Books & Entertainment

Lin Shu Michael Hill

Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
by Michael Gibbs Hill
Oxford 2012, 320 pages

Imagine, if you would, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin written with a late 19th-century Chinese reader in mind. How would it play out?

That is one of the more intriguing finds of Michael Hill’s intellectual history Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture, a must-read for those of us dabbling in modern China studies or comparative literature.

Hill’s monograph doesn’t quite align Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation to Lin Shu’s intellectual labor. (A little context here – Lin was a Chinese man of letters, best known for translating literature from the West in the late Qing period, an exceptional feat given that he did not know foreign languages and employed assistants as needed.) If Benjamin believed “Translation issued from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife,” Hill takes that afterlife of Lin Shu’s work to task — prodding it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hill, who teaches Chinese and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina, addresses Lin’s ‘suspicious labors’ and his ‘questionable methods of translating text,’ and indeed, he should. As he points out, Chinese translations of original works of foreign fiction would add new plots, which the author more or less views as tampering with the integrity of literature. Lin took great liberties, for example, with the character of George Harris (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin), who takes on a new afterlife in the Chinese translation, as he emerges as the “hero and as the vessel of the (Chinese) translators’ hopes for national salvation.” According to Hill, Harris’ search for a national identity and his “choice to identify with African-Americans and the state of Liberia” (in Lin’s translated rendition of the story) resonates and serves the interests of the Chinese translators who saw in Harris China’s own modernizing future, and perhaps an answer to its crisis in the wake of encroaching Western imperialism. So an afterlife existed in Lin Shu’s enterprise, but also produced a translation that misconstrued the original work for Chinese, or more specifically, to Lin’s ends.

Hill’s monograph excels when taking a penetrating look into the relationship between translation and Chinese national subjectivity, the latter convincingly depicted as vacillating in a perpetual state of negotiation. The Chinese translator’s choice of identities and identifications across textual life cycles, then, draws attention to the experience of a destabilizing modernity wherein concepts in opposition can roughly coexist, a key condition for China’s then burgeoning ‘linguistic market’ that was part of the process of the building of a nation, or the forming of a “consciousness of the Chinese nation and the world.”

Aside from the fascinating insight into a tumultuous period in Chinese history, the book serves as a reminder nations are constantly being rewritten and reinvented, as our intellectual needs and moral imagination guides, and at times, misguides us.



The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
by Lydia Liu
Harvard, 334 pages

As an avid reader of non-fiction books about East Asia it’s come to my attention academic works rarely cross over to enjoy the popularity of a Thomas Friedman bestseller or a Malcolm Gladwell paperback.

The most common complaint is academic books are dry, boring or hard to read.

While this may be true for some, it’s also increasingly the case I find works that are not only fascinating to read but are ferociously relevant to the present.

Lydia Liu’s The Clash Of Empires was published in 2004, but with its insights into the construction of ‘China’ in the 19th century it does astonish the reader with a completely overlooked episode in history.

According to Liu, mistranslation and appropriation of key Chinese words enabled European powers, and specifically Britain, to extract unfair treaties from relatively reclusive Qing China.

Through the reconstruction of the Chinese term ‘Yi‘ and misappropriating it into the false equivalence of the English word ‘barbarian,’ Liu argues that the diplomatically mediated British empire was able to bring Chinese writing under Western control.

It’s a flicker of an episode but one with catastrophic consequences for the Qing, because once philology was colonized even the Chinese elite was at the mercy of a new kind of control.

An event from such a distant past may not sound too relevant today but as Liu demonstrates that’s only because the hidden powers of political technologies have been kept out of view for so long.


Democracy : demo from studio shelter on Vimeo.

What is democracy anyways?

According to this tongue-in-cheek “video game” by South Korean outfit, Studio Shelter, it’s just another platform for repression.

In under three minutes, a video simulating a MIDI game found in penny arcades takes you through 20th century Korean history, marked by protests, uprisings, and people power quelled by repressive South Korean governments.

There are some dictatorships along the way. Most of them didn’t end well.

But what’s interesting is the characterization of even democratically elected leaders as a rehash of old school repression. Outgoing president Lee Myung-Bak, and incoming leader Park Geun-Hye are all villains and lackeys of some sort.

It all sounds pretty terrible, if the medium itself wasn’t so entertaining, with scorekeeping tracking gains for The People vs. Brutal Leaders of Past, Present and Future.

Democracy according to this slice of entertainment (and representative of certain segments of South Korean public opinion), though, represents a problem.

With a leader going out and another coming in every five years (in a country where a second term is banned), we now have a society that is perpetually coping with a disgraced power structure every 35 dog years.

The devastating result?

All past leaders are despicable, and all future leaders will be, eventually.

And that represents a conundrum for a young democracy like South Korea’s.

(HT Co. Design)


Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 83, 2009, Photograph, 47 1/4 × 47 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Eli Klein Fine Art.

Today is Black Friday.

In the United States, this is a chance for citizens to prove their financial worth by shopping for things they don’t really need. Or, go into debt trying to accomplish this bizarre feat.

Through some Foucauldian coup of governmentality, we now believe a citizen isn’t really a citizen unless that citizen is also a consumer.

This isn’t just the case in the West — to an even greater degree this holds true in the capitalist domains of East Asia.

