Category Archive: Peony Author Press

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee,

For years we’ve struggled trying to understand North Korea and its policies and actions. But as a favorite poet of North Korea’s Kim Jung-Il puts it, “North Korea’s opacity is its greatest strength.”

Jang Jin-Sung‘s memoir of his life and escape from North Korea tries to pierce some of the murkiness by giving an inside look into the country and the Kim dynasty that has led it. A cultural counterintelligence agent and one of Kim’s favorite propaganda poets, Jang became one of North Korea’s “Admitted” when he met and (with half a dozen other “cadres”) dined with the Dear Leader. In Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee-A Look Inside North Korea, Jang tells how he got there and how and why, despite his high status, he escaped the country. Beginning with his prologue detailing his at times bizarre meeting with Kim, the book gives a first hand look at the absurdity and anguish in North Korea.

It isn’t entirely accurate to describe North Korea as totalitarian, an autocracy or a dictatorship. The country is beyond that, more akin to a feudal estate governed by sycophants devoted to serving the desires and caprice of the Great Leader. That aim is why Jang was a cultural counterintelligence agent. The propaganda unit in which Jang worked was devoted to conducting “psychological warfare” by using the arts to attempt to foster pro-North tendencies among South Koreans. His poetry was written under a pseudonym and was designed to appear that a South Korean poet who supported Kim was the author.

dear leaderThe control of the arts reveals both the power and impotence of North Korean government. Writers are assigned to create works specifically requested by the Workers’ Party, which runs the country (and, of course, which the the Dear Leader controls). To compose anything not authorized is, by definition, treason. A writer’s task is to create something that articulates the party’s intent based on pre-determined “aesthetic requirements” which, in turn, are based on the concept that people and Korea as a whole can triumph only through the guidance of the ruling Kim.

Jang achieved his elite rank through poetry. He came to Kim’s attention through a poem designed to promote the idea that North Korea’s policy giving the military primacy in society and government is intended to protect South Korea and that Kim is the true leader of all Koreans. Called “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord,” Kim was so taken with the poem that he ordered it published nationwide in the party newspaper. But poetry didn’t become a prime vehicle of propaganda entirely by design. It moved to the nation’s literary forefront in part because a paper shortage. Lacking sufficient paper to even print enough textbooks meant “the necessary tenets of loyalty to the Kim dynasty” had to appear in shorter form.

Between living in Pyongyang and his status, Jang was rarely affected by the economic dislocations caused by government policies and international ostracism. While power in the capital city was limited, Jang and his fellows received pounds of extra weekly rations. These came from humanitarian aid provided by the U.N., NGOs and religious organizations. Those further up in the hierarchy received rations daily or every three days. Ordinary North Koreans, though, received no scheduled rations. Thus, Jang saw an entirely different North Korea when he returned to his hometown for a visit. In his roughly 24 hours there, he saw swarms of homeless and starving people, a government detail which gathered corpses from the streets and a five-minute “People’s Trial” and execution of a man in the central marketplace for stealing a bag of rice.


Jang was also in a unique position. Given the work he did, the department in which he worked had access to newspapers, books and other materials forbidden to even most party members. Yet what he saw and read only indirectly led him to leave the country. When a friend loses a South Korean book Jang removed from his workplace, an investigation and prosecution was certain to follow. The two of them escape into China and, once there, attempt to make their way into South Korea. Those at times harrowing trials and tribulations make up much of Dear Leader but Jang also uses them as vehicles to discuss other aspects of North Korean history and politics.

Jang has a tendency to carry the story by recounting conversations and discussions that are clearly recreated. And while Jang tells his personal story chronologically, that isn’t the case for detailing North Korea under the Kim dynasty. Admittedly, Jang is a poet and not a politician, these matters tend to be addressed when he feels them somehow germane to the events being recounted. For the reader, though, it becomes difficult to trace government policy sequentially. Yet one thing is crystal clear. The Kim family and maintaining its control are essentially all that the government exists for. With a half century or more of propaganda devoted to heroic portrays of the the Great Leader and predecessors, North Korea is a state where a government office is devoted to Kim personal wealth, anyone relaying Kim’s words must stand at attention when doing so, there are dozens of train stations around the country reserved exclusively for Kim’s use and the language has two registers of speech, one relating only to the Dear Leader.

