Blogging China

One week ago, China Beat founders Jeff Wasserstrom and Ken Pomeranz participated in a conference at the University of California, Irvine called "Public Spheres, Blogospheres." The day-long event mixed academics with bloggers (and a few people who could claim both titles) for a discussion about the past and future of blogging. You can download each of the day's sessions here, and a full list of participants here.

The clip below is very lengthy. If you'd like to speed through to the parts about China, jump to 25:00 (to about 51:00). The session was a comparative one on blogging and the internet in China and Iran, and the discussion of blogging in Iran, by professor and blogger Elham Gheytanchi, is also quite interesting (for that, jump to 6:30). A discussion with the audience starts at 51:00.


China on My Mind: Last Days of Old Beijing

A few weeks ago, those of us based at UCI had the pleasure of hearing author Michael Meyer talk about his new book, The Last Days of Old Beijing. Accompanied by the evocative photos of Mark Leong, Meyer described his experience living in the ancient hutongs of central Beijing and how he tried to convey that experience--threatened by Beijing's rapid development--in his recent book. Here, Tom Mullaney, who teaches history at Stanford, chats with Meyer about his book. Scroll down to enjoy Leong's photos while you listen.

The character "chai" (to demolish) is painted on houses marked for demolition.

If you'd like to learn more, this video will give you a tour of Meyer's Beijing neighborhood.


Wednesday Reading

The tainted milk scandal has stayed on the front pages, particularly in recent days as the type of tainted products expanded yet again (to include eggs, see below). Here are a few readings on the subject, in case you missed them:

1. Anna Greenspan wrote this piece on the milk scandal for our forthcoming book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, but we're delighted that its up for reading right now at The Nation. Check it out here.

2.Though most stories on the tainted baby formula have emphasized that its devastating impacts are the result of falling rates of breastfeeding and, thus, the large population of infants exposed to the tainted formula. In The Washington Post, Maureen Fan takes an even closer look at the phenomena of decreased breastfeeding in China.

3. This piece from a few weeks ago by Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeff Wasserstrom places the milk scandal in a broader perspective.

4. The closely watched official chat that flows back and forth across the Taiwan Straits produced an apology this week--China sent its regrets to the Taiwanese people for the tainted milk that made its way onto the island.

5. As reported by numerous agencies yesterday, melamine has now been found in eggs as well.


WoW in China and the U.S.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) ever created, with more than 10 million players worldwide—half of them in China. Before WoW launched in 2004, conventional wisdom placed the potential playerbase for MMOs numbering in the hundreds of thousands. WoW quickly broke those numbers, drawing in new gamers with its cartoonish graphics, tongue-in-cheek storylines, and mix of collaborative and solo player options. Stories on WoW in China a few years ago emphasized a phenomenon known as “gold farming”—sweatshop laborers in China playing the game to raise in-game currency to then sell for real money to overseas players (or, alternatively “power-leveling” those players’ characters—playing through the boring early levels of the games with another player’s avatar so that the client could more quickly access the endgame content). But most of China’s millions of WoW players aren’t gold farmers—they’re regular gamers visiting and enjoying WoW’s fantasy world just like players in the U.S. and Europe.

When we found out
UCI Professor of Informatics Bonnie Nardi was conducting comparative studies of WoW players in China and the U.S. in our own backyard (Blizzard, WoW’s developer, is also located in Irvine), we asked Miri Kim if she would sit down for a (fittingly, virtual) chat with Nardi. An avid WoW player herself, Nardi had lots of information to share about gaming in China, the U.S., and the virtual space in between.

Miri Kim: As several commentators on a recent article concerning your research pointed out, many Chinese players play WoW in internet cafés, while the majority of players in the U.S. play from personal computers or laptops from home (or even work), or perhaps at occasional LAN (local area network) gatherings, which constitute a unique physical and social space of their own. How important is the physical environment where gamers play in shaping the way they engage with the online digital environments generated by game play?

Bonnie Nardi: The time we spent in Internet cafes in China led us (me and my collaborators Silvia Lindtner, Yang Wang, Scott Mainwaring, He Jing, and Wenjing Liang) to see digital activity as occurring in “mixed realities” which fuse the virtual and the physical. We did not invent the term, but use it to analyze the layered experience of sitting in a café, with its comforts of food, cigarettes, soft drinks, and most importantly, other people, enmeshed at the same time in a rich digital space of enticing games, movies, social networking software, and other apps. In China, people often play games in Internet cafes with their friends, sometimes from the same immediate neighborhood. They may play awhile and then go out to dinner or for tea. They call each other on their cell phones and text and IM. It’s a very stimulating social experience comprised of physical and digital elements.

In North America, while we don’t have a lot of Internet cafes, we increasingly find family and friends playing together at home and in dorms. One of my first interviews for the World of Warcraft research took me to San Diego to visit three students who played together in their apartment. I will never forget what a shocking mess it was with old pizza boxes strewn around, dirty clothes dumped in the most unlikely places, and hardcore grunge. But the students (all male how did you guess?) were intent on their game. They each sat in their own room with their own computer but they called out to one another and occasionally jumped up to go look at someone else’s screen.

The dirty apartment was of course mise en scene for young rebellious males away from Mom for the first time. It provided an appropriate backdrop for the playing of the slightly subversive video game. How do I know it was subversive? A few weeks after the interview, one of the students gave it up for Lent.

I believe that physical space impacts digital experience in interesting ways. I believe those ways are extremely varied, and we are just beginning to understand them. I see mixed realities both East and West. Here’s a quote from an interview (conducted in IM by an undergrad researcher; names are pseudonyms) that gives a nice sense of the development of mixed realities in American homes. “Mrs. Pain” is a 39 year old woman who has been married 21 years:

[14:07] Dan: What do you like about the games you play, you already said you like making friends and what else?
[14:07] Mrs. Pain: hmmm
[14:08] Mrs. Pain: and its not just about making friends cause I do have a very busy social life and many friends
[14:08] Mrs. Pain: I think its kinda an excape
[14:08] Mrs. Pain: escape
[14:09] Dan: escape from what?
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: time to relax and have fun
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: from the kids
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: my busy life
[14:09] Dan: So kind of like a stress release?
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: I actually game unstead of watching tv
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: ya
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: a way to get away and have fun with some friends
[14:09] Mrs. Pain: but I am still home for my kids
[14:10] Mrs. Pain: and I am in the same room with my husband who is a gamer

Mrs. Pain points out that she is “in the same room with my husband who is a gamer.” This starts looking like the Internet café.

Of course in China, responsible adults do not, for the most part, play games.

I think they are starting to however, or may soon. Wenjing Liang, one of my research assistants from Peking University, found these wonderful photos of a senior center in China at which older people are playing World of Warcraft:

Again, the participants are together in the mixed reality of the physical space and digital world.

Kim: What sorts of socialization patterns and processes do you see for new WoW players in China and the U.S.? Are there similarities or differences in the way more experienced or established players interact with them? What sort of hierarchies, if any, do incoming players encounter, and what are they based on? What parts of it is determined by the built-in features of the game and how much of it is dependent on individual players?

Nardi: This is a fantastic question but I can’t do it justice here. I would have to explain too much about the built-in features of the game and that gets long. I’m working on a book on World of Warcraft and it considers this issue not in terms of socialization but in terms of guild social dynamics and gender. It takes two chapters to try to untangle the issues.

Kim: A common but increasingly outdated stereotype of people who play videogames is that this group is mostly composed of young (single) men who aren't very engaged with the outside world, but do you see WoW appealing to many different demographic/cultural/ethnic groups? What might be similarities or differences, if any, in how WoW players break down into different social categories – externally defined or internally identified – between U.S. and China?

Nardi: Research by Nick Yee at Stanford indicates that about 20-25 percent of North American WoW players are female. That seems right to me.

In China we counted about 10 per cent female in the Internet cafes. There are no data I know of that count those at home and of course my data from the cafes are very limited. There is no gender analysis for any other country. So we just don’t know. But I think we can say WoW is more female friendly than the shooters which attract almost no women.

Most of the women I have interviewed, in both China and North America, or whom I met in-game, started playing with boyfriend, husband, brother, or other male relative or friend. Sometimes the women become much more interested in the game and stay longer than the men.

