“The feeling he had nourished and given prominence to was one of thankfulness for his escape: he was like a traveller so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he is hardly conscious of his bruises. Now he suddenly felt the latent ache, and realized that after all he had not come off unhurt.”

From Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Gubo Kaixilai brought back into the spotlight by this statement by Neil Heywood's mother


She also reveals (as though it were a surprise) that the Heywoods come from a long line of foreigners living in China—“back over four generations,” which, if we think about the timeline of the Revolution and Reform and Opening Up, should be medium impossible. I don’t want to say that the plot has thickened because at this point it’s moving like setting cement, but I do want to say that the plot won’t go away. Now I imagine the whole story unfolding like a thousand-page, multi-generational James Clavell novel—here, Heywood’s great-grandmother and Gu Kailai’s great-grandfather meet when she’s accompanying her husband on a joint wartime engineering survey for the possible building of the Three Gorges Dam; there, the echoes of this impossible and unconsummated love affair lead Gu’s grandmother, the English woman’s lover’s eldest daughter, to smuggle a letter chronicling their suffering during the Cultural Revolution and begging for asylum to the oft-remembered and near-mythical Heywoods; in 1979, Heywood’s mother arrives a moment after her grandmother’s lover expires; from the side of the road near Gu’s ancestral house, little Neil hears the distant mixture of English and Chinese voices, wailing, and little Gu Kailai, ushered out of the house and away from death by her elders, stares at him wide-eyed, neither of them knowing they’d eventually be brought down by the other’s—then, so small—hands. 

The Real Subject [Whir]
Do not alarm yourself, Icould not rest content with moral lectures and continual repetition
like the solar system, Icould not hold my head up, made endlessly to glow
destined for grand ceremonies, Iwas much affected by finding myself sothin and so worndown
(we use theoryto mean it is possible to choose, e.g., why I am just thesize I am)
a million million, acool and mortifying manner — what governsmotions
—Keith Waldrop
Or else this, maybe:
The Plain Sense of Things
After the leaves have fallen, we returnTo a plain sense of things. It is as ifWe had come to an end of the imagination,Inanimate in an inert savoir.
It is difficult even to choose the adjectiveFor this blank cold, this sadness without cause.The great structure has become a minor house.No turban walks across the lessened floors. 
The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.A fantastic effort has failed, a repetitionIn a repetitiousness of men and flies. 
Yet the absence of the imagination hadItself to be imagined. The great pond,The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence 
Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all thisHad to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,Required, as a necessity requires.
—Wallace Stevens

The Real Subject [Whir]

Do not alarm yourself, I
could not rest content with 
moral lectures and continual 
repetition

like the solar system, I
could not hold my head up, made 
endlessly to 
glow

destined for grand ceremonies, I
was much affected by finding myself so
thin and so worn
down

(we use theory
to mean it is possible to 
choose, e.g., why I am just the
size I am)

a million million, a
cool and mortifying manner — what 
governs
motions

—Keith Waldrop

Or else this, maybe:

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors. 

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies. 

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence 

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

—Wallace Stevens

“Diplomacy in a sense is the opposite of writing. You have to disperse yourself so much: the lady who comes in crying because she’s had a fight with the secretary; exports and imports; students in trouble; thumbtacks for the embassy. Writing requires the concentration of the writer, demands that nothing else be done except that.”

Complete Destruction
It was an icy day.We buried the cat,then took her boxand set fire to it
in the back yard.Those fleas that escapedearth and firedied by the cold.
—William Carlos Williams

Complete Destruction

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

—William Carlos Williams

On Development - 论发展


Development came last to GC district. Or maybe it came first—the real fear and aversion developers now feel toward interviews, dinners with more than three people, and anything else that feels like it might not be entirely didiao—on the down low—means that I’ve had a hard time getting any of my facts exactly right. Maybe, people tell me, it’s that development came to GC district first. Maybe this is in fact the second wave. The traditional dirt houses that had sprung up around the wilder, southeast end of the railway station were too much an eyesore. Maybe they were the first structures to be razed and it was just that no one had noticed because there were no walls permanent enough to bear the inscription of impending destruction: 拆. People speculate about this the same way they speculate about the year that loufang or high-rise housing came to this city. Maybe in the 1980s, says a lifelong  resident in his 40s. Maybe in the early 1990s, says one of the city’s first developers, who follows the statement up quickly with a disclaimer: But I left the profession in the late 90s, and the market reached its craziest point in the 2000s. 

