Such hideous and absurd things have happened in this world, my friends!

Hideous and absurd do apply to Australian politics at the moment, one reason that I have stopped saying anything about the gallery of rogues and fools running the shop right now.

But to be realistic, we are comparatively well off after all.

Consider the following fictional take on the very real world my brother and I were born into, though at a long remove geographically.



That remains for me one of the most chilling scenes ever filmed – and sadly these European demons aren’t quite as dead as we might have hoped. All it takes is the right circumstances, such as massive economic disruption…

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Then there are the monsters of the Left. I am revisiting their Chinese incarnations at the moment via Ghost Tide, a novel by YoYo (Liu Youhong), first published in English in 2005.  That is, by the way, a remarkably bad cover which really gives a potential reader no idea of the strong but often funny material to be found within. It is far too orientalising and pretty, in my opinion.

YoYo (Liu Youhong) was born in western China, and moved to Beijing in the 70s. She worked as an art editor in the Chinese Theatre Publishing House during the 80s. YoYo began her literary writing in Beijing. There she met Yang Lian, her husband, an internationally renowned poet. They both were invited by the Australian Arts Council to visit Australia in 1988, and then became visiting scholars at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in early 1989. YoYo and Lian were in Auckland when the massacre of Tiananmen Square occurred on the 4 June 1989 – a day that changed their lives. Following the news that two of Lian’s books had been banned in China, the couple began their life in exile. Since then, YoYo has continued to work as a writer and a professional Chinese language teacher, her footsteps has been left in more than 20 countries in the world. She published 8 books of fiction in Chinese, 2 of them have been translated in English (among them Ghost Tide, a novel, published by Fourth Estate / HarperCollins, Australia/New Zealand in 2005).  Since 1997, YoYo has been living in London and teaching at Eton College in Windsor and at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, of the University of London.

YoYo’s writings are based on her complex experience that both troubled and inspired her life in China. Ghost Tide (published in Chinese in 2002, and in English in 2005) has been reviewed as “In fictional form it gives thoughtful and original consideration to some fundamental questions about China” by Nicholas Jose – a well-known Australian novelist – as well as “It’s certainly the most convincing description I’ve read of what it felt like to be in rural China over those decades” and “It is funny, it is sad, and it is wildly original” by John R Saul – the president of PEN International. Her other book in English translation, to be published in the near future,  is titled ONE MANS DECISION TO BECOME A TREE –  (Beijing – London Quartet). It comprises four inner linked novellas, identifies the journey of Chinese people from China to the world, and ends in the depth of a lonely heart. Her other books include two collections of short stories, She Saw Two Moons (1995) and Wings of Desire(1999), a non-fiction book on the history and culture of Eaton college, Eton College in Windsor (2005), and a collection of prose and essays, Humans cape – Ghost Speak(1994). Her books have been translated into several other languages, besides English, such as German, Arabic and Slovenian. As an artist, YoYo staged two solo painting and installation exhibitions in Berlin, Germany, in 1991.

Yo Yo has been invited to take up writer-in-residence positions and arts projects throughout Europe and the world: such as Akademie Schloss Solitude and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, in Germany; Yaddo, an artist colony in NY, USA; the Centro Civitella Ranieri in Italy; Cove Park in the UK and MEET in France. She gave readings at many literary festivals and universities around the world: the University of London, Harvard University, Amherst College in Massachusetts, the Universities of Bonn, Munich, Vienna, Zurich, Basel, the Vilenica International Literature Festival in Slovenia, the Sydney Writers Festival in Australia and many others.

YoYo continues to live and write in London, UK.

Yesterday I read Chapter 3, summarised here:

Chapter 3 – An Age of Absurdities.

The ‘age of absurdities’ relates to a period in the late fifties and sixties when China was riven by political campaigns. Through Xiezi’s young eyes, the chapter details how people threw themselves into the Great Leap Forward, destroying millions of tons of perfectly good metal-ware in shoddy ‘backyard furnaces.’ The aim was to produce enough steel to build the planes and cannons needed to overthrow American Imperialism.

The decimation of the countryside and the neglect of crops by people engaged in making useless steel led to a disastrous man-made famine in China. The government laid the blame for this squarely at the feet of sparrows, who were accused of taking food from the people’s mouths, and the ‘Campaign to Eliminate Sparrows’ swept China. The method of extermination was create a cacophony of noise for months on end, preventing the birds from landing until they died from exhaustion and fell to earth. School students who handed in their quota of dead sparrows were given an official commendation. Xiezi enthusiastically wins two such commendations but suspects that some boys in her class are handing in only a fraction of the sparrows they kill. She later discovers that driven by hunger they were eating the sparrows they kept. Xiezi, keen to be a good student and first-rate Young Pioneer, loses the battle with her conscience, and joins the boys in a banquet of sparrows.

The writer points out that despite the mass support for such politically driven enterprises, people were still only concerned for their own welfare. Even small children feigned support for the sake of excitement and food.

The stories here differ greatly from the ‘Scar Literature’ coming out of China. The true scars are on people’s conscience: the more vehemently their innocence is protested and victimisation claimed, the deeper their scars become. The absurdity in the absurdities is if everyone claims to be a victim, who then were the assailants?

Xiezi’s youth and innocence are gone, and the chapter closes with the line, In China’s vast skies, sparrows were gone forever.

I have heard of such things from the mouths of so many Chinese I have met, and read even more. Such a corrective to the nuttier dreams of Marxist idealists!



That’s Yoyo’s husband Yang Lian, poet in exile.

Do visit this site for Yang Lian, YoYo and many more fascinating writers.

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2 thoughts on “Such hideous and absurd things have happened in this world, my friends!

  1. The most chilling element of this sequence from ‘Cabaret’ is the changed looks on the faces of the villagers. Naturalness becomes intensity, stirred by the song.

    In 1999 I was with my school’s orchestra in a little village out of Vienna. Our participation in the Youth & Music Festival in Vienna required a recital in a designated village. In this case it was the day of the annual gathering of the local firefighting unit (no one could tell me when the unit last fought a fire but that didn’t seem to matter!)

    Nothing in our music worked until we played the Radetsky March – three times! It had the same effect as did the song in ‘Cabaret’. I reckon Adolf was alive and well in the spirits of the people present.

  2. I’d forgotten about that particular trip, John. Very pertinent anecdote.

    But what a brilliant bit of cinema that sequence is! I suspect it was you who first drew it to my attention.

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