Category Archives for "Literature"

May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Literature

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.

Sep 12

“The Last Season”: Review of Stuart Stevens’ New Book

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

9780385353021The Last Season begins with a scene of a young Stuart Stevens at the 1962 Ole Miss vs. Kentucky game that preceded the riots over the university’s integration. When halftime came, the band marched out onto the field with “the Largest Confederate Flag in the World” as usual, but afterwards Governor Ross Barnett came out onto the field and gave a speech: “I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs!” The crowd was riled up and Stevens’ father left with him in disgust.

The prologue sets the stage for a book that evokes the great social changes that took place in the South and the relationship college football had to that society. Football in the South, Stevens told me in an interview that will be published later at The Federalist, plays a role akin to that of rugby in South Africa, which helped build some degree of unity between whites and blacks. The importance of football in the South and at Ole Miss in particular in relation to issues of racial strife is no less evident day.

Stevens described his lack of awareness as a child of the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which was waved frequently by fans until the university started trying to discourage it in 1997. The flag is still a controversy in Mississippi and other Southern states. It appears in the corner of the Mississippi state flag. Speaking to the prominence of football, it was widely reported news when Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze spoke in favor of changing Mississippi’s state flag.

So, as a function of Stevens having grown up in Mississippi and being an Ole Miss fan, those themes are big issues throughout, but the book is about more than that; it’s about family and life. It’s about Stevens reconnecting with his father after both of them have lived busy, driven professional lives. And it’s about facing the inevitable disappointments one will face in life. Stuart Stevens was a high-ranking advisor with the Mitt Romney campaign for president in 2012 before he back to his birthplace to watch each game of the 2013 Ole Miss football season with his dad. It’s Stevens’ sixth book, after three travel memoirs in China, Africa and Europe; Scorched Earth, a fictional political campaign thriller; and The Big Enchilada, a memoir on the 2000 Bush campaign, on which he worked as a media consultant.

Stevens goes through important games of the season, recounting the games while tying those events to his memories growing up and part of his and his father’s lives. The familiar sights and sounds that everyone loves about sporting events—the hot dogs, the roar of the crowd, the excitement and anticipation before each game, the charged tailgating environment and the impossible struggle to find a parking space (or hates)—are all described in lifelike detail in the 224 pages. So are the life events, like Stevens’ sneaking off to go swimming one summer day and his early adulthood watching crappy Northeastern football in New York City. Through it all, the book ties together the meaning of sports in people’s lives.

Stevens makes much of how football is like a religion in the South—a religion that people not from the South cannot understand. It is not hard to accept that Southerners—and in particular fans of the dominant Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has won 7 of the last 10 national titles—really love their football. Stevens paid a lot of attention to the strange traditions of some of the schools, like Ole Miss fans’ cries of “Hotty Toddy.” But having grown up in Ohio—and Ohio State is the defending champion!—I had to point out that football is pretty intense in the Midwest and Big Ten, too. Indeed, most sports fans should be able to understand the fandom here, and one who isn’t a fan should have a better understanding of it after reading the book.

All in all, The Last Season is a good book to get you ready for the college football season, which has just started. It will also give Northerners an insight on the Southern identity for the next time a debate roars up about something related to the Civil War or other such issue. When the book concludes at the end of the season, with people already thinking about the next season, it is a reminder that the events of history never really end. They just continue again under different circumstances.

Purchase on Amazon: The Last Season, 224 pages, $12.99 Kindle, $13.45 hardcover

Also get ready for my interview with Stevens to be published at The Federalist. We talk about the topics of the book as well as politics and his career—including the Bush and Romney campaigns and Donald Trump. If you want to be updated by email when the interview is live, subscribe in the box below.

Aug 27

Chinese and Americans Have Different Concepts of “Livability”

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China, a book that explores the phenomenon of Chinese new city development. Why are so many cities seemingly empty?, Shepard thought, seeing what the media often describes as “ghost towns.” In fact, he argues, many of those “ghost towns” are actually in the stages of development, and will be populated soon, if they aren’t already. His book explains how development happens in China and gives specific examples from many cities he visited. I will be posting a review of the book later, but first, here is his answer to a question I asked by email.

Shepard is a contributor to Reuters, CityMetric, and the South China Morning Post, and the owner/editor of Vagabond Journey, a website that I have frequently contributed to.

