New post: “Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair”

Only ten days too late to be truly timely!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!’”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily.

Read the whole thing at

Comments (2)

  1. Bocce wrote::

    A couple of things about Chen Guangchen for you to consider and/or delete:

    Chen Guangchen entered into this undertaking with a naive belief in the central government. He must have thought that his political problems were limited to Linyi and/or Shandong, and if he could get out of there in a public way, he and his family would be able to move on, or at least avoid continued beatings/harsh restrictions. He must have known that nobody outside the government power hierarchy in the PRC can guarantee the safety of a Chinese citizen in government custody, and that the US would be powerless to prevent retribution against his family. The fact that he was not prepared in advance for these threats is reminiscent of petitioner culture, and their disillusionment when they discover the basic indifference of the central government.

    Chen wasn’t using the US as a way to traverse between one faction and another inside Chinese government, like Wang Lijun — as it turns out (and many would have predicted this), the central government is as wolfish as the thugs in Linyi, and just as interested in punishing him for speaking against gov’t policy. So he’s stuck, now, dependent on public and media attention for self-protection. That’ll go on for just a little while, perhaps a bit longer if the US Republican party tries to make this an issue in the 2012 election, but it can’t have been his strategy from the beginning.

    I say all this in part because it’s upsetting to see the Ch./Eng twitter fill up with people talking crap about the US government role. That’s going to accomplish nothing but closing the gates in the future. The US State Department went out on a limb for Chen, and whether or not it turned out, I for one haven’t seen any argument for what they should’ve or could’ve done differently.

    Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 4:12 am #
  2. Brendan O'Kane wrote::

    Hi Bocce- thanks for the very perceptive comment, and apologies for the late response. You’re quite right. At least the whole thing now appears to be headed for a happy resolution (except probably for Chen Kegui, and we’ll see what happens with He Peirong, Teng Biao, and company) — let’s hope that the powers that be are as eager to put this behind them as they appear.

    Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 9:27 am #