The Nanfang / Blog

Meet Miss Anxiety: The Subtlety of “American Pie,” the Likability of “American Psycho”

Posted: 12/22/2014 7:00 am

In the prologue to his book “Age of Ambition,” Evan Osnos of The New Yorker declared that China is going through the age of the changeling, when the daughter of a farmer can propel herself from the assembly line to the boardroom so fast that she never has time to shed the manners and anxieties of the village. He compared China today to America during its “Guilded Age,” when in 1850 the New World had fewer than twenty millionaires and by 1900 it had 40,000.

Angry at being single, the heroine bottles a guy who takes her out to dinner.

If romantic comedy “Meet Miss Anxiety” 《我的早更女友》 is anything to go by, China is developing even faster than Osnos thinks. Just a few decades ago, the only movies that could be made in the People’s Republic were those espousing socialist values to the population which was almost entirely made up of peasant farmers. Now China is making movies with characters who are every bit as spoiled, irritating and emotionally immature as their counterparts in U.S. sitcom “Friends.”

If you find it difficult to sympathize with a 26 year-old menopausal woman whose idea of an act of love is to hijack a wedding in a way which wouldn’t disgrace Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight,” then “Meet Miss Anxiety” is not the movie for you.

The premise of having a rom-com with a violent, alcoholic tomboy as the heroine is interesting in a stick two fingers up at the box office kind of way. However, leading lady Zhou Xun appears to have turned into the Chinese Jenifer Aniston. Her movies all take place in a parallel universe in which attractive but clumsy women who are unlucky in love always discover in the end that the guy for them was under their nose all along. Needless to say, the movie is already a commercial success.

On her graduation day Qi Jia (Zhou Xun) shows up in a wedding dress and climbs on to the stage to recite her vows to her boyfriend (Wallace Cheung who, unlike in Han Han’s “The Continent”, is one of the less annoying characters). After being rejected, Qi becomes a hotheaded alcoholic who lives in a moderately expensive apartment in Xiamen with college classmates Yuan Xiao’ou (Tong Dawei, who apparently is supposed to be the male equivalent of a homely girl next door) and her more worldly, sexually active best friend (played by Zhang Zilin).

On her way toward finding true love, Qi Jia attacks her doctor with a cactus, attempts to bottle a chef at a restaurant where the service is too slow and treats a rape flower field as a public toilet. When her attempt to win back her old flame fails, she looks to Yuan Xiao’ou and considers whether he will do.

Like the “American Pie” franchise, which has about the same amount of depth and subtlety, this movie is interesting from a sociological point-of-view. There is no mention of the characters’ parents – like in “Friends” the key relationships in their lives are those with roommates. If the parents aren’t a source of income for the main characters then it is not clear what is. It is over an hour before there is any suggestion as to what any of them do for a living and the two main female characters (both of whom are single) are never seen doing any work.

This movie should be shown to every Western politician who is espousing clichés about the formidable rise of China. It could also show another side of society to those who only associate China with hellish working conditions and Blade Runner skylines. However, as a piece of entertainment, this reviewer found few uses for it.

Haohao

Why the LA Review of Books is Wrong About Popular New China Novel

Posted: 12/19/2014 4:15 pm

There are two things that people should know about critics. The first is that like any journalists, their primary task is to fill the white space. The second is that in doing so, they have to sound clever. Sometimes however, a critic tries so hard to sound clever they end up ignoring hugely significant facts and details. A review of Susan Barker’s novel “The Incarnations” published in The LA Review of Books is a striking example.

When it came out this summer, The Nanfang posted a favourable review of Barker’s novel, a thriller that spans over a millennium of Chinese history. This was followed by unrestrained positive reviews in South China Morning Post, The Independent (which described it as “China’s Midnight’s Children”) and The Guardian.

It is great that Barker’s novel is now getting attention in the American media ahead of a release in the world’s most powerful country next year. However, the review by Pierre Fuller of The University of Manchester contains some assertions that are factually inaccurate and others that are just plain silly. The most efficient way of dealing with some of the assertions is to Fisk them, so here goes:

Incarnations’ (sic) most striking feature is its historical dimension, but its historical actors — concubines, eunuchs, Mongol warriors, Red Guards — appear to come straight from central casting. Storytelling should not be expected to provide authenticity, whatever that would even mean, but we want something at least beyond the literary equivalent of Chinese fare at the Golden Wok buffet, parked between the Dairy Queen and Jiffy Lube on the edge of town.

It is myopic to suggest that the cast of characters is made up of history’s protagonists. The three main corporeal characters are a taxi driver, a masseuse and a hairdresser. The stories set in the past also have plenty of figures who dwell beyond the wings of the stage of history, such as Jurchen artisans.

One of the most extraordinary things about Barker’s novel is that it somehow manages to demystify China. It contains a Tang Dynasty sorceress castrating her pubescent son. It contains Ming Dynasty concubines having their bowel movements and menstrual cycles recorded. It contains a chap who, in the twenty-first century, thinks that the way to fix a broken love affair is domestic violence followed by marital rape.

However, the characters are as real as they are in any good novel and not “exotic” as the headline claims. They make terrible lifestyle choices and grow attached to people who are bad for them – just like the rest of us. Barker, as she explained in a talk at The Hong Kong Book Fair, threw out a completed draft of the novel in 2009 after over a year’s work because she decided the characters weren’t real enough yet.

