&: Chinese walls (Eileen Chang details, folk art, urban novels)

This is Beijing, not too far from Dongdaqiao, if I remember correctly, in an area that seems to be called or was once called Nongfengli 农丰里. Looking online, there’s not much I can find. This is about it: there wasn't much there but farmland and grave mounds until the 1950s, when a factory was built to supply the People's Liberation Army General Logistics Department with blankets. Dormitories went up nearby, and then the 平房 were replaced with 楼房 '70s. Were those the same 楼房 coming down now? It's hard to say. I peered through that hole punched out of the poster...

Not much to see. There was a pile of smashed concrete, plaster, a bit of wood. It looked like the demolition had been halted, the remaining 楼房 saved, for the time being. There was a building site, deeper in the complex. That was about it, and the green and white 中基地产 sign that you can see the 地 of in the picture. But as I walked away, I glanced back, and saw an old upright piano with a wrecked keyboard, almost right against the wall, only visible looking back at a sharp angle.

Looking at the picture now, I’m reminded of a scene from Eileen Chang's "Sealed Off" 《封锁》that definitely didn’t come to mind on that sunny day in Beijing when I first took it. Zongzhen sees Cuiyuan through a tattered advertising poster...
Once again, she was startled and turned to look at him. Now he remembered, he had seen her get on the tram—a striking image, thrown up by chance, and nothing she could have planned. "You know, I saw you getting on the tram," he said softly. "In the window at the front of the tram, there's an advertisement with a piece torn out, and I saw part of your face, just a bit of your chin, through the tear." It was an ad for Lacova powdered milk, and it showed a fat little child. Under the child's ear, this woman's chin had suddenly appeared; it was a little spooky, when you thought about it. "Then you looked down to search for change in your purse, and I saw your eyes, then your eyebrows, then your hair." When you considered her features in isolation, one after another, you had to admit she did have a certain charm. (This was translated by Karen Kingsbury for The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature )
翠远重新吃了一惊,又掉回头来看了他一眼。他现在记得了,他瞧见她上车的——非常戏剧化的一刹那,但是那戏剧效果是碰巧得到的,并不能归功于她。他低声道:“你知道么?我看见你上车,前头的玻璃上贴的广告,撕破了一块,从这破的地方我看见你的侧面,就只一点下巴。” 是乃络维奶粉的广告,画着一个胖孩子,孩子的耳朵底下突然出现了这女人的下巴,仔细想起来是有点吓人的。“后来你低下头去从皮包里拿钱,我才看见你的眼睛,眉毛,头发。” 拆开来一部分一部分地看,她未尝没有她的一种风韵。
I'm sure everyone has read it, especially if you took an undergrad introduction to Chinese literature class.

It’s wartime Shanghai. An air raid siren stops a tram. Wu Cuiyuan 吴翠远, a professor, and Lu Zongzhen 吕宗桢, a banker, are trapped aboard. Zongzhen strikes up a conversation with Cuiyuan to avoid a run-in with one of his wife's relatives. A moment on the tram between Zongzhen and Cuiyuan reveals everything you need to know about the lives they lead, the society they live in, the city... It's full of carefully observed details: newsprint soaked up by the skins of baozi, polished walnut shells in a man's hand, tortoiseshell glasses, the tiny red cloth shoes on a toddler's feet, a beggar's song.

I just read it again to be sure that I was remembering right. I recalled it as a newspaper, that she saw him through. In my version of the story, he picked reads the newsprint off the baozi then picks up a newspaper from the seat beside him, to hide behind when his wife’s relative comes down the aisle.

I admitted here once that I used to covertly take pictures of passengers on the Hibiya Line in Tokyo. I swear it was innocent. There is a reason that mobile phones in Japan come with the shutter sound effect hardwired on and stuck at full volume. It’s a problem here, upskirts, downblouses, and just creeping up on girls. So, that’s why I want you to know my photography was completely innocent. My targets were immaculately dressed middle-aged women, getting on at Ebisu or Higashi-Ginza, taking a ride back downtown. Sometimes I’d sketch them in a short story, the perfectly set hair and soft, ancient luxury layers on them, the Hermès clutch, iced out knuckles, Ballon Bleu...

Beyond the quiet desperation in the story, the depiction of middle class neuroses, whatever, I simply like detail. I like Chu T'ien-wen 朱天文. I like her describing in《巫言》a taro purple with titanium buckles Louis Vuitton Epi Leather bag or devoting a page to describing the various uses of a pair of torn black pantyhose.

I’m talking about the city here, though. I am getting around to saying: I wish there was better writing about Chinese cities. I wonder if it’s because I’m an outsider, that the things I notice are not particularly remarkable. It feels like most Chinese writers that write about life in the city strip away the detail. Give a rough description of a city block, I can picture it, but I want more. Give me a book written in Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Suzhou, Fuzhou, within the past decade, that gives up the gritty detail of the city. I can think of examples from works in historical settings, where the detail is meant to add some authenticity or illuminate something about the age. But a contemporary book, it doesn’t exist (a bold claim for someone that hasn’t read widely enough—I’m probably wrong).

This is down the street. Still around Dongdaqiao.

I'm surprised to see these folk art China Dream posters still up, after all these years. Still going strong. This one says something like: "Realize the dream / Sprinkle sunshine over China," or perhaps, "Realize China's dream / Send forth the sunshine," 圆梦中国 / 洒满阳光. The illustration is from a folk artist in Longmen in Guangdong. They are beautiful.

Nicer to look at than the militant calls to 扫黑除恶. Why hasn’t Beijing been completely taken over by 扫黑除恶 posters yet? I don’t know. Maybe there is no 黑 left to 扫 in Beijing, no 恶 that needs 除ing.

Folk art looks strange, put up here in a street in Chaoyang, sitting at eye-level, hiding a 小区 of ‘70s or ‘80s cream-colored apartment blocks.

I was trying to draw in a second point here, something about the Chinese belief in facade and artifice. Maybe there’s some way to connect that to the equally tenuous point about a lack of writing that fits my specific requirements for detail. The propaganda posters are always covering something up, as much as they are doing their job of spreading a message. They are something nice to look at, in this ugly stretch of city. They hide the details, like that poster up there would have hid the smashed concrete and upright piano, if it didn’t have a hole punched in it.

It’s normal not to look below the surface. You can put up a poster to hide the demolition site, and an X5 badge on a Shuanghuan, paint your face white and leave your neck natural tanned brown. This is lazy and essentialist.

I notice, though, in Japan, every aspect of the city will have already been catalogued and analyzed. Like, when I wrote about corrugated tin walls—I was late, there are already entire books written on the subject of corrugated tin in vernacular architecture, coffee table books with medium format shots of rusted tin walls. Exploring a new neighborhood, you will find that every element of it has already been discussed, whether the slums of Nishinari or the rows of luxury villas in Azabu-Juban.

There are reasons for that. Japan has a supply of highly educated idlers, born in the city, that grew up in love with the city.

The folk art is timeless, even if what it's depicting is dead and gone. It's good and right. What's the point of writing about the ugliness of the city? I don't know how many times I have been asked in China: "Why are you taking a picture of that?" And that might be a generic '80s apartment block or propaganda poster or some 办证 graffiti or a demolition site. It's hard to explain. It's usually something that I think is interesting, which I know I would struggle to find pictures of somewhere later, and might disappear before I get back.

Maybe everything is too temporary to bother putting down on paper! This street corner, which I photographed months ago, surely doesn't look the same now. Everything captured in these pictures, I keep hedging my bets: it might be gone now. The posters might be gone, the buildings might have been demolished, the street corner might look completely different now…

Why did Eileen Chang write about Shanghai like she did? Why did Chu T'ien-wen write about Taipei like she did? Why did Zadie Smith write about London the way she does in NW? There isn’t the same social or political impulse in Mainland China, I would say. You just wouldn’t write a book set in Beijing in 2019, some depressing corner of the place, out beyond whatever Ring Road signifies the boundaries of civilized city… I am blindly feeling my way toward a point here. That folk art represents the native place, the homeland, and writing should be—has been, for a hundred years—about the native place. That is why you get novels about Shanghai, written in Shanghainese, or evoking some particularly Shanghai vibe, usually set in the past, like Wang Anyi 王安忆 or Jin Yucheng 金宇澄 but you wouldn’t write about your adopted neighborhood in Shanghai, if you are a writer from outside the city. At best, you get a story about a character arriving from the countryside and pining for their native place. Nobody is really from this patch of city around Dongdaqiao, so nobody’s going to write about.

That’s too simple, but it’s getting there.

And why not: here's Qianmen, and maybe this is Dazhalan/Dashilanr 大栅栏, but I can't be sure. I thought I might return to my earlier point about artifice and facade.

I was there to visit Yangmeizhu Xiejie 杨梅竹斜街, stopped by Mofan Bookstore 模范书局 and Soloist, tagging along with Nick and Dong. But we wandered over to Dashilanr, too.

