China: Humiliation & the Olympics

The Incident

On a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor Christoph Goertz, his thesis adviser; Robert A. Smith, a member of his dissertation committee; and Shan Linhua, a fellow Chinese graduate student and his rival.

Next, Lu went to the office of the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dwight R. Nicholson, who was also on his dissertation committee, and fired three more fatal shots. Then, he walked over to Jessup Hall and demanded to see T. Anne Cleary, associate vice-president for academic affairs. When she emerged from her office, he killed her and then shot and maimed her twenty-three-year-old assistant. Finally, in an empty conference room, Lu raised the pistol to his head and killed himself.

Why a brilliant, hard-working young Chinese physicist, who had come to the US six years earlier filled with pride and hope, had come to such a bitter end is the subject of Dark Matter, a recently released feature film by Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng. It stars Liu Ye as the initially idealistic and ambitious, then humiliated and enraged, protagonist (named Liu Xing in the film); Aidan Quinn as Liu’s arrogant faculty adviser (playing Christoph Goertz); and Meryl Streep as a kind, if naive, patron of the university who befriends Chinese students.

* * *

Dark Matter may appear to be simply another film about a mass shooting spree at an American campus, albeit one with a Chinese twist. When Liu Xing arrives at the University of Iowa from Beijing, he optimistically proclaims himself

so lucky to come to America, Meiguo, the Beautiful Country. May we all find a dream here!… I’m going to solve the Dark Matter problem, win the Nobel Prize, and marry a blue-eyed American girl!

But he gradually becomes persuaded that his professors are conspiring to delay his degree and deny him his rightful recognition as a scholar. His growing paranoia is only heightened when his Ph.D. orals committee refuses to sign off on his thesis until he redoes some of his computations, making it impossible for him to win the top dissertation prize he feels he deserves. By the end of the film, his acute sense of humiliation has led to a psychotic state, and in a fit of murderous rage he kills the professors he once idealized.

But what gives Dark Matter wider significance is the filmmakers’ use of the Iowa incident to explore—indirectly—some important psychological dynamics between China and the West: China’s deeply felt sense of historic injury by foreign nations, and the ways its often thwarted efforts to gain acceptance among leading world powers have exacerbated such sentiments. In the past, feelings of injury have arisen from such events as the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation; and most recently after the Tibetan demonstrations this spring and during the run-up to this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games.

By retelling the tragic story of a Chinese graduate student attempting to complete a Ph.D. at a prestigious American university, the film suggests, obliquely, a larger parable about China’s ambivalence toward the developed world, especially the United States. Of course, the state of the psychotic killer depicted in the film is not intended to be a direct analogy to the feelings of Chinese toward the United States. But as the director, China-born Chen Shi-Zheng, explained to me recently, he does see the film’s protagonist as expressing, in extreme form, “the complexity of the modern-day relationship of Chinese to the outside world.” Liu Xing

is a paradox. He feels superior, because of the length and depth of the Chinese civilization from which he comes. However, at the same time, despite all of its extraordinary development and change, because China still lags behind America, he personalizes this reality and feels insecure.

What interests Chen is how his anti-hero’s initial willingness to revere and submit to American academic authorities becomes transformed into its opposite, so that by the end, after his dissertation is rejected, he sees them as oppressors.

* * *

And yet Chen and his co-scriptwriter Billy Shebar’s treatment of Dark Matter’s antihero is surprisingly sympathetic. Chen was himself a Chinese graduate student in the US during the 1980s, and has since—as a well-known director of both Chinese and Western operas—become one of the artists who have been able to bridge the cultural divide between China and the West. He understands the sensitivities that linger around questions involving insult, humiliation, and loss of face to China, especially when foreign arrogance is involved. And in the film, Liu Xing’s American Ph.D. adviser is arrogance incarnate. When Liu arrives in his lab, he is smugly told, “Well, feel free to challenge me all you want. Just keep in mind, I’m always right!”

When an assistant reminds Liu’s adviser that his student has “been pulling a lot of all-nighters” doing research for him, he contemptuously replies, “Oh, come on! These kids are grateful for whatever work I give them. They come from a place where astrology is considered a science and toilets a luxury.”

Such exchanges in the film echo a kind of condescension that has historically marked many kinds of relationships between the West and China and slowly formed a kind of “dark matter” that continues to exert a powerful, if unobserved force.

