Tag Archive for china

Mystic chords of memory

Li Huiniang (who else?)

We read a great essay (which I of course cannot find now) when I was taking my methods class as an undergrad; the gist of it was that doing history can make for the loneliest profession.  We find ourselves growing attached to people who are long dead, and who don’t care about us (they can’t, being dead) – yet we care deeply about them, become familiar with them on intimate levels.  They become part of us in a way that we never become part of them.  Truthfully, I never really felt “lonely” – I’ve always approached history with a bit of Mengzi’s “looking for friends in history” description in mind.  It’s generally a friendly place, and an exciting one, to be in.

I didn’t feel lonely until I started studying someone most people had never heard of and who left a relative dearth of written materials (at least, for a writer!) – yet there I was at home, plowing through sources, trying to get at someone I had very little familiarity with and having precious little to go on, both in terms of his own writing and any secondary sources helpful to the cause.  What I wouldn’t have given to be able to speak with him, or read his diary – or do anything to get closer to the life of this author.  But as I read more and wrote more, I got more and more attached to this person – even though I had (at least as an undergraduate) written papers focused on a single person, I had never grown as attached to them as I was (am) to Meng Chao.

So it was with some relief I discovered plenty of people had remembered Meng Chao and had written eloquent memorials to him.  They’re not all serious; one of my favorites was written by someone who had been in Guilin with Meng Chao in the 1940s, during the war with Japan.  The author recalled that Meng Chao was perpetually in motion, always running everywhere, and while everyone else struggled with getting essays written, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to put pen to paper and just write.  It is such a different picture from the defeated septuagenarian – the Meng Chao I first came to know.

The first time I cried out of sadness (not frustration!) while writing a paper was when I had to write the story of Meng Chao during the Cultural Revolution; while I’ve certainly read plenty of history that has made me cry, I had never had to write anything myself that made me unbearably depressed.  Part of that was having to work off documents that had been written by those close to Meng Chao, and they were so full of affection for the man, and anger and bitterness for what had happened to him (and all of them – all of China, really) – it was difficult not to be moved in some way.   An essay written by one of Meng Chao’s daughters was full of pent-up vitriol and anger and grief; an essay by his friend and fellow writer, Lou Shiyi, was more tempered, but it still has a biting sarcasm that doesn’t translate well, a sharp and bitter edge.  Even though plenty of people suffered a lot more for having done a lot less, it was the first time I had to write a narrative that just about broke my heart – working off sources that did break my heart.

Lou Shiyi

Below are parts of Lou Shiyi’s essay, titled simply “I think of Meng Chao” (a partial, mostly uncleaned up version of an earlier partial translation I did), first published in People’s Daily in 1979 (three years after Meng Chao’s death). He has some real zingers that do translate pretty well, but a lot of the language is sarcastic to the extreme (at least, in terms of particular word selection), and it’s difficult to convey how sharp it is in Chinese without copious footnotes.  While I wish I could get my hands on something – anything – written by Meng Chao having to do with “the Li Huiniang problem,” it is comforting to know that he was loved, people did remember, people did care.  It is helpful to have their takes on the “problem,” their memories of those 13 years.

It’s of course wonderful to have more sources (as always), but on a less academic, more personal level, it’s nice just being able to get a little closer to one of my subjects and the people who cared deeply for him.  It helps a little when I get hit with yet another “You study who? Well, I’ve never heard of him” statement.  It’s nice to know that plenty of people who “matter” more on the spectrum of “important intellectuals of the 20th century” considered him a friend and a talented writer.  It makes me think sometimes that maybe I’m not barking up the wrong tree here.  I may not know any of these people (and most of them have “gone to see Marx,” joining the ranks of those who are out of reach on many levels), but I’m not actually alone.  Making friends in history can be a one sided venture, but it can be comforting, too.

It makes lonely tasks, then, a little less lonely.

from Lou Shiyi, “I think of Meng Chao”

楼适夷 《我怀孟超》

Meng Chao wrote a kunqu script, Li Huiniang; when it premiered, he sent me a ticket. …That day, the theatre was full of familiar friends; the ghost of Li Huiniang entered the stage, her singing powerful and her dance graceful.  It certainly appeared like she was enchanting people.  Comrade Yan Wenjing happened to be sitting beside me; while he was watching the play, he said gently to me, “Look at Meng Chao, an old tree starting to bloom.” He said this to me, and I knew it was meant with kindness and encouragement towards me, but I was so ashamed I wanted to die.

Meng Chao and I had, in former years, both been members of the Sun Society.  He wrote poetry, I wrote utterly muddled short stories. … He published a little volume of collected poems … I love to read poetry, and I remember he sent me a copy, although I’ve forgotten the contents and the title.  I really liked it; he proposed to me that I edit a volume, I promised to do so with no hesitation.  But it’s easy to promise readily and renege easily … the result was I never edited it.  Afterwards, I couldn’t stay in Shanghai and left to sneak a trip to Japan.  Two years later, I returned to Shanghai.  The League of Leftist Writers had already been formed, but I couldn’t find Meng Chao.  Someone else told me, he had “changed his occupation” and was involved in “real work” (at that time, writing wasn’t considered real work), and he was currently squatting in prison.  From this point on, I had no news.

Not until the war of resistance was over did I finally know that he had been writing zawen in Guilin, writing plays.  After liberation, sure enough, he became a dramatist … we didn’t have much occasion to see each other, but when we had time would we go to the bathhouse to get together and chat.  He was the one who told me: there were the fewest people at the bathhouse around noon, and it was possible to avoid lines.  And it was also he who told me: this bathhouse in the past was a stronghold of the underground Communist party – if comrades were spotted by secret agents while they were out and about, they’d head for this bathhouse, enter to change clothes, and slip out the back door, shaking off the agents.  So we often met here.