I think the big barrier that WoW breaks is social class. One afternoon I was playing and voice chatting with a young guy who was telling me about how he was fired from the Home Depot. I was like “Gak!! I don’t know anyone who works at the Home Depot in real life.” I would just never meet these people. I live in Uni Hills with a bunch of professors and have a second home in Half Moon Bay on a street where all my immediate neighbors have Ph.Ds. or law degrees. But in-game I do meet lots of interesting people different from me. Here’s an excerpt from my book that describes socioeconomic diversity in WoW:

One player in my guild was a military wife whose husband had been to Iraq three times on the front lines. Another lived on what he called a “hamburger farm,” raising cattle in Missouri. Many players worked weekend or late-night shifts. One would often log on telling us he smelled like grease from working in his brother’s restaurant. The guild included engineers, programmers, students, retail clerks, a real estate agent, an architect, a truck driver, a machinist, traveling salespeople, a worker at a health spa, a commercial pilot, a bartender, an emergency medical technician, a stocker at a big box store, a city bus driver, someone who drove a billboard on a truck through a large city, a disabled man who lost his job because of chronic illness, and many others. There were about 200 people in the guild. Most were male, but about 20 percent were female. Female members included graduate students, a chef, a receptionist, a veterinarian, and a young girl who played with her brother and cousin.

I can tell you that there are a lot of married people playing WoW. Some with each other and sometimes as an individual pursuit. There are lots of parents. Players stop play to put kids to bed, to feed them, to tend to their needs. It is most definitely not just single young guys.

I wish I knew more about ethnicity. In my guild most of the pictures posted on the guild website showed white people, although we had a group of brothers of Pacific Island descent and a few Asian-American players. I have an in-game friend from Mexico and one from Brazil. But I don’t have any good statistics.

Here’s an anecdote from my book about age and family relations:

While I was standing in a long line to purchase memorabilia at the 2008 BlizzCon conference [an event sponsored by Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft], an older man and a younger woman stood in front of me. The man (probably recognizing a familiar life form) turned around and said in a friendly way, “What characters do you play?” We got to talking and he turned out to the be the woman’s father. They both played as did the man’s son. He said he played, “So I have something to talk to my kids about.” The woman had met her husband in WoW. They played together casually at first, then started talking in voice chat, then arranged a face to face meeting, although they lived across the country from one other. Things went well and they got married, had a baby, and seemed to be living happily ever after. Baby was in the hotel with hubby and grandma, who also played, so that mom and granddad could have a bit of free time at BlizzCon.

In China we also met people from varied social classes. They included students, a factory worker, a middle school teacher, a bank employee, a marketing supervisor, a vice president of design for a Chinese game company, and a venture capital broker. As mentioned, there is less age diversity among WoW players than in North America.

Kim: When online, individuals have more leeway in how they present themselves to others thanks to the anonymous, semi-anonymous, and pseudonymous conditions facilitated by the Internet. Do you see different or similar patterns between players in the two countries in the way they choose to construct and perform, say, gender identities through their in-game characters/avatars?

Nardi: Many of my findings are common to North America and China. Players in both places enjoyed the social experience of World of Warcraft, the beautiful graphics, the challenge and mastery entailed in the game. But there was an interesting gender difference.

In North America, Nick Yee found that about 23 per cent of characters played by real life males were female characters. In China there is something of a prohibition against this practice. Male players who play female characters risk being called “lady-boys.” As far as I can tell, this term (人妖 renyao) connotes transvestite or transsexual. I tried to pin down my research assistants on the exact meaning, but they were a little vague. China is a more puritanical country than the U.S., and I think they themselves (who were young women just starting graduate school) were not exactly sure of how far the connotations stretched. They definitely invoked transsexuals in trying to explain the concept to me.

This is the kind of cultural interpretation that is tricky but I bring it up because it was mentioned in the interviews a lot. Here are some examples (with pseudonyms). One player stated flatly:

I hate such ladyboy characters.

Another said he always played males. We asked why.

I don't know. I just dislike turning into a ladyboy. Although the game is a virtual one, a boy is supposed to be a boy and a girl is supposed to be a girl....Before this game, I played a Chinese game in which boys and girls could get married. If the two are both boys, I would feel disgusted.

Players repeated this theme:

Dai: My characters are all male. If I picked a female character, they would call me a ladyboy.

Guang: If you are a boy but you play a female character, others will call you ladyboy. I don't want to be called that.

Jian: It's strange to play a female. I do not like the way people look at you if you play a female character. I don't like people mistaking me for a female.

Quan: I don't like the way it feels to play a female character. It doesn't feel comfortable. I don't like the way other players look at me and talk to me then.

A male player began with a female character because he liked the way it looked. But he soon gave up:

When I was first developing my character, the female one, it was always really troublesome to explain that I am a guy in real life. The male is more natural.

A female player who played a female character said:

Sometimes people mistake me for a man and they call me ladyboy. But I don't care.

Sometimes males did play female characters despite the issue of ladyboys. We asked Chinese male players who played females if they sought a new kind of experience or identity. They answered as American males had:

Interviewer: Is playing a female also a kind of experience change?
Chen: No, it is not. I am a male myself and it is not interesting if there is a male in front of me and I have to face him every day. If your character is a female, it will be more pleasing to both the eye and the mind.

That answer always makes me laugh about him facing a male character! American males said they played female characters because they liked to look at them. Same reasoning.

Kim: Do WoW players, would you guess, have other applications or programs open simultaneously, (Using instant messaging, video chat unrelated to WoW, using email, listening to music, playing another game, for example.) or do you find that players immerse themselves 100 percent in WoW when they play? Does this differ between Chinese and U.S. players?

Nardi: In both places WoW players are running other applications (and I am not guessing!). In China people ran applications such as QQ (a Chinese IM), they talked on their cell phones, they talked to people sitting beside them. So there is no 100 percent immersion in WoW. However, many Chinese players discussed how much they had to concentrate carefully during raids (one of the hardest activities in the game). They were very aware of the need to perform competently so they would not spoil the play experiences of their guildmates.

We find pretty much the same in North America. People focus during raids (at least when learning new encounters), but otherwise may be doing other things. I know that while some players have given up television for games like WoW, others watch while they play, at least during activities that don’t take much concentration. North American players often have special playlists they turn to while in WoW. (I personally love the WoW music and would never listen to anything else, but I think I’m in a minority.) In guild chat, players often discuss what new music they can find to listen to while playing.

WoW does not demand full concentration at all times because its activities are so varied. The most competitive forms of the game (raids and arena play) are pretty cognitively demanding and get players’ full attention, or close to it, while activities like fishing can literally be done by seven year olds (I taught my niece to fish for me).

Kim: What are the organizational mechanisms by which social relationships fostered through game-play translate into real-life, if and when this occurs? As in, what real-life kinds of activities do WoW players in China and the U.S. use to socialize in relation to actual gameplay? For example, do players arrange and participate in meet-ups, release parties, and so on?

Nardi: The first interview we did in China was with five young men who had assembled in an Internet café to play WoW, to be followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant. Some of them knew each other before they started playing and a couple had been added to the group as they met each other while playing in the wang ba. The Internet cafes of course foster face to face interaction. Here’s a typical quote:

Sometimes, when I come to play at the Internet cafe, I meet people here. So these people, I would get their QQ ID to stay in touch. People who sit next to you in the cafe or I know from real life, we are more inclined to keep in touch.

Because of the prevalence of Internet cafes in China, social relationships easily spanned the virtual and the real.

As mentioned, in North America, people often start playing with family and friends, so the game extends real life connections. Some of my guildmates would visit each other when they traveled, meeting people in real life that they previously knew only in-game. Some guilds met at BlizzCon (the Blizzard Conference). At BlizzCon I attended some gatherings of modders (people who write software extensions for the game). Most of the time they hang out together in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels, but they value the opportunity to meet face to face annually at BlizzCon. In addition to the guild where I conduct my research, I also belong to a guild of professional colleagues. I met some of them for the first time at BlizzCon. I knew their voices from voice chat. It was really fun.

Voice chat is an important way the game spans real and virtual experience. Voice is very powerful. It reveals all kinds of things about you. Your gender, roughly your age, whether you have a sense of humor, if you are quiet, or talk a lot, and so on. It makes it hard to have a different personality online. I often hear that people have different online personalities, but I wonder how they do it, at least if they are using voice chat.

Kim: Finally, I'd like to ask, are there online games, MMORPGs or otherwise, that are popular in China but not in the U.S.? What makes a game created in one region likely to be popular in another? Are there identifiable cross-cultural or cross-lingual channels though which players from different countries start, or pick up on, a trend in gaming, and if so, what forms and processes do they take?

Nardi: I don’t know a lot about Chinese games. Some of the Chinese players told us that many Chinese games are oriented to a single hero who performs all kinds of amazing feats. They pointed out that WoW is different in that it requires collaboration for many activities. They really liked that about WoW. They seemed eager for activities that needed teams. One player, for example, said:

After I played WoW for awhile, I realized it's more meaningful than other games because of the collaboration.

