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, Current Affairs
, ai weiwei
, china in the 21st century
, Communisty Party
, jeffrey wasserstrom
, Mo Yan
, What Everyone Needs To Know
, Xi Jinping
, Zhang Yimou
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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Growing up with no special interest in China, one of the few things I associated with the country was mix and match meal creation. On airplanes and school cafeterias, you just have “chicken or beef” choices, but Chinese restaurants were “1 from Column A, 1 from Column B” domains. If only in recent China debates, a similar readiness to think beyond either/or options prevailed!
I thought of this when Reuters ran an assessment of Xi Jinping’s first weeks in power last months that in some venues carried this “chicken or beef” sort of headline: “China’s New Leader: Reformist or Conservative?” Previous Chinese leaders have often turned out to have both reformist and conservative sides. Even Deng Xiaoping, considered the quintessential reformer due to his economic policies, held the line on political liberalization and backed the brutal 1989 crackdown. Mightn’t Xi, too, end up ordering from the reformist and conservative sides of the menu?
A Valentine’s Day for the books: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Vice President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and members of a Chinese delegation in the Oval Office, Feb. 14, 2012, several months before Xi became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win last fall, which continues to generate controversy, led some foreign commentators into a similar “chicken or beef” trap—or, rather, an “Ai Weiwei or Zhang Yimou” one. The former is an artist locked into an antagonistic relationship with the government, the latter a filmmaker who has been choreographing spectacles celebrating Communist Party rule, including both the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games and a 2009 gala staged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Since they are two of the only internationally prominent Chinese creative figures, some Westerners assumed Mo must be like one or the other.
In fact, the novelist shares traits with each but isn’t all that similar to either. Like China’s best-known artist, Mo has a penchant for mocking the powerful. And like the renowned filmmaker turned state choreographer, Mo works within the system, serving as a Vice-Chairman of the official writer’s association and recently agreeing to be a delegate to the Chinese People’s Consultative Political Conference. Unlike Ai Weiwei, though, Mo skewers only relatively safe targets, like the kinds of corrupt local officials that the central authorities don’t mind seeing satirized, and instead of railing against censorship, he has likened it to an inconvenience akin to airport security protocols. And unlike Zhang Yimou, one of whose best films was based on the novelist’s story “Red Sorghum,” Mo has consistently produced iconoclastic works.
If Column A choices signal compliance and Column B ones criticism, the artist and filmmaker now stick to opposite sides of the menu, while Mo Yan keeps choosing from both—and he’s not alone in this. Yu Hua, an author whose political choices I find more admirable, does this as well. He belongs to the official writer’s association and his novels, like Mo’s, generally satirize relatively safe targets. But Yu also pens trenchant essays on taboo topics, including the 1989 massacre. He’s frustrated that these can only be published abroad, but glad that they end up circulating on the mainland in underground digital versions.
A third debate, centering on the competing predictions made by “When China Rules the World” author Martin Jacques and “The Coming Collapse of China” author Gordon G. Chang, makes me think not of the value of combining Column A and Column B choices but of a different feature of Chinese restaurants that I only learned about as an adult. If you don’t like the options on the English language menu in some Chinatown eateries, you can ask to see a Chinese language one that lists additional dishes the proprietor doubts will interest most customers.
My problem with the Jacques vs. Chang debate is that I find neither pundit convincing. Jacques’ vision of China moving smoothly toward global domination glosses over the fissures within the country’s elite and the many domestic challenges its government faces. Chang continually underestimates the Communist Party’s resiliency and adaptability. His 2001 book said it would implode by 2011. Late in 2011, he told Foreign Policy readers that he’d miscalculated and they could “bet on” his prophecy coming true in 2012. In 2013, the Communist Party is still in control and somehow Chang’s still being invited onto news shows to make forecasts.
When asked whether Xi Jinping is a reformer or a conservative and whether Mo Yan is a collaborator or a critic, I can craft an answer that draws a bit from both Column A and Column B Being asked whether I side with Jacques or Chang is different. I’m left feeling like a hungry vegetarian who has been given a list made up exclusively of chicken and beef dishes—and hopes desperately that there’s another menu hidden in the back with some acceptable choices.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at University of California at Irvine, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010), an updated edition of which will be published in June.
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Breaking Stalin's Nose Eugene Yelchin
I hadn't read this one yet when it won a Newbery Honor last week, but I *did* have it already checked out from the library. WIN!
Sasha is going to be inducted into the Young Pioneers tomorrow, and his hero, his father, who works for State Security will be there performing the ceremony. But in the middle of the night, his father is arrested and the neighbors claim their room. At school the next day, starting with a snowball fight gone wrong, everything unravels and Sasha starts to see the truth about Stalin, the system, and the country he loves so much.
