“This is not merely a book about the Heart Sutra. It’s about the stories that grew up around it, its journey through human civilisation like a self-replicating meme, a scrap of wisdom whispering in temples, shopping malls and movies. It includes the tale of Xuanzang, the monk who ducked out of 7th-century China on an impossibly long journey through the desert and over the mountains in search of Buddhist scriptures. It’s the story of the story about Xuanzang, not merely the historical reality of his life in the Chinese capital translating his hoard of sacred texts, but of the novel written about him by Wu Cheng-en.”
Over at All the Anime, I review Frederik L. Schodt’s latest book, which starts with a car crash and ends with Buddhist robots and John Lennon.
Issue #140 of The Medieval Magazine includes an extensive interview with me about the life and times of Empress Wu, an ideal choice for a “Villains” special… or is she…?
“If we de-sex the story for a moment, what have we got? A leader without a mandate is desperately trying to hang onto power, while millionaires behind the scenes try to exert their influence and stay in charge. But the Tang dynasty was incredibly fragile. It was only founded six years before Wu was born, and Taizong had to stab his way to the throne-room. Gaozong suffered a terrible attack in 660, perhaps a stroke or some form of multiple sclerosis, and Wu (still in her thirties) became his ‘interpreter’ for the next twenty years, telling the court what Gaozong was mumbling to her.”
Jonathan Clements tracks the diverse history of China through its food and drink, from the sacrificial cauldrons of the Bronze Age, to the contending styles of a modern Chinatown. He outlines how changes in politics, technology and ingredients have altered “Chinese” food over the centuries, as the nation copes with new peoples, crops and climate conditions.
Clements focuses on the personalities connected to Chinese food – the drunken priest-kings of the Shang dynasty; the Tang noblewomen experimenting with tea and lychees; the stand-off between Mongols and Muslims over halal meat. Later chapters carry the impact of Chinese food out of its homeland and around the world, as migrant communities cater to local tastes and encounter new challenges. “Chinese” food is different, yet again, depending on if you eat it in small-town Canada, a Mumbai mall, or a Singapore street market.
China’s success story at lifting people out of poverty presents absolutely boggling figures. Between 1981 and 2004, the number of people in China below the poverty line fell by five hundred million. Key counties added three million hectares of new farmland, and rural phone connectivity (a vital issue in integrating communities), increased from 52.6 to 91.2%. In fact, China became the first nation on the planet to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving its local poverty rate.
But there’s local and then there’s local. As reported in Kun Yan’s book, Poverty Alleviation in China, China’s own statistics bureau reported some odd data that didn’t play along with the general upward curve. Despite all efforts at improvement, there were parts of the country that actually got worse off. In “the western regions” – a term that carries with it a certain set of unintended historical assumptions, poverty increased from 61 to 66% in the first decade of the 21st century. Specifically, poverty was on the rise in the eight Chinese provinces that had the most ethnic minorities, particularly Guizhou, Yunnan and Gansu.
The policy wonks of the People’s Republic aren’t idiots – they know that a huge chunk of this is born from the lack of a level playing field. True enough, there have been some Party think-tanks that have advised wiping the slate clean, deleting the “racial” box from people’s ID cards, and declaring that everybody is just “Chinese” now. But such a move doesn’t dispel huge issues in inequality of opportunity, many of which pre-date the People’s Republic itself. Hill tribes like the Kam and Yi live in inhospitable terrain because they were forced there centuries ago. Some even struggle to speak standard Mandarin, which only the younger generations can even read. You won’t magically make them rich by telling them they’re not “minorities” any more.
There have been attempts to positively discriminate in favour of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. I have heard several Han-majority urban undergraduates expressing their annoyance at the “easy ride” that some minorities get with massaged exam grades. That’s how they see it, of course – but I’ve also encountered minority students whose first ever sight of a train station was the day they travelled 25 hours, to their first sighting of a city, to begin their studies; including one colleague of mine whose parents sold their last geese to pay his fare. For such people, what Pierre Bourdieu calls the habitus required to fit into a college environment must be almost insurmountable. Which is why it should come as no surprise when Yan reports her most shocking statistic – that one of the causes of modern Chinese poverty is the cost of education itself, with some families literally driven back into penury by the expense of pinning all their hopes on whichever one of their kids looks Most Likely to Succeed.
