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Moving the Capital, or, The Unbearable Heaviness of Beijing

Government officials are planning to move the capital of China to Xinyang, a little city in Henan you’ve never heard of! I know this to be true because some guy on Weibo said it a couple of weeks ago. Tea Leaf Nation has a post up about the chatter.

This isn’t particularly new. Wang Ping, a professor at Capital University of Economics and Business, suggested relocating the capital in 1980, and there have been periodic stirrings of discussion ever since, generally following hard on the heels of dust storms, airpocalypses, floods, city-wide traffic jams, and other reminders that good feng-shui or no, there are real downsides to living in a smog basin at the edge of the Gobi Desert whose water table dropped about 10 meters over the past decade and whose post-1949 renovations could be used to teach urban planning courses in Hell. 1

Baidupedia says a group of 479 National People’s Congress delegates submitted a proposal to move the capital in March 2006, about a month before a sandstorm that dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city overnight — but there doesn’t seem to be any record of this, and people don’t submit proposals to the NPC here on Earth One. If it did exist, the proposal would have been one of 5,030 submitted for discussion that year, alongside proposals recommending more attractive Xinwen Lianbo anchors, body-weight limits for government officials, and a requirement that foreigners marrying Chinese nationals be able to guarantee the cost of a return ticket to China in the event of a divorce.
In April 2006, the economist Hu Xingdou sent a proposal to the central government, the State Council, and the NPC urging that the capital be relocated to central China or the region south of the Yangtze. Action was swiftly not taken. Two years later, Hu co-authored the Report on the Relocation of China’s Capital with Qin Fazhan. The report recommended a “one country, three capitals” strategy with Beijing as the cultural and technological capital of the nation, Shanghai as the economic capital, and some new city as the actual capital capital. Hu and Qin concluded that the Nanyang Basin in Henan and Hubei provinces would be the only sensible place to build a new capital; other commentators have suggested Xi’an, Luoyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Wuhan, Linxi, Xiangyang, Liaocheng, Kaifeng, Chengdu, Hanzhong, Haikou, Yueyang, Xinyang, Changsha, Jingmen, and Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, as more suitable locations than Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Beijing urban planning office cannot even be arsed to move to the east Sixth Ring Road.

Not that there wouldn’t be recent precedent for a move. The Republic of China bounced back and fourth between four capitals (Nanjing to Beijing to Nanjing to Wuhan to Nanjing to Chongqing and back to Nanjing) during its brief stay on the mainland, and for 21 blissful years, Beijing — laying low and going by the name Beiping — was out of the limelight. When I read the Tea Leaf Nation post, I thought immediately of this passage from Qian Zhongshu’s novella Cat (猫), a very thinly veiled roman a clef about the intellectuals who made the city their home during that time:

…For in those last years before the war, Beiping — the Northern capital scorned by Tang Ruoshi, Xie Zaihang, and other literary worthies of the Ming and Qing dynasties as Peking, lowliest and filthiest of all cities — had become generally recognized as the most cultured, most beautiful city in all of China. Even the dust that lay three feet thick over Beiping on windless days had taken on the hue and fragrance of antiquity, as if it held the last traces of the Mongol, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and museums in the younger European and American countries sent specialists to collect vials of it for display. After the capital was moved south, Beiping lost the political function it had so long served, and became — in the way of all useless and outmoded things — a curiosity, an item of historical value.
Take a dilapidated junk shop, call it a venerable antique store, and without the slightest change in the facts of the matter you will effect a marvelous transformation in the mind of the customer. Imagine the wretched embarrassment of having to pick through junk shops for cheap items! How different from the wealth, the zeal, the discernment of antique lovers! In the same way, people who would never stoop to visiting a junk shop now came to browse curios, and people who had had no choice but to browse junk shops now found themselves elevated to the dignity of antiquarians. Those living in Beiping could now count themselves worldly and cultured, could look down their noses at friends from Nanking or Shanghai as if the mere fact of their residence conferred rank and status. To claim that Shanghai or Nanking could produce art or culture would have been as ridiculous as averring that the hands, feet, and gut were capable of independent thought.
The discovery of “Peking Man” at Zhoukoudian was further demonstration of the superiority of Beiping residents. Peking Man, in his day, had been the most advanced of all monkeys; so, today, was Beiping Man the most cultured of Chinese. The newspapers of the day heralded the rise of the “Peking Set,” and the local intellectuals traced their spiritual lineage back to Peking Man — which was why they never called themselves the “Beiping Set,” even though the name of the city had changed. The Peking Set were Southerners, almost to a man, and they were as proud of their newfound home as ever any Jews were of their adoptive countries. It was very nearly the only thing they ever spoke of. Since moving to Beiping, too, Mrs. Li’s athlete’s foot had cleared up — an unexpected side-benefit of living in the cultural center of the nation.

