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Xi Jinping’s Peculiar Packaging of the May 4th Spirit

By Rebecka Eriksson

Early this month, Chinese top leader Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to China’s most prestigious university.  While there, he had photographs taken with students and gave a speech that showcased, in revealing and sometimes bizarre ways, his penchant for drawing inspiration from a dizzyingly diverse array of parts of his country’s past, with Confucius and Mao Zedong and events of the early twentieth century all getting shout outs.

The setting for the speech was important.  It took place at an institution known internationally as “Peking University,” in Chinese called Beijing Daxue or simply “Beida,” for short, and sometimes described as China’s counterpart to Harvard.  The many claims to fame of Beida, whose website now features photos of Xi’s visit and a summary of some themes from his speech, include the central roles it has played in student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre.

The timing of Xi’s visit to Beida was notable.  He went to the campus to help the university mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, which is important not only to the university but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949.  His comments to students, not surprisingly, focused on the need to carry forward the patriotic “spirit of May 4th,” and, equally unsurprisingly, called on educated youths to follow the CCP’s guidance in doing this. Continue reading

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A Trip Back to Beijing — Courtesy of Xu Zechen and Eric Abrahamsen

By Megan Shank

Step out of the Beijing airport, and taste the tang in the air. For the remainder of your time in the capital, it will linger, metallic, on the back of your tongue. Is it burning plastic? Coal? The sweat of migrant workers who have come to chase dreams and money? The boozy breath of corrupt officials? The hot asphalt poured for wide boulevards? The lingering dust of razed neighborhoods, a powdery earthen scent that haunts like an odiferous ghost? Pop music blares. Repairmen bike through neighborhoods with megaphones advertising their services. Garlic hits food vendors’ woks with a sizzle. Amateur opera singers warble in the park. Buses belch fumes. Modern subway doors swoosh open, people smoosh together. Old men with t-shirts rolled up over their bellies sit on stools in alleyways and chat. Young lovers wearing matching outfits interlace fingers and stroll in shopping malls. More than a million smokers could be lighting their cigarettes at any given moment. With enough of a spark, it almost feels like the atmosphere could burst into flames and smolder.

Xu Zechen’s slim 2008 novel Running Through Beijing, recently translated into an English version published by Two Lines Press (2014), transported me back to that city and all its colorful inhabitants. The novel captures the taste and tension of Beijing better than any I’ve ever read. I felt the grit from Beijing’s frequent sandstorms sting my eyes. I savored on my tongue again the spicy mutton of a hotpot joint. Readers will internalize the restlessness and loneliness of young strivers. And Eric Abrahamsen’s translation is so deft, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t originally written in English. He especially executes slang-filled dialogue with pizzazz. Continue reading

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Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi

By Mengfei Chen

Is it still a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Perhaps he’d rather spend that fortune on bottle service and club bunnies. Certainly, modern day Lily Barts need not die young, alone and poor because they nixed a number of suitable suitors — not if Sheryl Sandberg has anything to say about it.

Great nineteenth century novels built on the question of “will he propose and will she say yes” live on, but mostly as bonneted costume dramas on the BBC. They seem like historic relics in the age of the pre-nup and easy divorce.

When I took George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my trip to spend Spring Festival with my grandparents earlier this year, I thought I was packing a work of historical fiction. It was holiday reading. I wanted to take advantage of the long journey home (17 hours by train each way, bracketed by another two hours on the newly built two-lane highway dodging tractors, overloaded long-haul trucks and the occasional confused water buffalo) to cross the book Virginia Woolf called the only novel written for adults off my literary bucket list. I did not expect the book, which charts with great sensitivity the marriages, successful and otherwise, of several couples in a 19th century English country town, to resonate so powerfully with the lives of people living in a 21st century Chinese one. Continue reading

Letter from Central Idaho: 20 Years of Iconoclastic Bookselling

By Sarah Hedrickimage

Pictured above: Sarah and Gary, owners of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, appreciating the view.

