Looking Back, Moving Forward

Happy New Year! January 1, of course, is a day traditionally spent thinking about the year that has just ended and making plans for the one that lies ahead, and I have been doing exactly that. I feel like 2018 was several years crammed into one: both in my own life and in the world around me, everything seemed to be moving in double time. I’m not sure if this is a resolution or a plea, but I dearly hope that in 2019 we all manage to slow down.

Here are five of my 2018 highlights and a few tentative goals for 2019:

● Without a doubt, the biggest thing that happened in my professional life this past year was co-writing the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know with Jeff Wasserstrom and then going on tour to promote it. Although I think I will always prefer to write (and rewrite, and delete) my thoughts rather than voice them extemporaneously, I did 19 public events/podcast recordings in 2018—most of them linked to the book—and have gotten at least slightly more comfortable with talking off the cuff and dealing with unexpected audience questions. Thank you to everyone who took the time to attend these events—I hope you found them informative and engaging.

China in the 21st Century has been reviewed (favorably!) at Global Asia and Education About Asia. An audiobook version, narrated by Joe Barrett, was also just released last week.

If you’d like to hear me talk about the book, check out this episode of the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast. Jeff and I were also interviewed by Jan Berris of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations about our career paths and how we work beyond typical academic structures. And, since the 21st century continues to march on, we’re doing very occasional updates on specific China topics and recommending additional resources here. Jeff and I are both very active on Twitter (@jwassers and @mauracunningham), so following each of us there is the best way to keep up with our individual China-watching.

● Another professional highlight for me in 2018 was interviewing self-exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in November. This was an exciting opportunity, but took an unexpected turn when the festival venue canceled Ma’s event several days in advance, then reversed its decision and allowed the show to go on. While I write a lot about censorship and self-censorship in China, I never expected to be personally involved in an occurrence of it! Everything turned out fine, Ma and I had a great talk, and I’m very grateful to HKILF for inviting me to moderate his event (as well as one by feminist author Leta Hong Fincher), but the whole episode was a sobering education in how freedoms in Hong Kong are becoming more restricted—both directly by Beijing and indirectly due to fear of direct involvement by Beijing.

I was also interviewed about Ma Jian’s work for this profile of him that appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago.

● Aside from the book, 2018 was a bit of a mixed bag for me writing-wise. I published my first book review with the Wall Street Journal (on City of Devils, by Paul French) and co-wrote a commentary with Jeff for the Los Angeles Times about politics and censorship on the Chinese internet. I also have a couple of longer journal articles and two short interviews that will appear early in 2019.

All of that is great. But, I didn’t write very much in this space over the past year—though I started and put down a number of posts that maybe I’ll complete one day—and also didn’t finish the book about Zhang Leping that I’ve been working on for several years now. That needs to be the center of my writing attention in the months ahead.

● I read at least 69 books in 2018; I think the actual number is a little bit higher because I’m pretty sure I forgot to log a few titles at Goodreads. But I can’t begin to remember which books are missing, which is actually a reflection of a reading habit that I’m trying to change: binging on “easy” books (mysteries, thrillers, romances, “women’s fiction” aka chick lit) that I often quickly forget rather than digging into denser stuff (but I keep acquiring the denser stuff, so there’s now an entire bookcase in my house full of unread nonfiction). I want to achieve a more balanced reading diet in 2019, so I’m making a conscious effort to alternate fiction/nonfiction and easy/difficult books, not just reach for whatever happens to catch my eye on a particular day.

A few of the books I enjoyed and thought about the most this year (all of these are Amazon affiliate links): Educated, by Tara Westover; Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh; The Proposal, by Jasmine Guillory; No Ones Tells You This, by Glynnis MacNicol; The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen; and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I just realized that all of these titles are written by women—which is pure coincidence, but I also read far more female authors than male, so not really a surprise.

● Since most of my professional life is both sedentary and solitary, I have been making more of an effort to get moving and spend time with other people. In 2018, I continued being a semi-dedicated member of the Ita Yoga Studio community in northeast Ann Arbor, attending a total of 124 classes (yes, I keep track), and I’ve already renewed my membership for all of 2019.

I also picked up tennis again, about twenty years after last putting down a racket. This was something of an impulse decision: I was idly flipping through a course catalogue from Ann Arbor Rec & Ed one evening in June when I saw that they offer an extensive tennis program for adults at very reasonable prices. Remembering that I once really enjoyed tennis, I signed up for a beginner’s clinic, bought a cheap racket at Target, and have been playing regularly ever since. I’d rank my skill level as “sporadically above-average, usually not” but I’m also a lot less competitive than I was when I played tennis as a teenager and don’t spend as much time comparing myself to other players and wishing I had more natural talent. Now I enjoy just getting out and whacking the ball around for an hour or two once a week. (I’m less thrilled with the aches in my knees that usually appear the next morning.) Most of my fitness-related impulse decisions don’t turn out very well—we won’t discuss that time I decided to take a spin class—but this one is a happy exception.

There are, of course, so many things that I hoped to do in 2018 but didn’t: repaint several rooms in my house, go to a Tigers game, see Hamilton on stage, travel somewhere new on vacation, achieve (and maintain!) Inbox Zero, finish writing the Zhang Leping book, organize all my photographs, and so forth. All of those goals are getting carried over to 2019 (though I should probably just give up on the Inbox Zero dream). But in reflecting on the past year, I’m happy with what I did accomplish, and even happier with the things that don’t neatly fit into a new year’s post like this one: the time I spent with my family, the hours of phone calls with friends whom I don’t see as often as I’d like, the Sunday afternoons I whiled away in the kitchen preparing food for the week so I wouldn’t fall back on ordering takeout at 9pm, the occasions when I told myself that saying “no” to an invitation was a smarter decision than saying “yes” to everything. More than anything else, those are the parts of 2018 that I hope to carry with me into the year ahead.

Happy New Year to one and all.

