Tag Archives: Literature

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supporters of the “new blood” plan, who say that Lu Xun’s works are so mired in the twentieth century as to be entirely outdated.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?

Thoughts on Patriotism, Old and New

The other day, my fiancee asked me — rather out of the blue — if I was proud to be an American. The question caught me off guard. Pressed for an answer, I suggested that I was sometimes proud to be American, and by way of example noted the recent “terror mosque” controversy that’s happening in the US right now as something I am not proud of ((because the people opposed to this “terror mosque”, which is actually a muslim community center, should be an embarrassment to any American who has read (or even just glanced at) the Constitution.)). (As a side note, Jon Stewart and the folks at the Daily Show have, as ever, been doing an amazing job skewering the idiots opposed to the community center and I highly recommend watching their coverage if you aren’t already).

In any event, such questions always make me think about patriotism, and in this case caused me to search for a famous essay of Chen Duxiu’s I read and translated back when I was working on my undergraduate thesis. Unfortunately, I didnt end up using the translation in the thesis, and have since lost it. It has been translated many times before, but a quick Google search didn’t immediately turn up a translation, and I discovered the Chinese original text isn’t that easy to find either (though I did find it). So, though it’s been done earlier and better elsewhere, here’s a quick translation of Chen Duxiu’s famous “Should be be patriotic?” essay. If you’re looking for a copy of the original text in simplified characters, mouseover my translation for that (or use this cool mirror site).

Chen Duxiu: “Should we be patriotic?”

“Be patriotic! Be patriotic! These days, this call permeates even the furthest reaches of our society. It is on the lips of corrupt officials and barbaric soldiers; even the traitorous don’t dare say unpatriotic things in public. Since the Shandong incident [in which parts of Shandong province were ceded to Germany in 1897], the patriotic clamor has risen to a roar. It is as if the word patriotism [爱国] itself has been ordained by heaven, no discussion is permitted.

Emotions and reason are two important parts of the human spirit, but there are times when the two conflict. Patriotism is mostly emotion, and reason plays a relatively minor role. At times, reason plays no role whatsoever (German and Japanese soldiers are like this). Human behavior is the natural result of impulsiveness. I think if reason could be used as the foundation of this ‘impulsiveness’, only then could emotions be solid and unchangeable. In society, when emotions are running high, people think that their rashness is righteous, and blindly forgetting about reason, they do evil things their rational selves never would (the murder of civilians in England and France during the first World War is an example of this). This is because in large groups, people cannot use reason as the foundation of their emotions, so a mass of people is blind. Sometimes, they do good, other times, they do evil. Because of this, I’d like to raise a rational discussion from the word that everyone so blindly follows, “patriotism”, and ask everyone: should we be patriotic?

If we don’t found our discussion in reason, then patriotism won’t be able to be any kind of lasting motivating force for our behavior, whether the impetus for it is that the masses are blindly following the call for “patriotism”, the officials are ordering us not to be patriotic, or the government is telling us to be patriotic.

If you’re going to ask whether or not we should love our country, you must first ask what our country is. Originally, countries were just groups of people who banded together to resist oppressive forces from outsiders, and a way of managing travel and interpersonal disputes. The good could use the idea of “country” to repel outside forces and pacify internal disputes. The evil could use it to repress outside forces and oppress their own people.

We Chinese were closed off from the world, and before the domination of Japan and the commencement of trade relations with the West, we had only the concept of Tianxia [天下, literally “all under heaven”], there was no concept of a nation-state [国家]. So among the common people, the idea of “patriotic thought” hasn’t penetrated very deeply. If you want to make it long-lasting like it is among the peoples of Europe where multiple nations have coexisted since ancient times, rather than just temporary, I fear that will not be easy.