Knowing what makes a game cross-culturally appealing is of course a huge question. Here are things both Chinese and North American players mentioned that they liked about WoW:

Visually stimulating (colors, animations, scenery)
Very polished, with attention to small details
Sense of mastery

WoW is marketed in China through The9, which distributes a lot of games. Chinese players go there to find games and I’m sure that’s how they discovered WoW. So there is a pretty clear channel. It’s worth noting that about half the ten million WoW players are Chinese. They are really an important market and Blizzard was going to make sure they got to them if at all possible.

Beyond abstract formulas about what works in games, I think it’s interesting when people can have particular cross-cultural experiences in games. I’ll close with a snippet from an interview:

Chen: I learned several things about the West. WoW has a Western story, which is different from Eastern stories and history…The game belongs to the whole Western culture. Mages, druids, and so on originate from Western myths, and are relevant to the whole Western myth of the story. Some WoW races like gnomes, dwarves, and elves, and also dragons, are described in European myths.
BN: Doesn't China have dragons?
Chen: Dragons are different with us. Western dragons are evil while Chinese dragons stand for happiness.


1948 & 2008: The George E. Morrison Lectures and Beijing’s Years of Great Significance

By Geremie R. Barmé

The 69th Morrison Lecture, "Reporting the Olympic Year," was presented by Jane Macartney, The Times' correspondent in Beijing, on October 22, 2008. The Morrison Lecture is an annual event in the academic calendar and public program of The Australian National University in Canberra. As 2008 was a major year for China, and Beijing in particular (something that will be marked by an upcoming publication by the editors of China Beat, China 2008: A Year of Great Significance), the Morrison Lecture Committee invited Jane to make this year’s presentation. As Jane noted in her précis of the Lecture, "The Olympics were always going to be a pivotal moment for China’s leaders: a moment in the international spotlight for sporting might and communist efficiency. But an almost trivial incident revealed another scenario. With just a year to go, police detained foreign reporters at a news conference by Reporters Without Borders. The response was revelatory. The Olympics would see no such nonsense. Behind the spectacle, China would revive the 1980s when lemons were unobtainable and State Security stealthily photographed affairs between Chinese and foreigners. While Beijing raced to complete its spectacular stadiums, more intangible aspects of life were retreating to a more authoritarian age."

Jane presented a richly illustrated and fascinating on-the-ground view of reporting the Olympic Year from Beijing (the text of her Lecture will be posted shortly online). As the Beijing reporter for The Times she has a direct link to the journalistic career of George E. Morrison (1862-1920), after whom the lecture series is named. Morrison’s accounts of the Beijing Siege during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 made him famous (and controversial). Jane herself has her own history with China, one that reaches back to the advent of her ancestor Lord Macartney at the court of the Qianlong Emperor as the representative of His Brittanic Majesty George III in 1793. Jane now lives not far from Wangfu Jing in Central Beijing, a street known throughout much of the Republican era by its English name, Morrison Street (Molixun Jie). It was named after the famous Anglo-Australian writer and journalist who lived on it (for an account of the demolition of the remnants of Morrison’s house, and the site of his famous library, see Claire Roberts, "George E. Morrison’s Studio and Library").

Another Times correspondent, Thomas Bowlby, was also intimately involved with Beijing. He was the first writer for that paper who went to the capital of imperial China in 1860 with a delegation negotiating the final treaty concluded at the end of what is known as the Second Opium War. Bowlby was among a group detained at Tongzhou, just east of Beijing, as they were traveling to the city to arrange the preliminaries of peace. The delegation was imprisoned and Bowlby died from the torture he was subjected to during his incarceration. The cruel deaths of this group were a contributing factor to the decision by Lord Elgin and Baron Gros, the leaders of an Anglo-French Expeditionary Force, to destroy the imperial garden palaces to the northwest of Beijing, the most famous of which was the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan). (For more on this, see my "The Garden of Perfect Brightness, a Life in Ruins," the 56th Morrison Lecture presented in 1996. A pdf version of that speech is available online).

In a somewhat circuitous fashion, the sacking and destruction of the Garden of Perfect Brightness in 1860 links the three Olympic cities of Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). The author of the devastation of the Manchu gardens, Lord Elgin, was the son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Lord of Elgin, a man infamous for his stripping of the "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon from 1801 to 1812. These sculptures are now housed in the British Museum in London.

Another turning point in the history of Beijing featured in the 68th Morrison Lecture, presented in September 2007. The Morrison Lecture Committee, of which I am a member, invited Dai Qing (the noted journalist, investigative historian and environmental activist), who was working on a research project at The ANU as a visiting fellow, to give that Lecture. She chose as her topic, "1948: How Peaceful Was the Liberation of Beiping?", a subject in line with her current research on the fate of the philosopher, writer and political activist Zhang Dongsun (the lecture is available in Chinese and English).

According to sources at The ANU, when the Chinese Embassy in Canberra got wind of this they instructed Chinese nationals, as well as patriots (including university teachers) to stay away from what appeared to be a subversive speech. They were under the impression that Dai Qing was a questionable US-based Chinese dissident, as opposed to being a Beijing-based critic of mainland absurdities and iniquities, and that academics at The ANU had purposely chosen that date for the Lecture to divert attention from, and attendance at, the arrival of President Hu Jintao in Canberra that week. In the event, the Embassy had the date wrong and Hu did not arrive on the night of Dai Qing's speech. However, few Chinese colleagues or students attended the Lecture (we nonetheless did have an audience of over 80 people).

The George Ernest Morrison Lecture series was founded in 1932 by Chinese residents in Australia. It was, in their words, “to honour for all time the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China.” It is easy to forget now that the lecture series not only commemorated Morrison—well known for his work on China and, among other things, for his acute observations on Japan’s imperial ambitions in that country—but also that they were related to Chinese-Australian resistance to White Australia, reflecting also the alarm and outrage resulting from Japanese attacks on China in 1931. It was also hoped that the lectures would contribute to the cultural relations and understanding between the two countries at a time of heightened international tension and suspicion.

From its inception, the Lecture Series was associated with the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra where, of the first ten lectures, all but one were delivered in May each year. This annual event was interrupted by the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1942, and the Morrison Lecture Series might never have been heard of again but for two fortuitous happenings: the founding of the Institute of Advanced Studies, the newly conceived academic institution that provided substance to the new Australian National University, and the advent of Sir Douglas Berry Copland. This New Zealand-born economist-guru, academic and civil servant, upon completing his assignment as Australia's first post-War Ambassador to China, was called upon to assume the foundation Vice-Chancellorship of the new institution. Whether he had anything to do with the currency of a jocular description of the new institution as the "Australian Institute of Advanced Studies of New Zealand", he was certainly responsible for reviving the Morrison Lecture. The first address he gave, in 1948, marked the re-foundation of this series of lectures, sponsored henceforth by the ANU. The annual Morrison Lecture is organised by a committee of ANU colleagues in the College of Asia & the Pacific. This committee includes academics from the China and Korea Centre (Faculty of Asian Studies), the Contemporary China Centre and the Division of Pacific and Asian History, both in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. For more on the Morrison Lectures, a list of lecture titles, including downloadable pdf versions of recent lectures and an appreciation of George E. Morrison by C.P. Fitzgerald, see here.


The Best Reporting on the Sichuan Earthquake You'll Never See

By Angilee Shah

Busan, Korea – Pan Jianlin's documentary about the earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12 made a quiet debut on a Sunday morning, at 10 a.m., the third day of this year's Pusan International Film Festival.

With its not-so-great timing and grim title, Who Killed Our Children was a blip on the festival calendar's 315 films and 85 world premieres. And if you happened to miss the documentary in Korea, it's possible you will not have an opportunity to see it again.

Pan’s film’s subject is as simple as its title, examining the collapse of one of the many schools that became deathtraps for thousands of children after the quake. That subject has been a closed one in official Chinese media since mid-summer which makes Pan's exploration of the subject very significant.

But after its two small Pusan screenings, the film has no further festival dates to speak of. And though it's some of the strongest reporting on the earthquake produced so far, it's almost certain that it won't be shown in China, except on the black market or in private screenings. In fact, Who Killed Our Children never received Chinese government permission to be screened in the first place.

Pan, a Beijing resident, gives a big smile and a little laugh when you ask him about operating without the official approval so many other Chinese filmmakers depend on. The highly-anticipated feature All about Women pulled out of the festival when it could not get the nod from Chinese authorities in time. Directors are required to seek permission to show their work abroad, and films are often cut to make sure China is shown in a good light.

"My friends and family are worried," he says with a shrug. But with a wave of his hand, he says emphatically, “Write whatever you want!”

Pan Jianlin at the Pusan International Film Festival

Six days after the earthquake struck, Pan went to Muyu District in Qingchuan County, the site of one of the disaster's biggest tragedies. The Muyu Middle School dormitory had collapsed and buried hundreds of young students who were napping inside. Parents were camped in tents, homeless and looking for answers.

