A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. I liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:
Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]
I have been jumping from book to book lately, so going to post what I’m reviewing next in the hope that this will put a little pressure on me to stick with one all the way through. I started I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, but not overly impressed by what I’ve read so far – a tired story about a Chinese dissident rocker who is seeking asylum in the UK that right now is seeming a little bit pretentious, somewhere between an Amy Tan novel and Ma Jian’s Red Dust, except not as edgy, equipped with dullish references to the Beat generation (((((Kerouac’s overrated))))) and China’s misty poets – but going to give it a chance, because I completely misjudged Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and ended up loving it – so going to put it on the back-burner, and I am currently nose-deep in the long-awaited counterpart to Li Ang’s (李昂) 1997 work 《北港香爐人人插》 (Everyone sticks it in the Beigang incense burner) called 《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》 (Everybody nibbles on the sugar cane at the side of the road). The new book, published this year deals with men and power, whereas the previous book dealt with women and power. I haven’t read the previous book, but have heard interesting things about the author. I’m also interested to see if the “restricted to ages 18 and over” label stuck on the front is actually warranted, or is just a marketing technique.
The other books I’m lining up are 《馬橋詞典》 (A Dictionary of Maqiao in English) by Han Shaogong (韓少功), recommended to me by Chris Peacock, so looking forward to it.
I’m also going to give Yu Hua a second chance after the average but disappointing 《活著》 (To Live).
Got any recommendations? Reading any books that you are enjoying? Or read these books and want to have your say, comment below and I’ll get back to you.
I’ve also got a review of A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke in the pipeline, it’s a great film.
This is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the “China threat” myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the “China is the best thing since sliced bread” line served up by China’s state media.
On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a “collective” society in contrast to the “individualist” Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao’s invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China’s collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society – despite the fact that Cromwell is also “Western”. This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by “individualist” and “collectivist” societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:
Listen to it here:
This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I’ve always been in the “people are essentially the same” camp – it’s just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:
I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that’s representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato’s plane of ideal forms, despite my friend’s protestations that I just wasn’t understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word “境界” – which I think I translated as “aura” but could easily have been “paradigm”.
I’ve regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald’s across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I’ve even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the “heartless onlookers” in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we’d like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:
They were conscripted into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.
Indeed, it’s in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:
… she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China’s industrial id.
Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China’s art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China’s literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.
There’s an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from “revolutionary party” to “party in power,” for example.
I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term “bobozu” (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for “burnt out but opulent,” which didn’t seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, “bourgeious bohemians” being the “bobo” or “bubo” in question, although I still like my classmate’s explanation better.
Osnos’ book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.
There’s also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:
We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.
The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.
A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders – “fortune” referring to is now the cliched “meteoric rise” of China’s economy, “truth” dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.
OK, so I’ll start with the positives, this is not the worst film on the Mazu procession that I’ve ever seen, but that’s mostly because I had to trawl through the NTU vault of Taiwanese documentaries to write a review every week for my professor. The film makes a good (albeit an unquestioning and superficial) attempt at explaining what’s going on formalistically during the pilgrimage, which sets out from the north of Taiwan over 9 days, bringing Mazu, the sea goddess from her home temple to tour the island before returning home, followed by pilgrims hoping to get her blessing by carrying flags which they get blessed at every stop along the way. The film also made an attempt to explain why people were providing food and the different ways in which people participate in the pilgrimage, which already beats out the shaky student films that don’t even put Chinese subtitles, with only a brief, rather smug voiceover telling you the name of each bit in Taiwanese, but no explanation offered as to what it actually represents. You soon realize that this film was made with a specific purpose, however, and that purpose is encapsulated well at the end when the indefatigably cheerful presenter Richie Jen (a Mandopop star and actor, who finishes almost every sentence in the film with an 喔!/wo! a 加油!/jiayou! or a 辛苦啦!/sin-khó͘la!) sings a song which is as about as subtle as China’s foreign ministry: he changes the lyrics of his previous saccharine hit 〈對面的女孩看過來〉 (Look over here, girl [opposite]), to 〈對面的觀眾看過來〉(Look over here, audience [opposite]) into a marketing ploy packaging the Mazu procession for tourists from what I’m guessing he means by 「對面的觀眾」(the audience opposite), could it be… on the other side of the strait? (shock horror! Quick! Take siege to the theaters!).
