March 2011

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• Guest-blogging for Jim Fallows last week, friend of the blog Christina Larson posted several interesting pieces about journalism and environmentalism in China today. Read her articles here: “The Plight of the Chinese Newspaper Reporter,” “A Watchtower on the Roof of the World,” “Mount Everest: Then and Now,” and “China’s Nascent Environmentalism.”

• In the Sydney Morning Herald, journalist John Garnaut chronicles the persistence of the Chongqing underworld despite mayor Bo Xilai’s anti-mafia campaign:

”This is the most brutal battle in Chongqing’s business community since liberation,” says a manager at one of Chongqing’s largest and well-connected private companies, who knows both protagonists well.

This, after all, is the thriving Yangtze River metropolis where China’s only maverick leader, Communist Party boss Bo Xilai, has gained nationwide acclaim by reclaiming the streets from the city’s mafia. Bo has thrown thousands of lesser ”black society” gangsters and their Communist Party protectors in jail and executed several, including the vice-president of the Supreme Court.

As well as ”striking black”, Bo Xilai has been “singing red” by leading his city in rousing cultural revolution songs. He has launched an ambitious ”red GDP” campaign to strengthen state ownership, build public housing and accelerate China’s (already breakneck) urbanisation by coaxing and pushing peasants off their land.

And yet, throughout it all, Weng Zhenjie has managed to grow bigger.

The ascendencies of big brother Weng and comrade Bo reveal the alchemy of power in China today and a signal as to where the country may be heading. Both men have spun astonishingly complex webs of loyalty and patronage through the Communist Party and its red-blood aristocracy. They have exploited every lever at their disposal and chosen their targets carefully.

• For an example of Bo’s “singing red” campaigns, check out these photos at Shanghaiist, which were taken at the Chongqing parade celebrating the CCP’s 90th anniversary.

• When the New York Times published a story on March 21 asserting that China had tightened its monitoring and censorship of electronic communications, the following anecdote was used to lead off the article:

If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter (and others) decided to investigate the claim that quoting Shakespeare would result in a shutdown of phone service, conducting a small research study and posting the results—that he was unable to replicate such a communication cut-off—at his site. Responses to the Times’ story were so widespread that the paper eventually added an “Editor’s Note” to the original article, clarifying the context in which the original phone shutoffs took place and admitting that “those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.” Minter has some additional thoughts on the incident at Shanghai Scrap.

• Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal’s China Real-Time Report interviews Susan Shirk, editor of Changing Media, Changing China, posing eight questions about the contemporary Chinese media.

• In the latest Sinica podcast, Kaiser Kuo, Gady Epstein, Jonathan Watts, and Kathleen McLaughlin ask, “Where did the Internet/salt go?”

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

While I commented here last week that Hawaii summons thoughts of an old Nancy Drew mystery in my mind, several China Beat readers have written in to mention that they more readily associate the islands with a classic three-part Brady Bunch episode in which the whole family travels to Hawaii and undergoes a run of bad luck. Now that we know so many China Beatniks are also Brady Bunch fans, we’re linking the two in a small contest open to readers joining us at the bloggers’ breakfast this Saturday morning during the Association for Asian Studies meeting in Honolulu. Write down your answer to this trivia question, bring it to breakfast, and you could win a signed copy of Jeff Wasserstrom’s latest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The question:

Which famous horror film start played Professor Whitehead, the vicious archaeologist who menaced the Brady clan during their Hawaiian vacation?

A reminder: the bloggers’ breakfast will begin at 8am in the Starbucks Coffee at the Ali’i Tower Plaza, across from the Penguin Pond, in the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Well, it’s not exactly a vacation, but next week Asian specialists from around the world will be congregating in Honolulu, Hawaii, for a joint meeting of the Association for Asian Studies and the International Convention of Asia Scholars. While last year’s AAS meeting brought me to a familiar location—Philadelphia, where I grew up and went to college—this year’s conference is taking me someplace I’ve only heard about; my chief impressions of Hawaii are still derived from a Nancy Drew book I read in elementary school (if I recall correctly, I should be on guard against poisoned leis and watch out for haunted pavilions). Unlike Nancy, I’m not heading to Hawaii to solve a mystery, but instead to attend a number of events that I want to spotlight for China Beat readers who will be at the meetings.

