National Book Day was this past week.
Tag Archives: China
February 24, 2014
Justin Renteria for The Chronicle Review
By Jennifer Ruth
It’s late October at a Chinese university in Fujian province, and I’m sitting in a large, chilly classroom. The class is “Introduction to Critical Thinking,” and the topic is credibility in journalism. Using a microphone to compete with an industrial-size heater belching tepid air, the instructor asks 60 Chinese undergraduates, “Do you believe what you read in the newspaper?”
The Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange flew me over as a “foreign expert” to evaluate a pilot program in general education. I am to observe a class, talk with faculty and students, review course materials, and report my impressions. The invitation and the very name of the class are signs that times have changed, or so I think. Gone are the Maoist days when swaths of the past were off limits, or when student monitors reported their professors’ and peers’ politically incorrect remarks to Communist Party secretaries. Gone are the days when “critical thinking” meant only bashing the United States.
The scholarly-exchange center started the program three years ago, when Wen Jiabao was still premier. “Students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains,” he once said. The consensus among many commentators in both China and the United States is that China’s educational system creates skilled but unimaginative students.
So do the Chinese students in “Introduction to Critical Thinking” believe what they read in newspapers? I never heard an answer.
At the outset of the discussion, a young man raised his hand and mentioned People’s Daily, but the instructor firmly directed the students to American newspapers. “Since our textbook focuses on America, let’s stick with American examples,” he said. Straying from the assigned material is considered bad teaching.
Few students had traveled to the United States or consumed American-produced news. Less sophisticated than their peers in Beijing and Shanghai, they were unfamiliar with The New York Times, the primary example used in the lecture. (The irony that The New York Times is periodically blocked in China was not discussed.) The lecture focused on corporate and business influence on Western journalism. When a few conglomerates own the news, how much independence does it really have?
This is a daunting enough question in the West, but it was totally lost on these Chinese freshmen and sophomores, most of whom responded with blank looks, while a few seemed merely baffled. I felt frustrated. More pertinent would have been an analysis of political pressure on the press. It seemed odd that no one in the class mentioned politics—as if money were the only thing to ever compromise objectivity—even though I knew that the party tells Chinese news media what they can and cannot cover, that it imprisons journalists who report on sensitive topics, and that it hires tens of thousands of Internet scrubbers.
When I talked with the instructor afterward—a Polish man with a Ph.D. in philosophy—he agreed with me. “But I can’t talk about the Chinese situation,” he said. “Were you told you couldn’t?” I asked. “No, but I know.”
He had taught in China before earning his Ph.D. in Europe and was back, after a year or two of failed job searches. “I don’t want to get the students in trouble,” he said. “What if one of them says something that causes trouble for them later?” We were laughing, but in that bitter, rueful way, as we acknowledged the irony of a critical-thinking instructor feeling that he must avoid fostering critical thought. “Mei banfa,” he said, using the phrase Chinese often use to express helplessness, as in “What choice do I have?”
Later that day, I was asked to give verbal feedback to the scholarly exchange center’s staff and the university’s administrators and faculty. “The textbook is too focused on America,” I said. “You’ve got to get the students talking about things that are real to them. People’s Daily is real; The New York Times isn’t.”
I told them my concerns about their written work. The final essay assignment asked the students to: “Make an argument that either: (a) Everyone should be forced to exercise; or (b) TV should be abolished.” The results were moralistic essays comfortable with the idea that one authority should force everyone to do, or not do, something for their own good. For a class intended to teach students to think for themselves, I explained, this assignment is a kind of contradiction because it presumes that most people cannot think for themselves.
Nobody responded. One of the center’s leaders finally said, “Let’s skip this.” I’d given them what they’d asked for—my honest opinion—but the vibe in the room indicated that I’d done something wrong. I felt a kind of fight-or-flight panic coming on but managed to stay quiet. I reminded myself that I shouldn’t be surprised if everyone looked uncomfortable. Hadn’t I essentially called their class a farce, a kind of cruel joke? But what was I supposed to do?
After more silence, a man I’ll call Professor X—a Chinese professor evaluating a science class—asked if he might say something. I relaxed, sure that he was about to support my points. “I disagree with Jennifer,” he said, turning his body away from me and the exchange-center staff to speak directly to the administrators and faculty: “Do not have the students talk about their own lives or China. That might cause trouble. I want you to be able to continue to develop this class.”
Wen Jiabao might believe that greater political and educational freedoms are needed for China to continue its astonishing ascent, but apparently President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, the current leaders, do not. They are attempting, according to the journalist Chris Buckley, “to carry out market-driven economic overhauls while reinforcing the Communist Party’s pillars of political and ideological control.”
