On January 20, 2013, Tina Brown's The Daily Beast/Newsweek recommended Ping Fu's new memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds. Ms. Brown then double-barreled her recommendation on NPRs Word of Mouth feature, Tina Browns' Must-Reads: Hidden Lives.
But then, as the Chinese New Year rolled out, a long, hot string of firecrackers exploded in outrage at Ping Fu's apocryphal Cultural Revolution memories. Not a way to start the Lunar New Year!
For those of you who may not know about Ping Fu or her memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, here's what Amazon.com says, in part:
"Ping Fu knows what it's like to be a child soldier, a factory worker, and a political prisoner. To be beaten and raped for the crime of being born into a well-educated family. To be deported with barely enough money for a plane ticket to a bewildering new land. To start all over, without family or friends, as a maid, waitress, and student.
Ping Fu also knows what it's like to be a pioneering software programmer, an innovator, a CEO, and Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year. To be a friend and mentor to some of the best-known names in technology. To build some of the coolest new products in the world. To give speeches that inspire huge crowds. To meet and advise the president of the United States.
It sounds too unbelievable for fiction, but this is the true story of a life in two worlds."
China's Rambunctious Netizens Overwhelm Amazon.com
Then along comes the Facts Calvary - China's ever alert netizens (those outspoken citizens of the internet). Unexpectedly placing Ping Fu's narrative of her wretched childhood as a Red Guard detainee under a microscope...they mostly decide these chapters are, well, “too unbelievable…"
China's netizens are the same cast of vigilant e-iconoclasts who are a thorn in the side of Chinese officialdom. Mostly young, the netizens with the most followers, often in the millions, are in the mid-40s, 50s, and 60s. They network together to uncover facts and even pioneered a bizarrely named collaborative investigative technique, the “human–flesh search engine,” where unrelated netizens rapidly search for, share and verify information on corrupt officials, hit-and-run drivers, bogus academic credentials, and more benignly, the identity of celebs in random photos. And then blog, network, tweet and retweet their findings to millions throughout China.
Three well known investigations include identifying an official who ostentatiously displays expensive wrist watches publicly. Netizens pooled news photos of "Brother Watch" flashing two dozen high end watches, unaffordable at his salary, and he was promptly fired. Similarly, netizens outed an "Uncle House," who owned over 20 houses on a limited salary.
Finally, Twenty year old Guo Meimei initially claiming to be the General Business Manager of the Red Cross Society posted photos of her luxury car, expensive stand-alone villa, and trendy clothes. Through the human flesh search engine technique, netizens established links between her and Red Cross upper management and later thwarted her attempt to flee to Australia by bombarding the Australian Embassy to deny her a visa.
These netizens are same net-savvy Chinese who post on-line one-step ahead of Chinese censors on any number of hot topics and who also contributed to the dissident artist Ai Wei-wei's income tax evasion fine.
ZhouZi Fang, Lone-Ranger Myth-Buster
In particular, China's most illustrious, incorrigible, myth-busting investigator and the pit-bull scourge of fellow professors and CEOs with specious scientific credentials, the biochemist and science writer, Zhouzi Fang, picked up his own magnifying glass and could not verify Ms. Ping Fu's recounting of the circumstances of her forced exile from China. Fang is the joint winner of the 2012 John Maddox Prize for science, an award jointly sponsored by Nature Magazine and a British foundation, Sense About Science.
Further, ZhouZi Fang questioned Ping Fu's lurid account of witnessing a female teacher's execution by being drawn-and-quartered by four Red Guards astride four horses. Fang pointed out the 4-horse method was Western, that the ancient Chinese used 5-horse-drawn carriages. Confronted with Fang’s findings and cultural differentiation, Ping Fu subsequently admitted this dramatic execution never happened, but attributed it to sincerely held "emotional memory."
Lin, Outraged First Position Amazon Blogger
But the Amazon.com netizen who really catalyzed the Chinese blogosphere reaction is a native-born Chinese person named Lin, now resident in the United States. On January 31, 2012, Lin's outraged and yet well-presented point-by-point critique of the book, posted on Amazon.com, raised factual, cultural, and historical issues. She writes in Chinese and English...or I should say in a localized version of English called Chinglish. It's not quite Elements of Style, but understandable.
Over the years, I have read English postings by ostensibly paid or blindly patriotic Chinese bloggers. You can usually sniff them out by their sweeping jingoism. But Lin's bi-lingual critique rang authentic, even if not every point might withstand the exchange that would and did follow, and even as replete with Chinglishy misspellings and grammatical errors. Here's Lin first two paragraphs:
I don't believe her story
As a Chinese, I lived through that period of time in China. I have similar family and educational background as hers and suffered during Culture Revolution as a child. I think her experiences in China mostly, if not all, are fabricated, imagined, overly exaggerated or deliberately miss leading.
