Wondering Where Quotations Come From

It’s amazing how fast China blogs grow old. ChinaGeeks is over half a year old now, and still the Western media hasn’t sat us down to have “the talk” about where quotations come from. Maybe it’s time they did.

See, the New York Times recently reported on the mandatory patriotic touch China Mobile has added to cell phone calls pre-Oct 1st. According to “Chinese Pride, at the Touch of a Cellphone Button,” China Mobile has changed everyone’s ringback tones — the tone that plays while someone’s phone is ringing when you call them — to ”国家“,a famous patriotic song sung by the famous actor Jackie Chan and the female singer Liu Yuanyuan.

The change is effective for all China Mobile users, but anyone who doesn’t like it can change it back to something else at no cost, and it seems as though it will be automatically deactivated at some point in the future, anyway.

We first suspected something was a bit off with the article when we read that the NY Times credited the song to “the actor Jackie Chan and a female vocalist.” A female vocalist? We found her name through a Google search in two seconds, and as far as patriotic songs go, she’s got a few under her belt. A quick perusal of her personal site reveals songs like “The Five-Starred Red Flag”, “China Has Chosen You”, “China is My Home”, etc. Was it a conscious decision — the NY Times figures their readers don’t care about a singer they’ve probably never heard of — or laziness? Who knows.

Anyway, at the end of this article came this little tidbit:

But Hu Xingdou, a reform-minded economics professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, said China Mobile went overboard in tinkering with its customers’ phones.

“The current efforts to instill ideology makes me feel that the authorities consider ordinary Chinese people to be unpatriotic or even mentally challenged,” he said. “So they enforce this patriotic education on people.”

Huh? What exactly do the “authorities” have to do with this? For that matter, what does this have to do with “patriotic education”? As far as we can tell, it’s just an example of a company from China doing something small to celebrate a national holiday. Nearly all American companies do similar things for the Fourth of July. Given that China Mobile has given users the option of disabling the tone if they so choose, and that there’s nothing in the article that indicates this decision was mandated by the government.

EDIT: We forgot China Mobile was state-owned, which does explain the connection to authorities, although we still think that terminology is a bit misleading. State-owned and state-run are two different things, and whether or not any real “authorities had anything to do with the ringback tone change is still up for grabs.

One wonders whether this is a question of the Chinese source overreacting (Hu Xingdou is a self-proclaimed “student of China’s problems”), of the New York Times putting a quotation out of context, or if there’s something more to this whole thing they somehow left out. Hu’s point isn’t necessarily even something we disagree with, but there isn’t a lot of connection between the problems of patriotic education and a mobile phone company changing people’s ringback tones to a patriotic song for a few days. The way the article reads now is misleading, at least barring the Times revealing some evidence that the government is actually connected to this move in some way.

Rather than speculating on motives, we’ve emailed the reporter herself. We don’t expect a reply, but if we get one we’ll post it here. In the interim, discuss your thoughts about the article in the comments.

“Hitting Others’ Cars, Beating People”

Via Zhaomu’s blog, an account of chengguan attacking and beating traffic police in Hankou:


“That group of people was very fierce, after beating the traffic police, they said they were going to kill me!” a PSB officer told a reporter yesterday afternoon […] remembering the event, he still feels afraid.

He said it happened the night of the 20th at around 9:45: “An upscale white car crashed into the proprietor’s bus, and were discovered as they planned to leave.” In the gateway to the district, their car was blocked by the PSB. After a while, people came from the upscale car and a similar-looking van; they came to the sentry post and tried to force open the railing [that was blocking their car in]. PSB [officers] stopped them again. “There were no markings on that car, but “chengguan” was written on the side of the van,” according to a PSB officer who was there.

When chengguan come out, no one dares oppose
"When chengguan come out, no one dares oppose"

At this time, a black car stopped behind the chengguan van, and out of this car came a uniformed traffic police officer. After consulting with the PSB officers, he pointed to the chengguan car and indicated they should accept [the way the PSB] dealt with [the situation].

“They started arguing, and four or five people got out of the chengguan vehicle and started pushing the traffic policeman.” An eyewitness said the people from the chengguan van forced the traffic policeman into a corner of the sentry post and began to kick and beat him. They also tore off his shoulder loop, and smashed his walkie-talkie. “They beat [him] for five or six minutes.”