Qianmen is ugly. I visited it once before, probably in 2006. I know redevelopment in the name of preservation ends up fucking over people in the neighborhood and mostly benefits private developers, but the problem for me is that it just doesn't hold up. Glance in the wrong direction—a modern facade, an unfinished second story, overhead wires, whatever—and the magic is gone. A place like Dashilanr only works if you don't have the urge to peek around or poke at the facade.

It reminds me of the city wall in Datong, a massive fortress built of sinister-looking grey brick, meant to replace what had been a rather modest wall made of rammed earth, the most impressive towers and fortifications of which had been taken down in the '70s and '80s to put in roads. It looked cool, at least, but, the wall was under construction in spots around the city and I was disappointed to see that it was hollow, with a layer of bricks over a concrete and rebar skeleton. Fang'gu Jie 仿古街 in Datong, built around Huayan Si 华严寺, was another project that ended up kicking hundreds out of their homes, but the real crime is the scrolling LED signs and inflatable balloon arches decorating the imitation Ming buildings. And back to Japan, where there are plenty of fakes, all the castles were built from ferroconcrete in the '30s and usually rebuilt again after the Second World War, and you can buy tacky souvenirs and get Starbucks in the old entertainment district at Asakusa, but there is an admirable dedication to architectural and thematic purity. It's not that the castles made of rebar and concrete are perfect copies of the original, but they stand up to peeking and poking.

So, now, if I can draw together my two tenuous points (nobody writes about these places with care or detail because nobody is from these places, artifice and facade is tolerated) here, Qianmen is proof. Place like Qianmen (or a hundred other examples, neighborhoods in Xi’an, Nanjing, Kaifeng, Guangzhou, etc. etc. etc.) can be remade because nobody really cares. Nobody gives a shit about Qianmen sucking because it was never really a part of anybody’s city. Even if you lived in Qianmen or worked there, you were from somewhere else… The city is part of a project of modernization but not part of the homeland, can't be the native place (with exceptions, like I said), so it's not worth preserving or writing about.

Let's end it here.

&: Japanese walls (walls east of Ueno Station / トタン建築 / first attempt)
&: Chinese walls (first attempt)


&: Talking about smoking and a translation of a very brief Jia Pingwa essay

I just stood and went to the kitchen, lit a cigarette off the stove, went out the front door into the hallway to pace, trying to think of something to write. The building I live in is hollow, a cube with a central column completely open to the sky. I usually see a few red embers burning on the upper floors.

I rarely smoke, past couple years, but I usually pick up a carton in China, or sometimes at the duty free in Haneda. If I'm meeting writers or publishers, people I know, they know a carton is a nice welcome gift. I rarely smoke, but I smoke when I'm in China. That's what I tell people when I'm there: "Well, I only ever smoke when I'm in China." That's not true. But it's mostly true. Here, I might pick up a pack of American Spirits, usually before going to a bar, or if I'm traveling, or maybe a soft pack of Lucky Strikes, if I'm pissed off and feeling self-destructive. That's rare, though. I usually only smoke in China. It's hard to say no. The cigarettes are good, too.

I had my first cigarette at twelve or thirteen, but I started smoking when I was seventeen. When I went to China for the first time, I was in my early-twenties and I smoked Zhongnanhai. When I went to Dalian, I think I was still smoking Zhongnanhai, but I might have switched to the five milligram version, and most of the time I was too broke to afford anything but Hongmei (so, I do recall smoking Hongmei when I was broke, but it might have been another cheap brand when I was up north). When I was in Guangzhou, it was imported Vietnamese Marlboro Reds, which everyone told me were fake and could only be bought from magazine kiosks or a few shops out in Panyu. In Guangzhou everyone smoked Shuangxi, which has a flavor like dried plums and peppercorn, nothing like it, and then for a few years it was Hongtashan, which I think are still the cheapest pack in most of the country. Hongtashan burn like a tire fire and taste like roasted sweet potatoes. Every time I get passed one of my former brands, it's a two minute nostalgia trip. A hit off a Shuangxi, I'm back in Tianhe, sucking one down after a pork cutlet sandwich from Queen's Bakery, sitting outside Yangcheng Center, waiting for Fifi to get off work, or—and always this particular memory!—sitting on a recliner at a massage parlor on Yide Lu, right near Haizhu Square, watching a Tyson fight on the built-in flatscreens with *** from ********. Hongtashan, I think I first smoked them on a twenty-four hour no-seat train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, after I ran out of my Zhongnanhai, and they always take me back to that hellish trip or to smoking in bed in my apartment in Datong, ashing on the floor. I wish I knew what cigarettes the guards at the juliusuo passed out, I'd like to go back there, just for the amount of time a cigarette takes, standing out by the hole we dumped our shit buckets in, feeling light-headed, freezing...

Part of it was cultural, of course. The ceremony of passing out cigarettes. I like the hometown pride, when someone says, like, "Oh, you're smoking Zhongnanhai, huh? Try one of these! This is what we smoke in Nanjing!"

I wrote a novel once called Chinese Cigarettes. It was okay, I think, but I ended up losing it, trapped forever on an Acer laptop with a malfunctioning hard drive. That was a long time ago, five years ago now, I guess. I still have pieces of it, spread around various notebooks and hard drives. I had two pieces of it published, one online and one in a more serious outlet. I'm too self-conscious to even edit them into something now. That's the problem with self-awareness, maybe. But the novel was about smoking cigarettes, mostly, and girls, being a slacker in early-to-mid-2000s Nanjing and Guangzhou. Part of it was meeting people I had known long-distance, having them refer to things I had written, and feeling deep shame. The same goes for this. I don't want anyone to read this blog. I have to write it, but I hope nobody reads it.

I smoke rarely but I'm still deeply addicted to nicotine. I discovered mint Skoal while working at a slaughterhouse in Moose Jaw, the first time I dropped out of school. It's more convenient than smoking and I swear to God, it doesn't cause cancer. So, I mostly dip Copenhagen now, usually wintergreen, and straight when I want to give my lip a break. Every so often, I fall asleep with a chunk in my lip and experience lucid dreams. That is one of the side effects of nicotine. I don't know if lucid dreams are real, but they feel lucid, maybe because I can remember them for longer than regular dreams. My pillowcase is stained with tobacco juice, drooled out while I'm dreaming my possibly lucid dreams. Brown dots, all over. Nicotine helps me focus. Skoal and self-help books are the reason David Foster Wallace managed to finish Infinite Jest. Copenhagen and sugarfree cola is the reason I got through the translation of Qinqiang.

I miss smoking, and the tobacco is good, so when I go to China, I smoke. It's hard to turn it down. I'm mostly meeting writers, editors, academics, and degenerates. Even during my chaste girls night in with some editors from Writers Publishing House, one of the young editors called for a smoke break. At my hotel in Xi'an, the boy manning the door caught me a few times coming outside to smoke, and took pity on me. "You can smoke in your room," he said, "I'll get them to bring you over an ashtray."

The cigarette I went to the kitchen to smoke was from a carton passed to me by Jia Pingwa, who must be gifted several dozen cartons a month, judging by the towers of tobacco in his studio. On his writing desk, which is dominated by carvings and piles of books, he has just enough space to work, a few pens, sheets of clean paper, a candy box to put completed manuscript pages in, and an overflowing ashtray.

Wandering around Xianyang International on the same trip, I picked up a copy of Walking Alone《自在独行》, one of dozens of collections of Jia's essay. I had spent the previous week turning down books from authors and publishers, not wanting to lug them home in the overnight bag I'd brought to Xi'an, but my flight was delayed and I needed something to read.

I've always admired Jia Pingwa's brief sanwen 散文 essays. They're accessible, plainwritten, standing in contrast to his novels. The tone is usually confessional and humble. I have translated a few of them (one is translated almost completely at the end of this entry, "Trip to Bijia Mountain," which has the earliest appearance of a scene that appears in four novels: inspired by a mummified holy man, a traveling doctor seals himself in a coffin, and his rotting corpse is discovered later), even published one ("Drinking"), but it's hard to imagine the sanwen having much of an audience in English translation.

Looking through the table of contents, I saw that I had read most of the essays. I am a habitual re-reader, and re-reading in my second language is even more rewarding. I did most of my reading of Jia Pingwa while flipping through a dictionary, trying to figure out radicals and stroke order. It's nice to re-read something I read five, ten years ago, now, for pleasure, and making more connections, not having to research barely-obscure allusions.

In the collection, I found a very brief essay about smoking, which you might have read, if you've read any of Jia's sanwen.

