Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

24 April 2017

Perspective

by Janice Law

Few things are harder than one’s own – or indeed one’s society’s – unspoken assumptions, biases, and thought patterns. Having just made my way though more than 1200 pages of the Chinese science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I have been struck by how ethnocentric much of our own popular writing is and also how easily good fiction can be constructed out of different materials and ideas.


Cixin Liu is a popular and award winning science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Except for some short stories, his wildly ambitions trilogy about earth’s encounter with an alien civilization was American readers’ introduction to his work. Launched with The Three Body Problem, the trilogy begins with a scientist with a justifiable grudge. After her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie was disheartened about humanity’s prospects and willing to explore radical solutions. Sounds familiar at the moment!

When a message from an alien civilization appears on her monitor, Ye Wenjie hits the reply button and unleashes a host of troubles, the most insidious of which are the sophons, super sophisticated spy equipment that is launched at earth. Worse follows.

A Western reader inevitably thinks of Pandora, but in her Chinese version, she is no curious girl but a brilliant physicist and theorist of what comes to be called the Dark Forest view of the cosmos. Given Western assumptions about women and science, it is striking to see the range of female scientific and engineering talent that Liu includes in the novels.

There are some gender differences, however, although they do not necessarily fit our own stereotypes. Cheng Xin, the young aerospace engineer who is the protagonist of Death’s End, the last of the novels, has indeed the feminine virtues of compassion and caution, virtues admirable but, in the novel, only helpful in the short run. On the other hand, the macho Thomas Wade, one of the few important Western characters, is effective in many ways, but his aggression and violence also prove ultimately inadequate.
The two people who come closest to solving the problem of a hostile universe are both unlikely and quite unlike the typical Western heroes. Luo Ji, who temporarily staves off disaster, is a bit of a slacker. Appointed to work on global solutions to the alien crisis, he goofs off in Scandinavia and appears to waste the time that should be devoted to intensive research. I can’t help thinking that he is a modern version of one of the Daoist sages, in tune with the universe and destined to achieve success through a sort of focused passivity.

Even less likely is the second possible savior of humanity, Yun Tianming, an ineffectual young man dying of lung cancer and awaiting euthanasia. When he comes into money at the last minute, he buys a star (don’t ask, it’s complicated) for a woman he’s admired from afar, Cheng Xin. She, in turn, recruits him for what will be a dangerous, decades- spanning mission to the alien civilization.

Like Liu, Tianming with his modesty and lack of ambition (but notice that romantic gesture with the star) proves to be a remarkable individual with a combination of ingredients superior in a crisis to either stereotyped masculine or feminine behavior. His gesture of affection for Cheng Xin, by the way, is the closest the novel comes to sex of any kind. And this too seems rather traditional, like the film Cheng Xin admires about lovers who are separated by the length of a great river and never meet. Real love is poetic, spiritual – and often doomed.

Similarly, the other great staple of our popular literature, violence, is treated in a different way. I think two people are shot during the trilogy and a couple more are murdered by a robot. But fights and quarrels and car chases and the like are definitely out. On the other hand, the body count is tremendous. Whole civilizations are destroyed and the relatively comfortable eras in earth’s history come after terrible population crashes.

The whole history of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and ultimately the universe is Darwinian, a matter of the survival of technologically-advanced and lucky civilizations. Nature, itself, hides nasty surprises like the multiple dimensions that can collapse with disastrous results.

Ye Wenjie’s physicist daughter, Yang Dong, even becomes disillusioned by physics, which is as close to a belief system as most of the characters have. She had thought that “The World of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that inclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.”

This melancholy conclusion is more than borne out by the sprawling novels that reach from our Common Era to a scene toward the end of the universe. The latter is more than a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, perhaps because Cheng Xin and her companions are able to time trip, not like the Doctor with a reversible Tardis, but via a combination of hibernation and light speed travel.

Ultimately Cheng Xin and her friends concede that all things must end, but the conclusion of this wildly ambitious and imaginative novel is that the universe can collapse and be reborn, a hope that comforts Liu’s protagonists perhaps more than a Western audience used to heavier doses of positive thinking.