The reporter gathered that the traffic policeman who was beaten was the vice president of the Wuhan traffic department (river bank region) Chen Jianhua. After Chen was sent to the hospital and examined, it was discovered that there were many external injuries and several large swollen bumps on his head.


According to the reports of PSB officers from that district, after the assault, the chengguan forced their way into the sentry post and pushed down the button [to release the bar that was blocking their car in], then quickly drove away. They ran [but] one slower person was caught by Chen Jianhua. Soon after, the People’s Police came and quickly took him away.

Jianghan District, Evergreen St.’s office in charge of chengguan confirmed the incident was entirely true. He said that there were eight chengguan on the scene that day, and that except for one named Yang, all seven had cooperated and six have already been arrested by the police. He admitted that the car causing the trouble was from the chengguan department.


“When changing vehicles, the [chengguan] also changed drivers several times,” said an eyewitness. When the conflict was happening, he said that many of those doing the beating smelled strongly of alcohol […] that night, the other seven [chengguan had been] at Yang’s house drinking, but this has not been confirmed by the official department.

Could the Three Gorges Dam Lead to Earthquakes?

Recently, Zhao Shilong posted a long, thoroughly-researched piece on the potential of the Three Gorges Dam to cause earthquakes. It’s a bit long and technical for me to translate, so here’s a summary. (Do bear in mind that my Chinese is far from perfect and my knowledge of geology is extremely limited, so it’s very possible I’ve misunderstood bits of it.)

Zhao’s concern is that the water level has been raised this year to 175 meters, an increase from last year’s 173 meter level. 175 is about as high as the water can go, and it’s a small increase, but Zhao contends that the pressure caused by the water at a 173 meter depth is responsible for a number of natural gas explosions. These explosions — really they are underground reserves of natural gas being forced out of their previous locations due to the increased pressure from the dammed water — have occurred in a variety of places (Zhao cites Chongqing and Hebei, among others) and are considered by some geologists to be a warning sign for earthquakes.

Zhao himself feels that the question of whether the Three Gorges Dam was a contributing faction in the 5.12 earthquake has “not yet been answered clearly”, and that until that question is answered, the force being exerted on the tectonic plate under Three Gorges — already a fault line and earthquake hotbed — shouldn’t be “rashly increased” via adding another couple meters of water.

Zhao closes with:

Recently, expert scholars holding the same opinion as I are urgently calling this matter to the attention of the relevant national departments as well as the scholars, keep on guard for great danger!

We’ll leave you to assess the validity of his geology — we are in no way qualified to do so — but here are some of the comments about this story left on his blog by netizens:

So it looks like the Three Gorges situation has become very serious. Keep an eye on it, may heaven protect China!

Worth keeping track of and pondering. And I express my respect to the big-brains keeping track of it and pondering it.

They really want to fill it to 175 meters? No way…

Isn’t it true that right now it’s at 172 meters, and nothing has happened yet? There’s an old expression: “groundless fears,” you fear the sky will fall and bury you, but in the end nothing happens!

Objection to the construction of our nation is necessary, we must really treat it seriously!

We also musn’t use psuedoscience to hinder the development of our nation, so that it falls into the pitfalls planned by foreigners.

We should not allow the great unpolluted power of the flowing Yangtze River to be washed away.

Choose the path that pursues profit and avoids harm.

Since the river was dammed, Fengjie has already had three earthquakes.

Fengjie has already had nine earthquakes

[Probably referring to the above commenters] There is definitely a connection!

Large dams lead to earthquakes, in geology circles this is already considered common knowledge. If you don’t want to admit it, fine, then endure it, OK?

Any geology experts out there? What do you think?

Daughters of China

A recent ChinaHush post got us thinking about the place of women in Chinese society. Plenty has been said, on this site and elsewhere, about the question, but it’s one we keep coming back to because no one has answered it yet.

The gender imbalance caused by the One Child Policy in combination with traditional sexism is well documented. Amongst young people, especially, the difference is pronounced. There are, for example, almost twenty million more boys than girls under the age of 15. Those boys are going to grow up, and many of them are going to want to marry someone. We’ve covered this before, of course, but the ChinaHush makes me want to emphasize another aspect of this demographic situation.

