Only By Suffering Can We Become Known

A colleague forwarded us this New York Times story about the recent Frankfurt book fair, at which the tensions between China and the West were very much on display. The Times has tagged it as “uneasy engagement”, and we couldn’t think of a more apropos phrase to describe the conference. Government representatives, dissident writers, the “Western media”, and Western writers all played a part here, and the usual suspects were dragged to the surface: Tibet, Tiananmen, F.G., censorship, etc., etc.

The story ends with this tidbit:

Mr. Liao, the writer and musician, was imprisoned from 1990 to 1994 after he wrote a poem about the Tiananmen massacre. Despite an invitation [to the Frankfurt book fair] — he hoped to promote his book about China’s downtrodden, known in English as “The Corpse Walker” — the police would not lift a ban on his going overseas.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Liao said it was not a complete loss for him or other underground writers, given the publicity. “Only by going through these incidents, it seems, can we become known to the outside world,” he said.

Liao makes an interesting point. As bad as censorship, house arrest, and repression are for the Chinese government’s public relations, they can be and have been a kind of boon for dissidents and controversial artists who struggle to make themselves known outside of China otherwise. “Banned in China” is a sexy catchphrase that’s sure to attract attention outside the borders of the Middle Kingdom, and we — this blog included — tend to pay more attention to the people who are being harassed by the government than the people who aren’t.

Part of this is natural, of course. Attention begets attention, so if the government is following someone it stands to reason that sooner or later, others will be paying attention too. But part of it comes, I think, from our affection for what may be a Western cultural archetype: the underdog. Generally speaking, we love a good underdog story, and pretty much everyone is an underdog when they’re taking on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Chinese government. Regardless of our understanding the politics behind the issue — and let’s be fair, most people who quote the Dalai Lama or decry China’s human rights abuses don’t actually know a damn thing about China or Chinese policy — underdog stories have a romantic appeal that serves dissident writers in China well.

The obvious downside is that Chinese art that isn’t about the government in some way tends to fall by the wayside when it gets outside China. It may not be less good than political art, but it doesn’t have the same David vs. Goliath appeal. It’s no coincidence that in America, people are more likely to know who Jung Chang is than who Lu Xun is, and I don’t think it’s because Jung Chang is a better writer. (Of course, it’s no coincidence that people know Lu Xun but not Jung Chang in China, either).

Another reason for this, of course, is that the sort of non-political art that’s promoted by the government when they’re abroad is generally too sterile to have any lasting appeal. Again, from the Times:

China invested $15 million and managed nearly every detail of its exhibition. There was much argument over what translations to finance. The 20 new German-published volumes China financed include works by major writers, like Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem,” Yu Hua’s “Brothers,” and Xu Zechen’s “Running Through Zhongguancun.”

Mr. Xu’s hit, about a migrant hawking pirated DVDs and fake IDs in the capital, was unexpected. But of some 100 newly translated titles that China promoted, most are banal introductions to China from state publishers.

One wonders if Beijing’s aspirations for its own “soft power” may eventually necessitate the loosening of some state controls on art and expression generally. These aspirations may also require China to stop trying to present a squeaky-clean image and embrace reality (or something closer to it), which is dirtier but also more compelling. If nothing else, it’s probably an encouraging sign for artists in China that the Chinese government even sent a delegation at all. It’s still easier to get famous through suffering — Ai Weiwei’s brain injury has gotten him some attention, for example — but things may be changing.

What are your thoughts?

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0 thoughts on “Only By Suffering Can We Become Known”

  1. That NYT article mentioned Gao Xingjian, which reminded me of a very interesting episode where several years ago, after Gao won the Nobel, I attended a lecture given by a famous scholar/college professor from Taiwan visiting Beijing. He eviscerated Gao and completely – from a literary angle, that is, without mentioning Gao’s political views. Since then similar things happened with quite a number of scholars from HK, Singapore and the US whose lectures I attended. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that the people I met (all established Chinese-speaking scholars outside the mainland) all hated him because Gao does have a good reputation among the literay world in say HK and TW.

