Poetry Translations: Yin Lichuan

Poetry Translations is an ongoing series of — you guessed it — poetry translations designed to lighten the mood here a bit, and perhaps even make you think. We’ll translate modern Chinese poetry (anything in 白话 is up for grabs, for classical poetry look elsewhere) without commentary and leave you to do the deep thinkin’.

Today’s poems come from the poet/writer/filmmaker Yin Lichuan’s blog (a tip of the hat to Danwei is in order for listing it among their Model Worker blogs) and some websites that collect her work. According to the China Daily, Lin “is now well known within China for her novels, poetry and essays, such as A Little More Comfort, and Fucker.” She is considered part of the “Lower Body Poets” movement. Recently, she’s also expanded into film with 2006’s award-winning The Park and 2008’s Knitting.

At age thirty I asked
Why are you living. To see you go to college
I’ve been to college, mom
So why are you living again. Your eyes are open
We have not spoken for a long time. A woman
How can she be another woman’s
mother. Raising the same body
I should do things you haven’t, mother
You were once so beautiful, right up until you had me
Since I’ve known you, you’re no longer wanton
For another woman
Was doing this worth it
You became an empty old lady
A discarded fan. How could one prove
It was you who gave birth to me, mother.
On the road home I glimpse
The back of an old woman lifting a vegetable basket
Mother, who could be more unfamiliar than you

So Quiet
If you say to someone, It’s snowing, it’s snowing! It’s snowing…
They say, Ah, really! How troublesome, how will I get to work…
Luckily I don’t know people like that
The people I know are all unconventional enough, childlike enough.
Just enough.
The first snow also came in the evening.
Last night was like a fairy tale.
On Peace Street, turning to the street, stopping, buying a cigarette.
Silvery-blue snowflakes, gently floating down, without making a sound.
The night is deep, deep deep.*

[*There are a number of ways to read this phrase “夜深深深”, another might be “Late nights are profound”]

Getting Better
Sick for a while. Come outside, spring has come!
[When] In dark places it always seems more gloomy and cold.
In these times especially, [you] realize the preciousness of the sun.

Old Woman
Every day I go downstairs to buy cigarettes
An old lady and her pushcart
Are standing every day on the road I cross
The pushcart is made of bamboo, very old
It could carry trash, it could carry a child
Is it used for carrying trash or carrying a child?
It’s always empty
I don’t know
if she’s a grandmother or someone who searches through garbage for odds and ends

Life as Serious as it Ought to Be
I casually glanced at him
I married in passing*
We acted foolishly in passing
And never had a child
I boiled some soups at random
We lived in passing
Had a few casual friends
Time strolled by in passing
And we grew old in passing
Then through incurable illness
Became a model in passing
“A loving husband and wife”
…happy and auspicious life
We simply die
The sun glances in passing
on an empty terrace

[What we’ve translated as “in passing” here is 顺便, which means “in passing”, “conveniently”, “on the way”, as in, ‘I can pick up a newspaper for you on my way to the drug store’. As an adverb, it implies that one is doing something casually, because it is convenient in the moment to do so.]

Note: While we strive for perfection in all of our translations, keep in mind that the intended meaning of poetry can be difficult to determine. Also keep in mind that in translating works of art, one is often forced to choose between communicating the precise meaning of the original or communicating its linguistic beauty at the expense of precision. Here, we strive for first and foremost for precision, since beauty is subjective anyway. Consider it another reason to start learning Chinese if you haven’t yet.

Style Guide

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For First-Time Writers

If you’re a new writer, following these guidelines makes getting published on the site much more likely. In no particular order:

  • 1. Your first post cannot be an opinion piece, so don’t try to send something like that in. We all have opinions and we’re sure yours are great, but this is a news and analysis site first and foremost.
  • 2. You’ll note that you rarely see the word “I” on this site. There’s a time and a place for personal stories, but we try to stay away from them here, even in opinion pieces. If you’re looking for a place to share crazy expat stories, Lost Laowai is a great blog with a more personal flavor that’s always looking for writers or, alternatively, just start your own blog.
  • 3. Make sure your writing is good and your grammar and spelling are correct. Typos happen sometimes, but give the piece a once-over before you hit send. I (read: Editor) do not have time to sift through other people’s articles, editing them for bad or ungrammatical writing. I’m sure you can dig through the archives and find plenty of mistakes I have made, but I pay the hosting bills.
  • 4. Your main point, or at least a strong hint about it, should appear in the first sentence or two of the article so that it shows up on the front page. Also, try to give your article an interesting title to attract people to it.
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For All Posts

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    Your Heading Goes Here

    , just remove the spaces!

