Friday, May 02, 2008

Chinese Literature reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review

My last blog post concerned the cult figure Li Yang, advocate of "Crazy English". To rectify somewhat that focus on the idiosyncratic and bizarre, I'd like to mention a few new works by Chinese authors mentioned in this week's New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Jonathan Spence reviews Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, published by Arcade and translated by Howard Goldblatt. Spence writes:

"At one level [...] “Life and Death” is a kind of documentary,
carrying the reader across time from the land reform at the end of the Chinese Civil War, through the establishment of mutual-aid teams and lower-level cooperatives in the early and mid-1950s, into the extreme years of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and on to the steady erosion of the collective economy in the new era of largely unregulated “capitalism with socialist characteristics.” At the novel’s close, some of the characters are driving BMWs, while others are dyeing their hair blond and wearing gold rings in their noses.

Yet although one can say that the political dramas narrated by Mo Yan are historically faithful to the currently known record, “Life and Death” remains a wildly visionary and creative novel, constantly mocking and rearranging itself and jolting the reader with its own internal commentary. This is politics as pathology. From the start, the reader must be willing to share with Mo Yan the novel’s central conceit: that the five main narrators are not
humans but animals, albeit ones who speak with sharply modulated human voices. Each of the successive narrators — a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey — are the sequential reincarnations of a man named Ximen Nao, as determined by Yama, lord of the underworld."

Meanwhile, Aventurina King writes on loved / reviled Chinese pop novelist Guo Jingming. King writes:

Thousands of teenagers — his readers are rarely over 20 — flock to Guo’s signing sessions. Some post frenzied declarations of love on his blog: “Little Four, I will always be with you!” (Guo’s nickname comes from “fourth dimension war,” a random quotation he found in a magazine.) Alongside adoring letters
addressed to “Big Brother Guo,” the author posts pictures of himself half-naked in the shower, in his underwear or swathed in Dolce & Gabbana accessories and Louis XIV-style shirts.

Guo is hardly universally beloved. Last fall, he was voted China’s most hated male celebrity for the third year in a row on Tianya, one of the country’s biggest online forums. Yet three of his four novels have sold over a million copies each, and last year he had the highest income of any Chinese author: $1.4

The most critically acclaimed Chinese novels of recent years — “Wolf Totem” (a parable about the death of Mongolian culture and a veiled critique of the Cultural Revolution), Yu Hua’s “To Live,” Mo Yan’s “Republic of Wine” — generally use their characters as vessels for broad social and political commentary. But Guo’s novels focus on the tortured psyches of his adolescent characters, who either nurse their melancholy by sitting alone for long hours under trees and on rooftops, or try to blunt it with drinking, fighting and karaoke.

In addition, Liesl Schillinger writes on Yan Lianke's Serve the People! translated by Julia Lovel, which she describes as a "bluntly drawn, mildly erotic fable" banned in China. Francine Prose reviews Wang Anyi's The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, and Pankaj Mishra discusses Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

China's Elvis of English

In a recent article, the New Yorker reports on cult figure Li Yang whose "Crazy English" -- a bizarre blend of ideology and slick marketing scheme -- has set itself loose upon China in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

Evan Osnos writes: "China intends to teach itself as much English as possible by the time the guests arrive, and Li has been brought in by the Beijing Organizing Committee to make that happen. He is China’s Elvis of English, perhaps the world’s only language teacher known to bring students to tears of excitement. He has built an empire out of his country’s deepening devotion to a language it once derided as the tongue of barbarians and capitalists. His philosophy, captured by one of his many slogans, is flamboyantly patriotic: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”"

Li's idea of English is a strange one, to say the least, inextricably linked to ideology; the implication is that with the power of English you can gain prowess in the workplace, attract a trophy mate, and excel in all kinds of ways. These tantalizing promises have their appeal, of course. Osnos writes that "Li’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power. It’s a combination that produces intense, sometimes desperate adoration." Thousands flock to his sessions and, according to publisher's statistics, millions of his books and audio products have sold.

Unsurprisingly, Li's pedagogical methods are unconventional at best and bolster this myth of English as a uniquely powerful tool. His 'Crazy English' involved yelling. (Osnos provides the example of doctors brushing up on their English for the Olympic Games shouting after Li: "I! Would! Like! To! Take! Your! Tem! Per! Ture!" to what Osnos images would be the consternation of their patients.)

The fees Li charges for arena-filled sessions and private group meetings are extortionate and all his commercial efforts reveal the work of a savvy marketeer and demagogue. As Osnos writes, "Li’s name adorns more than a hundred books, videos, audio boxed sets, and software packages, such as the “Li Yang Crazy English Blurt Out MP3 Collection,” which sells for sixty-six yuan—a little more than nine dollars—and his motivational memoir, which costs twenty yuan." Osnos playfully adds that the original title of Li's memoir, I Am Crazy, I Succeed "used a word that implied “I Am Psychotic, I Succeed,” but the publishing house rejected it."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Polish author Magdalena Tulli reading at BU

The Polish novelist and translator Magdalena Tulli will be reading at Boston University's School of Management on May 1st at 7 PM. Her novels include Dreams and Stones and Moving Parts. The American novelist Lawrence Weschler will also read, and the two writers will discuss their work. Following the reading and discussion, there will be a release party for the new issue of Agni literary magazine.