Podcast • November 29, 2011

Ha Jin’s recovered memory of Americans in China

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ha Jin (33 min, 16 meg) Ha Jin‘s darkest fear about China is that the control-freak regime he fled 25 years ago has enough cash on hand to buy a lease on life — in Washington and the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ha Jin (33 min, 16 meg)

Ha Jin‘s darkest fear about China is that the control-freak regime he fled 25 years ago has enough cash on hand to buy a lease on life — in Washington and the West, at the expense of its own people. The “myth” of an imperial rivalry with the US seems laughable to him, still moreso to sophisticated Chinese visitors who tell him “one good American museum is worth a few Chinese cities.” At the core, China is still a poor country, a very difficult place to live, without the social structure to guarantee safety or rights. Even at the top there’s no fun in being the world-record creditor when China waits more anxiously on American orders than we do on Chinese credit to pay for them. China’s second-worst fear must be that a bad tumble in the US economy would collapse theirs. The primal panic in the rich ruling circle, he’s saying, is about losing their one-party monopoly on power.

In the context of Brown University’s Year of China, I am scrambling to catch up, to get past the numbers, to imagine “reading” China. Ha Jin reads bloggers for news and outrage — over the wreck last week, for example, of a country school bus: 69 kids on a 9-seat vehicle, at the same moment the official press was crowing about the sale of luxury buses in Europe. He reads the published writers more and more available in the U.S. like Su Tong and Yu Hua; and the multi-media star Murong — exploding everywhere now in the New York Times and in his latest post, “Caging a Monster,” as he heads home from Oslo. Ha Jin endorses the steady clarity of the husband-wife reporting of Peter Hessler in the New Yorker and Leslie Chang in the Wall Street Journal — specially on the point that China’s boom has been bad for happiness and sanity. And of course he reads his friend the Nobel Peace Prize poet Liu Xiaobo, under house arrest in China but more and more widely read for his exquisite Tienanmen elegies.

We’re talking too about Ha Jin’s new novel, Nanjing Requiem, a book to be taken to heart on opposite faces of the earth. The re-creation of the vicious Japanese occupation of Nanjing after 1937, focused on the fate of a college campus for women, is bathed in sympathy for China’s suffering at a low-point of humiliation. But the heroic role in this reality-based fiction goes to an American teacher, Minnie Vautrin, for her fortitude and indomitable purpose. Official culture long buried the Nanjing chapter of China’s helplessness and shame as well as the history of faithful foreign friends (Germans, Brits, Americans and others) who stood tall under the same abuse and, after World War Two, drove the war-crimes trials of many Japanese officers in Nanjing. Ha Jin has brought alive a moral drama of suffering and solidarity — of decency transcending difference, as he says, “that should be remembered even today. People are human beings. Their sufferings are the same.”

Podcast • November 2, 2011

Leslie Chang: “The Dickens of China today is doing real estate.”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Leslie Chang (30 min, 15 meg) Leslie Chang brings a cautionary anti-romanticism and a fine reporter’s eye to the start of Brown’s Year of China. Her story is China turning itself inside out over the last 30 years ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Leslie Chang (30 min, 15 meg)

Leslie Chang brings a cautionary anti-romanticism and a fine reporter’s eye to the start of Brown’s Year of China. Her story is China turning itself inside out over the last 30 years — about the very hard slog of it.

The numbers have no precedent: 150-million village Chinese are migrants now in the mushrooming factory cities that make vast portions of the world’s stuff. The new city of Dongguan, which seemed to Leslie Chang “a perverse expression of China at its most extreme,” makes 40 percent of the magnetic heads in personal computers world-wide, and 30 percent of the disk-drives. One third of the world’s shoes are made in Guandong Province…

Leslie Chang is breaking through polite veils of silence — first in China, and abroad, too — to reveal the human price of the transformation. The intellectual and expressive classes of Beijing and Shanghai tend to look down on the migrants, then away, Leslie Chang observes. So the epic underway is not much written or read. The freedom and opportunity that brilliant young Chinese are finding these days are not in literature and the arts, anyway, but in business. “The Charles Dickens of China today,” Leslie Chang quips, “is doing real estate.”

