East Is West

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, which was where Corporal Endo had taken K’s sister. But I wasn’t halfway there when I met them coming back, singly and together and in small groups. The men. It was the men. Twenty-five of them, thirty of them. I had to slow as they went past. Some were half-dressed, shirtless, trouserless, half-hopping to pull on boots. They were generally quiet. The quiet after a great celebration. They were flecked with blood, and muddy dirt, some more than others. One with his hands and forearms as if dipped in crimson. Another’s face smudged with it, the color strange in his hair. One was completely clean, only his boots soiled; he was vomiting as he walked. Shiboru carried his saber, wiping it lazily in the tall grass. His face was bleeding but he was unconcerned. He did not see me; none of them did. They could have been returning from a volleyball match, thoroughly enervated, sobered by near glory.

iconCourtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers
Discharged Japanese soldiers crowd trains as they take advantage of free transportation to their homes after the end of World War II in September, 1945.

This is very fine, the animal quiet after the kill, the innocent, almost childlike air of the young men who have just had their sport, and the emotional paralysis of the observer, a Korean-Japanese soldier who had loved the girl. He would never allow himself to lose control of his feelings again, for love, like sex, or murder, was too dangerous. Hata—that is his name—was born a Korean, and adopted in Japan by Japanese parents. They were kind to him, gave him a chance to get on in life, and do them proud. He felt obliged to them, and to Japan, and to his superior officers, just as he would feel obliged later to America, where he ended up living, in a genteel little Westchester town named Bedley Run. “Doc” Hata (he ran a surgical instruments store), always polite, always obliging, wished to pass through life as much as possible without being noticed, like a man gliding under the surface of a suburban pool, “silent and unseen.”

Hata might easily have turned into a literary cliché, the polite, quietly inscrutable Oriental gentleman with a guilty wartime secret. He could have been no more than a name tag stuck onto an idea. Although Lee overdoes the literary metaphors a bit, reviving, for example, the image of Hata swimming in his pool, mimicking a kind of oblivion, long after the reader has got the point, his main character is fully alive, if that word applies to such a bloodless man. Alive but culturally at sea. He is Korean-Japanese-American, but does not really bear the characteristics of any of these—the mark, perhaps, of permanent dislocation.

* * *

The story begins in Bedley Run, the kind of well-mannered, plush, constipated place that the Taiwanese director Ang Lee caught so well in his film The Ice Storm, based on Rick Moody’s novel. The model for Moody’s town was New Canaan, Connecticut. This is the same kind of place. Hata, as the pillar of the local community, the master of gracious thank-you notes and a million polite but always distant attentions, has built himself a secluded suburban fortress, set in a neighborhood of antiquated stone walls, whitewashed horse fences, and fine properties hidden behind tall trees.

Hata is a committed bachelor. Only one woman, named Mary Burns, a well-bred, well-dressed, discreet, handsome, no longer very young country club woman, almost cracks his shell. They have a rather sedate affair, sleeping together “with a genuinely pleasing, if sober, conviviality.” But Hata eases his way out of any commitment in the end, and remains “sovereign.” Again, Lee imagines this with a mastery of understatement. They sit by the fire one day, Hata and Mary Burns, enjoying the warmth of the fire and their cups of tea, and Hata suggests that she might move in with him. And then:

When I spoke the words she had to stop sipping and put down her mug. Her usually placid expression broke open first in shock and then pleased wonder, and I knew I had slipped most horribly. In the ensuing quiet I had already sensed that cold pitch of gravity and dissolve, as though something was dying in a corner of the room, invisibly and wordlessly. I didn’t actually retract my suggestion, then or in the following days, nor did I repeat it, simply hoping instead for a gradual expiration. Of course, the whole thing did expire, and without further discussion, and almost exactly in the manner one would have wished.

As a kind of substitute for love, Hata showers people with kindness. This is because he is terrified of failing people. He has the ever-ready smile of the outsider, buying his acceptance through ingratiation. But it also helps to keep others at a distance, for it makes him more unassailable; the man who never needs help himself, but always dispenses it to others—hence, too, perhaps, the sobriquet of “Doc,” even though he was never a medical doctor. As his adopted daughter, Sunny, Korean-born like himself, tells Hata in a fit of rage, he burdens people with his generosity. And when terrible things happen to other people—fatal crashes, heart attacks, last-minute abortions—he feels as though he is a harbinger of death, which makes him even more solicitous, piling on ever greater debts of gratitude.

