Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings

Over the Thanksgiving break, I asked Qian if she remembered the "This American Life" program we listened to a year ago about an American guy and Chinese girl and the story of how they found each other. Qian got a smile on her face and said that she remembered. I couldn't help but beam a little bit too as I recalled the story again.

Here is the synopsis of the radio program that brought smiles to our faces:
It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings

When Eric Hayot was 23, he went on an exchange program to China one summer. He took an opera class on a lark, and before he knew it, he was on stage, singing the part of a famous judge. Accompanying him, on a traditional two-stringed fiddle, was a 19-year-old musician named Yuanyuan Di. Eric fell for her the moment he saw her, and began spending time with her. But a couple of weeks later he went back to the States, and that was that. They didn't keep in touch—it was too hard to communicate by letter. Then, two years later, Eric went back to China to study, and decided he had to find Yuanyuan again. Only he didn't have her phone number, or address or any other way to contact her. So to track her down, he deployed his secret weapon: The fact that Chinese people love it when westerners sing Chinese songs. This American Life Producer Sarah Koenig reports. (19 minutes)
You can listen to this episode here. The story of the American boy and the Chinese girl can be heard at the 9 minute 30 second mark of the broadcast. I recommend listening to the Prologue before the "The Fat Man" begins as well, though.

I'm not sure exactly why I randomly remembered this story that we listened to well over a year ago. It probably had to do with having a very nice Thanksgiving weekend. I have a lot of family in Kansas City and Qian and I had a great time visiting with my family and friends back in town. Having good people in our lives has made our move from China to America a smooth one.

Although the days are shorter and the temperature has plunged, there's something very bright and warm about this time of year. This story that I highlighted above should bring you this joy this holiday season. I heartily recommend listening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China

I have finished my photo book. It is titled - Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China.

Here is the cover:

Expressing the Orient is 70 pages of color photographs that I took during my three years in China. Some of the most interesting places in China are featured. Chinese people, both the Han majority and ethnic minorities, distinct landscapes, and the contrast between ancient history and contemporary development are themes explored in the book.

The book can be purchased from blurb.com here.

The book ships anywhere in the US as well as internationally. Just now, I looked at Blurb's Shipping Calculator. Shipping rates are actually quite reasonable across the globe (the book is "Standard Landscape" and is 70 pages). The one place Blurb does not appear to ship to is China. If you are in China and would like to purchase a copy of the book, email me at markschinablog at gmail dot com and we can work something out.

You can see a the first few pages of the book here:

I'm really happy with the way this book came out and hope that you can enjoy it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Son of the Revolution

Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro is a first-person account of growing up in China during some of the most harrowing times in human history.

Liang Heng was born in 1954, just five years after China's communist revolution. Liang's childhood was turbulent. Some of his first memories were of the One Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Great Leap Forward. And then his formative teenage years were spent navigating through the chaos of the Mao's Great Cultural Revolution.

At the start of the book, Liang's life seems fairly normal. He is the youngest of three children with two older sisters living in Changsha, Hunan Province in southern China. His mother and father live a relatively happy life. His father works as a journalist at the Hunan Daily newspaper.

Things turn against Liang Heng early in life, though. His mother had family members - aunts and uncles and cousins - who went to Taiwan at the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Liang's whole family's life would be pay dearly time after time for that action. There was no way to live down such a mortal sin committed by family members, even if distant ones. The family's "politics" were always in question and Mao's campaigns/whims always affected Liang and his family gravely.

Most of the book focuses on Mao's Cultural Revolution. The idea of that campaign, simply, was to destroy China's long history in the hopes of creating a "pure" culture and society free from the "olds" of Chinese culture that existed before the communists remade the country in 1949.

The passage below from pages 66 - 68 describing the early stages of the Revolution from Liang's eyes:
The "Sixteen Articles" had stressed the need to criticize the "Four Olds" - old thought, old customs, old culture, and old morals - and this was the thrust of the Red Guards' first campaign. The immediate and most visible result was that the names of everything familiar changed overnight. Suddenly "Heaven and Heart Park" became "People's Park." "Cai E Road," named for a hero of the Revolution of 1911, became "Red Guard Road." The Northern Station where I had pushed carts for a day was now to be found on "Combat Revisionism Street," and a shop named after its pre-Liberation Capitalist proprietor became "The East is Red Food Store." Changsha quickly acquired a "Red Guard Theater," a "Shaoshan Road," a "People's Road," and an "Oppose Imperialism Road."

All this was extremely confusing, especially for the old people, and everybody was always getting off at the wrong bus stop and getting lost. To make matters even worse, the ticket-sellers on the buses were too busy giving instructive readings from the Quotations of Chairman Mao between stops to have much time to help straighten out the mess. Of course, there were some people who never did get used to is, and to this day they live on the ghosts of streets whose names today's young people have never heard of.