In Europe, multiple countries have coexisted since time immemorial, so patriotic thought has become a deeply-rooted part of their natural characters. Recently [in China], some lofty thinkers, individualists, and cosmopolitanists have not only suggested that the idea of a nation is artificial rather than natural; moreover they’ve seen and heard about dark and evil things done at home and abroad, all in the name of the nation. Since they oppose the nation, it’s natural they aren’t advocates of patriotism. In their minds, patriotism is another name for something that hurts people. They view patriotic martyrs as confused lunatics.

We are uneducated, unknowledgeable, disunited Chinese, our lack of patriotism is not the same as the lack of patriotism practiced by that group of lofty idealists. And officials preventing the people from engaging in patriotic activities is also, needless to say, very different from what those people are saying. Although at present I cannot dare to hope that we uneducated, unknowledgeable, and disunited Chinese could have lofty ideals, I don’t want Chinese to be uneducated, unknowledgeable, and disunited for long. Even if our countrymen were to suddenly be educated, knowledgeable, and united, only later could they be qualified to unite with lofty idealists the world over and unify the world.

Our China is weak and oppressed, and there are of course also still many internal evils being committed. Patriotism can be used as a tool to extort the people and repress individuality, but China does not at the moment have the ability to use it to oppress outsiders. To even suggest that China could use nationalism and the people’s patriotic spirit to oppress someone else [at the present time] is preposterous.

Lofty thinkers oppose patriotism, hateful opportunists use it to repress others. Although China can’t use patriotism to repress anyone else, we’ve already been oppressed by others nearly to our breaking point. Unlike oppressing others, being patriotic for the sake of resisting oppression and surviving is not something that should be opposed, no matter how lofty a thinker you are. A person’s self-respect, regardless of how it develops, is not a bad thing so long as it does not have a negative effect on others.

So, in accordance with the discussion above, if someone asks whether or not we should be patriotic, we should shout: What we love is the nation of people using patriotism to resist oppressors, not the government using patriotism to oppress other countries! What we love is the country that exists for the happiness of its people, not the country that people must sacrifice themselves for! ((In my translation here I referred several times to one I found rendered in Striving Toward a Lovable Nation: Nationalism and Individual Agency in the Writings of Chen Duxiu, an undergraduate thesis by Wesleyan 2010 graduate (one hopes) Antoine Cadot-Wood. I came across it only by chance, but its focus is quite similar to that of my own undergraduate thesis, which is interesting.))

Just a few months ago, Southern Metropolis Daily published a modern take on Chen Duxiu’s classic essay by historian Hong Zhenkuai, which was translated in full by the wonderful but distressingly inactive CHINAYOUREN blog. We suggest you click through for the full piece, but here is a relevant excerpt [I have made some minor changes for grammar]:

The functions of a State should be performed by the government. If the government can do these functions, then the State is “seeking happiness for the people”; if not, then it becomes “the State for which the people sacrifice”. In human history the most common in practice is that the government cannot fulfill the State’s functions, or else it does them poorly. In this case it can appear that government equals no government. Or that government is even worse than no government.


In any society there are some large tasks that involve many people, and there is no way any organization can do them other than the government. If the government cannot perform its responsibilities, the society becomes unruly, and public interests suffer. For example, food safety, public health, protection of the environment; these kind of affairs need to be taken charge of by the government.

In the development of human societies, this problem has been encountered for a long time: the people need the government but the government cannot live up to their expectations, protect them against outside menaces or provide internal services. In many cases it even evolves into an organization that infringes on the people’s rights.

To make the government do its task diligently, the people need to have the right to supervise the government, and the most effective way is to elect the government by voting. The people need to understand what is common sense – that is, as Liang Qichao said, that the State is not the dynasty (government). The dynasty can be changed for the survival of the State. What the people should love is their country, and not the dynasty.