  4. Use the “Excerpts” Field (you should see a series of blue bars below the text field when writing in WordPress, click on the one that says “Excerpt”) to keep the front page looking clean. Normally, the blog will automatically take the first chunk of your post, no matter what it says, and turn it into the pull quote on the front page, so if you want the front page to say something different (or if the first part of your post is a note or a citation, etc.), copy and paste what should appear on the front page into the Excerpts field; this will replace the automatically generated pull quote on the front page with whatever text you copy-pasted. Be sure you keep it at approximately the same length, though (no more than a few sentences).
  5. Make sure your tags are useful. Don’t restate the categories, and be specific. If your post involves specific people, their names should be tags, for example. Anything that you think might help readers search for the post or find similar ones should be a tag.
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For Translations

  1. In translations, editorial notes go in italicized brackets [Like this -Ed.], text the translator inserts into the translation for clarity’s sake that isn’t present (but may be implied) in the original Chinese goes in regular brackets [like this].
  2. The title of a translation post should be the original author’s name followed by a colon, followed by the title of their post translated and in quotation marks. Capitalization should be as though it were the title of a book. For example, a proper post title could be Li Yinhe: “Sex and Human Rights” or Ai Weiwei: “Let Us Forget”. In the event that the original post title is too long or awkward to translate, you can also format the title as [Authors name] on [topic], i.e. Ai Weiwei on the Sichuan Earthquake or Wan Xiaodao on Rural Worker Salaries
  3. Use span tags to make it so that readers can place their mouse over your english text to read the original Chinese text. You aren’t required to do this, but it’s highly recommended, especially for any essay that might get harmonized. Your HTML markup will look like this (without the spaces around the brackets): Your translated English text. Here’s what it looks like in the field: Mouseover this sentence to see some Chinese. If you still don’t get how to encode it, click “View Source” under the view menu in your browser, and take a look at my HTML for that sentence. Keep in mind it’s best to do this paragraph by paragraph; it doesn’t work if you translate a whole essay and then dump in the original text in a single span tag (there’s a limit on how much mouseover text can pop up, I guess).

Helping Spread the Word

  • 1. When you’re finished writing a post, click on the Haohao button at the bottom of the page to add your story to Haohao (if you don’t have an account, sign up for one, it’s free and useful).
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That’s it for now. Happy writing!

“Twenty Years Unfinished”

[The following is a translation of a blog post from Very Yellow, Very Violent (h/t to Imagethief for leading us to the blog). Links in the text were added by ChinaGeeks to provide some historical context for those who may not know what’s being discussed here, they’re not in the original piece. For those unaware, the seven demands he quotes are demands made by the students in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests, several students famously knelt submissively on the steps of the Great Hall of the People for hours holding up their peition but were ignored.]

Twenty years ago, a group of college students sat quietly at the entrance to the Great Hall of the People and raised a poster with seven demands:

  • One: Reevaluate the achievements and errors of Hu Yaobang and affirm his standpoints on democracy, freedom, relaxing [of restrictions], and [social] harmony.
  • Two: Thoroughly negate and eliminate “spiritual pollution” and “oppose bourgeoise liberalization” [two government campaigns -Ed.], and rehabilitate those intellectuals who have suffered being falsely accused.
  • Three: Open [reports on] all forms of income for national leaders and their family members for the people to see, oppose corrupt officials.
  • Four: Allow the people to run newspapers, remove restrictions on what can be reported, implement freedom of speech.
  • Five: Increase funding for education and improve the treatment of intellectuals.
  • Six: Cancel the “ten conditions” for demonstrations stipulated by the Beijing municipal government.
  • Seven: Demand government leaders thoroughly and publicly discuss government mistakes, and for some leaders, hold new elections through democracy.