The question the filmmakers seek to explore in Dark Matter is not simply the personal one but the larger question of China’s sensitivity to foreign dominance and criticism. Here the film is masterful in illuminating how any suggestion of foreign superiority, or even condescension, toward Chinese may intersect with their own sense of historical victimization and insecurity to create a volatile chemistry.

“We Chinese carry the burden of our history with us and the question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside us,” Chen told me.

Thus, we feel sensitive to any kind of slight and often have a very sharp reaction to perceived unfair treatment or injustices. On an emotional level we cannot help but associate treatment in the present with past injuries, defeats, invasions, and occupations by foreigners. There is something almost in our DNA that triggers autonomic, and sometimes extreme, responses to foreign criticism or put-downs.

“Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners,” lamented China’s most famous essayist and social critic, Lu Xun, almost seventy-five years ago. “We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.” By acting it out in an interpersonal setting, as it is in Dark Matter, Chen seems to hope that viewers will be able to see more clearly that this complicated dynamic is also subtly at work in the larger “relationship.”

As Peter Hays Gries has written in his thoughtful book China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy, like it or not, “The West is central to the construction of China’s identity today; it has become China’s alter ego.”

“A Century of Humiliation”

A particularly important element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and the shameful treatment of Chinese in America. The process reached an understandable high point with Japan’s successful industrialization and subsequent invasion and occupation of China during World War II, which was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions, because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, while China had failed.

In the early twentieth century, a new literature, with a new historical narrative to match, arose around the idea of bainian guochi, “100 years of national humiliation.” By taking up its own victimization as a theme and making it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity, China ensured that certain traits would express themselves again and again as it responded under stress to the outside world. Highlighting their country’s history as a victim of foreign aggression led Chinese leaders to rely on what Gries calls “the moral authority of their past suffering.” Indeed, China’s suffering at the hands of foreigners became a badge of distinction, especially during the period in the 1960s in which non-Western countries vied with one another to appear the most “oppressed” by imperialism, and thus the most incipiently revolutionary.

As a result of the insulting terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, by which the West cravenly gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, an expression, wuwang guochi, “Never forget our national humiliation,” became a common slogan in China. Indeed, to ignore China’s national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic. Since then, Chinese historians and ideological overseers have never ceased to mine China’s putative past sufferings “to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present,” as the historian Paul Cohen has put it.

Sun Yat-sen, for example, described China in 1924 as being “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression by the foreign powers” and “as a consequence is being transformed everywhere into a colony….” In his 1947 book, China’s Destiny, Chiang Kai-shek wrote:

During the past hundred years, the citizens of the entire country, suffering under the yoke of the unequal treaties which gave foreigners special “concessions” and extra-territorial status in China, were unanimous in their demand that the national humiliation be avenged, and the state be made strong.

And when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao Zedong famously declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We…have stood up.”

In 1997, when Hong Kong reverted from British colonial status to Chinese sovereignty, the Communist Party returned to the theme of China as victim to help encourage greater nationalism. General Secretary Jiang Zemin pointedly reminded the world that “the occupation of Hong Kong was the epitome of the humiliation that China suffered in modern history.” Since then, much of the talk about victimization has concentrated on Japan, China’s brutal and still incompletely repentant World War II occupier.

* * *

The idea that a nation might restore itself to greatness by emphasizing, even “celebrating,” weakness may seem counterintuitive. After all, why would any leader seeking to gain global respect want to constantly remind his people and the world of his country’s former humiliation? Perhaps Chinese leaders (both Nationalist and Communist) calculated that if Chinese could become sufficiently aware, even ashamed, of their weakness, they would be goaded into rising up and reclaiming their national greatness.

In any event, since 1949, a significant part of China’s effort to create a new national identity has been based on the dream of restoring the country’s territorial integrity, which patriots viewed as having been fengua, or, “cut up like a melon,” by past foreign incursion. This dream was of reunifying China as a multiethnic state composed of Han (central Chinese), Man (Manchurians), Meng (Mongolians), Hui (Muslims), and Zang (Tibetans), as well as bringing back into the fold of “the sacred motherland” those parts of the old Chinese empire that had either been pried loose by imperialist powers or had broken away during times of weakness. (These included Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, the Spratly Island in the South China Sea, and the Diaoyutai Islands near Japan. And, of course, it also meant holding onto Tibet and Xinjiang, whose peoples have long flirted with independence.)

As the scholar William A. Callahan has recently noted, despite fifty years of Maoist revolution—when “anti-Communism” was often perceived as being “anti-Chinese”—and then as even China began to surprise the world with its recent economic success,

the national-humiliation narrative is [still] painstakingly reproduced in textbooks, museums, popular history books, virtual exhibits, feature films, dictionaries, journals, atlases, pictorials and commemorative stamps.