The gender imbalance could, in theory, serve as an equalizing force for women. With twenty million extra guys to choose from (not counting foreign men), the pressure on women to marry young is going to be alleviated somewhat, freeing women up to pursue careers or their education more seriously (as of 2000, women lagged almost 10% behind men in literacy). Traditionally, the scare story has been that one must find a good husband while still young and pretty or risk permanent spinsterhood. With twenty million guys to spare, though, women concerned about getting married should be able to relax their timelines a bit — all the good ones are not going to be taken by the time they’re 25, 30, or ever. That relaxed timeline is likely to mean more serious female graduate students and career women, and one wonders if it might lead to its own little sexual revolution of sorts, too — with time and men to spare, why not spend a bit more time “looking”, as it were?

This gender imbalance might, by extension, also cut down on the alleged sexual abuse that goes on at institutions of higher learning — something we rather doubt is as widespread as that rumor implies anyway. Advisors will still hold power over their PhD candidates, yes, but in time (assuming, as above, that the imbalance could lead to more women pursuing graduate study), more of those advisors will be women, too. That’s a demographic shift that’s likely to happen anyway, but the gender imbalance could have the effect of increasing it. On the other hand, it could mean that twenty million depressed, wifeless bachelors turn to academia and drown their sorrows in a pile of books.

It is, of course, but a thought, one possible projection — still, a rather interesting one, is it not? It would be rather delicious if the One Child Policy, which has led to some pretty horrific abuse of women and girls (because of backwards traditional mindsets, not the policy itself), ended up serving as a tool for their further emancipation precisely because of those backwards traditional ideas.


Interview with the Karmapa Lama

The Karmapa Lama is “the only senior Buddhist leader recognized by Beijing, the Tibetans and India.” He’s also a 24 year old who likes hip-hop and violent video games. Recently, he gave an interview in the Times of India. It’s an interesting reflection of the ways Buddhism continues to adapt to the times.

He also speaks a bit about tensions between Tibet and China, but more or less just echoes the Dalai Lama’s policy. No surprises there. What is a bit of a surprise is his attitude about video games:

Is that why you play war games on your play station because many might say it’s inappropriate for a Buddhist monk dedicated to peace to play war games?

Well, I view video games as something of an emotional therapy, a mundane level of emotional therapy for me. We all have emotions whether we’re Buddhist practitioners or not, all of us have emotions, happy emotions, sad emotions, displeased emotions and we need to figure out a way to deal with them when they arise.

So, for me sometimes it can be a relief, a kind of decompression to just play some video games. If I’m having some negative thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards.

The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. For me, that’s very skilful because when I do that I don’t have to go and hit anyone over the head.

But shouldn’t meditation take care of that?

No, video games are just a skilful method.

His comments on the India vs. China tension are also interesting if, again, not surprising:

Obviously I can’t speak from the perspective of a politician who is active in these communications. Obviously the government of each country has its own interests in the ongoing conversation. They are doing what they can to advance their own interests. I’m not able to comment on what those interests might be. But if I were to make some observations and guesses from my own vantage point, it seems to me that the Chinese government is acting somewhat deliberately in attempts to slightly irritate the government of India.

Because of this the neighbourly relationship has suffered a little bit. India has always been a relatively peaceful country, a country that has always had a reasonably good record of valuing peace, India does not seem interested in pursuing any type of conflict, however, India is on the rise in the world and perhaps the Chinese government feels some type of impulse to blunt this rise somehow. Perhaps that is what is causing some of the things we see today.

Tangentially relevant to this blog’s area of focus? Yup. But still interesting, no?

Ai Weiwei Quick Update

Some of you may know that Ai Weiwei was on the wrong end of some fists a month ago when he went to attempt to testify on Tan Zuoren’s behalf in the latter’s trial (to no avail). You may also know that he had brain surgery yesterday for a cerebral hemorrhage, possibly due to the beating he received from the Chengdu police.

Liu Xiaoyuan has posted an update, relaying two text messages he got from Ai Weiwei following the surgery:

They just took out the tubes and sewed me up. The doctor said that before the surgery I was critically ill, and that without the surgery I would have had no chance. Now I’ve taken a turn for the better and I will be back to work hard together with you all, rest assured.”

Then, presumably in response to a text from Liu, who doesn’t say what he wrote:

I know, I think every day there are people who are beaten and humiliated, [what happened to] me was nothing, I’m just extremely fortunate to be awake.

Good to know Ai’s still in the game. Whether you think he’s a brilliant social critic/artist or self-centered blowhard with a victim complex, it’s good to know the man’s still alive.