Image: I just glanced over and realized that this array on my desk summarizes what I hope for in 2019: progress on the Zhang Leping book, light and warmth, time on the beach, and a “We Can Do It” attitude.

Learning from Lei Feng in the Shanghai Metro

Historians usually do most of their research in libraries and archives, but sometimes you stumble on material in unexpected places. Like, for example, a subway station.

As I was making my way to Shanghai Disney at the beginning of this month, I had to switch metro lines at the Oriental Sports Center station, a large complex where three busy lines come together. I was carefully following the arrows on the floor to find the Disney-bound train when I looked up and saw a familiar face: Lei Feng.

Not in person; Lei Feng died in 1962. The Lei Feng in front of me was in the form of a gold plastic bust, marking the entrance to a massive “Learn from Lei Feng” exhibit that occupied a huge corner of the station concourse. “Learn from Lei Feng” has been a Chinese Communist Party directive since shortly after his death, and while this model soldier who declared his unswerving dedication to the revolutionary cause has been a presence in Party propaganda ever since, his prominence waxes and wanes. I’ve been collecting scraps of Lei Feng propaganda for several years, preparing for the day when I finish the book I’m working on and start writing one about him. Usually Lei Feng propaganda takes the form of a poster or two in a public park, but before me lay a feast of research materials. I veered away from the arrows directing me to Shanghai Disney, pulled out my phone, and started snapping photos.


Today, “Learn from Lei Feng” is something of a joke, treated as the high point of absurdist Mao-era propaganda. As Evan Osnos wrote for the New Yorker back in 2013, “Lei Feng” either didn’t exist or was a highly mythologized version of a real person. Movies made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign were box-office disasters, and when I tell Chinese historians that I’m interested in him, they look at me with puzzlement and disbelief. What is there to say about a figure so obviously created by the Party propaganda machine? (Plenty, I think, but we’ll see how that book project goes.)

Given the Lei Feng cynicism I’ve repeatedly encountered in China, I was surprised to see that I wasn’t the only person walking through the exhibit. Two men who appeared to be in their late fifties—who would have been children during the first decade of “Learn from Lei Feng”—were also examining the huge displays of photographs and text narrating the story of Lei Feng’s life for subway riders. Spotting me, the men walked over and asked if the three of us could take a photo together. I suppose the idea that a foreigner could not only recognize Lei Feng but also be interested enough in him to check out the exhibit was so remarkable that they wanted to obtain photographic proof of this encounter.

My head was a swirl of jet lag and confusion as my brain tried to process this unexpected encounter with Lei Feng, and I could do little more than smile for the photo and then bid the men goodbye. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask them a few questions. Why had they stopped to look at the exhibit? What did they think of Lei Feng? Later, I chastised myself for this missed opportunity.

But I wasn’t prepared; nothing in my plan for the day had included doing research inside a subway station. Now I know, though, to be more vigilant: Lei Feng can appear in the most unusual places at the most unexpected times.

The Happiest Place in Shanghai

Well, sort of.

If standing in line—a lot of lines—makes you happy, then a visit to the two-year-old Shanghai Disney park will be an unbeatable experience. In eight hours at the park on a Monday earlier this month, I spent roughly two-thirds of my time in one line or another and read an entire novel on my Kindle. I had anticipated crowds—this is China, after all—but was still a bit shocked at how little I was able to do because of the incredible wait times at all the rides.

If you’re surprised that the park was so crowded on a Monday in November, you should know that this was no typical Monday: due to the China International Import Expo taking place in Shanghai that week, the government closed schools and offices on Monday and Tuesday (the time was made up on weekends), freeing up lots of kids and their parents for a weekday trip to Shanghai Disney. I didn’t learn this until Sunday evening, and while I could have changed my plans, Monday’s weather forecast looked like the best of the days I’d be there (and indeed, it was), so I foolishly told myself that surely the park wouldn’t be that crowded.

Yeah. It was that crowded.

I realized what I was in for as soon as I walked from the Shanghai Disney subway station to the plaza in front of the park entrance, where dozens of security guards were herding everyone into three cattle chutes. This was the pre-security-queue queue: I waited here for about 20 minutes, and every five minutes or so the guards would open the gate at the front of one cattle chute to release a few dozen people, who then headed to one of two lines for security. Fortunately, the day was overcast, breezy, and about 70 degrees; I couldn’t imagine waiting on the plaza in full sun.

I reached the front of my cattle chute and was freed to get into the queue for security. This was the line to beat all lines: a series of four-foot-tall stanchions snaked around the plaza, corralling hundreds and hundreds of people into a procession that moved forward at a snail’s pace. I eyed the mass of people in front of me, opened my book again, and settled in.


For decades, foreign visitors to China have lamented the anarchy of lines, where assertiveness and sharp elbows serve you better than patience and politeness. Overall, I found the line culture at Shanghai Disney remarkably calm, given the stakes (who really wants to wait in line for over an hour?). Yes, there were a few pushy people who tried to find a gap ahead and jump the queue, but the “cast members” (park employees) were pretty vigilant and quick to reprimand them.

As I shuffled forward in the security line, I wondered if it would have been any better had I arrived before 9am, when the park opened. That had been my original intent—jet lag had me awake by 4am—but I’d taken my time with breakfast and getting ready, paused to read a few things on the internet, and not even left the apartment where I was staying until after 9. Two long subway rides had eaten up even more time, so it was 10:30 when I’d entered the cattle-chute line. As noon approached, I crept toward the security gate.

I finally reached the front and a guard directed me to a metal detector and table staffed by two more guards ready to check my handbag. Thoroughly check. For anyone thinking of smuggling in a loved one’s ashes to scatter at Shanghai Disney—don’t. I’m 99.9 percent certain the guards would find and confiscate them.

