Thursday, December 31, 2009

Shanghai's Last Madness of 2009

by Maple Xu, guest blogger

[in translation]
Shanghai, Dec. 31 - Shanghai's large department stores have the tradition of a year-end white sale. On December 31st, all the stores stay open until 2:00 am. This is the day when those usually thrifty residents swarm to stores and become extraordinarily cooperative with the commercial circle, forging a shopping rush unto the small hours. I've heard that the day's shopping atmosphere is so powerful that you can't help but buy a big pile of useless goods and leave them rotting at home.

It was that day of the year again. As a visitor I didn't have better things to do, so I convinced a Shanghai friend to go watch the fun. Our target was Yaohan (八佰伴), the biggest mall in Pudong.

At a little past 10 am, still a mile away from Yaohan, the street was already full of crowds carrying big and small shopping bags. Everyone looked so jubilant as if each had just won the lottery. I did not walk in Yaohan myself; I was swept along by the human flood. Inside, long lines were everywhere, even for elevators. It was getting hard to breath in this usually bright and spacious mall.

 
Struggles on the escalator (photo by Maple Xu)

My friend commented, "Just a few days ago they feared H1N1 and wore masks to supermarkets. Look at the thousands and thousands of people here. How come no one displays the least bit of fear today?"

I said, "Well, it goes to show Chinese people are indeed rich. The way they rush to shop is like buying things for free."

"On the contrary," my Shanghai friend corrected, "this shows how poor people still are. But even poor people want fashion. Especially in an international metropolis like Shanghai where people judge others solely on appearance, those poor residents who would eat one less meal to buy one more piece of fashion have been waiting all year for today."

I nodded, "Right. I heard that many came yesterday to locate what they wanted, so as soon as the doors open today they can rush in to grab those things right away."

My friend tittered, "My company has one couple that is even more ridiculous. Every year, on this day, they take a half day off from work, both husband and wife. The wife is responsible for grabbing goods; the husband is responsible for waiting in the cashier’s line, their young daughter is responsible for watching their bags. This is called increasing efficiency."

I wondered how much advantage one could possibly obtain from this white sale as we struggled through the crowds. I saw something I liked, a down winter jacket, priced for 1599 yuan (US$235). No discount, that was disappointing. On the other hand, for each 500 yuan spent you could get a 300 yuan coupon, which again could be used with no discount apply. Good deal? Bad deal? I was momentarily confused.

My experienced friend told me this jacket had a 10% discount on a normal day. "Buy it today you get a coupon to spend without discounts. Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it? However, because most things have discounts on a normal day, today you'll have to spend 900 on 600 yuan worth. Not such a good deal to me after all."

I thought about it and suggested, "How about I use the coupon to buy something that normally doesn't have a discount anyway?"

"What's that?" my friend said, "Lets go see."

"TeenieWeenie," I told him. I've always loved the brand, but because their price is high and they never offered a discount, I haven't bought it so far.

We again pushed through the crowds and, after lots of struggling, approached the counter of TeenieWeenie. Oh my God! On a normal day this counter would have been deserted, now it was out of control! There was no room for me to even take out my hand, let alone selecting clothing. Everyone pasted on everyone else's back like sandwich biscuits, and police were present to maintain order. The cashier lines were long and winding.

The new clothing in people's hands looked completely wrinkled, as if just taken out from the bottom of a storage room. The style was at least several years old. Someone behind the crowd shouted at a staffer, "I can't reach the counter! Please help! I need a different size!" The staffer showed a cold face: "Whatever size you have. It's not a time to be picky." Some customers started to curse, some screamed about a toe being stepped on.

In the chaos my friend did not forget to educate me: "Now you see? Today is the glorious time for the brand sellers to clean out their stock ballast. You thought your coupon could buy 900 yuan worth of things? Those old stock aren’t worth even 300."

I dragged my friend to run away – but of course you couldn't run, you could only push.

"It is a trap that requires many willing people to dig for themselves," my friend said. 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Really Happened in Copenhagen?

The post-Copenhagen saliva fights between countries are getting more curious – and fascinating – than the conference itself. The Guardian piece by Mark Lynas that has been widely circulated and commented upon, "How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room," sounds a bit too angry to be completely trusted, but it does highlight two questions for me:

1)      Why did China not only refuse emission targets for itself, but also block targets some developed nations offered to commit to?
2)      Why did premier Wen Jiabao skip the final session of the conference, on the evening of Dec. 18th, when about 30 country leaders, including Obama, tried to hammer out a deal?

Mark Lynas' conclusion was that China's representative "intentionally humiliated Barack Obama," and also intentionally wrecked the deal. To what end? Lynas does not say.

On the other hand, Danwei's interview with The Guardian's Beijing correspondent, Jonathan Watts, provides a more objective and interesting perspective. To the first question above, Watts wonders if it's because China will be a developed nation by mid-century. (I'm not sure what exactly the criteria are for developed nation, but in terms of average income, China still has a long way to go. China's GDP might be high, but its low-income population is also high. In recent years, there have been increasing complaints on the sharp contrast between "poor people" and "rich country" in China.) As to Wen's absence at the final meeting, Watts says "This was primarily a defensive tactic. He did not want to be strongarmed into a deal." This seemed to me a more reasonable interpretation. 

Like Watts, I wanted to hear China's explanation. My digging discovered a detailed report about premier Wen's activities during his two-day trip in Copenhagen. The report was published in Beijing Evening News on Christmas Day, apparently reacting to Mark Lynas' angry criticism. The article cites its source as the Xinhua news agency, but I did not find it on xinhuanet.com.

What's interesting about the Chinese report is not its defense of Wen (which is to be expected), but a few almost unknown details. The report on Wen's timetable in Copenhagen ends right before the final evening session that Wen skipped, thus avoiding any explanation as to why that happened. As if to forge indirect counter-criticism, the article cites the following strange incidents:

  • On the evening of December 17th, when premier Wen attended a banquet hosted by Denmark’s Queen, he accidentally learned from another guest that, after the banquet, "some country" was to hold a small-range meeting that had China on its list of attendees, however China had not been informed of the meeting. Wen left the banquet immediately to handle this and then sent a representative to protest the calling country's "ulterior motivation." (Which country was that? The report does not say.)
  • At 9:45am of the 18th, Wen arrived at the site for a leadership meeting that was supposed to begin at 10:00am. However neither the host country nor the UN Secretary General was present, the stage was empty. The meeting did not start until 11:30am. (So what is the report saying? That Wen was unfairly held up for one hour and 45 minutes, and Obama was not the only one left waiting?)
  • At 6:50 pm Friday afternoon, when Wen and other BASIC Four countries were meeting, Obama suddenly pushed the door open and surprised everyone. "Obama also felt [he was] a bit blunt," the report describes. "Standing one foot inside and one outside of the door, Obama asked with a smile, 'Premier Wen, am I too early? Should I wait for you outside, or join your discussion?'" Then Wen "politely welcomed him to join," and "Obama was moved" by this.  The report says it was this meeting, apparently right before the final evening conference that Wen skipped, that hammered out the final agreement.
These details only added to my puzzlement. I searched English reports for further explanation, and found an article from the Washington Post on Sunday, Dec. 20, which provides another version about what happened when Obama unexpectedly entered the BASIC Four meeting room:
At one point in Friday's tense talks, for instance, China's top climate change negotiator exploded in rage at U.S. pressure after Obama walked in on the Chinese while they were holding talks with the Indians, South Africans and Brazilians. After Obama asked whether the Chinese could commit to listing their climate targets in an international registry, Xie Zhenhua launched into a tirade, pointing his finger at the U.S. president.
(… )
Wen instructed his Chinese interpreter not to translate Xie's fiery remarks. When Xie erupted again, Wen, who was chairing the meeting, ignored him. After Wen handed Obama a draft text of an agreement that included verification language Obama couldn't abide by, the two men led a lengthy debate that ended in a working compromise, sources said.

Very curious.  Xie seemed very rude, not only to Obama, but also to Wen.

Note the contrast in reporting between the Beijing Evening News and the Washington Post:  the former emphasizes the Chinese premier's politeness towards Obama's sudden entrance, but avoids mentioning anything about Xie' rudeness, which the Washington Post focuses on.

Beyond that, I have been unable to find English reports on the other incidents mentioned in the Chinese report. And I'm still looking for explanations as to why China did not let any developed nations set their own emission targets.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen and Chinese E-bikes

My comment on Copenhagen: however lackluster the outcome, it is progress in world civilization when countries fight over environmental issues instead of killing each other on account of ideological differences. Finally, governments are recognizing that we humans have important shared concerns than trump ideology. Too bad it looks like it will take ever escalating world crises for something to really come of this.

On a related topic, the New Yorker has an interesting report by Evans Osnos titled "Green Giant: Beijing’s crash program for clean energy." The most fun part in it is the author's experience with e-bikes, an effective, clean and low-cost alternative to automobiles. At an e-bike shop:
The manager rang up the sale, and I chatted with two buyers who were students at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “You must have tons of these in the U.S., because you’re always talking about environmental consciousness,” one of them, an industrial-design major wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, said. Not really, I told him; American drivers generally use bikes for exercise, not transportation. He looked baffled. Around his campus and others in Beijing, electric bikes are as routine as motorcycles are in the hill towns of Italy.
And after Osnos purchased an e-bike of the brand Turtle King:
I threaded through an intersection clotted with honking traffic, and the feeling, I discovered, was sublime. The Turtle King was addictive. I began riding it everywhere, showing up early for appointments, flush with efficiency and a soupçon of moral superiority.

look at all these e-bikes they are riding...


I suspect I myself might be credited with early reporting in English on Chinese e-bikes :-). Nearly a year ago, I wrote the following in my review of James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square:
The cement plant case is only one of those homegrown, and very creative, "green" efforts popping up across the country. I've seen others during my annual visits to China. One of my favorite examples is the electric bicycle which I first saw in Chengdu several years ago. These are popular with people who want more than a bicycle, but can’t afford, or don’t want to deal with, a car. And there is not just one kind. There are lots of different brands using different kinds of components. Nobody is waiting for the right battery. They just make the things and try, apparently successfully, to sell them. Some look like junk, some look pretty good, but they are out there and being used.
Don't underestimate those home-made e-bikes in China. Grassroots innovations like that might save the country, and their neighbors, from a worse environmental disaster.

By the way, in that same review, I had an in-passing criticism of a NYT columnist's opinion that "China can’t have a greener society" because of its one-party system (this doesn't mean I like the system - I don't). Apparently I had pissed off some readers with the criticism, which is understandable. Curiously though, a year later in another op-ed the same columnist made a 180° turn toward China's political system. No doubt he is sincere in both articles. I'm just not sure what made a Pulitzer winner flip-flop like that, except perhaps that he was writing about a country he did not really know.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Drake Emerging Writer Award in Short Fiction

My book Apologies Forthcoming, together with Loranne March Temple's Coming to You from the Blue Room, has been selected as a runner-up for the 2009 Drake Emerging Writer Award in Short Fiction. The winner is Andrew Porter's The Theory of Light & Matter.

Congratulations to Loranne March Temple and Andrew Porter! I look forward to reading their books.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang

Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster (May 5, 2009), 240 pages, $24

The 1989 student movement that ended in blood underlies the cause and effects in this detective novel set in Beijing, China. That year, a 19-year-old student named Lin is condemned to a labor reform camp. Eight years later, he is released and becomes a migrant worker. Meanwhile, private detective Mei Wang, the heroine of the novel, takes on an investigation into the disappearance of a famous pop star, Kaili. When Mei finds a paper butterfly and a stash of old love letters in Kaili's apartment, she feels a historical link between Kaili, the letter writer, and herself. Soon Kaili is found dead, and her boss, who hired Mei for the investigation in the first place, now deploys, without success, all means at his disposal to stop Mei. More paper butterflies appear in a poor neighborhood, where a child also vanishes. With the help of her connections, Mei eventually ties all the ends together and discovers the truth.

This novel is the second of Diane Wei Liang's Mei Wang series that features China's first female private detective. The plot of Paper Butterfly is more gripping than the author's first novel, The Eye of Jade, and there are a number of rural scenes that are rendered quite vividly. Unfortunately, the characterization is weaker. Mei Wang's personality traits, which may have fascinated the reader in the previous novel – her aloofness and distaste for "back doors," her rare courage as a female detective, her conflicting emotions toward her mother – are no longer given enough stage to perform, or develop, in this 224-page thin sequel. As a consequence, Mei Wang's role in Paper Butterfly is not as memorable. Using a political event familiar to Western readers as the plot driver might be a clever idea, but it does not necessarily work well for an uninteresting protagonist.

Contemporary Chinese detective stories are not a new comer in the stage of English literature. Qiu Xiaolong, for example, has successfully portrayed inspector Chen Cao in a series of novels set in Shanghai. Diane Wei Liang's unique angle is the introduction of a female detective, but that uniqueness has yet to be well exploited.

The novel's writing, executed in the author's second language, poses an issue as to how much rendering of foreign-language terminology is too much. The author seems very eager to teach her readers Chinese nouns, as she uses pinyin (the most commonly used romanization system for standard Mandarin) way too frequently. Many of those nouns, such as "hulu," "tufei," etc, are insignificant words in the book which have readily available English equivalents, thus presenting them in Chinese pinyin doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose. A less arbitrary display of Chinese terms might be more effective.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"What Does the Chinese Signboard on Your Book Cover Say?"

