December 2008

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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Peter Zarrow’s piece last month on Bertrand Russell’s writing on and travels to China may have gotten some of our readers curious about the other two members of the triumverate of famous philosophers mentioned in the introduction to that post: the Indian poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore and the American pragmatist and educational theorist John Dewey. What each of these two men thought about and did while in China could be well worth a posting. And perhaps in 2009 the blog will run such pieces, as it would be a very appropriate year to do so, at least in Dewey’s case, marking as it will the 90th anniversary of his first lectures in China. Also of interest would be a comparative look at the ways Chinese intellectuals of the day responded to Russell, Dewey, and Tagore.

John Dewey

One thing likely to emerge from such a comparison would be that it was the philosopher who came from the country closest to China who met with the most opposition. This was partly due to Tagore arriving at a time, 1924, when New Culture Movement iconoclasm was still going strong and his message was seen as traditionalist. There may now be a statue at Peking University honoring Tagore’s visit to that campus, but as Stephen N. Hay stresses in Asian Ideas of East and West, and as Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent New York Review of Books essay, there was a good deal of resistance to his ideas among intellectuals in Shanghai and Beijing during the 1920s.

Rabindranath Tagore

Here’s how Mishra puts it, noting the irony that sometimes what an Asian thinker has to say finds more who welcome it in Western than Eastern settings:

“His message—that modern civilization, built upon a cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the wisdom of the East—had a receptive audience among many people in the West who had been forced by World War I to question their faith in science and progress. But when, traveling in the East, he exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he was often heckled and booed.”

Another theme that we could pick up on in 2009 would be whether there have been international thinkers of more recent decades whose lectures at Chinese institutions have parallels to those given in the late 1910s and 1920s by Russell, Dewey, and Tagore. One possible set of names to float, which would have a certain symmetry, if only because two are Westerners and one a South Asian, would be Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (who both gave high profile speeches in China in 2001 at a time when their works were thought of as fashionable in some intellectual circles there) and Amartya Sen (who gave a keynote address at the 2006 Beijing Forum). This would also underscore that the early twenty-first century and the immediate aftermath of World War I saw increased links between foreign and Chinese scholars.

I’ll leave it to others to figure out how far we’d want to push the notion of parallels between Sen and Tagore (these might be interesting) or between either Derrida or Habermas and Russell (these might be less so), but I think for a contemporary counterpart to Dewey, we need to look to a late twentieth century visitor to China rather than an early twenty-first century one. The person I am thinking of is Frederic Jameson, who is, like Dewey was, an American. More to the point, like Dewey, but as far as I know unlike Habermas and Derrida, his influence on Chinese intellectuals has taken many forms, thanks to people who have studied with him rather than just heard a lecture or two. And his interest in China, like Dewey’s, lasted well beyond the time of his first visit in the mid-1980s.


Frederic Jameson

It is also fitting to get to Jameson before 2008 ends for two reasons. The main one is that the influential theorist of the postmodern was given a very special award this year, the Holbergprisen (or Holberg Prize). And, interestingly, not only did the prize organization’s summary of his achievements mention his writings on Chinese topics (among many other subjects) and the extraordinary impact his work has had in Asia, but one of the presentations included in a symposium about his work that was held to mark the occasion was called “Frederic R. Jameson in China” and given by an unusually high-profile Chinese intellectual, Wang Hui. In addition, 2008 was when the latest—but not the first and perhaps not the last—book on Chinese studies appeared that included an acknowledgment to the prize winner: Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement, a work by Xiaobing Tang, who heard the theorist lecture in Beijing and then went on to get a doctorate at Duke, Jameson’s home institution.

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By Chris Heselton

Rock is revolution! Rock is rebellion! Rock is democracy! Well, at least Axl Rose seems to think so with his new album Chinese Democracy. A rock legend singing to democracy in China seems almost poetically fitting. When people tend to think of China and rock music, it almost always comes back to democracy, more specifically, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Rock was the theme genre of the liberal, underground democratic movement. Ever since Cui Jian (崔健) played “I Have Nothing” (一无所有)—sometimes translated as “Nothing to My Name”—at the protest, rock music has been associated with democracy in China, and this song its theme song.

Few think of Chinese rock as a popular mainstream conformist genre, but they would be mistaken to believe that rock is impervious to pop music trends and the lure of a larger audience (and profit). Since the turn of the century, Chinese rock has made a roaring comeback – surging this time not into a political movement but into the mainstream of Chinese language music. This rock music is different from the rock of the 80s and 90s. Mainstream popular music has now fused with rock to form a musical genre fitted to the popular music taste of young Chinese listeners. Whereas rock in the 80s dealt with depressing themes of individualism, social alienation, and disassociation (though plenty of young people who listened to Cui Jian then also consumed their share of gentle and sometimes upbeat Canton Pop on the side), now bands are looking to the same themes that have always figured in modern pop, regardless of the country – love, loss, nostalgia, upbeat felicitation.

