Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Chinese Lessons

24 January 08

Today I have a book recommendation. “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret. Pomfret first came to China as a foreign student in the early 80s. Later, he returned as a journalist. “Chinese Lessons” presents the stories of his fellow classmates, among the first students to return to university post-Cultural Revolution. Through Pomfret’s writing, these classmates share their experiences living through the Cultural Revolution, their time in university and life in the new China.

If you are involved in the China expat blogosphere, undoubtedly you have heard of this book before. There is an excellent review here. I brought this book back to China with me last April. I read it. The DH read it. Our coworker read it. His Chinese wife read it. Now it is in the hands of a fellow expat friend. I hope it gets passed around to more friends. It really should be required reading of all expats in China. If you want to know what your neighbors & Chinese coworkers lived through, you’ve got to read it.

I decided to blog about this book after reading this article on NY Times about the first class of students allowed to take the university entrance exams in 1977. For those of you who don’t know, studies of all kinds were suspended during the brutal Cultural Revolution years. When universities opened in 1978, students of all ages flocked to their campuses. (Only if they scored well on the entrance exam – an exam still used to this day.) What happened to the so-called Class of ’77? Some of them are now the country’s leaders.

For Ms. An and a whole generation consigned to the countryside, it was the first chance to escape what seemed like a life sentence of tedium and hardship. A pent-up reservoir of talent and ambition was released as 5.7 million people took the two-day exam in November and December 1977, in what may have been the most competitive scholastic test in modern Chinese history.

The 4.7 percent of test-takers who won admission to universities — 273,000 people — became known as the class of ’77, widely regarded in China as the best and brightest of their time. By comparison, 58 percent of the nine million exam-takers in 2007 won admission to universities, as educational opportunities have greatly expanded.

Now, three decades later, the powerful combination of intellect and determination has taken many in this elite group to the top in politics, education, art and business. Last October, one successful applicant who had gone on to study law and economics at Peking University, Li Keqiang, was brought into the Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, where he is being watched as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Among those who have assumed positions of power, aside from Mr. Li of the Politburo, are Zhou Qiang, the governor of Hunan Province; Wang Yi, party secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a former ambassador to Japan; and Jin Liqun, vice president of the Asian Development Bank.

Artistic talent to emerge from the class of ’77 includes the filmmakers Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), and the writer Chen Cun.

May they never forget the lessons of those lost years!

A New Nobel Prize Winner

12 October 07

Doris Lessing, one of my favorite authors has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I couldn’t be happier.

Celebrate the Freedom to Read

30 September 07

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury


This week is banned books week in the US, and it is all the more pertinent to me since I live in a society where books are frequently banned, movies are censored, protests are squashed, news is propaganda and the Internet is filtered. And if my blog wasn’t blocked before, it probably is now.

Reading over ALA’s (American Library Association – America’s top freedom fighters. Librarians aren’t all grannies in glasses!) banned books website, I am not a bit surprised to see that, once again, we are worried about our kids reading the classics and getting ideas. Scary! To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – perennial guests on the banned books list.

I headed over to google to see what websites are saying about banned books week. Of course, how many pages was I actually able to load? Thanks Great Firewall. Time to turn on the TOR. Actually, I’ve noticed that lately, I am surfing with it on almost all the time. Slows things down a little, but it is good practice with being patient. All good things come in time.

Funny that the website I was able to open without the proxy was a “pro-family”, ultra-conservative, conspiracy theory website condemning the ALA as an organization that wants to turn America’s youth gay. Not sure how that one made it past the GFW! The ironic thing is that librarians are taught – at least at my school – to be so pro-freedom to read, that they would never deny anyone the right to read that website, even as they bad mouth the profession. A library is a place for everyone, and all views should be evenly represented. Not that this happens in all libraries, but it is what librarians should strive for and what the ALA recommends. Another thing the ALA recommends is that parents take responsibility for what their children read, not the librarians.

The very idea of freedom to read and freedom to access information involve no value judgment on what people choose, however, librarians are human too and some cannot separate their own personal values and beliefs from the professional. And that is truly a shame. I’m not afraid to say that maybe they shouldn’t be librarians.

“Banned Books Week is about upholding a fundamental American value,” says Gorman. [Michael Gorman is a former ALA president.] “We don’t believe in suppressing other peoples’ right to read. I’m a university librarian in a large-ish institution, so it’s very easy for me. The whole institution believes in access of information and freedom of inquiry. People working in a small rural library, where the most challenges are issued, can be very isolated. And we tend to want them to do the whole Gregory Peck act and stand up and defy their challengers. The dilemma is a lot more complicated. Banned Books Week says to those rural librarians, ‘You’re not alone.’ ”

Garden [Nancy Garden, banned author] sympathizes with the librarians facing those challenges, too, and considers a book challenge a good time to talk. “Librarians have to listen to the objections that people have to books,” says Garden. “But I think it’s important to say things like, ‘Well, look, we can’t remove this stuff, but if you want to tell us materials that you would like us to put in the library, which represent your viewpoint, we can put those in, too.’ ”

Conversation is often a good starting point for Ball [Miranda Ball, a library director in rural Alabama], who has intervened when kids check out books she thinks are too advanced for them—when a ten-year-old came to her with Stephen King’s Carrie, Ball explained to her that the book might be too advanced. “So then she wanted to read Anne Rice, and I said ‘I don’t think you want to read that either, honey,’ ” says Ball. “But I told her, ‘If you want to get it out, then go ahead.’ ”

“I am a conservative Christian, and I have a two-year-old daughter, and there are things I won’t want her reading. But I don’t want anyone else telling me what she can read,” says Ball. “And I’m sure not going to tell other people what they can read.”