So will the Chinese government actually move the capital, as Some Guy on Weibo says? Hey, from your lips to the NDRC’s ears — but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Not any more than I usually do in Beijing, anyway.

  1. The desire to burn Beijing to the ground and jump up and down on the ashes has at least -5000-years- 600 years of recent history, going back to the Ming, which set up a capital in Nanjing, sacked Khanbaliq, renamed it “Beiping,” then changed their minds 30 years later and started building the whole thing over again, except moved a few feet to the left. The Yongle Emperor changed the name of the city back to “Beijing” in 1403 and made it the principal capital of the Ming empire in 1420.
    Come to think of it, this goes back even further: the Mongols who started building Khanbaliq/Dadu in 1264 did something of a number on the abandoned Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu (which lay more or less where the Xicheng and Fengtai districts of modern Beijing are) when they sacked it in 1215.

    On the subject of more recent depredations: Wang Jun’s book 城记, now available in English as Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing, is a great read for anyone interested in a history of some of the completely avoidable things that were done to Beijing after 1949. The sketches of the rejected Liang Sicheng/Chen Zhanxiang proposal — which would have kept the city walls as a public park — will break your heart. The only scrap of comfort is that things could always have been way worse.

Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?

Spoiler alert: in keeping with the general rule about headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, the short answer is ‘no.’ The more interesting question is: why are people insinuating that he is?

Yo, man, Mo Yan. Even before the Swedish Academy announced Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner, the Chinese internet was abuzz with discussion of his work and his relationship with the Chinese government. (Raymond Zhou’s October 9 piece in the China Daily gives a good, even-handed overview of the discussion.) The announcement on Thursday night that Mo had become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel for literature set off a miniature firestorm of criticism, almost all of it from liberal-minded Chinese Twitter users, that seems mostly to have centered on several issues: Mo’s silence (now broken) on Liu Xiaobo, his vice-chair position in the China Writers’ Association (作协), his role in an unbeliev– all-too-believably boneheaded event in which 100 authors copied out Chairman Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, his behavior at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bit of Weibo doggerel that he allegedly wrote in support of Bo Xilai. Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which.

There’s no question that Mo’s win was welcomed by the Chinese government. CCP propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote a letter to the CWA congratulating Mo on the win, coverage occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, and foreign media coverage of the win was translated in Cankao Xiaoxi (albeit in censored form, as Bruce Humes shows). Given China’s Nobel complex, however — or, more charitably, China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt should have a slightly higher profile on the international literary stage than China currently does — a win by any novelist not banned outright would in all likelihood have been welcomed just as warmly.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.

Mo’s position in the China Writers’ Association is discomfiting to observers, but the CWA is a big and diverse organization containing talented, edgy authors as well as Audi-riding talent vacuums. Mo has written movingly about growing up as a hungry, lonely child in an impoverished backwater, and his novels show a keen awareness of the smallness of individuals in the face of forces beyond their control. Given this, it seems unsurprising that Mo would prefer the security of a position that offers him some kind of official cover. As Mo said in 2009:

“很多人说莫言是官方作家,我在中国文化部艺术研究院有一份工资,余华、苏童都有,享受福利医疗。这是中国现实。国外无论在哪都有保险,在中国如果没有职业,生病我治不起啊。”
In the NYT’s translation:
“A lot of people are now saying about me, ‘Mo Yan is a state writer.’ It’s true, insofar as like the authors Yu Hua and Su Tong, I get a salary from the Ministry of Culture, and get my social and health insurance from them too.
“That’s the reality in China. Overseas, people all have their own insurance, but without a position, I can’t afford to get sick in China.”