Also of Interest

For those commenters who were skeptical of the idea that sexism and abuse of women is an issue in China, we direct you to this recent post on the increasingly depressing ChinaSMACK.

A Phone Call to the PSB

The following is a translation of a part of this post from Ai Weiwei’s blog. It’s a transcript of a phone conversation between him and a PSB officer, and we think it’s interesting in several ways. The analysis, though, we leave up to you.


On the afternoon of Sept 9th, Liu Yanping saw she had a missed call from a number she didn’t recognize and returned the call. On the other end was a local PSB bureau head named Qiu Yong. His initial stated purpose in calling her was “to ask what age [her] daughter is” and confirm that she didn’t have another daughter who died in the Sichuan earthquake, but things quickly turned ugly. Unprompted he comments that she seems smart but “this fuss you’re causing over nothing on the internet, and these human flesh search engines who beat people, aiya!” She tells him everything they’ve said is fact, and that they’ve made a documentary. A quasi-debate ensues over the veracity of the documentary and whether or not they have specialized agents making trouble on the internet.

Qiu Yong eventually calls the documentary “masturbatory” and says “I don’t care what trouble you’re making on the internet, I only dare to say that I welcome any challenge from you!”

The “trouble making on the internet” refers to Ai Weiwei’s project to chronicle the names of the children who died in the earthquake and his insistence on posting information and accounts of official harassment on the internet.

Then, presumably, Liu called Ai Weiwei and told him about this phone call. Ai called Qiu at the PSB, and the following conversation resulted:


Ai Weiwei: Are you head [of the local PSB substation] Qiu?
Qiu Yong: Yes.
Ai Weiwei: I am Ai Weiwei.
Qiu Yong: Oh, hello!
Ai Weiwei: Hello, why did you call Liu Yanping just now?
Qiu Yong: I can’t call her?
Ai Weiwei: Why did you make this phone call?
Qiu Yong: Is there a rule saying I can’t make phone calls?
Ai Weiwei: How did you get her number?
Qiu Yong: Huh?
Ai Weiwei: How did you get her number?
Qiu Yong: What?
Ai Weiwei: That was her private phone, how could you have that number?
Qiu Yong: Hey…
Ai Weiwei: Hey.
Qiu Yong: Huh?
Ai Weiwei: How could you have her private number?
Qiu Yong: She definitely told me it before I called her.
Ai Weiwei: She told you her number? She called you up first and told you it?
Qiu Yong: Ah…
Ai Weiwei: Or did you call her first?
Qiu Yong: She called me and gave me [the number] first.
Ai Weiwei: So today she called you first?
Qiu Yong: Ah.
Ai Weiwei: Then afterwards you returned her call?
Qiu Yong: I told you [already].

(Qiu Yong’s phone starts to ring, he answers)

