Convenience Store!

(Of all the blog posts I ever wrote, this one was my absolute favourite)

Convenience Store!

A Major New Televisual Soap Operetta That Combines Hard Hitting Windows On Modern Life And Philosophical Trends In Contemporary Society.

xiaomaibu
It’s all happening down at the Xiaomaibu!

The Scene: A small convenience store located on some nondescript corner in some nondescript Chinese provincial town. Auntie Zhang and Auntie Chen are sat next to a small counter.

Auntie Zhang: I see that you have polished the cigarette counter immaculately today, Auntie Chen. My highest congratulations to you. But pray tell, is your desire to polish the counter a natural instinct or one nurtured from the inevitable social conditioning that all human citizens must absorb in some respect?

Auntie Chen: Nay, Auntie Zhang, it is quite possibly a combination of both. My pleasure merely derives from my sense of the aesthetic. The real question is how beauty is to be defined.

Auntie Zhang: The ancient Greek aesthetics defined beauty as “anything that pleases a human sense”, and I concur with this viewpoint.

Auntie Chen: Ah yes, but what is “to please”?

Auntie Zhang: To “please” is to cause a joyous sensation, but this is only a definition in the relative sense of the word. No doubt that on an absolute scale, standards of beauty must differ.

Auntie Chen: So it differs, on that we are agreed. I say we choose an example and discuss its relative merits in relation to philosophy. Imagine an artist’s rendition of Heaven; it represents an ideal that no human being has ever witnessed, yet has been given ideas as to how it should appear.

Auntie Zhang: It would contain only the pure essence of beauty, and stimulate all of the senses. The viewer should experience a feeling of euphoria and a crystallisation of all five senses simultaneously.

Auntie Chen: In The Republic, Plato discussed…

(At that moment the shop door opens and a young woman enters the shop. She proceeds to look at the instant noodles aisle)

Auntie Chen: Isn’t that Lao Wang’s daughter who went to study in America?

Auntie Zhang: Yes it is. Call her a fucking Jap and then pretend we don’t have any change.

Auntie Chen: Will do, Auntie Zhang. Just let me throw this bucket of shit out onto the street first.

Next week on Convenience Store, Auntie Zhang and Auntie Chen discuss the relative merits of Aristotelian logic compared to traditional Confucian morality, and then fall asleep with their heads on the counter when a child comes in asking for soap.

Don’t miss it!

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

Yang Wei #5: Shit

As everyone knows, not only is Tibet an inalienable part of China, but China has a continuous civilisation of over 5000 years. You foreigners can only gaze in envy at the level of social harmony that this ancient culture has attained.

That said – here’s a comic strip about shit.

Yang Wei #5

 

Google Translate in action…

…either that or an outsourced Chinese translation company that gave zero fucks.

Bali Airport
Bali Airport Duty Free Section, yesterday. At least they didn’t call the cigarette section “Fags” then tried to translate that.
fags
Speaking of which… I took this photo in Blackpool, England. I just can’t understand why so many Brits choose to holiday in Spain.

***

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

The Further Adventures of Nile

So, just before Yang Wei got his CNY handjob, we were talking about my ex-girlfriend’s former housemate Nile: AKA The Room Mate From Hell.

Perhaps you may be wondering whatever happened to Nile? Did she become a better person? Did she manage to lose the weight that bizarrely only accumulated on her face and not anywhere else on her body? Did I kill her?

Before we answer that, let’s see what happened next to this wonderful daughter of the Celestial Empire. Here’s some further anecdotes from around 2007 when this sour-faced harridan actually started dating…

Nile
This Nile is a river in Egypt. The Nile I am writing about was slightly less wet.

Romancing the Nile: How the future Antichrist will be spawned

The ancient Indians called her Kali. The early Christians knew her as The Whore of Babylon. Yes, The Beast that imitates the female form has many names, but I unfortunately know her as Nile.