Dear Leader predates Kim Jong-Un becoming North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Yet there is nothing in it that gives reason to believe things will change or the life of the people improve. Perhaps one of the chief ingredients of the country’s status and actions is that it is, as Jang calls it, a “dictatorship of the mind.” Yet it’s likely that dictatorship and its effects are something we always will find unfathomable.



Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, The Saturday Paper

Author of Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung.

It was Kim Jong-il’s unclad feet that undid his divinity. In 1999, Jang Jin-sung, a former state poet laureate from North Korea, was summoned to meet the “Supreme Leader”, who ruled the hermit state with an iron fist from 1994 until his death in 2011.

Jang, then 28, had written a poem that had taken the bouffant-haired dictator’s fancy. Kim alone, Jang wrote, was “Lord of the Gun” and “Lord of Peace”, “Lord of Unification” and “Lord of Justice”. He believed it. To Jang, as to most North Koreans, Kim was not only the true leader of all the Korean people but God himself.

At a dinner, where guests devoured ice-cream clad in flames while the rest of the country went hungry, Jang was commanded to chink glasses with Kim. As he recalls in his book Dear Leader, now translated into English for the first time, Jang stood before Kim bent double at the waist in a deep bow.

Then he caught a glimpse of Kim’s bare feet. The shock was abrupt. Jang had thought this man celestial. But here were his toes! There were his mortal shoes, tossed aside! They proved that Kim too suffered from sore soles. Worse still, they contained an inner platform of some six or seven centimetres designed to add an illusion of height. Jang should have been overawed. Yet all he could think was, “Those shoes have deceived his people.”



The meeting marked Jang’s admittance into a coveted inner circle of North Koreans who had met the general. But what should have been the happiest moment of his life became a catalyst for his desertion. In January 2004, Jang defected from his homeland by crossing the frozen Tumen River to China. While Jang eventually made it to the South Korean embassy in Beijing after a month on the run in subzero temperatures, the companion he fled with did not. Hwang Young-min was caught by Chinese authorities and, on thenews that he was to be sent back across the border, committed suicide.

Such traumas seem far away on the week of the Sydney Writers’ Festival as Jang sits overlooking the harbour, sippingbottled water and basking in the sunshine. A small man, dressed discreetly in a blue suit and pale pink shirt, Jang clutches his iPhone and talks through his translator, Shirley Lee, who encouraged him to expand his story for a Western audience. Although polite, he rarely makes eye contact.

“The first time I met [Kim Jong-il] it was like I was meeting God,” muses Jang, 43, with a small sardonic smile, mocking his own past puerile wonderment. “Then the facade collapsed. The propaganda had blown him up to this pedestal of perfection and holiness. It’s ironic. If I had considered him as a flawed being, I would probably have been trying to find the good things in him. But here was a guy thinking he was not born of a woman and a man but actually came out of [holy] Mount Paektu. That’s why it was so instant. It became absurd.”

Jang not only bought into North Korea’s seemingly fantastical propaganda but was also one of its producers and propagators. In his job at Section 5, Division 19, of Office 101 at the United Front Department, the government wing responsible for inter-Korean espionage, he posed as a South Korean poet writing verses that praised the North. These were then disseminated through state newspapers to prove that their southern cousins also venerated Kim Jong-il.

Cultural control was, and remains, a cornerstone of Pyongyang’s grip on power. “There are songs you have to know by heart, poems you have to know, movies you have to see. There is a whole syllabus on repeat for all the decades of your life,” says Jang. Images of North Korea abroad focus on military goose-stepping and missile launches. But within the country it is the threat of physical punishment mixed with the all-pervasive claws of state indoctrination through film, music and art that keep the populace in check.