The bathhouse attendants all knew him, and knew about the widely reported “trouble” regarding Li Huiniang.  They would see me leaving, and they would ask me, “How’s old Meng doing?”  Everyone was very worried about him.  At the time I didn’t really understand – how could “anti-Jia Sidao” count as “anti-party”?  Don’t tell me our great, righteous, glorious, and honorable party was harboring a Jia Sidao?  On account of this, this old, flowering tree was nearly cut down for firewood.  Meng Chao’s back grew more and more hunched, beautiful Li Huiniang became a “vicious ghost.”  Someone wrote an essay called “The some ghosts are harmless theory,” and immediately became an “ox ghost-snake spirit.”  For a short while, a ghostly atmosphere flickered, and we saw ghosts everywhere – everyone was afraid of ghosts, deathly afraid.  I was a shallow person, and rejoiced at my good luck, thinking I “had the luck of the lazy,” was an “old tree” who hadn’t “started to bloom,” at last I had escaped by sheer luck.  How could I have known that it wouldn’t be long before I was an “ox ghost-snake spirit,” entering a “cow shed” with Meng Chao.

Inside the “cow shed,” Meng Chao was a famous person.  Frequently, “young pathbreaking revolutionaries” would burst in and ask: “Which one of you is Meng Chao?”  Meng Chao could only stand up and show himself, whereupon they would box his ears, beat him with their fists, and beat his hunched back with a duster.  Meng Chao never made a sound, and took the beatings with his head bowed low – seeing this made my heart cold and filled with fear.

Well, we all attended cadre reeducation school. [The cadre in charge of their “cow shed” requested expensive “Red Peony” cigarettes from Meng Chao, which he dutifully provided every day]  On account of this, he was allowed to stay at the reeducation school, and didn’t have to go work in the fields ….

At the reeducation school [some] comrades were allowed to return home to visit family once a year, but we were “ox ghost-snake spirits,” and it wasn’t permitted.  We sometimes stealthily procured a little bit of alcohol to drink.  One time, I’d had a few glasses, and counseled Meng Chao: “Didn’t you have that ‘master of theory’ you grew up with? He was really good to you, that day we went to see the premiere of the play, he specially congratulated you and invited you out to eat Peking duck!  Why don’t you write him a letter and appeal, maybe you can be released a little early.”  Meng Chao didn’t say anything … and shook his head, I also didn’t say anything more.

[Meng Chao broke his leg while getting water from the well] It took a long time to heal.  Finally he was able to drape a tatty padded jacket around his shoulders, rest on a bamboo pole, and silently walk here and there, standing at the edge of the vegetable plot … herding away the old hens of old villagers, so that they wouldn’t ruin the vegetables.  After his wife died, to our great surprise one visit home was graciously granted.  You could say those “Red Peonies” finally had a good effect.

So the reeducation schools were dismissed.  Meng Chao and I returned home.  Meng Chao was all alone, and he had to ask an old granny in the hutong to cook for him.  I went to go see him when I had time – he was alone, reading Selected Works of Chairman Mao.  All of his books had been confiscated, only this one book was left.  Sometimes, he’d lean on his walking stick and come to my house to borrow novels. I once asked him: “Meng Chao, any news on your case?”  He set his mouth, shook his head, and I didn’t ask again.  Some days after he had come to borrow a volume of [Nikolai] Gogol’s writings, I heard suddenly that Meng Chao had died.  They didn’t say what big illness he’d had.  The hutong granny who cooked him food knocked on his door early in the morning; when he didn’t answer, she had to open the door and go in.  She looked, and Meng Chao was lying on his bed, blood trickling from his nose, dead.  At that time, the “Gang of Four” was still in power, several friends had to carry his remains on their shoulders to take him to be cremated – in the end, he never got to see the “Gang of Four” fall from power; he just wore his [bad element] cap and  “went to see Marx.”

Right now, Li Huiniang is back on stages.  I just received an official notice that there’s going to be a memorial service for comrade Meng Chao at Babaoshan.  I thought – as a reply – I ought to send funerary couplets. I thought for a long time, and finally came up with these two lines:

While living, you were made to be a ghost; for this we should whip the corpse of Jia Sidao three hundred times.

Though you have died, it is as though you still live; for this we should offer solemn song to Li Huiniang.

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe; it is marked "poisonous weed" above the crossed out title - below is noted that it is "evidence for criticism." From my personal collection.

A few notes: Jia Sidao, the villain of Li Huiniang, is often portrayed as one of the great evil figures of Chinese history, hence Lou’s confusion over how an “anti-Jia Sidao” play became “anti-party.”

The “Some ghosts are harmless theory” (yougui wuhai lun 有鬼无害论) was written by Liao Mosha 廖沫沙 (under the pseudonym Fan Xing 繁星) in 1961.  He repudiated it in February 1965, in an article that appeared in People’s Daily.

An “ox ghost-snake spirit” (niugui sheshen 牛鬼蛇神) is the term for a bad element par excellence, the worst of the worst of class enemies and enemies of the party.  On being beaten with a feather duster, I initially scratched my head over this – a feather duster?  Fearsome?  However, after seeing some more “traditional” dusters (which tend to be longer and have a wooden rod as a core), I can imagine it would make a perfectly nasty weapon when wielded by zealous teenagers.

The ‘master of theory’ is Kang Sheng 康生.  When Lou Shiyi suggested to Meng Chao that he get in touch with him, he didn’t know that in the days of early criticism of the opera, Meng Chao had presented two letters from Kang Sheng praising Li Huiniang, as well as several photographs and the like (these all disappeared).  At the time Meng Chao did this, he didn’t realize who, exactly, was in charge of his case – as it turned out, it was his old friend Kang Sheng himself.

