长篇 // Changpian // Longform
Welcome to the 17th edition of Changpian, a selection of feature and opinion writing in Chinese. With other resources devoted to the many interesting sound bites from Chinese social media, this newsletter focuses instead on some of the wealth of longer writing that is produced in Chinese, both in traditional news media and on platforms like WeChat.
Changpian includes any nonfiction writing, from stories and investigations to interviews and blog posts, that I found worth my time – and that you might like as well. It aims to be relevant to an understanding of Chinese society today, covering topics in and outside the news cycle.
The selection is put together by me, Tabitha Speelman, a Dutch journalist and researcher currently based in Leiden, The Netherlands. As always, feedback is very welcome (firstname.lastname@example.org or @tabithaspeelman). Back issues can be found here.
Also, happy year of the dog and thanks for reading. Changpian first came out during last year’s Spring Festival holiday, so it’s just celebrating its first anniversary. It has been fun to do, also because of your support. This Spring, issues will be more sporadic, but I plan to keep it going, if at a much less ambitious frequency than when Changpian started last year as a ‘weekly’ newsletter.
干货// Ganhuo // Dry Goods
In this section, I highlight any (loose) themes that stood out in my recent reading.
Given the relative lack of society-wide discussion on racism so far, it feels especially unfortunate that most articles on last week’s controversial 春晚 《同喜同乐》skit, which aims to celebrate China-Africa ties in the Belt and Road era, have been blocked on WeChat. Low official tolerance for 春晚 criticism in recent years might be more to blame for this than the topic of racism, but it’s hard to tell. (See for instance here for a description of the skit’s plot and the controversy.)
One article that survived compares the skit with a classic 相声 sketch on China-Africa cooperation from 1973. Both performances are framed around a Chinese-built railway, but the 1973 sketch, titled《友谊颂》, strikes a more equal tone. While idealizing past internationalist cooperation, the article written by 重庆大学 researchers criticizes the economic superiority on display in《同喜同乐》, a condescension similar to that towards poorer regions within China (a 春晚 staple). Underlying this attitude is the assumption that “非洲和中国一样, 都需要实现工业化、现代化” without the awareness that “中国的道路并不是唯一正确的道路”. On FT中文, 刘裘蒂 makes a similar argument for less China-centrism. She also notes the knowledge gap between a ‘Chinese savior’ image as on display in the skit and the lack of understanding of China’s current reach and image revealed by putting out something so “刺眼” without considering international viewers. An update of a 土豆公社 article analysing the 2016 racist laundry ad was also popular.
Apart from this incident, I’ve been struck by the continuous stream of online China-Africa personal story-telling coming out. While I often disagree with parts of these accounts, they tend to offer balanced views based on lots of real-life interactions. See for instance this story by 葛鹤, who is building Angola’s national archive; an 一席 talk by Yang Tao on his Kenya-based e-commerce platform; 体制内-sounding Jason on many “第一次” during three years on the African continent; a letter by 阿印 to his African-based compatriots (“如果你还没适应这里的生活，请去试着适应当地的生活”), and a podcast interview with social scientist Zhang Mingyuan who spent 14 months on Madagascar.
See also these recent more traditional news stories: a 生动 profile of two Fujianese men who both returned from abroad, one of them from South Africa, an in-depth essay on South African society by agriculture reporter Jiang Yifan, and an interview with The China Project’s 黄泓翔, who gives a relatable description of the challenges facing his ivory activism: “我们遇到过西方人觉得我们在帮中国政府做宣传，也遇到过中国人觉得我们在帮西方人抹黑中国，我觉得这都是很正常的事情.”
In Holland I grew up receiving yearly presents from Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, a problematic tradition I never questioned before living abroad, and that has only become the subject of nation-wide debate in the past five or so years. Looking at Chinese actor 娄乃鸣‘s blackface in《同喜同乐》, I’m curious if and how a debate on these issues will (be allowed to) develop in China in the coming years, as it’s pushing for more globalization while simultaneously fighting ‘foreign influence’ at home.
Two calendars to finish also means multiple rounds of ‘best of’ lists and an extended period for Chinese media to publish ‘end of the year’-type reflection. I liked a series of posts by literary magazine 单读 introducing nominees in its various annual award categories including best book, best travel literature, best critic, best translator(s), and best literary editor (see here for the winners). Interesting to see what new translations get picked up too. Also, this best of 2017 academic interviews by 东方历史评论 and a lengthy overview of recommended feature stories from the last three years by non-fiction platform地平线.
China Eastern Normal University‘s Liu Qing put out his always well-informed annual analysis of global affairs (in two parts: 政治/思想 and 文化/科技), Tsinghua’s Xu Zhangrun gave a critical speech at the 天则 economic institute on the need for political reform (“既集大权，请办大事”), author Fan Yusu reflects on 11 journalists that interviewed her (or she them) in 2017, and FT中文 had a good piece on the shrinking of China’s public space. Written on the occasion of the involuntary closing of Shanghai independent bookstore 季风 at the end of its rental year, it invokes a slogan that has only gained relevance since its first use: “地铁站里不能只有哈根达斯，而没有哈贝马斯”.
其他好故事 // Gushi // More stories
Some other interesting stories.
2. 被食物吃掉的人 – 剥洋葱people – Story on Chinese eating disorder patients, a topic that seems to be seeing a small discussion peak. See also a recent episode of 故事FM featuring three Chinese women discussing their “ED”. Doesn’t make for pleasant listening but good that people are starting to speak out on these hard to cure disorders that are becoming more common in China too.
3. 后窗性与药，爱与谎言：公园相亲角老年爱情故事 – 后窗 – Well-written story on the 广场舞 elderly. Familiar topic but journalist Sheng Menglu goes a bit deeper than usual in discussing the relationships coming out of the daily encounters.
5. 特稿 | 那个国内首开同性恋课程的教授要退休了 – 财新网 – Article by five Fudan students on the retirement of professor of public health Gao Yanning, who was the first to teach courses on sexual minority health at a Chinese university.
6. 十年之变：农民工地位不升反降? – 文化纵横 – Academic piece on the socio-economic position of migrant workers.
7. 资中筠：谈谈爱国 – 一席 – Popular talk by US studies expert 资中筠 (87) on patriotism. I like the part on globalization at the end. See also here for some recent discussion on this topic after Kazakh-Chinese actress Rayza was accused of being unpatriotic for not celebrating CNY.
8. 荐｜隔着窗框—纪念外外 — 邻诗 – A poem by 韩东 .
旧文// Jiuwen // Classic：
A piece of nonfiction writing that Chinese academics, writers, journalists — or just me – think worth a read months, years or decades after its initial publication.
朱自清 | 欧游杂记 –– This fragment from writer Zhu Ziqing 1930s travelogue contains some nice detail on his European visits. Not online I believe but also worthwhile in a similar genre are anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s essays on late 1940s Britain, which focus on his run-ins with and sympathies for socialism there at the time. For travels beyond Europe, some more 相声.
Changpian by tabithaspeelman