Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Literature from (or of) China by its Nobel Laureates

First, I read Soul Mountain. Then, I read The Good Earth. Now, I am in the midst of Red Sorghum. The first is by Gao Xingjian (b. 1940). The second and, perhaps, the most famous was penned by Pearl Buck in 1931; it won a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. This year's Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan (b. 1955). Each of these books are, arguably, the best known works of three Nobel Laureates for Literature. Mr. Gao is Chinese born and now a citizen of France. Ms. Buck was an American of European extraction, but raised in China by missionary parents. Mr. Yan is a citizen of the People's Republic of China and was born in Shandong, the province where Confucius lived so long ago.

To my way of thinking, Soul Mountain is the best of these three books. The New York Times review describes the richness and success of this inventive piece. "His 81 chapters are an often bewildering and considerably uneven congeries of forms: vignettes, travel writing, ethnographic jottings, daydreams, nightmares, recollections, conversations, lists of dynasties and archeological [sic] artifacts, erotic encounters, legends, current history, folklore, political, social and ecological commentary, philosophical epigrams, vivid poetical evocation and much else." It also took me the longest amount of time to read. Dense and esoteric, it needs to be chewed slowly.

For a pithy description of Buck, read the Foreign Affairs book review of Spurlings's biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. That her book needs to be defended still as more than just the racist memoir of a missionary's daughter is sad. It is surely a great work, but our dissatisfaction with it now should be, and is, that it is a period piece with little remaining relevance to current day China.

For an accurate portrayal of the diseased language of Mo Yan, read Anna Sun's critique. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College, who has been a McDowell Colony fellow in fiction.

Mo Yan bashing has become a popular sport and I am not eager to join the ranks. Ai Weiwei, the loudmouth artist-dissident who continues to suffer under house arrest in Beijing, went even further than Salman Rushdie, who stopped at calling Mr. Mo a "patsy." Mr. Ai said, “Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.”

I would say that Mo Yan is not a patsy; he is an apparatchik and employee of the PLA Cultural Affairs Department. It is impractical or even silly to want him to be different than he is.

While a bit more subtle than the boosterism, propagandizing, and censorship facially apparent in My Husband Puyi: Last Emperor of China, the book that I am in the middle of is not subtle or graceful. His "hallucinatory realism", which is how literary critics brand his non-chronological storytelling, has none of the artfulness of Gao Xingjian's meandering novel. Still, it is a worthwhile read. Why? Because it is a riveting, action-packed, made for the movies drama.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Embarrassment of President Obama's Presidency?

Ain't No Full Mettle Backin'

in memory of Francois-Marie Arouet (with a couple nods to Allen Ginsberg and Bruce Springsteen)

Was not Voltaire himself thrown into the Bastille after his conviction on May 16, 1717, for satirizing a ridiculous government?

As the very last person from America who still has an iota of pride for supporting the philandering philanthropic Philistine, John "son-of-a-millworker" Edwards, I am ready to join The Old Grey Lady in lambasting the duly-elected, never-my-choice President, but I will not pretend to be writing "news" when I am editorializing. Nor will I cite the same things that "reporter" Peter Baker did in this morning's top-headline-posing-as-news: "He presides over a government that to critics appears ever more intrusive, dictating health care choices, playing politics with the Internal Revenue Service and snooping into journalists’ phone records." [my emphasis] Baker's list is the flash-in-the-pan, sensational, ripped-from-the-headlines chaff that sells dying print-media to "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." My list is more substantive and grave, IMHO...much like my careful use of IM lexical phraseology.

At least since Tammany Hall and probably since John Winthrop added his John Hancock to the Mayflower Compact (that is not a mixed metaphor, but an anachronism), we have seen, in American government, the sort of silly business that the IRS has now been accused of. In fact, the clear-eyed and level-headed will probably find that, while partisans certainly over-stepped, the far bigger contributing factor to their malfeasance was the blundering idiocy that is born of mammoth bureaucracies. A tax code that is larger than the OED begs revision.

That the whodunit nonsense of Benghazi can be strung out by the news stringers for another month is the absurdity brought to us by the simian listener-ship of SS-Unterscharführer Glenn Beck and Rush "12-step-programming" Limbaugh. Does Joe Six-Pack or Jose Wetback (the contingent of voters that will matter in coming elections) really think the credibility of this Presidency and its political party hinge on how many agencies helped develop talking points for talk-show hosts one Saturday morning in October or on the Justice Department's just investigation of a national security leak? It is not like Eric Holder, Susan Rice and Victoria Nuland were creeping around with flashlights in some hotel, despite what FOX might contend.