You could say I write this out of cynicism, but in some ways, though, the ceaseless brainwashing campaign that has people running, pushing, and trampling on each other for a lampshade or a video game console has been so successful, that by and large we don’t even take its effects into scrutiny. We take them for granted.

I spotted this “bizarre North Korean documentary” on Laughing Squid in August. But both times I’ve found nothing really bizarre about it, only some interesting Marxist perspectives about class, capitalism, and the manufacturing of propaganda so frighteningly effective it is, in many ways, impossible to dismantle.

One interesting example loops the creation of the ‘consumer slave’ (i.e. us) to the raising of funds/taxes that then go onto finance wars in the Middle East that damages thousands of innocent lives in these countries. Another points out the creation of the vague, empty slogan, something everyone can rally around. Everyone, that is, who are consumers.

The origins of the documentary are unclear. The YouTube user who uploaded the video claims it was handed down from North Koreans disguised as defectors. But my guess is it might even be a creation of South Korean producers with very clever North Korean touch-ups.

In the end, capitalism isn’t ugly because it creates armies of slave labor that stamp out t-shirts for Walmart that its wearers don’t really need. Capitalism is ugly, not to mention a bit scary, because it is a source of fuel for ongoing wars.

It’s the building of an empire that can’t be dismantled. Imperialism without a face.


[FYI: There will be a free screening of Pearls Of The Far East (2011) on June 18, 2012 at 6:30 PM at Pratt Manhattan (144 West 14th Street, Second Floor, Room 213). Amy Guggenheim, Founder and Director of Global Cinema, has curated and produced nine film screenings. The series is co-presented with Pratt’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and there will be a Q&A with the film’s producer, Igor Szczurko. PS – I’ll be there!]

Can cinema reinvent Vietnam? That’s the question I asked myself after previewing Pearls Of The Far East, a beautiful film that floats a layer above reality. And by beautiful I mean seven tales set in timeless Edens that are the mountains and beaches of contemporary Vietnam.

Seven Vignettes, One Cinematic Experience

Cuong Ngo’s debut feature brings together distinct vignettes about forbidden desire and true love, stories filtered through the lens of sensitive, Vietnamese women protagonists. These women crave affection but seek it in unattainable lovers. They are torn between a sense of duty and the need to satisfy their own lust. All life stages are taken into consideration: childhood, the quarter life crisis, middle age, and married life. There’s a subdued, bittersweet undertone to the failed, romantic encounters. There’s also a prevailing anonymity to all of Ngo’s heroines, a trait that attributes each woman with both depth and distance: we rarely know their names but are introduced to their deepest desires. We feel we are on the receiving end of a fleeting glimpse of each life, lives we barely know, but then as we get closer, we feel the filmmaker is pulling us away to the next story.

A Different Vietnam

Vietnam in Pearls Of The Far East is stunning, breathtakingly beautiful. So are the actors populating the front and center of each plot. The busy streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh that may be more familiar to travelers are remarkably absent. Instead, it is the isolated beaches and lush, green mountains of the north that speak to the peace and serenity of Ngo’s cinematic Vietnam. Pearls Of The Far East allows the viewer to see Vietnam, far removed from the popularized, Hollywood image of the country as apocalyptic jungle, or symbol of failed American policy. Because as time marches on, and old memories are discarded for new ones, there’s a good chance filmmakers will seize the moment to tell a story that will resonate with an audience ready for something gratifyingly different.

And yes, we’re ready.

For more see here and here.

(Images via)


Global Asianista’s Week in Review 5.20.12

May 20, 2012

@The Diplomat reports the Obama Administration has appointed its first Ambassador to Burma. Derek Mitchell, an inside-the-Beltway native, will be America’s ambassador to Burma, the first in 22 years. Or as President Obama put it poetically: “As an iron fist has unclenched in Burma, we have extended our hand.” @TIME Magazine reports there’s a war […]

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Kings of the Hill

May 17, 2012

The Front Line/Go Ji Seon (2011) Directed by Jang Hun Cast: Shin Ha-gyun, Go Soo, Ryoo Seung-soo Hills are tricky places, but they’re also massively symbolic. The people who scale the hill are worthy of exceptional merit, perhaps even of biblical proportions. But hills embattled by brotherly hatred in one of the most bloody conflicts […]

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All Roads Lead to Seoul

January 1, 2012

SEOUL SWEET SEOUL! The definitive girl’s guide to living, discovering, and enjoying South Korea By Hana Yoo and Elizabeth Shim Small Planet Publishing Call me crazy, but I keep hearing little voices that are nudging me to declare 2012 as the year to visit, discover, and frolic in the land of Korea. Perhaps even live […]

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Asiafied NY: Issue 4

September 30, 2011

When I first started this blog, I must have been tremendously naive, or at least under the impression that Asian-y events in New York were manageable, at least from a writer’s perspective. Of course, now I know better. New York is positively Asiafied. It’s actually a challenge to curate great places and people, and reduce […]

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Asiafied NY: Issue 3

September 1, 2011

Well New York, this September marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A month of rememberance as we officially settle into fall, a season that’s also our fair city’s best, hurricanes, earthquakes, and financial fallouts not withstanding. But rain or shine, there will always be things to do, foods to try, and art to remember. Always.

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