Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Review of James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of articles and learned so much I hardly know where to start describing the book. This is a series of articles written by Fallows and published in The Atlantic Monthly December '06-November '08. The subjects range from China's self-made manufacturing billionaires, to how Macau became the gambling Mecca of the East, to what's really going on with Internet access in China.  Every essay offers fascinating information that I have not come across elsewhere. Here are a few sort of random comments about what made an impression on me.

From "After the Earthquake," about the horrendous May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless and injured, Fallows reports the comments of a local elder regarding an earlier catastrophe: "Yao Minggao...said that the easiest way to tell city people from country people was by what they thought was the major disaster in modern Chinese history. If they said the Cultural Revolution, it meant they were from the city and viewed losing their careers and being sent to the farms as the ultimate hardship.  If they said the Great Famine [starting in 1958], it meant they were country people who had seen many of their neighbors starve" (237). Fallows also comments that the date "5/12" when it appears in China carries the same punch and shocked recognition as "9/11" in the US.

I think the article I enjoyed most was "The Connection Has Been Reset" about the Internet in China, focusing on the period of the Beijing Olympics.  More than anything else I've read, this article made me feel that I finally had at least a tentative grasp of both the philosophy behind the attempted control of the Internet by the Chinese government and the attitude of the average Internet-savvy Chinese toward this control. First, much is accomplished by the government by simply making it inconvenient to bypass the "Great Firewall."  It can be done, sure, but most people aren't interested in working that hard to get their information. Second, there's this, quoted from a technical analysis conducted by two US universities: "'The presence of censorship, even if easy to evade, promotes self-censorship'" (183).  In other words, while evading the GFW may require technical skills that many Chinese have, most people don't bother because of "nontechnical factors."

The only downside I felt in reading this series of articles, and this is not a criticism, was that developments in China and between China and the rest of the world are moving so quickly that even articles from 2007 or 2008 felt out of date.  So much has happened since then.  But if you want to see the view from January '08 of China's involvement in the world's financial meltdown and, especially, in the debt of the US, you should start with "The $1.4 Trillion Question" (144-68).

Wang Shuo's "Playing for Thrills"--Did Fang Yan Murder Someone Ten Years Ago? Was There a Murder at All?

Once I figured out HOW to read the book and WHAT it was going to expect of me as a reader, I surrendered myself to it and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's one of those works of mystery that poses a question to be answered or a goal to be met, and once the main character gets there, the question/goal opens up to more questions and other goals that must be pursued. It's a crazy race of a book with fantasy, dreams, characters with multiple identities, etc. I liked it. It reminded me of Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase but with MORE of everything including confusion and a constantly-digging-deeper narrative. Unlike Oedipus, who learns to his grief that he IS the murderer whom he seeks, Fang Yan is told at the outset that he is a murderer and he feels he must accept this, since he can't remember what happened. To save himself, he must find out who was murdered and why he does not remember doing it. If you enjoy the paranoid, surreal journeys of Murakami or Pynchon, this is a book for you.

Monday, January 30, 2012

If I Stall Long Enough, Will I NEED to Know the Characters?

An article entitled "How Do You Write That in Mandarin?" by Mireille Silcoff appeared in "The One-Page Magazine" section of the NY Times Magazine on January 15, 2012 (11).  Here it is in its entirety.

"Chinese characters comprise the world's oldest in-use writing system, but Chinese kids are forgetting how to get it on paper. The new term tibiwangzi ('take pen, forget character') encapsulates the issue: nobody takes pen anymore.  They type or text, often using Romanization.  The China Youth Daily Social Survey Center says 4 percent of respondents are 'already living without handwriting.'"

I rest my case.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Wish I Were "Dreaming in Mandarin"

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And LanguageDreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language by Deborah Fallows
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many of the books I've read about China have been fascinating, compelling and informative, but none so much as this one. The author spent time in China in the 1980s and then 20 years later, so she has a valuable double vision of China as it was then and as it is now. What I enjoyed the most about the book though, and what sets it apart from all of the others, is that this is a book about language. It is about the connection of language and culture. It is both deeply intellectual (but easily enjoyed by the non-linguist) and based in the use of language in everyday life, in stores and in the streets, for instance. If you are interested in language you will love this book, even if you have no interest in China. You will end up knowing quite a bit about modern China though, in spite of yourself. The book is short but every page will keep your interest and leave you intrigued and well-informed. Highly recommended!

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