Under Kim’s father Kim Il-sung, the novel had been a favoured medium to distil values. But in the 1990s, when the economy collapsed, paper shortages helped shift the focus from novels to poetry, which could encapsulate succinct messages on just a single sheet of paper. Writers such as Jang worked under a strict chain of command. Art’s purpose was to lionise the leaders; content had to prioritise duty to the state over individual desire. “Anything that would be seen by at least more than three eyes had to be for public enrichment, even a tombstone or road sign,” says Jang.

The poet’s job was to spin myths. So, to help make the Kims kings, how many fables did Jang compose? “Too many to tell,” he shrugs. One, he says, went like this: when Kim Jong-il’s birth mother died, rather than dwell on his own sorrow, he provided on-site guidance at a brick factory. It was made up, of course. At that time Jang fervently, feverishly believed in the cause. “No matter how many lies I was putting out, it was all for a righteous person, our legitimate leader,” he says. “Everything could be justified.”

Today, Jang is married to a South Korean and lives in Seoul with his wife and baby boy. But when he left North Korea he also left behind his family. The regime’s key stranglehold on dissent is a system of “guilt by association”. If an individual steps out of line their entire extended kin is liable to be punished. It is estimated that 200,000 prisoners, including children, are festering in the country’s brutal gulags.

Since he left, Jang has not been able to make contact with his loved ones. When the subject is broached he descends into silence. A helicopter buzzes overhead. Eventually he says, painfully, “I don’t really care about my own life but what really hurts me is thinking that what I am saying might be having repercussions on family back home. I know I need to tell the truth but how much more do I need to make my family suffer for it?”

Visiting home

At the height of his success as a poet, Jang received permission to return to his home town Sariwon, south of Pyongyang (any travel required special permits). The journey marked his most traumatic experience: witnessing once healthy friends and neighbours starving to death, as well as the public execution of a local farmer who had stolen a bag of rice. In the “Arduous March”, as North Korea’s 1990s famine is euphemistically called, up to three million people perished.

To placate this desperate population, the ruling party penned slogans. “If you survive a thousand miles of suffering, there will be 10,000 miles of happiness,” the people were told. On television, the state broadcast a song called “The Rice-balls of the General” in which Kim Jong-il travelled up and down the country, hundreds of miles at a time, to help his charges sustained only by a single rice ball.

But Jang became haunted by the orgy of food that he had witnessed “Dear Leader” feast on. Guilt started to gnaw at him: while his friends suffered, he was given a $12,000 Rolex watch, French cognac and coveted weekly rations. Favour from the top literally meant the difference between life and death.

Back in Pyongyang, Jang ferociously read the South Korean newspapers and books stored in his office which only he, and a few others, had access to for their work. The documents – many of which had whole passages criticising Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il blacked out, visible only when Jang held them to the window – told a different story to the one he had learnt at home: a story in which North Korea started the devastating 1950-53 Korean War, which divided the nation; a story in which Kim Jong-il was a despotic tyrant, not a supreme fatherly being.

Jang’s mistake – or his deliverance – was to surreptitiously pass one of these forbidden books to his friend Hwang Young-min. When Hwang lost the book on a crowded subway, a crime punishable by death, the pair decided they had no choice but to flee. The only option to give his family a chance at life, says Jang, was to leave without telling a soul.

Hwang’s subsequent suicide – he chose death rather than the gulag – was not an individual event but “just one of many millions of psychological deaths, emotional deaths, real deaths that North Koreans have to deal with every day,” says Jang. He adds: “I am a North Korean who made it and he is a North Korean who did not, so I need to live on behalf of him, I need to do what he cannot do, I need to give his voice back because he is unable to speak now.”

If Dear Leader is a personal ode to lost friends, it also promises to be an insider’s account of North Korea delivered from a court poet with key access to leaders. As with all North Korean defectors, it is impossible to verify Jang’s story; some North Korea watchers fear that he may have exaggerated his past influence and proximity to power. There is also no way to substantiate large swaths of his more far-fetched claims: for example, that Kim Jong-il had a team of 3000 food engineers working solely on finding recipes to extend his lifespan. “Even in North Korea, I doubt poets have quite the political access required for the analysis he provides,” notes Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.

