Review of “Everything Under The Heavens ” by Howard French

My review of “Everything Under The Heavens ” by Howard French is now up on Hong Kong Review of Books. Go take a look.



“Party Members” by Arthur Meursault

The Middle Kingdom is long overdue being subject to scathing, bilious satire. Few countries can have such a marked contrast between the hospitality and kindness of its people on an individual level and such a total absence of civic feeling. This is, of course, not a historical accident. The destruction of civil society by the Chinese Communist Party and its constant violent repression of any possibility of its reformation mean public-spiritedness and civic virtues can be hard to spot. To be sure, one encounters many open, friendly, people there; one can also be dazzled by people’s appetite for hard work and self-improvement. But a society where more than a dozen people idly walk past a dying toddler lying on the road clearly has structural problems.

Party Members thus takes savage aim at the incivilities of Chinese society. It is not the work of an insider aiming to destroy the temple from within – the author’s pen name comes from the Camus novel, The Outsider – but rather is by an Englishman who clearly has glimpsed, been disgusted by and catalogued China’s numerous rank vulgarities. Every moment that ever repulsed you on a bad China day is here: public defecation, gluttony, bovine ignorance, officiousness, obsequiousness, label fetishism, inane TV, the arrogant disdain for anything not immediately profitable, and the apartheid-esque contempt for the poor that gives the lie to Communist Party rhetoric of human dignity.

The plot and central metaphor of the book are simple enough. Yang Wei is a low-level official in a nondescript town, Huaishi (“bad thing”) in an unremarkable province. When Yang is provoked by the ostentatious material success of a former classmate in the same ministry, his penis begins to talk to him – instructing him in the arts of succeeding politically, sexually and materially. The penis, once Yang Wei obeys its counsel, begins to grow and take him over. This kind of transgressive metaphor can be traced back to antecedents like the tapeworm in Irvine Welsh’s Filth, the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and even the original split-personality fiction of them all, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The key to success, it turns out, is to be a huge dick to everyone. Act like some ubermensch, and everyone gets in line. It’s a crude, simple metaphor, but satire doesn’t have to be subtle.

As I suggested above, Meursault is an outsider to the Chinese society he depicts. While this gives him an external moral standard, it also means that his prose is often in explicatory mode. This might help the reader fully understand what is so egregious about the focus of Meursault’s ire, but there is a frequent sense of authorial intrusion. For instance:

For Director Liang, the evening meant that he only had another four hours to go before he could escape the excruciatingly boring official event he was forced to attend and return to the warm arms of his seventh mistress in a tawdry, pay-by-the-hour love hotel. Until then, he continued to beam his usual empty smile […] while he watched yet another group of well-rehearsed four year-olds perform a special Spring Festival rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, with the words altered to better reflect the city’s latest 8 percent growth in plastic injection exports.

There is no need to interject that the event is “excruciatingly boring”, once he mentions the length, the performance and the Soviet lauding of production statistics – the reader will figure that out. The same applies for Liang’s “empty” smile and the “tawdriness” of the love hotel. In a sense, these sardonic asides are like getting to the punchline before the joke is complete. They hold the reader’s hand rather too tightly to the conclusion, and are I think mostly unnecessary.

The key question, however, is: Does the novel’s satire work? And I would say without doubt that yes, it does. For one thing, Party Members is very funny. It can be scabrously funny, it can be situationally funny, and it can be sardonically funny: page by page, the absurd and the dreadful combine, grotesquely, nauseatingly, absurdly, surreally. Yang Wei’s mistress Rainy is a WeChat-addicted narcissistic bubblehead, and when the two are involved in a car accident, she snaps a few selfies as they crawl out the wreckage. Meursault’s observations of Chinese family life are savage yet bristle with home truths that will have the reader chuckling at his insolence. The assaults by Yang’s penis on his rivals are sudden and devastating, and the references to KFC become increasingly grotesque. Some readers may lack the stomach for such dark comedy, but in these bland times, it is refreshing to read someone unafraid to go balls-to-the-wall.

But of course these scenes are not merely comic savageries. For them to work as satire, there has to be a sense of moral trangression, of a better world that should be. Meursault’s indictment is not perhaps complex – the metaphors are all front and centre – but this very obviousness is an asset. The book is not a subtle probing of China’s secrets. It is a full-on, all-guns-blazing, merciless caricature of its everyday social interactions and political culture. It might be easy to mistake its prosecution as a predilection – some might see Meursault as wallowing in what he condemns – but that would be misreading. Party Members is simply and unsparingly scathing about the horrors of Chinese society.

