Bad Elements

Robert Foyle Hunwick reviews Behaving Badly in Early and Medieval China

Behaving Badly in Early and Medieval China, edited by Harry Rothschild and Leslie Wallace, is a dirty baker’s dozen of essays featuring the kind of “impious monks, cutthroat underlings, ill-bred offspring, depraved poet-literati, devious scofflaws, and disloyal officials” needed for a broad study of medieval mischief.

The period under scrutiny is fairly broad, beginning with the violent unification of China by Qin Shihuangdi (221 BCE) to the more mellow vibes of the early Song dynasty (960 CE onward), allowing for some diverse and compelling accounts of what constituted bad behaviour in the bad old days, as well as meditations on feudal “cancel culture” – generally involving the loss of body parts, along with positions. The book is split into three, beginning with small-fry family infractions, ramping up to courtly misdemeanors and concluding with military massacres, torture and cannibalism.



The “Ultra-unreal” in Chinese Literature

Three novels that exemplify a genre, dissected – Robert Foyle Hunwick

Truth is stranger than fiction, Mark Twain observed, because it’s not obliged to probability: a novel has to make sense. Twain’s axiom, though, depends on a fragile bargain. When life takes on the appearance of fiction – what need is there for novelists?

Consider a couple of possible plotlines. In Henan province, once the epicenter of Mao Zedong’s calamitous Great Leap Forward, a wealthy fanatic erects a giant gold statue of the late leader in a barren field; the half-million-dollar colossus is demolished just before reaching completion. Over in landlocked Jiangxi, a businessman running a green energy company is gifted an endangered eight-ton whale by a fellow boss in Zhejiang; the rotting carcass is set aside for a staff bonus, but after its foul smell draws media attention, local authorities declare its meat is destined for dog food.


China’s Middle-class Rebellion

What the comfortably-off have to protest about – Robert Foyle Hunwick

Park Avenue, central Beijing, is known for its luxurious serviced apartments, landscaped gardens and Western-style amenities, certainly not its dissident population. Yet, strolling past the compound one weekend, I was surprised to see a protest in progress.

A small group of around two dozen had assembled with signs and were milling around outside a locked shop, arguing with a harassed-looking man in the Chinese junior-management uniform of white shirt and belted black trousers. The cause of all the chaos: a swanky gym that had opened in the gated community a few months before, promising unparalleled 24-hour access to upscale fitness machines and personal trainers, had used a recent public holiday to sell all its equipment and, apparently, make off with everyone’s membership fees. Now a dispute was in full swing over who was going to take responsibility for this fiasco. The building management, who presumably had vetted the gym? The police? The residents?


Shower Business

Last days of a Beijing bathhouse – Robert Foyle Hunwick

Hong Sheng, qigong master, can perform nude splits on a bridge of cracked tiles in a sauna the temperature of Mount Doom like a man half his age. That’s how some guys like to roll in China: the backslapping, the baijiu toasting, the bonobo displays of power. Beijing’s last old-style bathhouse isn’t the kind of place to worry about stray hairs, clean towels or a brace of someone else’s overripe cherries.

Just over a century old, the Shuangxingtang bathhouses in the far south Beijing suburb of Fengtai is one of the capital’s toughest buildings. So far it has survived a republic, various warlords, a full-scale occupation and a bitter civil war, followed by everything the Communist Party could throw at it. It’s fitting that property developers are most likely to finish this place off. A shame – there aren’t many hideaways where one can escape from decorum so cheaply. Napping, grumbling, smoking and masculine displays are all being pushed out to the suburbs.


A Mind Map of Beijing

A junkyard jaunt through an artist’s psychogeography – Robert Foyle Hunwick

UK artist Gareth Fuller calls his door-sized monochrome artwork, Beijing, unveiled at the Art Beijing fair, earlier this month, a “mind map.” Like his previous works, these psychic illustrations of physical spaces are drawn with whimsical detail, literary reference, and topographical disregard. Fuller’s version of the Forbidden City, for example, weaves in a reference to China’s Belt and Road initiative and its high-speed rail network.

Fuller’s reimagination of China’s capital speaks to its fraught history of hegemonic expansionism, cultural appropriation, ethnic strife and political correctness (at least no one calls it Peking any more), as well as good old-fashioned blood feuds, border tensions, and foreign and domestic plunder. A palimpsest of detail, Beijing reveals more with each viewing, from cultural allusions and jokes to an accident involving a seven-foot ditch, commemorated by an ankle with a question mark.