I spent a few minutes in a much shorter line to buy my entrance ticket and learned that they really, really want you to buy your tickets through the Shanghai Disney app, but I hadn’t done so and couldn’t connect to the park wifi for some reason, so was grudgingly permitted to conduct my transaction with an actual human being. I also learned that they expect you to have your passport when buying a ticket, but will accept a Michigan driver’s license in a pinch. After another 10-minute wait to have my ticket scanned at the entrance gate, I was finally—at 12:40, more than two hours after I’d first arrived—inside the park.


And hungry, so my first task was to find food. I walked down Mickey Avenue, the Shanghai version of Main Street, USA, which was still decked out for Halloween with bright orange pumpkins and clusters of golden leaves festooning every façade. I spotted a couple of restaurants, but having burned up so much time already I decided I wanted something I could eat on the go; I was starting to realize just how little I would be able to do with the remainder of the day. I headed toward Fantasyland and bought an ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse for lunch.

This is probably where I should mention that I have relatively little Disney experience. I’ve only been to Disneyland in California, twice—the first time for my 28th birthday, the second a year or two later—so if you’re looking for a detailed evaluation of Shanghai Disney compared to other parks, you should consult another site (I found this one helpful). Even as a relative novice, though, I could tell that Shanghai Disney is small, with only a handful of rides in each section of the park. Having so few rides means that there’s a lot of demand for each of them, and that means … lines. Really. Long. Lines. (And yes, there is FastPass, but they had all been distributed for the day long before I made it through the park gates.)

Every attraction has a sign at the entrance stating the current wait time, and throughout the day I found all of them spot-on. The wait for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train never dipped below 90 minutes, so I crossed that one off my list. The Alice in Wonderland Maze had a wait time of only 5 minutes, but I decided that was so absurdly low compared to everything else that it surely had to be a dud attraction. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh offered a wait time of 40 minutes, which I determined was exactly the amount of patience I possess. I made my way to the Hundred Acre Wood.


Waiting 40 minutes for a 2-minute ride that turned out to be exactly the same one I’d been on in California—except in Chinese—was, in retrospect, the one truly bad decision I made all day. It just wasn’t worth it. I did much better when I exited the ride and walked right into a short-ish line of people waiting to meet the bear himself. (No, he’s not banned in China.)

One big difference between the California and Shanghai parks, I think (again, not a Disney expert speaking here) is that in Shanghai you can only meet the characters at designated places. They don’t walk around the park for spontaneous encounters; when a cast member announced that Pooh needed a short “hunny break” and would be right back, a number of employees surrounded the bear Secret Service-style to escort him away. I assume this is because with the Shanghai crowds having the characters roam freely and stop for photos would result in chaos, so the only way to handle character interactions is to have everyone line up. (Some research online tells me that my memory of characters walking around the California park is correct, but Disney World in Florida limits character meet-and-greets to fixed locations, as Shanghai does.)

Given the long line of people—very few of them children!—waiting to meet Winnie the Pooh, I was surprised to observe the amount of time he devoted to each. When I finally reached the front of the queue, I handed my phone to the cast member taking photos and Pooh greeted me with a hug, then wordlessly directed me to join him in several different Instagram-quality poses before sending me off with a wave. I checked the photos the staffer had taken and saw that she had snapped nearly a dozen shots. There was much less of an assembly-line feel than what I remember of character encounters in California, and I walked away pleased with the “wait time:experience satisfaction” ratio of meeting Pooh.


After one more line in the Hundred Acre Wood (for Pooh’s Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the famous spinning teacups ride), I took a break to walk around a bit and eat a Mickey-shaped pretzel. (I’m pretty sure you could go an entire day at Shanghai Disney and only eat items made in the shape of mouse ears.) I took a closer look at the castle, which is the largest among all Disney parks and is an original design, not a replica from one of the princess movies. I walked through Toy Story Land and Tomorrowland, where the main attraction is the TRON Lightcycle Power Run, perhaps the most popular ride in the entire park for those whose stomachs don’t drop just reading about it. I people-watched and noted that while there were plenty of parents and grandparents with small children, an even larger percentage of the park-goers seemed to be young couples in their late teens and early twenties, many of them wearing matching outfits, or at least matching Minnie Mouse ears (way more popular than plain Mickey ones, for whatever reason).

Shanghai Disney, though part of a global brand, seems largely geared toward serving the domestic audience. There were a few other foreigners, but very few; throughout the day, cast members hesitantly greeted me in English, then quickly switched into Mandarin when they heard me speak it. Fumbling with cash for my food and souvenirs, I looked lame compared to everyone else as they held up their phones to be scanned for mobile payment, which I hadn’t bothered to figure out on this short China trip. In a series of mosaics in the Gardens of Imagination, Disney characters are assigned to each of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and people lined up to take selfies with the mural for their birth year. (Upon seeing that my Year of the Dog garnered Pluto as its representative, I skipped the photo. Pluto? What about the 101 Dalmatians? Lady and the Tramp? I don’t get Pluto.)

Dusk started to fall before 5pm and as the park’s lights began to blink on I decided I had enough patience for a few more lines. Somewhat randomly, I jumped in the queue for the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, with a posted 40-minute wait time (during which I finished my book and started scanning my Kindle library for a second). Despite having no prior knowledge of the ride, I lucked into going on it at just the right time: the voyage is a boat trip past several large dioramas of scenes from Disney movies—Beauty and the Beast dancing, Aladdin and the Genie imagining riches, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice casting spells—augmented with music, fountains, and lights. A few Disney blogs I checked out later were very down on this attraction, but I noticed that the authors had all ridden it during the daytime; I think the experience at night, when the fountains and lights can really shine, is vastly superior. At nearly 10 minutes, by my watch, it’s also remarkably long for a Disney park ride, so I felt like I had really gotten something for my wait in line.


That feeling did not carry over to my next choice of attraction, a walk through the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Although the line was comparatively short (20 minutes), the focus of the attraction—an episodic retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—didn’t really capture my attention. I could feel my enthusiasm flagging and began to reconsider my intent to stay until the day’s grand finale, a fireworks spectacular scheduled for 8:30pm, though I had read that it’s best to secure a seat an hour and a half in advance. It was a little after 6pm, and as I considered the prospect of killing an hour and then spending 90 dreary, increasingly chilly minutes just waiting around, I realized that my decision was an easy one: it was time to go.

