“This is our Auschwitz”: Introduction to the “The Cowshed”

China: Surviving the Camps, adapted from Zha Jianying’s introduction to The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, just launched in 2016:

Cowshed "struggle session" from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

Cowshed “struggle session” from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

At the center of the book is the cowshed [牛棚], the popular term for makeshift detention centers that had sprung up in many Chinese cities at the time [of the Cultural Revolution]. This one was set up at the heart of the Peking University campus, where the author was locked up for nine months with throngs of other fallen professors and school officials, doing manual labor and reciting tracts of Mao’s writing. The inferno atmosphere of the place, the chilling variety of physical and psychological violence the guards daily inflicted on the convicts with sadistic pleasure, the starvation and human degeneration — all are vividly described. Indeed, of all the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, I cannot think of another one that offers such a devastatingly direct and detailed testimony on the physical and mental abuse an entire imprisoned intellectual community suffered. After reading the book, a Chinese intellectual friend summed it up to me: “This is our Auschwitz.”

The Cowshed: Memories of the Cultural Revolution was translated from the Chinese original 牛棚杂忆.

Booming Sales of Alexievich’s Works: State Media Attributes them to China’s “Nobel Complex”

Voices from Chernobyl -- The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster: Is such reportage a foreign art that cannot be allowed to take root in China?

Voices from Chernobyl — The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster: Is such reportage a foreign art that cannot be allowed to take root in China?

Amazon China’s sales of new Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s works in soared from nowhere to occupy the Number 20 ranking in less than 24 hours after she was awarded the prestigious prize, reports the Xi’an Evening News at Chinanews.com (作品销量). Nothing like this jump occurred when China’s own Mo Yan was honored with the same award, and analysts are scratching their heads to figure out why.

They note that winning China’s Mao Dun Literature Prize also kick-starts sales. For instance, sales of Ge Fei’s Jiangnan Trilogy (江南三部曲) increased 50 times in the month after he was honored, and Su Tong’s Yellowbird Story (黄雀记) 30 times. But Alexievich’s sales increased more than one-hundred fold, and her China publisher is rushing to get her Время секонд хэнд (二手时间, Second-hand Time) to bookstores within January 2016.

Interviewees for the article attribute her soaring sales to two factors: China’s “Nobel complex,” and the fact that her oral histories inspire readers to “contemplate reality.”

As in all of the articles on Alexievich I’ve read so far in the Chinese media, there is no attempt whatsoever to explore China’s own tradition of oral history reportage, or its current downgraded status. No published works or authors are mentioned; it as if the critics were discussing a form of art that exists exclusively outside China. For a look at some of those opinions, see Initial Reactions.

The article ends with an anonymous quote that appears to use a foreign commentator to sum up the state media’s take on Alexievich’s sudden popularity:

As one foreign media has commented, the huge disparity in the sales of Alexievich’s works in China before and after [winning the Nobel] reveals the Chinese reader’s ingrained worship of and yearning for the Nobel Prize. But this is irrational. Some people who don’t even know what Alexievich does for a living rushed to place an order for her books. “This is probably not what Alexievich nor the Nobel Prize [Committee] would wish to see.”

Xi Jinping’s “Little Red Book” for Art Workers of the Nation

What a relief! Now we know that even President Xi Jinping’s speeches must be finely airbrushed before they’re ready for mass consumption. In A Year After Xi’s Landmark Speech on the Arts, Some Things Get Left Out, we learn that his infamous October 2014 closed-door speech to Art Workers of the Nation has finally been released in Chinese — almost one year later — for perusal by China’s man-in-the-street:

Chinese President Xi Jinping sowed consternation in liberal social and artistic circles last fall when he delivered a speech on arts and literature that offered a vision of culture torn from the pages of Mao Zedong’s political playbook. The speech, delivered on the anniversary of a famous 1942 lecture delivered by Mao Zedong, echoed the revolutionary patriarch’s demand that art serve politics — a potentially chilling dictate for a cultural world that is now driven more by popular tastes but is in constant battle with Communist Party censors.