Can a state fully liberalize the market without liberalizing society? History has not issued any definite conclusions. Economic growth without political and intellectual freedom worked so well in East Germany for a spell that in 1970 Hannah Arendt wondered in an interview if “people there … will live just as well and eventually even better than those in West Germany.” What if China’s authoritarian capitalism, Slavoj Žižek has asked, “shows that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and engine of economic development, but its obstacle?”
Xi’s strategy could succeed, at least long enough for several more generations to go through life muzzled.
Before I returned home, I had lunch with Professor X in Beijing. He apologized for disagreeing with me but said that he felt he had to. “That class is a baby step. You must encourage the baby steps,” he said. He hoped the students might apply the concepts learned with American examples to China.
But wouldn’t that require them to have understood the concepts in the first place? I asked. He conceded this, smiling. As we walked out of the restaurant, he told me that his father, a high-ranking party official, had said before he died that he wanted to live long enough to see Chinese Communism fall.
Arendt said that if East Germany caught up with West Germany economically, the only difference would be that “in one country people can say, and within limits, also do what they like and in the other they cannot.” She added, “Believe me, that makes an enormous difference to everyone.”
Professor X and I continue to correspond by email. He shares all of my concerns and none of my cynicism. He is optimistic that change will come, but he believes it will come from the party’s leadership, not its downfall. “In 120 years, there have been several changes in Chinese history,” he wrote me recently. “We may wait and see.”
Jennifer Ruth is an associate professor of English at Portland State University.
Lisa See’s novel Peony in Love is rather odd because about a quarter of the way into the story the protagonist dies. I wondered what was going on and how the story would continue and then I learned that most of the story is the story of a ghost, a hungry ghost.
Young Peony is the daughter of a well to do nobleman, who apparently loves his daughter and encourages her to become literate. Like all females, Peony’s forbidden to interact or even seen males outside her family. She’s eagerly preparing for her arranged marriage when her father hosts a multi-night performance of a Chinese Opera The Peony Pavilion. The women can watch from behind a screen separated from the men in the audience. The first night Peony slips out of the women’s area and encounters Ren, a dashing young man. They talk. They gaze lovingly into each others eyes. They pledge to see each other the next night.
Now Peony’s done for. She can only dream of Ren and after her second rendezvous becomes love sick. She won’t eat or sleep fearing that she’ll never be able to be with her true love. The doctor can do nothing and she wastes away, not knowing till after her family dresses her emaciated body in her wedding clothes and abandons her outside the family compound to waste a way and die outside, that her arranged husband was Ren. Custom demanded that the young girl die outside the family home to avoid bringing bad luck to the family. Sorrow and confusion result in Peony’s funeral tablet not getting properly dotted with ink so she’s left as a hungry ghost, doomed to wander the earth without peace.
Thus begins Peony’s haunting of Ren and his subsequent wives. Readers learn of the imaginative and rich beliefs the Chinese held about ghosts, how they must be fed and treated, how they can insinuate themselves into the lives of the living despite the clever crooked bridges that keep them out.
Readers also learn about the history of women writers during the thirty years when the Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty. It was a time of chaos and one good thing, perhaps the only one, was that during this upheaval men were so distracted by the political and social upheaval, women were allowed to venture outside, explore their surroundings, gather, discuss and write. Many women, whose ghosts Peony meets, were successful, published authors.
While there were times when I found it hard to care about the “life” of a ghost or what would happen to her ancestral tablet, I do applaud See’s creativity. I was able to keep reading, though I wasn’t as concerned with the ghost heroine as I had been with See’s flesh and blood ones. Still I recommend this novel, which makes the history of China come alive, to any lovers of the genre.
After reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, I’m putting his earlier books at the top of my “to read list.”
When Troost and his wife outgrow their home in California, they consider moving to China. But first Troost feels the need to investigate. Would China be the place to bring up his two boys? Thus he sets off on what must have been months of travel all around the Middle Kingdom.
Soon after arriving in polluted Beijing, it’s clear that Troost isn’t exposing his sons to the PM 2.5 laced smog that passes for air in China. No. He’s a good father.
Yet he’s also a traveler and he wants to see what makes this empire tick. So he travels through China stopping in Tai an, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tibet, Chengdu and many other exotic, perplexing, fascinating, crowded, polluted (and less so in a few, a very few instances) cities. All the while Troost delights with his wit, perception and insight. Here’s a sample of his prose describing a trip to a traditional market;
And then, as if we were lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare, we began to wander past stalls selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions –big and small- – dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently, was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo. If you were planning a dinner party and looking to tickle your guests’ palate with a delicately prepared Cobra heart, perhaps followed by some bunny soup and sauteéd puppy, the Qingping Market is for you.
