Photography

Second-Tier China

A photography essay from the urban peripheries – Rian Dundon

*From Changsha by Rian Dundon*

The most banal clichés attached to China describe it as unknown, inaccessible, remote and exotic. But the world of second-tier cities, small towns, and villages in Rian Dundon’s Changsha is unknown not because it is inaccessible or remote, but because no one has thought to look; not because it is exotic, but because it is full of ordinary people piecing together lives in a vibrant, scarred, unstable social landscape.  Dundon’s subject is provincial China, far from the glittering and more familiar scenes of Beijing, Shanghai, and other coastal cities. The world he makes visible is neither the mainline east coast success story, nor the rural left-behind story, nor even the hidden-scenic-China story.  It is something else altogether – people in marginal but not isolated places, aware of a world beyond their experience but reworking and inventing local versions of it according to their own imaginations and desires, constrained by material difficulties but in no way intimidated by their status as citizens of a purported backwater.

Reviews

The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs

Jeremiah Jenne reviews two books that humanize a much-maligned group

In 2005, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 83-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

Essays

Taiwan Too

How the suicide of a female author sparked Taiwan’s Me Too movement – Jessie Tu 

In February 2017, indie-press Guerrilla published a novel by 26-year old Taiwanese author Lin Yi-Han, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise. The story follows a young girl who is raped by her cram school teacher over a period of five years, beginning from the time she was 13 years old. The book sold more than 200,000 copies in Taiwan, and has been translated into Korean, Japanese and Thai. Speculations arose that the novel was based on the author’s own life when, two months after publication, she died by suicide.

Despite Lin’s public denial before her death that the novel was not autobiographical, it was widely reported that she’d attempted suicide several times before her death, and that the cause of her depression was the years of abuse she suffered at the hands one male teacher. Before her death, Lin was an outspoken advocate for mental illness and had been admitted into psychiatric clinics since the age of 16. In an interview with an online critic before her death, Lin said: “I don’t want people to think of Si-Chi (the protagonist in the novel) as just another fictional character. I want people to sympathise with her.” The preface of the book reads: “The characters in this novel were adapted from real people.” 

Reviews

Perverse Pasts and Queer Futures in Taiwan

Brandon Kemp reviews the academic essay collection Perverse Taiwan

When Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage last May, the de facto island-nation received a flurry of positive press from international media. For a brief moment, coverage of Taiwan was not dominated by its relationship with neighboring China. Yet the open question remained of what exactly it means to be Taiwanese. The island, once home to an indigenous majority, was colonized variously by the Dutch, the Japanese, and the Chinese and still calls itself the Republic of China decades after the end of the exiled Chinese Nationalists’ one-party rule. This is despite the fact that its population increasingly identifies not as Chinese but Taiwanese.

Taiwan, in short, is a queer subject. By this, I don’t mean to repeat the cliché that it’s a gay Mecca, though it’s certainly true that Taiwan boasts a rich tradition of cultural and artistic LGBT expression. Rather, I mean that Taiwan today, with its political ambiguity, cultural syncretism, and peripheral status, seems almost impossible, or impermissible. 

Essays

The Chinese Intellectual Memorialized in Oxford

Chiang Yee and England’s wartime circle of Chinese literati – Paul French

Anyone who has lived in or visited the UK will likely be familiar with the Blue Plaque scheme: permanent signs on buildings across the country, commemorating the link between that location and a culturally significant person or event. To qualify for a Blue Plaque, nominees must be regarded as eminent within their field; that is, their achievements have made an exceptional impact or deserve national recognition. Nobody is quite sure how many Blue Plaques there are – it’s rather a hotchpotch system administered locally – although London alone has about 900.

Until recently, Britain only had two Blue Plaques commemorating the lives of Chinese people: one to the writer Lao She, and another to Dr Sun Yatsen, “Father of Modern China.”