November 2010

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Pallavi Aiyar’s 2008 memoir, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, details the six years she spent living in Beijing, first teaching English and then becoming a reporter for The Hindu. Now stationed in Brussels with the Business Standard, Aiyar’s articles tend to focus on topics such as Belgium’s cultural conflicts and the uneven parallels drawn between India and China. For this reason, I was quite surprised to learn that Aiyar’s second book, to be released by Harper Collins India in early 2011, is a story of Beijing narrated by two cats: Tofu and Soyabean, the protagonists of Chinese Whiskers, share the story of their hutong life amidst the backdrop of the SARS epidemic and pre-Olympic construction. In a concise and gripping tale, Aiyar conveys the chaotic and ever-changing landscape of Beijing in the early 2000s as experienced by some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, both human and feline. Eager to learn more about this unusual book, I posed a few questions to Aiyar via e-mail:

MEC: How did you come to write a book that views Beijing from a cats’-eye perspective?

PA: I spent five years living in Beijing’s hutongs. These were neighbourhoods that reflected many of the tensions generated by the intersection of China’s almost remorseless embrace of modernity with persisting forms of a more traditional, communal way of life.

Animals were an intrinsic part of the hutongscape. At twilight you could sometimes spot the elongated silhouette of huang shu lang (黄鼠狼 the yellow weasel), the Beijing equivalent of the city fox, tip toeing across the roofs of courtyard houses sniffing for prey. Regardless of the season old men in patched up Mao suits would sit around corner stores on low stools, their caged song birds proudly on display next to them.

And then there were the dogs. The hutongs were disproportionately peopled with retirees and their pet dogs; the ever dwindling younger generation having taken off for swankier addresses. The aural backdrop to life in these alleyways was therefore punctuated by the yapping of Pekinese dogs who were as pampered and loved by their elderly owners as a favoured grandchild.

This was an environment where people and animals lived cheek to jowl, the cramped spaces of the living quarters forcing everyone out on the street.

In my previous book, Smoke and Mirrors, I wrote extensively about my life in the hutongs and this was one aspect of the book that people across the world, be it in India, China or the US, seemed fascinated by. It seemed natural therefore to situate my novel in this geography and the cats just seemed an intuitive and interesting way to gain entry into this world.

Especially since in 2006 my husband and I adopted two kittens ourselves and through that process became acquainted with a whole new side to Chinese society. We came to meet dedicated cat protection activists, disillusioned veterinarians and wise grandmothers, some of whom ended up as characters in the novel.

That said, I’m also a hopeless anthropomorphiser and have always loved books with animals as principle characters.

MEC: Your website calls Chinese Whiskers “a modern fable.” What do you mean by this? Have you read other works that fit into this genre?

PA: A fable is usually defined as a traditional morality tale which uses animal stories to teach a moral. At heart Chinese Whiskers is a fable. Through the eyes of Tofu and Soyabean we are warned of the corruption that can result from a society experiencing fast paced change, where long-established moorings are coming undone, leaving people without a moral compass.

But although it’s a fable, it’s in an updated form, set in a modern-day context. Beijing in the early 2000s was a time that witnessed a frenetic recasting of the city’s topography and also placed strenuous demands on people to come to grips with new ideas and realities. Hence I call it a “modern fable.”

In the current context, anthropomorphic works tend to be considered unfashionable and commercially unviable by the publishing world. I was extraordinarily lucky in having my story accepted. But that means I haven’t come across other works that fit this genre of late which makes Chinese Whiskers quite a unique attempt.

MEC: In what way is Chinese Whiskers a follow-up to Smoke and Mirrors? In your view, how do the two books fit together?

PA: On the surface the two books are very different. Smoke and Mirrors was a work of non-fiction that blended reportage and memoir to tease out the divergent implications of the choices the modern Chinese and Indian states have made. It was received with some enthusiasm by China watchers, geo-strategic analysts, diplomats, journalists and the general reader with an interest in international relations.

Chinese Whiskers, on the other hand, is a novel with cats in it. Many of those who enjoyed Smoke and Mirrors don’t know what to make of this, when I tell them. Cats are not serious. Cats don’t make for analytic insight.