It took me awhile to get into Sasha's voice. He buys the communist line completely and sometimes his spouting of Communist rhetoric can seem like clumsy insertion of background info, but it's not. From what I know about living under a communist dictatorship with a strong cult of personality, that's exactly how a kid who was taught to believe in the system would talk. Plus, when Yelchin is actually adding in background information, it's not clumsy. It works really well
Recently, my dad caught a gang of wreckers scheming to blow it up. Wreckers are enemies of the people who want to destroy our precious Soviet property. I can't imagine anybody who would dare to damage a monument to Comrade Stalin, but there are some bad characters out there. Obviously, they're always caught.
I think that Yelchin's black-and-white graphite drawings really add the text and the story. I especially liked the way he plays with perspective and proportion to really give a Sasha-eye view of what's going on.
As things unravel at school, Yelchin ratchets up the tension and suspense, but this is still a solidly middle grade novel.
I do wish I would have read this before it won, so then I wouldn't have read it with my 'Is this Newbery worthy?' lens. Because with that lens on, I'm questioning "would he have become disillusioned so quickly? would he really have done X?" (X is a spoiler, so I won't tell you.) And I don't think those questions would have plagued me before Monday.
BUT! All doubts aside, it is a GREAT book. I think Yelchin does a FANTASTIC job of painting a society in its ideal and its horror in a way that's understandable and gripping for younger readers without diminishing the scope or facts. After I got into his voice, I loved Sasha. I loved seeing the world through his eyes, even as that world shattered. My heart broke for him.
Also, I LOVED the ending. It's a great ending without being too neat and tidy. Yelchin also has a great author's note.
Book Provided by... my local library
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, Early Bird
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, Patrick Wright
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By Patrick Wright
On 1 October 1954, Sir Hugh Casson, the urbane professor of interior design who had been director of architecture at the Festival of Britain, found himself standing by the Tiananmen Gate in the ancient and still walled city of Peking. In China to present a statement of friendship signed by nearly 700 British scientists and artists, he was watching a parade that the reporter James Cameron reckoned to be “the greatest show on earth”. First came the troops and the “military ironwork”, grinding past for a full hour. This was followed by a much longer civil parade in which the people marched by in barely imaginable numbers, beaming with joy at their elevated leaders who gazed back with the slightly “subdued” expression of still unaccustomed new emperors.
The spectacle with which China celebrated the fifth anniversary of the communist liberation was brilliantly organised, as Casson felt obliged to admit. He was less impressed by the admiring expressions worn by many of the other international guests: “Gold-rimmed spectacles misted with emotion, cheeks creased with years of well-meant service in this cause or in that, shirts defiantly open at the neck, badges in lapels, and there in the middle – could it have been? – an MCC tie.” That particular specimen was Ivor Montagu, a cricket-loving friend and translator of the great Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.
Sickened by the rapture of the communist regime’s ardent western friends, Casson quickly retreated to the shaded “rest room” beneath the viewing stand. Here he lingered among yellow-robed Tibetan lamas, sipping tea and exchanging impressions with other doubtful Britons: the classically minded and no longer Marxist novelist and poet Rex Warner, and AJ Ayer, the high-living logical positivist who would come home to tell the BBC that China’s parade had reminded him of the Nuremberg rallies.
Enraptured or appalled, none of these British witnesses appears to have regretted the absence of Stanley Spencer. The 63-year-old painter, so famously associated with the little Berkshire village of Cookham, had managed to escape the entire show – thanks, he later explained, to “some Mongolians”, whose timely arrival at the hotel that morning had provided the cover under which he retreated upstairs to his room.
It was the discovery that Spencer had been to China that persuaded me to look further into this forgotten episode. I soon realised that an extraordinary assortment of Britons had made their way to China in 1954, nearly two decades before 1972, when President Nixon made the stage-managed and distinctly operatic visit that has gone down in history as the moment when the west entered rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. Were these motley British visitors just credulous idiots, for whom “Red China” was another version of the legendary Cathay? That is what the 24-year-old Douglas Hurd and the other diplomats in the British embassy compound in Peking appear to have suspected of these unwelcome freeloaders. Or was something more significant going on?
Nowadays, the rapidly increasing number of British travellers to China think nothing of getting on a plane to fly directly there. Yet Spencer had good reason to feel “trembly” as he and the five other members of his entirely unofficial cultural delegation approached the runway at Heathrow on 14 September 1954. Though Britain had recognised China a few months after the liberation, it had yet to establish proper diplomatic relations with the communist-led government, and the embarking Britons couldn’t pick up a visa until they had reached Prague. That meant crossing the iron curtain dividing Europe. “Did you go under or over it?” one joker would later ask, making light of a passage that was
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, 90th birthday
, china in the 21st century
, communist party
, jeffrey wasserstrom
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From the Long March to the massive, glittering spectacle of the Beijing Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008, what a long, strange journey it has been for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On July 1, the party celebrated its 90th birthday, marking the occasion with everything from a splashy, star-studded cinematic tribute to the party’s early years to a “praise concert” staged by two of the country’s officially sanctioned Christian groups.
