12 January 2012
In the minds of China’s rulers, past and present, there has only ever been one possible view about the future of Taiwan. For a multitude of reasons – strategic, economic, ethnic, linguistic, historical and sentimental – they have believed that it should be properly incorporated as part of the Chinese state, and that the expression of any views to the contrary amount to treason. As a resident of China for five years, I rarely encountered any Chinese citizen who did not declare this “proper” status of Taiwan to be self-evident when asked. On this topic the Chinese education system has successfully promoted a public consensus.
Anyone with a curious mind who has spent time in Taiwan, or amongst Taiwanese, will quickly conclude that the “self-evident” and “proper” status of Taiwan as a province of China is by no means accepted amongst the largest number of people there. The focus of disagreement within Taiwan is not on whether to surrender sovereignty, but on how to retain it.
Snow Flower & The Secret Fan
comments by Thor May
When Wendi Deng from China magically fell into the pan-national world of international business and married the media billionaire Rupert Murdoch, (who had abandoned Australia for the same stateless realm of five star hotels), at once we recognized that age old story of the gold digger and the sugar daddy. Perhaps though our belief in a simple storyline was, if not wrong, at least incomplete. Origins matter after all.
As a teacher to young women in Zhengzhou, central China for three years recently, I could sense the conflicting currents of duty, ambition and the hope for love that tossed them about in relationships. The mix for each modern girl was individual, and Deng herself is a product of those choices. It is surely no accident then that Wendi Deng and another high profile Chinese-American transplant, Florence Sloan, were co-producers of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a film which deals directly, though often through a veil of tears, with just these dilemmas.
The film is a fairly free adaptation of Lisa See’s now widely praised novel of the same name. What follows here are some personal reactions to the film, plus a few references to the book, which I have not read yet (some published reviews about the book are pasted at the end of these notes). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a film about relationships between women. It also highlights the conflict between feminine friendship and how each woman deals with the men in her life. Partly because of the Chinese historical context, the dimension of affection between men and women gets little attention in the film, which makes a jarring contrast with the world many of us like to think we live in today (even if we are deluded). However, the film’s director, Wayne Wang, has done a masterful job of bringing to life the relationships between two pairs of women. The first pair, Snow Flower (Korean actress, Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing), were both born in 1823 and tied into a lifelong feminine sworn bond called lau tong, which may have been more emotional and stronger than the man-woman contract of marriage in 19th Century Qing China. The second pair are two young and ambitious women in today’s Shanghai, Sophia and Nina, equally enmeshed in a lifelong but tempestuous bond of friendship.
Farewell speech – Zhengzhou, China – December 2010 – Thor May
Forty years ago I was working in a large government office in Sydney. There were many desks in the room, and my desk was the least important. At the desk in front of me sat a girl called Barbara Smith, who had very pretty legs and a very short skirt. I liked that. Then each desk towards the front of the room had a slightly older person. At the last desk was an old gentleman, ready to drop dead. He was the boss. In that room I could see my future for the next forty years, being promoted from desk to desk. I hated the idea and promised myself never to let it happen. From that time I knew exactly what I DIDN’T want to do. I didn’t want to know the future.
So you see, my presence here today is accidental by design. My career has been a happy accident. Until I came, I had no idea I would be teaching English language to Chinese students in Zhengzhou. If I were still in that Sydney government office, today I would be the old man at the front of the room, the boss. There would be a little ceremony to give me a retirement present, traditionally a gold watch. The next day everyone would forget me, and I would go away to a quiet place to die. As it happens, that’s what the old men in government offices in Beijing think I am going to do. Well, I have news for them.
Today is the end of one chapter in the book of life. My life book is the story of a wandering scholar. The wandering scholar was here at China’s beginning. It is an ancient tradition. Confucius himself was one of them. The old men in government offices have always been nervous of living wandering scholars. The office men like predictable people who can be controlled. But we are free spirits. My journey is not over yet. There are new paths to follow at every corner. I do not know where they will lead, and that is the way it should be.