Somewhere over the Bohai Sea, I made a translation on the back of a Korean Airlines airsickness bag, which I carried home, through a layover, on the train back from Narita, but I can't seem to find it now, so, doing this mostly from memory, since it's short and I've read it many times, glancing over at the book if necessary, but taking liberties:
When you eat, you must shit, and when you drink, you must piss. A drag off a cigarette, though, is as simple as breathing in and out. The artist must smoke, of course, but the practice should be restricted to a select group. The cigarette must be to the smoker like the pistol to a policeman or the sleeping pill to the insomniac or the courtesan reclining on yellow bedsheets to the emperor. Unfortunately, the practice has become too popular. This state of affairs is completely unacceptable.
We must begin restricting cigarettes. I suggest that we start with asthmatics. They should abstain for their own sakes, but all the hacking and wheezing they do after a few drags off a cigarette is enough to put anyone off smoking. It gives the noble practice of smoking a bad name! Women should not smoke, either. The reasoning there is quite simple: in fengshui, women have a water nature—fire and water don't mix. And those unlucky souls with cleft lips should be banned from buying a pack, as well. Even if they could manage to clamp a cigarette between their teeth, most of the smoke would be wasted. The same goes for those that wear a long beard or an elaborate mustache. They may go years without incident, but there is a reason that the lawns around smokestacks are frequently blackened, and all it takes is a single stray ember.
Smokes should be a minority, but they are still in good company. We know that the buddha smoke, and so do the bodhisattvas. It might not be tobacco, of course, but they feel most at home in a cloud of incense smoke. What brings a weasel leaping out of his burrow? A puff of smoke, of course. We share the same fate as the turtle, too. The turtle's shell is scorched and stained, just as our fingernails are yellowed and made brittle. And I am a smoker, too. I was born in the year of a dragon, and a dragon must blow smoke.
I have never been much for the custom of passing out cigarettes. I have always thought it better to pass out money. Hoarding cigarettes is not a sin, but hoarding money certainly is. Smoking is an individual pursuit, too. If I want to destroy myself, it is my own business, and I don't need to include others. I have always held to another belief, too: smoke your local cigarettes. The character of a man is determined by the soil on which he was raised; stay true to your native place and stay true to your local cigarettes. For that reason, Chinese people should not smoke foreign cigarettes. That is why I stayed true to Monkey King for so many years. That was my local cigarette, manufactured from Shaanxi tobacco.
I once saw a couplet written above a temple in Hangzhou. It went something like this: "Life and fate both, must move at a gentle pace / For your own sake, spend a moment at rest." That may well be true. Perhaps life does move slowly for some, but it can be difficult to find the time to take a moment to yourself. I can't think of any better excuse than pausing to enjoy a cigarette.


&: Diary (9)

(July 28th, 2019) Hot in Xi'an, felt like opening an oven, walking out of the hotel lobby. Took a taxi with *** ****** across town, in from the Second Ring Road. Walked over and wandered around the expo for a while. Always surprising, I still think, the mixture of people at these kinds of things: parents dragging their kids over to look at test prep books, young urban women flipping through a Natsume Soseki translation, older couples browsing the selections from state publishers, rich and poor... Coming to something like this—the National Book Expo—it does remind me again, what an uphill battle it is, selling books on the other side, why Chinese publishers can't understand the lack of enthusiasm for their books, which sell in the millions at home and we're lucky to sell them to an academic press, authors that attract crowds of fans and nobody's interested in them outside of East Asia. I stood around with *** ****** and *** ** from *******, sat with her for a while, until I got word that Jia Pingwa had arrived. I went outside to smoke a cigarette just as a powerful, drenching rain began to fall.

Back to that, the way these books and authors are revered in their home country compared with how little attention they receive abroad, you have to see how Jia Pingwa is treated in Xi'an. I spent a couple days with him earlier in the year, and whenever we were in Xi'an, he was recognized wherever he went, and he almost started a riot at Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater when we tried to sneak into a performance of Women Generals of the Yang Family. I wrote about it before, but it's strange, to be in his presence and to be photographed almost constantly, by his own staff, by fans, by people on the street attracted by his small entourage. Even going around the city, the pressure was off: I was no longer in the position of distinguished guest from abroad but simply a minor member of Jia's group.

I knew that, on stage together, nobody would be listening to anything I said, or they wouldn't remember it. I knew I couldn't fuck it up too badly. Wang Chunlin spoke with the passion of a tent preacher about the greatness of Jia, how he stood above all contemporary novelists. Jia Pingwa rambled, as he usually does. I stumbled through my remarks. My spoken Chinese has degraded to a point where I struggle to throw around literary terms. Everything else, I can still get by fine. The limitation can be helpful, I think. It forces me to express an idea in simple terms, as briefly as possible. When it was all over, Jia Pingwa took a seat at a card table and started signing books. I guess the fans paid extra for the privilege. It looked like those idol handshake events in Akihabara, a burly security guard forcing people away from the front of the table if they lingered too long. I stood in the front row, my own little meet-and-greet, with Wang Chunlin, taking pictures with people that I have to imagine didn't know who I was, probably didn't know who Wang Chunlin was, either. Had my WeChat QR scanned a dozen times, later receiving heavily filtered copies of the photos taken.

Got in a Buick with Jia, ** ****, and Ma Li, who convinced ** **** to extend my stay by a few days, drove over to the author's main studio. I know everyone's been there before, but it was my first time. The antiques crammed into every space are probably worth millions. I'm sure he's written an essay about the place I could look up. A reception area, a loft with a studio for calligraphy, a bedroom, then a room with his desk, piled with books, an ashtray, a chair covered in shaggy pelts. I remember getting choked up, going to see an opera with Jia the last time in Xi'an, thinking about reading Ruined Capital with Xinran, sitting on the sagging bed in my room or the stone benches along Yunlong Lake, then, years later, meeting the man himself. I felt that way again, looking over his handwritten manuscripts, an outline for a novel in progress, a battered Zhang Ailing collection open on the desk with his notes in the margins.

Went out for dinner Jia, Ma Li, his editor, the head of the press, staff from the press. Drank twenty year Huashan Lunjian with mediocre Sichuan food. ** **** told a dirty story about Wang Shuo. Much talk of marital infidelity, the charms of Japanese women vs. the charms of women from various regions of China, gossiping about writers. Went back to my hotel room to finish off a bottle of Huashan Lunjian, watch RT.

(July 29th, 2019) Said it before, I treasure my time in China way back when, when I had nothing to do, complete freedom (at least with my time, money was tight) to do whatever I wanted, take a train, minibus, hitchhike out to wherever, screw around, drag myself back home hungover. All that stuff I wrote about taking drugs, fucking, writing, just generally screwing around, it came from, like, seven years, broken up between the ages of twenty-one to twenty-nine. The stupidest most free years of my early adulthood were spent in China, so I guess I still associate it with reckless, artistically fruitful behaviors, with snorting, fucking, dancing, hitchhiking, fighting. So, but when I come back, I'm seeing the country from the backseat of a taxi, maybe from the window of a hotel. Even if I did anything reckless, I'd be too nervous to write about it, maybe bury it in something else, but these days, I'm too busy writing for money to figure, like, let me sit down this afternoon and type out a story about bad expatriate behavior, file it away. I've said before I'd like to write a book about China—not a book about China, but a novel set in China. And I wouldn't need to write it, since the material has already been written, even published a few times, in literary magazines, some online arts magazine, some other bullshit. I'm a frustrated writer that just happened to live in China, not a Sinologist, I keep telling you.

I spent the morning walking around Tumen, partly because it was nearby and partly because I had just read Hu Zongfeng and He Longping's translation of The Earthen Gate. Not sure what I hoped to see there, maybe some evidence of a village swallowed up by the city. It seemed that whatever had been built in the first and second waves of urbanization was already being replaced, or in the process of being replaced. Took a taxi across town to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with Giray Fidan, a true Sinologist, who developed an interest in Chinese philosophy as a young man, a professor of Chinese, with a book coming out about Kang Youwei's tour of the Ottoman Empire, working on a translation into Turkish of A Dream of Red Mansions.

Took a taxi back across town, went for a walk north of Tang West Market. *** ** from ******* called me down to her hotel room to drink a bottle of red wine, got there and sat drinking wine, then pink and blue Rio with a *** ** and a couple young women from Writers Publishing House, eating dried okra and shanzha candy, going out into the hallway every now and then to smoke with one of the Writers Publishing women. Topics of discussion included: date of Party membership (two out of four present), Devils on the Doorstep, Thai horror films, Scandanavian horror films, areas of Beijing where gay and transgender prostitutes work, whether or not Guo Jingming is gay, Angelababy.

(July 30th, 2019) Went to a museum with *** **, who took pictures of every single exhibit.

It's a fact of being a dirtbag for most of my life, especially in China, I'm still surprised to meet a person like her, Party member, steady job, born and raised in Beijing, shares anecdotes about traveling to Spain and New Zealand. I'm very familiar with the 低端人口, always rented in the worst parts of town, worked shitty jobs, spent time in a detention facility in Datong, first love was a girl whose parents were 下岗 workers, never lived in Shanghai or Beijing, knew some artists and writers but they were mostly barely middle class but they mostly just managed to get into some quasi-creative field and have enough free time or take a few years off to paint or write and maybe got lucky or hadn't yet bottomed out. I knew some rich people, but they were far from respectable. They had made their money filling sea containers with crap, shipping them off to the West Coast, or off coal or heavy equipment or trucking. Even the rich girl I dated in Guangzhou, she was local, parents had a few apartments in Liwan, I think, but I went over to her place once, cramped, found out she had a sister that was born off the books and hidden out in the village. She was probably going to go to a good school and—it was different, though. That was some kind of old Cantonese merchant money, and they were still tied to the village. Even at UBC, most of the 富二代 were from—like, in the grand scheme of Chinese wealth—from fairly modest backgrounds, rather than, say, serious (relative) old money, and, same thing, their parents made money off bullshit, selling crap. Not that *** ** has any money, I don't even know. But that respectability, something I rarely came across before. Her grandpa was probably a general or something. Who knows? Even the older people in publishing, they're old enough to have lived through some shit, plenty of stories about drunken antics with writers, shit like that. I don't know. Maybe it's because I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai.