For days, Amazon.com kept Lin's post in first position in the readers' comments section. As the book sank from a high rating of 5 towards the low rating of 1, pressure was placed onAmazon.com to place the newest post first, which would effectively bury Lin’s critique. Amazon's initial position was Lin's comment would sit tight - it garners the most “helpful” ratings.
Lin's post should stay in first position - it is thoroughly helpful to understanding and analyzing the furor. However, as of Sunday, February 17th, 2013, Presidents Day weekend, Lin's post has chronologically slid down to Page 5...and counting. You can still read the mesmerizing complete bilingual posting on http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9450a80f0101gctt.html
Note that Lin does not seek to bury the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, but insists that any recounting merely be factually accurate. And isn’t this what distinguishes a work of memoir from a work of fiction or partial fiction…the litmus test of James Frey’s discredited A Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortenson's fabrications inThree Cups of Tea?
Well, by President’s Day Weekend, the smoke and furor thinned somewhat. My guess is this is but a lull between rounds of a PR boxing match that will go the full twelve. But here is what I could make out that Sunday:
1. Ping Fu, as author, has admitted to a number of critical factual errors unacceptable in a memoir. A key one revolves around the dates of her dramatic departure from China and more dramatic arrival in America. She ascribes them to an unknown editor, that they will be corrected in a second edition.
2. Ping Fu has admitted to one particularly memoir-sinking fabrication - of being forced to watch four Red Guards on horses drawing and quartering a female teacher on a university field. She now ascribes this false memory to "emotional memory:"
"To this day, in my mind, I think I saw it. That is my emotional memory of it. After reading's Fang's post, I think in this particular case that his analysis is more rationale and accurate than my memory. Those first weeks after being separated from both my birth parents and my adoptive parents were so traumatic, and I was only eight years old..." Huffington Post/Books, posted 02/01/2013, 10:36 pm, by Ping Fu.
The obvious problem is just what other chapters are false emotional memory? And what other childhood stories - even events with verifiable dates, places, and names – may have been emotionally distorted?
3. The strident Chinese netizens have invaded America's blogosphere. Like the Allies' landing in Normandy on D-Day, they aim to see this through. In doing so, they question the fairness of American institutions such as publishers and media, unexamined biases towards modern China and Chinese, and the penchant of American publishers and the reading public to literally buy the worst unchecked narratives of China, turning them into best sellers. In fact, Bend, Not Break made the NY Times extended best seller list.
And you know what, Americans can’t stand this invasion into our sacred homeland blogosphere.
4. Penguin is not recalling the book, admitting at most to minor errors correctable in the second edition. Following the debacles of A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, inspirational "truthiness," even if sincerely held or authentically felt, is no longer a defense. If it is not a memoir, you pull it off the shelves. If you keep it on the shelves, then place a big, fat, red FICTION sticker on it. You can also later republish it as fiction, as unpalatable as that may be. Or republish it as memoir when corrected and re-vetted.
New School Penguin: The Best Defense is An Offense
Bend Not Break still is a good read, as I can attest, even as flawed. It will be a better read when subject to the gauntlet of a newly stringent, factual due diligence. (In the spirit of full disclosure, my memoir, The Eighth Promise (2007), Rodale, went through a thorough fact and libel check, checking newspaper archives at UC Berkeley, colleague and family recollections, readers of the Advance Readers Copy, the publisher, and the publisher's legal firm).
Given the errors, you would think the good old school literary name of Penguin, would owe up, correct the book and reissue it.
Penguin has done none of the above. Instead, it has doubled down on its investment, deciding that the best defense is offense and in this, the offensive strategy - and offensiveness - of China-bashing. In doing so, the PR strategy conflates all Chinese critics of her book into a modern mob, reminiscent of Ping Fu's childhood Red Guard tormentors, and that China is once again persecuting Ping Fu. Never mind that China has no official position on her book. Never mind also that quite a few American readers, like me, are critical of Ping Fu’s large and small errors – and the nagging suspicion that this was not a factually well-vetted memoir and possibly even somewhat carelessly written by the co-authors, the second being a Meimei Fox. Never mind also that in defending Ping Fu’s individual right to express herself, Penguin’s PR offense now dismisses legitimate individual critiques as part of a racial feeding frenzy.
To Ping Fu's credit, she initially tried to respond to Lin personally, offering to take their discussion off-line. Lin refused, insisting the author post her responses on her Amazon's author section where all could read it.
