Thar Be Dragons
Much ink has been spilled, many hands have been wrung, countless bits have been flipped over discussion of Mike Daisey’s bullshit about Foxconn. Abler keyboards than mine have gone at the issue — the pieces by The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos and our very own YJ are the ones to read — but to my mind an important aspect of the whole sorry affair is going overlooked, namely, that Mike Daisey’s bullshit was really boring. It was titillating enough for what it was, of course — it certainly got him plenty of attention, and gave vaguely well-meaning people a welcome opportunity to wax shocked-shocked at the news that global capitalism was screwing overseas workers and passing the savings along to them — but ultimately his bullshit bore a dreary resemblance to the truth.
Not long ago, a publishing house asked a friend of mine to read over a book it had commissioned about a certain high-profile Chinese figure. He promptly found the manuscript to be shot through with a combination of embarrassingly basic factual errors and authorial fantasy about being trailed by agents of Chinese state security — almost certainly bullshit, but bullshit of a singularly unimaginative variety. Who cares, really, if Mike Daisey saw armed guards at Foxconn (a transparently bullshit claim), or if he met factory workers who were more than five years under the minimum age for employment and told him so, or saw in Shenzhen people who had been crippled by hexane 1,500 kilometers away in Suzhou? If people can get away with making up more or less any story they like about China, then why aren’t they making up better stories?
Things didn’t used to be this way. Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (peace be upon him) — compulsive liar, senile amateur pornographer, cunningest of linguists and patron saint of Beijing freelancers — hoodwinked the China-watcher community for decades with China Under the Empress Dowager, a book based largely on his claimed inside knowledge of the Manchu imperial court. Much of this derived from The Diary of His Excellency Ching-Shan, a fake composed by Backhouse or someone close to him that took in even J.J.L. Duyvendak, one of the brightest Sinologists of the day. Even Backhouse’s deathbed recollections, in which he claimed (among other things) to have first-hand knowledge of the Empress Dowager’s clitoral abnormalities, were taken as fact by the Swiss doctor who served as his amanuensis.
The art hasn’t been wholly lost — who could forget the New York Times article last year that claimed that eavesdropping Chinese robots hate Shakespeare, or David Brooks’ occasional “Asian societies drive like this” irruptions, or pretty much everything Tom Friedman writes on the subject of anything — but the chief exponents these days are retired British submarine commanders and newspapers operated by tai-chi cultists. The latter have been more active than usual lately — Zhongnanhai coup rumors, anyone? — but still track reality too closely to be any real fun.
If we’re going to be writing scurrilous bullshit about the upper echelons of Chinese government, let’s make it juicy. I want to read that Bo Xilai was arrested because he planned to make himself immortal by consuming a scrap of Mao Zedong’s embalmed flesh, 舍利-style. Forget about rumors that Hu Jintao is a secret Buddhist; I want in-depth coverage of how the underground Manichaean lobby is behind the inclusion of cucumbers at all state dinners (you laugh, but the evidence is all there), and of how princeling officials are actually encouraging their brats to drunk-drive their Ferraris in front of news cameras while tripping balls as a way of heightening the contradictions and bringing about another proletarian revolution of the kind that swept their parents to power. Claim that androgynous TV talent-show winners are part of a CIA plot to undermine Han manliness while simultaneously promoting bourgeois notions of grassroots democracy, and that Tibetan monks and nuns are spontaneously combusting because the act of repeatedly rubbing cellophane-wrapped portraits of Hu Jintao against their thighs at high altitudes causes a buildup of static electricity. Tell me China’s economic rise is the result of an upswing in hardworking Protestant converts — no, wait, Niall Ferguson’s already got that one covered.
As with so many other things, the Chinese invented bullshit about China 5,000 years ago. Here’s a little of The Book of Mountains and Seas (山海經) on the western lands:
South of the Kunlun Mountains there is a watery chasm 300 fathoms deep. There you will find the Beast of Firstlight, which has a body as large as a tiger’s and nine heads, all with human faces, that face to the east as it perches atop the Kunlun Mountains. West of Firstlight you will find phoenixes and rocs that wear snakes as headdresses, tread snakes underfoot, and wear vermillion snakes at the breast. North of Firstlight you will find the Carnoscope, the pearl-tree, the marbled-jade tree, the coral-tree, and the Neverdie.
We need a better grade of China bullshit. We need to ditch bullshit artists like Mike Daisey and embrace bullshit artistes like Edmund Backhouse. We need to rediscover the monopods, the blemmyes and anthropophagi, the forgotten Christian kings (helloooo, Prester John!) and deaths-by-a-thousand cuts that once made the Orient such an object of fascination. The truth will do as well, if we really must, but in any event let’s not allow our bullshit to be so small-time.