What We Talk About When We Talk About China

Kyle Shernuk reviews Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China 

What does it mean to be American? If the 2020 presidential election and storming of the US Capitol made nothing else clear, it was that there are competing internal visions for what America was, is, and should be. That American identity is subject to change and can mean more than one thing at any given time makes it a slippery issue to discuss. It is also, arguably, a defining feature of (the myth of) America that we have the privilege to debate this with relative openness, even and especially when tensions run high.

Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China tells an analogous story about China, and what it means to be “Chinese.” The stakes of engaging in such discussions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, are higher than in the US. The consequences of highlighting the malleability of the concept of “China” – which can be seen by the state as a form of splittism – can range from both online and physical harassment to incarceration or even being “disappeared” entirely. This notable contrast leads Hayton to raise a question that is critical for understanding modern China: Why are the definitions of China and Chineseness such sensitive issues in the PRC today?



The Surrealism of the Real

Eleanor Goodman reviews The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua

As readers will find in his massive novel Brothers and clever essay collection China in Ten Words, acclaimed Chinese writer Yu Hua has a highly developed sense of the absurd. This is perhaps both a defense mechanism and a literary advantage when living in a country in which the inconceivable has been made real. Yu Hua’s latest collection to come out in English, The April 3rd Incident, presents stories written between 1987 and 1991, yet the sense of foreboding, fear and repression is just as topical today as it was then.

The seven stories in this collection are not linked by plot or character, but they hang together tightly in terms of tone and theme. Throughout, there is death, paranoia, disorientation, ominous knocking, and a confusion between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ embedded in a world that never seems entirely real. An alienation from one’s own sensations and perceptions, while still being utterly subsumed in them, is a thread that stretches between the stories. Characters recall dreams that seem to become manifest in the world; a truck driver sees the shadow of a boy he accidentally killed in his own son; a man is uncertain that the woman he has fallen in love with really exists. Nothing is ever what it appears to be.



Hong Kong: Shock Therapy

Antony Dapiran reviews Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, edited by Holmes Chan

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” – Frank Kafka, The Trial

Hong Kongers may feel they have good cause to invoke the name of Franz Kafka. They are becoming accustomed to the arbitrary exercise of state power in illogical and often absurd ways that would make even Kafka blush.

Since the imposition of the National Security Law on 30 June, Hong Kong has at times seemed to be descending inexorably into the Kafkaesque: teenagers arrested for their Facebook posts; people arrested for possessing wearing t-shirts or possessing flags that bear “illegal” slogans; police demanding that pro-democracy restaurants and stores tear down their Lennon Walls; songs banned in schools; Hong Kong police declaring that half a dozen people overseas are wanted under the new law (including activist Samuel Chu, a US citizen in the US apparently accused of the crime of lobbying his own government); Beijing’s leading official in Hong Kong warning that patriotism is “not a choice, but an obligation.”

Yet it is another aspect of Kafka that springs to mind on reading Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong, a collection of essays reflecting on the events of 2019 by the city’s leading young journalists writing in English.



Sanmao’s Shifting Sands

Lavinia Liang reviews Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, trans. Mike Fu

Sanmao has been experiencing a renewal. Not the Sanmao of the famed 1935 Chinese comics – the Shanghai street orphan so malnourished that he has only three hairs (san mao) on his head, or perhaps only thirty cents (san mao) to his name – but Sanmao, the pen name of Chinese writer Chen Maoping. Known as Echo Chan in the West, and “Taiwan’s wandering writer” to others, author and cultural icon Chen was vastly popular in the Chinese-speaking world during the 70s and 80s. Yet not one of her books was translated into English until recently. Last year, she was honored with an ‘Overlooked No More’ obituary in The New York Times, a Google Doodle, and, in January 2020, the release of the English edition of the 1976 book that skyrocketed her to celebrity, Stories of the Sahara, translated by Mike Fu.

Sanmao was born in Chongqing to a well-off family that then departed to Taiwan due to the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949. She struggled in junior high and eventually stopped attending school, after which her father, a lawyer, hired private tutors for her. In her college years, Sanmao began traveling widely – first to Spain, where she met the young José María Quero y Ruíz, whom she would eventually marry – and later to both Germany and the United States. She became fluent in Spanish, German and English, all during a time when few Chinese women traveled the world – indeed, a time when Taiwan was still under the rule of martial law.



The Tibetan Genocide (Part II)

HT on Tibet’s Chinese revolution, 1949-1976

Ed: Don’t miss part one of this series of reviews on Tibet’s experiences in the Mao era, part of a fortnight at the China Channel reminding readers of the horrors that Tibet underwent during the Chinese and Cultural Revolutions. Last week Robert Barnett and Susan Chen talked to Tsering Woeser, who also presented a number of her father Tsering Dorje’s photographs from the era.

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959
Li Jianglin (2016, orig. 1959 Lasa!, 2010)

Li Jianglin is the daughter of CCP officials. She moved to New York in the 1980s, became a librarian, got to know some Tibetan people in Queens, and eventually set out to write a book about what happened in Lhasa in 1959. Unlike Benno Weiner, Li Jianglin has no time for United Front dialectics – her book is an open polemic. She tells us: "This book will document and show that Mao had active plans from very early on to impose his policies throughout Tibet despite the promises of the 'Seventeen-Point Agreement' [that guaranteed Tibetan self-rule within the PRC], even though he was aware that this would entail bloodshed. His explicitly stated view was that he welcomed Tibetan unrest and rebellion – and even hoped it would increase in scale – as it would provide him with an opportunity to 'pacify' the region with his armies." Li Jianglin has a librarian's command of Chinese-language sources. To cut through the tangle of conflicting claims about what took place, she reads from official histories, classified CCP communications, PLA memoirs, propaganda pronouncements, plus a host of published memoirs by Tibetans in exile, and supplements the story with interviews of survivors.