September 2010

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China Beat is going to be taking a two-week break (one key person is already away, in fact, which is why I’m doing the announcement for CB editor Maura Cunningham, just for old times’ sake). In all the time that you won’t be reading China Beat, here are a few suggestions for other things to take a gander at.

1. Internet censorship in China remains a favorite media topic, with, for instance, this recent Newsweek piece that asks “Is Xinhua the Future of Journalism?” With all the focus on China’s internet limitations, this piece, which examines the limitations on online speech in the US and Europe, caught our eye for its comparative use of “Chinese-style web censorship” as shorthand for the worst sort of speech crackdowns.

2.  Filed under “Sex and the City” (that little bit of lingo has lost a lot of its remaining luster this summer, but we’ll leave it to Sufei to continue to save the brand): first, Howard French writes on the increasing visibility of gay couples in Shanghai; then Lisa Movius (quoting scholar and CB contributor James Farrer) on Chinese women becoming increasingly selective about mates.

3. Upbeat and downbeat Shanghai: Shanghaiist features photos from their contributor, photog Sue Anne Tay, on demolition and construction in Shanghai, and this Financial Times slide show (you must register–for free–to view it).

4. Evan Osnos on two very different sort of books: Frank Dikötter’s new book on the Great Leap famine, Mao’s Great Famine, (see also Jonathan Fenby’s review of it at The Guardian) and Paul French and Matthew Crabbe’s Fat China.

5. Ian Johnson’s review essay at NYRB of recent books that examine the CCP’s ruling echelon and its future (including Richard McGregor’s The Party, David Shambaugh’s China’s Communist Party, and Rick Baum’s China Watcher). The full text is only available to subscribers (or those with institutional subscriptions), but you can read the first few paragraphs here.

6. At East Asia Forum, Hugh White ponders the ramifications for the Pacific world of a US-China showdown for #1 superpower status.

We’ll be back at the end of September, refreshed and with lots of new links to share.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ll get to books I actually read over the summer (or in one case, am part of the way through as I write), as opposed to simply ones I dipped into, learned about, wrote about, or thought about, in a minute.  First, though, I want to mention briefly a trio of book-related summertime activities of mine that don’t quite fit into the format of this series.

One of these activities was hosting the “Cosmopolitan Conversations” series.  As regular readers of this blog already know, this series was held in Shanghai, co-sponsored by CET Academic Programs and M on the Bund (that restaurant that plays host to the city’s annual International Literary Festival), and put me in dialog with a variety of local and Beijing-based writers.  Preparing for those weekly dialogs would sometimes inspire me to flip back through the pages of books I’d already read by people scheduled to join me on stage.  So, for example, before heading across the Pacific in late June, I re-read parts of Zhang Lijia’s memoir, which I reviewed on this site back in 2008.  Taking part in the series also added titles to my list of things I know I’ll want to read.  Some of these are recently published works, such Tess Johnston’s Permanently Temporary, an account of her peripatetic and eventful life; Paul French’s Fat China, a work coauthored by Mathew Crabbe that looks at the important issue of increasing Chinese obesity; and Graham Earnshaw’s The Great Walk of China, a collection of reflections on the places the author has seen and the people he’s met during his extraordinary stop-and-start trips all the way across the PRC by foot.  The series also got me—and many of those who came to M’s Glamour Bar on Sundays in July—eager to see two books that are still in embryonic stages as soon as they are published.  This is because Howard French mentioned being awarded an Open Society Fellowship that will allow him to do the research for and write a work on China and Africa (something he’s uniquely qualified to do), while Evan Osnos referred to working on a book that will deal with foreigners in China.

The second book-related thing I did this summer was publish reviews of Richard McGregor’s The Party, Richard Baum’s China Watcher, and Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan.  You might think that, at least in the case of McGregor and Huang’s books (both quite new), these reviews would have been based on summer reading, but this isn’t the case.  Why?  Because I’d gotten advance copies of those two titles and had also read Baum’s book, which came out in March, in page proof form.  Hence, though the reviews appeared in summer, they reflected my late winter and spring reading.  The only summer reading inspired by this trio of books involved periodicals: I checked out what other reviewers had made of the works.  This proved illuminating.  And sometimes good fun, too, especially with the Charlie Chan book, a whimsical work that has inspired some clever reviews, including one by Pico Iyer that appeared under a title that, as a longtime Elvis Costello fan, I’d have loved to have thought of myself: “Watching the Detective.”

