When the French Left Fell Out of Love with Maoism

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels In China
Dora Zhang
Los Angeles Review of Books
June 23, 2012

I am an unabashed fanboy of the Los Angeles Review of Books, for several reasons. First, the publication was pulled together by a group of literary critics that had been marginalized since Tribune & Company all but disowned serious coverage of the arts in the Los Angeles Times. The very existence of LARB is a thumb in the eye of both the Times and the local alternative press. Perhaps more important, it stands as testament that the vibrancy of culture in California does not depend on the support of mainstream media: the Golden State has become a center of the arts and literature to rival New York and Paris nearly ex nihilio.

The third reason I am such a fan is that LARB under co-founder and publisher Tom Lutz chose Megan Shank as Asia Co-Editor. That Lutz was motivated to give Asia such a profile in the publication spoke volumes both about the publication and the comparative short-shrift the region is given among other mainstream publications. That he chose Shank, who spent six years living in and covering China, speaks volumes about how serious he wants that effort to be.

A great example of the fruit of that effort is Dora Zhang’s excellent review of Roland Barthes’ Travels in China. Zhang offers more than an essay extolling the book’s virtues and vices. What she offers instead is a chronicle of how in the wake of a 1974 trip to China, the elite of the French left fell out of love with Maoist China.

In the process, she holds up a mirror to those of us who, at some point in our lives, believed with perhaps a tad too much credulity that China represented the birth of a new world order. We may sneer at the gullibility of those French Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s, but what of we pale-faced Dengists of the 1990s and 2000s? Did some of us not believe that China would grow rich and strong and change the world, even for the better? Do some of us yet bristle and lash out at those who criticize the Middle Kingdom? And why do we do so?

Even at its most inscrutable moment in modern history as the Cultural Revolution reached its final crescendo in the mid 1970s, China beguiled outsiders. Zhao focuses on Barthes not because he was the least beguiled, but because his disenchantment was incited by small things that with others might have been dismissed or unnoticed. Try as he might, Barthes could never “connect” with China on his terms. I come away from Zhao’s review wondering if each of us, in our own time, will find ourselves disconnected from China, and thence disenchanted.

What then?

Decoding the Mo Yan Fuss

Chinatown, San Francisco
Watching the Ship Traffic
2108 hrs.

The war of words that has erupted over Mo Yan‘s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been earnest and vituperative, and a fair amount of the critique has been framed so eloquently (like this excellent essay in the Kenyon Review by Anna Sun) that the casual reader might suspect that the Nobel committee suffered from its linguistic remove. Yet after reading Brendan O’Kane’s rather more balanced take on the controversy, the suspicion grows something more than literary opprobrium hides behind some of the more passionate writing on both sides.

Having failed to determine the question either way based on the arguments offered, I strolled from my hotel to the City Lights bookstore in North Beach and picked up a paperback of Mo’s Republic of Wine. After I get through Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, I’ll pick up Mo and let you know my take.


Chinese science fiction: A podcast and reading list

Chinese science fiction: A podcast and reading list.

Danwei has moved to a magazine format now, shifting from the Danwei.org site that has been its home for a decade to Danwei.com, with more of a magazine format. I like the new site a lot better, and I keep hoping Jeremy and Company will come up with a way for all of us to peruse the site offline.

Nonetheless, there are treasures in the archives of Danwei.org that are timeless, and one of those treasures is this one, with a link to the Sinica Podcast on Science Fiction in China, and a list of Chinese science fiction resources.

Those who say that the Chinese culture and science fiction just do not work together should read this post, listen to the podcast, and follow the links. In truth, Chinese is in its formative stage, similar to where the craft was in the West before World War II. It is the realm of a small but growing core of fans, has yet to go mainstream, and operates on the edge of the Chinese literary world (sound familiar?)

For a first taste, download Joel Martinsen‘s well-reviewed translation of an excerpt from Liu Cixin’s Ball Lightning from Paper Republic.

Yi Yun Li on Villages, Ghosts, and William Trevor

From the Vault: Yiyun Li | Tin House.

Yiyun Li’s engrossing essay on village literature, William Trevor, and family ghosts from Tin House. My favorite quote: “It was the mid-1970s, and Beijing was a village the size of a metropolis.” Funnily, it still feels that way sometimes.

For those who do not know Li, she is the Beijing-born writer and novelist (The Vagrants), a professor of English at my alma mater, UC Davis, and is a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. She has been named one of America’s top 20 writers under age 40 by the editors of The New Yorker.

Li’s stories capture the essence of Beijing better than anyone I know who is writing in the English language. Stories like “Alone,” and “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” will give you an idea of how effortlessly she pulls you into her stories, and how subtly she conveys the rhythms and tiny tragedies that mark life in China.

Revisiting a Brave New World

First edition cover

Image via Wikipedia

A lot of us read Brave New World in school, but this edition, Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited, includes a provocative comparison Huxley makes between the world he predicted in 1931 and what happened in 1960.

Yes, Huxley missed the boat a bit. We certainly aren’t being decanted at birth, flying around in helicopters, and creating intelligence-based class societies. In Huxley’s defense, though, I don’t believe he was trying to predict so much as to educate about the dangers of a society driven by technology, consumption, and recreational pharmacology. As he points out, he did get a lot of interesting points right, which is why this book is still worth the read 80 years after Huxley first set pen to paper.

Dies the Fire

Cover of "Dies the Fire: A Novel of the C...

Cover of Dies the Fire: A Novel of the Change

Dies the Fire, a Novel of the Change, by S.M. Stirling

Despite Stirling’s workmanlike prose, he is an excellent storyteller, artfully combining science fiction and fantasy into a unique post-apocalyptic miasma. The story is engrossing, realistic (despite its huge early-story Deus ex Machina moment) and totally enjoyable.

Expecting nothing but a diversion on a road trip, I finished it and then bought two of the sequels. If you are a fan of post-apocalypse fiction, fantasy, or alternative history, Dies the Fire will be a delight.

As a side note, reading this book while I was traveling in the Pacifc Northwest brought the story even more vividly to life. Nothing like “Reading in the Setting,” a habit I picked up after reading James Clavell’s Tai-Pan on my first trip to Hong Kong in 1985.