21 November 2013

Speaking of the Other: China

by Eve Fisher

(NOTE:  Using my emergency blog because I have just emerged from computer hell, and a weekend at the pen, and I have literally not had time to work on anything but that.  Will update you on the boys next time.)

What's the deal with China? Are they really out to take over the world? (Maybe)
Are they going to invade? (No)
What do they want? (Life, food, clothing, shelter, a little fun...)
Why don't they understand human rights? (Define your terms.)
How can they call themselves Communist if they practice capitalism? (see below)
Don't they know that's wrong? Don't they know what's wrong? Don't they practice Zen Buddhism? Is that where the samurai came from? (Sigh.) Yes, I've heard all of these and more back in my teaching days.

Jade Emperor
First of all, China has been in existence since the Shang Dynasty (around 1600 BCE) and ever since has considered itself to be the center of the world: that's why China's name for itself is Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom. And China has been the dominant powerhouse of Asia for almost all of those millennia. To grasp this, consider that America has been a superpower for less than 80 years, and we're pretty possessive about our status. Every week - probably every day - some pundit/politician is screaming about America losing its dominance in the world sphere as if that is going to bring about the end of the world.

Meanwhile, China laughs. Being the dominant cultural, economic, and military presence in Asia for over 3000 years has meant that the Chinese pretty much see everyone else as culturally inferior barbarians. Yes, they're willing to adopt the technological advancements or cultural quirks those crazy barbarians come up with that might be helpful or fun, like KFC or cars–  but that doesn't mean they're going to adopt Western ideology. Why should they?

The truth is, China and the West share almost nothing in background, history, religion, or social values. China never experienced Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. The West never experienced Qin Shihuangdi (the emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from which we get the name China), Cao Cao, Empress Wu, or Kublai Khan.  And most Westerners have never even heard of them.

Empress Wu
China knew absolutely nothing of the Roman empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the discovery of the New World. On the other hand, the West knew absolutely nothing about the Zhou, Qin, Sui, Tang (a Golden Age), or Song Dynasties. Chinese and Western history only merge in the 1840's. And even then, the West never bothered to learn Chinese history.  (For the most part, we still don't.) They just wanted the porcelain, silk and silver.

NOTE: Porcelain is French for pigs in wool: the first imports to the West (post-Roman empire) were to the French court, which was the only one that could afford them, and the merchants brought lots of pigs (porc), a symbol of good luck and fortune in China, wrapped in wool (laine) to keep them from breaking.

SECOND NOTE: The West got gunpowder, paper, pasta, and various navigation equipment from China, but, since (once imported) all of these could be made at home, the Chinese did not get credit for them for a very long time.

Back to differences: in the West, the religious background is primarily Judeo/Christian/ Islamic; in China, it's Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist.

Lao Tze, Confucius, and Buddha frolicking in a glade

The great Western religious are monotheistic, exclusive (you can only believe in one at a time) and have a strong belief in the afterlife; the Eastern religions aren't and don't. You can be a Daoist Confucian Buddhist, no problem.  On the other hand, in the West, science has practically become a religion, in which nature is a group of objects that we can use, shape, predict, control. In Asia, animism– the idea that every stick and stone has a living spirit in it– was (and still to some extent is) the norm.

The Western philosophical background is Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; theirs is Confucius and his followers. Our philosophical tradition is one of logic and reason, and it's bred in our bones. We believe, naturally, innately, that when a thing is proved, it's proved, and you cannot hold two opposite beliefs at the same time without something serious being wrong with you. The Eastern way of thought is based on harmony and synthesis. Just because you prove one thing doesn't automatically mean that its opposite is wrong. In the Eastern mind, two opposites can - and should - balance each other very well, because that's what life is all about: yin/yang, male/female, good/evil, etc. Instead of creating equality by erasing differences, equality comes through fulfilling separate spheres that balance each other.

