Hidden History

The Chinese Playwright Purged after Writing the National Anthem

Jeremiah Jenne on the writing of ‘The March of the Volunteers’

A few meters into one of the less attractive hutongs of Beijing – down the lane from a cheap neighborhood bathhouse, and a boutique coffee shop featuring cold-pressed cruelty-free beans – is a squat grey courtyard that was once home to playwright and author Tian Han (1898-1968), who penned the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem.

A native of Hunan and the scion of an elite family struggling to maintain appearances in a time of declining empire, Tian Han became one of the most influential writers of the post-imperial, Republican era. His work combined a life-long love of Chinese opera with a passion for film and new forms of theatrical expression aroused during a sojourn as a student in Japan between 1916 and 1922. By the 1930s, already an established author known for his radical politics and semi-secretly a member of the Chinese Communist Party, Tian Han tried his hand at writing screenplays.

Hidden History

Skeletons in the Golf Course

Jeremiah Jenne unearths the history lying beneath a Beijing park

Qingnianhu is a typical Beijing park. Older women dance in ragged unison. The husbands chase after their grandchildren. A few folks are playing chess or cards. An artificial lake – covered in white fuzz every spring, the detritus of the city’s annual explosion of poplar and willow spores – is surrounded by a fitness path. A water park, complete with slides and wading pools, awaits warmer summer months.

“A bucket of balls is 150,” intones the bored looking teenager at the front desk of the Qingnianhu Park Golf and Fitness Club. I scan the payment QR code on my phone and trudge out to the driving range, which is enmeshed by steel pylons holding up a net. Somewhere out there, buried under golf balls and landfill, are bodies.

Review

Cosmopolitan Colonialism

Jeremiah Jenne reviews Robert Bickers’ Out of China

In the summer of 1945, during the final months of World War II, a concert at the Grand Theater in Shanghai hosted a jazz symphony inspired by American composer George Gershwin, played by an orchestra founded by the British consisting of Chinese musicians as well as Russian and Western European Jewish refugees. The music was contemporary, with a boogie-woogie beat, performed in a modernist hall designed by a Hungarian architect. The principal vocalist was Li Xianglan, a famous singer born Yoshiko Yamaguchi to parents who had settled in Manchuria from Japan. Such an improbable mashup is a fitting tableau in Robert Bickers' new book Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination.

Review

The Woman who Built an Empire

Jeremiah Jenne reviews Alice Poon's novel  The Green Phoenix

The Qing imperial palaces were never easy places to be a woman. You were ranked and your rankings determined your level of comfort and security. The surest way to move up the rankings was to attract the continued favor of the emperor or, at the very least, bear him a son. Should that son someday take the throne, then you, as the Empress Dowager, could finally enjoy some power and prestige, not the least because the Qing emperors were, by and large, mamas’ boys.

Hidden History

Changing the Guard

Jeremiah Jenne looks back on historical reactions to political change in China

Last month, China chose its leaders. As we all knew would happen anyway, Xi Jinping remained in the top job for another five years (and possibly will even longer, according to a few pundits), while the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese Communist Party’s “board of directors”, saw new faces as former members retired or were sent into political exile. Each new seat at the table represents the head of interlocking patronage networks with roots and tendrils spreading out from the center and down from the top, throughout the apparatus of Party and state.

Now is also the time for Zhongnanhai-ologists: The China watchers and journalists whose job it is to keep one eye fixed on the gates of the CCP leadership compound, a converted imperial park just to the west of the Forbidden City. Who’s in? Who’s out? What will this mean for the future?