, had nearly destroyed the “brand” of America in the world’s eyes – and also elevating a person well equipped to address some of America’s most acute needs. Here I’m talking not so much about the financial crisis of the time but rather the cultural underpinnings of America’s long-term vitality and strength. I think that the United States has been successful and vibrant in exact proportion as it has been open to the talent of the world – notably including Chinese talent. Obama stands for that in his policy and his life identity. So from my perspective as an American nationalist, I am relieved to think that our main comparative advantage will no longer be undercut.

Specific dealings with China are a strange exception to what has been, in my view, the general catastrophe of Bush Administration foreign policy. The one area in which Bush has more or less managed to keep his eye on sane, long-term interests has been in relations with China. The U.S. speaks up where it disagrees with the Chinese government, but it treats the relationship as one that must be maintained. (e.g. Bush never threatened to boycott the Olympics, but in his Bangkok speech just before arrival in Beijing he also laid out the areas where the U.S. and China disagreed.) So the initial goal for Obama will be “do no harm” to existing US-China relations. Addressing the financial imbalance will help in that regard.

KMH: It is clear from the books you reference in Postcards that you read widely among popular books on China, from John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons to Susan Shirk’s Fragile Superpower to even a passing reference to David Landes’s scholarship. (It is always exciting for historians to see historical work referenced outside academic writing…) What readings do you recommend to friends and colleagues heading to China? What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

JF: One reason I love my kind of journalism – by which I mean, the high-end magazine world – is that it provides an excuse to read everything you can on a topic. My wife and I spend basically all our time reading as much China-related material as we can: histories of the language, pop novels, political tracts, business analyses. I just finished reading again Jonathan Spence’s To Change China, which I’d first read twenty years ago. Sitting two feet away from me right now is China Marches West: the Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter Perdue, which a friend recommended. I gave a friend for Christmas The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan, which I love on many levels. Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck, justly deserves the big push that Robert Kapp is giving it now. The canon of recent good words of journalism and history is too large for me to dare to start naming names: the risk of offending by omission is huge! It’s a great time to be reading about China.

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Rock is Not Revolution, Part II

[For Part I of this series, see Chris Heselton's post from 12/23/08.]

By Chris Heselton

One of the early rock musicians to make the jump to mainstream and become a household name was Xu Wei. His popularity is probably due to a style that some have called Chinese country or folk rock. This style does not have the explosive rage of heavy metal that many in the popular audience find hard to accept. Instead, he Xu Wei style is a more calm and relaxing melodic rock. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Xu Wei’s music is how similar it is to many of the romantic and nostalgic lyrical themes of pop music. Hometown (故乡, 2000), one of his best known songs and one often sung in Karaoke (KTV) bars, has many of these typical romantic and lament-filled lyrics seen in pop music. This is the kind of lyrical and musical style that wins broad acceptance in 21st century Chinese society:

The setting sun on the horizon shines again upon my face
Reflecting again that restless heart of mine.
What place is this still so desolate as before
This endless journey goes so slowly.

I am eternally heading towards a distant place – a lonely wanderer
You are amongst a vast sea of people –my woman
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That’s your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

In my heart, you are forever the “hometown.”
Alone, you always abided and silently awaited me.
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That is your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes.
And then my heart is again awakened.
Always in my dream I see you walking on the road back home.
You stand below the setting sun, looking so magnificent.
That’s your dress flapping freely.
That’s your grace like the water.

天边夕阳再次映上我的脸庞 
再次映着我那不安的心
这是什么地方依然是如此的荒凉 
那无尽的旅程如此漫长

我是永远向着远方独行的浪子
你是茫茫人海之中我的女人
在异乡的路上每一个寒冷的夜晚
这思念它如刀让我伤痛

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
我站在这里想起和你曾经离别情景
你站在人群中间那么孤单  
那是你破碎的心 
我的心却那么狂野

你在我的心里永远是故乡 
你总为我独自守候沉默等待
在异乡的路上每一个寒冷的夜晚
这思念它如刀让我伤痛

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
我站在这里想起和你曾经离别情景 
你站在人群中间那么孤单
那是你破碎的心 
我的心却那么狂野  

总是在梦里我看到你无助的双眼 
我的心又一次被唤醒 
总是在梦里看到自己走在归乡路上
你站在夕阳下面容颜娇艳 
那是你衣裙漫飞 
那是你温柔如水

Currently, one of the more popular mainstream rock groups is the Taiwanese band May Day. This group is probably the quintessential pop-rock group in the Chinese-language music world. This group proudly touts its image as an energetic high-spirited college band that sings, principally, about love. Their popular songs such as Eternal Stars of Eternal Hearts (恆心的恆星), Embrace (擁抱), and Tenderness (溫柔) all play on romantic themes yet have a clear pop-rock feel to the instrumentals. In many ways, May Day is no different from many Chinese boy bands except the rock instrumentals. However, sometimes their origins as a college rock band can be heard. The cover song for their first album, Long Live Love (愛情萬歲), may surprise listeners that it does not sing about love, but promiscuity and emotional detachment – uncommon in Chinese pop music but not hard to find in rock.

