By Rowan Callick
I would have loved to possess the insights provided by this book before any of my earliest visits to China. For anyone with a forward interest in their own future and that of their children, this is a worthwhile read. The history of the relationship between China and Australia over the past thirty years and what can be glimpsed of the future makes it imperative that we work hard to understand what we can of how this vast nation works – and that inevitably means its governing Communist party (the CCP), the almost last and certainly most powerful on the planet. Do not go here for arguments as to the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of China, rather for insightful understanding.
Australians have long displayed an interest in China from the days of ‘Chinese’ Morrison onward and have contributed some good contemporary analysis as well as rancid racism. One thing that makes this book special is the accumulated diverse and sometimes contradictory interviews and personal contacts made over many years that have been included and incorporated through Callick’s perspective into his analysis. This helps contribute to bringing some order into understanding the complexities of how China works and why. He cannot predict the future of this colossal country and party (80 million members) nor can anyone else. The best we can hope for is an insightful understanding and an ability and capacity to be involved and contribute.
This is particularly timely as the once in a decade leadership change in the 25 members of the Central Politburo of the CCP and a complete change in the highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is now complete and has been followed almost immediately by a new and strengthened formal relationship between China and Australia.
The CCP exercises surveillance, education and control in all aspects and levels of life from each neighbourhood through the armed forces, the bureaucracy, business and the emerging courts. It governs nearly every corner of Chinese life. While under constant pressure from the forces of change both within and without the party structures, the responses thus far have been to accommodate some internal concerns while using every weapon available to silence and control external dissent. This is very much a battle of the present and future and no one can guess what the likely developments will be.
The one element of immediate concern is the emergence of an increasing sense of nationalism combined with an acute awareness of unequal past dealings with all major nations (including Communists), a growing awareness of economic and potential military strength and a Confucian acceptance of strong balanced governance. At the same time, there is a continuing growth of a placid, accepting bourgeoisie which is, however, capable of resistance through avoidance as is evidenced by LGBT behaviours in dealing with marriage and relationship issues.
In this light, I was intrigued that Callick mentioned the contemporary use of ‘Tongzhi’ (同志, tóngzhì) which is still nostalgically used as “comrade” by the older generation Chinese while younger LGBT employ it in mutual self recognition and laugh, covertly, at its use by their elders. I think there is quite a lot that might be deduced from this.
by Edmund White
White described this compact work as “a fantasia on real themes provided by history” and it is a return with some success to his abilities in that respect. It links together his love of literary history, previously unknown history of sexuality (see George Chauncey and turn of the century NY), the tragedy of impossible love and a ‘bequest manuscript’ revealed in stages.
The device is that Stephen Crane, author of ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ supposedly abandoned and destroyed a story based on a chance encounter as a New York writer/investigator with a teenage New York male prostitute. White constructs the novella within the context of three story lines – Crane’s last days and journey to Bavaria as Tuberculosis kills him – the invented memory of the street boy in the queer milieu of 1890s New York – and the writing of a incomplete putative manuscript for “The Painted Boy”. It should be noted that Crane’s real-life journalistic experiences give the story credibility. This ‘novel within the novel’ is dictated to Cora (his ‘almost’ wife) who ran a Florida brothel called the ‘Hotel de Dream’.
Theodore Koch, a married bourgeois New York banker obsesses totally and inexplicably on Elliott, ‘a 16-year-old Manhattan “flame fairy”. Syphilitic, kohl-eyed and marble-skinned, at once utterly available and utterly unknowable’. There is an inevitable downward spiral to total destruction for both characters sketched out against the background of New York’s boom era with its social and sexual complexity. White provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on the nature of attraction, obsession and love displayed by the characters who inhabit the three layers.
There is no shortage of flesh here in the White manner, whether it be medical (Crane’s death is an almost cinematic tour de force), sexual (eerily off-key at times) or artistic (the later part of the story hinges on a heavily symbolic male nude statue).
A short but beautifully crafted work that provides insights into the soul and a largely unrecorded time in homosexual history.
~ John. C