(I don’t think I’ll ever eat KFC again, either).



A version of this was published by Hong Kong Review of Books.

“Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life” by Yiyun Li

Here’s my review of Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life. A version of this was printed by South China Morning Post.


This is a remarkable book in many ways. Both a memoir and Li’s disavowal of the possibility of writing one, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life takes the reader through Li’s life as a reader and writer. Focusing on the formation of her literary mind, the book is seared with the pain and difficulties of that life. (If you ever want to dissuade a child from pursuing a career in literature, this might be perfect for it). As a memoir, it is not sequential, narrative-based, nor even organized by theme. Rather, slivers of anecdote and memory are developed into short musings, equivocation and pitiless, self-excoriation (at one point she even says that “The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles” – an extraordinary thing for a memoir-writer to say). She also discusses at length a number of writers and what their significance to her life, her writing and her understanding of time, memory and loss.

But this should not be taken to suggest the book is artless diarizing. Theme and characters appear and re-appear: Li’s mother (who appears to have been a world-class narcissist), her decision to only write in English, her youth in Beijing and army service, her two stays in a mental hospital, her depression and the appeal of suicide, and authors such as Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield and Russian greats like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Nabokov, and Chekhov, her friendship with the Irish writer William Trevor. There is a sense of trajectory in that as the book progresses, narrative becomes increasingly prominent, especially compared to the first chapter’s numbered series of whisps of remembered moments and introductions to her themes. It’s as though the alienated solitude of the early chapters gives way to a more social present – though the final, unusually ambiguous, paragraph hardly ends the book on an upbeat note.

Discussions of writers are of course disguised autobiography, as Li herself recognizes. “I was aware that my obsession with [Mansfield and Larkin] reflected what I resent in myself: seclusion, self-deception, and above all the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives.” Thus, her discussions of Nabokov’s decision to write in English rather than Russian, Larkin’s self-protective passivity, Mansfield’s anxiety about her work, Woolf’s competitiveness, all become parables help the reader better understand Li.

Musings on the craft of writing, memory, mental illness, and self-effacement – in less capable hands these ingredients might have produced something self-indulgent or tediously egocentric. Li is both too skilled in the art of prose and too severe a self-critic to err in these areas. Most notably, Li is an exceptional prose technician. Her sentences are wonderfully precise: always hard, clear and finely-hewn, as though chiseled and polished into precise shapes. Her style is what Martin Amis described as an example of the modern “absence of curlicue”, never decorative, stripped of connotation and ambiguity – though her images and similes are always clear and precise, and there are a few deft little allusions (she writes that, “A heat wave was general all over Ireland” in a cunning echo of Joyce’s The Dead). One feels as though each sentence were precisely balanced, that Li has a poet’s awareness of each phrase’s verbal weight. Such care is invigorating. Here are some choice examples:

In life we seek like-minded people despite – or because of – the limit of knowing and understanding. We do so to feel less lonely, though it brings a different kind of loneliness. In seeking others, inevitably we try to control an interaction. We insist on being known only as the version we prefer to attach to ourselves.

What I admire and respect in a dreamer: her confidence in her capacities, her insusceptibility to the frivolous, and her faith that the good and the real shall triumph and last. There is nothing selfish, dazzling or preposterous about dreamers; in everyday life they blend in rather than stand out, though it’s not hiding. A real dreamer has a mutual trust with time.

In the second example there’s a semi-colon handled deftly, the word “shall” used precisely, a trio of adjectives (“selfish, dazzling or preposterous”) that do not overlap, and a final sentence laying down a general precept that closes the entire paragraph with a short, exact aphorism. This is wonderful prose.

Similarly, Li has a gift (or, more likely, a hard-won skill developed over many years of practice) for aphorism. The end of each section of musing tends to end with a general statement, a maxim, with Li repeatedly moving from anecdote to contemplation to pronouncement. There’s a sense of her perhaps slightly hedging her bets, of removing herself from her most deeply felt beliefs, by the frequent use of the gender-neutral, indefinite pronoun, “One”. Here are a few of her terrific paragraph-ending aphorisms and general statements:

One always knows how best to sabotage one’s life.