In 2001, the National People’s Congress even passed a law proclaiming an official “National Humiliation Day.” (However, so many historical dates were proposed that delegates could not agree on any one, and thus, no day was designated, although one of the leading candidates is now September 18, the day in 1931 that Japan began its invasion of Manchuria.) As if to remind the world that China was still an aggrieved party, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen not infrequently describe unwelcome actions by other countries—such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—as “wounding the feelings of the Chinese people.”

It would be tempting to dismiss such language as empty rhetoric, but like so much that is said in China, such code words still tap into a reservoir of sentiment that is exemplified by such slogans as “The Chinese people cannot be bullied; the Chinese race cannot be insulted!” And so, in 2001, when a Chinese F-8 fighter jet crashed after wing-tipping an American EP-3 spy plane (causing it to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island), Chinese were again reminded of American power and its history of encroachment on their sovereignty. Apparently spontaneous demonstrations followed, along with attacks on American diplomatic missions and outpourings of indignation on the Internet—all allowed by the Party.

References to “the ‘Century of Humiliation’…both reflect and powerfully shape China’s relations with the West today,” writes Peter Gries. “By evoking the people, events, and symbols of China’s early modern encounter with the West, Chinese continually return to this unresolved trauma….”

However, “feelings of humiliation live on,” he concludes. “Neither Communism’s victory over the Nationalist Party in the Civil War, nor the declaration of ‘Liberation’ in 1949 appears to have exorcised the past.”


Having originally been scheduled for release during the spring of 2007, Dark Matter’s première was delayed by yet another shooting on an American university campus, this one at Virginia Tech. As it turned out, the film did not arrive in theaters until this spring, just as Tibetans, hoping to extract concessions from the Chinese—who were increasingly anxious that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing not be marred by dissent because of Darfur and Burma—began their protest. As Nicholas Kristof has written in the introduction to China’s Great Leap, “The world has a new lever to try and win better behavior from China,” and, in the case of Tibet, the world used it. Soon Tibetan exiles and their foreign supporters joined in challenging the progress from country to country of the Chinese Olympic torch, which quickly came to be viewed as a symbol of the PRC rather than the Olympic Games. Repeatedly torch carriers were besieged by protesters decrying what they viewed as China’s forced occupation of Tibet.

While patriots from other countries would doubtless also have felt affronted by the sight of such a potent symbol of their nationhood under assault, the response of many Chinese to these confrontations revealed in dramatic fashion how sensitive China still was to foreign insult. What these Chinese at home and abroad chose to see on television was not oppressed Tibetans seeking a redress of grievances, but China again under siege and again being demeaned in the most public of ways.

China’s restless search for a more self-confident, less-aggrieved persona has paradoxically been made more complicated by other wounds not directly related to foreign attacks: for much of the past hundred years Chinese themselves have also been engaged in a series of assaults on their own culture and history. These frequently uncompromising self-critiques first started in the early part of the twentieth century when Chinese reformers began denouncing traditional Confucian culture, above all because it seemed to have left them so weak before the technological superiority of the West.

By the 1930s and 1940s, these attacks began to turn against the nationalists. Having begun to fashion a new identity that combined elements of both East and West, Chiang Kai-shek and his Wellesley-educated, Christian wife were criticized for, among other things, being too Westernized and closely allied to America. Then, after Chiang was defeated, Mao came to power, and the Chinese Communist Party had spent three decades attempting at great human cost, to refashion a new revolutionary Chinese identity of their own, along came Deng Xiaoping to perform yet another act of demolition, this time on Mao’s revolution itself.

The cancellations of these successive efforts at self-reinvention have left Chinese with an uncertain sense of cultural or political direction. The country has tended to swing from one experiment to another, seeking refuge in a series of large-scale, but never definitive, makeovers. It is therefore perhaps understandable that a more robust sense of cultural and political self-confidence has remained elusive. So, partly in shock, and partly in disappointment, China responded to the demonstrations against its Olympic torch with incensed outrage, rejecting any suggestion that its own actions could have contributed to, much less have ameliorated, Tibetan demands.