How can there be so much confusion over what seems to me to be simple facts? As always, I try to think of analogues in my American life. If you asked me when each part of my small Northern Californian hometown was developed, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from telling you directly, in great and probably unnecessary detail. Even now when I picture driving down the main boulevards of the town, I can see the faces of each of the major families responsible for selling the bundles of farmland for housing tracts that sometimes bear their names. Thus the descendants of the original Smith clan (name, obviously, changed) would end up living not on the west side of town but in a house with high ceilings but a small yard in a densely packed 1990s development perversely called “SMITH FARMS.” My family didn’t live anywhere that new, but I spent more than a few childhood evenings cavorting with the children whose grandparents had literally made the town. By selling away their chickens, their sheep, their tired dairy cows, they’d created the possibility for the town to exist. With a simple scrawl of a pen, they’d willed the town—and the whole texture of my life, of all our lives—into being.

My informants back in the American academy tell me it’s ontology and questions like this that are all the rage among anthropologists now, but I can’t get excited about being before I figure out how you know that you are. I’ve resisted learning the complicated vocabulary words I would be leaning on if I were having these conversations in America—words like epistemicetic, etc—and so my interlocutors here have to listen to me slog through an explanation of what I mean using only my limited high-school-level Mandarin vocabulary. This way I understand myself what I mean better, and so do they. “It’s like this,” they always begin, confident that the diagnoses and descriptions they deliver will be universally agreed upon by all the other Chinese people I encounter. Thankfully, they never are. What a boring dissertation I might have to write if everyone agreed with each other! In the muddle, in the depths of the chronic uncertainty, I feel like I’m on to something good though even I don’t know exactly what it is.

My hunch is that somehow it will all lead back to GC District. Originally, that was where I wanted to live, but my hosts, a series of well-meaning and well-educated academics,  all discouraged me and so I ended up here, in EQ District. In retrospect, I should have lived in the nicer, government-worker filled JS District. JS District has gradually become the center of my social life, and the hour-long or hour-and-a-half-long commutes from here to there by public bus has taught me about the arteries of the city. Now when my interlocutors diagnose the city, I shake my head, I argue, I point out on a map where the urban humors have congealed and clogged, where the next fainting spell or attack of nerves is likely to come from. But the buses don’t pass through GC district, even though you’d think that would be the quickest route; instead, they loop all the way up through EQ district straight into JS district, theoretically following the flow the commuters but, in reality, determining it. One of my most important interlocutors loves to make me perform what she thinks is my best bit. Tell them, she demands, about the districts, and I oblige: EQ district is for train workers, ZY district for factory workers turned cab drivers, JS district for government workers, XD district for rich people who no longer work. There I always pause and admit that the only district left is GC district, which I do not really know anything about. Oh, people say offhandedly already chuckling at the precocious foreigner’s unexpected cleverness, That’s where the muslims live, or, Oh that’s the old city.

The problem is there aren’t even that many muslims left and the city isn’t really that old, if we’re being perfectly honest. As cheap rent in the village-in-a-cities (dushicunzhuang) became harder and harder to come by, a wave of demolition refugees retreated to GC district, the so-called “old city” where a 1980s reconstruction of 3,000 year old city walls is being replaced with a 2010s reconstruction of 3,000 year old city walls. The truth is, even just 70 years ago there was no such thing as a “city” filling that space, but the 1970s and 1980s apartment buildings seem so ancient that everyone’s already forgotten that, already assumed that GC district, with its old, dilapidated facilities and poor, cheap-rent-seeking population, must have been there—and this way—forever. 

