Saturday, February 28, 2015

Delicious Dongbei

Back in Shanghai, which is rainy and cold. Sifting through four hundred-plus pictures is going to take a while, so for starters here are some snaps from my last meal in Shenyang, cooked by my friend O's mother. Dumplings (jiaozi 饺子) are both regionally and seasonally appropriate during New Year, and these were as good as or better than those I'd had at two well-known jiaozi restaurants earlier in the week. The less appealing looking dessert at right was my doing: I'd noticed a flatbed truck selling what looked like potatoes gone to seed, only to be told they were frozen pears and delicious, so I got some. After a little time in the freezer, they were indeed delicious, like stewed dried fruit. Lǎo bì le!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fishy business

Sick of the fireworks going off all the time? 放生 from the China Daily.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Having a ball in Shenyang

Another brief VPN window (it's at Costa Coffee). I continue to have a blast here in Shenyang, perhaps because it's wintry but not actually that cold. So there's snow and ice along the side of the road, but forming neat shapes, not least the tennis ball-sized ice spheres below. True marvels, they're hollow and so fragile they crumble if you touch them.
I'll be back with more pics on my return to Shanghai Friday if not before.

Monday, February 23, 2015


Ah, brief VPN window at a coffee shop in a downtown shopping mall! Two cellphone photos from my first days in Shenyang - an ice goat sculpture near one of China's few surviving big Mao statues, and the beautiful early 17th-century tomb of the founder of the Qing Dynasty. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Spring rush

As I head to Shenyang tomorrow I'll be participating in the world's greatest migration! I miss the peak, of course, heading out from one of the big metropoles several days after the Spring Festival, but I think I can look forward to a jam-packed airport anyway... This map aggregates searches on 百度地图 Baidu Ditu (like Google Maps) for the 19th.
Shenyang is the nearest of that Orion-like trio of red dots at upper right. It's possible, by the way, that I will have the same difficulty accessing Blogger there that I had when I went to Beijing - also possible that I won't, since Shenyang's not the national capital. If you see no updates from me for the next six days, assume I'm having a blast!

Made on the street

In Shanghai's dwindling old city I saw some caramel calligraphy and enjoyed a Central Asian flatbread: one man kneads the dough and sprinkles on onions, the next spreads it on a round bowl and uses that to stick it to the inside of a spherical oven, the last extracts the finished breads with skewers.

Friday, February 20, 2015

New year's irresolution

On a beautifully clear Thursday afternoon I ventured out to see what was happening in the neighborhood. The local temple, virtually empty the other times I've been there, was full of people bowing to the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas (and one shrine to Guangdi), but I missed the rush hour: there were metal barriers stretching the length of the block.
Venturing on my bike a little further northwest into the town of 江湾 Jiangwan (my nearest metro stop is called 江湾镇 Jiangwan Town) - I usually go east from where I live, towards Fudan University, or south, towards downtown Shanghai - I found a little park. What a delightful surprise to find a blooming plum (or is it peach) treee! 春节快乐!
Of course I'm heading back into winter on Sunday! But I'm almost used to it, what with this second new year's in two months, second switch from horse to whatever 羊 is (sheep, goat, ram?), not to mention a birthday that might or might not have been a big one. Just this past week brought: Friday the 13th, Valentines Day, New Year's, Ash Wednesday...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Going and coming

As I was skyping with my friend M, who's in Rome, I noticed a sunset out my window - a rare sight. He noticed it too: he said the wall behind me was bathed in orange. But then he turned to the right to look out his window into the Roman morning, and we both had the same moment of wonder at the astounding obvious. We were looking at the same sun!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Not sure how to convey to you the all-around racket of firecrackers, big noisy ones, going off in all directions - how the new year is welcomed in China. I first went to a party of young foreigners in the former French Concession - never a big one for parties, I felt quite lost surrounded by, well, people like me but none of them aware of the importance of having fish as part for one's nianyefan 年夜饭 (new year's eve dinner):
fish yu sounds just like yu 途, surplus, so one wishes people niannian youyu, may you have fish (surplus) each year! (Luckily someone brought some smoked salmon, unwitting.) Hurried back on the last train to the provinces, enjoyed cycling home through deserted streets in time for an hour watching the quite uninspiring TV Gala and running from window to window with my camera as new volleys of fireworks went off. 恭喜发财!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Spring festival


Almost didn't notice this

magnolia, even as I was

cycling slowly through the

Fudan campus looking for

Spring flowers. It was

spotting these fallen

petals that made me

look up to discover...


