Mr. Wan

Mr. Wan 1

I was one third of the way through a run the other day when I heard a car honk behind me. I turned around to see a middle-aged man in a black Volkswagen sedan. He seemed just as startled as I was. He pulled up along side me with a broad but odd smile. It seemed forced, out of sync with his eyes. “What are you doing?” he asked. I explained to him what brings me here. He said he worked for the city government in the city of Wuhu. He was back to visit his parents for the weekend. “They live just down the road, there, in the white house on the edge of the village. Do you see it?” He introduced himself as Mr. Wan. “The same ‘Wan (万)’ as one hundred (百) ten thousands (万),” he said. He asked me for my contact information and invited me to dinner. Though his smile and enthusiasm to  made me a little uneasy, he seemed sincere and merely curious. I gave him my phone number and told him I could join him and his family the following night.

The next morning, I saw that the forecast called for rare thunderstorms. I considered calling Mr. Wan to reschedule. As the day proceeded, the weather turned hot, humid, windy, and unsettled. It started to rain lightly in the minutes before I got on my bike to leave. Some of the rain immediately evaporated as it landed on the ground and leaves. As it rose back up to the sky, it carried some of the earth with it: the smell of dirt, metal and grass now mud, rust and mildew.

The brakes of my bike squeaked as I arrived at Mr. Wan’s house. He approached to open the gate with the same strained smile. He graciously took my bike and guided it through the courtyard and into the garage. A woman in her 60s took a half step out of the kitchen near the gate and looked at me blankly. “That’s my mother,” Mr. Wan said with a nervous laugh. “Ma, this is Mr. Du.” She nodded and went back to the kitchen. A puppy came out of the open door of the dining room and approached me cautiously. I kneeled and held out my left hand palm up. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked. “He doesn’t really have one,” Mr. Wan said. “But he’s grey, so we call him Hui Hui. Right Hui Hui?” Hui Hui didn’t respond. After a minute he approached my hand and let me pet him. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said.

We sat down at the dining room table. Mr. Wan poured us both tea. The room was bright white and without decoration, save for the framed black and white photos of Mr. Wan’s deceased paternal grandparents above a table on the north wall. The linoleum floor was still wet from having been recently mopped. I told Mr. Wan that I am interested in the history of this area. He said this village is called Wan Village, named after his ancestral clan. They settled here 120 years ago, fleeing a famine in Hubei Province, his true ancestral home. Sixty years later they endured another famine, during the Great Leap Forward. “Many people died here in this township,” he said. “My father almost died, when he was just a boy. I think this is why you find that people here seldom have a strong feeling for this place, and for farming. They remember. They want their children to leave. Everyone will tell you that there is no better time in history than right now. And that is because they are not afraid of starving.”

Mr. Wan’s mother began bringing in dishes of food. His father joined us at the table. He was completely bald, tall, and very thin. Yet he moved brusquely, with purpose. He offered me rice wine but excused himself from drinking, drinking a bottle of blueberry flavored milk instead. Before he began eating, Mr. Wan paused to look down at the floor for a moment. His father asked me routine questions about my work and family, glancing at me warily as I answered. After about 15 minutes, he rose from the table and left. “Keep eating!” he said as he left. Mr. Wan’s mother came in not long thereafter, carrying a bowl of rice. I asked her if she still farmed. She said the family had rented the family’s land to a large-scale farmer, like almost everyone in the village. But she and her husband still labored. She sewed at a nearby textile factory. He did plastering work in the county seat. They could use the extra money, she explained. But really they worked out of habit. “We don’t miss farming,” she said. “But we miss having something to do. We have worked constantly since we were young. We have no hobbies. We don’t know of any other life. This is how peasants are.”

It began to rain heavily. I asked her how many children she had. She said she had three: two daughters in addition to Mr. Wan, who was the oldest. They each had one child of their own, all girls. She asked me why I have no wife and children. I said it was partly choice, and partly circumstance. “Yes,” she said. “If relationships don’t work, there is nothing you can do. You have to separate. And that’s okay. More and more people are doing that these days.” I asked if that was a good or bad thing. “People need structure,” she said. “But they also need to the chance to make mistakes. All parents can do is try to give children the right perspective. Once they leave, their lives are their own.” As she spoke, Mr. Wan clasped his hands and looked at the floor.

Mr. Wan’s mother rose from the table to clear away the dishes. I asked him how he spent his spring festival this year. Did his daughter join him here? No, he said. She was with her mother. As he spoke he seemed to force a broad smile, as he had the day before, but this time his mouth trembled. “You see,” he said. “I have had a difficult time. The pressure in my job is so great. I failed. I felt that I could not succeed. And I was punished. And then my wife.” He gasped for air, and started to gently rock backward and forward. “I had never prayed before, but I prayed that God would help me. And he did. I found the Catholic church.” He said that he lost most of his friends as a result of his faith, and he speaks to almost no one about it, including his parents. “Most people don’t understand,” he said. “My life is very different now. But I have peace. I know that God has a plan for me.”

His mother returned to the table. I told them that my life had not turned out as I expected. But that those disappointments were not necessarily a bad thing. His mother looked at me. “The world is so big and you came so far to be here now,” she said. “That is strange, when you think about it.”

I noticed that the sun had set and the rain had temporarily stopped. I excused myself to go home and let them rest. His mother went to look for a poncho for me, and apologized when she could not find one. Hui Hui ran over and bit my shoe. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said. I looked for Mr. Wan’s father. They told me he had left to go to a friend’s house, pointing to a lit window in the distance. Mr. Wan brought out my bike, and they both walked me to the gate. I thanked them for their kindness, and began riding back across the fields to town.


Going to church


One of the many noticeable changes to occur in Pingpu since I was last here in 2014 is the construction of a Catholic church across the river from the township. This was notable to me for a few reasons. Organized religion occupies a very strange place in politics and culture here in China. Seen as potential as threats to the officially atheist state’s legitimacy, religious activities have long been regulated by the Communist Party. Given that the Party’s legitimacy is premised on restoring China’s place as a self-sufficient power – a project undertaken in direct response to Western colonialism – Christian churches have faced particular scrutiny. After the expulsion of most foreigners following the Communist Revolution of 1949, Christian churches were largely pushed underground.

In the past 40 years, the state has in some ways liberalized policies concerning religious activity. In this, it has seemed to acknowledge the void left by the de-legitimizing of folk religious practices under Maoism, which was following by the de-legitimizing of Maoism by the Cultural Revolution and the Party’s embrace of market capitalism. Freedom of religion has been guaranteed under the state constitution since 1982. However, in practice, religious activities are heavily controlled and monitored. Officially-designated religious sites must be approved by the state. As a result, Christian churches in China typically operate in more discreet spaces, such as people’s homes. They are generally tolerated by officials, but crackdowns are not uncommon. As it relates to so many phenomena in China, degrees of official tolerance and intolerance come in waves. It seems the current wave is one of intolerance. The central government is stepping up restrictions, having implemented new regulations earlier this month. Two Christian churches were demolished in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces in December of last year and January of this year.

So that a church would appear here in recent years seemed odd to me. Walking down the street in town last month, I asked a shop owner and handyman about the church. He told me that it was built just last year with private funds, and that it was not officially approved. I asked him if many people attended services there. He let out the kind of scoffing laugh that seems to follow so many of my questions. “No one goes!” he said, adding a wave of his hand and look off in the distance to emphasize his complete dismissal of the topic.

That seemed unlikely to me, so I set out to explore on a Sunday earlier this month. Service had let out, and a group of men were talking in front of the church. One of them introduced himself as the pastor. Pastor Liu – a medium-built man in his late 40s with intense eyes – confirmed that the church was built last year, but told me that the community has existed here for a long time. I asked if it would be okay if I attended services. While not exactly conveying a sense of warm enthusiasm about the idea, he nonetheless said that would be fine. He told me that the congregation meets Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 8 am.

I headed out last Thursday to attend my first service. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was bracing for the worst: that I might be greeted with some hostility by the parishioners, who could feel that I was drawing unwanted attention to them or perhaps that my goal was to spy on them. When I walked in, the service seemed to have already started. The congregation was singing hymns, the lyrics of which were projected from a laptop onto a screen on the stage. The church was largely just a bare, grey concrete room. The only decorations were a laminate mural on the wall behind the stage. It depicted rays of sunshine falling onto a flock of sheep on a field, a forest in the distance. On the bottom right was written Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”.

