In Brief: Suspicious Death on the Beijing Subway

In Brief is a new category we’re adding to the blog to allow for posts about subjects that, while interesting, don’t include enough information for a full article but still exceed the capacity of our Twitter. It also has the added advantage of allowing us to update the site and still provide something interesting on days like today, when real life gets in the way of more thorough analysis.

On August 23rd at 10:47 pm, Beijing college student Ma Yue fell onto the tracks of the subway on Beijing’s Line 2, and was electrocuted — maybe. Despite the fact that the Beijing subway system is absolutely covered with surveillance cameras, Ma Yue’s family is being told there is no footage to confirm his death was an accident or a suicide, as opposed to a murder. Even more oddly, the police and the subway company claim they’re still not sure whether he died from electrocution or being run over by a train. ((I am not a forensic inspector, but it seems to me that it’s probably fairly easy to tell when someone has been hit by a train.)) Ma Yue’s mother–that’s her in the picture–rushed to the scene of the accident, but the body had already been taken to the mortuary for autopsy. Apparently, no one saw it (aside from the police and the subway company, who won’t say anything definitive.)

Also odd, his mother says, is that Ma Yue had eyesight so bad that he needed to wear glasses at all times, yet his glasses were not found at the scene, police say.

The coroner reported there was no alcohol in Ma Yue’s blood, and that he had not been physically harmed (aside from being electrocuted, or maybe being hit by a train, or both). There’s also no evidence he wanted to commit suicide. His last text, from moments before the accident–or whatever–was to his girlfriend: “I’m already at the subway station, just waiting to hop on the last train of the night and come home.” He had also told his mother he was looking forward

While it hasn’t been a huge story, various news organizations have been running pieces about it, and we’ve seen various language used to indicate what happened to the footage. The article above says the footage was “damaged” and that Ma Yue’s death is “an enigma”; other articles have said the footage is “missing” or that there was some kind of problem with the system. No one really knows what’s going on, but something is definitely up.

Lu Xun’s Great Withdrawal

There has been renewed interest in Lu Xun’s work, and the work of some other literary giants, in the wake of the announcement last week that some classic pieces were being removed from the curriculum taught in Chinese schools to make way for “new blood”. Lu Xun was not the only author hit but he certainly fared the worst in what some are calling “the great withdrawal of Lu Xun’s works.” Over twenty pieces he wrote are being cut, including “The True Story of Ah Q”, “Medicine”, and a large number of his more famous essays.

Needless to say, this has been a controversial decision. In the days following it, opinions have sprung up on both sides. Many are defending the value of Lu Xun, like this piece by Lin Mei:

“There’s no doubt that reading Lu Xun’s works can help middle school students by strengthening their own independent personalities, fostering their creative spirit, and raising their literary and artistic abilities. Even if they don’t comprehend everything right away, they can think back on their basic understanding later [to understand the works more fully]. Understanding classic works always requires a process. For middle school students to read Lu Xun, you don’t just need a carefully selected table of contents, you also need a teacher who can effectively lead the students into Lu Xun’s literary world.

[…]

Lu Xun can be considered a great traditional representative of Chinese culture, just like Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Qu Yuan, Sima Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Lu You, Zhu Xi, Li Zhi, Huang Zongxi, Cao Xueqin, Wu Jingzi, Liang Qichao, etc.; his works are a classic representation of 20th century Chinese culture.”

That argument is also adopted by some of the supporters of the “new blood” plan, who say that Lu Xun’s works are so mired in the twentieth century as to be entirely outdated. Diversification, they argue, is healthy:

Cultural diversification in textbooks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having students introduced to more authors is a win-win, authors can get back into the classroom and have more people familiar with their works, students get more diverse reading and a more complete picture of the world.”

Others have pointed out that the “deleted works list” is somewhat misleading, given that different places have different course requirements. In the report just linked, for example, the reporter found that in Jiangsu, several of the so-called “deleted works” will remain part of the mandatory curriculum, others have just been moved to different levels, and some are no longer mandatory but may be assigned at the discretion of teachers and schools.