He is, of course, not just talking about health insurance here.

Mo Yan’s role in the CWA likely explains his public silence (until the day after the Nobel announcement) on Liu Xiaobo and his copying-out of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art. It most certainly explains his leaving the stage at the Frankfurt Book Festival when Dai Qing tried to ask a question. CWA authors, even very well-known ones, are told in no uncertain terms what they are and are not to say internationally — so much so that at the London Book Fair earlier this year, one normally brash author was almost comically careful not to be photographed with the dissident author Ma Jian — and Mo said as much in the 2009 Chinese interview linked above, immediately before the “health insurance” remarks:

没有办法。我看有的人说秦晖教授怎么没有离席,他是单独由德方邀请的。我是新闻出版署和作家协会他们让我去的,我属于代表团团员。
I didn’t have any choice. Some people have said that [historian and public intellectual] Qin Hui didn’t leave the stage — but he was invited on his own by the German organizers. I was sent there by GAPP and the CWA as a member of their delegation.

Some of the strangest criticism is revolving around a snippet of doggerel that Mo posted on his microblog on November 8, 2011. The verse, addressed to one or more “literary friends” (文友) in Chongqing, is being cited as a sign that Mo was a fan of Bo Xilai, the unbelievably corrupt, fantastically twisted former Party secretary of the municipality. Seeing Red in China has a translation of the poem, but the translator’s reading is based on the assumption that the poem is in fact in praise of Bo. I’ll put up a longer post about the poem with an alternative gloss within the next couple of days, but for now I’ll just say that the poem can be read, Rorschach-like, either as a paean to Bo Xilai or as a suggestion that the reader not get mixed up with either the pro-Bo or anti-Bo crowds. The latter reading would seem more consistent with Mo’s personality.


T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody. If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile. The people insinuating that Mo and other CWA members are lightweights incapable of writing lasting or eternal literature seem to be saying that such privations are a prerequisite for literary legitimacy — for Chinese authors, at least.

Exceptional courage is a rare quality. It may be admired and praised in others; it cannot be demanded of them. People might feel better about Mo Yan if he were more publicly outspoken, but I wonder if the people now calling Mo a lapdog of the Chinese government have given much thought to the very real costs that he would pay were he to do so. His remarks on Liu Xiaobo’s case may be a sign that the Nobel will inspire him to speak up on behalf of Liu and other censored or imprisoned writers, but it seems unfair to demand that he join their number in order to make himself more immediately appealing to outsiders.

Mo Yan is a serious writer with a substantial body of work, much of it dealing with Chinese social and historical issues as directly as he dares. We might wish as readers that he were more daring, but we don’t get to make that call — he does. He has chosen to ensure that he will have the freedom to keep writing and publishing. Mo’s novels and stories do his speaking for him, and they do so eloquently and forcefully.

It’s Not Just Yang Rui

Is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Wait, back up. The sort of people who read this blog will almost certainly have heard about Yang Rui, the anchor of CCTV International’s program “Dialogue,” and his postings on Weibo and the shit-storm that ensued, but if you haven’t, you can bring yourself up to speed by reading WSJ Realtime, James Fallows, and ChinaGeeks‘ takes on the whole sorry situation, and Bill Bishop’s run-down on Sinocism. Or you can get the same effect more quickly and less harmfully by ramming your head into the wall a few times as hard as you can; it’s your call.

Now that we’re all on the same page: is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Has CCTV picked a racist to head up one of the highest-profile programs in its bid for international media relevance? The WSJ post translates one of Yang’s Weibo postings — the one that started the whole mess — but there is more to Yang’s outburst than that, and since I failed Mind Reading 101 in college and have not got access to the inside of Yang Rui’s head, it seems fairest to let him speak for himself via his Weibo updates, which I’ve translated below as fairly and directly as I can.

