Our New Frontier is a Nice Place

“Xinjiang Hao” is one of my favourite songs. It’s a propaganda ditty from the Mao era, which charmingly recites all the reasons that China’s “new” frontier is a wonderful place. There are run-downs of natural resources, and lists of local fruit and veg. There’s a chorus that always brings a tear to my eye: “Our beautiful fields and gardens, our beloved Home”, and an oddly plaintive, clingy refrain that seems to be actually begging the listener to visit. Here is a rather eurotastic version, featuring some sultry bimbling and a prancing idiot who appears to be trying to play his own leg as a musical instrument.

This is, largely, how Xinjiang looks whenever it’s mentioned on Chinese telly – joyful dances and graceful dark-haired beauties. Back in the time of Empress Wu, her adviser Judge Dee suggested that she steer clear of Asia’s arid heart, thereby leaving it to her enemies to waste their energies crossing its forbidding deserts before they reached her borders. But Wu, and subsequent Chinese rulers, expanded the realm far to the west along the Silk Road, exposing China’s flank to a long, modern, festering border with all those Central Asian republics we tend to lump together as “The Stans”.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is a fast read. Despite its 350 pages, some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, although author Nick Holdstock has artfully imposed a seasonal and narrative structure over what clearly began as scattered diary entries from his time in the remote town of Yining. The result is a welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s small supply of books about Xinjiang, China’s landlocked new frontier and place of exile.

Holdstock’s book is unlikely to lead to a flood of tourist trips. Like Mannerheim before him (who was underwhelmed with the place), and Eric Tamm in Mannerheim’s footsteps, he describes a drab, dusty dump you’d have to be mad to visit, with nosy, snotty children, world-weary cab-drivers, and wheeler-dealers selling condemned blackcurrant juice. As for Things to Do, there’s always the cockfights, clamorous karaoke bars and pink-lit brothels. “Anyone wishing to launch a cultural pogrom in Yining,” Holdstock observes, “would be hampered by the shortage of targets.” There are none of Youtube’s pretty Uighur dancers here, nor much in the way of homespun shepherd wisdom. Instead, Holdstock finds squalid slums of crumbling concrete, apples that almost break his teeth, and a drunken, drugged-out population of no-hopers and spivs.

Arguably, one finds what one is looking for. Holdstock’s book is boldly formalist, discussing only what he sees and stumbles across. He doesn’t go out of his way to find natural beauty or local colour; instead he lets Xinjiang dig its own hole. Apologists and propagandists for Xinjiang describe lush green hills populated by gambolling sheep, glittering mosques, happily dancing natives (a recurring stereotype that clearly winds the locals up), and quaint folk traditions. But many foreign observers (well, so far in my reading, all of them) instead outline a tense, jumpy borderland in a permanent stand-off between restless native Uighurs and unwelcome Han colonists.

Holdstock is uncompromisingly even-handed in his treatment not only of the region, but of its contending interest groups of clueless bigots, smug religious fanatics and downtrodden peasantry. Irritated in equal parts by squabbling Muslim factions, undercover Christian missionaries and listless Chinese bureaucrats, Holdstock is a Canute-like figure, teaching English to students with little hope of escape, and railing against the jobsworths who won’t sell him a bus ticket.

He has an ear for the long silences and dispiriting platitudes of stilted intercultural conversations, but also for sudden, unsettling outpourings of emotion, when his Chinese colleagues feel they can open up, and he often wishes they hadn’t. The stir-crazy Holdstock grows so bored with frontier life that he actually looks forward to seeing a horse get butchered, and is frustrated even in this simple ‘pleasure’ by the interfering authorities.With comedic haplessness, he also embarks upon a grand enterprise to expose a kind of international espionage (I won’t spoil it), only to repeatedly shoot himself in the foot regarding contacts, evidence and subterfuge. That’s not to say a whole lot happens – this is not a plot-driven narrative – but it amply, and damningly conveys the loneliness and tedium that is surely a hazard of the job for many teachers, missionaries and diplomats in all the inhospitable corners of the world. If anyone had a romantic idea about Xinjiang (or China, or Cambodia, for that matter, where Holdstock winters for an interlude among stoners and paedos), The Tree That Bleeds tramples it in the dust.