As Chen Duxiu points out, however, this modern conception of patriotism is not something that’s existed in Chinese culture for long. In my own research for my undergraduate thesis, which involved May Fourth-era patriotism among other things, I found that overwhelmingly, “patriots” from traditional times were people who sacrificed themselves for the government, often in cases when it was painfully clear that the government was in the wrong (see, for example, Qu Yuan, Yue Fei, etc.). And, of course, the whole question is also mucked up by the fact that it’s difficult to trace terms like “patriot” across linguistic and cultural barriers and through history without sacrificing some accuracy. Thus, I wrote,

It is difficult to trace exactly when the term aiguo first came into use and when it was applied to figures like Qu Yuan. It seems likely that in traditional China, there was no differentiation between patriotism and political loyalty, and appeals to any kind of patriotic or loyalist sentiment based on China as a cultural entity came only in times of external threat. Still, Giles’s A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (published in 1898) specifically mentions that figures like Wen Tianxiang were patriotic. This indicates that, at the very least, these figures were understood widely as patriots at least two decades before the May Fourth movement began. Those who would argue that patriotism is an entirely modern concept that did not exist in traditional China must at least admit that the actions and writings of Qu Yuan, Yue Fei, and Wen Tianxiang were considered patriotic in pre-May Fourth China. Whether one understands them as loyalists who were later redefined as patriots when the term was introduced or not, the effect is the same. They indicate what was considered love of one’s country in traditional China and how that love was primarily expressed: through loyalty to one’s superiors.

The idea of patriotism meaning loyalty to the dynasty, it seems, has fairly deep roots. This is not, of course, altogether untrue outside of China’s borders. Certainly in the US, morons on both sides of the party lines routinely accuse their critics of being unpatriotic because they oppose something an incumbent official has done.

In any event, rereading Chen Duxiu’s essay in 2010 is interesting because China’s situation has changed radically. It is now very much in a position to use patriotism as a force to oppress others, should it wish to. In fact, China’s more technically apt netizens fire off a volley or two of just that sort of nationalism from time to time. Oscar Wilde called patriotism “the virtue of the vicious.” Was he wrong?

What should the role of patriotism be in modern China? Or to put it in Chen Duxiu’s words, should we be patriotic?

Han Han’s Literary Magazine

If you’re wondering why Han Han’s blog hasn’t updated in nearly a month, here’s the probable reason. His literary magazine, 《独唱团》was recently released. You may not be aware of this because, according to this report quoted in the China Digital Times ((CDT is reason enough alone to hit up Freedur for a proxy.)), the media is not allowed to report on it or interview people about it.

Nevertheless, people were buzzing around Beijing when it was released earlier this month, and if bookstores are any indication, it’s selling quite well, as many have it displayed front and center in their literature sections or laid out in stacks with other featured new releases. I picked up a copy from such a stack yesterday and have begun to work my way through it. At my current rate of speed, you can expect my full review of the magazine to be hitting the internet sometime this October.

The magazine appears to be titled “Party” in English; perhaps a tongue-in-cheek shot at the authorities for having caused him so much trouble, forcing him to re-title the magazine and then later redo the cover as well.

The magazine — whose title might be loosely translated as “Solo Chorus” in English — now features an elegant brown cover with the title in the top left and the contents written across the bottom, ending with the price, 16 RMB.

I’ll leave any commentary on its contents for later, as I haven’t finished reading it yet. But if what I’ve read so far is any indication, it’s worth your 16元 if you’re the sort of person who enjoys short stories, occasional irreverence, and some very beautiful photographs.

Two Corrupt Officials/Poets and Renting Literary Clout

The following is a translation of this article, which we’re taking from Xinhua but which has appeared all over the Chinese internet. It appears to have come originally from the Yangcheng Evening News, and was written by Yan Yanwen. Many thanks to our ChinaGeeks Chinese editor for recommending this piece.


A few days before the 10/3 Crane Cliff disaster [a 2005 gas explosion in a Henan mine that left 34 dead and 19 injured], the Party Secretary and board chair responsible for the Crane Cliff Coal Industry Group was still in Beijing using public funds to hold a press conference for his new book, and Qihe county Party Secretary Li Fengchen was holidng a symposium for collecting and writing “The Long Path of Chinese Poetry: Jihe Sings”, [using his status as an official to make the] local government foot a huge portion of the bill.