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  2. “One wonders if Beijing’s aspirations for its own “soft power” may eventually necessitate the loosening of some state controls on art and expression generally.”

    That would be ironic, because Beijing’s aspirations for its soft power offensive are all about gaining control of information and perception. This is why there is growing diquiet about the role of Confucius Institutes: they’re not just promoting Chinese culture, they’re peddling the CCP’s airbrushed view of history (along with the usual ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric).

    Friction like that recently witnessed in Frankfurt will continue until such time as China grows up to the idea that it will never be able to impose its narrow view of the world on other nations. As a ‘civilisation’ that stretches back a while, you’d think they might have gotten to grips with the association between human progress and freedom of arts/expression by now.

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  3. As a ‘civilisation’ that stretches back a while, you’d think they might have gotten to grips with the association between human progress and freedom of arts/expression by now.

    Yeah, funny how someone like you who’s known to disrespect other opinions preaches tolerance. Funnier that you don’t even see the irony.

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  4. Friction like that recently witnessed in Frankfurt
    Germany, isn’t that the country that persecutes Scientologists? As well as banning any display of certain political symbols (Swastika which is also a Buddhist symbol incidently). Am I to also understand this is the same country that bans political parties (Nazi and Communist) and criminalises different opinions (Holocaust denial)?

    Now being the nasty Chinese nationalist that I am, I obviously have no problems with such authoritarian tendencies, but an honest observer might think it a bit rich for them to give lectures on Liberté.

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  5. @ wooddoo: It got broken when we (automatically) upgraded to WordPress 2.8. Same with all of our pages, which is why the blogroll and stuff are gone. I’m working on redoing all of it, but it takes a while and these couple weeks are extremely busy.

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  6. @ MTM,

    I’ve always thought that Germany’s controls are shortsighted and that they encourage extremism more than they suppress it.

    Moreover, while Germany has certainly done a decent job of confronting its past (more so than Japan and, arguably, more so than China), the country sometimes takes a rather self-righteous tone toward other countries’ crimes precisely because of that past—sort of like they’re are saying, “We did bad stuff, so we know bad stuff when we see it—cut it out already! Don’t be like us!”

    An example of this would be Joseph Beuys (sic?), the performance and installation artist. He wouldn’t travel to the U.S. for years as a protest against the Vietnam War. But the guy had himself been a pilot for the Wehrmacht! I mean, he was right to criticize—it would have been immoral not to, given what the U.S. was doing—but it came across as self-righteous to draw such a hard line.

    @ Custer,

    Including the “Brothers” and “Wolf Totem” in the book fair seems pretty gutsy, actually, given the politics of the two books’ respective authors. The Chinese embassy in Germany behaved embarrassingly by protesting the inclusion of dissidents but, “bland” books aside, whoever put the Chinese official delegation together was rather thoughtful.

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  7. OTR,

    How else would you recommend that he repent for having served the Nazis? Idk, but that kind of sounds like criticizing someone for vehemently decrying the Iraq war after having voted for Bush. Sounds more like after having reflected and saying, “Oh, shit, I fucked up,” he went on to say, “I better try to make up for all that.”

    To everyone,

    Does anyone know where I can get an e-copy of any of those books? Living in China and outside of Beijing and Shanghai (where I’ve heard there’s an “underground”), it’s obviously a bit difficult for me to get my hands on banned books.

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  8. @ cjjk

    “…someone like you who’s known …”

    Oh dear! You’ve fallen into the trap of deliberately falsifying the position of someone that doesn’t share your views. Now that’s REALLY disrespectful, old chap. Read with more objectivity next time. You’ll be glad you did.

    @ mtm

    “…an honest observer might think it a bit rich for them to give lectures on Liberté.”

    They didn’t lecture anybody; just stood their ground in the face of some petulant foot stamping.

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  9. Oh dear! You’ve fallen into the trap of deliberately falsifying the position of someone that doesn’t share your views. Now that’s REALLY disrespectful, old chap. Read with more objectivity next time. You’ll be glad you did.