Ai Weiwei: Hey! Hey! Hey! You can’t have a meeting [right now]! What was the reason you gave her that phone call just now?
Qiu Yong: Hey!
Ai Weiwei: Hey!
Qiu Yong: Ah.
Ai Weiwei: Just now what happened [that led to] you giving her that phone call?
Qiu Yong: What do you mean? What do you mean, I gave her a phone call…
Ai Weiwei: Were you threatening her?
Qiu Yong: I threatened her…?
Ai Weiwei: As the head of a PSB substation you can call people’s private phones and threaten them? Eh?
Qiu Yong: You ask her, see if I’m threatening her or not.
Ai Weiwei: Why would you call her? I just want to ask about your intention.
Qiu Yong: Intentions? I had no intentions.
Ai Weiwei: So without any intentions you just randomly call people up?
Qiu Yong: Who said it was randomly calling people up?
Ai Weiwei: How did you get her number?
Qiu Yong: She told me it.
Ai Weiwei: When did she tell you it?
Qiu Yong: Are you interrogating me? Huh? Yes or no!
Ai Weiwei: I’m not interrogating you; she is a member of my staff who was threatened by you.
Qiu Yong: She’s a member of your staff, [but this] call was a private matter between her and me.
Ai Weiwei: A private matter? But when you spoke with her, you were talking about this [recent] time when we were arrested and beaten by you guys, right?
Qiu Yong: No, I didn’t talk about that.
Ai Weiwei: Right?
Qiu Yong: Whatever I talked about, it was with her…
Ai Weiwei: Why did you tell her we were making a fuss over nothing?
Qiu Yong: Uh-huh, that’s…
Ai Weiwei: Were you bothered/inconvenienced in any way [by us]?
Qiu Yong: I was not.
Ai Weiwei: If you weren’t bothered then why did you call her?
Qiu Yong: I called to ask her, this is my own private matter.
Ai Weiwei: Your private matter? You’re a public servant of the nation, are you not? You got her number through your authority…
Qiu Yong: Yeah.
Ai Weiwei: Does she know you?
Qiu Yong: How could she not know me?
Ai Weiwei: If you got her number by using your public authority, you don’t have the right to use it for private matters! Every phone call you make you are representing the nation, you know?
Qiu Yong: You…
Ai Weiwei: You started threatening a citizen, you want to threaten her, this is unreal!
Qiu Yong: Good lord!
Ai Weiwei: Being a PSB bureau head, you called a private number to disturb someone else’s life and threaten her. Is that behavior suitable for a PSB bureau head?
Qiu Yong: Have you asked her if I was threatening her or not?
Ai Weiwei: Of course you were threatening her!
Qiu Yong: Ah, that was just…
Ai Weiwei: You, a PSB bureau head, had nothing to do so you just called her up?
Qiu Yong: That’s your, that’s your…
Ai Weiwei: Were you or were you not threatening her?!
Qiu Yong: That’s your opinion, that’s your opinion!
Ai Weiwei: This phone call, were you making it representing yourself or representing the public?
Qiu Yong: Representing myself.
Ai Weiwei: How can you as yourself just call other people’s private numbers?
Qiu Yong: Where is the law that forbids this? Where is the law that forbids this?
Ai Weiwei: How did you get her number? When you’re locking people up and and taking their phone numbers, you’re not allowed to use these phone numbers!
Qiu Yong: Here you go again, here you go again!
Ai Weiwei: Of course! Are you pretending to be innocent?
Qiu Yong: Hmph…you’re pretending.
Ai Weiwei: You still want to pretend you’re a saint?
Qiu Yong: It’s you who is pretending!
Ai Weiwei: You’re a bureau chief, I still haven’t settled [this] with you!
Qiu Yong: Then casually settle, however you’d like.
Ai Weiwei: What kind of thing are you! Huh?
Qiu Yong: Then what kind of thing are you?
Ai Weiwei: You are a beast, do you know?
Qiu Yong: Then what are you?
Ai Weiwei: You are a beast, I say you are a beast! You are a beast, got it?
Qiu Yong: OK! I get it.
Ai Weiwei: You understand? Fine. You’re not permitted to harass anyone again, if you do, we will put the record of this phone call online, understand?
Qiu Yong: OK!
Ai Weiwei: Because…because when you’re a police officer working for the country, then getting someone’s private number and using it to threaten them…

(Qiu Yong hangs up).

Western Media Bias: The Little Things

There has been some discussion about Thoman Friedman’s most recent op-ed, “Our One-Party Democracy“. In it, he compares China to the US favorably, arguing that China’s autocratic system is more efficient and responsive:

There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

In point of fact, Friedman’s column isn’t even really about China, it just uses China as an example. And in terms of the things he’s talking about, it’s pretty hard to argue that China isn’t in a better position than the US. But, God forbid, he said something good about China, so someone was sure to take the bait.

In “Thomas Friedman Demands Communist Revolution” (clearly, they’re going for subtlety here), Gawker takes aim at the straw-man argument that China’s political system is unequivocally better than the US:

And why are things better in China? Because the current “reasonably enlightened group of people” in charge of China, at the moment, can just impose “politically difficult but critically important policies” like raising gas prices to encourage clean power investment and so on.

So, yes, the party may be increasingly corrupt and full of the Princeling children of former Communist party officials, the party may stoke violence against ethnic minorities [this link was included in the original post on Gawker], it may censor the media and lock up journalists and cheerfully ignore human rights, but at least they can get cap-and-trade passed.

Yes, the Party does do an awful lot of those things (Friedman admitted in his column that there are downsides to autocracy). But “stoke violence against ethnic minorities”? The text in their post links to this article from the Toronto Star, which questions the claim that a Uighur conspiracy was behind the recent stabbings (pokings?) in Xinjiang.

Astute readers may recall that we, too, were skeptical. We were skeptical specifically because there was a lack of empirical evidence linking Uighur groups to the stabbings, many of which were themselves unsubstantiated reports.

For the same reason, we’re a bit skeptical of the idea that the government is intentionally “stoking violence against ethnic minorities”. There just isn’t any evidence.