On a more ancient note, Mengzi’s thoughts on “looking for friends in history” is one of my perpetual favorite snippets of antiquity:


The best gentleman of a village is in a position to make friends with the best gentleman in other villages; the best gentleman in a state, with the best gentleman in other states; and the best gentleman in the empire,with the best gentleman in the empire. And not content with making friends with the best gentleman in the empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence on tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as “looking for friends in history.” (Mencius: 5B8, trans. D.C. Lau)

Sailing the high seas (II)

A Ming ship from the voyages of Zheng He 郑和, utterly dwarfing the European galleon by comparison (insert game piracy analogy here)

Part 2 of 2: On shanzhai products as an object of study

Like Part I, a lot of this is simply my preliminary ramblings on the subject – I still have a lot more research to do (don’t we always), but this is a starting point for me, conceptually and otherwise.  I’ve been getting increasingly excited about the market for foreign games in China (both legal and not), and what follows is my first attempt at putting down my early thoughts in a somewhat coherent manner.  I’m probably using the term shanzhai too broadly, but I will wait for another day to try and tease the complexities out more clearly.

a. On piracy in China

Piracy of all kinds is rampant in China, as noted in the last post (and as anyone who keeps up with the news, or has set foot in the country, undoubtedly knows).  However, simply stating that doesn’t really get us anywhere.

Last week, Gamasutra published a small piece on a report released by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which noted that over half of all pirated games come from five watch list countries: Italy, China, Spain, Brazil and France.  OK, no huge surprises there, though there’s some quibbling on how the figures were arrived at.  I looked at the comments on the article and was curious to see some of the takes on why this might be so.  I was aghast when this little gem leapt out at me:

China is not a commerce based country like the U.S. so it won’t adopt our policies.

(I might have choked on my morning tea when I read this for the first time.) Not commerce based?  What does that even mean?  If one thinks China isn’t commerce based, how in the world does one come to grips with the incredible explosion of development (and all the business deals!) over the past decade – and longer?  And that’s ignoring commerce of a less global type, like the little old ladies at the vegetable market wanting to getting the best price on their mountain yams, and passionate bargaining that sounds like it’s about to come to blows at any minute.

People not conducting commerce in 12th century China. Detail from the Qingming shanghe tu 清明上河图 (Song dynasty), Zhang Zeduan å¼ æ‹©ç«¯

Obviously, I don’t think the issue is commercial failings on the part of Chinese society. An actual “problem” (if we want to call it that), and one that was recently in the news, is the “price is the bottom line” culture that pervades shopping here.  Best Buy, the large US retailer, recently shuttered all of its China stores (and by recently, I mean this past Tuesday – after the company denied rumors of closures on Monday).  Adam Minter has been discussing the closure over at Shanghai Scrap, and points out that part of the retail giant’s problem was being unable to adjust to the demands of the Chinese electronics market.  A market that is “already crowded, highly-competitive and extremely price sensitive ….”  Further,

Best Buy didn’t enter China intending to hire talent that knew how to be successful in China. Rather, it entered China intending to create talent that knew how to be successful in North America. That might work very well in Canada, where the retail culture is decidedly service-oriented, but it was going to be a hard, hard road in China where – even Best Buy’s internal studies showed – price was still king for most consumers.

It’s one reason shanzhai products are all over the place, I think.  Does it really matter if you have an authentic Nintendo charger, or an “authentic” Nintudo charger?  How much is it worth to you?  For a lot of customers, spending time haggling with retailers and walking out with a charger that runs a quarter or less of list price in the US is worth that misspelled name on the product (as long as it works – and a lot of it works just fine).  Same thing with shanzhai cartridges, DVDs, CDs – well, do they work, or not?  And how much would you have paid for the gratification of knowing you had an “authentic” product?** I have a hard time envisioning anyone buying a game at a Chinese brick and mortar store or on Taobao saying the following: “Good heavens!  This game I paid a ridiculously low price for is FAKE!  I’m marching right back and returning this” (I can imagine consumers raising a big fuss if it didn’t work or wasn’t the game advertised, which are different matters altogether).  Many Western gamers, on the other hand, seemed surprised and even affronted if the game they purchased for a ridiculously low price on eBay, for example, is a shanzhai copy – even if it is the game advertised, and it works.

Obviously the problem of piracy and shanzhai products impacts a whole lot more people than the Chinese consumer looking for a good deal at Metro City.  It’s big business, both for people pirating and people trying to prevent pirating.  The blog PlayNoEvil is dedicated to security issues, piracy, real-money transactions (RMT – the foundation for “gold farming”), and digital rights management (DRM) – a great read if you’re interested in those kinds of issues.  As an aside, DRM frequently winds up crippling end users who have legitimately purchased a game, and barely puts a dent in efforts to pirate the games (in fact, pirated versions can work better in many cases, since they’re not hampered with crippling DRM!). Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker recently posted a great essay on some (very serious) Ubisoft DRM issues, and closed with this:

I have to finish by observing what we all already know, and yet that which the publishers refuse to acknowledge: When your game comes with crippling DRM that prevents someone from legitimately playing it, but a pirated version has all this patched out such that it works as you would wish a product would work, piracy is offering vastly better customer service than you. And therefore your customers, literally unable to use the product you’re selling, will turn to the better offer. At the moment you are charging £35/$60 for a product that is much, much worse than one that can be obtained for free. Please, can you present this information to your shareholders?

b. On piracy and translation

[I will apologize here for my ham-fisted approach to the really complex issues surrounding translation/localization.  It’s something that I’ve just recently come to ruminating on, so these are just preliminary thoughts without much background research to back them up.   My friend Stephen Mandiberg has been working on translation and localization for quite some time, and he has much clearer, more erudite thinking on the matter(s) than I probably ever will have.  You can read his writing and work over at his site, Trans(ference/lation/ition): the movement of cultural texts.]