    Sweetie, nobody here shares your holier-than-thou views. It’s sad you are not aware of your reputation here as an intolerant snob who never engages in any meaningful conversation. And to think over at another blog someone called you a “liberal.” Now that’s a new definition of the word.

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  10. “…your holier-than-thou views”

    Disappointing, but unsurprising. I refer you to reply #9 for guidance.

    Btw, did you for one second consider responding rationally and maturely to the points I made in #2 ? If hope really does spring eternal that question doesn’t necessarily have to be a rhetorical one.

    In other words, you still have a chance to redeem yourself.

    From the original:

    “These aspirations may also require China to stop trying to present a squeaky-clean image and embrace reality”

    If wishing made it so! It is also to be hoped that they put an end to the systematic disruption of online discussion by CCP acolytes. Raising the level of debate in society is also a hallmark of civilisation.

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  11. To cjjk,

    Yeah it is ironic.

    To OTR,

    “Brothers” is actually very popular. Overseas market-wise, it has been on the shelves in Japanese bookstores for some time and is one of the best-selling Chinese books there.

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  12. @ Josh,

    Fair enough.

    @ Woodoo,

    Yeah, I bought my copy of “Brothers” after seeing it staring down on me from every bookshelf in every bookstore in every train station, airport, etc.

    I’d argue, though, that “Brothers” and “Wolf Totem” are popular in part because they have rather subversive ideas wrapped up in good storytelling. To grossly simplify, “Brothers” argues that reform and opening has been corrosive to basic morality in China and “Wolf Totem” paints Chinese people as sheep (rather than wolves) in the face of authority. Their respective authors’ sensitivity—Yu Hua has done some pretty provocative interviews and, anyway, has always written stuff that, whether violent or sentimental, has a political edge, while Jiang Rong is a pen name for someone who had a sketchy political background—secondary but essential to this.

    The official Chinese display at the book fair could have chosen ALL mild-mannered, flavorless selections, like translations of past writers, or, alternately, all poppy stuff without too much of an edge. But instead they went with things that were popular and pretty good—but didn’t exactly sell China in the usual, scripted way. That took guts and thoughtfulness.

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  13. Disappointing, but unsurprising. I refer you to reply #9 for guidance… In other words, you still have a chance to redeem yourself…

    Thank you My Lord for granting people one chance after another! The level of debate of a country should absolutely be as sophisticated, surprising and inspiring as the adorable words in reply #9 and #11, or as confused and clichéd as reply #2.

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  14. The thing I like about the star rating system is when you can’t educate the morons, you just “Fail” them.

    cjjk * * * * *
    Stuart *

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  15. mtm, 360kid much? “The great thing about the 360 isn’t beating the games, it’s showing everyone online that I did.”

    I think China just needs more time, this was a step in the right direction, but the path is much longer still. Thats why they felt that they weren’t welcomed, and thats why the Germans weren’t that satisfied. The Germans expected more freedom of expression given this opportunity, and the Chinese thought that just the act, without any effort should have been good enough. Time, China needs more time.

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  16. “Only By Suffering Can We Be Known” I find this as a funny phrase. The problem with the Dalai Lama, World Uyghur Congress, Falun Gong, women rights, and other of their ilk who have a beef with the Chinese government are supported by the Western Media and governments. What if the Chinese government support Al Qaeda, KKK, Alaskan Independence party, Hawaiian sovereignty movement and other movements that would destabilize the sovereignty of the US government?

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  17. @ mtm

    Evidently, the ratings system says more about the raters than it does about the rated. But, for the record, I’m encouraged to receive a * from you (or was it two? – you posted twice).

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  18. @ stuart, cjjk and mtm,

    Blah blah blah… boring.

    @ pug_ster,

    Your point doesn’t have anything to do with the book fair or even side discussions relating to the book fair. And it is a confusing point—-really, “women’s rights” in China are a product of the U.S. government? What, there were no “women’s rights” before the NED because it is devoted to saving women? Or the NED hurt women’s rights? Or there are no problems whatsoever for women in China but some Chinese women are paid by evil outsiders to say there are? Or there are problems, but outsiders shouldn’t be messing with them? Or the U.S. has worse women’s problems? What in the world is your point? Ditto for the Tibetans and Uighurs.