Who Killed Our Children takes a systematic look at the details of the collapse of the Muyu Middle School dormitory, where even the number of children who died in the collapse is in dispute. Official numbers say 286 of the school's 846 students died; many believe the number is actually closer to 500. The film is series of interviews, brilliantly edited, that tackle the questions surrounding the disaster one at a time from different points of view.

One interviewee calls the building "tofu construction," describing the weak superstructure and foundation that has become common in China in recent years as contractors cut corners. Others say students on the second floor where locked in by teachers during their rest time. Help came too slow and ill-equipped, say aggrieved parents. Families buried their children in the hills with their own hands, and government officials reburied the children in the middle of the night without notification. There is a lot of heartbreak in the film. Ultimately, Who Killed Our Children is a relentless investigation of how people and their societies attempt to cope with unimaginable tragedy.

Pan tackles these difficult issues in a remarkably dispassionate way. He started his career as a lawyer, but became a prolific filmmaker. In the last five years, he has made several documentaries and feature films, including Feast of Villains, also screened at Pusan, about a Beijing delivery boy who sells his kidney to pay for his father's healthcare. He tackles serious subjects in a straightforward way. Absent voice-overs, dramatic music, overdone text, and fancy graphics, Who Killed Our Children relies on the unfolding of events to create suspense. Do not expect easy answers or sweeping condemnations here.

"I just gave the people [in Muyu] to the audience directly," Pan explains. Aside from the frightening aftershocks, it was a "very easy" film to make.

This is not to say that the film is not critical. Where state-media's optimistic coverage leaves off, Pan's reporting just gets started. Around Asia, China was praised for its openness after the earthquake hit, especially in the wake of the Myanmar government's ruthless clampdown on information after Cyclone Nargis killed about 150,000 people in that country, just a week before China’s quake. The Sichuan earthquake took close to 80,000 lives, according to official numbers, but the Chinese government immediately allowed information out and foreign aid in.

Even so, Who Killed Our Children raises doubts about how information gets out after a disaster. The most striking example is a scene showing CCTV's limited reporting. Officials opened a temporary school in Muyu district soon after the collapse of the dormitory. CCTV cameras captured children singing nationalistic songs with their new desks and school supplies. They turn off the cameras when parents show up, angry that their grief was being ignored for the sake of a positive story.

Although only a few official media outlets were allowed to report on earthquake devastation at first, other media were not kicked out of devastated areas. Pan stayed in tents, like the locals, and parents were eager to talk. Local officials wanted media attention so that their neighborhoods would get help. In ten days, before being kicked out by soldiers, Pan filmed people on the ground – parents who were eager to find out the truth, teachers who narrated their experiences, and students whose classmates and siblings were lost. Almost all government officials refused to speak, but several school officials, a relief coordinator and an education official did go on camera.

A natural disaster on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake would be a difficult situation for any government to handle. Pan is confident in Beijing's strides. “If there wasn't progress, we could not sit here and discuss the problems,” he says.

He returned to Muyu District several times. On his third trip, he was detained in a police station. “Officials don't like independent filmmakers,” he explains. He stayed two days and two nights for refusing to give up his tapes. Finally, after being sure the tapes were safely copied, he gave the police his footage.

It wasn't so bad, he says. The officers were friendly and gave him good food to eat. He also used the time to write a new script called Natural Disturbance. It's about being jailed.


On the Train to Tibet

As part of our on-going series of reading recommendations and conversations about Tibet and Tibetan history, we are today featuring a short excerpt from occasional China Beat contributor Alex Pasternack about his recent ride on the new train to Tibet. Pasternack writes regularly for Treehugger, where this essay was published in its entirety.

China's – and the world's – reach to the highest plateau on earth grew in summer 2006 with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Qingzang Tielu 青藏铁路). An engineering marvel that China itself once ruled impossible, the $4.2 billion line traverses an region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.

Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost, a feat that required a system that keeps the ground frozen year-round to prevent the rails from sliding. Engineers also had to anticipate the long-term effects of global warming, which are melting Tibet's glaciers at an alarming rate. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called the railway "an unprecedented project in the history of mankind," a typical unvarnished government boast that for once, wasn't hyperbole.

But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world's longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags...

tibet railway sheep grazing photo
Grazing the landscape

Protecting wildlife
At night, entertainment came by book (I tried to get a copy of The Snow Leopard, but Midnight's Children would do) and laptop (there's a standard Chinese outlet in each soft sleeper cabin and along the hallways of each car). One night we watched Kekexili, a hypnotic 2004 film by Lu Chuan that tells the true story of a ragtag militia that protected the endangered Tibetan antelope from vicious poachers.

Conservationists have warned that the train would pose an even greater threat to this and other treasured species. The film's title refers to the region in the historically Tibetan province of Qinghai where the antelope give birth—and where the railroad threatens to keep them from going.

But as voices in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) frequently reassured us over the public address system, authorities have gone togreat lengths to mitigate the train's impact on the fragile environment, at a cost of around $192 million.

Wildlife researchers helped engineers install over 30 passageways that would allow the migrating antelope and other animals to pass beneath the train (see one on Google Earth). Despite an uneasy start and a scandal over a faked 2006 photograph (see below) that purports to show antelope and train in harmony, some Chinese researchers say that the animals have actually adapted to their new steel neighbor. In a letter to the journal Nature detailing their findings, the Beijing-based researchers with the government-sponsored Academy of Sciences say that 98% of the antelopes have managed to migrate in spite of the train.

Photoshop to the rescue

Other successful precautions include the introduction of dozens of man-made swamps to replace swampland and endemic plants destroyed by the train, and the storage of waste onboard until the train reaches collection points, rather than leaving waste on the tracks. A US Embassy report tells of workers halting work to accommodate migrating antelope.

But embassy officials recorded no instances of rolling up and preserving grass, as authorities promised. Meanwhile, nomads and herders who live near the tracks have complained that they received minimal compensation for their ruined farmland...

For more, including Pasternack's discussion of the effects of resource extraction and migration on the Tibetan people, see the full essay at Treehugger.

Photos by Alice Liu and Alex Pasternack. See also Erica Gies' excellent travelogue at Grist and Pankaj Mishra's account at The New Yorker


Wiki-ing China: The Discussion Continues

Charles Hayford shared the link to his recent China Beat pieces (Parts 1 and 2) on using (and altering) Wikipedia with the Asia Scholars listserv, H-Asia. A brief discussion ensued there, which included references to several new (to us) resources. Though we won't mention names or specific discussions, we did want to share some of the resources we learned about as a result of listening in:

1. At this website, Vincent Pollard has written a student guide on internet credibility that could be easily adapted to an exercise on testing/editing/using Wikipedia.

2. One contributor noted a particularly outstanding Wikipedian (not a professional historian...yet...) whose many entries have been singled out by Wikipedia as "featured" content (supposed to be the very best of all entries). To get a sense of what Wikipedia considers the best (and to appreciate this student's work), see the entries on "List of Chinese Inventions," "The Ming Dynasty," "Shen Kuo," and "Society of the Song Dynasty."

3. For those interested in chatting with other China history buffs (including some who regularly edit Wiki entries), you can check out China History Forum.

4. Per Hayford's point in his pieces that Wikipedia tends to rely very heavily on a small number of sources (mainly those available online), one contributor pointed listserv members to this interesting article, "Is the Internet Bad for Science?" from Wired. In it, the author argues that conducting research online narrows the sources used.

We have heard feedback from several college instructors who plan to adapt Hayford's pieces for their classroom in an effort to "learn to live" with Wikipedia. If you plan to do so, please feel free to send feedback on your efforts--we'd be happy to post it (anonymously or not--up to you) in order to continue over the coming months the conversation Hayford started .


China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance

Last month, we announced our forthcoming book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2009. With the manuscript beginning to take its final shape (and 2008 far enough advanced that we felt somewhat—but only somewhat, given what a crazy year it's been so far—safe beginning to reflect on it), we thought we would share a little bit from the book with you. In the coming weeks, we hope to share with you a preview of the table of contents as well as perhaps snippets of other new pieces from the book.

For today, here is a short selection from the introduction to the book, “China in 2008: A Reflection on a Year of Great Significance,” by Kate Merkel-Hess:

The subtitle of this volume is a play on Ray Huang’s groundbreaking Ming history, 1587: A Year of No Significance. In that book, Huang examined a year of no particular importance when the Emperor Wanli was in power. The irony of Huang’s title is that Wanli’s disastrous reign was the beginning of the end for the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which fell to internal rebellions and then the Manchu invasions that led to the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last. Fifteen eighty-seven matters a great deal because, while it was not a year of important events, it was apparent in its day-to-day affairs that the Ming was headed toward ruin.