To begin with I beg to differ vis-a-vis the imputed lack of seriousness of cats. But the larger point for me is that there is in fact a logical continuity between Smoke and Mirrors and Chinese Whiskers. Several chapters in the former sought to evoke the rhythm and texture of life in Beijing at a particular moment. Themes that came up in Smoke and Mirrors included those of a sense of moral anomie in the wake of fierce materialism, corruption, the role physical architecture plays in moulding social relations. These are all themes and issues that Chinese Whiskers addresses. But I think its appeal is wider than that of Smoke and Mirrors. It is intended for people who may be more interested in cats than China to begin with, but hopefully might end up being drawn to learn more about a country and culture they once knew little of. It also works for a broader age group, including younger readers. And hopefully it will be an entertaining diversion for the more “serious” China watchers as well.

MEC: It’s become fairly common for Western reporters to write stories about the growing importance of pets as status symbols for upwardly mobile Chinese, but most of those articles focus only on dogs (here’s a recent example from the New York Times). How are attitudes about cat ownership different?

PA: I think despite the surge in popularity of dogs as pets, there is a fairly mainstream attitude in China that persists in seeing them as social pests. The (mistaken) idea that large dogs are aggressive and prone to attack people lies behind the rule in most big cities that specifies the size and breed of dog that one can own. They are also seen as a source of rabies and stories of anti-dog mob rampages resulting in the massacre of animals sporadically emerge.

Cats on the other hand, with the exception of the SARS epidemic, are not seen as a public health menace and there is greater tolerance of them. Their ownership is not restricted in number and there is no cat license fee, unlike for dogs. At the same time they are not seen as a prestigious accoutrement in the manner in which some middle class people look at expensive breeds of dogs.

In the hutongs if they are kept as pets it’s for utilitarian reasons; for catching rats rather than as is common with small dogs, as child substitutes.

At the same time there is a sub culture of cat protection societies which are fiercely committed to feline rights and working with stray animals to house and sterilize them. There is no exact equivalent for dogs since stray dogs are so much rarer in an urban context.

Differences apart, both cats and dogs share a similar and uncomfortable middle ground in China, somewhere between pet and food. While dogs are eaten in the north as a warming meal in the winter, cats are consumed quite commonly in southern China.

MEC: How did your own cats react to the move from Beijing to Brussels, and do you see that experience leading to a sequel to Chinese Whiskers?

PA: Our cats have taken to non-hutong life in Brussels’ stately maison de maître, as though they were born to a life of cheese and chocolates. I suppose I can envisage a sequel titled from “From Dustbin to Diplomats” detailing the transformation in their fortunes. On the other hand, life in Brussels lacks the elemental drama of hutong existence and Belgium as a whole just doesn’t compare as a setting to China at the time of SARS and the Olympics. But who knows? Intrigue in the corridors of the European Commission might just lend itself to a sequel.

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We wrote to Jonathan Watts to ask him to write a commentary on the book tour he’s been on to promote When a Billion Chinese Jump, which included a stop at UC Irvine, but he said he was too busy being whisked from champagne receptions to meetings with Hollywood directors seeking to buy the film rights to the book to craft something suitable. Watts was, however, good enough to offer us permission to run (in slightly trimmed-down form) a piece he wrote—with tongue firmly in cheek—for a 2009 issue of the newsletter of the Beijing Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Composed while he was working on When a Billion Chinese Jump, it explores all the reasons why a journalist should resist the siren call of writing a China book:

By Jonathan Watts

Don’t do it. Stop now, before it is too late.

This is my advice if you are thinking of writing a book. It may sound a mite negative, but believe me, I write from bitter experience out of compassion for my fellow man.

In my case, it started innocently enough: A flattering email from an agent that played on my ego and a vague ambition to become an author. I thought long and hard for, oh, what? about a minute and then, yes, yes, why not.

I persuaded myself I had noble motives. It really wasn’t the promise of fame and fortune, it was the chance to do something worthwhile, to dig deeper into a subject than the day-to-day news agenda allows.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our trade. Journalism is a search for the truth on expenses. But isn’t there also an element of the job that makes us treat knowledge like disposable plastic cups? We fill our heads with facts, figures and comments in the hours or—if we are lucky—days before deadline. Then we empty out all the juiciest bits into our stories and discard what is left to make mental space for the next subject.

That, of course, is the also the beauty of what we do. No high-falutin dreams of eternal glory for us. Nope, we are so in harmony with the mutable and the down-to-earth that we are throwaway, we are garbage. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s chip wrapper, as they used to say in the UK. (That was before health-and-safety standards were tightened. Newspapers today are not considered good enough even for chip wrappers.)

