Tiananmen: 25th Anniversary Edition by Morgan Chua

Caricatures don’t make much sense if you don’t know what’s being exaggerated or why….. There was some background information included in the front of the book, but mostly this is a collection of political cartoons that I don’t have enough context to appreciate.

The author is a Singapore-born cartoonist, and the cartoons were originally published in book form in 1989.

The events that took place at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on 4 June 1989 attracted international attention and sparked outrage at the Chinese government’s military advance on student demonstrators. Since then, a new generation of Chinese has grown up in a country that continues to grapple with issues of political liberalisation, democracy and censorship.

When and Why I Read Tiananmen

I bought it on sale at localbooks.sg.

Genre: non-fiction (graphic novels, politics and history)
Date started / date finished:  28-Aug-18 to 30-Aug-18
Length: 128 pages
ISBN: 9789810779276
Originally published in: 2014
Amazon link: Tiananmen: 25th Anniversary Edition

Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey

How often does one read a book whose genre is roughly equal parts philosophy, biology, Chinese history and literature? Not very.

Caveat lector. This book is not an ordinary monograph in Chinese intellectual history. It is not just about China. It is not just about Lu Xun. It is certainly not an introduction to Lu Xun, or to his works. It is not an intellectual biography. It is not “an appreciation.” It is not a study of Lu Xun’s genius or his art (although both will shine through). It is a philosophical critique of Lu Xun’s thought and a philosophical and political critique of what Chinese in the People’s Republic have done, and may yet do, with Lu Xun’s thought, and it is a reflection on philosophy and biology.

Some non-fiction books barely scratch the surface of a whole discipline, explaining the same terms and repeating the same well-trodden foundational anecdotes. It’s refreshing, once in a while, to read something truly niche.

Also refreshing is the author’s use of language play. For a serious book, it sure has a lot of jokes. Frequently, the same word is used in two senses in the same sentence. It’s self-indulgent and self-referential, but I find it charming. Any stupid old book could be distant, detached, and dry; this one feels like it was written by a real live human being who really, really likes to write, and who cares deeply about the topic at hand.

The topic at hand is an analysis of Lu Xun’s understanding of the implications of evolutionary theory for his country. Do ideas about evolution suggest that the Chinese have an inevitable destiny, good or bad? Do those ideas suggest that they are the makers of their own destiny, and should strive to evolve, individually or as a whole country? What ideas about evolution did people have in Lu Xun’s time, and which did he encounter, and how did he interpret them and incorporate them into his work throughout his writing career? How have his writings since been used, reused, and reinterpreted?

See below for scattered notes on the content and style of this treatise.

Continue reading Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

When I bought The Good Earth from the Amazon Kindle store, I had to choose between buying it by itself for $7.50 or buying the whole trilogy for $15.39. I’m glad I only bought the first one. One was enough.

The style of writing is simple in a kind of old-fashioned, grand, Biblical way that grated on me long before I reached the end. Long compound sentences rolled along relentlessly, one after another, connecting each thought or action with the previous one. Never have I read a book that contained so many “and”s. Moreover, those “and”s didn’t seem to be building towards anything in a meaningful way. The novel had a straightforward timeline and virtually zero tension, zero plot.

See my Backlist books post on The Good Earth on Asian Books Blog for more thoughts on this Pulitzer Prize–winning historical novel set in 1920s China.

When and Why I Read The Good Earth

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for June 2018.

Genre: fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished: 23-May-2018 / 27-May-2018
Length: 225
ISBN: ASIN B008F4NRA8
Originally published in: 1931
Amazon link: The Good Earth

The Great Wall (2016)

When I watched this on television at a friend’s house, I’d heard of the movie and wanted to see it (my dislike of the famous-Hollywood-star-in-Asia movie The Last Samurai notwithstanding), but had no idea there were lizard things in it. I suppose I assumed it was a historical story, or maybe a fantastical historical story with magicky people in it, like The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014). I have just learned that the name for that genre is “wuxia”.

No, this was a monster movie. It was a good one! Like Pacific Rim (2013). Again, I sort of expected the monsters to be misunderstood, but no. They’re just monsters. The point is to kill them, not understand them. There are some vague bits of theme wafting around—trust, loyalty, discipline, and teamwork are good, while greed is bad—but really, the point is to stop the lizard monsters from taking over the world.

I enjoyed the Mandarin-heavy dialog because hey! I understood some of it! Every big-budget Hollywood movie with part of the plot set in China (e.g., Now You See Me 2), every Chinese movie with crossover Western appeal (e.g., Bleeding Steel), and every studio cooperation using big names from both the West and China, like this one, brings us closer to a fused future culture like the one in Firefly, even if some of the products of that cooperation, like this one, are not exactly greeted with resounding applause.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-great-wall/id1201087642

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.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/kung-fu-yoga/id1243570182

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
Length: 102
ISBN: 9781444727364
Originally published in: 2013 (this edition)
Amazon link: The Art of War

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)