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[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen


*Currently only available in the Chinese- and Japanese language. Pokong Chen appears on Voice of America radio.

Where the Chinese are there will always be racket, filth, and kerfuffle. It’s for a fact. Pokong Chen, a dissident originally from Szechuan and now residing in New York, cities many incidents of uncouth behaviors of mainland Chinese people to argue that inveterate despotism and one-party rule are to blame for the vices. He recognizes that rudeness and uncouth are not exclusive to the Chinese, but the Chinese people’s distasteful behavior are tied up with a long history of suppression, persecution, and cruelty by the government. The age-old monarchy and dictatorship system in China is not conducive to development of ethics on an individual level as people, out of fear, are led to blind observance. They are stripped of their own thinking and more caught up with pleasing the system at the expense of right-or-wrong.

Chen expounds on the culture of control that reigns over the people as a whole. Under generations of censorship, China has remained closed to any democratic liberation as seen in former East Germany and the USSR. China, ruled under the Communist Party, has become a nation that does not respect the dignity of human freedom. Chen is relentless in his denouncement of party officials, whose vices are endemic to their political culture. Bribery is rife as it’s the unspoken norm to get things done. The demonic values and pervasive influences of their party have every last Chinese person to some extent. Daily life becomes currying favor with local officials. The rougue behavior of Chinese tourists is a result of a deep-seated anxiety and fear imparted in them over the years. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s fear that material properties will be taken away from them. They dare not to criticize the Party or the government. Every man is for himself and so individual integrity diminished.

Chen further demonstrates the Chinese psyche is mere manifest of a political system so corrupted from the very top. Bureaucrat is the most coveted job in China because it’s the bright path to money and power. Their pride and arrogance; their exclusivity and elitism; their outward vanity and bravura; their titles of respect, authority, and personal renown; their heavy burdens that crush so many; their exploitation to maintain the standing—all trickling down to the common people, entangling them and weaving them into actions and thinking that are not of their own volition. In pleasing the devil, the people become devil of their own, given to corruption, cowardice, deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, effrontery, greed, apathy, distrust …

The book title sounds gimmicky but Chen is neither sermonizing nor pedantic. He draws on facts from over a long period of time from the dynasty periods to modern China and makes objective generalizations. He seeks a fair justification of the cause of the unruly, uncouth behaviors of Chinese people from a social and historical perspective. He argues there will be no trust and freedom until the demise of the tyrannical rule. Until then, the weightier matters of the law-justice, love and mercy are neglected, and ultimately, the eventual slavery of men to the powers that be.

269 pp. Open Books Hong Kong. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[789] Twilight in the Forbidden City – Reginald F. Johnston


The author, a Scottish academic, who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the boy Emperor, the last Emperor Puyi, gives a fascinating account of the checkered history of China since 1898 as seen from the palace. The story covered in this memoir continues to the time of Puyi’s ascension to the Manchukuoan throne in the northeast of China. The memoir mostly concerns Johnston’s time with Puyi, who is then 13 years old, with whom he cultivates a relationship beyond that which is expected between teacher and pupil. Johnston later supervises Puyi’s residence in Summer Palace after he is evicted from Forbidden City, and plays a role in his seeking refuge in the Japanese embassy. The book therefore provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China, bound by tedious formalities, protocols, and regulations.

By the time Johnston commences teaching in 1919, China has fragmented politically in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The dictator Yuan Shikai attempts to form a strong central government and even contemplates declaring himself emperor, but his failure plunges China into even more states of warlords. In 1912, the Qing court announces the abdication of the last emperor who, under the privilege treaty, is to retain his residence i Forbidden City, to retain his imperial appellate but divested of political power, and to live off an allowance from the Republic of China. It is under this political disquiet that Johnston begins his engagement in the palace, where he observes and criticizes the corrupted goings-on among the courtiers in the imperial household department. These people live out for their own benefits and suck the lifeblood of the remnant of the Qing court. Johnston cities malpractices and embezzlement and advocates for the dismissal of this department. He later manages to dismiss all the eunuchs and bureaucrats in order to save expenses and to pave the way for moving the imperial household to the Summer Palace.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent it’s true. He cannot help being biased in defending Puyi and the Qing monarchy in the face of the republic. devotion and affection aside, he blames Empress Dowager Cixi’s mismanagement that has squandered and repleted the benefits of a strong monarchy, and that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact. Johnston is for a central government, but he doesn’t see anything wrong if a figurehead of an emperor being in conjunction with a democratically elected president. The Chinese translator, with his well-researched annotations and comments, really supplement Johnston’s narrative and correct his biased comments. A scholar who is contemporary peer to some of the historical characters that populate the pages, Guo Pak-U provides historical context and expounds how the Chinese imperial system works. The backdrop of facts that Johnston provides is richly interspersed with comments and annotations from Guo, which renders Johnston’s account more readable and objective.

Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape. The book’s scholarship, quality of writing, and personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and engrossing read.

389 pp. Oxford University Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Memoir of Puyi’s English Teacher

imageReally looking forward to reading this one. Reginald Johnston was Puyi’s English teacher in Forbidden City. I had no luck finding the original text in English, but am indebted to a friend working at Oxford University Press for finding me a Chinese translation.

British academic and diplomat Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874–1938) published Twilight in the Forbidden City in 1934. The work is a memoir of Johnston’s time in Beijing between 1919 and 1924, at the court of the Qing Dynasty, where he served as tutor to Aisin-Gioro Puyi (1906–1967), last emperor of China. Johnston was one of only two foreigners who were permitted to enter the imperial palace, and so his account provides a unique Western perspective on the epochal events of the period. The work has a preface by the emperor Puyi and includes detailed descriptions of palace rituals, including Puyi’s wedding ceremony; translations of key documents; Johnston’s perspective on the revolution of 1911 and the 1917 restoration; his observations on Chinese society as a whole; and eye-witness accounts of the political intrigues of the palace.

This is an important book as it provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China. It was written and published prior to the Communist takeover in China and therefore sits squarely in one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history, without the benefit of hindsight. Through it all, Johnston provides remarkable opinions on the issues of the day via his brilliant writing style.

Hong Kong Bookseller Gone Missing

imageBanned books raised an outcry. Imagine if you’re censored and arrested for publishing materials that are at odd with the government. Imagine Bill Clinton wants to persecute and imprison all those who breathed a world about Monica Lewinsky. This is what happens in Hong Kong, in 2016. The firm believers of “one country, two system” by which the former British colony is governed after its return to the embrace of motherland get a reality check as five staff members of a local bookseller disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

The Hong Kong publisher whose disappearance has caused a major rift between Hong Kong and Beijing has written to a colleague to say that he is across the border, in China, where he is “cooperating with the authorities with an investigation.” But close examination of his handwriting revealed that the note was not written in Lee Bo’s hand. The bookseller specializes in books critical of Beijing’s Communist Party leaders. His disappearance on Wednesday, December 30 looks increasingly like an illegal abduction by Chinese police, which has no jurisdiction in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In China, “assisting the authorities with an investigation” is equivalent to detention suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal activity can be criticizing party leaders and exposing corruption of state officials. The bookseller’s wife later went to the Hong Kong Police and withdrew of complaint of her husband’s mysterious disappearance. This, in my opinion, is very much a charade performed under duress. The bookseller’s disappearance is an assault on Hong Kong’s principles of freedom of expression and autonomy from Beijing.

On Beijing Smog

That an article about the severe smog in Beijing appears on a literary magazine really intrigues me. The truth is, the air in Beijing is constantly bad, at a hazardous level. When I went in March 2008, just five months before the Olympics, thanks to the government’s strident measures to reduce carbon emission (no burning of wood, cars take alternate days on the road according to license plates, etc.) I enjoyed clear blue sky all over the city and up the Great Wall.

Beijing’s air quality index hit 755 on a scale of 0 to 500. Pictures from the Chinese capital look like an early arrival of apocalypse. For miles and miles the city is saturated with smog and the only visible thing is a flashing video screen on a building. So why is this pollution good for China? Because the government can no longer hide its dirty laundry. The government can gloss over rights abuses. It can conduct secretive trials of prominent activists. But it cannot hide this kind of air, or blame it on foreigners. This detrimental smog is the result of the country’s own making–the heedlessness of environmental measure, unregulated industrial emission, and sheer ignorance.

The days of 24/7 mask wearing is near if China doesn’t implement concrete policy changes. The wave of pollution sweeping through the capital is more than an alarm for the intransigent Chinese negotiators.

Never Forget Tiananmen

Students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 28, 1989, as their strike for government reform enters its third week. (AP Photo/Widener)

Students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 28, 1989, as their strike for government reform enters its third week. (AP Photo/Widener)

June 4, 1989, remains a day of infamy for the Chinese (Communist) government. The Chinese army opened fire that day on Chinese citizens (workers, residents, and students) just outside of Tiananmen Square for demanding “democracy” (which remained an inchoate concept for the Tiananmen protesters). The events that took place on June 4 were for a long time shrouded in mystery, with Chinese and Western media vying for representational authority, but the truth has slowly surfaced. It is a day that set in motion a collective emigration of political dissidents, intense long-distance criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, and new modes of writing in the Chinese diaspora.