To read is to be surrounded by people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.

One ought to be loyal to whom one deems a friend on the page.

Our admiration and scrutiny of another person reflect what we love and hate to see in ourselves.

As a style, it replicates Philip Larkin’s most recurrent poetic strategy, where he transitions from concrete observation to rumination to final-line pronouncements, such as the famous “What will survive of us is love”. Following this technique in crystalline prose, perhaps Li’s book is better understood an inter-connected series of autobiographical prose poems than as a memoir.

The sections or themes perhaps of most public interest concern Li’s writing only in English – in fact, going so far as to refuse to have her books translated into Chinese. She knows that to live in the US and to renounce Mandarin will be seen as a slight against her motherland, and so discusses elliptically, and refutes any suggestion of being a political writer. (She earlier brings up the Tiananmen Square massacre, only to explain how media commentary would be false: “[W]hat can be said, on a radio program or TV, is always a simplification or a distortion… One has either to submit oneself to that script, or else choose to only speak on one’s own terms.” In a book of infinite nuance, the certainties that either side requires would clearly repel her). She describes writing propaganda pieces whilst in the army, then how she felt disturbed at this “public language”: “can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?” English, of course, becomes her private language, and from this alienation she comes to eventually find articulation and connection.

Though Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life is not at all a typical memoir, it is stimulating, wonderfully written, and reveals moments of deep personal significance. Li has already won a number of awards that attest to her exceptional talent. Here is further evidence of the full flowering of her bracingly challenging and exhilaratingly precise writing.

Tiers In My Eyes

A recent report that China has 102 cities with over a million people brought home, yet again, the immensity of the Chinese population. Few people will travel frequently enough to visit them all one, whereas in the UK there are only two urban centers over a million (Birmingham is the second, which is sometimes forgotten), and even the US only has ten, with cities as famous and culturally important as San Francisco, Seattle and Denver not making the list. Even ancient old Boston only has 660,000 residents, about the same as Chinese backwaters like Panjin in Liaoning or Puyang in Henan. (Which, of course, I had to look up just now, having never heard of them).

I am always thankful that my experience in China included all three tiers of city. I first came to live in Huai’an, a Tier 3 in Jiangsu province, which I chose partly on impulse, partly because it looked small enough to be manageable, and partly because they were simply the first with a firm job offer. After a year, I moved to Tianjin, first downtown (Wandezhuang Dajie) then in Tanggu. Finally I moved to Beijing, inexorably drawn by the challenge of its immensity and opportunities. Here are some generalizations of the foreigner’s experience in each Tier.


Tier 3

There are maybe ten to twenty foreigners in the whole city, who you will cling to until you get despair of them. Every Chinese male aged 15 to 25 says “Hullo!” after they have passed by. Everyone stares at you – people will stare at your shopping basket, and come into the doctor’s room when you are getting the results of an X-Ray. There are no Western bars or restaurants. Western food in local restaurants is a thing of perplexing wonder. There is no Western food in the supermarkets, which themselves are relative novelties to locals more accustomed to wet markets, and have tanks with frogs, eels, and turtles. The few bars and clubs there are hideously smoky, and have the filthiest toilets ever seen outside an IRA prisoner’s dirty protest cell. There’s no subway but taxis are absurdly cheap, so you feel like you travel like a king. The main streets are nearly all self-owned stores rather than chains, with broken speakers at overly-loud volumes somehow drawing in customers. For entertainment, there is KTV, a bath-house, a snooker hall, and a few parks – the subterranean internet bars have mostly died out now. The parks are surprisingly nice. Most Chinese will be very approachable, some too much so: some will simply want to be friendly and some will want free English lessons. Life is sedate, inexpensive and generally pleasant, if limited in its options.


Tier 2

These cities are large enough to have a foreign culture and sustained presence, which nonetheless remains unobtrusive. They will have an expat magazine or two, maybe even a website, to help you navigate your way. You won’t know every foreigner, but they’ll only be one degree of separation away. The city has a sense of history and of culture, even though 80% of the buildings have been erected in the last ten years and there are few antiquities to actually “see”. There are numerous foreign restaurants; many come and go, binning expensive foreign staff once they’ve burned through start-up capital. Hardy perennials become much-loved haunts, even too much so. There is a terrific range of Chinese cuisines, which once you get your bearings become far better destinations. The subway is mostly new and expanding rapidly. You shake your head in wonder as lines open annually. Shopping options are generally adequate, especially in sports, but anything cultural will be severely limited. Only adolescent boys say “Hullo!” and it comes as a surprise. There are foreign food stores, pricey enough to cause resentment when compared to back home but which you still want to buy everything from, anyway.