Barker, as the dust jacket explains, spent years in Beijing, not just getting a feel for life there today, which she captures well in the parts of the book set in the present, but also researching imperial and modern China to find material to bring into The Incarnations. So it’s especially disappointing not to find any trace in her novel of, say, Chinese pioneers opening up land in Sichuan or Manchuria, White Lotus Buddhist sectarians rising up to try to turn millenarian dreams into political reality, Bohemian poets, or any number of other equally entertaining, far more revealing (and in demographic terms equally numerous) possibilities from China’s past.

In the comments section, the accomplished translator Philip Hand dealt with this comment nicely: “The reviewer’s complaint that Susan Barker does not write about the particular Chinese people he is most interested in is just silly.”

Of course, the novel doesn’t cover everything that deserves to be covered. It is a novel not an encyclopedia. Most importantly it captures how, although we currently live in one of the least violent and most rational ages, history is indeed cyclical. One simile suggests that the fossil fuels that pollute Beijing are angered at being dug up from their million year-old graves. This fits nicely with the central motif of “history is coming for you”.

To call Incarnations “orientalist” would be a very tired charge. But equally tired are clichéd constructions of Eastern societies that fixate on the carnal, irrational, and predatory, as Incarnations does, while ignoring complexity and the socially or culturally unexpected.

Yes, this novel is full of violence, particularly sexual violence, but then so is history. Yet there are moments of tenderness that make a nonsense of the reviewer’s claim of “fixation”.

The scene where the main character meets the woman who will become his wife contains the following sentence: “Then she smiled, but as though her heart was breaking, and Wang knew that she needed saving from more than the rain.” After all the misery that has gone on earlier in the novel, reading that sentence is like breathing fresh air on a clear, Beijing day.

And as for the claim that this novel ignores complexity: “The Incarnations” captures the prejudices and superstitions of six different historical periods as well as evoking their sights, sounds and smells convincingly. This could not have been achieved without minute research and an appreciation of the complexities of each period.

Haohao

Former Shenzhen Police Chief, Jailed for Bribery, Bribes Her Way Out

Posted: 12/16/2014 5:00 pm

This is an insane story.

An Huijun, image courtesy of Shenzhen Daily

The ex-police chief of Shenzhen’s Luohu District has been jailed again after being released for medical treatment seven years ago, Shenzhen Daily reported yesterday. An Huijun was initially jailed in 2005 for accepting bribes from subordinates. She also had sexual relationships with many young male officers.

An’s sister was prosecuted this October in Xingtai, Hebei Province for offering bribes to make false medical documents for An while she was in jail. An, former director of Luohu District Pubic Security Bureau, was sentenced to 15 years for taking bribes in June 2005. Yet in January 2007, she was released for medical treatment after her sister falsified medical documents calling for her release.

The paper has more:

An, a native of Hebei, was appointed chief of Luohu Public Security Bureau in 1997. She took bribes of 1.64 million yuan (US$269,000), HK$530,000 (US$87,000) and US$1,000 in exchange for giving out promotions, contracts for public projects and deals for procurement of official vehicles. All 15 people who bribed her were her subordinates at the bureau.

According to her sentencing, An should be in jail until October 2019, but she was released in January 2007 from a Hebei prison after no more than three years.

According to the newspaper report, quoting some people who were familiar with the case, An’s sister, An Huilian, falsified medical records and gave 200,000 yuan in bribes to prison staff at the Hebei prison to buy her out.

Xingtai prosecutors started investigating An Huilian in November last year and prosecuted her for giving bribes. Sun Hai, ex-director of the Hebei Prison Administration Bureau, was also probed for taking bribes.

According to related regulations, An still needs to serve more than 12 years before she completes her term.

The thin blue line, eh?

Haohao

Fleet of Time: Overloaded and Undercooked

Posted: 12/15/2014 7:00 am

Italo Calvino famously said that memory must be strong enough to enable us to remain the same person, but also weak enough to enable us to keep moving forward. Coming-of-age drama “Fleet of Time” 《匆匆那年》 revolves around a group of upwardly mobile post-80 Beijingers who – despite being outwardly successful – are fixated on their pasts, particular their lost loves.

Image courtesy of Baidu

The film starts promisingly, with the characters playing the drinking game, “我曾经” which is the Western drinking game “I have never” in reverse (people talk about the crazy things they have done). The film then flashes back to 1999 when the main characters, a group of lifelong friends, are high school students.

The scenes set in the past have a dreamlike quality. People wear brighter colours and some of the shots look as photoshopped as Chinese wedding photos. The period details for the scenes that stretch from 1999 to 2002 are all accurate in terms of fashion, technology and pop music and contrast with the bleak winter scenes set in 2014.

However, the film, adapted from Jiu Yehui’s novel of the same name, is clunky and confusing, with too many subplots for its 119 minute running time. The novel was also adapted into a TV series, which is a more suitable form when attempting to bring a novel, with all its characters and events comprehensively to the screen.

Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” cuts out major incidents and characters so it can focus on the central “mocking birds” Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of “Lolita” merges three major characters into the character of Clare Quilty played by Peter Sellers. In the case of “Fleet of Time,” the love story between Chen Xun (Eddie Peng) and classmate Fang Hui (Ni Ni) is the only strand that is even close to well developed.