What’s to account for this change? Some have argued it is government repression of more underground rock music in the recording industry, but I think that is probably giving the government too much credit. Many non-mainstream rock bands do get recorded – just this year one of the elites of Chinese rock, Tang Dynasty (唐朝), came out with its new CD, The Knight of Romance (浪漫骑士, 2008); however, many of these albums from non-mainstream groups never achieve the popularity that turn them into musical figures of national adoration. Even Cui Jian, the father of Chinese Rock, had his latest CD Show You Color (给你一点颜色, 2005) bomb. To put it simply, the majority of Chinese youth generally find it hard it to relate to the lyrics and melodies of some of the more hardcore rock.

A video about the band Tang Dynasty
For rock to enter the mainstream, bands have had to adapt and conform to popular music taste to which a young general audience can relate and find acceptable. It is no different from popular music trends in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, or even American rap music in the 1990s. Musicians have the option of either conforming to the mainstream and hitting the big time or remaining in obscurity. For many rock bands, this means breaking away from themes of individuality and emotional detachment from society and singing more generally about love. The instrumentals also become subtler and lighter, and swear words and inappropriate themes are generally avoided (with exceptions). The influence is not one way, however. Many elements of rock music have entered into the repertoire of, especially Taiwanese, pop singers/groups like S.H.E. and Jay Chou (周杰论).

This does not mean that the good old days of rock are gone though some may think so. It really shows a new diversity in the options of artistic styles. Not everyone has to be the non-conformist anti-social rocker to be a rock star. Rock stars and groups like Xu Wei (许巍), Zheng Jun (郑钧), May Day (五月天), and Shin (信乐团) have all become household names in recent years employing the electric guitar with softer lyrics showing the influence of Cantonese pop music. Leading the way in this popular transition of Chinese-language rock are Taiwanese bands, but this does not mean that Chinese musicians have been left in the dust. Even some of the old school rock stars like Tang Dynasty and Cui Jian are willing to be at least partially co-opted to achieve a portion of fame and their proverbial slice of the pie.

Meanwhile, the more hardcore groups like Overload (超载), Yaksa (夜叉), ChthoniC (閃靈樂團), and Brain Failure (腦濁), although they all have several albums, are relegated to an underground sub-culture unable to capture large audiences with their rebellious lyrics and rough instrumentals. This diversity of approaches in Chinese rock is a far cry from the revolution, rebellion, and democracy that some once believed rock stood for, but it is the new dichotomy of Chinese rock as some have become popular rock stars and others underground cult favorites.

The lyrics are where one really can see the differences. To show you how these bands are made, in the next section of the article, I would like to share with you the lyrics of several popular rock songs that do succeed and compare them with those that did not.

[Part II can be found here.]

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

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Many of our regular contributors have recent books out on China as well. We highly recommend the following as gifts for those many China non-experts in your life.

1. Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang
For: The Worldly Progressive

Chang’s book, published this year to positive reviews (including this one at the New York Times by Howard French, where Factory Girls was also recently named one of the Times‘ 100 notable books for 2008), follows the lives of young factory workers in Dongguang. Read an excerpt, published earlier at China Beat, here.


2. Socialism is Great!, Lijia Zhang
For: The Memoir Maven

In this autobiography, Zhang tells of her young life working in a Nanjing munitions factory and how she eventually ended up leading worker demonstrations in 1989.

3. China’s Brave New World, Jeffrey Wasserstrom
For: The World Traveler

In short vignettes, Wasserstrom delves into the quirks and contradictions of modern China, drawing out what “global China” means on the ground. To read more about the book, see Wasserstrom’s piece about it last spring in China Economic Review.

4. Forbidden City, Geremie Barmé
For: The Beijing Bound

Travelers (of the armchair variety or otherwise) will find Barmé’s volume full of insights into the history of Beijing’s most famous site. China Beat ran a review of the book last June. For a book on Beijing outside the Forbidden City’s walls, Mike Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing is also enormously entertaining (listen to a China Beat interview with Meyer here).

5. Beijing’s Games, Susan Brownell
For: The Sports Fan

Brownell explores why this year’s Games were so important to China, and you could even print out a few of Brownell’s “as it happened” columns from China Beat to tuck in with it, like this one or this one.

When we made up this list of books by China Beat contributors, for some reason we stayed in the realm of non-fiction books, but we’d be remiss not to mention two intriguing fictional works that China Beat contributors have published recently. Xujun Eberlein’s collection of tales set in the 1970s and early 1980s, Apologies Forthcoming, may be just the right thing for the Short-Story Fan on your list (see review here), while former China correspondent-turned-crime fiction writer Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion (her second mystery featuring Chinese private eye Song) could be a perfect gift for someone you know who is addicted to Whodunits (for review see here; currently only available in the UK).