My question was about the large-scale of developments:

You mentioned Pudong and some other districts with wide, 6-lane roads as examples of what new cities often look like. A writer for The Atlantic Cities [actually, The Atlantic, James Fallows] last year contrasted Pudong with the narrow, walkable streets of the French Concession. What kind of effect do new cities have on what might be called “livability”?

Here is the relevant excerpt from Fallows’ article “Nice Downtowns: How Did They Get That Way?”:

The older part of Shanghai—Puxi, “west of the river,” including the quasi-colonial international districts and the partly preserved French Concession—of course has its share of skyscrapers and elevated freeways and deluxe shopping malls. But it also has small, intimate streets lined with little stores and full of passers-by doing their daily shopping.

The newer part—Pudong, “east of the river”—is built on a Speer-esque inhuman scale of giant boulevards and huge walkways plastered with morale building “China dream” posters and barely a little shop in sight (until you go around to the alleys in back). Its center includes the spectacle of an 88-story, a 101-story, and a 128-story skyscraper side-by-side, as shown at right.

Photos from Wikipedia.

Photos from Wikipedia.

I used to live in Pudong, and I more of less agree with Fallows, but Shephard offers an alternative argument:

We really need to alter our concept of “livability” to fit the modern Chinese context. Generally speaking, the attributes that make up a desired living space are very different between Westerners and Chinese. Living in a cramped room on the 32nd floor of a high-rise that’s sticking up out of the top of a shopping mall that’s suffocated by jam packed eight lane boulevards and elevated highways sounds like some kind of dystopic urban nightmare to me, but that’s the “white picket fence” of the Chinese dream. Who am I to tell someone that their ideal living environment actually sucks?

What’s really interesting is how ingrained these contrasting perspectives on what constitutes “livability” actually are. For example, I have an apartment in a beautiful new development area that’s right on the beach just outside of the busy build-up core of Xiamen Island. I have the best view of the sea that I can imagine, the streets aren’t busy, it’s quiet, comfortable, and walkable. For Westerners, the place is the closest thing that we can get to our idea of livability in China, and an entire colony of us have just naturally gravitated over. But when my Chinese friends come over, they, almost without variation, complain: “Why do you want to live out here? It’s far from downtown, it’s too quiet.” They look at my island paradise with as much contempt as I do when looking at their high-rises sticking out of shopping malls that are wrapped in highways.

As far as livability is concerned, we need to take into account that the way modern Chinese communities are set up creates an incredible stark insider-outsider dichotomy. People here are gravitating to gated apartment complexes, which tend to take up the entirety of a 500 x 500 meter plots of land — which, not coincidentally, are often how they are auctioned off to developers. If you’re just walking down the street in these places you will often find little more than an eight foot high fence on one side of you and an eight lane highway on the other. Many of these new development areas seem like cultural dead zones of little more than massively wide boulevards traversing huge blocks, monstrous set-backs between the streets and buildings, few pedestrians, and nothing resembling what we would call community. But if we get over to the other side of those gates we find ourselves in a very different reality. Generally speaking, in most apartment complexes there are extensive gardens, pedestrian pathways, ponds, playgrounds, benches, and a relatively decent amount of open public space. Each evening the high-rises empty their residents out into this area, where they stroll, talk, play music, and watch their kids as they play together. Everyday after school my daughter rushes home to play with all the other little kids in our complex. They run around in a big mob without fear of being run over by cars or commandeered by perverts. Everybody watches everybody else’s kids. Apartment complexes in China are called xiao qu — little districts — and that’s exactly what they are. In modern China, “in the streets” is not where street life is taking place.

Aug 16

Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe: Heidi Kingstone’s Reportage Puts Afghanistan’s Problems in Stark Relief

By Mitchell Blatt | Foreign Affairs , Literature

51MDNIaxOdL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Fourteen years after America’s invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a new government, it is widely accepted that Afghanistan is an unstable state with democratic deficits and that the results of the intervention were far from the goals. A report from the Vision of Humanity in 2013 that called that Afghanistan the least peaceful in the world put those failures in stark relief. But just to hear the numbers—4,500 people died from terrorist attacks in 2014, 20% of young women are literate—doesn’t do justice to the victims.

