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Archive for the 'China' Category

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Internet Literature in China — An Interview with Michel Hockx

Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China

The following is an interview with Michel Hockx, author of Internet Literature in China. You can follow Michael Hockx on Twitter at @mhockx

Question: What in particular struck your interest in Chinese Internet literature that prompted you to begin researching for a book?

Michael Hockx: I was struck by the fact that there was a nationwide debate among scholars and critics in China in the year 2000 about the merits and demerits of Internet literature. The phenomenon was taken extremely seriously. Around the same time I also noticed that collections of online work were starting to come out in print. They often ended up in separate sections of bookstores marked “Internet literature.” I realized this was a new type of literature in the making and I got curious.

Q: You mention the “Great Firewall” and the misconceptions western countries have of Internet censorship in China. To what extent are Internet behaviors in China similar to, let’s say in the US? Are they as different, in terms of freedom, as Americans like to believe?

M: They are similar in the sense that the vast majority of Chinese people also use the Internet for entertainment, social media, and shopping. Most people are rarely confronted with censorship since they simply have no interest in using the Internet for politically sensitive purposes. What they do notice and what does annoy them is that the “Great Firewall” sometimes prevents them from accessing certain foreign sites, especially Facebook and Youtube. In the course of my research I once came across an official Chinese statistic showing that Youtube was in the Top 30 of most frequently visited sites in China—even though it is blocked! Lots of people go around the Firewall in order to access it.


Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Interview with Andrew Nathan on the Hong Kong Protests

“The protests reveal that Hong Kong young people are much more pro-democracy than we had any way of knowing. It’s fascinating to see the youth, who have grown up under this system, demonstrate how little they believe in the Chinese government.”—Andrew Nathan

China's Search for Security, Andrew NathanIn the following interview, originally published in Columbia News on October 8, Andrew Nathan looks at recent events in Hong Kong and the possible future of the protest movement there. Andrew Nathan’s China’s Search for Security, co-authored with Andrew Scobell, is now out in paperback:

Q: What is at the root of the Occupy Central demonstrations?

Andrew Nathan: When China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it agreed that Hong Kong could preserve its way of life for 50 years. The Chinese government also agreed to provide universal suffrage for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive at some point. China recently announced that in the next election, which will take place in 2017, all eligible voters will be able to vote. But it turns out that the nominees for the post will be chosen by an election committee appointed by the Chinese government. The people in Hong Kong had expected real democracy. The Occupy Central protests are the result.

Q: Is there any chance the demonstrators will prevail?

AN: Most of us have long believed that most of the Hong Kong population is pragmatic and passive, because they know what they’re up against with China and they can’t afford to be terribly political. As soon as the Chinese government decision was announced the students—many in high school—jumped in and they were ahead of the adult leadership who had been planning a protest. But it’s very unlikely Beijing will yield on the core question. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has an image of being tough and inflexible. And China has a lot at stake in keeping control of the situation in Hong Kong. The more they sense opposition there, the less they are likely to allow democracy.


Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Hans van de Ven on the Chinese Maritime Customs Service

The following post is by Hans van de Ven, author of Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China:

“The Chinese Maritime Customs Service helped keep China together at key critical moments … and provided one of the pathways out of which the modern Chinese nation-state would emerge.”—Hans de Ven

Breaking with the Past, Hans van de VenNo China historian can afford to say no to a request for help by a Chinese archivist. We need their good will. So, when the Vice-Director of the Second Historical Archives in Nanjing asked for my assistance in organizing the archives of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, I agreed. Although the archival mountain I had to climb proved higher and steeper than I thought, to be given access to an untouched archive is also any historian’s dream.

Looking back now over the more than ten years that it has taken to bring my history of the Service to publication, it is clear to me that this one chance encounter has changed my view of China in profound ways, and, more generally, that of the past. In an age in which our governing institutions are increasingly found wanting and in which a new parochialism threatens to take hold, it has given me a new respect for cosmopolitan civil service bureaucracies which emerged in the nineteenth century.

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was an odd sort of bureaucracy, subordinate to the Chinese state but with a senior staff drawn from across the world. In between the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the Communist victory in 1949, it functioned in between weak Chinese governments and overstretched empires. It gained its strength not only by accounting and delivering thirty to fifty percent of central revenue, but also by injecting itself into niches wherever they opened up, including in the building and management of China’s harbors, erecting lighthouses along the whole China coast, providing quarantine services, overseeing China’s bond issues, and purchasing a navy for China.

