Podcast • June 12, 2014

Evan Osnos on China’s “Age of Ambition”

On the verge of my own first plunge into China, I’m in conversation with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. He’s been eight years in the new China, reenacting the role of the foreign correspondent on the grand scale: covering an impossibly big story of politics and culture, police stories and natural disasters, with bold strokes and a novelist’s eye.


On the verge of my own first plunge into China, I’m in conversation with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.  He’s been eight years in the new China, reenacting the role of the foreign correspondent on the grand scale: covering an impossibly big story of politics and culture, police stories and natural disasters, with bold strokes and a novelist’s eye.  

Age of Ambition is the title of a fine hard-cover condensation of what he sees going on in China.  It’s something new in the world – not least as a very long running and high-functioning dictatorship.  But another big pattern he began to see was a mirror of a boom era in American history, the first Gilded Age of expansion building railroads and everything else in the late 19th C.

On the Veranda • June 12, 2014

Chris’s Postcards from China

I’m going to China next month, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?”


August 8: At Peking University: the Rising Generation


We call ourselves the ’90s generation. The late ’90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world.”

Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
2014-06-27 17.10.17

Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.

China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”

Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.

Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.

I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.

Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.

I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”

Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.

Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.

August 4: Ai Weiwei: At Home With China’s ‘Second Government’


Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.

At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”

Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.


We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.

He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.

And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.

July 24: Yu Hua and China’s Revolution Addiction

yu hua 2

Everybody loves Yu Hua, a giant of the literary life in China today.  He’s a free spirit with a critical eye, and a popular touch, a tragic vision, an easy laugh.  We’re in the snazzy new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, video-recording a long conversation for Harvard’s ChinaX course on modern China.  As soon as Yu Hua walks in (with his striking 20-something son Phineas) his presence is magic, alike with the Chinese film crew and the young Harvard scholars. I know Yu Hua as much as anything through the long-suffering hero of his novel that became the movie masterpiece To Live. The film and its central character, Fugui, reminded me somehow of Charlie Chaplin, as I said to Yu Hua. He smiled and said, well, of course, he had studied the Chaplin archive. Were Fugui alive today, Yu Hua said he would most likely be among the victims of the Capitalist Revolution.  Fugui would have lost his land and been displaced as a farmer.  He might be living precariously in a tiny, unsafe apartment in a city, but he’d still be thoughtful, tidy, maybe cheerful, and indestructible.

It is a main theme in much of Yu Hua’s work and our conversation that China is hooked for a century now on something like an addiction to Revolution. And a revolution, he reminds me with heavy irony, quoting Chairman Mao, is not a dinner party.  It’s an insurrection, an act of violence.  The market revolution, he’s saying, is more like than unlike the notorious upheavals that preceded it: the war of “liberation” that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949; Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 50s, a headlong rush to industrialize that ended in famine and death for 20-million or more; then the know-nothing Cultural Revolution of the 60s into the 70s.  The problem with all the endless revolutions is that they’ve been run by political monopolies. They’re invariably violent, mobilized by propaganda, not participation.  And they’re generally heedless of long-term results – even in the market revolution that has made so many Chinese people rich.

Yu Hua reminds you that China is still a poor country – median income between ninety and a hundred in the ranking of nations, in the zone with Cuba, Angola, Iraq.

The wealth revolution that we’re conditioned to celebrate has been a hardship for most Chinese, he is saying. The divorce rate goes up on the same curve as the GDP.  A “simmering rage” is the ruling popular emotion, he wrote in an invaluable collection of essays, China in Ten Words (2011).  The capitalist revolution has been bad for human-rights awareness. “This revolution has made the Chinese people profit-driven… They care less about other people, less about the country.”  Our people are losing their health, he says.  And what about their minds?  “People’s minds are chaotic, schizophrenic,” he replies.  “I can’t figure them out.”  The last resource is the Chinese people, I say, and surely they are not destroyed.  “I was half joking, half telling the truth,” he grants, with a laugh.

So we end on a Chinese paradox.  Yu Hua sums up China’s contradictory rules and symptoms today with the point that when guests enter a hotel room in China, they see a “No Smoking” sign and, under it, a gift package of cigarettes.  He lives with such anomalies every day. His novel To Live is sold in bookstores in China.  The movie version is banned.  “The book is like the cigarettes,” he said, “the movie is like the ‘No Smoking’ sign.”

