Books postsMonday May 07, 2018
Big Characters, Small Characters
The excerpt below is from the third chapter (“Reading” or “阅读“/yue du) of ”China in Ten Words“ by novelist Yu Hua. It's been translated by Allan H. Barr:
As a little boy in primary school I was terrified of big-character posters. Every morning as I headed off to class with my satchel on my back I would nervously scan the walls on either side of the street, checking to see if my father's name appeared in the headlines of the latest batch of posters. My father was a surgeon and a low-level functionary in the Communist Party. In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution I had personally witnessed the disgrace of several of my classmates' fathers who were officials; they were denounced for being ”power holders following the capitalist road.“ Activists in the revolutionary rebel faction beat them till their faces were black-and-blue, and they were forced to wear wooden signs over their chests and tall dunce caps on their heads. I would see them every day with brooms in their hands, trembling with fear as they swept the streets. Passersby would give them a kick if they felt like it, or spit in their faces. Their children naturally shared the ignominy, being constant butts of their classmates' insults and targets of their discrimination.
Not many movements have terrified me more than the Cultural Revolution. Maybe because it doesn't seem too far removed from the anti-intellectualism I‘ve experienced in the U.S. most of my life. I know it doesn’t compare, but it still feels close. The right push, from the wrong man, could send us there. And we have wrong men everywhere.
”Ten Words,“ a memoir, is much recommended. The Telegraph calls it, ”Yu Hua's humane, sceptical take on China's changing identity.“ I've just finished Chapter 5, ”Lu Xun,“ and am looking forward to the others—particularly ”Bamboozle," a word I associate with just one man. Well, maybe two now.
These Days are Ours
“Audience surveys show: many of us are ready for a More Organized Moment. We want our 1950s.
”Well, we can't have them.“
George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress,“ pg. 55, in a short chapter on the Julia Roberts' romcom, ”My Best Friend's Wedding." The book was published in 1999. Please remember the quote next time some asshole comes up with more #MAGA bullshit.
Meeting Xi Jinping
I'm reading “CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping” by Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London. Just started.
It's already interesting. We learn that Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was a high-ranking CCP official who was purged in the early 1960s, then reeducated in the provinces during the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, Xi was sent to the Shaanxi countryside in central China. After Mao's death, and after the opening up under Deng Xiaoping, he spent time in the U.S., visiting Muscatine, Iowa of all places. (Has anyone written about this? Yes. And yes.)
Brown mentions the one time he met Xi, in 2007, which he sees as indicative of some of the ways Chinese power works:
I did have one chance to observe Xi close up when he was in Shanghai as Party secretary there. He had only been in his position for a few weeks when I arrived with my delegation of political and business leaders from Liverpool, visiting the city to re-energize the relationship. The usual lobbying had secured a meeting with the then mayor, a man called Han Zheng. But most people were aware that the real power lay in the hands of the Party boss, and that securing a meeting with him was unlikely. ... To almost everyone's surprise, however, the news came back during the first day of our visit that Mr Xi did want to see us. ...
Xi did not put a foot wrong. The meeting ended punctually, and we were whisked away, us to our fate, he to his. A few days after this meeting, we crowed about it to British journalists based in Shanghai, and they laughed. They had recently heard a story by another group who had had a similar experience – they had arrived in Shanghai on a low-profile business delegation, expected to only meet a deputy mayor, or, at best, the mayor himself, and then found themselves taken to meet Mr Xi. ‘The speculation is that Xi needs to do the least risky, most fail-safe things at the moment,’ one of the journalists said. ‘Any edgy delegations or people who might challenge him at all, and he keeps away from them. But the minor stuff that carries no risk is fine. The last thing he wants to do is blot his copybook so close to getting final promotion.’ Unflattering as it may have been, it sounded as good an explanation as any for our being gifted with this high-level attention. It also says something quite profound about how to get to the top in modern China.
Xi was in Shanghai for eight months. Brown says there were three striking things he did there that might help us understand him further. One of the three doesn't seem much to me: he admired the competence of Ding Xuexiang, a private secretary, and helped elevate him. Nice. Great. The other two strike a chord in the geopolitical world of 2018:
- “He opposed the lavish supply of government goods and services to him as Party leader in the city. He asked for a smaller apartment than the one allocated to him, and also insisted that he did not need the fleet of cars that was at his call when in office.”
- “He reportedly demanded that his family not become involved in business in the city while he was there, and made it clear that they could not call on his help if they went against this instruction.”
Who is this in sharp contrast to? Yeah.
The Only Reason to Fear Death
I'm reading E.L. Doctorow's novel “The March,” about Gen. Sherman's across the South near the end of the Civil War, and the following passage stood out for me. Not just because it recalls Hamlet's soliloquy but because it matches my feelings about the afterlife.
The thoughts are Gen. Sherman‘s, as he stares, distracted, at the dead outside Fort McAllister:
What if the dead man dreams as the sleeper dreams? How do we know there is not a posthumous mind? Or that death is not a dream state from which the dead can’t awaken? And so they are trapped in the hideous universe of such looming terrors as I have known in my nightmares.
The only reason to fear death is that it is not a true, insensible end of consciousness.
Doctorow turns Hamlet's poetic vision into a horrific one, which gives power to that last sentence. George Bernard Shaw said something similar—something about not wanting to live eternity as George Bernard Shaw.
The following is from Jill Lepore's much-recommended “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” after the author details the successes of the women's movement in 1972, including:
- the first issue of Ms. magazine
- Shirley Chisholm running for president
- the ERA passing the Senate
- Title IX signed into law
Two steps forward, meet the step back:
“Who'd be against equal rights for women?” Bella Abzug asked in 1972. A lot of people. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the women's movement stalled. Wages never reached parity; social and economic gains were rolled back; political and legal victories seemingly within sight were never achieved.
Then, too, feminists were divided, radicals attacking liberals and liberals attacking radicals in a phenomenon so widespread it even had a name: “trashing.”
As early as 1970, the founder of the New Feminist Theater warned, in a letter of resignation from the Congress to Unite Women, that feminist “rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism,” was becoming “frighteningly vicious anti-intellectual fascism.”
The divided feminists? Radicals attacking liberals? Anyone else flash on the Democrats in 2016? You could say the same about rage turning into “anti-intellectual fascism.”
Lepore adds this about one radical group's attack on liberal feminism:
In May 1975 ... the Redstockings held a press conference to announce the release of a sixteen-page report. It purported to prove (1) that Gloria Steinem was a CIA agent; (2) that Ms. was both a capitalist manifesto and part of a CIA strategy to destroy the women's movement; and (3) that Wonder Woman was a symbol of the ruination of feminism. The report, printed as a broadside, was illustrated by a drawing of Wonder Woman with Steinem's head.
Everything old is new again.