Moments after I entered, a man turned around and looked at me. He then alerted his friend: “foreigner!” Within about five seconds nearly everyone in the church had turned to look at me. I smiled and mouthed “hello” to faces around the room. Feeling self-conscious, I took a seat in the back row. I quickly noticed that while there were three rows, they were distinguished by gender: the men sat only on the right side. The room was fairly small, with seats for about 100 people, though only 60 of them were full. In-keeping with the population of Pingpu in general, the congregation was mostly over 50, with two younger women holding babies. While most people lost interest in my presence and went back to their singing after a few moments, some people kept staring at me with a sort of expressionless look. After I nodded and smiled at them, most returned the greeting, but some just kept staring as though they were in an audience at a play.

A man who was sitting across the aisle from me got up from his seat, approached me and put his hand on my arm. I braced myself for the awkwardness of being asked to leave.

“Do you remember me?” he said. “We met in December. You gave me your card.”

“Oh right!” I said. “I remember you.” I didn’t remember him at all. (On an unrelated note, this concerns me.) I still wasn’t sure what his attitude was regarding my attendance, so I checked in. “Is it okay that I be here? I don’t want to bother anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable.” (On an unrelated note, you can write that on my tombstone.)

“You can, no problem,” he said, before taking the seat next to me. “Do you believe in Christianity?” he asked. This was a completely reasonable question that for some inexplicable reason I was in no way prepared to answer. So as usual I overthought it and offered a confusing answer. “Uhhhmmm…. I went to church every week when I was a kid,” I said. “I agree with a lot of what Jesus said. I also think what he said is at base reflected in a lot of what is said in other religions.” He stared at me for a bit, then went back to the hymn.

The first part of the service was devoted to hymn singing. Only a few people had hymnals. Most relied on the project lyrics, which seemed to come from a website. After taking a few laps around perhaps three hymns, a man rose from his seat near the laptop and took up a long pointing stick. A new song was projected on the screen. This one was apparently rarely sung by the group, because the man felt it necessary to guide everyone through it exhaustively. Using the stick to keep the time, he sang it alone, slowly, twice. He then went through it again, asking everyone repeat each verse after him. He then asked that we sing it in time with him, before finally letting us sing it independently. Even after all of this, which took perhaps 30 minutes, we were still not ready: we steamrolled through key changes and skipped whole verses. He got up and intoned the parts we flubbed, all the while waving his stick up and down like a sideways metronome.

The pastor then took the stage for his homily. I noticed that he seemed almost broadcast-ready: he generally spoke slowly and simply, repeated concepts, and enunciated in very standard Mandarin without a trace of local dialect. In contrast the homilies with which I am familiar, his often felt more like a classroom lesson. He asked questions of the congregation: “How many holidays in Catholicism?” “How many sacraments?” “How many pieces of bread and glasses of wine per person for communion? 60?” Most were either shy or unprepared. After being greeted with silence, Liu provided us with the answers.

The majority of his talk was devoted to the topic of wealth and gifts. Given that last week was the heart of Spring Festival – during which red envelopes of cash are exchanged and “I wish you wealth!” is a common greeting – such a theme was apropos. “God gives us the greatest gifts for free,” Liu told us. “Love, understanding, peace, consolation. These come down from above, and are all around us, like the air we breathe.” It was a simple and moving message, and a welcome contrast to what for me here can often feel like an overwhelming degree of resignation to the pursuit of money and material goods.

When the service ended, several people approached me with questions about my work and reasons for joining the service. Most were kind and sweet, if a bit suspicious. Apropos of nothing, one of the young women with a baby turned her cell phone around to show me a picture of a luxury watch. “How much does this watch cost in America?” she asked.

I looked at her for a moment, not sure if she was joking or if I had misunderstood her question. “I have no idea,” I finally said. “How much does it cost in China?”

“About 7,000 yuan,” she said.

“Oh, well that’s probably about how much it costs in the US,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just interested in things like this,” she said.

Letter from Chengdu: Wet Rags and Remembering How to Walk

I’ve spent most of my time since arriving here at the beginning of the month doing what’s required to secure a one-year visa extension, as well as initiate my first stipend payment. That has necessitated lots of running around to different university, bank and government offices, where I am asked to fill out essentially the same form and coordinate with a different set of overworked, exasperated employees. The last step of the visa process is handing over one’s passport to the immigration bureau, which I did last week. My new visa should be ready on October 31. But, given that I presently have no other form of official identification to use for travel or accomodations, until then I’m essentially stuck in Chengdu.

That’s not necessarily bad. This forced time here gives me a chance to interact with faculty and students at Sichuan University, as well as to work on a couple of projects. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on previous long stints here in China, and how and to what extent things have changed. On so many levels this experience feels fundamentally different than when I was last here three years ago, to say nothing of my first arrival in 2005. So much of that has to do with more recent exposure to ideas that have in many ways reinforced longstanding beliefs that, for various reasons, I found reason to doubt.

But then there are what a friend calls wet rags. These are the experiences that resurrect that familiar feeling of doubt, which may be best described as a creeping sense of futility. And living in China can often feel like one is constantly being smacked in the face with a series of wet rags. For example, last week I chatted with a graduate student here, Huang, about his personal experiences growing up in the countryside. He noted the foundational changes in his home village in the past 10 years ago since the onset of policy reform: community spaces and neighborhoods demolished and replaced by apartment buildings; the young and middle-aged vanished, leaving only children, the elderly and the infirm; along with this a lost sense of place, home and liveliness. But like many of us would when faced with the onset of something terrible and seemingly implacable, Huang tried to find the positive. “These changes are not all bad,” he said. “For example, I can now pay for things electronically with my phone. I don’t have to carry a wallet.”

One does not have to look hard or wait long for more wet rags. Last Thursday night on my walk back from the visa processing office I was propositioned by three middle-aged prostitutes who were working along the riverbank. That had me thinking about my chat with Huang, and about wider changes that push people into cities in search of work. And when that search fails, there’s no choice other than to do what’s needed to make ends meet.

This place, like pretty all places but maybe more than most, has a way of getting you down. Of wearing away at your spirit. Of forcing you inward towards those things that you feel you can control. Commutes spent in constant fear of the cars and bikes bearing down on you from all sides. The seemingly endless string of oppressively smoggy days. Roaches, rats and mosquitoes. Anecdotes and news stories about – and personal experiences with – scams that seem unconscionably callous. In conversation with a local I met last week, I asked why it is he thinks people in this country focus so much attention on their kids. “Because it feels safe,” he said. It is understandable why it can feel like so little else does.

And I can relate. When I think back on previous times here, I remember long stretches where the accumulation of wet rags sent me into a kind of pain avoidance mode. Declining invitations. Talking myself out of initiating conversations. Avoiding eye contact. Hurrying through interactions. Being back now and seeing things with relatively fresh eyes, I feel as though I can now spot that familiar feeling in others: a look of shell shock, a feeling of exhaustion and reflexive cynicism.

But of course there are different ways of seeing. Ways that invite everything experienced in a day – wet rags and all – into the frame of what is observed. Ways that try to meet life on its own terms, rather than dictating those terms. Ways that stave off the desire to create coherent, easily summarizable and thus easily dismissable grand narratives by looking for challenges, contradictions and messiness. One of those options allows for survival, while the other is actually living.

Yesterday the weather was mild and I decided to take the 45-minute walk to my favorite cafe. During that time I tried  to look at every person I passed by. Many of them chatted with their friends. Many of them were caught up on their own thoughts, or were looking at their phones. Some of them scowled at me. But every so often as they passed by someone would make eye contact and give me the sweetest smile, and for that fraction of a second my heart felt like it would burst, overwhelmed by charge it created. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’d like to think that they were out trying to look, learn and engage, not in spite of but because of how difficult each day can be.   

Behind the Scenes With a Local Private Investigator

Map, October 2008

Since Eugene Francois Vidocq opened the first private investigation firm in 1833, private investigators have come to occupy a unique place in society and popular consciousness.  The brilliant and highly skilled yet self-interested, isolated and morally flexible private eye has become staple of Western literature and film, romanticized and clichéd even as the investigators themselves have tried to avoid public notice.

In China, however, private investigation work has only existed since 1994, when the government made the practice professionally legal.  In that time, as the country’s social problem and legal framework have grown more complicated and individuals and companies have been left increasingly on their own to solve disputes, the number of PI firms in the county has grown to over 200.