The men involved in these projects had flaws, they could be blinkered, they could act with unfounded arrogance toward China and the Chinese, and they could be blinded by ambition. But, they also were inspired by a nineteenth century “do-gooding” tradition, shaped as they were by the great liberal thinkers of the age, by Christian values (about which they kept publicly quiet), and the civil service reforms that began in nineteenth century Britain and then spread more widely. The result was the gestation of a Customs Service ethos aimed at keeping borders open, maintaining China’s territorial and national integrity, securing access to China’s foreign trade on the basis of equality, and delivering an efficient and effective bureaucracy.


Monday, January 6th, 2014

C. T. Hsia, 1921-2013

C. T. Hsia

We were very sad to learn of the death of legendary Chinese literary critic C. T. Hsia at the age of 92. Columbia University Press was fortunate to publish several of Hsia’s works including C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature and the forthcoming The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama, which he co-edited with Wai-yee Li and George Kao.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Harvard professor and literary scholar and editor of our series Global Chinese Culture, David Der-wei Wang discussed the work and legacy of Hsia and his lasting impact on the study of modern Chinese literature. Hsia, Wang suggests, is responsible for introducing modern Chinese literature to the West and championing such writers as Qian Zhongshu, Shen Congwen, and Eileen Chang.

Hsia’s career as a scholar of modern Chinese literature was in many ways a result of Cold War politics. In the interview, Wang explains:

[Hsia] wanted to pursue a degree in English literature and was caught in the so-called Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s. This was a young man with great expectations. He loved English literature and European culture. He grew up in cosmopolitan Shanghai, then the civil war happened in China and he got stranded and couldn’t go back. And couldn’t find a good position in the U.S. at a college…

In 1951, David Rowe [a professor of political science at Yale University] hired him to compile a manual for the Korean War: “China: An Area Manual.” He got bored and left, but along the way he gathered a real knowledge of Chinese literature, something he didn’t have before that. Eventually he became more and more involved in Chinese literature studies. In the 1950s, there was no field called modern Chinese literature, so the publication of his book in 1961 [History of Modern Chinese Fiction], that was a big thing. That was a book that made him famous in the West. As a result, a discipline was established.

Hsia’s career was not without controversy. He was often criticized for his Euro-centric, anticommunist stance as well as his New Critical criteria. He also advanced the provocative and influential perspective that Chinese writers have had an “obsession with China,” sometimes to the detriment of the literature. Again, Wang explains:

[Hsia] reviewed the development of Chinese fiction to the end of the 1960s and how people were obsessed with the malaise in their own nation. They didn’t have the energy or the mind to turn their attention to anywhere outside China. And they saw China as a center of malaise and injustice. He felt it was a self-defeating attitude that cut two ways. In one way it could produce a true sense of urgency in an old empire, an old civilization. But he found all that an almost sadistic culture, and he used the term to critique Chinese modernity.

He argued, we need to look beyond China to really engage with the world, with Western civilization, even if was sick too. Kafka, Joyce and Proust would never have ghettoized the problems of their own civilization. He argued, if only Chinese writers could have the magnanimity to look beyond their own culture. Parochialism is the word he liked to use.


Friday, December 6th, 2013

The Westernization of Chinese Food

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas HollmannIn the epilogue to The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann concludes with a look at the changes in Chinese food and eating habits. In the following excerpt he discusses the introduction of such Western staples as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to China:

Mineral water, lemonade, and other fizzy drinks have been sold in China since the 1860s. Coca-Cola started trying to conquer the Chinese market in 1918, but it took nine years until the first bottling in Shang­hai. This success did not hold for long: The Communists’ accession to power was followed by a long dry period, and Coca-Cola was only able to re-establish itself in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It has since achieved a market share almost double that of its peren­nial competitor, Pepsi. Coca-Cola was the main sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and tried to strengthen its market presence in the following year, but the authorities eventually refused it permission to take over Huiyuan, the biggest domestic juice manufacturer. Inci­dentally, the Chinese do not always drink their Coke chilled: A popular remedy for a head cold is to add ginger and drink it.