The results that year needn’t be mentioned.
Even so, twenty years have passed; has there been a satisfying response to these seven demands written in blood?

  • 1. Reevaluating the achievements and errors of leaders before and after; at that time it was Hu Yaobang, today, you could say it’s Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, or Xi Jinping. [All people who’ve fallen out of favor since Hu Yaobang’s passing and have not be rehabilitated -Ed.]
  • 2. Intellectuals suffering unjust persecution, today there are still many: Hu Jia, He Weifang, Liu Xiaobo, Ji Sizun, etc. etc.
  • 3. Reporter: “Some Official, how do you view a system of reporting on the [income and] public property of officials?” …High Official: “If you want this to be public, why don’t you also want to make public all of the common people’s income and property?”
  • 4. Don’t even think of running a newspaper, even running a website or a blog is beset with difficulties. Are you willing to be put on file or willing to be firewalled?
  • 5. How much is 4 trillion in investment in education. When added together with [the funding for] medical insurance, it reaches 1% [of the overall government budget].
  • 6. During the Olympics, someone who applied to protest in the designated protest areas was sentenced to three years in prison.
  • 7. Tombstone was banned in China, the number of mobiles on which texting service is blocked in Tibet is increasing, you’re not allowed to investigate the number of students who died in the Sichuan earthquake because their schoolhouses collapsed…
  • These seven demands, are they or are they not something we’re still looking forward to in our hearts?
    Do you or do you not wish to wait another twenty years, and leave these problems for your children?

    [We may update this post with translations of comments if more appear on the site, the author has also written a longer, related piece which you can find here. We may translate it, and/or run some commentary on this piece later.]

Why Are “Little Emperors” Killing Themselves?

They’re called “Little Emperors” — children whose experience has been shaped by the twin forces of increasing financial prosperity and the Chinese government policy dictating that they are only children — and the first real generation of them is coming of age. They are arguably the richest and best-educated generation of Chinese ever. So why are they killing themselves in record numbers?

Horror stories abound about the selfish, socially awkward, and materialist tendencies of China’s younger generation. They are the beneficiaries and the victims of the One Child Policy, China’s thirty-year-old population control initiative, which focuses their parents attentions (both good and bad) on them from the day they are born until the day their parents die. Critiques of the policy abound, but one of the most frequently-voiced concerns is that when these kids grow up (as some of them already have) the nation is going to be overrun with a bunch of spoiled brats.

Interestingly, that might not be anything to worry about. A 2008 article in Psychology Today reports:

Despite the stereotype […] research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings—in China or anywhere else. “The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement,” explains Toni Falbo, a University of Texas psychology professor who has gathered data on more than 4,000 Chinese only kids. Sure, some little emperors are bratty, but no more than children with siblings.

The Downside of High Expectations

A much bigger problem, and one perhaps less frequently discussed, is the intense pressure these children face to excel, and the perhaps more intense disappointment and depression that comes when they are grown and confronted with the reality that not everyone can succeed in a nation that produces 4 million university graduates each year but only 1.6 million new college level jobs.

Parents face increased pressure too, since many plan to rely on their children for financial support in their old age. One child means that they have only one shot. Parenting approaches vary, sometimes to extremes, on both ends of the spectrum, with some parents spoiling their kids rotten while others attend classes with them daily to be sure that they are constantly paying attention. Many parents fill their children’s after-school hours– those that aren’t already full with homework — with review classes or supplementary resume-boosters like piano or art lessons. Although the government has, in recent years, encouraged people to let their kids play every now and then, it’s a hard sell. Everyone wants their kid to go to college, and with 9.5 million applicants and only 2.6 million spots (2006), it may be hard for many parents to justify a break.

The problem is that success isn’t as simple as getting into college anymore, especially with the world economy sliding. Even college graduates are having a very hard time finding work. As Vanessa Fong, author of Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy, put it, “In this generation, every child is raised to be at the top. They’ve worked hard for it, and it’s what their parents have focused their lives on. But the problem is that the country can’t provide the lifestyle they feel they deserve. Only a few will get it.”