Piracy is one of the most pressing concerns for companies thinking about making an entrance into China – and one reason given for the astonishing lack of Chinese localizations of games.  A few notes on game hardware (PlayStation, Xbox, Wii, PSP, etc.) in China.  They’re technically illegal and have been since 2000 (Nintendo does market here under the iQue brand, but only the DS is here on the up-and-up – any Wiis for sale have been traveling through the grey market).  That doesn’t mean you have to meet people in dark alleys to get your console fix; to the contrary, they’re out and being sold in public quite openly.  It does mean that the popular foreign systems aren’t supposed to be here anyways, for the most part, and legitimate games can cost an arm and a leg (or at least as much as you’d pay in the US) – one reason is that they’re being imported through grey market channels.

The current situation is not nearly so harmonious as in the halcyon days of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere

Back to piracy and (lack of) localization, and lack of legal availability.  Here we have a chicken-or-egg problem.  What came first?  I have no idea, but it’s an issue.  I’ve heard apocryphal tales that long ago, Nintendo decided “to hell with the Chinese-language market!” when they discovered the Taiwanese government owned a sizable stake in a company dedicated to pirating Nintendo cartridges.  Whether or not the story is true is somewhat irrelevant; it neatly encapsulates part of this vicious cycle.  Foreign companies don’t want to invest money into product launches, localization, and marketing when the stuff is going to wind up being pirated and sold on Taobao for 6 yuan (and with tacit – or explicit – government approval to boot).  And who can blame them?  It’s a losing proposition financially.

Which leads me to another part of the produce-pirate-produce cycle.  I’ve been on the hunt for (legitimate, non-shanzhai) Chinese language localizations of role playing games (RPGs) for my (legitimate,  non-“cracked” – which means they’re not ready to get around any DRM issues) handhelds. I’ve discovered that by and large, they don’t exist.  Japanese companies frequently do an “Asian edition” – just another one of the multiple editions that will be part of a global release.  Except … not quite.  They’re generally the Japanese version of the game – voices, text, menu screens, everything.  The only difference is the inclusion of a sheet of instructions in Chinese (and English).  For many types of games, this may not be an issue (and for many types of gamers, depending on why they’re playing).  But for gamers who don’t read or speak Japanese fluently, partially, or at all, they’re left with a pretty pricey game that they may not be able to fully appreciate (particularly an issue, I think, with games dependent on story – if that’s part of what a gamer is after).

So while there’s the issue of price (pirated stuff is just cheaper – significantly so, especially if it’s free!), there’s also the issue of “You want me to pay how much for a game that’s in another language?”.  There is significant time invested by people into making “Chinese editions” (zhongwen ban 中文版) of games that were never intended to be in Chinese; these are widely available, both as free downloads and for sale very cheaply in stores or on Taobao. I’m not suggesting that piracy would magically go away if every game company suddenly decided to release a Chinese localization of their products – it absolutely wouldn’t.  But it is another part of puzzle.  Gamers aren’t just snagging pirated copies of English or Japanese releases (though they’re certainly doing lots of that).  They’re also acquiring pirated copies that have been translated into Chinese.  They’re getting versions of games that literally cannot be purchased legally – they don’t exist.

c. On pirated products as objects of study

The first problem with taking up the topic of pirated products in China is the wide variety of meanings we can attach to “pirated products.”  While sorting objects into categories and attaching labels is, of course, problematic – most fledgling China scholars have been hit with the question “Well, what China are you talking about?” at some point or another – it is necessary to lay out exactly what we’re talking about (or try to, at least).  I have a couple of categories I’ve been bouncing around; they ignore a lot, but it’s a starting point for me:

A screen from the (unauthorized) Chinese translation of Crisis Core (Square Enix, 2007) for the PSP

  • Pirated products in their most basic forms – the DVDs, the copies of Windows operating systems, the games that are simply copies of existing products, the knockoffs of designer brands.  In terms of games, I’m particularly interested in what gamers are getting out of the games that have not been translated.  In the case of games like massive JRPGs, are they turning to other sources to follow the story along (as many Western gamers who buy Japanese releases wind up doing)?  Or is it irrelevant in the face of more important priorities?  What are the priorities (beyond ‘Hey, it’s cheap and/or free!’)?
  • Pirated products that have been unofficially translated (localized?) – the unauthorized translations of releases that otherwise would only be available in Japanese or English, done by Chinese groups or companies.  I’m currently most taken with these “fanlations” – who’s behind them, how they translate them, how the games do on the market in comparison to the same games in languages other than Chinese, how the translators decide on which games to translate, and so on.
  • Products infringing on IP, but that aren’t actually copies of anything.  The Titanic game I referenced in part 1 of this post would be the best example – it’s definitely based on the movie, but doesn’t fit into the two categories above.  I’ve been referring to these types of products as “murkymarket” games in conversations with friends.  These are going to be the hardest to track down – the demand is most likely much, much lower than for AAA, foreign-produced titles made for much more current hardware.  I think the Final Fantasy VII “demake” (porting a game made for the PlayStation to the NES) would probably fit here as well, though there are aspects that fit into the second category.  It’s a “copy” of an existing game, it translates that game into Chinese, but it’s neither a wholesale copy of FFVII for the PS1 or PC, nor is it “only” layering a Chinese translation onto the game as it was published.
  • Products that don’t infringe on IP (the fact that one of the most popular subjects for games in Asia – the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms – is in the public domain probably helps in this case), aren’t actual copies of anything, but somehow aren’t doing anything other than being a poor imitation of World of Warcraft (this is the usual charge leveled at Chinese MMORPGs).  This is tricky – it doesn’t really fit with the three categories above (there’s not actual IP infringement), but does fit into shanzhai more broadly, at least if we’re considering these games as “imitations” (with some cosmetic changes) of brand name, foreign products.  It’s also a lot more open to interpretation than the obvious examples of piracy.  A friend once described the Chinese MMORPG Wanmei shijie 完美世界 (Perfect world, now localized for the English speaking audience) as “WoW with an Asian facelift.”  Then again, if we’re going to nail Chinese companies for imitation WoW MMOs of variable quality, we should probably take a hard look at all the Japanese and Western companies that make lousy imitations of big titles in whatever game category.  Creators of wannabe Final Fantasy RPGs, I’m looking at you.

