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.

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Elegantly Wasted

Had he been born in our era, Li Bai (701–762) would have surely been a rock star, wrecking hotel rooms and bedding groupies he met on a drug-fuelled stage-dive. In Tang dynasty China, he still enjoyed a reputation as a wild-child poet, lionised for his quick couplets and witty juxtapositions, summoned even to the Xuanzong Emperor’s entourage.

That was when he blew it. After dithering for days among a crowd of hangers-on, he got his moment to shine, called in as a script doctor on a court performance that needed punching up. Instead, he drunkenly tried flattering a prickly consort. With all the self-destructive tendencies of a heavy-metal frontman, Li Bai dissed the chief eunuch and back-handedly complimented the famously plump Yang Guifei for being as gracile as a legendary stick-thin kingdom-wrecker. It took a while for courtiers to unpick his cheeky insults, but his career at court was essentially over before it had begun.

In his new book, The Banished Immortal, poet and novelist Ha Jin offers a slick and readable biography of China’s most famous poet – his wives and concubines, his dissolute life, and his flirtations with power and politics. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal that both evokes Li Bai’s talent and his ghastly, narcissistic disregard for others. “So long as the host can get me drunk,” he slurs in one epigram, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.” We’ve all got a friend like Li Bai… we just wish he’d warn us before he rings the doorbell and asks if we’ve got any booze.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away – one gets a strong sense with Jin’s text of the sheer, daunting size of China. A man of privilege who never seems to have to really work, Li Bai’s travels separate him from his wife for years on end, and he only writes to her on a couple of occasions. Her own letters never find him, defeated by the sheer length of lines of communication. In one amusing incident fit to fill an entire episode of Star Trek, a communiqué arrives from a people so remote that nobody at court understands it. Only Li Bai, who grew up in western China and may even have been born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, can decipher it, and reveals that it is a declaration of war.

Jin is at his best when dealing with Li Bai as a fellow creative – he makes no boast to be his equal, but has an informed insider’s grasp of the perils of poetry. He is not afraid to point out those places where his subject is just phoning it in, and is ready to suggest when certain “off-the-cuff” couplets have been composed in advance. This poet’s-eye view of another poet is Jin’s greatest contribution, cutting through the hagiographies and unmitigated praise of other authors to the heart of Li Bai’s true talent. The author, an exile who has spent much of his adult life in America, clearly identifies with the peripatetic Li Bai, excluded from high office and ever unsure of his situation, “a fish trapped in a roadside puddle, dreaming of returning to the ocean.”

Jin makes a strong case for Li Bai as a man of letters ousted from what might have been a more productive calling, an alcoholic genius who inevitably puts a foot wrong in the Tang court, and a late-life careerist who disastrously backs the wrong horse. We share in Li Bai’s elation when he hears that the new emperor, Suzong, has pardoned him, and in his disappointment when he tardily realises this was not a recognition of his eloquence, but a blanket amnesty. Jin digs down into the hidden messages of love poems, and the subtle asides contained in what first appear to be fawning songs of praise.

There are, nevertheless, some odd missteps in the prose. Jin writes at one point of the “Nan dynasty”, which never existed – any Chinese speaker can see that he is referring to the “Southern Dynasties”, but this error has been allowed to stand. The Xianbei tribe is archaically referred to as the Sien-pi. Jin bafflingly recounts the death of the concubine Yang Guifei as suicide, when most accounts agree that she was strangled. In what I can only assume is a sop to the American market, Jin praises the work of Ezra Pound, who spoke no Chinese and left scraps of Japanese gibberish in his “translations” from where he copied out a crib sheet. He guardedly acknowledges the earlier work of Arthur Waley, conceding that while dated, it still has weight – I would suggest that many of Waley’s translations retain a majesty and harmony that is often lacking here. But this is not Ha Jin’s fault – all but truly bilingual translators usually work into their native language, not out of it.

For the reader unfamiliar with Chinese, Jin’s explanations can open whole new worlds between the lines, although sometimes only patchily. He notes, for example, the allusion in the last line of the poem “Zhan Chengnan” to an epigram from the Dao De Jing, but omits to mention that the opening lines are obviously a nod to “We Fought South of the City Wall”, a famous protest song from the Han dynasty. When examining “A Lament of the Leaving Woman,” Jin interprets it as a poem that reaches out to Li Bai’s disenchanted live-in lover. But considering the hostility with which other poems rail against “that stupid woman,” it is surely more likely that this poem is a toxic masterpiece of passive-aggression, taunting her for losing her looks and having nowhere else to go, a “cheap concubine.” Jin flinches at pointing out just how good his subject was at being bad.

