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?

“Am I a Master Criminal?”

This is a translation of this post by Liu Xiaoyuan.


Yesterday afternoon, I suddenly received a phone call from a government department. The person [calling] knew my personality, and didn’t adopt the same measures as last year, [instead of] making me come speak with them in person, they called me and chatted with me for nearly half an hour.

The cause of this disaster was, again, my blog.

Around a month earlier, Wang somebody had sent me an email talking about the strange case of his mother. [She was] unceasingly writing appeals of a case to the higher-ups, and eventually some center decided that rather than coming to some kind of compensation agreement, she would just not be allowed to report to the authorities. After this agreement was made, his mother continued to complain to authorities. If she wasn’t running to high courts, then she was going to the supreme court. Many years of reporting to courts had given the district court a headache, and they finally reported a case of blackmail and extortion to the local PSB office.

Hearing this story from him, I was very shocked, and asked him to send the relevant supporting evidence. After receiving the evidence, I wrote a blog post commenting on the situation. The strangest part of the case was that it ended up being tried at the came court that had reported [the “blackmail”], so there was obviously a serious problem with the case. It’s as if I were to accuse you of blackmail, and then I was also the one to judge you. If the “victim” is [the one judging the case] can the outcome be just and impartial? This violates the Code of Criminal Law’s stipulation on the [victim] withdrawing [i.e., not being involved in the judging of a case].

[Having written] this kind of exposing-the-true-nature piece, I was subjected again to “speech education” a month and a half later, which was unexpected. But I wonder, if other people weren’t demanding it, would the Beijing government department still be “educating” me?

They asked me whether or not I was acting as a representative in the case. I said I had not accepted it [the case] and that the parties involved had chosen a lawyer from Shandong. They said, this is a sensitive case and if you’re going to serve as a representative you need to handle it according to the law. Why I couldn’t understand was: why would a case involving law enforcement departments become a sensitive case?

I know that when representing someone in a so-called sensitive case, you must first pass government approval. They still said gravely, if you weren’t representing anyway, it’s still better not to speculate, lest the media find out and start speculating, too.

I said, if the media wants to pay attention and speculate about things, I cannot control that, it’s their business. Writing a blog post with my commentary is exercising freedom of speech. I wrote two posts about this case, that wouldn’t just turn into rampant speculation, would it? If a reporter reads it, thinks it’s newsworthy and heads out to collect more information, that isn’t my fault! The real “master criminal” is not me, but the people who create cases like this!

If they could deal with the case according to the law, and remove the plaintiff from judging the case according to the law, I would have no way of calling anything into question. Of course, their meaning was that if I didn’t write a blog post, a reporter wouldn’t be able to see it, and thus won’t go off to interview and report. Only looking at it from this angle am I a “Master Criminal”.

Their searching me out to speak with me came from good intentions. They advised me: next time, be a little more discreet, don’t write this kind of blog post. I said, when I see or encounter injustice and inequality, if I don’t even dare to speak about it, ignore it, adopt a superior attitude as though I were above it, those who enforce the law unjustly will achieve even more of their dreams. If they’re afraid the people will criticize and call things into question, then they should just not do anything illegal!

I told them, me writing a blog post calling an injustice into question really isn’t the same as serving as a [legal] representative or a “savior”; I have neither the ability nor the sense of righteousness. By my personality dictates that if I see or encounter this kind of thing, even if I have “absurd complaints” I will post them. Nothing can be done about this, except for completely closing my blog.

This case has already been granted an open session in court, perhaps because of how I exposed it; it has been given over to an external court to handle, the original court has withdrawn. I heard a reporter saw my blog post, and begun researching the case. From this we can see that I really have become a “Master Criminal.”


I’ll take the sofa, support lawyer Liu, freedom of speech!

I strongly support the government perverting the laws, these days a government that doesn’t pervert the laws isn’t a government.

Why does the media have to report something for [the courts] to follow the correct procedure?

China these days is too sensitive…

Ha ha! After ha haing, I’m speechless…

What is Chinese Dyslexia?

Thank god for trackbacks. A recent link from Harper’s Magazine (!) led us to their post, which in turn led us to this fascinating article about dyslexia among Chinese speakers.