Thank you friends for giving me comfort and shelter these past three years. I hope my teaching has been a small gift in return. I do not know when we will meet again, but our memories will be with us.
Once long ago I was interviewed for a job as language director of the Defence Cooperation Language School in Melbourne, Australia. (The place pretends to teach English in three months or so to exchange military officers from places like Indonesia). It was a pretty strange detour for me from a lifelong aversion to rigid organizations, and needless to say I didn’t get the job. What I mostly remember is being told that I’d have to wear a tie every day (they disqualified themselves right then). But I also recall being advised by a lugubrious air force officer that the main quality sought was someone who would mind their own business. “In this place”, he intoned, “you must understand that most issues you will encounter will be somebody else’s problem. Above all, you must never try to solve somebody else’s problems”. His implication of course was that absolutely every possible issue of responsibility should be shuffled away as somebody else’s problem. It is the bureaucrat’s daily prayer. The fellow would have been in heaven in China.
The deal was 8am. I’m a just-in-time guy, but here she was knocking on the door at 7:15. Jeez. Can I offer you some breakfast? We sat looking at each other across a big wooden coffee table, the golden drapes suffusing a soft glow of early sunshine. She’d never tried anything like my special concoction of oatmeal mixed in with raisins, sunflower seeds and yoghurt. Foreigners are funny. She picked at it experimentally.
Winter morning light had broken clear and cold, so early that night’s shadows were still about and a wispy moon hung in the sky. A small collection of street food vendors had already parked their hand carts by the college gates, and by this time there was usually a crowd of girls in jeans and padded coats huddled there, refugees from cafeteria food, scoffing thin stuffed pancakes or dishes of steaming noodles. But today the road was clear of its suicidal clutter of electric bikes and buses, and death defying pedestrians. The girls were still in bed. It was New Year’s morning, and a holiday.
The Decider announces the end of triumphalist capitalism.
Whose zoo do these simians belong in now?
(International Herald Tribune 19 September 2008)
The Soviet behemoth with its official fantasy of the communist brotherhood of man looked after by apparatchiks who could make a million shoes to fit the wrong foot and keep everyone in fearful penury finally stumbled into vodka soaked oblivion in 1991. It had taken roughly a generation from the death grip of a psychopathic Stalin for Gorbachev’s glimmer of human decency to assert itself.
Another psychopath, Mao, rightly saw the Soviet transition as a fatal personal threat and did his best to destroy the Chinese people before they got any funny ideas about making a decent living. Luckily good old fashioned mortality dispatched Mao’s corpse to the underworld in 1976, and China could get on with pretending that black cats were white cats, fat cats were alley cats, and gloriously getting rich was socialism with Chinese characteristics.
All the world art mad but thou and I. So it seems. The collective mind of peoples as nations expressed either through the ballot box or by the voice of the emperor ( L’Etat c’est moi) seems erratic at best in most locales. Right now Americans are making up their collective mind whether to continue on a downward spiral driven by greed, self-infatuation and ignorance, or try for a bit of self-renewal. The bad old ways have every chance of winning out.
On the wrong side of the railway tracks in Zhengzhou city, central China, you can find some ugly old concrete classrooms built around a small paved sports ground. It is a railway technical college to train nurses and logistics students, 19 year old kids mostly from the country. Last term they kept telling me that Yao Ming was the most famous person they could think of.
Centre country scene:
A thousand miles of desert,
Ten thousand miles of shimmering heat.
In and out the Dead Heart,
Only one great vastness;
Up and down the Diamantina,
Sand torrents stopped and stilled.
Hills dance like rainbow serpents,
Mirages race like shadowed giants,
Trying to vie with the sun in their reach.
A wild eye is needed
To view this wilderness decked with blue
In all its unforgiving beauty.
[Thor’s other poems at http://thormay.net/literature/timepassing/timepassindex.html ]