公安部要清扫洋垃圾:抓洋流氓,保护无知少女,五道口和三里屯是重灾区;斩首洋蛇头,美欧失业者来中国圈钱贩卖人口,妖言惑众鼓励移民;识别洋间谍,找个中国女人同居,职业是搜集情报,以游客为名义为日本韩国和美欧测绘地图,完善GPS;赶走洋泼妇,关闭半岛电视台驻京办,让妖魔化中国的闭嘴滚蛋
5月16日 06:55

The Ministry of Public Security must clean out the foreign trash: catch foreign lowlifes and protect innocent girls (Wudaokou and Sanlitun are the worst-affected areas). Eliminate foreign human traffickers,1 unemployed Americans and Europeans who come to China to make money by selling people abroad, misleading the public and encouraging them to emigrate. Learn to recognize the foreign spies who find a Chinese girl to shack up with while they make a living compiling intelligence reports, posing as tourists in order to do mapping surveys and improve GPS data for Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe.2 We kicked out that shrill foreign bitch3 and shut down Al Jazeera’s office in Beijing; we should make everyone who demonizes China shut up and fuck off.4
— May 16, 6:55 AM

我十年前就碰到过中文暴粗口的美国人。扫洋垃圾必要,但也要警惕排外情绪,警惕义和拳运动的变异。反省一下自己,许多中国人的种族歧视也很严重,歧视自己,有自卑感,忙崇白人,对其他有色人种颇有微词。
5月18日 14:23

[In reference to Oleg Vedernikov] I first came across Americans who were foul-mouthed in Chinese ten years ago. It’s important to sweep away all the foreign trash, but we must be cautious of xenophobia and new variations on the Boxer Uprising.5 We should reflect on our own shortcomings. Many Chinese people are seriously racist: they look down on themselves and have a sense of inferiority; they bow and scrape before white people while being more than a little dismissive of colored peoples.
— May 18, 2:23 pm

说到中国如何和平崛起,如何二十年后综合实力接近美国。越琢磨越觉得TMD和平二字被人利用了。我们忍气吞声埋头建设尽量与邻为善,结果恶邻蚕食鲸吞我们的岛礁,我们韬光养晦,他们以为我们不作为怕惹事,于是兴风作浪!其实,和平崛起也必须声明不要妨碍我和平,别折腾我,不然老子不客气!
5月18日 23:38

So far as the “peaceful rise” of China and how China will be similar to the United States in terms of overall power in another 20 years: the more I think about it, the more I feel like the word “peaceful” is just being f-ing exploited by people. We keep quiet and swallow our anger; we keep our heads down and build our country; we do everything we can to treat our neighbors well, and our malicious neighbors encroach on our islands and reefs one nibble and bite at a time. We choose to hide our capabilities and bide our time, and they take that as a sign that we’re afraid to start things and as license for them to run rampant! Peaceful rise or not, we must make a statement: don’t try to break our peace; don’t try to mess with us; or it’ll be no more Mr. Nice Guy!
— May 18, 11:38 pm

清扫洋垃圾,华尔街日报这么在意?暗示我排外,扯吧!在华的外国人渣不少,优秀的友好的和尊守中国法律的外国人也很多。甄别一下,打扫卫生,理性相处,中国人是非常好客的,有些好客得有些媚外,丧失了人格和国格。周末愉快,buddies, have fun on weekend 5月18日 23:47

Why does the Wall Street Journal care so much about cleaning up foreign trash? Implying that I’m xenophobic? Bullshit! There’s no shortage of foreign scum in China, and there are also plenty of outstanding, friendly foreigners who respect Chinese law. So filter them out, clean things up, and let’s coexist rationally. Chinese people are extremely hospitable — sometimes so hospitable that they worship foreigners to the detriment of their own personal and national nature. Have a good weekend, buddies, have fun on weekend
— May 18, 11:47 pm

看到菲律宾军人荷枪实弹逼着中国渔民脱下上衣,在烈日下暴晒,若非海监船及时赶到制止他们的辱华行为,这些在自己的领海附近捕鱼的中国人又得被扣,罚个倾家荡产,有的中国渔民甚至直接被杀,沉尸灭迹。这些西方媒体不报道,我说些真相,他们指责我是monologue, 意思是独白,不是对话Dialogue.
5月19日 00:37