The first is a series of Late-Breaking News panels, three sessions made possible by the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation. These talks will feature a mix of scholars and journalists discussing issues that have been in the headlines lately: online protest and cyber repression, the Thai-Cambodian border conflict, and the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Several of the participants will be familiar names to China Beat readers (such as Angilee Shah, Rob Gifford, and Ananth Krishnan), but click the link above to check out the full list of panelists and for times and locations of all the sessions.

The second set of events that I’m involved in are related to my job as editorial assistant at the Journal of Asian Studies. As part of our “JAS at the AAS” initiative, we’ve scheduled two meetings-in-conjunction.* On Wednesday, March 30, we’ll have a “Meet the Editors” open house; Jeff Wasserstrom (the journal’s editor), Jennifer Munger (the managing editor), and I will all be available from 4:00 to 6:00pm to meet with JAS contributors and readers and answer questions, discuss the submission process, and hear your feedback on the journal.

The second JAS-related activity is a roundtable on Saturday, April 2 that will revolve around a discussion of Victor Lieberman’s two-volume work, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context. Jennifer Munger will be moderating the session, which will include three panelists whose research focuses on China: historian Jack Wills, geographer Carolyn Cartier, and linguist Victor Mair. Last year’s inaugural JAS roundtable, “What Makes a Region in Asia?”, resulted in a wide-ranging series of articles published in the November 2010 issue of the journal, and we’re looking forward to replicating that success this year.

Finally, AAS-going China Beat readers can (and should!) join us for our fourth annual bloggers’ breakfast on the morning of Saturday, April 2. We’ll meet at 8am at a Starbucks in the Hilton Hawaiian Village (the one in the Ali’i Tower Plaza, across from the Penguin Pond), so please stop by and grab a cup of coffee while chatting with other China Beatniks, Jeff, and myself.

* A third JAS meeting-in-conjunction, scheduled for the evening of Friday, April 1, is still listed on the program but has been canceled.

By Marta Cooper

As a long-enough suffering student of Chinese, it amazes me to hear from those who have tackled the language, with its thousands of characters, rote learning, four often indistinguishable tones and even more indistinguishable dialects, with unwavering enthusiasm. Deborah Fallows, wife of The Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, epitomises this spirit. In her recent book, Dreaming in Chinese, she charts the joys and frustrations of learning one of the world’s most fascinating languages, and at one of the Shanghai Literary Festival’s glamorous lunches, Fallows shared her experiences as a student of Mandarin.

Fallows lived in Shanghai and Beijing with her husband from 2006 to 2009. A Harvard graduate with a PhD in linguistics, she prepared herself for the Far Eastern move with Chinese lessons before leaving their home in Washington, DC. However, as Fallows found out upon touching down in Shanghai, being taught by a Beijinger was little help when trying to decipher the Shanghai dialect. “I could not understand a single word,” she says of her arrival. This overwhelmed feeling did not stop at the local dialect: small, everyday things, from figuring out where to buy food to being able to cross the street safely, became part of an energy-sapping survival. “Nothing prepared me for how amazing it would be, I was flabbergasted.”

The shock did not deter Fallows, as she immersed herself in Mandarin at a Shanghai language school. Comfortable with studying, she saw it as the one aspect of her China life she had control over. “I had two small victories,” she says. “The first would be when I’d forget my dictionary but still accomplish daily tasks. The second was using what I’d learned in the classroom on the street.”

However, frustrations soon crept in. Most vexing of all was the all-too-common scenario of a Chinese person simply not understanding what a foreigner was saying. Fallows writes about a particular episode when she was trying to order take-away food (dǎ bāo 打包,literally, ‘package’), only to be met with a stunned blank look from the waiter. She tried countless tone combinations, including what would translate as ‘big hug’ in English (dà bào 大抱) until the waiter finally realised she did, in fact, want take-out food.

