The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

The Importance of Living is a strange mix of East and West, good advice and bad. If nothing else, the book prompts readers to examine their priorities. YOLO.

When and Why I Read The Importance of Living

This book was recently given and recommended to me by a Chinese neighbor.

Genre: non-fiction (philosophy, self-improvement)
Date started / date finished:  29-Jun-17 to 14-Aug-17
Length: 449 pages
ISBN: 9780688163525
Originally published in: 1937
Amazon link: The Importance of Living

Red Cliff II (2009)

Red Cliff was released as one (not very admired) edited movie, but it was also released in two glorious full-length parts. I wrote about the first part already; this is my post about the second part.

Considering the two movies as parts of a whole, it’s not surprising that the first one is more playful and triumphant and the second one is bloodier and more sombre. The theme of the first movie is that David Can Beat Goliath; the theme of the second movie is that War Is Bad. I think the two parts work well together, and I liked both movies.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Red Cliff II (2009)

Red Cliff (2008)

Shortly after we moved to Singapore in 2008, my husband and I bought a big flat-screen television. The movie Red Cliff II was being used to demo the screens in all the shops we visited, so we named our television “Cliff”.

Until now, though, neither of us ever watched either of the two movies. I decided it was time to check them off the list of DVDs we own of movies we’ve never seen.

There’s a version that combines the two movies into one; that’s not what we’ve got. We’ve got the two-part version of Red Cliff that was released in Singapore. The audio is in Mandarin and English subtitles are available.

Honestly, though, half of the movie doesn’t even have subtitles because nobody’s talking, thus there’s nothing to translate.

I am starting to think that maybe a lot of Chinese movies have a common plot structure that requires a long buildup in which we go around meeting all the characters and forming some kind of alliance, so that later each of them can do whatever he’s known for doing as part of the group effort to overcome the enemy. I called this “collect the whole set” in Kung Fu Yoga, which I recently watched, but Shaolin Soccer also took what I thought was an unusually long time to get going. Maybe it’s not unusual after all.

I could try to make some kind of point about individualistic vs. collective social philosophy (or about martial-arts mashup movie titles), but I think it would be misplaced. Chinese movies with a group of protagonists still have a central hero, and Hollywood movies sometimes have a group or coalition of protagonists. The difference I’m noticing is a superficial one of how long it takes to meet all the characters: a quarter of the movie, or half of it. In either case, the midway point marks a significant upping of the stakes.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS as well as a list of the main characters and a surprising observation about one of them.

Continue reading Red Cliff (2008)

Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

In Kung Fu Yoga, the greatest treasure isn’t gold and jewels. It’s seeing Jackie Chan, playing an archaeologist named—uh—Jackie Chan, do a Bollywood dance number in a movie that pays homage to Indiana Jones. If seeing this legendary 62-year-old Hong Kong action star dancing around in Indian clothes with a big goofy grin on his face doesn’t make you smile, you and I are made of different stuff.

That being said, you have to sit through over an hour and a half of astonishingly wooden acting on the part of Jackie’s co-stars, plus far too many scenes with awkward CGI animals, to earn that final dance scene.

Released during the Chinese New Year period, the movie more than earned back its budget despite poor reviews. Ticket sales were weak in India, but strong, or strong enough, in China. Jackie Chan traveled to Singapore to promote the movie, and it did well here compared to others.

I hope Jackie Chan had fun making the movie (in spite of endangering himself during filming for the umpteenth time). I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need money, so he must be making movies because he wants to—or to promote his country’s political goals.

The fight scenes are okay, but the English/Mandarin script and the plot are disappointing. I can’t really recommend it. I can summarize it for you, though.

Keep reading for a catalog of all the unnecessary CGI animals as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I’d bet far more people have heard of this influential Chinese classic than have read it.

The military strategist to whom The Art of War is attributed is known in English as “Sun Tzu”, which I’m guessing most people pronounce like “sun zoo”, but which is actually supposed to be something more like “soon dzuh”. (The pinyin is Sun Zi, and the characters are 孙子.)