Philippine soldiers forced Chinese fishermen at gunpoint to take off their shirts under the baking sun. If the [Chinese] maritime patrol boat hadn’t gotten there in time to stop their humiliation of China, these Chinese people who had been fishing near their own country’s territorial waters might have been arrested, fined everything they owned — some of them might even have been killed and thrown into the ocean to hide the evidence. Western media doesn’t report that. I tell the truth, and they accuse me of engaging in monologue, not “Dialogue.”
— May 19: 12:37 am

我们搁置争议,越南大肆开发,组织各界人士登岛劳军,要把南海据为己有。海洋局的专家说,河内在玩圈地运动,中海油的钻井台立足未稳,越南就组织几十艘船搞狼群驱赶,我们军方不在,中海油的弟兄们只好撤!败退!越南还故意鼓励渔民挑衅中方,一旦被抓,就煽动反华和民族仇恨
5月19日 01:20

Setting aside the controversy for a moment, Vietnam is stepping up development on a large scale and mobilizing people to settle islands and ramp up troops so that they can make the South China Sea their own. An expert from the State Oceanic Administration says Hanoi is pursuing a policy of encirclement: it doesn’t yet have enough of a footing to drill a well, so the government organized several dozen ships to drive away other vessels. Our navy isn’t there, so our brothers in CNOOC have no choice but to pull out! To leave in defeat! Vietnam has also deliberately encouraged fishermen to provoke Chinese [vessels]; if they get arrested, Vietnam will fan the flames of anti-Chinese and racist sentiment.6
— May 19, 1:20 am

求证:菲外长罗萨里奥可能持美国护照,是美籍人士,一个月来他烈士一样的激烈言辞,想必认为他的祖国美国会无条件保护他客居的菲律宾?同理,2008年格鲁吉亚总统萨卡什维利下令军队镇压邻近俄罗斯的阿布哈兹和南奥塞梯自治省,他毕业于哈佛大学,美国律师出身。结果他败得很惨,俄不尿他,美不理他!
5月19日 08:47

Seeking confirmation: Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario may hold a US passport and US nationalist. For the past month he’s been delivering impassioned speeches like a wannabe martyr — doubtlessly because he thinks his motherland the US will unconditionally protect his right to live abroad in the Philippines? In 2008, using the same reasoning, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops to suppress the nearby Russian autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He graduated from Harvard and worked as a lawyer in the US. In the end, he lost badly: Russia paid no attention and America ignored him!”
— May 19, 8:47 am

(I chose the last post as the ending point because everything after this is written in light of Charlie’s petition to get Yang Rui fired. Up until this point, Yang was carrying on, except for the mention of the WSJ post, more or less under the impression that he was talking to his usual audience, so these posts may be a fairer representation of his thoughts.)


So is Yang a xenophobic racist? Yes and no — well, mostly yes, really — but “nationalist” might be a more accurate term. (Yang uses the word himself in one of his more recent posts.) The racism and xenophobia are subordinate to the nationalism in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Chinese internet. None of what Yang Rui said is particularly beyond the pale for nationalist discourse online. It’s slightly surprising to hear it coming from a public figure supposedly involved in international dialogue, but frankly the only really astonishing part has been the surprise at his outburst.

I’ve translated Yang’s Weibo posts above as fairly as I can, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never found Yang’s show to be balanced, intelligent, or intellectually honest. I last paid attention to “Dialogue” in spring 2003 and distinctly remember an episode from that period — a time when the Beijing government was actively lying about and covering up SARS fatalities, and Chinese and foreigners alike were eager for any scrap of accurate, unbiased information — in which Yang spent most of the show badgering a foreign epidemiologist into saying that SARS could possibly be of foreign origin, as if that was what really mattered. This was pretty typical of the discussion, as I recall — almost exclusively point-scoring, zero-sum, yes-but-one-Rod-Blagojevich-equals-one-Bo-Xilai whataboutery.