Leslie Chang’s celebrated, best-selling Factory Girls (2008) is a classic that reminds me of two others, for their differences. First, Dickens’ American Notes (1842) on the “Lowell Girls” that left the farms of New England for the first textile mills in America; we remember the mill workers for the essays and poems of their “Lowell Offering” and for the first glimmer of organizing labor. The second parallel/contrast is Isabel Wilkerson’s account, The Warmth of Other Suns, of the black migrations in America from the Jim Crow South: a mere 10-million people who, over 50 years, recreated the sound and style, the whole story of our country. We don’t begin to see those follow-on effects of what China is going through, and maybe it’s premature to ask: “Don’t discount the fact,” Leslie Chang is saying, “that hundreds of millions of people are able for the first time to leave their villages of poverty and idleness — especially young women who had no opportunity before and can suddenly choose how to live their lives. Isn’t that enough?”

But she also expands fascinatingly on a striking reticence in Chinese society — in her Chinese family, as well. “The Chinese today have a troubled relationship with their past,” she wrote in Factory Girls. “Why did a great civilization collapse so rapidly when confronted by the West? What made people turn so readily on each other — in workplaces, in villages, in families — during the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s? And how could they pick up their lives afterward as if nothing had happened?”

She is speaking here of a broad informal ban on introspection in China — a main legacy of the Cultural Revoluton, and one of the memorable and sobering insights in Leslie Chang’s conversation:

When we ask why Chinese are not more introspective about the past, the reason is that there are so many traumatic, painful things that happened. And it was not all things that were imposed from above. Many of the things were things that people did to each other. The Cultural Revolution did not happen in a Beijing political office. The Cultural Revolution happened in every classroom, on every university campus, and in many villages, and many households.

What happened in 1980 was: there was a sudden, 180-degree about-face: everything that was bad before is good now. All those things you got attacked for during the Cultural Revolution, like learning and scholarship and business and making money and having some nice furniture — all those things are good now; you go do them. What is the psychological cost of suddenly making that kind of a drastic shift for a whole country? The cost is: okay, we’ll do it, we like this new life, but let’s not think about what we did yesterday, because it’s really painful and it will bring up all these questions about why did we do this. Is there something about Chinese culture, or family culture, or village culture that made us suddenly turn on the people we lived with all our lives? I think this lack of introspection runs very deep and it’s tied to these very painful things that happened.

Leslie Chang with Chris Lydon at Brown University, Fall 2011.

Podcast • October 3, 2011

Amitav Ghosh and his addictive empire trilogy

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Amitav Ghosh (35 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and now. River of Smoke is part two of his trilogy ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Amitav Ghosh (35 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and now. River of Smoke is part two of his trilogy on Opium, the narcotic fuel of the British Empire in the 19th Century. Reading it, you have to wonder if he isn’t writing by loose analogy about Oil, trade and world domination in the 21st Century, too. About us, that is.

An aggressive imperial theology of “freedom” and free trade is among his links or parallelisms. In River of Smoke, opium trader Ben Burnham is sanctifying Britain’s mid-19th Century Opium Wars that forced Indian opium and mass addiction on China:

“It is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another invisible, omnipotent; it is the hand of freedom; of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God.”

Just yesterday it seems, George W. Bush was justifying the US invasion of Iraq:

“God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.”

Three years ago Amitav Ghosh told me he’d written Sea of Poppies (2008), first in the novel series, in a fury against Bush’s war. He wrote River of Smoke in Obama time, and still he is playing with resonances between centuries and characters, real and conjured. In conversation again, I’m presuming to suggest I can see what he’s up to: he’s keeping an anthropologist’s wide-angle diary on 2011 and transposing much of it back into a Melvillian setting on the high seas and in the traders’ quarter of Canton around 1838.