Between my legs lies a cock and two balls. Because of this, I sometimes need to leave the boring safety of Qingdao, and head down to Hangzhou where I can stick that aforementioned cock and two balls into the only woman in the world who is presently willing to accept them. It is this pressing need which forces me to come into contact with the vile piece of spoilt self-absorbed filth called Nile. And, as if the Egyptian river monickered bitch couldn’t get any worse… she now has a lover.

Shawn, as he refers to himself on the English side of his namecard, is a designer of jewellery. He makes pretty things out of fake gold and glass and sells it in a little shop in one of Hangzhou’s more fashionable areas. Unlike most other designers of jewellery, Shawn is a heterosexual, and has been madly in love with Nile since childhood. Surely this is a cruel joke by God: blessing a man with the twin powers of heterosexuality and jewellery designing skills, and then making him fall in love with Nile. The Pope weeps.

Ooooh...
Shawn, before the inevitable transformative operation.

But Nile doesn’t love Shawn. Up until two months ago, Nile was dating other blokes, and only decided to reciprocate Shawn’s lifelong feelings for her when he gained a recent promotion at work. Or, to put it in Nile’s words as she did last week: “I don’t love him, but he is from Wenzhou like me, so it is very convenient. Also, now is the time for me to get married, so I need a man with a good job, even if there is no love.”

I’m happy for them. I really am. However, Nile being in a relationship has only made her harder to live with, as I will demonstrate with the following five examples which occured over the last two weeks. I will do this by using bullet points, which is a trick we professional writers learn about in Writing School.

Incident 1: There are three bedrooms in my girlfriend’s house, and for some reason Nile requires two of them: one to sleep in, and one to keep her things in. Nile has a habit of leaving all the windows and doors open, so in a last-ditch attempt to keep warm I went out and bought a small heater for my girlfriend. We decided to keep the rather clunky box in case we had to take it back to the store, so I put the empty box in the bedroom which I wrongly assumed by looking at it to be a general junk room. That night, when Nile and Shawn returned from an evening sat in some pretentious coffee shop mixing English words into their Chinese conversation, we heard a small scream and then the timid knocking of an embarrased Shawn at our bedroom door. Shawn had been sent by Nile to return the box to us, and to remind us that the third bedroom is only to be used for Nile’s empty boxes. I pondered making a joke about whether Nile’s box would be empty or not that evening, but my girlfriend kicked me in the leg.

black hole
An actual photo of Nile’s vagina.

Incident 2: By the door there lies the usual jumble of assorted slippers for guests to wear around the house, and for the first few days I wear the same innocuous pair of tartan slippers. Then, after a few days, I suddenly have to stop wearing them because I find a little note stuck to the door asking me not to wear them anymore because Nile and Shawn have to wear matching slippers now that they are in an official relationship. After a tense argument where I tear up Nile’s note in front of her face and make her cry fake tears, I am forced to wear the pink Hello Kitty slippers and watch as Nile and Shawn shuffle about in matching slippers giggling like a couple of tartan retards.

Gay shit
Couples wearing matching clothes… as if their faces didn’t look alike too.

Incident 3: I was completely unaware of incident three until the day I left Hangzhou, because my girlfriend knew it would probably cause me to go out and murder a small child out of anger. Apparently, Nile approached the missus during work (my girlfriend has the added pleasure of working with Nile too) and requested that we no longer sit with our arms around each other on the sofa when watching DVDs, because “the living room is a public area” and seeing us hugging makes Nile feel uncomfortable. During the occasions when Nile and Shawn watch Chinese TV dramas at loud volumes together, they sit at opposite ends of the sofa and maintain a respectable distance. Thankfully, my girlfriend held her own on this one and told Nile that if she had a problem with us sitting next to each other on the sofa, she was welcome to fuck off outside and wait for us to go bed.

PDA
Admittedly, there were times we went too far in our public displays of affection.

Incident 4: One night, when it was really quiet, I heard Nile emit a small sexual moan from her bedroom. I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but the thought of Nile actually committing sexual intercourse has prevented me from achieving a firm erection ever since.