Had lunch with ** ****, who told the dirty Wang Shuo story, invited ** **, because I didn't think I had enough left in me to get through an entire lunch face-to-face with ** ****, who is friendly enough but is notoriously difficult, infamous in the world of Chinese publishing, supportive but tough. ** **, too, I didn't want to meet face-to-face. She **** ****** ** *** ***** ** *****. * **** **** *****. *** **** ** **** ****. She's a dancer, wears princess dresses everywhere, like an actress in some postmodern period drama, ends all her WeChat messages 亲. I found it odd, with her esthetic, that she's into Jia Pingwa, although perhaps it does make sense. She doesn't go for the entire throwback style and not like the streaming tradwife style, either, making sausage in the Zhejiang countryside, but some new age version, the princess dress somehow slightly Central Asian, tattoos across her shoulders. She's doing a doctorate at Suzhou University, or she's already done it, with her dissertation on Jia. I met her after the Expo event. We ate at an Anhui restaurant under the Second Ring Road. ** **** and I sat across a metal pan of braised duck. She took the bones and I took the square patties of duck blood. She stripped the meat off each bone, then crunched them up, saying, "我爱啃骨头." ** **** told me a story about once refusing to leave Xi'an until she got a manuscript from Jia. ** **** boasted of sales figures and told me that when she arranges Jia's speeches at Yale and Harvard, she'll make sure I'm along as a translator. She told me to move immediately to Beijing, or at least Xi'an. I nodded politely. ** ** didn't speak. I studied the edge of a strange tattoo on her wrist, mostly covered by her sleeve.

In the evening, went to visit Jia's second studio, then out to a restaurant. A man played the 尺八 for us, while a nun took our picture with her phone. When Jia clasped her hand as we left, I thought of Meng Yunfang and the young nun, Huiming (I noticed Howard Goldblatt translated 年方二八 as "twenty-four," but I'm sure that means she was sixteen, which makes what they've got going on even more forbidden). Got back that night and went out to meet with **** ********, * *** **** **** ******* *** ********** ** *** *** ***** *** * ***** **** *** *** ******. Went back to the hotel to sit at the desk in the room, smoke cigarettes, try to write something.


&: 迪兰先生, world famous Sinologist / 第29届书博会

I remember, trips to China used to be my escape hatch, when I got fed up standing behind the counter at a liquor store, renting some dingy apartment behind a youth hostel, or working overnight at a hotel, chasing homeless men out of the stairwell... I'd take whatever job, stay until I fucked things up, ended up starving or locked up, then do the cycle over again, go back home for a year or two, catch a flight back into Shanghai to try again. I managed to get a degree in Chinese, but it was mostly because I didn't feel like doing anything else. Part of it was trying to understand the girl I was with, as if getting a degree in Chinese, knowing the language and the history would somehow help me unfuck my relationship with her. I liked literature, I thought I could be a writer, so learning the language opened up an entire universe of books, centuries of writers that I'd never read, and I could translate them, too. That's how I came to this. I never imagined anyone would ever introduce me as a 汉学家, a Sinologist—makes me think of Pulleyblank, Kubin, Spence Malmqvist, guys like that, maybe Barmé, but mostly aging, resolutely anti-communist professors that are often photographed in robes and have Taiwanese wives. Those kinds of men don't really exist anymore, or they're retired. But I don't fit even with a younger breed of Chinese professors. I'm not in academia; I took a few classes in Classical Chinese but I still struggle to make sense of it; and I've never been interested in Chinese philosophy. But I don't fit anywhere else. Westerners engaged with China, if I can break them down into 士农工商-type categories would be Sinologist, China watcher (meaning mostly natsec think tank people, but also journalists), then the merchant and finance class. So, going to China to opine about Chinese literature, I must be a Sinologist. You look at the world of Chinese fiction in English translation, it's only China-focused academics working on it. Thirty-five books translated in 2018, just looking at fiction and poetry, outside of a few exceptions (Anna Holmwood, Jeremy Tiang are names that I caught), they're academics, rather than frustrated writers that just happen to speak Chinese.

I told a story over dinner the other night, about getting locked up in Datong. One of the men—Cai—from the Public Security Bureau was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Qing. I'd see him once every morning when I went out to dump the shit bucket, once again later when he came in to inspect our cell, and he'd sometimes call me across the yard to sit in his office and smoke cigarettes. I think I brought up Cao Naiqian 曹乃谦, maybe he did, but he mentioned how he knew him, since Cao had been with the PSB before retiring. Cai had worked some of the same rural areas where Cao had worked, too, so he had his own stories, and he figured he might be able to get Cao to come visit me. It seemed ridiculous to me, even then, taking a meeting with Cao Naiqian while locked up in a Shanxi detention center. The meeting never happened, which is for the best. I was thinking about that, though, just five years ago I was locked up with petitioners, talking about Cao Naiqian with a prison guard. The year before Datong, I'd managed to get a story published in a literary magazine and got a thousand bucks, thought that was a big deal. So, I figured that was as good as it could get, and that'd be fine, maybe publish a short story collection with a small press, if I was lucky, hopefully not get locked up for too long, but if I did, who cares? And I was thinking about that, right before going on stage, introduced as a 汉学家, to banter with Jia Pingwa in my halting Chinese about a forthcoming translation of Qinqiang.

I did it, though. I'd met Yan Hui 颜慧 before, so she knew what to expect. Wang Chunlin 王春林 talked enough for everyone on stage. Jia Pingwa doesn't give a shit. And I tried to illustrate the difficulty of translating Qinqiang with the example of Xia Tianzhi asking Xia Yu to put on a recording of《辕门斩子》after he disowns his eldest son, the difficulty of putting context behind it for readers not familiar with 杨家将, despite the importance of it in the novel to the story of Xia Tianzhi and his wayward son, then I think I mentioned how I discovered《废都》and maybe a few other things.

(But as a world famous Sinologist, it is shameful to be stuck with being called 迪兰, not having thought ahead and chosen a suitably literary Chinese name. 王迪 was suggested to me as a possible option, since it's too late to make major changes. I thought about 皇帝轮, from the Journey to the West line, "皇帝轮流做, 明年到我家," get the King in there, also works as a transliteration of Dylan, but I'm not sure it works, and it's probably too late to solve the problem now.)


&: Diary (8)

(July 22nd, 2019) Stayed up last night to watch the results come in for the upper house election, flipping between local stations and the BBC to watch protests in Hong Kong. The only question in the Japanese election was by how much the Liberal Democratic Party would win. They have ruled from 1955 to present, with brief breaks in 1993, and from 2009 to 2012. Despite the grip that Abe Shinzo has held on power, he hasn't been able to change much. This election failed to deliver the two-thirds majority required to revise the constitution and get a military officially going. As Abe said on TV, "Voters chose stability over disruption." Komeito, part of the LDP coalition, backed by Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist cult (or shinshukyo 新宗教, new religious movement, more neutrally, even though they've been around for eightysomething years), stood strong. The Constitutional Democratic Party, who oppose the revision of the constitution, managed to pick up some extra seats. Yamamoto Taro's new Reiwa Shinsengumi picked up a few seats, but the leader lost his seat. Japan Innovation Party, further to the right of the LDP, took their seat count from nine to fourteen. The Japanese Communist Party held onto all of their seats but couldn't win any more (or they lost one? I'm not sure). Turnout was under fifty percent. Business as usual. The shot at constitutional revision is as far away as it's always been, rejection of populism, voter apathy, most opposition parties clustered around the center (and a handful of reactionary right-wing parties), the debates about the future of the country (mostly regarding social security, pensions, demographics, sometimes the constitution and Japan's relationship with the United States and its East Asian neighbors) left unresolved, status quo. I think it's tempting to look at Japanese politics and praise the country for stability, while other developed countries are falling apart, but sitting here, it feels like the neoliberal consensus just hasn't cracked here yet—but it's got to be coming, right? Rising inequality, the string of scandals exposing the corruption of the Prime Minister's office, the power of business and political elites, hollowing out of civil society... Maybe they can hold on longer than the West... I have a very basic understanding of Japanese politics. I'm sorry. I'm always trying to wrap my head around what the hell is going on in this country. I should probably try to turn this into some kind of piece on the election, seen from one corner of East Tokyo, or something. I don't think I have it in me, though. I was surprised to see the posters for the candidates posted on the board behind the building are already gone. The Day of the Ox is coming. Buy your eel now.