[Note: In the past a few months, I've had the pleasure to answer questions from a number of university and high school teachers about my book Apologies Forthcoming. The following dialogue, in chronological order, is compiled from my email exchanges with a teacher at a midwest public university, who is teaching the book in a senior honors course. These are great questions, ranging from particular translation of Chinese terms, to how educated women fared in the 1980s, to the present effects of the way the Cultural Revolution is addressed in China, that I thought both the questions and answers may be of interest to broad readers. Posted with permission. – Xujun]

October 18-19

Q. Would you please comment on why you use the Japanese term 'sensei' in your stories? I'm teaching this book, and Chinese colleagues say they are quite puzzled by the use of the term, especially in stories set during the Cultural Revolution.

A.  The Japanese term "sensei" originated from – and is equivalent to – the Chinese term "xian-sheng" (先生). It is the same term in two different languages, with the same characters and very similar pronunciation. However, if I use "xian-sheng," few English readers would understand. On the other hand, "sensei" is widely known in English.

"Xian-sheng" is a traditional way of addressing a teacher; it has an old-fashioned and more reverent flavor. It was not commonly used during the Cultural Revolution, however even in that fanatic time there existed old-fashioned people who preferred the traditional way, especially in remote areas. My story "Disciple of the Masses" takes place in a rural area, where village people still have lots of reverence for teachers, and old traditions are better preserved than in the cities. That's why they are calling a teacher "xian-sheng" instead of "lao-shi" (老师).   In short, I use "sensei" instead of "teacher" in order to better reflect the local characterization. Part of the story is based on my own experience as an "insert" (a sent-down city youth) in the countryside.

Q. Why did you choose to start the book with Snow Line and Pivot Point and to place The Randomness of Love next to the end?  For me, the other five stories (Feathers, Men Don't Apologize, Watch the Thrill, Discipline of the Masses, and Second Encounter) would make a solid collection on their own. For you, what is most important to convey to readers through Snow Line, Pivot Point and The Randomness of Love?

A. I agree with you that, if the book is only set in the Cultural Revolution, then the five stories you mentioned make a more concrete selection. However I also wanted to depict the years immediately after the CR, because that period was, and still is, largely unknown to the broad English audience, while in my opinion that transitional period is historically very important. Mostly though, I chose to write about the period from early 1970s to mid 1980s because I grew up from a child to an adult in that period, and those where the years that molded me and my generation. There have been many books written in English set in the CR or much later, but the 1980s China seemed to be nonexistent in literature.

From the subject and theme point of view, the choice of the opening story for the US edition doesn't seem to be the best one, and in the book's Hong Kong edition it has been changed to "Men Don't Apologize."  I chose "Snow Line" to open the US edition mainly because of the artwork. As you have seen, several pieces of artwork by Wu Fan, a well-known old-generation artist in Sichuan, are used as illustrations in the book. I have tremendous respect for Wu Fan and his art. Because not every story has an accompanying piece of art, I thought "Snow Line" would make an attractive opening because the story cites its companion art piece "Dandelion." In this way it blurs the boundary of fiction and nonfiction. As it turns out, "Snow Line" seems to get polarized reactions from readers: it was either loved enthusiastically, especially by poetry lovers, or it put off the reader. None of the other stories have had such a divided reaction.

December 4-7

Q. What do you think are the present effects in China of people not being able to openly discuss what happened during the Cultural Revolution, that is, of not being able to assess for themselves what happened, how and why? Friends we have known in China for 25 years say the CR is not a subject they ever expect to be addressed publicly, except in terms of the government deciding Mao was X% right and X% wrong (and he will always be more right than wrong officially).  

A. The current situation is more like this: though the official media largely avoid addressing the CR, the topic is not as sensitive as some others (such as the 1989 massacre). Many books that realistically reflect the time have been published in China, both fiction and nonfiction. One thing comes to mind is Yu Hua's very popular novel "To Live," which was first published in 1994. The movie that based on the novel and won international prizes did not pass the censors and consequently was not shown in China, but a similar TV series based on the book was made and shown in 2006. Many Party seniors have written memoirs about that period. There is no danger associated with talking about the CR among ordinary people.

However, because the memory of the time is very painful to the victims and shameful to those who participated, which include entire generations born in the early 1950s or before, few like to talk about it today. This is more a voluntary silence than one that is forced upon people. Parents don't pass their knowledge of the time to children. This, coupled with the void in textbooks, results in the ignorance of the younger generations. This is where the danger lies: because the lesson has not been learned by the later generation, the same disaster might be repeated in the future.

Q. Can a day ever come in China when people will be honored who spoke out *during the CR* against the violence and madness of the times? Some ordinary people tried to stop the madness, but they are not named and respected today, much less praised. People praise Zhou En Lai, but forget Liu Shao Qi. Is that partly because Mao must forever be honored, no matter how many people died because of his policies?   

A. In the 1980s and 90s, there have been names officially honored in China, such as Zhang Zhixing and Yu Luoke, who spoke with a rational voice and were executed because of it during the CR. However, the more remote the CR becomes, the less we hear about it. It seems that now there always are more urgent and current issues to care about, both to the government and the people. Most seem to have taken the attitude of not dwelling on the past. The history of the CR faces the danger of being forgotten in China.

Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi are both complex figures, about whom I don’t have the space to discuss here. Mao is actually mentioned less and less by the government today, but many Chinese, especially old peasants and factory workers, still love him, so it is unlikely Mao's image will disappear any time soon. This is another very complicated topic.

Q. In the "parameters" of Chinese society as it modernizes in the 1980's, opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited, even in (perhaps esp in) marriage and family relationships. What to you is hopeful in the lives of people during the 1980's, when "love" itself becomes a highly contested possibility?    

A. The 1980s was a transitional period. Though it's true that "opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited," political and life style control by the Party had become less rigid compared to the 1970s. We – the younger generation at the time – saw the hope for more freedom from all perspectives. Since then, freedom has indeed increased, but not as fast, or as broadly, as the economy has grown.

Q. Are Chinese women in the 1980's unhappy because they are "prisoners of their bodies," no matter how highly educated they are?
 
A. I think in the 80s highly-educated women were even more unhappy than their less-educated counterparts, because Chinese men generally didn't want their wives to be intelligent. But this situation is changing now.

Q. Is one reason for the instability of Chinese marriage and family relationships in the 1980's the reality that gender roles have become confused after the severe equality of the CR, or the reality that gender roles are becoming more rigid than ever as society modernizes, or possibly both at once?  In the book, the "independent" women seem emotionally needy to an extreme that suggests their self-worth is shaky. At the same time, the men seem to be seething with anger that comes out in all kinds of ways. What do you see as necessary for marriage and family relationships in the 1980's to become repaired?  

