Category Archives: Life in China


On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

Last week, an op-ed published by the China News Service referred to outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke as a “banana.” It was, I suspect, meant to be satirical, and was a crude take-off on a famous essay written by Mao Zedong to celebrate the departure of another US ambassador, John Leighton Stuart.

The article was in bad taste and it brimmed with the kind of chickenshit pettiness that characterizes the more strident wings of the Chinese state media.

The term “banana” is an offensive term, especially when directed at an US Ambassador, but I’m not going to dwell on the epithet. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been called that. In fact, I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racist epithet.

As Mike Wilbon said on PTI last week when discussing the NFL’s decision to ban another provocative epithet from the football playing field, “Tony Kornheiser is my good friend of 35 years but he doesn’t get a vote in this.”

I’ll let others better qualified than I discuss the nature of that particular term.

But crude or not, the use of the term was just the most glaring example of how the writer of this essay completely fails to grasp a concept central to Chinese history: Cultural hybridity.

What somebody looks like, their DNA, their genotype, is of course irrelevant to somebody’s cultural make-up.

“Ethnicity,” “Race,” “Culture,” are all shifting and unstable ideas…except in China. Here ethnicity, race, culture are fixed constants. Hence, Xinjiang has always been “Chinese.” History books speak of a “Han” race which dates back millennia. Or, as in the case of Ambassador Locke, if you look Chinese, you must be—at heart—Chinese.

As Kaiser Kuo wrote as part of an excellent and insightful discussion on the subject at China File:

The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

But looked at another way, Chinese history is filled with cultural hybrids and liminal figures. In his 2012 book Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, Norwegian historian Od Arne Westad argues that cultural hybrids, those figures with the ability to operate in both East and West, were central to the development of a modern China.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine recent Chinese history without the likes of Sun Yat-sen (born in Guangdong, educated in Hawaii), Hu Shi (educated in the United States), or Chen Duxiu (educated in Japan). Overseas Chinese communities  made the first sizable private investments in developing China’s industrial and commercial sector. Many of the same overseas merchants, who often became wealthy despite native mistrust and hostility toward the Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, Malaya, and California, funded Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.

Then there is Robert Hart, who was the head of the Maritime Customs Bureau for the Qing Empire for nearly a half-century beginning in 1863. Born in Northern Ireland, a place not without its own tricky terrain of identity, Hart operated a hybrid organization with both foreign and Chinese staff, often acting against the interests of his fellow foreign nationals in his service to the dynasty.*

Even those foreign nationals angry at Hart for having ‘gone native’ were often at a loss as to their own identity. British historian Robert Bickers and others have written about the “Shanghailanders” of the 19th century who saw their community as something separate from their home nations, all the while maintaining their superiority distinctiveness regarding the local “Shanghainese.”

Perhaps the greatest cultural hybrids were the Manchus (Yes, I can find a way to work the Manchus into just about any argument). The early Manchu rulers grafted foreign notions of Central Asian empire onto a Chinese state and in so doing were able to expand that state into something much larger than any previous “Chinese” Empire.  They did so as well without losing their own identity, even as markers of that identity gradually gave way to local ways of living.

Even today, cultural hybrids fill important roles in China’s academic, business, and artistic worlds. There are Chinese educated abroad. ABCs “returning” to a place they’ve never been. White dudes from NH teaching in a Chinese university. African migrants seeking a place to settle down.

There was a recent video celebrating Beijinger’s ability to be “Happy” even when having to take slow, shallow breaths under a polluted sky. What struck me was how diverse Beijing appeared in the video. Obviously, Chinese still outnumber foreigners, but what do those terms even mean? If identity isn’t fixed, isn’t it possible we all exist on some kind of sliding scale of hybridity?

And yet, as the op-ed crudely lampooning Ambassador Locke shows, and Kaiser alludes to, hybridity is also something which is still misunderstood and feared. 汉奸 hanjian (“race traitor”) is a common epithet used against Chinese who take a nuanced stand in regards to Chinese government policy, those Chinese who marry or date outside their race, or anybody who fails to live up to the most calcified idea of what it means to be “Chinese.”

In the same post above, Kaiser makes the fair point that foreigners are not immune from this. The vitriol given to Mark “Da Shan” Roswell for appearing too cozy with the Chinese establishment is but one example of a modern-day Robert Hart.

Gary Locke was an excellent ambassador for the United States. He was also an excellent example of somebody who, in a global world, showing what it means to transcend narrow national identities. Some are searching for roots a world away from where they are born born, some are searching for homes far away from our roots.