It was a high-point in China so far to feel Yu Hua’s presence.

July 5: Whose Shanghai Is It?

Wang Anyi + Chris Lydon (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

The great modern novelist of Shanghai, Wang Anyi, is coming to feel like a stranger in her city.

The enclosed alleyways of Old Shanghai — the distinctive “longtang,” in a peculiarly Shanghainese word — were the living background of her classic tale, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The longtang, with their cement pavements and iron balconies, their pigeons and their gossip, their card games and cooking smoke, their romances and unsavory goings on, “the intimacy of flesh on flesh, cool and warm, tangible and knowable,” are almost gone, being bulldozed in front of our eyes for the new high-rise and Western commercial Shanghai.

The local joke, she is telling me, is that in fashionable downtown today, the likeliest language is English. In the next ring out, you’ll hear Mandarin spoken. Only in the outskirt third ring, newly settled by “longtang” refugees, will you hear Shanghainese. The women of Shanghai, she says, are more independent than they were, but not quite happily so. They miss being taken care of by men, and their ambition is typically overwhelmed by romance.

Shanghai still lives in something like Jane Austen time, Wang says. “What women are most concerned about is a good marriage.” Women are still being “consumed” as products, consumed by the malls where she observes 70 to 80 percent of the branded luxury goods are aimed at women, in a market designed by men. She herself is still happier to have the man in her life pick up the dinner check.

Wang Anyi was still shaken, she confided, by the movie she’d seen the day before, Spike Jonze’s Her, about Joaquin Phoenix’s infatuation with the computer voice of Scarlett Johannson inside his phone. She was troubled to see that so much of the film was shot in the new Shanghai. Was this a joke, she wondered: thirty years of modernization in China to become a prop in a Hollywood take on the American way?


July 2: China’s Bling Thing

The Chinese in their prosperity have become fantastic shoppers. In colossal shiny-white malls all the high-end Euro brands are here: Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Co. The customers are mostly Chinese, the models on display invariably Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the hand manufacturing of more and more high-end Italian shoes and bags in these outlets is said to take place in Asia.


A certain aesthetic imperialism has met a ravenous acquired Chinese appetite for a lost season of their lives in Tuscany, or a year in Provence. Almost by accident I spent an afternoon in a made-up retail village outside Suzhou, a couple of hours on the road from Shanghai.

Opened by American entrepreneurs the village is built, in the Las Vegas style, around a Venetian canal. There are bridges and a mix of stores in buildings designed to represent the variety of towns Marco Polo might have stopped in, back and forth to China at the end of the thirteenth century. The game at Suzhou Village will be to draw visitors not simply to buy but to share an “experience,” a spokeswoman told me.

I’m digging through my notes from Singapore a decade ago, to recall a conversation with the architect Tay Kheng Soon. He is the designer of some of Singapore’s finest buildings, but ever out of step with the non-tropical, non-Chinese roots of the celebrity high-rise towers on his island.

“Kitsch is very big in Asia,” Tay Kheng Soon said to me, driving around Singapore one morning in the summer of 2002. “It’s the architecture of Disneyland. It works as a narcotic. It dulls the senses in a pleasurable way. It’s an anesthetic, in that it prevents you from knowing what is going on, and so it has political value.”

He anticipated the unease in the malls of the new China: “We know now from a lot of history,” said Tay Kheng Soon, “that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I’ve decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth.”

