Louisa Chiang and Perry Link

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Louisa Chiang and Perry Link *Avail­able at http://www.liu-xiaobo.org/blog/ar­chives/18814.

Lit­tle Re­u­nions by Eileen Chang For­ever Young a film directed by Li Fang­fang

Lit­tle Re­u­nions by Eileen Chang, trans­lated from the Chi­nese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz. New York Re­view Books, 332 pp., $16.95 For­ever Young a film directed by Li Fang­fang

In 2012, as he as­cended to the top of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and its govern­ment, Xi Jin­ping be­gan giv­ing speeches about a “Chi­nese Dream”: China was to be­come wealthy, pow­er­ful, beautiful, and uni­fied. Of these four goals, wealth and power were es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause, in an of­fi­cial nar­ra­tive that had been re­peated for decades in schools and the me­dia, China for too long had been bul­lied by Western pow­ers.

The sense of na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion that has seeped into pop­u­lar con­scious­ness in China has, for many, led to a deep am­biva­lence to­ward the West: Chi­nese ad­mire its wealth, moder­nity, and free­doms, yet we are ri­vals, not friends. China’s great mod­ern writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) sev­eral times ob­served that his fel­low Chi­nese look ei­ther up at the West or down on it— never straight across. The usual re­sults are car­i­ca­tures that fur­ther im­pede the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting a clear look.

In the last ten years, there have been signs in China that a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple want to move be­yond the look-up-or-look-down trap, and the pop­u­lar­ity of Eileen Chang’s novel Lit­tle Re­u­nions is one of them. Fin­ished in 1976 but not pub­lished un­til 2009, four­teen years af­ter her death, the book sold 700,000 copies in China in its first six months of pub­li­ca­tion. It is Chang’s most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work, so some of its al­lure has been as a trove of clues to the au­thor’s life. More than that, though, the novel re­calls a van­ished China of the 1930s and 1940s that was both rooted in Chi­nese cul­ture and open to the West; its scenes of­fer an an­ti­dote to the mood of in­dig­nant ri­valry and, at least in the imag­i­na­tion, an al­ter­na­tive to the Xi Jin­ping ver­sion of what it means to be a mod­ern Chi­nese. In Chang’s as­sured cos­mopoli­tanism, Western­ers are nei­ther mod­els nor vic­tim­iz­ers but three-di­men­sional hu­man be­ings who go through pains and tri­umphs just as Chi­nese peo­ple do. Writ­ing in Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing years when her home coun­try was writhing in tor­rid “class strug­gle,” Chang de­picts ev­ery­day hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence in prose that is el­e­gant, eru­dite, and tren­chant.

Born in 1920 into an elite but de­clin­ing fam­ily of scholar-of­fi­cials, Chang grew up with only in­ter­mit­tent par­ent­ing by a mother who was of­ten trav­el­ing abroad and an aloof fa­ther who spent con­sid­er­able time with opium and cour­te­sans. Fol­low­ing her Western­style school­ing in wartime Shang­hai and Hong Kong, she be­gan pub­lish­ing bril­liant short nov­els—Love in a Fallen City and The Golden Cangue, among oth­ers—that are rem­i­nis­cent of Austen in their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ro­man­tic and fam­ily re­la­tion­ships por­trayed against a back­drop of up­per-class dys­func­tion in a semi­colo­nial world. Chang quickly found a large fol­low­ing. She re­mained in China for three years af­ter the Com­mu­nist vic­tory in 1949, and in The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth pro­duced two of the most pen­e­trat­ing ac­counts of those years. Her works were banned in China un­til the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, as read­ers thirsted for an al­ter­na­tive to the medi­ocre en­ter­tain­ment fic­tion of the post-Tianan­men era on the one hand and the jaw-break­ing mod­ernism of the avant-garde on the other, an “Eileen Chang fever” took hold.

Lit­tle Re­u­nions fol­lows Julie Sheng— the fic­tion­al­ized Eileen Chang— through a thick web of re­la­tion­ships in war-torn up­per-class China and even­tu­ally into a pas­sion­ate ro­mance and doomed mar­riage with a Ja­panese col­lab­o­ra­tor who is dis­tracted by his sev­eral other sex­ual li­aisons. The English trans­la­tion ap­pends a “Char­ac­ter List” of 124 en­tries, and it is needed. Julie’s in­tegrity and moral in­sight give the novel some unity, but it is a kalei­do­scope.