This year, in contrast, was a year of important event after important event for China. In fact, the year was an enormously important year globally, both for stories that pointed the way toward a new world order (geopolitically and financially) and stories that seemed resurrected from news cycles past. In the early panicked days of the fall’s economic woes, coming amidst the U.S. presidential campaign as well as several other big domestic and international stories, David Folkenflik commented on National Public Radio (NPR) that “the breakneck pace of developments means a lot of news worth knowing receives the briefest burst of attention before being dropped for something hotter.” China’s tainted milk story was overshadowed by the U.S. presidential election and the escalating credit crisis. Russia’s invasion of Georgia coincided with the highly-anticipated Olympic Opening Ceremony. The riots in Tibet and the contentious U.S. Democratic primaries pushed rising international food prices off the front pages.

China’s presence in many international stories, from the banking crisis to the genocide in Darfur, was further evidence of its role as an emerging superpower. Just as Russia did for previous generations, China raises the specter for Americans of a functioning superpower with a markedly different economic system as well as a divergent set of political assumptions (several contributors explore the results of these fears in Chapter 15). In July, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the Chinese (and Russian) vetoes of U.N. attempts to impose sanctions on Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. The votes, Friedman asserted, show us where the world is headed: “a world of too much Russian and Chinese power.” Some China fear-mongers went further than the moderate Friedman, talking about “the coming China wars.” But the fact was, the China stories of 2008, taken together, sketch a picture of a China not on the verge of destruction, as in 1587, or a nation spoiling for a fight with the international community, but instead a relatively stable country, focused above all else on trying to maintain its phenomenal 10 percent economic growth rate.

This may seem an incongruous assertion, as other than the relatively smooth two weeks of China’s triumphant Beijing Olympics, when China was in the international news in 2008 it was at moments of crisis: crippling winter storms hit the country in late January, riots occurred throughout Tibet and other parts of southwest China in March, international protests accompanied the spring’s Olympic torch relay, a devastating earthquake rocked Sichuan in May, a massive food safety scandal broke in September, and in October a plummeting stock market hit the Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as New York, London and Tokyo exchanges. Instead of a year of Olympic celebration, for the Chinese people 2008 was the most tumultuous and traumatic year of the post-1978 economic reform era. Unlike 1587, however, we cannot discern in China’s day-to-day life signs of impending doom. Business as usual looks pretty good: the economy continues to grow and consumers continue to spend, China continues to increase international engagements, and all signs point to continued (if incremental) increases in citizen participation in government affairs…


Taiwanese baseball has just been giving a powerful shot in the arm, with three consecutive shots out of the park by the Brother Elephants' star player Peng Chen-min 彭政閔 during his team's 7-1 victory over the LaNew Bears in the first game of their playoff series.

For video highlights, please click here. I especially like the announcer's comments about a home run ball resembling a girlfriend who has just had a change of heart -- neither is coming back (In the case of one of Taiwan's 40-something superstars, Chang Tai-shan 張泰山, this is modified to include a reference to his receding hairline). You might also note the Bears fans eating a certain yellow-skinned fruit (a reference to the color of the Elephants' uniform), which gives new meaning to that old favorite "Yes, We have no Bananas Today".

For an analysis of what this means for Taiwanese baseball, please click here. It is especially noteworthy that over 8,000 fans attended (the largest playoff crowd ever), and that Sunday's game at Tien-mu's 10,500-seat stadium is sold out. There is always hope.

Finally, for all of you China Beat sports fans who might be wondering what happens when a 102-kilogram Canadian base runner collides with a 88-kilogram Taiwanese catcher at the plate, check this action out.


Painted Skin: To Scare or Not to Scare?

By Haiyan Lee

It may come as a surprise that movies about ghosts and monsters are strictly speaking illegal in China, a land that has given us such an enchanting array of supernatural figures as the White Serpent Lady, the Weaving Girl, the three-headed Nuozha, and, of course, the delightful trickster Monkey. Gods and ghosts do show up on the Chinese screen, but they have to be framed as “characters” of folklore or fanciful creations of the “primitive” mind, something of ethnographic interest but no longer relevant to our sense of self and world. However, if they end up unsettling our secular confidence in science and rationality, they have then crossed over into the forbidden terrain of “evil cults” 邪教 or “superstitions” 迷信.

To be sure, spectral or paranormal themes have long invaded written genres and are alive and kicking right under the nose of state censors—consider, e.g., the cult phenomenon of the Ghost Blows out the Light《鬼吹灯》series. The fact that the series could flaunt the word ghost in its very title is an indication of the relative anarchy of the Internet and commercial publishing, though reportedly all traces of the supernatural had to be removed from the printed editions following the title’s runaway online success. The state seems far more vigilant about the visual media and has recently tightened its grip on films with pronounced supernatural contents or unduly spooky mis-en-scenes, lines, and sound effects. So far, only the director A Gan 阿甘has had some success plumbing the nebulous depths of official regulations with a succession of low-tech domestic “haunted house” productions 国产恐怖片. But these would probably be considered small fry by Hong Kong, Hollywood, or J-horror standards.

For filmmakers with cross-border commercial ambitions, maneuvering Chinese censorship is a touch and go affair. The ghost genre is without doubt one of the glories of Hong Kong cinema, and yet today’s investors are reluctant to put money down on a film that cannot be screened in mainland China, where the lion’s share of the Chinese-language film market is, even with rampant piracy factored in. This was the snag, according to a Southern Weekend《南方周末》report, that the Hong Kong director Andy Chin Wing-Keung 錢永強 ran into when he first conceived of the idea of remaking the 1965 horror classic Painted Skin《画皮》using cutting-edge CGI technology. The earlier version, directed by Bao Fong鲍方, is adapted from a macabre tale in the ur-collection of Chinese ghost stories, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio《聊斋志异》, about the fatal seduction of a scholar by a ghoul who dresses itself up in a painted human skin. It was released on the mainland in 1979 and initiated a whole generation of mainlanders to the shuddering pleasures of the horror flick. (It was eventually banned after rumors began to circulate about its lethal impact on the faint-hearted.)

The blockbuster that eventually greeted holiday crowds during the October Golden Week in honor of National Day (October 1) bears little resemblance to the 1965 version. Directed by Gordon Chan Kar-Seung陳嘉上, it has a star-studded cast headed by the Hong Kong action film veteran Donnie Yen 甄子丹 (poster 1; watch a trailer). But its highly recognizable title alone brought with it not just a default fan base, but also the itching expectations that audiences bring to all soi-disant horror movies: to be scared out of one’s wits. Instead, they were doused with a sodden romance spruced up with some martial arts fights, desert combats in ancient armors, and bantering partnership between two demon-quellers. What should have been the most hair-raising scene, when the demon (a fox spirit in this version) peels off her skin for a repaint, a scene that lasts just a few seconds but allegedly cost millions of yuan to create, wrung little more than a few gasps out of the audience in a Causeway Bay theater where I saw the movie. The defrocked demon is shown to be crawling with a gazillion dark worms from head to toe, but once the camera pulls back, it simply looks like an overly wired-up space alien in a sci-fi film. Creepy? Yes, but far from terrifying.

The only moments when one is reminded that this is supposed to be a “scary movie,” oddly enough, come in the erotic scenes in which the male lead’s sexual fantasy transgresses moral boundaries and both he and the audience are jolted (out of his bed and our seats, respectively) with a loud thump from the nondiegetic soundtrack (i.e., sounds that are not internal to the scene). Such lame attempts at horror effects make us wonder if Chinese/Hong Kong filmmakers are truly hamstrung by censorship, or perhaps if there are things other than having one’s hair stand on end, even when it concerns the supernatural, that truly engross the Chinese audience.

Come to think of it, even the original story (composed or recorded) by Pu Songling 蒲松龄 isn’t very scary either, at least not in the order of such Western classics as Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and Edgar Allan Poe’s noir tales. Of course, Chinese ghost stories also play with liminality, the in-between space between the living and dead, humans and animals, mortals and immortals, or more broadly, self and other. The attraction for the strange and otherworldly and the traffic between divergent worlds are what turn life upside town. However, there are two features that are common to Chinese ghost stories and may have the effect of offsetting their horror quotient in the eyes of the hardened horror addict. The first is the moral imperative of cosmic resolution. Although the genre is teeming with amorous fox spirits 狐狸精and revenant ghosts 幽灵, the moral message seldom turns on romantic freedom, but rather on the necessity to balance yin and yang, or the destructive and the generative forces of the cosmos. Ghosts, spirits, and fairies are yin creatures who should stay put in their yin domains. Their stealing into the bedchambers (as well as heart chambers) of young scholars upsets the cosmic balance and visits disaster of one kind or another on human society. They must therefore be exorcised by Taoist or Buddhist priests who are in touch with the occult workings of the shadowy realms. The showdown between the demon 魔and the priest 道is called “the sorcery contest” (斗法) and invariably ends with the banishment of the spectral interloper.