Depression is a common (and understandable) reaction from the kids themselves, given that many Chinese students spend their pre-college lives more or less exclusively studying for the GaoKao, that all-important university entrance exam. To spend your whole life studying for something and then fail it — or, perhaps even worse, pass it and discover college doesn’t promise you the bright future you’ve been told it would — can be psychologically devastating, and the results in China are plainly evident.

Some students abandon their schooling almost entirely in favor of online realms that may offer some sanctuary from parental pressure and disappointment with society. This problem has been widely reported in the West, and the Chinese government has taken steps to address it including discussing recognizing internet addiction as a disease and building boot camp-like rehab centers to reform the afflicted.

A more serious problem, though, is the rising suicide rate. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among those aged 20 to 35, and China’s overall suicide rate ranks among the highest in the world. There appears to be a direct correlation between this and the high-pressure environment many Chinese urban youth find themselves in; according to the China Daily:

A two-year survey by researchers at Peking University found over 20 percent of 140,000 high-school students interviewed said they had considered committing suicide. And 6.5 percent of the students surveyed said they had made plans to kill themselves.

The Psychology Today article (more recent than the 2007 China Daily piece cited above) cites even more grim statistics: “A study by the Society Survey Institute of China concluded that over 25 percent of university students have had suicidal thoughts, compared to 6 percent in the United States.” They also report “the news agency Xinhua estimates there are 30 million Chinese under 17 with significant mental-health problems,” although the original Xinhua piece is not cited.

It continues:

Faced with bleak prospects, elite only children often don’t know how to cope; they’ve been brought up to do only one thing: succeed. Indeed, in a 2007 survey on stress in young people by the Chinese Internet portal Sina.com, most respondents—56 percent—blamed their misery on the gap between China’s developing-world reality and their own high expectations.

Expectations may be difficult to change in this generation, which has been promised a China whose opportunities rival those of America (of course, with the American economy in its current state, perhaps this is just a case of “be careful what you wish for”). The government could release some of the pressure through reforming the education system, the question is how.

Can Education Reform Solve the Problem?

Lots of reforms have been suggested, but many of the suggestions are impractical or otherwise difficult to implement on a national scale in a nation as massive as China. Recently, Study-in-China.org collected common, recent education reform suggestions, some of which may serve to illustrate the difficulty of alleviating academic pressures through systemic reform. Among their suggestions:

  • Primary and high school students should be released from heavy burdens of homework

While reducing homework loads is a good idea, according to Psychology Today‘s report, required homework may not make up a significant percentage of the homework Chinese students do every night: “Out of Yanming Lin’s five hours of schoolwork per night, four hours went to ‘voluntary’ homework designed to boost test scores. The extra homework is not required by the teacher, explains Lin. ‘But all the other students do the extra homework, so if you do not do it you will lag behind.'” The high level of competition for college spots virtually ensures that a reduction of required homework would be met by vigilant parents with an increase in extra classes, voluntary homework, or other education-based activities.

  • The college admissions system should be reformed to something similar to the American system, where students are judged on more than simply test scores.

Such a system would indeed be ideal, as the current system lacks any sort of qualitative analysis of students, nor does it take into account their unique backgrounds, abilities, and talents in the way the American system does. However, the sheer number of students applying to college yearly in China make implementation of the American system virtually impossible. “Name brand” colleges would likely be overrun with applications from literally millions of prospective students; any real qualitative analysis of applicants would be complicated by vast numbers of applications. Admissions offices at competitive American colleges are already swamped, but it seems safe to assume that, were China to institute a similar system, the number of applications Beijing University or Qinghua University would dwarf Harvard’s application pile by hundreds of thousands.

That, of course, doesn’t mean China couldn’t adopt elements of the American or other, more qualitative, college admissions systems, but the more complex the system becomes, the more expensive it also becomes as colleges have to pay larger and larger armies of staff to evaluate applications. Such a system would also be less transparent than the current system, perhaps not ideal for a country that already struggles with corruption on almost every front.

