There are few places like Nuodeng 诺邓 remaining in China. Local tourist propaganda calls it the ‘thousand – year – old village’ and while this may be an exaggeration, there is no denying that this spectacular hamlet of ancient Ming and Qing dynasty houses and flagstone streets is unique.
Not a single modern eyesore blights picture perfect Nuodeng. Add to this the fact that hordes of screaming tourists and tacky souvenir stalls are conspicuous by their absence, and you get the China of your dreams.
Like Heijing 黑井 and Shaxi 沙溪, Nuodeng was once an important stopover on the salt route, but those glory days have long passed, and only a few salt wells at the entrance to the village are a sign of times gone by. Today, Nuodeng’s residents, members of the Bai ethnic group, earn their livelihoods tilling the fields on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills.
Anybody who shares my love of Chinese history will find this BBC radio programme on Daoism, In our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg, absolutely fascinating. One of the professors on the programme is one of my old professors from SOAS (The London School of Oriental and African Studies).
This book should come with a health warning: unsuitable for first-time visitors to China, for they may well decide to cancel their trip. Even old-time China-lovers, such as myself, should proceed with caution, as some of the things you’re about to read may put you off going back there forever!
Having suffered through some graphic descriptions of the unspeakable suffering, and the cruelties Chinese people inflicted upon each other during the Cultural Revolution; having shuddered at the inhumane way the death penalty is carried out and gasped at its utterly immoral connection to organ transplants, I found I had to keep repeating the words Dai Wei, the protagonist, says to his girlfriend, Tian Yi, as if they were a kind of mantra: “ ‘They aren’t evil, they’re just products of an evil system.’ ” (p. 504).
Dai Wei is in a coma; unable to move a muscle, though aware of his surroundings and with his memory intact. Through his memories, he relives his life, from his early childhood, when his father returns from a 22-year stint in a series of reform-through-labour camps, to the fatal denouement at Tiananmen Square, during which he is shot in the head. At regular intervals, Dai Wei’s attempts to return to his past are interrupted by his awareness of present events – the visits of his girlfriend or friends, his mother’s comments – or interspersed with clinical observations on the deterioration of his own body, as he is after all a Biologist.
From his family history, childhood and adolescence, with a traumatic first arrest for ‘immoral behaviour’, we move gradually to his university days, first in Guangzhou and later in Beijing. At university, Dai Wei’s political awareness, a vague feeling of anger and frustration that until then had lain dormant, is shaken when he starts reading his father’s journals from his camp days. Over time, Continue reading “Beijing Coma (北京植物人) Mǎ Jiàn (马建) A Book Review”
Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 is the second novel I’ve read by Mo Yan, the first being The Garlic Ballads天堂蒜薹之歌”. Both novels are set in Mo Yan’s native Shandong Province, in the village of Gaomi, but any similarities end there. The Garlic Ballads is a depiction of corruption in rural China in the early 1980s, a period when the old certainties of communism fade and unbridled market forces are unleashed. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China: it’s a saga of endless wars, revolutions and violent political persecutions; a desperate time when bayoneting Japanese soldiers, marauding Communist and Nationalist troops, famine, starvation, murderous family infighting, corruption and a whole cast of vile characters all play their part in wreaking havoc on Gaomi village.
Shit!’, I thought and my heart sank as the Chinese border police picked up the book and looked at it. Having just rigorously gone through all the photos on my digital camera, he was now holding a book that was still banned in China, as far as I knew. In normal times I wouldn’t have cared too much; the book would have been confiscated, the officers would have smiled apologetically, and we would have been allowed to continue… But these were not normal times: it was July 2008 and the Beijing Olympics were still in full swing. Immigration Officers were under strict orders to give any stray foreigner entering China during that time a real grilling, looking out for undercover journalists, or just anybody who might disturb those perfectly orchestrated Games. We were neither, but we were the only foreigners on the boat from Thailand to Jinghong.
The young but diligent border guard stared at the book’s black cover: the picture of the garlic bulb seemed to be throbbing and Mo Yan’s name to be glowing. I waited. Was our trip to China about to end right here in the docks of Guanlei, without even setting foot on dry land?