    It seems your only motive here is to steer this whole conversation into a squabble over whether the Dalai Lama and Al Qaeda are equivalent, whether the U.S. or China is worse on human rights, etc. Those arguments are tiresome. I’ve already started to squabble, so now I’ll stop…

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  19. … and to return to the topic at hand. I wonder what the process was for choosing the official Chinese delegation to the book fair. Did the writer’s association put the thing together? Cultural ministry? Publishers but with some government input?

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  20. @Old Tales Retold,

    I am not against women’s rights. Actually I could be wrong but NED doesn’t support alot of women’s rights groups in China, but human rights instead. Let me ask you this. Do you think that how West telling China how they treat their women will be better or worse for China overall? Look at afghanistan, women’s rights are even worse there, US coming in and building schools for girls to try to educate them and the only see the Taliban to bomb out those schools. You can’t make China into another America nor does China wants to be like another America so why force our values upon them? This kind of ‘external’ social change have never worked and never will.

    But you never answered my question: why does the US support groups like World Uyghur Congress? A terrorist group which is responsible for killing of 200 civilians in July? Why is US so mum about this? And China is better than that and would not support some terrorist cell that would threat the sovereignty of the US.

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  21. @ Pug_ster,

    What I am saying is, first of all, that the discussion you have started is unrelated to the main topic. Second, it is a tiresome discussion that never goes anywhere and never produces any new insights. It just bounces back and forth like an old game of PONG.

    You have asked me to answer a question, though, so I will answer it, at risk of starting the whole loop over again.

    No, I do not thing that the World Uyghur Congress is a terrorist group. It may advocate something—independence for Uyghurs—that the overwhelming majority of Chinese find objectionable and it may, sometimes, make exaggerated claims (as Custer has documented), but that is a far cry from terrorism.

    Oh, Kadeer called some relative and said to stay off the streets because there would be demonstrations? Yeah, that’s really tough evidence of terrorism there. Nope.

    Nor is rioting terrorism. Were the LA riots or the Paris riots terrorist attacks? No, of course not. All violence does not necessarily equal terrorism, though it can be terrifying. And yelling “terrorist” isn’t the only way of showing you take something seriously. Ask Bush.

    Why does the US government and its semi-governmental appendages like NED support Uyghur groups? Probably for some of the dastardly geopolitical reasons you suspect. Probably to look good to some people. Probably also because it’s got a big chunk of money allocated to it by Congress to promote democracy and rule of law abroad. Why does Congress do that? For all the crazy reasons Congress does anything—to seem like they’re heroes, out of a genuine sense that democracy promotion is America’s role in the world, to appease a certain group of constituents, etc. Who knows.

    Does China support such causes in the U.S.? No, sadly.

    There ARE U.S. groups, though, that desperately need support, including foreign support. I am entirely serious. You may not care about human rights issues in and of themselves but only inasmuch as they relate to China’s image or some silly online tug of war, but if you do care, consider making a donation to the following:

    American Indian Movement
    Fighting for Native American sovereignty–literally had to gunfight the FBI in the 60s and 70s
    http://www.aimovement.org/

    Coalition of Immokalee Workers
    Fighting for the rights of immigrant workers in the fields
    http://www.ciw-online.org/

    School of the Americas Watch
    Trying to shut down the US Army’s “School of the Americas,” which is implicated in human rights abuses across Latin America
    http://soaw.org/

    etc, etc.

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  22. OTR,

    I think what pug_ster tried to say is that western didnt like what happend cuz they didnt hear what they want to hear from Chinese artists.

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  23. I don’t know why this ‘book fair’ turned into a political discussion and now a discussion about ‘only by suffering can we become known.’ According to the NYT article the reason why China spent $15 million on this ‘book fair’ because of China’s cultural trade gap. And what did that bomboozle book fair director Jürgen Boos did? He brought Chinese dissidents who have some kind of beef with the Chinese government and introduce books about issues with the Chinese government. I hope that I am wrong, maybe Europeans only want to hear about problems with China in regards with human rights or think that Chinese culture is backwarded. You tell me.