As New York City is experiencing record lows - minus 15 C! - and my destination Sunday, Shenyang, emerges from a snowstorm, Shanghai is starting to feel Springlike: former French Concession forsythias!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Just trying to understand what happened

I recently finished a really wonderful book, Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present (HarperCollins, 2006). It was recommended to me by a Chinese-American friend (she grew up here, moved to the US when a teenager, and is now working on ancient Chinese literature at a US university and on a Fulbright doctoral fellowship at Fudan for the year) who said it manages better than anyone else she knows to navigate between overly boosterish native and overly critical foreign depictions of contemporary Chinese life. It's also "about us" - scholars and scholarship play a big part - and very eloquently and insightfully written. From the start Hessler makes clear that historians are story-tellers, and that every story buries others. One of his gifts is his honesty in reflecting this, as he narrates his own efforts to make sense of things.

One story which he follows throughout the book (it's narrative journalism; he wound up China correspondent for The New Yorker) involves a famous mid-century scholar of oracle bones (the divination devices which have the oldest Chinese writing on them) and bronzes named Chen Mengjia. Chen killed himself at the start of the Cultural Revolution and Hessler undertakes to try to find out why, speaking to old colleagues, teachers, acquaintances and finally family. Near the end of Hessler's account (which - spoiler - never arrives at the promised land of a final answer), he describes meeting Li Xueqin, a famous archaeologist at Tsinghua University who, it seems, might hold the key - even the smoking gun. Hessler has found a copy of a damning review of Chen's magnum opus by Li in 1957, which ends with a personal denunciation.

Chen has not presented anything substantial enough to match his arrogance. Chen has an extreme tendency to boast. For example, in the twenty chapters of his book, Chen neglects many essays and theories of other scholars, instead collecting only his own ideas.... This self-boasting attitude should not be accepted by us. (386)

But when he confronts Li Xueqin with the article, after Li has given a generic answer to the question whether and how he and Chen knew each other, it gets really interesting.

The professor's gaze settles somewhere between the document and the floor. "This isn't something that we should talk about," he says. "Chen Mengjia was a great man, and I'd rather not discuss these things."
"I'm just trying to understand what happened," I say. "I've seen many criticisms of him, and most of them were much worse. Everyone tells me that it's the way things were at that time. As a foreigner, it's hard for me to understand this kind of thing, so I wanted to ask you about it."
Now the professor realizes why this interview is taking place. But the emotions I expected to see - annoyance, defensiveness, even anger - haven't materialized. If anything, the man just looks tired, the bags sagging heavy beneath his eyes.
"It's not difficult just for foreigners to understand," he says. "It's difficult for young Chinese to understand. At that time, there was a kind of pressure on us to write this sort of thing. The Insitute of Archaeology asked me to write it. I was very young and I couldn't refuse. You'll notice that I avoided saying anything political. I never used the word 'Rightist,' or any of those terms. And I put all of that criticism into a single paragraph, at the end."
He's right: the personal attack is condensed into a space of only five lines.
"I didn't want to do it," the professor continues. "There was no problem with the scholarly points that I made in the other parts of the essay. But the personal criticism was something that I didn't want to write. After that essay was published, I rarely saw Chen Mengjia. But occasionally in the early 1960s, I encountered him at the Institute of Archaeology, and whenever that happened, I didn't feel comfortable speaking to him. I just couldn't hold a conversation, because my heart felt bad. I always regretted that article."
He continues: "I think that people understood. Much later, after he was dead, I still had contact with his friends, and occasionally I saw his wife. None of them ever attacked me. I think they understood what had happened, but I still felt bad. Mei banfa. There was nothing I could do about that."

