As well as Buddhism and Christianity
Some gods dig water channels like Allah
Some are the Holy Marys pushing wheelchairs in the park
Where ghosts thrive, gods thrive too
As shadow follows the light
Where light shines strongest you feel secure warmth
But don’t fear the places where ghosts roam
Sometimes the city’s depths are lighter than its surface
This is the advance of civlization
This time it’s a reader contribution. My former co-worker snapped this poem on the MRT and sent it to me. The poem was written by Chuang Tsu-huang (莊祖煌 pinyin: Zhuang Zuhuang) who goes under the pen-name Bai Ling (白靈). He was born in Taipei’s Wanhua District in 1951 to a family from Fujian in China. After studying chemistry in Taiwan and teaching for a while, he went to the US to study a master’s at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He is currently a professor at National Taipei University of Technology and at one time took part in a grassroots poetry collective, including a period as the editor of a grassroots poetry publication. He has won a plethora of prizes for his poetry.
不如歌 Better a Song
Better a manic something over a tranquil nothing
Better a tear bubbled up in heat over a dewdrop awaiting the warmth
Better to land the bullseye than to loose an arrow in haste
Better a single eagle than to raise three thousand doves
Better to be pecked, than to be kissed
Went to an enjoyable book launch today. The book is called 《臺中一姊遇到法國小王子》(The woman from Taichung meets the little French prince). I read the first few chapters when I was waiting to meet the author. The book seems like a charming, light read, on the development of the romance of the author and her French boyfriend (now husband). If you’re asking “why do I care?” right now, the answer is perhaps that Taiwan is still very conservative about what it calls “cross-cultural” relationships, and this book has an important task in offering an alternative representation of foreign male/Taiwanese female relationships to the one that Apple Daily most revels in, ie a nasty foreign guy who is unemployable in his own country, comes to Taiwan, and uses a combination of drink and foreign tricks to sleep with her, robbing Taiwanese men of their birthright (I think Li Ang’s book is having an effect on me). The couple are very charming, and the vocabulary is definitely very accessible for foreign learners looking to pick up their first Chinese-language novel. Of what I gleaned of the tone of the book, it’s not about foreigner worship, or doing down Taiwan, but is rather a comic but sincere look at how relationships like these function long term, which is what Professor Fongming Yang was asking for in this article.
Thanks to my skills with the camera, most of the footage is a little fuzzy along with the pictures, but had an interesting chat with the author (above), and will write a review after I’ve read it, incorporating some of the footage I shot.
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.
This was an average but ultimately disappointing read from an author whose short stories promised something more. ‘A Kind of Reality’ had an interesting narrative style, completely unengaged from the tragedy that occurs in the story, To Live, however, seemed derivative of a lot of the scar literature I read as a teenager, like Wild Swans, Life and Death in Shanghai, and Falling leaves return to their roots. Not that these books were bad, it’s just that I expected a more interesting technique from Yu Hua than a more or less straightforward narrative, although Yu Hua distinguishes his story somewhat in being less critical of the Communist Party than other novels in the genre. The almost Job-like persistence of Fu Gui, despite the death of his entire family brought to mind the determinism of the New Taiwanese Film wave, particularly films like Dust in the Wind. Although I identify more with the outlook of Steinbeck at the end of Grapes of Wrath or Hemingway at the end of A Farewell to Arms.
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.
Pat: No, no, an ordinary Protestant like Leadbetter, the plumber in the back parlour next door, won’t do, nor a Belfast orangeman, not if he was as black as your boot. (不算,像Leadbetter這種一般的基督敎徒不算——隔壁院子的水電工也不算,北爾法斯特的奧倫治黨員也不算，就算他們因為很積極地參加皇家黑統一組織而比你的靴子還黑也不算。)
Meg: Why not? (為什麼不算呢?)
Pat: Because they work. An Anglo-Irishman only works at riding horses, drinking whiskey, and reading double-meaning books in Irish at Trinity College. (因為他們工作,所以才不算。典型的英裔愛爾蘭人只從事騎馬、喝威士忌酒以及在都柏林聖三一學院讀愛爾蘭文的書籍的時候讀到文本雙層的意義才算。)
Zheng Qianci (鄭千慈), whose pen name is Egoyan Zheng (伊格言）is a prominent science fiction writer and poet from Taiwan born in 1977. After dropping out of medical school, he completed his masters in Chinese Literature at Tamkang University. He’s won and been nominated for several literary prizes, including nominations for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This is an extract from his science fiction novel The Dream Devourer (《噬夢人》）, which was published in 2010. This extract was first translated for eRenlai magazine in January 2011 by Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇`).
The Western limits of the Pacific Ocean. The island nation of Taiwan.
The North coast. The beach at sunset. Although one might call it sunset, given the low latitude, even in the midst of late Autumn, night never fell early. Although the sunlight had actually already long vanished beyond the horizon; there remained the sapphire curtain of night permeated with a milky glean hanging down from the edge of the heavens.
K walked alone away from the bright lights of the fish market beside the quay and wandered along the deserted beach, enjoying the stirring chill of the sea breeze after nightfall. In the distance, above the dark coastal highway, several blimps passed by from time to time at irregular intervals, more intermittent than frequent; one had to wait quite a while to catch sight of the circular beam of the searchlights passing by.
When there were no blimps passing, the vast space in the distance on the margins of his vision was a pitch black. Nearby the neon lights of a seaside amusement park glistened, the carousel with its colorful vaulted arches shone with an orange light in the midst of the pitch black surroundings. It was on appearance a popular scenic spot, in the day time it would most likely be teeming with tourists. Now though, even the majority of those that had loitered had already dispersed. The part of the beach K was standing on was a long way off from the fairground. He couldn’t hear any of the voices or the music. Or perhaps it was because the sea wind rose up to carry away the noise. However, in his line of sight, the fine strokes of sketched light stood out amongst the vast dark background, and the flowing multitude of people and things as they followed the revolutions of the vaulted axis, appeared at that instant to be so beautiful and unreal, like a ghostly gathering of the after images of light…