horns dress

June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media

Kaiser Kuo2 Listen to some of Chris’s conversation with Kaiser Kuo below: Kaiser Kuo was born in New York, but he has remade himself many times in Beijing by now: as a guitarist for the pioneering metal band, Tang Dynasty, in the 1980s and ’90s, as a blogger and podcaster, and most lately as a global marketer for Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with a star turn on This American Life with our guest, Evan Osnos. For a few hours on my last night in Beijing, we ate and spoke as fellow broadcasters, talking about his second home. KK at dinner Kuo told me to prepare for “paradox after paradox” on the ground in China. It’s a practical nation that drifted, for decades, from calamity to calamity in the Maoist spirit, he said. Today China is still Communist, but its city-dwellers are getting used to sitcoms and mass consumerism — and the ‘spiritual vacuity’ that comes with them. To Kuo, Beijing itself seems to be bustling or depleted, depending on which angle you approach it from. Kuo pointed me toward a song-and-dance number from this year’s televised New Year celebration, sung from a treadmill by the comedian Huang Bo, on the subject of the ‘China dream’, a political concept introduced by the new premier, Xi Jinping, in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-qATFK3WM The song is called “My Desires Aren’t Too High”, or “I’m Not Too Demanding”. Kuo asks us to take this song as evidence that our title, “China rising”, may have a moderate meaning against the backdrop of saber-rattling and Sinophobia in the West. The expectations of its people are rising — for cleaner air, for a seat at the table globally, for a little more say in their civic lives — and they still have a way to go in meeting them.

June 26: DUMBO East

UCCA wall Chris moved on to Beijing to meet with Ai Weiwei, Kaiser Kuo, college students and others. Hear his conversation with the curator of UCCA, Philip Tinari, here, and come subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear China conversations with Yiyun Li, Evan Osnos, Ambassador Chas Freeman, and more:

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 2007, calls itself a “catalyst for contemporary culture in China.” It’s a linchpin location in Beijing’s 798 art district, a world of converted warehouses and artist spaces. (Think of it as an oversized version of DUMBO in Brooklyn or Boston’s Fort Point.)

When I visited on Tuesday, gray works by the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer were spread around the gallery space. But I was drawn to the corner of the 70-foot-long shoebox of the room where everyone’s allowed to paint. Little jars of the primary colors and brushes are laid out on a table in the center of the space. There’s a metal movable industrial ladder that allows you to pick a spot well over your head.

The rest is up to you — or, as it happened, me. So of course I inscribed our name, OPEN SOURCE, on a small patch of floor. Alongside it there are portraits of Michael Jackson, catchphrases and slogans in many languages, and icons all over. Every so often the wall gets refreshed with a new coat of white paint, and the painting starts again.

In forthcoming conversations with Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist #1, and the novelist Yu Hua, I was told that China is stuck in a centuries-old cycle of revolutions, one that isn’t learning liberal ways of being, still stuck in patterns on violence and suppression.

Looking at the wall in the Ullens, I see the question from another side — is this what the slow birth of a new culture of pop expression looks like: the visual riffs on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and a free-for-all wall in an art district? I put that question to UCCA curator Philip Tinari, who has his doubts but still comes to work everyday, seeking the next artist to carry the conversation forward in China. Kid by wall

June 24: A Piano Lesson

Mrs-Ying-lesson Listen to Chris’s conversation with Tian Yang about his mother, who started him playing piano when he was three years old — and still teaches: Getting on thirty years ago, in his mid-teens, the prodigy pianist Tian Ying migrated from Shanghai to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. At the time I was able to help Tian find a small apartment in town, and we always joked that he’d return the favor by showing me around Shanghai someday.

While still in his teens, Tian went on to become a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. From there he’s proceeded to an international career as a piano soloist and a tenured professorship at the University of Miami.

No sooner had I made my plans to go to China this month than Tian told me that he was going home himself, on the same weekend, to present his year-old son to his mother (and first teacher) back in Shanghai. True to his word, he’s been walking me around the home precincts of the French Concession, where he grew up.

It’s been a blessed reunion; the timing still feels miraculous. Perhaps the sweetest moments of my time in Shanghai were in his mother’s apartment, where she still teaches serious pianists, young and old, with an extraordinary flair.

Below, a clip of one of China’s 40 million aspiring virtuosos, under Mrs. Ying’s tutelage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP8nlEtP_Ho 2014-06-18 13.46.07

June 21: Shanghai 02138

220 Listen to a conversation Chris had with Ben Wood in the DR Bar here: The DR Bar (DR for ‘Design/Research’) in the Xintiandi section of old Shanghai was the third stop that Prof. Eugene Wang said I must make in his favorite city in the world. It’s the trendy martini bar a stone’s throw from the historic first meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. All around it, Xintiandi is a growing neighborhood of global boutiques and a sign of China’s capitalist makeover marching on.

A wax recreation of the First Congress of the Communist Party.