The jury on whether Dear Leader is an accurate portrayal of a state gone mad or an aggrandised version of events will not be out until the hermit state eventually opens up. Until then Jang must be taken on trust. His book has already created waves. But for the author, every success brings with it pangs of regret. He worries that attention might increase atrocities on his loved ones back home. And not only there. In Seoul, where Jang worked as an intelligence analyst, he lives under the shadow of 24/7 police protection.

Change, if it does come, will be from below, Jang insists. Ordinary North Koreans today are caught up in what he calls “the South Korean wave”: they emulate South Korean fashion or secretly listen to South Korean soap operas smuggled across the border. Flourishing black markets have given the people confidence to barter and trade. “North Korea does not change because the leaders decide to be nicer and give up their power – it changes because of the South Korean wave and market economy,” he rails, frustration creeping into his voice.

He continues: “The problem is not that people’s hearts and minds aren’t open. It’s because you are in a chain gang and when you jump of a cliff, your wife, baby and family comes with you. That is what is stopping North Korea from reforming.”

Jang jumped. Was it worth it? Was it worth risking his own life, his relatives’ lives, his friend’s life, and now, if he is to be believed, his new family’s lives as he survives under the constant threat of assassination from a regime angry that he has revealed its secrets to the world?

He clasps the chair with both hands and turns to look at the water. He shakes his head. “I don’t want to escape, I don’t need to escape, I don’t need to kill myself, I can deal with it, but also my conscience won’t leave me alone. If I shut up it is because I have given in. By shutting up I am making a decision.”

It was not always an obvious decision. Jang recalls that when he first arrived in South Korea he pretended that he was from a region of the country with a similar accent to the North. But, he says, “I felt really oppressed by that lie. I’m not South Korean, this is not my history. So I said: ‘I’m from Pyongyang. I am a North Korean who has come here because I cannot speak freely in my own country. One day, when I can, I will go home again.’”

Beautiful Teacher by Yan Geling, China Times








她也指出,因為近年影視改編占去了她的時間,讓她有種「被鞭子趕著往前走」的感覺,不再像寫《小姨多賀》時可以去日本3趟,就為了抓住日本女人的感覺。今年初她發表的新作《賭徒》,寫作過程中她也多次赴澳門學賭,體驗賭客「驚心動魄」的情緒 ,但她自承:「不再能照過去的節奏,再多等一等,再抓準一點了。」


All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson, Goodreads

As quoted by the Chinese Communist revolutionary leader and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Tse Tung, commonly called Chairman Mao,

“In class society, everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.”

Well no wonder why the middle-class Chinese families in the 1930s were so keen on becoming the ‘face’ of the society or, rather say a class society, thus leading to animosity between the poor and rich and the rich used to treat the poor like the untouchables. The rich used to get scared whether if their children befriend someone so poor, that they might lose their ‘face’ in the society. It’s so astounding to see that this type of narrow-mindedness existed in those people and thus giving birth to seed of the Chinese revolution. Not only that, it was shameful to give birth to daughters in the rich family and how they were given away to the poor farmers.

Well it was so fascinating to gather these kinds of knowledge and especially more captivating and alluring to read about a young girl’s life journey during those hard times. A very notable author-cum-award-winning-director/producer-of-5-feature-films-cum-editor-cum-lawyer, Duncan Jepson has remarkably got into the skin of a young Chinese girl living in Shanghai, in his novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, to narrate her journey from the beautiful gardens to the lavish cage of marriage to the dreadful village outside Shanghai. After reading this book, I learnt that by writing this novel, Duncan has certainly paid tribute to his loving mother as well as to his homeland and the people of his homeland. And as said by the American leader/politician/author, James E. Faust,

“There is no greater good in all the world than motherhood. The influence of a mother in the lives of her children is beyond calculation.” 

