A Travellerspoint blog

Truth and exaggeration in The Human Jungle

I’m not sure what caught my eye about the plain red cover, with the title and author in ordinary white text. Playing with Fire, a novel by Cho Chongnae, revolves around a wealthy businessman, living a happy family life in South Korea. One day, a man calls him at his office and refers to him by the name Bae Jonsu – a name he has not used since he fled the crimes he committed as a partisan in the Korean war. Throughout the novel, the reader learns more about Bae's crimes as the mysterious caller exacts a long delayed revenge.

Reading Playing with Fire, I sympathized with Bae's sensation of a slowly tightening psychological noose, even while I came to understand the extent of his crimes. This intermingling of sympathy, horror, and complicity is what Bae's family eventually comes to feel when faced with someone who has committed contemptible acts and yet still remains the person they have always known. Playing with Fire asks whether revenge should have a statue of limitations. How much moral responsibility can be assigned for past actions, and how far does that responsibility extend?

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Cho Chongnae, the author of Playing with Fire, and more recently of The Human Jungle speak at UC Berkeley. I learned that his books have sold over ten million copies in Korea, and he is the author of three historical epics, each over ten volumes.

Famous in Korea for his quick with and willingness to speak his mind, Cho kept the audience out of their seats, laughing, applauding, shouting their assent or disapproval. I accessed all of this a few beats later, through the mediation of translation, and even so his stage presence was magnetic.

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I learned that Cho had been investigated in Korea for violating national security, as some of his works dealt with the controversial period from 1945-1950. To prove his innocence, he was required to submit “objective data” to prove the accuracy of the historical depictions of partisan conflict during the Korean war. Due to its controversial nature, the period was de facto off limits to Korean scholars, so he used an American book, The Origins of the Korean War, as his cornerstone piece of historical data to fight the investigation.

When audience members asked why more of his works had not been translated, Cho Chongnae said that they are simply too long – translating one of his works means foregoing translation of nine novels by other writers, as the international market for Korean literature is limited.

These limitations impact American views of the literature of other countries. Even when we examine other countries and other cultures, we often do so through the eyes of Western mediators subject to the same constraints as ourselves - much of the fiction and history about China widely read in the West is written by Westerners.

This is why The Human Jungle reads like a breath of fresh air – well, until the gritty descriptions of corruption, violence, and prostitution sink in. The story focuses on Korean and Japanese businessmen struggling to make their way in an alien culture, succeeding only when they master the Chinese idea of “guanxi,” or business connections that bridge personal and practical concerns, and the business practice of circling a topic and clinching deals slowly, or “manmandi.”

Cho Chongnae said himself that the description of China was intended both to warn young Koreans of the perils of doing business across the straits and also shed light on the fantastic business opportunities available to the culturally astute. The true hero of the book, according to Cho, is Chon Chaehyong, a Korean student studying Chinese history and engaged to a Chinese woman. Despite this depiction of a positive intercultural relationship, for most of the book, Cho Chongnae prioritizes painting complete picture of corruption in China over realistically depicting life in a multifaceted urban world.

In the first chapter, So Hawon, a Korean doctor recently arrived to take up his plastic surgery practice, encounters a man lying in the middle of the road, refusing to leave until granted financial compensation. This sort of thing is relatively rare in China, and would not be the first sight a foreigner encounters on leaving the airport. The book constantly quotes a figure that upwards of 100 million Chinese women are prostitutes, and includes detailed descriptions of massage parlors and brothels. If anything, prostitution is overemphasized in the novel, and the vast majority of China that lives ordinary family lives is ignored. Cho presents China as a land of opulence and pollution, opportunity and baffling barriers, leaving his readers equal parts enthralled and horrified.

As someone who has lived in China, I cannot accept this cynical view of the Chinese business world. The China I have seen is a country full of people living comfortable home lives and doing their best to get ahead honestly. City centers pulsing with commerce may resemble an urban jungle, but many urban Chinese live in Xiaoqu, or housing developments set back from large roads. With their small shops and play areas for children, Xiaoqu resemble American suburbs, and the dog eat dog mentality that Cho describes is nowhere in evidence.

To depict China as a “human jungle” dangerous incomprehensible to citizens of developed countries is a form of mysticism similar to romantic depictions of the far east. Cho's opulent exterior presents China as a land apart, requiring the reader to peek between the lines to see the similarities between the Chinese landscape and our own.

So, why should you still read this book? Because, however biased Cho’s depiction of China is, it is at least thoroughly non-Western. The Human Jungle delves into Korean perspectives on Chinese current events and its analysis often strikes a chord. The fascination with Chinese culture felt by Korean businessmen and students will resonate with those who have studied abroad. Finally, the only way we’ll get more of Cho Chongnae’s fiction translated to English - the only way we'll ever be able to read the hugely influential Taebaek Mountain Range cycle in our own language - is if people read what is already here.