The Garlic Ballads is a Hobbesian tale of rural China, where life does indeed seem short, violent and brutal. Set in the 1980s in Northern China, in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement, ‘Getting Rich is glorious’, the Garlic Ballads highlights the breakdown in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the peasants. The latter, still clinging to the ideals of the revolution and age- old Chinese concepts of fair and honest leadership from officials, find themselves cheated, betrayed and even murdered by a new class of CCP leaders who scandalously grab every opportunity available to enrich themselves. Mo Yan spares no niceties in his Continue reading “The Garlic Ballads /天堂蒜薹之歌 by Mo Yan莫言 (A Book Review)”
Scratching beneath the surface of Beijing’s modern façade, Geling Yan reveals a world ofinequality, corruption and sycophantic banality. The main character,Dan, is an unemployed factory worker who lives with his wife, Little Plum, in their old factory’s run-down accommodation on the outskirts of Beijing. By accident, Dan realizes he can earn a nice living and enjoy the pleasures of China’s finest cuisine by pretending to be a journalist.
In modern-day China, journalists are often invited to functions in order to write positive reviews about whatever corporation or society is holding the event. They are wined and dined in lavish style and then, to top it all, they are paid “money for your trouble” to reward them for their attendance and encourage the publication of favourable articles. The banquets are bizarre and farcical; for instance, the bird watchers’ society culminates its event by serving up one of China’s most endangered birds.
Dan’s life becomes more complicated when he meets the famous painter, Ocean Chen, and the determined and ambitious journalist, Happy Gao. From this point onwards, Dan is taken on journey of discovery that will immerse him in the bowels of Beijing’s less savoury side. Quickly, the thin veneer of a stable, dynamic and modern city is peeled away and its rotten core revealed. Exploited prostitutes, money-grabbing constructors, crooked policemen and judges, as well as vain and self-centred artists are all woven into a web of corruption.
Despite the biting irony of the book, ‘The Uninvited’, is often humorous and consistently down to earth. The main characters are likable and real and the plot unravels unexpectedly. Definitely a good read.
The True Story behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour
The last time you sat down to a Chinese meal in one of those grand and bustling Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown, did you by any chance think about who your waiter was, what had led him to Britain, or what his working conditions might be like?
Have you ever wondered who separated and sorted those impeccable lettuce leaves in your designer bag of mixed fresh salad, or who picked and trimmed those perfect spring onions that you bought from a supposedly respectable high street supermarket? And what about that side salad you got from a world famous fast food outlet?
What has made those pretty faces that appear in local newspapers offering massages and other services, of a more sexual nature, to British ‘gentlemen’, do this kind of work?
These are the questions we don’t like to ask ourselves, we prefer to take it for granted that we can get these products and services at a cheap price.
Hsiao-Hung Pai’s book, ‘Chinese Whispers’, reveals exactly how we get all the above and at what price. The stories of the people involved, which she masterly brings to light, make for uncomfortable reading. Hers is a tale designed to stir our consciousness and provoke anger and indignation. For ‘Chinese Whispers’ is a story of exploitation, shattered dreams andContinue reading “Chinese Whispers by Hsiao-Hung Pai (Review)”
Rice is a tale of hate. The author, Su Tong, searches deep into the human soul and what he discovers is not pleasant. Rice takes the ugliness of human nature to the extreme and beyond, and yet, despite horror upon horror, it’s a book that’s difficult to put down.
On a superficial level the novel is a family drama set in Shanghai in the early 1930’s just prior to the Japanese invasion. Rice is the story of a young rice farmer, Five Dragons, who flees from a flood ridden and famine stricken countryside to the brutal and decadent Shanghai of the 1930’s. His fortunes take a turn for the better when he finds work in the Feng family’s Great Swan Rice Emporium. Through a succession of intriguing events, Five Dragons becomes a member of the Feng family and heir to the emporium. From this moment the novel descends into an orgy of odium and vindictiveness, the like of which, is seldom depicted in writing.
The characters in the novel are impossible to like. Their fate is always linked to their own evil doings, thus leaving the reader with little sympathy when the inevitable comeuppance transpires. For in Rice, there is no redemption, there is no hero.
A novel that incorporates all the seven sins and could easily multiply them by three, Rice would make a fantastic TV series or even a film.
I would also highly recommend it for those wanting to know the darker side of 1930’s Shanghai from a Chinese perspective.
Su Tong is also the author of Raise theRed Lantern and Binu and the Great wall