To learn more about the field of private investigation in China, we interviewed Mr. Guo, manager and chief investigator of the Nanjing branch of Leading Services Superior, one of China’s larger PI companies with branches throughout Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

On the day of our interview, we meet Guo in one of many consultation rooms in his office, where he sits hunched over a paper cup of green tea. In his mid forties, short and stocky, he wears a military-style haircut, a faded collared shirt, black slacks and inexpensive black loafers. He was up much of the previous night working on a case, and it shows.  While engaged and attentive, his eyes are rimmed with dark circles and he speaks in low tones and short sentences.

As we learned from our interview, while the work of actual private eyes bears some resemblance to their fictional counterparts, the reality for private eyes is at once more monotonous and dangerous.  What’s more, while there’s a certain universality to the nature of PI work, the advent of the modern Chinese PI and what keeps him occupied has much to say about China’s unique historical moment.

Map: What sorts of cases you have typically have?

PI: Right now, our business is a bit more civil-based, about 60 percent, with about 40 percent being for businesses and corporations.

Map: What do corporate cases typically involve?

PI: Every case has different requirements. PIs can provide companies with information about other companies that would otherwise be inaccessible: an automotive company that wants to know about the fuel injection systems used by rival companies, for example.  For a fee we are able to gather a full range of information about things like competitive proposals and marketing plans… essentially, we can tell our clients why their competition is successful.

Map: What sort of cases typically fall under the civil heading?

PI: Civil cases can involve a lot of things, but they usually involve what we call marriage investigating, marriage consulting and marriage rescue. Many women know their husband is having an affair, but they don’t want a divorce. We can provide “marriage rescue,” such as helping to create a separation between the husband and the third party.  Also we provide psychological help, similar to marriage counselors, in order to help the wife maintain her marriage. All of this is work that we do here.

Map: What steps do clients take when they want to hire your services?

PI: Usually customers call or send us an email first. After the client gives us a rough idea of the case, we will present them with an initial proposal and estimate. We will then arrange a face-to-face interview. We will meet those clients who are very concerned with their privacy at an outside location. Usually, before the client presents too much information to us, they ask to learn more about our company.  If they are satisfied with our company and proposal, we will sign a contract.

Map: You carry out your investigation based on the contracted terms?

PI: We design our plans based on the needs of each case. We don’t have a standard investigation procedure. Our job is not like the assembly line of a factory.

Map: In the West, our conception at least is that private investigators are specialists in some field. What sort of qualifications do you look for when recruiting private eyes?

PI: We usually look for retired military personnel or people with advanced degrees in public security. Society, however, tends to think PI firms have some kind of organized crime affiliation. This simply isn’t true. We’re actually a very honest, professional, standard investigation company.

Map: Are self-defense abilities necessary?

PI: We don’t necessarily have martial arts abilities. Mostly, we rely on our intellect. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t know martial arts, but he has experience and wisdom, which he used to solve many difficult cases. We had an extra-marital case once where two of our investigators stayed in the downstairs of the subject’s apartment for two days, but they weren’t able to take a picture of the subject and his mistress together. So I came up with an idea for the investigators. We asked an older man to knock on the subject’s door, and tell him he was from the neighborhood committee and that he wanted the subject to clean up the garbage in front of his door. Initially, the subject was hesitant to open his door. Likely, he was nervous due to his circumstances. But, when he heard that the man was from the neighborhood committee, he opened his door, at which point an investigator waiting nearby with a camera was able to take a picture.

Map: What other kinds of cases fall under the civil investigation heading?

PI: We also do a lot of liability investigation. These cases mostly involve a debtor who has disappeared, and the creditor has hired us to find him. Other civil cases require us to find missing friends and relatives.

Map: To work effectively on your cases, is it necessary to have connections with entities such as the Public Security Bureau, the Supervision Bureau, or the courts?

PI: Absolutely. Without these relationships we cannot do our work. We need cooperation from all these entities when we search for some information.

Map: Have people ever physically threatened your staff as a result of your investigations?

PI: I always tell our investigators that it’s better to lose a subject than to be discovered. If you lose a subject, you can always follow him or her the next day. But once you are discovered, your investigation is over. If you continue following the subject after you’re discovered, the risk is too great. For example, in Beijing, one investigator was discovered and beaten to death. In situations like this, no one will come to the defense of the investigator. The attacker could always say they thought the investigator was a robber or something.

Map: For corporate cases, is it sometimes necessary to send investigators undercover?

PI: Sometimes, when we do intellectual property right protection cases, it’s necessary. But these cases are difficult and dangerous. For example, once we were hired to investigate an illegal factory. They had very strict security.  They only allowed current and previous employees inside. It was nearly impossible to take videos in their factory. At that time, this company posted an advertisement looking for front line workers. Some of our investigators gained employment and infiltrated the company in this way. We discovered this company was counterfeiting the goods of a very famous foreign company.

Map: Do civil cases ever interfere with individual’s privacy?

PI: Usually we take pictures in public spaces, since taking pictures in private places is illegal. Our clients often ask us to take pictures of couples in bed. We never agree to this.  First of all, these pictures cannot be used as evidence in court. Second, taking these pictures at all is illegal.

Map: Are PIs usually equipped with hidden devices like cameras or microphones?

PI: Yes. We cannot use normal cameras to take pictures of subjects. We definitely need some very advanced equipment. China has very strict laws about this equipment. Even selling these kinds of things is illegal. Actually, private investigation in general is at the fringes of the law. That’s why we refer to our company as a business consulting firm. As the legal representative of our company, I have to know a great deal about the law, so as to avoid putting the company at legal risk.

Map: How are PI’s salaries calculated?

PI: Usually their salaries are composed of a basic salary on top of commission. The average salary is RMB3000 to RMB4000 per month. Commission is six percent. So if we have a RMB120,000 account, and there are three investigators working on this case, each will receive RMB7200 upon successful completion of the case.

Map: Do your investigators work 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

PI: Theoretically, they do. However, when the subjects rest, we tell our PIs to go home and rest too. But, as I said before, they need to capture the right moment. If you know the subject goes to bed at 2 a.m., you can go home at that time. But you never know when he will get up. Is it 6 to 7 a.m. or 11 to 12 a.m.?  So the investigators have to get back to the subject’s apartment very early. This is the difficult part of this job. Even though you don’t work 24 hours a day, you have to be ready at all times.

Map: Do you ever have lower-income clients?

PI: Yes. Earlier this year, we had a missing child case. His parents were divorced, and his grandfather came to us to ask if we could help find him. We didn’t charge him for this, first because he didn’t have enough money and second because we didn’t feel that it was morally right to take his money. We don’t do our job entirely for the sake of profit. While most of our customers are middle or higher income people, we do have lower income clients as well. We can’t refuse to take a case because they don’t have the necessary money. So we will adjust our rates.

Map: Have you ever failed to complete a case?

PI: Absolutely. I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I’ve met subjects who are very good at evading detection. Some of them have been in the army so they’re very aware of their surroundings. Many people who are aware they are behaving inappropriately and therefore are perhaps being watched change their actions accordingly, such as deliberately taking back roads or round-about routes.

Map: What do you like about your work?

PI: Nonetheless, its work he takes obvious satisfaction from.  “Solving cases is very gratifying to me. I remember a case I had when I first started this work. I went on a stakeout to wait for a subject, and after five or six hours of waiting, he finally arrived. I was so excited. This kind of feeling is difficult to describe.”

Map: What are the downsides?

PI: It’s very challenging and risky. Also, compared to white collar workers, the salary is low. However, unlike white collar workers, who sit in their offices and only use their brains, our job requires us to use our bodies as well.

Map: Is the work as exciting as you imagined before you began?

PI: Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s very difficult and strenuous.

Map: Has this job negatively affected your opinion about people?

PI: These days, our economy is developing very fast, and there are a lot more temptations.  That’s why you see more moral transgressions and, consequently, investigation cases. I’ve never considered people to be evil. People do bad things because of temporary impulses and the desire for new experiences. I believe that those people who break the bonds of marriage and family will realize their mistakes in time and return to their loved ones.

According to manager Guo, maintaining this distance from the general public eye is essential for the survival of his company.  “In our industry, confidentiality is everything. If we could not maintain confidentiality, it would be very difficult for us to survive in this industry, much less expand.”