On June 19, 2010, Xinhua Net and other major media sources reported that vice-director and Work Safety Supervision Bureau CPC Group secretary Li Yongxin had been dismissed ((Not sure about this either, what does 被双规 mean?)), and that according to rumor he had accepted bribes and concealed the truth of the [coal mine] disaster. What people don’t know is that this “eliminated” Li Yongxin is still a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, a member of the China Poet’s Council, and the vice-chair of the Chinese Coal Mining Literary Federation. Even fewer know that as the Crane Cliff disaster was happening, Li was in Beijing using the hard-earned blood and sweat of the Crane Cliff miners to buy himself literary accolades.

Using Public Funds for a Press Conference During a Time of Disaster

The October 3rd Crane Cliff disaster shocked the nation. 34 workers were killed, and another 19 were seriously injured; the happiness of 53 families was snatched away in an instant. As the blood was flowing, […] Li Yongxin was buying members of the investigative group with bribes, hoping to cover up the truth, and giving 500,000 RMB to the provincial Work Safety Supervision Bureau Chief Li Jiucheng for protection. This is also mentioned in Li Jiucheng’s file.

After the disaster, Li Yongxin underwent a metamorhphosis of sorts, becoming the provincial group secretary and vice-director of the Work Safety Supervision Bureau. From these “punishment” measures, very little can be seen [about what Li Yongxin had actually done]. “But in early August of 2009, information from reports about Li Yongxin began to spread on the internet that spoke to his concealing of [financial losses], taking and giving bribes, and misappropriating funds from State-owned properties, etc.” “Some of this data was related to [Li Yongxin’s activities surrounding] the 10/3/2005 Crane Cliff disaster.” ((Neither of these quotations have a cited source))

What’s worth asking is this: when the Crane Cliff disaster was happening, where was Li Yongxin? What was he doing?

According to a September 29, 2005 report from the Chinese Writers’ Association, “the Chinese Poets Association, the Crane Cliff Coal Company, and Crane Cliff Coal and Electricity LLC present[ed] the opening ceremony of the first annual ‘Crane Cliff Cup’ poets and writers exhibition on September 26th in Beijing. At the same time, we also celebrated the publication of Li Yongxin’s poetry collection Xingqu Ji Caifu ((Not going to waste time thinking about a good translation for the title of some corrupt official’s book of crappy poetry.)). The CWA secretariat Di Majia and […] Li Yongxin both gave warm speeches at the opening ceremony.”

Therefore, just a few days before the 10/3 disaster, Li Yongxin was still at the CWA Modern Literature Center, using public funds to hold a press conference for his new book and enjoying adulation as a star of the literary world and being honored as an “encyclopedic” great poet.

How Do Corrupt Officials Become Poets?

Li Yongxin’s dismissal reminds one of another “corrupt official/poet”: Li Fengchen. In January of 2009 when Xinhua and ChinaNet announced the results of the “2008 Literary Circles’ Most Badass ((牛)) Writer” poll, corrupt official writer Li Fengchen won in a landslide, and he was summarily dubbed “history’s most badass corrupt official poet” by the media. But with Li Yongxin’s dismissal, it seems he’s looking to break Li Fengchen’s badass record. If Li Yongxin PKs ((here, internet slang for “defeats”)) Li Fengchen, then who will be history’s most badass corrupt official poet? In terms of the writers’ associations, the two are evenly matched, as they are both members of the CWA and council members of the Poets’ Society. In terms of administrative level, Li Yongxin is at the departmental level, whereas Li Fengchen is only at the vice-departmental level. In terms of money, Li Fengchen’s Qihe county is poor and has no financial power, whereas Li Yongxin’s Crane Cliff Coal Group is one of the country’s top 500 enterprises, with significant financial power.

Aside from these differences, these two “corrupt official poets” have many surprisingly similarities.