A. This is a very good question. I think it's true that intelligent women had a harder time in the 1980s than, say, 1950s or 2000s. One important reason is that the CR, especially the "up to the mountains and down to the countryside" movement, had caused a disproportionate number of marrying-age women to return to the city from the countryside and have difficulties finding suitors. Another reason may be that intellectuals suffered more during the CR and, for a period of time afterward, many men subconsciously disdained highly-educated women. It was an abnormal time that would eventually pass.

December 11-13

Q. Can you tell us what the Chinese signboard on the book cover says?

A.  The Chinese words on the signboard are: "Ardent acclaim the publication of the New Year editorial!"  This was a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution. The "New Year editorial" was a joint editorial from People's Daily, The Liberation Army Daily, and Red Flag magazine, the three most authoritative publications of the time. It had become a ritual that, on each New Year's Day, the three of them published a joint editorial to convey Mao's new instructions for the year. Such an editorial often contained Mao's own writing. We used to parade on New Year's Day to acclaim the publication of the editorial.

Q. Do you use "insert" in somewhat the same way you use "sensei" (that is, making up a term of your own for a general audience)? Chinese colleagues say "insert" is an unfamiliar term to them.

PS. Our favorite stories as a class are "Second Encounters,"  "Men Don't Apologize" and "Watch the Thrill." For us, "Watch the Thrill" is a classic of world literature, true of many times and places, even now.

A. The Chinese term for "insert" is 插队知青, which literally means "educated (city) youth who are inserted into a (rural) production team." A more commonly seen English translation for this term is "sent-down youth."  When it comes to translation, I often prefer a verbatim phrase over an idiomatic one, provided it does not add confusion to the reader. This is because Chinese is such a richly pictorial language, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.

Q. Would you like to tell us what makes you most proud to be Chinese, and what makes you most happy to be American?

A. I've never thought to be proud or not proud as a Chinese. I think a person's race or nationality is not all that important. I love Chinese culture and the language; it is a natural attitude simply because I grew up with such a culture.

Things that make me most happy to live in America are freedom and privacy. I can write whatever I want without fear of persecution. This said, China is also changing, and today Chinese people have a lot more freedom than when I lived there.

Q. Your comment about not being concerned about being proud or not seems unusual these days. Do you think it is unusual? We have heard pride in being Chinese placed at the top of countless lists of what makes people feel unified in being Chinese. "We are proud to be Chinese" comes up over and over whenever we are talking to people about contemporary Chinese life. Of course, what makes one generation proud might not be the same as what makes another generation proud.

A. I think there indeed is a period difference here. Today Chinese nationalism seems to have reached a new peak.  IMO, nationalism is a double-edged sword. It does have the function of unifying a nation, and historically it has resulted in heroic actions fighting foreign invaders (for example in the war of resistance against Japan in the 1930s-40s).  However, the extreme nationalism today seems to work more toward fending off international criticism. That's why the Chinese government encourages it. The ready soil for growing such a sentiment is China's rapid economic growth.  Life is generally a lot better now than it was when I lived there.

On the other hand, many dissidents, both inside and outside China, tend toward the opposite extreme. The disparity seems especially salient among overseas Chinese. A well-known writer that comes to mind is Ha Jin, who is of my generation. In his semi-autobiographic novel "A Free Life" (not his best work IMO), his grudge against being Chinese is so intense it is appalling.

My own attitude might have something to do with the time I grew up in China (1960s-80s), but it is also very individual. Personally, I prefer the Confucian "middle way" position. I think this is especially important for a writer who seeks to tell the truth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why Has Chongqing Mayor Wang Hongju Resigned?

Today the headline on xinhuanet.com's Chongqing page is "Wang Hongju resigns as the mayor of Chongqing." This is big news, but the one-sentence ambiguous official report raises many questions. Another report cites "age reason." Singapore's Zaobao notes that Chongqing's many newspapers, with the exception of Chongqing Daily, made no mention of the news, and the fact that, at 64, Wang is one year short of the retirement age for officials with his rank. A Chinese blogger calls the news "shocking" and comments on the resignation's abnormality and possible relation to Chongqing's crack-down on organized crime.

I find myself only partially surprised by the news. In recent years when I made my annual visits to Chongqing, every time I heard local people bitterly complaining about how incompetent their mayor was (which was in sharp contrast to their praise of Bo Xilai), yet year after year Wang Hongju remained steadily seated on the mayor pedestal of China's biggest metropolitan city.

Before coming to Chonqgqing, Wang was the mayor of a small county-level town, Fuling (remember Peter Hessler's River Town?).  In 1997, while over a million unhappy people from the flooded areas by the Three Gorges dam (including part of Fuling) were forced to relocate, and Fuling was merged into Chongqing's jurisdiction, Wang happily took a great-leap to the high position of Chongqing's deputy mayor. Six years later he became the mayor. As far as I can tell, Wang's unusual promotion was another twist resulting from the ill-conceived Three Gorges dam and its consequent jurisdictional politics. Rumors had it that Wang brought a full "Fuling gang" to Chongqing with him to put in various key positions of the city government, something not at all unusual in the crony politics of China's officialdom.

At this point it is hard to say if Wang's stepping-down has anything to do with Chongqing's organized crime. In any case, I think it is a good thing and hope my townsfolk will be better off under his replacement.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Translation for Lu Xun's Fiction

Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom, editor of The China Beat and author of several books on China, has a very interesting and refreshing article about Lu Xun (鲁迅) titled "China's Orwell" in Time magazine, in which he makes – quite originally – a parallel between Lu Xun and George Orwell, with the insightful point that Lu Xun is not only a great writer, but an essential writer.

I'm also happy to learn from Prof. Wasserstrom's article that Penguin is publishing The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, translated by Julia Lovell and scheduled for release in January. Since the book is "the complete fiction of Lu Xun," it must include stories from Lu Xun's collection 故事新编 (or Old Stories Told Anew by my translation – not sure how Julia Lovell would have translated this).  In that collection Lu Xun retells several ancient tales with unique language and twists.

It was those stories – not the officially hailed ones such as "The Real Story of Ah-Q" and "Diary of a Madman" – that haunted me as an impressionable high school student in the 1970s. One story I still remember after all these years is about Meijianchi, an 18-year-old boy who hands his own head to a career assassin in order to kill the king and avenge his father the legendary sword maker. The fighting scene between three severed heads biting each other in a boiling cauldron was quite heart-stirring. I've never read anything like that before or after. I'd be very interested in seeing how this story is translated into English.

The edition I read then had end notes by the editor(s), which quoted parts of the dialogue in Lu Xun's stories that were used as satiric retaliation against "four dudes" ("四条汉子"), a name Lu Xun gave to four underground communists who led the "left-wing writers union" in 1930s Shanghai. Though Lu Xun supported the communists at the time (he was never a Party member), there was quite a bit of discord between him and the "four dudes," and he often felt he was being attacked. As caustic a writer as Lu Xun was, he did not openly fight back, instead he chose to mock their attacks in his fiction. I don't know if Julia Lovell has included any notes on this history – it might be very hard to make sense of it all for a Western audience anyway.