Six years ago this month, Gary Hunt, owner of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, was killed in a car accident on his way home from one of the frequent events hosted in his store. He left behind a baby daughter, his wife Sarah and his three “bonus” children (from Sarah’s previous marriage), not to mention three regional stores including a new flagship store and coffee shop in downtown Ketchum, a warehouse for the internet side of the business, and an entire community of people (whether they were seasonal or full time residents) who relied on Iconoclast for its ever growing stock of new, used and rare books, as well as for its open-door policy when it came to matters of community organizing, events, and fundraising. On the sixth anniversary of Gary’s death, Sarah gives us the update from the place where Pound was born and Hemingway died, and the bookstore in Central Idaho that remains, despite everything, truly iconoclastic. – C.P. Heiser

T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, “mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” For me, May is possibly worse, and bittersweet, both personally and professionally. It holds both the anniversaries of my marriage to Gary as well as that of his death. Twenty years ago he brought Iconoclast Books to life and since his passing, I’ve honored the legacy of the store, stayed current with the needs of my community, and strived to find the right formula for Iconoclast Books to remain a vital part of both myself and the community; to stay open so that I can continue to do the work I love. Continue reading

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The Brief and Wondrous Life of California Bookstore Day

The Naked Bookseller is proud to present the story behind California Bookstore Day (this Saturday May 3rd) — a grand notion incubated at the Bay Area’s legendary Green Apple bookstore, recipient of Publisher Weekly’s 2014 Independent Bookstore of the Year Award.

By Samantha Schoech

When you tell people you own a bookstore (or in my case, that my husband co-owns a bookstore) you get one of two responses. There are the delighted readers who imagine you live a life of cozy literary bliss, sipping tea and snuggling a cat in a sun-drenched room where bells on the door alert you to the arrival of an occasional customer. These people gush and tell you how wonderful it is that you own a bookstore.

By far the more common response, however, are the people who let out a little puff of a laugh and say something like, A bookstore? Do they still have those?  They think they are being funny. Continue reading

Mary Guo, April 15, 2014 -- in Beijing

What Do Chinese Women Want?

Photo: Mary Guo in Beijing, April 15, 2014.

By Lu-Hai Liang

Let’s start with Mary. Well that’s her English name anyway. We met seven years ago in Yangshuo, a pretty little town in southern China where she was studying English. I liked her sparky personality and sense of fun, and we became friends. I was teaching English, taking a year out before I started university. I was 18, Mary 21.

Skip forward seven years to the present, and I’m back in China, this time to work in Beijing. I am British, of Chinese heritage. Mary is Chinese and her heritage is that of rural dwellers, known in Chinese as “nongmin” or farmers.

I’ve never known Mary to have a boyfriend but she recently told me, after I asked about her relationship status for this article, that she has had two, including the one she is currently seeing. I was surprised to hear this, since Mary had not mentioned any of this in our previous meetings (she works in Beijing). She is 28 now, which, according to the general consensus within Chinese society, makes her more-than-ready for marriage. Continue reading

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

Goodbye, Chiang!

By Tong Lam

One of the most iconic scenes in the 2003 German tragicomedy film Goodbye, Lenin!, which depicts drastic changes in daily life in the former East Germany soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is a gigantic Lenin statue being flown away by a helicopter over East Berlin. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has triggered a wave of historical reinterpretations. Godlike founders and paramount leaders of many former authoritarian states, once seen as national heroes and state guardians, were quickly recast as dictators and tyrants. The de-mytholigization of these personality cults led to the removal and even demolition of many of the publicly displayed big statues of former political and spiritual leaders.

Taiwan’s democratization in the last two decades of the twentieth century, itself driven by the changing local and global political landscapes, likewise resulted in the removal of the island’s numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) from schools, military bases, and public spaces. Although Chiang was the leader who led the Republic of China in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), he and the Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in a bitter civil war. During the Cold War, the Republic of China in Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth, similar to that of other U.S. client states in East Asia. Yet, despite its economic success (and also not unlike many other U.S. client states), Taiwanese politics under Chiang were oppressive and monolithic. So, when external pressures and internal reforms finally turned Taiwan into a vibrant democracy in the early 2000s, the island went through a period of “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification” and even de-sinicization. In particular, many of the Chiang statues were dismantled and removed during the first decade of the twenty-first century, when an opposition party came into power and the Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan’s government. The process of removing the Chiang statues all over Taiwan was often highly contentious, triggering not just painful memories of violent political repression under the Nationalists, but also bitter identity politics between those who identified themselves as Taiwanese and those as Chinese.