(There shall be no photo here. The thought is too horrifying.)

Incident 5: On my final night in Hangzhou when I was having an early night’s sleep in order to catch the bus the next day, I was awoken by a furious argument in Wenzhounese erupting from the living room. I sneaked out to take a look, and saw a heated discussion taking place between Nile, Shawn, and a woman who looked like an older version of Nile wrapped up in some bizarre linen dress like Boris Karloff in The Mummy. Nile’s mum had appeared out of nowhere, had a loud argument with the two lovebirds for about three hours, and then disappeared around 3.30AM to whichever pit of Hell she originated from (Wenzhou).
“Hee hee, that’ll be Nile’s mum forcing them to get married even though they’ve only been going out for one month,” I joked.
“Shawn and I are getting married so he’ll be moving in,” declared Nile the next morning, transforming my joke into an awful reality.

Oh dear Jesus, what am I going to do? I love my girlfriend, but she still has another year on her contract before she can move out of that house and away from Nile. The thought of a whole family of Niles springing up in my living environment is too much to bear and would put a serious sprain on our relationship. I suppose there’s always murder, but I would have to get in their fast before she gets pregnant and the future Antichrist is born. Killing Nile is no longer just a personal fantasy, the whole fabric of creation now rests on preventing the coming Apocalypse which will surely arise once her spawn walks this Earth. I’m begging everybody out there: if anybody knows of any hitmen who operate in the Zhejiang region, please drop me a line.

Our very souls are at stake.

big_trouble
I’ve saved the best till last: a real photo of Nile. All I can say is that she knew her camera angles well. She’ll be about ten years older than this now and probably resembles a sunburnt bumhole.

 

Yang Wei #4: Ben Ming Nian

From China Wiki (I wonder who wrote this soulless crap?):

In Chinese tradition, Ben Ming Nian (本命年) refers to the year of zodiac animal in which one was born. As there are 12 animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig), one undergoes a 12-year cycle to reach his or her Zodiac Year of Birth. Take the coming Chinese Year of the Dragon (which falls on Jan. 23) for example. Those who were born in the Year of the Dragon (1976, 1988 and 2000) in the Gregorian calendar reach their Zodiac Year of Birth. In line with traditional custom, those who meet with their Zodiac Year wear red to avoid ill fortune.

When it was my own Ben Ming Nian in China it always seemed to elicit the comment “You should wear red underwear to avoid bad luck.” This was always followed by the questions “Can you use chopsticks?”, “Where are you from?” and “Do you know that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China?”

Explanation over, we can once again dive back into the life of Yang Wei and see how he is spending the rest of the new year holiday now that his family commitments are over.

(That white stuff in the last panel is hand lotion by the way. Not the other stuff…)

Yang Wei #4

 

How I averted one blogger’s mid-life crisis…

… and am now experiencing my own.

MLC
Me, yesterday. Not really. I couldn’t afford the car.
One of the most popular posts I ever wrote on my old Yellow Wings blog was a couple of anecdotes featuring the obnoxious Chinese housemate of my (then) girlfriend.

It was a very cathartic post to write, not only because it actually prevented me from murdering the little bitch, but also because later research has told me that the post in question may have saved the sanity of one of my fellow bloggers.

Let’s look at the post in question first:

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Meursault Vs My Girlfriend’s Flatmate

This is why I hate my life:

9:25
It is a Sunday morning and I had planned to spend it sleeping in bed, perhaps momentarily burying my head into my girlfriend’s ample, Greek, bosom. The shocking truth of trying to spend a Sunday morning in the same house as Nile comes crashing down on me when I am awoken by the sound of furniture being rearranged yet again, and the tinny strains of Ave Maria belting out full blast from her iPod. I stifle an erection and run upstairs, only to find that she has in fact left the house. Maybe she thought continuing to play Ave Maria after she had left would convince me that she is a sophisticated young Wenzhou woman. It doesn’t, and I release my erection from my dressing gown and head back to bed.