The two men were both “secretaries” and also both lauded as “poets”. Li Yongxin and Li Fengchen are both CWA members who rose very quickly to prominence as “corrupt official poets”. Li Fengchen’s shocking act was using public funds to publish seven poetry collections between May of 2005 and September of 2006, becoming a member of the CWA and the [periodicals] Poetry and People’s Literature. It has been called the “Li Fengchen model” and the “the poetry world’s miracle”. Just as he was coming to prominence in April of 2006, the Chinese Writers’ Association celebrateded his 50th birthday with a special symposium on his Mandate of Heaven Collection.

Similar to Fengchun, Li Yongxin was also a CWA and Poets’ Society member. In the short time between 2004 and 2005, Li Yongxin — who previously had only written several bad poems and had never published a thing — suddenly exploded onto the literary scene, and his poetry was repeatedly published in Poetry and other reknowned national publications, a symposium on his works was held in the Great Hall of the People, and he became a touted star of the Chinese Writers’ Association and Beijing poetry circles [etc…]

The good are dismissed while the mediocre are promoted. As these corrupt official poets were taking the stage, many authors of good works who had been making their livings writing for decades found it difficult even to get a few sentences into national publications. It is, as the saying goes, harder to get into heaven than it is to get into the Chinese Writers’ Association and obtain a title. Perhaps Li Fengchen said it best in his explanation of this phenomenon: “For a great poet to become a great official is very difficult. For for a great official to become a great poet, perhaps it is not so difficult.”

Renting Clout in the Literary World

These two “corrupt official poets” both used their power and resources as officials to play at being poets. Li Fengchen invited the Chinese Writers’ Association to participate in the writing and collecting of poems for his symposium: “The Long Path of Chinese Poetry: Jihe Sings” from August 5-7, 2005. On the 6th, Qihe formally annouced that it was a “base” for the creation of Chinese poetry. Li Fengchen personally organized groups and scheduled extremely ceremonious activities, paying for the huge costs directly from the local government’s coffers.

Only a little earlier, in April of 2005, the “Crane Cliff: The Home of Chinese Poetry” poetry collection activies were underway in Crane Cliff […] Di Majia and Crane Cliff Coal Group board director Li Yongxin both spoke to open the festivities. If it’s fair to say Li Fengchen used the power of his county to “play at” being a poet, then it’s also fair to say that Li Yongxin used the power of the entire Crane Cliff mining operation to play at poetry. The difference is that since Li Yongxin made his play four months earlier than Li Fengchen, and he used his status as a Party Secretary to publish documents and put on a grand show, one could say he played ‘harder’ than Li Fengchen.

Using an official’s status and power to become a poet or author and pose as a lover of culture […] this model of renting literary power really provides some food for thought. If you think Li Fengchen is just a coincidence, you should know that just in the year 2009, six members of the Chinese Writers’ Association were sentenced as corrupt officials. This is absolutely not a coincidence. Today’s dismissial of Li Yongxin once again sounds the warning bell of corruption throughout the literary world. What does the explosion of “corrupt official poets” tell us? What abuses within the literary system does it lay bare?


To my way of thinking, it lays bare not so much abuses within the system as the flaws with the system itself. In a literary system controlled by politicians, especially corrupt ones, there will always be opportunities to meddle. Generally speaking, this has taken the form of censorship, and its effects on the development of Chinese writing and the spread of Chinese culture outside China’s borders have been fairly devastating. The effects of literary censorship remain a hot topic — one of Han Han’s favorites, in fact — but beyond censorship, the system as it exists today makes it remarkably easy for corrupt officials to try their hand at literature, buying attention and publications with money and power, and elbowing talented artists out of the spotlight in the process.