Chang ap­proaches her char­ac­ters, whether Western or Chi­nese, ready to em­pathize. Colonists have their prob­lems, too. By show­ing their vex­a­tions (with­out con­don­ing their faults) Chang as­serts a moral power that re­jects vic­tim­hood. She seems aware that scold­ing the con­queror is only an­other way of ac­knowl­edg­ing his priv­i­leged po­si­tion. Her em­pa­thy serves to vin­di­cate the na­tion and cul­ture from which she has emerged.

For ex­am­ple, Chudi (Judy), who is Julie’s sur­ro­gate mother, has a se­cret af­fair in wartime Shang­hai with a Nazi school prin­ci­pal, Herr Schütte. He pays for her braces, a marvel of Western tech­nol­ogy that im­proves Judy’s looks more than any­one thought pos­si­ble. In re­turn, af­ter Ger­many loses the war, Judy helps Schütte to buy his fare home by sell­ing his great­coat. Such barter be­tween lovers trumps—at least tem­po­rar­ily—the caste sys­tem within which they live. Part of Herr Schütte wishes to be free from that sys­tem, but en­trenched racism warps his world in ways that are too fun­da­men­tal for him to notice. When his Ger­man wife gives birth to a son in Shang­hai, the cou­ple nick­name the boy “the Chi­na­man.” For Chang, the de­tail of the nick­name is a tool for show­ing the ten­sions that ex­ist in his mind: a mock­ing parental love, racial ex­ul­ta­tion, and creep­ing cheater’s guilt, among oth­ers. She shows Herr Schütte’s hu­man yearn­ings and their per­ver­sions just as she does for her Chi­nese char­ac­ters.

Chang’s eq­ui­table world­view, made pos­si­ble by her bi­cul­tural back­ground, does much to ex­plain why Lit­tle Re­u­nions sold so well when it ap­peared in 2009. Many mid­dle-class Chi­nese read­ers, wealth­ier and bet­ter-in­formed than their pre­de­ces­sors but feel­ing morally adrift, hoped for a vi­sion of en­light­ened for­give­ness and dig­ni­fied equality with the West. Such a prospect was a brac­ing al­ter­na­tive to the drain­ing tantrums about na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion and pay­back that suf­fused the Internet and con­tin­ued to ap­pear in state-ap­proved books like Un­happy China, an­other best seller in 2009. The

2009 “fever” over Lit­tle Re­u­nions was part of a longer-term trend that has been called “Repub­li­can fever”— “Repub­li­can” refers to the years 1912– 1949, when the Kuom­intang (KMT) ruled most of China, and some­times refers also to Tai­wan and Hong Kong af­ter 1949. Be­fore Lit­tle Re­u­nions, there had been fevers over the clas­sic sto­ries of Eileen Chang; over Qiong Yao, a Tai­wanese writer of ro­mances; Jin Yong, the mas­ter of his­tor­i­cal mar­tial-arts fic­tion from Hong Kong; and Teresa Teng, a Tai­wanese crooner of love songs. For young peo­ple, these artists seemed to be lift­ing a cur­tain on an­other way to be Chi­nese; for older peo­ple, they re­called a by­gone time whose cul­tural re­sources, af­ter the Maoist blight, might once again prove use­ful.

An im­por­tant is­sue in the fas­ci­na­tion with the Repub­li­can era has been ques­tions about what re­ally hap­pened among the Na­tion­al­ists, the Com­mu­nists, and the Ja­panese dur­ing the War of Re­sis­tance (1937–1945) and the en­su­ing Civil War (1945–1949). Was it true, as the Com­mu­nists claimed in their text­books and nov­els, that their guer­rilla fight­ers ex­pelled the Ja­panese? Or as his­to­ri­ans and jour­nal­ists were now dis­cov­er­ing, did Na­tion­al­ist troops do most of the fight­ing?

