Reviews

What We Talk About When We Talk About China

Kyle Shernuk reviews Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China 

What does it mean to be American? If the 2020 presidential election and storming of the US Capitol made nothing else clear, it was that there are competing internal visions for what America was, is, and should be. That American identity is subject to change and can mean more than one thing at any given time makes it a slippery issue to discuss. It is also, arguably, a defining feature of (the myth of) America that we have the privilege to debate this with relative openness, even and especially when tensions run high.

Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China tells an analogous story about China, and what it means to be “Chinese.” The stakes of engaging in such discussions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, are higher than in the US. The consequences of highlighting the malleability of the concept of “China” – which can be seen by the state as a form of splittism – can range from both online and physical harassment to incarceration or even being “disappeared” entirely. This notable contrast leads Hayton to raise a question that is critical for understanding modern China: Why are the definitions of China and Chineseness such sensitive issues in the PRC today?

 

Essays

Racism with Chinese Characteristics

How China’s imperial legacy underpins state racism and violence in Xinjiang – Magnus Fiskesjö

Due to incidents last year in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where Africans were evicted and forced to sleep on the street simply because they are African, there is a growing realization around the world that Chinese racism exists. Despite the government's denials, racism against Africans in China is often blatant. In one widely circulated clip, one can see a white and a black woman both trying to enter a shopping mall: only the white woman is permitted, and both leave in disgust. Just as in the West's past, in China contempt for Africans is also often mixed up with patronizing exoticization. Chinese comedians wear blackface on state TV. In Shenzhen's Windows on the World theme park, dark-skinned ethnic minority people are choreographed to perform either as primitive Africans, or as primitive themselves.

All such racism is serious, as are incidents of street racism against Muslims in India and against Asians in Western countries that have taken place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This is to say nothing of the continued racism and police brutality in the United States. But as for China, we must also include the ongoing mass racist campaign run by the Chinese government, in Xinjiang, western China (or East Turkestan depending on whom you ask). Millions of people are being targeted solely because of their ethnicity – textbook racism. These are Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minority people: over 12 million people who are not foreigners, but native inhabitants in their own land. They are also citizens of China, who on paper have a constitutional right to be culturally different. Yet since 2017, their nations have been put under a draconian program of racist profiling which discriminates and denigrates their ethnicity, culture, language and religion. The Chinese state deploys ominously biologistic terminology directly recalling the Nazis, and has detained at least one million people in extra-legal mass camps for “re-education” (that is, brainwashing). Many have perished inside; able-bodied ones are sent to forced labor.

 

Reviews

The Surrealism of the Real

Eleanor Goodman reviews The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua

As readers will find in his massive novel Brothers and clever essay collection China in Ten Words, acclaimed Chinese writer Yu Hua has a highly developed sense of the absurd. This is perhaps both a defense mechanism and a literary advantage when living in a country in which the inconceivable has been made real. Yu Hua’s latest collection to come out in English, The April 3rd Incident, presents stories written between 1987 and 1991, yet the sense of foreboding, fear and repression is just as topical today as it was then.

The seven stories in this collection are not linked by plot or character, but they hang together tightly in terms of tone and theme. Throughout, there is death, paranoia, disorientation, ominous knocking, and a confusion between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ embedded in a world that never seems entirely real. An alienation from one’s own sensations and perceptions, while still being utterly subsumed in them, is a thread that stretches between the stories. Characters recall dreams that seem to become manifest in the world; a truck driver sees the shadow of a boy he accidentally killed in his own son; a man is uncertain that the woman he has fallen in love with really exists. Nothing is ever what it appears to be.

 

Excerpts

Murder on the Mekong

Freshwater intrigue in the Chinese-dominated Golden Triangle – Sebastian Strangio

An excerpt from In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century 

Just before midday on October 5 2011, a group of Thai soldiers boarded two Chinese barges that were seen floating listlessly in the Mekong River, a few miles upstream of the drowsy river town of Chiang Saen. The vessels were loaded with Chinese goods bound for the Thai market: the Hua Ping carried fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8, crates of apples and garlic. The soldiers found the former vessel deserted. The bridge of the latter was covered in blood, where, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as Yang Deyi, the boat’s Chinese captain. Stashed aboard the two vessels were clear plastic bags containing 920,000 methamphetamine pills, a haul with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. In the following days, the corpses of the remaining 12 crewmembers were scooped from the milky-brown waters of the Mekong. The victims had been gagged with duct tape and blindfolded, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had been stabbed. Others had gaping head wounds, suggesting that they had been shot at close range.

These grisly murders had occurred just a few miles downstream from the center of the Golden Triangle, the rugged and impoverished region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma converge. For most of its history, this had been a zone of pristine lawlessness, a cauldron of bandits, drug smugglers, tribal chieftains, ethnic militias, and corrupt government functionaries where the writ of lowland states ran thin. Opium poppies were first cultivated in the region’s hills on a large scale in the nineteenth century; by the 1960s, the area had become synonymous with narcotics production. Until the early 2000s, the Golden Triangle was the world’s leading source of heroin. It still produces most of the methamphetamine consumed today in China and Southeast Asia.

 

Essays

The Trouble with (the Lack of) Accents

How accent reveals identity politics in Hong Kong cinema – Gladys Mac

In the Anglophone media, the incorporation of accents is an essential element to defining a time period, an ethnicity, a culture, or any other type of identity. While it may be difficult to imagine a James Bond with a non-British accent, it would be ridiculous if Queen Elizabeth II did not have a British accent in The Crown. Yet in the Sinophone world, accents are a much more complicated issue, making sound the most revolutionary technological change in Chinese cinematic history.

It is well known that there are numerous Chinese dialects, each region with a specific accent. For those who are overseas, these accents not only take on a dialectal flavor, but are also influenced by the local languages in which they speak. Dubbing over actors was a solution for the accent or dialect issue in the 1960s and 70s for cinema produced in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and is still the main solution for mainland Chinese films and television series today. For those productions that chose not to dub over their actors, such as Ang Li’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the audio aspect of the film can turn out to be very distracting to an audience who understands Mandarin – forcefully directing their attention to the accented speeches of Michelle Yeoh of Malaysia and Chow Yun-fat of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong films and series that were exported to Southeast Asia used to be dubbed over in the local language, the practice of dubbing over accents for the local audience has fallen out of practice.