It was Benjamin Wood, a very New England sort of American, who designed both the bar and the shopping district that surrounds it. He was a protégé of the late Ben Thompson, the man who famously rescued the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. Thompson designed and built many buildings around Boston, including the five-story, concrete-and-glass Design/Research Building on Brattle Street in Harvard Square, where locals encountered Marimekko fabrics, midcentury-modern furniture, and everything else in the windows beginning in 1969. Ben Wood told me that his China project is a kind of tribute to his mentor, who didn’t live to see it. He repurposed two blocks of the city’s old shikumen courtyard houses, slated for destruction, into an airy, luxury shopping district that sees 82,000 visitors a day.


Ben Wood’s original plan for the Xintiandi district.

Now he serves as a consultant to many of the major and minor cities around China about their own dreams of a new urbanism. Wood is at war with the soulless, high-rise reality of those  cities, as he recounted to me over his famous martinis in the DR Bar. He favors “Monkey Gin” from Germany, which he says is the critical ingredient of the best martinis made today. I’ve come to believe him.

ben wood copy

Chris and Ben at DR Bar. (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

June 19: A Warning from the Bronze Age

Hear an excerpt from our China Rising hour about this vase:

Potter's hu vessel

Adam Mitchell / Suzanne Petrucci.

In the Shanghai Museum, we’re standing in front of a bronze hu-vessel, a wine urn from roughly 2,500 years ago — from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), not so long before the first emperor Qin unified the country.

We’re here because Eugene Wang told me to start at the beginning in China, and to absorb a sort of “holy grail” of Chinese thinking. The exquisite inlaid design on the bronze vessel depicts frolicking paired animals on the domed lid and, below, a poetic treatment of four seasons: embryonic animals at the bottom in a symbolic winter, swallows returning and couples mating around a mulberry tree in a version of spring. We’re looking at a “cyclical blueprint of regeneration,” Professor Wang tells me, “attuned to the cycle of waxing and waning energies.” The master conceptual scheme “is premised on the belief and observance of the natural cycle of seasonal change and renewal.” So there’s inspirational beauty here, and irony as well. The blue heavens of Shanghai today are in the subway video ads — mostly gone from the smoggy sky over our heads. About sixty miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Lake Tai is dying. Endlessly celebrated by painters and poets as a symbol of China’s natural beauty (and by fishermen for its fish and white shrimp), Lake Tai is lined with chemical factories and covered in many places with green scum. An old story in China is getting radically more dangerous. The first serious wood shortage in China was noted in the 11th century. The Maoist period, with slogans like “Battling with Nature is Boundless Joy,” is remembered now as an natural catastrophe. Today rivers are still drying up; 90 percent of China’s groundwater is polluted. “To be Chinese today,” according to a Harvard Business School case study, “means being heir to both a great civilization and to millennia of environmental exploitation.” And the legend of the bronze urn reads something like a last warning.

China Algae

A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)

June 18: The Green House

The Green House in Shanghai, previously owned by  Wu Tongwen . Just a postcard from a house that wants a novel. D. V. Woo (or Wu Tongwen), who built it in the late 1930s, was the dye tycoon who put the color green in China’s Nationalist Army uniforms. László Hudec, his Czech-born architect, had escaped from Russian captivity in Siberia after World War One and had joined the flow of gifted strays (including many Jews) to visa-free Shanghai.Many Hudec buildings in Shanghai survive in one-off splendor, like his rough-hewn China Baptist Publication Society building and his Park Hotel.  This Green House, deemed his masterpiece, was Shanghai’s first private house with an electric elevator (still working).The eve of World War Two was a high time for Americans in China: among the famous names (then or later) the young scholar John King Fairbank, Claire Chennault of the volunteer “Flying Tigers,” and Leighton Stewart, the China-born principal of Yenching (later merged with Beijing) University, who became FDR’s Ambassador to China during the war.  Ambassador Stewart was caught in the post-war cross-fire between the “who lost China?” crowd in America and the Communists taking power; Mao denounced him in a venomous speech that Chinese school kids were required to memorize into the Sixties, and he is said to have died heart-broken.Meantime, the young nephew of D. V. Woo played in the gardens of the family’s treasure house and was seen to be developing an enthusiasm and flair for design. When he came to America his name was transliterated as I. M. Pei.greenhouse1On the show, our friend Eugene Wang observed the asymmetrical balance in the stories rising out of the Green House: Leighton Stewart was an American whose heart was in China.  I. M. Pei was a Chinese man whose heart yearned for America.  The Green House, impeccably restored, stands in a Shanghai visitor’s eyes for a modern cosmopolitanism, open to past and future still unfolding.  On the weekend before I got to Shanghai, the Green House was opened to the public for the first time in 70 years.  Ten thousand neighbors showed up and stood in line for hours to visit it. Chris and Yaping Shen, one of his Shanghai guides, discussed the Green House during the visit: 