But now development has come to GC district. Exhausted, perhaps, by the resistance of the northern villages, stymied by the dense occupation of the west, and galled by the regulations plaguing any development in the rich, quiet east, developers have turned finally—perhaps for the second time—to GC district. I don’t know what will happen to the urban refugees this time. I don’t know anyone who lives in GC district. Until a foreign friend of mine announced that all the scheduled demolitions were making it difficult for him to find an apartment near his assigned school, I had completely wiped GC district from my memory. I have been focused on the west, the north, the east—the strange centers of mobility, power, and money, respectively. The strange truth is that it was GC district that convinced me to begin this love affair with Zhengzhou in the first place. During an early, solo visit to what was then just another northern Chinese city full of strangers, I too was duped by a mid-afternoon walk on the 1980s reconstruction of the 3,000 year old “city wall.” I cooed at and caressed the wiry black trees growing out of mounds of dirt, trees that I thought must be thousands if not hundreds of years old. I waved from the top of the wall at people milling about in a block of brick houses. The houses had windows but no windowpanes, and I stupidly and romantically thought that maybe, one day, I would live there. The people did not wave back. The reconstructed wall and the people it attracted meant that even on the third and fourth floor their pane-less windows exposed them to the attention of others, and they were probably practiced in the art of ignoring, repressing my existence as easily as all these east, west, and northern residents of the city repress the existence of all the residents of GC district.

Construction there is well underway. Other foreign friends tell me that from the windows of their high-rise office building they watched as the street vendors disappeared over one night, a whole block over the course of one week. They complain about the dust and the noise and general chaos of it, but strangely enough these things no longer bother me. Maybe it’s that I’ve been here too long, but the aesthetics of demolition—the mixed chunks of pink brick, white plaster, and shattered porcelain flesh all covered by a dust-containing sheer black material, like a cheap funeral shroud—appeal to me on some fundamental level. Development has brought true ruins to GC district, and I know that if I go there, beyond the new corpses of housing projects I’ll also find massive piles of earth—side effects of foundation construction that, ironically, look uncannily like the “original” 1980s reconstruction of the old city walls. I often wonder if I brought one of my northern or eastern district friends to GC district whether they’d know the difference between these “fake” old city walls and the “real” thing; I also wonder whether it really matters, whether I’ve in fact wasted my time training my epistemological senses to distinguish so finely between what is and isn’t true, to think it matters how and what one knows about what at the end of the day just is. There are no reports of protests or resistance coming from GC district. Why would there be? This is, after all, the old city. Though development may have come here last of all, it certainly isn’t producing anything the residents of GC district haven’t seen before. Development is happening—here, now, and regardless of what anyone might have once known and already forgotten about it.

“I tried to answer but I couldn’t. I wanted to explain myself, smartly, irrefutably. But once again I had nothing to offer. I had always thought that I could be anyone, perhaps several anyones at once. Dennis Hoagland and his private firm had conveniently appeared at the right time, offering the perfect vocation for the person I was, someone who could reside in his one place and take half-steps out whenever he wished. For that I felt indebted to him for life. I found a sanction from our work, for I thought I had finally found my truest place in the culture.”

From Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker
This is how protests work in the PRC congrats America you did it it’s over

This is how protests work in the PRC congrats America you did it it’s over

(Source: coketalk)

“The very centrality of the place calligraphy occupies in Chinese life and culture paradoxically explains why the West took such a long time to appreciate it as an art. When two great civilisations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but blows and trinkets. Mutual access to the core of their respective cultures necessitates a lengthy and complex process. It demands patience and humility, for outsiders are normally not allowed beyond a certain point: they will not be admitted to the inner chambers of the spirit, unless they are willing to shed some of their original baggage. Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn.”

Simon Leys, RIP