A third book-related activity from my summer that I want to mention, but which doesn’t quite qualify as summer reading in the ordinary sense, involves a dictionary.  It would be hopelessly pretentious to refer to reading any dictionary over the summer, especially one as massive as Oxford’s new Chinese-English/English-China dictionary, which was published this week after getting positive advance attention from China Real Time,, and other blogs.  I didn’t read the advance copy of the dictionary that I was sent, but I did have fun browsing through it—and I was very impressed, especially by special features such as a list of the characters for a host of common and not-so-common but still useful computer and Internet terms.

Now, as to the books that I actually read this summer, leaving out the mysteries that have nothing to do with China (unlike CB’s editor Maura Cunningham, none of the whodunits I devoured, such as the latest by the elegant stylist Tana French, had a Chinese angle to it), here are some things that stand out as of possible interest to readers of this blog:

• Jonathan Watts, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save the World—Or Destroy It.

I’ve written about the virtues of this book already in a think piece published at the History News Network site, but just to sum up the key points again here, it is a wonderfully readable look at the crucially important topic of environmental degradation and experiments with green technology in China.  Having long admired the smart writing that Watts had done for the Guardian on all sorts of issues (both in his old post as its Beijing bureau chief and his new one as its Asia Environment reporter), I was eager to see the book—and it didn’t disappoint.  When a Billion Chinese Jump is already out in other places but not yet in the U.S., but the good news for Americans is that, when it does come out here, the author will arrive, too, on tour.  One of the promotional events he’ll be doing will be a November 2 dialog with Ken Pomeranz right here at UC Irvine.

• James Carter, Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk

This book, which is due out later this year, is another one I read in page proof form, when the publisher asked me to consider endorsing it—something I ended up being very happy to do.  Carter, who is the editor of Twentieth-Century China and the author of a well-received earlier monographic study of Harbin, has crafted one of those special books that manages to use a single life to place a period in a region or country’s history into a striking new light.  There are examples of works that do this in many national historiographies, with the best-known contributions to the genre dealing partly or exclusively with China being those of Jonathan Spence.  Carter worked with Spence at Yale, but in some ways the previous contribution to Chinese studies that Heart of Buddha, Heart of China reminded me of most was not any of his teacher’s books, but Henrietta Harrison’s lovely The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942. The Confucian scholar turned farmer turned businessman who is the focus of Harrison’s micro-history stays rooted in North China, while the monk Carter follows from locale to locale rarely stays put for long, at least after embracing his spiritual calling, but both books do an excellent job at showing how, in the hands of a skilled historian, a well-told personal tale can place big collective issues, such as the complex nature of Chinese nationalism, into a novel perspective.

• Pallavi Aiyar, Chinese Whiskers.

This work is the one I’m mid-way through as I write this entry, but I expect to finish it very shortly in part because it is, well, very short.  And because I want to know what ends up happening to the main protagonists in the story—a pair of cats (yes, that’s right, cats).  Described on the author’s website as a “modern fable,” Chinese Whiskers has proved so far to be a clever and entertaining look at life in a Beijing hutong, during the same early 21st century period that Aiyar dealt with, from a purely anthropocentric angle, in her first book, a work that was much more the thing that one expects a journalist who was finishing up a stay in China to write, mixing as it did political reporting with travel tales and a bit of personal reflection on how Chinese cultural practices were similar to and different from those of her homeland.  I don’t have any special fondness for animal stories per se, but I was delighted to get an early look at this one (it’s due to be published near the end of the year), because of how much I’d liked Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of India (for reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere in a Foreign Policy review).  And so far, I’ve found this very different book engrossing and enjoyable.