Later during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the "four dudes," who had become high ranking Party officials then, were ruthlessly "struggled" by the Red Guards because of their historical "crime" of "opposing Lu Xun." I'm not sure that, had Lu Xun not died of sickness in 1936 and instead lived to the time of the CR, he would have been able to escape denunciation himself. Given his scathing nature, it is hard to imagine that he would have placated the Red Guards or Party officials.

In China's literary world, Lu Xun actually was the most famous for his satirical essays, which far exceed his fiction in quantity. His scathing style was extensively mimicked by the Red Guards for faction fighting during the Cultural Revolution, a consequence he wouldn't have dreamed of.

Lu Xun also translated quite a few English works into Chinese, and he advocated direct (verbatim) translation (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). Though some of his translation did not work IMO, for example I remember in one story he translated "good morning" as "好早晨" instead of "早晨好", I agree with him in principle. This is to say, to the extent it does not confuse the reader, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hot Peppers for Thanksgiving

Monday night Bob and I had dinner with Jonathan Tel, author of The Beijing of Possibilities, in a Chinese restaurant named Chili Garden (川王府). This is one of the few truly authentic sources of Sichuan cuisine in the Boston area. (Numerous Chinese restaurants here advertise themselves as Sichuan, but provide only dishes catered to American eaters who don't know what they are getting.)  Another authentic Sichuan cuisine is Red Pepper (重庆食府) on Rt. 9, which we go to most frequently, because it has a great Chongqing chef and is closer to us.  Chili Garden and Red Pepper have different specialties and varieties; the dishes in both restaurants are mouth-watering. Not surprisingly, many of their dishes are cooked with hot peppers as the dominant spice. Try them for Thanksgiving if you want to go for something non-traditional.


  A Chengdu restaurant prepares hot peppers for lunch (photo by Xujun)

I had thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Sichuan's, especially Chongqing's, history. So much for my conceit.  One thing Jonathan mentioned during dinner surprised me: he said all chili peppers came from South America, and the Chinese history of eating chili peppers is only about three to four hundred years old.

I was suspicious; in my mind we Sichuanese had been eating hot peppers since time immemorial. Digging further after returning home, however, I had to admit Jonathan was right. Apparently, chili peppers migrated into China at the end of the 16th century, and the first written record of them was found in Ming Dynasty's '草花谱' ("grass and flower album"). They were called 番椒 ("fan jiao," meaning "foreign pepper") at the time. In Sichuan we call hot peppers 海椒 ("hai jiao"), which makes perfect sense to me now because 'hai' in this context means "overseas."

It seems only appropriate to have a post about food today. Tomorrow, for our vegetarian daughter's sake we are going to have a turkey-free Thanksgiving dinner. While Bob is going to cook all those traditional veggy dishes such as cranberries, sweet potatoes and beans, I will cook a Tofu dish spiced with chili pepper. Not your traditional Thanksgiving dish, but neither the turkey nor the chili pepper tradition has been going that long after all. The White House's hypocritical tradition of pardoning one turkey (and eating another) is even shorter. Anyhow, Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"


Yesterday, Damjan of the Asia Healthcare Blog had an interesting comment on my post "The Beefiest Translation." He asked, "[H]ave you explored the possibility that this vulgar expression has been coopted into a more socially acceptable form due to its popularity with Chinese youth?"


The Beefiest Tug-of-War, with100,000 Participants 
(最牛的拔河 from bbs.huanqiu.com)

It made me wonder. Are there similar examples in English, of expressions that were once considered vulgar but have come into mainstream use in the same or a slightly modified form and divorced from their past vulgarity? I asked Bob the question, which seemed to fascinate him. He was pretty sure that accepted vulgarisms existed in English, but couldn't come up an example right away.

Bob then asked a good friend whose college major was English. The friend passed the question to his librarian wife. The knowledgeable librarian mentioned the word "sucks", which used to be prohibited in polite company but is a common word today (as in "This book sucks").

The friend inspired me to dig around the internet a bit further and I found a Slate article titled "Suck It Up – A defense of the much-maligned word" by Seth Stevenson. It is so curious that all the reasons the author listed in defending the word "sucks" can be applied to the case of '最牛'.  Stevenson's defense begins with the following:

Sucks is here to stay. And what's more, it deserves its place in our lexicon, for a couple of reasons. First, it's impossible to intelligently maintain that sucks is still offensive. The word is now completely divorced from any past reference it may have made to a certain sex act. When I tell you that the new M. Night Shyamalan movie sucks (and man, does it suck), my mind in no way conjures up an image of a film reel somehow fellating an unnamed beneficiary.

The similarity between the two cases in two different languages is striking. Even the way each expression's past reference to vulgarity is alike, as well as the ways in which their current usages are divorced from that past. The most notable disparity might be that "sucks" is used only with negative connotations, while '最牛' can be used either negatively or positively, with a slant toward the latter.

The librarian friend also mentioned a big change in young adult literature over the past five years: it has gone from being very straight laced to being much more explicit in language and in situations. This is equally interesting. Does this mean a cultural trend toward more tolerance for vulgarity, or more indulgence of our youngsters, than ever?

Whatever it means, how an expression becomes socially acceptable is independent of one's will. In the case of '最牛', because it has already been broadly used in China, I'm more interested in finding a better translation for it. So far, based on the discussion stemmed from my previous post, we have a few good candidates:

"the niuest" (h/t Matthew)
"the ballsy-est" (h/t Mouseneb and Anonymous)
"the beefiest"

But again, which translation will be most accepted is beyond our will. We can only propose and see. For now, I'll probably continue to use "the beefiest."

By the way, I asked my sister Maple, who lives in Shanghai, to help me find the origin of '牛逼' (niu bi), and she sent me this link http://iask.sina.com.cn/b/7421922.html.  For those of you who know Chinese, have fun reading.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The "Beefiest" Translation

The Chinese internet is a melting pot of popular creations, where new expressions (even new words/characters) constantly emerge like an endless stream. This presents a continuous challenge to a translator like me.

One popular adjective created and becoming fashionable in the new millennium is '最牛'. It is a mocking term that can mean, in humorless translation, "boldest" or "hottest" or "most awesome" or "formidable," depending on the object it modifies. The following image, borrowed from a Chinese blog called 西交虫, might help illustrate the meaning of '最牛':



最牛的司机  "The most [ ] driver"

I've left the English translation for '最牛' blank in the caption above, because none of the English adjectives I mentioned earlier can convey the mocking tone of this Chinese term. Furthermore, "awesome" is a commending word while '最牛' could be used with either positive or negative connotation. The other modifiers might be neutral enough, but they do not bring laughter.