Of course, when it comes to Lu Xun, there’s no escaping politics. A commenter on this article, for example, wrote:

“Lu Xun and things like him are just tools the Party uses to beautify the ugly violence of government authority. From the fact that these brainwashed people are taking [Lu Xun’s work] as a treasure and praising it, we can see that the end of our slave society isn’t coming anytime soon.”

It’s an interesting discussion, because so much of literary interpretation is dependent on the context — political, ideological, cultural — that it’s being practiced in. The idea that Lu Xun’s work could be a “tool” for the Communist Party has always seemed ridiculous to me, a Westerner who was introduced to Lu Xun in a context where critical thinking and individual interpretation of literature was highly valued. For me, it’s difficult to read Lu Xun’s critiques of China as he saw it in the 20s and 30s and not see parallels with China today.

Officially, Lu Xun became a literary hero because he was one of the few critics of China’s “old society” who didn’t live long enough to become disillusioned with New China and the Communists (he died in 1936). His work is held up as an example of how terrible things were before the Party — and indeed, things were not by any stretch of the imagination good back then — but the deep cynicism that runs through Lu Xun’s work ought to make it a hard sell as propaganda. Moreover, he has very few nice things to say about the whitewashing of “official” history during Imperial rule. From my perspective, anyway, it’s very difficult to imagine that Lu Xun would be a big proponent of the current government or the context it has created for his work, were he alive today.

Of course, there are entire generations that grew up and venerated (or despised) him explicitly because of his connection to the Party, and studied his work in a context that was, for the most part, carefully arranged to reinforce the Party narrative. He is, to millions of Chinese, a symbol of the Party’s early days.

In any event, changing out Lu Xun for some new blood might not be such a bad thing, but any efforts at “diversity” will be undermined by the fact that anything selected still must fit within the Party narrative, historically and politically. Perhaps some of Lu Xun’s work is being removed precisely because it’s a bit more political than the government thinks middle school curricula ought to be. Or perhaps it’s an honest attempt at diversification. There is — as always — no real way to know for sure.

What do you think about pulling Lu Xun out of the curriculum?

Flashback: What the CIA Was Spending on Tibet, circa 1964

While looking for something interesting to translate, I stumbled across a link to this document in the den of iniquity that is the Anti-CNN forums. This being history, many of are probably familiar with the general idea — the US government in general and the CIA specifically were running a series of programs with the intent of undermining Chinese authority in Tibet, which continued more or less until Nixon shut down some of the programs following the normalization of relations with the CCP.

What, if anything, they’re doing now, and much of their activity since then, hasn’t been declassified.

But the specific numbers and the places the money was headed back then might surprise you:

The cost of the Tibetan Program for FY 1964 can be summarized in approximate figures as follows:

a. Support of 2100 Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal–$ 500,000

b. Subsidy to the Dalai Lama–$ 180,000

c. [1 line of source text not declassified] (equipment, transportation, installation, and operator training costs)–$ 225,000

d. Expenses of covert training site in Colorado–$ 400,000

e. Tibet Houses in New York, Geneva, and [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] ( 1/2 year )–$ 75,000

f. Black air transportation of Tibetan trainees from Colorado to India–$ 185,000

g. Miscellaneous (operating expenses of [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] equipment and supplies to reconnaissance teams, caching program, air resupply–not overflights, preparation stages for agent network in Tibet, agent salaries, etc.)–$ 125,000

h. Educational program for 20 selected junior Tibetan officers– $ 45,000

Total–$ 1,735,000

Among other things, it looks like the DL was getting more from the CIA via a stipend than however many of its own agents were in Tibet at the time. Interesting indeed.

Abstinence Education and Christian Fundamentalism in China

I was disturbed last week to come across this story:

In Yunnan schools this year, teachers are being trained with a sex education curriculum created by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. The agreement with the Yunnan ministry of education is a milestone for Focus on the Family, which has struggled for four years to make inroads on abstinence in China.