June 2: Scratches On My Mind

People ask: “What kinds of people are you hoping to meet and interview in China?”  I answer: maybe people like Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo, the prophetic novelist of The Yacoubian Building, who’s also a full-time dentist.  At the end of 2012, when protest was boiling again in Tahrir Square, I sat in Alaa Al Aswany’s dentist chair as he explained: “Literature and medicine are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” And now it turns out that, Yu Hua, a dentist/novelist in China, writes in a similar vein, in the opening of his marvelous kaleidoscope, China in Ten Words. From his training years, Yu Hua remembers discovering the intense suffering that he was inflicting on factory workers, then children, when he injected them with barbed, worn-out needles that pulled out bleeding bits of flesh.  His shock and remorse, he writes, “left a profound mark, and …  stayed with me through all my years as an author.  It is when the suffering of others becomes part of my own experience that I truly know what it is to live and what it is to write.  Nothing in the world, perhaps, is likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart.  So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain, too, because China’s pain is mine.”

“Poverty, misery, disease, hunger, famine, [and] ignorance…” were the controlling images of the China I met first in a Yale history class in the 1960s. Our background impressions of China, good and bad, had been outlined by MIT’s Harold Isaacs in his masterful Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (1958). Good China derived from Marco Polo’s 13th-century discovery of China’s ancient greatness and the remarkable intelligence, industry and stoicism of her people; also from Pearl Buck’s novels, read by billions and translated to movies for the multi-millions, about the simple, suffering good people of The Good Earth (1931). Bad China derived from the medieval, non-Chinese Genghiz Khan and his Mongol hordes – prototypes of faceless barbarism, brought vividly to life again in 1950 by Mao Tse-tung’s “human sea” flooding down across the Yalu into Korea, “massed barbarians,” as Harold Isaacs put it, “now armed not with broadswords but with artillery, tanks, and jet planes.”

Headlines since my boyhood have shuttled from the Sino-Soviet marriage to divorce; from Mao’s famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s to the mind-numbing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; from Nixon’s opening to China in 1974 to Deng Xiaoping’s opening to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s and with it abandonment of equality as first principle.  “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” We are transfixed in the present by China’s transformative growth as a manufacturer, the workshop of the world; by the vast and unprecedented migrations of peasants to cities (150 million in the last thirty-some years, 300 million more in the planning); and by China’s spectacularly uneven wealth.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his absorbing Age of Ambition that China today is going through something very like our own post-Civil War “Gilded Age.” (The U.S. had fewer than 20 millionaires in 1850, as he writes; 40,000 of them in 1900).  China today, bristling with construction cranes, “is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.”  China’s new billionaires are a primary market for Rolls Royces from the U.K. and Lamborghinis from Italy. Yu Hua observes that China’s makeover has upended the meaning of the “people,” the first of his Ten Words:  “With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another.  In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.”

Ha Jin, the exiled novelist and poet celebrated in the U.S. for Waiting and A Free Life, tells me: “in the alleys behind the façade, a lot of the old ways have not changed.  You must find the people playing chess and poker, drinking tea, as they always have.  A friend says to me: ‘my grandmother in the countryside is still living like a peasant in China a thousand years ago.’”

I travel to China next month under the wing of the Fairbank Center at Harvard and its director Bill Kirby, having played a bit part in the production of their online course, ChinaX. My first landing on the mainland is fifty years late, but there’s a nice sentimental symmetry in all this. John King Fairbank was the founder of “China Studies” in American academia.  Bill Kirby was the last of his brilliant protégés.  Fairbank’s first star graduate students in the late 1930s were Arthur Frederick Wright from Portland, Oregon and Mary Clabaugh from Birmingham, Alabama.  Married in 1940, the Wrights lit out immediately for Asia, first Japan and then China.  Through the end of World War II they were interned in a Japanese camp in Shandong province.  After liberation by American paratroopers, they chose to stay in China and traveled widely, encountering Mao along way.  They came home first to Stanford, and then Yale, where I took their celebrated year’s survey of Chinese history.

