October 2010

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By Ken Kwan Ming Hao

In his new film I Wish I Knew, a documentary on Shanghai, Jia Zhangke recreates once again, after a detour of sorts with Useless and 24 City, that wonderful tension between the biographical and the historical, the primal impetus of his art, that had made Platform, The World, and Still Life, his best films, so memorable. Jia is different from all other well-known mainland Chinese directors, be they of the 5th or 6th generation — his is a singular sensibility that is aware of but not chained to the social-political, which to him are meaningful only to the extent that they are constraints to be transcended and transformed. In an environment of habitual politicization and cognitive rigidity, the sensibility espoused in Jia’s films is liberating.

Jia’s best films are insistently about the articulation of “space” amid seemingly insurmountable constraints. In these films, Jia strives to engender a state of serene dynamism in which the sublime is possible. The space that Jia aims for is interior, although the exterior is also incorporated in the articulation, reflecting a central element of Chinese aesthetics. The overwhelming politics in Platform, the naked material greed in The World, and the blatant hubris in Still Life are not simply scorned and despised; instead they are “dissipated” in the expanse of unencumbered imaginative flights. The flowing rhythm of the scene in The World in which the lady boss and the main male character contemporaneously step into a little slow dancing; the compact tension of the scene in Platform in which the protagonist unhesitatingly closes the door of the beat-up taxi van taking away his girlfriend for good; and the elegant fluidity of the scene in Still Life in which a teenage girl dreamily roller skates on a rooftop with the Yangtze River in the background are just a few examples of transcendence and transformation in Jia’s films.

The subject of his latest film is a city, Shanghai, of branded images, a stubborn case of monosemy (having a rigidly defined nature). Yet the Shanghai Jia represents on screen is polysemic (having multiple meanings that reflect different assumptions and perspectives) and nuanced, not monosemic and clichéd. It is a Shanghai seen from the vantage point of remembrance, not because of nostalgia but for perspective. Nabokov said in one of his novels, Ada, that “reality is always a form of memory, even at the moment of its perception.” Through the commentaries and recollections of a number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly shaped by Shanghai, Jia gives the city the depth and breadth it deserves.

As the English title of the film, I Wish I Knew, implies, Jia’s Shanghai is elusive and mercurial, yet tangible, symbolized by the angst-ridden flâneur character played by Zhao Tao. By opting for the fluidity of remembrance, Jia not only connects present-day Shanghai with its past but also makes the city a much more dynamic trope for aesthetic articulation. There is a segment in I Wish I Knew on the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s trip to China in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to make the film Chung Kuo — Cina. The Shanghai part of his filming was coordinated by a young cultural cadre of the city. In Jia’s film we see the cadre, now a much older man, in a traditional tea house near the Yu Yuan Garden recounting, with rich details and reflexive introspection, his interaction with the Italian director, as well as the relentless political struggle sessions that entailed at the same tea house. These struggle sessions resulted from the Chinese government’s “disappointment” and displeasure with Antonioni’s depiction of China — even though he had been invited by the Chinese government, Premier Zhou Enlai specifically, to make the documentary. Chung Kuo was shown for the first time in China only in 2004. In his filmic recounting of the event, Jia’s articulation is mainly on the interplay between the biographical (the cadre’s personal experiences), the political (the Cultural Revolution), and the spatial (the tea house), seamlessly switching between the present and the past. What Jia has wrought here is a filmic manifestation of the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy, where a fluid fusion of form and movement, reflective of the self, is of the essence. This is filmmaking at its most arresting, documentary or otherwise.

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By Pierre Fuller

Bo Caldwell, City of Tranquil Light: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

On a train moving across north China last year, a girl, blond hair reaching down to her waist, maybe 15, darted past my bottom perch in the hard sleeper. As much as her hair, it was the colorful ankle-length dress she wore that caught my eye, the kind I’d spotted on girls in places like rural Utah and Nevada. I could have sworn I’d seen an apparition, but settled anyway back into my book.

Within moments a Chinese teenager dropped onto my bunk, holding, very skeptically, a pamphlet, and before long I realized he wanted me, the other white presence on the train, to decipher some material he’d been handed by “that” foreign family at the end of the car. Only later, as I detrained onto the platform somewhere in north Henan or Hebei province, did I spot this tall white couple and their troop of three or four kids, who all seemed to spring more from the pages of early 20th century Americana than a 21st century Walmart. Mission activity, if not alive and well in 2009, was well in the open, at least on this part of the north China plain.

This new wave of missionaries is of course one of many going far back, and so is the genre of missionary literature introducing home audiences to their distant mission fields. Over the course of my research on China over the years I’d grown weary of this genre’s formulaic offerings, but, with half a century since the last cluster of such publications and in the meantime good strides in scholarship on the country, I thought I’d at least give a read to Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light, a novel in the form of a missionary memoir put out by a mainstream outfit — Henry Holt and Company, now a division of MacMillan — that has published the likes of Hermann Hesse and Norman Mailer.