It may be embarrassing from a soft-power standpoint to have an allegedly cosmopolitan TV host speaking this way in a public forum, but Yang is basically a human weathervane with a bad William F. Buckley impression, and he wouldn’t be saying these things if he didn’t think the political winds were at his back. His rant showed up in the context of a lot of other nationalist wharrgarbl about the Philippines and Vietnam — topics that have been notably prominent in the media recently as part of an overall campaign to unify public opinion in the face of what can only be described as “interesting times.” Some aspects of this (particularly the recent hyping of videos showing a drunken British would-be rapist and a jerk-off Russian cellist mouthing off in Chinese) have been stunningly successful; others (particularly the Beijing Daily’s repeated bullseye shots at its own feet) have been less so.

It’s hard to see Yang suffering any serious repercussions from this.7 His opinions are not new or rare or particularly extreme in the context of fenqing nationalism, and if the current climate is any indication, I suspect we probably will have a lot more of this stuff to look forward to in the coming months.


  1. The WSJ’s translation renders this literally, as “Cut off the foreign snake heads,” but “snakehead” is a term used for human traffickers, similar to “coyote” w/r/t Mexicans entering the US.
  2. Boy, has he ever got my number.
  3. I threw out the question of how to translate 泼妇 to a table of translators and interpreters yesterday afternoon. Consensus was “bitch,” since terms like “shrew,” “scold,” “blowen,” “harridan,” etc. are no longer in common usage, but the native speakers of Chinese — both female — said that it actually struck them as nastier than “bitch” in this context, since it is possible to be a reasonable bitch but not a reasonable 泼妇.
  4. 滚 on its own is a rude-but-common term meaning “piss off.” 滚蛋 is more in “fuck off” territory.
  5. Is it too late to make “The Fists of Righteous Harmony” the standard translation for this? Because it’s more accurate and way cooler.
  6. Slightly ropier on this translation as I’m not entirely clear on what incident he’s talking about here. Corrections very welcome.
  7. From CCTV, that is. One hopes that people invited to appear on his show will think twice before doing so, and ask themselves if this is really a person they want to be associated with by the entire Internet-using foreign population of China.

Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair

The organizers of this year’s London Book Fair, where China is the country of focus, seem to have learned from the lesson of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which invited and then dis-invited dissident writers in an even-handed attempt to piss off as many people as possible. This time around, the LBF saved itself time by not bothering to consider writers who might have made the Chinese side of the equation uncomfortable. As a result there was a spate of more or less predictably lazy media coverage, some of it by people who should know better1 implying that the Chinese delegation to the LBF is made up of politically reliable hacks and that “real” Chinese literature is best represented by others. (Richard Lea and Isabel Hilton both offered fairer takes on the situation; they were in the minority.)

There is no way to have a fair or reasonable conversation about the literary merits of dissident or exile authors — some of whom, like Yang Lian and Liao Yiwu, are very good indeed — compared to authors who are read in China. We can probably all agree that in a better world, or at least a world in which the British Council had more backbone and the Chinese government had more maturity, the list of Chinese authors at the London Book Fair would have been a different one. Here on Earth One, though, things were never realistically going to go any other way, and so we may as well look at the authors who were on offer. Fortunately, many of them are much better and more interesting than the prevailing tone of the English-language coverage might lead you to believe.

Some examples, chosen entirely non-randomly:

1) The Shenyang-based author Diao Dou (刁斗) wasn’t actually in attendance at the LBF as far as I know, but his short story “Squatting” (蹲着) is featured in the new Comma Press anthology Shi Cheng: City Stories from China, which is being released during the LBF.
“Squatting” tells the story of a group of concerned citizens in a Manchurian city (which is never identified but is clearly Shenyang) who urge the municipal government to take action against summer crime waves. The municipal government (rather, the Counter-Criminal Crackdown Command Office, or “CrackCom”) responds with a blanket order dictating that from sundown to sunrise, all citizens are to go about their business in a mandatory squatting position — an order hailed by the “intellectuals” as a masterstroke of judicious urban governance. It’s one of the sharpest, funniest stories I’ve read in Chinese in a long time, and was a lot of fun to translate — though challenging, too, given that it’s written in a spot-on parody of the prose style — not so much “purple” as “cyanotic” — typical of a certain type of writer:

My colleagues and I weren’t People’s Congress delegates or People’s Political Consultative Committee members, nor indeed were we employees of any governmental authority. We were writers of reportage, teachers of history, players of oboes, designers of computer software, extractors of teeth, translators of foreign languages, creators of advertisements, students of calculus, researchers of pharmaceutical compounds. We’d all gone to university and taken at least undergraduate degrees, and if forced to give an account of ourselves we would shyly admit to being intellectuals. Engaged in different lines of work, living in different neighbourhoods, of different ages and genders, we shared nonetheless a common concern for the development and growth of our city, and wrote regular letters to a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our city and the strengths and shortcomings of municipal policy in the hopes that our suggestions would aid them in the performance of their duties. Our efforts were motivated not by a desire for official recognition or pecuniary reward, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, of responsibility, of social morality, and of love for our fellow man.

2) Sheng Keyi (盛可以) has gotten some notice in the foreign press for her novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On (北妹), which will be out in Shelly Bryant’s English translation next month. I haven’t read Northern Girls, and was basically unimpressed by the short Sheng Keyi story that I translated for World of Chinese magazine last year, but her short story “A Village of Cold Hearths” (一个没有炊烟的村庄), which appears in the new “Revolutions” issue of 天南/Chutzpah magazine, completely changed my opinion of her work. (Free PDF over at Paper Republic – it’s Issue 6.) It’s a tightly written, disturbing account of the more or less pointless suffering and violence of the Great Leap Forward:

“Grain” was a magic word that held everyone in its sway. The higher-ups came for an inspection, and the starving villagers roused themselves and affected expressions that they hoped would show the perseverance and correctness of Socialism. The yards were piled high with grain: a thin layer of rice at the top of the baskets and heaps of chaff and weeds beneath. Having placated the higher-ups, the village leaders were awarded Major Commendations, and promptly went back to searching for stockpiled grain, beating and interrogating the villagers ever more harshly.

No wedding banquets. No gatherings. No celebrations. No farewells. No cooking smoke. The village canteen closed down. Some people lay down and never got back up, some people got fat all of a sudden, some people fell down all of a sudden, some people got locked up, some people got put on trial. It was all very quiet. The village was as quiet as the grave.

Sentries patrolled at the village gate, their guns fully loaded. Vultures circled. A growing wind swept the land.

The bark was gone from all the trees, and the white wood beneath it had gone brown and then black. The earth was scored and lined where it had been clawed at, the mud churned up like the ground around a mouse’s nest.

Liufu’s mother racked her brains to find ways to fill her stomach. When the weeds, rats, roots, and bark were all gone she began to chop up rice straw and corncobs, which she would cook and crush and mash into a paste late at night. She would go out and collect egret shit by the paths to wash and steam. The secret was to imagine that they were your favorite foods when you ate them. That the egret shit was egg custard.

3) Feng Tang’s (冯唐) short story 麻将 (“Mahjong”), which I translated in the latest issue of Pathlight magazine, is not his best work, but it does give an idea of the qualities — a sharp ear for dialogue and a sharper sense of humor — that make him one of the most enjoyable young authors on today’s scene. It’s also a nice examination of the internationalized yuppie, an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture that is only just beginning to enter the literary consciousness:

She had been a small-town superstar from way off in the exotic southwest with beautifully clear Mandarin and a good head for figures, and she tested into Tsinghua University before she was eighteen. There she was the fairest flower of her department, though that particular flowerpot only had three flowers in it and the competition was not exactly fierce. She’d gone straight from college into an analyst job at a top consulting firm, where she worked on enough corporate group strategies over the following three years to give her more experience than all of the graybeards at the Tsinghua School of Economics and Management combined. No tallyman ever worked his abacus beads as nimbly as she manipulated Excel spreadsheets; no campus revolutionary ever painted big-character posters as pithy as her Powerpoints. Some of her projects had taken her to Europe, where she’d penned journal entries in Spain and picked forsythia in Greece. And now, turning her sights to the future, Shang Shu was preparing to wrap up the strategy planning project she was working on for a major northern port, go back southwest to say goodbye to her parents, and then head to Harvard Business School.