For those who don’t know, dyslexia is actually a general term for a group of disorders “that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Most English-speakers are familiar with how this presents in English, but according to the article, the problem for English dyslexics is phonological. In essence, their brains have trouble “determining and manipulating the sound structure” of spoken language, which in turn affects their ability to map sounds onto written letters that are meant to correspond to spoken phonemes. In other words, English-speaker dyslexia isn’t simply scrambling letters around; it’s actually a disorder of sound assessment and manipulation that manifests itself through reading.

In Chinese, according to the latest research, this kind of phonological disorder coexists with a visuospatial disorder, i.e., the same problems with the processing of sounds exist but in addition there may also be problems processing the visual information that is conveyed in characters properly. How do we know this?

The researchers asked normal and dyslexic Chinese readers to judge the physical size of visual stimuli and found that normal readers performed significantly better than dyslexic readers. Brain scans showed that, compared with normal readers, dyslexics exhibited weaker activation in a portion of the brain known to mediate visuospatial processing. Crucially, Siok said, most Chinese dyslexics with the visuospatial problem also exhibited a phonological processing disorder, as demonstrated by their poor performance in a phonology-related rhyme judgment task, suggesting the coexistence of two disorders.

Apparently, this is something of a revelation, and it “presents a challenge to current theories to explain developmental dyslexia”, according to Li Hai Tan, one of the chief researchers. “Our results strongly indicate the need for a unifying theory of sufficient scope to accommodate the full complexity of the observed dysfunctions and interactions of the brain systems underlying reading impairments.”

Also interesting, and perhaps not surprising given the above, is a bit of Tan’s earlier research:

[Dyslexia] appears in a different region of the brain depending on whether someone is a native English or Chinese speaker.

In dyslexic Chinese children, less grey matter was detected in the area of the brain dedicated to identifying images and shapes. In the English-speaking children, the affected region is more closely associated with converting letters to sounds. The discovery was surprising to the researchers because like other common brain dysfunction, they had expected the problem areas to be the same across the board. It does seem to make logical sense, considering the strikingly different ways the two languages represent meaning. Asked if someone dyslexic in one language would necessarily be dyslexic in another, the lead researcher, Li-Han Tan, expressed doubt because “different genes may be involved in Chinese and English dyslexic readers.”

Fascinating, no? Moving for a moment to questions somewhat more fantastic, if the world develops as Joss Whedon predicts and English and Chinese become languages most people can speak both of fluently, can we look forward to a dyslexia-free future? Perhaps. Only one way to find out…

(Note: I can’t find a post on it but I’m sure Sinosplice has already done this, what with Mr. Pasden being a fancy linguist and all. If not, well then, consider yourself scooped, Mr. Pasden. You know, scooped by Harper’s Magazine. Pretty sure there’s no shame in that.)

Film Review: Win in China

The following is a review of the documentary Win in China, directed by Ole Schell. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I’m reviewing a media screener copy of the film on DVD, which I received free of charge.

There were a lot of reasons why, going into it, I expected to hate Win in China. For one, I have little interest in economics, and less interest in hearing for the millionth time how much China’s economy has changed in the past thirty years. I also hate reality TV shows, and almost everything on Chinese television generally, so it wasn’t looking good. Given that there was also a rather pretentious subtitle (“the story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution”), I decided to watch it and grade tests concurrently.

Win in China isn’t “the story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution,” but it is a story, and that’s why it works. It follows the story of the TV show “Win in China”, a Trump-esque business reality show that pitted entrepreneurs against each other for a huge cash prize (the biggest in any reality show, the film says). The story of the show — not just the story that unfolded on the air but the story of the show’s inception as well — is broken into thematic chapters and interspersed with more general summaries of the relevant history.

The picture it provides of the Chinese “economic miracle” is necessarily shallow — the film is only sixty minutes long — but it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for only covering the simple stuff. This is, after all, a film that’s meant to be watchable for people of all ages and backgrounds, and the filmmakers have to take John Q. Public’s knowledge of Chinese history (i.e., none at all) into account. Furthermore, getting deeper into the details of Chinese economic policy is, frankly, pretty boring if you’re not an economist (or perhaps even if you are; I wouldn’t know).