Even that story is full of things that have become clichés. Fang Hui is demure and virginal while Chen Xun is a star for the basketball team (in one particularly impossible-to-follow basketball match, Chen scores the decisive points with the last throw). Chen Xun is also a keen musician who writes the title song for Fang Hui (will China ever make a romantic movie about people who can’t sing?). Fang Hui ends up needing an abortion (as one Sina Weibo user pointed out, nowadays abortions have become clichés in mainland Chinese coming-of-age movies).

This movie makes a commendable attempt to show the lighter side of Chinese society. There are drinking games, street performances, and students deliberately flunking parts of their National College Entrance and Examination so they can go to the same college as the people they care about most. This contrasts nicely with most of the China stories that have received international news coverage in recent years, from Foxconn suicides to baby milk powder scandals.

Unfortunately, the stronger parts are weakened by the sloppiness of the storytelling. There are several fight sequences, all of which seem to have been edited by random select. The emotional immaturity of the characters also makes them less than likeable sometimes, getting into fights at the slightest provocation.
The characters would be more appealing if their memory were weak enough to keep them moving forward.

Haohao

“Women Who Flirt” An Eye-opening, Entertaining, but Confused Romantic Comedy

Posted: 12/8/2014 7:00 am

I was once told that, for an expatriate who wants to learn about China, the worst thing you can do is learn the language well. The reason, I was told, is that it is more important to listen to what people don’t say than what they do say. “Women Who Flirt,” the latest romantic comedy from director Ho-Cheung Pang, is not so much about romance or dating but about the mastery of unspoken communication, particularly passive-aggression.

Hong Kong-based director Pang made his mainland debut with another romantic comedy “Love in the Buff” in 2012. From a commercial point of view, it makes sense that he would choose this genre as there is huge demand on the mainland. It also makes artistic sense. Many of mainland films made this year that have striven for profundity have fallen flat while some romantic comedies have been packed with ideas and insight, whether intentionally or not.

“Coming Home” directed by Zhang Yimou ended up spilling over from seriousness into tedious glumness. “The Continent” directed by Han Han contains most of the elements of a film that has something to say — including a cameo by the accomplished director Jia Zhangke — but proved unsatisfying, like the living room of a nouveau riche who owns a bunch of expensive items of furniture but has no idea how to lay them out attractively.

By contrast, “My Old Classmate,” directed by Frant Gwo and starring Zhou Dongyu, is a romantic comedy whose backdrop is the recent history of the country, similar to “Forrest Gump.” It captured, in an understated way, why Hollywood-style happy endings rarely happen in today’s China. “One Night Surprise,” directed by Eva Jin and starring Fan Bingbing, shined a fascinating light on attitudes about single women who get pregnant and the impossibility of women having it all in terms of babies and careers.

“Women Who Flirt,” though more nakedly commercial than “Love in the Buff” and lacking the depth of Pang’s best work, is an eye-opening story of dating and gender roles in China today. It follows tomboy Zhang Hui (Zhou Xun) who has been in love with her underprivileged, career-driven friend Xiao Gong since college. Though he has insisted on staying single while establishing himself professionally, Xiao Gong gets cuckolded by Taiwanese temptress Beibei (Sonia Sui) during a business trip. To win her man, Zhang Hui enlists the help of some of her Shanghai pick-up artist friends, led by fellow classmate Sie Yilin, in an unfriendly cross-straits competition.

In one early scene, Beibei delivers a masterpiece act of passive-aggression and what is known in Chinese as sajiao (撒娇). The movie’s title translates the word as “flirting,” but that doesn’t do justice to its excessively effeminate connotations. Sonia Sui’s acting in this scene perfectly captures the film’s spirit — women showing strength by appearing weak. Early on, Xiao Gong observes that men go to the gym to build shoulders for such women to cry on.

There are lots of highlights, such as homages to “Ghost” and “There’s Something about Mary” and a cameo from Mike Sui, who seems to be cornering the market for over-the-top foreigners in mainland movies. However, the idea behind the film is not entirely good-natured. Pang appears to be aware of how misogynistic Chinese society is, but encourages women to accept this reality instead of trying to change it.

The message that this movie unintentionally sends out is that to be single is a failure and that women should measure their worth by their ability to attract men. However, the message that the film intentionally sends out, as represented by the differences between heroine Zhang Hui and villainess Beibei, is that love is not a competition. I think we can all agree with that.

This movie is being screened (with English subtitles) at all good cinemas in mainland China.

This article is reproduced with permission from Shenzhen Daily.

Haohao

In Praise of…KTV

Posted: 10/5/2014 11:00 am

Those of us who came to China in the years building up to the Beijing Olympics are watching the things that made China China disappear. These include internet bars, street barbecue (or at least its credibility as a safe option), and now karaoke bars, better known as KTVs.

KTVs are expensive to run and, on top of the fact that karaoke is a relatively expensive pastime, there are several reasons why a night at a KTV might be a hard sell. There are the tinny soundtracks, the over-priced drinks, the low-budget videos, and of course the non-professional singers. Karaoke is not as individualized, free, or unpredictable as open mic, but the popularity of karaoke represents some dizzying societal changes, most of which are positive.