If you can read Chinese, click here for the full, re-packaged version of his 文艺工作座谈会上的讲话. Over the past year, editors have apparently been busy adding and deleting copy in order to attain perfect political correctness.

For those of you who haven’t mastered the future lingua franca of our global village, this paragraph from WSJ’s article will suffice for a basic understanding of the new gold standard for the arts: [Read more…]

Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Laureate: China Media’s Initial Reactions

Oct 20 Update

Booming Sales of Alexievich’s Works:

State Media Attributes them to China’s “Nobel Complex”

Oct 12 Update

Man Asian Literary Prize winner Bi Feiyu praises Alexievich and her brand of non-fiction in an interview with Yangzi Evening News毕飞宇:今年的诺奖不是一个冷门 . But he does not cite any current practitioners of oral history or investigative journalism in China.

Oct 10 Post

Given China’s Nobel complex, it’s always interesting to see how the media reports on the newest winners. Year afterSvetlana Alexievich year, those trouble-makers in Stockholm put the spotlight on the wrong sort of people, such as China’s own Liu Xiaobo (now serving time in a Chinese prison), Gao Xingjian — the China-born-and-raised author the state refuses to recognize as Chinese — and foreigners such as dissident writer Herta Müller, who wrote about the gulags.

So what is China’s media saying about Belarus’ 斯韦特兰娜·阿列克谢耶维奇 (Svetlana Alexievich)? It’s still early days, and we can expect more coverage and commentary soon. But that’s what makes the initial pronouncements such good fun; the state’s cultural spin doctors aren’t yet sure how politically correct — or incorrect — she is.

Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), Xinhua’s popular daily digest of translated international news that generally sells out on newsstands all over China by early afternoon, takes a cautious “smorgasbord” approach: It has run short excerpts from four multinational press agencies (四篇的原文). This allows it to create an impression of variety while deleting the (potentially troubling) opinions that one generally finds in a longer essay from the New York Times or the Financial Times, for instance.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the exact same AFP piece on Alexievich’s award that appeared in the Oct 9 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi, but variations on it were widely published, such as here in the Singapore Times Everywhere I’ve seen it online in English, the AFP news item contains this sentence or something very similar:

But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.

Through a bit of judicious editing, the Cankao Xiaoxi version implies that her work has not been published in Belarus simply because she wrote it in Russian, rather than her critical approach to Soviet history. The Chinese reader sees only the words that I have not struck out: [Read more…]

Kurdish Dengbêjî and the ‘Nostalgia Industry’

Building the dengbêj ‘tradition’ . . . must also be considered in a wider context. Interest in memory is rapidly spreading in contemporary Turkey and is helping people explore personal and collective histories. These memories are also — within certain limits — fostered by official narratives that ‘rediscover,’ for instance, an Ottoman and multicultural past. With the opening up of [Turkey’s] ‘Pandora’s Box of History’ since the 1990s, ‘a nostalgia industry’  has emerged, ostensibly offering up tidbits from a ‘lost past’ (Neyzi 2002: 142).

The interest of the state as well as associative or private sectors in such memorial narratives, policies and products, is observable today in Turkey as in many other parts of the world. EU-funded projects that openly aim at developing a ‘cultural dialogue’ promote an image of Turkey as a peaceful ‘cultural mosaic.’ But these cultures and this diversity, in the way they are exhibited and displayed, may also be frozen and innocent representations of a lost but also imagined past (De Certeau 1993). The way memories are remembered, traditions reinvented (as in the dengbêj’s case) often confirms this.

(Excerpted from The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project by Clémence Scalbert-Yücel)

Extract: “The Embassy’s China Bride” by Jiu Dan

The Embassy’s China Bride


Author: Jiu Dan

Translator: Bruce Humes

Editor: Christopher Cottrell

She’s an aging Chinese female novelist of cult fame banned for her intimate portrayal of women and their men. Her lover De Niro is a wild Italian hell-bent on motorcycles. Her other lover is an ambassador to the Middle Kingdom, and this is the tale of their trysts and catkins in the heart of Beijing.

“I’m a writer, a novelist. I specialize in the study of pain,” she says.

