Reviews

A Map of Shanghai’s Neglected Crannies

Kevin McGeary reviews a new story collection, The Book of Shanghai

In 2019, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed titled ‘Welcome to Shanghai: Capital of the Future.’ In it, the author describes his experience of visiting the city as like “walking through the looking glass into the future.” Citing the city’s “muscular” building strategy, colossal scale, citizens’ entrepreneurial energy, and (of course) China’s ancient history, much of the article would not have been out of place in The Global Times. While he says London and New York are “the world’s current leading cities,” some of his arguments as to why Shanghai is primed to overtake them are strong.

Yet fiction leaves more room for exploring the conflict between how a city sees itself and how the world sees it. At its best, literature can capture both the appealing and the abhorrent aspects of a particular time and place. As editor Jin Li mentions in his introduction to a new collection of fiction based in the city, The Book of Shanghai, unlike Beijing, Xi’an or nearby Hangzhou, Shanghai did not become a major city until after the first Opium War when the colonial powers used it as a port. From its hey-day in the 1920s, Shanghai was an important hub through which an ancient culture entered the modern world.

Reviews

The Party, the Power and the Praxis

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Dream by Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown’s productivity puts the rest of us to shame. Just in the past few years the Professor of Chinese Studies at King's College London has published CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016), China's World: What Does China Want? (2017), which I reviewed in these pages, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (2018) and The World According to Xi (2018). All have received strong plaudits, too, making Brown a one-man cottage industry informing, educating and entertaining us about modern China.

Last year he published China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and The Secret Sources of its Power. Looking at the title, I wondered if the book might perhaps retread parts of CEO, China and The New Emperors. (How else could he maintain this output?) But I was wrong. China’s Dream is a deep analysis of the culture of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how it uses this to maintain power. If the renowned The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2012) by Richard McGregor established the skeleton of the CCP and its links to the broader Chinese state, Brown’s book is an attempt to put flesh on those bones. It does this by a deep-bore examination of the party’s moral and ethical stances, as well as its use of culture to maintain a remarkable hold on power and sustain its appeal to Chinese citizens – whether urban or rural, Party members or the broader masses.

Reviews

The Life of Laowai

Quincy Carroll reviews An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

A common explanation for the dearth of quality fiction set in modern China is that nothing invented by the mind of a foreigner could ever compare to the everyday stories out in the streets. China is complex, dynamic, at times bewildering, and in the 18 years since the release of Peter Hessler’s River Town, global audiences have exhibited a sustained appetite for factual, firsthand accounts of life in the Middle Kingdom. During that same time, many writers have tossed their hats into the ring to varying degrees of success. Yet there has been a noticeable lack of attention paid to what some might argue is the most curious subject of all in China: the laowai or foreigner living there. This is by no means an appeal for more navel-gazing memoirs about Asia as seen through the eyes of the West, but rather a call for more stories critically examining the attitudes and motivations of those who have come to make China their home. Tom Carter’s recent work, An American Bum in China, a true-to-life account of Iowan Matthew Evans’s “bumblingly brilliant escapades” from Guangdong to Shanghai to Yunnan to Hong Kong, tackles these themes head-on, and upon reading, even the most ardent defenders of fiction will be forced to admit: you just can’t make this stuff up.

Reviews

The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs

Jeremiah Jenne reviews two books that humanize a much-maligned group

In 1995, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 93-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

Reviews

Perverse Pasts and Queer Futures in Taiwan

Brandon Kemp reviews the academic essay collection Perverse Taiwan

When Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage last May, the de facto island-nation received a flurry of positive press from international media. For a brief moment, coverage of Taiwan was not dominated by its relationship with neighboring China. Yet the open question remained of what exactly it means to be Taiwanese. The island, once home to an indigenous majority, was colonized variously by the Dutch, the Japanese, and the Chinese and still calls itself the Republic of China decades after the end of the exiled Chinese Nationalists’ one-party rule. This is despite the fact that its population increasingly identifies not as Chinese but Taiwanese.

Taiwan, in short, is a queer subject. By this, I don’t mean to repeat the cliché that it’s a gay Mecca, though it’s certainly true that Taiwan boasts a rich tradition of cultural and artistic LGBT expression. Rather, I mean that Taiwan today, with its political ambiguity, cultural syncretism, and peripheral status, seems almost impossible, or impermissible.