It is also the result of a narrow confluence of interests: Evangelical Christian groups want an entree into China. And Chinese authorities, despite the country’s official atheism, want help with controlling population growth and managing the society’s rapidly shifting values.

You might think that sex education in China needs all the help it can get — and you’re almost right. This, however, is a firm step in the wrong direction.

First of all, there’s significant evidence that abstinence education doesn’t work. Kids who are taught abstinence are just as likely to have premarital sex as everyone else. And, of course, since they haven’t been taught about sexual health or how to properly use condoms and other forms of protection, when they do have sex, it’s more likely to end badly.

Moreover, Focus on the Family is a religious group, and their form of sex education is likely to also include some homophobia if their founder, James Dobson, is any indication. In Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide, he wrote:

“[The homosexual] agenda includes teaching pro-homosexual [sic] concepts in the public schools, redefining the family to represent “any circle of people who love each other,” approval of homosexual adoption, legitimizing same-sex marriage, and securing special rights for those who identify themselves as gay. Those ideas must be opposed, even though to do so is to expose oneself to the charge of being “homophobic.”

He has also suggested that gays and lesbians are intentionally trying to destroy marriage, and that same-sex families with children are unstable. He also opposes civil unions. And luckily for those studying the “science” that’s included in Focus on the Family’s sex ed curriculum, the group has also been charged with intentionally misrepresenting scientific data for its own purposes:

Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University, said her work was manipulated in an attempt to show gays and lesbians do not make good parents.

“This is a direct misrepresentation of the research,” she said.

(And here’s some more evidence of that.)

So why the hell is China letting these guys anywhere near their official sex ed curriculum? I have no idea, but it’s a terrible plan. Sex ed should be based in science — especially in an atheist country — and theirs is not, period. It’s based in an extremely narrow interpretation of a several-thousand-year-old book.

Li Yinhe, China’s foremost sexologist, agrees with me. In a recent blog post, she wrote:

In my point of view, this is a huge step backward. As the Chinese Minstry of Education and people in sex ed circles is pulling together and pushing forward an appropriate sex ed curricula, preparing to teach children about sex using scientific knowledge and promoting the correct attitude about sex, [Yunnan officials and Focus on the Family] are suddenly promoting an anti-sex, ascetic abstinence program. This will become a milestone for China’s step backward in terms of sexual values and sex education. It’s a huge victory for American sexual conservatives, and a huge loss for people everywhere who are open-minded about sex.

Amen. Not to mention that letting these guys in (and giving them official government acceptance, what were you thinking, Yunnan?) paves the way for other Christian fundamentalists, like this asshole and these bigger assholes.

Of course, people are free to do (and believe) whatever they want when it comes to sex. However, in China as everywhere, children should be taught about their bodies and their options based on the latest science, not based on the way some people interpret one book that’s meaningful for one particular religion. Especially given that probably 99% of the kids in Yunnan have never read the Bible and don’t know much about Christianity generally.

I know the government wants “help with controlling population growth and managing the society’s rapidly shifting values,” but abstinence-only education isn’t going to help with the population growth issue. In fact, it’s probably going to hurt (especially since Focus on the Family is pro-life). And I’m fairly sure this is not the direction the government wants China’s values “shifting” towards.

I do realize my opinion isn’t the only one out there, though ((It is, however, the correct one.)). What do you think about this?

(Also tangentially related: this post on OkCupid’s statistical analysis blog is fascinating for many reasons, but scroll down to the end to check out what they learned about the correlation between religion and writing ability. The short version is that they found religious people to be better writers when they were half-assed about their religious beliefs, and they found atheists who were very committed to their atheism to be better writers than fundamentalists from any religion. Agnostics are next. Protestant fundamentalists like our friends at Focus on the Family, sadly, rank dead last. Color me shocked.)