9:40
Unable to sleep after the morning’s disturbances, I decide to tackle my erection problem head on and drain some piss from it in the toilet. A locked door blocks my path and I hear Nile listening to, yes you guessed it, Ave fucking Maria screeching out from a portable radio. Nile is obviously shaving a sperm whale because it takes her another 30 minutes to come out, and when she does she makes a comment about how terrible I look in the morning. I avoid eye contact and mouth obscenities at her. As I piss I imagine that the toilet is Nile’s face.

10:15
By now, my significant other is also awake. I attempt in my amateurish way to engage her in some gentle “你爸爸好不好?”, but just as I feel the vinegar strokes coming on, Nile bursts into the room. She laughs embarrassedly and runs away at the sight of a hairy 25 year old British male hanging out the back of her flatmate, and I resist the urge to ejaculate on her as she mutters a feeble apology.

10:20
For one week, Nile has been without internet, and has been sat in a puddle of dog shit complaining how all her many friends will be waiting to chat with her on QQ. Broadband was fitted yesterday, but Jewel of the fucking Nile can’t figure out how to create a new internet connection. I walk downstairs in my boxer shorts and help her to click on the button which says “Create new internet connection”. As I make to return back to the bedroom, Nile hands me a little note she wants me to read. This is what it says:

Dear Guest,

Hope you enjoy your stay in our house 🙂

However, please be knowing that this cup is my special one!! So if you want to use cup, please use other one! 😀

OK, wish you happy everyday. Nile.

“Why the fuck did you write me a note instead of just telling me? And why do you have to call me guest?” I grumble at her. Nile pretends that she can’t understand my English, so I repeat in Chinese. Then, Nile replies in English (she still isn’t entirely convinced that I hold a BA in Chinese and am a professional translator) that I shouldn’t misunderstand her and she was only trying to be friendly. I punch a wall.


10:45
After taking a shower I finally take my first shit of the day, but am horrified when the toilet overflows instead of flushing. I ask Nile where she keeps the plunger, and am then scolded for flushing toilet paper down the toilet EVEN THOUGH I HAVE NOT DONE SO. Five minutes later, when my arm is up to its elbow in shit, we then discover that the real reason for the toilet blocking is because Nile has been dropping her long strands of hair from the shower into the toilet, BECAUSE SHE IS EMBARRASSED ABOUT PUTTING THEM INTO THE BIN WHEN THERE IS A BOY IN THE HOUSE. I tell her that she is a fucking moron, and then get reprimanded by my girlfriend. Oh, the humanity.

11:30
I sit down in the kitchen to eat a nice beef pastrami and mustard sandwich. Nile, who is sat opposite me, laughs at my sandwich and says that foreign food is not delicious and too simple. She is eating a bowl of instant noodles. The irony of this escapes her.

11:35
Out of morbid curiosity, I look at her face again, and see that her mouth in fact resembles that of a pig. The noisy slurping of the noodles reinforces this image, and I am momentarily consumed by the unsettling image of Nile suckling on a mother sow’s teat.

 

12ish
I retire to the bedroom to watch Nile-free DVDs. Sometimes I hear her screeching Wenzhounese down the telephone in the other room, and I remind myself to tell her it sounds like Japanese next time I see her. That’ll piss her off.

15:20
I pop into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, only to find Nile filling her fat face with bread. I seize upon this opportunity. “A-ha!” I say, in the manner of the Count of Monte Cristo, “I thought you said bread was not delicious and too simple!” I feel like Richard Attenborough hatching his first T-Rex. “No, this is Chinese bread, more delicious.” I am thwarted by her ignorance, my heart falls. I make a half-hearted remark about Wenzhounese sounding like Japanese, and leave again.


17:00
Nile thinks too many people are trying to talk to her on MSN, and pointedly tells us in a very loud voice that she is “too popular”. So, her previous problem was not being able to get onto MSN, and now her problem is there are too many people on it. I tell her I feel the same way about China.