Far too many books about China are tiresome travelogues by chinless Torquils on a gap year, or earnest, uncomprehending Lucindas who think that readers will find their baffled musings endearing. I grew weary long ago of reading about how Daddy’s money and Uncle Jeff’s friend in Hong Kong pulled this string or wangled that boondoggle, all so little Rupert could chortle in a Clapham gastropub about the larks he had in Kunming. I am, to put it bluntly, sick of books about China that brag of the author’s ignorance. But there is none of that with Holdstock, who comes to Xinjiang in the noble, monastic penury of a Voluntary Service Overseas contract, and crucially has served time already in Hunan, thus inoculating him against any large-scale culture shock. Ignorance for Holdstock is not a badge to wear in place of content, but an alluring, whispering shadow over his whole stay, as he attempts to find out exactly what happened in a series of riots (or demonstrations) that were suppressed before his arrival.

Residing in Yining at the time of the Twin Towers attacks, he is drily cynical about the Chinese government’s attitude towards local unrest. There apparently “wasn’t any” until 9/11, when the Bush administration made it fashionable to rebrand reprobates as terrorists. Suddenly, everyone is jumpy about al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whereas previously the Chinese have been diligently saying that all Xinjiang is good for is a sing-song. Holdstock never really finds the answers he is looking for, but The Tree That Bleeds is all about the questions anyway.

I would like to believe that The Tree That Bleeds is subjective and one-sided, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never having been to Xinjiang myself, I rely for my picture of it on the writings of others, who unanimously depict it as a miserable, god-forsaken place, ever since Marco Polo wrote of its howling winds and haunted sands. There are so few books about Xinjiang (go on, name five. I’ll wait…) that every new addition is welcome and Luath Press, a small Edinburgh outfit I’d never heard of before, is to be commended for taking a risk with Holdstock’s anti-travel book.

But Xinjiang can’t be as awful as he makes it sound… can it? Can it…? One day I shall find out for myself. Until then, I consider myself forewarned and forearmed.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is out now from Luath Press.

China Syndrome

Uproar in Heaven, the “new” 3D film from the Shanghai Animation Studio, has a long pedigree. Based on the same Chinese legends that brought us Monkey, Dragon Ball and One Piece, it recycles Wan Laiming’s famous cartoon adaptation from the 1960s. And as a 3D cartoon, it’s a shot across the bows of the Japanese.

The statistics tell their own story. In 2000, there were only two animation courses being taught in Chinese higher education. By 2003, ninety-three, with 4,000 students. By 2007, 447 courses with 466,000 students. Meanwhile, Ryosuke Takahashi estimates that the entire Japanese staff of the Japanese animation business amounts to no more than 7,000 people.

So, maybe, the Chinese system is generating several anime industries’ worth of talent every year. Except if it is, where are they all? Clearly, not every graduate of the Chinese animation courses is working in animation, as otherwise we’d be up to our necks in Chinese cartoons already, not just a tentpole title like Uproar in Heaven. A good 12,000 of them are working in the ‘Japanese’ business, below-the-line on anime. A few dozen thousand more are working on American, French and other foreign cartoons. But that still leaves tens of thousands of animators, or people with animation ability.

However, what the figures don’t describe is the nature of the training. If it’s pushing a mouse around for a bit, that’s no guarantee that the next Miyazaki is sitting at a computer terminal somewhere in Shanghai. It’s noteworthy that the blockbuster Uproar in Heaven is an upscale of Wan Laiming’s original cartoon, made in 1961 and used here as reference footage for the 3D version. In other words, the artistry in the cartoon is 50 years old. I’m sure that in China this isn’t seen that way – far from it, leaning so heavily on a respected original is seen in a Confucian culture as a mark of great respect, and a marker of traditional values. Su Da’s Uproar in Heaven is a meticulous, superb restoration job that rejuvenates a classic, but elsewhere in the world, Uproar in Heaven risks being regarded as a prolonged exercise in glorified colouring-in. But it shows that those animation graduates are going somewhere… where are they going next and should Japan be worried?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #98, 2012.

Economies of Knowledge

Ten years ago, I was a presenter on a short-lived TV show called Saiko Exciting. It was a two-hour umbrella under which huddled pop videos, games reviews, and two anime tentpoles – Evangelion and Nadesico. Like many organisations, the Sci Fi channel had believed the hype about anime taking the world by storm, and was hence rather surprised when its anime-themed prime-time show failed to attract significantly high ratings.

So they called in a consultant.

He crunched the numbers and evaluated the footage, and delivered his report, which, as far as I could tell, amounted to a suggestion that life would be a lot easier if the channel threw out all that irritating anime crap… from their anime-themed prime-time show.