I’m a poor historian, so it’s hard for me to judge the impact of Sun Tzu’s text either on the battles of his own time or on those fought in the centuries since then. Its impact on the world of contemporary English-language publishing, however, is readily apparent thanks to the proliferation of books that bear titles such as The Art of War for ExecutivesThe Art of War for Small Business, and even The Art of War for Dating. Surely the work that inspired all these copycats is worth a look.

The edition I read is based on the 1910 translation by Lionel Giles, and contains his notes inserted directly in the text. The notes explain or expand on the advice in more detail or give examples from world history of the situations described, showing how the advice applies in specific instances.

Hannibal defeated the Romans because breakfast.

I found the translation suitably dignified but modern enough to sound sensible. The version I read (ISBN 9781444727364, 102 pages) was edited and has a foreword by James Clavell, author of Shogun and a series of other long, popular novels set in Asia.

Here are some links to free versions of The Art of War at gutenberg.org:

Click to read my post on The Art of War over at Asian Books Blog to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should bother, or how to talk about it even if you never do!

Meanwhile, China, realising that sometimes cultural products are famous for being famous, has attempted to capitalise on The Art of War by using its fame as a lure for tourists… and to buttress its image as a cooperative world power. It’s worth a try, I guess.

When and Why I Read The Art of War

Re-reading this classic for Asian Books Blog.

Genre: non-fiction (Chinese history, military strategy)
Date started / date finished:  03-Jul-17 to 14-Jul-17

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

Continue reading China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Since I’ve read other books about Chinese language and culture, since I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese, and since I live in a partly Chinese-speaking environment, many of the sparkling, shining, fascinating bits of trivia embedded in Dreaming In Chinese were no surprise to me. But even I learned a thing or two.

The author’s words paint a picture of a difficult but rewarding sojourn. The writing is clear and concise, warm and insightful. This is a short, entertaining, accessible book on an interesting topic.

When and Why I Read Dreaming in Chinese

This expat’s view of Chinese language and culture sounded like it would be interesting.

Genre: non-fiction (travel, language, China)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-17 to 25-Mar-17
Length: 212 pages
ISBN: 9780802779144 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: Dreaming In Chinese

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip P. Pan

In Out of Mao’s Shadow, Harvard graduate and Washington Post foreign correspondent Philip P. Pan does an absolutely fabulous job of drawing readers in to the upside-down and inside-out world of modern China by showing us how the lives of a handful of specific Chinese people have been affected by recent events in China’s tumultuous history.

The stories are sympathetic towards the people whose lives the author explores and the choices they make, yet he leaves us to form our own judgments about them. Compelling and informative, this book is one I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand China.

If you had to choose between this one and Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu, read this one. Pan provides a unique perspective but doesn’t take the debunking tack that Chu does. Pan’s writing is more like Peter Hessler’s, though his tone is somber while Hessler’s in Country Driving is humorous at times.

When and Why I Read Out of Mao’s Shadow

This is one of only a small handful of books that I bought in the period from July 2010 to June 2011 that I have not yet read. China is a topic that interests me, and it was nice to check this book off the list of books waiting patiently to be read. I didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Genre: non-fiction (politics, history, China)
Date started / date finished:  06-Feb-17 to 13-Feb-17
Length: 326 pages
ISBN: 9781413595519 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2008
Amazon link: Out of Mao’s Shadow

Wrong Way Around Magic by Ruth Chew

Ruth Chew writes books that take kids on magic adventures. In Wrong Way Around Magic, the only magic is a pair of field glasses (binoculars) that takes two kids to some place which is probably pre-modern China, though the text never really says.

When and Why I Read Wrong Way Around Magic

I was trying to figure out whether the plot involved time travel because a book blogger asked me about it.

Genre: children’s fiction (fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  22-Jan-17 to 22-Jan-17
Length: 128 pages
ISBN: 0590460234 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: Wrong Way Around Magic