Anchluss or ANZAC? — A Solution for Taiwan

Thor May
Bris­bane, Aus­tralia
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.

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Snow Flower & The Secret Fan

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.

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Bye-bye China

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.

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Somebody Else’s Problem — Decision Making in China

China-smogOnce 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.

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The Big Parade At Dragon Lake

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.

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The Cigarette

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.

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The End of Capitalism is Announced

The Decider announces the end of tri­umphal­ist cap­i­tal­ism.
Whose zoo do these simi­ans belong in now?

Bush announces the end of capitalism

(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.

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Mind Games Under Heaven

Beijing Olympic rings

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.

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Choose Your Game

Yao Ming

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.

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Australia Blue (cheerfully ripping off Mao Zedong, “Snow”)

Australian desert

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 ]

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