But the demon invariably returns, with ever naughtier tricks: 道高一尺,魔高一丈 (if the righteous force grows by one foot, the demonic force will rise by ten). Nonetheless, the difference between good and evil is a matter of degree, rather than of essence. The demon is not a figure of existential enigma or radical evil (as embodied, most recently, by the bounty hunter in No Country for Old Man and by Kant’s murderous butler in Critique of Criminal Reason: A Mystery); it does not radically call into question our humanity or fundamental cosmic justice. The perduring humanism is indeed the second feature of the Chinese ghost genre. The were-animals and the undead who are caught mingling with humans are not always malicious beings bent upon destruction for its own sake. Rather, they are among us because they are achingly jealous of the simple joys and happiness of ordinary human life that are not (or no longer) available to them however omnipotent they may be. Thus they undergo years of assiduous cultivation and endure the risk and humiliation of exposure, so as to assume the human form and join the human community.

Their quest is tragically doomed because as yin creatures, they cannot properly belong to the human world without undermining, in spite of themselves, precisely what is sought after: love, care, and fellowship. The decomposition always starts with the very men who mediate their passage to humanity and who, in this process, are sapped of their yang essence. Such is the fate of the White Serpent Lady 白蛇娘娘, who falls in love with a handsome scholar, marries him, supports him financially, and bears him children, while all along having to evade and resist the self-righteous priest who hunts her down in the name of manhood and the yang social order.

The new Painted Skin modernizes the Confucian brand of humanism by defining humanity in sentimental terms, that is, by equating humanity with romantic love, and a gender-equalized kind to boot (poster 2). As one commentator pointed out, despite the propaganda hype about its being “an Eastern supernatural fantasy” 东方魔幻, at its core the movie is a triangular love affair, except that the “third party” 第三者/小三儿is a shape-shifting fox spirit who requires a steady diet of human hearts to keep its coat of human skin forever fresh and young. We do see her gouge out the hearts of two men right through their breastplates. But a regular supply of hearts is maintained by her henchman and unrequited lover the lizard spirit—also in human form. Most of the time, she is a just a doe-eyed girl pining for love. And it is this consuming passion that endows her with a measure of humanity, so much so that we are almost willing to forgive her ghastly alimentary habit—especially since the victims largely remain faceless and the killings are done in the name of love. Her monstrosity is mitigated by her yearning for the hero and her single-minded, even ruthless, devotion to him, to the point that she actually resurrects him so that he may be reunited with his true love—his wife. In this capacity she has more in common with the “creature” in the novel Frankenstein or the ape in the film King Kong than with the elusive, haunting specters of psychological suspense thrillers.

The idea that supernatural entities—objects of awe and worship—would be so jealous of our humanity and would go to such destructive lengths to partake of it is perhaps what saves Painted Skin from being a total flop. For all its failure to deliver a spook fest, it has been doing quite well at the box office and has received plenty of thumbs up for its extravagant love fest. The censors, apparently, had no problem with the triangle romance, probably owing to the fact that the dashing hero remains fiercely loyal to his wife, even while he is clearly bewitched by the fox spirit-turned-delicate beauty. A situation that would typically have been resolved by the practice of polygamy—indeed the girl repeatedly begs to be taken in as a concubine—is here turned into an opportunity to shore up heterosexual monogamy and conjugal love. In the end, the girl vanishes in a puff of air (and returns to her fox form) and everyone is happy ever after.

However, in granting a shape-shifting seductress such a prominent screen position and in allowing her to win audience sympathy through an underlying humanism, the censors might be going out on a limb (poster 3). David Ownby tells us that Falun Gong 法轮功, the proscribed spiritual movement that started out as a collective deep breathing exercise known as qigong气功, is the revenge of popular religion on the arrogance of the Party-State and modernizing elites who thought they could turn qigong into a “Chinese science” by disembedding it from the web of folk religious beliefs and practices. Amorous ghosts and spirits, too, are not the unattached loners they may appear to be. As they enchant and frighten us in the same abated breath, they smuggle into our world alternative values and visions of the world. And as such they may not always be so serviceable to our secular agendas. We don’t always know what can happen when the genie is let out of the bottle.

{Readers interested in the Chinese fox lore can consult Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Rania Huntington (Harvard U Asia Center, 2003); those interested in the relationship between modernity and romantic love might check out the latest issue (16:2) of positions: east asia cultures critique, “Taking It to Heart: Emotion, Asia, Modernity,” guest-edited by Haiyan Lee.}



The Taiwan baseball world has been rocked by yet another game-fixing scandal, this time involving the dmedia T-Rex team. A total of three players (including a former MLB pitcher) are out on bail, while some bookies, gangsters, and team officials (including coaches, the assistant manager, and the team spokesman) have been detained. The guilt of those involved has yet to be proven, but there have certainly been some suspicious incidents. During one game on July 11, the dmedia's normally accurate U.S. hurler lasted only three innings, managing just 32 strikes out of 84 pitches (an almost unheard of ball-strike ratio), walking 7 batters, hitting an 8th, giving up a home run, and surrendering a total of 6 earned runs. Five days later, the T-Rex blew a lead by committing 5 errors, including 2 by the pitching staff (for a list of other "tricks" used to throw games, please click here).

While Taiwan's major leagues (currently referred to as the "Chinese Professional Baseball League" or CPBL) have long been plagued by gambling woes (10 scandals in the last 11 years), the current crisis has reached new lows, with the T-Rex's owner being either persuaded, tricked, or blackmailed into surrendering control of the team to members of the Heavenly Way Alliance (天道盟) and Four Seas Gang (四海幫). Gang leaders doled out player salaries, while other "brethren" actually lived in the players' dorm, doling out wine, women, and song to those who cooperated, and harassing or beating up those who refused. According to the team owner, when he alluded to this problem on his blog, he was also subjected to a thrashing (prosecutors have cast doubt on some of his stories, however).

Baseball has long occupied a special place in the hearts of Taiwanese sports fans, beginning with its introduction during the Japanese colonial era (see Yu Junwei 盂峻瑋's Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan). The history of Taiwan's professional leagues dates back to 1989, but the first scandal did not strike until 1997, with nearly all the members of the China Times Eagles (now known as the "Black Eagles") being indicted on gambling charges. Despite the subsequent introduction of harsh penalties such as lifetime bans for crooked players, similar incidents have continued unabated, and may be linked to the growing influence of organized crime in postwar politics (including dirty money referred to as "black gold" or 黑金). Just last year, 5 members of the China Trust Whales were implicated in a game-fixing scandal, prompting representatives of the league's 6 teams to swear an oath promising to stop such behavior. All to no avail. Even baseball's staunchest supporters are losing heart, with the prosecutor investigating the latest scandal (also a fan) proclaiming that he does not see any hope for the game.

Now, as we approach the 20th anniversary of professional baseball in Taiwan, the main questions are: 1) Who is responsible for this mess? 2) What can be done to clean up the game? Clearly, the players deserve some share of the blame for being greedy, but the owners and league officials have failed to forcibly address this issue. While they have been quick to bow low and apologize (repeatedly), no leading figures have ever stepped down as a sign of taking responsibility. Fan anger is now being directed at these individuals, with some circulating an on-line petition to force the CPBL Secretary-General to step down. Other fans are making the more constructive suggestion of reorganizing the league so that owners have less control over its operations, including the investigation of gambling schemes. Finally, the government needs to do more, not only in terms of supporting the CPBL but also launching an effective and long-term crackdown on organized crime, something that is especially problematic for KMT given its historical links to various "dark societies" (黑社會). When asked to comment on the current scandal, the vast majority of players and coaches refused to be quoted on the record for fear of offending the "brethren". It is time to put an end to the pernicious leverage that organized crime exerts over so many facets of Taiwanese life.


China Annals: Factory Girls

Last weekend China Beat contributors—and longtime Beijing neighbors—Susan Jakes and Leslie T. Chang caught up to talk about Chang’s newly released book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The book, which builds on stories Chang wrote as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal (and currently garnering glowing reviews and widespread coverage), follows the lives of young rural women making new lives for themselves in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan.

Susan Jakes: How did you decide you wanted to write a book about migrant workers in China? What did you want to try to figure out? Was there a weakness in the existing reporting on this subject that you wanted to address?

