China in 2008

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Several weeks ago, we announced a brand new quiz for readers to name “The Prettiest” (photo of China), “The Wittiest” (title of a China-related piece of writing), and “The Grittiest” (best muckraking journalist to work the China beat). The award: A copy of China in 2008, signed by as many authors as we could get hold of (which, as one of us went to AAS, turned out to be a lot).

Our winner is Charles Hayford who, in typically fine style, gave us not just answers but a lot of good solid prose to back it up (and added three of his own categories to the mix). Hope you enjoy his answers as much as we did.

1. The Prettiest (photo of China you can find on the web)
Any of the views from outer space: they not only inspire awe but since we can see the “state of nature” from which “China” was made, they remind us of Mark Elvin’s old question “why is China so big?”


The NASA site has hundreds of views, all for free!

2. The Wittiest (title of a China book, article or blog post)
I rather fancy my own efforts, for instance, my study of the influence of radical Hindu music on Mao: “Red Sitar Over China” (which somehow remains unpublished) or “Snow, White, and The Seven … China Revolution Classics” (Asia Media, December 1, 2006). Shameless puffery aside, Jim Hevia’s recent English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism (Duke UP, 2005) neatly captures his thesis.

3. And the Grittiest:
Hands down – well, “China Hands” down – it’s Jack Belden, the “grittiest” of the classic wartime China journalists. Sadly, when China Shakes the World was published in 1949, Americans were obsessing about the “loss of China,” but were not much interested in actual reporting. When it was reissued in the 1960s, people mis-took it for a Maoist view, but in fact Belden had gone out into village China to avoid Mao. Owen Lattimore’s Introduction to the reprint recalled that in the 1930s, he and the others relied on Belden to disappear into the countryside and bring back reports on the “seamier” side, fleas and all.

4. Twittiest
Richard M. Nixon 1972: “This is a Great Wall and only such a great people could have such a great wall.”
Nancy Pelosi (radio interview c. 1995): “We’ve been putting pressure on China for five years and they still haven’t become a democracy.” (paraphrased from memory) [China Beat: if a reader can track down a link on this quote, we’ll publish your name right here.]

5. Spit-iest?Great Expectorations: Puke, Spitting, and Face,” Frog in a Well (12/12/08)

6. Brit-iest? What did Prince Charles say about Chinese architecture? [China Beat suggests this or this.]

Our forthcoming volume is no longer forthcoming–as of today, it is available for purchase. While dedicated China Beat readers may find some of the content familiar, about one-third of it is brand-new (and other pieces have been expanded). For those who want to learn more about the volume before purchasing it, we direct you to a few excerpts and discussions of the book:

An excerpt from the Introduction, by Kate Merkel-Hess

A complete table of contents

An excerpt from the Afterword, by Ken Pomeranz

A flyer about the book from publisher Rowman & Littlefield

Discussion about the book from contributor Jeremiah Jenne, at his blog Jottings from the Granite Studio

China Beat has just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and while a few of you have been with us since the beginning, the majority of our readers have tuned in somewhere along the way. For that reason, we thought it might be worth a little recap of who China Beat is and what we are about. In the spirit of brevity (of sorts), let’s do it as a top-five list…

1. China Beat is based in the U.S. (in Irvine, California, specifically) and while many of our contributors also hail from the United States, we also regularly publish pieces by writers based in China (like Zhang Lijia’s discussion of China’s death penalty), Australia (such as Geremie Barme’s interview about the torch relay), Taiwan (see Paul Katz’s regular blogging for “Tales from Taiwan”), Vietnam (see, for instance, Caroline Finlay’s piece on Vietnamese protests of the torch relay), Japan (such as James Farrer’s analysis of Japanese media coverage of the Olympics) , Canada (like David Luesink on the similarities between the Olympic preparations in Beijing and Vancouver) , New Zealand (like Paola Voici’s piece on “Big and Small Nationalisms”), Britain (Rob Gifford on Beijing architecture), and Israel (Shakhar Rahav’s piece on Olympic celebrations in Israel).