Mei banfa 没办法 is a term of resignation, a shrug or a sigh.

"It's hard to understand, apart from the fact that it was a horrible period," he says. "By the time the Cultural Revolution happened, if people criticized you, then you truly believed that you were wrong. I was also criticized at that time, and I believed the things the things that people said. Everybody was like that; it was a type of social psychology. There were so many enemies - everyone was an enemy, it seemed." (390-91)

Hessler doesn't tell us whether he thinks Li Xueqin's response sincere. Instead he concludes the chapter this way:

My Tsinghua friend was right - some things are easier for a foreigner. But perhaps they are easier for the wrong reasons. On my way to Tsinghua, I had told myself that it was necessary to take the professor by surprise, because otherwise this detail of the past might disappear. But it would have felt better if the man had become defensive or angry; it was much worse to see the regret. The author of the criticism had been twenty-four years old. (392)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caught a scent IV

I've given you an overview of Yang Huilin's argument that the Cultural Revolution poses challenges for the ethical rebuilding of China, more specifically, and for ethics more generally. He suggests that the nature of the Cultural Revolution's evil is overlooked if not indeed ignored by the prevalent ways of thinking about it in China, from the "scar literature" of survivors to the self-exculpation of terrorized intellectuals to the equivocations of revisionists who see the  CR as having had good as well as bad sides and effects. He characterizes these three views with terms taken from an essay by Belgian Catholic ethicist Didier Pollefeyt: "diabolization," "banalization," and "apology for evil."

From reading Yang's piece you might not realize that Pollefet not only shares Yang's criticism of such views, but offers a diagnosis for them. Ultimately, Pollefeyt argues, a discourse of justice will not only distort the horrors of Auschwitz but continue to push people into these moral evasions - and perhaps back into the evils in question. The severity of this dilemma is what leads Pollefeyt to suggest a new view of the power of forgiveness. The paper Yang refers to is called “Ethics, Forgiveness and the Unforgivable after Auschwitz.”

Perhaps because the original context of his essay was one in which which Pollefeyt's views will have been known, Yang doesn't describe them. He also doesn't mention that Pollefeyt, right from the start, makes clear he thinks forgiveness for Auschwitz an absurdity. He thinks it unhelpful to declare things "unforgivable a priori," but once the conditions for genuine contrition and forgiveness are spelled out, it's clear that much is "unforgivable a posteriori." Nobody can speak for the dead. His concern is with "forgiveness after Auschwitz," and involves ways in which people who were in various ways involved in the Holocaust, either in person or through a kind of intergenerational association, might reform themselves through contrition before victims in the present, and for the future. Writing more than half a century after the end of the Shoah, Pollefeyt's context seems to be the Jewish-Christian dialogue, his hope that Jews will recognize the sincerity of young Catholics like himself who feel called to a kind of repentance on behalf of the Church in which they make a home for its involvement in the history of anti-Semitism.

Given this rather particular context it's unsurprising that Yang has nothing to say about it. But I still wonder that he finds nothing of use in Pollefeyt's larger positive argument. Pollefeyt, too, turns to what Yang would call "theological ethics" in the face of the collapse of secular ethics. Pollefeyt responds to those post-Holocaust theologies which argue that "after Auschwitz" Christian theology must confine itself to ethics, its dismal record of justifying evils definitively exposed by its failures during the Shoah. The problem, Pollefeyt observes, is that a discourse of judgment in the face of "unforgivable" evils bears similarities to the very systems it seeks to condemn: in the fight against fascism, one can become very fascist oneself (125).