What Happened in Xinjiang?

Granted, truth in this case seems to be a moving target. But as far as we can tell, the panic started from a police text message sent to residents of Urumqi that read: “”Recently, several residents were attacked by hypodermic syringes. Local police security departments have also uncovered a case in which assailants used syringes to attack passers-by. Please don’t panic over the incident, and inform police officers if you find any suspects.” Note that there’s no reference to the ethnicity of the suspects.

Of course, despite the urge not to panic, people did. Suddenly overwhelmed with reports of stabbings in a region that had barely a month earlier erupted in separatist riots, officials reacted predictably, blaming the stabbings on Uighur separatists. But were they really stoking the flames of ethnic violence? They also imposed yet another ban on unlicensed protesting in an attempt to prevent vigilante revenge mobs like the ones that sprung up around Urumqi after the July riots.

Of course, in the past few days, it has become clear that the initial reports of attacks were largely overblown. Many of the “victims” showed no evidence of having been attacked, and many of the actual “wounds” ended up being attributed to harmless things like bug bites. Only three people have actually been prosecuted thusfar. What’s perhaps more significant is that this evidence, debunking the previous reports of some widespread Uighur conspiracy, has come entirely from Chinese state media sources.

The three prosecuted people were, indeed Uighurs, and Western reports say that the government has indeed indicated that the crinimals motives are separatist, but is that really stoking ethnic violence? It seems pretty clear both from the anti-rioting measures and from the general tone of the Chinese media reports that ethnic violence is the last thing the CCP wants. In the most recent Xinhua report, there is no mention of “separatism”, or even “Uighur” aside from an early reference to Xinjiang being a “Uighur autonomous region”. Is it really accurate to suggest that the government is stoking violence against ethnic minorities? Even the Toronto Star article Gawker originally linked didn’t suggest that.

Why the Little Things Matter

We suspect that some people might wonder why it really matters? After all, the Chinese government does do plenty of the other things Gawker listed. Others might wonder why we care so much about one sentence from a Gawker post anyway.

This post matters for two reasons. One, the knee-jerk “how could you say something good about the CCP?” reaction misleads Western readers. It contributes to the widespread perception that China is run by unequivocally evil overlords who kill puppies for fun and pit ethnicities against each other for…well, Gawker never actually said what the motivation for that might be. If Westerners are to have any hope of understanding China, for better or for worse, they’re going to need to have a more nuanced understanding of the CCP than “evil.” Otherwise, communication is impossible.

That leads into the second reason this post matters, which is that it gives more fodder to the army of Chinese netizens hunting for evidence that there is some kind of Western vendetta against China. That, in turn, invalidates any valid criticisms Westerners might make. Why the hell should China listen to us on human rights if we’re making up things about the government trying to incite ethnic violence (or making up things about “crackdowns” in Tibet, or making up things about “crackdowns” in Xinjiang)?

Westerners who want to say anything about China ever have to fight pretty hard against allegations that we “don’t understand”. But real communication — and can we all agree that China and the West communicating effectively is a good thing? — is going to necessitate actual understanding. And it’s hard to see how we can understand China, or why China would care about understanding us, if we keep implying things happened in China that didn’t.

Discussion Section: Sixty Years of China

Maybe you’ve heard. China’s got a big birthday party coming up, and they’re definitely going to be celebrating, with everything from soldiers to tanks to…I’m sure there will be other things, too.

So what are your thoughts on the anniversary celebrations? How will these sixty years be viewed in the future? Net gain? Net loss? Neither? Or, perhaps, a more interesting question: put your Nostradamus cap on and tell us where you think China will be sixty years from now. Please try to support your answers with some sort of logic. Show your work, use only number 2 pencils. You have thirty minutes.

This post on China Media Project might offer you a place to start. And this post on CNReviews has nothing to do with the anniversary but does tie into the race issue we sometimes discuss and thus is worth mentioning, too.

Book Review: Apologies Forthcoming

The following is a review of Xujun Eberlein’s newest book, Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not About Mao. This review refers to the Asian edition of the text, published in Hong Kong by Blacksmith books. In the interest of full disclosure, ChinaGeeks received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher. Also, fair warning, this review contains some foul language. We know that seems weird for a book review, but we stand by it anyway.