17:25
I am sat, minding my own business, when Nile begins to bother me again. Obviously, emptiness is troubling her obese head again, and she feels the need to fill it full of shit once more. I am sat reading a Chinese magazine. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but for Nile this seriously upsets her entire world-view. I then experience the following conversation with her. Please bear in mind that by this time, my girlfriend has already given me permission to be as rude as I like.

Nile: You are studying Chinese?
Me: No, I am reading Chinese. You already know that I studied Chinese for four years and graduated two years ago.
Nile: But I think maybe this magazine is perhaps too difficult for a laowai to read.
Me: It’s not difficult, it’s one of your magazines (I silently congratulate myself on this comeback, even though I realise Nile will not pick up on it).
Nile: Oooh, lihai, lihai.

(Momentary silence)

Nile: Can you really read that magazine?
Me: Nile, I’m trying to fucking read!
Nile: But you can’t read that magazine.
Me: Yes I fucking can. Listen. 朝鲜不是伊朗. That’s the name of this article.
Nile: Lihai, lihai.
Me: (Already given up reading) So what do you think about the North Korea problem, Nile? (whispering to myself) “I think North Korea is very poor.”
Nile: I think North Korea is a very poor country.

Thankfully, we then decide to go out, and don’t have to see Nile anymore until…

22:05
As me and my girlfriend enter the flat, we are confronted with the sickening sight of Nile talking to some eight-stone weakling of a boy. However, Nile is strangely not talking in her normal voice, but now in the voice of what sounds like an impression of a six year old girl. Nile introduces us as her two laowai friends, and I tell her to fuck off.

Bedtime
In summary, I really don’t like my girlfriend’s flatmate, and if you have an apartment you would let us live in, please tell me. I promise not to write stuff like this about you.

cuckerberg
Nile looked a bit like this. No, not Mark Cuckerberg, the one on the right who married him for his sense of fashion.

THE AFTERMATH

Ten years later it is almost bizarre to read the above article. I no longer live with a woman I don’t like (excluding my wife – JUST JOKING, LOVE!!!! xxx) and am no longer even with the big-breasted Greek girlfriend in question*.

(*Don’t ask. We wanted to go in different directions. I wanted to remain really cool and awesome, and she decided to transform into a fat miserable bitch over the course of the next four years.)

I’m no longer in my twenties and realise there is a lot from those times I actually miss.

So it is astonishing that after I wrote this, somebody else had the same thoughts that I am experiencing now. A Mr Mark Baker who was also blogging at the time, found my article and had this to say:

How One China Blogger Averted My Mid-Life Crisis

I turned 40 this year.

If that sounds “really old” to you, then I laugh in your general direction, because it’s not old–just ask my elders Mick Jagger, Brad Pitt, and Weird Al Yankovic–and because you’ll be here far sooner than you can possibly imagine.

But if turning 40 is something you too have been saddled with already, or will be soon, but neither wanted nor somehow even expected it, like a bout of mononucleosis on your honeymoon or a painfully ingrown toenail just before the big game, then this post is for you.

Turning 40 has brought with it some of those strange effects I’d heard about: Eyeing the Volvo in the garage and thinking, “You know, a Harley would fit there just as well. Maybe better.”; meeting other parents at the PTA meetings and thinking, “That nice lady in charge of the bake sale, Billy’s Mommy, I’ll bet she was quite the hellraiser back at the U.”; realizing that a number of the washed up “has been” Playboy Playmates are younger than oneself (which is even more shocking than years ago realizing some of the new ones were); and so on.

But anyway…a blog post written recently by a “young whippersnapper” living in China has just set the world right for me.

I keep a few “China Blog” aggregator feeds in my RSS reader, checking out all the entries by some authors and other posts here and there if the titles and first paragraphs draw me in. Lots of these blogs are written by twenty-something and early thirty-something chaps living it up in China, and sometimes I enjoy their thrills vicariously, occasionally harking back to my own “Good Old Days” in the P.R.C. with a tinge of envy. “Oh, to be 27, single, young, wild and free on the other side of the planet again…when everything in the world was perfect.”

