Reviews

Sanmao’s Shifting Sands

Lavinia Liang reviews Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, trans. Mike Fu

Sanmao has been experiencing a renewal. Not the Sanmao of the famed 1935 Chinese comics – the Shanghai street orphan so malnourished that he has only three hairs (san mao) on his head, or perhaps only thirty cents (san mao) to his name – but Sanmao, the pen name of Chinese writer Chen Maoping. Known as Echo Chan in the West, and “Taiwan’s wandering writer” to others, author and cultural icon Chen was vastly popular in the Chinese-speaking world during the 70s and 80s. Yet not one of her books was translated into English until recently. Last year, she was honored with an ‘Overlooked No More’ obituary in The New York Times, a Google Doodle, and, in January 2020, the release of the English edition of the 1976 book that skyrocketed her to celebrity, Stories of the Sahara, translated by Mike Fu.

Sanmao was born in Chongqing to a well-off family that then departed to Taiwan due to the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949. She struggled in junior high and eventually stopped attending school, after which her father, a lawyer, hired private tutors for her. In her college years, Sanmao began traveling widely – first to Spain, where she met the young José María Quero y Ruíz, whom she would eventually marry – and later to both Germany and the United States. She became fluent in Spanish, German and English, all during a time when few Chinese women traveled the world – indeed, a time when Taiwan was still under the rule of martial law.

 

Reviews

The Tibetan Genocide (Part II)

HT on Tibet’s Chinese revolution, 1949-1976

Ed: Don’t miss part one of this series of reviews on Tibet’s experiences in the Mao era, part of a fortnight at the China Channel reminding readers of the horrors that Tibet underwent during the Chinese and Cultural Revolutions. Last week Robert Barnett and Susan Chen talked to Tsering Woeser, who also presented a number of her father Tsering Dorje’s photographs from the era.

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959
Li Jianglin (2016, orig. 1959 Lasa!, 2010)

Li Jianglin is the daughter of CCP officials. She moved to New York in the 1980s, became a librarian, got to know some Tibetan people in Queens, and eventually set out to write a book about what happened in Lhasa in 1959. Unlike Benno Weiner, Li Jianglin has no time for United Front dialectics – her book is an open polemic. She tells us: "This book will document and show that Mao had active plans from very early on to impose his policies throughout Tibet despite the promises of the 'Seventeen-Point Agreement' [that guaranteed Tibetan self-rule within the PRC], even though he was aware that this would entail bloodshed. His explicitly stated view was that he welcomed Tibetan unrest and rebellion – and even hoped it would increase in scale – as it would provide him with an opportunity to 'pacify' the region with his armies." Li Jianglin has a librarian's command of Chinese-language sources. To cut through the tangle of conflicting claims about what took place, she reads from official histories, classified CCP communications, PLA memoirs, propaganda pronouncements, plus a host of published memoirs by Tibetans in exile, and supplements the story with interviews of survivors.

 

Reviews

The Tibetan Genocide (Part I)

HT on Tibet’s Chinese revolution, 1949-1976

Everybody knows that there was suffering when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet in 1949 and '50, but for a long time it has been hard to say exactly what happened. 2020 is a good year to ponder the fate of the Land of Snows under Maoism. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is on the march again: the concentration camps in Xinjiang are operating in full swing, dozens are reported dead in clashes along the Sino-Indian border in the Himalaya, and the free enclave of Hong Kong has been brought to heel by China's security apparatus. Meanwhile, a series of important new memoirs and histories have come out on Tibet, clarifying parts of the story little-understood before today. Below are reviews of two of them, with a further two reviews to follow tomorrow.

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier
Benno Weiner (2020)

Benno Weiner's study is based on Maoist-period archival documents from a small county on the high-altitude prairie of the northern Tibetan plateau, in what the Tibetans call Amdo and the Chinese call Qinghai province. This in itself is quite a feat – only one other Western historian has ever got access to a Communist-period archive in the Tibetan regions (Melvyn Goldstein, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet). Given how things are going in the PRC right now, it may be many years before another such book is written. The archive, and Weiner's book, covers a roughly ten-year period between the first Communist arrival in northern Tibet in 1949, and the final pacification of the Tibetan uprising in 1959.

 

Reviews

Word War

Rana Mitter reviews a revisionist new book and TV series on China’s WWII

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II has fallen in 2020 – on May 8 in Europe after the German surrender, and September 2 in Asia with the surrender of Japan. Yet, in China as in the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic meant a muted commemoration. Five years ago, Beijing pulled out all the stops with a huge parade in Tiananmen Square commemorating the Chinese role in the Allied victory. This year, television documentaries and a speech by Xi Jinping on 3 September had to fill the gap.

One element that has not changed much in the past five years, however, is the continuing near-invisibility of China’s wartime experience in the global narrative of the conflict. Evident also is the macho way that the conflict is portrayed on Chinese film and television screens, as in Hu Guan’s thrilling but unsubtle blockbuster movie The Eight Hundred, and the hit television spy thriller Cicada of Autumn. In these productions, Chinese soldiers fire bravely at the Japanese in a doomed defence of a Shanghai warehouse, Hong Kong youths in 1941 prove more amenable to nationalistic feeling than their 2020 successors, and jingoistic gore flows aplenty.

 

Reviews

China’s Good War

Jonathan Chatwin reviews China’s Good War by Rana Mitter

By the time Britain’s full Covid lockdown began on March 23 2020, the country’s right-wing press had already spent a week suggesting that this contemporary moment would require the same mythical tenacity that had seen the country through the Second World War. On the 16 March, in a reference doubtless pleasing to a Prime Minister who has written a book on Churchill, a headline in the Daily Mail asked ‘Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz?’. Two days later, a comment piece in The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid known for its populist nationalism, instructed the nation: ‘We’re fighting World War V so summon that Blitz spirit and take care of the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.’ (V stood for Virus, rather than the Roman numeral for five, the article helpfully explained.)

This contemporary invocation of a war that ended 75 years ago demonstrates something pertinent to Rana Mitter’s new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. Namely: the powerful, and often politically useful, ways in which stories of war – WWII in particular – can be invoked in the present to provide foundational narratives for nations, political parties and social groups.