The changes aren’t limited to the title, he continues to drivel on about how cute Taiwanese people are, especially the old ones and the young ones (Yes, yes, Taiwan, we already got the memo… NO, BUT WE’RE REALLY FRIENDLY!!! REALLY REALLY FRIENDLY喔!!!!!… Yeah, you’re alright I suppose… NO, WE’RE REALLY REALLY SUPER FRIENDLY! SUPER FRIENDLY, LIKE REALLY REALLY FRIENDLY喔!!!!!… I know, I know, Taiwanese people are very friendly… THAT’S BETTER喔!!!!!!!). The film failed to examine any darker side of the procession, like the associations between mafia and certain temples in Taiwan, although it pretended it was going to for a while in Changhua with the promise of fights over the direction of the pilgrimage by local temples, though it ultimately led to nothing. Other documentaries on the subject go into this link in more detail, and it provides a more interesting perspective than this cutesy romp. It also failed to give any critical perspective on the social purpose of Mazu, or to question the beliefs of those taking part. This wasn’t in the film’s remit, however, as it was essentially a promotional video – a glorified travel program, representative of the ruling Kuomintang’s line on mainlanders, specifically, “let’s take them for all the money we can.”
2/10 (It at least made an effort to be understood)
Lolita Hu (胡晴舫) was born in Taipei and graduated from the Foreign Languages Department of National Taiwan University and went on to get her masters in the Theatre Department of The University of Wisconsin. In 1999 she moved to Hong Kong. She writes cultural criticism as well as short stories and essays. Her works have been published in the media in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. She currently lives in Tokyo.
Dim light is cast by the dragon-head-shaped wall lights, the pulse of electro shakes the entire space, comfy sofas divide the room into different nooks and crannies for people to drink in, pink nylon and muslin hang from the ceiling to the floor, prints of hundreds of bored faces are faintly discernible upon it. It could only be the hottest spot in Beijing this weekend.
Every three months a new nightclub appears in Beijing, and everybody trips over themselves to go there. The nightclub will normally be in a hutong, a dilapidated courtyard style house or a factory that’s about to be demolished. The same people every time scurry along to explore the new bar, they spout their cigarette smoke while telling you in lofty tones how the music in this new place is cool. After three months have passed, if it’s not that the style of the music has changed, or that the building which houses the club has suddenly been demolished by the city government, then it’s that it loses popularity for no particular reason whatsoever. Another bar opens, it’s also housed in an old factory, a hutong, or a traditional courtyard style house, wherever it may be, it always sounds incredibly cool.
Everyone vies with one another to be the first to spread the news. Then, at the new bar you meet the same familiar faces who recommended the old bar to you so enthusiastically.
When someone mentions the old bar, it’s as if they’re talking about a has-been celebrity. It’s so passé, they say. I don’t even know why it was so popular in the first place, it’s only logical that it’s become as out of fashion as it should have been in the first place.
It’s Friday night at 2am at the hottest bar of this couple of months, situated in the Sanlitun area. She has drunk quite a lot, but she’s still quite sober. She came with a friend who had a song twenty years ago which was popular throughout the whole of Beijing but who never followed it up with any other songs, when meeting a stranger he would always say “I’m so-and-so, do you want to buy me a drink?’. She would stand next to her friend, then not long after that she would ditch him, and sit down next to an immaculately dressed foreigner.
Mu Xin is the pen name for author, painter and poet, Sun Pu (孙璞). He came from a wealthy family in Zhejiang and was the nephew of the famous Chinese author Mao Dun (茅盾). After graduating from art school he became a teacher and later a professor. During the cultural revolution he was arrested and imprisoned. After being released from prison, he continued to work in fine art. In 1982 he migrated to the United States, where he continued to write and paint. He was the first 20th Century Chinese artist to be housed in the British Museum. In 2006 he returned to his hometown in China. He died in December of 2011 after having been admitted to hospital for a lung infection in October.
About to Awaken
Man just awoken from his dreams, is man at his most basic.
In that instant, man’s nature is neither good nor evil, it’s empty, weak, vaguely disconnected .
A hero’s failure, the deflowering of a beauty, all occur at such a moment. An instant on the blurry line between the conscious and the subconscious, an involuntary moment.
Man’s effusiveness, his distance, his magnanimity, his miserliness, are all deliberately acquired behaviour. Rudely awakened from one’s dreams, the pious or the villainous, the gentleman or the pleb, the loyal lover or the cad, they’re all more or less the same, after a little time passes, the differences become clear as day.
However, why is it that the masterful battle strategies, that strangely beautiful inspiration, often comes out of these instants at which one is neither awake nor asleep?
It’s the persisting presence of the dream, when the routine logic of the mind has yet to kick in; instinct, intuition take advantage of the opportunity, and man is able to exceed the limits imposed by habit – instinct, intuition, are the fundamental intelligence formed by tens of thousands of years of experience, lying dormant in the deepest recesses of our intellect, they surface only occasionally, making up for lost time with their brilliance.
That which is brilliant and majestic can be found to have been achieved by way of man’s instinct.
As if the gods had intervened to help, man actually helps himself – this without doubt is something to rejoice in. However, one mustn’t be too happy.
I’ve been inTaiwan for a few years now and have been translating a variety of short stories and essays on an amateur basis. I hope to use this blog to post some of the translated work and some translations that I’ve done for fun. Would be happy to take submissions from other amateur translators with an interest in China or Taiwan.