Tag Archives: books

Peter Hessler’s trip with his censor

5 Apr

The great Peter Hessler, author of three fine nonfiction books about China and a New Yorker writer, returned to China to do a book tour. Accompanying him was his Chinese censor from the company that publishes the Chinese versions of his books. Hessler wrote about this experience for the New Yorker in an attempt to show that things are a little more open than before despite censorship. The actual cuts to his work are not that substantial. His censor seems to be a reasonable guy who discusses with Hessler the things that may be out of bounds – for instance, Hessler’s second book Oracle Bones was not published on the mainland because part of it is about Xinjiang, a big no-no for the authorities; the censor says he is not interested in publishing it. Hessler senses growing confidence among Chinese in reading about the world, such as a book by a Japanese journalist comparing the Palace Museums in Taipei, Taiwan and Beijing that was “well-received.” Hessler believes that censorship is a necessary pain to bear in order to have his books available to people in China, as long as the cuts do not take out the core of the book and weaken its content substantially, which contrasts with his fellow New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, who Hessler specifically brings up, who refused to allow his book Age of Ambition to be published in the mainland since it would have had to undergo some censorship.


China’s injustice after World War I

6 Sep

An interesting but little-known part of modern Chinese history is its connection with World War I. China didn’t participate in the fighting, though fighting took part in China. The Japanese besieged the then-German colony of Qingdao, then managed to capture and hold on to it during tense negotiations with the Allies (Britain, US, France) at the Treaty of Versailles. And this is despite China sending about 140,000 men to help the Allies (as laborers, not soldiers) in Europe during the fighting.

Here’s an interview from Beijing Cream with Paul French, an author of a new book about how China was screwed at Versailles. Among the reasons why China lost out on its valid claim over its own territory is an interesting one – the US, which China appealed to for help, refused because its president, Woodrow Wilson, had a grand project that Japan threatened not to support if they were denied to keep Qingdao. That grand project was the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN, and which Japan countered with a valid argument – how can you create a new world order of nations when you don’t even practice equality in your own society – segregation of blacks from whites. The failure to get the Allies to order Japan to return Qingdao to China led to the May 4th protest movement, which played a role in the formation of what would become the Chinese Communist Party.

Anyways, why would a book about negotiations and politicians arguing be so fascinating, especially about such an obscure (in comparison to other events in the 20th century, especially in China) event? Here’s the stage at which it took place, from the author:

You have two great debaters here, particularly Wellington Koo, the great Chinese diplomat, who was a champion debater at Columbia, very Americanized, very Anglophile. He had been Chinese ambassador to America, very young, was to become during the Second World War Chinese ambassador to Britain, was to be China’s first lead delegate at the League of Nations, and so on. He really was a great debater, and he fought this cause, and it was a passionate cause.

Baron Makino, who was lead negotiator for Japan, was a much more traditional, older character. But he was a great debater as well and a great player of go, Chinese chess. So he knew his strategy very well.

So these two come together in a clash. And of course, like any great courtroom drama, everyone is trying to make sure that the press reports it the way they want it to be reported. All the backchannel stuff is going on and everything; …. And they’re doing all this in front of a table at which is sitting Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Clemenceau; the Prime Minister of Britain, the President of France, and the President of the United States. This is a pretty serious judging panel that you’ve got in front of you.

Ugyhur-Hui overview, biking from Xinjiang to Tibet, and a borderlands book

22 Aug

Amid turbulence in Xinjiang, here’s a comparison of China’s two main Muslim groups, the Hui and Uyghurs. There are major factors that show exactly why the two are treated and fare differently in modern Chinese society. It’s not very hard why – the Hui are ethnic Han Chinese and speak Mandarin, meaning they look and speak just like the majority of Chinese. Unlike the Uyghur, they also don’t constitute a single group or culture, though they do have their own autonomous region- Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Even then, they have no separatist or anti-party sentiments, plus Ningxia is tiny.

The Silk Road has gotten a lot of attention recently because it seems China wants a resurgence of this route, or concept, for trade linking China to Central Asia and further afield to Europe. Besides economics, the Silk Road is famous thanks to one intrepid European traveler Marco Polo. Coming to the present, few people have biked along the Silk Road in modern times, but that’s what these folks did, from Xinjiang southwards to Tibet (which is not exactly part of the Silk Road though it is still a vast frontier). It is as hard and desolate as it sounds and more.

The Uyghurs are however, just one of China’s many ethnic minorities who live in places far from the core heavily populated areas. Not by coincidence, these people often live on the borders, far from the center, ranging from southwest Yunnan to northeast China to Xinjiang and Tibet. There’s a new book out which details these peoples and places, called The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.


China’s first Nobel Literature laureate

22 Nov

The first Chinese Nobel Literature Prize winner was not Mo Yan, but Gao Xingjian, back in 2000. Because he left China in the late 80s to seek asylum in France, the government doesn’t acknowledge his victory but it doesn’t change the scope of his achievement. He is widely known in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and still presumably has fans and admirers on the mainland. He’s still a very busy man, judging from the BBC interview in the first link. He has written novels, short stories, and plays, and even paints. His two most well-known novels, both based on events in his life, are Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible. I read both -the former is about his travels through Southwestern China’s Sichuan after a false diagnosis of cancer coupled with threats from authorities to jail him over his work, but it was a little too abstract and mystical for me. I preferred the latter one which was about the Cultural Revolution and was more realistic and gritty.