Long Yingtai on Han Han and Social Criticism

The Nandu Daily recently ran an article (h/t to ESWN) on Taiwanese writer and social critic Long Yingtai ((Or Lung Ying-tai, if you insist on using Wade-Giles…)), who is currently in China premiering a documentary. Long was a prominent essayist in the 1980s and an outspoken critic of Taiwan’s government, which at the time was still dominated by a single party. When asked to compare herself in the 1980s ((She also wrote a column in the 1980s that appeared in print in Mainland Chinese papers including the China Times.)) with Han Han today, she responded thusly [quote is from the article, not all of it is what she said verbatim]:

“‘In a healthy society, you need all kinds and all ages of Han Hans. The reason my book Wild Fires ((A collection of critical essays from the 1980s)) was an overnight success is because there were so many taboos in Taiwan at that time, every slap and welt left a bruise.’ She also said that if we hope to move society towards a more open and healthy era, we should believe in the value of letting everyone’s voice be heard.”

She also expressed some interesting views on historical writing when responding to a question from a reader as to whether she felt her own style of writing might be a bit too exaggerated and thus inaccurate:

“Long Yingtai said she chose the style that fit her own personality the best, ‘I am profoundly skeptical of so-called ‘all-encompassing [historical] narratives’, because behind all of these “great” things is a person.’ She said she has always felt that all the great figures throughout history were just regular people, that their parents still had to change diapers for them when they were young. So they must have soft emotions in their hearts [like regular people], and we can use literature to represent this. What I do is not history, and it needn’t be an ‘all-encompassing narrative’.”

Wang Hui and Plagiarism in Chinese Academia

The Case of Wang Hui and Wang Binbin

Readers of the excellent Granite Studio will already know about the high-profile plagiarism case that has been receiving a lot of attention in Chinese academic circles. The basics of the case are fairly simple (from Granite Studio):

“Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin charges that Wang Hui’s dissertation on Lu Xun, 《反抗绝望》(fankang juewang), published in 1985 when he was a doctoral student at Nanjing University and later the basis of a book published in the early 1990s, contains several passages lifted from other works and used without citation.”

The reason this is significant is that Wang Hui is a noted public intellectual leader in the “New Left” movement, which Granite Studio also has a great post about. His work on Lu Xun is widely regarded, and he has held a number of prominent positions (he currently holds a professorship at Tsinghua and is a former editor of the well-respected journal Dushu). Some have alleged that this attack on Wang Hui is thus an attack on the “New Left” and an attempt to discredit a man who has repeatedly criticized the Party. In an interview with the Nandu Daily, Wang Hui’s accuser Wang Binbin defended himself:

Nandu Daily Reporter: On the internet, some have been suspicious of your motives […] If we ask you to concede a bit, aren’t there potential conflicts between you and Wang Hui in terms of schools [of thought] and interest>
Wang Binbin: What “schools”? What “interests”? This is purely people wanting to stir the water. I have no direct or indirect conflicts of personal interest with Wang Hui.

Wang Hui
Academics have leapt to Wang’s defense. First was Prof. Qian Liqun of Peking University, reportedly a close friend of Wang’s, but according to this article in the Nandu Daily academics from all corners are coming to Wang’s defense, and condemning his accuser Wang Binbin. Zhao Jinghua, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that “80% of Wang Binbin’s examples were quotations with nonstandard citations, but that is a problem of technique, not a moral question of plagiarism.” The director of the Lu Xun museum, Sun Yu, agrees, as does another CASS professor, Zhang Mengyang, who noted that Mao Zedong’s unattributed use of lines written by Li He in his poetry was praised for giving the lines new meaning, and no one ever accused Mao of being a plagiarist. One professor — one of Wang Hui’s original thesis readers — even noted that very similar accusations of plagiarism and improper attribution could be laid against Wang Binbin’s article itself!