Sex Education: The Chinese Sex Culture Museum Stimulates in Unexpected Ways


Map Magazine, December 2007

No one told the people of Shanghai that sex sells.  When Shanghai University professor Liu Da Lin first opened the Chinese Sex Culture Museum in that city back in 1998, it seemed a bold but safe move.  He had accumulated over 1,600 ancient and modern Chinese sex-related artifacts and art works that, cumulatively, were a window into a rarely seen part of China’s past. Shanghai, China’s most famously-forward thinking and steamy city, seemed an ideal home.

Shanghai ren, however, took little interest. More crucially, local government leaders were less than, well, stimulated by the museum.  The city elected not to provide the museum with public funding or to promote it to tourists.  By 2005 the museum, no longer able to afford its rent, searched for a new home.  Officials in the ancient southeast Jiangsu canal town of Tongli, looking to increase tourism, offered the museum space in a former young women’s academy.

I was surprised to learn that such a museum existed at all in China.  It raised questions too interesting to ignore: What would the museum say about the place of sex in Chinese culture? How did Chinese views on sex change throughout the centuries? How would that information be presented?

After arriving in Tongli, I concluded that the town was an unlikely host for the Chinese Sex Culture Museum.  Quiet and traditional, Tongli seems a world apart from the liberal vitality of Shanghai, though it’s only an hour and a half away by train.  The town is crisscrossed by maze-like cobblestone alleys and canals, and during my 24-hour stay, I saw not one ex-pat cafe, karaoke bar or disco. If you squint just enough to ignore the modern products for sale, it’s easy to imagine Tongli as it was one thousand years ago.

The museum lies at the end of a long, moss-tinged alley at an edge of the city.  A large sign in front of the entrance announces that the museum is a “witness to history” and a “source of knowledge.”  The conclusion of the English text sounds like it came from the megaphone of a carnival barker:  “Welcome to you for visiting this museum, you can see what you never see, know what you never know, and be no [sic] disappointed at all.”  All but guaranteed a memorable experience, I exchange 20 yuan for a ticket and enter.

The first thing that greets visitors to the Chinese Sex Culture Museum is a courtyard statue of a troll-like immortal with a massive erection.  It’s a striking introduction, and I’m unsure if I should admire the sculpture reverently from a distance or giggle like a 10 year-old.

The museum’s wide and well-preserved grounds – with their original brick and wood buildings, high walls, large shade trees, gardens and pagodas – give the place a peaceful and contemplative air. The exhibition halls are divided into four main sections: “Sex in Primitive Society,” “Marriage and Women,” “Sex in Daily Life” and “Unusual Sexual Behavior.”  There is also a sculpture garden, which I pass through on my way to the first hall.  Setting a lighthearted tone for the artwork here, the garden’s large central sculpture depicts a potbellied immortal carrying a small boy on his back.  The immortal’s head is sprouting a giant erection capped, improbably, by a turtle.  Another sculpture shows a woman joyfully embracing a five-foot tall, freestanding phallus.  “Women’s dependence,” reads the accompanying sign.

Sex in Primitive Society is the museum’s first exhibition hall.  “Primitive people worshiped sex,” reads the brochure I received upon entering the museum, and the hall provides plenty of supporting evidence for that claim.  Among the pottery, jade tiles, wooden statues and porcelain artifacts here is a clay “goddess statue” from 7000 BC, which depicts a pregnant woman. There’s also the “oldest erotic statue” from 3500 BC, showing a man and woman copulating in a standing position. I take a few minutes to consider why a series of photographs of genitalia-shaped mountains and rock formations adorn the walls before giving up.

Next up is the “Marriage and Women” hall.  The hall begins by introducing a 1st and 2nd century-era sculpture series depicting Fuxi and Nuwa, the “legendary ancestors of the Chinese nationality.”  Fuxi and Nuwa were brother and sister and also a couple, the accompanying text says, indicating “brother and sister might get married in ancient China.”

I then entered the “Sex Oppression on Women” section.  My brochure tells me that, throughout the ages, “wives were always ruled and oppressed by men, acted as tools for men to satisfy their sexual demands, to give birth to children, and to do homework.”  Surveying the coming parade of horrors on display in this hall, I’m inclined to think that, historically, extra trigonometry was the least of women’s worries. The first artifact in the first subsection, called “Outlook on Chastity,” is a “Licentious women saddle” from the 18th century. The saddle, “an implement of punishment,” includes a retractable wooden dildo. Further along are a series of chastity belts from the 18th and 19th centuries, a 16th century-era finger vice “to punish women,” and a foot-binding wheel.

Further evidence of the spectacularly raw deal women have received historically follows with the next subsection, “Disgusting Prostitution.” Despite its unnecessarily judgmental title, it is a generally sympathetic and comprehensive exhibit. The introductory text states that there were various kinds of prostitutes throughout the ages in China, including those for the home, court and army, as well as service prostitutes who played music, sang and danced. “The ancient prostitutes were a result of money and power oppression,” the text reads.  “Most of them had a miserable destiny but the superior prostitutes occupied their special place in literature and art.”  There’s also a “Prostitute Guide” made by the Kuomintang government in 1929, which provides a geographical breakdown of the number of prostitutes in the country at the time.

Next door is “The Prostitute’s Room.”  Recreated in part to resemble what a 17th century-era brothel may have looked like, the room includes a 19th century-era double-backed “happy chair” which allowed couples to sit face to face during intercourse, and a beautifully designed, enclosed “special bed for high grade prostitutes.”

The next exhibition is the “TV Room/Sex of Religions” hall.  The text and artifacts stand in harsh judgment of sexually active monks and nuns throughout the ages.  Taoism and Mizong Buddhism, a sign reads, “call for cultivation of sex.” However, “Many records show some of these religions improper behaviors.”  A series of porcelain statues from the early 20th century depict licentious monks, while a wooden pillow belonging to a nun in the 15th century hides a box containing a wooden dildo.

Hoping for a more healthy and optimistic look at sex, I eagerly enter the “Sex in Daily Life” room.  Unfortunately, this area is also easily the museum’s dullest.  It’s essentially a modern collection of sex education books kept behind glass.

The penultimate hall promises to be the museum’s most scintillating.  “Unusual Sexual Behavior” begins with an exhibition of sculptures honoring the classic erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, which depicted “undisguisedly [sic] the abnormalities of the society” and described “hardcore not healthy sex.” The “Sexual abnormalities in ancient China” area includes historical evidence of bestiality, including a jade carving from 3,000 BC.

Things get really fascinating in the “Long-Standing Homosexuality” section. All debates aside about whether homosexuality belongs alongside bestiality, the artifacts here – including double-ended jade dildos and ox-horn anal dildos from the 11th and 12th century – indeed demonstrate that homosexuality has long been a part of Chinese culture. Homosexuality in China, it seems, “was first found in the Shang Dynasty according to related records.”  Amazingly, the text also tells us that “about half the emperors of the Han Dynasty were homosexuals.” Supporting evidence includes elaborate copper coins made and given to Han Emperor Wen by a man named Deng Tong, apparently his “personal favorite.”

The final and easily most puzzling area in the museum is the “Exhibition of Erotic Stamps of the World,” which includes 1,300 erotic postage stamps from 70 countries.  I pause to consider how the Princess Diana commemorative stamps on display fit alongside the rows of dildos and implements of torture I’ve just seen before again giving up.

I leave the museum as a group of teenage boys enter.  They laugh hysterically at the aroused immortal, climbing onto his oversized member. Like everyone’s first time, the museum is often clumsy and confusing.  But it’s also often fascinating and bravely honest.  Professor Liu states the goal for the museum is to help society “find a balance between the extremes of sexual containment and indulgence.” His museum, in showing the historical place of sex in China’s culture, as well as the way it has helped to shape it, gives the impression that sex has caused as much pain here as it has joy.  It’s a troubling, vital and contemporary statement, and one that may have finally found a voice in this most blissfully nostalgic of places.

Getting Away to It All: Xuanwu Lake’s vibrant paths demand another lap

(Map Magazine, 10/07)

Last year, I was fortunate enough to live and work just a few minutes walk from Xuanwu Lake and its (mostly) surrounding free park and walkway. This proximity allowed me to continue my long held running habit, albeit in an environment that, while relatively quiet and relaxed, bore little resemblance to what I was accustomed to, and made Xuanwu so much more than a place to exercise.