2. Uniquely for a blog, we draw on a wide and ever-changing group of contributors that range in background and expertise. We have published pieces by academics from graduate students in their first few years of study (for instance, Xia Shi, who wrote about the history of the Terracotta warriors) to university professors (the co-founders of the blog, Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Ken Pomeranz, are both faculty members in the history department at the University of California, Irvine) to the chancellor of a university (Daniel Little at University of Michigan-Dearborn, who wrote memorials for two scholars who passed away this year, Charles Tilly and Bill Skinner). We also regularly incorporate the works of journalists (such as James Miles on the Tibet riots), non-fiction writers (like Peter Hessler), and even a mystery novelist.

3. While we run a lot of book reviews and reflections on media coverage of China, we have also published historical pieces (see Ed Jocelyn’s narration of the late General Xiao Ke’s life), book excerpts (such as a selection from Robert Kapp’s foreword to the reprint of Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time), to movie reviews (like Angilee Shah’s report on a documentary about the school collapses in Sichuan or Matthew Johnson’s analysis of Lust, Caution), environmental writing (like Alex Pasternack on the new train to Tibet), and cultural analysis (such as Charles Hayford’s reflections on Wikipedia and Chinese history, Micki McCoy and Kelly Hammond’s discussion of a Pepsi commercial filmed in a Xinjiang sports stadium, and Hongmei Li’s examination of Chinese femininity and gender expectations).

4. While we’re definitely heavy on the print format, contributor (and Stanford prof) Tom Mullaney has also been experimenting with podcasts under the feature “China on My Mind.”

5. As those of you who’ve been reading regularly have already heard (and heard, and heard…!), we’ve got a book based on the blog coming out in March, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (if you follow that link, you’ll find that Amazon appears to be listing the hardcover price for the paperback edition….It’s $26.95 from Rowman & Littlefield). However, one of the things we haven’t told you yet is that Jonathan Spence is writing the foreword for the book–yet one more thing about the book that has us looking forward to sharing it with you!

The last year is gone, and 2009 predictions are rolling in. Here are a few of our favorite 2008 wrap-ups and 2009 predictions from the past few weeks.

Looking back…

1. China Beat’s Jeffrey Wasserstrom has posted a few of his own reflections on 2009. At the Christian Science Monitor, Wasserstrom wrote about “the two big China stories you missed this year” (though regular China Beat readers likely won’t have…!). The subheading should tip you off to these two stories: “The brief yet radical shift of patriotic fervor into criticism of the government after the Sichuan earthquake and the official revival of Confucius were crucial moments in a pivotal year.”

And at the Guardian’s Comment is Free, Wasserstrom discussed how 2008 had showcased a new “golden age” of English-language reportage on China:

The year saw a bumper crop of unusually illuminating books of reportage. The four works I have in mind take widely varying approaches to contemporary China. What they have in common is that each is by someone with good Chinese language skills, has a long-term commitment to understanding China on its own terms, and has hit upon an interesting way to frame a book. Each offers readers a valuable opportunity to move beyond simplistic visions of China that downplay the diversity of the country and the complex nature of the social and cultural shifts its people are experiencing.

Make the jump to find out the four works Wasserstrom singled out for notice.

2. Access Asia (if you aren’t already reading their weekly updates, you should be…) published a 2008 retrospectives on the best and worst of books on China in 2008 (republished at Danwei.org):

It was hardly a stellar year – there were no really big picture books this year that stormed the shelves, though there were a few interesting memoirs (Rowan Simons’s Bamboo Goalposts and Zhang Lijia’s Socialism is Great! both deserve a mention) but not one good business book. 2008 was a good year for general history though as reflected in our choices below.

3. China Digital Times has been publishing regular wrap-ups on the China issues of 2008, including this one on food and product safety:

In 2008, food and product safety issues that had been smoldering in China finally erupted in a rash of scandals, most having to do with melamine-tainting in food products such as milk, eggs, ammonium bicarbonate, protein powder, and animal feed, but also including food poisoned with pesticides, a maggot outbreak in oranges, hazardous toys, and toxic furniture.

Other CDT wrap-ups include China and the Developing World, Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity, Environmental Crisis, The Global Financial Crisis, the Revaluation of the Yuan, Human Rights, and China’s domestic market.