By Paul Katz

As China ascends to its place as a leading nation on the world stage, questions have arisen concerning the role of its legal system. As Joseph Kahn noted in a feature article entitled Deep Flaws, and Little Justice, in China’s Court System, “Justice in China is swift but not sure.” Many protests in China today center on the issue of justice, with one blogger responding to the January 2008 fatal beating by parapolice officials of a man trying to videotape a protest by lamenting “Where is justice? Where is the law? Aren’t there any rules in China?

My newest book, Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture (Routledge 2008) considers these issues by examining the ways in which religious beliefs and practices have contributed to the formation of Chinese legal culture. It does so by describing two forms of overlap between religion and the law: the ideology of justice and the performance of judicial rituals.

The former covers beliefs about how the gods intervene in human affairs in this life and the next in order to ensure the attainment of justice. Because this ideal is rarely realized in earthly courts, many people place their faith in underworld deities who have the power to pass judgment on both the living and the dead.

The latter extends to the realm of practice, and involves instances when men and women perform oaths, chicken-beheadings, and underworld indictments in order to enhance the legitimacy of their positions, deal with cases of perceived injustice, and resolve disputes.

These rites coexist with other forms of legal practice, including private mediation and the courts, comprising a wide-ranging spectrum of practices that I refer to as the judicial continuum. Individuals ranging from high-ranking officials to chaste widows have performed judicial rituals for centuries, and such rites have shaped the legal histories of overseas Chinese in colonies like Batavia, the Straits Settlements, and Hong Kong, as well as those who immigrated to countries like Australia and the United States.

Despite the fact that China is experiencing a period of rapid religious revival, the fate of its judicial rituals is unclear, especially since religious beliefs and practices labeled as “superstition” (mixin 迷信) still face the very real threat of state persecution. Judicial rituals remain largely underground, meaning that the judicial continuum in China today remains fragmentary and inchoate. Inasmuch as the effective functioning of any legal system requires a certain degree of entirety, the extent to which the Chinese government proves willing to tolerate the performance of judicial rites may influence its citizens’ confidence in their ability to obtain true justice.

Penitents dressed as criminals process in front of a Hsinchu police station, with McDonald’s sign in the background

In contrast, judicial rituals are an integral part of legitimation and dispute resolution processes in modern, high-tech nations like Taiwan, where people rely on such rites to deal with problems that are not readily addressed in the courtroom (particularly family tensions) or even resolve disputes that have already entered the formal legal system. The role of such rites in Taiwan’s current political environment remains to be seen, however, as its legal system faces many new challenges. The present state of affairs has prompted Amnesty International to issue a public statement urging the authorities to investigate concerns centering on charges of excessive use of police force, and to conduct legal procedures in a “fair, transparent, and timely manner in compliance with international standards.”

While some Taiwanese prosecutors have been quoted as asserting judicial authority by making statements such as “Suspects in certain cases investigated by prosecutors need not be convicted of a crime, but we can use [the legal process] to teach them a lesson” (檢察官辦案不一定是要當事人被判有罪,但至少要讓他們得到『教訓』), it might be worth bearing in mind the late Attorney General Robert Jackson (1892-1954)’s definition of what it takes to be a distinguished prosecutor: “The citizens’ safety lies in [someone who] tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, [and] who serves the law and not factional purposes.”

So you’ve put off holiday shopping until now. If you’d like to share your love of China this year, here are a few recommendations for old classics and more recent releases for the recipients on your list. All these books are widely available and relatively affordable.

1. Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu

For: The Literature Lover
We’ve written about this 1947 novel at China Beat before. It is a classic of Chinese literature, but not particularly well known in the West, making it the perfect gift for a well-read friend or relative.

2. The Question of Hu, Jonathan Spence
For: The Europhile

In John Hu, a Chinese convert brought to Paris by a French Jesuit in 1722, Spence found a lively and affecting example of the confusion of cross-cultural interactions.

3. The Story of the Stone (Hongloumeng), by Cao Xueqin (trans. by David Hawkes)
For: Jane Austen Fans
“Dream of the Red Mansion,” in this version translated as “Story of the Stone,” is the most important of Chinese novels, telling the story of the inner life of two elite Manchu families. David Hawkes’s translation puts the Qing novel into the language of the English aristocracy (in five volumes; we’ve linked to Volume 1 above).

Liu Dapeng’s life straddled China’s wrenching transition to modernity. In this book, Harrison tells that story through one man’s life in rural Shanxi.


5. China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk
For: The Policy Wonk

Of the many books available on “understanding” China and its political relationships to the US, this is one of the best and most readable. Read an earlier China Beat review of it here.

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