Then, Ping Fu agreed to be re-interviewed by a now more skeptical Forbes Magazine writer, Jenna Goudreau (Forbes.com – January 31, 2013). Incidentally, Goudreau's initial glowing interview, posted on-line in Forbes China, independently generated its own furor from Chinese netizens.
As we know, Goudreau's second Forbes interview did not go so well for the book's efficacy.
On February 2, 2013, Ping Fu came fully on board with the PR line. The basically admirable Ping Fu now denies the investigative merits of ZhangYi Fang and the individuality of the netizen Lin, whose Amazon post kicked off the furor, by relegating all comments as "…smear campaign…" and elsewhere as a "…smear campaign that reveals the dark side of China..." Sad, But Not Broken, Huffington Post, Posted 02/01/2013 10:41 pm.
She ends this Huffington Post submission by the oxymoronic defense of her individual right to erroneous self-expression in the factual genre of memoir, so long as the emotional memories are authentically felt, even if false memory.
"I am human. This is a human story. I have made mistakes in my life, as we all have. That doesn't make the story untrue. This is my life. I carry the scars. This is my story. I tell it, authentically, in the book."
I would have felt better if Ping Fu had said instead, "I tell it, factually, in my book."
In my estimation, this posting has the rhetorical slipperiness of PR handlers. At the time, I felt that if left to her devices, Ping Fu would do differently and might do better.
But then, that same day, Ping Fu tweeted links to two articles, in the first tweet that the Washington Post had been targeted by Chinese hackers and in the second tweet quoting Google's Eric Schmidt opinion that "...China is the world's 'most sophisticated' hacker.'"
Her #tag is @pfgeomagic. There is no explanation of how public-minded Chinese netizens transparent outrage are connected to paid clandestine government hackers.
Tina Brown's The Daily Beast/Newsweek also doubled down on the side of Bend, Not Break. An article entitled The Persecution of Ping Fu, by Sir Harold Evans (posted Feb. 11th, 2013 4:45 a.m. EST) simultaneously canonizes Ping Fu and is a hit piece against her Chinese critics: "…a vituperative campaign led against Ping Fu led by an army of Chinese bloggers…” His prose gets even more purple.
Interestingly, Sir Evans makes no mention of Zhangzi Fang, co-winner of the 2012 John Maddox Prize and investigative debunker, his researched findings, or of Ping Fu's admission that the execution by drawing and quartering never happened.
As for Lin, the former No. 1 position Amazon.com poster, Sir Evans’ sole concern seems to be how to check off her gender box - "Male, female or hermaphrodite..." He never addresses any of Lin's critiques or Ping Fu's subsequent admissions of error. As an aside, Lin is a mother of two who lives in the US.
Sir Evans then misrepresents the role of the so-called human-flesh search engine as a Chinese method of subjecting people to “…lacerating personal attacks…" Unfortunately it does sound like an app made for zombies, and Sir Evans, a skilled rhetorician who should know better (he is an editor-at-large for Reuters and author of The American Century), plays off this and never mentions its more usual collaborative use against corruption.
Sir Evans also seems to confuse all Chinese Americans as those who have recently immigrated from the People’s Republic of China, i.e., first generation and ostensibly feeling quite a bit of loyalty to the Good Old Motherland. He may be surprised to know that millions of Americans of Chinese heritage are as far along as third, fourth, and even fifth generation – like me.
The Guardian Weighs In
Then on February 13, 2013, The Guardian, an English newspaper, sensibly did what The Daily Beast/Newsweek could just have easily done - they interviewed academic experts in Sydney, London, California, and Beijing, on the cultural, historical, and factual controversies raised by Lin and echoed by fellow Chinese netizens. The Guardian article casts doubt on several new assertions:
1. Sun Yat-sen, the George Washington of China, "...raised my grandfather and grand uncle as his own sons.";
2. Children like her were forced to work 6 hours a day, 6 days a week in a factory;
3. Deng Xiaoping sat down with leaders of student publications including her magazine, Red Maple; and
4. Infanticide occurred on the large scale alleged by Ping Fu.
Is the Jig Up?
I had emailed The Daily Beast's rave review onto a young Chinese woman friend currently spending a year at Columbia University researching American media and auditing related classes. She majors in Economics and American Studies. After gobbling up the book, this lecturer at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University enthusiastically ordered three copies to gift to friends in China. She then happily weibo'ed her 2-thumbs-up to her following in China. Weibo is of course the equivalent of Twitter in China. Later, she even defended her belief in Ping Fu over the Chinese blogosphere.
And how did my young Chinese Professorial friend take the continuing denouement?