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The party’s nine-decade existence has provided plenty of grist for both critics and apologists to debate its legacy. On the one hand, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s sensationalistic bestseller Mao: The Unknown Story, paints the party’s founding father as a demonic figure whose rule was brutal and disastrous for China. In the words of the authors, Mao’s sole accomplishment was bringing “unprecedented misery” to “the whole of China.”
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
On the opposite extreme, the self-aggrandizing accounts of the party’s history that are being promulgated in China right now portray its leaders as unstinting paragons of virtue. This is the impression given not only by the CCP’s commemorative film — which presents Mao as an idealistic young patriot in love — but also by the hagiographic accounts offered in the country’s newspapers. These articles refer to the party as a “powerful spiritual force” that has never stopped “achieving new victories” for the nation.
The truth is somewhere between Chang and Halliday’s spine-tingling horror story and the fairy tale endorsed by the party. With that in mind, what follows are five pairs of the Chinese Communist Party’s interrelated triumphs and tragedies. This list is not intended to deliver a final verdict on the party’s 90 years of existence, but to remind us that, while its failures have been very bad indeed, its accomplishments illustrate why some in China will sincerely wish the party a happy birthday.
Early in its history, the CCP played an important role in anti-imperialist mass struggles that galvanized the Chinese population. During the May 30 Movement of 1925, for example, it helped to bring thousands of protesters to the streets to decry the mistreatment of Chinese workers in Japanese mills, and it spearheaded major boycotts of Japanese goods when that country began making military incursions into north China in the 1930s.
Later, the Red Army contributed greatly to the 1945 rout of Japanese invaders, earning a reputation as determined and selfless guerrilla fighters and beginning the process of finally ending what the party refers to as China’s “century of humiliation.”
The CCP sometimes exaggerates its role in defeating imperialism and downplays the complementary activities of other groups, but it still has a patriotic and nationalistic record that is a source of pride for many Chinese.
But don’t forget: The CCP’s fear-mongering over foreign threats.
Time and time again, the party has used the bogeymen of international conspiracies and foreign influence to justify harsh acts of repression. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were persecuted as “capitalist roaders” due to having relatives in the West. When CCP leader Deng Xiaoping tried to defend China’s violent crackdown that curtailed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest
By: Angela Cater,
Blog: The Bookworm Reads
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, The Lacuna
, Leon Trotsky
, Diego Riveira
, Barbara Kingsolver
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It was inevitable that a novel featuring my three favourite historic figures (Diego Riveira, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky) should find its way into my supermarket basket. How glad I am that it did!
The Lacuna is a well-researched and beautifully written epic novel that captured my imagination and held my attention from its early pages. It combines modern and ancient Mexican history with modern US history and an anti-war message. It tells the life of Harrison Shepherd, an American boy growing up in Mexico, and later of his career and exile in the USA. His story is interwoven with that of famous artists Riveira and Kahlo, and the Bolshevik leader, Trotsky.
Chancing to meet Frida Kahlo in the market place one day, he offers to carry her basket, and not discouraged by her rather scornful reply, he follows her home – the start of a complicated life-long friendship and his first job in the Riveira/Kahlo home.
Shepherd makes himself indispensible as a mixer of the best plaster, a fine cook and a secretary. When the household takes in exiled Russian leader, Leon Trotsky, Shepherd becomes his main scribe and translator. His diaries give colourful descriptions of the vibrant personalities he lived amongst and of a life under constant threat of attack.
After Shepherd’s death, he makes his way to small-town American and establishes a new life as an author. He leads a reclusive life and tries as much as possible to be unnoticed, but his novels are overnight successes and draw a lot of attention from women (in which Shepherd) is not remotely interested) and from the media.
As McCarthy’s witch-hunt against Communism draws momentum, Shepherd comes under suspicion by his former association with Riveira, Kahlo and Trotsky and is drawn into an ugly legal battle.
Will he clear his name? You will just have to read this fascinating and entertaining story to find out. Highly recommended.
BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
2011)(ages 9-12). Ten-year-old Sasha idolizes his father, whom Comrade Stalin himself awarded the Red Banner, for his work with State Security. And tomorrow, when Sasha will finally be allowed to join the Young Pioneers, his father will tie his red scarf around his neck.
But that night, Sasha's father is arrested as an enemy of the people, which means Sasha is an enemy, too. He will never be allowed to become a Young Pioneer and the safe world he thought he knew is gone forever.
BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE exquisitely portrays Sasha's awakening to the corruption and oppression in Stalinist Russia while retaining a convincing child-centric point-of-view. Chilling, fascinating, and at times horrifying.