But I have a confession. As the years go by, I increasingly crave depth, longevity. I know it is wrong. Really, I feel guilty. The journalistic gods know I have tried to fight it. But it’s no use. The book demon won’t go away. I have become, gulp, earnest.

So earnest, in fact, that not only did I take the plunge into the book world, but I picked that most earnest—and least likely to be a bestseller—of subjects: the environment.

My friends, bless them, tried to save me. Why waste your time, they said. There’s no money in books, they said. The last thing the world needs now is another journalist writing a book about China, they said. One acquaintance even started a club for China correspondents who are not writing books. It is the only club in Beijing that gets smaller every year, he said.

But I didn’t listen.

It really isn’t for the money. By March 2009, I must write 120,000 words. The advance is less than a fifth of the amount a freelancer could earn writing that many words at New York rates.

Add in the extra grief with family, friends, employers and it is a truly rank return on the investment of time and emotion. My life has been turned upside down. At every step I have created expectations of myself that have proved impossible to live up to. Instead, I discovered hidden talents of procrastination. I tried spending a couple of hours on the book each day before work. Total failure. Kind (pitying?) friend have provided refuges in the wilds of Norway, Japan and the Chinese countryside. The result? I’ve developed a penchant for new distractions of weeding, cooking and cycling.

Oh yeah, and then there is the book beard, the hair I must bear until the bloody thing is finished. What a stupid idea that was. But thanks, dear friends for your supportive comments. I count myself lucky that you are still willing to be seen in public with someone that you have variously described as having the facial hair of a Unabomber, Bin-Laden, gulag inmate, Karl Marx, Worzel Gummidge, tramp and scrumpy drinker. My children have forbidden me from attending their school until it is shaven.

But will that day ever come? On my darkest days, alone, starting at my laptop, I begin to doubt. The deadline is looming. The daily word count is rising. With each day that passes, I fear I will go to my grave with an unfinished book on my hard drive and an unruly thicket on my chin.

In desperation, I have sought advice from wiser heads, all published authors—Paul French, John Gittings, James Kynge, Rob Gifford, Richard McGregor, Catherine Sampson, Zhang Lijia, Phil Pan, Alexandra Harney. Their answers were inspiring, though I wish I had heeded their warnings at an earlier stage. In brief, I have condensed their advice to 10 commandments.

1) MOTIVATION: Don’t start unless you are utterly committed to your subject and prepared for your life to change (Everyone).

2) TIME: Don’t think about combining a book with regular work. Take a long sabbatical or sign up to a university course (Gifford).

3) MONEY: Make sure you have a financial cushion, especially if you have a family. Writing and doing original research cost time and money (McGregor).

4) RYHYTHM: Follow Graham Greene and set realistic daily targets (Kynge 384 words per day, Zhang 500, and McGregor 703). Or alternatively, write when the mood strikes and occasionally endure marathons until your forehead hits the table with exhaustion (Gifford).

5) MOMENTUM: If film making is about bums on seats, then book writing is about words on the page (Gittings). You have to keep your “run-rate” up to avoid a last minute rush (McGregor).

6) CRAP: Don’t stop to clean up the crap. Leave that till last. Books are sculpted as much as written (Gittings, Kynge, Gifford, McGregor, Hemingway).

7) ISOLATION: Avoid the internet—or strictly ration your daily use (Sampson, McGregor).

8) EXERCISE: Exercise before starting each writing session to purge the pacing urge (Sampson).

9) AMBIENCE: If you like to work with music, avoid anything with vocals (Sampson).

10) HELP: Show the manuscript to a frank friend who will tell you just much crap you need to cut or clean up (Gifford, Harney).

Closest to my own feeling at the moment is Paul French’s advice to “Forget it” unless you are pervertedly obsessed. In my case, it comes too late. The pain of this bloody book has exposed a truly masochistic streak—I even sometimes enjoy it. Though this probably isn’t the type of perverted obsession Paul was referring to.

I am now locking myself away in an empty factory-studio in north Beijing, where there is nothing to do but stare at the concrete walls and stroke my ever lengthening beard. Oh, yes, and write. I really must so more of that. Less than four months left and 80,000 words to go . . .

So apologies if I seem a bit anti-social over the coming weeks. Please allow for the stranger than usual behaviour and appearance. Forgive me if I occasionally neglect duties to family, club and company.