Right.

But this latest post from China Blogger Meursault, a 25-year old professional translator from Britain with a BA in Chinese, now living in China, has flushed all the cells of mid-life crisis out of my system before they’ve had a chance to take root, reminding me of everything I do not miss about life at that age, with his post called “Yellow Wings Vs My girlfriend’s flatmate,” which would be better titled, as 花崗齋之愚公 suggests, “The Roommate from Hell.”

Do read it yourself, but here are a few choice kernels regarding his Greek girlfriend’s Chinese flatmate who’s gone with the English name “Nile”:

  • Blasts her music too loud while others are still sleeping
  • Hands Meursault a note calling him “Guest in our house” and asking him not to use her favorite cup (Hands him a note!?!?!)
  • Just barges without knocking in while Meursault and his girlfriend are, mmm, well, you know
  • Criticizes his “Western” food…but then claims “Chinese bread is better” when he catches her eating some
  • Nearly refuses to believe he can actually read the Chinese in a magazine that he is, uh, actually reading out loud to her

There’s more; you need to read the whole post.

But while this post reminds me of some of the particularly odd “undesirable social traits” that some Chinese people exhibit (every culture has some), even more it reveals to me why being a 40-year old Married with Children-White and Nerdy Guy in the ‘Burbs in many ways trumps (though I enjoyed it too) being an Adventure-Seeking Globe-Trotting Single Young Buck.

And that is, speaking in terms of my own experience: Young, single, twenty-something years old, ambitious, underpaid, probably just meager social connections at best in a place far from home: You are at the mercy of a random (sometimes nearly chaotic) social fabric, where even your very nice girlfriend can have a roommate who is as annoying as a festering boil on one’s bum. And that can color your entire world puke green.

But good luck to you, Meursault. I’m sure you’ll figure out a solution you can look back proudly on soon, though I suggest it needs to be one that involves this “Nile” person not being in the picture, whether that means you and the girlfriend only hang out at your pad, she kicks Nile to the curb, or she moves to a different flat altogether. Your 20’s are far too short to have many days colored puke green by the likes of Nile.

Well Mark, I’m happy that my experiences back then averted your mid life-crisis. Let me know when you are nearing 60 and have decided to check yourself into a Swiss euthanasia clinic. I’ll write you an email about my current miserable middle-aged life to try and encourage you to keep the life support machine switched on for a little while longer. Do it for the kids, Mark.

Coming soon: What happened to Nile?

Yang Wei #3: Enter The Dragon

The whole world is going crazy over Yang Wei: the latest Chinese cartoon star since… erm, umm… errr… the last Chinese cartoon star.

We are still celebrating the arrival of the year of the monkey at the Yang’s family household. What’s going to happen next? Literally anything!*

*Anything that I can fit into a crudely drawn 3-panel sketch anyway. Don’t go expecting Jurassic Park now.

Yang Wei #3

Yang Wei #1: Chinese New Year

I’m probably going to absolutely regret starting this, but I have always had a desire to try my hand at comic strip creation. I’ve been tinkering around with the old felt tips and finally put pen to paper.

Without further ado, I would like to introduce my new comic character: Mr Yang Wei. Yang Wei is an extremely average man living in one of China’s more average provinces. Let’s join him as he celebrates Chinese New Year with his horrendous cow of a mother.

Yang Wei #1

Book Review: Ways That Are Dark

As part of my blog’s resurrection I intend to write some original reviews of China-related books. Amazingly, these are going to be serious posts which must be an absolute first for me.

