Tag Archives: Books

Among China expats today, echoes of Orwell's time in Burma?

At the recommendation of a friend in Beijing, I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Coincidentally, Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently traveled to the real town Orwell was stationed in that inspires the novel’s setting. She calls the book “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British, from this former colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River.” Some of those imperious attitudes sound strikingly similar to, if far more strident than, the complaints and judgments of some expatriates in Beijing.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.


One of the central tensions of the novel, which I haven’t finished (and so neither did I read the end of Perlez’s story, where she got back to the plot), is that one Englishman, named Flory, is unusually sympathetic to the Burmese, while the rest of the European population is savagely racist and dismissive. This passage pretty much sums it up.

There was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second. Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter, explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement. For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the ‘natives’, spoke nearly always in favour of them. He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives—interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in what way he was antagonising her. He so wanted her to love Burma as he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

The life of an American or European expatriate in Beijing is categorically different. We are not colonial authorities, nor is urban China so terribly exotic compared to other global cities. But the tension is real between people who seek only to complain and disparage, and those who seek to understand and engage. That tension can frequently be recognized even within individuals. What today’s reality in Beijing shares with Orwell’s account is a language of separation.

In this second passage, Orwell laments the assault on a European’s own dignity that occurs when he or she is bound by colonial social norms. In the plot, Flory had decided to betray a non-European friend, because to stand with him would have led to great problems for him among the Europeans.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs‘ [a term for Europeans as a ruling class in the British empire] code.

Again, things are very different. But is there a degree of groupthink among China watchers? Are there times when taking the side of the Chinese people or government in a political argument is a kind of taboo? I think so.

Back to the novel.

A Literary Note: Benjamin Hale, Alexandra Kleeman, and LEAP

It’s been a good few months for my more literary friends. Most recently, an old friend Ben Hale (website, blog) has published his first novel and received very good reviews, including in the New York Times Book Review. I was lucky enough to read The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore in proofs, and that copy is still floating around in Beijing. I’ll let the reviewers give their un-biased view of the thing, but I thought it was fantastic. If you tend to follow the advice of The New Yorker on literary matters, you might find yourself reading it as part of their “book club” this month. Enjoy.

As if to taunt me with the potential glory of literary merit, another good friend from Boulder, Colorado, has published a debut short story in The Paris Review, one that has received favorable rumblings in the literary blogosphere.

Alexandra Kleeman is known to me as a source of originality in insight and wit, and her story gives us some of that depth. I’m with everyone else who patiently awaits her next offerings.

Finally, though it’s not fiction, I recently received a great piece of mail from Beijing via California: the new issue of LEAP 艺术界, a new English–Chinese bilingual magazine on the Chinese art world that has several friends working on it. Among them are Philana Woo (advertising) and Angie Baecker (contributing editor). Angie was the brains behind a co-written article she and I did previewing the Beijing art scene during the olympics, and her insights have only grown. The magazine also has a new website.

My magazine package also included a very cool branded Moleskine notebook, which I will be using to bring order to the chaos of my life in the near future.

Some time I’ll show these kids how great it can be to do more boring serious publishing.

George Bush Sr.'s Frustrated Tenure in China

One of George H. W. Bush’s less discussed jobs, lost among president of the United States, ambassador to the United Nations, and CIA director, was head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing during the Nixon administration. Bush’s China journal has recently been published, and it reveals frustration at being made irrelevant by direct contacts between Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping.

James Mann, author most recently of The China Fantasy, has an article on the book in The New Republic. A couple of choice paragraphs.

When Bush landed in Beijing on October 21, 1974, its wind and dust reminded him of places he had encountered in the oil business. “It reminded me very much of West Texas and also of a trip to Kuwait,” he observed. He soon tried to establish high-level contact with Chinese leaders. He paid a call on Deng Xiaoping, then a vice premier under Mao Zedong. Bush’s initial impression of Deng, eventually the father of China’s economic reforms: “He was a very short man.” (For American one-liners about China, this ranks right up there with Richard Nixon’s verdict on the Great Wall: “It really is a great wall.”)

And then there was the question of human rights. “China is very vulnerable on human rights, just as the Soviet Union was,” Bush thought. “Some day sure as can be Congress will turn its attention to these aspects of the Chinese policy. … [T]his euphoric analysis of this society as an open society, as a free society, a soft or gentle society, is simply wrong.” All in all, Bush concluded, China was getting more out of its relationship with the United States than the United States was getting from China. “They need us, actually more than we need them in my judgment,” he decided. “This is the consensus of the international community incidentally.”

Librairie Avant-Garde – Brilliant Nanjing Bookstore

Today, just as my wandering was turning into a walk home, I passed the Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing, a bookstore in an apparently never-used parking garage. Needless to say, I was not able to resist. Though its selection of foreign-language books is apparently zero, the range of subjects and the atmosphere of the store and the cafe inside are better than anything I’ve seen for a long time. This is located on the north side of Wutaishan (五台山). More pics after the break.

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Driving up into the store.

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(I have no idea what’s with the cross.)

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Spence's New Book: Scholarly or Not, a Borgesian Passage

Jonathan Spence has a new book centered around a late-Ming intellectual Zhang Dai. I have not read the book (nor have I seen it yet in Beijing), but the folks at Frog in a Well have critiqued the New Republic review and it’s an interesting meta-discussion. Most interesting to me is a passage included by Alan Baumler in what amounts to his own review on the blog. Noting that the new book is no simple academic monograph (and fretting a little that related academic discussions are absent from the text), Baumler notes “There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story…”

…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.

Tell me this grandfather’s life work is not akin to something that might occur in Borges’ “La Biblioteca de Babel.”