China, lost and found in translation

Bravery, truth, fire… butter? Trust Trent Dalton to get down to the big issues, language challenges be damned, on a recent Walkley exchange to China. Artwork by Rocco Fazzari.

It was a beautiful question, sharp and open-ended, challenging and necessary. She was a Chinese journalism student, maybe 19 or 20 years old, but this was the question of a veteran, a gentle query from someone wise enough to know that sometimes the best way to get a piece of them is to give a piece of you.

“How do I be brave?” she asked.

In the first half of my life as a journalist I was probably too shit-scared to ask any newsroom hero of mine that question. In the second half I was probably too proud. I had to fly 8,700km to Guangzhou, China, to hear the answer.

To my right, Steve Pennells, five-time Walkley winner, five-star bloke, smiled because he was thinking the same thing I was. That question wasn’t in the brief.

“Organised by the Walkley Foundation and Australian Embassy Beijing, in partnership with the All-China Journalists Association… the Walkley Foundation China Exchange: The Craft of Journalism in Global Contexts is a new initiative that aims to connect China’s future opinion-makers with journalistic talent in Australia … “.

One week; three Aussie journos; three Chinese cities; 15 events across universities, embassy buildings and one delightfully quaint Beijing book shop; 15 chances for me to spark an international incident with another ill-rehearsed, cross-wired shot at speaking Chinese.

No doubt, in my reckless and lumbering Queensland tongue, I’d just publicly declared that the history of journalism has only ever been about something that sounded closer to “finding the butter”.

“Zhēnxiàng!” I would holler to the wide-eyed groups of 20 to 30 inspiringly enthusiastic journalism students.

“Journalism is all about finding the zhēnxiàng.” The students all spoke quality English and they would all stare at me puzzled after such admissions, because, no doubt, in my reckless and lumbering Queensland tongue, I’d just publicly declared that the history of journalism has only ever been about something that sounded closer to “finding the butter”.

“Truth!” I would qualify. “Finding the truth!”

“Oh, yes,” they said, exhaling, relieved. “Truth, yes.”

“The truth of a moment,” I said. “The truth of a subject. The truth of a story.”

Trent Dalton, Walkleys CEO Jacqui Park, Steve Pennells and Caro Meldrum-Hanna speak to students for the Craft of journalism in a global context initiative.

Trent Dalton, Walkleys CEO Jacqui Park, Steve Pennells and Caro Meldrum-Hanna speak to students for the Craft of journalism in a global context initiative. Courtesy of Joanna Bayndrian/DFAT

We started in Beijing’s Communication University of China, which boasts a journalism school that, over the past 60 years, has sent some 4,000 journalism grads into the challenging, complex world of Chinese journalism. This is a country, according to the many local working journos we shared a lunchtime Lazy Susan with, where local news agencies often receive an afternoon government communication detailing stories that are off limits.

“How long are these particular stories off limits?” we asked.

“Forever,” said the local scribes.

In February, journalist Tom Phillips wrote a piece for The Guardian charting the career of a promising 29-year-old Beijing reporter named Lin Tianhong, who had been celebrated for his stellar coverage of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. The young print journo wrote with flair and fire and zhēnxiàng. His work had inspired a generation of young journalists just like the ones we were travelling through China hoping to inspire. Seven years later, Lin Tianhong was working in PR on the 19th floor of Beijing’s World Profit Center.

“Boredom,” Lin said. “One day I woke up in the morning [and] asked myself: do you still think it is fun doing the same thing over and over again each day?”

Building contacts is an issue. Keeping sources is an issue. Finding voices is an issue. Hierarchy is an issue; manners, formality, gender, respect, expectation. And boredom is an issue; the stultifying, dispiriting reality of being forced to file a hundred, 200, 300 consecutive weak yarns. No need to crush expression when you can just bore it to death. The fire that lights up inside you when you decide you want to make a difference. The fire that dies when you think you never will.

But nothing is black and white in China. Free, brilliant, quality, probing, investigative journalistic expression exists, it just exists in the cracks. Like the vines and the apricot flowers that squeeze through all that grey Beijing concrete, zhēnxiàng finds a way. Whole underground languages, ways of communicating through imagery, double meanings in texted words, triple meanings, powerful political messages masked by bubblegum pop conversation.

Not a single student we spoke to was unaware of the challenges they would face as journalists in China. And still they signed up for the job. A shit-pay job, fenced by political and cultural walls. They still believed in it. And that was what made them so beautiful. These wide-eyed, dead keen students – the majority of them young women – made my privileged first-world feature writer problems seem so deeply pathetic. Gotta fill out my expenses claims. They gave me a small four-cylinder rental car to drive through western Queensland. The feature writers never get the bureau cars. Boo-fuckin’-hoo.

“You made the right choice,” I said. “In case you’re wondering, you made the right choice.” You chose the best job in the world. You chose the job that can bring you your dreams.

“I have one word for you all,” I said earnestly, chancing my arm on one more ambitious translation, dragged from the less-than-reliable Google translator. “And that word is, ‘Píngshū’. Nothing matters but the píngshū.”

And the students of Beijing’s prestigious Communication University fell back in their chairs laughing. A lovely local student named Victor Sun approached me afterwards, explaining that píngshū is a rather hokey form of radio-based 1980s storytelling considered the height of bad fashion and taste by his now-generation. It was like I’d told a group of first-year Sydney Uni journalism students that “nothing matters in journalism but Ugly Dave Gray”.

An email landed in my phone that night.

Hey Trent! This is Victor, the boy who sat behind you and asked you questions. I’m so excited to have this opportunity to learn from your experience and exchange my views. At my most confused time, thank you for telling me how fantastic this job is, and I am bound to be a good storyteller one day! Another discussion about translation of ‘storytelling’ in Chinese: a suggesting version could be “jiang shu”, “jiang” means you tell others something or speak. Just for reference! Haha. Yours, Victor.