“Enchanté, novelist,” he replies. “I’m a painter.”

Welcome to a true life inspired account of passions set largely in the luxurious and exclusive confines behind an embassy ’s steel gate in Beijing’s Sanlitun district. This is not merely the stark diary of the carnality and spirit of a blacklisted female writer in China. It also delves into the minds of the over-sexed, conflicted European men who populate the booming 21st-century capital, and the dark side of their relations with Chinese women who flock to them like moths to a white-hot light bulb.

An excerpt follows:

Chapter 9



It was June 8, 2013. Right under the eyes of the sentry on guard, beneath the long needles of that big pine tree, the Ambassador and I performed our French greeting rites for the second time.

“Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?”

“Je vais bien, merci. Et vous?”

“Moi aussi, merci.”

When his eyes paused on my face, he still displayed the bashfulness of a young man. The knowledgeable recognize this as another signal of enticement. I caught the subtle distinction between the light in his pupils and the temperature of carnal desire as I followed him with a palpable sense of intrigue. After we entered the embassy, as soon as the main gate was shut, all that remained within that huge space were male and female. We could now begin to make up for lost time. Right down to our very nerve endings. [Read more…]

“Dissident Writers” with Chinese Characteristics

In Censorship and Salesmanship at America’s Biggest Book Fair , Christopher beam argues that categorizing China’s community of writers into “dissidents and collaborators misses the nuances of Chinese publishing and politics”:

“People use the term ‘dissident writer’ in a very confused way,” said Eric Abrahamsen, an American translator and publishing consultant who lives in Beijing, and who drew up the initial list of Chinese authors to invite to B.E.A. Chinese writers don’t go to jail for writing novels, he said: “If that was happening in China, Sheng Keyi [盛可以] would be in jail. Yan Lianke [阎连科] would be in jail. And not only are they not in jail, they’re part of the system. They’re part of the Writers Association. They’re drawing a stipend from the government. They’re getting literary prizes. They have difficulties — sometimes they have trouble publishing, sometimes they don’t win prizes they would have otherwise — but their feet are on the streets.” Dissidents like Woeser [唯色], Tohti [伊力哈木·土赫提], and Liu Xiaobo [刘小波], he added, are jailed for their political activities, not their creative writing. “People talk about Liu Xiaobo as a poet,” he said. “But he’s not a very good poet, and he’s not in jail because of his poetry. He’s in jail because of his political commentary on Charter 08.”

One-Size-Fits-All Qualification Exam for China Publishing Professionals Militates Against Ethnic Minority Talent

In China, since 2002 all technical staff employed in a publishing enterprise engaged in “editing, publication,

Ughur dictionary: Does editing these tomes require certification in Chinese?

Uyghur dictionary: Does editing these tomes require certification in Chinese fluency?

proofreading and distribution . . . must obtain a National Publication Professional Qualification Certificate” (国家出版专业职业资格).

That sounds fairly reasonable in the China context where media is tightly managed for political correctness. But the reality is that in one sector in particular — enterprises that specialize in publishing in indigenous languages other than Mandarin, or books about the culture of ethnic minorities that require specialized knowledge of those cultures — the effect has been to severely limit the talent pool.

In a June 2 article at China Ethnic News (破除人才瓶颈), Qian Lihua (钱丽华) explains:

  • The standardized qualification test — entirely in Chinese — is aimed at publication professionals nationwide and assumes a very high standard of written Chinese.
  • In 2008, it was announced that exceptions could be made for those working in languages other than Chinese. However, specific regulations and tests or assessment standards have not been forthcoming.
  • Many staff working in publishing houses are members of ethnic minorities initially educated in a non-Chinese mother tongue, regularly work in indigenous languages, and have often not had an opportunity for systematic training in Chinese.

Predictably, members of ethnic minorities who are part of the estimated 4,100-strong workforce in this sector of publishing are flunking the test in droves. Qian Lihua cites one striking statistic: Among 138 ethnic Koreans employed by three main publishers in Jilin Province, since 2002 just 5 have passed the exam and been certified. [Read more…]

2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)?