As he parses the problems with "diabolization," "banalization" and "apology of evil" Pollefeyt seeks to understand what motivates those who articulate these views. Victims might need to feel an absolute divide between them and their victimizers; perpetrators might feel they were doing no worse than other people under difficult circumstances; interpreters more generally might suggest that people knowingly did evil but under the impression that it was an evil necessary to a compelling greater good. Pollefeyt's accounts here are as much psychological (or perhaps pastoral) as ethical.

Pollefeyt finishes his argument by offering his own account of evil as a form of self-deception: good people who, at one level, know part of their lives involves evil, but find ways of hiding this reality from themselves as a way of maintaining a semblance of moral wholeness. Self-deception is notoriously hard to explain, Pollefeyt concedes, but only such an account of evil allows him to suggest that people involved in evils might need and want to come to terms with their failure, might want to repent and reform. The problem with the three other views is that they identify the agent with his act, and, in absolutizing condemnation or exoneration, push people defensively farther into self-deception. An agent incapable also of good has no space to reestablish herself. The shared cry "never again!" after the Holocaust demands that we not just mourn the victims of the past but work to spare the victims of the future, and for this we need to acknowledge the moral complexity which leads people into various sorts of participation in evils (to borrow a word from Marilyn McCord Adams' Horrendous Evils). In particular we need to recognize that too simplistic accounts of evil will make a recurrence of evils more, not less, likely.

The argument isn't without its problems but it's very interesting. Why isn't Yang interested in it? Surely there are people who suffer from the consequences of "self-deception" about their innocence or culpability in the Cultural Revolution. (I'm thinking about a particular scene in Peter Hessler's magnificent Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present.) Indeed, the absence of a sufficiently subtle language for understanding - and acknowledging - this surely drives them into the pernicious and dangerous simplifications Yang condemns

I don't know but I have a hunch. Look at this passage from Pollefeyt:

Speaking of forgiveness with a certain ethical quality always expects from the culprit (and from the victim) a moment (or a process) of reform. We understand ‘reform’ as breaking through the self-deception which is at the basis of evil. When evil is openly confessed, against all self-defensive closedness, the conditions that are usually linked with forgiveness will be realised. Because reform breaks open the closed compartments of his existence, man can find a new starting-point in his most fundamental connection with the good. And when the fundamental ethical dynamics of his existence are set free, he will want be be willing to agree with and fulfil the essential conditions in order to come to an authentic forgiveness. (150-51)

Obvious differences aside, this sounds not a little like the language of the "thought reform" which was the centerpiece of the grotesque show-trials of the Cultural Revolution. "Bad elements" were trotted out, night after night, to submit to public "struggle" sessions, beaten into writing and reading confessions which were never accepted - although people were also always forced to thank the magnanimous Party for helping them break open their closedness. This practice, which soon turned on its own leaders, had been part of the experience of idealistic Communists struggling with the wrong family backgrounds since Yan'an - not to mention the daily torture of legions of "Rightists" and "capitalist roaders" sent to camps for reform through labor and study. The culture of forced confession and never fully-granted forgiveness - a farce if it weren't so deadly - poisoned everyone morally, could make perpetrators more cruel (to show others, and themselves, that they were trustworthy) and could break victims (who were required to "help" their fellows address the falseness of their confessions by denouncing them). The only release from this collective moral insanity may have been a blanket "negation" of the whole period as one from which nothing edifying could be learned.

I can see how Pollefeyt's account might suddenly have lost its appeal to Yang (who suffered through the Cultural Revolution as a young man). The Cultural Revolution experience seems to teach that, if forgiveness is to have any constructive role, if genuine moral reform is to be made possible, they can't be left to human devices and processes (and it can't happen in the absence of the pursuit of responsibility and, where possible, punishment and restitution.) From the crooked timber of humanity, what straight thing could be built - or even imagined? True moral rebuilding must, Yang argues, be rooted in an awareness of, and responsibility to, "the Wholly Other," external and extrinsic to man (73).

Much more could be said (I'm less drawn to this "Wholly Other" than this merely "cultural" Christian, for instance) but I think I'll leave it here for now. The post-Holocaust post-Cultural Revolution dialogue hasn't happened yet; it might be good for all of us if it did.