A final summer reading note: I won’t say much about another book that I read and found memorable recently, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, since Maura Cunningham has already described the considerable strengths of Barbara Demick’s book on this site in the post that launched this series.  I can hardly complain about China Beat’s editor beating me to the punch, as it was partly at her suggestion that I read the book in the first place (though another thing that made me shuffle Nothing to Envy to the top of my “to read list” was what another CB contributor, Angilee Shah, had to say about it here).  All I would add to Maura and Angilee’s comments is this: for someone who took his first classes on China in the late 1970s and then did graduate work on the country in the early-to-mid 1980s, there’s a sense of déjà vu to discovering that Demick’s main research strategy was to carry out intensive interviews with émigrés from North Korea who had formerly lived in a particular locale.  Now, works on Chinese “ordinary lives” can be carried out in conventional ways, via fieldwork done within the PRC, but this was not always the case.  Some of the first significant books about “ordinary lives” in the PRC that I encountered as an undergraduate and then a graduate student were ones, such as Chen Village and Village and Family in Contemporary China, that relied heavily upon extended interviews with former residents of Guangdong who had fled the mainland for Hong Kong.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

Moving across the country (from Irvine, California to State College, Pennsylvania) meant that most of my books—even the new ones—spent the summer packed in boxes. But alongside a rapid inhalation of all three Stieg Larsson novels, I still did a little China reading. Here, a few recommendations.

• Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin.

This is a 2003 book that has been re-released (I found it on a “summer paperbacks” table at a Barnes & Noble in Richmond, Virginia) because of a 2009 movie based on it. The autobiography (though the subtitle is “based on a true story,” it is presented throughout as an autobiography with photos, etc. to document Li’s life) tells the story of Li Cunxin from birth through his early 80s defection in Texas. One of seven boys from a peasant family in Shandong, Li was plucked out of his elementary school and sent to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. With Jiang Qing as patron to the academy, politics is an important theme in Li’s account, but unlike the “scar literature” that has characterized our first-person accounts of the 1960s and 1970s, Li’s story is notable for its emphasis on everyday emotion and life. The most affecting part of the book are the early chapters, most of which take place at the height of the Cultural Revolution, but which focus on Li’s rough-and-tumble life in a peasant household filled with brothers, aunts, uncles, and a beloved grandmother.  Li’s memories of the warmth and humor of living in the heart of a big extended family is tinged by the nostalgia of someone forced to leave it—as Li did, first to study in Beijing and then when, as a visiting artist in Houston, he refused to return to China. Li emphasizes in his choice his desire for artistic freedom, but he also chafed at the ideological purity that the Communist Party insisted on. Like so many others of his generation (only a few years older than the college students who took to the streets in 1989), it was not grand politics that corrupted Li’s faith in the Party, but its continual meddling in romance, intellectual passions, and personal expression. Though I couldn’t get my hands on the film (it hasn’t been released on DVD yet), there are trailers available at YouTube:

• Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present, by David Atwill and Yurong Atwill.

I have been considering course readings for my spring courses, and for my course on modern China this new volume (by two of my colleagues at Penn State) went to the top of the list. The reader covers the Qing dynasty to the present, but the majority of the documents come from the 19th and 20th centuries (in fact, fully two-thirds of the book is made up of documents from post-Qing China). These documents include both requisite stand-bys (Lin Zexu’s Opium War edict, Qiu Jin’s address to the women of China) and a few illuminating choices that update the primary document repertoire for modern China courses, such as the script for a popular comedy sketch about the one-child policy, a report on Fudan University changing its policies on student sexual activity, and a short selection from Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (see a full table of contents here).

• 1688: A Global History, by John E. Wills, Jr.