My first few runs around Xuanwu were inspiring but a bit stressful. It was an unquestionably beautiful spot, its combination of history and nature seeming to place it a world apart from the city outside. There’s the old city wall to the south creating so imposing a barrier to modernity, the respectfully maintained flowers and trees in its shadow, the southern temples rising above it like sentinels, and Purple Mountain above even that, barely visual through the haze like a dreamt idea of a mountain. I remember coming through the park’s south gate and, seeing it all for the first time, looking back at the guard next to me uncertainly, as if to say, “Is this okay? Can I be here?” This place couldn’t be public or free, I reasoned. So I was happy to see him stare at his shoes and smoke his cigarette, completely disinterested in me.

Yet the park was often much more crowded than I was used to. Back home, I ran as much to find solitude as to stay in shape, and there were a number of parks where I could reliably blend into the environment, finding relatively few people from whom I was mostly indistinguishable. At Xuanwu, I seemed to be a magnet for attention. Sure I looked silly in my running shorts and hat, but did people have to stare so much? And why were cars and mopeds allowed on the path?

Once I learned to dodge the cars and ignore the stares and giggles at Xuanwu, I better appreciated its unique features. More than just a beautiful place, the park was a world in itself, a gathering of terrific sights, sounds and smells, a sort of public square where people of all ages and backgrounds came.

It was a gathering place for the religious, whose incense and chanting would reach me as I ran past Jiming Temple just outside the south gate. For the elderly, it was a place to exercise and relax, such as for the women practicing Tai Chi on the park’s lakeside spaces, waving to me between songs playing on their vintage tape recorder. Opposite them, I’d often see an older, shirtless man straddling a tree inside the park, punching its trunk with the sides of his arms. Without exception, he would turn and grunt at me as I ran passed.

For the young, it was romantic. In the spring, I’d see countless couples posing for their wedding photos along the park’s finest stretch near the wall to the south, the grooms looking slightly bewildered in their borrowed tuxedos, the brides’ eagerly racing from one location to the next, lifting their gowns just enough to reveal tennis shoes underneath.

Scores of other couples were never far away, snuggling on a lakeside bench, in a swan shaped boat or hammock. In warmer weather, they grew bolder and more obvious, setting up tents for a conjugal getaway, about as private an arrangement as many could find in the world’s most populous country. I considered Xuanwu as having perhaps been the inspiration, photographic background and now consummation setting for countless relationships, a sort of matrimonial giving tree.

For athletes, it was a training ground, a place where some of the country’s best came last fall in preparation for the national games. I’d often encounter them running along the lake, looking at turns terrified and terrifically confident, but always physically impressive. I’d smile at them and sometimes offer a “Jia You!,” which was usually answered with embarrassed smiles.

For the fishermen sitting along the banks to the west, it was a source of food and relaxation. It seemed to me they were rarely rewarded for their patience. Solitude was its own reward, I hoped.

Xuanwu was also a place of work for many, such as the vendors selling tea, binoculars, chicken in a bag, or apples on a stick along the north side. For children, it was a place of excitement and strangeness, such as for the boy who, walking hand in hand with his father, stared un-self consciously at the foreigner running by, building up the confidence to send a “Jia You!” in his direction. I smiled and forgot for a few moments whatever pain was in my legs and lungs.

Reaching the small walking bridge that signaled my halfway point, I turned around to repeat the path back home. Walking for a minute, I took in the entire park, all of its people and places, and started again, glad to do it all over.

Where the “Young Warrior” Found Her Fight: Ten years after Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking brought international attention to the Nanjing Massacre, those who helped her research the book in Nanjing recall their work, how it changed them and the author’s enduring legacy.

Map Magazine, December 2009

Yang Xiaming still remembers the day he first met Iris Chang.  It was the summer of 1995, and he was working as an International Relations instructor at Jiangsu Provincial Young Managerial Cadres College. He anticipated a light workload and some vacation time.  So when his former classmate Wang Weixing asked him if he was willing to work as a translator for “an American writer” researching a book about the Nanjing Massacre for about 20 days in late July and early August, he agreed.

On the sweltering afternoon of July 24th, Yang, along with Wang Weixing and Professor Sun Zhaiwei of the Jiangsu Academy of Social  Sciences Department of History, traveled to Nanjing University’s Xiyuan Guest House, where they had arranged to meet the newly arrived writer.  Yang knew nothing of the person he was to assist, so when a smiling, ponytailed 27 year-old Chinese American emerged from her dorm room that day, he was astonished.

“So young!” Yang recalls thinking.  “Like a college student, sort of.  Her Mandarin was okay.  She could basically understand our speaking, but she needed English to express complicated ideas.”  Yang, like those who met Chang in Nanjing that summer, doubted that this ostensibly sweet tempered and inexperienced young woman could even complete a book about a subject this dark and complex. Yet, over the course of a few weeks, he and a handful of others would help Chang collect the information that provided the basis and the fuel for one of the most influential and controversial books of the decade.

The book Chang wrote, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, became an international bestseller, launched Chang into literary stardom and made her the spokesperson of a political movement.  To date, it has sold over 500,000 copies.  One of the first English books devoted to the subject, it has been praised by many prominent historians, and is considered a landmark in Massacre studies in the West.  Bill Guttentag dedicated Nanking, the 2007 film about the Nanjing Massacre he co-directed, to Chang. “Anyone who makes a film on this subject owes a great debt to Iris Chang,” he told us.

Iris Chang took her own life on November 9th, 2004.  She was 36, the author of three nonfiction books, and considered one of America’s best young writers.  In China, she was widely known as “the young warrior” who brought one of the country’s most tragic events to worldwide attention.  None who came to know her in Nanjing during that summer could have imagined that she would achieve such heights, or that her story would end so abruptly less than ten years later.

In retrospect, Iris Chang’s path to Nanjing and the ensuing book seemed almost predetermined.  The city was home to her maternal grandparents, who escaped just weeks before Japanese troops arrived in the city in December of 1937.

Among Chang’s strongest childhood memories were the vivid stories of the Sino-Japanese War and, in particular, the Nanjing Massacre.  The stories had been passed down to her parents, and they in turn told them to her.  According to her parents, Japanese soldiers during the massacre “sliced babies not just in half but in thirds and fourths. The Yangtze River ran red with blood for days.  Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese in a war that killed more than ten million Chinese people.”

She tried to research the events in Nanjing at her school library, but found nothing.  “That struck me as odd.  If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents had insisted, then why hadn’t someone written a book about it?”

Chang studied journalism at the University of Chicago, where she was offered an internship at the Associated Press bureau in Chicago.  She later worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before winning a fellowship to study writing at Johns Hopkins University.  There, instructors at Hopkins quickly recognized Chang’s talent, and recommended her to an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, who was looking for a writer with a background in Mandarin and the sciences to write a biography of Hsue-Shen Tsien, the “father of the People’s Republic of China’s missile system.” The resulting work, The Thread of the Silkworm, was published in 1995.

Chang’s attention returned to the Massacre in 1994, when she spoke with two film producers who had made a documentary about the Massacre. Chang began researching the event, and attended a conference in Cupertino, California focusing on Sino-Japanese relations and unsettled war crimes issues.

If Chang’s interest in the Massacre had recently been rekindled, Cupertino set it afire.  The conference included an exhibition of photos taken during the Massacre, which Chang described as “some of the most gruesome photographs I have ever seen in my life.  Though I had heard so much about the Rape of Nanking as a child, nothing prepared me for these pictures – stark black-and-white images of decapitated heads, bellies ripped open, and nude women forced by their rapists into various pornographic poses, their faces contorted into expressions of agony and shame.”

“In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself,” she wrote.  “I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history…unless someone forced the world to remember it.”

Hearing of Chang’s plans to write a book on the Massacre, the conference organizers, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II, provided her with funding, grant writing assistance, travel contacts and the names of Nanjing Massacre historians.

One of those experts was Wu Tianwei, a history professor then based in Illinois.  Professor Wu wrote a letter to Sun Zhaiwei, asking him to assist Iris in her research and find her an English translator in Nanjing.  Sun agreed, enlisting Wang Weixing to collect related documents and Yang Xiaming to translate.