Wang Binbin has also responded to some of these criticisms:

Nandu Daily Reporter: Wang Hui responded [to your criticism], saying it would need to be decided in academic circles, and now many academics have come out in support of him. Do you feel there is a problem with the attitudes of Qian Liqun, Zhao Jinghua, and Sun Yu? Did you see […] the Beijing Youth article “Wang Binbin-style agitation and its threat to Chinese academia”, and how do you respond to it?
Wang Binbin: There have not been many scholars speaking for Wang Hui. The attitude of Qian Liqun and others is extremely irresponsible. According to them, the word “plagiarism” should be deleted from the dictionary, and the action of plagiarism will be legitimized or semi-legitimized. As for [the aforementioned article] I maintain my right to sue [the author] and Beijing Youth.

But it’s hard not to question Wang Binbin’s motivations. After all, the thesis in question is already several decades old, and while it was the basis of a book Wang published in the early 1990’s, as far as I can tell, Wang Binbin has not alleged that there are any instances of plagiarism in that book. Jeremiah of Granite Studio expressed doubts in his piece that Wang Binbin’s motivations were pure, and Joel Martinsen of Danwei called Wang Binbin’s article “pretty much a hatchet-job” and notes that Binbin spends as much time criticizing Wang Hui’s writing style as he does raising questions of plagiarism.

Yet some people are taking it seriously. There are even fears among other Lu Xun scholars that the scandal is so big that it could influence perceptions and understanding of the man himself. “This is a betrayal of Lu Xun,” they said.

Reporters discovered that posts about the scandal were being censored on some internet discussion forums. Posts were deleted and replaced with a message that read, “Academic circles have already clarified this issue; it is no longer a worthy discussion topic”.

Wang Binbin
But, of course, the case has led to widespread discussion on the internet anyway, and this discussion has blossomed into ruminations into the nature of plagiarism and personal relationships in Chinese academia. “When asked about the current academic climate, everyone acts as though it has gotten worse, but actual instances of criticizing someone by name are rarely seen,” wrote the Nandu Daily. “But this kind of battle was a common sight in Lu Xun’s time.”

Some see the fight itself as an indication that some Chinese intellectuals are taking plagiarism more seriously. The mere fact that people are arguing over a case from twenty years ago could be good, even necessary, for Chinese academia. Many of the academics defending Wang Hui have shied away from denying that he made mistakes, merely arguing that his mistakes were a reflection of a lack of technical prowess rather than moral shortcomings.

The Problem of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is far from uncommon in Chinese academia. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Nandu Daily that they “often encounter cases of plagiarism”, and in fact had just recently resolved a rather brilliant case where the plagiarist had taken his material from a foreign language source and translated it without attribution.

According to the Nandu Daily reporter, one problem is that there is no real consensus on “academic standards” or exactly what amounts to plagiarism. Some have argued adopting rigid Western standards inhibits freedom, but the CASS apparently supports adhering to the Western golden rule for academic work:

If you’re using someone else’s words or opinions, but haven’t cited the source, you are a plagiarist whether it’s intentional or not. If you’ve noted the source but have taken someone’s words directly without using quotation marks or a block quotation, that is also plagiarism. If what you’ve written is very close to the original work, and in comparing your words with that of the original author you discover yours would make no sense if the original author’s words were removed, that is also plagiarism.

Another problem may be that Chinese academia lacks the formal and rigorous peer review process in place in most Western institutions. According to the Nandu Daily article, “Theft of written work, the inability of one set of academic standards to achieve popular approval, and the difficulty of producing original achievements in academia are all related to the lack of a proper system of academic review.”

If you ask us, the problem probably starts before college, as cheating and plagiarism are rampant in high school and middle school. This kind of cheating doesn’t have a large impact on the system because college admissions are decided based on standardized test grades rather than a student’s high school academic record, but it does ingrain the idea that what’s important is having the right answer at the end of the day, not being original or obtaining that answer in the right way.

The case against Wang Hui seems pretty thin — to put it mildly — but it has prompted a discussion of academic standards in China, and perhaps a big, ugly scandal like this is exactly what Chinese academia needs to finally set for itself a universally-agreed-upon standard for plagiarism (and probably, some universal consequences for plagiarism on academic work, too).

Anyway, what do you think? Is plagiarism a serious problem in China or is this whole thing being blown out of proportion?