“How do you hold on to that feeling you had at the beginning?” she asked.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna was all mesmerising fire up there. You had to see it from the perspective of the students. This four-time Walkley winner — this woman — up there in front of a white screen talking about the power of journalism, the things it can do, the things it can change when it’s done right. “Woowww,” the students said, when she spoke about where she works. “It’s called Four Corners,” she said. And the students processed the unimaginable: a television investigative journalism program funded by the Australian government that has, for half a century, exposed the failings of the Australian government.

She’d pace through aisles of desks showing students images from her stories on her iPad — behind closed doors visual insights into ice addiction and transgender sex work and that image of a young man in a hood named Dylan Voller from Meldrum-Hanna’s seismic investigation into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. Shock is universal. The zhēnxiàng is universal. Their jaws would drop, these beautiful, truly attentive students — born listeners — would lean forward across their desks, their eyes popping at the sight of the images and their eyes said, “More”. Give us more, more, more. We are so fucking in, their eyes said. For better or worse, Meldrum-Hanna had them hooked for life.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna in action.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna in action. Courtesy of Joanna Bayndrian/DFAT

“How do you hold on to that feeling you had at the beginning?” she asked.

Meldrum-Hanna smiled knowingly, shook her head. It was a question about the fire and we’d spend a week addressing it. How do you keep the fire burning without the fire burning you out?

“Good question,” Meldrum-Hanna said. And that was the start of the answer right there, to keep asking good questions.

Then Steve Pennells would tell spine-chilling tales of battles to tell the truths about one of the world’s richest women, Gina Rinehart, and how those battles nearly sent him to prison. He’d speak of trawling through Southeast Asia to unpick the stories of families left behind by disaster; crossing the world to find people left behind by globalisation and politics and the 24-hour news cycle that has no room for the plight of a thousand thirsty refugees dragging suitcases across deserts on the Syrian border. The toll these stories take on a journalist. What it means to nurse a dead man. The things seen that can’t be unseen. He spoke of perspective, of vantage points, of how the small and the focused can illuminate the large and the blurred; how to tell a story with no more information than a few numbers and letters on the toe tag of a foreign corpse.

And their wide, electrified eyes said, “More”. From Beijing to Guangzhou to Shanghai. More, more, more. The students kept asking him how the craft of journalism might survive the 21st century. The raging and unchained monster of social media is rapidly suffocating quality journalism in China as much as anywhere else.

“Good storytelling,” Pennells said in clear English. Quality storytelling. Factual storytelling. Powerful storytelling.

He put it best when he said it like this: “Observing history not just as a series of facts and events but as something you can live and experience even more than a century after the words were written. Something that not just takes you to a news event, but gets you into the minds and the character of everyone there.”

Trent Dalton dazzling the students with his grasp on the local lingo.

Trent Dalton dazzling the students with his grasp of the local lingo. Courtesy of Joanna Bayndrian/DFAT

That’s when I’d come in with my little flowery lark about what it would have been like being a feature writer sent to take notes on Chairman Mao’s historic, nation-defining Long March, when Chinese Communists took epic flight from the Nationalist enemy, trekking 9,000km for a year out of Southwest China.

I’d walked for two hours through the National Museum of China, across the road from Tiananmen Square, and walked out a dubious expert on Chinese modern history, early Chinese currency and the writings of Confucius.

There’s Dalton, I explained, standing near the freckled tea boy in the shadow of Mao scribbling notes into a dusty Spirax: “Mao smiles, tilts his head to the sun, perturbed by something. Says he may have slipped disc in lower back.”

Point being, the students were the historians. They were the ones who get to document that mighty, heaving, powerhouse country’s long march forward into the 21st century.

“Living textbooks,” said a professor at the Jinan University Journalism and Communication College in Guangzhou. And he was dead right.

“Yep,” I said, nodding at the professor like a chihuahua buzzing on Red Bull. “I guess it all comes down to one word, doesn’t it.” I looked across the room, laboriously drawing every last student into my steely gaze.

“Jiang su,” I whispered. “It’s all about jiang su.”

And the journalism students of prestigious Jinan University fell back in their chairs laughing, wondering what exactly the secrets of journalism had to do with a coastal Chinese province known for manufacturing electronics.

I looked to Confucius to bail me out.

“It’s all about the xīn,” I said.

“Heart,” said a young woman, immediately, and I was so grateful for her understanding that I had to stop myself from kissing her.

“Yes!” I said. “Confucius!” I said, pronouncing the great eastern philosopher’s name the same way my Queensland battler old man always said, ‘This guv’ment’s always tryin’ to confuse us’.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

That’s what will separate us from the social media sludge. The xīn.

“You won’t have the biggest house, but you’ll have the biggest línghún.”

“Soul,” that same girl said.

She smiled warmly, nodding, and I could have sworn that 8,700km distance between Brisbane and Guangzhou shrank to the width of a human hand.

“How do I be brave?” asked the girl.

And Pennells paused to think for a moment. He stared deep into the young budding journalist’s eyes, the future of Chinese journalism nervously hugging an A4 notebook tight against her chest.

“Look what you just did,” he said. “You came up to me and asked that question. You already are brave.”

And something lit up across her face. Maybe it was truth, the zhēnxiàng she needed to hear from someone else to believe it. Maybe it was just the afternoon light from the lecture room windows. And maybe it was fire.

Trent Dalton writes for The Weekend Australian Magazine. The Walkley Foundation China Exchange: The Craft of Journalism in a Global Context is organised, in November 2016, by The Walkley Foundation and Australian Embassy Beijing, in partnership with the All-China Journalists Association and supported by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia-China Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.