Our social background, especially in America, emphasizes individualism, freedom, and equality. The Chinese social background emphasizes community (especially the family), loyalty, filial piety, and hierarchy. Harmony is the primary goal on all levels of life, which can lead to a lot of sublimated emotions in the search for exterior peace. It also means that, if there's a choice between order and freedom, guess which wins? Order, every time.  For thousands of years, the watchword of every government has been "Stability above all."
Qin Shihuangdi

A lot of this is thanks to Qin Shihuangdi, the most ruthless emperor of Chinese history. In less than 20 years, the Qin Emperor set up a system of unified weights and measures, laws, money, and written language, all of which are still pretty much in place. He built roads, bridges, and much of the Great Wall of China using slave labor. He also came up with all sorts of ways to control the people, including thought control.

Legend has it that he burned all books except for "useful" ones like medical or agricultural works; that he tried to wipe out Confucianism and its teachers; and set in place the still-useful idea of collective responsibility. Basically, under collective responsibility, if one person committed a crime, or was just suspected of it, his entire family, perhaps his entire clan, would be arrested, tortured, perhaps killed. This encouraged people to police their own family, even to the point of turning them in, in order to save the clan. Harmony, order, above all.

Mao Zedong liked the Qin Emperor's style, and claimed to be his reincarnation. Certainly the Cultural Revolution appeared to be a Qin repeat, in which entire families were wiped out or sent to the country for reeducation because someone was a teacher, doctor, or otherwise educated.  (NOTE:  Mao was crazy, but not a fool - during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese nuclear scientists were kept carefully protected from any harassment.)  Today all of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on Mao's 4th wife, Jiang Qing, former actress and leader of the "Gang of Four".  Mao is still officially revered, even worshipped as a (minor) deity among some.  But the cult of Mao is why any current Chinese leader who appears to be rising up above the norm (i.e., have a personality) is quickly chopped down (see Bo Xilai, soon to be tried by the Supreme People's Court for everything from corruption to murder; he may be guilty of some of it, but his primary crime was being interesting).

But what about Communism?  Well, I could go into all the philosophical/political differences between Chinese Communism and Russian Communism - for one thing Chinese Communism basically threw out the thought of Karl Marx and Lenin because they had to.  But the real way to look at it is quite simple:  The Chinese Communist Party is basically the latest Chinese Dynasty.  Mao Zedong led a cult of personality, just as the founder of almost every dynasty has (especially the Qin Emperor - maybe Mao was the reincarnation).  But really, the style of government barely changed:  the Chinese government always had tight control of almost every aspect of Chinese life, laws have always been strict, the peasants have always been screwed, and everyone has always been scrambling to get wealthy.  As Deng Xiaoping said (after Mao's death):  "Poverty is not socialism:  to get rich is glorious."  They're still practicing that, too.


25 April 2013

The Real Asian Bad Girls

by Eve Fisher

A long time ago I read a pretty good book called "The Asian Mystique:  Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient" by Sheridan Prasso.  (The "our" being the West, of course.)  The sleek, dangerous, powerful, seductive Dragon Lady; the submissive, elegant, sexually available geisha/concubine; the perky, young bar girl who can be saved by the right man - and if it sounds familiar, it should, because most of it is just endless repetitions and variations on the whore with a heart of gold. I can say this because each and every one of these fantasies exists in Asia, too.

But there are real characters behind them.  We're going back in time to the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 CE), considered by many to be the high point of Chinese culture - the great age of art - painting, ceramics, poetry - and power.  Its capital, Chang'an, was the largest city in the world.  It was also a great age for Chinese dynastic conquest - as you can see from this map: 

File:Tang Dynasty circa 700 CE.png

And during the early Tang, two women rose to power within 100 years of each other, two women who are household names, who once held great power, seduced emperors, and (depending on who's telling the tale) nearly ruined China in the process. 

The Empress Wu (625-705 CE)

File:Gaozong of Tang.jpg
Gaozong Emperor
In 638, Wu Zetian became a concubine of the Taizong Emperor.  She was beautiful, smart, and mind- bogglingly ambitious.  But the Taizong Emperor died in 649 CE, and Wu, like all imperial concubines at that time, was ordered to become a Buddhist nun, complete with shaven head.  She did.  But somehow, in seclusion, drab robes, and with a shaved head, she attracted the attention of the next emperor, her dead husband's son, Gaozong, who brought her back to the palace.  His empress was not amused.  Nor was anyone else - this was completely shocking to both Confucian and Buddhist morality - a man taking his father's concubine who was also a nun?!?!?! 