“If 2013 was ‘Mo Yan Year’, then 2014 was ‘Year of the Literary Prize’ ” writes Chen Mengxi (陈梦溪) at the Beijing Evening News.

“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone,” opined literary critic Li Jingze. “It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Indeed. It’s got the makings of a good scandal: transparency and fairness of the voting were loudly questioned in social media, new-fangled prizes not sponsored by the state — or even registered with it — popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain, and the powers-that-be even stepped in to forbid one long-running competition from presenting its (traditionally rather hefty) cash award this year.

At one point, a heavyweight in China’s literary world, Alai, nearly went ballistic when his new work didn’t receive the recognition he thought it deserved. Reports The Shenzhen Daily (National Literature Prize Raises Questions):

His [Alai’s] nonfiction novel, “The 200 Year Legend of Kangba [瞻对],” gained zero votes in the category of “reportage.” He is now planning to launch an investigation into the prize’s selection process.

    “I was very shocked by the news. I could not say that I was the best, but it was impossible for me to get zero votes. I very much doubt the fairness of the selection,” he said. “If it was some other prize, I would not care that much. However, the Lu Xun Literature Prize is a national award. As a taxpayer, I have the right to check the result.”

Even literary critic and editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine, Li Jingze (above right), recently weighed in concerning this year’s awards controversy (评奖). “I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Sounds like good fun, eh? It reminds me a bit of those vignettes of fisticuffs that take place occasionally in Taiwan’s often-less-than-civil Legislative Yuan. Democracy is messy, of course, and while China’s literary scene is hardly suffering from a bout of mínzhǔ zhǔyì, the masses are beginning to make themselves heard.

And it’s about time. Three years ago, in 2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize: Recognizing Fine Literature or Rewarding Writer-Officials?, I reported on the hubbub over the fact that, according to the China Daily, “eight of the top 10 on the [winner’s] list are chairpersons or vice-chairpersons of provincial Writers’ Associations.” Here’s what the Guangzhou Daily had to say about such shenanigans:

Official status cannot and should not be a criterion for literary excellence. That’s why people doubt the authenticity of prizes that are awarded to officials for their literary achievements. According to some media reports, even some national literary awards have been awarded to officials.

Fast-forward to the present. If you can read Chinese, check out Chen Mengxi’s article taking stock of this year’s awards, 盘点 2014 年文学奖 . Otherwise, keep reading for my summary below. [Read more…]

Who’s Afraid of Malala: “I Am Malala” and China’s Nobel Prize Complex

Malala Yousafzai will be speaking today in Oslo at the official ceremony where she will be awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, together with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

Like people all over the world, people in Taiwan were eagerly reading her story, I am Malala, a year ago. In Chinese (我是马拉拉), if they wished. But the China version in simplified characters only became widely available this November.

How come?

Surely Malala's story would have sold well in China --- with or without the Nobel stamp of approval?

Surely Malala’s story would have sold well in China — with or without the Nobel stamp of approval?

As usual, you aren’t going to find out via the mainstream media in China. Ironically, several news items appeared lionizing the Sichuan People’s Press for its “timely” purchase of the rights to publish it in China, and its damn near herculean efforts to get it out to consumers by . . . end October 2014 (我是马拉拉 “四川造”).

Given that the China version is based on the Taiwanese one — same translator, 翁雅如 — translation time was not a major factor in the year-long discrepancy in publication times. The China edition was apparently polished by mainlander Zhu Hao (朱浩), but the article suggests that this was mainly to ensure place names, etc., were rendered according to PRC standards.

Was the delay due to joint venture publisher and rights holder Hachette Phoenix demanding a bigger price tag than China publishers were at first willing to pay? The timing of the announcement that the book would be published on the mainland in late 2014 — made just a few days after the Nobel Committee announced Malala Yousafzai as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate — suggests that the China publisher reckoned her autobiography would be a sure-fire best seller with the Nobel stamp of approval.

But there may be a darker angle to the delay. In an online discussion of the book’s delayed publication in China, at Paper Republic Beijing-based literary translator Eric Abrahamsen writes: [Read more…]