Didier Pollefeyt, “Ethics, Forgiveness and the Unforgivable after Auschwitz,” 
in Incredible Forgiveness: Christian Ethics between Fanaticism and Reconciliation,
ed. Didier Pollefeyt (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 121-59

Saturday, February 14, 2015

文革 (Caught a scent III)

I took advantage of the mild Springlike day by venturing into Shanghai today, my first exploration of new turf here in a while. My objective was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, a place I'd seen and heard recommended but had put off seeing. Snickering at posters from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution seemed too easy for a foreign visitor like me. Indeed, I'd started to share some Chinese people's irritation with westerners' "obsession" with the Cultural Revolution. Sure, it was bad, but why focus so relentlessly on the negative all the time? It can seem like sour grapes; isn't China's progress since the Reform and Opening ushered in by Deng Xiaoping the envy of the world?
Now it seemed possible, indeed necessary, for me to go, since I'm trying to think through Yang Huilin's arguments about the unmet challenges of the CR for Chinese moral life. I've also read my share of cultural revolution narratives, from those in Yu Hua's China in Ten Words to Liao Yiwu's amazing interview series entitled The Corpse Walker, seen Chen Kaige's Farewell, my Concubine and other films. I've also come up against the eye-popping extent of the CR's destruction of culture and disruption of lives - even as I'm sympathetic to the view that it resonates more with observers like me than the Great Leap Forward, which cost far more lives, since it mainly affected urban intellectuals.
I was glad to find that this gallery - the work of a single individual, seeking out traces of periods which had largely disappeared - chronicles poster art from the time of nearly pornographic "Shanghai ladies" a century ago through all the stages of the Communist People's Republic. He professes to be interested in them as art, and many are quite striking: the political poster was, after all, one of the major art forms of the 20th century! (My pictures aren't very good; it was my cell phone; sharp images of most of the extensive collection can be found on the website.) As I see it the Cultural Revolution was only the last of several disasters which happened under Mao's leadership. Several things I'd
thought distinctive of its savagery, such as the "struggle" sessions supposed to conduce to "thought reform," in fact trace back even to before the revolution. And of course the campaign against the "Four Olds," which resulted in the destruction of so much religious heritage, has roots a century ago. Am I saying that the Cultural Revolution isn't distinct enough to be ranked with Auschwitz as a moral defeat for all humanity? Not necessarily. But what makes it important needs to be defined. Is it the rejection of all tradition, the view of struggle as never securely ended, the mobilization of the young against their elders, the anarchy, the hollowing out of all forms of discourse, its sheer scale?

* * *

Yang Huilin mentions five challenges the Cultural Revolution poses, questions which seem to me closer to the kinds of questions Historikerstreit-generation Germans ask about the rise of Nazism than general reflections on what the lessons of "Auschwitz" are for all humanity:

1. Why did traditional Chinese morality, which had survived until then despite indoctrination, suddenly collapse in 1966?
2. Why was criticism and castigation of alleged individual ethical failings so central to this moment of collective ethical collapse?
3. How was CR different from earlier campaigns which were later condemned?
4. How should the hypocritical collaboration of so many intellectuals in the CR be understood?
5. If at times even Mao seemed to have lost control of the CR, who was pulling the strings? (68-70)

These imponderables are what lead Yang to the claim that, as in "Auschwitz," a "collective unconscious" was at work, and in a manner which undermines the self-assurance of any and every ethics. It is such considerations as these that motivate his call for a "pursuit of responsibility" not at the individual but at a more fundamental level - and his sense that the relativizing tendencies of Chinese tradition (including sinified Christianity) make them powerless in the absence of some absolute point d'appui (74).

Friday, February 13, 2015

Caught a scent II

Yesterday I mentioned the little steeple-chase I went through around Yang Huilin's essay "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution." After working out some editorial mistakes in various places I thought I'd found the real story and Chinese original. An esssay on this subject in China in 1999, long before it appeared in English - wouldn't it be great to reconstruct its setting and reception?