This is neither a new book (published in 2001) nor an explicitly China-focused one, but as written by the eminent China historian Jack Wills naturally includes a great deal of China stories. Perhaps even more important, as other world history books by China scholars have done (Great Divergence, China Transformed), 1688 de-centers Europe without in turn privileging another part of the world. 1688 is enormously readable, moving across a variety of themes that Wills identifies as crucial to this year and the broader period, from silver and the trade networks it inspired to utopian dreams on various frontiers. Like #2 above, this is a book I will be assigning for a course in the spring (World History 1500-present), and one of the things I thought serendipitous was 1688’s short section on William Penn—a nice hook for my majority Pennsylvanian students.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As the end of summer vacation quickly draws near, we at The China Beat have been talking about what we read during our break from the academic grind. The summer provides an opportunity to catch up on books we missed, check out some more eclectic choices, and even read ahead when publishers are nice enough to share advance copies of forthcoming titles. Rather than just keep these conversations in-house, we decided to write up short “book reports” on some of the China-related works, both new and old, we’ve been enjoying during these summer months.

Here are quick introductions to five of the books that I’ve read this summer; stay tuned for similar posts from other China Beatniks in the coming weeks.

• Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

While Demick’s book isn’t exactly about China, I’m including it on this list — and placing it at the top — because it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. China is actually a major actor in Nothing to Envy, as several of the North Korean refugees Demick interviewed for the book were inspired to escape when they realized the standard of living was far higher in market-socialist China than in communist North Korea.

What I found most appealing about Demick’s book was the “ordinary lives” aspect of her work; I was fascinated by her descriptions of activities like shopping, dressing, and using public transportation, none of which is anything close to easy in the grim gray world of North Korea. She structures her narrative around the oral histories of six North Korean defectors (interviewed while Demick was stationed in Seoul with the Los Angeles Times), and each of their stories contributes to constructing a broader portrait of daily life in a police state. Nothing to Envy is a sometimes wrenching read, particularly in chapters dealing with the North Korean famine of the 1990s, but it’s also a well-written and accessible introduction to what may be the world’s least-understood country. Far from depicting North Koreans as faceless masses marching in lockstep, Demick’s work sheds light on the lived experiences of individuals who suffer heartbreak, disillusionment, and self-doubt as they struggle with the decision to defect.

For another look inside North Korea, check out A State of Mind, a 2004 British documentary that follows two girls as they train as gymnasts for the Mass Games.

• 800,000,000: The Real China by Ross Terrill

I found this out-of-print title in a thrift shop and happily took it home with me for a trip back in time. In 1971, Ross Terrill traveled to China as a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, spending six weeks on a tour that extended 7000 miles. The book is an expanded version of Terrill’s Atlantic articles about the trip, and details not only his meetings with high-level officials such as Zhou Enlai, but also chronicles his observations of daily life across the country. Published on the eve of Richard Nixon’s February 1972 trip to China, 800,000,000 is a brief but evocative look at “what China is like” for an audience that was largely unlikely to travel there.


In my imagination, the train was history’s conveyor belt, rolling, not ninety miles to Canton, but from one universe to another. In fact, the train was its usual workaday self. It was loaded with housewives, workmen heading for the New Territories, vendors with beer and cigarettes, youths going out to Shatin for a swim. For these people the train was a “local,” boring as a subway ride in Manhattan. For a few others — politicians from the Komeito (Clean Government party) of Japan, an Indian diplomat, myself — it was an international train, bound for a land which even today exudes mystery. These bored and worldly carriages also contained a certain excitement. . . .

There really are “two Chinas.” Not “Taiwan” and the “Mainland,” but rather the image we have of China in the United States, and the reality of China. Our press talks of China as power struggles and bombs and numbers. But here is China as rice and heat, glue and vaccinations, babies crying, old men playing chess. Last week, China was for me a matter of embassies and letters and magazines arriving by post. This morning, it has become a matter of trains and tea, Chinese beds, telephone numbers, weariness. There is a purging, utterly simple wonder about actually chugging mile by mile into China. The cardboard figures of a frozen scenario start to breathe and sweat and make a noise. From San Francisco to Singapore and beyond, you find pockets of Chinese society. But only in China do you see this civilization in its present power and in its ancient and beautiful cradle, and begin to sense how much the Chinese people and nation may mean in the pattern of future decades (1-2).