Arthur Wright liked to say it was a two-part field: “ancient Chinese history and ancient-as-hell Chinese history.”  Their star graduate student was Jonathan Spence, who graded our blue books on his way to becoming eminent in the profession.  In their sabbatical year of 1962-63, just after my graduation, the Wrights needed a tutor-babysitter for their sons, then 10 and 11, on a round-the-world journey of research and family grazing.  Grace alone got me the job – as grand a tour as Henry James could have imagined.  But all the way, and especially as we got to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia (we skipped Vietnam), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, the Wrights were itching and pulling every string they could to find a way under the fence and back to the real China.  That mission failed, but unworthy as I am, I take it up again in their sainted names.

May 30: Getting Ready

shanghai longtang Have I told you: I’m going to China this week, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?” Over and over I find that it’s artists broadly – novelists and story writers, actors and screenwriters, musicians, poets, architects and planners – who give me what I’m looking for: wide scope, the long view, and imagination about what’s coming. China is of course a wholly new story – terra largely incognita to me, which is why I’m going.  

I’ll be sending back missives and postcards  and sharing photos and bits of sound. The China watcher, Evan Osnos, will help send me off, on our program on June 12th. I’ll be talking with him and others about what I should be looking and listening for. Please help with your own questions and clues to the urgent mystery of China. What can I bring back for you? And please stay tuned as I prepare for the trip.

Podcast • November 29, 2011

Ha Jin’s recovered memory of Americans in China

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 ...

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’s “Factory Girls”

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 ...

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 ...

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?

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 ...

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.”

Podcast • January 21, 2011

Howard French on Africa in a Chinese Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3) Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder by Belgium with help from our CIA — the journalist Howard French is sketching an alternative path ahead for African development today. China is the big investor in 21st Century Africa. China sees Africa as yet another “natural-resource play” but also as a partner in growth — not a basket-case but a billion customers who’ll be two billion by mid-century. With the West and Japan deep in a post-industrial funk, China is keeping its focus on manufacturing, exports and markets, “and we’ll have them largely to ourselves,” China calculates, “because the West doesn’t make the stuff middle-class Africans are buying — cars and houses and shopping malls and airports and all the things associated with a rise to affluence. Those are the things that China makes.”

For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.

HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people — coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes — and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they’re maybe a fifth of all the passengers — are all, almost to a person, business people. They’ve pulled up their stakes wherever they lived — in Szechuan province or Hunan province — and they have come to make it in Africa. And they’re not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they’re going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who’re there for a couple of years. They’re thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There’s no looking down one’s nose or pretending to superiority. It’s all how I can make something work here.

CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America’s next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West’s better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?

HF: I think we’re still asleep.

Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. “There’s a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: ‘there’s a thousand-year gap between them and us,’ meaning… culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there’s an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon…”

And what are Africa’s chances of doing well in the new Chinese “deal”? Howard French sees “an incredible opportunity for Africa,” but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of “how people’s daily and longer-term interests will be served” stand to get good results. “In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it’s not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don’t blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished.”

Podcast • September 9, 2009

Patrick Keefe’s Snakehead: to the US, through Hell

In Patrick Keefe’s saga of The Snakehead, it’s the migrants and refugees scoffing at our immigration rules, and breaking them at risk of their lives, who pose the moral challenge to those of us who ...

In Patrick Keefe’s saga of The Snakehead, it’s the migrants and refugees scoffing at our immigration rules, and breaking them at risk of their lives, who pose the moral challenge to those of us who got here the easy way – that is, were born here. How many of us would take the route they’ve chosen, through Hell, to call ourselves Americans? Are we missing something about the allure of our country?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Keefe. (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

“What is it about this place?” as painter-storyteller Maira Kalman put it in her New York Times blog the other day, about this adopted country of hers that welcomes nearly a million new citizens every year. “Whose home is this?”