One of the more compelling ideas is to implement widespread, high-quality vocational schools and training programs. This would potentially take some of the pressure off of colleges, might help realign the expectations of the young urban middle-class “emperors”, and could potentially also decrease unemployment. It’s not exactly the high-tech economy of white-collar scientists some Chinese people may have been hoping for. But Chinese people, especially students, are killing themselves at an alarming rate. In the end, something will have to give.

In Defense of the Western Media in Tibet

At the risk of boring everyone and getting this website swept under the Great Firewall, we’ll add a few short thoughts about Tibet.

As the CCP keeps a lockdown on Tibet, information is scarce and hard to come by, even more than usual. There’s a certain sore spot on China’s part against the Western media for its coverage of Tibet. A China Daily article shortly after the riots last year quotes a Chinese netizen railing against Western media outlets, saying “To tarnish China’s image, the West is doing whatever they can, no mater how mean and vicious.”

On the other hand, the Chinese people aren’t the only ones that can have hurt feelings. That netizen’s words reflect the utter contempt that the Chinese government has for the Western media’s “ignorance and prejudice.”

If the Chinese government’s goal is to offend the Western media, they’ve accomplished their mission. Even ostensibly professional organizations like Time are letting their feelings show. A recent article offers a glimpse into their wounded sense of journalistic self. The overall tone of the article is that of someone both angry and frustrated at the government, on a personal and professional level.

And who can blame them? A journalists’ job is to report things, and the CCP doesn’t make friends with them by not letting them do their job. This is not meant to excuse biased reporting (which certainly exists) but to point out that in some ways the media has no choice. They can either pack up their backs and go home or take their facts from the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. From a personal standpoint it’s easy to see what they’ll choose.

This leads to another problem: the tendency to only include the official Chinese government statements on Tibet and the official Tibetan government-in-exile statements. There’s no room for middle ground because the middle ground is often difficult for reporters to get to.

Take the following NYT excerpt that quotes Xinhua and Dharamsala in the same breath:

“Last March.…At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa, most of them Han civilians, according to Xinhua….In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed….according to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.”

The situation now almost forces Western media to get the facts wrong, by forcing them to choose between one set of propaganda and the other. It just so happens that Dharamsala has a better PR campaign and so their propaganda wins out.

The Time article ends with a certain stab at the Chinese government. Written during the pre-Olympic media blackout in Tibet, the article says that only when the government opens Tibet up for reporting will Western media “be able to say — without bias — just what has been going on behind closed doors.”

Next time the Chinese government whines about the unfairness of the Western press, resist the temptation to feel a bit sorry for them and remember who started this mess. No one should blame the Western media for being outraged at the CCP expecting them to play along with their propaganda games.

Paranormal China (Part II)

[Paranormal China is an ongoing series investigating whether the “paranormal” is as commonly witnessed and as popular in China as it is in the US. This series was inspired by an X-Files DVD-watching binge, but its purpose is not to argue for or against the existence of paranormal phenomena; rather it seeks only to illuminate a little more about China.]

Paranormal China Part II: Hauntings

As long as people have been around there have been reports of ghosts. Indeed, Chinese culture has a long and rich history of belief in otherworldly spirits, especially the spirits of the dead, and the ways they affect the living. These days, many people (Westerners and Chinese) have written off these traditional superstitions, yet science has facilitated the emergence of another group of belivers, whose convinctions are, in the West anyway, based in personal experience but supported by the discoveries of (pseduo-?) scientific ghost hunters who attempt to technology to document paranormal phenonmena. TV shows documenting “real life” hauntings are popular in America, especially around Halloween. Do they share the same sort of following in China?

To investigate, we first tried a simple comparative keyword search. Representing China are Baidu’s results for the Chinese search term “闹鬼事件”, representing the English-speaking West are Google’s results for the Chinese term’s relative equivalent, “hauntings”. We chose to use the plural because “haunting” brings up lots of results using it as a verb in figurative settings that don’t relate to ghosts at all. The Chinese term “闹鬼” actually has a similar figurative meaning, but adding “事件” to the end hopefully filters out many of those results.
Baidu: 724,000
Google: 1,410,000

A decent percentage of Baidu’s results are somehow connected to the film A Haunting in Connecticut (in Chinese, 《太平间闹鬼事件》), so it seems fairly clear that there is less interest in modern hauntings in China than there is in the West, at least according to the results of our admittedly unscientific search engine test.