I exited via Disneytown, a shopping and dining district featuring a mix of restaurants—everything from international names like The Cheesecake Factory and Wolfgang Puck to local brands like Bread Talk and Lost Heaven. I stopped in at Bread Talk to pick up some filled buns that I ate as I walked back to the subway, pausing to take a photo of the massive inflatable Donald Duck floating on the lake that sits at the center of the resort.


During my metro ride home, I asked myself if my day at Shanghai Disney had been worth it. In a very rigid, yuan-and-fen calculation of ticket price (US$60) versus engagement, I would say the answer is no. I was a little stunned to do the math later and determine that of the eight hours I was on the Shanghai Disney grounds, I spent at least five standing in lines. Some of that time spent waiting could have been reduced, surely, if I had been able to go on a different day, if I’d known to get there before opening, and if I had been able to take advantage of the FastPass system. But I also think that waiting in line is simply a fact of life at Shanghai Disney on most days, as the park’s current supply of attractions cannot satisfy popular demand.

Still, it’s Disney. Even on an overcast November Monday, there was something delightful about it, as I heard familiar songs from my favorite movies, noticed the tiny details in decor that add just a little something extra, and debated how many mouse-ear-shaped items one human should eat in a day (in retrospect, I wish I had tried the Mickey pizza). Would I have had as much fun spending the day at the new Shanghai History Museum? No, no I would not, as I learned later in the week (that story to come). Checking out the park was something I wanted to do on this trip and I’m glad I was able to make it happen.

So while I am not a Disney park expert, here are my tips for Shanghai Disney: don’t go on a local holiday. Do your research, get there early, and have a flexible plan for the day. Expect lines. And above all, bring a book—or two.


Speaking Events in Shanghai and Hong Kong


Early morning jet-lagged greetings to all from Shanghai, where I landed last night. This is my first time in China since the summer of 2016, and I’m very curious to see what has changed in the intervening two years. So far all I can say is that they now take your fingerprints when you go through Passport Control (hi, Big Brother!) and that while the grilled chicken sandwich at KFC is not the worst thing to eat after a 14-hour flight, I wish they still had the Old Beijing wrap.

I’m kicking off my week in Shanghai with a public event later today, a talk for Historic Shanghai about the cartoonist Zhang Leping and his most famous character, Sanmao the Orphan. After I give my talk, the audience and I will visit Zhang Leping’s Former French Concession home, which is now a small museum. I spent years waiting for that museum to open, and wrote about the wait in this essay just published at the Historic Shanghai blog. I actually began writing the first part of that essay in 2011 and have carried it with me through two computer migrations thinking that I might finish it one day. Sometimes things just take a while (like seven years) to percolate in my brain.

Next Friday morning I fly to Hong Kong, and later that day I’ll be at the University of Hong Kong speaking with graduate students about alternative careers for PhDs. On Saturday, November 10 I will moderate two talks at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: the first by Leta Hong Fincher, who will speak about her new book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (3:30-4:30pm), and the second by novelist Ma Jian, who has recently published a new satirical novel, China Dream (7:00-8:00pm).

Aside from those events, I have a long list of places to visit, things to do, and stuff to eat in both cities, and I’ll hopefully write a few things here in the future about those. In the meantime, as long as my VPNs continue to work (I downloaded three for this trip, just to be safe), I’ll post at Twitter and Instagram along the way.

Photo: I now have TWO passports to worry about losing as I travel: one currently valid, the other expired but with a still-valid 10-year visa for China.

Remembering the Wenchuan Earthquake, Ten Years Later

I lived on the fifth floor of the student residence at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, so I didn’t feel anything amiss on the afternoon of May 12, 2008. Professors with apartments in the faculty high-rise next door said they felt the building sway, a subtle signal that 1,000 miles away the earth had cracked open. What came through as a split-second tremble in Nanjing was the ripple effect of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province at 2:28pm that day, causing entire towns to collapse and killing more than 85,000 people.

While it was clear from the start that the Wenchuan Earthquake was a major disaster, its full impact wasn’t immediately apparent. At first, it seemed like the latest in a string of unsettling events that had plagued Chinese Communist Party leaders since the beginning of 2008. That year was supposed to be a triumphant one for the PRC, scheduled to host the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Instead, it had begun with a series of crippling snowstorms at the height of Spring Festival travel, followed not long after by riots in Tibet and protests along the Olympic torch route abroad. The Wenchuan Earthquake appeared to be a devastating natural disaster that struck just as the country was supposed to be moving into full-on Olympic fever—the torch relay had finally reached the Chinese mainland only five days earlier.

As volunteers and People’s Liberation Army units streamed to the mountains of Sichuan to aid survivors of the earthquake, the catastrophe morphed from a natural disaster into a political one. The deepest devastation involved the collapse of school buildings; more than 5,000 children perished when their classrooms crumbled around them. Parents and rescue workers soon realized that many schools showed signs of sub-standard construction—the result of corruption on the part of building contractors and local officials, who had skimmed from the funds allocated for erecting schools and put up cheaper “tofu-dregs schoolhouses” instead (so named because tofu dregs are insubstantial, spongy, and soft). When the parents began to stage protests and blame CCP officials for the deaths of their children, government authorities moved in to silence them.

Earthquake memorial site in Beichuan

Since 2008, the Communist Party has sought to maintain strict control of the narrative surrounding the Wenchuan Earthquake. Celebratory discussions of earthquake rescue and recovery efforts, as well as the rapid post-earthquake reconstruction of Wenchuan County under Party direction, are fine. But questioning how corruption and malfeasance on the part of CCP officials contributed to the death toll is a no-go zone. Activists such as Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren have run afoul of the Party by drawing attention to its role in the earthquake’s devastation.