When in doubt, I find that often the best solution to such a challenge is go for the literal, or verbatim (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). In this case, because '' means "cow," and an associated adjective is "beefy," I'm inclined to translate '最牛' as "the beefiest." The (invisible) driver in the above image thus becomes "the beefiest driver."

The origin of '最牛' seems no longer traceable. In fact, I noticed on the Chinese internet that several such origin-seeking questions had met with mocking answers like "you've posed the beefiest question!". I remember one of the first times the term caught my eye was when bloggers named the Chongqing nail house "the beefiest nail house" and brought it to the attention of the public and the media (even NYT) in early 2007.

More recently, this seemly harmless mocking expression has been frequently applied to bad behaviors of government officials. For example, when a judge tried to force Zhang Hui, a victim of Shanghai hooks, to drop his lawsuit and Zhang did not agree, the judge angrily yelled at Zhang as if to a child, "Be obedient!" ("你要听话!") Immediately that judge surnamed Huang was termed "the beefiest judge" on the internet.

"The beefiest official line" occurred in Guangzhou two weeks ago on Oct. 30th. In a public hearing on traffic jams, attended by several departments of the city government, a reporter asked whether the traffic police should first notify the public before closing a road. A middle-aged man replied, "Do I have to tell you whether I'm going to shit or not? Do I have to tell you whether my shit stinks or not?" These words quickly became a catch phrase on the internet, which in turn led to the man's public apology and job suspension.

The term has become so trendy that even main stream media can't afford to not use it. On Nov. 11th, xinhuanet.com reported "The Beefiest Developer Sentenced to Death," about a Chongqing developer who tried to get rid of a nail house owned by an old couple, by hiring thugs to kill their only son.

"Beefiest" is only one of many new slang words coming into being with the internet. I don't view this as simple folk language evolution; rather internet slang symbolizes a new popular culture, providing for the first time a viable means for Chinese people to publicly make fun of officials. I would be curious to know how those officials who are named "the beefiest" something feel when they see their new title. Perhaps they will step a bit more gingerly next time.

Related post: "The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Legal Crime of Shanghai Hooks

If you are searching the Chinese internet, a new high-frequency keyword is 钩子 – "hook." It was an innocent young man's blood that brought this word to the media's attention.




(image from xinhuanet.com)

In the evening of October 14th, a tearful 18-year-old man named Sun Zhongjie (孙中界) chopped off his little finger with a kitchen knife, while grieving after being framed by a government "hook."

Sun Zhongjie was a new driver employed by a construction company in Shanghai, and October 14th was his second day at work. That night, on a work-related trip, his car was stopped by a man standing in the middle of the street. The stranger, shivering in the cold weather, climbed into Sun's car uninvited and told Sun that he had something urgent to deal with but couldn't find a taxi or bus. Sun was sympathetic. Considering that the man's stated destination wasn't too far ahead along, he gave him the requested short ride of 1.5 kilometers. The man threw Sun a 10-yuan (=US$1.47) bill, which Sun hadn't asked for. But instead of getting off, the man grabbed Sun's car keys and stepped on the brake pedal. Dumbstruck, Sun's first thought was that he was being robbed.

Only it was not a robbery, but a government scheme, and the hitchhiker was a "hook." A hook's task is to entice a non-taxi driver to provide a ride, so that he'll be able to accuse the driver of operating a "black taxi" without a license. In each successful hook case, the hook gets paid several hundred Yuan, while the driver is fined 10,000 or more, by the local government's Traffic Management Bureau.

While Sun was struggling with the "hook," trying to grab back his car keys, the conspiring traffic police arrived. They dragged Sun out of his car and held him in their van for a couple of hours without showing any ID. Sun was released only after being forced to sign three receipts, which he did not even get to read. He learned that he had been accused of "black taxi" operation afterward, from several others who were also being "hooked" and brought to the police van.

The injustice and agony Sun felt was unbearable. Though newly employed and poor, his first concern wasn't the big fine or the seized car, but that he was unjustly wronged. He was innocent. He gave the stranger a ride for kindness, not money. Now his clean name was tainted by the hook. But where could he go to prove his innocence? When he was being held in the unknown van, he had shouted that he wanted to call the police, but his captors laughed and told him "We are."

After returning home, Sun picked up a kitchen knife (the big, heavy kind we Chinese use) and chopped off his left pinkie. The 18-year-old was in so much emotional distress that he did not even feel the pain. He then threw himself in bed and cried, while his severed finger bled unattended. If it were not for his older brother living upstairs, who heard the unusual sound and took him to the hospital immediately, Sun might have bled to death that night.

The next day, on October 15th, young migrant worker Sun Zhongjie appealed to the media for help getting back his good name, and reporters interviewed him in the hospital where he went through an operation to reconnect the severed finger. (A question remains: had Sun not chopped off his finger, would the reporters pay as much attention to his case as they do now?)

Under public and media pressure, five days later, on October 20th, the Traffic Management Bureau of Pudong New District issued an official report of their "investigation results," claming that everything the traffic police did in Sun's case was legal and Sun was truly an illegal taxi driver. The Bureau said their witness was not a hook but a "society member with a sense of righteousness."

The public was unsatisfied. Sun told a reporter that what the government bureau did was "having the father investigating the son," as the traffic police team belonged to the Traffic Management Bureau, and of course it wouldn't be truthful. Sun requested a face-to-face confrontation with the "witness," which did not happen. Even CCTV and People's Daily declared their suspicions with the "investigation."

The case caught the Shanghai City government's attention and a new investigation involving independent lawyers was ordered. The investigators discovered that the name of the "society member with a sense of righteousness" had appeared as a witness in other similar cases before. Eventually the man's identity as a paid "hook" was verified.

On October 26th, twelve days after Sun Zhongjie was "hooked," the government of Pudong New District issued a public apology to Sun, returned his car, and revoked the fine. The government also announced the cessation of the "hooking" practice in crashing-down "black taxis."

This quick reversal brought out tears from Sun Zhongjie's eyes. He has since left Shanghai and returned to his home village in Zhejiang Province. Before his departure, he told the media that he probably would go out again as a migrant worker, but not likely to Shanghai. When asked if he'd pick up a stranger who needs help in the future, he evaded the question.

According to reports, 99% of the so-called "black taxi" drivers have been "hooked" before, and among the hook victims also are many innocent people. On September 8th, Zhang Hui, a white collar driving his private car on the way to work at a high-paying foreign-invested company, "in a moment of soft heart" picked up a man who complained of a stomach ache and persistently begged for a ride. The man was a hook. Despite the fact that Zhang had refused the man's offer of taxi-price payment, Zhang was arrested and fined 10,000 Yuan on the grounds of illegal-taxi operation. Zhang has been blogging about the case and received broad support on the internet. Meanwhile, media coverage on his case was sparse, and the local government that wronged him kept ignoring his request for justice.