A typical KTV room, image courtesy of Baidu

Why lyrics matter and why that matters

The karaoke machine was one of two Japanese inventions of the 1970s that revolutionised the way we enjoy music. Whereas the walkman, which was first marketed by Sony in 1979, was developed by engineer Nobutoshi Kihara at the request of then-Sony co-chairman Masaru Ibuka, the karaoke machine was an inadvertent success after being invented by musician Daisuke Inoue to give singers the chance to perform without a backing band.

In the 80s and 90s it spread throughout the world and became one of the most popular social activities in Greater China. This rise coincided with the glittering career of Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese pop star who was said to rule China by night while Deng Xiaoping ruled it by day.

Her song “The Moon Represents My Heart” – one of the biggest Mandopop hits of the 1980s, in spite of the best efforts of the Beijing establishment – reveals an exciting phenomenon, as Evan Osnos points out in “The Age of Ambition”. That the song is about “me” rather than “we” struck a particular chord with the generation that was young at this time. As Osnos writes:

There was something different about…the young men and women born in the seventies. You could hear it in their speech, their comfort with saying “I” and “me,” where their parents would have used the plural: “our work unit” and “our family.” (Older Chinese took to calling her cohort the wo yi dai – the “Me Generation.”)

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, another KTV staple, is about the forbidden love between Leonardo Di Caprio’s vagrant and Kate Winslet’s heiress in “Titanic”. The song and the film proved a pirated video sensation in a country where, of all the social upheavals that have occured in recent decades, the ability to choose ones own partner is just about the biggest.

Teresa Teng, image courtesy of Baidu

In the 1970s, as Osnos points out, rural men wanted to be seen as 老实 (honest and reliable) rather than 风流 (wild and adventurous). By the end of the century, the opposite was the case. A good representation of this shift is the songs that owe a huge amount of their hit status to KTV.

For a song to be a KTV hit, the lyrics have to be comprehensible and singable, something that isn’t universal in the world of popular music. The lyrics to “Louie” by The Kingsmen, for example, are so indecipherable that they prompted an FBI investigation in the early 1960s into their allegedly obscene content. A comprehensible lyric is ideological in that it expresses something as opposed to nothing.

So what if love songs dominate?

A look at some lists of the top 10 most popular KTV songs reveals that, to nobody’s surprise, love ballads dominate. However, dismissing all popular love ballads as syrupy trash is as lazy as assuming that all underground music is good. My experience of underground music venues is, it is amazing the amount of pseudo-profound drivel you can get away with singing as long as you’re wearing a hat.

Before the 1980s, love songs were as unacceptable in mainland China as flowery dresses. Since then, this Japanese invention has helped numerous foreign songs come into their own in China and their lyrics have given the public the chance to see that people everywhere fall in and out of love and have similar highs, lows and dilemmas. Literature, as has been argued by historian Lynn Hunt, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and psychologists Raymond Marr and Keith Oatley, has served to expand empathy and a force towards humanitarian progress.

On my last night in Hunan in 2009 I went to a communal KTV which was just one barroom with one microphone and one screen (which is what the original Japanese karaoke houses were like before the private room format became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s) and as soon as I sat down, a drunk Chinese man came uninvited to my table and put his arm around me. When I said (in Chinese), “Do you mind? I am here to be with the people I came with,” he responded (in English) “No no no no no no…I’m your friend.”

Looking back at this incident, two things strike me. 1. I didn’t have the courage to rip his glasses off and throw them across the floor. 2. His xenophilia, though cloying, was preferable to its opposite. A look at the contents of this double CD of songs that were popular during the 1960s, including 《地道战》 which glorifies making war against an unnamed “invader” and “Keep Mao’s Words in Your Heart”, indicates that in the pre-KTV era, our barroom encounter would have been spikier.

Daisuke Inoue, who never patented his invention and only found out about its international popularity upon seeing it mentioned in Time Magazine in 1999. Image courtesy of Google

Good harmless fun

Daisuke Inoue may not be Nobel Peace Prize material, but he was surely damned with faint praise when, upon being awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004, he was said to have invented “an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” Karaoke is at the very worst good, harmless fun, which is how most drinking games could be described if they were any good or fun.

No less a figure than Johnny Cash understood how singing seems to help a troubled soul. Singing karaoke is more social than other pastimes such as playing computer games, healthier than hunching over a computer, and less sinful than other social activities such as drinking and taking drugs.

As for KTV girls and the world of vice that is associated with the activity, pimping services also target hotels and nightclubs. This doesn’t mean that dancing and sleeping are innately shameful. If people who frequent KTVs are supposed to be getting a lot of sex, then life is seriously passing me by.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…Shenzhen’s 1,500 Ancient Trees

Posted: 09/3/2014 11:00 am

When Shenzhen was established 34 years ago, it was to be a hub for the single-minded pursuit of GDP growth, unbound from history or tradition. That the city’s urban development has caused its mangrove forests to decrease from 530 hectares in the mid-1980s to around 130 hectares today would suggest that this quest for economic gain at all costs is exactly what happened. Yet history is not the bulldozer they say it is.