Patrick Radden Keefe: to be an American

Patrick Radden Keefe, reporter at large for the New Yorker, recounts the story of a single human brokerage in The Snakehead. “An epic tale of the Chinatown underworld and the American dream,” in Keefe’s subtitle, it is a great summer read that wakes you screaming from the buried immigration nightmare. It begins in a sort of shipwreck of a tramp steamer, Golden Venture, and mass drownings off the Rockaway Peninsula on New York’s Long Island in June, 1993. It ends in long prison sentences and deportations for the survivors. But the insistent theme music under all of it is the unconquerable drive that thousands, maybe millions, feel to get to America.

“Snakehead” means people-trafficker. Sister Peng in her Chinatown variety shop and bank was the mother of all snakeheads. The FBI and immigration cops hounded her for a decade before Judge Michael Mukasey in 2006 put her away for 35 years. Today, her standing in China’s Fujian province and on the fringes of Chinatown, Patrick Keefe suggests, is something like Harriet Tubman‘s of Underground Railroad fame in African-America. Justice and morality have all been double-reversed and trashed before the tale is all told, but something in the glowing torch of Miss Liberty in New York harbor has won the day.

There is no question that there is a kind of magic out there… What we want to be is this beacon of liberty and opportunity. We boast about it, and I think we all, to some extent, congratulate ourselves for it. And then we’re puzzled that we have 12 million illegal immigrants and more coming every year. Which seems rather bizarre to me: I mean, of course we do.

For me the really striking thing, and the question, the sort of humbling and troubling question was: what does it mean to be a citizen, really? Is it a piece of paper? Is it that you own property here, that you pay taxes, that you fight for your country? I wonder if there is not a way of thinking about it, to some extent, as: what kind of sacrifices did you make to be here?

And this, for me, was the issue with the Golden Venture passengers, for people like Sean Chen. Sean is still not a legal immigrant in the United States; he is still not a permanent resident. He works as a bartender outside of Philadelphia today. He doesn’t take planes anywhere, because he’d rather drive across the country than have to be confronted by officials at airports who want to see his documents. And I think about what he’s gone through. And it’s something that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, I couldn’t go through. And it does seem cruel and unusual, and also kind of perverse, that this guy, who to my mind has earned it, and is American, is not allowed to be, doesn’t have that piece of paper.

Patrick Radden Keefe in conversation with Chris Lydon, New York and Providence, September 4, 2009.

Podcast • February 20, 2008

Master Class: the Global Beethoven

The sublime pianist Hung-Kuan Chen is playing for keeps at what I think of as the great three-way intersection of our time. His passport says: USA. His stock in trade is the classical canon of ...
Hung-Kuan Chen, Multi-polar Pianist

Hung-Kuan Chen, Multi-polar Pianist

The sublime pianist Hung-Kuan Chen is playing for keeps at what I think of as the great three-way intersection of our time. His passport says: USA. His stock in trade is the classical canon of European music from Mozart to Messaien, Beethoven to Bartok. His working base is the piano department chair at the Shanghai Conservatory in a country with 80-million young students of keyboard music.

He perches, so to speak, high above the three-cornered convergence of the new Big Three: China, the European Union and the United States — what Parag Khanna calls the “global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle” of the era. Hung-Kuan Chen’s life is not about battles or geo-politics, of course; it’s about art and music. What he teaches, and what we talk about in this conversation, is above all a consciousness that comes with a lifelong immersion in musical masterworks, mostly Western but Chinese as well:

What I brought [to the Shanghai Conservatory] is a certain attitude, or paradigm… that being a musician is to be an artist. And to have an artistic life means to be means highly intelligent, highly alert, discerning and sensitive to the inner world and to the outer world. All in all it is a spiritual experience… a complex life. One has to live it, experience it. I teach them that music work or art work is a by-product of such a life. When we learn a great piece of music — say by Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert, it’s a two-way street. The music is itself great wisdom. Only when we are up to a certain level, we are able to see that level of wisdom in the music and beyond. And this — which is beyond — will further teach us. And if we are dedicated enough to this work, we than elevate ourself to that level. And so it’s a bit like a Jacob’s Ladder, it just goes up and up and up. And that becomes what is called an artistic life.