Leslie Chang: The book project began with a bit of an agenda. I had already read some stories in the foreign press, including the Wall Street Journal, about how terrible the conditions in the factories were. The stories tended to focus on the worst cases, the abuses, the miseries, the horrible bosses, the injuries. They tended to portray migration as a desperate act without much of a pay-off for people.

I had a suspicion that there must be more to this, that perhaps things were not so black and white. I also thought that, for a young person coming from a farming village this whole experience in the city might appear very different than it does to us as Western observers. What is it like to leave your village at 16 or 17, to come to a city where you don’t know a single person or only one person, to work in a factory, to earn money for the first time? How does your relationship with your family change? How do your friendships change? How does your worldview change? I thought there must be more to the story. And with that suspicion in mind, I went down to Dongguan in February of 2004.

Jakes: How did you pick Dongguan?

Chang: I talked with a couple of migrant scholars in Beijing, including Tan Shen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was one of the early scholars to work on migrant women. I wanted to find a large city where lots of generally unskilled young people were going to work in factories. I knew that around Shanghai there were a lot of high-tech factories where people with college educations and technical degrees went to work. But I was curious about the large mass of generally uneducated younger people going in cold to factories and I felt that Dongguan was representative of this. Early on I decided I wanted to focus on women because I thought that coming from the village and moving to the city the scope of change might be the most dramatic and maybe the conflicts would also be the most interesting.

Jakes: Why?

Chang: I think, in the village, the young women are usually the least powerful and the most restricted, in terms of being expected to marry early, have children and take care of the farm. Obviously these things are all changing with migration. But I suspected that men would still have more freedom and that women would be more restricted. So coming from a more traditional position, I thought that the change in their lives would be more dramatic and more interesting to watch.

Jakes: The book revolves around two central figures, Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin (or Min). What made you pick these two women? Did you see them as representative of migrant women more broadly or as exceptions?

Chang: It’s sounds strange to say, but almost everyone I met in Dongguan was representative. They had similar backgrounds: coming from the countryside, having some middle school education and in some cases a bit of high school and poor. That was the profile of almost every young migrant worker I met in Dongguan. But the reason I chose these two women in particular is partly, I think, because they chose me.

There were many young women I talked to who would be very friendly on first meeting but hard to sustain a relationship with and get to know. But in the case of Chunming and Min, they seemed to have a curiosity about the world, about me, an interest in learning about this project I was doing at the same time as I was learning about them. It’s very easy to meet people on the street and talk to them for 30 minutes. But to keep in touch, to have them keep in touch with you, to continuously see them over two years—that takes some interest and incentive on their part. Frankly, I’m not bringing much to them. When I say I’m a reporter for the Wall Street Journal they don’t know what that is. When I tell them I’m writing stories about their lives, it’s very abstract to them. I’m not giving them any money. People are sometimes surprised that when I went out to dinner with them, I would pay if they didn’t have money, but if they’d just had a pay day they’d insist on treating me. They never asked me for money or help in any way. So what was in it for them was some sort of interest or curiosity that I think helped us become closer and closer.

Jakes: There were also times when you let them read what you wrote about them. How did they react?

Chang: I wrote two pretty long articles about Min that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and in both cases I had them translated into Chinese and I brought them to her to read. I wanted her to know what I was doing, and I was also very curious what she thought. I describe in the book how Min read an article really carefully in a coffee shop and I was really really nervous watching her. She laughed when she was reading it and then she finished and turned over the last page and said, “That’s it?”
And I said, “Yes, but there will be more.”
And she said, “Oh you’re writing it?”
And I said, “No you’re living it.” She looked at me sort of funny. I thought that was interesting. It captured this feeling I have about Dongguan which is that people’s lives are changing so quickly that sometimes they lose track of everything they’ve done and where they come from. And when Min finished reading this article she slapped it down on the table and said, “Now I remember everything.”

Jakes: That phenomenon of forgetting what’s happened seems common. I’ve also encountered it in my reporting on migrant workers.

Chang: It’s amazing. I think there’s almost a sort of traumatic feeling because people’s lives are changing so quickly that a lot of things are just forgotten. I noticed, especially with the migrants, when you talked to them about the first journey out from home, it was often really unclear, lots of details were blurred. For example, when I talked to Min about her first experience in the city, she said, “My sister took me out, I went into a factory and I left after a month.” And when I asked what happened she said, “I don’t know, I was just so lonely I couldn’t bear it anymore.” That was all she could tell me about that first month in the city.

Jakes: Chunming, the other woman you write about, is completely different, She keeps a record of what happened to her, what she’s thinking.

Chang: It wasn’t until long after I knew her that she mentioned that she’d written a diary for years and years. I think one of the really powerful things about spending time with someone is that you see all of these interesting things and learn all of these interesting details that they wouldn’t necessarily think to tell you if you were in a formal interview setting. But by hanging out with her, all of these details came up. And one of them was that she kept a diary for probably her first six or seven years living in the city. So I told her that I wanted to read them and possibility write about them and she just gave them to me in batches and I made copies and read them.

Jakes: To me, those passages from her diaries are some of the most powerful material in the book.

Chang: It was really interesting to see her transformation in such a short time. Her early diaries—when she first came out to the city in 1993 she was 18—the initial things are what you’d expect: I’m making 100 kuai a month, I’m working long hours. She describes in vivid detail her hours, what it’s like to wake up at 6:30 in the morning and know there’s only half an hour until they have to work on the assembly line, the girls fighting to have time to wash their faces and eat breakfast—very physical details of her day. Then she moves up to a position of clerk in her factory. And gradually [the diary] moves from this minute recording of the details of her day and how much money she’s making month by month, to a kind of program of how she can improve herself, her appearance, her image, her speaking, to become suitable to be a white collar worker.

In the diary you see her attempts at reinvention, many of them failed. She makes a list of English words she’s going to learn. It starts with words starting with A and by the time she gets to C she’s given up the project. There’s another one: How do we learn public relations? Number one, we learn to be a good person. And then she drops that. She’s testing all of these identities for herself and trying to craft herself into a more sophisticated professional person. And then the diaries take a stranger turn in 1996 after she goes to a direct sales meeting and her diary becomes kind of a manual of how to do direct sales, how to con people into buying all sorts of spurious health products.

In the beginning, her diary is a calculation of the money she’s making and how she’s spending her day, and then over time, you see her develop into a person who’s kind of looking for a deeper meaning in life beyond money. Obviously she still worries about her financial security, but she’s also wondering: what is it that’s going to give meaning to my life? Is it this new health product or selling life insurance or being a vegetarian?

Jakes: What surprised you most in your reporting on this subject?

Chang: I think the main thing that surprised me as I was reporting was just how quickly people’s lives changed. The first time I met Min, she had just talked her way into a clerk’s job, which is kind of the lowest office job, after a year of working on the assembly line. And I really liked her, and I thought, I’ll just follow her life. But there was a big part of me that worried that her life was now very stable and nothing more would happen to her and there would be no more story. Instead, the opposite happened in spades. Every time I saw her there was something extraordinarily different about her. From her perspective something major had changed, whether it was a job or boss or hairstyle or some fight with her family. So even though I went down there expecting that people would go through changes, the sheer enormity and speed of the change really surprised me, as did the fact that the pace at which life changed was relentless. Sometimes in my reporting, I kind of wished that I could see Min once and not have her have a big change so we could just sit back and talk a little bit. But every time there was something new to figure out and learn about.

Jakes: One of the things that gives the book its richness is that you weave together the stories of these migrant women with the stories of your own family’s migrations. You lived in China for more than a decade before you started to dig into your family history. Why was that? What made you reluctant to do that for so long?

Chang: It’s probably just my contrarian instinct. I felt like it was kind of a cliché to be a Chinese-American, to move to China for work and immediately seek out your family village and find some kind of spurious link to the past. I didn’t want to do that. When I first lived in China, I was really struggling to figure out what kind of stories I wanted to write and even though I didn’t put it into these words at the time, I think I felt that I wasn’t ready to understand and appreciate what I would find if I delved into my family history.

Jakes: You write in the book that you began to explore your family history around the same time as you started work on the book, but that the two projects initially weren’t related. What did make you choose that moment to start research on your family?

Chang: Initially, it was logistics more than anything else. I was on book leave from the Wall Street Journal and my time was my own much more than it had been when I was on staff. So as soon as I took the book leave, that’s when I went to Min’s village to visit her when she returned there for Chinese New Year. And when I came back, I decided I wanted to go to my ancestral village. I can’t say that there was an explicit connection. I wish I could say there’d been more thinking behind it, but there wasn’t. It was mainly logistical.