Shenzhen is still home to 1,559 trees that are legally classed as ancient. Many of these trees are as imposing as a skyscraper and as diverse and populated as any metropolis. To qualify as a “古树” or “ancient tree” under the current system, a tree must be at least 100 years old. This is not particularly impressive considering that there is a kauri in New Zealand that was already 4,000 years old when the first Maoris arrived from Polynesia or that there are pines in California that germinated around the time man invented writing and thus are as old as the recording of history.

Although Shenzhen was described by Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone as representing “the crack cocaine of capitalism”, the city is doing a commendable job of preventing its oldest trees from becoming grist to the GDP mill. The person most responsible for this is Chen Cui, the committee manager at Shenzhen’s Landscape Management Office.

Chen Cui

Even as a little girl Chen Cui, whose parents were both arborists, was pained to see a flowerbed get trampled. She studied landscape management in Guangzhou before getting the job of overseeing the greenbelts on Shenzhen’s roads and then being promoted to supervisor of all of the city’s ancient trees.

Chen Cui working on a 135 year-old tree, image courtesy of The Daily Sunshine

According to Chen, Shenzhen’s ancient trees come in 87 species. Types of banyan account for 41 percent. Litchi, longan and camphor trees make up another 27 percent. Two banyans in Nanshan District’s Nanzhou Village and another in Futian District’s Xinzhou Village are around 615 years old, making them the oldest trees in Shenzhen. If you include transplanted trees, there is a cycas pectinata in Luohu District’s Fairy Lake Botanical Garden that is 1,010 years old.

Although she is the only full-time specialist taking care of the city’s ancient trees, Chen told The Daily Sunshine that her bureau has landscape managers who offer support and that plenty of citizens come forward to complain when they are concerned about a tree. Her office has rejected the requests of countless organizations to knock down or transplant trees so they can build, as Chen claims that urban development needs to “give way” to the life of the city’s trees.

In the past year a government construction project in Longgang District requested to remove 200 ancient litchi trees. The Landscape Management Office was against the idea. Shifting that number of trees is a process of 1-2 years, a longer period than the Longgang government was willing to wait, according to The Daily Sunshine, thus ancient trees were prevented from being transplanted or felled.

To boost public awareness, Chen Cui’s office claims to have erected a sign next to every ancient tree. On each sign is a QR code which visitors can scan and learn facts about the tree. The official register that lists all of Shenzhen’s ancient trees took five years to complete and there is another that lists those that are 80-99 years old.

There is a lot of work involved in keeping the trees alive and healthy. Withering leaves and dried-up branches are among the signs that a tree may be suffering from an illness or an infestation. In these cases, Chen Cui will spray a drug or a pesticide to combat the problem. In serious circumstances, Chen might have to cut off a branch to keep an illness spreading before applying a protective agent to the incision.

Typhoons, with their strong winds and lightning, are one of the biggest threats to Shenzhen’s ancient trees. Ahead of a typhoon, protruding branches that might attract lightning will be cut off. To preserve particularly top heavy trees, Chen Cui might prune the longest branches or even add a metal “trunk” to help support them.

Urban beauticians?

The informal titles given to Chen Cui and her colleagues over the years include “urban farmers” and “urban beauticians.” Chen claims not to care what people call her as long as she and her colleagues are allowed to keep doing their work, but is the label of “urban beauticians” disturbingly trivializing? Is Chen’s work the equivalent of giving the city a face lift when what it really needs is to go on a detox diet?

There is a strong argument to say that the very existence of the special economic zone has been disastrous for the area’s wildlife. More than half of the endangered species that once lived in Shenzhen’s mangrove wetlands – which until the 1980s formed one of China’s most important conservation zones – have disappeared, including birds, plants and fish, according to a 2012 report in The Daily Sunshine.

The mangrove forest (红树林) in Nanshan District is a popular and picturesque hangout, but it has become deeply impoverished in terms of the diversity of its wildlife, image courtesy of Baidu

Experts in Shenzhen blamed the mangrove forests’ decline on this reckless urbanisation as well as industrial pollution, according to South China Morning Post. Few expected such a massive loss of forest area, especially after the local government released a blueprint in 2007 pledging to triple the size of the city’s mangrove forests to more than 500 hectares by 2015.

The remaining mangroves will be under threat as long as felling trees continues to make as much or more economic sense as protecting them. Chen Cui stressed that as well as their natural beauty, trees were hugely important ecologically and as “witnesses of history.”

“Giving way” to trees

In the period between 1997 and 2004, 700 ancient trees were felled in Shenzhen without government permission. Intelligent policy, dedicated professionals like Chen Cui and increased public awareness have all contributed to improving this situation.

However, a much bigger movement needs to take place for Shenzhen to have a healthier relationship with the ground that its concrete jungles were built on. Chen, who sees herself as an artist as well as a scientist, wrote a poem about trees in a local newspaper. The poem’s power kind of gets lost in translation, so instead a more appropriate quote can come from contemporary Inner Mongolian poet Xi Murong musing upon the limitations of her own vocation in “After Arbor Day”:

If what we need is action
to prevent all this from descending into chaos

Then I agree my friend.
Writing a poem doesn’t compare
to planting a tree.

If every aspiring poet went to plant a tree
then we would never be short of paper again

And when the moon came out
every quiet forest would be full of
rendition upon rendition
of reverent poems.