In 1984 the govern­ment built a mu­seum in Nan­jing to com­mem­o­rate the hor­rific 1937–1938 “Nan­jing mas­sacre” in which Ja­panese troops slaugh­tered as many as 300,000 non­com­bat­ant Chi­nese. Now, though, writ­ers were com­par­ing that mas­sacre with the Com­mu­nists’ 1948 siege, dur­ing the Civil War, of the north­east­ern city of Changchun, where a sim­i­lar num­ber of in­no­cents died, in this case of star­va­tion. On the Changchun dis­as­ter, Com­mu­nist text­books note only that “Changchun was lib­er­ated with­out a shot.” In a 2007 es­say Liu Xiaobo, China’s No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate who died in prison last year, ar­gued that the Com­mu­nist govern­ment’s lies about the war made Ja­panese lies about the war more plau­si­ble.*

Chi­nese read­ers’ sense that they had been lied to about the war fu­eled a de­sire to re­ex­am­ine the Repub­li­can years more broadly. Were they re­ally as bad as of­fi­cial text­books claimed? Af­ter 1949 Mao had started vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, a famine that killed thirty mil­lion or more peo­ple, and a dev­as­tat­ing Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. Was “lib­er­a­tion” re­ally bet­ter than what had gone be­fore? The ur­ban young not only be­gan to im­i­tate Repub­li­can-era fash­ion—such things as qi­pao gowns, high-heeled shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses with round lenses—but some­times chose to write Chi­nese in tra­di­tional char­ac­ters rather than the sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters that the Com­mu­nists had in­tro­duced in 1955. Shop­keep­ers took to us­ing tra­di­tional char­ac­ters on their signs un­til the govern­ment banned the prac­tice in 2015. In­tel­lec­tu­als looked to the Repub­li­can era for pos­si­ble reme­dies for con­tem­po­rary moral bank­ruptcy and cul­tural malaise. Some sought out

Repub­li­can-era text­books to give their chil­dren for ex­tracur­ric­u­lar read­ing. New edi­tions of the works of in­tel­lec­tual lu­mi­nar­ies from the Repub­li­can pe­riod—in­clud­ing Liang Qichao (1873–1929), the poly­math hu­man­ist-re­former; Cai Yuan­pei (1868–1940), the pres­i­dent of Pek­ing Univer­sity and fa­mous cham­pion of aca­demic free­dom; and Chen Yinke (1890–1969), the pre­em­i­nent China his­to­rian of his time—ap­peared spo­rad­i­cally through the 1980s and 1990s. The trend ac­cel­er­ated be­tween 1999 and 2013 and even­tu­ally in­cluded dozens of distin­guished writ­ers. In 2011 a three-vol­ume work by Yue Nan called Cross­ing to the South and Re­turn­ing to the North com­pared the fates of Repub­li­can-era in­tel­lec­tu­als who went to Tai­wan or abroad in 1949 with those who stayed be­hind, and be­tween 2013 and 2016, four vol­umes by Tian Xiao­qing called Cur­rents in Repub­li­can Thought ap­peared.

These pub­li­ca­tions made po­lit­i­cal com­ments in two ways: first, they spot­lighted Repub­li­can-era lib­eral thinkers who had en­vi­sioned a dif­fer­ent route for China. Re­ex­am­in­ing their works in the present raised the ques­tion What if... ? Sec­ond, and more sub­tly, Repub­li­can lib­er­als were use­ful for those who wished to com­ment on the present. A writer in the Xi Jin­ping era might be barred from call­ing ex­plic­itly for cer­tain in­tel­lec­tual free­doms but could show how far lib­er­als in the Repub­li­can era were able to go. He or she might know full well that the free­doms back then ex­isted mostly in spite of the govern­ment, not be­cause of it, but the goal was to make a point about to­day.

Col­lected works of schol­ars were at­trac­tive only to the very well ed­u­cated, but Repub­li­can fever spread be­yond the elite, to pop­u­lar books and ar­ti­cles and mid­dle­brow television shows. In 2015 a three-vol­ume work called The Deeply His­toric Repub­li­can Era by Jiang Cheng claimed on its front cover to be “rec­om­mended by one mil­lion read­ers on the Web.” Yuan Tengfei, a high school his­tory teacher in Beijing, used the Internet to charm peo­ple with his sharp in­sights, de­liv­ered with sprightly sar­casm, into ev­ery decade of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Chi­nese his­tory. In one of his barbs, he jux­ta­poses Chiang Kai-shek’s “white ter­ror” of 1927, in which sev­eral hun­dred Com­mu­nists were mas­sa­cred, with Mao’s slaugh­ter of 710,000 coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in 1950, then poses the ques­tion, “How many do you have to kill in or­der to at­tain the level of Great Leader?” Be­fore his so­cial me­dia ac­counts were shut down in Septem­ber 2017, Yuan had 16 mil­lion on­line fans.