A large part of her book deals with the scrum of early 21st century theorists who have piled into to the lucrative field of talking about all this. In the case of the book under review, for example, a cover price of more than £85 means a poverty-stricken family in Inner Mongolia, saving half their annual household income, would take sixteen years to afford a copy. There’s Zhou (2009) who has a five-point plan, and Zhao (2006) who has a six-point plan, and Li (2007) who thinks land reform is the answer, and many more. All have their own peccadillos and strength, largely based on the precise kind of place where they have been conducting their fieldwork. Because, of course, in a country of 1.4 billion people there cannot possibly be a single solution that fits all.
Yan outlines the basic models of poverty relief that have achieved the greatest success in China. These include financial aid (giving your man the money for a fishing rod); microfinance (lending him the money for a fishing rod); industrial development (making sure there are fish in the lake); education (teaching him a better way to fish); science and technology (giving him a job at a fish farm); and systemisation (involving his whole village in a fishing scheme, and making sure they have electrification for freezers and roads for trucks to sell the surplus on). Two models are the ones that seem the most controversial to outsiders: migration (moving him to a lake, even if it’s hundreds of miles away), and the final one, which tellingly seems to lack a Latinate, posh-sounding English translation: “relief for work”.
“Relief for work” gives “unskilled labourers short-term employment opportunities.” It’s here, one suspects, that we see the origins of the draconian schemes that have led the overseas media to start using “poverty alleviation” not as an earnest international desire to lift people out of dire straits, but as a pejorative term – taking your man out of his home and putting him to work in a fishing-rod factory in the middle of the desert, whether he likes it or not. But now he’s earning £10 a day, and he isn’t “poor” any more.
She also discusses “village-wise” advancement, a rather traditional call-back to the specialist communities of the early modern Chinese economy, in which a whole community will agree on a point that they can all focus on and do really well. I believe I have seen some of these up close, in the unexpected world of tourism, where remote communities rebrand themselves as little cultural time capsules, preserving local traditions and becoming living museums or glorified tribal theme parks – the video store tucked away in an alley, while the main street focuses on traditional arts and crafts, and re-enactments of festivals. Tourist dollars, famously, are spent three times – eat in the local restaurant, and you aren’t just paying the owners; you are also paying the local suppliers who supply them, and whatever they decide to spend their wages on locally. The drawback here, of course, is that not every desert village can be a Silk Road experience, and not every desert villager wants to be a belly dancer or a grape tramper.
Alleviating poverty in rural areas isn’t just about simple charity or helping people earn enough money to become tax-payers and net contributors. It’s about reducing public order and infrastructure issues in China’s cities, which otherwise get crowded out with hordes of illegal migrant labourers, coming to seek their fortunes. Huge initiatives like the “Belt and Road” don’t merely create opportunities in remote cities like Urumqi, they help keep the people of Urumqi from being tempted to migrate to, say, Shanghai.
Chi Fulin, who readers of my books on China will know I regard as a persuasive and interesting thinker on China’s future, is quoted here on the changing nature of “poverty”. Just as the poverty line is adjusted ever upwards to reflect inflation, the issues faced, and hence the remedies required, are themselves constantly changing. Back in the past, he writes, the big issue was lack of basic living conditions. Today, with this issue resolved for millions of Chinese, they now face the next hurdle – overcoming inadequate public services. He doesn’t quite go so far as to say that adequate public services should be a “human right” – but he certainly advises the state to consider that equality of opportunity comes with schooling, medical care, bus services and power grids.
Yan’s book is part of a “Research Series on the Chinese Dream” and hence comes couched in the carefully worded optimism of Party planning. As I have found out to my cost on occasion, the slightest whiff of criticism, even constructive, can lead to ructions – so she is careful to only analyse those targets that we might call historically safe. She discusses a history of “Poverty Alleviation with Chinese Characteristics”, talking through the changes in the nature of both poverty and its relief over the decades since 1978 – it would, presumably, be inadvisable for her to grapple in any meaningful way with the colossal upheavals preceding that date, not the least because it would double the size of the book. By the 1990s, state initiatives are concentrating on the basic requirements of “food and clothing” for impoverished regions. She provides solid statistics and a narrative of the changing face of the phenomenon, and by the 2000s, she is dealing with new issues, such as the precarious knife-edge of reporting a “success” – up to 30% of those people who are reported as being lifted out of poverty might fall back into it the following year. One of the biggest threats, she observes four years ahead of COVID-19, is “natural disasters”, which can play havoc with schemes that assume the infrastructures will remain stable.