Well, it turns out I guessed wrong. I followed up with Yang's editor, who asked the author himself, and it seems it may all have begun in English, and was in any case written for a western audience. Yang was on research leave at Leuven; the paper was his contribution to a conference there, making use of the work of young Leuven faculty member Didier Pollefeyt. (Now both Yang and Pollefeyt are leaders at their respective schools.) As for the Chinese version my friend found, well, it was published in simplified Chinese, yes, but not in China. Regent, an evangelical college in British Columbia, was the publisher.

But all this just makes it interesting in other ways. Let's start with the fact that Yang Huilin, a visitor at the Catholic theological faculty at Leuven and published in an evangelical journal, isn't a Christian. Well, that may be saying too much or too little. Yang is sort of a "cultural Christian" (文化基督徒 wenhuajidutu), a Chinese university scholar drawn to the study of Christian tradition as a way to understand cultural rather than religious questions. Several "cultural Christians" have had careers defined not only by the study of Christian history and theology but themselves do a kind of academic theology, discussion about important philosophical and ethical matters in a Chinese Christian idiom but tethered neither to individual faith nor to some denominational membership. (It might not be that different from my rhapsodies in a Buddhist mode: I'm not a Buddhist but find Buddhist categories and arguments compelling ways of making valuable arguments.)

So in the article in question, we have a non-Christian making a pitch for "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics." What is Yang's argument in it? Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution are two traumatic events which demonstrate the need to reexamine earlier ethics. Like Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution typically manifested a kind of combined historical force of collective unconsciousness, and also typically exposed the one-sidedness and limitations of ideals and values in the earthly world. (70) These claims aren't really explained ("collective unconsciousness," "ideals and values," "earthly world"?); Yang's main concern is to use Pollefeyt's typology of inadequate post-Holocaust views of evil to show that post-CR China, too, may need to move towards something like "theological ethics" to rebuild its moral culture.

What Pollefeyt calls "diabolization," "banalisation" and "apology of evil" are views of evil which either understand agents of evil as moral monsters, as constrained by their surrounding society and culture to commit evil without realizing it, or as knowingly doing evil but under the conviction that it contributed to a greater good. Yang finds analogs in discussions of the Cultural Revolution. "Diabolization" is to be found in the "scar literature" which describes saintly victims of collective monstrosity. "Banalisation" well describes the intellectuals who disavow any responsibility on the basis of having been "raped for 40 years." "Apology of evil" is to be found both in current views that the CR made later progress possible and in nostalgia for the Mao years among people disappointed by corruption and other contemporary problems.

None of these views, Yang argues, is willing to face the reality of the Cultural Revolution. People there at the time know that everyone was drawn in in one way or other, but none of these views will admit this. A new understanding of evil and forgiveness - Pollefeyt's proposal for the post-Auschwitz discussion - won't work here. Beyond a few prominent scapegoats, all already dead, everyone's been exonerated, indeed disqualified as an ethically responsible agent, by one or other of these discourses. Who would need forgiveness? (72)

And yet the moral landscape is devastated by these cheapened forms of condemnation and self-exculpation, by a "negation" of the whole period by government decree so glib it leaves (or should leave) all talk of ethical ideals and the human capacity to realize them suspect. Yang gestures instead at the need for something like the Christian logic of love, whose premise should be “the Wholly Other,” eternal and extrinsic to man (73). In Chinese culture everything tends to get integrated - the secular and the sacred, ... rationality and religion, ... regal right and religious right, behavioral standards and spiritual values; as a result ethical judgment is overwhelmed by practical compromises (73). What's needful if one is to learn the discomfiting lesson of the Cultural Revolution is an uncompromised and uncompromising "pursuit of responsibility” which is not directed at any individual person per se, and rather than questioning a certain ethical theory, it questions ethics itself (75).

What makes this "theological," even in the cultural Christian sense, and what work could it do in a merely cultural Christian sense? And just why is Pollefeyt's proposal dismissed out of hand? Stay tuned!