Our esteemed published colleagues assure me it will all be worth it in the end. I hope so. I really do. But in the meantime, please sympathise—and learn from this pathetic wretch. Just say No.

Thousands of Shanghai residents gathered on Sunday to mourn the victims of last week’s fire at Jiaozhou Road. Adam Minter has a thoughtful post on the mourning procession (as well as links for further reading) at Shanghai Scrap; Marta Cooper’s blog . . . in Shanghai has photos from the assembly. At the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report, watch a short video about Sunday’s gathering. On Twitter, users have been marking their thoughts on the fire and its aftermath with the hashtag #jiaozhoulu.

Below, comments on Sunday’s mourning procession from China Beatnik Sheila Melvin:

The Chinese micro-blogging universe is today filled with images of Shanghainese gathered outside the charred residential building in which more than 50 people died. Many of those gathered have come to lay flowers and hang banners; indeed, photos show that the entire area is blanketed with bouquets and the gatherings are clearly as much protest as mourning. Lots of blogs include images of mourners holding pictures of the dead as they walk past Shanghai Expo posters that proclaim “Better City, Better Life.” Bloggers are asking why there is still no official list of the dead; making all manner of comparisons to the “success” of the Expo and the failure implicit in this fire; and offering admiration to ordinary Shanghainese for coming out publicly to mourn. I think this is going to end up involving the arrest of a lot more than a few unlicensed welders. For those who are interested, China Daily ran what for it is a pretty thorough investigative story on the disaster and the widespread belief that its true cause is government corruption.

By Christopher Rea

“Men of letters love it when someone dies, since it gives them a topic for a memorial essay… ‘Commemorating the First Anniversary of So-and-So’s Death’ and ‘A Tri-Centennial Elegy’ are equally good topics.” — Qian Zhongshu, Fortress Besieged

文人最喜歡有人死,可以有題目做哀悼的文章….“周年逝世紀念”和“三百年祭”,一樣的好題目。 —錢鍾書《圍城》

Headlines about China have been looking the same for some time now. “The China story” always seems to be political: labor riots and their suppression; sabre-rattling over Taiwan and cultural erasure in Tibet; catastrophic earthquakes and official ineptitude; internet censorship and jailed dissidents (the latest being Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo). Even ostensibly good news, such as the Chinese government’s investment in wind power, becomes yet another story about how China is going to eat our lunch.

These stories must be told, and the Chinese government’s feet must be held to the fire on many issues. Yet these stories collectively imply a “truth” about China that is equally misleading: namely that in China, politics is life.

This truism has become ingrained in Western views of Chinese culture. I was struck by this not long ago during a Canadian radio interview of the author Yu Hua when the host’s first question was whether or not Yu Hua was a “dissident.” A recent New Yorker article about China’s “most eminent writer” and former Minister of Culture, Wang Meng, set a similarly political agenda by asking whether Wang is a “reformer” or an “apologist” of the Communist Party. To be Chinese, as far as the West is concerned, seems to mean being for or against one’s government.

A more detached perspective is to be found in the writings of a man who might be called the best Chinese writer you’ve never heard of: Qian Zhongshu.

One hundred years ago today, Qian was born into a scholarly family in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. Tutored in the classics from a young age, he went on to become modern China’s “foremost man of letters,” in Ronald Egan’s words, accumulating encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese and Western literatures, and putting it to use in his scholarship and creative writing.

A graduate of Tsinghua University, Qian studied European literature at Oxford and the Sorbonne before returning with his family to China in 1938 after the outbreak of war with Japan.

While teaching at various universities in southwestern China and Shanghai during the war, Qian composed a collection of essays, Written in the Margins of Life (1941); a collection of short stories, Human, Beast, and Ghost (1946); and a novel, Fortress Besieged (serialized, 1946-1947), as well as occasional poems and reviews, and a major work of poetry criticism. In 1949 he was recruited to teach at his alma mater in Beijing, and he remained in China after the communist takeover, having turned down several job offers from abroad. In 1953, he transferred to a literary research institute based at Beijing University, which in 1977 became part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Qian Zhongshu’s fate in New China was, to a certain degree, similar to that of many Chinese intellectuals. He stopped creative writing, and his research was repeatedly interrupted by political campaigns. Unusually, due to his linguistic prowess, he was assigned to an elite group tasked with translating Mao’s poetry into English. He and his wife, the scholar-writer Yang Jiang, nevertheless suffered ideological criticism and, during the Cultural Revolution, were sent to rural Henan province for “re-education” and “reform” through agricultural labor. During the cultural thaw after Mao’s death, both resumed publishing and had their long-forgotten works “rediscovered” by the Chinese public.