On Weibo, China’s ver­sion of Twit­ter, the philoso­pher and diplo­mat Hu Shih (1891–1962) loomed as the im­age of the flaw­less scholar-of­fi­cial, unswerv­ing in his defense of tol­er­ance and aca­demic free­dom in the face of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence. Peo­ple noted that Chiang Ching-kuo (1910–1988), the son of Chiang Kai-shek, helped bring democ­racy to Tai­wan in the late 1980s—the very era when main­land politics were mov­ing in the other di­rec­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in a mas­sacre of pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tors on June 4, 1989. The Repub­li­can com­par­i­son fed a grow­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion that the Na­tion­al­ists were not, af­ter all, as bad as the Com­mu­nists, who seemed to stop at noth­ing to main­tain their grip on power.

But com­par­isons to the Repub­li­can past could also go too far. A con­trast with the ills of the Com­mu­nist era could lead to nos­tal­gia for only its bet­ter side. Thus Mao’s ex­treme vi­o­lence could make Chiang Kai-shek’s seem less no­table; the ob­scene wealth of the Com­mu­nist elite to­day could ad­um­brate the se­vere so­cial inequal­ity of the Repub­li­can era. Dis­il­lu­sion­ment fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of Com­mu­nist lies could lead pro-democ­racy in­tel­lec­tu­als to lurch un­crit­i­cally in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Be­cause Mao’s spec­tac­u­lar hu­man rights abuses were per­pe­trated in the name of eco­nomic jus­tice, for ex­am­ple, some were led to dis­miss con­cerns over eco­nomic inequal­ity as resur­gent Marx­ist baloney in dis­guise. Most Chi­nese fans of Repub­li­can nos­tal­gia, though—no­tably in­clud­ing Eileen Chang fans—have bet­ter-grounded views. They can see the dif­fer­ence be­tween Chiang Kaishek and Chiang Ching-kuo and are ad­mir­ers of Tai­wanese democ­racy. The au­thor of Lit­tle Re­u­nions does not tell her read­ers what to think, but a left­lean­ing sym­pa­thy with the un­der­class can be in­ferred from her art. Mas­ters and ser­vants in her pages live in ev­ery­day prox­im­ity, and ex­ploita­tive re­la­tion­ships, al­though not la­beled as such, are ob­vi­ous. Maids are taken as con­cu­bines. Nan­nies sub­sti­tute as par­ents. Sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian ser­vants, hav­ing out­lived their util­ity, are aban­doned to the des­ti­tute coun­try­side from which they orig­i­nally were drawn. The ser­vant-to-serf con­tin­uum shows no real dif­fer­ence from life in Cao Xue­qin’s great novel Dream of the Red Cham­ber, of two hun­dred years ear­lier. No care­ful reader of Lit­tle Re­u­nions in 2009 could have used it to look back on Repub­li­can life as idyl­lic or to see the class is­sue as a mere Marx­ist ob­ses­sion.

What Lit­tle Re­u­nions does do, along with sim­i­lar works in the Repub­li­can fever, is to in­vite a coun­ter­fac­tual ques­tion: Could China have taken a dif­fer­ent path in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury? What if Ja­pan had not in­vaded and the Repub­li­can ef­fort at mod­ern­iza­tion had not been aborted? How wealthy and strong might the coun­try have be­come, how happy its cit­i­zens, how at­trac­tive its soft power? Be­neath these ques­tions about mod­ern­iza­tion has lurked an­other about China’s cul­tural iden­tity: How much Chi­ne­se­ness was lost when the Repub­lic col­lapsed on the main­land? In the 1950s Mao be­gan to model China af­ter the Soviet Union. Later he split with the Sovi­ets, but the coun­try has suf­fered cul­tural con­fu­sion and moral malaise ever since. The Repub­li­can era, what­ever its flaws, seemed the last in which an au­then­tic China could be found.