Yan shrewdly concentrates some of her criticism into a comparative chapter that investigates the effects of similar schemes in other countries – although it’s rather obvious here when she is happy to deal with, say, United States schemes in the early 20th century, long before the magical 1978 cut-off point for her home study. She critiques inadequate fiscal decentralisation policies in Vietnam, and low returns on investments in Ghana, and hopes the Chinese can learn from such stories before they need to be pointed out to them at home. However, she does point out several areas of potential failure within the Chinese system, as well as some structural considerations that will have to be addressed before the state can achieve all its goals.
Her final chapter outlines her own suggestions for policy reforms, all of which seem smart and well-argued – county-level admin, in order to ensure that local solutions are locally relevant; diversification of remedies, so that we don’t end up with nothing but guys who can fish, in a world where nobody wants any more fish. She is a flag-waver for the Mexican healthcare system, which favours the poor in a way that the Chinese system is not currently designed to do. There’s a wish-list of investments, although it’s easy to say “more money for everything” – her contribution is far more relevant to the ways in which she thinks the money should be spent.
Tucked away in the back of the book are ten case studies of poverty alleviation programmes all over China. This includes throwing money at Yunnan; a training programme in Chongqing designed to give unskilled labourers a skill to sell; a “village-wise” scheme in Gansu that utilised unglamorous but effective measures like simply building a road to the village; training schemes in Guizhou and Shandong designed to make better farmers of all the locals; targeted loans in Shaanxi, and a dairy farm start-up in Hebei.
A chapter on statistical models makes Yan’s personal case, that far too much analysis of the problem is made in trite analogies like “teach a man to fish”, whereas she has some eye-crossing equations that she thinks will make a truly quantitative analysis possible. While I would not dare to disagree with a statistician plotting in her area of expertise, I would point out that at the sharp end of these projections and policies are real human beings, and discussion of their quality of life, both before and after intervention, is surely also a crucial matter, just as much as their contribution to the overall “China Dream.”
Russian “New Year” in 1928 was one more handy excuse for a piss-up for the fun-loving foreigners of Shanghai’s International Settlement. As the Orthodox church still insisted on using the Julian calendar, a Russian New Year was a fortnight behind everybody else’s – a brilliant reason to dress up, go out and ring it all in again at the Kavkaz restaurant, complete with Georgian nibbles and a “gypsy” violinist.
It’s here that authors Hon-lun Helan Yang, Simo Mikkonen and John Winzenburg press pause on a riotous party night, zooming in on the music, and the musicians – what was played and what was heard, and how it affected the lives of those all around. Just published by the University of Hawaii Press, Networking the Russian Diaspora: Russian Musicians and Musical Activities in Interwar Shanghai peels back the curtain on a whole lost world of émigrés in China – not merely the sounds of the city in its clubs and concerts, but of their long-term influence on the Chinese.
The Russians started arriving in earnest after the Far Eastern Republic, the last stand of the Whites in the Revolution, fell to the Bolsheviks in 1922. Initially they flocked to Harbin, the “Moscow of the East”, but as Japanese invasion loomed in Manchuria, anyone with any sense headed south. By the mid-1930s, there were 30,000 Russians in Shanghai, a number soon to be boosted by 18,000 Central European Jews – as the authors note, even republican Russians often had a rather imperial attitude towards the former vassals of the Tsar, thinking of aspects of Polish or Czech culture, or indeed Romani music as also somehow “theirs.”
Every now and then, you’ll find the Russians of the Far East confined to asides and footnotes, but dropped from most accounts that have eyes only for the Asian-ness of Asian history. There were the dashing Mukden Lancers, an all-Russian cavalry squadron, working for a Manchurian warlord; Manchu matrons with blue-eyed slaves, and former duchesses working as “taxi-dancers” in Shanghai clubs. There were the Jewish emigrés who founded cake-shops and patisseries (a stop at the cake shop is always a surprise for people I take on my personal tour of London’s Chinatown, because nobody expects a diversion through the history of Jewish bakers). Russians even sneak into the history of anime in the 1940s, when Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese exile working in China, set off to Harbin like a pilgrim on a magic quest, hoping to obtain a hair from a red-haired girl to use in his home-made hygrometer – apparently, Asian hair threw off the calibration.
In Shanghai, they were often split between the International Settlement and the French Concession, the French having decided to have their own special area apart from everyone else’s, and the Russian upper-classes being predisposed to use French language in their daily life. In fact, many of the early Russian arrivals in Shanghai, no matter how poor they were at the time, had usually come from money – which meant that they were often impoverished but well-educated, and many of them could play musical instruments.