Yang Huilin, “The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True
Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution,” in China, Christianity
and the Question of Culture (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 61-75

Thursday, February 12, 2015


 One week to New Year! (Don't ask about the air, but answer's 313.)

Caught a scent

There's few things I enjoy more, in my nerdy way, than a bibliographic wild goose chase: some unexpected reference or anomaly in a citation, which leads to others, disclosing unimagined networks and histories of reading (and misreading)... I found such a one here last week, my first in China! In Beijing someone gave me the new book (in English) by Renmin University Professor of Comparative Literature and Religion Yang Huilin, China, Christianity and the Question of Culture; she thought I'd be particularly interested in the discussion of the Book of Job in an essay on the Shoah and the Cultural Revolution. Was I ever!

The first anomaly wasn't so interesting. "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution" is not about the Book of Job, but I'm used to Job synechdochically standing for the problem of evil, which was definitely the subject. The essay takes three "models of evil" from an essay by Catholic theologian Didier Pollefeyt on forgiveness after Auschwitz and uses them to assess and critique views of the Cultural Revolution. Pollefeyt's "diabolicization," "banalisation" and "apology of evil" weren't distinctive enough to make me want to follow up; in any case, Yang found them useful for diagnosis but not for prognosis. More interesting, and confronting, was Yang's assertion: it is not possible for forgiveness to become the starting point for rebuilding the ethical order subsequent to the Cultural Revolution (72).

But then I did a search for discussions of Yang's essay, which the new book indicates first appeared in English in 2004 (so did the essay by Pollefeyt it employs). I found an essay by Austrian theologian and classicist Leopold Leeb introducing Yang's "view of Christian culture" in the now defunct journal Inter-Religio (published by Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya), whose main focus was the Auschwitz/Cultural Revolution piece. Leeb's essay appeared in 2000, and was clearly discussing a Chinese version of Yang's essay (key phrases were translated differently). But the most recent work of Yang's it names is the book 追问"上帝"-信仰与理性的辩难 Questioning "God": A Debate between Faith and Reason, published in 1991. So was the piece originally written more than a dozen years earlier?! A quick search of Pollefeyt's career showed he'd published nothing, certainly not on the relevant topic, in the early 1990s. Was there an earlier, pre-Pollefeyt version? What was going on?

Eventually a Chinese friend tracked down the Chinese original of Yang's essay: "from 1991," he confirmed. But that turned out to be a misreading - it's 199901, so actually appeared in early 1999. And the Questioning "God" wasn't published in 1991 either, but in 1998. The 1999 essay references a paper Pollefeyt gave in 1998, later published in the form referenced in the English translation. Mystery solved! I suppose I could have been spared all this snooping if the new book had included the original Chinese in its background for the essay, or if Leeb had had a better editor. But I'm glad I was forced to snoop, because I suddenly had on my desktop (real and virtual) works - the internet is full of pdfs! - by Yang and Pollefeyt which between them raise incredibly powerful and interesting questions not only about the legacies of Shoah and Cultural Revolution but also about intercultural and -religious encounter, reading and translation, time and memory, religion and ethics...

More coming! (Here)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


At GoEast Language School today, a Finn, a Greek, an Italian, a Canadian and two Americans, under the able guidance of four Chinese instructors, assembled many dozen delicious jiaozi 饺子, a New Year's tradition. One dumpling in each batch had a coin in it, marking out the recipient for a fortunate year. By a coincidence so happy it seemed more like 缘分, my teacher S got the one with an American coin, and the one with a Chinese coin went to her American husband! Since they're planning to move to the US in May this seemed most auspicious. Jiaozi don't lie!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Pollution isn't the only thing that can make it hard to breathe here.

That Gong Ke is quoted in People's Daily is an encouraging sign.