What does exist seems mostly to be collections of personal reports with little or no scientific evidence. Many of them are also second or third-hard, and though sometimes they are accompanied by exhortations that “this is really true,” one wonders if these are simply provided to make the stories scarier rather than as a result of any actual belief. We’ve translated a few below so you can judge for yourself:

For example, this site has a number of “real life haunting” stories. One tells of a man, his cousin, and some other family members driving home late one night:

It was already past 10 at night […] at this time, the driver suddenly spotted a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right. He scared the driver so badly that he slammed on the brakes […] his cousin in the passenger seat asked him what happened, but he didn’t dare to say for fear of scaring the woman and child in the back […] but not long after he starting driving, it happened again, he saw a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right […] this time he was less scared because he didn’t believe in ghosts, [so he sped up], but when he reached the spot the apparition suddenly disappeared.

Another netizen related the story of a classmate who was frequently sick in middle school:

…At that time, the school’s playing field was built near a cemetery for ‘revolutionary martyrs’. He liked quiet, and at that time he was also quite courageous, so during gym class when the other students were exercising he went to the cemetery to find a quiet spot to sit, always sitting on the first headstone in the first row but never looking at the name on the stone […] but every night when he was falling asleep his head hurt, and in the middle of the night he would see a fat woman standing at his bedside looking at him and laughing. After three days of this, he discussed it with his father […], who taught him a curse for subduing ghosts called the “5 Thunderstrikes Curse” (五雷咒) […] nights [after that], he felt that the fat woman had returned again, and had brought with her a gaunt woman. With the two of them standing before his bed, he began repeating his father’s words, and thus fell asleep. He said when he was sleeping at night, he could hear the woman crying and constantly repeating “I beg of you, release me!” By morning, his hands were numb but his fists were still tightly clenched.
His mother went to ask the Grand Immortal to look into it and said he had offended someone [with the curse] and that he should release them, he just had to go to a crossroads outside down and burn some paper…
Later, he returned to the cemetery to see what was on the headstone where he always sat, and discovered the picture was of the same fat woman in his dream…

These stories are, to say the least, suspiciously similar to any number of poorly-composed ghost stories that get read around campfires worldwide on summer nights. They are generally presented thusly; short stories with no specifics and no real attempt to provide or claim any kind of credibility. Unlike UFOs, which many Chinese seem to be discussing quite seriously, these ghost stories look like they’re probably purely for entertainment.

There are some reports of actual hauntings by netizens, but precious little in the way of information on them (searches lead back to the original question on “Baidu Knows” or to other questions with no answers), and the few that you can track down are quite clearly faked:

This video, one of the most common results of video searches, is somewhat creepy and potentially authentic totally a hoax (thanks to commenter NickC for the heads up), but it didn’t happen in China. Despite erronious reports that it’s from Shanghai, the footage is from Singapore:

Interestingly, the “ghost” and what it does in this video is very similar to one of the ghosts from what may be China’s most famous horror movie, The Eye (Recently there was a horrible American remake starring Jessica Alba). Regardless, it’s certainly significant that there are so few “real ghost” videos from inside China that people have to re-label hoaxes from other countries in Chinese, whereas English-language Youtube is virtually crawling with ghosts.

The lack of evidence for serious interest in ghost-related research in China was also clear in search results; a search for a variety of ghost-related terms on Baidu’s image search failed to bring up anything resembling a photo of a real life ghost, whereas Google’s results are comparably full of blurry photos and unexplained spots of light (considered by many Western believers as evidence of the presence of ghosts).

Official research sources are also difficult to find. While a quick search turned up hundreds of paranormal research societies in the West, there were no serious looking research groups evident in Baidu’s search results.