I need the warmth of you body
Although at this moment I don’t feel the least bit cold.
I feel an enormous hunger.
Although full with boredom – expanding my soul.
Requited love cannot cause again “the kingdom and the city to collapse”,[1]
But collapse your emotions, (your emotions) are getting colder, a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.

I don’t care about your name.
Your tomorrow, your past, you’re just a man or woman.
I’m clear about that.
I don’t plan to leave you, but I also don’t plan to really love you.
Requited love cannot cause the kingdom and the city to collapse,
But collapse your emotions, (now your emotions) are getting colder, (becoming) a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.

我需要你的体温
虽然此刻我一点也不觉得寒冷
我感到巨大的饥饿
虽然无聊满满的撑涨我的灵魂
相恋不能再倾国倾城
倾倒你心里越来越冷坚固的灵魂
此刻你也就别再等

不能再等不能再等让热情变冷
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我刺探你最深深深处你的秘密
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
别再等待不曾降临的真理
黎明之前
只要和你
尽情嬉戏

我不在乎你的姓名
你的明天你的过去你是男是女
我是如此的清醒
不打算离去也不打算真的爱你
相恋不能再倾国倾城
倾倒你心里越来越冷坚固的灵魂

此刻你也就别再等
不能再等不能再等让热情变冷
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我刺探你最深深深处你的秘密
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
就让我穿过你的外衣然后你的内衣
就让我吻你吻你吻你直到天明
别再等待不曾降临的真理
黎明之前
只要和你
尽情嬉戏

In the early days of Chinese rock, there is clearly an emphasis on originality. In many ways, older songs of the day simply couldn’t express the meanings these bands wanted to put out for their generation. For Chinese pop music, the emphasis is more on melody, and for many romantic songs, the message is pretty universal. Sometimes remaking a classic can be a sure seller that has a guaranteed accepted melody and message. Recently, Chinese rock has also taken on this trend as well with everything from Zheng Jun remaking the classic Why are the Flowers Thusly Red? (花儿为什么这样红?) to Cui Jian’s perversion of Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) classics like Small Town Story (小城故事). More interesting is the emergence of the “translation version” (翻版) of many foreign songs. It is extremely common in Chinese pop music to take songs from the American and Japanese musical traditions and merely to re translate or re-conceptualize the lyrics. Chinese rock music has also begun to follow suit. The popular mainstream rock artist Zheng Jun (郑钧) has made several remakes and “translation versions” as well as his own original works. Many American rockers may recognize this remake of Coldplay’s song Yellow translated into Chinese as Falling Star (流星):

I want to know how long can a falling star fly
Is its beauty worth pursuing or not

The flowers of the night sky, are scattered behind you
Giving me long lasting happiness. It’s worth going to wait for.
So my heart runs like mad from dusk till dawn.
I cannot bear it again.

Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
The insects become the breeze of the moon light – become the breeze of the moon light
I leap from my body – leap into your river
I swim all the way to the end. It’s so free there.

I make a wish, I make a wish to protect
And set my heart still at the most beautiful moment.
Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
Willing myself to never see again the radiance of the sky.

Happiness leaps into your river
Swims all the way to the end
(It) leaps into your river. I make a wish to protect
At the most beautiful moment, I make a wish.
I want to know how long can a falling star fly.
Giving me long lasting happiness.

我想知道流星能飞多久
它的美丽是否值得去寻求

夜空的花散落在你身后
幸福了我很久值得去等候
于是我心狂奔从黄昏到清晨
不能再承受

情愿缀落在你手中
羽化成黑夜的彩虹
蜕变成月光的清风成月光的清风
我纵身跳跳进你的河流
一直游到尽头那里多自由

我许个愿我许个愿保佑
让我的心凝固在最美的时候
情愿缀落在你手中
羽化成黑夜的彩虹
情愿不再见明媚的天

幸福跳进你的河流一直游到尽头
跳进你的河 我许个愿保佑
在最美的时候我许的愿
我想知道流星能飞多久
幸福了我很久

[1] A Chinese idiom that refers to how beautiful women can cause the kingdom to collapse. Similar, in many ways, to the idea of Helene of Troy.

Chris Heselton is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

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