Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Americans in China

I don't think This American Life is going to have to have to issue a retraction for their most recent expedition in to China.

The radio program, produced by WBEZ in Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International, caused a huge stir this spring when it had to retract its program - Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory - by performer, Mike Daisey. It turned out that Daisey had made up many of the key points of his hugely popular monologue about witnessing abuses at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Watching the truth come to the surface was a wild thing to witness. I get a sick sense of enjoyment watching people get called out on lying and experienced a great deal of schadenfreude hearing Daisey taken to task as hard as he was by Rob Schmitz and Ira Glass.

Following up their piece from a pathological liar who admitted he knew "fuck-all about Chinese culture," This American Life redeemed itself this week by featuring a line-up of some of the most influential and knowledgeable foreigners living in China. This week's episode, Americans in China, is one of the better This American Life episodes I've heard (although I have to say that my favorite episode is still Somewhere Out There... do yourself a favor and listen to this one that's also China-related).

Kaiser Kuo is the main character in the most recent "Americans in China" episode. He's the host of the Sinica Podcast, a program I've touted numerous times on my blog. His story of being a Chinese American who completely fell for the land his parents came from, moving to China and literally becoming a rock star, having his Chinese band mates turn their backs on him after the Chinese embassy was bombed in Belgrade in 1999 because he's American, and ultimately raising his family in Beijing and working for Baidu is fascinating. I was quite moved by his passion for both China and the US.

The second act of the "Americans in China" episode is from Michael Meyer. His piece is about living in his wife's village in rural northeast China.

I read Meyer's book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed last year, actually, but never got around to writing anything about it on my blog. I didn't really have anything to say about it. There was nothing overtly wrong or bad about Meyer's book, but I was just, for lack of a better word, bored by it.

My reaction to Meyer's book reminds me of my brother's reaction to Peter Hessler. After a huge amount of hype from me, I convinced my brother to read Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones a couple years ago. Oracle Bones is one of my all-time favorite books. I was so surprised when, a few weeks after he had started it, he told me that he couldn't finish the book. He said that Hessler's seriousness and humorlessness just got to him and that he couldn't continue reading.

I feel that way about Meyer's book and his piece on This American Life. I can't put my finger on it, but I haven't enjoyed his work as much as I have a lot of other prolific China hands'.

Despite not being enthralled with Meyer's piece, it was good to hear such quality programming on Americans in China. Kuo's story, framed by the excellent Evan Osnos, alone is worth listening to. This American Life has gone a long way in making up for whatever it egg it still had on its face from when it featured Mike Daisey.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wild China

I LOL'd a few weeks ago when I saw this video - China, China:

I didn't really think twice about the clip until I started the TV series Wild China on Netflix. After a few minutes of Wild China, I realized that it was the British-accented source of the viral China, China compilation.

Wild China is a six-part 2008 BBC documentary on the rugged geography and exotic peoples and animals of China. The series is broken in to six episodes:
1. Heart of the Dragon
2. Shangri-La
3. Tibet
4. Beyond the Great Wall
5. Land of the Panda
6. Tides of Change
Heart of the Dragon is mostly about the wondrous karst areas of Guangxi Province and southern China. Shangri-La is all about the intense diversity of Yunnan Province. Tibet takes place in Tibet. Beyond the Great Wall is all about the Inner Mongolian and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions. Land of the Panda focuses mostly on central China from the Qinling Mounatins to the east. And Tides of Change looks at the humongous coast line from North Korea to Vietnam through the prism of China's rapid development.

I liked this entire series. It is top-notch videography of the incredibly diverse wildlife and terrain of China. I repeatedly thought to myself, "I can't believe that still exists. I thought China had killed off every animal like that!" Wild China proves that there's still a whole lot of beauty to be found in China.

The best episodes are the first two - on the Guangxi Autonomous Region and Yunnan Provice. These two episodes will make you want to get on a plane, put on a backpack, and go explore remote parts of China. My personal favorites from this part are the features on monkeys, ethnic minorities crossing raging rivers using rope zip lines, and fly-over videography of karst mountains.