Obviously, none of these are exclusive to China – fansubbing/”fanlation” (unauthorized translation), for instance, has a reasonably long history in the US (and elsewhere).  However, I’m a China person at heart (back to that whole idea of selfish obsessions!), and furthermore, the issue of the game market in China is a more pressing concern for a lot more people than amateur “fanlations” of niche manga and anime in the US or elsewhere (though it’s no more “legal” than the Chinese translations).  It also costs more companies more money.

Ethical problem, or thorough research?

If one is equipped with Chinese language, handling the second, third, and fourth types of pirated/shanzhai products isn’t going to be a huge issue to deal with, at least linguistically (I confess to struggling a bit with the acquisition of a new vocabulary relating to pirated games, but it’s just a new area I need to familiarize myself with – just like every other research project in Chinese history I’ve ever taken on!).  There’s an ethical question that bothers me a bit more, at least in reference to the second type of game (and, depending on how one approaches the subject, the first).  The only way to actually get your hands on this stuff is to join the ranks of people acquiring it illegally – either by downloading it off frequently dodgy Chinese websites/torrents, or purchasing cheap copies on websites like Taobao (or heading to your local electronics market).  More concerning is the fact that – for the games designed for the PSP and consoles, at least – you’re looking at having to either modify your current system (an easy enough proposition in China) or purchase one that’s already cracked/modded (pojie 破解).

We’re not talking about doing experiments on humans or animals here, but it does rub me the wrong way that I’ve been cruising Taobao for illegally modified PSPs (so I don’t have to run the risk of potentially fouling up my current, “legal” one) and illegal copies of games in the name of research.  Depending on one’s approach, you could bypass this completely – but I’m interested in playing the games (which I have already purchased and played in their English language releases) myself and seeing how the translation has actually been done.  Oh, the issues we just don’t have to confront when dealing with archival materials from the ’50s!

As for the question of what to do with shanzhai, pirated goods – well, there’s a million angles one could approach these from.  At the moment, I’m personally interested in collecting the “fanlated” games and following discussions along on Chinese forums and sites.  But there’s the myriad problems of regulation, government intervention (or lack thereof), the connection to foreign companies, and if one has Japanese language skills – probably a whole wide world of interesting connections to be made and research to be done (both comparative, and in terms of how Japanese companies are approaching the “China problem” – beyond the soundbites we get in English media).

Still, there’s a lot of work I have to do before I’m really ready to start producing actual RESEARCH! on pirated games in China.  Up first is fleshing out a taxonomy of shanzhai games – and constantly keeping Andrew Jones’ statement in the back of my head**: we need to keep thinking about how all parties involved “have been and continue to be inextricably bound up in a larger and infinitely more complex process.”  It’s not just about Chinese knockoffs and illegal fanlations; it’s about the global circulation of media.  I sometimes like to retreat to the safe place of “China-centered,” and forget that one can keep one foot firmly in the Middle Kingdom while speaking to the much, much bigger picture.

* It is probably worth dwelling on notions of ‘authenticity,’ and deeper – and older – perceptions on what that means.  I’ve been thinking about this in regards to painting in particular, but it seems that it might provide one way of considering more contemporary issues and concerns from a longer term, more historicized perspective. (back)

**A Chinese friend recently described Yellow Music as a 神奇书 (shenqi shu) – a magical or miraculous book. It’s been one of my favorite and most relied upon tomes, and I think 神奇 is a wonderful description for it.  It is a rare work that can be applied so usefully to so many subjects.

Sailing the high seas (I)

From the Chinese model opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (智取威虎山 Zhiqu weihu shan)

What the anti-piracy task forces are in need of is a modern-day Yang Zirong 杨子荣

Part 1 of 2: Notes on the conceptual background

I get my best thinking done in transit.  In Shanghai, this means while riding the subway and/or walking; back in the US, commuting by car frequently proved productive.  My research paper on Meng Chao & Li Huiniang was largely “written” on my daily commute to & from school; I had more than one epiphany (however small) while traversing the 52 between 805 and the 5, headed to Gilman Drive.

On one such occasion in the fall of 2009, I was pondering a paper for my historiography class on 20th century cultural history in China.  I mostly focused on the problem of dichotomies and turned to a perennial favorite of mine – the introduction to Andrew Jones’ Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Duke, 2001).  In the intro, which is (in my mind) the most sophisticated, readable, understandable, and flat-out useful explication on “colonial modernity” out there, he points out a couple of things that I’ve continued to trot out over the years.  Most importantly, in describing jazz culture in Republican China (this can be extended much more broadly), Jones points out that we can’t simply see cultural production in terms of either/or – he notes the “folly” in understanding Chinese jazz as merely “an example of Western influence on Chinese musical forms,” or “Chinese” being “merely adjectival” (7).  Instead, we “need to look at the ways in which both (and indeed all) parties have been and continue to be inextricably bound up in a larger and infinitely more complex process” (10).

From Jones’ Republican jazz, I hopped to my own area of research – post-1949 cultural production.  Chen Xiaomei’s Acting the Right Part: Political Theater and Popular Drama in Contemporary China (Hawai’i, 2002) is a work I have serious reservations about, but she does at least underscore one point that any student of cultural issues in the PRC bumps up against: the idea that the socialist period “produced no works of ‘literary excellence’” is a “dismissal generally accepted by students of modern Chinese literature and culture” (20).  Part of the idea that no cultural achievements were reached is that everything in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was politicized, and politicization is somehow antithetical to art.  I ran up against this while taking a course on “modern Chinese literary thought.”  We read from Liang Qichao & other late Qing intellectuals up to 1949 … then picked back up in the 1980s.  “Everything is political after ’49,” was one explanation on why we just chopped thirty years out of our study on the topic – as if politics magically disappeared after 1976 or 1979 or 1989 (they didn’t, obviously – nor were they introduced in ’49, hence the strangeness of using “politics” as an excuse.  I would’ve been more comfortable if we’d just said, “It’s hyperpoliticized and kind of boring.  Onwards to post-modernism!”  Which can also be very dull, just in a different sort of way).