Social Criticism in China

‘A warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in,’ said Abraham Cowley, a seventeenth-century English poet. In a sense, this can be used to describe the politics in China: for the conscious social critics, there is so much to criticize, so many corrupted leaders, unreasonable policies, false ideologies, anomalies and tragedies. China itself is a rich source of writing material. At the same time, however, social criticism in China is a profession of despair. You always confront unpleasant facts, and write many negative accounts. But be prepared to accept the fact that little would change, that change would take a long time, perhaps never.

In a similar spirit, a Chinese poet in the Qing Dynasty said, ‘The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets. When one writes of national calamities, one inevitably writes well.’ Leung Man Tao, a social critic from Hong Kong who writes for many influential mainland Chinese newspapers, had a modern interpretation of this poem in the Preface to his 2009 book Common Sense, a collection of his political commentaries about China:

If there is one thing which makes current affairs commentary immortal, it is that the things you criticize about happen again and again. Commentators carefully analyzed the reasons for mining accidents, and proposed rehabilitation and preventive measures. Often, the result is that mining accidents not only fail to disappear, but happen with increased frequency. If the purpose of commentary is to effect social change, then the unchanged reality is its greatest irony. Any social commentator with conscience would want to see its articles becoming obsolete. It is a sorrow if their articles continue to have relevance, except if the author’s ego is greater than that of an intellectual: The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets.

As one of the most critical writers of contemporary Chinese society, Han Han expresses similar feelings this month in his blog, which has not been updated for a while:

I discover that writing about China is a painful experience. No doubt, this country gives us a lot of materials to write about. But you will suddenly discover that after writing for a while, when a piece of news breaks out, you could not help but just write a sentence: ‘Please refer to my article dated XXX.’ Our leadership has changed from that group to this; our slogans and national achievements have changed from those to these; tragedy has befallen on this person instead of that one. Tragedies reoccur, just with different people. This is a painful experience for the writer. Writers hate repeating the same thing over and over again, as it demands a high level of writing skills. I really want to keep on writing, and do not want to be bored and paralyzed.

This week, the popular column of Chan Wan at the Hong Kong Economic Journal was discontinued. Chan is a leading intellectual in Hong Kong. It was reported that his column’s removal was due to his fierce criticisms on Hong Kong’s real estate developers, which, in Chan’s words, ‘control the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, obstructing the democratization of Hong Kong and, indirectly, that of mainland China.’

In an article this week on Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, Chan expresses a strong sense despair about the practice of social criticism in Hong Kong and China:

When the society is controlled by vested interests, and the masses become indifferent, political commentary just becomes a ‘thinking exercise’, or a kind of cultural activity. It has no real social functions, except for people to satisfy their curiosity and vent their anger. Our real hope lies in the irrational impulses of the masses when a critical threshold is reached. This reconstruction of the society from the ruins is called revolution. Under a suppressive environment, rational analysis and well-intended advice are limited to like-minded people, or risk being accused as ‘obstructing the usual way of things’ or anti-revolutionary if they are widely published. Therefore, I have decided a few years ago to stop commenting on mainland Chinese politics, except if it relates to Hong Kong. From China’s chaotic environment, you can foresee its ‘end-game’, just that it is meaningless to explicitly say it out. Knowing that you cannot control and stop this continuous deterioration towards the end-game, you know it is also time to set the end-game for your social criticism.

It isn’t only revolutionary crises that can effect social changes. Whatever the views of these critics about the future of China, their writings have helped the masses find their way. As always, social criticism requires consciousness, courage and perseverance, as Michael Walzer wrote ((Michael Walzer (2002), The Company of Critics, New York: Basic Books, p.239)):

The important thing is not to sink – and how else does one keep afloat except by criticizing what is going on in the surrounding waters? ‘Always, in every situation,’ wrote Martin Buber, ‘it is possible to do something.’ I would be inclined to say, almost always; criticism is never without reasons and warrants, but there may be terrible moments when it has no point […] So it behooves the critic to be ready and waiting, maintaining his independence, keeping in touch with common complaint, polishing his glass. He is like a commuter watching expectantly for a train (but there is no schedule).