Anyway, he took her to the palace, and she went to work at gaining power.  She had the empress executed on the grounds that the empress had poisoned Wu's daughter by Gaozong.  (Legend has it that Wu killed her own daughter herself so that she could blame it on the empress.)  She had another concubine, a former favorite, killed.  The Gaozong Emperor himself had a series of strokes in 665 CE that incapacitated him (legend says poison administered by Wu), and Wu began sitting behind a screen behind the throne and giving orders. For the next 18 years, she ruled in his name.

File:Wu Zetian, Empress of China.PNG
Empress Wu
When the Gaozong Emperor died in 683 CE, Wu became the Dowager Empress Wu, ruling as regent for her two sons who never quite made it to adulthood (legend has it...  you can guess).  Finally, in October, 690 CE, she officially took over.  She declared herself Emperor - not Empress - Emperor Shengshen, head of the new, Zhou Dynasty (named after her own family).  She was the only woman in 2100 years of  Chinese history to sit on the Dragon Throne itself.  She bolstered her claim by citing a Buddhist sutra (that I for one have never been able to find) that said a woman would rule the world 700 years after the death of the Buddha.  She ruled for the next fifteen years and, other than trying to wipe out the remaining Tang heirs, she was pretty good at ruling.  (She had a thing for young men, but then so did Catherine the Great.  So did Frederick the Great, but we won't go into that...)  She was finally deposed at the age of 80, and died nine months later. 

The Empress Wu has gone down in Chinese history as one of the most duplicitous, salacious, lustful, evil women in history, and she's been used ever since her death as the reason why women should never rule China.

Yang Guifei (719-756 CE)

File:Tang XianZong.jpg
Xuanzong Emperor
After the Empress Wu died, her son became emperor, who was succeeded by her grandson became the Xuanzong Emperor (685-762 CE).  He was a great emperor in many ways, and a major patron of the arts, but he was dominated by his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.  This led to one of the few great love stories of China, and, like the tale of Empress Wu, was given as a reason to keep women out of politics.

Yang Guifei was the wife of Xuanzong's son when he met her.  He ordered his son to divorce her, which of course the son (as a good Confucian) did, and had her put in a Buddhist nunnery.  A couple of years passed, and probably a lot of people had forgotten about that obscure ex-wife in a monastery - but then she was brought out, brought to court, and made Xuanzong's concubine.  Which was sort of fine (Father is always right), except he was obsessed with her. 


File:上马图.jpg
Yang Guifei mounting a horse.
Her family all got promotions, imperial messengers traveled night and day to bring her her favorite foods, and he never let her out of his sight.  Ever.  His work suffered.  Yang Guifei's favorites were taking over administration.  Eventually, one of her favorites, a strapping young man named An Lushan, launched a rebellion in 755 CE that actually captured the capital.  She was blamed for all of it.  The rebellion was crushed, but the army forced her execution.  She was strangled at a Buddhist shrine and the Emperor was forced to abdicate.


Yang Guifei and the Emperor have had innumerable operas, plays, and, later movies and television shows written about their love, and their great disaster.  Some present her as the author of all the trouble, others as a scapegoat.  (She's also a favorite subject in Japan, where there have been Noh plays and a legend that she actually escaped to Japan.)  The most famous is the Chinese poem "The Song of Everlasting Sorrow" by Bai Juyi: 
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Song_of_Everlasting_Regret#cite_note-20

File:Jiang qing yanan 001.JPG
So, a Dragon Lady and a Concubine.  The sexy bar girl?  Well, try Jiang Qing, (1914-1991) who began life as the daughter of a failed concubine, became a fairly poor film actress, and met and married the most powerful man in China, Mao Zedong.  She was his fourth and last wife; he was her fourth and last husband.  He modeled himself on the Qin Shihuangdi Emperor; she modeled herself on Empress Wu.  She called herself, after his death, when she was on trial for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, "Mao's Dog".  She is called to this day the "White Boned Demon".  Who says that only the West has fantasies and cliches? 

NOTE:  On vacation - will be back next week!