游园抗父权制: Walking through the garden, resisting patriarchy

In any case, the idea that the first few decades of the PRC were a cultural deadspace is one that still persists, though plenty of talented scholars have tackled this with aplomb.  Certainly, politics are unavoidable – one of my favorite examples is a 1959 edition of The Peony Pavilion, where the beautifully written introduction spent eleven pages (nearly 1/3 of its page space) detailing the modern political merits, particularly the staunch anti-patriarchal and anti-Confucian character, of a play written in 1598.  But at a conference last year, a more senior scholar kindly told a few of us fledgling PRC historians not to let anyone tell us that our sources are “just” propaganda – as if Qing and Republican archives aren’t stuffed full of it.  He had a very worthwhile and valid point.  I’m actually quite fascinated by the political hoops (like justifying study of one of the glittering achievements of Chinese drama on the basis of being anti-Confucian, anti-patriarchy, and anti-a-lot-of-other-bad-things)  intellectuals and artists had to jump through in the socialist period, but we’ll return to that another day.

Back to driving.  As I was turning over this problem of cultural deadspace in my mind, my thinking came around to the sort of problems future China scholars who study games and digital media were likely to face.  And it came to me rather suddenly that this problem – the problem of large swaths of culture in Mainland China being dismissed out of hand – is actually going to get worse, not better.  And it’s not because I think scholars are going to be dismissing post-1976 cultural developments as having no artistic value due to hyperpoliticization.  Not quite.  No, one of the problems I’m thinking of is respect for intellectual property rights, or lack thereof.  One of the problems is shanzhai.

Backing up a bit: when I wrote for Kotaku, I spent most of my time posting things that usually didn’t appear on the site, particularly on East Asia outside of Japan (I had a semi-regular post category dedicated to hilariously bad press releases from Chinese game companies, for example).  I read a lot of comments on a lot of articles and one of the most pervasive attitudes was “Oh, all that stuff is just a crappy Chinese or Korean knockoff of World of Warcraft anyways.”  Now, the attitude that Chinese games suck is not confined to Western gamers and pundits; one of my Chinese friends is baffled that I have an interest in Chinese games.  “But Chinese games aren’t any fun to play!” he points out when the subject comes up.  I usually respond that a lot of stuff isn’t any fun to read or watch, but that doesn’t stop us from studying it!

I’m not trying to suggest that China studies is – or is going to be – full of people with the exact same kind of dismissive attitudes towards Chinese products.  But it is a fact that there’s a pervasive attitude about China (one that is, in some ways, deserved – which I’ll touch on in a bit) that shows up a lot in the press and does shape many people’s attitudes towards many aspects of culture in the PRC in the present.  I really have very little doubt that we’re going to run into something of the same issues that Chen Xiaomei refers to – the out of hand dismissal of cultural production.  Perhaps a viewpoint like: “China is good for knockoffs (some good, some bad), flagrant violations of intellectual property rights, and being home to an astonishing number of people engaging in piracy of all kinds.  And who would want to bother studying products of that?”  will be the 21st century equivalent of:  “All Chinese ‘art’ between 1949 and 1976 is just propaganda, written by spin masters for the great masses of people clutching their Little Red Book and singing along to one of the eight model operas.  And who would want to bother studying products of that?” (Both of these statements are, of course, wild imaginings on my part, but sometimes they don’t seem that far off the mark)

Obviously, pirated products are serious business on a number of levels (look no further than the melamine-laced milk scandal of 2008, which eventually resulted in a couple of death sentences being handed out).  It can be really hard to wind up with legitimate products – shanzhai 山寨 (in current parlance, imitations or pirated things – its original usage meant “mountain strongholds,” places far outside of official control, where bandits and warlords reigned supreme) are all over the place.  I once headed down to one of the big electronics markets in Shanghai to buy a replacement charger for my Nintendo DSi – one shop tried to sell us a “Nintondo” brand charger with a straight face.  Is the one I eventually wound up with (labeled Nintendo) real?  Probably not – but who knows?  It’s a common occurrence.  There has been much sport had in the foreign press with Chinese knockoffs – everything from the “Vii” console to the Disney knockoff Beijing Shijingshan Amusement Park 北京石景山游乐园 (it’s owned & run, incidentally, by the Shijingshan District government).

Why yes, that IS a submarine inside the Titanic

On the other hand, there is stuff that is both a knockoff and quite interesting.  One of my favorite examples is the horrible-sounding shanzhai NES cartridge, Titanic 1912 (Taitannike hao 泰坦尼克号) – an RPG based on Titanic, the movie with Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio.  The post describing it over at Cinnamon Pirate remains, to this day, one of my favorite pieces of game journalism ever.  I laughed until I cried the first time I read it (I originally posted it on Kotaku in 2008), and have done so a couple of times since.  Obviously, neither Paramount nor 20th Century Fox signed off on this puppy – it’s copyright violation of a pretty clear stripe.  On the other hand, it’s not just a copy of an existing game.  It may be a bad game, but so are a lot of AAA titles.  The question for me here is: what do we do with stuff like this?

Or, another example from Cinnamon Pirate: the NES port of Final Fantasy VII (originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation). This one is a little less interesting than Titanic 1912, but I’m still not comfortable putting this type of production in the same category as the Black Swan DVD I got on Wulumuqi lu last month.  Copyright violation?  Absolutely.  But it’s not just a flat out copy.  Again: what do we do with it?  Dismiss it as evidence of a lack of Chinese creativity and a desire to make a buck off of someone else’s hard work?

