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:
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).
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.