China, the forgotten ally

19 Oct

A new book is out that makes an interesting case about China’s role during World War II which it fought the longest due to Japanese invasion in 1939 and subsequently lost about 14 million people. Titled the Forgotten Ally, the writer makes a strong claim that China’s importance during that great conflict has been ignored and overlooked, which has led to it being sidelined from the ensuing postwar regional developments, most specifically in the lack of a formal peace treaty between China and Japan. He argues it here in a NY Times opinion piece, while you can check out a review of the book here.  However I won’t go so far as to tie China’s current stance on the South China sea to its lack of proper recognition from the US and the West following WWII. It’s a very complicated case that brings up Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China during WWII and directly afterwards. He’s been negatively portrayed as incompetent and stubborn, so much that the relationship with the US, then China’s main ally, deteriorated heavily during his reign. He’s also seen as the man who “lost China” to the Communists, having been forced to flee to Taiwan in 1949. On the other hand, Chiang was on the brink of defeating the Communists when Japan attacked and then followed up with fullscale invasion.

Tourism power, and Chinese literature from an Indian perspective

5 Oct

China’s “Golden Week,” which will end tomorrow, is a time when millions and millions of Chinese will travel around and outside the nation. As a result, it was a fitting time for a tourism law to have come into effect on Oct. 1 that clamps down on budget package tours that usually require customers to make purchases in selected stores during their trips. The law also touches on personal behavior, which. Chinese tourists have become a mighty force, both in numbers and purchase power, internationally but sometimes their behavior leaves something to be desired. The government has tried to deal with this by issuing a set of guidelines in September that tell tourists not to do things like jump lines, spit, or even take too much food in buffets. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, there’ve been some incidents though not that much in the latter place. On a personal note, I saw many mainland Chinese tourists in Japan while on a trip in July, and none of them were doing negative things.

This Caravan piece starts off with a very good question, before going on to highlight several Chinese books. Why is it Chinese writers only become known to Indian readers through Western publishers and marketing? “Western publishers are the gatekeepers of what we read from China,” says the writer. The answer to me, and which the writer most likely already knows, might be because Western publishers are the only ones with enough money and resources to search for, translate, and release books on China (as well as countries and regions all over the world), which say, Indian publishers can’t for economic and cultural reasons. Still, it’s a worthwhile question and you could extend it to across Asia as well. Are Indian authors well-known or have their books published in China? Are Japanese writers except Murakami well-known in China? Are Korean authors well-known in Japan? Just as the article’s writer says he hopes that one day foreign non-Indian literature can be directly selected and published by Indian publishers without having to be “filtered” through and via the West, I hope for China’s case that Asian non-Chinese literature can be given the same treatment (though publishing censorship and restrictions make it tricky). Among the Chinese authors covered are Mo Yan, not surprisingly, Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma, and Ha Jin, who writes his novels in English, as well as lesser-known but likely very talented ones.

Not reading much?

16 Aug

Chinese people don’t seem to be reading much books, and this Atlantic piece takes a look why. Growing materialism and busier and pressure-packed lives are cited as factors, but a more serious reason might be the restrictions on writers, which limits how much they can say or criticize, and in turn, make their books less exciting or relevant. On the other hand, it seems that many people are reading novels or short stories on online sites, or buying illegal copies of books, as opposed to genuine versions. Nevertheless it is a little disappointing that reading habits and the quality of literature published have dipped, but not surprising. China is a very interesting country and there’s so much that can be written about by its own writers, rather than (and in addition to) expats or foreign writers.

Anyhow, Taiwan also has serious problems, lagging even mainland China, when it comes to reading, so much that even the government is concerned, and it doesn’t have the excuse of being authoritarian or pressure-packed.

Loosening up in Tibet, and writing about Chinese environmental issues

3 Aug

This is a surprising piece of news, albeit a bit old (apologies), about policy in Tibet regarding the Dalai Lama, with the government seemingly relaxing restrictions such as allowing monks to openly worship him. Also, the American ambassador Gary Locke was in Tibet on an official trip for a few days during that time. If genuine, this is really great that China can loosen up and ease tensions, as well as allow foreign dignitaries access.

Meanwhile, Guardian environmental reporter and author Jonathan Watts has an interview with Hong Kong’s Time Out about his book When a Billion Chinese Jump, which is about environmental issues in China and which Watts says is also a travelogue as well.

Hoping for more famous Chinese authors

19 Jul

Chinese authors aren’t too well-known* or sell too many books worldwide, and efforts are underway to change that with book publishing companies putting more effort in searching for more Chinese writers to translate. There’s nothing too momentous mentioned in the piece though so I won’t get my hopes up too much, but it’s still good to see a little more effort by publishers.

*There are exceptions like Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, though the latter two have been based abroad for a long time and Ha only writers in English now.

Anchee Min speaks out

10 Jul

Chinese author Anchee Min talks about her rough beginnings, in both China and the US. Min, who went to the US in 1984 and has been there since, wrote a memoir and several historical novels. She’s very frank in the interview about some of the terrible things she did during the Cultural Revolution as a Red Guard, such as betraying her favorite teacher and taking part in exposing a girl’s love affair that ended with her suicide.