“Many of these people,” write the authors, “simply vanished sometime after the late 1940s,” repatriated to the Soviet Union, or fleeing ever onwards, to form new émigré communities on the US west coast or in Australia – a topic addressed in Antonia Finnane’s Far From Where? Some ended up in Hong Kong – there is a heart-breaking cameo, in Martin Booth’s 1950s memoir Gweilo, of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile old white woman in rags, who occasionally lets slip through a drug-addled haze that she was once a lady of the Russian court. She mistakes the young Booth for a long-dead crown prince, and pursues him through the streets yelling: “Alexei! Alexei! Why did you leave? Where did you go…?”
But I digress. The authors are interested in the way that music knitted the community of Russian émigrés together in Shanghai, as a means of entertainment, but also cultural education, keeping elements of their native culture alive in their children and their social life. Sometimes this took odd forms, like KhLAM (“rubbish”), the bohemian collective who would jam on Wednesdays, and hence called their club Wednesday.
The authors dig into the archives of local newspapers to dredge up long-gone concerts of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, multiple revivals of the opera Boris Godunov (which is, you may recall, about an Asian man who conquers a European territory), performances by Russian choirs and happenings set up to promote new business ventures. They note the palpable difference between musical choices – the Russian musicians play different tunes for their own amusement than the ones they play for foreigners at recitals, and different tunes again from the ones they want their children to learn.
Accomplished Russian musicians packed out the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, a long-established cultural institution that offered employment for refugees who had lost everything except their talent. The authors go beyond newspaper reportage here, using other materials to reconstruct a history of the pay scales and labour disputes behind the scenes, as musicians fought to get their dues from a penny-pinching impresario.
Later chapters move away from the Russians’ squabbles and relationships among themselves and onto the topic of their lasting impact on Shanghai, not the least with the Chinese students they would teach about Western music. Within a generation of knocking on the Shanghai doors of Russian piano teachers and voice coaches, we see the results of their classes, with Russian-trained musicians and composers forming the frontline of early Communist arts – the composer of the opera The White-Haired Girl, for example (pictured above), and the chairman of the Chinese Musicians Association. Relatively obscure composers like Alexander Tcherepnin exerted a considerable degree of influence on the next generation of Chinese pianists (not the least Lee Hsien-ming, who would become Mrs Tcherepnin). The book finishes with a chapter on Aaron Avshalomov, whose fusion of Chinese and European influences would lead, among other things, to operas about the Tang-dynasty beauty Yang Guifei, the Goddess of Mercy, and the legends of the Great Wall.
Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I update the comprehensive “China” entry with details of the recent China Film Administration paper on the future of sf movies.
“Politically, this could be seen as the statement of a case for sf as a worthy contributor to modern Chinese society, pre-empting a backlash like that of 1983; practically, it risks adding little to the genre in China except an additional level of management.”
Clements explains how, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), government censorship and oppression was so invasive that it’s difficult to distinguish historical fact from fiction. “Add to that the damage done to the record by the hundred years of upheavals after the Opium Wars, and then the damage done again in the Cultural Revolution, and there are vast swathes of Chinese martial arts history that were only really curated and maintained by, say, the Hong Kong movie industry,” he adds.
Over at National Geographic, Dominic Bliss interviews me about the history of the martial arts.
In press junkets for his previous film Chinese Zodiac, much was made of Jackie Chan’s “retirement” from action films, somewhat to the actor’s chagrin. The 62-year-old Chan was obliged to run damage control on his own career, pleading that he was certainly going to make more films, but that his advancing years made him less likely to perform his own stunts or do anything mental. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual in Skiptrace, in which Chan can be seen fighting his way through a Russian factory, leaping from a collapsing Hong Kong slum, and dangling from a man’s trousers on a perilous ravine zipline. It’s only when you look closer that you see the occasional stuntman substitution, or that Chan’s co-star Johnny Knoxville, a man famous for shooting himself out of a cannon or eating a goat’s testicles on many a Jackass, is volunteering to take some of the harder knocks.