The opening of McDonald’s first restaurant in China in 1992 was a major event. It was the biggest branch the fast food chain had ever set up worldwide, serving up to 40,000 customers on the opening day in Beijing. Twenty years later, there were around 1,400 branches Still, that was not enough to overtake Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which is the market leader among Western fast food chains in China and looks set to remain so for a long time to come. US $3 billion investments from 2009 to 2011. This is due to the enduring popularity of chicken, as well as the remarkable flexibility that enables KFC to adapt to indige­nous food tastes. Perhaps only Pizza Hut matches this degree of ingenuity: The type of pizza they serve in China has even less in common with the Italian product than the U.S. variety.

Western firms have demonstrated their adaptive capacity in China in other ways such as paying workers below the minimum wage or contravening food safety regulations. Indigenous Chinese companies have barely profited from this: Their repeated attempts to imitate for­eign competitors have largely proved unsustainable. The same applies to development of alternative concepts that attempt to combine local tradition and mass production. Even massive government support and emphasis on the positive medicinal effects of these products have failed.


Thursday, December 5th, 2013

The Long History of the Noodle (plus a Dumpling recipe!) via The Land of the Five Flavors

As Thomas Hollmann suggests in his book The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, the noodle looms large in Chinese food. Below is an excerpt from the book in which he examines some of the basics of the long, glorious history of the Chinese noodle. Likewise, the dumpling and its many variations have also been staples of Chinese cuisine and as a special bonus, we’ve provided you with a dumpling recipe (see below) from The Land of the Five Flavors:

It is impossible to envisage Chinese cooking without noodles. They have a long tradition: no other country in the world can look back on a history of four thousand years of noodles. Interestingly, the earliest archeological find of noodles did not occur in the core regions with a reputation for inventiveness, but in the far western province of Qinghai.

Researchers excavating a settlement there in 2005 found a clay bowl with surpris­ing contents: thin noodles made from a millet-based flour, up to 50 centimeters long, and slightly resembling spaghetti. The find site, Lajia, has been famous ever since.

This does not mean that noodles have a continuous history dating back four thousand years, for the next evidence of noodle consumption is not until the Han dynasty. Yet the arguments for the exis­tence of noodles in that period, which are based solely on written sources, are not entirely convincing. The term used for pasta at that time covered bakery prod­ucts as well.

Through the ages, flour has always been the main basis of dough. Although products from ground wheat and rice grains have a larger market share today than in the past, flour produced from mil­let, buckwheat, and yams is also still used.

Mung bean starch is used to make very fine glass noodles. Other in­gredients may include salt, oil, baking soda, and various flavorings and colorings. Eggs have increasingly been used as well for approximately the last 500 years. Production methods for noodles vary greatly. There are at least five different techniques for achieving the right length and thinness.

There is also a long tradition in China of filled noodles resembling Italian varieties such as tortellini, ravioli and, most commonly, mezza­lune. Written sources suggest they may date back as far as the Han dynasty, but the early records are not absolutely clear, and the oldest detailed description dates back to the end of the third century.

Dumpling Recipe


Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Drinking, Drinking Games, Drinking at Weddings, and Drinking at Funerals in China

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese CuisineIn the chapter “Heavenly Dew” from The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann examines the history of drink and alcohol in China. In the following excerpt he considers the popularity of drinking games and the symbolic role drinking has in various rites of passage, including weddings:

Drinking contests were very popular, particularly in the late imperial age. “Wine clubs,” societies that existed around the mid-nineteenth century, were described by the missionary Justus Doolittle, who worked in Fujian from 1849 to 1864; and there were also informal gatherings. Historical records going even further back describe types of drinking contests in which the players might have to fulfill tasks requiring a respectable level of mental proficiency as well. They in­cluded reciting impromptu poems based on set quotations or ideographs, sometimes with specific rhyme schemes.

This apparent continuity over the cen­turies may well be explained by the historical sources’ exclusive focus on elite culture. In fact, there were probably also simpler game variations in ancient times for heavy gambling was already wide­spread then. Today’s drinkers mostly play games like charades, which involve guessing about given mimed terms, or they draw cards, or throw dice. Other familiar games, such as recit­ing tongue twisters, rearranging phrases to a set pattern, and answering general knowledge questions, can also be used to determine who, if any­one, should take the drinking cup. Another frequently described game involves two people seated facing each other, waving their hands around in quick succession. To Westerners this often looks like tossing coins, but it is more complicated because the goal is to say the correct number of outstretched fingers at the moment your opponent opens his or her hand.


Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

The History of Chinese Food! Images from The Land of the Five Flavors

From propaganda posters to depictions of festive banquets (and their aftermath), The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture by Thomas Hollmann and translated by Karen Margolis, captures the rich history of Chinese food and its centrality to Chinese culture.

Below are images from the book and for more on the book, you can also read the chapter Rice Doesn’t Rain from Heaven.

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
After-dinner nap (scroll painting attributed to Lu Yao, ninth century)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Fruit vendor (propaganda poster, 1978)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Large kitchen (stone relief, second century)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Watermelon vendor (watercolor, around 1870)


Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Book Giveaway — The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine

The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas O. Höllmann

This week we will be featuring The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, by Thomas O. Höllmann.

We are offering a FREE copy of The Land of Five Flavors to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, December 6 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Throughout the week we will also be featuring The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine on our blog, twitter, and facebook. You can also read the chapter Rice Doesn’t Rain from Heaven

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Wang Renmei and Mao Zedong

Wang Renmei

We conclude our week-long feature on Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai , by Richard J. Meyer with a look not at her film career but her early days living in Hunan Province. Though she later suffered during the Cultural Revolution, as a young girl she spent time with none other than Mao Zedong, then a student of Wang’s father.

In the following excerpt, Meyer describes Wang’s childhood and her time with Mao and the beginnings of the future leader’s political and class consciousness:

The future leader of the world’s most populous nation spent many happy days at the home of teacher Wang during the turbulent years after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. In fact, one summer he spent the entire vacation living at the educator’s home. During that time, he had an opportunity to get acquainted with the entire Wang family, including the ten children and other relatives who stayed with the family.

It was a happy time for the teenage Mao, even though he was beginning to see the injustices of the contemporary Chinese society.

The young student was particularly fond of the youngest daughter of teacher Wang whose nickname was “Xixi,” which meant double slight or thin. She later took the name of “Wang Renmei” when she was older. Renmei remembers that she would sit bouncing on the knee of this young student and never contemplated what the future would hold.

What Mao discovered living with the Wang family was a typical feudalistic family with modern ideas. For example, none of the daughters had their feet bound, nor did the female servants. Wang Zhengshu was not only a famous mathematics teacher in the province, he also tutored his children and others in classical Chinese, calligraphy, and medicine. He collected rare books which Mao had the opportunity to read. At the dinner table, children were expected to discuss the great Confucius classics that they had read. Even the servants were asked to recite. No one laughed at the poorly educated servant who made amusing mistakes when reading these texts, but the kindly teacher believed that a classical education was the foundation of the future of a modern China. He believed that learning could rescue the country from foreign imperialists and industrial development would make the nation stronger. He encouraged his children to study abroad.

Mao, as a student at the First Normal School, was free and easy when he spoke, never getting flustered, losing his temper, or speaking in anger. However, when it came to the feudal autocratic work style, he was not as temperate. In his views, “he made absolutely no compromise.”

Each day, as Mao walked to school, he experienced firsthand the corruption of the ruling class. He “had a deep hatred for the entire old feudal order. He despised the gentry, whose mouths were full of benevolence and righteousness, for their meanness and their falseness . . .”


Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Wang Renmei, The Wildcat of Shanghai in Photographs

The following images are stills from the films of Wang Renmei, with commentary by Richard J. Meyer author of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei plays Black Clown, who is killed at the end of Soaring Aspirations. Her death inspires the villagers to fight to the bitter end. She is reunited with co-star Jin Yan who married her after the completion of the popular film Wild Rose.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei, in the film The Morning of a Metropolis, plays Xu Lan’er, who visits her brother in jail. The movie was Wang’s second big hit and led to her being cast in the early sound film Song of the Fishermen. That film became an international success.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei performing on stage in Sons and Daughters of Wind and Cloud. The script was written by Communist Tian Han who was hiding from the Guomindang police. Throughout her career Wang acted both on screen and in live theater.


Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai

Wang Renmei, the subject of our featured book this week, Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai, was on the fast track to become one of China’s leading film stars of the 1930s. Her career and life, however, fell prey to the changes in Chinese politics. First marginalized because of her communist leanings in the 1930s and 1940s, she returned to China after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. However, years later, persecution during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s led to her hospitalization for mental illness.