Yang speaks with us on a cold, grey mid-December day in the living room of the Long Jiang Xiao district apartment in West Nanjing that he shares with his wife and daughter. He is currently a history professor at the Jiangsu School of Administration, and is considered one of the leading experts in Nanjing Massacre history.  He traces the origins of the inspiration for his work directly to Chang’s visit.  “At the time I didn’t know very much about this subject,” he tells us.  He estimates that he spent much of the last 12 years researching the Massacre.  Chang’s commitment, compassion for the survivors and sense of duty inspired Yang.  “I changed my entire academic research area because of her,” he says.

Recently, he completed the third Mainland Chinese translation of Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Though he stays very busy with his classes and research and does not consider himself a translator, he said that when the book’s Mainland publisher and Chang’s parents requested that he undertake the project, he didn’t hesitate.  “The book wasn’t complete here,” he says, referring the notoriously poor prior Mainland Chinese translations.  “I said to her mother, ‘I am not the best translator, but I witnessed the book’s birth.  I also have the background.  Even more, I want to do this work and make it good for Iris.’”

Though 12 years have passed since he and Chang worked together, Yang has seemingly lost none of his enthusiasm for speaking of his friend.  He talks readily, getting up frequently to show examples of Chang’s work or evidence of her time here.

Yang recalls that Chang’s planning and sense of purpose allayed his doubts about her abilities. At their first meeting at the Xiyuan, Chang told Sun, Wang and Yang her goals for her time in Nanjing.  She wanted to interview survivors, visit massacre sites, see Nanjing itself, and translate related historical documents.  “She was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish during her time here,” Yang remembers. After she told him of her previous book and success at Johns Hopkins, “I knew she was quite capable of doing something like this.”

Yang, Sun Zhaiwei, Wang Weixing and Chang set to work immediately. Sun contacted Duan Yueping, then assistant curator at the Nanjing Massacre Compatriot Victims Memorial Museum, and asked if she could help them find and interview local Massacre survivors. Wang Weixing was asked to gather related archives and data, while Yang was to serve as Chang’s local guide and translator. He estimates that he spent nearly every one of the following 20 days with Chang.

On their first day of research, Sun Zhaiwei, Duan Yueping and Yang accompanied Chang to massacre sites. At each site Chang took photos of the monuments’ inscriptions and the surrounding environment. Yang remembers that Chang “often stood alone in front of the monuments for a long time, immersed in thought.” The following day, the two visited a number of city landmarks, including Jiming Temple and the city wall at Zhonghua Gate.

Yang, Duan Yueping and Chang began interviewing survivors on Chang’s third day in Nanjing.  Tang Shunshan was her first interviewee. Chang, Yang remembers, always asked the survivors the same three questions at the beginning of each interview.  “She first asked permission to use the interview as content.  She then asked for autobiographical information.  Finally, she asked the subject to describe his or her experience during the Massacre.”  Chang videotaped the interview on her camcorder while Yang took notes.  The majority of the survivors were clearly eager to tell their stories.  Tang, Yang remembers, spoke continuously for nearly 40 minutes.

Yang and Duan Yueping recall that Chang asked highly specific questions of the survivors regarding their lives before the Massacre.  She would ask “different questions for different people, like ‘When did you get up?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘What kind of shoes did you wear?’ ‘What did you do when it rained?’  ‘Where did you have lunch?’  ‘What were roads like then?’  Very detailed.  That’s what made her different from historians.  We just try to write the facts.  She tried to describe the humans.  Not just history, but history with a human face.”

The information she gathered from such questions such as these allowed Chang to create the vivid descriptions of Nanjing circa 1937 found in The Rape of Nanking.  One description of old Nanjing found in the book, Yang notes, originated almost entirely from the memory of survivor Pan Kaiming.

The survivors’ living conditions, coupled with the continued denials of many Japanese nationalists that the Massacre ever took place, greatly disturbed and incensed Chang, Yang and Duan Yueping remember. “She was very angry that the survivors were suffering,” Yang says. “That the perpetrators lived much better than the survivors.” Visits to two survivors left Chang particularly shaken. Survivor Chen Degui’s house was “utterly destitute,” Yang says.  “The apartment was only six square meters,” with “space only for a bed.” Another survivor, Liu Yongxing “had no bathroom.  He washed himself with a towel that he used in a washbasin with a bit of black water in it.  His house was narrow, small, disordered, damp and dark.”

Chang would later tell interviewers that her time with the survivors’ solidified her commitment to the work. “I wrote the book out of a sense of rage,” she said. “I didn’t care if I made a cent from it.”  Yang believes that Chang’s time with the survivors caused a fundamental change in her perception and goals.  “After interviewing [survivor Liu], she told me she was going to quit writing and learn law.  She wanted to be an advocate for the survivors. When she first came, her intention [with the book] was to write something in remembrance of those who died.  Because many didn’t know who they were.”  But later, “she changed her plan and tried to prove the nature of human beings.  I think this change took place because of what she saw here in Nanjing.”

Though her experience in Nanjing clearly emboldened Chang, it also took a toll.  “I was weak during the whole time I was writing the book, and physically unwell during the month I spent in China,” she said in interviews. “I lost weight and I lost hair. I got sick frequently. I was very unhappy.” Yang confirms that Chang “was sick all the time.”  However, like Yang, Duan Yueping remembers Chang’s overall mood was positive while she was here.

Chang had only one confrontation during their work in Nanjing, though it was to have important consequences.  Following the survivor interviews, Yang accompanied Chang to a number of landmarks in the city and sites of important events during the Massacre.  While filming near the former home of Massacre photographer John Magee, they were loudly approached by an older man. Though they were filming legally, the man implied that he wanted to confiscate Chang’s film.

Yang subdued the man, but Chang “didn’t talk for some time” after the confrontation. Later, she “insisted that her videotapes be copied and left here in case someone confiscated them.  She thought the tapes were the most valuable thing she had made during her time here.” Yang walks into his study, returning moments later with five VHS cassette tapes. He indicates the sides of the tapes where Chang wrote detailed names, dates and places.  He is surprised to learn that, according to the producers of the recent film Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, these tapes are the last known copies of the videos Chang made while in Nanjing.  The tapes, the films’ coordinators tell us, were essential for recreating the story of Chang’s time in Nanjing.

Chang and Yang became good friends over the course of their work that summer.  He recalls the afternoons they spent, along with Wang Weixing, at Nanjing University’s scientific research center, where they translated documents and the videotaped testimony.  Yang’s wife and daughter would bring them lunch, and they stayed to enjoy the building’s air conditioning during that exceptionally hot summer.   Chang was also a frequent dinner guest at the Yang family home. She would play their piano or spend time with their daughter, with whom she bonded over a mutual love of books and music.

He remembers the day when Chang told him that she discovered the diary of Minnie Vautrin, the missionary known as “The Living Goddess of Nanking.” Vautrin saved an estimated 10,000 women and girls from rape and murder by turning Jinling College into a safety zone, and her detailed diary provided invaluable insight into the event.  Chang, Yang remembers, called her mother with the news, her voice trembling.  Mostly, he remembers her idealism and compassion.  “We talked a lot about social justice, how to be fair.  Though she gave me the impression that she believed in individualism, she very much empathized with the survivors.  I was very impressed with this.”

Yang accompanied her to the airport the day Chang left Nanjing.  It was the last time he saw her. “I never thought it would be a yongbie, a farewell forever.  Never thought that.”

The two stayed in touch after Chang left, corresponding via mail and email, where they shared news of new projects and mailed each other books and archives.  He remembers his surprise at The Rape of Nanking’s success after its publication in 1997.  “I didn’t realize that the book would be so popular.  I think she didn’t realize either.  At that time, the best I could hope was that maybe some specialists would read it.” Only when the book was a success in the West, Yang says, did he recognize “the significance of her work when she was here.”

While the book received high praise, it was also fiercely attacked by some critics, who charged that it contained historical errors, was one-sided, too subjective, and lacked sufficient analysis of the reasons for the brutality it describes.  Her book’s position on the Massacre and charges against Japan’s government also incensed many, especially Japanese ultranationalists, who sent her “torrents of hate mail.”

Yang received his last email from Chang several months before she died. He last spoke to her from Washington DC in December of 2003, where he was doing research at the National archives.  “We talked for several hours,” he says.  “I thought she was very happy.  I didn’t sense that anything was wrong with her.  Never.  She told me about her plans for her fourth book, about American POWs at the Bataan Death March.  I even shared with her some information that I found in the archives.”