This biography obscures the talent and self-possession that makes Qian’s literary and scholarly output during periods of war and political turmoil so remarkable. Widely read in modern and classical Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Latin, Qian pioneered a new model of comparative literature that drew out resonances in cross-cultural patterns of figurative language. In an early essay, for instance, he observes that just as the French word for “happiness” (bonheur) suggests that good (bon) things last no more than an hour (heur), so its Chinese equivalent kuaihuo implies that when one is happy one lives (huo) quickly (kuai). No mere purveyor of precious insights, Qian used such resonances as jumping off points for wide-ranging investigations of the human imagination.

These investigations are particularly striking for their urbane wit and Rabelaisian humor. In a language given to pithy idioms, Qian’s epigrams are in a league of their own. Hypocritical moralizing “is like doing business without capital—a veritable art.” Prejudice can be explained by the human heart’s anatomical position “not actually in the center, but to one side—and, most fashionably, slightly to the left.” Gravity accounts for why “lower-class people are so numerous and upper-class people so rare.” The English buzzwords a Shanghai businessman sprinkles in his Mandarin are like not gold teeth (which are functional as well as decorative), but rather “the bits of meat stuck between the teeth, which show that one has had a good meal but are otherwise useless.” All this from a writer who once dissuaded an over-eager fan by asking: “If you enjoyed eating an egg, would you bother seeking out the hen that laid it?”

In Qian’s fiction, such witticisms punctuate longer explorations of the human comedy. Fortress Besieged, one of modern China’s greatest novels, tells the story of a young man who, after several years of bumming around Europe, returns to China with a bogus, mail-order degree purchased from an Irishman. Back home, Fang Hongjian becomes entangled with two women, while trying to ward off conflicting demands from his elders, but he ends up alienating all of them and seeking refuge as a teacher at a no-name university deep in China’s interior provinces.

At this point, Qian’s satire of urban pseudo-intellectuals switches to picaresque adventure. Unlike much wartime fiction, however, our hero’s flight from Shanghai is motivated by a romance gone bad rather than the Japanese military threat. As with his later marriage to a colleague, Fang’s story is propelled not by the grand events of history but the petty cowardice of an intelligent and witty man who always ends up outwitting himself. Back in Shanghai, the newlyweds’ marriage quickly deteriorates and Fang ends up back where he started, bruised and alone. As a symbol of humans’ perpetual dissatisfaction with their lot, Fang’s fate strikes a deeper chord than the playful French proverb that likens marriage to “a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in; and those who are inside want to get out.”

While many of his fellow writers were penning anti-Japanese allegories, then, Qian, writing in occupied Shanghai, was depicting modern life as a comedy verging on the theater of the absurd. This detachment served Qian well through the indignities and deprecations of the Mao years. Countless Chinese writers kept their heads down and mouths shut in order to survive; only one completed a massive, multi-volume reappraisal of the Chinese literary canon, which the author self-deprecatingly titled Limited Views (1979-1980).

Indeed, if there is one recurring theme in Qian Zhongshu’s life’s work it is breadth of vision. In an early essay he likened near-sighted critics to flies buzzing from one pinch of garbage to the next, ironically praising them for their ability to find, like Blake, “a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower.” Qian himself treated life like “one big book” and claimed to be content with merely jotting down “piecemeal, spontaneous impressions” in its margins. In fact, the panoramic vision we find in Qian’s “jottings” marks him as one of the twentieth-century’s great literary cosmopolitans. If he remains little known in the West, it is mostly because he wrote in Chinese.

Qian’s writings thus pose a challenge not just to overpoliticized views of China, but to the presumption that to be cosmopolitan is to play on the West’s terms. Living under three governments (Nationalist, Japanese, and Communist), Qian’s most “political” act was to establish his own autonomous republic of letters. Worldly and multilingual, he chose to live in China and write in Chinese. This is not to romanticize Qian as an “apolitical” author or, conversely, a patriot. The point is rather that he sustained an extraordinary degree of creative independence from his immediate circumstances. In Qian’s works, then, we find one “China” that rarely makes headlines.

