Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

People's Republic of Desire

OK, Annie Wang's 2006 breezy little novel is a piece of trash, but that's why it's so much fun, isn't it ?

How low can the Chinese go -- or as Annie wrote in the introduction "I want to be free falling, free falling with a China that is no longer homey"

And as she continued:

"I am casting off my burdens... no longer will I play the role of a Confucian intellectual"

But... she never really was a Confucian intellectual .. was she ? It was just a role -- a facade -- and that's what her stories are about: facades and how to keep them -- and it should probably be required reading for Americans who want to do business in China.

And yet --- and yet she did hold me -- prisoner to the page all the way to the bitter end -- waiting, I suppose, for the "oral sex" that was promised on the jacket (but which she never delivered.) -- or for some profound revelation or change (never got that either -- just a wee bit of fashionable do-gooder fund raising for poor people - and very choppy, improbable resolution to her own broken heart in the final chapter)

And it is true -- that whenever I felt tired of a certain riff (like I've had enough successful, pretty women for a while) -- she'd offer up something else to hold my attention.

Her narrative seems to be suspended between the pornographic ( it never comes close) and the self-righteous (doesn't go very far that direction either)

Her sex-in-the-city girls like thrills --- but they don't really seem to like sex -- and those few who pursue it without remorse are scolded for it.

Were the situations and characters real ? As the amateur historian -- this is the question that most concerns me - and I think the answer is no -- they're as real as the episodes in "Journey to the West" - except that the pretty people become monsters of selfishness instead of blood drinking demons.

But the gonzo attitude -- yes, I bet that's real -- and what an incredible thing to happen after a few generations of puritanical socialism.

And the incredible turnover in generational attitudes -- is it every 10 years now ? -- I bet that's real too. The Chinese 20-somethings of today can be very scary -- because they've got nothing but infantile desire. No Confucius -- no Buddha -- not even Chairman Mao -- they've got nothing to live for but immediate gratification.

Or so it seems (from stories I've heard beyond the pages of this book)

But China is a very big place -- lots of room for local variation -- and I'm sure there's plenty of smart, talented young people who are aiming for something other than a life of "the rich and famous" -- but that might be beyond the scope of a popular journalist.


Here's the passage that I think I'll remember most:

(from the lips of Chinese American Mimi - the character whom the narrator seems to respect the most)

"There is an ancient Chinese saying, "I can't tell the true shape of Lu Mountain, because I myself am in Lu Mountain" The truth is incomprehensible to one too deeply involved to be objective. So you have to be able to leave to observe"

"Then what does the United States mean to you ?"

"It is the crystallization of order, the rule of law, rules, credibility, reason, and justice. It is a kind of ideal created by humankind. This piece of land gives people hope, gives people space, lets people discover their own potential. To me the most fascinating thing about it gives people a path of struggle. This path of struggle is far more stimulating and enriching than the path of enjoyment"

(America doesn't especially appear this way to me -- but then I've never lived anywhere except on Lu Mountain)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ningkun Wu: A Single Tear

As I near completion of my own collaborative account of life in the People's Republic, I've begun to read some others -- beginning with Ninkun Wu's 1993 chronicle of an English professor's life as a condemned "rightist" from 1951 - 1980.

Born in 1920, and schooled on the mainland, he continued his education in the U.S. -- and returned to China in 1951 to "put his expertise to some good use for the new China" --that expertise being in modern English literature.

Despite his good intentions and leftward sympathies, almost immediately he was identified as a rightwing enemy of the people - and he would spend most of the next two decades in one kind of gulag or another: forced labor camps, prison farms, or finally one of the small villages where teacher and students were sent to "learn from the peasants" during the cultural revolution.

This book is his record of relentless persecution and victimization -- and yet I don't get the feeling that he was especially paranoid or hallucinatory -- i.e., I'll bet this stuff really happened to him, his wife, and most of his fellow university faculty. Those who were talented at riding the waves of political hysteria -- and had no qualms about ratting on their colleagues -- did alright --- and everyone else suffered. The author appears to have had zero political savvy - and only survived thanks to the persistence, faith, resources, and probable likability of the young student who married him.

As a one-dimensional melodrama (good people being abused) -- it's rather shallow -- without those qualities or insights that you might expect from a scholar conversant in both Chinese and European literature. (except that - hey - he had a hard life - he was 70 years old when he wrote this book - and as he reports in the preface, he did so with some reluctance)

But maybe just being an accurate documentary is enough. It certainly opens a nice little window into certain times and places -- like the forced labor farm up in Manchuria (not so far from the collective farm where my Chinese friend would later spend a year) -- or the peasant village where his entire family was sent for re-education (as my friend's mother had been)

There are brief sketches of a variety of interesting people -- good, bad, and ugly --and we're aware of the narrator's rather compassionate -- if not very deep - view of his fellow humans. His wife was Christian --and I think we can feel her imprint on his imagination (indeed, a few of the chapters were written or dictated by her.)