Ways That Are Dark

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This book on China and the Chinese will contain no apologies. It will present no strenuous effort, where uncomplimentary revelations are made, to drag in some supposedly extenuating or counterbalancing virtue possessed by the people whose actions and attitudes are under review in the pages to follow. We have had enough of all that. Too many otherwise worth-while books dealing with China have muddled their information and left their readers confused by fatuous attempts to sprinkle bright hopes over dark facts. – Ralph Townsend

I considered myself well-read on China and due to actually opting to study Chinese literature as part of my degree have had the privilege of reading a fair amount of stories, books and poems concerning China written in both English and Chinese. Regarding non-fiction books about China, I thought that I was familiar with most of the famous works: Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Mao biography, anything by Jonathan Spence (we were examined on his books during university), Mr China by Tim Clissold for business anecdotes and, of course, Joseph Needham’s epic Science and Civilisation in China.

So it was to my great surprise that only in 2015 – a full 16 years after I had first set foot in China – did I finally learn about Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark. I simply just had never heard of it. Even more surprising is that Ways That Are Dark is one of the highest selling books about China of all time, but has now fallen largely forgotten into the dustbin of history.

This astonishing book was published in 1933 at the height of American sympathy for China, sentiment which in no small part had been generated by Pearl S Buck’s bestseller The Good Earth. Her sympathetic account of Chinese peasants struggling to survive in a nation torn apart by strife was a phenomenon, the number one bestseller the year it was published, 1931, and also the following year when it earned Buck the Pulitzer Prize. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made a film version in 1937. There were other books and films, too, echoing the message that China’s teeming millions were good people who deserved the goodwill of the West.

One man disagreed.

Townsend

Ralph Townsend was an American career diplomat who was stationed in Shanghai and later Fuzhou as US Vice-Consul during the early 1930s. His views on China were the complete opposite of Pearl S Buck; his time in China had given him the impression that China and the Chinese were hopeless evil savages that could not get along with the rest of humanity and should be sectioned off from civilisation as soon as possible. The title of his book was taken from a famous poem by Bret Harte written in the late 19th century called The Heathen Chinee which was later used as a propaganda piece to promote the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The poem goes:

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

(The couplet “That for ways that are dark and for tricks that are vain” is still occasionally used as an old-fashioned Halloween greeting in parts of the US)

Before we discuss the book, some further background. Ways That Are Dark was a huge bestseller during the 1930’s and highly influential; a fact which makes it all the more astonishing that this book has been largely forgotten today. Townsend was actually arrested by Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War as the book was seen to be promoting Japanese interests against those of America’s ally China. Today, very few people know of this book that caused such a huge reaction upon publication and actually outsold its rival The Good Earth. Those wishing to read a copy of this book today can only search on the internet for a scratchy PDF version (try this one) or hunting down one of the reprints. It is interesting to note that it was republished by the White Supremacist publishing group Barnes Review in 1997 which became popular in Japan and subsequently translated into Japanese in 2004.

So how is it?

Let’s get this out of the way: by today’s standards this is a racist book. The basic premise of the book is that the root of all of China’s problems are due to “fundamental defects in the ethnic characteristics of the Chinese people”.

Is it a racist book? Yes.

Should that stop you reading the book? No.

To be frank, Ways That Are Dark is the most astonishing book on the Chinese people I have ever read.

When he is not writing intense descriptions of the poverty of the Chinese – “Chinese coolies never show any hesitation in putting their filthy hands on you” is one memorable segment – Townsend actually writes very well as most educated people did back in the 30s. Not only is it beautifully written (even when being shockingly cruel), but it is the most accurate snapshot you could hope to read about western sensibilities in the 1930s and how China was. Depending on your opinion of China, you will either nod your head throughout the book and think absolutely nothing has changed, or you will shake your head in despair at Townsend’s prejudices.

Here is Townsend on what he sees as the most enduring characteristic of the Chinese:

If a jury of the most experienced Americans or Englishmen in China today were asked to name the most prominent characteristic in the Chinese mentality as opposed to our own, I think most if not all of them would unhesitatingly answer, “lying.”