A month after he was framed and two days before Sun Zhongjie's encounter with a hook, on October 12th, Zhang Hui brought his case to the court. Probably helped by Sun's case, on the same day Sun's name was cleared, Zhang's fine was also refunded. However, the next day a judge from the court that accepted Zhang's lawsuit came to his office and shouted at him, because Zhang did not accept the judge's request for withdrawal of the lawsuit. This story is still unfolding.

Hundreds more hook victims who received big fines are requesting their money back now.

In light of Chongqing's "crashing-down on organized crime" storm, Chinese netizens are inquiring whether the government scheme of hiring hooks, now termed as an "illegal form of law enforcement" by the media, should be considered organized crime.

Chang Ping, a well-known journalist and social commentator, says in a blog post titled "上海钩子" that not only should the hooks bear legal responsibility but they should also sue their government bosses who brought them into a criminal career.

(Update: I just saw that the quick and thorough ESWN has posted and translated a bunch of earlier Chinese reports on this case, providing good references.)


Friday, October 30, 2009

The Ancient Battlefield at Bowang Hill

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation]

For this year's National Day vacation, our target was Nanyang City in Henan Province. There are many historical sites from the Three-Kingdom period (220-280) in this area, one of them the famous Bowang Hill (博望坡).

The three of us – my husband and I, plus our friend Shen – drove from Haikou to Henan. Shen is a Three Kingdoms fan. As we approached Bowang Hill, our usually taciturn friend became amazingly voluble, stories flowing out from his mouth like a running river.

It is said that, shortly after Liu Bei's three courteous visits to Zhuge Liang's thatch hut won the heart of the great war strategist, Cao Cao led an army of 100,000 to attack them. Liu Bei had only a few thousand troops, and he placed all his hope on Zhuge Liang's help. The two discussed strategies alone all day, leaving out Liu Bei's two blood brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Guan and Zhang did not trust the new strategist and were upset by Liu Bei's intimacy with him. With such a big disparity in strength between the enemy's troops and theirs, they didn't believe there would be any way for Zhuge Liang to defeat Cao Cao. But they were, of course, wrong.

Shen explained to me that, at the time Bowang Hill was a rugged area full of bushes and old trees. Zhuge Liang lured Cao Cao's army up the hill, then started a fire all around them. Trapped, Cao's soldiers could neither advance nor retreat, and most were burned to death. Thus Zhuge Liang easily won the first battle after taking up his official post as Liu Bei's adviser.

My heart couldn't bear the burning scene and I said to Shen, This Mr. Zhuge was too insidious and cruel.

What do you know? Shen glared at me, That's called war strategy. Further more, Liu Bei was defending himself; it was Cao Cao, the invader, who was on the wrong side.

Even so, I said, Need he have burned so many men? That was hardly a green strategy either.

Shen was so angry he could only laugh. Lady, he said, That was a time of cold weapons, what else do you expect? Available strategies were nothing more than fire or water.

At the point we had reached Bowang Hill. We chose an ancient post road crossing the hill from north to south. The road was over five feet wide, and we had learned that it was on this section of the road Liu Bei's army had ambushed Cao Cao.

Unexpectedly, challenge began as soon as our car got on that road.

Bowang Hill (photo by Maple Xu)

It wasn't a surprise that the ancient path had been changed to a concrete road, however even Zhuge Liang couldn't have guessed that 1800 years later it would become the villagers' drying square. It was the season for harvesting corn and canola, and the peasants dried the stalks on the road in order to use them as fuel. Those stalks didn't just occupy part of the road; they were piled over the entire road like small mountains everywhere.

We had to look for the lowest "peaks" for our car to pass. The plant stalks screeched under the wheels and scratched the windows, and our car crawled slower than an ant.

Seeing the sun was about to set, I asked my husband to find a different path. He sneered, Obviously you don't know where you are! I looked around and realized that we, like Cao Cao's army, were trapped in a situation in which neither advance nor retreat was viable. There wasn't even a place to turn around.

The villagers not only were unapologetic for the trouble they created for traffic, they held their wooden harrows tight and angrily stared at the cars, as if to say, Did you city people eat so much that you have to come to our drying ground to burst?

My husband advised me to accept fate. Let's just crawl as we can. If you don't behave, that man standing over there might light up the stalks and replay the Bowang Hill burning scene.

Shen lost patience and started to yell. I consoled him that we should soon see a big ancient tree, the sole witness remaining from the Bowang fire battle. Who knows whether that tree is real or fabricated for tourists? He shouted.

I got out of the car to ask a few peasants about the tree. They looked totally lost, unaware what their place had to do with Zhuge Liang. An old man pushing a bike passed by and asked, Are you looking for the Three-Kingdom sites? There's nothing left except a dead old tree. It's still several kilometers away, not worth all your trouble.

So the Bowang Hill's fire battle was real?
— What a question! Of course it was real. The old generation all know clearly about it. In the fields we often dig out dirt that was burned black. The young people don't know because they are only interested in making money today. Old stories are useless to them.
— Why don't you locals take pride in the history and preserve the old sites?
— What's there to be proud of? Zhuge Liang, he wasn't even a Bowang person. Spending money on a few broken old walls is not as useful as building a temple to burn incense, don't you think? All we peasants want is to farm well, and have a temple to pray for good weather. It's just a little inconvenience for you city people to come down and play during our busy season, right?
— Right.

Thus we never got to see the tree, or any relic from the Three Kingdoms time at Bowang Hill .

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fortune or Calamity? A Gift for Chongqing's Indicted Police Chief

In recent weeks, the news that Chongqing has cracked down on a large organized crime network commanded attention not only from Chinese people but also major Western media. (Update: even CNN is belatedly reporting it now .) WSJ, for example, calls the crack-down "sensational." To be sure, there indeed are sensational details surfacing in the investigation, and one of them is the story of the "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity" stone monument.

In August, I wrote in this space a post titled Chongqing's Judicial Chief Shot off Horse, about the arrest of Wen Qiang, a long time police boss and newly appointed judicial chief. I just read another Chinese report about the investigation of Wen's crimes, with astonishing anecdotes that don't come up in the English reports, and I thought I should share one of those with you.

Among the huge amount of wealth Wen Qiang acquired for being the umbrella for gang crimes and local government corruption is a luxurious villa worth over 30 million Yuan (about US$ 4.4 million), located in the scenic area of Wulong. Wen did not spend a penny on it: a local official gave him the land as a gift, and a developer built him the villa as a gift.

In the villa's yard is a stone monument weighing over one ton. In the front of the monument are carved four characters in seal script: 福兮祸兮, which can be translated to "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity." The phrase comes from Lao Tzu's famous line, "In calamity lies fortune, in fortune lurks calamity" ("祸兮福之所倚,福兮祸之所伏"). On the stone's back is carved 永安宫 ("Yong'an Palace"). The base is a turtle with a snake wound on its back, two animals that symbolize "fortune" and "calamity" respectively.

