Palimpsests of Propaganda

Yifu Dong reviews Curating Revolution by Denise Y. Ho

Propaganda is a concept that refuses to translate smoothly between English and Chinese. The English word “propaganda” seems to have a direct counterpart in the Chinese word xuanchuan, but the connotations diverge: in English, propaganda means Orwellian doublespeak, whereas in Chinese, propaganda is the carrot of persuasion that often precedes the stick of coercion. The differing perceptions of the same word stem from the varying degrees of tolerance for the distortion of truth, because propaganda not only aims to persuade and agitate but also does so by using alternative versions of the truth, such as untruths and half-truths.


Shapeshifting Politics on the Island of Pianos

Rui Zhong visits the setting of the novel Bury What We Cannot Take

On a mild winter’s day in 2014, a friend and I took a ferry to Gulangyu, also known as Drum Wave Islet. This tiny island off the coast of the Fujianese city of Xiamen is named after the drumming sound of waves that lap against its shorelines. Towering over the cliffs is a giant stone statue of Koxinga, a 17th century half-Chinese, half-Japanese pirate that once sailed its waters, whose claim to historical fame was successfully fending off a colonial Dutch militia. We sampled satay-flavored noodles, toured European-style villas retrofitted into coffee houses, and browsed the vintage pianos and organs at the Gulangyu Piano Museum.


Tough Questions

Grace Jackson reviews The China Questions, from Harvard University Press

In 1955, Professor John King Fairbank established the Center for Asian Research at Harvard not to train scholars per se, but to educate and prepare a new generation of public servants for engagement with Chairman Mao’s China. Sinology was already an established academic discipline in Europe and the United States, tracing a lineage from the Jesuit missionaries through to the great nineteenth century translators such as James Legge, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. But unlike the Sinologists, who approached Chinese civilization through its ancient texts, the China Hands that Fairbank would train at Harvard were multidisciplinary men – in those days, it was primarily men – of the world: aspiring journalists, diplomats and policymakers.


The Invisible Valley

Kevin McGeary reviews The Invisible Valley by Su Wei, translated by Austin Woerner

In a 1983 lecture at the National Word Festival in Canberra, fantasy author Alan Garner explained the importance of childhood in making someone a writer1. He recalled his own early years in England during World War II, living life on a mythic plane of absolute good against absolute evil, with survival feeling like a daily struggle. Garner claimed that this seeped into the psyches of his generation and subsequently, its writers’ work, which was profound where the literature of later generations, he argued, was trivial and effete by comparison.

At the Macao Literary Festival in 2018, translator Austin Woerner – whom I first met at a literary translation boot camp in Huangshan in 2014 – explained that his early ambition was to be a novelist, but his comfortable, suburban, American upbringing was not great fodder. Fortunately, for lovers of genre-bending, constantly surprising, and occasionally-hilarious fiction, when studying Chinese at Yale, he met Professor Su Wei.