Of course, none of this necessarily means anything about what Chinese people really think about ghosts, since the CCP has been known to censor ghost and haunting-related information and entertainment. Since exactly what they’re censoring at any given time can be difficult to pin down, it’s impossible to say whether internet results are really representative of the greater whole. Generally speaking, one can probably assume that at least some censorship is occuring, but “how much?” and “of what?” are harder questions to answer.

It’s also worth noting that belief in this sort of thing is probably much more widespread in the country than it is in cities, and that country people are much less likely to share their experienecs online, so there may well be plenty of people with “real life” ghost stories to tell to those who can make their way into the countryside; however, a comprehensive survey of rural China is beyond the abilities of this blog (for now).

We’re by no means experts, and we may well have missed something (or lots of things), so feel free to drop your China ghost stories (or whatever) in the comments. Also check out the first part of our Paranormal China series: Paranormal China Part I: UFOs.

Lessons on How to Love China

Gao Zhisheng is a Chinese firebrand lawyer-turned human rights activist. He’s taken up the cross for cases ranging from underground Christian sects to democracy activists, displaced homeowners and more. Gao’s opponent in and out of court has traditionally been one face or another of the CCP, and he’s been a thorn in the Party’s side for years. Himself an ex-member of the Party and former PLA soldier, Gao says the day he tore up his Party membership card was the proudest day of his life.

A cursory look at some of Gao’s statements gives an insight into just exactly what he is all about. In an open letter to the U.S. Congress in 2007, Gao declared:

“The only law that the communist regime treat with any seriousness is ‘the constitutional law ensures the permanent reign of the Chinese Communist Party in China.’”

Gao is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He was imprisoned and tortured for several months, and was finally coerced into admitting to “inciting subversion” by appealing to top leaders on behalf of a certain banned religious organization. Now he’s facing the same plight: Gao went missing from his Shaaxi home in early February 2009 and it is assumed that he’s been taken into custody by Chinese authorities.

Now it’s not just Gao Zhisheng that’s gone, but his wife and children as well. His family had been under house arrest and Gao’s 15 year-old daughter unable to attend school, spurring them to pay human traffickers a small fortune to carry them overland to Bangkok in January of this year. From there they flew to the United States, where they are currently seeking asylum.

Gao Zhisheng is neither the first nor last lawyer of his breed in China, but he is perhaps one of the bolder and, some might say, reckless human rights activists on the mainland today. Himself a victim of torture and imprisonment in the past, Gao understood well the consequences of his actions, once stating that “you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself.”

Western observers of China should always be careful not to commit the sin of allowing our own prejudices and preconceptions to color our view of events that are entirely domestically Chinese. It’s instinctual for us to paint Gao Zhisheng as a flawless knight in shining armor.

A debate could be had over whether his particular brand of rights activism is preferable to more subtle approach. Zhang Sizhi, another lawyer known for advocating the rule of law in China, has argued that “If you go too far, you will only hurt the chances of legal reform, as well as the interests of your client.” Gao clearly understood the likely consequences of his actions for him and his family: he once ominously noted that he is “not sure how much time [he has] left” to carry out his activism.

Regardless of whether Gao’s career exhibited courageous daring or dangerously unsound judgment (which are certainly not mutually exclusive qualities), Gao Zhisheng’s experience is a lesson for any patriotic Chinese with an idealistic streak: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Progressive reform has consequences for individuals. Period.

Anyone that studies, reads, and writes about China can’t help but have an emotional reaction to Gao’s story in general and his family’s tragedy in particular. Foreign China observers, in general, are rooting for China: the rule of law and human rights are what we want to see. People that aren’t interested in those things tend to not stick around very long.

The jingoistic climate of 2008 is settling down: Carrefour protests are over and the Olympics weren’t thwarted by a certain wolf in sheep’s clothing after all. 2009 has had a few rough patches so far but it’s not unsalvageable. With any luck, people like Gao Zhisheng can teach other Chinese what it means to love China.

UPDATE: On another, related note, articles like this bug me. The heading mentions that Gao’s wife “defected” to America, which has very specific implications. Nothing in the body seems to suggest that it was anything resembling a change in political allegience, which leads me to believe that someone thought that word looked a bit more sexy so decided to throw it in without thinking about what it meant.