Despite how obvious it may seem to a Westerner that whichever version of ‘da bao’ used in a restaurant would inevitably be interpreted as ‘take-away’, the change in tones shifted the meaning so significantly for the Chinese that Fallows’ request was unfathomable. That she managed to dust herself off from this experience was a reminder that the best way to shoulder daily, seemingly unconquerable language frustrations is with laughter. The beauty of Chinese lies in its unique blend of the fascinating and the maddening.

Cultural and linguistic nuances also proved a challenge. In comparison to English, with its plethora of polite phrases and courteous requests, Chinese seemed abrupt, sharp and rude to Fallows’ ears. The lack of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ seemed drastically out of sync with a culture whose rules of politeness and courteous manners are vast and complicated. At dinners with local Chinese friends, Fallows observed how the guests would always be served first, but no one would ever add a “could you please” when asking to pass the salt.

Baffled, she put this to her tutor, who told her that the Chinese view linguistic niceties as a social buffer, creating an offensive barrier of formality between you and the person you are speaking to. Close friends and family are part of yourself, he said, adding, “why would you say please to yourself?”

As she studied deeper, Fallows also came to grips with various changes in word meanings that had developed over time. One word that she grappled with was ài, 爱,translated as ‘love’. During her first trip to China in 1986, locals asked her which one of her sons she ‘loved’ more, while a friend in Beijing commented that Fallows ‘must really love’ her husband after many years of marriage.

As with politeness, the notion of love in China was completely different from its Western counterpart. Confucian thought upheld it as something of harmony and obedience, while cultural and social movements in the early twentieth century saw the introduction of a new word, ài qíng, 爱情, meaning specifically the love between a man and a woman.

Harmony, practicality and obedience versus more modern, romantic notions of love are today on constant show on Shanghai’s streets. “You don’t need to look beyond People’s Square,” Fallows chirps, noting the weekly marriage market where ruthless parents attempt to set up their children with suitable candidates, while on the metro young couples have no shame when it comes to public displays of affection. “The language is a metaphor for a changing China,” she says. “Everything is in flux.”

What are Fallows’ words for anyone thinking of embarking on the language? Simply, anything is better than nothing. “Any Chinese you can pour into your head is good. Everything helps. It’s quickly rewarding considering how poorly you do.” And how should one manage the characters? Can we do away with them and just rely on Pinyin (Chinese in Romanised form)? “Do whatever works,” she beams, excited that more and more people are willing to take on this labour of love.

When asked what she misses about China, Fallows is brimming with fond memories. “I loved waking up every day and knowing whatever happened would a) not be planned and b) be marvellous and mysterious. Dinner conversations with my husband would often begin with ‘you’ll never believe what I saw today!’”

Her journey with the complicated, never-ending language and unpredictable cultural hurdles defined Fallows’ time in China. Both language and country are characterised by constant surprises, frustrations and moments of sheer excitement. “Just when you’ve got it figured out, something happened that made me think I had a lot to learn.”

Click here for an interview with Fallows on Danwei.

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By Amanda Shuman

Last Friday, former Time Out: Beijing film editor Simon Fowler introduced his book 101 Essential Chinese Movies (Earnshaw Books, 2010) and some of his favorite Chinese movies at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. Fowler, who admits he has an unhealthy obsession for watching obscure old Chinese films, spoke about the difficulties in making choices for the book, which covers mainland China cinema but not those of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Fowler states in the introduction that “so much has already been written” about Taiwan and Hong Kong that most people imagine “Chinese” cinema they often think of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The emphasis in his work, however, is on movies that have influenced the cinematic history of mainland China.

After viewing a clip from the internationally-acclaimed Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬 Bawang bie ji, 1993), Fowler highlighted the difficulties in writing a book that covers “essential” Chinese cinema. How does one account for films that are more popular abroad than in China and vice versa? Although he feels he never truly solved this problem, for the purposes of the book he chose movies that he feels best illustrate cinematic history at a particular moment in time. For example, This Life of Mine (我这一辈子 Wo zhe yi beizi, 1950), based on the novel by Lao She, serves as a prime example of China cinema’s investment in strong (specific) political messages during the early PRC period. The film harbors a deep contrast between the hardships of “old Beijing” society and the optimistic belief that things would get better with the arrival of the Communists. Additionally, as Fowler notes in his book, political tides often heavily influenced Maoist period cinema, such when director and lead actor Shi Hui was labeled a rightist in 1957 and subsequently committed suicide.