Christopher Rea is assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia and the editor of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu, which will be published by Columbia University Press in December. He is also the organizer of the workshop “Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang: A Centennial Perspective,” which will be held at UBC on December 10-12, 2010.

For more on Fortress Besieged, see Xia Shi’s essay, “From an Elite Novel to a Popular Metaphor.”

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By Charles W. Hayford

Remember those jailbirds who know all of each others’ jokes? They don’t tell the whole joke, just shout out the number from the jokebook. Our public discourse on China has something of the same quality. Instead of shouting out a number, however, somebody “shouts out” a word or an image which evokes a whole China story. These stories can be persuasive, poetic, or insightful, but when we only “shout out” the number, then we don’t have the chance to examine the whole story. Painful facts or challenges to venerable beliefs can be papered over when the story is a misleading relic.

Working for the Chinese or Flunking the Chinese Professor?

In the recent U.S. elections, campaigns “shouted out” numbers for many classic China stories. As early as February, Steven Mufson and John Pomfret’s Washington Post article, “There’s A New Red Scare: But Is It So Scary?” responded to Sen. Lindsay Graham’s warning, “China’s going to eat our lunch.” Did nobody think to say that we had gotten our lunch at Panda Express anyway? But the stories continued. David Chen in the New York Times reported “China Emerges as a Scapegoat in Campaign Ads” and Jeff Yang posted “Politicians Play the China Card” on his National Public Radio blog, each with links to many examples. There were more Chinese flags, Chineesy music, and Chinese language than during any campaign in history. One candidate sarcastically thanked his opponent for creating jobs — in China. “Xie xie”, he said.

These stories resonate with long term Western worries about China’s size and seeming longevity (in fact, Chinese civilization did not start earlier than others, but has maintained continuity — or the myth of continuity). Americans have sometimes viewed China as a source of “cheap Chinese labor,” leading to immigration exclusion laws, and sometimes as home to millions of potential customers. If you want to see how these have worked out in popular TV shows, films, games, and comics, visit the website TV.tropes, a wiki devoted to “tropes,” which the site’s editors define as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” Dozens of reader-contributed lists include “China Takes Over the World,” “Yellow Peril,” “Red Scare,” and even “Digging to China.” Too bad they don’t cover political ads and news media.

That’s because the sharpest example from the recent election was “The Chinese Professor,” presumably America’s first national political commercial in Mandarin. The sixty-second video, with English subtitles, was produced by Citizens Against Government Waste to attack federal deficits by dramatizing the China of the future.

The opening shot, captioned “Beijing China 2030,” shows a what looks like a business school classroom. There are casually dressed students and (amazingly!) Cultural Revolution Mao posters on the walls. Then we see the feet of the Chinese professor as he comes down a darkened runway, each step echoing ominously. He explains — in Chinese, remember — that the great empires of history collapsed one by one: the Greek, the Roman, the British… the American. The reason? Because “they turned their backs on their founding principles.” America fell because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on government stimulus spending, takeover of industries, big changes in health care systems, and massive debt. That, our professor concludes with a sardonic chuckle, “is why they work for us today.”

Jeremiah Jenne at Jottings from the Granite Studio debunked the ad as “Ignorant Incurious Certitude,” but James Fallows at the Atlantic called it “the first spot from this campaign season you can imagine people actually remembering a decade from now.” He allows that “if you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong” since three of the causes given for America’s decline have been crucial in the success of China’s anti-recession policy.

Alan Baumler’s Yellow Peril Mk 3 at Frog in a Well called “The Chinese Professor” an “updated Fu Manchu.” “Mk 3,” you of course know, is Mortal Kombat 3, the fighting game, and you will also doubtless recall the 1932 film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, in which the mad doctor schemes to find the sword of Genghis Khan and rouse all Asia to “wipe out the white race” and rule the world. Today’s version: “you will work for us.”

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. Image from imdb.

Certitude is impervious to facts, but sometimes ridicule helps. Jeff Yang’s NPR piece linked to a parody contest at Angry Asian Man. Fallows introduced a deadly funny animation by the Taiwan-based Next Media Animation in which a panda takes the role of the “Chinese professor.” The panda professor asks, “what makes a nation grow? Freedom?” He laughs. “No, it’s selling cheap crap to gullible foreigners… stealing technology from Steve Jobs.” Besides, he concludes, “we have motherf**cking pandas who can talk.”