I’ve been reading Xujun Eberlein’s work for nearly a year now, though originally I had no idea she wrote fiction. For those who don’t already know, Eberlein manages the excellent blog Inside-Out China. But when I saw the cover of Apologies Forthcoming, it baffled me a bit. “Stories Not About Mao” is an interesting subtitle. Was it meant to be taken at face value? Or is it a Sun Also Rises sort of title, meant to call attention to Mao in its own oblique way? I plunged into the book, eager to find out, but I also contacted Mrs. Eberlein, who had this to say about the subtitle:

[A] subtitle was required by my HK publisher – my guess is it’s their tradition to have subtitles for all their books, so it is unique to the HK edition. The US edition does not have a subtitle. I used “Stories not about Mao” as the subtitle because, though the stories in this book are mostly set in the Mao era (or immediately after) , it was not my intention to point fingers at a particular scapegoat (there are already plenty of books doing that), rather my interest as a writer is mainly in the exploration and display of human nature. Mao alone would not have achieved the great calamity of the CR; the whole nation participated with enthusiasm, and one really had to be there to see how sincere and fanatic people were. Yet decades later all we heard and read were accusations against a small number of leading figures, with little reflection of what “we” did. In a sense, my stories are about “us,” the participants, not “him.”

The stories in Apologies Forthcoming, while perhaps not political, are certainly historical. In her best moments, Eberlein takes massive historical moments and infuses them with personality, emotion, and life. Some are set in during the Cultural Revolution, some during the eighties, and one — the final story, “Second Encounter” — during the present day; all but one — “Second Encounter” — are set in China. The characters in them are not politicians. They are people, and one gets the impression from time to time that there are bits of Eberlein’s own personal experience woven throughout.

The collection’s weakest moments are when Eberlein resorts to somewhat dry explanation of the history. As the book is in English, she certainly would have good reason to expect that some of her readers are relatively ignorant, but the explanations really only serve to take the reader out of the real story for a moment. Sometimes, sadly, a moment is all it takes. In encountering these moments of explication — which are few — I was reminded of something David Simon, writer of the acclaimed TV program The Wire, once said in an interview:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.


I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out.

After the first few stories, however, Eberlein’s explication of history happily fades into the background and her heart-wrenching characters are allowed to take the forefront. Beginning with “Feathers”, the fourth of eight stories, every story in the book is absolutely excellent.

In “Feathers”, for example, Eberlein uses a child’s perspective — a narrative technique she wields multiple times throughout the collection and with great success — to communicate the pain of loss and, simultaneously the power of fiction — or delusion.

“Watch the Thrill” is an absolutely chilling piece, narrated once again by a child who is entertained by the horrors of Cultural Revolution excess — as well as the natural cruelties of life — because these things liberate him, momentarily, from the soul-crushing boredom of day-to-day life. Childlike innocence takes on a rather frightening face here, and Eberlein’s ending to the story is fantastically abrupt — and powerful. It is one of those moments that can only exist on the written page: in the HK edition, perhaps intentionally, the story ends at the very bottom of a page, so that the reader turns to the next one expecting more to the story and finding none. It is a cold realization, but these moments are why we read books.

“Disciple of the Masses” is enthralling, and heartbreaking. “The Randomness of Love” is fascinating. But if the star of this show isn’t “Feathers” or “Watch the Thrill”, it’s “Second Encounter”. The final tale in the book, it ties the other stories together in a roundabout sort of way, leaving you feeling like perhaps you’ve just read a novel disguised as collection of short fiction. Given that, I don’t want to give away much about the plot, but suffice it to say it is powerful, and it ends the book perfectly.

Eberlein does have another writing quirk that bears mentioning here. When writing dialogue, she translates some colloquial Chinese expressions fairly literally. This adds color and character to her language, and I enjoyed it, but it may bother some readers to see, for example, that she has clearly rendered the Chinese curse 他妈的 as “His mother’s” rather than the more typical (if indirect) translation, “Fuck.”

Apologies Forthcoming is not perfect, but parts of it are. Florid praise draped over the back cover as it is, I think I shall put it more simply: it is a book you should read. Eberlein has done what we so often forget to do, she has put people into history and let them tell their own stories. These are not stories about Mao. They are stories about Shanzi, Sail, Wang Qiang, Wei Dong, and many more. The names may mean nothing to you now, but given a chance, some of them will surely find a place in your heart.

Both the American and Asian editions of Apologies Forthcoming are available at Amazon, among many other places.