Haohao

Life as A Lyrical Linguist in China

Posted: 08/12/2014 9:04 am

This article was originally published in ITI Bulletin, the journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (www.iti.org.uk) in the UK. Reproduced with permission.

Most people write poetry or lyrics during their teenage years. Then
most people grow up, get proper jobs and stop. Most people don’t go so far astray as to write and record satirical songs in Chinese.

I had no interest in China until after graduating from university and am about as unlike a professional performer as it is possible to get. But after coming to China in May 2007, I was constantly experimenting with ways of learning the language.

One of these was memorising the lyrics to pop songs, karaoke being among the most popular forms of entertainment in the People’s Republic. In November 2008 I started writing my own stuff, but not until 2012 did I start writing the kinds of Chinese songs that won people’s attention.

While trying to remember that telling stories is more effective than climbing on a soapbox or pulpit, my Chinese lyrics over the past two years have touched upon social issues such as nude photo scandals, food safety and kept women. Admittedly, some are flat-out offensive.

One song, “I hate Hunan the least”, lambasts a different province of China in every line and then ends each verse by saying ‘I hate Hunan Province the least’. Another, to the tune of a rousing patriotic anthem, is titled: “China, China, at least It’s Not India!

There seem to be two main ways of getting away with this. The first is to realise that, even in this type of comedy, there is a line. Respecting this line is not so much a matter of towing the line politically, but of knowing that some issues are too sensitive to get a laugh. Taiwan, terrorism and Tiananmen Square are off limits, at least until I am skilled enough to make them funny.

One English song I wrote entitled “Billy” is about a man who thinks that the key to having an abundant sex life is to lower his standards. In China, it is not common to brag about having one-night stands, so the Chinese transposition of this song is about a woman who decides that the way to avoid being left on the shelf is to lower her standards as far as possible.

There is considerable social stigma in China to being a ‘leftover woman’, that is, a woman who is still single after the age of 27. The recently published book “Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” by sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has illustrated the seriousness of this issue, and the lengths that powerful institutions like the Xinhua state news agency have gone to perpetuate this misogyny. In hindsight, I could have handled the issue with more sensitivity and thus been funnier.

The second way to get away with satirising one’s host country is to make oneself at least 70% the butt of the joke. My songs and their videos may make China look bad, but they make their author look a lot worse. Good comedians are often unthreatening neurotics (think Woody Allen). Bad comedians are often smug bullies (think the typical office politics scenario).

The biggest criticism my lyrics come in for is not that they are offensive. It is that they are “肤浅”, which roughly translates as ‘shallow’. In traditional China, a person would take decades to master poetic form, and self-expression in poetry would disappear under a strict schematic pattern. A traditional Chinese lyric will have a rigorous rhyme scheme, under which a world of unspoken emotions is buried. The same cannot be said of my work.

Comedy, particularly satire, tends not to stand the test of time. Some lyrics I wrote 18 months ago already need tweaking because references are outdated. Some issues I sing about will hopefully be irrelevant ten years from now.

Aside from the politics of being a foreigner in China, musical comedy is one of the riskiest forms of entertainment. If a song doesn’t go down well, three minutes is an unacceptably long time for any comedian to go without a laugh. Fortunately, the successful performances have greatly outnumbered the unsuccessful ones.

However, adulation or lack of it is not the point. The point is, we translators go to all this trouble to learn languages, but most of the working opportunities that come our way involve technical copy or business environments when we can’t be ourselves. These lyrics allow an opportunity to win attention while saying something cheeky about my host country. Plus, they are an excuse to continue writing lyrics long after most people have grown out of doing any such thing.

Haohao

What’s It Like to Work in Shenzhen’s Municipal Funeral Home?

Posted: 08/8/2014 7:00 am

In Shenzhen, a young city with a young population, less than one in three of those who die is of pensionable age and more than half of the 800-1,000 unidentified corpses each year is of a young person. The city sees 13,000 deaths each year, less than half the figure in Guangzhou. Corpses are sent to Shenzhen Funeral Home in the Shawan Stretch of the Shenhui Highway in Longgang’s Buji Subdistrict, where all those who die in the city are entitled to a free cremation.

Shenzhen Funeral Home, via Google Images

Southern Metropolis Daily caught up with three employees of the funeral home to ask them what their lives are like. They spoke of the requests that families make such as having an old spinster buried in a wedding dress, the difficulty of restoring badly mutilated bodies to their original appearance, and the prejudices they encounter in daily life such as friends refusing to invite them to weddings and cab drivers refusing to take them to work.

Master Zhu, 20 years experience, responsible for making up corpses to be presented to families

What kind of cosmetic products do you use?

We use the same kind of face paint that is used in television and theatre, this way the color doesn’t fade. Most of the corpses have been frozen and will shed water as they defrost, so ordinary cosmetic products are not suitable.

What procedures are involved in the making up process?

Most of the work is done on the face, cleaning it and restoring it to its original appearance. We dab the face in cotton and use tweezers to clean out the oral cavity. Then we add make-up.

Do families tend to have special requests?

Of course. Here in Guangdong people like to place cash on the corpse, including putting coins in the mouth that can be retrieved after the corpse has been cremated.

Do families have specific requests about make-up such as giving the body smoky eyes?

Not really. The make-up on most corpses is very simple. We add powder to match their skin colour and sometimes use lipstick and blusher.

