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[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen

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*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]

[803] Memories of Beijing Southside 城南舊事 – Lin Haiyin 林海音

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This volume of five sequential stories is autobiographical of Lin’s childhood from age 6 to 13. The novella captures life in Beijing through the eyes of Yingzi, who lives with her family in a shiheyuan (a Chinese quadrangle in which four houses command a central courtyard) in the southern part of Beijing in 1930s. They are middle class people living among the poor. It’s 1930s but etiquette and social practices still resonate the imperial times. The stories testify the growth of this rambunctious girl into a keen observer of the social family turmoils she is not aware of at an earlier age.

Her life revolves around her family house and the rabbit warren of alleys (hutongs) that strew the neighborhood. She braves the neighborhood with a curious mind, exposing herself to the sights and sounds. The people really flesh out through the 7-year-old’s keen observation and interactions. There’s the young mad woman who yearns for her daughter, whom her family gave away because the bastard child is a disgrace to the family. Her best friend is an adopted girl whose abusive parents primes her to be a sing-song girl. Yingzi then befriends a thief who is hiding his loot behind her house. Then she plays the match-maker for a young concubine from next door who takes refuge in her parents’ house. Her nanny’s son dies in the distant village. her father, who has always been strict and loving, and most of all, interminable, becomes sick and dies as she graduates from elementary school. But her father’s death really marks her graduation from a childhood full of joy and innocent escapades. She matures to become cognizant of the turmoil and demands of life, and shoulder responsibility.

The world Lin portrays (through the eyes of Yingzi) is at the crossroad of old and modernity. She is especially keen on the role of women—how they thrive silently in a male-dominant, feudal society. Few women went to school. They all end up working away from home or being a concubine. There’s the nostalgia of the grown up who once upon a time was a child. The sense of loss and bewilderment that arouses the child’s awareness of the uncertainties of human relationships, even of life itself, and which jumpstarts her adolescence, is handled with great sensitivity and lyricism.

238 pp. Chinese University Press Hong Kong. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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

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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.

[764] The Crippled Tree – Suyin Han

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“It was impossible to isolate either my father or my mother from history itself, the history of their period in China. As impossible as it was for Proust, writing about himself, to cut himself and his characters from the period in which they lived and the events to which they reacted. We are all products of our time, vulnerable to history. I was born because there has been, in China, a Boxer Rebellion (as the Europeans called it) in 1900, and because of this event, which the Chinese cal the Uprising of the Righteous Fists, my Chinese father, instead of becoming a classical scholar, perhaps a Hanling Academician, married my Belgian mother. The tree is known by its roots. I had to go back to the roots.” (Ch.1, p.10)

The Crippled Tree is the first of an autobiograhical series dated from 1885. Han Suyin (real name Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou) was a Eurasian writer born of a Chinese father of Szechuan stock a and Belgium mother, raised in China but educated abroad later, where she married and divorced a British army officer.

This first volume introduces the circumstances in late 19th century under which her father, a native of Szechuan scholar family who was commissioned by the then-weakening Manchu (Qing) monarchy to study railway enginnering abroad, met her Belgian mother. Their romantic pairing takes the couple confidently back to China, only to confront harsh conflicts and prejudices on all sides—ultimately undermining their love, and shaping resentments that cripple their life together, and the future of their children.

As Han has noted in the very beginning, private life is inevitably woven into history. Everything that happened on a large scale influenced also private life. The book is itself woven with the belligerebnt events in China as monarchy is weakened during a time of uprisings to form a republic. Han’s father is from a gentry background. He is pruned to become a scholar and official. The Manchus have relied on the Chinese gentry to organize levies of Chinese provincial militia to fight the Taiping Uprising.

I found The Crippled Tree a very slow read, mainly because Han Suyin recounts not just her own life, but that of her various family members, using detailed excerpts from diaries and letters that probe many experiences exhaustively. She draws from the letters of her parents, as well as diary entries of her Third Uncle, who went on to military academy and fought in the war with Chiang Kai Shek. It is easy to get bogged down in specifics, and become diverted from the overall relationships being traced.

It was Papa being Chinese, and to be a Chinese in China was wrong, only being European was right. (Ch. 23, p.384)

The broad scope and the expanse of the history make this an important read on China during the period Han is documenting. That the Western powers have stripped China off its capitalist power made it convenient for Japan to conquer China in 1895 and helped bring forth the Revolution in 1911. It illuminates how the Manchus managed to twist the demand for change and the hatred against the manchu monarchy into a hatred against the foreigners. Knowing the rising restlessness among the reformers, the manchus diverted the violence, which threatened to be anti-dynastic to an anti-foreign frenzy, then condemned it. But all the foreign powers that offer China financial help in building the railway also had political motives.

All these events played a role in the domestic turbulence at home. Han’s mother becomes a piteous victim of her situations for her remaining years in China. She is a dislocated, hectic, miserable, and suspicious woman, who is a target of Chinese’s verbal attack. She is given to fits of rage and tears, developing a lifelong addiction to anger. She blames Han (Rosalie) for the death of her son. As a grown woman, Han wants to research and write about the years in which her relationship with her mother had gone cold. The Crippled Tree is a powerful and compelling book, because it presents such a vivid and comprehensive picture of parts of China, and how they were devastated by the years of foreign intervention that marked this period. As for Han and her parents, a mixed marriage is proved to be even tougher. The book depicts the beauty and brutality of the life around her, the pressure of living between irreconcilable contradictions in a China where to be Chinese was to be a beggar, to be European was to be a “foreign devil.”

503 pp. Bantam Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Han Suyin, Crippled Tree, 19-20th Century China

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I came know about Han Suyin from the movie Love is A Many-Splendored Thing with William Horton and Jennifer Jones. It’s the story of an American reporter who falls in love with an Eurasian doctor originally from China, only to encounter prejudice from her family and from the Hong Kong society. Han Suyin is the author of the book and she is, herself, a Belgian-Chinese. The film is based on her autobiographical novel A Many-Splendored Thing.

In The Crippled Tree, Han researches and writes about her Eurasian roots, beginning with the tumultuous events toward the end of 19th century that weakened the monarchy of Qing Dynasty. It was during the time of uncertainty and disquiet that his father, a native of the distant Szechuan province, was born. A man born into the scholar-gentry class, Han’s father was selected by the government to study railroad engineering in Brussels, where he met Han’s mother, Maguerite Denis.

In a time of change and revolution, the clash between the old (monarchy) and new (reform), everything happened on a large scale influenced also private life. This is what Han sees to capture, to reconstruct the lives of her parents as they cope with the changes in China. For me, the book is an eye-opening testimony to the final years of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, as the Empress Dowager, under the pretext that her son the Emperor was ill, interfered with and took over administration. It’s appalling how Manchus managed to twist the peasants’ demand for change and the hatred against monarchy into hatred against the foreigners. Equally stunning is how Western powers manipulate the Chinese, by offering loan to complete the railway to keep china under control.

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

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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.”