So the filmmakers wisely focus their efforts on the show. It isn’t, as I initially feared, just an English translation. The filmmakers have gotten their hands on a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and the parts of the show they do choose are compelling enough, as they generally follow the exploits of one contestant who exemplifies fairly well the anything-to-get-ahead ethics-be-damned style of business that seems so prevalent in China. But the filmmakers — and the show’s judges — realize that things are more complex than that. In the final showdown, the viewing audience votes for the evil guy, but the expert judges (who are themselves super-successful Chinese businessmen) cast their votes for the slightly softer Song, who wins.

The subtitle I took as pretentious is actually pretty fair, especially if you change “the” to “a”. The film isn’t extremely deep or entirely comprehensive, and it shouldn’t be. It would be a disaster if it was. It definitely is “a story of China’s entrepreneurial revolution,” and a rather compelling one at that. It was enough to tear me away from my test grading pretty quickly, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in the Chinese economy but unfamiliar with the TV show “Win in China”. In fact, given that I found it interesting, it might even be worth watching for those who aren’t interested in the Chinese economy.

Win in China is available on DVD via the film’s official website.

Another Kind of Mao Worship

The Cultural Revolution may be over, but Mao worship is alive and well in some places — well, at least in one place. Mao Zedong’s only grandson, Mao Xinyu, is doing what he can to keep the flame alive.

Of all the blogs we read here at ChinaGeeks, Mao Xinyu’s is probably the worst. We added it to our blogroll (which our WordPress update has somehow deleted) months ago with the idea that it might be interesting to see what kind of person Mao’s grandson is. If his blog is any indication, he isn’t really a person of his own at all. We imagine he has his own thoughts from time to time, but his blog topics are…focused, to put it mildly. Here’s a sampling of the titles of some of his recent posts:

Grandfather [i.e., Mao Zedong] Has Had the Greatest Influence on My Life
The New Development of Mao Zedong’s National Defense Strategy
I Hope the Nation’s First Aircraft Carrier Will be Named After Mao Zedong
The Ancestral Home of My Grandfather Mao Zedong
Wen Jiabao Reports Many Aspects [of life] Make Use of Mao Zedong Thought
Remembering My Grandfather Mao Zedong on his 115th Birthday
We Love the Shaoshan [Mao Zedong’s birthplace] Cuckoo
Researching Mao Zedong’s Strategic Attack Strategy
Brief Discussion of Mao Zedong’s Strategic Attack Strategy
Mao Anqing: Remembering My Father Mao Zedong
Following in My Grandfather’s Footsteps

Noticing a pattern? Every single post on the front page of his blog is either about Mao Zedong or another elder member of Xinyu’s family, mostly his father and/or Mao’s other sons. At least his blog has a good catchphrase: “Mao Zedong’s grandson by his first wife, the country’s CPPCC representative, supports using blogs to spread Mao Zedong thought, and has received the approval of netizens.”

Xinyu has been in the news a little recently for having the same military rank he had before despite a few reports to the contrary.

We suppose it’s not particularly surprising that the Mao’s grandson would spend his life in the gigantic shadow of the man himself, although we also hope he’s got more going on in his brain than what he writes on his blog.

What might be more surprising to some is that his blog is pretty well read and receives a lot of comments. His most recent post, “Grandfather Has Had the Greatest Influence on My Life” (which is actually just a repost of an interview with him in the Nanfang Daily) has over 150 so far. Here’s a sample:

Having read your entire blog, I feel very good. Being a general means nothing, you are Mao Zedong’s ancestor, the inheritor and transmitter of Mao Zedong thought, a noble undertaking to be passed down through the ages. If you can get somewhere in this undertaking, [I] wouldn’t trade that for a dozen generals. Your grandfather was great, your mother was also great enough to make you absorb yourself in the grand undertaking of absorbing and disseminating Mao Zedong thought. I believe that under the eager anticipation of these two great forebears, you will radiate with brilliance that dazzles the eyes!
The whole country prays for you and wishes you well, [we] wish you and your family eternal health and happiness, and wish that you forever walk the path of Mao Zedong.

I love Mao Zedong passionately and wish happiness to his descendants.