Posted by mirachaplin 23:02 Comments (1)

National Day Holiday

In which I make friends with a turtle, abstain from red bull, and wear a mushroom on my head

I have a week of vacation from school for the Chinese national day holiday, and I'm staying temporarily with a host family. Its nice to be able to kick back a little during the day, and especially nice to be able to sleep in past six ten, which is when the dorm loudspeakers play their cheery music from Monday to Friday.

My host family has three pets - a hamster named Fred, a turtle named Alex, and a marine turtle named keke - literally, "shell shell." The turtles have to be separated, or they will attack each other. But on their own, they are quite peaceable. Here is a picture of Alex eating a fresh date:

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This week, I accompanied my host sister to her first model United Nations conference at a hotel in Beijing. I participated in Model UN all throughout high school, and I'm going to be in a Chinese committee at the next conference here, probably as my host sister's partner. This time, though, I came as an observer, to get the hang of how Model UN works in China.

During the weekend, I cycled through multiple committees and listened in on the speeches. Generally, I was impressed by the quality of the ideas - especially, as it was almost everyone's first conference. There are both English and Chinese committees, but both are almost completely filled with native Chinese speakers. The committees were quite similar to Model United Nations back home, complete with wild, off policy proposals, candidates singing songs in front of the room and with copious numbers of selfies and group pictures.

Only one thing about Chinese Model UN worries me - it is quite routine to stay up all night to write resolutions the night before the final day of the conference, which is traditionally the day that all the delegates vote on the proposals. The head of one committee even gave a speech about how "delegates should refrain from drinking coffee and red bull when they stay up," and I heard some desperate giggles from teenagers in business suits who I knew for a fact were running entirely on caffeine.

The 2015 SSMUN delegation from Beijing Number 80 High School (with yours truly in the back):

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This Wednesday, I went to Chinese comicon with some of the other American students and international students in the dorms. The conference took place on the open floor of a convention center, and was crowded with people dressed in outlandish costumes - similar to American comicon, or so I am told. It seemed to function mostly as a giant shopping mall for anime paraphernalia. Rows of stalls filled the room, and around the outside people dressed in character costumes did synchronized dances and posed for photos.

One of the latest style trends in China involves small plastic plants that you clip onto your head. I sometimes see groups of friends wearing matching cherries or little bobbing sprouts, sticking out a couple of inches above their hair. At first, I was confused by this trend, and resolved not to take part. However, at comicon I saw someone selling mushroom sprouts, and I finally caved and bought one for myself.

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In China, I get a lot of photograph requests - and photographs taken without my consent. I will often turn around to notice a lens discreetly being whipped away from my direction. So at comicon, I determined not to be shy about asking for photos with anyone I wanted, especially people dressed in unique costumes. And their were plenty of those: people walking around with giant lego blocks completely covering their heads, women and men dressed in frilly white wedding dresses, and full body black robes worthy of Harry Potter. My friend Verity bought a long purple wig, and after the conference we went to sit across the street in the Beijing Olympic park, underneath the Bird's Nest stadium from the 2008 Olympics.

It felt like an idealized version of Beijing - the Beijing that you might have glimpsed in tourist brochures. The sky was the glorious, improbable blue that only impresses itself on your consciousness after days of smog. Tourists strolled on the green, reading the lists of olympic victors from marble tablets. I lay on the grass, looking up at the stadium and the children who ran through the park with their balloons and ice creams. Then I walked to the subway, descended to the train platform, and rode home.

Posted by mirachaplin 01:19 Archived in China Comments (1)

Introduction

semi-overcast

It's a warm summer day in upstate New York, with low clouds that hint at the possibility of thunder. I'm sitting in the Syracuse Hancock International airport, two hours early for my flight to Washington DC, where I will stay for a day before setting out for Beijing.

My luggage, originally quite manageable, has now morphed into a hodgepodge of carefully folded clothing and random objects I shoved in at the last minute. Distributed over four bags, it includes two foil wrapped fruitcakes, a pack of industrial air filters, two down jackets, and twenty chocolate bars, packed into a shoebox. There are many things about my nine months in Beijing that are still up in the air – my roommate, my host family, the weather, yadda yadda, but one surety is that I will not lack for chocolate.

I've been to China before, as an exchange student – a semester in Nanjing Sophomore year, and six weeks last summer. But now, after all the preparations, the visa process, the excitement and questions, its hard to believe that I'm actually about to leave.

My months in China seem to hover just out of sight, and I can't wait to grasp at them, to start living. I don't know what will happen, but I do know that it will be surprise me and that I'm going to learn a whole lot.

The goal of this blog is to keep everyone back home informed of what I get up to, as well as to serve as a record of my time in Beijing. I will be periodically posting pictures and stories, and I welcome comments, or messages, or blogging suggestions. Especially that last bit – I'm more used to news reporting than blogging, and it may show in my annals of Beijing.

I'll update again from Beijing in a few days. Thanks so much for reading!

Here I am with my bags at Syracuse:

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Posted by mirachaplin 13:52 Archived in USA Comments (3)

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