Medieval Frenemies

One of our most valuable records of life in the Heian court comes from a chatty, contrary, vulnerable lady-in-waiting whose habit of writing topical lists and musings often makes her come across like a modern blogger. Common to the etiquette of the day, her true name remained unspoken in public and is hence lost, although she is usually referred to by her nickname, Sei Shōnagon (Lesser Councillor of State Kiyo’s [Woman]). Some of her diary entries even appear to be what we might now call memes—snickering about a cat treated as a royal personage, or a long-forgotten in-joke about a spindle tree, enduring today as nothing but an unintelligible punchline.

Sei Shōnagon loves getting letters; she derives a nerdy joy at finding books she hasn’t read before. Rude people piss her off. She can never find a truly good pair of tweezers. She hates that moment when you splash ink on a book you are copying out; that moment when you wait up all night for a man who doesn’t show; or when he does and then snores loud enough for your neighbors to know what’s going on.

She doesn’t like going to bed alone, and burning fine incense that makes her feel like she is a class act if there is no man to notice. When she looks in her Chinese mirror and the burnished bronze is a little cloudy, it makes her fret that she, too, is losing her looks. When an evening letter arrives from her lover, she can’t wait to find a lamp, and uses tongs to snatch a lump of red charcoal from the nearby brazier, squinting in the half-light, heedless of the fire hazard.

Sei Shōnagon gets annoyed when she hires an exorcist to deal with someone’s spirit possession, only for the guy to turn out to be a drowsy charlatan. She swells with childish pride when the empress addresses her and she accidentally says the right thing in response.

When her carriage travels down a narrow woodland lane, she reaches out to touch the trees.

Haters still hated. Murasaki Shikibu (the “Wisteria Girl of the Ministry of Ceremonies ), a fellow court lady who also kept a diary, couldn’t stand Sei Shōnagon, but had to put up with her scribblings. A thousand years later, we are immensely fortunate to have access to the writings of both these remarkable women, who not only wrote beautifully and evocatively about their lives, but did so at the same time and place. Somewhere, sitting in a bar not far from you right now, there is a pair of frenemies just like them—one bubbly, chatty, and sensual; the other shy, plainer, but smarter. Sei Shōnagon is the hot, flirty one with a ready comeback; Murasaki Shikibu is the wallflower who thinks of something cleverer, but only on the way home. Widowed at a young age, Murasaki was introverted, introspective, icily witty but faintly repulsed by human contact, particularly with Sei Shōnagon, whom she regarded as insufferably smug, airheaded, and with an inflated sense of her own literary merits.

“If we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place,” Murasaki wrote, “we find that they are full of imperfections.” By far the smarter one, Murasaki tried and largely failed to keep her intellect secret from her fellow court ladies, whom she rightly suspected would be at first curious, and then jealous. Murasaki, who dismissed Sei Shōnagon for her flighty interests and empty opinions, had the last laugh, being remembered as the world’s first novelist for writing The Tale of Genji around the turn of the eleventh century.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

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Shandong: Land of Confucius

This appears to be blocked in the United States, but viewers in other territories can now see my National Geographic documentary Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018) on YouTube.

“Jonathan Clements takes us on a thought-provoking journey to the land where the young Confucius formed his earliest ideas: Shandong Province. Guided by Confucius’ most influential sayings and Clements’ unique perspective on Asia we explore this coastal province and learn how even after thousands of years the great sage’s thinking is still relevant in today’s China.”

All Tomorrow’s Parties

“Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re there to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good.”

Chen Qiufan’s endlessly inventive near-future tale The Waste Tide begins with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac and Ben Elton’s Stark, pitting ecological protestors against a system that is already showing signs of terminal decline. A tense, action-packed scene of shipboard monkey-wrenching shows the high-stakes game being played out on the seas, but it’s a later, quieter scene that really establishes the ghastliness about to unfold. A lobster served at a Chinese banquet has three pincers and a carapace that has been repaired, as if diners are now gorging themselves on invalids and mutants. It doesn’t look good, no matter where you are on the food chain.

Well, unless you live on Silicon Isle. This south Chinese coastal enclave has become a world leader in e-waste recycling, a ready recipient of poisonous junk as part of a ploy to grab useful materials. There’s gold (and platinum, and copper) in them there circuit boards, as long as you don’t mind poisoning the local environment when you harvest it… as long as you don’t mind the miserable, dangerous working conditions.

Scott Brandle is a Dante-quoting rep from an American recycling company, who gawps at the pall of smoke from PVC fires, and the zombie-chic sight of an abandoned prosthetic arm, twitching on the scrap pile. But Brandle is no Old China Hand (sorry), he’s an observer, drinking in the sights of a surveillance state that has invaded the very bodies of its inhabitants, not only with environmentally unfriendly prosthetics, but with RFID chips that are the only things to ward off the guard dogs in your local district’s frequency.

It’s his guide, Kaizong, who is soon revealed as the true hero, a local boy made good, returning to his hometown to confront old ghosts and new problems, seeing Silicon Isle through the eyes of his foreign charges, reminiscing about his American college days in order to allow for moments of incisive infodump. Or is he? Because by the second part of the book, the point-of-view switches to Mimi, a lost girl from the underclass, whose memory is briefly transferred into the intelligence systems of a giant robot, and who has trouble readjusting to being back in her own body. If that sounds curiously “anime”, then it’s not the only playful echo of foreign science fiction in a story that still remains quintessentially Chinese, even as it tips its hat to Akira and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Chen’s grasp of China’s future remains as chilling and believable as in his acclaimed short stories such as The Fish of Lijiang. Internet entrepreneurs offer online banking in the afterlife, dovetailing the virtual environments of online gaming with an artful religious swindle. A canny trash-comber slices out the still-working cybernetic vagina from a Japanese sex doll; superstitious locals seek shamanic help to deal with what is clearly an envirogenic disease; a factory girl knows nothing about the opposite sex, except that which she has learned from TV dramas. Repeatedly, there are allusions to Earth as a place where the Chinese have nowhere left to run – unwelcome in Australia or the United States, they drift homewards, to the trash heap of their ancestors. Wireheads download nostalgia apps that threaten to give them brain damage, but give them a moment in which they can wallow in how things used to be.