A Few Small Changes

Hi folks!

You may have noticed in the past few days I’ve made a few small tweaks to the site. The most noticeable, perhaps, is that to comment you are now required to enter a name and an email address. Of course, you can still enter a fake name and email address, but my hope is that adding this little extra step will encourage people to take some responsibility for what they post and put a name behind it (even if they’re not willing to use their real name).

Another change is that there is a new way to enjoy the site. If you own a Kindle, you can now subscribe to the blog via Amazon.com’s Kindle blog service. It costs a few dollars — this is happening through Newstex, who syndicates our blog — so I had no idea it was even happening.

Keep in mind, though, that our content is available for free on the site, and via RSS feed. Language learners can try out this mirror version of the site and RSS feed for a reading challenge (also free).

And while you’re here, I’d like to remind everyone that we’re always looking for guest posts and new contributors to join us. The Style Guide was just updated, so check that out if you’re interested. And if you’re Chinese, our 中文版 needs contributors, too.

Guest Post: What the Chinese Film Industry can do to Compete Abroad

The following is a guest post by Robert Powers.

Hollywood vs. ‘Huai-llywood’

Thursday, September 2 was the day the Chinese mainland saw the release of Inception, British director Christopher Nolan’s dream-minded and quasi-sci-fi thriller about corporate espionage. Released in the US on July 16 and in Hong Kong on July 29, the 147-minute film with a reported production budget of $160 million has made nearly $620 million worldwide as of August 24. Earlier in the week it was even reported that Leonardo Dicaprio stands to make at least $50 million from starring in the film.

If Inception manages to remain atop the Chinese box office for three weeks, as was the case when was released in the US, it will be going head-to-head with Zhang Yimou’s latest, The Love of the Hawthorn Tree, a city-girl meets country-boy love story that will hit theaters Thursday, September 16.

Distribution of the film in China will be shared equally between China Film Group (CFG), the country’s most influential and de facto state-run filmmaking and film distribution enterprise, and the Huaxia Film (HF) Distribution Company, a private enterprise founded in 2004. A Huaxia spokeswoman told the [Chinese media] that Chinese film distribution markets are “divided geographically into different regions,” but refused to say in which regions HF would distribute the film.

“The Hollywood film industry is pretty strong,” said Jiang Defu, general manager of the CFG’s marketing corporation. “Their style of storytelling is attractive and interesting to most people. Hollywood can crush many other countries’ film industries.”

Jiang spoke at length with the [Chinese media] about what he sees as the coming rise of an internationally prominent Chinese film industry – or what he called “Huai-llywood,” referring to CFG’s purported state-of-the-art studios located in Beijing’s Huairou district. But regarding a movie as a means of telling a story, Jiang was adamant about persevering local traditions. “Chinese directors and playwrights are not concerned with a foreign way of storytelling,” he said. “We keep telling our stories to our audiences.”

“We can learn from [foreigner audiences] and appreciate them, but the cultural essence will remain the same,” Jiang said. “We can’t wipe out Chinese culture and let foreign culture rule our filmmaking. CFG has a responsibility to protect our culture. We are shooting Chinese movies not Hollywood ones.”

Professor Yin Hong, director of Tsinghua University’s film and television research center, told the [Chinese media] “American movies possess 70 to 80 percent of the market share of movies seen around the world.” For Chinese films to attain this level of prominence, Professor Yin said it would be necessary for Chinese films to show “unique cultural aspects” and elaborated by saying it would “mainly depend on social, political and economic situations. I still dare say that – ten years from now – Chinese films will be the mainstream around the world.”

Professor Lu Di, a film and television expert at Beijing University’s school of journalism and communication, also told the [Chinese media] that Chinese films would require a more positive bent to reach a wider audience abroad. “The point is about the responsibility of a culture product,” said Professor Lu. “Movies should always be positive and promoting the bright sides of Chinese to the world.”