Monday, February 09, 2015


I sometimes think I've seen very little of China and, in the land of ten thousand sites, that's doubtless true. But I've not seen nothing - especially if you include my 2012 trip, and Taipei five year before that. And I'll soon be seeing more: a friend invited me to visit after the Spring Festival/New Year and I agreed without realizing he lived quite so far north: Shenyang 沈阳, old Manchu capital and site of one of China's two ice and snow festivals. (It's where the pen is pointing, closer to North Korea than to Beijing.) Should be interesting! He assures me, as northerners do, that it's Shanghai that's cold - since it's south of the line where the government furnishes steam heat to all. We'll be toasty.

Sunday, February 08, 2015


I have a friend here who has world culture at his fingertips. Mention a movie or book or piece of music and he'll say "should I get it for you?" Everything can be found on the Chinese internet (except, well, things like blogger!). It all seems quite open, too. Chinese internet platforms like QQ give their members terabites (!) of free memory, which can hardly just be for content people themselves create. As for everything else here, the scale is staggering. My friend never gets a film, it's always a bundle of ten or more, never a recording but a collection of 100 or 200. Public-spirited "netizens" here and abroad are busily scanning and sharing everything they can find. Someone in Russia seems to be the source of thousands of academic books circulating in pdf. One Chinese person goes to old record stores in New York and gets every old classical LP s/he can find, then shares high-quality recordings.

The scale is staggering. What would you do if you laid hands on the world's best 270 best jazz albums, or 100 best Japanese films, a 100-disk series celebrating the centenary of a famous European orchestra, RSC actors' readings of the complete plays of Shakespeare, or the 50 best books of last year? My friend has 8 terabites of stuff. What I don't understand is what one can do with material in such quantity. He tells me he's working his way through it methodically, but he seems to be adding at a hundred times the rate at which he could be listening. (Reading seems another issue: people here are expert skimmers.)

Did I mention all of it is "free"? My friend is shocked every time I tell him I paid for a piece of music on my computer or a Kindle book. He has no sense that payment's the norm, indeed the norm on which the whole system depends. Speaking of, the picture above is of a first bootleg of our book. I'm responsible for it: I had one copy of the original here and I wanted to give it to someone, and he said he could make a me a copy. I had no idea it would be bound like a book. There are places which create book copies like this in abundance near every university; it cost about ¥20. If Chinese books weren't so cheap I can't imagine anyone actually buying them. Pricy foreign books, well, they have lives here in bootleg and pdf undreamt of by their writers or publishers. I know I'll be less amused if/when my friend turns up one day with the Job book in pirated pdf - what am I saying, with the whole series...!

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Oh, forgot this! The words translated as "religious activities" 传教活动 really mean something more specific: proselytizing.

Friday, February 06, 2015


Five full days in Beijing! (I got this Chinese map after I lost my guidebook. Not an easy read but I had a sense of the place by then...) I saw a lot - and a lot of places in that central area I walked. (My hostel/ hotel is marked X.) Click here for highlights of sights, trees, the most popular slogan, and random funny things.


One way one feels Beijing's age and grace is in its trees, some ancient (hundreds are 800 years old), some sculpted like chandeliers
Not a very good or representative sample, but at least a taste

Beijing days 5

Tiananmen day! Can you see the rarely visible western hills (right)?
Where it all began
In brisk wind and bright sun the red flags flow like the blood of martyrs
 In front of Mao's mausoleum (I didn't go in)
Souvenirs of pandas and political leaders, past and present
Entrance to China National Museum, perhaps the world's largest
"That Era 那个年代" by Tan Jianming 谭建明" (2011)
A history painting from the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward
 A 2000-year old sculpture from Yunnan (showing human sacrifice)
A civil official from the Western Wei (6th c. CE)
Story-teller beating a drum (Eastern Han, 1-3rd century CE)
Bronze zun in the shape of an owl, Shang. (Okay yes, I went through the museum in the wrong order. Their signage was deplorable.)
The "People's Culture Palace" is a mini-Forbidden City nobody visits
Exquisite marble carvings
 Really... nobody in sight! Quite a relief after the tourist throngs!