As Chan’s foil Connor Watts, Knoxville initially seems to be appearing in two different movies, on the run from the Russian mob, and framed for murder by a Macao casino syndicate. Benny (Chan) is the weary Hong Kong cop sent to bring in the fugitive Watts, unaware that he is carrying a cellphone that would solve Benny’s decade-long quest to unmask the criminal kingpin known as the Matador. For reasons not entirely clear (if they can cross the border, they can surely get on a plane), the impecunious pair is obliged to travel by land from Irkutsk to Hong Kong, with a travelogue narrative that focuses almost entirely on either end of the 5000-kilometre journey, ignoring most of the central Chinese locations they would have had to cross in favour of the ethnic hinterlands of Inner Mongolia and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Chan and Knoxville traverse a bunch of picturesque settings – a lantern festival, cormorant fishing on the Yangtze, the mountains of Guilin, entire mountainsides of rice terraces – all as a backdrop to the formulaic knockabout action that has made Chan a global superstar. Critics in America have been quick to site this film in Chan’s late period in Hollywood, alongside other foreign buddy franchises like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese. The characters plough through local colour like tourists on a speedboat, inadvertently asserting privileged disdain, even as they document diversity. One wonders what the reaction would have been if he had made a similar road movie traversing the United States, and how various local communities would have reacted. Hahaha, the Navajo are all drunken brawlers; heeheehee, the Sioux are toothless swindlers; hohoho, those Negros sure love a good sing-song!
Parts of the film seem to have been flung together against the clock, including a couple of moments in which the actors shrug off sudden drizzle, and a closing act in which two scenes appear to have been included out of order. Jokes about Chan’s inability to swim might seem tasteless in the light of the death by drowning mid-production of cinematographer Chan Kwok-hung. A recurring jump-cut motif propels the narrative along by discarding large chunks of exposition and development, but also papering thinly over plot holes. At least two key elements of the story – justice for the murderer Victor Wong (Winston Chau), and Knoxville’s shotgun marriage – are revealed as self-resolving problems for which the actions of the characters are entirely redundant. But this, too, is a faithful evocation of the breakneck pace of pre-Handover Hong Kong action films; Harlin’s movie is a note-perfect pastiche of Chan’s 1990s heyday, opening with a manga-in-motion series of comics cutaways, introducing the cast in a pop-art style. Fun veritably seeps out through all this movie’s cracks, from an opening sequence in which Chan initiates an attack on a bad guys’ hide-out, armed only with a bra and negligee, to a sequence in which Fan Bingbing tries and largely fails to conceal how much she is enjoying a fight scene in which she takes out her attackers with a taser and a fish tank.
There are several easter eggs for certain sectors of the audience. I failed to spot the Finnish flag that Harlin habitually hides in his films, but did note the snarling cameo for wrestling star Eve Torres Garcia, and the oh-so-meta moment when Knoxville, obliged to sing his way past an honour guard of tribal girls, chooses to belt out “Please Understand My Heart”, a Jackie Chan hit from 1991. The gangsters in pursuit, on the other hand, mumble their way through a half-hearted rendition of “You Are My Little Apple”, the novelty hit of 2014. And in an utterly bizarre musical interlude, Chan whips up a bunch of Mongols into a rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.
Meanwhile, in an odd moment of political cheekiness, Chan’s character expresses his desire to retire and run an alpaca farm, noting that these animals are a symbol of freedom. That they may be, but they are also a notorious icon of Chinese internet dissidence, striking an oddly right-on note for a man who has spent the last decade in alliance and cooperation with the authorities.
Strangest of all, despite a worldwide release in dozens of countries, Skiptrace has yet to appear on UK movie schedules, nor at time of writing has it been submitted to the BBFC. Harlin’s status as a local boy saw his film released in Finland last weekend, where I sat amid an audience of usually stoic Finns, laughing their tits off at was surely their first-ever Jackie Chan film. You can see this movie in the United States, in Holland, in Singapore… but it seems strangely absent from UK schedules. Is a distributor saving it for the Christmas feel-good rush, or has its kitchen-sink assembly of kicks in the goolies, an Adele sing-along, on-screen horse-poo and white-water rafting on inflatable pig-skins failed to include anything that will interest a British audience? Something for everybody, even the Finns… but not the British…?
Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, which is also a road trip about two bickering buddies, forced to cross China undercover.This article originally appeared on the Funimation UK site in 2016, but has since been deleted.
The cameraman is in my living room. The director is in Brighton or somewhere like that, skyping in on a laptop perched on top of a stack of books so that we have the same eyeline. COVID-19 doesn’t prevent the recording of my appearance on Channel Five’s forthcoming history of the last thousand years in China, to be broadcast in the autumn.