In 2013 China’s au­thor­i­ties be­gan push­ing back against Repub­li­can fever. A set of in­struc­tions called “Doc­u­ment No. 9” was cir­cu­lated in­ter­nally to of­fi­cials around the coun­try. It warned against “con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy,” “civil so­ci­ety,” “press free­dom,” “his­tor­i­cal ni­hilism,” and other mal­adies that had been seep­ing into China. The phrase “his­tor­i­cal ni­hilism,” which seemed puz­zling at first, was po­lit­i­cal code for deny­ing the glo­ri­ous record of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party. Cen­sors set to work en­forc­ing Doc­u­ment No. 9, and two years later Repub­li­can fever be­gan to re­cede.

This year, though, the re­lease of an un­usual movie has be­gun to re­vive it. One of China’s lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties, Ts­inghua, marked its hun­dredth an­niver­sary in 2011, and it com­mis­sioned a fic­tion film, directed by Li Fang­fang, to cel­e­brate its his­tory. Called in English For­ever Young, it is tech­ni­cally awk­ward, even am­a­teur­ish, but it tells the im­por­tant story of how war and revo­lu­tion rav­aged Ts­inghua’s hu­man­is­tic be­gin­nings, and it pleads for the restora­tion of those val­ues to­day. Com­pleted in 2012, the film was blocked by cen­sors un­til Jan­uary 2018, but when it was re­leased it quickly be­came a box­of­fice hit.

Ts­inghua was founded in Beijing as a prepara­tory school for Chi­nese stu­dents who were headed for the United States on the Boxer In­dem­nity Schol­ar­ships that were es­tab­lished with funds that China’s last dy­nasty, the Qing, was obliged to pay to the US as repa­ra­tions for Amer­i­can losses in the Boxer up­ris­ing of 1899–1901. In 1924, the year be­fore Ts­inghua in­sti­tuted its fouryear col­lege cur­ricu­lum, the In­dian poet Rabindranath Tagore vis­ited the cam­pus, where, ac­cord­ing to For­ever Young, he left stu­dents with deep im­pres­sions of hu­man­is­tic val­ues. “Do not for­get your vo­ca­tion,” he urges in the film, and avoid “the lure of profit.” Af­ter the Ja­panese in­va­sion of north­ern China in 1937, Ts­inghua merged with Pek­ing Univer­sity and Nankai Univer­sity in Tian­jin; the schools trans­ferred their stu­dents and teach­ers to the south­west­ern city of Kun­ming to form South­west­ern Associated Na­tional Univer­sity, where, in the film, as­ceti­cism, pa­tri­o­tism, hon­esty, and in­tel­lec­tual in­tegrity are para­mount. The en­vi­ron­ment is rus­tic and sim­ple. Na­tion­al­ist sol­diers are pre­par­ing to fight the Ja­panese, and the US mil­i­tary is help­ing to train them. The Amer­i­cans are ap­pro­pri­ately gruff, but for a PRC film to show ei­ther them or Na­tion­al­ist sol­diers as good guys is a first for PRC cin­ema.

Af­ter the war, back in Beijing and un­der heavy Soviet in­flu­ence in the 1950s, Ts­inghua’s pur­pose be­came the train­ing of en­gi­neers, and it did this un­til 1966, when Mao’s Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion shut China’s uni­ver­si­ties down. Ts­inghua re­opened in 1978, af­ter which the hu­man­i­ties made a mod­est come­back. But science and tech­nol­ogy have still pre­dom­i­nated.

The ap­par­ent mis­sion of For­ever Young is to re­vive Ts­inghua’s hu­man­ist roots. The film opens with scenes of mod­ern fur­ni­ture and equip­ment in­side clean mod­ern build­ings in­hab­ited by peo­ple who do not trust one an­other. Is the baby for­mula fake? Why did a pork shop where I’d been a loyal cus­tomer for four years trick me into buy­ing fatty pork? Look at our “great mas­ters” of Chi­nese cul­ture to­day: they are semilit­er­ate sooth­say­ers who, in pick­ing names for in­fants, rec­om­mend words that con­note “fiend” or “femme fa­tale.” Where are the real cul­tural mas­ters we once had?