Enjoyed, wish you happiness

Wish you happniess!
Chairman Mao Lives Forever in Our Hearts!
Chairman Mao Lives Forever in Our Hearts!

Forgetting the past is betrayal!

Long live the great Motherland! Long live the great Mao Zedong Thought! Long live the great Communist Party! Long live the great Chinese people! I wish happiness to the descendants who’ve inherited the chairman’s great work, rejuvenate and struggle hard for the Chinese people!

You get the idea.

Note: If this is none of this is a revelation to you, congrats, but we feel it will be eye-opening to many, especially those who’ve never been to China before and assume Chinese people see Mao the same way many Westerners do. Of course, the idea that all Chinese people see Mao the same way is ridiculous anyway.

The Netizen Bill of Rights and Ethnic Prejudices in Shenyang

Rumor has it this site has recently been unblocked! All glory to the hypnotoad! Still, many other sites have been less lucky. Facebook, Twitter, and other “web 2.0” sites remain hidden behind the Great Firewall.

Recently, some Chinese intellectuals published a “Declaration of Internet Human Rights”. As usual, CDT beat us to the story, but we’ve translated a few more details and background for you, from this post (via ESWN).

The Netizen Bill of Rights

[The declaration] demands the right to publish, edit, cover and report, etc., and puts forth that every October 10th should be China Internet Human Rights Day. One of the writers, Beijing scholar Ling Cangzhou, said in an interview, “Our society needs a greater plurality of voices. We hope that through this declaration policy makers can hear a different voice, and at the same time we hope our declaration will invite a variety of judgements/comments. We feel that this is more what a normal, free society is like.” The declaration has been widely disseminated, but has already been deleted on [many] Chinese web pages. [As a result] the declaration has bloomed as signatures are added [and the document is passed along] through email.

UPDATE: The CDT has now translated the student’s original blog post with even more details here.

“This ethnicity isn’t allowed to go online.”

From the same post, which is a general report of the stuff that’s been hotly discussed on the internet this week.

“This ethnicity isn’t allowed to go online” has recently become an oft-heard phrase. [The author then describes the experiences of one student from Xinjiang who was in Shenyang in the time leading up to October 1st:] He wanted to find accommodations but was frequently denied by many hotels, being told, “We don’t accept Xinjiang people as guests here!” He wanted to get online, but when he showed his ID to the Internet cafe worker, he was told, “I’m sorry, but this ethnicity isn’t allowed to go online.” The story was spread widely, and many netizens were confused by this Shenyang rule. Later, [the student] deleted his blog post and reposted it, stressing: “At that time I recorded my feelings using very moderate language, and after bringing it up I really couldn’t understand the attitude of those workers in Shenyang at all. This is just a mistake of their local government and does not represent the feelings of the entire country!”

Another one of the stories of the week listed in the blog post was this one.

Ai Weiwei: “F*ck Your Mother, Motherland”

WARNING: This post contains vulgar curses in Chinese.

Ai Weiwei is never one to shy away from controversy, and his most recent short film (thanks to commenter Wahaha for the tip) is no exception. It’s called, “Grass Mud Horse, Motherland.” Grass Mud Horse shares similar pronunciation to the common and vulgar curse, “f*ck your mother.”

The film consists of several people standing in front of a whiteboard with “Grass Mud Horse, Motherland” written on it. Each person curses (variations on the theme of “f*ck your mother”), and then says “motherland” [祖国].

You can watch the video here, but there’s not much to it that isn’t conveyed in this image taken from a post on Anti-CNN about the film:

Some comments from the Anti-CNN post:

Actually, this is very good.

He [Ai Weiwei] has always annoyed me. What kind of artist and architect is he? He’s a hoodlum! Even his studio is called “f*ck”

I fear Ai Qing [Ai Weiwei’s father and famous Chinese poet] couldn’t anticipate this! Two different generations.

Ha ha! Very good, very strong! Very yellow, very violent!

Courtesy demands reciprocity, so I’ll return the favor here: Grass mud horse [i.e., f*ck your mother], Ai Weiwei. Grass mud horse, everyone who appears in the video.

Unsurprisingly, many commenters said they thought Ai Weiwei had some sort of mental problem. What do you think about it? Art, politics, or something else?