Her film work, cut short and sporadic because of political shifts, is now enjoying something of a revival. Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai includes a DVD of her film Wild Rose. The film, considered a classic of Chinese silent film is an early example of the left-wing film movement that arose in response to Japan’s aggression against China during the 1930s.

Here is a clip from the film:

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Interview with Richard J. Meyer, author of “Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai”

Wang Renmei

The following is an interview with Richard J. Meyer, author of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai. In the interview Meyer discusses Wang’s onscreen career as well as her turbulent off-screen life and his own interest in Chinese film:

Question: How did you get interested in Chinese silent films?

Richard J. Meyer: I had the opportunity to visit the Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai film archives when I was a Fulbright Scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 1996. I had studied silent films at New York university as a PhD candidate. The first Chinese silent films I screened were at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy in 1995. I realized then that they had never before been available in the West.

Q: Is that why you have produced several DVD’s of Chinese silent films?

RJM: Yes. I restored the films and commissioned musical scores to accompany them. I also recommended that the publisher of my books include DVD’s of them with each publication.

Q: Why did you write about Wang Renmei?

RJM: I had written books about famous stars of Shanghai films before, namely, Ruan Ling Yu, whose funeral procession attracted 300,000 people in 1934, and Jin Yan, the handsome hulk referred to as “the Rudolf Valentino of Shanghai.” Jin was married to Wang Renmei and the story of her life captivated me.

Q: What in particular interested you about her?

RJM: Her life reflected the turbulent period of China’s history in the twentieth century. What is more revealing is that her life was intertwined with Mao Zedong. Wang’s father was Mao’s teacher in Hunan where both grew up. The young Mao stayed in Wang’s house and often played with her when she was a small child. Later, he helped her get out of trouble during the Cultural Revolution.

Q: What DVD did you include with Wang Renmei: Wildcat of Shanghai

RJM: Wild Rose is her first starring role and her co-star is Jin Yan. Wang demonstrated her ebullience and zest for life in her performance. She charmed audiences and became famous as a result of her exuberance on the screen.

Q: What do you like especially in the film?

RJM: There is a scene in which Wang as a peasant girl is introduced to the wealthy parents of Jin Yan who had purchased modern clothes for her in Shanghai. The story is almost a Chinese pygmalion. She is seen attempting to walk in high heels and falling to the floor at the feet of the father. Later, she knocks over a tea cart and is thrown out of the mansion.

Q: How would you describe Wang Renmei as an actress?

RJM: Before she was discovered as a movie star, Wang was the leading performer for the Bright Moon Singing and Dancing Troop. Wang had a haunting voice and sang the theme song in The Song of the Fishermen which was China’s first international award winner at the Moscow Film Festival in 1934. The skills she had learned as a stage performer translated to her performance on the screen. Her enthusiasm plus her singing endeared her to countless numbers of fans throughout China.

Q: How do the films produced in Shanghai produced during the 1930′s compare with contemporary Chinese films?

RJM: The films of early Shanghai were more daring in their criticism of social conditions in Chinese society and the anti-Japanese atmosphere. Even though the government censored all films, the directors and writers were able to camouflage the message by using the melodramatic soap opera formula.

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Book Giveaway: Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai (With DVD of Wild Rose)

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai, by Richard J. Meyer tells the extraordinary story of one of China most famous film stars, whose dramatic life mirrored the tumultuous history of modern China.

Throughout the week we will be featuring Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai as well as a DVD of Wild Rose, one of Wang Renmei’s most famous films, on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, November 8 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Julia Lovell on Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

We conclude our week-long feature on The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China,with an excerpt from Julia Lovell’s Translator’s Preface to Zhu Wen’s earlier collection of short stories, I Love Dollars.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan! Today is the final day of the giveaway!

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today a 2011 interview of Zhu Wen, conducted by the Wang Ge of Timeout Beijing.

In the interview, Wang discusses the multitude of Wen’s creative personas, namely as a novelist, engineer, philosopher and film-maker and he interviews Zhu about his upcoming movie release, Thomas Mao.