On a trip to Sichuan in 2015 my group made a stop in the town of Beichuan, which has been preserved in place as a living museum to the disaster. It’s a solemn but also unnerving memorial, and as I walked through the town’s streets with the other members of my group I was repeatedly visited by the feeling that we shouldn’t be there. It felt too raw, too personal—an invasion of private grief. Turning a ravaged town (a sign at the beginning of the tour route notes that 20,000 bodies still lie beneath the rubble in Beichuan, but it may be more) into a national tourism site as part of the region’s economic recovery plan struck me as a violation against all who experienced the terror of the earthquake and the families that lost their loved ones.

The politics surrounding both the Beichuan memorial town and adjacent earthquake museum mean that only one story—the one that emphasizes the leadership and sagacity of the Chinese Communist Party—can be narrated to visitors. The Wenchuan Earthquake isn’t like 1989’s June Fourth Massacre: the topic isn’t completely off-limits, and in fact the Party presents the quake as a moment of national unity under wise CCP guidance. Yet like the family members of 1989’s victims, the grief of those with relatives who perished in the earthquake has been politicized; there is an officially approved way to mourn, dictated by the Party above.

In imperial China, natural disasters like floods and earthquakes could be interpreted as signs that the ruling dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that a change was on the horizon. (In a remarkable coincidence, one of history’s worst earthquakes took place in Tangshan, Hebei Province, less than two months before Chairman Mao died in 1976.) In 2008, the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of allowing the Wenchuan Earthquake to threaten its grip on power, and in the decade since it has further clamped down and dictated what can be spoken aloud and what must remain silent. The Communist Party can’t control the movements of the seismic fault lines that lie beneath China’s surface, but it spends a great deal of time and effort working to prevent the emergence of political fault lines among the people living under its rule.

Museum diorama depicting earthquake rescue efforts

With the tenth anniversary of the Wenchuan Earthquake have come a number of news stories and commentaries about the tragedy’s after-effects. Here’s a short reading round-up of those, plus a few works of scholarship that place the quake in a broader context.

• In the first days after the earthquake, people across China collected donations and traveled to the quake zone to assist in rescue efforts. For a brief period of time the CCP allowed this outpouring of civic engagement. Pretty quickly, though, the Party moved in to clamp down and take control, dividing the civic groups between those with official permission to act and those without. Sociologist Bin Xu discusses this process in his 2017 book, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China; I interviewed Xu about his research for the AAS #AsiaNow blog last year.

• The effect the Wenchuan Earthquake had on Chinese civil society and politics is also the topic of this thoughtful commentary by Ian Johnson at the New York Review of Books and this article at The Economist.

• The CCP’s storyline about the earthquake is all about the leadership shown by the Party during rescue efforts and the subsequent reconstruction period. For an extended analysis of CCP discourse and the actions it took to reinforce this narrative, see Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, by political scientist Christian Sorace, and this #AsiaNow interview I did with Sorace about his work.

• Bin Xu and Christian Sorace were among the speakers on a panel about the Wenchuan Earthquake anniversary at the AAS conference in March, and that panel has now been turned into an episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Louisa Lim. Xu, Sorace, and political scientists Maria Repnikova and Kang Yi discuss their research into the earthquake’s long-term effects on Chinese politics and society.

• Sorace also guest-edited a new issue of the Made in China digital magazine, which includes a special section on the decade since the earthquake. Bin Xu and Kang Yi are among the section’s contributors.

• In the run-up to the earthquake’s anniversary, some Chinese have taken issue with the local government’s choice to designate May 12 as “Thanksgiving Day” (thanking the Party, of course) rather than “Memorial Day,” Tiffany May reports on this at the New York Times.

• At SupChina, Eileen Guo discusses “The Politics of (Not) Remembering Wenchuan’s Earthquake Victims,” focusing on the continued work of activists such as Tan Zuoren. Also see this Associated Press report on Huang Qi, an earthquake activist currently under detention, and how the parents of children who died in the earthquake are struggling to mark the anniversary without running afoul of the authorities.

• My understanding of local feelings about the Beichuan memorial site was greatly enhanced by a China Information article by Katiana Le Mentec and Qiaoyun Zhang, “Heritagization of disaster ruins and ethnic culture in China: Recovery plans after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.” Tip of the hat to Ian Johnson for linking to the article in his NYRB piece, which is how I came to read it.

• AFP reporter Ben Dooley traveled to Beichuan recently to talk with those who have been tasked with preserving the ruined town, including one local official who lost his young son in the earthquake. Eileen Guo visited Yingxiu, another preserved town, and explains why the quake ruins have not become the tourism draw that local officials expected.

• Dooley also reports on a small village where reconstruction efforts were hampered by corruption on the part of local officials (May 12, 2023 update: dead link), as well as how the earthquake affected communities in the Qiang minority group, which lost nearly 10 percent of its population in the disaster.

• Sixth Tone, an online publication that is Chinese state media but able to push the envelope a bit (though you have to read it with a careful eye), has a special section of earthquake anniversary stories plus a short podcast episode up at its site.

The Atlantic has put together a photo collection showing the earthquake zone ten years later.

• To conclude with a bit of black humor, here’s the fourth report from Ben Dooley in his mini-series on the Wenchuan Earthquake anniversary. Dooley intended to write “a feel-good story about a pig that became a national icon after surviving a devastating earthquake 10 years ago in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan.” (For the backstory on Zhu Jianqiang, or “Strong-Willed Pig,” see this New York Times report from 2008.) But when Dooley attempted to interview tourists visiting the pig (to be clear, he wasn’t trying to interview the pig itself), plainclothes public security bureau officers stepped in and escorted him away from the pigpen. As Dooley writes, “In a country where it is illegal to disparage national heroes, even a famous pig can become a sensitive subject.”