Hung-Kuan Chen, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the New England Conservatory, February 15, 2008

But don’t we all wonder — the moreso at the very moment when the New York Philharmonic is playing in China, on its way to North Korea, and Hung-Kwan Chen was playing Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata at Carnegie Hall last week — what are the connections and analogies in the heavy traffic of a globalizing culture?

Yes, Hung-Kwan says, he can hope to teach his students about the radical democrat in Beethoven (who in legend anyway, ripped up the dedication of his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte after the standard bearer of revolutionary France crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven called his piece “Eroica” instead.) But no, Hung-Kwan continues, he cannot hope to protest China in Darfur in anything like the way his fellow pianist Leon Fleischer recently protested the war in Iraq at the White House. Hung-Kwan Chen can count on the authorities in China for prompt delivery of new pianos to his Conservatory — as he couldn’t at any music school in the US. But he also knows that nobody’s interested in his “second opinions” about politics.

Most of our conversation is about sublimity, not politics. That is Hung-Kuan’s way of getting to the point, not avoiding it. “Oh, my God,” as he says, “it’s culture that leaves a legacy, not war or money, or who wins or who places second.”

Podcast • December 6, 2007

A Free Life: Ha Jin’s Immigration Story

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3) What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration debate we’re not quite having in the US?

Ha Jin: the long arc to America

I can imagine two reactions.

First, the generous sigh of sympathy — “give them a break!” — on being reminded just how humbling it is to hit the American beach running, to grasp our idioms (“in the doghouse,” “shooting the breeze,” “getting laid,” and “getting laid off”) — how just plain hard it is to confront the routine suspicions and exclusion, to cover the rent, to keep a family clothed, to see a way forward.

Second, there’s the more complicated, maybe off-putting realization under Ha Jin’s endless documentation that getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience. Ha Jin reminds me of my daughter Sarah’s discovery: “When you’re pregnant, everybody’s pregnant.” Everybody in Ha Jin’s American saga is Chinese, and the divisions (between Taiwan and the mainland), the strongest feelings (“I spit at China…”), the intimate language, the brave hearts and weaklings, are all Chinese.

In the Americanization process that Ha Jin writes about there is no baseball, no Abraham Lincoln or FDR, no Paul Bunyan or American camp-fire songs, no Grand Canyon, no interest in our local or national politics… and no outward sentiment about a golden path toward the citizenship moment and pledge of allegiance. John Updike’s New Yorker review of Ha Jin notes that his characters “strive less to let America in than to squeeze China out — ‘squeeze every bit of it out of themselves.'” Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?

To me the slow-release beauty of A Free Life is its very long arc of acculturation and assimilation, over about 15 years. Between 1985 and 2000, the protagonist Nan Wu, with his wife and son, follow Ha Jin‘s own path from Boston to Georgia and back. Nan is first a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, then a translator and cook in Manhattan, then a successful-enough strip-mall restaurateur in suburban Atlanta, reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden in his private hours. But by the time he is forty his poetic muse is in control; he is determined to be an artist and to run the risks of an expressive life. He is sounding like no one so much as the arch-American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance.”

“He didn’t want to die a successful businessman,” Nan realizes, summoning up his real credo: “Do something moneyed people cannot do… Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

In Nan’s Chinese circle, he has taken a lonely and provocative position.

“You never cease to amaze me.” Mei Hong stood up. “A madman is what you are. Let me tell you, you’re also a banana [yellow on the outside, white on the inside]!” She jabbed her finger at Nan. “You always despise China and our language. That’s why you’ve been writing in English and dreaming of becoming another Conrad or Nabokov. Let me tell you, you’re just making a buffoon of yourself! Get real — stop fancying yourself a great poet.”

Flustered, Nan felt his chest constricting. But he scrambled to answer, “To write in English is my personal choice. Unlike you, I prefer to be a real individual.”

“Yeah, to be a lone wolf,” scoffed Mei Hong.

“Exactly!” …

He preferred to stand alone.

Ha Jin, A Free Life, Pantheon, 2007. Pages 496-7.

Tom Tancredo, or Lou Dobbs for that matter: say hello to Ha Jin. Can Ha Jin point us to the core of this campaign frenzy about immigration, and immigrants?