When Chang took her own life in San Jose, California in the fall of 2004, Yang, along with others who had come to know her during her time here, was stunned.  “I never saw it coming,” he says.  “I never thought she would kill herself.  Because she was so young, you know?”

“I was in shock” says Duan Yueping. “I couldn’t believe it.  I wondered, ‘How could she end her life at such a young age?’”  She believes that Chang “came into contact with too many fierce and brutal things.  Not only did she write about the Nanjing Massacre, she also wrote about other atrocities later, which were too much for her to take.”

Yang, who has remained a Chang family friend, sees other reasons for her death.  “I think she was too young for such success.  She never thought her book would be so successful.  She had a two year-old son.  Her parents told me that she used to work at night and sleep in the daytime, and that he was very ill for the last three months of her life. They said that she had a breakdown three months before her death, and saw a psychologist.  I think she felt a lot of pressure, and many people criticized her.”

Following her death, the Nanjing Massacre Museum added a statue in honor of Chang.  Museum director Zhu Chengshan, who also assisted Chang while she was in Nanjing and later visited her in the US, believes her impact locally and abroad is clear and lasting.  He estimates that the number of annual visitors to the museum doubled to 1.2 million people after the book was published. The book has also improved the museum’s international recognition and funding.  “We all think she contributed so much,” he says. “Her spirit will never die, especially in this fight.  Her influence won’t die.”  Sun Zhaiwei agrees.  “I sincerely believe that her contributions to Nanjing and to world peace will always be with us.”

The Rape of Nanking, Yang says in his translation’s afterward, “is an important contribution to Western consciousness.”  While it contains some errors, as an historian he believes “it is a very complete work, even ten years after it was published.  In terms of source material, her book is very detailed.  Nothing’s missing.  She did a very good job.”

“Iris never called herself a historian,” he writes.  “She called herself a writer.  She wanted to make a contribution to understanding and encourage other writers and historians to investigate the survivor’s stories.  I think she completely accomplished her goal.”  It’s a work, he says, that came from Chang’s “desire for justice, her sympathetic heart, and her interest in mankind and its future.”

At the end of our interview, Yang shows us some of the few photos he still has of Iris Chang during her time in Nanjing.  She appears exactly as Yang Xiaming, Duan Yueping and others remember her: young, vibrant and confident. “Like a typical American girl,” Yang says with a smile.  Nowhere is there any hint of the arc her life is to follow. In the final photo, Chang stands in front of Gulou park with Yang’s daughter.  She wears her hair pulled back, tennis shoes for sightseeing, and a t-shirt and shorts against the heat.  She smiles easily, her eyes anticipating, as if staring out over something limitless.

A Comprehensive Approach to Securing Land Tenure in China

daping farmer with knife, October 2011

On a recent visit to Tianzhong, China, I was reminded of how many of China’s rural development, planning and justice challenges have roots in the country’s centrally-planned and nationally-controlled policies.

Officials in Tianzhong, like local officials across China, have recently carried out a series of land expropriations.  And farmers had been compensated with about $1,500 (USD) per mu (1/15 of a hectare), only a fraction of the true value of the land. Tianzhong’s farmers, like many farmers across China were understandably frustrated.

Across China this is a problem because national tax laws provide local officials with exclusive rights to land conversion fees. And the vaguely-worded public interest clause in China’s property laws gives local governments broad expropriation privileges, while nationally-mandated compensation standards require officials to compensate farmers by providing only a fraction of land market value.

In addition, banks managed by ex-officials and encouraged to lend by centrally-set low interest rates and directives, are eager to provide loans for government-affiliated projects.  Thus local leaders will sell land to developers, leverage sales for greater equity, then invest in infrastructure projects with the aim of attracting more investment and driving up real estate prices. In China, converting land remains the most direct and efficient means for local governments to fill their coffers.

A related and recently promoted policy further undermines farmers by allowing local leaders to expropriate arable land for development so long as it is offset by a comparable amount of arable land. This has resulted in even more farmers being moved from their homes to new apartment blocks—forcing them to commute (sometimes long distances) to their farms.

On a macro scale, the trend appears to be towards separating farmers from their primary source of identity and social security – their land – and forcing migration to cities where, as a result of China’s household registration system (hukou), they are still registered as rural dwellers and lack the same access to urban social services as official residents and are treated as second-class citizens.

There are a number of possible approaches for addressing the problem of land tenure security in China.  These include advocating for national reform of the public interest clause, compensation standards, the cadre management system (which encourages officials to focus on short-term gains) and China’s tax laws.  Legal aid, legal rights education, and land rights titling all can empower those who would resist expropriation or compulsory leasing.

While advocating for these large-scale top-down reforms is worthwhile, major change is unlikely in the short-term.

China’s economy is presently dependent on revenue from land takings and cheap migrant labor.

Not only would the reforms necessary to end a practice like land expropriation require a restructuring of China’s economy, they would also require political reforms the Chinese government is not ready to undertake.  Beijing knows its present economic structure is unsustainable, but it is still hoping to restructure gradually without causing economic and social instability.

Generally, China’s government prefers to start small with experiments to see what works before taking reforms to a national scale.  In the past it has crafted vaguely-worded legislation on a variety of sensitive topics to allow local-level experimentation.

The household responsibility system that broke up the collectives and gave families lease rights to land began as just such an experiment in the late 70s in a village in Anhui.  Export manufacturing began in a similar experiment in the early 80s in Shenzhen, then a sleepy fishing village.  Currently, experiments in hukou reform are being carried out in villages outside of Chengdu and Chongqing.

In part because of this, struggles over property rights are presently taking place in towns and villages across the country.  An economic approach to improving land tenure security should also be considered. Such an approach would help local governments craft development plans that are financially viable as well as sustainable, equitable and reduce land taking.  Feasible plans must conform to the present demands of the cadre management system by generating revenue for the county government in the short and long term.  The process for creating such plans begins on the ground with examining a village’s specific challenges and strengths.  What are the local government’s revenue needs?  Are the local conditions conducive to other, less destabilizing development models?  Such development alternatives can plug the revenue gap that typically necessitates land takings.

In Tianzhong, for example, sustainable, equitable development that addressed site-specific needs and worked from the village’s strengths would include cooperative farming, which could provide a means to raise and stabilize incomes on a large scale primarily by creating a single brand and eliminating competition and price-fixing middlemen.  A plan can be developed that ensures revenue is used to provide a basis for the kind of equitable and sustainable growth that provides true tenure security.

Large-scale land rights reform will not come quickly.  But the process can be expedited by providing a plan for how to increase land rights security on a small, site-specific basis, thus providing development alternatives that can lay the foundation for the kind of legal and political reform that cements those rights.  In so doing, we can more clearly articulate and powerfully advocate for our vision for the future, one wherein smallholder farmers in China have the ability to define success on their own as well as the means to achieve it.

Off the Map South of the Clouds: Two remote villages in Yunnan’s Nujiang River Valley are home to unlikely traditions

Map Magazine, October 2007

The Three Parallel Rivers area in Northwest Yunnan Province, any source will tell you, is a stunningly beautiful and rich place.  It’s so-named because of the nearly matching southward flows of the Nujiang, Mekong and Yangtze rivers through the province’s narrow, mountainous northwest corner.  Each forms in the plateaus of Tibet and Qinghai before making a near-convergence in Yunnan, violently carving through mountains and gorges.  The area is one epic range followed by major river and back again, a terrain responsible for the area’s lack of development and sparse population.  The region is host to more than 20 percent of the country’s plant species and 25 percent of its animal species.  UNESCO has deemed it a World Natural Heritage Site.

Its remoteness, however, means that much of the area is rarely seen by visitors.  The sites around the Nujiang river at the very edge of the province haven’t yet found mention in most travel books.  Looking at maps, I had assumed the region was inaccessible and largely vacant.  But a friend who visited a village near the river told me a different story about the people she met there.

“They’re Tibetan Catholics,” she said.  “And they love basketball.”  According to her, these villagers finished every Sunday sermon with a spirited game of round ball.  It had never occurred to me that Tibetan Catholics existed, and the thought of them dribbling, passing and dunking made my head spin.  I wasn’t even aware there was a road leading there, but a few weeks later I was on it, headed for the village of Dimaluo, hoping to see it all for myself.

