The ordinary side of urban China delivered by Chi Li

November 19, 2011

My wife and daughter returned from China last summer with a crate of Chinese movies on DVDs—there wasn’t one American movie in the mix and many do not have English subtitles.

Therefore, it is strange that the one Chinese film that impressed me the most (so far) was one I discovered at a local Half Priced Books. The movie was Life Show (2002) adapted from a book by Chinese author Chi Li.

Since the late 1980s, Chi Li has been considered a pioneer of “new realism” and her work depicts ordinary life in China so critics have identified her work with the Western school of “existentialism”.

In fact, it was the “ordinary element” of her work that I saw in the film which captured my curiosity to learn more. Since I’ve traveled to China several times since 1999 and not with tour groups, I’ve visited streets similar to the ones that appear in the film. I’m sure most foreign visitors to China that visit on packaged tours do not see the ordinary side of China as I have.

My wife says Chi Li is one of her favorite Chinese authors. The first time I was introduced to Chi Li’s work was through Life Show, which tells the story of Lai Shuangyang, a restaurant owner played by Tao Hong. Shuangyang’s life is busy dealing with family and business but she is lonely until one of her long-time customers, played by Tao Zeru, shows a romantic interest in her.

Zeru plays a middle-aged businessman, and Shuangyang takes a risk and the two strike up a romance that ends when she discovers he is the developer behind the modernization of the area where she has her restaurant.  He offers to take care of her but it is obvious that Shuangyang values her personal freedom and independence and in a fiery scene, she breaks up with him.

Lai Shuangyang’s life is filled with complications. Her younger brother Jiuju is a drug addict in jail/rehab.  The woman that loves Jiuju is Mei, who works for Shuangyang in her restaurant. Mei attempts suicide because Jiuju is not interested in her, and then Shuangyang arranged a marriage for Mei to another man, who is mentally ill.

Her sister in law, Xiaojin, is trying to regain the Lai family’s home, which was given to a neighbor during the Cultural Revolution. In addition, Shuangyang is at risk of losing her restaurant due to a redevelopment project in Wuhan.

Chi Li, the author of Life Show, is one of China’s best-known writers and several of her novels have been translated into French by publisher Actes Sud.

Chi Li was born 1957 in Wuhan, Hubei province, graduated from the Chinese Language Department of Wuhan University and then worked as an editor of a literary magazine called Fang Cao (Fragrant Grass).

Chi Li rarely travels and avoids “literary circles”.  “If my unsociability is thought to be a flaw, I admit I’m a person with a flaw,” Chi has said.

Chi Li, Chinese author of "Life Show"

During the Cultural Revolution, like millions of other young Chinese, she was sent to the countryside to become an “educated youth”. Later she studied medicine and practiced for five years before becoming a teacher.

Today, she is a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which provides an opportunity to discuss politics with other representative of the NPC providing an understanding/education of China’s policies and political atmosphere.

Chi Li’s work relates to love, marriage, divorce and extramarital affairs of contemporary Chinese life, while her characters are imbued with common human traits such as ambition, deceit, jealousy, and sexual desire. Her work, Comes and Goes, was a story of extramarital affairs occurring in Wuhan and became a TV series of same name.

The city of Wuhan comes alive in her work—enough to be considered a character. Although many of her novels have been translated into French, there are no English translations yet, which is a shame.

Discover Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress or Not One Less


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

Subscribe to “iLook China”
Sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top of this page.

About iLook China

Ah Bing and “Reflection of the Moon”

October 26, 2011

To understand another country’s history and culture, one should listen to the music, read that country’s novels and watch its films.

This summer, my wife and daughter returned from China with dozens of original Chinese films on DVD.

Then I saw Reflection of the Moon, (ISBN: 7-88054-168-3), which is about Ah Bing (1893 – 1950), a famous master of the Chinese Erhu, who overnight—in 1950 shortly before his death—became a national sensation as radios throughout China played his music.

Fortunate for me, Ah Bing’s story had English subtitles, which were not of the best quality and true to form for a Chinese movie filmed in 1979 (shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976), the plot was melodramatic with traces of propaganda that favored the Chinese Communists.