“Zhang Yimou’s movies like Curse of the Golden Flower belittle Chinese people and give audiences a false image,” Professor Lu added. “I hope [Zhang’s] movies can be totally abandoned. Many of my friends living abroad hold the same negative opinions towards his movies: too dark.”

Jiang also bemoaned Chinese movies that showed an unflattering portrait of life in the Middle Kingdom. “Films should belong to art but many people make them political, like how they used to give prizes to Chinese movies that had this old style and showed a poor China,” he said. “Many foreigners who don’t know much about China thought that was what China was actually like, but when they came, they were surprised and said, ‘How come your country is like ours? Your city is even better than ours. You are supposed to wear cotton-padded jackets!’”

Professor Lu pointed to films by director Fen Xiaogang (A World Without Thieves and If You are the One) as examples of movies that should be promoted abroad. Speaking on the significance of Christopher Nolan, Professor Lu noted that stories where “good guys always defeat evil powers are a positive example for the film industry.”

Chris Berry, a professor of film and television studies at the Goldsmiths-University of London and a noted Chinese film and TV expert, told the [Chinese media] that raising production quality, relaxing censorship and introducing a ratings system would help wonders to help the Chinese film industry compete globally.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the governmental regulatory body that oversees China’s radio, film and television industries, announced Thursday, August 19 that it would not yet be “appropriate” to introduce a ratings system on the Chinese mainland.

Professor Berry also said that the establishment of a global distribution network for Chinese films would help to improve the industry’s standing. “Critics sometimes claim that people go to Hollywood films because they love them,” he said, “but they also watch Hollywood films because there’s nothing else on at the movie theaters where they live.”

“Maybe it’s going to take something extraordinary that to break Hollywood’s [distribution] stranglehold on a global scale,” he added, “but at least the Chinese government has had the good sense to stop Hollywood companies from being able to take over distribution from inside China itself.”

Jiang was quick to note that China only had one cinema for every 20,000 people whereas the US had one for every 8,000. “In some remote areas there aren’t any cinemas,” he said. “It could be a huge loss economically if we have all these blockbusters and not enough cinemas.”

When asked about the role of the censor in filmmaking, Jiang replied: “All works under cooperation with Chinese companies need to pass the censors. Things that are too bloody and violent need to be eliminated. A pure land should be kept.” He also noted that he considered a film ratings system as its own kind of censorship.

“There are no mysteries regarding censorship or the import process,” Jiang said. “Many journalists ask me these questions. Every country has its own censorship. We have different interpretations about censorship and we don’t dare to interpret it for you because maybe ours could be wrong.”

While a marketing executive for Warner Bros. Asia told the [Chinese media] that Inception had been accepted for general release on the Chinese mainland without any edits for content, a representative at SARFT would not comment on whether or not Inception had been edited for content.

“SARFT is a governmental department, not a company or corporation,” said the representative who would not give a name. “We are just in charge of censorship of films,” adding that “foreign and local films have the same standards” when it comes to editing films for content. SARFT did not respond to a faxed request for an interview regarding the nature of why Inception may or may not have been approved for general release in the Chinese mainland without edits.

Professor Berry noted the problem of getting “government intervention right” when it comes to filmmaking. “Government censorship is one of the main factors driving the demand for pirate DVDs and downloads,” he said, “but without government protection … Hollywood would have taken over.”

Professor Berry also spoke about the difficulty of Chinese film companies finding niches other than martial arts films that would appeal at home and abroad. “The [Chinese film] industry desperately needs to find other genres that global audiences might accept,” he said. “And I don’t think sentimental nationalistic films like Aftershock or Lu Chuan’s Nanjing! Nanjing! are going to work, because audiences outside China are not emotionally invested in those events.”

“I do think that eventually, despite SARFT’s recent insistence that it is not going to adopt a classification system, that the censorship system will change,” Professor Berry added. “How it will change is harder to predict…Twenty years ago who would have thought that China would be the world’s second largest economy today?”

Dai Tian, Ying Kun and Lin Kan Hsuang contributed to this report.