(July 23rd, 2019) Fried Spam, sugarfree Monster and Copenhagen Wintergreen for breakfast. A handsome blue excavator on a lot east of Taito Ward Office. Sun came out after an early morning rain, every breath takes effort. Drenched in sweat on a walk from Shitaya to Okachimachi. Finished the translation of Qinqiang late last night. Reading and re-reading Jia's afterword to the book, his story of going through four drafts, not wanting to turn it into the publisher, and I can empathize. The translation work itself is done, but there remains a month of editing and revising. And after this, I have no idea what I will do. The money from the publisher will help, for a while, but I'm not sure what comes after that runs out.

One of the pleasures of translation is taking a book apart, each piece taken out of the machine, laid out on a sheet of white cotton, spritzed with brake cleaner, scrubbed with steel wool. The bigger themes of the book fall away. It doesn't matter so much what the author is trying to say as how the author constructs the book. Translating, instead of reading, you can't skip over a sentence or ignore an inconsistency in the text. You need to make sense of it. I spent hours, maybe days, stuck with a sentence or a paragraph in my word processor, with variations on a translation under it. If I could not make sense of it, I would start, sometimes, by translating it literally, writing out exactly what it said, then checking it back against the original. From there, I would move things around, massage it, until the meaning remained, something of the form of the original, and it communicated what I thought the original meant. I've never been good at the analytical read, dragging some bigger meaning out of a work, standard academic style, but I find I do like the close-reading of translation, the tearing down and rebuilding, putting a bit of gas in the tank, firing it up, tearing it down again when the whole thing shakes, trying again.

I spent almost a year on Qinqiang, about to spend a few more months working with Nicky and whoever edits it, making sure it's bulletproof, and I feel as if I understand it intimately. It's a unique feeling, I think. I guess it might feel like those Dafen painters, copying Van Goghs. In a way. I guess. That comparison might not work. But I sat there, copying out the author's work, rebuilding the original, separated by time and space and whatever else, trying to mimic the construction of a sentence or a paragraph or a tone, the same way they labor over brushstrokes or colors. It's going to be hard to put it away and move on to something else.

(July 24th, 2019) Scraping the bottom of the barrel with things to write about. I wanted to write something in praise of the Megurin. This is, like, my bored on a weekday in Taito tip right here. Made a note to myself that a Megurin piece could be pitched as some kind of, like, "Twenty amazing things to see along the Megurin route!" "Ride the Megurin bus to experience the charm of Tokyo's 'downtown.'" Have never successfully pitched a piece of writing on Tokyo, still, but I swear to God I've tried.

So, Megurin Bus, like the Toden Arakawa tram line that runs from Minowa to Waseda, is of limited commuter utility (but actually the Toden Arakawa is probably more useful, since you can connect down to the Yamanote on it, and go all the way from Minowa to Ikebukuro, and it is, depending on the hour, fucking packed with commuters, so I can't stand by that), and pitched now as tourist infrastructure. Now, the Toden Arakawa is a legitimate tourist attraction now. On a good summer day, you'll get crowds of tourists and locals down at the Minowa terminus or Arakawa-shakomae, midpoint, where they show off the old tram cars, taking pictures, lining up along the tracks near Otsuka-ekimae, where the train comes down the hill, or past Asukayama (I think?), where the tram goes out into traffic. (The buses on the Megurin's East-West Route are styled as old Toden trams, actually). There's that beautiful description in Norwegian Wood of the tram going through the backyards of the shitamachi or whatever, too. The Toden Arakawa is romantic. But it's a bitch to ride it, because of that. It can be at capacity with tourists. It's a pain in the ass, if you're just trying to get to Seiyu at Ikebukuro to buy peanut butter cups or whatever.

But, the Megurin, despite the "sightseeing bus" pitch, has no tourists riding it, most of the time. It's mostly retired people, cruising back home after going somewhere else in the ward. It has a confusing schedule, there's no signage in English (they have pamphlets in English, on the bus, though), and most of the routes go through places tourists are not interested in. The buses are more pleasant than simply taking the subway east from Ueno to Asakusa. They thread through the narrow streets of Taito Ward, taking wild detours through places you'd never otherwise go, and you can also simply ride it around one circuit, only a hundred yen. The buses, especially on the North-South Route are usually empty. And, forget the Japanese gaslighting you on transit efficiency, that bus is often fucking late—like, you go to get it ten times, you'll be waiting there past the scheduled time at least twice.

I went out this afternoon, nothing to do, finished all of my work for the time being, itching to be on a flight to Xi'an, too hot to walk around, big beautiful skies with fluffy white clouds, just baking fucking hot, and caught the bus in front of the post office by Uguisudani. It goes all the way up to Minowa the long way, down through Yoshiwara, across through what used to be Sanya, skirting Tamahime Park, cruising through all the old flophouses, up beside the ruined danchi in Hashiba, then down along the Sumida River, back west through Asakusa, and I got off in Okachimachi, right as all the salarymen were returning to their offices carrying their lunch, walked around the corner to Satake, went to the coffee shop with the spinning "¥210" sign, drank an iced coffee. I was looking out the window onto the shotengai, thinking about how sleepy Tokyo is. I know Tokyo is thirteen million people, almost forty million if you roll in the rest of the Tokyo metropolitan area, God knows how many if you included the entire Kanto Plain, and there are some centers of serious energy and density, but because so much of even the city proper is low-rise sprawl, especially in East Tokyo, it feels more like Winnipeg than it does Paris or Manila or Taipei. It's like Guangzhou, I guess, similarly massive, similar population, activity clustered around a few dozen hubs and the rest is low-rise sprawl (more high-rise sprawl in Guangzhou, obviously). This isn't a revelation. But you can live in some old neighborhood in Taito, and forget that the rest of the city exists. I don't remember the last time I went to Shinjuku or Shibuya or even Ikebukuro! I mean, I was talking about living a life completely cut off from the country, but I can live a life that's completely cut off from the city itself, isolate myself in a Taito Ward backstreet. That's part of the reason the influx of hotels and highrises is so annoying. I don't want to see tourists dragging rolling suitcases, because I don't live in a place where anyone would want to come—nobody goes out, nobody comes in, just idling in an East Tokyo shithole. But what can you do? Move deeper into the city, move further out, move to Ibaraki.

I ended up walking back up from Okachimachi, up beside the Taito Ward Office, sweating into my boots, back home to sit under the air conditioner.


&: Diary (7)

(July 15th, 2019) I make a living sitting in front of a Macbook screen and can go for days without speaking to anyone but Asumi, maybe a cashier at Maruetsu. I live in Tokyo but it doesn't really matter. A trip up to Adachi Ward to Kita-Senju feels like a trip to another country, even though it's only seven minutes away on the Hibiya Line. It's almost an island, I guess, separated from Arakawa by the Sumida and from the rest of Adachi by the Arakawa. Another up-and-coming neighborhood at the north end of the Hibiya Line, a place that most Tokyoites still avoid, and now the developers are putting in towers and suburbanites are buying them up. It looks like any other outer ward transit hub, but maybe with better restaurants, maybe more massage parlors, and still a bit of charm down the shopping arcades.

This city is grinding my brain to dust. This is a country where the messier parts of social interaction are stripped away, everything scripted, for the most part. I wish I could avoid that essentialist view of the country. But it's not some kind of "the character of the Japanese" thing. It has nothing to do with that. The rest of the world will look like this—maybe it already does. I wouldn't know. I never go anywhere. Social isolation is the norm in Tokyo. That is how life is structured. The idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger is unheard of. Avoid all potential conflict. There's the graph of how people meet now floating around, hockey stick for "Meeting online" but, here, there's not even that: sixty-something percent of Japanese men in their late-20s are unmarried, approaching fifty percent for men in their early-30s, and then they enter into childless marriages with emotionally distant wives that they see for a combined sixty minutes a week. The men work a hundred hours a week, spend the remaining time drinking, commuting, and sleeping, and their wives sell crocheted dog sweaters on Mercari.

This entry isn't going anywhere. I said before, I pitched a book about gentrification in East Tokyo to a publisher, who seemed interested, but they read a sample and said, "There's nobody talking in here. We have a long section with ****** ******** who works as a ******* ***** **** but she doesn't seem to add anything to the narrative. We need more voices." I'm sure it could be done, but I can't do it. I'll say it again, I miss that Chinese straightforwardness of 咱们交个朋友吧. That kind of thing can often be mercenary, at first, but it can develop into something else. But I guess there is something to be said for being left completely alone. But this is just complaining about a book pitch going nowhere and living in Tokyo. I'm sorry.

(July 16th, 2019) Raining for a week, my clothes are going moldy, a dark blue gabardine trenchcoat, coated in a thin film of greyish-green, canvas sneakers with patches of fuzz across the sides. Hung the trenchcoat under the air conditioner, watched it turn solidly blue again, a few traces of grey behind the buttons. Sky cleared and I walked all the way south to Parco Ya (stylized as PARCO_ya, which I'm not going to adopt). Whole city full of tourists, I complain again, should have gone out to Kita-Senju again. Ate a slice of banana cream pie, drank a cup of coffee at Harbs, watching Issey Miyake crepe skirts in primary colors waving gently under blasts of air conditioning. Picked up a shirt. Walked through Matsuzakaya. Whatever complaints I have about the city, I love the department stores as much as I love the narrow old arcades of Taito or Arakawa. Their time is done, especially in a place like Ueno. They must do most of their business on the ground floor, cosmetics and shoes, discount vendors... It feels lonely on the upper floors. I took a holiday last year, stayed in Ginza, only a short train ride away, spent a few days rarely leaving those big beautiful department stores, Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, Wako... Walked back downtown through Okachimachi, through that block thick with jewelry stores, up through the Korean shops around Okachimachi, looking in the military surplus stores around the hospital, the pachinko machine companies with window displays of their latest offerings, and back to Shitaya.