That the once careful editors of the United States' paper-of-record would permit "dictating health care choices" to appear in Mr. Baker's fanciful list of reasons that "critics" see Mr. Obama as unable to master his presidency rankles me. I am no huge defender of the incremental Obamacare proposal; however, it is not Obamacare, folks. It is the legislatively approved law-of-the-land and our POTUS is charged with carrying it out.

All of this Peter Baker mumbo-jumbo is outrageous, for sure. It is the sort of news that feeds political apathy and the sense of hopelessness best exemplified by my friend-of-a-Facebook-friend who just accepted my gentle correction that the sexual assault case from the military that she thought she heard about a week ago was, in fact, a different case not involving a sergeant responsible for sexual harassment at Fort Hood, but instead "the recent arrest of the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention on charges of groping a woman."

This stuff all needs to give-way to the real problems of our generation which are "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." Here is my list for Obama about stuff that really calls into question "Mr. Obama’s ability to master his own presidency."

Number one: Stand behind your environmental women. First, Lisa Jackson and now Gina McCarthy deserve your full-mettle backing. You were a sunshine patriot and summer soldier with Jackson, often letting her get run over by a natural-gas powered bus, and now you have boldly put forth McCarthy as your next Cabinet-level EPA Administrator. Listen to Maureen Dowd. Stop being a sally. Cut some fucking deals and install the people you need to act like grown-ups in your Administration. The only thing that matters for the continuation of our great republic and a bearable human existence, for that matter, is the mitigation and adaptation strategies that you put in place for climate change. That responsibility has been squandered by every Administration since 1988 and simply cannot wait until 2016...or the return of Billary. 

Number two: While Paul Krugman and Rogoff-Reinhart dicker about coding errors in Excel sheets (with the full involvement of the pundit class of the Financial Times, New York Times, Guardian, and WSJ ), drive through a bailout with some teeth. Do you want to be remembered as the douche-bag who believed in investment, but stood by as austerity measures were imposed? I am no supporter of American exceptionalism, but we ain't the PIIGS or even Olde England. We may not have German unemployment rates, but we have some wiggle-room. Let Chancellor of the Exchequer and Second Lord of the Treasury George Gideon Oliver Osborne exhume the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. You need to get on with the Keynesian agenda...and I don't mean eugenics.

Number three:  I am sure that you will manage to castrate Krusinski and you let Matlovich be "out." Huzzah! Now it is time to do Eisenhower's bidding and hold a bake-sale. If you cannot reverse the death march of the military-industrial complex, if you let us get dragged into more endless wars, not only will you make a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize that you received in your early moments in office, but you will condemn the United States by leaving it ripe for a rising fascism.

Number four: Mr. Obama, tear down that prison. The school board of Newtown, CT, can vote to tear down their school and re-build in just a few short months, but we have waited five long years for you to restore America's moral high-ground by razing Guantanamo.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Food Issues

Lotus Root
Valerie asked me to write more about food and what I eat. Tonight for dinner, I will have ground pork in lotus root with er liang mi fan (0.1 kg of rice) and a side of broccoli with garlic and too much oil. I will get the battery to my camera replaced and then do some videos and more colorful pictures. It has been pineapple season for quite some time now, but when I fried up some chunks with rice for lunch with Deborah, my girlfriend, she was surprised that it tasted good. Yet, I gleaned this idea from visiting Chinese restaurants at home!

People here eat out a lot, at least among the foreign contingent. There is less variety of international cuisine, but a greater variety of Chinese cuisines. Last night for dinner, we shared a half jin (0.25 kg) of a leggy frog in a hot pot with leafy greens, potatoes, mushrooms and black fungus. It was yummy. Deborah insisted on adding meat (lamb, in this instance), because "you cannot have hotpot with out meat. It is strange." That said, I have gained a lot of weight since coming to China. I thought, at first, it was wheat so I gave that up again, but it has made little difference. Maybe because I eat much more meat (and not grass-fed!) than I did in America.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Woman Who Is Always Cooking

In a different iteration of my life, I would have expected to see a woodpecker when I opened my blinds, but the rat-a-tat-tat of a large knife was the cause of this mornings very perceptible sound. I knew already what the cause was: The sound of women chopping the stuffing for dumplings is the music of early mornings in Northeast China. What surprised me, though, was that this sound was coming from far away. I look out from my fourth floor apartment across the roof of a three-story building at the balconies of several apartments. I have named  the woman in one of these apartments: the Woman Who Is Always Cooking. She is not there at this moment, which is aberrant; however, on most mornings and afternoons when I look across she is cooking something or throwing her trash out the window--a medieval habit that I detest.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Beautiful Hereafter

Chinese embrace eco-burials

BEIJING - Chinese traditionally believe that souls may rest in peace only if their bodies properly buried underground in coffins. But today, many are becoming open to other options, like scattering ashes in the sea or inlaying funeral urns in walls.