Red Emperors or Communist CEOs?

The story which animates both Dr. Fu and the “Chinese Professor” is that of a once and future Chinese empire, the Middle Kingdom, returned from the dead. Other related “shout outs” also evoke an unchanging China. One is to call the People’s Republic a “New Dynasty,” “People’s Middle Kingdom,” or “Enduring Empire.” Another is to label the Chinese leader the “Red Emperor,” “People’s Emperor,” or even the classic “Emperor of the Blue Ants.” Other examples are here, here and here.

Recently even the London-based Economist, often a font of crisp good sense, published a lead editorial, “China’s Succession: The Next Emperor,” calling Xi Jinping a “crown prince” who was “anointed in a vast kingdom facing vaster stresses.” We are told not to think of a “self-confident, rational power that has come of age” but of a “paranoid, introspective imperial court.”

When a poet uses the metaphor “my love is a rose,” it’s not literal. We do not expect to see him with a watering can and pruning shears. He’s saying she’s sweet. Likewise, “emperor” and “dynasty” are one-word metaphors which, when used to start a discussion rather than cap one, are useful in sparking intuitive understanding and exploration. But used glibly, these words actually let China’s rulers off the hook. They become clichés which imply that there is no use discussing how the regime could become more responsive and effective since China is simply authoritarian by nature. Who could change “the China of 5,000 years”?

To be sure, Chinese themselves talk incessantly about emperors, courtiers, and dynasties. Xi Jinping is known as one of the Taizi Dang, or “Princelings Faction.” But what’s sauce for the oriental goose should be sauce for the western gander. Xi’s father rose in Chinese politics at about the time that George W. Bush’s father rose in American politics, but only young Mr. Xi called a “crown prince.”

I will also concede that Mao Zedong compared himself to Qin Shi Huangdi, who unified China and invented the title “Huangdi,” which we translate as “emperor,” and to Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Paradoxically, Mao admired both George Washington and Stalin as nation-builders, and as a revolutionary he destroyed the “feudal China” of the emperors, then boasted that he was a better poet than any of them. But no emperor built or destroyed on the scale that Mao did. In this, he is thoroughly modern.

Geremie Barmé wrestles with this conundrum in a classy essay, “For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone — Was Mao Zedong a New Emperor?,” in Timothy Cheek’s A Critical Introduction to Mao (2010 — disclaimer: I have an essay there too). Barmé agrees that calling the Great Helmsman a “Red Emperor” is “careless essentialism” that promotes a “belief in an unchanging Chinese essence that pre-determines political or cultural behaviour.” On the other hand, he argues with supreme persuasiveness that to ignore the “imperial and the dynastic” in Mao’s China is to “blind ourselves to the persistence, reinvention, manipulation and limitations of tradition.” The trick, Barmé shows, is not to accept Mao’s imperial vocabulary at face value but to dig out what work Mao wanted the terms to do in a particular situation.

So what word should we use instead of “Red Emperor”? “New Great Helmsman” is way too Cultural Revolution. “Head Honcho” is out because it’s Japanese. The Mongol ruler of China was a “Khan,” but that’s another foreign word. “The Country’s Quarterback” wouldn’t fly in a soccer country. Nowadays, China seems one huge business conglomerate run by a Party CEO. Why not ditch the metaphors and stick to the actual title, “President of China”?

As I was finishing this piece, China Beat ran William Callahan’s review of John and Doris Naisbitt’s China’s Megatrends: The Eight Pillars of a New Society. Callahan points out that due to “the tight ideological control of the Chinese media” we cannot “easily separate ‘the facts’ from the narrative promoted by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.” The narrative is shaped by the party-state’s “official formulations” (tifa 提法), such as “emancipation of the mind,” “learn truth from facts,” “crossing the river by feeling for stones,” “scientific development and social harmony.”

The PRC’s tifa are tightly reined but sometimes the West’s free-range tropes also make it hard to discern “the facts.” The campaigns ads and commentaries raise real issues, but they refer us to stories which are dubious or even dangerous.

Charles W. Hayford is Visiting Scholar, Department of History, Northwestern University, and Editor, Journal of American-East Asian Relations. His piece “When Is a Farmer Not A Farmer? When He’s Chinese, Then He’s a Peasant” (Frog in A Well) argues that before 1949, the story in the word “peasant” was that China was “feudal” and in need of revolution.

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