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  24. @ Wahaha and Pug_ster,

    I think I got a little too snarky there—and, maybe, a bit incoherent—sorry! And my next comment, which is awaiting admin approval because it has a lot of links in it, is even snarkier, I’m afraid. So, apologies in advance! No coffee makes me grumpy.

    The point that outside activists won’t save China is well-taken. The same might be said for efforts to improve a lot of countries, including the U.S. I helped out with an American group that was arranging a global “vote” on the Iraq War to show that Bush’s policies were not appreciated abroad. I doubt that “vote” had much of an impact at home.

    But searching out conspiracies behind every Chinese activist seems beside the point, too. Does documenting Kadeer’s funding sources solve the problem in Xinjiang? Would the lack of a World Uyghur Congress mean peace and happiness for everyone in Urumqi? No. No more so than hounding the anti-war movement because some group there has ties to the Workers World whatever which is tied to North Korean sympathizers which get money from x, y or z….

    Anyway, I agree that these kinds of book fairs sometimes become an exercise in hearing what you expected to hear. So, if you see China as a showdown between lone dissidents and a monolithic, tyrannical state, you’ll hear that. If you see China as a threatened victim, undermined from within by paid-off activists, you’ll hear that. And little conversation will ensue.

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  25. @ Pugster,

    I think you’re right that Europeans (and others) sometimes only want to hear bad things about China. But that doesn’t mean that the book fair should be a total whitewash for China, either, in order to balance things out or something. $15 million shouldn’t mean getting to decide the terms of a whole discussion.

    It makes sense to have critics and less-critical folks in one place. Whether anything meaningful comes out of it, though, is an open question…

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  26. @OTR 13

    The official Chinese display at the book fair could have chosen ALL mild-mannered, flavorless selections, like translations of past writers, or, alternately, all poppy stuff without too much of an edge. But instead they went with things that were popular and pretty good—but didn’t exactly sell China in the usual, scripted way. That took guts and thoughtfulness.

    That’s proves my point of why Europeans and Americans have no interests in Chinese cultures.

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  27. @OTR 28,

    I totally disagree with you. A ‘whitewash’ book fair would be Chinese government displaying books of why Deng, Mao, Jian, Hu as great leaders, Nanjiang massacre, and other books that is sanctioned by the Chinese government.

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  28. @ Custer,

    Thanks! There it is. Awfully long… so, apologies for not only the snarkiness but the length!

    @ Pug_ster,

    Basically, what I’m saying is that the Chinese official selections were more interesting than they might have been. But the government shouldn’t have expected to set the range of “tolerated” material relating to China for the whole festival, no matter how tolerant the government selections may have been.

    If America highlighted, say, Philip Roth (a good author and, occasionally, an edgy one) and got upset that Ward Churchill showed up (who came close to justifying the 9-11 attacks), it would be similarly clumsy. And people would criticize the U.S. Highlight who you want, leave the rest to the ebb and flow.

    As to what Europeans and Americans were interested in… Controversy always attracts attention and, by stirring controversy by objecting to some participants, again, the Chinese government acted clumsily. Of course, as I’ve said elsewhere, it is also true that people look for certain stories from China, so there is that bias….

    Anyway, I don’t know what books attendees bought the most of or whose lectures they showed up at the most, so who knows…

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  29. @OTD,

    I guess Chinese culture is not ‘controversial’ enough. Perhaps the Chinese government acted clumsily, but the Chinese publishers got what they wanted. According to this article.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/more-chinese-titles-set-to-hit-world-market-after-frankfurt-book-fair-1805743.html

    They have managed to sell 1300 copyrights and brought 883 of them. I also found that numbskull Jürgen Boos wants to stir up controversy pot when he said “It is important that official China takes a stand on western values and sharpens its self-awareness – and by taking a step closer to us, it also challenges us to sharpen our own self-awareness.” Who knows, maybe Boos wants to turn the book fair to a human rights fair.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/14/book-fair-defends-chinese-invite

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  30. “I think you’re right that Europeans (and others) sometimes only want to hear bad things about China.”

