Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 27, 2008

It’s time I got serious…

Filed under: My research, Writing — amyjaneb @ 10:57 am

…with this PhD thing.  My recent lack of activity has been deplorable.  My anticipated end-date of September is quickly slipping from view.  So, I have made a few resolutions in an attempt to kick-start my brain:

1.  I will be at my desk and ready to work at 10am each weekday morning (I’ve already failed miserably!)

2.  Each morning will start with a 20min ‘free-writing’ exercise (this is it!)

3.  I will achieve at least three things from my ‘to do’ list each day, with a minimum of two being from the ‘pressing/high priority’ list, as opposed to the ‘low priority/ongoing’ list).

4.  I will work a minimum of four hours a day exclusively on PhD stuff (reading, writing, researching), finishing by 6pm each day.

To keep myself on the straight and narrow I have instigated a treat system.  For each day I achieve resolutions 2-4, I will put a £1 aside to spend in Primark.  😉

Will it work?  Only time will tell.

April 26, 2007

Review: The Chan’s Great Continent, by Jonathan Spence

Filed under: China, Images, My research, Publications, Reading, Writing — amyjaneb @ 4:02 pm

Not so much a review as a brief summary perhaps?  I started reading this book about six weeks ago, but had a three-week break from it, so I can’t write a particularly coherent review at present, especially as I have’t yet written up my notes.  But here are a few thoughts that immediately occur to me.

I really enjoy Spence’s style of writing.  Intelligent, but not overly academic, this is the sort of book which would make good bedtime reading.  It is the result of a series of lectures that Spence gave at Yale University in 1996, which perhaps accounts for the almost conversational style.  Beginning with Marco Polo and ending with Nixon’s visit to China, Spence surveys the history of western literary reflections on China, drawing links between accounts through time and showing the continuation and development of some central ideas about China and Chineseness, which have characterised Western imaginings of China from the earliest contact.   

Of course, he writes about lots of characters and texts which I have already come across, but highlights a few others I wasn’t so aware of.  The book is particularly strong, I feel, on twentieth century writings about China and I can imagine I will refer to it frequently as I begin to write my background chapter on the first part of the twentieth century (up to the declaration of the PRC in 1949).  Planning a structure for that section is next on my ‘to do’ list.

I may have some more comments to make after I have typed up my notes, but in the meantime, I’ll conclude this rather brief and insubstantial review here, by stating that The Chan’s Great Continent is an excellent introduction to literary imaginings about China in the West, and well worth a read.

March 26, 2007

Cultural Revolution ‘Victim’ Literary Genre: A publishing phenomenon

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Publications, Weblinks, Writing — amyjaneb @ 9:32 pm

This reviewer for the Taipei Times makes some interesting points about the increasing number of autobiographies published by survivors of the Cultural Revolution.  I take issue with his comment ‘Why are there so many books about Chinese nightmares, and why are they all published in America?’, because – of course, they aren’t just published in America, nor written by Chinese now living in the US (Jung Chang is the obvious example to the contrary).  But his next point:

 Is this some aspect of an on-going New Cold War, a veiled propaganda campaign waged through the corridors of literature? Books about the delights of life in the People’s Republic are certainly hard to come by.

This is not to say that the tribulations visited on millions by China’s Red Guards are a figment of anyone’s imagination. The evidence is far too extensive, and the testimony of survivors too similar. No, it’s not the phenomenon itself that’s in any doubt, but rather the motives of those who flood the market with accounts of those terrible years. History has undoubtedly provided the ammunition, but who’s firing the guns, and at whom?

– followed by his comment on the formalaeic ‘plot’ and inevitable stereotyped ‘characters’ that seem to turn up in these accounts on a regular basis:

Even so, this book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local “team leader” and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant “Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed” one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of “black” (as oppose to “red”) families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).

– hints, I think at a possible reason for the popularity of such books.  They confirm what us Westerners think we know about the PRC, i.e. that it is bad; a totalitarian nightmare wherein individuality is suppressed and freedom – as we understand it – does not exist.  But they are also similar to those age old stories of the eventual triumph of good versus evil, of overcoming hardship, that probably exist in all cultures at all periods of history, and must therefore reflect a deep human need.  So, perhaps the focus on the Cultural Revolution is simply time-specific.  Similar themes will continue to exist in literature even after the reading public, and perhaps more pertinently, the publishing world has tired of the Cultural Revolution and moved onto the next big human interest theme.