Emotional debt and emotional chilliness poison Hata’s relationship with Sunny, a serious blow, for she is his closest connection to another human life. Although the father-daughter relationship is well described, it is the one element in the story that sometimes feels contrived. Sunny’s role in the story is too obvious. The mechanics are too plainly visible. She is Hata’s penance for not being able to save the Korean “comfort woman.” He will save her instead. But obligation is not the same thing as love; in fact, one rather cancels out the other. Hata felt obligated to the Japanese parents who adopted him, but was incapable of loving them. Sunny cannot love him either, but refuses to be obligated. So she breaks free, by tearing down all the carefully constructed walls of his American-Oriental gentility. She goes off to live on the wrong side of town, in a derelict house full of lowlifes, petty thieves, and dopeheads.

One night Hata goes looking for his rebellious daughter, and sneaks up on her among the squatters, just as she is dancing half-naked in front of two drunken men, one a greasy punk named Jimmy Gizzi, the other a black man with an afro, who kisses her body as she sways to the music. Nothing suggests that Sunny is being forced. She is the mistress of her own degradation. For once, Hata’s feelings threaten to get out of control. He can hardly bear to watch, and wishes he could feel nothing for the girl. But then he slinks off, without having revealed his presence, soundlessly, “my blood already trying to forget, growing cold.”

There is a reconciliation of sorts between father and daughter. She has a child, after an earlier pregnancy ended in a late abortion—another smudge on their relationship, since Hata himself had insisted upon and actively assisted in that abortion. Her former black lover is the absent father. Hata feels a tenderness for the boy that he has never experienced before. But Sunny pretends to her son that Hata is just an old friend. Never having felt part of a family, she cannot pretend to have one now. Hata sometimes dreams of being reborn to “a brand-new life, fresh and hopeful and unfettered.” But all he and Sunny can hope for now is to take comfort in each other’s presence, for they are doomed to be among life’s orphans to the end. Hata finally sells his sheltered fortress by the pool, and decides to travel, perhaps far away, across the ocean, and come back to a place that is “almost home.”

* * *

Chang-rae Lee is an Asian-American, and his novel is about an Asian-American. This is not as exotic as it sounds; the story of America has often been told by immigrants or outsiders of one kind or another. The second book under review, by Ha Jin, is a more unusual piece of work. For Jin (“Ha” is a pen name which suggests a Manchurian connection) grew up in northeast China, served in the People’s Liberation Army, and only came to the US in 1985, when he was twenty-nine. His novel is set in China, during the 1970s. You might say it is a Chinese novel written in English.

The main character of Jin’s story is curiously similar to “Doc” Hata, except that he is a real medical doctor in the Chinese army. Like Hata, Lin Kong is an emotionally repressed man, always wanting to stick to the rules, and waiting for life to begin. Like Hata, he is afraid of letting anybody down and in the process lets almost everybody down. And yet the setting of the story could not be farther removed from the hushed gardens of Westchester.

Lin Kong works in an army hospital in the bleak, sooty, industrial northeast of China. As a young man he was pressed into a marriage with an uneducated village woman, who was so backward that she still had bound feet. He had agreed for traditional reasons: the match was arranged so that his wife could look after his sick mother. He had done the right filial thing. Naturally, love did not blossom; but that was not the point. Equally naturally, he began to have deeper feelings for his head nurse, named Manna, and she for him. The 1970s still being puritanical times, however, they could do nothing about it. Men were not even allowed to be seen with female comrades outside the hospital compound unless they were engaged or married. And so, year after year, during his leave, Dr. Lin returns to his wife’s village to ask for a divorce, and year after year she first consents and then refuses.

According to another hospital rule, a man can divorce his wife without her consent only after seventeen years of separation. After the eighteenth year Lin and his head nurse are able to marry at last, but by then it is already too late. They have waited too long. He can’t satisfy the younger woman’s passion. Disillusion seeps in. She gets seriously ill, and does not expect to live long. He feels guilty about the way he has handled his life, and yearns for the more comforting presence of the old peasant wife and their loving daughter, Hua. They would like him back too. So he waits for Manna to die, and longs for the day he will finally be able to go “home.” And just then Manna gets better again.

