September 2008

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This second piece in our ongoing series highlighting “In Case You Missed It” readings on Tibet, is devoted to reflections by Charlene Makley, a member of Reed College’s Anthropology Department. She was part of the same Boulder roundtable mentioned in our first post in the series, and she is the author of The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post Mao China, published last year by the University of California Press in cloth and paperback editions.

Having just returned from a year in Tibetan regions of the PRC, I am not completely versed on the most recent writings on Tibet and Sino-Tibetan relations. I can, though, recommend some key texts that have helped me navigate the historical complexities of the region.

For insightful analyses and cultural histories of Tibetans’ relations with Chinese and Westerners, I have greatly benefited from readings of Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the Land of the Snows (1999) and Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-la (1998).

I have been surprised that Ronald Schwartz’ book, Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising (1994), a close examination of the events leading up to Tibetan demonstrations and martial law in Lhasa in the late 1980s, has not been mentioned much when protests in the region have again been in the headlines. I met Schwartz in the summer of 2007 and he modestly remarked that his book was “dated,” but it seems to me that his analysis takes on new relevance now.

I also wish more people would look at the prolific writings of such exiled Tibetan dissidents as Jamyang Norbu (see his blog, “Shadow Tibet”). Not that I agree with everything he argues, but his controversial views and the responses to them from Tibetan and non-Tibetan readers are always extremely enlightening, highlighting as they do the current fault lines of debate and policy in the Tibet government in exile and among supporters of Tibetans.

Finally, Emily Yeh, who recently weighed in on this blog with her own suggestions about things to read, is one of the few scholars to write insightfully about the dilemmas of recent development efforts in Tibetan regions (with a particular focus on urban Lhasa) without bracketing essential issues of culture, identity and politics. See for example her article, “Property Relations in Tibet Since Decollectivisation and the Question of ‘Fuzziness’,” which appeared in Conservation and Society (2004).

This Self-Promotion Saturday will be the first of a series devoted to a book project: China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance. Rowman & Littlefield will be publishing it fairly early in 2009 and it will be edited by three people familiar to “China Beat” readers: Kate Merkel-Hess, Ken Pomeranz and Jeff Wasserstrom, all of whom are based at UC Irvine. Some of the content will also be familiar to “China Beat” readers, since the book will include material that first appeared on this site (though in some cases in an updated and expanded form). China in 2008 will also contain pieces that first appeared in other digital or print publications, as well as completely new things, created just for the book.

Books that evolve out of blogs are still a relative rarity in the American publishing world, though there have been some notable success stories, from Julie to Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen to Stuff White People Like. But as many followers of the “China Beat” know, they are more common in China, where sometimes several of the top selling books at a particular moment are tied in some way to blogs, sometimes made up of nothing but the posts that appeared on one.

Our taking “China Beat” off-line, while keeping it going on-line, of course, is an experiment, and we’ll be filling you in periodically on how it is going. We’ll probably talk in future about challenges we face, from meeting tight deadlines to maintaining the loose feel of a blog while creating something that can be carried around, assigned in classes, and we hope picked up at the airport by some people who have never visited the site but think China in 2008 looks like good reading material on their first flight to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. We’ll also have things to say about how the volume is shaping up, and maybe provide some teasers about the new material.

Our main message for now is simple: stay tuned. And if anyone else out there is thinking that 2008 has been such an eventful year so far that a play on the title of 1587: A Year of No Significance is in order, we’ve laid a claim to that idea in the subtitle (though we’d be happy to include a tip of the hat in our acknowledgments page to anyone who has beat us to the punch in a web posting or op-ed).

It has now been six months since “China Beat” ran a series of reports about and suggested readings relating to the March unrest in Tibet. We thought this a fitting time to try to figure out what some of the best works out there are that deal with Tibet in general, not just a particular crisis involving the region and its people. So, we will be asking some people the following question: “Can you think of any particular article or book relating to Tibet that you wish more people had read?” We’ll run the answers periodically, as they come in.

As a starting point, we put the question to the participants in a recent roundtable on Tibet, which was one of the most popular and talked-about panels on the program at the 2008 Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies Meetings held in Boulder at the University of Colorado. Here are two early responses, one from roundtable co-organizer Emily T. Yeh (who put the session together with Duke anthropologist Ralph Litzinger), the other from previous “China Beat” contributor Timothy S. Oakes.


Both Emily and Tim are faculty members in the University of Colorado’s Geography department. Emily’s recent publications include “Tropes of indolence and the cultural politics of development in Lhasa, Tibet,” which appeared in 2007 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (vol. 97, no. 3, pp. 593-612). A recent work by Tim likely to interest many “China Beat” readers is a volume he co-edited with Louisa Schein, Translocal China: Linkages, Identities and the Re-Imagining of Space (Routledge, 2006).

Yeh: I haven’t really thought this through, but here are some initial thoughts.

In terms of understanding the background to the current political situation, I find very useful Robbie Barnett’s untitled essay in Steve Lehman’s The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive, a book about the 1987-89 protests made up largely of photographs.

A book that has just come out that I think will be quite worthwhile, again for those specifically interested in China’s claims and counterclaims, is Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille’s Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, which was published by the University of California Press. As the title suggests, it is a scholarly response by multiple contributors to 100 Questions about Tibet, published in China in 1989. In addition to contemporary issues of population, policy, etc. It also has a substantial historical section.

Oakes: I wouldn’t be comfortable recommending anything as some kind of “expert on Tibet.” And I don’t do a great deal of reading on Tibet specifically, except concerning tourism, the idea of the frontier, and (of course) real and imaginary locales dubbed “Shangri-la” (a subject I mentioned in my last post for this blog).