The protests ended up highlighting a China that was not what most Chinese had hoped to see on display during the run-up to the games. Old-fashioned police controls were tightened and rhetoric that harkened back to Mao’s revolution made China look retrograde, just when it desired most to look modern. (For example, the Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Zhang Jingli, was quoted in the Tibet Daily as calling the Dalai Lama “a wolf wrapped in a monk’s robe; a monster with a human face, but the heart of a beast.”) Militant attacks on China’s critics and foreign broadcasters like CNN and the BBC that reported the torch’s interrupted progress around the world soon flooded the Internet. In cities like Seoul, protesters began to be shouted down, even beaten, by Chinese counterdemonstrators.

What was surprising was that many of the most indignant counterdemonstrators were young Chinese, born during the post-Mao era. Better educated and more worldly than older Chinese, one might have expected them to have been exempt from the China-as-victim syndrome. But, perhaps because they, too, were products of the Party’s propaganda, many of them have turned out every bit as nationalistic, perhaps even more so, than their elders.* But what made these demonstrations against the torch such an affront to so many Chinese was the way in which they intruded just when they had allowed themselves to imagine that their national identity might actually metamorphose from victim to victor, thanks to the alchemy of the Olympic Games.

Instead, at this penultimate moment, as Xu Guoqi, author of the timely new book Olympic Dreams: China And Sports, 1895–2008, has noted, “Through their coverage and handling of the Beijing torch relay, the West seemed to remind the Chinese they were still not equal and they were still not good enough.”

The Olympic Games

The irony is, of course, that not for two centuries has China been more “equal.” Indeed, to visit Beijing as it approaches the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is to be dazzled by the city’s single-mindedness of purpose. Anyone arriving in China is bound to be impressed by the magnificent new Norman Foster–designed Capital Airport that opened just this February and by the new Beijing Olympic Park with its dramatic Herzog and deMeuron–designed “bird’s nest” stadium and its equally startling bubble-skinned, transparent National Swimming Center, known as the “swimming cube.” The dingy Soviet-style apartment blocks, disheveled courtyard houses, and defoliated streets that I first came to know in the 1970s Beijing during the Cultural Revolution have all but vanished. Now, one is everywhere overwhelmed by new “development,” or fazhan, a word that has attained almost sacerdotal overtones in this new China whose leaders have, indeed, sponsored an economic revolution that has transformed their country. That so many people are now able to imagine a better future has gone a long way toward explaining the durability of Communist Party rule.

Beijing has seemed bent on making the upcoming games so magnificently endowed with new facilities and so flawlessly run that they will be unforgettable. Indeed, in speaking with Chinese, it is impossible to miss the feelings of pride and patriotism that the games have generated. Almost everyone I spoke with, whether high or low, seemed to feel some identification with this dashi, or “great enterprise,” as Chinese used to refer to the efforts of Confucian dynasties to gain and hold the “mandate of heaven” that legitimized an emperor’s right to rule.

After a century and a half of famine, war, weakness, foreign occupation, and revolutionary extremism, a growing number of Chinese—overseas as well as inside China—had come to look to the Olympic Games as the long-heralded symbolic moment when their country might at last escape old stereotypes of being the hapless “poor man of Asia”; a preyed-upon “defenseless giant”; victim of a misguided Cultural Revolution; the benighted land where in 1989 the People’s Liberation Army fired on “the people.” In one grand, symbolic stroke, the Olympic aura promised to help cleanse China’s messy historical slate, overthrow its legacy of victimization and humiliation, and allow the country to spring forth on the world stage reborn—“rebranded” in contemporary parlance—as the great nation it once had been, and has yearned for so long to once more become.

When I asked Chen Shi-Zheng if in making his film he intended to draw any parallels to the present and the Games, he replied:

I’m not involved with the Olympics, but I have, of course, thought a lot about them. After years of a modern history that because of colonization and Western domination have caused a certain sense of shame, the games presented themselves as an opportunity for China to show the world its strengths and greatness.

The protagonist in my movie is the embodiment of certain Chinese characteristics, a person who is ambitious and up-and-coming, but filled with self-doubt. When he does not pass his Ph.D. orals, it creates an unbearable pain.

So, like Liu Xing’s Ph.D. orals, the games had come to be anticipated as the cathartic act in a long agonizing historical drama in which China would finally fulfill its almost mythic destiny: its quest for fuqiang, “wealth and power.” Like Dark Matter’s antihero, who imagines himself arriving triumphantly back in China heaped with prizes and his American Ph.D. to fall into the welcoming embrace of proud parents and country, many Chinese dared hope that China, resplendent with Olympic medals and with new respect, would come closer to attaining their long-denied dream of greatness.