“You are what you eat,” observes Kaizong, in a world where everyone is ingesting granules of plastic, chemical poisons and carcinogenic additives. Capitalism has advanced to the stage where a tour guide will wait for a bribe before trying to rescue a drowning child, and sustained development projects are decried as “legalised looting.”

Translator Ken Liu, any Chinese author’s dream choice, has plenty of fun not only with Chen’s Mandarin, but with the echoes within it of a greater diversity within China – Cantonese slang and Teochew regionalisms. As in the controversial film Sap Nin, voice recognition software has advanced to the stage where it can pick up Mandarin, but southern Chinese topolects with their eight tones and sandhi slides are still beyond it. He also diligently footnotes those parts of the text that he doesn’t expect foreign readers to understand – references to Martin Luther King and Tennyson pass without comment, but when Kaizong alludes to a quote from the Dao De Jing, or a plant only found in south China, Liu has a hyperlink to hand.

Chen’s text gives Liu ample opportunity for cutting observations and satirical clangers – starting with Brandle, a visitor from America who’s tried to bone up on China by reading an “idiot’s guide”, and who is sometimes addressed as Mr Scott. He picks the blandest options on the menu, in what might have been a gentle dig at foreign tourists, except in Chen’s world, this is the only way he can avoid heavy metals.

The tale is set thirty years in our future – a gap the same size as that which separates our present from the Deng Xiaoping reforms that ended Maoism. When it was written in 2013, China was the destination for much of the world’s recycling. This open-door policy was suspended some time ago, causing massive jams and backwashes in many first-world recycling policies. Reporters are finding plastics and chemicals in Ghanaian chickens and Arctic seabirds, and my social media feed is clogged today with stories of environmental catastrophe. Chen’s apocalypse is hence both prescient and familiar – evocative in places of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008), Eric Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (2011) and Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China (2011), and also of the machinations around the suppression of the SARS virus. But that is something that Chen has always excelled at: telling true stories in the cloak of fiction. When his factual, historical discursions suddenly veer off into fiction, the line was so fuzzy I had to Google it just to be sure.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the author of A Brief History of China.

The Tokyo SkyTree

Behind the scenes, another invisible technological transformation would spell disaster for a Tokyo landmark. With tourist attendance already dropping, Tokyo Tower was found to be no longer fit for its main purpose as a TV broadcast antenna. The new requirements of all-digital broadcasting, and the obstructions caused by multiple skyscrapers all over the city, now demanded an even larger broadcast tower.

The Tobu Railway company jumped at the chance to meet that need. Its managers had found themselves lumbered with a tempting piece of real estate – a derelict cargo yard, left over from the pre-highway days when Tokyo’s construction boom required the movement of building materials by rail. Now, with lorries fulfilling such functions, and passenger traffic lured away by more convenient stations nearby, Tobu needed something to fill the 60,000-square-metre space. A combined subway station, shopping mall and landmark TV tower would do the trick, with the project getting underway in 2005.

In Japan’s stagnating economy, there were few excuses for such boondoggles – but the new digital broadcast tower would prove to be an exception. Opened to the public in 2012, the new 634-metre building was named by a public vote. Rejected names included the Edo Tower, evocative of the samurai past, and the Rising East Tower, alluding to the ‘Pacific Century’ – a term denoting the idea that the twenty-first century will be economically dominated by states of the Asia-Pacific region. One suspects that the architect was rather hoping for the chosen name to be Musashi, which is simultaneously an old word for the Tokyo area, the name of a famous samurai and a pun based on the tower’s height: 634 metres = mu-sa-shi. Inexplicably, the winning name was the meaningless Tokyo SkyTree; we should count ourselves lucky that nobody suggested Buildy McBuilding.

As with Tokyo Tower in earlier generations, the structure itself was merely a beacon on top of a more traditional property, in this case the Solamachi (‘Sky Town’) shopping centre, which also hosts the Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and the Postal Museum, along with offices and restaurants. In the usual shuffling of place names and associations associated with Tokyo, the nearby Narihirabashi metro station was renamed Tokyo SkyTree – its fourth name in only a century of operation.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Passionate Friendship

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Deborah Shamoon’s wonderful Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan, which delves deeply not only into the creation of female-centred media, but the attempts by various interest groups to “gatekeep” what those media mean.

“Shamoon takes Jennifer Robertson to task for her pioneering work in English on the Takarazuka Revue, accusing her of talking up fans’ reaction to this all-girl performance troupe as a form of proto-lesbianism. She eloquently outlines a polarised debate over whether we should believe the facetious asexuality hyped by the Takarazuka Revue itself, or the hype of researchers determined to daub it all over with the rainbow colours of queer theory. Her discussion of a possible middle ground, a ‘lesbian continuum’ in the terminology of Adrienne Rich, along with the widespread implications of stating that, for example, lesbianism is normal, or lesbianism is abnormal, is a delightful and nuanced tiptoe through that particular identity politics minefield.”

Yes, that’s the poster for the all-girl musical about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks, Japan.