Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Red Dust: A Path Through China

Ma Jian is a Beijing intellectual in his thirties. During the campaign against Spiritual Pollution, another communist scheme targeting individuals deemed dangerous to the ruling party, he is implicated as a class enemy and decides to leave his old life as a photographer and painter in Beijing. Ma Jian jumps a train bound for Xinjiang and ends up traveling around China for three years. Red Dust: A Path Through China from 2001 is his story. Ma travels by train, bus and on foot when he is short on cash. He almost perishes in the Ordos, when he loses his way crossing it. His is real hard core traveling, and he does not romanticize it. Fleas bite, shit stinks and rotten food makes him vomit.

The book is a travelogue, but a very special one. First of all, the time frame of the story is one of profound change in China. Ma Jian's story happens between 1983-86 and captures the spirit of economic reforms and their influence on individuals in the early eighties.

Secondly Ma has a unique vantage point to observe life in China. He is Chinese but admits feeling foreign in the out of way villages and cities he visits with his long hair, beard and jeans. His book concentrates mainly on the frontier areas of China; Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet and Qinghai. Everywhere he goes, he not only meets and writes about the common people, but he also offers the reader a glance into the minds of Chinese intellectuals around the country. For Ma, the travels take on a spiritual dimension. He is trying to figure out who he is and what his goals in life are.

What I especially appreciate in this book is Ma's honesty in writing. He does not pretend to be a nice guy. In fact he comes on as somewhat of a scoundrel, playing the part of a spiritual guru, barber or thief when it helps him to get what he needs. Ma describes his lust for women when traveling alone and his sexual exploits when he finds company. His story is very different from many whitewashed stories of contemporary western travellers.

I like it!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC - AD 2000

About a year ago I traded a bunch of old comics in a second hand bookstore to some books. One of them was The Great Wall by Julia Lovell from 2006. Despite it's name, it reads more like a general history of China than a book about the wall specifically.

With some 400 pages the book flies through dynasties starting with the Qin. Lovell ties each epoch with wall building and elaborates on the reasons for the numerous building projects, be they purely defensive or tied to internal politics of the time. As a history book, it's decent. Lovell is able to depict the ebb and flow of the nomadic tribes on China's Northern and Western frontiers and their influence on the realm, its peoples and culture. For me, realizing this constant pulse of the Steppe throughout earlier Chinese history was a bit of a revelation, although I have read a lot on the subject. Also, Lovell explains how and why in more recent history different walls became the Great Wall.

It's a popular book and Lovell has not made any original field research, rather relying on existing literary sources. Maybe because of this, the book, at least to me, seems a little arid; there is little personal connection to the places and historical events described. Being a lecturer of Chinese history and literature at Cambridge, I was hoping Lovell would be able to put more of a personal touch to the story.

In the first quarter of the book Lovell makes some arguments that seem to be there just to raise controversy. In my view she is not able to defend these arguments properly and this put me off a bit (it actually took me two tries to actually finish the book). As an example, when discussing the Chinese realm Lovell first states: "There are, in fact, strong grounds for arguing that the Chinese nation was born as recently as 100 years ago", but later goes on about Qin Shihuang: "And once he had reached his goal, China was largely defined, both inside and out." It's semantics of course (Chinese nation does not equal China), but what on earth are these strong grounds for the first argument?

In the end Lovell equates Chinese censorship of the internet as the new Great Wall. To be honest, I would have left this most recent history out of the book. It seems out of place when compared to the history of the real Wall on the preceding pages.

The Great Wall is a decent overview of the history of China with its own twist; the story of the Wall. If you just want to read one book about the subject (history that is, not the wall), there probably are more suitable books out there. For people with a background in Sinology, the book may give some new insights, it did to me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Judge Dee books by Robert van Gulik

My wife found a Judge Dee book in the library last week that I hadn't read before, wohoo! The Phantom of the Temple by Robert van Gulik (1910-67) is from 1966 (?) originally. I believe it's the last Judge Dee book by van Gulik, sice it was published just before his death. Before I get to the book, let's have a short look at the series and Mr. Gulik first.

I stumbled upon Judge Dee books a few years ago, when I was vacationing at my uncle's place in northern Finland. Being a bit bored, I was rummaging through my cousin's bookshelf and found The Chinese Lake Murders there. I devoured the book in one afternoon and was hooked. I've since read every novel by van Gulik I've been able to lay my hands on.

Mr. van Gulik was an Oriental scholar originally from the Netherlands, who spent a lion's share of his time in Asia, mainly Indonesia and Japan. He even represented the Netherlands as an ambassador in Tokyo. Van Gulik was fluent in Chinese and while in Japan, translated an old Chinese detective story into English. The story was about Di Renjie, a popular historical character of the Tang-era, who lived in the 7th century. Di Renjie (Dee) was a magistrate of the empire and has become a legend in China. After his translation van Gulik tried his hand at constructing his own murder mystery. The result was The Chinese Maze Murders. After that several Judge Dee books followed.

Although set in the Tang era, the books have mixed in historical facts from Ming China as well. Van Gulik adapted his style from the traditional Chinese murder story, to better suit western audiences. The culprits are not revealed until the end of the stories.

The Phantom of the Temple is set in Lan-fang, a small town on the northern frontier in present day Shandong. Judge Dee has settled down as the local magistrate with his family and associates, Sergeant Hoong and Ma Joong, the old highway robber turned official. The books story chronologically follows The Chinese Maze Murders.

In an abandoned Buddhist temple a beheaded corpse is found and the Judge with his helpers sets out to solve this mystery. Soon a missing beauty, a witch and a treasure of gold are mixed into the story as well.

Van Gulik was influenced by Chinese folk stories and his language is staright forward and simple, almost brutal. Like in the earlier Judge Dee stories, women often shed their clothes for Ma Joong. Where van Gulik shines is painting a picture of Chinese society (even though it's a mix of eras). He was extremely well versed in Chinese history and the book contains a great many interesting details about life in a historical Chinese city; The writer highlights the tensions between Han Chinese and "Tartars" in this border town. Tantric Buddhists get their share of xenophobia as well.

This book follows van Gulik's tradition, in that it introduces several central characters and some impersonators, you'll never know which of the characters are real. In the end Judge Dee of course solves the mysteries and the perpetrators are punished (in most books they are executed). As in many of his books, the author adds a postscript, where he explains the workings of classical Chinese society. Also maps of the town as well as drawings (many of them somewhat erotic) of some of the scenes. 

If you have not yet read any of van Gulik's novels, I can only recommend you try one. I promise it won't be your last.

Other books by Robert van Gulik:

The Chinese Bell Murders
The Chinese Gold Murders
The Chinese Lake Murders
The Chinese Nail Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders
The Emperor's Pearl
The Haunted Monastery
The Lacquer Screen
The Red Pavillion
The Willow Pattern
The Monkey and the Tiger