(July 17th, 2019) On a walk to Maruetsu. Can see the neighborhood changing, day to day. What got taken out here? I can hardly remember. It was an empty lot for a while, exposing the corrugated tin side of the building to the south and the water-damaged stucco of the building to the north. Maybe the lot has been empty since as long as I've been here, but I seem to recall an older building there... I can't say for sure. Looks like it'll probably be a small apartment tower, just like the one they're putting in around the corner. There's another hotel going up down the road, too, following the APA that just opened up beside Maruetsu. Doesn't matter that the tourists will stop coming. That's not the program. The city is being changed for another purpose. It might be peak tourism, but the Olympics will be the beginning of a new era, with the city increasingly opened up for investment. The tourism is like an extended open house for a new, neoliberal model of Tokyo. It proves that Japan is stable, even with geopolitical tension, mild trouble with neighbors, and open for business. I guess. Just ordered the Jules Boykoff's Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Maybe I can sharpen these ideas into something. But how odd, I remark for the thousandth time, to live in social housing in the center of a miniature East Tokyo real estate boom, hotels and new apartment blocks going up all around. I'll be gone soon, too. Went home from Maruetsu with six tiny plastic envelopes of chickpeas to make hummus, a log of tuna, asparagus, eggplant, and okra.


&: Broken Wings: Jia Pingwa's Controversial Novel Explores Human Trafficking And Rural China

Broken Wings is uncompromising and brief. It is told from the point-of-view of Butterfly, a young woman who is kidnapped while working with her parents in the city. She is transported to rural Shaanxi and sold as a bride to an impoverished villager, who imprisons her in a cave. Her captor rapes her and she bears his child. The police eventually locate Butterfly and save her from the village, but she is forced to leave her child behind. Not long after, she makes the decision to return to the countryside, though much is left unclear—for both Butterfly and the reader.

When People’s Literature Publishing House put out Broken Wings ... he found himself caught in the middle of a literary controversy.

Please read: Broken Wings: Jia Pingwa's Controversial Novel Explores Human Trafficking And Rural China at SupChina.

You can also read: an earlier collection of notes on Broken Wings, some of which I drew from for the SupChina piece, Jia Pingwa fever and The Earthen Gate at Paper Republic, which covers the avalanche of Jia Pingwa novels in translation, and this entry recounting a trip to Jia's hometown earlier in the year.

I've written and thought about Jia Pingwa and recent translations of his novels quite a bit over the past year. I'm preparing a translation of Qinqiang《秦腔》with Nicky Harman, which should be out late this year or early the next, and traveled out to Xi'an to visit the author. I've got a few more pieces planned, which should appear somewhere soon, and I'm about to take another trip out to Xi'an at the end of the month.


&: Empires of Dust

Jiang comes from the same literary background that produced established names such as Mo Yan, Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa. All of those writers got their start with politically-approved hack work, too. But while they went in other directions, Jiang Zilong continued to write in a literary style codified in the 1950s. Although he published most of his major works in the 1980s and 1990s, and Empires of Dust in the mid-2000s, Jiang is something of a living literary fossil. To understand his work, one has to step back to the era of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism.

Please read: Socialist Literature for the Capitalist Era at Los Angeles Review of Books' China Channel.


&: Wheeled suitcase

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
Expatriate identity issues are boring, I'm sorry. I don't worry about the question of belonging, anymore, like I might have before. I've got nothing to go back to, so I have to make the best of what I've got here. I read that Jamaica Kincaid essay yesterday, though, and those lines were knocking around my head. I'm stuck in the middle of that native vs. tourist split, forever, in Tokyo. When a new hotel went up on the block, I knew it would mean more wheeled suitcases being dragged along the sidewalk out front, more Midwestern rubes in cargo shorts loitering, Chinese tour groups filing in to the 7-11 across the road to pose for pictures holding, like, tuna sandwiches and dorayaki. But I can never blend in, either. You've got, like, two point something percent foreign residents in this ward and most are from South Korea, China, and Vietnam. There was a public meeting of the danchi's residents' committee and the neighborhood committee, where residents—that includes me—were assured that there would be no disruptions from foreign guests. So, I'm privy to the local anxiety about tourists but I also often get second and third looks as I come into the building. I get to hear the gossip about the Chinese family on the sixth floor, but I'm also aware that they're surely gossiping about me, too. I'm not a native and I never will be, even if my life here is banal and boring and I live in a danchi in Taito Ward.

It is an ugly building, though, now that I mention it. I took a look at it again this morning, after trying to write something and the Jamaica Kincaid line and the hotel situation coming to mind. Why doesn't it have any windows?

I should probably move to the mountains or something, maybe some Hokkaido coal village that's giving away free plots of land.


&: Broken Wings

I've had this entry open the past couple days, while writing something more formal about the book, which you should be able to read soon, fully edited and fully formed. These are ideas jotted as I worked, with no conclusion, mostly in response to reviews and criticisms of the book.

I was vaguely aware of the controversy around Jia Pingwa's Broken Flowers《极花》(and The Poleflower, going by the earliest translation), so I picked up the book expecting it to be a full-throated defense of human trafficking. I don't remember if I even picked it up, when it came out originally. Probably not. With Jia Pingwa, I'm still stuck in the '90s. But ACA sent me a copy of Nicky Harman's translation and I was impressed (by the translation and by what Jia had accomplished).

The book is about a young woman named Butterfly, a village girl that travels with her parents to the city, where they work as trash collectors. She is tricked by a man she takes to be a recruiter, then winds up on a bus she thinks is going to a trade show in Lanzhou—but he slips something into her drink and she winds up trapped in a gave in a village not far from Xi'an, raped and beaten by a man named Bright. The story is based on events related to Jia by a couple in his home village. In that story, the young woman returned, only to head back to her former captor, missing her child and finding herself unwelcome in her home village; in Broken Wings, Butterfly gives birth to a son and—this is ambiguous—is rescued but finds life in the city without her baby too much to bear, and returns to her captor.

It's not impossible to have sympathy for the backwards and poor villagers in the novel, but Butterfly's kidnap and torture is central. The reader sees her raped, beaten, and locked in a cave. The only ray of light is her son, Rabbit, who she is forced to abandon when she returns to the city. Broken Wings is not a paean to village life or a call to restore traditional ideas of masculinity.

The controversy was mostly a response to comments Jia made prior to the book's release:
Interviewer: Can you lay out the story for me?
Jia Pingwa: It's very simple. A woman is tricked and gets abducted and sent to another part of the province. The novel is about how she lives there, what happens to her when she escapes, what happens to her when she goes back. That's about it. I can sum up the entire book in two or three sentences.
Interviewer: It's bizarre, isn't it? Is this based on a true story?
Jia Pingwa: Of course. I didn't tell anybody that before I sat down to write it, though. The story was like a knife in my heart. Whenever it came to mind, I felt it burrowing its way deeper. When I was writing Happy Dreams, someone from my village that had come to work in Xi'an had his daughter abducted. She got shipped off to Shanxi. Me and Old Sun [孙见喜, Jia's biographer] got involved. We were sitting beside the phone all day and all night, waiting to hear news. Finally, in the middle of the night, the call came that she'd been rescued. Later, I heard about the rescue. The villagers had tried to beat the police. It was like something out of a movie. I didn't want to write about the police, though. There are plenty of other cases with more material, I thought. I could have dug up a case file that was even more bizarre and brutal. What I was interested in was: how come the city is getting fat while the village starves to death? I wanted to understand how people live in those villages, the psychology of the place.
Interviewer: You mean, why they have to kidnap women?
Jia Pingwa: Right. I wanted to describe the life of one of those women. The man whose daughter was kidnapped told me that the village was way up in the hills, and the people up there live in caves. They don't have wheat, so they don't eat any bread. What his daughter went through was horrible. The traffickers had beat her, raped her, told her they'd cut her face up if she caused any trouble, told her they'd kill her and sell her kidneys. She was standing right there when they negotiated the price she was going to be sold at. When she arrived in the village, the man that bought her tied her up and set a guard on her. She was trapped in a cave for months. They only let her out once she'd given birth. Of course, the book is fiction, but that's what it was based on.
Interviewer: The way you talk about it, these people sound like bandits.
Jia Pingwa: In a way, sure. When I first heard the story, I was furious. Human trafficking is cruel. It must be stopped. But the situation is more complicated than I first thought. When the police came to rescue his daughter, the villagers were shouting: Why can't we have wives? You took all thirteen of them! You want our village to go extinct? If you think about it, this must be happening in many other villages, too. There must be an explanation. Why do the men in those villages have to buy wives? Why are women being abducted? In most villages, the able-bodied men are long gone. They have left to find work. The same goes for young women. After they're gone, the only people left in the village are men with no skills to sell, and no money. They can't find women to marry. Most of those men that go out of the village for work will probably return, but the women won't. So, you have village after village of bachelors. The village is going to go extinct. This is a serious problem, but who's going to help them?
In a piece titled "Can Jia Pingwa shake the label of 'straight man cancer'?" 贾平凹被批"直男癌",冤不冤? (zhinanai 直男癌 is basically toxic masculinity/male chauvinism), the author notes the "fierce criticism" 猛烈批评 had come in for and opens with a line from another interview: "If [Bright] didn't buy a wife, he would never have had a chance to get married. If the village gave up the practice, it would go extinct." The writer goes on to attack the idea that the village is being starved in favor of the city, saying that, "There has never been nor will there ever will be a contradiction between town and country. ... The idea of rural destitution is false. Conditions in the countryside have only improved. Nostalgia for a bygone rural social order is not only uncalled-for but completely ridiculous."