People changed their own names, too. One of my classmates rejected his old name, Wen Jian-ping ("Wen Establish Peace"), in favor of Wen Zao-fan ("Wen Rebel"). My neighbor Li Lin ("Li Forest") called herself Li Zi-hong ("Li Red from Birth") to advertise her good background. Zao Cao-fa ("Zao Make Money") became Zao Wei-dong ("Zao Protect the East"). Another friend got rid of the "Chiang" in his name because it was the same as Chiang Kai Shek's.

So, there is a lot of excitement in the city, but at home it was very quiet. Father spent every evening at his writing, and Liang Wei-ping (Liang Heng's second sister) and I never felt much like talking. We were sitting silently like this, reading and writing, on the hot night that Liang Fang (Liang Heng's oldest sister) came home. I hadn't seen her in more than three weeks. She was a changed person.

She looked splendid, never better, strong and slim where her leather belt cinched in her waist. Her green army-style uniform with its cap of authority over her short braids gave her an air of fashion and confidence I had never seen in her before. She looked a real soldier, and I sat up straight and stared with big eyes, unsure whether or not she was really my sister. My desire for my own Red Guard uniform dated from that instant.

Father emerged when he heard voices and looked glad to see Liang Fang. "How have things been going?" he asked. "We haven't seen you in a long time."

"The situation is excellent," she answered in the language of revolution. "We're washing away all the dirty water. But I never sleep. Every night we're out making search raids."

"What's a search raid?" I asked.

"You know, before you've been on a search raid you have no idea what's really going on in this society. People have been hiding all sorts of things. Counterrevolutionary materials, pre-Liberation Reactionary artworks, gold, jade, silver, jewelry - the trappings of Feudalism-Capitalism-Revisionism are everywhere."

My father looked surprised. "What do you care about those kinds of things?"

But Liang Fang was too involved in her story to answer. "We have a schedule to follow. Every night we go to a series of homes and go through every book, every page to see if there's any anti-Party material. It's an incredible amount of work. We have to check all the boxes and suitcases for false bottoms and sometimes pull up the floors to see if anything's been hidden underneath."
Liang's family, not too long after Liang Fang described giving these raids as a Red Guard, is the victim of such raids. Because of Liang's father's position as a writer (a "stinking intellectual") and because of his family's "political" history, Liang is always treated particularly harsh by the maniacal campaigns being directed by Mao from Beijing.

Liang Heng, going through everything he did, has fantastic stories. There are the accounts of machine gun firefights between rival gangs on the streets of Changsha. There is his trip to Beijing where he saw (with his own eyes!) the great leader, Mao Zedong, in Tiananmen Square. There is his own personal "Long March" where he and friends take a pilgrimage from Changsha to the revolutionary shrine, Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province.

There is a lot in Son of the Revolution. This account of the book has only scratched the surface. It's hard for me to say that I "enjoyed" the book. It was grueling to finish. But it is something I'm glad I've read.

Liang's life and the China the book describes are tragic. But there is hope in Liang's story. The simple fact he survived to write it is a testament to human endurance. By the end of the book, you have to marvel at the man he's become.

I feel that that same hope can also be found looking at China as a whole. No matter what one thinks of its currency manipulation, environmental degradation, or strict internet regulation, there's no denying that China and its people's story is a remarkable one. I think and hope that there is still much progress to be made. But even for China to be where it is today, after having suffered the heartache and turmoil just a few decades ago described in Liang's book, is astonishing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Taoism Rises

Ian Johnson has a very insightful article on religion and the rise of Taoism in China in this past week's New York Times Magazine.

Below is a section I particularly liked from the article:

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.


Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

Read the entire article
The growth of religion in communist China is a very interesting topic. Ian Johnson, the writer of this article above, has written the best pieces I've read on religion in China. The section of his book, Wild Grass, on the Falun Gong is journalism at its finest.

(All of Johnson's Wild Grass is journalism at its finest, actually. The book is at the top of my must-read China book selections along with Out of Mao's Shadow. I read it earlier this year but didn't quite get a review of it written for my blog. My thoughts on the Wild Grass in short: read it!)

Johnson compliments his NY Times article about Taoism with a piece he authored over at the blog, The China Beat. In his blog post, Johnson gives a primer to those interested in reading more about Daoism. I just ordered a copy of the number one book on his list - Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

Taoism is intriguing to me. I'm not too familiar with its specific tenets, but I have been moved by what I've seen. I'm particularly fond of Taoist holy mountains (they occupy spots #1 and #5 on my "Top 10 Travel Destinations in China" list from last year). Maybe I'm just a sucker for the commercialization at those sites that Johnson's article talks about. Or maybe I will find something exciting about Taoism once I look into it. I'm looking forward to finding out.