Ahead of this year's Tomb-Sweeping Day, a holiday that falls on April 4, a citizen surnamed Huang in East China's city of Nanjing went to a cemetery to commemorate her deceased father by burning paper in front of an osmanthus tree, the same tree under which his ashes were buried.

Tomb-Sweeping Day, also known as the Qingming Festival, calls for surviving relatives to tend to the graves of their loved ones by leaving food and liquor at their burial sites, as well as by burning fake money as a form of offering.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

State of the Climate...Debate (in China)

It is appalling that a US Representative, elected by the people, holds the belief that anthropogenic (human induced) climate change is not a big problem. That there is a need for the NCSE in the United States is a sad reminder of the ignorance that I left behind when I moved here more than two years ago. Asked "Is the earth's climate changing?" 49.9% of [American] respondents said, "Yes, I'm convinced," and 33.5% said, "Probably yes, but I'd like more evidence," while only 8.5% said, "Probably no, but more evidence could convince me," and only 7.6% said, "No, there isn't any solid evidence." ( Yet the 16.1% have a lot of sway in the halls of our democracy.

In China this "climate debate" is non-existent. A combination of the focus on science in the education system and the hegemony of a secular (atheist?) state mean that Creationists and so-called "climate-deniers" are not given a spot at the podium--the nonsense is back-benched. Instead, another problem exists: corruption. Sinopec does not fight the science; they fight the financing of the necessary changes in policy. The euphemism used by the New York Times in an article entitled As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting is "infighting," but the article lays out the real problem:
The state-owned enterprises are given critical roles in policy-making on environmental standards. The committees that determine fuel standards, for example, are housed in the buildings of an oil company...Fuel standards are issued by the Standardization Administration of China, which convenes a committee and a subcommittee to research standards. They each have 30 to 40 members, almost all of whom are from oil companies... 
Dire predictions from Deutsche Bank about the expected number of cars on the road by 2030 mean “a strong government will to overcome the opposition from interest groups” is necessary to begin the work that must be done.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The New Pope and China: Healing Time

"He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force. He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active ... a Church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it." 

-Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio

The first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America (not the first non-European, but "the 11th non-European pope in the church’s history, and the first in 1,272 years") has the potential to heal the rift between the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), or 中国天主教爱国会, and the Roman Curia.

"Former" Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin
Choosing a new Secretary of State will be one of his most important early tasks, "given the dreadful mess the last Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is considered to have made of it. Cardinal Bertone was seen to have accumulated too much power over the Vatican’s finances for himself and close associates, as well as presiding over the Holy See’s calamitous diplomatic relations, which in the past two years have broken down with Beijing," reports The Independent. This break-down in diplomatic relations has centered around the CPCA's desire to appoint bishop's without Vatican approval. An AP article published in The Japan Times lays out the challenges and the hopes of some Chinese Catholics. The other issue that has dominated the conversation between Beijing and the Vatican, since their formal break 50 years ago, is Taiwan and the "one China Policy."

The rift between the Roman Catholic Church and China pre-dates the ascendancy of the Communist Party. Some readers will remember an earlier post of mine that treated the issue of so-called "Chinese Rites" and the response of the Kangxi Emperor to the itinerant orders and Pope Clement XI's papal bull, Ex illa die. Of course, this is ancient history, but Ricci is still a central figure for Chinese Catholics. Like the new pope, Ricci was a Jesuit who thought that allowing the Chinese to continue ancient Confucian practices, like the celebration of ancestors on Tomb-Sweeping Day, was not contrary to being Catholic. More than a hundred years after Ricci's death, Clement XI sided with the Dominicans and other itinerant orders more fundamentalist point-of-view. As a result, the Kangxi Emperor said that Christians were no longer welcome in China because they cause trouble.

Today, the Chinese government rejects exercise of any authority by organs of the Catholic Church outside China. This has been their position since 1949, the year communists gained power over all of mainland China.  CPCA, which was founded in 1957, thus does not recognize the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950, canonizations from 1949 onward (e.g. the canonization of Pope Pius X), Vatican declarations on even well-established devotional piety (e.g. on the Sacred Heart of Jesus or on Mary as Queen), and the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). There are still card-carrying members of the CPC who believe that only atheists should be allowed to participate in the governance of China, but that is quickly becoming an out-moded way of thinking.

It will be interesting to see what Xi Jinping does. He and the Pope do have some commonalities. There are likely to be many sarcastic commentaries in the coming weeks, such as Anthony Tao's at Beijing Cream. My hope is that more serious people will work diligently to bring a fragmented Church closer together.