What other kinds of requests do families have?

The families will show pictures from the deceased’s life and ask me to make them look like they did when they were in their prime. But dead people aren’t alive. At this point the industry isn’t advanced enough to give every family the appearance they want for the deceased.

Most corpses wear a Chinese-style shroud when they are sent off. Is this mandatory?

No, the deceased can wear whatever the family requests. Tang Dynasty-style attire is common, as are Mao suits and ceremonial robes, then some just choose to have their loved ones wear casual clothes. Once there was a woman who was cremated in a wedding dress. The family told me she was a spinster, so if she went to the next life in a wedding dress she might be able to get married there.

Do you feel different when you receive the corpse of an especially young or beautiful person?

Sometimes it’s saddening, but I’ve seen too many corpses over the many years I’ve been doing this and, to tell the truth, the ones in their twenties are the easiest to make up.

Were you scared when you first saw a dead body?

I remember early in my career, it would have been the mid-1990s, there was an air crash over Shenzhen. Our funeral home received all the charred corpses. There were about 30 of them, mostly Thais. That was a scary experience. But since then I have acclimatized to the job and am pretty much imperturbable.

Even when you see a mutilated corpse?

The first question on my mind is how do I restore the appearance.

Are those cases very time-consuming?

The process is like a jigsaw puzzle, putting the bones, skin and organs back together again. One time when a 10 year-old had been crushed to death by a dump truck, I took 10 hours to make the poor kid look decent again for his family.

We work with other funeral homes in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shanghai to stay at the cutting-edge and make sure we are using the best available technology.

Are some corpses impossible to restore?

If a body has been left rotting for too long, then we just have to cremate them straight away.

What are the key skills required in your line of work?

You need an understanding of fine art as well as anatomy. When we were training, we had to study sculpture and even some psychology. We work a lot with schools and colleges to make sure we are providing the best service and attracting the most capable people.

Most people get their understanding of your profession from the 2008 Japanese movie “Departures”, but it seems the reality is somewhat different.

Films tend to romanticize things. We are currently unable to offer anything as customized as what is portrayed in that movie. There are 12 cosmetic professionals at our funeral parlour, broken up into three teams. We deal with 40 corpses a day on average and never get more than half an hour of rest on a working day. Our work is pressured so we cannot always offer the precision we would like to.

The funeral of 19 year-old Xing Dan, who had long been a local celebrity for her charity work before perishing in a road accident in 2011, held at Shenzhen Funeral Home, image via iFeng

If you one day receive the corpse of a person who you knew and cared about, how would you feel?

This isn’t really possible. If it really were someone close to me, then I already would have been informed of their death. If this highly unlikely scenario did actually occur, I would choose to leave the work to a colleague.

Mr. Zeng, who is responsible for carrying out cremations

Do all corpses need to be frozen? Can some be sent straight to the funeral parlour and cremated?

First we need the deceased’s death certificate and I.D. card and for their next of kin to verify their identity for the death to be processed at our front desk. Only then will we start making up or cremating the corpse.

I read that one time your funeral parlour had a mix up and ending up giving one person’s remains to the wrong family so the family insisted on cremating several bodies together to make sure. Is this possible?

This would have been caused by an error at some other point of the chain, our funeral parlour wouldn’t make this mistake. No story like the one you mentioned has ever happened in Shenzhen. Our incinerator only has the capacity for one coffin at a time and we are highly transparent in everything we do.

Have you ever had a corpse that was too fat to fit in the incinerator?

No, we have a variety of coffin sizes. We also have freezers for different-sized bodies. We once had a Hong Kong bus driver who died suddenly. He weighed around 150 kg, he could only just fit into our biggest freezer.

How long does a cremation normally take place?

Normally an hour to an hour and a half

Master Lv, who has worked in the section where the corpses are frozen for two years

This job must make you really gutsy, are you unafraid of watching horror movies?

I never watch horror movies. Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I would never meddle in such things.

Has anything really strange ever happened in your work?

Shortly after entering the business, when I was working late, the bodies of three car crash victims were sent to me. As I was putting one of them into the freezer, the electricity suddenly went out, scaring me near to death. When I plucked up the courage to move, I walked out of the room while feeling the walls and eventually found a torch that I could use while putting the bodies into the freezer. When you work around the clock in a job like this, these things will happen.

Workers embalming a corpse, via Southern Metropolis Daily

What do your friends and family think of you doing this job?

When I tell people back in my home town that I work in a funeral home, they think I mean hotel (the two things sound similar in Chinese). There are people with prejudices against what I do. When a friend is holding something like a wedding or a “manyuejiu” (满月酒, a get together held when a baby reaches one month old), sometimes we won’t get invited. Sometimes when we are invited we decide not to go.
The smoke from a crematorium has a very distinct smell that can be off-putting for people who recognize it. Those who drive past our crematorium can see the cloud of smoke from our chimney, even though it is sometimes just from our canteen.

To get a motorbike taxi from our nearest bus station to anywhere else in the vicinity costs 5 yuan. However, to get to our funeral home costs 10. Sometimes taxi drivers refuse to go to our funeral home at all.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…The Massacre Of Foreigners In 9th Century Guangzhou

Posted: 08/6/2014 11:00 am

Ask a Chinese person what they consider to be the greatest period in their country’s history, and there is a very good chance they will say The Tang Dynasty (618-907). So exalted is this dynasty that “唐人街” (lit. Tang People’s Street) has long been a synonym for a Chinatown. There are many reasons for this adulation.