And Duncan Jepson has justified these striking words in his novel so brilliantly. Motherhood is not some responsibility but it is a gift of life beyond any material or earthly possessions and how Feng, Duncan’s novel’s primary character realizes this and dons the hat of a mother so beautifully.

A 17year old girl named Xiao Feng, living under the wings of his grandfather, who is her only friend in her family. Since her parents were too focused on their elder daughter, so Feng used to get away with her grandfather into the beautiful gardens where they both used to tend to the beautiful flowers. But her sister’s sudden death changes the course of Feng’s life and simultaneously killing away all her dreams. She gets trapped into her marriage, soon becoming a mother for the first time, but since it was a shame to give birth to daughters, so Feng gives her daughter away to some poor farmers, and when she realizes her loss over her daughter, it was too late. Thus her life turns more painful and unbearable each passing day. Will she ever find her? Will she ever prove herself as a mother? Will she ever find a way to freedom from her cage? Read this book, to find it out and watch you getting bewildered by this exotic and forbidden tale.

It’s so spectacular to see that a man can easily get into the skin of a vulnerable young woman and penning down her journey as well as bringing out the right emotions into her. Even after reading the whole book, I was still stupefied by the fact that how he described each and every emotion of Feng so accurately and how he traced her journey from a young virgin girl to a scared wife to a rich family to being a mother.

Well the characters are very extraordinary and remarkable. Feng, the protagonist, who was first portrayed as an immature (way too immature) young teenage girl, who love tending flowers in her garden and used to compare people and their characteristics with flowers, then becoming the wife to a rich family and finally becoming a mother and then failing at it. All through her journey, we find Feng as being immature vulnerable to scared to confident to determined and finally brave woman and also it was too surprising to see how after suffering from too much pain and torture, in the and she stands as a one true brave and confident lady.
Bi, a young lad who is a fisherman’s son, and since his mother was a seamstress to Feng’s sister, he used to visit the garden to catch fish. Eventually, Bi and Feng become more than just friends and being naive, they never understood their feelings toward each other. But their chemistry was quite inevitable and undeniable and very innocent.
Xiong Fa was the man Feng was married to, a very coward man, and living under the wings of his mother, who was the First wife to his father. But he was quite caring and loving and never intended to harm Feng. It was Feng who never understood his intentions and feelings. And in the end, Xiong Fa proves to be a good father.
Meng Lu, younger son of Feng, was quite intelligent and smart like his mother but he was born with a deformed leg, hence making him a victim of torments from his cousins. But it was amazing to see just like his mother, he too used to see good in people.
Sang Yu was Feng’s daughter, whom she traded way with the poor peasants. Although Feng remain guilty all through her life because of her act, but she had a reason behind it. And I was amazed to see even after getting beaten up, thrown away from her, Yu forgives her mother in the end.

Finally Duncan’s writing is something, so lyrical, so poetic and so beautiful that it mesmerizes you completely. You become hooked to the novel till its very end. You laugh, cry and smile along with Feng’s journey. According to me the whole story was very painfully beautiful.

If you want to know about the Chinese customs, narrow-mindedness towards daughters and arranged marriages and how one revolution changed the course o Chinese history, then this book is a must read!

Duncan Jepson, I cannot thank you enough for giving me this honorable opportunity to read your novel. 

P.S. Find yourself falling in love with the novel’s cover and the beautiful texture of the pages!


Continent by Han Han,


Han Han attends a press conference for his new film Continent on July 7th, 2014. [Photo/]Han Han attends a press conference for his new film”Continent” on July 7th, 2014. [Photo/]

Chinese professional rally driver, and best-selling author Han Han said his new film “Continent” was just a road movie.

Han added he didn’t think about other things much. All he cared about was the state of completeness and if the film was interesting or not.

He, together with film stars Feng Shaofeng and Chen Bolin from Taiwan attended a press conference for the film in Beijing on July 7.

It’s the first time that Han Han has directed a film. The film also stars Wang Luodan and Wallace Chung. It tells stories of a several friends who grow up together set off for a somewhat reckless journey.