They close with this: "In Broken Wings, Jia Pingwa writes about rural ruin and heartbreak. He questions the system that robs villages of their vitality. But what he doesn't do is maintain any curiosity about the human condition, which is especially important in this age of great change. This kind of writing is missing from Broken Wings. The deep pity he tries to express is hollow, confused and suffused with cheap emotion."

That sentiment is expressed again in a widely-circulated review by Hou Hongbin 侯虹斌:
Why will no women marry into a village like that? If a village like that disappears, wouldn't it be a good thing? Most people can provide an answer: the chauvinistic attitudes of the villagers are oppressive, and the women they could have married were murdered as infants. The men in these sorts of villages are poor, lazy, and debased. Look at Bright Black... He lived off his mother's hard work, and once she was dead, the two men, in the prime of their lives, were impoverished. Women are no better than beasts of burden. Their life in the village is hell. I don't know why Jia Pingwa wants to save this kind of village.
An old guy like Jia doesn't know how good people in the city have it, so let the villages die:
Large cities are relatively egalitarian. But writers of the last generation probably can't understand that. They can't stand to see how things are going. They don't understand new things and new emotions. They can't deal with the equality of men and women, or people that don't want to get married, or all the various sexual orientations. All of these human rights, freedoms, and rule of law—it freaks them out. Back in the countryside, they are still in charge. They want to maintain these backwards places and cultures.
The real problem for Jia's critics—and we're not really talking about the novel, at this point, but deeper issues—is some sort of bad masculinity: men drown their daughters, men are too lazy to support their wives and children, men have chauvinistic attitudes, etc. etc.

It's a popular liberal feminist take, easy enough to find outside of the Broken Wings reviews.

Lijia Zhang says it, too: "The main challenges facing women today is the deeply rooted male chauvinism and the growing gender inequality."

In her 2017 novel, Lotus, the eponymous protagonist is a village girl in the big city who enters the sex trade. Rich men try to take her as a mistress but she is pure of heart and falls in love with a liberal man educated at an elite university, a photographer who loves democracy, marched in '89, but is still kind of a jerk. She views the city as inhospitable and alien but a good place to make money. Village society rejects her. When her brother finds out that she's the mistress of the photographer, he asks her, "How are you going to face our ancestors?" She pleads with him: "I know my shames and sins are so deep. I couldn't clean myself even if I jumped into the South China Sea." At the end of the book, it looks as if she's given up hope on returning to the village, opting for life as a mistress.

The city has given Lotus choices. Lijia Zhang says she was "impressed with [sex workers'] resilience and goodness." The female characters in Lotus are "much stronger than the male ones, which reflects the reality." Sure, the "market economy has placed women in an unfavourable position" but that can be solved by women "[taking] the matter into their own hands." The political and economic system is mostly fine, and the market will sort things out, as long as "activism is tolerated by the authorities."

It all comes down to men. But, as Jia pointed out in his interview, the men are leaving, too. The only ones left behind are those unable to leave or those who have returned.

But why are they leaving? The city is the only place where most can make a living.

The gap between rural and urban net incomes has been widening since 1978. There is a vast gulf between the new urban middle class and rural farmers and working class. And on top of that, income inequality is worse in rural than urban China. Stanford's Rural Education Action Program (REAP) went to rural Shaanxi and found 57% of toddlers were cognitively delayed. "China had 3.6 million villages in 2000 – but only 2.7 million by 2010. In one decade 900,000 villages disappeared, almost 250 per day," as Liu Qin notes in a piece about Broken Wings for China Dialogue.

The hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China are not necessarily escaping the village because they want to, and things are usually shit for them in the city, too, since they're working without official registration, in dangerous and dirty conditions, often separated from their children, spouses, and parents. They become part of the low-end population 低端人口, staying in temporary shelter that can disappear overnight.

Looking at the gendered nature of economic reform and urbanization, Li Sipan 李思磐 in an essay translated by David Ownby for Reading the China Dream sums things up like this:
China’s market reforms, especially since the 1990s, if evaluated in terms of their influence of social gender, have been a revival of capitalist patriarchal control. In the process of the development of the market economy, the state has dismantled the social welfare sector (such as cafeterias, nursery schools and kindergartens formerly operated by work units, while those found in enterprises and government agencies have continued to operate) so as to avoid the inefficiencies of a “work unit-run society,” the influence of which has been particularly disadvantageous for women. Women make up the biggest part of the unemployment problem created by the reform of state enterprises, while young, unmarried women without rights protection make up 70% of the work force in the coastal industrial zone. In this process, labor has been regendered (agriculture and villages are sustained by married and left-behind women; many gendered positions have been created in assembly line production, commerce, and service industries)...
The essay is good and worth reading, covering the liberal approach to feminism, which mirrors a Western liberal feminist approach, too: there might be problems (one way Chinese liberal intellectuals differ from their Western counterparts is in trying not to mention feminism at all, though) but the state must be kept out of it because individual rights might be infringed upon.

As Li Sipan points out, "male elite gender privilege" is a problem, but there are deeper structural problems that require more than women taking matters into their own hands. So, it's pretty unfair, shortsighted, and cruel to lay everything on the chauvinism of rural men, who are unlikely to be beneficiaries of those systems of oppression. Full communism and then dismantle the patriarchy, for everyone's benefit.

Zooming in on village life again, what about the horrible local traditions and ingrained patriarchal beliefs of rural men? I think Jia makes it clear throughout this book and the rest of his work that even village traditions and customs and beliefs are not, necessarily, pure, but are filtered through, created by, reproduced by, mediated by economic conditions and state policy. Quoting Li Sipan again, "the consumerist discourse required by the market has flourished, becoming a powerful vehicle singing the praises of women's traditional role in the family and traditional body images, and a powerful disciplining force."

It might be a bit provocative to ask how rural men get fucked over by those local customs and traditional roles... Shen Wenxi 沈文熙 brings it up in her review, talking about the idea of jianvdingnan 甲女丁男 (or 富剩女穷光棍). Basically: women have more opportunity to marry up, into a higher standard of living, while men are bound to return to the village, where prospects are not so good. Now, I'm sure you can see the problem with that idea, but if not, just re-read the Li Sipan quote. But there is something to rural women being able to marry out of the countryside: "...rural women are twice as likely than rural men to marry an urban hukou holder...". (Marriage to an urban hukou is not always peaches and cream, and often involves the women becoming "unpaid reproductive workers.")

But I think the point is made.

I want to get back to the book itself, though, and I appreciate Nick Stember summing it up more elegantly than I have:
The question Jia had then, he writes, was why would she go back? In this sense, [Broken Wings] isn’t so much a defense of rural villages, as it is an indictment of increasingly irreparable divide between the urban and the rural in Chinese society. What he is asking, I think, is for readers to consider the plight of women in the villages who can’t get out—it cannot be a coincidence that most of the women who live in the village aside from Butterfly are mentally or physically disabled. While the idea that the villages should just die out or disappear may seem like taking the moral highroad, it conveniently ignores the fact that the ‘Chinese economic miracle’ of the last 30 years has incentivized the cheap labor and undervalued agricultural products (another theme) made possible by rural poverty.
Oh, and I should throw in the review of the novel by Shi Zhanjun 施战军 here, too, which I can't find a copy of online right now, since it makes some of the same mistakes, I think, but from another direction. The review begins: "Despite China's extensive development, this novel reminds us that rural areas still remain in stuck in an economic and cultural 'prehistorical' state." The village isn't in a prehistoric, pure state! The village is fucked because of forces far beyond its own control, its been destroyed by those forces. Hou Hongbin seems to be reacting to this view of things in her article, where she attacks the idea of "pure, traditional" villages—Jia is not describing a pure or traditional place, but that take is floating around out there.

I'll get back to that later. But anyways, so, moving to the next accusation against Jia, that he lacks sympathy for his female protagonist... Here, we can get back to the book.