Each number in those datasets is a real person. Heidi Kingstone, in her book Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe, gives voice to some of their stories, especially those of the women who are usually silent. Kingstone, a Canadian foreign correspondent with experience in Iraq as well, who has been published in the Financial Times, the Spectator and the Guardian, lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011. Her time there, being towards the end of the mission, after the irrational exuberance of the first days of “flowering democracy,” gives her a good position to comment on the problems the operation has faced.

To start with, she shows the human stakes, with a picture of a free-spirited woman who is faced with violence when she turns down a man’s advances and must go into hiding.Continue reading

Jun 25

Greenwald Offers No Evidence of NSA Overreach — No Place to Hide Book Review

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

Glenn Greenwald is back in the United States for the first time since launching his expose on the NSA’s intelligence-gathering programs, and he’s already back to getting into shouting matches with his critics. Although I’m a little bit late to the fight, it’s time for me to launch my polemical missile at his new book, No Place to Hide, published on May 13, 2014.

The book is divided into five chapters, that chronicle the story of Greenwald’s reporting on the issue, some of the facts behind the NSA’s spying activities, and his arguments against those activities. The book is entertaining and informative with its deep dive into the world of shadowy agents and far-reaching technologies. It is supplemented with many images of documents taken from NSA powerpoints and internal reports. It is also wrong in its arguments about the NSA.

It starts with Greenwald receiving mysterious emails from someone named “Cincinnatus”. That would be Edward Snowden, but Greenwald didn’t know it at the time and almost missed the story. The first chapter details Greenwald’s initial contact with Snowden, and the next chapter, his meetings with him in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong chapter reads like a thriller. Greenwald and Snowden meet in conference rooms of a 5 star hotel in the most crowded district in the world, planning their movements to evade attention, and Greenwald putting his phone in the refrigerator in Snowden’s room.

The third chapter lays out the NSA’s programs in detail. That’s where we hear about how the NSA wants to “Collect It All.” The chapter includes figures citing huge amounts of communications information intercepted and stored–97 billion emails in one month by a program called Global Access Operations–or about 1.8% of all emails sent in a month, if the estimate by the Radicati Group on the number of emails per month is accurate. With access to a treasure trove of documents–many of which are reprinted in the book–Greenwald has information to cite to corroborate facts about the programs from multiple angles.

But much of his information isn’t about Americans’ rights being violated. Pages after pages are dedicated exclusively to foreign spying, much of it routine. We read that the NSA has an interest in providing the government with information about “Counter Proliferation”, “Counter Terrorism”, “Diplomatic”, “Economic”, “Military”, and “Political/Intention of Nations” of foreign countries.” The NSA apparently engages in economic espionage and for espionage to gain benefits in trade or diplomatic negotiations. Whether or not that constitutes unfair economic tactics could be debatable, but it hardly constitutes as a scandal.

Most countries do so, and, as Greenwald wrote, “Countries have spied on heads of state for centuries, including allies. This is unremarkable…” If the American government wasn’t doing all it could do to ensure its citizens reap the most possible benefits from defense treaties and trade treaties, one could argue the government wasn’t doing its job. After all, according to one document the book cites, the signals intelligence support provided by the NSA at the Fifth Summit of the Americas “ensured that our diplomats were well prepared to advise President Obama and Secretary Clinton on how to deal with contentious issues, such as Cuba, and interact with difficult counterparts, such as Venezuelan President Chavez.”

Greenwald also famously exposed the fact that the NSA had spied on Angela Merkel and on other high foreign government leaders. Props to the NSA for doing such a good job. Spying is, after all, a major part of the job description for the NSA and CIA.

The NSA does go pursue its mission with an incredible zeal. Greenwald writes that much U.S. technology for export is modified so that it is easier for the U.S. to spy on foreign citizens. Even Americans concerned about domestic rights violations could be a little put off about that.

But the real bones of the Snowden story are the concerns about NSA’s domestic intelligence gathering programs. Greenwald tried hard to portray the post-9/11 security mechanisms as a violation of Americans’ civil liberties, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Chapter four makes his argument for why the broad powers of the NSA–and the government’s anti-terrorism forces in general–are abuses of power. He relies mostly on theoretical arguments, and the few times he cites concrete numbers, the numbers belie his case.
Continue reading

May 09

A Judicial Coup for the Rich? Reviewing Giles’s Book in the Aftermath of Yingluck’s Dismissal

By Mitchell Blatt | Foreign Affairs , Literature

600px-9147ri-Yingluck_ShinawatraThailand’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra must step down, making her the second member of the Shinawatra family to be dismissed from a prime minister post after protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a 2006 military coup, the subject of Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s book A Coup for the Rich (available for download at Wikileaks).

