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.


Blonde Asians

by Liz on August 3, 2013

in Fashion,Opinion

Model Xiao Wen Ju. Photographed by Tim Walker

There’s a new breed of Asian trendsetters in fashion magazines and on the streets, and they seem to pop up everywhere.

Asian blondes are probably nothing novel. No matter where you go these days almost all people dress as they please and dye their hair to their tastes.

It’s a bit harder to say why they are increasingly visible.

I think about Saskia Sassen’s theories of transnationalism and how globalization’s most potent effects manifest themselves in the denationalization of the national. The networks of surveillance and biofeedback that holds the threads of commercial civilization together have become so embedded in the daily life of even the most atomized individual they allow her (or him) to defy the heavy gravity of national identity and join the floating world of mobile apps, sound bytes and downloadable movies.

Some may say the mimicking of European hair color among Asian women is a post-colonial kow-towing to a Western standard promoted by Vogue or Swiss watch advertisements. I don’t entirely disagree with this observation. But if we are increasingly shedding the old Orientalism and trading it in for something a bit more cold, unblinking and sterile, we realize the blonded Asians are a visual metaphor for experimentation, though one that’s boxed in and limited to the superbrand sponsorship that has the final say about everything, including, dare I say, the color of our hair, no matter how off-key it may appear to the untrained eye.

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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)


Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

by Liz on January 29, 2013

in Opinion

Source: Tumblr

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items.

Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is Japanese women, or at least their symbolic significance, who carry the charged aura of their nation.

Nationalism in Asia, of course, and the visceral discourse that it naturally gives rise to, is an unending conversation mired in a bit of modern absurdity.

The long forgotten logic of East Asia, or even the subjective notion that it is somewhere ‘in the East’ didn’t really enter the national vocabulary until the mid- to late 19th century, a pivotal historical period that I’ve been studying independently.

It was around this time both destruction and creation took place, starting in Japan, then moving along the Korean peninsula and Qing China.

Which kind of brings us back to the geisha.

When I look at this picture, I see a powerfully seductive image of not an actual woman, but rather an abstraction of femininity that may be a paragon of Japanese culture. (And please do correct me if I am wrong.)

But perhaps on a more subversive level, I also see an expression and vision of the Japanese nation that binds the collective imagination. It stays on, it lingers. We remember Japan because we remember the geisha.

And it’s images like these, or Korean pop music, or even the Beijing Olympics, that posits a near-superficial cultural unity or a source of pride for an East Asian national.

What we forget, though, is that limiting Asian identities to the cultural-turned-national symbol, in a way, also creates paradoxical dependencies on these potent concepts that now differentiate one population from another.

They fuel the nationalisms that make the headlines, and encourages the hostilities we see today.


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.


The Last Prince Of Korea

October 31, 2012

Many people don’t know this — but Korea’s royal family was guaranteed into the mid-twentieth century to regain their role as monarchs if Korea was ever liberated from Japanese colonial rule. For Korea’s royals, it was only a matter of time. The end of the second World War and the near immediate effect of the […]

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NYCAS 2012

October 12, 2012

New York state is not yet a hotbed of Asian Studies, but there are signs it already rivals Tokyo and Hong Kong. This was one consensus at the annual New York Conference on Asian Studies at SUNY New Paltz, the largest regional academic conference of the Association of Asian Studies. Over the course of two […]

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Meanwhile In Tibet

September 10, 2012

I received this Tibetan parable in my inbox. It’s from Ji Hyang Sunim who’s the head of the Wellesley Buddhist Community. Such a great morning read. Or any time of the day. There was a great teacher in the land of Tibet named Milarepa, He had a very bright, promising woman student named Paldabum. She […]

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Why We Smile

April 28, 2012

This past winter I traveled to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, and I thought I owed it to myself to write a few thoughts that have lingered on. Travel took place mostly by land, on roads that were at times littered with rubble or sometimes crowded with ox carts that were a throwback […]

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Earthly quarrels

September 5, 2011

Look on a world map, and you’ll notice China is a vast country. Positively massive. I realize that now, but most of the time I don’t give China’s portly silhouette much thought. I just assume those have been her borders for some time, occasionally contested by an uprising in Tibet or tumult in Xinjiang. But […]

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