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.



Saying ‘Not This’ to the Colonization of the Uyghurs

Darren Byler reviews The War on the Uyghurs by Sean Roberts

In his recent book The War on the Uyghurs, Sean Roberts, a scholar of Chinese and Central Asian politics at George Washington University, describes how Uyghur responses to state violence have often been officially misrecognized as “terrorism” – and the way this has provided cover for a pernicious contemporary colonial project. The history of the “terrifying” of the Uyghurs is relatively recent: just nineteen short years. It was exactly four weeks after September 11 2001 that the word “terrorism” was first used by Chinese authorities to describe Uyghurs whom they deemed a threat to Chinese national security.

Prior to the US declaration of the Global War on Terror, Uyghurs were described occasionally as “counterrevolutionaries” or as “separatists”, but never as terrorists. Working in concert with Chinese state security in a Beijing-based investigation, in the early 2000s US intelligence officials took up this rhetoric at least in part as a way of building stronger bilateral ties between the two nations. For example, Roberts notes that in internal briefings “the FBI characterized Uyghurs as a potential ‘terrorist threat’ to the US”. They also began to describe a shadowy, Pakistan-based Uyghur diaspora group that called itself the East Turkestan Islamic Movement “a clear part of the Al-Qaeda network”. While Roberts shows there is scant evidence that the group had much capacity beyond video production, this threat credibility bolstered by the US designation nevertheless provided the Chinese state with cover to begin increased “hard-strike” campaigns in the Uyghur homeland, which began in the 1990s but took on a new intensity in the 2000s, particularly after the protests and violence in Urumqi on July 5, 2009.



The First Chinese Lady

Andrew Singer on Afong Moy, China’s first female immigrant to the US

Afong Moy is generally accepted as the first Chinese woman to arrive in America, when she stepped off a ship in New York City as a teenager in 1834. She lived there for 17 documented years, and most likely the remainder of her life, but wasn’t mentioned in historical sources after around 1850. A few sailors and itinerant Chinese men had previously traveled across the Pacific since the first decades after the American Revolution, but only a handful or two, and long before the influx of immigrants during the Californian gold rush of 1848. Back then, China was an exotic mystery imbued with Orientalist myths and easy stereotypes. Afong Moy was a living, breathing representative, and her life reveals much about the earliest Chinese treatment in America.

Moy’s story is told in Nancy E. Davis’ biography The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America. Davis weaves a flowing, well-researched narrative (including 42 pages of end notes and a ten-page bibliography) of this quasi-tragic character. However, it is the character of America and Americans, not China and the Chinese, which is most clearly revealed in these pages. Part of the reason is because, as the author notes, almost all of our knowledge of Afong Moy has to be pieced together from third party sources looking at, talking about, and interacting with her – not the other way around. As such, what we glean about this young woman, with a few significant exceptions, is the gloss placed on her by the American viewer. In the reflected rendering of a Chinese woman, we see the views, prejudices and goals of the commentators.



Chinese Short Short Stories

Brian Hayes reviews Contemporary Chinese Short Short Stories, ed. Aili Mu

Most Mandarin textbooks incorporate Chinese culture into the learning process. Typically, the textbook’s protagonists find themselves in some conventional location in China (climbing the Great Wall, crowding onto a packed subway in Shanghai, visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an) and a Mandarin conversation ensues. This framework attempts to simultaneously teach Chinese culture and language. However grammatical structures, vocabulary and character recognition usually takes precedence over discussions about Chinese cultural mores. Readers are challenged to decipher what the textbook’s characters are saying, not necessarily why they say it.

At some point, formulaic textbook conversations and edited essays can wear down even the most ardent of Chinese learners. It becomes apparent to most students that there is a huge gap between the language provided in textbooks and authentic Mandarin source material. It is one thing to master sentence patterns and vocabulary lists, but quite another to become sensitive to the unseen cultural concepts that native Chinese speakers draw upon in their everyday interactions. Advanced learners are often simply told to go read texts written by native speakers, but the harsh reality is that many cultural allusions and references made by native speakers may not be appreciated or understood by the Chinese learner still finding his or her way to fluency. In short, after a few years of Mandarin study, learners often reach an impasse: textbooks and graded readers are too simple, and native-level writings and articles are too difficult.



The Sisters Who Made Modern China

James Carter reviews Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

One of the great challenges for authors writing biographies is their relationship to their subjects. They risk either putting them on a pedestal and explaining away their foibles, or demonizing them and finding evil intent behind every action. Jung Chang has swung to both horns of this dilemma in the past. In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, she interpreted the historical evidence to claim that rather than the hidebound reactionary she is often portrayed to be, Cixi was a progressive visionary who, had she not been thwarted, would have presided over a golden age of Chinese democracy. On the other hand, in Mao: The Unknown Story, Chang and co-author Jon Halliday so thoroughly and unskeptically demonized Mao that they achieved the unlikely effect of bringing sinologists to write a book about their book itself, Was Mao Really a Monster?

In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang has opened a window onto the lives of the Soong sisters – Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong May-ling – who like Cixi are on the short list of the most famous women in China’s modern history. Chang does not shy away from criticism in this latest book, though that criticism is not, for the most part, directed at her subjects. Sun Yat-sen comes off especially poorly, as a womanizing political opportunist. Chiang Kai-shek doesn’t shine either, and we already know Chang’s views on Mao. Sister’s 300 pages entertain and titillate through remarkable stories of unlikely experiences, but without the controversy or the intimacy of Chang’s earlier books.