11 April 2012

Close - But No Spring Roll

by Neil Schofield

A few years ago, round about the time when I was flirting with the gilded chimera of Hollywood, just at the same time in fact, I was seduced by another chimera from the other side of the world. Out of the blue I was contacted by a young person who offered herself up as my agent to sell my stories in mainland China. This young person had been instrumental in introducing EQMM to China, and her credentials seemed tip-top.
"Hmm," I said to Mimi, "China. Just what we've been needing."
So, to cut it short, I parcelled  and disked up a load of my oeuvre and bunged it off to the young person, mostly my published stuff but including one or two stories that had been rejected. Hah! That would teach 'em.
Well, the young person came up trumps. Not long after, she announced that she had found a publisher who was willing to publish two - not one, mind - collections of stories. I read the letter with trembling eyes.
"What is this hectic flush that is suffusing your dear face, beloved one?" asked Mimi. I gave her the glad news, and she suffused along with me.
I received two contracts -one for each collection, and all was tickety-boo. The publisher was - still is, for that matter - Qun Zhong in Beijing.
I rummaged around on the Net and managed to Google Qun Zhong. When Google had translated the publisher's pages for me, I found it wasn't half bad. This was the same publisher who had on its list James Patterson, Clark Howard, lots of Sherlock Holmes, Robert Brainard ( not inaccurate as translations go). They had the first Spenser novel, billed as 'The Gude Fu Handscroll', which is close enough. And they had Philip Margolin, otherwise known as Philip Ma Gaolong.
"Well," I thought, "I'll gaolong with that."
I received a smallish advance for each collection and that was that for a year and a half. The young person taking umbrage at a fairly innocent remark I made in an e-mail, scuttled off into the undergrowth never to be heard of again and I was left along with Qun Zhong or rather with Ms Zhang Rong, who was the editor in charge.
That hectic flush came and went several times in those eighteen months. Sometimes I looked like a set of traffic lights as I did the arithmetic. One billion, six hundred milion people in China, I reminded myself. Now say, just one-tenth of one percent bought a copy of just one collection - no it was too much, the brain refused to cope with the maths.
Nobody ever asked questions about the translations. They were just getting on with it, I supposed. But I did wonder how they were coping witht sentences like the one in 'Mine Hostage', one of my first EQMM stories, when a character says: "We've been stitched up. Done up like a kipper, we've been."
But I supposed they knew their business.
And after eighteen months, I had a bulky parcel through the post. Six copies of each. The first looked exactly like this:

And the second was pretty much like this:


They were what I suppose we would call Trade Paper Backs, but like no TPB I'd seen. The covers were beautifully produced, and the paper, well, the paper had nothing to do with paperbacks. It was almost silky to the touch, not that rough stuff we're used to.
It was beautiful work. The only hiccup being that although I'd written every word - well, ideogram, I guess - in these two gems, I couldn't make head nor tail of them. Never mind, I could show them to people, and people said: "Lovely. What does it say?" " Never mind that," I said, " look at the workmanship." " Lovely," they said again. Ah well. Somewhere in China I told myself, people were handling these jewels, and were actually reading the words.
Some were, in fact, but not quite enough. When Rong ( and that's something you've got to get used to - the first name comes last) sent me the first accountings, the numbers were lowish, about 3,500 copies of each sold. And the royalties had been munched up by the advance. So another chimera bit the dust. But not quite. I've still got six copies of each preserved in a jewelled reliquary, and the knowledge that on the other side of the world bookcases in apartments and houses hold copies of these two things.

They're still on the Qun Zhong list, these two collections. I occasionally peep at them, just to make sure. The blurb is interesting.
It goes like this: "Neil Schofield is one of Britain's famous suspense novelist, reporter origin, known as the "devil" writer."
And there's more:
"The reader not only his treacherous plot attracted but also because of its mysterious ending and cannot help laughing and then to appreciate the complexity of human nature and survival of the sinister."
Well, Google. You know.
But I love that 'survival of the sinister,' bit. That's poetry, that is.

In case anyone wants to become a devil writer like me, here's Rong's e-mail address.


 An enquiry can't hurt, can it? And you never know. Life is full of surprises.