I'll say this: I don't see it. The men of the Broken Wings, especially Bright, are not monsters, but there are times in the book you wish they'd be crushed by a boulder. Butterfly is the most sympathetic of sympathetic characters. The fantasy of escape scene is moving. You want her to be safe and happy. The descriptions of Butterfly and her son, Rabbit, will bring you to tears. I mean, I just don't see it. Read this:
When One was born, I didn’t want to look at him. I remembered Auntie Spotty-Face saying that, once you set eyes on your new-born, you were bound to it forever, so I decided not to. But as soon as I heard Full-Barn’s mum say: “You’re a dirty little thing!” and realised he’d fallen into the ash basket, I got such a fright I sat up for a look. He was a skinny, tiny thing, like a hairless rat, and his little face was all wrinkled, he was so ugly and dirty, and apart from the ash, his body was covered in sticky white stuff.
I lay down, wordless, a sudden flush on my cheeks. Was this really my baby? And so ugly! Had I given birth to a monster because I’d been raped? What with the long, hard pregnancy and then the breech birth, this baby had nearly cost me my life! Fine, I said to myself, I’ve given birth to you now, and that’s taken away from me all the shame, the loathing and the suffering. From now on, you’re you and I’m me, you’re no son of mine and you can forget I’m your mother.
But at night, when the cave was plunged in darkness, and One started to cry, he had such a loud, clear voice, it was as if a lamp had been lit and the flames leapt up and spirits awakened in everything in the cave – the table, the chairs, the flagons and jars, the bedding and pillows, and all the papercuts stuck to the window and walls – seemed to come to joyous life. I’d never felt like that before, I was filled with a nameless happiness.
“Bring him to me,” I told Bright.
One lay on my breast, and he stopped whimpering and went back to sleep. I touched him all over, kissing his head, his bottom, and his tiny hands and feet. His skin was like snow and his body was soft like jade. This is my son, I thought to myself, flesh dropped from my body. ...
It suddenly occurred to me that my baby should be called Rabbit, because when the goddess Chang’e was all alone on the moon, she had a rabbit to keep her company. I cuddled him and kissed him: “Rabbit, Rabbit.”
“Are you calling One, ‘Rabbit’?” Bright said.
“He’s not ‘One’, he’s Rabbit.”
“Fine, ‘Rabbit’ it is then,” Bright conceded. “That’s a good name too. How long before Rabbit says ‘Dad’?”
He’ll only say ‘Mum’, I said silently. I looked at the ceiling of the cave, though I couldn’t see it, only blackness. I popped Rabbit’s little foot into my mouth again, it was like a sugar lump, ready to dissolve, then I took it out of my mouth. Rabbit, you listen to your mum, one day Mum’ll take you to the big city, we’re not staying in this desperate place.
I had the feeling that the world had shrunk around me till the world was only me, and I was a spirit here in this village, in this cave.
Part of it is the ambiguity, I guess, how it evokes feelings and doesn't resolve them. There's no happy ending.

You can ask, like, what could she have done differently? But there's no answer, because there shouldn't be one. Maybe she can escape, but maybe she can't. Maybe she's choosing to stay. Maybe she has no choice. Life leads you down certain alleys and sometimes you end up at the bottom of a pit, not sure if you'll ever get out. There is no way for Butterfly to take matters into her own hands, as Lijia Zhang suggests women should, because how the hell is she going to do that? How the hell are you going to do that?

I always want to quote from Zhang Ailing's 张爱玲 "Writing of One's Own," which is something I reach for whenever I have to talk about writing in a serious way. Zhang worries that "people who like to write literature usually concentrate on the uplifting and dynamic aspects of life" (translated by Andrew Jones, taken from Written On Water, Columbia University Press, 2005). Instead, her goal is to write about the "placid and static aspects of life," because "even if this sort of stability is often precarious and subject at regular intervals to destruction, it remains eternal. ... It is the numinous essence of humanity, and one might also say it is the essence of femininity." Desolation rather than celebration.

The section on characters, I think, applies here:
There are very few people, after all, who are either extremely perverse or extremely enlightened. Times as weighty as these do not allow for easy enlightenment. In the past few years, people have gone on living their lives, and even their madness seems measured. [My characters] are not heroes, but they are of the majority who actually bear the weight of the times. As equivocal as they may be, they are also in earnest about their lives. They lack tragedy; all they have is desolation. Tragedy is a kind of closure, while desolation is a form of revelation.
I know that people are urgent in their demand for closure and, if they cannot have it, will only be satisfied by further excitement. They seem to be impatient with revelation in its own right. But I cannot write in any other way. I think that writing in this manner is more true to life. I know that my works lack strength, but since I am a writer of fiction, the only authority I have is to give expression to the inherent strength of my characters and not fabricate strength on their behalf. Moreover, I believe that although they are merely weak and ordinary people and cannot aspire to heroic feats of strength, it is precisely these ordinary people who can serve more accurately than heroes as a measure of the times.
Zhang Ailing's invocation of Michelangelo's unfinished Dawn, "only very roughly hewn and even the facial features are indistinct" is getting at the same thing Jia is reaching for in the novel's afterword and his comparison between ink-wash painting and the style of Broken Wings. Particularly important are the idea of liubai 留白 (leaving blank space) and xieyi 写意 (to suggest a theme or form rather than depicting it in careful detail):
There are many ways of writing a novel but nowadays it seems to be the fashion to write violent, extreme narratives. Maybe that is what today’s readers want, but it does not suit me. I have always thought that my writing was somehow akin to ink-wash paintings, painting in words, you might say. … The essence of ink-wash painting lies in xieyi, the ‘suggestion’ rather than the detail. ... That is the core of this art form; xieyi is not concerned either with reason or with unreason. It is truth, not a conceptual idea.
"Perplexity, loneliness, affliction and disillusionment are always the dominant characteristics of the mentality of [Zhang Ailing's] characters," and the same goes for Jia's (quoting from "Transgressing Boundaries: Hybridity in Zhang Ailing's Writing and Its Multidimensional Interpretations in Contemporary China" by Yuan Wang, which is here).

And I think Stijn Thomas Wijker gets at something important, perhaps contradicting my points on sympathy, talking about Jia's new orientation toward the countryside:
In 2006, Wang Yiyan categorized Jia’s "nativist writing" as a form of cultural nostalgia similar to writings by Shen Congwen. Wang's critical framework is partly predicated upon the idea that it is Jia’s "mission to reassert Shangzhou's place on the cultural map of China." ... Jia's writing has shifted towards Wang Yiyan's category of nativist writing concerned with "national defects." The focus of Jia's work does no longer only lie on the "innocence" and "a passion for the land, the people and their cultures from 'within.'" Rather, the work starts to show some characteristics similar to the writings by Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936) Su Tong 苏童 (b. 1963). In those works, characters are "hideous and pathetic" and "hostility permeates the small town, where the residents are enemies to the extent that apathy is a virtue." ... Wang senses that Jia's writing has become "increasingly critical of local characters, which is quite different from his previous lyrical, pastoral writings." Novels like The Lantern Bearer and more recently The Poleflower (2016), that addresses the issue of human trafficking in rural China, demonstrate that Jia has indeed developed in that direction.
And maybe, I can go from that to drawing together both charges, the urban-rural thing, and Butterfly and sympathy... Butterfly, like many Jia characters, is trapped in between the city and the country (I mean, yes, she's literally trapped in a cave for much of the book, but you know what I mean), the old and the new. Zhuang Zhidie 庄之蝶 fits that mold, but maybe Zhou Min 周敏 and Tang Wan'er 唐婉儿 are better examples from Ruined City 《废都》; and Ye Lang 夜郎 in White Nights 《白夜》, Gao Zilu 高子路 in Old Gao Village《高老庄》, Xia Feng 夏风 in Qinqiang《秦腔》, Happy Liu 刘高兴 in《高兴 》fit, too. For those sojourners and temporary and not-so-temporary residents in the city, the city is the place they have escaped to. Zhuang Zhidie finds fame and fortune in ten short years in Xijing; Tang Wan'er flees her family, her abusive husband, and oppressive village society to find a new life in the city; and Ye Lang is escaping family life and village culture, too, to find himself in the city... Butterfly is disgusted by the village but knows she can't stay in the city, either.

These characters all express nostalgia for a mostly imaginary traditional culture and society, but usually come to find that it's impossible to return to, or it's been perverted or tainted by centuries of modernization and more recent marketization (the fake Tang streets in Ruined City, the opera troupe in Qinqiang propped up by the local government but its performers making a living singing pop songs...) And the promises of the city prove to be illusory. Like the traveling doctor in Jia's fable of the mummified monk, who finds himself reduced to a pile of bones rather than having his body preserved—it's just as impossible to return to the imagined past...

In Broken Wings, the pattern is flipped, in a way, with an urban character arriving in the village. Butterfly is from the countryside but she's most at home in the city, and can't adjust to life in the village. Unlike Xixia 西夏 in Old Gao Village, another urban character sent down to experience life in the village, Butterfly—for obvious reasons, like being chained up in a cave—experiences the village as a prison. The town-country in-betweener is the perfect character to sum up the pluses and minuses on both sides. But the setting, whether city or village, raises questions: Where do I belong? What do I believe in? Should I stay or should I go?