A long journey

I soon understood why this area is so rarely seen.  Getting up there is a fantastic pain, typically taking two to three days of hard travel from Kunming.  By the time my overnight bus starts winding its way north along the Nujiang, however, the effort pays dividends.  The further north we travel, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.  The mountains rise in steep, lush angles along the highway, the river sitting in a gorge reaching depths of almost two miles.  The hard-running Nujiang – known as the “angry river” – turns from blue to jade as we head upstream.  Out of the bus window, I see the brightly-colored clothes of the minority people – including the Nu, Lisu and Dulong – who live in the towns and villages along the river.  I also see the occasional church, evidence of the Catholic and Prodestant missionaries who started coming here about 150 years ago. I follow the road north to its nearly furthest point, stopping at the town of Gongshan.  Traveling much further ahead would take me to Tibet.  Only a dozen miles to the west is the Myanmar border, while to the east, where I’m headed, lays the Baima Mountain Range.  I catch a ride into Dimaluo in the army supply truck of a friendly villager, traveling in the back with some farm equipment, meat, vegetables, beer and one enormous, ill-tempered hog.  A bumpy, dirty three hours later, we arrive in Dimaluo.  The village is small and simple, with about 1,000 residents.  It sits low in a valley alongside the Nujiang tributary that runs through it, both seeming swallowed up by the mountains rising fiercely from both sides.

The guide; yak kissing

I’m soon greeted by Aluo, a man who runs the town’s guesthouse and guides backpackers on multi-day treks through the Baima to Deqin.  He’s a friendly, athletic Tibetan with an intense stare.  He leads me up the hill to his lodge, a large and simple two-story home where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Guests stay upstairs, above a large meeting hall in one of a dozen or so beds.

Aluo and I sit down to chat, and his wife pours me some yak butter tea.  Taking a sip, I remember just how much I dislike this local favorite.  Drinking yak butter tea, I imagine, is like licking an actual yak.  I’m asked to drink liters of it over the next week.  Aluo speaks little English but very good Mandarin.  We discuss the village and its history.  The first settlers here, he tells me, were the Nu, Lisu and Dulong, who arrived in the area about 500 years ago.  The Tibetans arrived later, about 300 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries who introduced Catholicism first came to Dimaluo from Deqin in the 1850s and 1860s.  People here are mostly farmers, growing cabbage and corn on the steep hillsides, and raising livestock like pigs, yaks and chickens.  Globalization has mostly ignored them so far, though some families, like Aluo’s, have TVs and wired computers that keep them in touch with a China and outside world they seem so disconnected from.  Because of their location and some chance encounters, their way of life has been just as informed by the cultures of other countries as it has been by that of their own nation. As a child, Aluo used to watch TV programs picked up by satellite from countries like the U.S., Russia, Germany and Thailand.  “I didn’t understand much of it,” he says, “but it shaped my views.”  He tells me that, slowly, Chinese cities and the lifestyle they promise are drawing local people away, literally or in spirit.  Interest in traditions, like Catholicism, has always been mixed among townspeople here, but what exists is waning with the widening appeal of modern life.  “You can see it at church,” he says.  “Many of the people’s hearts just aren’t in it.”  He says he likes talking to foreigners because, when it comes to his interests and perspectives, he has increasingly more in common with them than with his own people.

“That sounds a bit lonely,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he says.  “That’s the word.”

A walk; the keeper

The next day, I tell Aluo that I’d like to explore the area.  He suggests I see the village of Baihanluo, two-hours up the mountain to the west.  It has, he says, a lovely church.  I head up a steep, rough trail, hiking past evergreen and conifer trees under cloudy skies that seem to part just over the valley.  Approaching the village, I come across five or so locals heading down to Dimaluo, including an older man wearing wrap-around Terminator-style sunglasses, who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Walken. When I tell them I’m headed for the church, Walken gets very excited.

“That’s my church,” he says proudly.  “I take care of it.  I have the key.  I can take you there, but not until tomorrow.” I accept and promise to meet him the next day. I reach the village and sit on the mountainside, staring out at the endless Myanmar and Tibetan Himalayas under the setting sun.  I take out my phone to tell a friend where I am, only to find that, not surprisingly, I’m out of range.

Compared with Dimaluo, Baihanluo is smaller and less developed.  It also seems empty.  I spot the town’s small but ornately designed Catholic church and, next to it, a basketball court, deserted except for a donkey standing forlornly at the three-point line.  I sit at the edge and eat some Oreos.  The donkey watches me, the rope around its neck fluttering in the late winter wind.

Wine; a shepard; the spirit

I’m invited by the town’s schoolteacher to spend the night at the tiny village schoolhouse, where he has an extra room and cot.  I ask the teacher about Walken, and he says his name is Amei.  The teacher gives me directions to Amei’s home and the next afternoon I set out to find him.  Amei greets me at his door with a warm smile.  After some tea together, he takes me to the church as promised. He’s in his mid-60s, he says, and Tibetan.  He too is a farmer, raising corn and livestock.  He tells me the church is 108 years old, and was built by three French and American missionaries.  He opens the padlock on the church’s outer gate and shows me inside the courtyard. We walk up the crumbling steps towards the church’s door and he points out the faded floral paintings on the outside.  He opens the front door and allows me inside, where it appears that nothing’s changed in those 108 years.  The ground is stone, and there are no pews.  On the walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross – paintings depicting the Passion, Death and Resurrection – and in front is a simple altar with a Virgin statue and pictures of Jesus behind. Amei says the church is waiting for a real priest, and in the meantime he is acting as reader.

Amei invites me to have lunch at his home with his sister and her daughter, as well as to a service that night.  After lunch, we sit by the fire as Amei keeps our tin cups full of baijiu.  He’s more optimistic than Aluo about the area’s future, believing its traditions will endure.  “Our ways of life have been around for too long,” he says.  “This is a Catholic village, and that won’t change.”

With some time before the evening’s mass, I decide to hike further up the mountain.  Hours later, high up at the snowline, I meet a shepherd.  He approaches me to take a closer look.  Seeing that I’m a foreigner, he starts to laugh.  He invites me into his cabin with a wave.  We chat and share more baijiu by the fire.   After an hour, I stumble down the mountain back towards Baihanluo.  It’s dark when I reach the church, where I find Amei welcoming the townspeople as they enter.  The church is, at most, half full, and lit only by a dim chandelier.  Amei begins by reading a hymn from the Bible in Mandarin that I don’t understand.  The parishioners follow this with a chanted “Amen.”  Amei then leads the church in identical incantations, one for each of the 14 Stations on the walls.  Each incantation lasts about three minutes, most of which is spent kneeling on church’s stone floor.  My head is still buzzing, and the eerily beautiful singing becomes trance-like in its repetition.  It is at once one of the most beautiful and painful experiences of my life.  After a while, I lose track of time.  In my memory, by the end of the service, the room has become terrifically bright.

A prayer before tip-off

That Sunday in Dimaluo I attend their town’s service.  As in Baihanluo there is a basketball court directly alongside the church, though here it seems that the entire town has come out for the morning’s service.  It’s so crowded that I stand outside with latecomers.  Three or four young people take turns reading from the Bible because, Aluo explains later, they’re some of the few people in town who can read Mandarin.

After service, there is indeed a basketball game.  Most of the town gathers to watch, and it’s no casual matter.  There are established teams (Dimaluo east and west sides), a referee and a scorekeeper.  And some of these guys can flat-out play.  The only miracles I saw at church that day were a no-look pass on a fast break, a fade-away jumper in double coverage and a perfectly timed give-and-go.  Granted, the customary one-beer-after-each-game rule did dilute the quality of play over time, but those first two games were truly something to behold.

One last visit with Amei

After church and before leaving the next day, I decide to visit Amei one last time to say thank you.  The only gifts I can find at the town’s store are beer, baijiu and cookies. I hope they will count as at least as well-intentioned if not especially unique.  I hike back up the mountain, only to find that Amei and his family aren’t home.  I find his neighbor and ask him to pass along my presents and thanks.

On my way back down the mountain, I stop for a moment to look one last time over the mountains to the west and the valley below.  What I’ve seen this week is evidence of a country far more complicated and rich than I knew.  I take out my camera, and find I can’t come close to fitting this scene in its frame.  So I focus on the brightest section, where the clouds part over the valley, and open the shutter.

Aluo’s Guesthouse:

General regional and travel information:

Travel tips:

Treks can only be taken between Dimaluo and Deqin between April and October

Allow two to three days for return trips from Dimaluo to Kunming