The writer Paul French has described the protests and their denouement as “the most pivotal moment in modern China’s history”. Both Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He justify this claim in their fascinating new books exploring the realities and legacies of these events on their 25th anniversary. In 1989, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, “people power” threatened to defeat the iron fist of the state. On May 20, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed martial law and truckloads of soldiers began traveling into Beijing, with orders to secure Tiananmen Square. Only a few miles into their mission, however, throngs of civilians hemmed in the lorries, explaining why they were protesting and asking the army to “go home”; a few days later, the troops retreated. “You might have said that our army was big and powerful,” one of the soldiers later told Louisa Lim, “but at that time… we felt very useless.” In order to reassert authority over the capital in early June, the government needed to mobilize armed divisions personally loyal to the country’s veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim, a veteran commentator on China, is particularly strong on the horror of 1989 and its aftermath. Her book features an extraordinary array of witnesses: a soldier-turned-artist who observed first hand the planning and implementation of the military crackdown; the parents of victims of the violence; two of the “most wanted” student leaders; a high-ranking CCP official purged for his liberal stance. The book also explores the ways the violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social and political costs of this amnesia.

Tiananmen Exiles by Rowena Xiaoqing He is a portrait of three exiled student leaders (Yi Danxuan, Shen Tong and Wang Dan). Told through interviews, the book is more meditative and more academic than Lim’s book, but similarly illuminating about the psychology of the protest. He’s interlocutors make acute observations on the curious connections between the Communist establishment that educated them, and their rebellion.

Restless Empire


This will be one of my summer readings, which will gravitate toward non-fiction. I realize a chronological history of China doesn’t sustain my interest. In the same way, I abandon a general history of Paris for a book on how landscape and urban design transformed the City of Lights. Restless Empire is a welcoming alternative. It tells the story of the foreigners who helped China become what it is today, from China’s first interactions with the West to the current era. In doing so, Odd Arne Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia. The Washington Post comments, “Westad’s book goes them one further, showing that the foreigners’ story in China is not the monochromatic account of malevolent imperialism that has dominated the discourse in U.S. universities but a much richer and more important tale. The brilliance of Restless Empire is that while acknowledging the threat to China inherent in its contacts with the West and Japan, Westad also shows that they inspired and amazed the Chinese and played the critical role in the opening of the Chinese mind.”

China shows pleasure in being treated as a global player, but shows little sign of knowing what to do with that power other than criticizing the United States. “China has to learn,” Wastad says drily, “that sticking it in the eye of the world’s hyperpower may bring short-term gratification, but it does not amount to a grand strategy in international politics.”

Tiananmen Remembrance


Twenty-five years ago, the world was shocked. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Beijing and shots were fired at students and other civilians who had gathered to protest against inflation and corruption. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. Across the world, communism was in retreat. A quarter of a century later, Deng’s successors feel vindicated. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” Xi Jinping asked while pondering the collapse of the Soviet party. He concluded: “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist” and so “a great party was gone”. The party has also stoked nationalism in the form of a “Chinese dream” of national grandeur. Love of country is being equated to love of the party. What fanned the flames of opposition in 1989 was not so much the desire for democracy as outrage at official corruption. This corruption has continued to thrive. Sum Chan, convener of pro-Communist group Voice of Loving Hong Kong, goes as far to claim there was no casualty at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The party must find shameful what it did on June 4, 1989. Why else will it not allow those historic events to even be mentioned in public?

[625] The Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell


” I understood her system, for I had a landmark of my own,a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did. It was my father. ” (Dust, p.8)

Pitched against the tempestuous political period of early to mid-20th century China is a story of a family living in Shanghai, the Paris of the Orient. The Distant Land of My Father begins in the alluring Shanghai in 1937 where 5-year-old Anna lives with her parents. Her father, Joseph Schoene, the son of missionaries, is a wealthy American businessman who was actually born in China. Eve, the mother, is a beautiful Southern California transplant who does not share her husband’s passion for Shanghai. She seems to regard it as a temporary post despite being completely fit in to the high society and the privilege of Joseph’s world in China.