Links checked and updated May 12, 2023

Weekly Wanderings: Away We Go Edition

• The “Weekend” alarm clock on my phone is set to go off at 7:00am (usually an ideal, not reality), but today my brain saw fit to nudge me awake at 5:30 in the morning. “Come on, get up, we have so much to do,” it whispered, bringing to the surface of my consciousness a constellation of tasks that need to be completed before I leave on a 10-day trip tomorrow afternoon. Laundry. ATM. You’re out of travel packs of tissues. CVS. Turn down the thermostat. Are any library books due before the end of the month? Find your umbrella. And so on. As much as I usually enjoy the actual experience of travel, the lead-up to departure sends me into a whirlwind of hyper-organization. I know that the minute I close my garage door and drive off tomorrow I’ll start to relax, calmed by the knowledge that there’s now nothing more I can do—I’ve remembered what I’ve remembered, I’ve forgotten what I’ve forgotten, and from here on out I’ll just have to deal with things as they happen.

Like scholar-turned-journalist Anne Helen Petersen, over the years I’ve identified the travel tips and rituals that work for me, all aimed at lowering stress by reducing the number of decisions I’ll need to make when I’m on the road:

• I pretty much always fly Delta now, since Detroit is a hub and I can fly nonstop to a staggering number of destinations; the need to catch a connecting flight always introduces an element of uncertainty that makes me anxious. Also, Delta serves the best coffee and cookies on their domestic flights.
• I’ll do anything to secure an aisle seat, including paying for one. I’m cheap, but I’m also mildly claustrophobic.
• I still print out my boarding passes—yes, I know it’s not cool anymore—because I don’t want to fumble with my phone or worry that its battery will die at the last second as I approach the gate.
• I always have at least three different forms of entertainment (book, magazine, podcasts) ready for the flight because I usually don’t know what I’ll want until I actually settle into my seat. If there’s a seatback entertainment system, though, that trumps everything I’ve brought.
• I never plan to get any work done on the plane because I know it’s not going to happen. Flights are me time.
• I never pack more than I can carry up or down a flight of stairs by myself (a lesson learned the hard way in old Chinese train stations).
• I always make sure I have some emergency rations (nuts, jerky, crackers) so I can take my time and decide what/where I really want to eat, rather than being so hungry I’ll devour the first mediocre meal I see. At my destination, I try to dine at local restaurants instead of chains (though Panera is my fallback if necessary). When I go out to dinner, I order an appetizer and entree, eat all of the former and half the latter, then take the rest to go so I can have breakfast without leaving my hotel room the next morning.
• I keep an eye on my email but also put up a travel notification so I don’t feel pressured to respond to non-urgent messages.
• Above all, I do research and plan ahead so I know where I’m going and how to get there. Smartphones are amazing and handy little devices, but sometimes you’re unexpectedly in a place where they’re of limited use, or reception is bad, or whatever. Having a plan and knowing how to carry it out calms me down and helps me focus on the experience of being somewhere different.

Some of these guidelines are included in a post I published at the Association for Asian Studies #AsiaNow blog last week, specifically geared toward people attending the annual conference for the first time.

• So, where is this trip taking me? Up and down the Northeast Corridor. I start in Washington, D.C., where Jeff Wasserstrom and I are launching China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know with two events on Tuesday (morning at the Hoover Institution, afternoon at George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies). After that, I’ll be at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference for the rest of the week (follow the #AAS2018 hashtag on Twitter).

Once AAS wraps up, Jeff and I will embark on a whistle-stop book tour (Amtrak also serves good coffee, btw). We have two talks in Philadelphia (Head House Books on March 25, Foreign Policy Research Institute on March 26), then it’s up to Boston for a March 26 evening event at the Harvard Coop Bookstore. The next morning we turn around and ride down to New York for a lunchtime panel at Columbia, followed by an evening talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Though I’m still kind of nervous about people, you know, reading the book, I look forward to talking about China with audiences in all these different places and hope to see/meet some of you at our events.

• And, to clarify a question that has come up a few times: the official publication date of China in the 21st Century is April 9, but the books are done (I got my copies yesterday) and will be available for sale at our events. On Amazon, it looks like the Kindle edition will download immediately if you buy it today.

Top Tweet of the Week

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At Project Syndicate, Yale history professor Denise Y. Ho has published a commentary that looks at the move to end term limits on the Chinese presidency within a longer historical perspective. Ho argues that the past century of Chinese history has been a back-and-forth between authoritarianism and openness, with one always more dominant but the other never entirely eliminated. Though that element of openness seems greatly diminished right now, as Xi Jinping takes the country in a more authoritarian direction, it might not die out completely:

… even when the Chinese tapestry featured a reformist weft, it was always woven into an authoritarian warp. In Xi’s “New Era,” it is the authoritarian strand that is dominant. History will tell whether a recessive strand of openness may persist.


Weekly Wanderings: Give Me My Hour Back Edition

• Like nearly every other American commenting on the internet today, I hate the switch to Daylight Savings Time. There’s nothing more discouraging than waking up after getting a normal amount of sleep yet finding that it’s an hour later than it should be and I’m therefore already running behind. I need that hour. Not in November, when I get it back (though I’m sure I’ll appreciate it then, even if I don’t use it wisely), but today.

While I do like that it stays light until 9pm or later in Michigan during the summer, I’d also be okay with a proposal, explained in this Washington Post article, to adopt Daylight Savings Time year-round. I’d be happy to sacrifice my extended summer evenings on the front porch if it means I won’t have to deal with the annoyance of a 23-hour day once a year. Let’s make this happen.

• Since March is Women’s History Month, Jeff Wasserstrom and I published two short excerpts about women in China from the forthcoming third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can read the excerpts in English at the Oxford University Press blog, or in Italian at cinaforum.

Jeff and I also published a short commentary in the Los Angeles Times opinion section, detailing some of the playful animal memes that Chinese internet users employ to evade online censorship.

Reminder: Jeff and I will be on a book tour later this month—come see us speak in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.