It is an unusual looking stone, but Wen Qiang had no clue as to its origin. Neither did the police investigators who found it after Wen's arrest. Experts of cultural relics were called to appraise it, and that brought out the story.

During the Three Kingdom period, in year 222, Liu Bei, the emperor of the Shu Kingdom, anxious to avenge his blood brother Guan Yu's death, brought an army 200,000 strong to attack the Eastern Wu Kingdom, despite Zhuge Liang's advice against doing so. The consequence was that nearly all of Liu Bei's army was destroyed by an 800-mile fire set by East Wu's general Lu Xun. The defeated Liu Bei retreated to a small town on the Yangtze and renamed it to Yong'an – "forever safe." It was there that the miserable and gravely-ill Liu Bei had the "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity" stone monument made, hoping it would bring a change to his and the Shu Kingdom's bad luck. He ended up dying there the next spring, leaving behind the ever-circulating tale of "Liu Bei entrusting sons" to us Three Kingdoms fans.

The original stone monument is still at the site of the Yong'an Palace, located in Fengjie County now part of Chongqing. I found a travel info webpage that provides a panoramic view of the monument and the historical site.

The stone Wen Qiang got was a replica. The person who gave him the "gift" had told him that the turtle and snake represent emperors and their highest court officials; only such important people could have the monument at their residence; and "Chief Wen is exactly such an important official in today's China." Wen Qiang admitted that he was very pleased to hear the flattering words.

It is reported that, after the investigators relayed the ancient story to Wen Qiang, he mocked himself by saying that his calamity today had been foretold by the "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity" stone when he received it five years ago. Now in detainment, he keeps saying to his guards "It's good to be an ordinary person. Ordinary is fortune."Well, his regrets came a tad too late.

Wen Qiang's trial has not started yet. It will certainly be interesting. It is good that Wen Qiang is down, but a more important investigation is still needed into the nature of the soil that nourishes wide-spread gang crimes and police corruption in Chongqing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Double Nature of Student Movements in China

It was like déjà vu. About one-third into Leslie Chang's Factory Girls, a book I was reviewing for WRB, I found a story about the tragic death of the author's American-educated grandfather, Zhang Shenfu, who had become a leading engineer in China's mining industry in the 1940s.

I knew the story. I knew the name. But from where? I didn't know anything about the author before reading her book. I went to check my notes from another project. Sure enough, in an interview with my mother four years ago, she had cited the "Zhang Shenfu Incident" as the earliest trigger of her political career. I’d just started to work on a memoir provisionally titled Letters Lost in Chongqing, researching my parents' youth as Communists also in the 1940s.

On August 9, 1945, the same day the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan, the Soviet Union attacked the Japanese army in Northeast China. The entire war of Chinese resistance against Japan ended within a week. Both America and the Soviet Union took the credit.

When Japanese soldiers laid down their arms, the Soviets replaced them as occupiers of Northeast China. The then-government of China was anxious to regain control of the industry infrastructure there. In January 1946, the Nationalist government in Chongqing (my home city) sent eight engineers, led by Zhang Shenfu, to take over operations at the Fushun Coal Mine. The Soviet occupiers refused to cooperate.

On their way back to the nearby city of Shenyang, all eight men were pulled off their train and brutally killed. A nation was in shock. The Nationalist government accused the Soviets of the murder; the Soviets blamed it on "anti-Soviet forces"; the Chinese Communists blamed it on local thugs. The case was never solved. Today the Chinese Wikipedia has an item for "Zhang Shenfu" plainly stating that he was murdered by the Soviet Red Army. According to Chang’s version of the story in Factory Girls, her family believed this as well.

My mother was a sixteen-year-old student in Chongqing when news broke of Zhang Shenfu's murder. Thousands of angry people took to the streets to protest, my mother among them. She and her fellow students shouted slogans such as “Soviet Union Show Your Conscience!” and “Avenge Martyr Zhang Shenfu!” The demonstration, the first of many against the Soviet occupation, lasted all day.

Six decades later, however, my mother belittled the action and attributed it to her political naïveté. As she recalled, that demonstration also started her distrust of the Nationalist government supporting it.

Because of their political unity with the Soviets, the Chinese Communists took a restrained approach at the time, neither openly opposing nor contributing to the student movement. Meanwhile, the Nationalists used the murder to damage the Communists. The Nationalist officials running my mother’s school required everyone to participate, she told me, threatening to expel those who hung back.

Before the parade, the students were warned to be careful when passing the office of Xinhua Daily, the Communist newspaper, of a possible attack from the Communists. Male students took this warning so seriously that when the parade approached the Xinhua Daily office, they walked on the outer lines to protect their female schoolmates. What my mother saw, however, was the newspaper’s door tightly shut; no one seemed to be inside.

When the students returned to school, they heard that a mob had wrecked the Xinhua Daily office. The Nationalist media blamed angry students; the Communist media blamed the Nationalist secret police. My mother didn’t know which side to believe, but she trusted the student leaders, who firmly denied any role in the destruction . She found a copy of Xinhua Daily and eventually became convinced by its version that Zhang Shenfu had been killed by local thugs.

The nationwide protests apparently did help to speed up the Soviet Army's withdrawal; this began a month and a half later. Meanwhile, the American troops that came to China's aid during the war stayed on. On Christmas Eve of the same year, a female student in Beijing named Shen Chung was raped by two U.S. marines. This incident triggered another, larger wave of student demonstrations across China.

This time, my mother was no longer a mere participant. She became a leader and an organizer at her school, fighting on campus against the officials who tried to block the news of Shen Chung's rape, and protesting American troops on Chongqing's streets. She did this because of her "righteous hatred toward injustice and violence," as she proudly put it during my interview. Curiously, she didn’t note her political naïveté here. She was unaware of the heavy involvement of Communists in facilitating this later demonstration, but they were watching her, and she was soon recruited.

In fact, all her close friends who actively participated in the "Shen Chung Incident" demonstration were recruited and later joined the Communist Party. Organizing student movements was a most effective way for the underground Communists to discover new blood. To many young patriots at the time, the Communist Party’s anti-American position was exactly what attracted them to join, as it had become clear that the Nationalist government wanted to keep American forces in the country for support in fighting China’s civil war. In a sense, the American military activities in post-war China helped cultivate massive future cadres for the Chinese Communists.

So my mother became an underground Communist at age 17, and met my father, another comrade, two years later. My family's tortuous fate was thus sealed, long before my birth, by the "Zhang Shenfu Incident.” Our path was the opposite of the one followed by Leslie Chang's family. And although many decades have passed, the double nature of student movements in China has never ceased.

(A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally posted on WOMEN = BOOKS, the Blog for the Women's Review of Books, with the title "Déjà Vu: A Surprising Link from Author to Reviewer.")