However, to be fair, in 1950, the Civil War was over and the Communists, with support from several hundred million peasants, had won.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would not begin for years and for those that survived the purges in 1949 and 1950 (mostly abusive land owners and drug dealers accused of crimes by the people they may have abused and victimized), Mao fulfilled his promises of land reforms.

To understand the era of Ah Bing’s life, much of China (including Tibet) was still feudal in nature, and the upper classes often took advantage of the peasants and workers as if they were beasts of burden treated as slaves.

This is one of Ah Bing’s masterpieces for the Erhu—Moon Reflected in the Second Spring (二泉映月)

Ah Bing’s real name was Hua Yanjun. His knowledge of traditional Chinese music and his talent as a musician went mostly unnoticed until the last year of his life in 1950, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1950, two musicologists were sent to his hometown of Wuxi to record and preserve his music. At the time, he was ill and hadn’t performed for about two years. Six of his compositions were recorded that are considered masterpieces. It is said that he knew more than 700 pieces—and most were his compositions.

As “Reflection of the Moon” shows, the lyrics of some of his music criticized the KMT (Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government), and he was often punished for speaking out through his music. If you have read of The Long March, you know that the peasants did not trust the KMT, but they did trust the Communists and that trust was earned between 1926 and 1949—a period covering twenty-three years, and most rural Chinese of that era still think of Mao as China’s George Washington.

Before the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, China’s Communist Party treated the peasants and workers with respect while the KMT did not earn that trust.

In fact, Ah Bing’s story and music is still so popular that the Performing Arts Company of China’s Air Force performed Er Quan Yin, an original Western-style Chinese opera, in 2010. Source: China Daily

To discover more of the time-period that Ah Bing lived, see The Roots of Madness.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.

No Link for Misguided Misinformation – Part 2/5

September 23, 2011

Kier’s rant continues with, My wife’s Chinese but there’s no way I’d consider my son applying for anything other than Western citizenship—as a Chinese he’d simply be a subject of the Party to read what is allowed, express ideas which are permissible and conduct himself in a manner that has been cleared.”

My wife is Chinese too, and she has a better understanding of what happened and why most Chinese older than 30 (born well before 1980) see Mao in a different light.

Most Chinese that lived through the Cultural Revolution era understand this better than most and once all the facts were weighed, many in China felt that Mao was not the great monster the West makes him out to be.

In another post, I explained why Mao may have made some of his disastrous decisions in Mao and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Did Mao and the Party he led make mistakes during The Great Leap Forward?

Stalin deliberately caused the deaths of millions of peasants and  then confiscated their land. In 1950, Mao allowed the peasants to judge the wealthy landowners, convict and then execute them for crimes against the peasants. Then China divided the land among the peasants after the wealthy landowners were gone. In 1958, Mao collectivized rural China into large communal farms but never rounded up the peasants and starved them deliberately as Stalin did.

Yes, but those mistakes did not have goals to execute and exterminate millions of people by starving them as Stalin did in the USSR or what Hitler’s Nazi Party did in Germany.

In fact, the five-year plan that mapped out The Great Leap Forward was cancelled in 1960s after knowledge of the starvation reached the leadership of China’s Communist Party.

The Party leadership then stepped forward and managed to find countries willing to defy American’s complete embargo of China, such as Canada and Australia, which provided enough imported wheat and other food to feed China’s rural population, and most Chinese living in major cities had no idea what was going on in rural China.

China has a long history of droughts and famines and loss of life due to events caused by nature. Plans for the Great Leap Forward did not take into account the possibility of a drought and famine.

Continued on September 24, 2011 in No Link for Misguided Misinformation – Part 3 or return to Part 1


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.

The Before and After of Vin Chengzong

September 19, 2011

My goal with this Blog is to remove the western-Sinophobe stereotype of Communist China and the Chinese, which is why I post on such a diverse variety of topics from history, to music, the arts, politics, current events and occasionally on an individual such as Vin Chengzon.

Vin Chengzong (born 1941) is another example that reveals where China has been and where it is today.