A depiction of Empress Wu Zetian, via Google Images

The introduction of The Imperial Examination during the preceding Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) saw an educated class of officials oversee a relatively enlightened Confucian system of government. Intelligent military policies meant that the Tang was respected and feared throughout the region. It is also considered the greatest period for Chinese poetry with Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei all living at this time. It was even one of the better periods in which to be a woman, or at least an urban woman, the most famous example being Wu Zetian who rose from concubine to empress.

Despite international trade that saw an increased population of settlers from overseas, other facts show that this period was not as civilized and rational as some would like to believe. The Tang was severely weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) which by some measures is the bloodiest war of all time considering the percentage of the human population that perished.

The Tang later fell in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884). During this rebellion, the forces of rebel leader Huang Chao attacked Guangzhou and massacred the foreign settlers, with some estimates putting the death toll as high as 200,000. The story of how the foreign community became so large and why these foreigners were so resented goes back to the early Tang.

Foreigners during the Tang Dynasty

Guangzhou’s Huaisheng Mosque is said in an old Chinese manuscript to have been built in 627 AD. This would make it one of the oldest mosques in the world, though it is questionable as to whether Muhammad’s maternal uncle Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas – who is alleged to have built it – ever visited China.

The Huaisheng Mosque, via Google Images

The mosque may not be as old as the manuscript suggests, but scholars are satisfied that it was functional by the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) at the latest and was rebuilt in 1350 and again in 1695 after being destroyed by fires.

Like the other earliest mosques in China, it was built for the growing number of Arab and Persian settlers. By the time of the Tang Dynasty, Guangzhou was a major port with a direct route connecting it to the Middle East. A Chinese prisoner, who was captured in the Battle of Talas and held in Iraq for twelve years, is said to have returned to China by ship on a direct route to Guangzhou. Due to thriving trade, Guangzhou is estimated to have had a population of 100,000 foreigners by the beginning of the 9th century.

The majority of these foreigners were Persians and Arabs who came to trade. In spite of the mosques being constructed at the time, there is little sign that the earliest settlers were interested in evangelizing. Islam played no part in the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution which reached its height in 845 and was not considered important enough to be mentioned in the edict.

Accounts from the periods of both the An Lushan Rebellion and the Huang Chao rebellion suggest that, being there solely to trade, these foreigners tended to do well for themselves. And as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his 2011 doorstopper “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” when a minority group is doing noticeably well economically such as Chinese in Indonesia or Jews in the United States, this can lead to resentment.

This resentment would not have been decreased by an incident which took place in Guangzhou at the height of the An Lushan Rebellion in 758. Arab and Persian pirates who had probably based themselves on Hainan Island raided and pillaged Guangzhou, looting warehouses and causing unwanted headaches for the new Tang crown prince Li Yun. As a sign of things to come, the wealthy Arab and Persian population of Yangzhou was massacred in 760 by the rebel forces of Tian Shengong.

The Guangzhou Massacre

By the second half of the 9th century the Tang, though still one of the world’s most powerful empires, was manifestly in decline. The neglectful and decadent regime of Emperor Yizong (860-874) and his son Xizong inspired a rebellion led by Wang Xianzhi. One person who would follow Wang and ultimately break away to start a much more widespread rebellion was salt privateer Huang Chao, who became a rebel after failing the Imperial Examination three times.

A depiction of Huang Chao, via Baidu Images

In 878, after Wang Xianzhi had died, Huang Chao continued to spread the rebellion which he was now the sole leader of, despite setbacks such as a defeat to the forces of Gao Pian in Jiangsu. Huang Chao subsequently turned south.

Ahead of what would become The Guangzhou Massacre of foreigners, Huang Chao offered to submit to Tang imperial authority if he were made the military governor of Tianping. Instead, he received the “insulting” offer of Imperial Guard General which sparked the attack on Guangzhou in fall 879.

Huang Chao’s rebels slaughtered Jews, Arabs, Persians, and Christians, according to Arab writer Abu Zayd Hasan As-Sirafi. The main motivation behind the massacre, as is asserted in A History of Chinese Civilization by Jacques Gernet, was resentment at the foreigners’ wealth. Abu Zayd Hasan As-Sirafi estimated the death toll to be 120,000 while another author named Mes’udi put it at 200,000.

William J. Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, claimed that not content to massacre traders, Huang Chao also tried to kill the Tang’s main export industry by destroying the mulberry groves of south China.

The time they spent in the south saw Huang Chao’s army severely depleted by illness and their rebellion would ultimately fail. The Tang however wouldn’t last for much longer, giving way to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period in 907.

The greatest period of China’s history?

Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” begins by conceding that, for all of the current regime’s faults, China is by most measures going through the best period in its 5000-year history. It is highly unlikely that there is anything going on culturally nowadays that will be as respected as, say, Tang Dynasty poetry or The Four Great Novels in centuries to come, but the low infant mortality and high life expectancy make it worth it.

Maybe the cultural riches of The Tang Dynasty were a direct result of the horrors of the period. Maybe Orson Welles was on to something when he said: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – that produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Haohao
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