Essays

Father of the Chinese Railway

Remembering Zhan Tianyou, China’s pioneer railway engineer – Thomas Bird

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Essays

Belgrade to Beijing and Back Again

The 1999 Chinese embassy bombing, revisited – Sale Lilly

Warheads on Foreheads. I suspect that locution – a coarse motto of American military targeting cells – is as unfamiliar to Chinese history students as a Chinese idiom might be to American military personnel. The phrase implies that American bombs fall squarely on their intended target, and nowhere else. But that has not always been the case. May 7, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. Three Chinese citizens died in the bombing, itself a part of a much larger military and diplomatic campaign led by the US to compel the Yugoslav government to cease hostilities in Kosovo. The US characterized the strike in sterile terms as “an error” and a targeting “anomaly.”

The Chinese government unequivocally disagreed, and claimed the strike was an intentional act of American malice. The bombing generated a crisis in Sino-American relations and a related protest movement across China. The same weekend of the strike in 1999, I was busy thumbing through stacks of promotional military pamphlets from the US military.

Essays

May Fourth for the World

China's May 4th 1919 protests envisaged as a national and international movement – Shakhar Rahav

On 4 May 1919 approximately 3000 students from over a dozen institutions took to the streets of Beijing to protest news that the Paris peace conference was rejecting Chinese demands to force Japan to cede control over territories it held in Shandong Province. The term “May Fourth” or “May Fourth Movement” has become an icon in Chinese history, and has come to denote that demonstration and those that followed, including a general strike that paralyzed Shanghai that June. The term is also routinely used in a broader chronological sense: to invoke the entire period of cultural and political unrest that lasted from 1915 until 1923. In both cases Beijing and Shanghai are usually the focus of attention.  My argument here, though, is that just as it May Fourth’s significance lies in the events of more than one or two months, it also involves more than just one or two places. A broader geographical as well as temporal perspective is needed.

Essays

Stranger than Science Fiction

Chinese sci-fi as a Trojan horse for social commentary – Alec Ash

This essay kicks off Sci-Fi Week at the China Channel. We’ll be featuring Q&As from two Chinese authors, as well as a couple of stories in translation. It’s the perfect excuse to go see The Wandering Earth in the cinema, or to pick up one of the recent collections of Chinese sci-fi stories to get acquainted with this fascinating and varied genre, the historical and political echoes of which are introduced below. – The Editors

In 1902, Lu Xun, the celebrated author of modern China, translated Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” In the same year, Liang Qichao, another reformist intellectual, in his unfinished novel Chronicle of the Future of a New China (新中國未來記), depicted a future in 1962 where the world came to admire China’s power at a global exposition in Shanghai (sounds familiar, albeit 50 years late). For both writers, exposing Chinese readers to sci fi was a way to promote new, scientific ways of thinking, and to drag the nation into modernity and out from under the yoke of the Qing Dynasty.

Essays

Living MoreFree

China’s streetball hero plays his way – Eduardo Baptista

On a mid-September afternoon, Wu You (吴悠) a.k.a. MoreFree, one of China’s most notorious basketball icons, was getting beaten badly. Despite the giant posters foregrounding the court and cameras filming Wu’s every move, this was only an informal exhibition game; Wu’s teammates included his childhood friends and their relatives, many of whom hadn’t exercised in months, let alone play a competitive game. As his team, down 20 points against a well-drilled team from the PLA National Defense University, called yet another timeout,Wu sat down on the bench, staring into space as everyone else chattered over tactics. Next to him, two of his septuagenarian teammates lit cigarettes, leaning back languidly and taking long drags. His team short on manpower, Wu tried to put them on his back for the final quarter, but to no avail – they lose by 30.

In China, the name “Wu You” has long been synonymous with “streetball,” or jieqiu (街球). The naughty younger brother of association basketball, streetball originated in the outdoor courts of America’s inner cities. The objective is not so much to outscore your opponent but to out-humiliate him, whether “breaking their ankles,” where a change of direction sends a defender flying to the ground, or inflicting a brutal “posterizer,” a dunk that rams the defender’s body backwards. At NBA games, spectators for the most part cheer and clap for their teams; streetball crowds are much less civilized, screaming in excitement whenever a player is embarrassed, even running onto the court.