Mov­ing back in time, the film in­vites the ques­tion of what caused the eth­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual waste­land we see to­day. Was it im­pe­ri­al­ism and war? Did we have no room for any­thing but pa­tri­o­tism? Through sev­eral episodes the film shows that there need be no con­flict be­tween hu­man­ism and pa­tri­o­tism. Shen Guangyao, a Ts­inghua grad­u­ate who has en­listed in China’s air force and whose plane is fa­tally hit in a dog­fight, chooses to crash into a Ja­panese ship rather than bail out with his para­chute. He does this of his own vo­li­tion and in spite of his train­ing by an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cer that a pi­lot’s life is al­ways more pre­cious than an air­plane. The con­trast to the fate of Ja­panese kamikaze pi­lots is plain—but so, for Chi­nese view­ers, is the con­trast to the end­lessly re­peated Com­mu­nist sto­ries about mar­tyrs who for­feit their lives for the party.

An­other episode fol­lows a young wo­man whose small mis­takes lead to po­lit­i­cal charges that re­sult in her so­cial os­tracism, tor­ture, and, even­tu­ally, sui­cide. Is this a ref­er­ence to the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion? Of course. But that can­not be made ex­plicit in the film; it would be “his­tor­i­cal ni­hilism.” Rather these scenes are moved up about five years, to 1962. One can only imag­ine the ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the film­mak­ers and the cen­sors on this point.

And on many other points as well. The hu­man­ist val­ues that the film

shows to be deep in Ts­inghua’s ori­gins are in part Chris­tian. The univer­sity’s pres­i­dent from 1931 to 1948, Mei Yiqi, was a Boxer In­dem­nity scholar in 1909 who stud­ied elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing at Worces­ter Polytech­nic In­sti­tute in Mas­sachusetts and be­came a Chris­tian in 1912. In the film we see the unas­sum­ing and kind Mei at South­west Associated Univer­sity, where we also meet an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary who is close to the lo­cal Chi­nese Chris­tians and sings “Amaz­ing Grace” with them. For the film, the lyrics are changed to re­move any specif­i­cally Chris­tian con­no­ta­tions. The new words in the open­ing lines are:

Amaz­ing grace flows into my heart As heaven and earth look on That grace un­folds for all to see From here to the edges of dawn

Stripped of hope and tested by fire My faith still leads me on Through ex­haus­tion, over dan­gers Un­til ev­ery cloud is gone

It can­not have been easy to get the cen­sors to ac­cept the song, what­ever the words. Most re­mark­able, more­over, is that its melody is played, with­out words, in the back­ground of scenes in the two later his­tor­i­cal set­tings of the film—the Mao era and con­tem­po­rary times. The tune seems to be say­ing: “the Ts­inghua spirit en­dures.”

Chris­tian­ity is only one com­po­nent in that spirit, though; its gen­eral mes­sage of truth, jus­tice, and ci­vil­ity is sec­u­lar and broad. In fact it comes close to what Doc­u­ment No. 9 de­nounces as “univer­sal val­ues.” The film’s name in Chi­nese is highly sig­nif­i­cant: wuwen xi­dong, which lit­er­ally means “not ask­ing if it’s West or East,” echoes an idea that has been at the heart of hu­man rights ad­vocacy in China ever since the as­tro­physi­cist Fang Lizhi de­clared, in the late 1980s, in an al­lu­sion to the uni­ver­sal­ity of hu­man rights, that “I don’t do East­ern physics or Western physics; I do physics.”

The film­mak­ers had cover for their provoca­tive ti­tle be­cause the phrase wuwen xi­dong ap­pears in the third stanza of Ts­inghua’s school an­them, com­posed in 1923. But that cover it­self was am­bigu­ous: Did it not also sug­gest that univer­sal val­ues were in the Ts­inghua spirit right from the be­gin­ning? That ques­tion is po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing to Chi­nese lead­ers like Xi Jin­ping or Hu Jin­tao, the pres­i­dent be­fore him, be­cause both are Ts­inghua grad­u­ates. Which is wrong, they might have to ask them­selves—their school spirit or Doc­u­ment No. 9?

Eileen Chang, Hong Kong, circa 1954

Street view from in­side an an­tique dealer’s shop, Beijing, 1965; pho­to­graph by Marc Ri­boud

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