Ai Weiwei, Lu Xun, and the Hope of Hopelessness

This China Digital Times post has been sitting open in my browser for several days now. If you’re stuck behind the GFW, it’s a question and answer Chinese artist and social commentator Ai Weiwei did with a private Chinese BBS forum, full of social questions and snappy answers. It’s worth a read, but one question and answer jumped out in particular:

jencoxu: Do you still have any hope for China? Do you think the next round of reforms will be top down or bottom up?

Ai Weiwei: I never had any hope for China. I am only resisting the hopelessness China is imposing on me.

“I never had any hope for China.” In the same interview, he also said “I think we have a 100% bastard government.” Strong words, to be sure, and words that remind me of another Chinese firebrand that seemingly had nothing but negative things to say about China and Chinese culture: Lu Xun.

Lu Xun, China’s most famous modern writer, remains widely studied in China despite the fact that he died over a half-century ago. In large part because he was already dead when the Communist Party took control of China (he was a CCP supporter, ideologically), he has been held up and idealized as an artist with the courage to criticize the state of things in China. Still, reading his fiction gives the impression that he was about as “hopeless” as Ai Weiwei. In fact, he famously refused initial encouragement from a friend to become a writer by comparing criticizing Chinese society with waking up prisoners in an iron house before they were about to suffocate (our translation):

[I said,] “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?

Yet, Lu Xun did begin writing fiction, albeit fiction with a deeply cynical streak and a thick vein of hopelessness running through it. His earliest work, “Diary of a Madman”, compared Chinese culture to cannibalism, and one of his most famous stories, “The True Story of Ah Q”, concerns a ‘typically Chinese’ protagonist self-centered and stupid enough that he ends up waiting placidly for his own execution on wrongful charges. Lu Xun may have used the F word less than Ai Weiwei, but his early work wasn’t any less harsh or critical.

Ai Weiwei, too, has expressed hopelessness through his works. Certainly, his photographs of himself flipping the bird towards Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen or his more recent short film F*ck You Mother, Motherland don’t seem to hold out much hope for the possibility that things are going to change.

Yet both men, I believe, do have hope for China. When Lu Xun compared China to an iron house that was suffocating the Chinese people quitely, his friend appealed to him, and he was forced to admit that while he still felt hopeless, hope couldn’t be completely discounted. The full story, from Lu Xun’s preface to A Call to Arms (our translation):

[My friend Qian came to me and said:] “I think you could write some articles…”

I understood his meaning. They had just started [the magazine] New Youth [新青年 Xinqingnian], but at that time there was no one endorsing or even opposing it; I thought perhaps they felt lonely, but said, “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?”

“On the contrary, since a few of them are awake, you cannot say there is no hope of breaking and escaping the iron house.”

Although I remained firmly convinced [that the people in the iron house would simply suffocate], hope cannot be completely written off, because hope lies in the future.

Later, in “Old Home” (a short story known to many Chinese people as Runtu because of the name of one of its main characters), he famously wrote (translation by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi):

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist . It is just like roads across the earth. Actually, the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass the same way, a road is made.

In essence, I understand his meaning to be that one must soldier on even in the absence of any real hope, as hope arises naturally as others begin to take up the same cause. Others will likely disagree, but I see this as fundamentally similar to what Ai Weiwei often says, and what he seems to be doing with some of his art. His hopelessness isn’t really hopelessness, and what is often misread as contempt for the government and disdain for those who disagree with him isn’t really just Ai being “an asshole” (in the words of one of our frequent commenters). He’s trying to change things, and on occasion, he seems to be drawing some ideas from the harsh social criticisms made by Lu Xun a century ago.

Ai Weiwei is not Lu Xun, and there are many differences between the two men and their approaches to both art and social activism. Still, it’s fascinating to see that Lu Xun’s hopeful hopelessness is still alive and kicking in China nearly a century after he penned “Diary of a Madman” for New Youth.