• The Wild Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China by Barbara Pollack

Barbara Pollack’s book examines the Chinese contemporary art scene, which she has covered for a variety of publications since the late 1990s. The book is part memoir and part exposé, propelled by Pollack’s accounts of scheming artists, corrupt dealers, and questionable museum practices. I emerged from The Wild Wild East feeling as if the art market in China is a prime example of the emperor’s new clothes, as collectors drive prices higher and higher simply for the caché of being able to afford exorbitantly priced art.

To understand more about how that works, perhaps I should pick up one of the books Amazon suggests will pair well with Pollack’s: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson.

• Beverly Gray mysteries by Clair Blank

The most famous of the 1930s “girl detectives” is still undoubtedly Nancy Drew, but Nancy never made it to China on her travels. However, her far less renowned counterpart, Beverly Gray, did, and I secured two books in the series to see what images of China young readers in the mid-1930s might have absorbed. Well, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same:

Shanghai was but another surprise on top of all they had had so far. Heretofore, when they had spoken of China, while at home in America, it had been with various flights of fancy. Certainly they had not expected such an Americanized scene.

They gazed in surprise at the tall, foreign buildings, mostly offices and hotels; at the well-policed streets; and, in the business sections, at red and green traffic lights! (Beverly Gray in the Orient, 190).

• Haibao and Sanmao Idle Talk About Shanghai «海宝&三毛话上海» by Le Cheng Yan 乐澄彦

I’ll conclude with one of the strangest books I’ve read — ever. The 1930s cartoon character Sanmao has been one of my main research obsessions for the past couple of years, and Jeff Wasserstrom brought this book back from the Expo for me because Sanmao is one of its two leading characters. The premise of the book is that Expo mascot Haibao and longtime Shanghai resident Sanmao join together to introduce Shanghai to Expo visitors. Sanmao (being 74 years old) is in charge of topics dealing with old Shanghai, while young Haibao discusses new Shanghai, mainly Pudong. The content of the book is somewhat . . . eclectic (I learned a lot about wetlands and river dredging), but what I found most interesting is actually the presence of Sanmao himself. In old cartoons Sanmao isn’t exactly fond of the foreigners living in Shanghai, but now he happily welcomes visitors to the Expo. And Haibao, his hyper younger brother, can’t wait to greet them all.

By Xujun Eberlein

The new issue of Remembrance (<记忆>) continues to review Mao’s Last Revolution (by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals; Chinese translation can be found here). The four articles in issues 55 and 56 discuss the book from different angles, with thoughtful comments and legitimate questions. All are well worth reading.

Coincidentally, nearly two years ago, it was Michael Schoenhals who had this to say about the journal (阅读中文):

Remembrance (记忆, jiyi) is an electronic journal edited by Cultural Revolution historians in China in the May 4th tradition of the joint intellectual venture that does not so much put a premium on uniformity of opinion — and even less on common party political affiliation — as on a shared desire to explore a subject without prejudice in the pursuit of historical truth. … The journal is a Chinese venture, but in the 21st century that no longer prevents it from being a globalized one.

Schoenhals nailed the main characteristic of the e-journal precisely: it is non-partisan and it is without prejudice. One can often find opposite opinions in feature articles and readers’ letters to the editor. Meanwhile, the journal consistently provides high-quality research and well-written memoirs. For anyone who is interested in learning about the true history of China’s Cultural Revolution, or contributing to the research, Remembrance is the one reliable place to go.

Another book discussed in the current issue is Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》) by He Shu, newly published (in Chinese) by Joint Publishing (H. K.). I’ve read He Shu’s articles on this topic before, and I believe his new book is a significant contribution to the CR research. It is a valuable book to possess and I certainly am going to buy it.

Remembrance is published every two weeks. To manage in the reality of China’s internet censorship, the journal maintains a low-key, high-quality policy, and it does not have an official website in the mainland. As such I volunteered (with the editors’ permission) to host the journal on my website. I will update every two weeks as soon as the e-journal arrives in my inbox.

My only regret is that I don’t have the time to translate all the articles into English. Hopefully, as the journal content gets compiled into books, professional translations will also become available. For now, those of you who can read Chinese have the clear advantage of “a waterside pavilion getting the moonlight first.”

This post was first published at Inside-Out China. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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