Now there is some wit and exaggeration, so if you’re looking for a literary journey with a stodgy, politically correct anthropologist, this book isn’t for you, but I’d rather travel with Troost than a disciple of Margaret Mead.
Troost experiences the full China – the majesty of the Forbidden City, come ons from the prostitutes, the cute pandas, the karaoke on the Yangste River Cruise, the constant haggling, the bandit taxi drivers, the expat pot heads in Yunnan, the cheerful Tibetans, and the hordes who’ll knock down their great grandmother to get to their assigned train seat.
He weaves in history and politics with a light touch that makes it memorable and interesting. You’ll learn a lot about bargaining and patience on the road from Troost.
Boston College has put together an outstanding digital library for scholars and curious Sinophiles consisting of information on Jesuits in China from the 15th century to the 18th. Beyond Ricci contains slide shows and background information to acquaint readers with the knowledge, key people and their perceptions of the places they experienced in China and Thibet (sic).
To dig deeper you can view, scans of the actual rare book collection. They have atlases, narratives, history books and technical books, which you can view in a variety of options. The text can be searched but as the site points out the searches aren’t perfect since the project lacked the fortune it would cost to code every word so that the old S’s read as S’s rather than F’s and such.
- It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System (learningwithtechs.wordpress.com)
- New Boston College Website of Digitized Rare Books Explores Jesuit Missionaries in China (infodocket.com)
- Vintage Photographs from Inside Famous Libraries (vintag.es)
- Books/eBooks: A Brief Look at Norway’s “Bokhylla” Digital Library of eBooks (infodocket.com)
I didn’t read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, but I want to now after hearing the Midday Connection discussion of it today. Listen. See if you aren’t drawn in.
Simon Winchester‘s The Man Who Loved China chronicles the life of Joseph Needham (a.k.a. 李约瑟), a British scientist whose work and writings taught the West about China’s scientific firsts. Needham was a curious, eccentric guy. He made a splash at Cambridge as an embryologist. In his spare time, he was a nudist, socialist, philanderer, liberal Christian who loved Morris Dancing.
The first part of the book introduces readers to Needham, his background and all his quirks. Also it covers his engagement and marriage to Dorothy Moyle, another scientist, who studied muscles and who was very tolerant of her husband’s affairs. She wasn’t threatened by Needham’s mistress Lu Gwei-djen, a Chinese scientist who captured his heart and eventually moved down the street from the Needhams. Meeting Lu sparked Needham’s affection for China.
The middle third (more or less) recounts Needham’s time in Chongching during World War II. Actually, I was surprised that Needham only spent 5 years in China and that he’d come so recently. Before reading the gook I had the notion that Needham was a contemporary of say Lafcadio Hearn, the Japanophile who lived in Japan in the 19th century. Wrong.
Since Needham had mastered Chinese and was keen to travel to the Middle Kingdom, the British government sent him there to aid Chinese scientists who had fled into the western parts of China to escape the Japanese. Needham traveled the country meeting scientists and gathering data for what would be his opus, a multi-volume Science and Civilization in China. His travails are fascinating. Yet, before you know it Needham must head back to England.
The last third of the book describes the conflicts and eventually illness that Needham faces back in Europe. Since he was in China, he couldn’t develop his relationships at Cambridge so he doesn’t have the supporters he needs when he falls into trouble through naivete and poor judgment. He has to weather some harsh storms after heading a committee and unwittingly playing a patsy for the Chinese government during the McCarthy era.
I found the first two thirds of the book most interesting, and the final third lost momentum, but then that’s the case for a lot of people’s lives. The story of Needham writing and publishing a major work of scientific history is hard to make compelling.
I liked learning tidbits about China that I can throw into conversation. They invented toilet paper and stirrups, which were a small but important advance that helped the military and others ride for longer periods of time. Since the Chinese built really good stone bridges throughout the country even in kind of no man’s lands, it was hard for invaders to take over the country. The Chinese could move about the network of roads with bridges so easily. Many of these bridges are still in use. (Funny that building well, for the long term has stopped here.)
Reading about Needham was fascinating, probably more than really knowing him. He’s the kind of guy I’d roll my eyes at. The ex pat who comes to Asia and within a week is dressing in silk robes, someone who has to be more Chinese than the Chinese around him, I’m guessing. I did like that WInchester inserted a lot of objective insights. So he let us know that while Needham thought Chongqing was a heavenly city, other expats weren’t as enchanted and complained about the smells and filth. That’s how things really are. There’s always a range of reactions of opinions and attitudes amongst expats of their adopted home. It was good to see this aspect included.