Here is a clip of the Nu Jiang rope crossing from the Shangri-La episode:

(There are several more clips from Wild China on YouTube if you search for "wild china")

The last four episodes were interesting to me, but a let down compared to the beginning of the series.

The episode on Tibet didn't feature as many towering, snow-covered Himalayan peaks as it did barren plateau. Vast lifeless expanses of land are certainly a big part of Tibet and its topography, but it didn't make for the most interesting viewing. The same is true of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the deserts of Xinjiang in episode four (and I say that as a huge Xinjiang nerd). Nothing really stands out from episodes five and six in my mind a few weeks after having watched it either.

I enjoyed Wild China a lot. I'd recommend it to someone wanting to learn a thing or two while killing time on Netflix.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

God is Red

Seeing that I'm not a religious person, I wasn't sure whether I would like Liao Yiwu's new book - God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. "Christianity in China" in my mind is synonymous with Mormon and Protestant born again Evangelical Americans teaching at Chinese universities who spend a great deal of their time prosthelytizing to eager Chinese undergrads. The topic is not something I'm particularly interested in.

I liked Liao's previously released book in English, though - The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom UpLiao's story is most interesting too - he was a state-sponsored writer as a young man, wrote provocative poetry about the Tiananmen massacre in the late '80s and early '90s, spent years in prison for that work, developed his writing more and more, and has recently written books that have been translated into English.

While I had reservations about reading a book profiling Christians in China, I picked it up anyways knowing Liao's dissident and bohemian life story and liking his previous work.

God is Red is written in the same style as The Corpse Walker. Liao uses his friends and connections to meet people on the fringes of Chinese society. Much of the book is written in an interview Q&A format. It's broken into three sections:
1. The Trip to Dali
2. The Yi and Miao Villages
3. Beijing and Chengdu
Dali is a hippie outpost in Yunnan Province, an area in southwest China between the Himalayas and Myanmar. My strongest memory of Dali when I was there in 2006 is being offered marijuana from tiny, wrinkled old ladies in lavish ethnic garb. It's a very chill little tourist town dotted with coffee shops and cafes serving foreign food. It's surrounded by beautiful mountains and an idyllic lake.

The Yi are an ethnic group I've now seen profiled in several of the books I've read on China (River at the Center of the World is a book with one of those profiles). They are one of the most exotic ethnic groups in all of China. They mostly reside in the mountainous and undeveloped areas of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces.

And then Beijing and Chengdu are two of China's biggest and most progressive cities.

The interviews that Liao conducts with Christians throughout these areas highlight the edginess and rebellious nature that are required in being a Christian in China. Liao interviews old men and women who talk about picking up Christianity from missionaries during the 1940s before the founding of the People's Republic, people who somehow continued to practice their religion during Mao's reign of terror, and younger people who today are picking up Christianity during China's opening to the world. A full spectrum of people and stories are introduced to the reader.

Stories about Mao's persecution of Christians and destruction of churches during his never-ending political campaigns are featured in many people's stories. Liao conducted the interviews for this book around 2005 or so. Many of the people who suffered at that time are nearing the end of their lives. Liao's book is quite valuable in recording several instances of great abuse and sharing them with the world before those events fade into history and are forgotten.

I really enjoy books that go off-the-beaten-path, taking readers to parts of China that are hard to access. God is Red goes really deep into rugged parts of China. Liao takes the reader to some of the most scenic and inaccessible parts of China.

I liked the following passage from pages 143-44 where Liao has a feast with Yi Christians in Yunnan Province a lot:

There's so much passion and life in Liao's words here. This passage illustrates what is special about Liao and his books. He brings both a Chinese and outsider's perspective to the people and events he introduces. Both God in China and The Corpse Walker (a book I read last year but never got reviewed on this blog... hope to get something on here at some point about it) are excellent windows in to the underclass and people on the edges of Chinese society.

I, unfortunately, don't read enough books by Chinese authors. Looking at my bookshelf of Chinese books, there are a few Chinese authors' books, but I see mostly Anglo names there. Not reading many Chinese writers is, obviously, one of the drawbacks of not being able to read a book in Chinese. Liao Yiwu is a Chinese author writing captivating creative nonfiction about China, its history, and its people. And his books are being translated into English. He's worth checking out.