• In November 2016, I did an interview about my career path with Jennifer Polk of the University Affairs blog for her “Transition Q&A” series. Earlier this year Jennifer contacted me and asked if I’d write a short update to that interview for the blog at Beyond the Professoriate, which published my post last week.

Reminder: I’ll speak on one of the panels at this year’s Beyond the Professoriate Online Career Conference in May, and registration is now open.

• I subscribe to Ann Friedman’s weekly newsletter—as well as many dozens of other digital missives, which arrive in my inbox as frequently as twice a day, often burying important personal messages that I need to read and respond to. I tried Gmail’s tabs for a while, thinking that life would be easier if newsletters weren’t right in front of me, but that just proved the old adage “Out of sight, out of mind,” so I unhappily switched back to what I think of as the “solid wall of messages” inbox view. In my never-ending quest to get email “right,” I’ll give almost any organizational system a shot, so when Friedman linked to an interview she had done with The Gmail Genius about managing her inbox last week, I clicked, read, and then immediately decided to embark on a trial run using Friedman’s old-school model.

A week in, I think this system might stick: I like being able to keep everything that needs an action (messages that require replies, newsletters that need to be read) in front of me, but separated into different categories, and I like that my phone now only notifies me when an important email comes in. The “Everything Else” category, though, seems to serve as the dead letter office of my inbox—I look at the messages that wind up there and know that most of them will linger for many, many months before I finally delete them in a fit of housekeeping.

New feature! Top Tweet of the Week

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As sociologist Leta Hong Fincher and other commentators on feminist politics in China have observed, the Chinese Communist Party is concerned about the country’s falling birth rate and the growing population of so-called leftover women* (shengnü)—educated urbanites who delay or eschew marriage entirely. The Party has been ramping up its efforts to promote marriage, such as by staging awkward matchmaking events for young professionals. It really, really wants the twentysomethings of China to pair up and settle down already, and pro-marriage propaganda has adopted an increasingly desperate tone, such as the story reported on here by CGTN (the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV). An editorial in the Sichuan Daily urged single women to stop searching for “Mr. Right” and instead make things work with “Mr. Okay.” Ladies, lower your standards. It’s for the good of the country.

* Amazon Affiliate link. Make a purchase through this link and I receive a small commission. Thank you for your support of my writing! ~ Maura

Weekly Wanderings: In Like a Lion Edition

• I’m spending the first few days of March visiting my family in Philadelphia, which means I got to experience a wild winter storm on Friday. Forecasts predicted high winds and lots of rain, with a bit of snow at the tail end. Instead, heavy, wet flakes began coming down around 11am and continued until 9:00 at night, often falling sideways due to the incessant wind gusts. Roads throughout Philadelphia were blocked by trees felled by the wind, more than 300,000 people (including my brother) lost power, and my mother and I listened to a discordant symphony of emergency-vehicle sirens and car horns that lasted all afternoon and into the evening, as drivers sat in gridlock on the street outside my parents’ house. My father drove up to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., a trip of under 150 miles; it took him a record-breaking 13 hours (long story). March weather on the East Coast is always crazy and unpredictable, but this storm felt completely surreal … especially since nearly all evidence of the snowfall then melted within 24 hours, with temperatures rising into the 40s yesterday. As the saying goes, March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” and this year the lion decided to surprise everyone with an extra-loud roar.

• My mother and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where this year’s theme is “The Wonders of Water.” I think my favorite Flower Show of all time was 2015’s (“Celebrate the Movies”), and in the years since I’ve (very unfairly, I know) compared every show to that one and consistently found them somehow lacking (though, needless to say, the scenes created far surpass anything I could ever hope to do). That happened again this time. I always think the best Flower Show displays are the ones that interpret the theme in creative ways, but this year most designers took the theme literally and demonstrated “The Wonders of Water” by simply … including water features in their landscapes. Many of them were very pretty, of course—in my book there’s no such thing as an ugly flower—even if they weren’t as surprising or clever as some past exhibits. On the whole I’d say the show is greater than the sum of its parts, as very few of the individual displays really stood out to me but the exhibition overall was impressive.

• There are now links up for all China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know book events taking place in March. Jeff Wasserstrom and I will speak in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and New York—and in three of those four cities we’re doing two events, so if you can’t make one you’ll still have a second chance to catch us.

• If you’re a graduate student or PhD and considering careers outside the tenure track, you might be interested in the fifth annual online Beyond the Professoriate conference, which will take place May 5 and 12. I’ll speak as part of a May 12 panel about nonprofit careers for PhDs. Registration is now open, and there are discounted early-bird ticket prices available until April 14.

Weekly Wanderings: Xi’s in it for the Long Haul Edition

• Since the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know touches on current events, Jeff Wasserstrom and I knew that there was a chance something we discussed might require updating even before the book’s official publication date. My money was on Jiang Zemin going to meet Marx, but instead I woke up this morning to find that in the book’s fourth edition Jeff and I will have to tweak our analysis of Chinese leadership politics and succession, specifically the part where we speculate about what might happen when Xi Jinping’s two terms as China’s president end in 2023. We offer a couple of possible scenarios, including the one that has come true: the CCP announced today that it is ending the two-term limit on the presidency, clearing the way for Xi to stay in power indefinitely.

My take: I, and many other China-watchers, absolutely expected Xi to find a way to remain in charge, especially after he failed to appoint a successor at last October’s 19th Party Congress. Some thought Xi would hold on to power Putin-style, by designating a weak placeholder who would assume the presidency for one term while Xi called the shots from behind the scenes, biding his time until he could return to office. I always thought that eliminating the two-term limit was a possibility, but I am surprised that it happened so quickly after the start of Xi’s second term; I thought he would play coy about the succession question a while longer.

I’m sure there will be many more in-depth analyses of this move in the days to come, so for now I’ll leave you with a short roundup of reactions from Chinese internet users compiled by What’s on Weibo—including a suggestion that Xi Jinping is becoming King Winnie the Pooh. (For an explanation of the Xi Jinping-Winnie the Pooh connection, see my earlier post on the topic.)