But, I will offer one article that I’ve found useful in sorting out key questions regarding tourism, and heritage, in Tibet. In particular, it helps respond to one of the late questions we had in the session, but did not answer. He asked about whether there was a distinction being made among Tibetans in Tibet between the political question of autonomy/independence and the cultural question of preservation. Robert Shephard’s 2006 article, “UNESCO and the Politics of Cultural Heritage in Tibet” (Journal of Contemporary Asia 36:2, 243-257), should help people understand that this is a problematic distinction in the first place, that cultural heritage in Tibet is inherently political, and that cultural preservation is itself part of the Chinese state’s efforts to “develop” Tibetan culture as an object of tourist desire and marketing.

By Angilee Shah

My redeye flight from Singapore to Shanghai in August was timed purposefully before the Olympics ended, but my route was planned meticulously to avoid the big Olympics events.

Before the trip I likewise scoured the library of the Singapore school where I teach for fresh (or at least fresh to me) narratives on China–the kinds of simple but expansive journeys that unabashedly take young explorers “beyond the headlines” and spark awe-inspiring careers. I’d already read Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones and I was looking for more.

(My friend Anka was tasked with writing about life in China, and I was tasked with accompanying him with my camera. I was looking for some inspiration.)

I accumulated a large stack of books–history, nonfiction, travel guides, memoirs–and sifted through them. Oliver August’s 2007 Inside the Red Mansion quickly rose to the top. The subtitle is “On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man” and the prologue opens the story with a fearless madam charming customers at a dubious nightclub in Xiamen. Forgive me, but it was an easy choice.

And August’s book did not let me down. Red Mansion‘s intrigue and fantastical true-life characters keep the work suspenseful from page to page. Sometimes memoir, sometimes suspense novel, it is a well-crafted and compelling non-fiction narrative that traces the author’s search for a fugitive tycoon in China. To find the man, August, in essence, follows his money. He goes to the homes he bought, the clubs where he drank, and the skyscrapers he built.

There is a lot of struggle in the book, and not just between the infamous Lai Changxing and the government that hunted him. August is clearly a determined reporter (see chapter 14, where he describes how he returned to the office of a bored, low level official every few weeks for over two years), but the book’s most driving force is August himself. Will he find Lai’s bordello, the mythical Red Mansion? Will he see with his own eyes the darkest secrets of China’s boomtown economies? Will he find Lai, and by extension the basic paradoxes of life in modern China?

I won’t spoil the ending here (I’m guessing August would not appreciate my giving anything away), but I will say that his China journey was a fulfilling choice for someone interested in the less accounted-for elements of rapid developments in China’s big cities. But, it seems, it’s near impossible get to the story fast enough to actually see it unfold. The pace keeps long-form writers squarely in the past-tense, or in August’s case interviewing side-characters and peering into the furnished rooms of abandoned buildings. The most compelling story is the one about how August catches up.

For further reading, check out these reviews of Inside the Red Mansion:
A Tycoon Who Ate the ‘New China’ for Breakfast,” by Janet Maslin at The New York Times.
The Player,” by William T. Vollmann at The Los Angeles Times

Many people outside of China get their first ideas about the Cultural Revolution from reading memoirs or works of fiction that deal with the years 1966-1969 or the final decade of the Maoist era (1966-1976). It is also possible, though, to start to grapple with the meaning of that complex and traumatic period via its visual culture, and finding out about a new exhibit and a new online collection (new to me at least) has inspired this Top Five List. It includes some sites that have been mentioned before at China Beat, but seem worth referring to again.

1. The always alert Danwei bloggers have just alerted their readers to a fascinating website devoted to Cultural Revolution photographs. It’s well worth checking out their post or going straight to the website by a Cornell professor that they praise.

2. The Asia Society has a new exhibit up on “Art and China’s Revolution” (it runs through January 11), which is introduced well by Emily Parker in a recent Wall Street Journal piece that comes with a slide show, made up of powerful images on display. More images from the same show are available to click through courtesy of the New York Times.

3. I know I’m biased, since I’ve worked as a consultant on various Long Bow Group projects, but the website associated with that organization’s award-winning documentary “Morning Sun” (a film by Carma Hinton, Geremie Barmé, and Richard Gordon that was recently screened at the Asia Society to accompany the exhibit alluded to above) remains the single best place to go for a visual introduction to Cultural Revolution.

4. Posters were a particularly powerful vehicle through which images and ideas were conveyed during the Cultural Revolution, of course, and the Danwei post mentioned earlier directs readers to the excellent online displays created by Stefan Landsberger. But another place to turn if you just can’t get enough of these materials is the virtual version of a late 1990s traveling exhibit of materials from the wonderful collection held at the University of Westminster (full disclosure: I was one of the exhibit’s co-curators). This is the same collection that served as the basis for Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China, a book edited by historian and gender studies scholar Harriet Evans and media studies scholar Stephanie Donald that includes many color images and chapters by the likes of art historian Craig Clunas, longtime Guardian China correspondent and poster-collector John Gittings, and literary critic Chen Xiaomei.

5. And there are many other places to turn on the web for those interested in these topics, including this online collection of reproductions of posters held at Berkeley’s East Asian Library. This online source, as well as some of the others mentioned above, includes material that falls outside of the Cultural Revolution’s chronology, which makes it possible to think in new ways about the continuities and ruptures between that period and those that immediately preceded and followed it.

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