(BTW - I think the most memorable character for me will be "Looney" -- not that he, the young village idiot was so memorable -- but that Yikai Li, the author's wife, saved him from getting beaten to death by his father and the village leader -- even though he had been annoying and stealing from her as much as from anyone. She had the nerve to intervene and threaten the most powerful man in the village. It's a compelling issue -- because people who live on the brink of starvation may not be able to afford to accommodate a disruptive crazy person -- but, as it turned out, a traffic accident resulting in Looney's permanent injury, also produced a significant damage-payment, sufficient to serve as a bride price for his younger brother. Might this serve a metaphor for the disasters and achievements of the author's own tragic life ?)

Accepting his role of suffering victim -- there isn't really a lot of drama here -- even when he comes close to starving to death. But I liked to wander around the details -- like the medical diagnoses and care -- and the books that it referenced (I knew all the historical Chinese literature he mentioned, but none of the modern -- and his choices in English literature which mostly centered on Shakespeare - and specifically Hamlet.

The penultimate chapter, concerning his rehabilitation, seemed to reveal the most about the author's reaction to what had befallen him -- both the resignation and the resentment -- especially in the 15 minute interview he was granted by his former, younger colleague from the University of Chicago, T.D.Lee . While the author had returned to China to dig ditches and starve, Dr. Lee had stayed in America to pursue a stellar academic career and earn a Nobel Prize in physics.

"As I briefly answered his questions (I did not want to outstay my welcome)about what I was in Beijing for (political rehabilitation) and what I and some of our mutual friends had been through over the years, he showed no sign of strong interest or emotion. Dignified and self assured, he looked the eminent scientist and scholar par excellence. I quickly sensed that we were living in different worlds across an unbridgeable gap.... Secure in the "imperialist fortress of America, he was hailed as a patriot in Communist China, feted by every top leader of the party.. as an honored guest of the state. Recalled to serve the motherland, I was denounced as an enemy of the people .... but I would never have exchanged my bitter cup of lifetime reeducation for the salutary toasts from the masters of the proletarian dictatorship"

(as they parted, Dr. Lee inscribed a copy of James Thurber's "Fables for our time" and gifted it to the author - leading the author to recall an all-night conversation they had 30 years earlier at the International House of the University of Chicago (I've been there !) ,when "kid brother" Lee had called the famous novel "Dream of Red Chamber" unscientific because the hero was born with a precious jade in his mouth -- leading the author now to respond with Hamlet's "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy")


Three thoughts that kept recurring as I followed him from one tribulation to another were:

1. He never accepted his political role as a transmitter of modern, Euro-American culture. Maybe he would have been just as persecuted if he were a civil engineer (in the cultural revolution, he would have been) -- but not necessarily in those earlier waves of leftist 'reform'.

Or maybe he finally accepts that role in the last chapter, on page 350, when he has finally been restored to his university position in 1979, attends a conference, and speaks out against the director of the "Department of Theory of Art and Literature at the Ministry of Culture" -- when that cultural leader concludes that "We must persevere in the Marxist Leninist stand, viewpoint, and method in our theory of art and literature" -- and he agrees with the man's son who says "Daddy, forget your Marxist Leninism - it's so passe. Nobody is interested in that anymore".

The author then went on to question just what Marxist-Leninism was, after so many flip flops and disasters over the previous decades.

Then he asks "how many of us are familiar with modernist literature ? How can anyone put a ban on it before people have a chance to read it and make up their own minds about it ?"

2. As it turned out, the left wing of the Communist party was completely justified in feeling threatened about a return to capitalism and "the four olds" (old thinking, old habits, old values, old etc)

Socialism was failing -- and all the waves of ideological hysteria only postponed its collapse.

3. Lots of people died in this story -- but I don't recall that a single one was murdered or executed or disappeared (as happened when Stalin decimated his own party in the great Soviet purges).

Socialist rule was incredibly inept -- and led to mass starvation -- but the people who died were not necessarily political enemies -- they were just people who could not endure malnutrition or psychological abuse.

And when judging the performance of the Communist Party -- we do have ask how else that nation could have stayed independent and free from civil war in the second half of the 20th C.


Finally -- just to raise some points of difference with the subject of my Chinese chronicle,
Ningkun Wu :

*was 30 years older - therefore already an adult with a career when the Communists take over
*was intellectual class instead of high-official class
*spent about 15 years in one kind of forced labor or another -- my subject spent one - while her father, who was Ningkun's age and an official in the C.I.D. (state security) spent 6 years in solitary confinement.
*had no good family connections (although it was his wife's family that saved his life by sending him food from the black market)

.... and some points of similarity:

*both had Christian connections (Ningkun's wife -- my subject's grandfather)
*both specialized in the English language
*both ended up living in America
*both of their Chinese stories begin and end in Beijing

note: A very informative podcast that summarizes the history involved in Ningkun Wu's life can be found here

--- narrated by a man who met the author (and whose father had founded the English department at the Chinese school where Ningkun was initially hired.)

He relates that Ningkun was the very last intellectual at his school to be pardoned because the order for his imprisonment had been signed by Deng Xiaoping - and no lower authority felt comfortable with countermanding him. (a similar situation held for my friend's father, who was sent to prison on an order signed by Chou Enlai )