Tier 1

Tier 1 cities have substantial foreign populations, large enough and wealthy enough to as widely segregated: from fresh-off-the-boat English teachers to hugely rewarded financial and business executives. Social contempt and envy rise their head again, but within your own class there is still often a camaraderie. The opportunities out there can feel limitless – this can be intoxicating and induce a New York-esque pace of life and mania for work (it certainly did for me), though this seems to be just accepted as part of urban life by most young locals striving to make a living. Leisure facilities and opportunities can feel equally endless – restaurants as variable as Hungarian and Moroccan, bars from sleek Japanese whiskey bar to craft beer to rough and ready backpacker dives, every sport you can think of, most music styles amply catered to (jazz, for instance, is surprisingly popular), and events from hackathons to Chinese history seminars going on. This is dazzling. Social events however can have a certain rubbernecking quality to them. Daily life can sometimes be a grind – the subway, the pollution, food safety concerns. Yet for the size of the cities, they feel less hostile than London or New York, say – your neighbors will be friendly and the local shops and restaurants will be glad of your custom. But it can be hard to put down roots. People come and go, and property ownership or educational access can be intolerably difficult. Yet living there is an experience that will mark you forever.


Each tier thus presents a unique experience, and time spent in them all gives a greater appreciation of China’s many facets. But this isn’t even to consider the countless distinctions between north and south, east and west, or coastal and inland. Happy exploring!

“Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built” by Duncan Clark

Coming fairly hot on the heels of Porter Erisman’s book on his time working with Jack Ma and Alibaba comes this new account of the life and development of everyone’s favorite e-commerce behemoth and its frankly remarkable founder and CEO. Evidently there’s strong demand for insights into the company that in 2016 surpassed WalMart as the world’s largest retailer – without even having any stock. So how does this book compare to Erisman’s? Clark never worked for Alibaba, unlike Erisman, but he clearly had numerous encounters with Ma and his management team in his position at investment advisory firm BDA China. He also has many contacts in the Chinese internet sector, and puts them to good use.

Clark’s book is in essence more of biography of Jack Ma, compared to Erisman’s memoir of working in Alibaba. Thus, he has an excellent feel for the context of the development of the Chinese internet – or perhaps his research has been exemplary, though it doesn’t feel like fact-shovelling, as he outlines the broader picture, connecting tech developments with user capabilities. He is equally good on the entrepreneurial culture of Zhejiang province, connecting Ma’s business savvy to the enormous wholesale markets in Yiwu, and Wenzhou’s first burst of private enterprise under Deng Xioaping. Similarly, Clark has done a good job digging into Ma’s early life, uncovering several photos of him with the Australian family he befriended while acting as an unofficial tour guide in Hangzhou.

Our sense of him as a young man is of someone ferociously driven yet without connections, who succeeds by the ferocious strength of his personality. For example, after failing the gaokao twice, he managed to enter Hangzhou Teachers College on the third attempt, and in his sophomore year was elected president of Hangzhou Student’s Federation. When he set up his first enterprise, China Pages, the first online directory of Chinese businesses, no-one in Hangzhou even had internet at the time. He thus had to send company information to a colleague in Seattle who would put the information online, print out a screenshot and post them to Ma in Hangzhou. Asking customers for RMB20,000 for them to build and host a website was thus almost impossible. “I was treated like a con man for three years,” he said.

But Ma always had his eye on the prize of connecting small entrepreneurs with the outside world, and this clarity of purpose has paid off spectacularly. This book is no hagiography, fortunately. Clark spends some time discussing Ma’s fraught relations with Yahoo!, and his sequestration of Alipay, neither of which show him in a particularly good light, though the facts of both cases remain murky. Some stories of Ma’s life are now becoming mythic, like him talking to foreign tourists in order to learn English, a business equivalent of George Washington and the cherry tree. This happens with giants arise. We have seen it happen with Jack Ma, and here is that story, now more fully told than ever before.


Published in Business Tianjin