* * *

It is a bleak story told in cool and only occasionally awkward English prose. Jin describes a society caught between the constraints of half-surviving traditions and the even harsher chains of Communist rule. The dampers on Lin’s emotional life are not all of his own making. To live as a Chinese under Mao, and remain a decent, feeling human being, was an almost impossible task, for ethics were turned upside down: it was good to denounce your loved ones, and indeed bad to indulge in love at all, unless it was for the Party and the Chairman. Jin only deals with the political horrors of Chinese communism obliquely. The Cultural Revolution is already over when the story unfolds. And the fear of doing the wrong thing, of falling foul of Party rules, of thinking the wrong thoughts, and so on, has been internalized by his characters. They—especially Lin—are constantly watching their backs without even realizing it.

Despairing of his chances of getting a divorce, and feeling guilty about Manna becoming a hopeless spinster on his behalf, Lin introduces her to his unmarried cousin. The cousin is an artist and shows Manna his drawings for a children’s book. They are of a battle in which Vietcong troops wipe out Americans. One illustration shows a black soldier and a white officer yelling “help!” after being impaled on bamboo stakes. But he explains that the publisher has rejected them. He was told that Americans were no longer the main enemy. Now they wanted pictures criticizing Confucius, in line with the latest political campaign. Manna asks him why he doesn’t draw what he likes, and he says: “It’s so hard to predict the wind. If I take up a project now, by the time I’m done with it, it will probably be out of fashion.”

This is well observed. Jin doesn’t belabor the fact that getting the “fashions” wrong could mean serious trouble in China. But the tyranny of propaganda is clear, and so is its whimsical, even absurd nature. And yet the conversation sounds entirely normal; it is the way people talk even in abnormal circumstances. Indeed, it is the surface normality of his characters that makes the novel so arresting, the sense that “normal” life goes on, despite all the political madness. For human feelings can be repressed, sublimated, or distorted, but never eradicated entirely. Despite the official puritanism, the earthiness of Chinese life still emerges—in jokes among the nurses, or open talk among the officers. There are two descriptions of sexual acts in the novel, one brutal, the other loving. Both show different sides of repression.

* * *

Manna is raped by a fellow officer of Lin’s. He is everything Lin is not, a violent, macho figure with a raw appetite, who always goes for and gets what he wants, the kind of brute who will survive under any system. He ridicules Lin for not having sex with Manna. And so he rapes her, pushing her face down on the bed. She struggles, and he grunts: “‘Shut up! My cock is designed to blast into an old virgin like you.’ As he was speaking, he pressed his organ into her, thrusting away like a dog.” She decides not to say anything, for fear that no one will believe her anyway. After all, women had sex with officers and Party bosses all the time, in exchange for favors. Sex is just another currency. The rapist, one is not surprised to hear, goes on to get very rich, when money-making has become the latest Party line.

The other scene takes place at the hospital’s theater. The doctors and nurses gather to see an opera about the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 (wicked Japanese imperialism is always a worthy subject). Manna has kept a place for Lin beside her. Such indiscretion frightens Lin, but he sits down anyway and accepts a candy from her hand. “City girls, they’re so bold, he said to himself.”

The lights dim, fierce battles take place on stage, and her hand finds his in the dark.

Gently her fingertips stroked his palm, as though tracing his heart and head lines. He touched her hand and felt it was warm and smooth, without any callus…. She pinched the ball of his thumb a little, and in return he felt her pinkie, twisting it back and forth for a while. Then she caressed his wrist with her nail…. The two hands remained motionless for a moment, then turned over, engaged in a kind of mutual massage for a long time. Lin’s heart was thumping.

…When the curtain fell, all the lights came on and people continued shouting “Down with Japanese Imperialism!” Lin gazed into Manna’s eyes, which were gleaming intensely, her pupils radiant like a bird’s. Her moist lips curled with a dreamy smile as though she were drunk. Slightly dizzy himself, he stood up and hurried away for fear that others might see his face, which was burning hot.

To find this kind of erotic charge in Western literature you would have to go back many years. The lifting of social restraints in our society has been a liberation in many ways, but it has also caused a kind of literary, and indeed cinematic, inflation. We need greater and greater shock effects to feel anything much at all. Perhaps part of our intense interest in a novel such as this one, or indeed Chang-rae Lee’s, is that they have revived something that was once the stuff of drama in so much of our literature, namely the tension between social duties and human feelings.

The Japanese call them giri (obligation) and ninjo (human feelings). Kabuki plays, as well as many Japanese films, up until about ten years or so ago, and indeed popular songs, revolved around the contradiction of the two, and often ended in suicide as the only way out. The suicidal theme is played with in Chang-rae Lee’s novel in a subtle way: “Doc” Hata often dreams of oblivion: “…If I could trade all my years to be at some early moment and never go forward again, I would do so without question or any dread.” Of course, Westchester, or indeed Communist China, is not Japan. Giri and ninjo are played out in different ways in different places and different times. But what is so convincing about the novels under review is not their “Oriental” atmosphere, but quite the opposite: we can still recognize ourselves in characters and predicaments that might seem, superficially, exotic.