Caldwell prefaces her story by explaining that she’d been intrigued by the idea that her grandfather, Will, a Mennonite missionary in early twentieth century north China, returned from “decades of war, famine, illness, personal danger, and great hostility” toward his work to settle into the mundane life of the American suburb, strolling in “rose gardens and play[ing] with [his] grandchildren” without the slightest sign of his previous existence in the thick of China’s tumultuous 1900s. “While there were certainly [missionaries] who exploited the people they had come to serve,” she writes, “there were also many who poured out their lives for strangers and for their faith. And I wanted to tell their story.”

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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 James Carter

Many readers have by now heard of the brawl that broke out in the first half of an international basketball match between China and Brazil on October 12 in Henan province. The international “friendly” became increasingly chippy as the Chinese side objected to hard fouls and “dirty” play by the Brazilians. Dissatisfied with the officials’ response, the Chinese team (and its American coach, it should be noted) took matters into its own hands:

I was particularly struck by footage of the coach of the Chinese team taunting the officials by screaming, “You call yourself Chinese?!” Apparently, national allegiance should have led the officials to call the game differently. While some internet comments on the incident criticize the Chinese team for its lack of dignity, others celebrate that the Chinese athletes stood up to bullying from foreign guests.

The scene reminded me of the episode that, in many ways, was my first foray into Chinese history. In graduate school, I worked with the papers of Howard Lee Haag, the American director of the YMCA in Harbin in the 1920s. In these papers, Haag included his firsthand account of a basketball game—the city championship—in 1926, between a team of Russian refugees and a local Chinese middle school. The game ended in violence when the Russians won. In that case, the crowd—not the athletes or coaches—took their wrath out on the Russian officials, whom they accused of fixing the game, by hurling roof tiles onto the court and chasing the referees into the YMCA building. Order was restored when police, called by Haag and the American Consul, arrived on the scene. (I recount the incident in more detail in the introduction of Creating a Chinese Harbin, available at Google Books.)

In the weeks that followed, editorials in local Chinese newspapers described the incident as illustrating foreigners’ condescending attitudes toward China. In this case, the Americans and Russians were accused of being unable to accept China’s new status (having supplanted Russian colonial rule in Harbin) and of having resorted to fixing a basketball game to avoid further national (racial?) embarrassment.

The issues in the Brazil-China game—and in similar recent episodes of violence in athletics—are somewhat different. However, as China continues its growth as a cultural, economic, and political power, events like the “basketbrawl” seem to illustrate both the power of Chinese nationalism and the frustration that boils over when other nations are perceived to be slighting China’s success, or attempting to “bully” China and deny its power. Internet commentators make the connection plain when they post remarks like “Break out of Asia towards the world, courageous and upright men’s basketball team, bravely throw your punches!”

James Carter is Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University, editor of Twentieth-Century China, and author of Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Photo from Interbasket.net

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By Leksa Chmielewski

Shanghainese, coffee and the generational divide

As I chat with the librarian-cum-barista, a Shanghainese family comes in and starts looking over the menu. They order three different kinds of imported coffee and as the librarian lights the flame percolator, I ask her whether there are differences between Shanghainese visitors and those from other areas of China.

“The Shanghainese are more inclined to talk. I can tell the non-Shanghainese by the way they walk, and their silence. When I recommend books to them from the gift shop, they don’t respond. When they leave and I say goodbye, they don’t even turn to look at me and I feel silly. And of course, only the Shanghainese drink coffee.”

Which Shanghainese drink coffee?

“Oh, the older ones.” The father of the coffee-drinking family joins the conversation: “Only the older generation likes coffee. The children won’t drink it.” Kids these days! “The older generation likes to drink coffee, sit, and enjoy a pleasant atmosphere.” Indeed, this family walked in the door just half an hour before closing time, and the librarian was nervous that they wouldn’t have time to finish. They had assured her they’d simply “drink one cup and go.” But they are still there, relaxing, drinking in the 40 million yuan décor forty-five minutes later. When the librarian offers the family water after they’ve finished their coffee, they refuse: “No, we’re just enjoying the flavor.” The father asks why the café is silent: “Coffee shops should have music!” The librarian replies enthusiastically that she used to use saxophone music before she was asked to stop by the House Museum management—when she played music the atmosphere was not “serious” enough. Back before she was asked to stop, she had originally been looking for 1930s saxophone jazz before giving up and choosing contemporary saxophone over 1930s piano—the piano would have been authentic, but the saxophone was relaxing.

So what, then, does the younger generation drink?

The father and the librarian agree: the youth won’t drink coffee like their parents; they like fruit drinks and pearl milk tea. Tea! It’s no surprise that only the young like the wide-straw drinks with three different types of chewy things floating in them, but what is surprising, when set against the backdrop of the rest of China, is that the middle-aged have latched onto coffee while the youngsters slurp tea-based drinks. It’s the opposite of the rest of China. And it only holds together through a certain kind of misremembering.

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