Reviews

The Life of Laowai

Quincy Carroll reviews An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

A common explanation for the dearth of quality fiction set in modern China is that nothing invented by the mind of a foreigner could ever compare to the everyday stories out in the streets. China is complex, dynamic, at times bewildering, and in the 18 years since the release of Peter Hessler’s River Town, global audiences have exhibited a sustained appetite for factual, firsthand accounts of life in the Middle Kingdom. During that same time, many writers have tossed their hats into the ring to varying degrees of success. Yet there has been a noticeable lack of attention paid to what some might argue is the most curious subject of all in China: the laowai or foreigner living there. This is by no means an appeal for more navel-gazing memoirs about Asia as seen through the eyes of the West, but rather a call for more stories critically examining the attitudes and motivations of those who have come to make China their home. Tom Carter’s recent work, An American Bum in China, a true-to-life account of Iowan Matthew Evans’s “bumblingly brilliant escapades” from Guangdong to Shanghai to Yunnan to Hong Kong, tackles these themes head-on, and upon reading, even the most ardent defenders of fiction will be forced to admit: you just can’t make this stuff up.

Dispatches

How the Chinese Diaspora is Changing Laos

Juliet Lu and Wanjing Chen explore the impacts of the Belt and Road in Laos

There is something about China – perhaps it’s size, perhaps it’s foreignness to Western audiences, or perhaps the simple fact that it is a new global economic power – that lends to vast oversimplifications and doomsday portrayals of the country’s global integration. China’s increasing presence overseas is one of the topics on which this oversimplification gets the most play. Summary statistics and breathless reports give the sense that Chinese firms parachute into countries, checks in hand, and unilaterally determine what to build, grow, and extract. But in order to understand how China’s global integration is unfolding on the ground, we need to ask a few questions. How does this emerging wave of investment actually take root on the ground? Through what channels does Chinese money flow, and through whose hands?

Essays

How Western Media Sees the Belt and Road

Tom Baxter looks at the frames through which Western reporters present the BRI

Ed: This article is a repost from Panda Paw, Dragon Claw, a new website about China’s footprint abroad founded by Ma Tianjie, who also blogs at Chublic Opinion. The site, in their words, “aims to promote civilian-centered storytelling by providing a platform for documenting, reflecting and critiquing Chinese “storytelling” about its footprint overseas … in a dialogue with their international peers.” Below is one of their earliest posts, by editor Tom Baxter on media coverage of the Belt and Road (BRI) , a central concern of the blog. Later, we will also publish one of their deep dives into impacts of the BRI on Chinese communities in Laos.

In April this year, the China-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam published an article in the Washington Post which fact checked and myth-busted Western media reporting on China’s role in Africa. It included the debunking of such commonly held assumptions as: Chinese companies’ investments and projects not providing jobs or skills to local communities; Chinese banks’ loans as predatory and burdensome; and China as a land-grabbing power, a notion whose implications of colonialism by stealth Brautigam debunks as straight up fake news.

Translation

Love Tips from a Himalayan Forest

Excerpts from a forgotten Chinese love tract, translated by Jonathan Keir

In his 1940 novella Aiqing zhi Fuyin, Tang Junyi’s lapsed Zoroastrian protagonist, the deracinated “world philosopher” Delas, embodies the author’s disgust for both communism and capitalism, and his search instead for wartime refuge in a “spiritual philosophy.” Instead of explaining love away in Freudian, Darwinian or other ideological terms, Tang sought to persuade readers that “what we need to do is the opposite, namely to explain the lower spheres of human movement in terms of the higher ones.” Love, for Delas, is best understood as a transcendental source of mystery and wonder – not a predictable, Tinderesque outcome, but a triumph of human free will over such bleak determinism. – Jonathan Keir

 

Q&A

Translating Reform Era Fiction

Kevin McGeary talks to the translator of Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong

Set in the fictional village of Guojiadian, Jiang Zilong’s Empires of Dust is a seven-hundred page tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Guo Cunxian, who transforms from impoverished peasant to formidable businessman. Described by the South China Morning Post as being “as epic, grandiose, ambitious, complex and turbulent as China itself,” this is the tenth novel by Jiang, who is often described as the father of China’s ‘reform literature,’ literature dealing with the reform and opening period after 1978. I caught up with co-translator Christopher Payne to discuss the novel, and the work involved in rendering it into English.

Of all the characters, Guo Cunxian goes through the biggest trajectory, from rejecting the sexual advances of Sister Liu to habitually committing infidelity, from eking out a living making coffins to becoming powerful and corrupt. Does he represent both the heroic and reprehensible qualities that made China’s economic boom possible?

Guo has very humble roots. His family did not participate in the Communist revolution – so no Red history to claim as their own – nor did they join up with the Party to become cadres or other revolutionary workers after 1949. They were the quintessential poor peasant family.