However, these are discussions to be had, rather than outright statements of incontrovertible fact. Jin has consulted a number of Chinese-language books on Li Bai, and his text valuably distils much of their arguments for an Anglophone audience. While he often quotes trenchant third-party observations, beyond his intuitions as a jobbing poet, he rarely gives evidence of a source-critical reading of these other authors – he is insightful on Li Bai’s poetry, but hands-off regarding his historicity. Repeatedly, he refers to these other works as if they are a unanimous chorus of approval, whereas a more historically minded author might have tried a little forensics to make sure these other sources weren’t largely citing each other.

Regardless, the field of popular biographies of medieval Chinese figures is shockingly small. Li Bai’s life spanned a rich, transformative period in the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road and the brief florescence of a truly diverse China. Ha Jin’s biography will introduce this poet to a whole new generation, suffused with examples of his philosophy and verse.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

Wrapped at Christmas

After six weeks of shooting and over 1,500 miles of driving, I’m on my way home having wrapped on season five of Route Awakening for National Geographic, taking in two lost kingdoms, a forgotten emperor, several sets of grave robbers, and your correspondent trying to learn the steps to the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. Yes, I was working on Christmas Day. That’s the way I like it. Look out for more details on the topics of season five coming in spring 2019. Also coming in the New Year, my latest book: A Brief History of China from Tuttle Publishing, which begins with cavemen and ends with reality television.

Terracottas in Liverpool

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Back from the Liverpool World Museum, where I spoke this week about Chinese Bronze Age burial customs, the oddities of the Qin state in ancient China (including its most famous song), and the enduring mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors. The exhibition itself has lots of interesting and quirky pieces, including a cauldron like the one that Duke Wu dropped on his foot, a barbarian brooch from Qin’s contacts with the western nomads, and a statue of a goose from the First Emperor’s bronze menagerie.

I asked the crowd if they could remember what they were doing back in July 2005, when “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt was number one, because that’s the timespan, just thirteen years, that separates the coronation of the First Emperor from the fall of his dynasty. The museum at the Terracotta Army site near Xi’an has already stood for twice as long as the dynasty it celebrates.

Drawing on the materials in my book on the First Emperor (which was doing a roaring trade in the museum shop, I am pleased to say), it’s only when you set the archaeology in context with the textual evidence from Qin documents (themselves often as recent a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors themselves), that the reason for every soldier having an individual face becomes clear.

Trangressive Typologies

Shangguan Wan’er, it was said, wore her hair in a lopsided bob, in order to cover up the scar on her face from where Empress Wu went for her with a fruit knife. It was an argument over a boy, of course – the drunken Wu had been fondling a sleeping gigolo and bragging about how he made her heart melt, and Wan’er had foolishly reached out a hand to touch him. So, at least, reads the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, a racy work of historical fiction purporting to have been written in the 900s, but more likely to date from a millennium later. It’s just one of the lascivious works cited in Rebecca Doran’s Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China, the kind of book that makes you wonder why everyone isn’t studying Chinese history.

Doran is interested in what she calls “the historical period of female power”, from the time that the charismatic Wu Zhao was called back from a Buddhist nunnery as a new distraction for the Gaozong Emperor. She rose swiftly to power behind the throne, first as his empress, then as his interpreter following an unspecified illness likely to have been a debilitating stroke. She ruled behind the throne for the remainder of Gaozong’s life and the truncated reigns of two of their sons, before seizing power herself in the 690s. But Doran, like many other Tang historians, extends the period of female rule beyond the life of Wu, noting that an entire generation of women grew up during her reign, and came to regard equality, or more, as their birthright.

Shangguan Wan’er, Wu’s minister and speech writer, once regarded as the greatest poet of her generation, remained a power-broker after Wu’s death, and latched on to Wu’s grand-daughter Anle as a possible second empress regnant. Anle was brought down in a palace coup by Wu’s daughter and grandson, but the daughter, Princess Taiping, clung on to her own power base for several more years before her ally betrayed her. Depending on how you define it, the “historical period of female power” either spanned Wu’s adulthood and aftermath, c.650-713, or just the last two decades of that period – her years as empress regnant, and the “second generation” of the women who tried to emulate her. After 713, Wu would be vilified for twelve hundred years. It was only in the 20th century, and even then initially for shady political reasons, that Wu began to be reclaimed as a feminist icon, and her period in power regarded as anything but a woeful mistake.