And here he is on the government of the day that could almost be a verdict on the CCP:

It has been pointed out in preceding chapters that contrary to the current American conception, the Chinese leaders do not impress anyone as struggling against the illiteracy of the masses. The thing is the other way around, with the illiterate masses struggling – for survival – against the terrible tyranny and crushing oppression of their leaders. Not anxious for strife and content to plow their small farms, the majority of the common people would be better off without leaders than with the ones they have. Certainly it is twaddle to maintain that more education would ease the woes of China while the prime tyrants in the country are those of relatively superior educational advantages. If there were the faintest pretense of the educated group making a decent stand against the foremost ills of China, the matter would have a different complexion.

This is not an easy book to read, but I urge you all to do so. For me, one of the most surprising parts of the book is when in later chapters the author begins to focus on the careers of westerners who have made China their home. It is depressing reading. He regales with anecdote after anecdote of western diplomats who thought they had meaningful conversations with their Chinese counterparts only for it to progress nowhere in an endless spiral of time-wasting and corruption. He lists accounts of his friends in commerce who launch into joint ventures and subsequently lose everything when the government cheats them and steals their business. Sometimes the reader has to wonder whether the author is describing 1933 or 2016. It also makes the reader wonder whether some of today’s problems would still exist with or without the CCP.

Yet the most poignant part of the book is when he describes the failed lives of those westerners with little money and few connections. Those westerners who found themselves trapped in China with nothing but shattered dreams to show for it. Westerners who tried to change China, but ended up being broken by it. This is how he describes the lives of many missionaries before the war:

“A woman medical missionary, ice-bound off Taku Bar in a small coasting vessel, discussed this question with great frankness….’I am going home, at the age of sixty-two, a disappointed woman.’ So ran her story. ‘For thirty-four years I have served the Chinese people as a medical missionary in a remote interior province. Even during the Boxer days I did not leave my small hospital. Evangelization work was not in my line, but for more than three decades I have worked at healing the sick, and at teaching the Chinese how to live in a measure of sanitary decency.

“Today, at sixty-two, I find that I have wasted my life. I might have stayed in America, married, borne several children, and have succored the poor in our own tenement districts. That would have been a useful career…It is a rather bitter thing to go home convinced that my years of service here were useless and unappreciated. But I can be useful from now until the day I die, for I shall spend the rest of my years trying to persuade young folks at home that it would be folly for them to come to China as missionaries.”

Upon finishing Ways That Are Dark I was almost breathless at the relentless intensity of the book. Townsend never slows down in his endless criticism of China, but it is the depth of his criticism – getting deep down into the psyche of the Chinese as he saw it – that will send thrills or chills down the reader’s spine according to where their sympathy lies. The closest comparison I can articulate about this book would be to imagine if HP Lovecraft wrote a polemic against an entire nation. There is almost something of the horror story in his descriptions of what he found in darkest China.

In many ways I wish that my younger self could have read a copy of this book before he set off for China as a young man. However, I don’t think anybody can appreciate this book until they have actually lived and worked in China for a number of years.

I will conclude with one of the darker passages from Ways That Are Dark. For a China Watcher like myself who has mixed emotions about the country he once held a passion for – a passion that later grew into cynicism and bitterness – this paragraph contains all the feeling of exasperation I’m sure many a China expat has experienced at some point.

A people who show surprising sensitivity of feeling and at the same time appall us with their seeming crudity of instinct, accomplished in craftmanship yet living ever in houses falling to pieces, alert in business yet unable to make a success of large business themselves, quoting proverbs about truth in every breath and not to be believed in anything, always exasperating us and then mollifying our exasperation with a talent all their own, always busy and never getting anything done – four hundred million of them, upon a background of green paddies seen through slow rain, swirling yellow rivers with bobbing junks and rattan sails, above and through all the smell of a damp moldiness amid spiced cooking – that is China and the Chinese.

Note: In a stunning coincidence, there is actually a SECOND old and forgotten book about China called Ways That Are Dark. This one however is a guide to Chinese etiquette and is another wonderful read. You can find a PDF copy here – I really recommend it for the illustrations of Qing dynasty rituals alone.

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If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.