Jacketflap.com has a new Bookshelf feature, where you can add a list of your favorite books, or books you've read. They've even made it easier by allowing you to import lists from LibraryThing and Shelfari and other places. I added my Shelfari list on mine. (It's not in the same order as it is on Shelfari for some reason.) I love online bookshelves. I've found some of the best books recently by perusing other people's online shelves, recommendations and lists. I've also met some amazing people through the lists and groups on the groups.
By: Aaron Starmer
Blog: The Indubitable Dweeb
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, big bang theory
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I have taken a vow of silence. A week back, I received a ticket to attend an advance screening of a big Hollywood film that premieres later this summer. I went to the film and signed some piece of paper saying I wouldn’t release information about it and I plan to hold true to that pledge. I know first hand how advance reviews can occasionally sour enthusiasm. All I will say is that during the screening, people cheered and clapped and I was absolutely flumoxed. It wasn’t the worst film I’d ever seen, but it was, to put it lightly, rather awful. And yet clapping. Cheering even. For one liners and kisses and such.
I’m going to attribute it to peoples’ excitement at being the first to see something. They were so invested in believing that they saw the next colossal hit, that they whooped and whistled their doubts away and went home and updated their Facebook profiles with something along the lines of “Guess who went to a big Hollywood premiere? I probably won’t respond to any messages for a while, cause I’m guessing I’ll be grabbing cocktails with Matthew Lillard and Eddie Furlong later. So suck it, zeroes.” Now consider this. No one was cheering when I went to see Avatar, and that movie’s box office dwarfs the GDP of many a nation. The Navi need not get their braids in a twist. I doubt the film I just saw will challenge their record.
Then again, maybe I’ve completely lost touch with the public. Maybe it will be the hit the world’s been waiting for. I’ve been wrong before. There are a few things I was sure would bomb, but went on to be wild successes:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Euginedes – I read this book months before it was released and while I could appreciate the scope, I was sure it would derided for being a blatant rip-off of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Homage is one thing, but I felt Euginedes took the ideas, the form, even certain plot points of Rushdie and transplanted them with far less elegance and wonder to Greeks in the upper Midwest. I didn’t think Euginedes would be run out town with pitchforks, but I thought more than a few critics would wag a finger at him. But no. Oprah pick. Pulitzer winner. Modern classic. And no Greek equivalent of a fatwa to deal with. Go figure.
The Big Bang Theory - Not the actual theory, which I knew the kids would love. I’m talking about the television show. I think I watched the first episode or two of this sitcom and wrote it off as formulaic tripe. Virgin nerds fumble around a pretty lady while trading Star Wars metaphors. Insert laughter. I figured it would last a couple seasons with a “well, nothing else is on,” viewership, but it has become a verified hit. And critics dig it. I’ve poked my head back in to see if it’s changed. It hasn’t.
Communism – My buddy Karl assured me he was onto something. I thought it was some hippie BS. “Go back to the drum circle, Karl. Go date a girl who wears skirts and jeans at the same time, Karl.” But one toppled tsar, a shining path, and an arms race later, and it’s still kicking around. Even in our White House, at least according to my most trusted news source: Victoria Jackson.
Under a Red Sky by Haya Leah Molnar
A memoir of childhood under Communism, this book offers a real window into that world. Growing up in postwar Bucharest, Romania, Eva lives with her extended family in one house. This includes her grandparents, her parents, two uncles and one aunt. Eva is surprised at age 8 to discover that her family is Jewish, though readers will know it from the start. All of her relatives are unique and interesting. Her father, a filmmaker, survived the Nazi concentration camps. Her mother is a former ballerina who teachers dance to children. Her Aunt Puica spends most of her time in her bedroom reading romance novels while her husband, Uncle Max is running into trouble at work for joking too much about the Communists. Uncle Natan is a bachelor who still lives at home. Her grandmother is prickly and her grandfather is doting. The mix of all of these strong characters forms the background of Eva’s life. They quarrel, fight, make up, love, and joke. It is a family of very human people who are trapped behind the iron curtain, living lives so similar to our own and yet so very different and frightening.
Molnar has set just the right tone with this book. Its universal qualities of family and childhood are played out against the repressiveness of Romanian Communism, yet it is not grim. Moments of humor and humanity shine against the darkness, incandescent against the horrors of Communism. As the book moves on, Eva begins to understand the dangers of her life, creating a tension that makes for intense reading.
Molnar’s depiction of her relatives is told with great relish and delight. They are the sort of family members who shape who you are, and readers can see them shaping Eva as we watch. Each person has their own distinct style and reactions, they are vividly depicted and as the pressures of Communism grow around them, become more and more themselves. The characters are what make this book a pleasure to read, their colorful lives more than enough relief from what could have been a very grim tale.
Highly recommended, this book offers a memoir that reads like good historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.
Also reviewed by Killin’ Time Reading.