Wang first heard of Zhu Wen in 2002 when the bad-boy writer-film director was a guest on a radio talk show where the interviewees had been asked to bring along a book, a film and an album to represent themselves. According to him, Zhu was automatically painted as some kind of anarchist:

Ge: In 2002, he [Zhu] was still better known as a novelist, having quit his factory job in 1994 to become a writer. He didn’t join the directorial ranks until 2001, with cultish debut Seafood. The film chronicles the story of a Beijing prostitute who travels to Beidaihe to kill herself, and it flew under the radars of most film lovers. It wasn’t until his second feature, South of the Clouds (2003), the tale of a doleful-eyed retiree’s journey of self-discovery to Yunnan, that Zhu announced himself to the world. Then he disappeared. Many thought the director had quit filmmaking for good, but now he’s back with Thomas Mao – and it’s every bit the head trip you’d expect.

The film [Thomas Mao] is divided into two parts. The first half shows the cultural clashes between an Inner Mongolian yurt owner (played by artist Mao Yan) and a foreign artist (played by Thomas Rohldewald), who shares his tent for a night. The twist comes in the second half, where fiction transforms into ‘documentary’, and Zhu turns his camera on the real-life Mao Yan and his working relationship with Rohldewald, a long-time artistic collaborator.

Zhu: Both of them are good friends of mine, but it all came together when I finally figured out how the two artists are connected in their own separate realities. There was this ancient Chinese philosopher called Zhuangzi, and he dreamt of becoming a butterfly. Then he woke up and was confused as to whether he had dreamt he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. The boundaries between reality and dreams can blur together so easily that I can only explain them through their different incarnations.

The plant I worked in was built to produce machine parts, but then the Soviet Union was gone, production was stranded. So I spent my days and nights gathering my colleagues together to play poker. The factory authorities found out about this and threatened to fire me for gambling, which is illegal. Then, all of a sudden, the plant recovered, production began and skilled engineers were needed. So they called me back when I’d already packed my bags. But one day, when I finished work for the day, I looked at all these assembly lines and thought: What am I doing here?


Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

An Interview with Translator Julia Lovell

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today an interview with the book’s translator Julia Lovell, conducted by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

In the interview, Lovell discusses the compelling points of translating The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, especially as the book compares to both Zhu Wen’s previous collection of short fiction, I Love Dollars, and other prominent contemporary Chinese writers.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan!

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha.

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Excerpt: “The Apprentice,” by Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

This week our featured book is The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell. Today, we have an excerpt from one of the eponymous stories of the collection: “The Apprentice,” a tale of the comic vexations of life in a more-or-less planned economy, as an enthusiastic young graduate is over-exercised by his table-tennis-fanatic bosses, deprived of sleep by gambling-addicted colleagues, and stuffed with hard-boiled eggs by an overzealous landlady.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan!

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Book Giveaway! The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen

book cover

This week our featured book is The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator here on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on September 13th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Julia Lovell Discusses Zhu Wen with the Los Angeles Review of Books

Zhu Wen, The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of ChinaThere is certainly no shortage of writing about contemporary China by historians, journalists, and political scientists. While their work and analysis undoubtedly deepens our understanding of China, it is often left to fiction to fill in some of the gaps and provide a richer appreciation of the impact of the changes in contemporary China on individuals. One of the authors most frequently cited for his depiction of the grittier side of today’s China has been Zhu Wen.

Recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jeffrey Wasserstrom talked with Julia Lovell, the translator of Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China. In their discussion, Lovell, who also translated Zhu Wen’s earlier novel, I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China, talks about the ways in which Zhu Wen’s novels capture both the amorality of contemporary China and the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life in China.

The interview ranges over a variety of subjects including the influence of foreign writers such as Borges and Kafka on Zhu Wen’s work; new developments in contemporary Chinese fiction; and the distinctiveness of Zhu Wen’s style and thematic treatment of contemporary Chinese society. Returning to the notion of the political implications of Zhu Wen’s stories, Lovell comments:

When we were planning this collection, I think that Zhu Wen wanted me to include some stories that showed a greater political engagement than those in the previous book, and I believe that the context does come through more strongly in this volume: in particular the moral vacuum resulting principally from the protests and bloody suppression of 1989, but more broadly from post-Mao disillusionment with the Communist political experiment…. Zhu Wen has no pretensions to diagnosing the state of the nation here, but his work does compel the reader to engage with a highly personal, maverick and critical response to China’s present and recent past. He forces us to acknowledge the complexity and individuality of contemporary Chinese experiences and perspectives. I think this is particularly valuable when approaching a country like China, whose sheer vastness can sometimes obscure individual detail.