    Unfortunately, the ‘chip on shoulder’ brigade are incapable of reacting to anything perceived as critical (justified or otherwise) without behaving as if ALL ‘westerners’ want to hear bad things about China.

    “But that doesn’t mean that the book fair should be a total whitewash for China, either, in order to balance things out or something. $15 million shouldn’t mean getting to decide the terms of a whole discussion.”

    Actually, no amount of money should mean getting to decide terms for ANY of the discussion. The Chinese delegation simply didn’t get that – they wanted to dictate the show and got all apoplectic when they figured out it wasn’t going to happen.

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  31. “Who knows, maybe Boos wants to turn the book fair to a human rights fair.”

    There’s no reason it can’t be both. In fact, it SHOULD be both.
    Boos is a reasonable, intelligent guy, btw.

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  32. Discussions like this and the continuing trend of Chinese unwillingness to take criticism (note that I’m not giving an opinion about the book fair here, but simply speaking generally) remind me of something I once read on Asiafinest about how one reason a liberal democracy wouldn’t work in China is because as a whole, China isn’t a “mature” society. Whatever implications you want to draw from that statement, both instances remind me of classes I’ve had with my students where we strayed into political discussion and the students demanded to know how I would feel if someone were saying bad things about Bush. So, of course, I laughed and showed them videos on youtube of Bush being compared to a monkey, Bush saying things with incorrect grammar, reading books upside down, making up words, being made fun of by Stephen Colbert at the state of the union, etc. They were totally shocked and then tentatively asked me if I knew that some people think that Bush was behind 9/11. Finally, I explained to them that as an American, I expect that everyone hates us, I expect the criticism, and that if everyone stopped criticizing America and were just silent on everything, then that would be a true sign that America has lost its international influence. That’s probably something that the Asiafinest, anti-CNN, and FQ crowd could do well with. I imagine they’d lead more fulfilling, less angry lives if they could subsume that tidbit of advice. But maybe now I’m being a bit cocky.

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  33. @ Josh

    “because as a whole, China isn’t a “mature” society.”

    It really isn’t. Self-reflection is predominantly done with mirrors in the middle kingdom. I’m sure someone will come along and tell us it’s because we don’t understand China.

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  34. Josh,

    It is very immature to think that government is just a bitch you dont have to respect.

    You dont see anything you need from your government, but that is not how Chinese view their government. Chinese have struggled over 100 years for a government that could make China a better place (in the eyes of Chinese, not westerners), the government has done that on SOME aspects.

    Dont expect a bitch will care for you.

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  35. Josh,

    Don’t worry, while people in US are losing jobs, Banks execs overpaid while charging you ridicious fees, homes foreclosing, people fighting over h1n1 virus vaccine, health care crisis only getting worse, etc, at least you can joke about China and Balloon boy.

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  36. To OTR,

    They’re fun to watch. You get one troll always lingering believing he’s a mighty lord who judges the tiny little bloggers and grants them chances, and now you have another one joining in. At least it’s balanced now. And you know what we say in Chinese, yi ge ba zhang pai bu xiang. At the same time other people are having conversations regardless of that, so it doesn’t matter.

    Some of Yu Hua’s life experiences remind me of Lu Xun who also dropped out from a potential career in medicine and took up the mighty pen. I’ve never read any of his interviews so I don’t know if people do compare them like that.

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  37. @ Woodoo,

    You’re probably right: ignore the trolling and get on with the conversation.

    Something I think is interesting about Yu Hua’s generation of writers is that they were sort of forced to go through Lu Xun’s experience of learning another trade (dentistry in Yu Hua’s case, I believe) or had to go and live in the countryside for a spell—and only later, in the 1980s, when Mao was gone, could they become intellectuals.

    Being “sent down” or made to do some random task probably wasn’t a thrill, but it gave them a wealth of experiences to draw on.

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  38. I think I put another comment here, but it hasn’t been posted. It would look silly if it popped up later and I’d already rewritten it and repeated myself… so I’ll go ahead and look silly now and ask admin to see if the comment was somehow lost.

    Like

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