Fowler led the audience through several other movies that he considers to define particular cinematic moments in time, including the brilliant camera work behind Xie Jin’s Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (女篮5号 Nü lan 5 hao, 1957) (” ‘Finally!’ I thought, ‘someone who knows how to use a camera!’ “) and the advent of a distinctive animation-style under the Wan brothers. Lastly, he highlighted what he considers some of the best modern Beijing movies, including Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车 Shi qi sui de dan che, 2001) and Lost in Beijing (苹果 Pingguo, 2007). Fowler argued that Beijing Bicycle serves as the quintessential Beijing movie not only due to its highly believable plot (a power struggle between the high school boy from Beijing and the rural migrant) but also because of the numerous bicycle scenes set in hutongs. Fowler pointedly asked, “why would any movie in Beijing include a car chase scene?”

With all of this talk about films, one might wonder how Fowler had access to so many old movies. In the Q&A, Fowler listed some of his favorite places to acquire movies in Beijing (the area south of the Jishuitan subway station) as well as outside of China (the YesAsia website).

In fact, finding copies of old mainland Chinese movies has probably never been easier. Unless you’re looking for movies pre-1922 (all of which, according to Fowler, burned or were destroyed at some point and no longer exist), internet and high-quality DVD or VCD copies of post-1922 films can be obtained in several ways. Gone are the days when you needed to wait days or weeks to order from Interlibrary Loan, travel to the film archives in Beijing, or scour knock-off DVD stores asking numerous people whether or not they have a copy of Xie Jin’s《舞台姐妹》 (“Two Stage Sisters”) or something more obscure like 《两个小足球队》(“Two Small Soccer/Football Teams”) .

Many films are now accessible for free on tudou.com and youku.com, but if you’re looking for a more reliable copy or ad-free viewing, several companies have begun releasing old movies on high-quality DVDs. Companies like Boying and Beauty Media sell copies of many older movies. Beauty Media even has a subdivision that specializes in producing films with English subtitles (called “Follow Me Chinese”). (Although the quality of English subtitles varies, they are more than suitable for teaching purposes.) Many DVDs can easily be purchased at large bookstores in mainland China, such as the main Wangfujing bookstore or the Xidan book building in Beijing, both of which hold an especially good collection of movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The China Film Museum also has a good collection and helpful staff in its bookstore. (Located near the airport in Beijing, the film museum currently has no entrance fee but states online that it requires a reservation in advance. When I visited, however, the museum had so few visitors that the reservation policy was ignored.) The price ranges from 10 to 30 RMB per DVD.

If you’re in mainland China for 3 days or longer, the best place to buy DVDs of old movies is not necessarily a bookstore. If you know exactly what you want, there are several ways to order old films online. Both amazon.cn and taobao.com have plenty of movies in stock and can get them to you very quickly. In fact, Amazon offers a cash-on-delivery method that does not require providing any bank or credit card information online. (You will need to provide a phone number and address, however, so that the deliveryman can find you!) Like the DVDs themselves, shipping and delivery fees remain quite low on the mainland, often just a few RMB for the total order. In just a few days, without ever venturing to the DVD shop, one could feasibly own a whole collection of 1960s movies for less than the cost of 2-3 DVDs in the U.S.

Finally, a very important resource for finding materials related to a film is the popular auction website kongfz.com. As recently reported here on China Beat, kongfz.com might be complicated to navigate for the novice (mostly in setting up payment methods!), but I have easily located copies of movie scripts, picture books, billboard posters, and other paraphernalia related to films available for low-cost purchase.

Amanda Shuman is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz currently living in Beijing. Her research includes sports and politics in China in the post-1949 period.

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