We’d done what we’d wanted, and we hadn’t had to worry about those quiet moods of his. We were both so good at catering, at revolving around him, and we’d picked it up again so thoroughly and so immediately when he’d come home—home?—that the mood and feeling of our lives had changed a lot . . . (Waiting, p.203)

The narrator is Anna. It is through her perspective that reader is introduced to the dynamics of her parents’ marriage. Her father has quiet moods and he puts his priority in business opportunities, which are thriving until Japanese invasion. The short-lived booming after war and before the Communist upheaval tricks him. Anna places her father high on the pedestal, and later becomes bitterly disillusioned when the family separates. Besides the difference in personal, social, and political consequences of basing one’s decisions, values, and actions solely on money-making prospect, the cause of dissension is that Joseph sees China as home.

Fourteen years, if you rounded up. I had turned thirty in January, so for many years we had not shared a home or even a name, all of which had led me to believe that I’d lived without him for most of my life. But I was wrong. He’d been there all along, in the background, just beneath the surface of my life, even when I’d been angriest, most hurt, most distant; even during all those years when we didn’t know where he was, even when I’d pretended I didn’t care anything about him, he’d been there, and now I was at a loss without him. (Debt, p.354)

When China falls and Japanese starts rounding up allied citizens, Eve and Anna leave Shanghai for Pasadena, and Joseph remains in China, still harboring the hope that the situation will blow over. His two-time imprisonment, under the Japanese occupation and the later Communist upheaval, illustrates the unstable, tumultuous world around which he has built his family. Despite the intriguing historical background and rich cultural setting, The Distant Land of My Father is about how familial bonds are stronger than time, unforeseen circumstances, resentment, and betrayal. Through her father’s grave errors in judgment reader is moved by the capacity of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book is told in a straight-forward manner, spanning about 50 years from 1930 to 1981. This memoir style lends the characters a certain flatness, but Caldwell’s even tone gives the tale a panoramic elegance.

378 pp. Harcourt. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[563] Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China – David Kidd


” Returning to Peking had been like stepping into the vortex of a storm. For me, China was still a grand stage on which all action took place in sharp contrasts. Everything was exaggerated and brutally real. Perhaps the contrasts I were not just poverty and wealth, wisdom and stupidity, beauty and ugliness, sanity and madness, but at some elemental level were contrasts between life and death. ” (A Gift of New Vases, 180-1)

David Kidd went to Peking as a University of Michigan exchange student in 1946. Like many of his peers at the age of 19, he wanted to get as far away from home as possible. He spent the next four years teaching English at suburban colleges. During this time, he married the daughter of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, moving into her family’s gigantic mansion with a labyrinth of courtyards, garden and rooms.

The unique thing about these incense burners was that they had always to be kept burning. They had been in Aimee’s charge from the time her father became bedridden, and he had given her detailed instruction in their history and care. (All the Emperor’s Horses, 32)

It’s living in the Yu mansion that Kidd developed a lifelong fascination with ancient Chinese art and a love for the material culture of old China. His unlikely marriage to Aimee Yu coincided with the cataclysmic time in China—the Communist Revolution in 1949, with Mao Tse-Tung’s victory and seize of power. Peking Story is set against this limbo-like period of time in which backers of New China could not wait to be rid of the artifacts, the people in power, and the traditions and ways of feudal and monarchic China.

They had also not mentioned the fact that antique Ming furniture, for example, was being sold by weight on the open market as firewood, that porcelains, bronzes, and paintings, whether fine or otherwise, symbolized in the New China a class slated for extermination, and that no one in his right mind would have dreamed of buying the very objects that would single him out for the exterminators. (Houses and People and Tables and Chairs, 147-8)

Peking Story is memoir made up of pieces of vignettes and anecdotes. It belongs to the kind of books that tells a large story by concentrating on a small one. Kidd doesn’t focus on the political and historical aspects of Mao’s new regime; nor does the book capture the gore and purging of people slate for purging. He writes about life within the Yu mansion and how the dying of the old patriarch catalyses the decadence of a once aristocratic family. In concentrating on this, he manages to tell us what happened to China in early 20th century and the extent of the human and cultural losses involved. From the delousing of precious incense braziers, whose extraordinary colors are kept alive by constantly keeping the fire on, the neglected tablets of ancestors, the replacement of tight, high-collared dress slit to the thighs with uniform-like blouse, to the crumbling Yu mansion, Kidd captures not just the diminishing fortune of one family, but also the life of an ancient regime that never seems as sweet as in the last moments before it collapses.

Even more horrifying is that China seems to be repeating this history even today in its ferocious pursuit for power and wealth at the expense of morality.

183 pp. NYRB Classics. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]