Returning to Andrew Jones, this isn’t simply a matter of lousy Chinese imitations – there’s more going on here, both with the acts of making, selling, purchasing, and playing these things (both the “actual” knockoffs, as well as the “imitation” games that structure themselves after foreign creations), and the reason it’s happening in the first place.  There is a need to resist the urge to merely leave the “Chinese” as adjectival.  We need to consider how all parties “have been and continue to be inextricably bound up in a larger and infinitely more complex process.”

Part 2: On approaching piracy & imitation in China as an object of study

“Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves”

Hu Zhifeng 胡芝風 as Li Huiniang

Despite far flung (some might say a bit schizophrenic, even) interests, academic and otherwise, that usually mean I have my hand in a couple of different areas at any given time, I’m prone to bouts of obsessing – particularly with media (music, games, books, bits of literature).  Of course, it’s cyclical – I can go months without finding myself obsessing over any one song, routinely go months without even looking at a videogame, and usually devour enough literature (both for pleasure and research) that my brain is a jumble of lots of information.

Still, there are lots of things that I find myself circling back to (or getting led back to inadvertently), fueling the obsession.  I joke that the defining character of my career is likely to be mèng å­Ÿ, since it keeps appearing over and over again.  My favorite ancient philosopher?  Mengzi (孟子).  The author of the play I’m currently translating?  Meng Chengshun (孟称舜).  The name of one of my favorite friends and fellow Asian studies scholar (and font of all good things, musically)?  Menghsin (孟莘).  The name of one current research focus?  Meng Chao (孟超).  While you could say that meng is a pretty common character (it is a last name, among other meanings, after all), there are plenty of common characters – so sometimes I can’t help but feel that there’s something with me and meng.  When I get worked into obsessive frenzies, I sometimes stop and think, “Maybe I’m supposed to be hung up on this at the moment.”  Who knows where it might lead?

I stumbled on to Meng Chao with the help of Ye Wa, our utterly wonderful and totally brilliant prof who helps us slog through the difficult bits of Chinese documents while we work on our yearly research projects (back in the halcyon days of coursework).  In the winter of 2009, I was on the hunt for a research topic and came back to one of my favorite Ming dramas (which has proved to be a bit of an obsession over the years, both textually and musically), The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭).  I initially wanted to look at the status of the classic opera after the Cultural Revolution, but quickly discovered it really had been in need of a revival in the 1990s – it simply wasn’t being performed in the 1980s.  This meant very few sources – not a very promising basis for a research paper!

I went back to square one, sorted through a bunch of post-Cultural Revolution xiju nianjian 戏剧年鉴 (drama yearbooks) and entered every play performed by every kun opera troupe from 1979 to 1989 into a spreadsheet. Despairing over ever being able to look up the hundred plus plays I had now listed out, I asked Ye Wa to take a look at it.  She immediately noticed Li Huiniang‘s presence, and gave me the quick and dirty introduction (famous new edition ghost play from the early ’60s, the play and its author criticized during the early part of the Cultural Revolution, like Wu Han’s Hai Rui Dismissed From Office (Hai Rui baguan 海瑞罢官)).  Going home and checking JSTOR, I noticed that – unlike Wu Han or Tian Han’s stories – very few people even mentioned the play (or the author).  Topic: found!

Meng Chao (1902-1976)

At some point I found myself receptive to Ye Wa’s suggestion that it would be a fine dissertation topic.  I genuinely enjoyed researching the play and its author, I liked the idea of taking on a topic that let me indulge in my fondness for interdisciplinary work and return to my classicist roots (that is, playing with literature – and lots of it).  Besides, ghosts are a pretty sexy topic.  I’ve found myself at more that one gathering with non-Chinese historians, and people’s ears generally perk right up when I say I study Chinese ghosts (which isn’t the most precise way of putting it, but close enough).  Having a topic that doesn’t instantly put people to sleep is never a bad thing.

So that’s how I wound up based in Shanghai, researching ghost operas, kun opera, and their authors and artists – I rather doggedly held to my deep affection for China’s most famous ghost play, and with some help from Ye Wa, found my next ghostly obsession.  Doesn’t sound so obsessive, really, but I’ve found myself coming back again and again to Meng Chao.  Some of it is certainly due to my uncertainty upon being confronted with the whole range of Chinese libraries and archives – I know Meng Chao’s story backwards and forwards.  Using his story as a marker is one way to at least continue making progress when most of me is going “Where am I, how did I get here, what am I doing, and where do I go from here?”. Here’s where having an obsessive streak is probably a good thing: in running down every bit of information I can get my hands on regarding Meng Chao (not just because I need the stuff as sources for my dissertation, but because I must have it, just because), I’ve been running down of every bit of information I can get my hands on regarding his friends, associations he was involved in, things he worked on.  What this means is the number of primary and secondary sources that have only the barest connection to Meng Chao, and some with none at all (ranging from novels and poetry collections to edited volumes on the 1930s literary societies), are piling up daily.

Which leads me to my next obsession (which has been running about as long as I’ve been nurturing my historian’s affection for Meng Chao, and is intimately tied to how I approach this research project) – it’s not an obsession so much as an ever-present bit of literature that I’m reminded of on a near-daily basis.  At the same time I was digging into Meng Chao and Li Huiniang initially, I reacquainted myself with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, particularly part one, “Burnt Norton,” which has the following lines:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                            But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                    Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

I actually have the last two lines engraved on my iPod.  The poem brought to mind a whole host of associations – from Peony Pavilion‘s famous section, “Walking Through the Garden” (Youyuan 游园 – one of my very favorites), to a bunch of things I’ve read with my Japanese history professor relating to time, to Meng Chao.  I always read it and think of Ye Wa saying Meng Chao was a good starting point to get at a lot of other cultural figures in the early PRC – the other echoes inhabiting the garden, if you will.  And having fallen academically for a mostly neglected figure (most people, even in China, have never heard of him, though many have heard of the play he wrote), I frequently feel that I’m kicking up a lot of dust – and for what purpose, I’m not quite sure yet.