In the Age of Obama, the war rhetoric is cooler but the wars go on. So the new book is full of mixed bloods and cultural crossings. The main character is a Indian Parsi named Bahram (not Barack), but like Barack he’s driven by ambition into the muck and mire of his trade even if his heart isn’t in it. Bahram is the first brown man in the all-white Chamber of Commerce in Canton, which doesn’t finally accept the outsider. He’s a very decent man who introspects on the morality of selling dope and seems about to renounce it when he puts himself into a deep opium dream and …

Amitav Ghosh is up to much else, including endless delicious variations on creole dishes and pidgin phrasings — the hybridization of peoples and cultures in an earlier round of globalization. China is a central preoccupation in River of Smoke, as it is in our world of 2011. One class of Ghosh’s English cast is pushing opium on China. But there’s another great enterpriser, Fitcher Penrose, who’s making a lively business getting plants out of China for commercial development in England. Azaleas, chrysanthemums, wisteria, hydrangeas, and many more flowering plants originated in China, plus rhubarb; and there’s a fantasy cure-all Golden Camellia that Penrose & Co. are hunting down -– all to suggest the fabulous breadth and depth of China’s historical-cultural treasure. Then and now, Amitav Ghosh seems to be asking how we will come to see China not as a faceless mass of people, or as a factory, but as a civilization.

Podcast • February 25, 2011

Peter Hessler’s New China: Is this any way to live?

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Peter Hessler. (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Mark Leong Photo for National Geographic Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Peter Hessler. (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Mark Leong Photo for National Geographic

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known sometimes as The Literature of Fact. (“I prefer to call it factual writing,” McPhee has said.) It’s more that Hessler got the hang of circling a vast subject until the proportions of the story reveal themselves. (“Cycles of one year, fifty years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around…” as McPhee put it, about his masterpiece on Alaska, Coming into the Country). In China, Peter Hessler made it a habit to return on schedule again and again to families and factories that intrigued him; sometimes he had five years’ observation under his belt before he began to write his story — in The New Yorker and then in books like Country Driving, his latest. Our conversation here is about the unconventional fruits of that long grazing — not least the discovery that this “new China” we find so challenging is just as new and maybe much more pressured and exhausting for the Chinese. The Wei family, for example — Hessler’s friends and neighbors in a small town north of Beijing — set the pattern over the last decade of spiking prosperity and crashing all-around health.

I was with [Wei Ziqi, the father of the Wei family,] through a number of events, including his son’s becoming very sick, to the point where his life was in danger and Wei Ziqi and I, and the other family members had to work together to try to get him medical care… The next year is when his business really started to take off. One thing that really struck me was that he had been so incredibly calm while his son was sick, very rational and easy to talk to and amazingly stoic, and I found him much more unsettled by his initial business success. … Then I realized, people in this village are used to people being sick, they’ve been through this before, that’s an experience that they know how to handle in a sense. But they’re not used to having a loan out, they’re not used to having a new business, they’re not used to trying to interact with city folk who are customers, and that was harder for him. … In America, people who had gone through this illness with a child would have been devastated at points, and he never had that reaction. But he was much more stressed by having a loan, which doesn’t stress out Americans very much (maybe it does now).

Business in China comes with a lot of vices. When I first met him, he had a very healthy lifestyle, he was working in the fields and so on. In China, if you’re a business man, you smoke. It’s part of the routine … it’s a very important type of communication between males in China. … Most men doing business smoke. So he started smoking, he also started drinking. … The more successful he became, the more he smoked and the more he drank.

Peter Hessler in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 9, 2011.

Peter Hessler lives and writes in Colorado now, waiting a New Yorker assignment to the Middle East. He came home at a moment when “Americans are not feeling great about themselves,” but he’s been feeing what we take for granted: striking examples of “common decency” every day in America, people volunteering serious time and talent to local life, social involvement not to be observed in China. What he remembers about China is “energy… buzz, people on the move. They are good-humored people. They get the joke.” What he notes about both places is that “It’s not a race. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it’s as directly competitive as people say. China and the US have been good for each other over the last twenty years. It’s great for the US that this has been a stable part of the world.”