I am sure that he made other recommendations, too. One of which may well have been that the two young ladies were very easy on the eye, but perhaps that unsmiling nerd spouting anime statistics was best moved to a late-night slot where only anime fans would see him – certainly, that’s where I soon ended up. But the Unhelpful Consultant has always been something of a running gag ever since, particularly after similar encounters in my Manga Max days, with another boffin who recommended to Titan Magazines that the thing that was really holding the title back was all the stuff in it about manga.

I have had to think managerially a lot more these days. Since starting my own company in 2003, I have had to think more commercially about culture and the arts, and parse ideas in terms of monetisation, amortisation and other words I may have just made up. I have long been fascinated by the early 20th century management theorists – Taylor suggesting that workmen be given bigger shovels in order to move more stuff with each heft; the Gilbreths noting that it would really help if the employees were happy; and Mayo realising that he was getting particular answers because he was there asking questions. The Gantt organisational chart, pioneered during the First World War, was soon adopted in the 1920s by numerous industries, not the least animation, where it formed the basis of the ‘dope sheet’ used to plan productions to this day. If you work in a company of any significant size, someone has sat in a room with a Power Point presentation where someone lectures them about ‘hierarchies of needs’ or ‘aristocracies of the capable’, and it has knock-on effects on all sorts of things from where the coffee machine is to what time you start work in the morning.

After reading The World’s Newest Profession, I have come to regard consultants in a new light. Christopher McKenna’s book goes a long way towards explaining what management consultants actually do, beginning with the shop-floor ‘scientific management’ of the early 20th century, right through the corporate trouble-shooting of modern times. He chronicles the strange admixture of accountancy and engineering that distinguished the early consultants and shows them at work fixing companies all around the world by trumpeting new buzzwords and shaking things up a bit.

As readers of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis know, I often work as a consultant myself these days, as institutional memory or advising on storylines for media companies. And I like to think that people get their money’s worth. I remember once being sat in a room with a producer for a Thursday and Friday, hammering out the outline of a computer game. He went off home, and I spent the weekend typing it up. On the Monday, he had a 13,000-word story breakdown, with characters and assets. I mention this because it had been assessed at the company as a job that would have probably been possible to do in-house, but would have taken up nine man-months. Thanks to my freelancer’s blindness to weekends, he had it in two working days. This is what Christopher McKenna calls an ‘economy of knowledge’, wherein a company realises that despite the high cost (and I was not cheap), it will still work out cheaper to bring in outside expertise. It’s easy to see how that might work with writers and artists. It’s easy to see how it works in everyday life – after all, what is a hairdresser if not someone who can do it better than you, for the hour that you need her? The real trick with the management consultants of the 20th century is that they applied to managing itself – whatever your company does, however it works, they can come in and make it work better. Some companies were so sure of this that they even offered to work for nothing if their fee was not justified by the saving.

The World’s Newest Profession talks through numerous incidences of corporate intrigue and subterfuge over the last century, including the rise of NASA, which McKenna provocatively parses as a committee that sub-contracts almost everything to outsiders. He paints a picture of grim-faced men in grey flannel suits, deliberately designed to mark them out as serious players in any corporate face-off, whispering suggestions in the chairman’s ear for loopholes, tax havens and legal wriggles that can help a company shave the bottom line. Although is the profession really that ‘new’? – elements of McKenna’s narrative are uncannily similar to tales of Confucius and Sun Tzu.

Sometimes, management consultants are necessary in a corporate environment for speaking unwelcome truths. Nobody at Sci Fi was going to say that a prime-time anime show would never get a million viewers in a country of only 60 million people, with 100 other channels to choose from. Irritating though the consultant’s comments were, they seem in hindsight to be rather honest. Sci Fi didn’t ask him to fix their anime show; they asked him how to make more people watch their channel. And he pointed out, with unwelcome precision, that the ratings went down every time the anime came on.

That doesn’t tell you that anime is toxic. It tells you that the people who watched Sci Fi were not keen on anime. Someone producing an anime show was never going to like hearing that, but they got the answer they needed to hear. Of course, he would have been more useful to me if he’d offered advice on how to sell what we already had, rather than giving what was, to a certain extent, the easy answer, that we should be selling something else.

I am not sure who advised them to change their name to SyFy, though. Sometimes management consultancy really is just bollocks.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. The World’s Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century is published by Cambridge University Press.

[Time travel footnote: eight years after writing this article, I know exactly why they changed the name to SyFy. Just as Sony deliberately mis-spelled Blu-ray, the switch to a term not already in common use meant it was possible to trademark and guarantee optimal tagging in social media.]