Those who cling to narrow and fixed notions of identity often do so for their own narrow reasons.  Liminal figures who have always been at the center of momentous change. Maybe that’s why repressive regimes seem so paranoid about those who don’t fit in any  neat little box of identity.


*Although it should be noted that Hart himself never quite got over his multiple identity crises. He ditched his Chinese mistress and their children in favor of a “proper” British wife midway through his career. Eventually, one of his Anglo-Chinese children ended up suing him.

Live Tweeting the 2014 Spring Festival Gala: We watch so you don’t have to!

We try to be a full-service blog here at The Granite Studio and part of that service (at no charge to you!) is to sit and watch execrable television and then tell you about it later.  (Don’t you just love the word ‘execrable’? It means exactly what it sounds like.)

So here we go, an entire evening of live tweets from the 2014 CCTV Spring Festival Gala. (Ps. You might need the VPN for it to load correctly.)



















— Jeremiah Jenne (@GraniteStudio) January 30, 2014


























The Year of the Horse

Tianjin. 6:00 a.m. Explosions. The Year of the Horse is upon us.

No, not the completely awesome and totally unnecessary 1997 Neil Young concert film, the actual year of the horse 馬年 or, more accurately, the year of the Wood Horse.

I am, once again, in Tianjin even though I had planned to be in Beijing.  I think I’m getting a cold.  Austin Ramzy, ace journalist, psychotic road biker, and my former neighbor is being deported because his colleagues had the temerity to do their jobs.

So far, the Year of the Horse kind of sucks.

The only saving grace is early scuttlebutt suggesting tonight’s Craptacular will be even more craptastic than ever.

If last night’s “Old Military Cadre” warm-up gala is any indication, CCTV-1 is in for a long night.  The evening began with a horde of small children dressed in horse bodysuits shimmying randomly to some kind of blaring military anthem while film clips of exploding bombs and missiles were projected onto a giant screen behind them. Seriously, who needs drugs in a country like this?

What else will the year of the horse bring…

Would it be too easy to say bet on the Broncos for Monday’s Super Bowl especially since Bronco coach John Fox (born February 8, 1955) is a Horse?

(Actually, bet on the Broncos anyway. Every petty-spiteful-overly entitled-Patriots-fan fiber of my being wants Peyton to lose, but it’s not going to happen.  My prediction: Broncos 41 Seahawks 28)

Previous Anni Equus have been a mixed bag including the start of one war (Sino-Japanese War, 1894) and the end of another (World War I, 1918 ).

Coincidentally, 1918 was also the last time the Red Sox won a world championship before 2004–which wasn’t a Horse year–but during that 86-year drought Sox fans had to suffer through this un-bleeping-bearable moment which occurred in 1978 A.K.A. the last time we had an Earth-Horse Year.

Of course 1978 also marked the beginning of the Reform and Opening Era in China.  Chinese astrologers (and history geeks) love  neat elemental/astrological parallels such as :The “Earth” Horse year 1978 extinguishing the flames of the “Fire” Horse year 1966 which saw the start of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.

And what of all the Horses wearing red underwear this New Year’s Eve?

Two old horses, born 12 years apart
Two old horses, born 12 years apart

Famous celebrity horses include John Travolta, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Sean Connery (the latter two once played father and son despite being only 12 years apart in age).  Horse is also a great year for left-handed guitarists with both Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix being born in the year of the horse 1942.

How about female vocalists? Barbra, Aretha, and Ella –three singers who need only their first names–all born in the year of the horse.

Staying musical for a moment but delving a bit further back: Bernstein? Chopin? Puccini? Vivaldi? Yep, all Horses.

Three US Presidents–Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt–were horses but the only one worth caring about is Teddy.  Naturally, the leader of the Rough Riders was born in the year of the horse.

in the literary world, e.e. cummings was a horse, as was samuel beckett and also aldous huxley

A painting of a horse? Edgard Degas, Jean Renoir, and Rembrandt–all horses.

Horse can even equal crazy.  How else can you explain Ross Perot, Mike Tyson, and Jackie Chan all having the same zodiac sign?

Some of the greatest names in history were horses. Names like  Armstrong, Cicero, Charlemagne, Khrushchev and, of course, this guy…..

Yes, that is a fake trailer for an all too real movie about Genghis Khan produced by (the) Howard Hughes starring John Wayne and Rita Hayworth playing the first–and so far only–naturally red-headed Manchu in history.  You can watch the whole thing here.

Happy New Year!May the Year of the Earth Horse be a good one for you and your family.