• This week’s writing about reading: at Goodreads, I reviewed A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev and Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.

• I was a huge ER fan back in high school and was really excited when it finally became available to stream on Hulu last month. Even as I started watching, though, I braced myself for disappointment: I’ve re-watched and re-read plenty of things that I once enjoyed, only to find that they don’t stand the test of time. ER, however—at least seasons one through five or six—is still a pretty great show, as Todd VanDerWerff writes at Vox. Yes, there are some misguided plot lines and a fair amount of melodrama, but for the most part the show feels remarkably non-dated, even 24 years after its debut. Now, having worked in an ER during college, I notice how shabby and real the ER set feels (down to the water-stained ceiling tiles) compared to the pristine facilities depicted in medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, and how accurately the show captures the unpredictable rhythms of an emergency department—a day can start off slow and turn chaotic with the arrival of only two or three patients. I also appreciate that nurses get the respect they’re due, rather than being unnamed background extras, since they’re the ones who handle the majority of patient care in an ER.

I was, however, a little taken aback to read that “around 5,000 Hulu subscribers finished the entire series in its first month on the service—which works out to around eight hours of ER per day.” That is … a lot of ER. I watched through the first episodes of season eight and then needed a break, so I’m taking some time off from County General right now to reacquaint myself with The O.C. (talk about melodrama …).

• If you’re a writer, I recommend reading this essay on “The Joy and Intimacy of the Personal Writing Outlet,” by Zan Romanoff at LitHub. For a while, it seemed like every writer I knew was turning away from blogging and starting his (or more commonly, her) own TinyLetter newsletter, and I probably subscribe to about 50 of them at this point. I stuck with blogging because I didn’t really see an advantage to making my erratic postings less public; it seemed like too much work to build and grow a base of TinyLetter subscribers. But I also stuck with blogging, which as Romanoff points out, doesn’t necessarily make financial sense: “Writers have had to insist vocally and persistently on the professional and economic value of what we do. But that also hasn’t stopped us from simultaneously making space to do it for free, for ourselves.”

My response to this is one that some of Romanoff’s interviewees express to her: here, I can write about whatever I want, whenever I want, and I don’t have to deal with gatekeepers (publication editors or academic peer reviewers). I can explore topics that are hobbies for me, whether that means analyzing ER or reviewing books about India and Russia. It is, I suppose, possible that an editor might let me do the latter, but not at all likely that I’m ever going to find work as a television critic. In Romanoff’s words,

These personal outlets allow us to write without having to claim professional expertise, or submit to professional editing; they encourage us to make for the fun of making, to think as an exercise in which we [are] allowed to explore widely, and conclude without a graceful kicker.

This blog, in other words, is a place where I can have fun and talk about things I find interesting but can’t claim to be an expert in, all without worrying about deadlines. That’s the best explanation I can give for why I continue to come back to it, even after long absences. I know not everything here is of interest to everyone, but thanks for reading—I really appreciate it.

Image via What’s on Weibo.

Weekly Wanderings: Ringing in the Year of the Dog Edition

新年快乐!狗年大吉!(Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Dog!) Most of my Western New Year’s resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, but the Lunar New Year on Friday gave me the chance to start fresh all over again. My #1 resolution—a recurring one, I suppose—is to write here more, and to write more regularly. Will this happen? We shall see … but I’ll do my best.

• One of several reasons for my long absence from this space was that all my writing energies in the second half of 2017 went toward collaborating with Jeff Wasserstrom on a revised draft of the manuscript for China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (third edition), followed in short order by copy edits, page proofs, index proofs, lining up blurbs and endorsements, organizing our book tour (please, come meet me in person!), and other stuff that I’ve already forgotten. We’re now just under a month away from the official publication date, which means that I’m full-on alternately excited and nervous about seeing the finished product. I’m excited, of course, because … it’s a book! With my name on the cover! I’m nervous because … ack, people are going to read this book and what if they think it’s terrible?!? I’m also 100 percent convinced that despite the multiple rounds of copy edits and reviews, we all missed some incredibly obvious mistake or typo—which will inevitably be the first thing I see the second I open the book. It’s lurking in there. I’m sure of it.

• Something I decided I want to do better in 2018 is keep track of the books I read, so I’m entering everything at Goodreads and in many cases writing short reviews as well. So far, my favorite novel of the year is Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine*, by Gail Honeyman, which is a wonderfully quirky book with a completely original story (hard to find these days). Here’s my review.

• Speaking of quirky, last week I watched all eight episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime and … wow. Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of Gilmore Girls, one of my longtime favorite shows) has out-quirked herself with this one. I enjoyed the show, for the most part, but I can easily imagine plenty of other people hating it, and I might have too if I’d been in even a slightly different mood. (In any mood, I definitely hate the title, which feels like a placeholder that never got replaced by a better one.) Great soundtrack, though, and I’ll certainly tune in for season 2 when it comes along.

• Whenever I told people I was moving to the Midwest back in the summer of 2016, they inevitably laughed and said something along the lines of “Hope you like winter!” As it turned out, I had a very gentle introduction to Michigan winters last year—we got some snow and it was certainly cold, but on the whole it felt much like the Philadelphia-New York winters I was accustomed to.

This year, however, has been a different story, and I think I can now say that I’ve experienced a real Michigan winter. (And it’s not over yet!) There have been brutally cold days and a series of snowstorms, but more than anything else it has been gray. Relentlessly, unendingly gray. The gray, I’ve discovered, is what brings on cabin fever, making me short-tempered and whiny. I can deal with cold, I can endure snow, but only when they’re accompanied by blue skies and sunlight. Happily, Ann Arbor is enjoying both of those today, so even though it’s in the mid-thirties temperature-wise, I’m going to bundle up and take a walk.

Happy Year of the Dog!

* Amazon Affiliate link. Make your purchase via this link and I receive a small commission. Thank you for your support!

Image made by Wikimedia user Fanghong and used under a Creative Commons license.