Looking forward…

1. In talking about what China will look like in 2009, the recent economic woes have loomed large. At Reuters, Chris Buckley argues for rising unrest in the coming year :

While foreign commentary about risks to China’s recipe of fast economic growth and one-party control are common, the nation’s leaders are usually reticent about such threats.

This report and other recent open warnings may be intended to help snap officials to attention, said one Chinese expert.

“The candor about these problems reflects the severity of the unemployment problem. It’s meant to attract the attention of all levels of government,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The government wants to show that stability is at the top of its agenda.”

Many China commentators, however, are concerned that the unrest (and its potential for government destabilization) is being overstated and may blind foreigners to the true situation in China. In reaction to predictions over the importance of Charter ’08 (and its contribution to bringing down Beijing), Mutant Palm blogged on “‘To Collapse or Not to Collapse’ is Not the Question,” pointing to rising citizen demands on the government for social services as the likeliest outcome of an economic downturn.

2. At this week’s Access Asia weekly update, editors posted “The China Retail Quarterly…The “What Will 2009 Be Like?” Edition.”

3. In addition to reflecting on 2008, Jeff Wasserstrom also had time to make a few predictions for 2009 at the Nation. The upshot? It all happened already. Take a gander to see how many of the events China specialists might have been predicting for 2009 took place in 2008.

4. For a view to how one Chinese newspaper (Southern Weekend) looks forward to 2009, see CDT’s full translation of the paper’s New Year editorial, which ranges across both the newspaper’s responsibilities to its readers and readers’ responsibilities to their nation:

The more we look to the depths of history, the firmer we are. Yes, we want to support those common human values unwaveringly. We support progress, democracy, freedom, human rights; we support China’s move toward modern civilisation. Do we not recall how, over a century ago, our predecessors found that being complacent in their own culture would not save them, so hiding their pain deep inside, they undertook a long journey to find a way to revitalise the country? Therefore western winds blew eastward, arsenals were built to ward off external humiliation, schools built with a view to the future, to build the newspaper for the opening of their wisdom, and Mr Democracy and Mr Science brought the light of rejuvenation to this ancient country. At this juncture of our long history, have we not thought about where this country’s hope comes from? Have we never thought about how to extend the hope, so as not get the future path of state and the people wrong?

It’s worth reading the whole editorial in full.

Several China Beat contributors have just returned from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held this year in New York City from January 2-5. While there was normal association business aplenty (including presenting historical research, catching up with colleagues from other institutions, and for some of us hearing Eugenia Lean give a stimulating talk after the Conference on Asian History’s luncheon, in which she explored the interplay between science and gender in the Republican period), the meeting also gave the editors of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance a chance to sit down with Rowman & Littlefield editor Susan McEachern to chat about the book’s final months of production.


Jeff Wasserstrom, Susan McEachern, Kate Merkel-Hess, and Ken Pomeranz

Meeting over breakfast, we talked about the final pieces still to finish (a highlight: Ken Pomeranz’s “Afterword” that takes stock of the event-filled final months of 2008 and draws attention to some environmental issues that don’t always get the attention they deserve) as well as more pragmatic issues like how to promote the book (we’ll be flogging it in various locations and will give you plenty of heads up in advance, in case you’d like to join us at any signings and the like). It’s rare for turn-around on a book to be quite this quick–we’re planning a mid-March launch–but it certainly suits the timeliness of the blog format.

In the meantime, we’ve received a couple blurbs for China in 2008 that we want to share with you:

“Required reading for anyone trying to make sense of China’s tumultuous year. This is the literary equivalent of a rowdy dinner party attended by some of the best and brightest China journalists, scholars, and thinkers. It offers a breadth of opinion and depth of context available only to those with a well-thumbed Rolodex of China specialists. But the book is accessible to the ordinary reader, and it combines the up-to-the-minute excitement of a blog with quirky academic takes on history in the making.”
Louisa Lim, National Public Radio, Shanghai correspondent

“I’ve never been to China, but I’ve become a China-watcher thanks to the wonderful China Beat blog. This book is the best of that blog—and more. It’s a fascinating way to get under China’s skin.”
Mary Beard, University of Cambridge (a leading Classicist and the blogger responsible for “A Don’s Life”)

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