The film “Continent” is set to be released in China on July 24th.


Coming Home by Yan Geling, Wall Street Journal

Born in Shanghai, author Yan Geling has written numerous well-known Chinese novels, among them The Flowers of War and Lost Daughter of Happiness. But it’s her book The Criminal Lu Yanshi that’s lately been caught up in controversy—even though it was published three years ago.

The Criminal Lu Yanshi tells the story of a Chinese professor sent to a labor camp during the country’s “anti-rightist campaign” of the 1950s, a period during which more than a half-million Chinese were persecuted as intellectuals. The story formed the basis for the hit film “Coming Home,” released in May and directed byZhang Yimou.

But there’s one big difference: the movie eliminated references to the campaign, which is seldom publicly discussed in China, though it did preserve the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political madness and persecution that began in 1966. Instead, it focuses on other aspects of the story and adds new plot lines, including the professor’s struggle on his return from prison to help his wife recover her memory after she suffers the trauma of their separation. Mr. Zhang was widely criticized for his movie’s omissions, in a controversy that fueled debate about censorship in China, as well as renewed attention to Ms. Yan’s book.

China Real Time recently caught up with Ms. Yan, who lives in Berlin, to discuss her thoughts on Mr. Zhang’s adaptation of her work and the background of the controversy. Edited excerpts (translated from the Chinese):

When I saw Coming Home at a movie theater, there were many older people crying, but people born in the 1980s or 1990s didn’t show much emotion. Why do you think that was the case?

Chinese born in the 1980s have some knowledge of the Cultural Revolution, but those born in the 1990s and after generally have little knowledge and interest in it. I think that’s unfortunate. We should remember what has occurred in China. This is why I wrote this book and why writers of my generation keep writing these stories. We want to make great literature out of this [history]. The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years and turned many lives upside down. We have to accept it as part of modern Chinese history.

How did you deal with such ignorance when planning your book?

Any novel that addresses human nature in extreme situations is universally interesting to readers. I remember when we were in China [decades ago], we were introduced to Soviet-era writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak, especially the latter’s novel Doctor Zhivago. We were thrilled to read works by authors who shared life experiences and internal psychological experiences with us. As long as you write a story with enough literary elements — character development, depth of emotion, psychological buildup, internal examination — the story can have universal appeal.

The film version avoids the harsh realities of Lu Yanshi’s time in prison and in a reform-through-labor camp. Why do you think Zhang Yimou left those parts out? 

Zhang Yimou was more interested in the latter part [of the novel], the coming home part. He was fascinated with Lu Yanshi’s efforts to revive his wife’s memory. Considering film censorship in China, he was also limited in his choices and had to make a movie based on the latter half of my novel. In the movie, Zhang makes us realize that some memories have been filtered out and helps us imagine what those memories might be. We imagine how [his wife] entered this state of forgetfulness, what their life must have been like together and what kind of love they shared.


How did you research labor camp life?

In China, I think many people have experience with or know about the reform-through-labor system that was recently abolished. I did research on the topic and talked to former inmates. An older man I regard as a beloved grandpa told me stories of his time in a labor camp in Qinghai Province, and they inspired me. I heard these stories more than 20 years ago. Before I started writing the novel, I traveled to where the prison had been. Although parts of it are already in ruins, most of it was still there. I talked to former guards and their adult children. This way, I was able to learn the story from both sides.

In your earlier books, you used a female point of view to examine the heroine’s destiny. This time, you used a male character. Why the change?

I am generally interested in women’s lives, as I am a woman and have many female friends who tell me stories about themselves or stories they have heard or witnessed. But that does not mean I cannot write from a male character’s viewpoint. I write a character in whatever gender is necessary for the story.

You wrote the screenplays for the film version of your books Siao Yu and Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Which do you prefer writing—screenplays or books?  

I have written many scripts, some better than others, but I don’t love the job. I love the freedom of writing novels, the ability to work alone, think alone and make the whole production of a novel alone. I love this freedom and this power.