It was into this atmosphere of hopeful expectation that the Tibetan protests intruded. “Chinese felt: This is our time!” Chen Shi-Zheng told me.

And then, along come the Tibetan demonstrations, which made them feel as if they were again being thwarted, as if what they finally rightfully deserved was going to be denied.

Given the lens of disappointment through which many Chinese saw the Tibetan uprising, it was hardly surprising that indigenous protesters, the exile Tibetan movement, and even the Dalai Lama himself quickly came to be viewed as traitors, creatures of foreign forces conspiring to snatch China’s prize—its new world status—from its grasp, much as the protagonist in Dark Matter had come to view his Chinese rival as having betrayed his Chineseness by selling out to foreign masters, their American professors, and denying him his rightful prize.

* * *

What may be confusing to outsiders trying to make sense of all this is that despite China’s stunning accomplishments, few Chinese of my acquaintance, at least, have yet allowed themselves to be psychologically convinced by China’s success, to embrace a new national belief in China’s establishment as a leading nation. To do this, I suppose, they would have to fully believe that they already are, in fact, successful and powerful; that the world has already begun to look on their country with a growing sense of wonder, even envy; and that the past is, in fact, the past.

As Xu Guoqi suggests in Olympic Dreams, Olympic medals may not be the answer to what ails. “China,” he writes,

has been obsessed with winning gold metals in major international competitions to demonstrate China’s new status as an economic and political powerhouse….

Although China’s pursuit of Olympic gold medals clearly coincides with the nation’s journey toward internationalization and achieving new status in the world, the state-driven championship mentality still reflects a combination of Chinese can-do confidence and the country’s lingering inferiority complex. A nation that obsesses over gold medals is not a self-assured nation.

Xu goes on to caution that

Beijing has used its so-called gold medal strategy to demonstrate China’s rise in power and wealth, but the political system that the Communist Party has tried to legitimize through sports and other means cannot produce a healthy and strong nation when its citizens have been forced to give up their independence and even personal dignity.

When it comes to accepting outside criticisms related to sensitive topics such as the Olympic Games, Tibet, Darfur, and Burma, Chinese leaders undeniably are thin-skinned. Their defensive reactions suggest that their memories of historical weakness and humiliation still burn with intensity. And while honest criticisms should not be muted just because Chinese leaders find them grating, as we foreigners interact with China, we should become more mindful that much dark matter generated by this history still floats around our common universe.

In reacting to contemporary events, we tend to forget, perhaps because we are so ahistorical ourselves, just how deeply implicated we actually were in how China came to experience and view the modern world. After all, we are all inescapably part of our own histories. But, in the case of China and the West—and Japan must be included here—we are also inescapably part of each others’ histories. This long historical relationship has created a still rather unyielding psychological tension that is ever present as each country interacts with the other. And so, despite the fact that China has recently gotten closer than ever to creating conditions that will allow it to escape from our unequal past, it is important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them.

While we often imagine ourselves to have escaped the confines of that history—or that history somehow ended—it would be naive to forget that we remain part of the equation. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, America can still have a powerful psychological gravitational pull on China, which grows as much out of history as out of current foreign policy.

A film like Dark Matter helps us see the complexity of this relationship more clearly, because it is able to probe the psychological recesses of our complex relationships far more deeply than any kind of policy analysis.

If there is one certainty in all of this uncertainty, it is that, because there exists no more important bi-lateral relationship in the world today than that between the US and China, it is crucial for us to understand as much as we can about its almost infinite complexity. Chen Shi-Zheng’s absorbing film helps us see into the complex and sometimes dark well-springs of feeling between East and West that, because of their deep historical origins, are still able to intrude in myriad destructive ways into our collective present.

* Daniel A. Bell’s China’s New Confucianism, an account of teaching at elite Tsing-hua University, where classroom discourse has proven far more open and students far more reflective, reminds us that not all Chinese students are xenophobes.

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...
Reviewed in This Article

Dark Matter
a film directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008
by Xu Guoqi
Harvard University Press, 377 pp.

China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society
by Daniel A. Bell
Princeton University Press, 240 pp.

China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy
by Peter Hays Gries
University of California Press, 215 pp.
Author Intervew with Peter Gries in our Books section

China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Olympic Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges
Edited by Minky Worden, with an introduction by Nicholas Kristof
Seven Stories, 231 pp.

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This article was first published in the August 14, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books.


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In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi...


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...


The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism


Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has reverted to that of the...

Mao’s China


To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say...



Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time extensively. It was important to...