* * *

Minority voices have become popular in modern literature. Many large bookstores in Britain and America have special sections for gay or black books, which range from fiction to political or cultural theory. One will find Edmund White’s novels on the gay shelves, and James Baldwin’s on the black ones. Such categorizing can be dubious: Was Christopher Isherwood a “gay author” or a novelist who happened to have been homosexual? At any rate, minority voices often sound fresh, simply because they were not heard before, at least in the mainstream marketplace. Even mediocre writers can be of interest as messengers from unfamiliar cultures and social milieux. Some minority writers, especially from the Asian continent, deliberately play up the exoticism of their imaginary worlds, creating, in English, a kind of Orientalist universe, full of lurid and dreamlike imagery—not a “white” fantasy, perhaps, but a fantasy nonetheless. Others conform to our (and maybe their own) expectations of what other cultures are supposed to be like. This tends to be the case particularly when the authors are culturally at home in the West, even if their parents or grandparents were not. The very British writer Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two novels about Japan, full of delicacy and Oriental restraint, before moving on to Western subjects. He knew little about Japan, apart from what he managed to glean from the movies and his immigrant parents, but to start off with “Japanese” novels in English was a smart career move. The Oriental reputation, however, can stick.

The critical reception of Ishiguro’s first “English” novel, The Remains of the Day, about an English butler, was striking. Reviewers often described the butler as a geisha-like character, and his emotional constipation and sense of duty as very “Japanese” (as though all Orientals were emotionally challenged). Here, too, categorizing can be a problem. I have seen Ishiguro’s books shelved among Japanese literary classics in bookshops all over the world. Perhaps Ha Jin’s novel will become a “Chinese” classic. And yet such classifications do these fictions a disservice. For Jin is more than a cultural messenger. And Ishiguro is hardly a messenger at all. What Jin, Ishiguro, and indeed Chang-rae Lee have done, given their oddly angled perspectives, is reopen subjects which most Western authors can only treat with irony: marriage, family relations, the boundaries set by social obligations. It is no accident that Ang Lee, the Taiwanese filmmaker, was so good at dramatizing a Jane Austen novel. Her world is in some ways akin to the one he grew up in. And so is the world described by Ha Jin.

The difference between Jane Austen and authors writing about Asian subjects is, however, that her readers knew the society she described intimately. Irony was her main comic tool, but irony is only possible when references are shared. The same is true of wordplay and the use of slang: these can only be understood by readers who share a great deal of cultural knowledge. Much of Alfred Döblin’s masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, will be missed by those who cannot read German, and more specifically, the 1920s working-class Berlin version of German. The fact that it still holds up in translation is proof that it is indeed a masterpiece. But it is the kind of book Jin would be unable to write.

Ishiguro’s last novel was deliberately set in an unidentified country, a kind of generic West, which might have been anywhere. Amin Malouf, a Lebanese writer who lives in France and writes his novels in French, claims that he never uses wordplay or slang, because he is not French and wants to be understood in any language. In this kind of global literature there is little room for the linguistic and cultural playfulness that breathes so much life into books such as Berlin Alexanderplatz or indeed Joyce’s Ulysses. The fact that cultural references are either not shared or deliberately rejected by writers like Ha Jin or Kazuo Ishiguro explains the lack of irony in their novels. But you can get too much of irony and in-jokes. The so-called “Hampstead novel,” a well-trodden and often well-crafted British genre describing the social world of upper-middle-class Londoners, choked on them. And the same may be true of currently modish “New York novels,” which rarely stray very far from a small patch of urban landscape between Columbus Circle and Tribeca. By stripping their stories of irony, cultural allusions, and exotic ornament, writers with complicated backgrounds can restore a classical purity to our languages, and even bring us a little closer to the ground of our shared human condition. To pull this off with a Korean-Japanese-American character in Westchester is hard enough; to do it with a story set in the grimy northeast of China is a high achievement indeed.

Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

A Gesture Life
by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead, 356 pp.

by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 308 pp.

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This article was first published in the March 23, 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


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...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

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...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

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...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn 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...

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...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

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...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

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...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

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—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

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...

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...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

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 in...

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...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

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...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

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...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

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 trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

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 Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...