Doran takes as her starting point the Biographies of Exemplary Women from the Han dynasty, because for centuries this book served as the template for good female behaviour. It was a touchstone for all the (male) historians who wrote about Wu and her imitators, and formed the basis of their disapproval. She also examines the life of Empress Dugu of the Northern Zhou, who controversially insisted on monogamy from her imperial husband – regarded by medieval protocol wonks as a “fatal mistake” sure to undermine palace harmony and dynastic vigour. In doing so, she points to the glorious chaos of the century before the Tang dynasty, when a series of tin-pot and occasionally barbaric dynasties contended to become the new Sons of Heaven, with a set of intrigues sufficient to make Game of Thrones look like Emmerdale.

Doran moves on to the reigns of Wu’s sons Zhongzong and Ruizong, and the kind of poetry and imagery that was popular in a world where their mother really ran the show. As Wu began manipulating the news of her era – Fortean phenomena, observations and media, all pointing to a coming paradigm shift – she pushed an agenda rooted in incredibly modern terms. As she argued at the epochal feng-shan sacrifice in her husband’s day, if the world was truly a constant cycle of yin and yang, dark and light, female and male, then women deserved an equal shot at public life, at power, and ceremonial roles. This, in the eyes of her chroniclers, was her dreadful sin, daring to push an equality agenda in a patriarchal world. Doran uncovers delightfully obsequious comments from fawning poets and courtiers, keen to praise Wu and her imitators for simply showing up, for their grace and their wondrous cultural achievements. She also delves deep into the surviving works of Shanggaun Wan’er, and their place in the history of Chinese poetry.

Then things get weird, as Doran examines the Comprehensive Record of Affairs Within the Court and Without, a Tang dynasty fantasy in which a minister is sent to hell over a bureaucratic mistake, witnesses the future of the Ruizong Emperor, and is then restored to the human world in time to live through it all, like some medieval Chinese variant on Back to the Future. She also reports on a common Fortean phenomenon in Wu’s era – transsexual chickens, regarded by Wu’s cronies as examples of her greatness, and by her detractors as symbols of the awfulness of the age. In once farcical scene, a courtier recalls the presentation of a three-legged fowl to Wu, who insists it is an auspicious event worthy of note in the dynastic chronicles, even as her son Ruizong points out that one of the legs is clearly fake. Wu tells him to shut up, but even as she does, the leg falls off.

There’s something quite wonderful about Wu and her courtiers bickering about auspicious bullshit, and Doran’s ongoing citations of gossip and innuendo from the time, such as the nursery rhymes and pop songs that slyly alluded to palace putsches and scandals, and the stories written when later writers tried to grapple with the sheer oddness of her reign. Needless to say, much of the disapproval directed at Wu and her imitators would be framed in familiar, materialist terms, lampooning them for flighty, grasping, gold-digging consumption. Doran begins with a famous poem about Anle putting on her make-up as the soldiers bash down the door to her chambers, observing that there are similarities in the story with the “painted” Jezebel of the Bible. There’s plenty of fun to be had with what today would be called tabloid sniping at Anle and Taiping’s pimped-up chariots, ridiculously opulent palace cribs, and bling-bling fineries.

Doran finishes with a prolonged discussion of the “gender anarchy” of Wu’s era, as described by both apologists and attackers, a sort of topsy-turvy Saturnalia of sexually predatory women and ineffectual men, the elevation of bad-boys and charlatans, and (worst/best of all), the Office of the Crane, Wu’s 120-strong personal harem of pretty boys. One of whom, of course, was the cause of that fateful catfight between Wu and Wan’er. When he was inevitably butchered in the coup that ousted Wu in 705, Wan’er tenderly carried off his penis and presented it to the grieving Empress. That’s what it says in the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God.

Gold Remi

Season three of National Geographic’s Route Awakening, in which I wander some of the ethnic minority communities of modern China, has just snagged the Gold Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival for “TV: Information, Cultural or Historical.” You can see the trailer here. Seasons one and two won the same award in 2016 and 2017.