Giles’s book is a quick take (144 pages) on the 2006 coup, published shortly after it happened, from a left-wing perspective. Giles described in detail not only the events surrounding the coup but also the background of Thai politics and history that builds the context for the P.A.D. movement and the coup. The book was banned for “insulting the monarchy”, and Giles fled Thailand to avoid Lese Majesty charges.

Giles, who published the book while working as an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, is listed as a founding member of the socialist group Turn Left Thailand in an international communist journal. His left-wing political lean is palpable throughout the book.

Still, anyone with a grasp of politics can read through his opinions and apply their own ideology. When he portrays the anti-government protesters as being concerned about government “‘over-spend[ing]’ on welfare” to those whom they (Giles asserts) view as “‘ignorant rural and urban poor’”, a left-winger might consider the P.A.D. activists to be greedy and uncompassionate, while a free-market supporter (right-winger, conservative, neoliberal… pick your descriptor) might consider the P.A.D. to be hard-working people who support pro-growth economic policies. For Giles, it is a fight between “the poor who understand and are committed to democracy” versus “the so-called middle classes who are determined to hang on to their privileges by any means possible.”
Continue reading

Mar 21

Sidney Rittenberg and Communists’ Confusion About What “Democracy” Is

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Literature

During the campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party prior to the Cultural Revolution, Sidney Rittenberg recommended innocent people be forced into labor camps, unquestionably supporting the Party. During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg happily yelled at innocent people and spread propaganda supporting the dictatorship of Mao.

Reading his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, it is interesting to see why he supported the violent, conformist, closed-minded movement that was the Cultural Revolution: Because that’s what “democracy” and “freedom” is, according to his understanding of Communism at the time.

In Rittenberg’s view, as described in his memoir, the Cultural Revolution was the masses rebelling against the party. The Red Guards attacked party leaders, shackled them, put them into criticism sessions, and such. Of course, it was all being directed by Mao. Rittenberg supported the dictatorship of one, rather than the dictatorship of the Party:

It was Mao’s guidelines for the Cultural Revolution… This, I thought, was a program for the end of party dictatorship. (315)

Later on page 315, Rittenberg described how, “The party told us what to think,” and what would happen when the party is no longer telling us what to think and chaos ensues? Just follow Mao’s line, which he handily described in his guidelines.

All at once, there was no one to trust, no one to tell us what to do, how to think, whom to like, what to believe. We all had to think for ourselves, to decide was this good, was this right, was this revolutionary. Did it follow Mao’s teachings? (316)

In the space of two sentences, Rittenberg said “We had to think for ourselves,” then that they had to follow Mao’s teachings. Clearly, then, there was someone–just one person–to tell them what to do.

Rittenberg lauded the Cultural Revolution as a means for bringing about a democratic system involving the masses, but on page 317, he describes the story of a girl who was elected leader of her school’s Cultural Revolution Committee and overthrown by Mao’s wife.

But when Jiang Qing [Mao’s wife] declared the rebel radical minority the true revolutionaries, Morning Dove’s Cultural Revolution Committee collapsed.

The Man Who Stayed Behind documents the perplexing logical gymnastics and cognitive dissonance required of the Communists throughout history of China, worst of all during the Cultural Revolution. For page after page, Rittenberg describes how the Cultural Revolution will bring about democracy and civil rights while he is watching innocent people shackled, yelled at, and attacked by mobs. The Cultural Revolution would bring about freedom of expression, all while people who were not capitalists were accused of being capitalist class enemies and not given any right to respond. It would be a non-violent revolution, but the Red Guards would murder and torture people they thought disagreed with Mao. Forget even being theoretically allowed to disagree in such a movement that was about freedom and democracy.

It should serve as a warning, too, to anyone who wants to advance “non-violent” revolution through violent means, and to anyone who draws lines among ideological comrades between the so-called “establishment” and “base.”