The Book Standard – September 2005

The top banned books of the 21st century?
1. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
2. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier
3. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
4. “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck
5. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
6. “Fallen Angels” by Walter Dean Myers
7. “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris
8. Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz
9. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
10. “Forever” by Judy Blume

What can you do to observe banned books week?

For further reading:
Amnesty International remembers the authors persecuted for sharing information. (Not available in China without a proxy.)
The Forbidden Library
Top 100 Banned Books – 1990 to 2000

“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.”  — Clare Booth Luce

Link of the Week

13 August 07

I wanted to share an interesting website.

Saudi Aramco World

Saudi Aramco World is a magazine devoted to sharing the culture, history and geography of Arab and Muslim lands, through articles and photography. It is available online, as a downloadable PDF and, free, as a print subscription.

It is of great interest to anyone who wants to know more about the Middle East.

Freakonomics and Gangs

7 August 07

And one more post, before I get washed away with yet more rain… It has been raining here in Linyi for weeks now! Thunderstorms every other day!

I’d like to share a blog post that I think is fascinating, although it has nothing to do with China, or Asia, or travel, or any of the things I usually blog about. Heard of the book Freakonomics? I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. I have, however, read the blog associated with the book, and today there is an interesting post about gangs, of all things. Judging by the blog, the book is probably pretty interesting.

Burning Books is Not the Answer

1 June 07

Is burning books ever a good idea? I’m not sure how I feel about this. A bookstore owner in Kansas City had a warehouse full of books he was unable to sell – close to 20,000 books. After libraries and thrift shops refused the books, he decided to hold a monthly book bonfire. He views the burnings as a protest against society’s declining support of books.

I am actually cringing as I write these words. When I think of book burnings, I imagine that scene in Indiana Jones, when the nazis are burning all the books and Indy “runs into” Hitler. Book burnings = fascism, fear, totalitarianism, prison state, loss of freedom, censorship, closed-mindedness. In the nazi concentration camps, the motto work makes you free hung over the gates. I think a more appropriate motto for our day and age would be information makes you free.

The bookstore owner fears that most people are getting their reading in through newspapers and the Internet, that people don’t care about books anymore. I can think of nothing more sad. I spend countless hours on the Internet, reading as much as I can, but at the end of the day, I need books. There is nothing quite like the feel of the pages, the heft of the words. I seek information in as many forms as I can get – audiobooks, ebooks, Internet web pages, the old fashioned book. For me, information is my most valuable tool for surviving in this world. Maybe that is why I have chosen to spend the next year studying information science. A librarian’s world is filled with information.

When I read the article about the book burning, I immediately thought of a photo slide show (#1 on the search list) I had seen on the New York Times website a few weeks ago. The pictures were of university campuses in Africa. They showed the students living in cramped and dilapidated dormitories, as many as can fit in one room. They showed science classes using broken beakers and test tubes to perform lab experiments. They showed classrooms literally falling apart. They showed long lines of students desperate to get into the library to study. In America, one man burns books because no one seems to want them. In Africa, young people yearn for any kind of access to the information that could give them a better life.

The New York Times has excellent multimedia reports available on their site. This is by no means a recommendation to spend all your time surfing the Internet. Embrace a real live book if you have the chance!

Story Recommend

3 November 06

If you like reading short stories, or if you like reading fiction about China, I’ve got a short story recommendation for you. **Warning, there is some strong language and adult themes in the story.**

I came across this story, “Learning the Western Alphabet” by Hilary Jenkins, while randomly searching writing websites. I began to read it somewhat sceptically, because I tend to do that. But I was surprised. It is a very good story about a British ESL teacher in China in the 1980s and the relationship that develops between him and his Chinese “minder.” Many of the things discussed in the story are no longer true but I recognized many cultural traits and behaviors from my own time in China. Anyone who travels to China brings with them their notions of what China and the Chinese must be like. Their 5000 years of history, their Confucian ideals, their distrust of foreigners. What many people forget is that modern China is very much influenced by that 5000 years of history and Confucianism, but also by the tragic reality of the past 100 years –  war, revolution, famine, poverty, crazed leaders. There is a history behind every “strange behavior” the foreigner sees.

This story touches on this idea, showing what a college “unit” was like in the 80s, with their party leaders, quotas, criticisms, work units, and special meetings. Again, these kinds of things are fading fast in the new China. One sentence in the story especially caught my attention:

During a campaign to lessen cultural pollution, “The loudspeaker outside the guest house is to be turned up particularly loud.”

From our hotel at the airport, we could regularly hear a voice over a loudspeaker coming from the neighboring village. At first we joked about how it was our daily dose of CCP propaganda. Later I think we sort of got used to it and forgot about it. Now that I look back I think that it may have just been the village leaders announcing meetings or some such thing, but it realistically could have been propaganda of some kind.