Meng Chao (r) with family (1976)

Obsessions are selfish.  At the moment, I’m selfishly building up my collection of Meng Chao-related materials – partially for the simple reason that I feel really bad for the guy.  A beautiful writer, someone who moved among more famous names and was an intellectual equal, but never hit “household name” status, and someone who (like a lot of others) suffered mightily during the Cultural Revolution – and who seems to have been mostly forgotten by just about everyone.  Why doesn’t anyone remember him?  Where is Meng Chao’s collected works volume?  It seems like practically everyone else in this country has one!  (I continue to nurture a secret hope, that someday, somehow, he’ll get his own wenji 文集)

So while going about my daily business of collecting materials and figuring out what, exactly, I’m collecting materials on, I try to keep in mind a few things: some of this is purely for selfish interest in a person I’ve written on (thus should not be the sole focus of my hunting, which I’ve done a good job of remembering).  Some of this is part of an obsessive collecting spree, but is, in fact, leading to other useful things that gradually spiral away from my little nucleus of a mostly unknown author.  And finally, some of this is the intellectual equivalent of opening doors that haven’t been opened in a long time (if ever), and doors all lead somewhere – if not always to the expected destination.

Other echoes do indeed inhabit the garden, and I intend to follow them – and I won’t mind disturbing a bit of dust along the way.

On the joys of book shopping

With my first big batch of primary sources, Xiju bao 戏剧报 (1955-1959)

Or I should say, on the joys of kongfz.com.

One of the delightful things about living in China is the shopping (despite inflation worries, there are still a lot of goodies to be had on the cheap).  For a bibliophile like myself, who likes to own every bit of material related to my research that I can get my hands on, book shopping in China is an unparalleled paradise.  I was introduced to the wonders of the incredible Chinese book site kongfz.com in 2009 by a classmate, who kindly offered to pick up some purchases for me when she returned home to Guilin.  My spoils from that first foray included a 1960s practice edition of Li Huiniang used by the Northern Kun Opera Troupe (Beifang kunqu tuan 北方昆曲团) in the first performance of the opera  – mimeographed, torn cover, printed on appallingly bad paper (that I now realize is pretty standard issue for mimeographed anything from 1950s and 1960s China), and with old school brads holding the whole thing together (and putting nice rust stains on the cover).  I think I paid a whopping 20RMB for it (a little less than $3 USD).  I was hooked – it was like the Chinese Alibris, but cheaper!

Although I had said I’d be in a buying frenzy as soon as my feet hit Shanghainese earth, it actually took me a couple of months before I remembered the wonderful treasure trove I had been introduced to.  While I mentioned the site to a number of friends, general skittishness about dealing with the Chinese banking system and other pressing concerns put book shopping on the back burner until this month.

When I finally started poking through the offerings from book stores all over China, I had a hard time reining myself in.   Everything was fair game – old journals?  Check.  Old practice editions used by Chinese opera troupes in the 1950s and 1960s, like that very first one I had bought? Absolutely.  Picture book editions (lianhuanhua 连环画) of classic plays? Well, I have been looking to start a book collection of some type for a while ….  Even less thrilling finds were still exciting.  Secondary sources I’d found useful for 8RMB including shipping (that’s about $1 USD), books I didn’t even know existed (the collected poems of a 17th century woman poet I adore).

Packages arrive every day – usually little ones, but sometimes big ones.  Today, a set of the important drama magazine Xiju bao 戏剧报 arrived, marking the first part of my acquisition of all issues from 1955 to 1966 (which will later be rounded out with late 1970s and early 1980s issues).  Despite the availability of the magazine in libraries (both here and back in the US) and online, I find there is something so useful about flipping through hard copies of journals and newspapers.  Our databases make it easy to find every occurrence of a search term with a few keystrokes.  But it’s so hard to replicate the experience of simply paging through a source and seeing what leaps out when one is dealing in links and PDFs, and I’m thrilled to have my very own copies now.

A lot has changed since my advisors were doing their dissertation research.  The fact that we now have access to libraries and archives in the PRC is something that was only a pipe dream for a few decades.  Fantastic online databases mean we can access journals, books, and newspapers from the late Qing on (and, in some cases, things much older than that).  But I can’t help thinking that one of the coolest things, and certainly quite different, is the fact that I can hop online, type in a few search terms, and get kicked back a list of potential sources – sources that I can buy with my trusty USB key card from ICBC, and that will arrive at my house in a few days, carried by my harried post person (who still screams out my Chinese name at the top of her lungs upon arriving).  In the past few days, things have shown up on my doorstep that I didn’t even know existed before I found them on the world’s best second hand book website.

I always sit down with my new-to-me books, look through their sometimes crisp, often battered pages, and write my name and date of acquisition on the inside cover.  It’s an insipid ritual, but there is something that is so wonderful about handling these bits of history (even if I, as a PRC historian, only handle things that are at most 60 years old).  I’ve always liked the Japanese historian E.H. Norman’s description of the pleasures of the historian (as related by John Dower in Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman):

On the most simple and intimate level, he spoke (in “History: Its Uses and Pleasure”) of “the magical pleasure that the reading of history can give” – the realization that there is no last word on any given subject; the recognition that when written by the greats, history has the pathos of a Greek tragedy; the dimensions of irony, mystery and poetry; and this: “that peculiar pleasure of reading in the calm of one’s study of turbulent events, of great triumphs and failures or simply of the everyday life of people in bygone ages. To cast one’s mind into the past and to have described vividly for one the passions and ambitions, the hopes and disappointments not only of great men, but of people like ourselves, is to feel an intimation of man’s immortal spirit. (5)

… and can’t help thinking that it’s all the more delightful when kicked back with an aged book that has somehow survived long enough to fall into my hands – here, now, in 2011.

[A revised version of this post appeared on The China Beat on 22 February, 2011.  It includes more in-depth nitty-gritty on how to shop with Kongfz.com (and illustrates the wide variety of materials you can get for a wide variety of prices!)]