I truly thought that this book is a great inspiration and consolation for those who struggle in their life. Yet, without authenticity, this won't work. Why doesn't Ping respond to those questions one by one, with facts and evidence, or at least for those unprovable, a reasonable explanation?”
Those Invading Chinese Netizens
Welcome to the globalization of the blogosphere. It may surprise Americans that Chinese actually care about how Americans view China or that Chinese are endlessly fascinated by American culture and society, that they watch complete seasons of American TV series (Sex and the City, Friend, Prison Break, and Desperate Housewives) and the latest movies. Because of mandatory English as a second language, many of the younger generation read, write and speak English (although generally in a Chinglishy grammatical style as I can attest from four years of teaching.) No wonder that Chinese netizens can so freely flow over into our blogosphere. And when Americans equally make it a point to learn Chinese, we’re return the favor.
But for now, my fellow Americans, read the comments on both Amazon.com and B&N.com. Yes, there is now angry, lynch-mob ire - which Penguin's defenders focus exclusively on. But there is also many good faith, meritorious postings, which Penguin now seeks to discredit through China-bashing. In actuality, quite a few questioning posts are by fellow Americans, like me. I early on rated the book a "3" due to concerns of accuracy.
Most recently, there is a counter-campaign by posters of top 5 ratings on Amazon.com. So, the blogosphere had momentarily boiled down to an East-West divide, pithily captured in this Amazon.com posting:
1.0 out of 5 stars A Memoir Dividing Two Worlds, February 16, 2013
By Lenny - See all my reviews
1-star: Some of Ping Fu's stories told in her book don't seem to be true.
5-star: It is a very inspiring book!
1-star: Some of Ping Fu's stories are not true and my doubts are supported by the evidence provided by many reviewers.
5-star: She is a courageous woman!
1-star: There are discrepancies between the book and her interviews with different media outlets.
5-star: Ping Fu's book is honest and fascinating.
1-star: Ping Fu claims that she became a factory worker in China when she was 10 years old, but recently she made contradictory statement by saying "I also did not say I was a factory worker."
5-star: You are jealous of her success and fame.
1-star: Ping Fu has admitted that the description of Red Guards killing a teacher by tying the victim to four horses for dismembering during the Cultural Revolution was an "emotional memory" and probably wrong.
5-star: I truly enjoyed reading her book and will give it to my children to read.
1-star: Many reviewers had a similar life experience to that of Ping Fu's in China but they do not believe many of her claims.
5-star: An excellent book!
1-star: You need to come up with solid evidence to prove those doubts on Ping Fu are groundless and wrong. You are not doing a very good job in defending her.
5-star: You must have been hired by the Chinese government to carry out this smear campaign against her.
1-star: As a friend of Ping Fu's, is it possible that you might have a bias?
5-star: "Haven't you got an iPad to make or something?" "I will leave you all bending and not breaking the english language."
1-star: Many reviewers think Ping Fu has knowingly made up sensational stories for her personal gain, and they think she is a liar.
5-star: Free speech must triumph!
The controversy over Ping Fu's memoir is a big story. But the much bigger and more troubling story is how the Penguin Group refuses to conduct a fresh, independent factual due diligence, and then, as it now seems inevitable, to do the right thing – recall, correct, and reissue.
It may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, for a book recall of this size. Consumers may even file class action suits for refunds, as some did against “A Million Little Pieces.” But it's the ethical step.
But despite The Guardian revelations, both Ping Fu and Penguin are still spinning. Ping Fu's new take is she now realizes her Chinese critics were not smearing her, but were merely reciting their own Cultural Revolution stories, not questioning hers. She actually hopes "...we can heal together."
As of today, February 25, 2013, it turns out Ping Fu had a first American husband she never mentioned. Also, her memoir describes a dramatic 3-day kidnapping on her first day in America. Later freed by Albuquerque, New Mexico police, she reported her ordeal through a translator. Local police have not been able to find a confirming incident report to date.
Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Penguin's business imprint, Portfolio, opines that there are only "...minor mistakes..." that will be corrected in the second edition.
And you know what, it looks like Penguin is getting away with it.
I look forward to Ping Fu’s next book: “Conscience: Leased-Out But Not Sold.”
- The End -
William Poy Lee is the author of a memoir, The Eighth Promise, an independent writer, and member of the California bar. He has resided in Beijing for over 3-1/2 years where he teaches English, tries to understand Modern China on its terms while measuring it against his Western values and sensibilities, and has fun. He taught English to university level Tibetans in Lhasa during the summer of 2010.
Special Thanks to Xiu Chen for her spot-research and knowledge of modern China, especially of the lively Chinese blogosphere.