Battlepanda takes a slightly different tack in their post about the same review:

I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn’t about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that’s not about the clash of cultures between their mother’s generation and their’s.

While I agree that Chinese writers are, perhaps, ‘ghettoised’ by English-language publishers, personally I feel it is a little unfair to solely blame writers for these trends.  As they go on to say, but perhaps don’t fully appreciate, publishers hold sway – obviously – in what gets published and what doesn’t.  There may well be (and I’m sure there are) Chinese and Chinese-American authors out there writing sci-fi and romance and crime fiction, but even if it’s good, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get published.  Fiscal justifications probably always win out over artistic merit.  Publishers will be aware of the enormous success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans for example and, just like the market was flooded with ‘chick-lit’ in the wake of Bridget Jones’ Diary, theywill undoubtedly perceive a ready-market for similar books for all the reasons I’ve suggested above.

Having said all that I think it is important to consider that, just like how a fair proportion of artists and filmmakers in China use their work to literally ‘work through’ and come to terms with the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s legacy by making use of their own experiences, or those of their parents’ generation, Chinese authors might be driven for the same reasons.  I can’t think of any examples of the top of my head, but there must be parallels to be found in other parts of the world which have experienced war, social and political upheaval, etc.  Simply put, the Cultural Revolution was a big deal, which continues to haunt China and its people.  And while the PRC tries to avoid dealing with its social, political and cultural legacy, it’s hardly surprising that writers will use their art to explore the collective experience.

March 5, 2007

Quick update

Filed under: Language, Mandarin, My research, Writing — amyjaneb @ 11:59 pm
  • Research Seminar paper – drafted and sent to Supervisor
    It’s a long un’ – comes in at just over 6,ooo words, but seeing as I started with 16,000 I think that’s quite an achievement.  Just need to work on the PowerPoint presentation now; lots of lovely pics to distract my audience from the dullness of my paper presentation.
  • Chinese presentation – nearly finished (tomorrow hopefully).
    Need to check some vocabulary and make sure that it’s at least two to three minutes long.

I’m starting to see light at the end of that tunnel!  😉  Will hopefully get back to some ‘proper’ blogging soon.

March 3, 2007

Quick update

Not much to report.  Working on paper for research seminar.  Never doing it this way again.  Next time I’m writing something from scratch.  Started reading Mao’s Last Revolution, by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals and started to teach myself to meditate (need to cultivate some inner calm!).  Have been adding to and reorganising my web resources page tonight, in between watching and taking photos of the lunar eclipse.

My plan for tomorrow, apart from getting some groceries in, is to get to grips and hopefully finish my seminar paper and the presentation for my Chinese exam (nearly there).

February 21, 2007

Argh! Writing…

Filed under: My research, Writing — amyjaneb @ 6:12 pm

I’m trying to write a paper for presentation at my Department’s research seminar series in about three weeks.  It’s going to be based on the chapter I drafted in November.  Somehow I’ve got to condense 16,000 words into a forty minute-or so talk.  It’s proving to be a real nightmare already.  But, I’ve found the tactic which seems to work best is to skim each section of my chapter and then launch into a brief summary of the content for my seminar paper. 

Nightmare it may be, but it has proven to me that when time is of the essence, I can pull things out of the bag at the last minute (three weeks may not seem like ‘at the last minute’, but for me – a near obsessional perfectionist – it’s pretty close to it).  Perhaps I really should start to believe the people who tell me – repeatedly – that I am capable of completing a thesis (theoretically sometime around October 2008).  At the moment I have resolved not to think about when I might submit.  That’s way too pressurising.  I’m telling myself I’ll need at least six months extra writing up time.  Which helps.  Not least because the thought of life sans PhD is too, too scary to contemplate.

Having said all that, I really do enjoy the writing process.  It’s takes a while to get started, but I quickly get into the zone and the words and sentences and paragraphs just flow out of me.  Admittedly, in fairly short bursts, and it takes a bit of editing, but mostly the structure is in my head already and I’m able to get fairly well-formed ideas on paper pretty much spontaneously.  Now, if I could just apply myself in the same manner to the rest of the time, life would be much less stressful!

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