So I went to this little village of Liutai in Jilin province and spent just a few hours there. It was a farming village with kind of a typical profile—a lot of the young people had moved to the city. My grandfather had been born in this village and left for Beijing when he was a teenager to go to school and then went abroad. So I came back from that trip and I hadn’t turned up much, but it was evocative to me to feel like I’d tried to find where my family had come from. I came back and started thinking about that village and Min’s village, my grandfather’s story and the migrants’ story and I felt like there were links. Not perfect parallels by any means. My grandfather was very educated and he went to America for school and that’s very different from what the migrants experience. I’m not trying to overstate the similarities. But I felt like his moment in Chinese history and this moment contain parallels. In both cases China was opening up to the world after a long period of isolation. This opening up is also internalized in individuals. People are thinking, “How do I fit into the world? How do I become a modern person?” I thought that exploring my grandfather’s encounter with the world and how he dealt with it and how the migrants did it would be an interesting way to frame the book.

Jakes: Once you started working on the two pieces together, how did your research on your family color your thinking on the migrants and vice versa? And when you were doing the reporting did you tell each side that you were planning to put them in the same book?

Chang: I did. I did. And everyone said, I have no idea how you’re going to make this work. All my relatives were extremely skeptical about how I was going to make it fit together. I basically stopped telling people too much about the project. I felt like while it was underway, it took too much explanation and sowed too many doubts in me. But I had a kind of instinctive feeling that it could work and I at least wanted to try.

Jakes: And so how did these two parts of the book come together and how did they influence one another?

Chang: I think some of the parallels really pleased and surprised me. I explained to you that I only learned about Chunming’s diaries after the fact. And in the same way, I was researching my family history for more than a year before, offhand, I asked my dad if my grandfather had ever written anything that he had. And he said, “Oh yeah, I have two diaries. They’re very uninteresting, but you can look at them if you want.” Reading the diaries, which were very difficult for me and required my working with a Chinese graduate student to decipher some of the classical Chinese writing, I realized that my grandfather was engaged in kind of a similar endeavor to what Chunming had been engaged in. So there were many parallels. But overall, reporting my family story in parallel with reporting the migrants’ story made me feel like Chinese people have come a long way, and, in general, it’s a good thing.

I felt like the people I was learning about in my family were, in many ways, trapped inside a lot of traditional ideas about family and history and how they should behave. And I felt like the young women I met in Dongguan were completely liberated from that. It’s partly a function of class. They don’t have the education and so they don’t have the kind of burdens that an educated Chinese person has. But I think it went beyond that. It’s a different moment in Chinese history and people are more liberated from all of the obligations to family and history and the past.

Jakes: But what makes family obligations and tradition things from which someone ought to be liberated? Can you explain what you mean?

Chang: In talking to my own family, I felt like everyone had done what was expected of them. This was the case with my grandfather, who went to America in the 1920s and his great love was literature and humanities and history, but instead he studied mining engineering, because he felt like this was the best thing to help China. And in his diary it becomes clear that he’s just not interested in mining engineering, but he’s doing it for a higher purpose.

My Dad went to America and studied electrical engineering even though he’d always been an incredibly vocal, fluent person and the thing he was most interested in studying was law and politics. He felt like there was no future in that and he had to go to America and so he studied electrical engineering. He had a very good career and then retired early and went to Hong Kong to help start up the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In the course of my research I read this interview with him—it’s kind of funny to read an interview of your father—in a Hong Kong magazine, and the reporter was asking him, “How come you decided to come to Hong Kong?” And he said, “I really wanted to do something for China and this is the first act in my whole life that I’ve chosen to do that wasn’t something that was expected of me.” It’s kind of weird to read an interview of your father when he says that. I think that made a deep impression on me. It’s not to imply that he wasn’t happy with his life, but there were just a lot of restrictions and expectations on people of his generation and earlier generations and I think a lot of those have disappeared.

Jakes: You’re Chinese Ameican and you look Chinese and that gave you a kind of access and when you wanted it, a kind of anonymity that enhanced your ability to report. How else do you think that coming from a Chinese family affected the way that you came to understand and tell these stories, if at all?

Chang: I think that coming from a Chinese background, being Chinese-American, there can be a lot of emotional baggage. I saw it in other Chinese-Americans I knew. Certain people embrace this Chinese identity all the way. They hate the Japanese for what they did during the Nanjing massacre. Others embrace the Communist Party and think everything China does is good and are very defensive whenever anyone criticizes anything about China. I think it’s a difficult process to come to terms with what your Chinese identity or your Chinese heritage means and I think there are many pitfalls to that.

One thing I describe in the book is this Chinese reticence about their own suffering or their own history or their own past. I kind of see that in myself as I’ve researched this book and talked to other people about it. People often ask about the book and I’ll tell it in very general terms, especially the family history and [my husband] will be sitting next to me and say, “But her grandfather was assassinated after the war. It’s a really dramatic story with historical moment and you’re not talking about any of this.”

And I always say, “Well I don’t want to burden people with this the minute I meet them. What if they don’t know how to react when I tell them my grandfather was killed.” And I realize that’s a very Chinese reaction—maybe not just Chinese—but in that way a Chinese reaction, the will to withhold information and to keep the things that matter most to you rather than spilling them out right away. Talking with my relatives, after talking for two hours they would reveal at last some terrible detail about someone who had committed suicide or the fact that they only had one memory of their father to carry through their whole lives or some incredibly poignant detail that they had not told me until that moment. And you know, I understand why they would do that and it seemed to reflect how I react to certain things as well.

Jakes: In the book, mostly you use the stories of your family to contrast the stories of the migrant women. But there are also links. Do you think that’s more because these are Chinese stories or because they’re both about leaving home?

Chang: Definitely the latter. I think the story of leaving home, going to a strange place and making a new life is universal. And I did think while writing it that while I know China is very distant for most Americans, I hope Americans reading this will feel like this is the story of their ancestors as well. And obviously without downplaying all of the differences in China’s history and China’ situation, this is kind of a universal story. That was also one of the motivating factors for my reporting on migrants in the first place. When we talk about the American migration story, whether from Europe or from somewhere else, it isn’t a story of pure privation and desperation and horrible conditions although all those things existed in some form. It’s really a story about opportunity and adventure and a new life. And I felt like the story of the migrants leaving their villages for the city might have some similarities with that story.

Jakes: At one point early on in the book, you visit a history museum in Dongguan and it’s kind of a funny part of the book. The museum doesn’t have anything in it about Mao, most if its displays are about the growth of factories. History and the way it’s written and the way people think about it is a persistent sub-theme in Factory Girls. Could you say something about how history functions for the book’s different protagonists?

Chang: I think, as I say in the book, that the Chinese have a very complicated relationship with their own past. For traditional scholars, the past is living and the past is to be constantly studied, for meaning, for moral examples, for guidance on how to move forward. And I think for my grandfather and my father’s generation that was very much the case. But then you have this very traumatic recent history of China from the 1950s to the 1970s when, in many cases, unspeakable things happened and people who are still alive today committed a lot of these unspeakable acts, to people whom they knew or were friends with or possibly were related to or worked with. So you have this kind of abstract pride in history, but then you have this recent history that you participated in that’s extremely problematic and traumatic and impossible to explain.

So then there’s this young generation that I write about, who are going to the factories, who I think are completely removed from history, cut off from history. They have no history and they can be liberated from China’s traumatic past. But I don’t think that means that everything is fine. I think that under the surface this very troubled history is still there and some point it needs to come out and be dealt with. But right now it’s just kind of under the surface. There’s a kind of agreement among most Chinese people with each other with themselves which is just not to deal with it.

I kind of think as Westerners we look at China and think that history is this open wound and people are trying to work through these terrible things that happened during the Cultural Revolution. I think that’s a very Western approach. We feel like these things need to be dealt with, explored, to ensure that they won’t happen again. And I think the Chinese that I write about, my older relatives both inside and outside of China, their response to these traumatic events is to put them aside and not think about them. I don’t think it’s an open wound, I just think it’s something they kind of hold inside themselves and at some point they’re going to have to deal with it. But most people are basically pretty fine, not dealing with it.

One of the things I did feel in Dongguan and also from reporting my family’s story—my family suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution—was that I felt like this moment in history could not have happened without the traumatic events that preceded it. China now, with people so pragmatic, so focused on just improving their lives, getting the next good thing—I think that’s a direct response, even an unconscious response to the traumatic historical events experienced by the previous generation.

I definitely feel like the world in Dongguan is a pretty brutal world. It’s pretty corrupt. There’s a lot of misinformation. People make major life decisions on wrong-headed ideas. You see that in the book with Chunming and all these crazy schemes and fads that she embraces one after another. So definitely I’m not trying to portray this modern world as represented by Dongguan as an ideal world, by any means. But I do think that the opportunities that these young women I write about have to try to make a new life and search for some meaning, I think that’s new, and I think it’s worth understanding and even celebrating.