To some, he is considered the Court Pianist to the Cultural Revolution.

Most in the West do not know that music was an important part of the new art, which Cultural Revolution leaders proposed to replace the old music.

Although European classics were banned, Yin managed to create music that was highly Western in its technique, harmonic structure, instrumentation, and emphasis on choral singing. While the piano became an example of the bourgeoisie (the capitalist corruption of Western culture) and was in danger of vanishing from China, Yin transformed the piano from a target of the revolution into a positive symbol of radical change in Chinese culture. Source: Google Books

To accomplish this during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when all Western art and music were forbidden, Yin ingeniously created the piano-accompanied version of The Legend of the Red Lantern, one of the Eight model plays, the only plays, operas and ballets permitted during the period.

Yin and other members of a special committee arranged this work in 1969 based on the Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai. In the final movement of the concerto, Yin incorporated the melody The East Is Red. The instruments used, the piano and the orchestra, were all Western, but the music was heavily influenced by Chinese folk melodies.

Considered one of the world’s leading pianists, Yin was born on China’s “Piano Island” of Gulangyu in Xiamen, Fujian Province. He gave his first recital at age nine. Three years later, he entered the pre-college of the Shanghai Conservatory, and then transferred to the Central Conservatory in Beijing.

In 1983, following difficulties with the new government that came to power after Mao died, due to his alleged closeness to the Gang of Four, Yin immigrated to the US, where he made his debut in Carnegie Hall. Since then, he has performed for audiences around the world.

In fact, his solo performances have been featured on China Central Television and CBS Sunday Morning.

In 2010, Yin toured China for a ten-city tour with the Portuguese Chamber Orchestra celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Yellow River Concerto.

Formerly a professor and artist-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Yin now lives in New York City.

You’ve Come a Long Ways, Babe is another example of an individual bringing about positive changes in China.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.

Education in the Real World – Part 1/2

September 5, 2011

Many Americans live in a fantasy world, as you will learn, which may explain why fantasies and animated movies for children often earn so much money at the box office in the United States while more realistic films of a literary nature earn little.

When Henry Kissinger wrote, “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world,” he may not have realized that spreading these idealistic values applies within the US too, from whichever group has enough political power to make it happen.

Two of these values are how to raise and educate children as if all children are equal and there should be no obstacles to success. The only parallel comparison I can make is that what has happened in America since the 1960s, is similar to what happened in China during the Cultural Revolution but without the slogans.

However, like China during the Cultural Revolution, teachers in the US may face denunciation but for different reasons. At least in China, that insanity ended in 1976.

In the US, this led to a public education system that now teaches most children as if they will all go to college, find happiness and succeed equally.

This American Cultural Revolution also spawned the self-esteem movement in parenting and education, which still raises and teaches the average American child to believe what she dreams will come true (even if she doesn’t work for it).

Due to this wide spread belief among many Americans, a law was passed by President G. W. Bush in 2001 called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandated that America’s Public schools had to be successful with all  students from every walk of life and ethnicity by 2014 or be considered a failure.

NCLB did not require students to study or parents to support teachers or education. The penalties for failure are severe and were designed to only fall on the shoulders of America’s public school teachers.

If a teacher was not successful teaching every child from every walk of life that was enrolled in his class, he could lose his teaching job and see the school where he taught closed even if he succeeded with more than half of his students.

Many factors may cause a child not to cooperate with his teachers or learn in school. When we consider the impact of poverty, hunger, health, safety, environment, lifestyle, and broken families on children, not every child is equal.

When it comes to school, if a child’s mind is occupied by other, more pressing priorities such as hunger or safety, education often takes a back seat to survival, which is a fact that many in the United States refuse to accept.

However, when we study the education systems of other countries such as China, it seems that these real life issues ignored in the United States are treated as a reality of life.

Continued on September 6, 2011 in Education in the Real World – Part 2


This edited and revised post originally appeared on August 8, 2011, at Crazy Normal as Civil Disobedience and No Child Left Behind – Part 4


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

To subscribe to “iLook China”, look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar, click on it then follow directions.