My point here — besides naked self-promotion — is that even a small sample of the writers at the London Book Fair (i.e., “writers I was asked to translate”) contains three writers, two of them relatively or totally overlooked by the Anglophone world, whose stuff I think is really good. This isn’t necessarily representative of all of the writers who went to the London Book Fair, but hopefully it should serve to show that things were a lot more complicated and interesting than you would have had any way of knowing if your sole source of information was the English-language media coverage of the LBF.


So the writers who were on offer are actually pretty interesting, or at least some of them are. That’s one side of the story. The other side of the story, tying into the point of people who’ve criticized the LBF for only featuring authors recommended by the  General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), is that there are many, many more Chinese authors out there, dissident and otherwise, who are equally deserving of a spot at the fair. (Yan Lianke [阎连科], for instance, was invited and then abruptly disinvited — despite the fact that his novel Dream of Ding Village, in Cindy Carter’s lovely translation, was recently shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize.) And going beyond the London Book Fair — since it’s over now anyway — there are many, many other writers whose work deserves to be translated (or translated better), but who have never made it to the attention of non-Sinologues.

The problem is that there has historically been a pretty limited amount of interest in Chinese literature, and an extremely limited amount of money to fund it. Publishers are wary of putting out translations — partly because literature in translation is always a hard sell; partly because they have generally not got a very good idea of what’s out there in Chinese. 2 But the times, they are a-changing. Some of the change is on the demand side of things — the result of a growing interest in China — but most of it is on the supply side: since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan period last year, there has been money available for the project of helping Chinese literature “zǒu chūqu,” i.e., make its debut on the world stage. Like exporting Chinese animation, filming Iron Man 3 as a joint production, and getting people to start calling Mt. Everest “Mount Qomolangma,” literary translation into English is one of the ways to unlock achievements in whatever imaginary arcade game the Chinese government is playing here, and so the government has been plugging quarter after quarter into the machine in hopes of leveling up.

Given the origins and the goals of the funding for literary translation from Chinese, and the roles of the players involved, it is perhaps not entirely shocking that Liu Xiaobo was not granted early release from prison to attend the London Book Fair, and that the party paying the piper — in this case, mostly GAPP — got to call the tunes.

But!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!'”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily. The group of authors that visited the London Book Fair may not have contained Liu Xiaobo or Liao Yiwu — and as long as GAPP was involved there was never any chance that it would — but it was a more diverse, talented, and interesting group of authors than has been generally acknowledged. It represented an earnest attempt to present a more nuanced image of contemporary China than has been presented before, and is deserving of a similarly earnest and nuanced response. So far, it has mostly not gotten one, to the detriment of Chinese authors and foreign readers alike.


  1. I was going to let this pass without further comment, but Mirsky’s article really is a shocking piece of hackery. It is very difficult — for me, at least — to read it without concluding that he went to the LBF knowing exactly what his story was going to be, and then did all of the things necessary to enable him to write the story he wanted to write. This would be just about excusable (or at least unremarkable) in the case of a journalist who was simply ignorant about China, but Mirsky is a well-informed and intelligent observer of China and has no such excuse.

    Imagine the converse situation: a Chinese journalist shows up at an American literary event and buttonholes every person in sight, demanding in heavily accented English to know what they think about “Nom Chompski, your greetist living pooet.”
    “What?” they say.
    “Chompski! Free Brodley Mooning! Apollygize for Wounded Knee!”
    “Sir, this is a literary event.”
    “Ship! You are baa-baa-ing shiip! Baaaa!” Mirsky’s Chinese double shouts, sweeping pamphlets off of display tables as he storms out the door. That night he will file a piece about how the mean Americans took away his stuffed animal.

  2. From the perspective of an outsider, it sometimes looks as if international publishers end up picking books to translate based on (1) what sold well in China, (2) what sold well to people going on beach holidays in Ibiza the year before, or (3) the guidance of voices that only they can hear. Fame and fortune — at least by translator standards — await the person who successfully pitches a novel to publishers as “a Chinese Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but with teenaged vampires.”

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:

崑崙南淵深三百仞。開明獸身大類虎而九首,皆人面,東嚮立崑崙上。開明西有鳳凰、鸞鳥,皆戴蛇踐蛇,膺有赤蛇。開明北有視肉、珠樹、文玉樹、玗琪樹、不死樹。

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.

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