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park in Daxi, Taiwan. Of the more than 150 statues collected by the park, the overwhelming majority are statues of Chiang previously displayed in schools, military bases, government buildings, and public spaces. © Tong Lam

Although there are still Chiang statues in some Taiwan universities and public spaces, those that had been removed and dismantled were collected and re-erected in a public park near Chiang’s final resting place in Daxi, Taoyuan County. These reassembled, repainted, and rearranged Chiang statues are often placed so that multiple statues are staring at each other in a humorous way. In this clever exercise of massaging history through public art, there are even a few statues of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the founder of the Republic who had handpicked Chiang as his successor, looking at Chiang from behind.

Interestingly enough, many tourists visiting the Cihu Memorial Statue Park where these Chiang statues are located are mainland Chinese tourists. One wonders what they are thinking when confronted with Taiwan’s complicated and entangled historical relationship with mainland China over the past few centuries. Some of these Chinese tourists no doubt think about the future fate of those oversized statues of the former Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) back home. Others perhaps pick up on the subtle desires for cultural and historical reconciliation within Taiwanese society that are embodied in this statue park.

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter.  © Tong Lam

A Mao Zedong statue in the city center of Chengdu, China. The 30-meter statue, one of the few that are still displayed in so prominent a public space, was built after the third-century palace of the Shu Kingdom on that site was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Below the statue is an air raid shelter. © Tong Lam

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, although the Chinese government is still occasionally erecting new Mao statues, many others have been quietly taken down from universities and outdoor spaces in recent years. The politics of museum-ifying the past and the big statues in China are certainly different from those of Taiwan. Nonetheless, one wonders whether China will one day donate some of its overstocked Mao statues to Taiwan, so that Mao and Chiang can quietly look at each other and create a new symbol of historical and political reconciliation.

Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Foundation.

Ping-Pong Powerhouses and Table Tennis Tales

Photo courtesy the Richard Nixon Foundation

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The 1971 “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and the United States is often treated as a mere historical footnote, a quirky prelude to Richard Nixon’s path-breaking trip to the People’s Republic a year later. In his recently published book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, journalist Nicholas Griffin, whom I saw speak about his book at Capital M’s literary festival in Beijing last month, seeks to redress that oversight. The result is an informative and entertaining book that covers far more ground than the single week of Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself.

Griffin begins with the history of table tennis (there were many early names for this small-ball sport, including “gossima” and “whiff-whaff”), a game that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Edwardian England before dying out when the next fad came along. The man who almost single-handedly revived ping-pong, and turned it from an after-dinner game into a global sport, was Ivor Montagu, son of a prominent Jewish banking family that had climbed into the British aristocracy only two generations before. But Montagu, a character tailor-made for a cameo on Downton Abbey, had a rebellious streak that led him to communism. He also loved ping-pong, and ping-pong, curiously, would lead him to prominence within the communist world. Montagu relentlessly promoted the game, which he touted as the ideal activity for the masses, as equipment was inexpensive (and could be improvised) and a ping-pong table took up only a small amount of space (compared to the large fields necessary for sports like soccer and polo). He introduced table tennis to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and quickly saw the sport take off in countries around the globe.

Though the game had its adherents in China (American journalist Edgar Snow slept on a ping-pong table while making the visit to the communist base in Yan’an described in Red Star Over China), table tennis didn’t become identified with Chinese dominance until the 1950s. The new communist government wanted to find sports that Chinese athletes could win to prove their nation’s strength, and elite ping-pong status seemed within reach — if China could topple Japan from the top spot it occupied. It took less than a decade for the New China to assert itself as a ping-pong powerhouse. In 1959, the PRC won its first gold medal in any sport with a victory at the World Table Tennis Championship. Two years later, in the midst of the calamitous Great Leap Forward Famine, Beijing hosted the World Championships, where the Chinese beat the Japanese team to take the men’s cup, while the Chinese government managed to keep visiting teams from realizing that mass starvation was the order of the day in many parts of the country.

Ping-pong fell out of favor during the early years of the Cultural Revolution decade (1966 – 1976); the Chinese team’s victories were now derided as “trophyism,” and its travels around the world regarded not as soft-power diplomacy but rather dangerous exposure to foreign thoughts and practices. But when Mao and Zhou Enlai decided to find a subtle way to approach the United States and begin the process of mending relations in 1971, they chose ping-pong. The PRC sent a team to the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where Chinese players followed what seems to have been a carefully prepared script on making overtures to the Americans. Glenn Cowan, a colorful Californian who was far better at self-promotion than ping-pong, allegedly boarded the Chinese team’s bus by mistake (he claimed he was waved onto the bus by one of the players), and then struck up a conversation with Zhuang Zedong, China’s ping-pong star. Zhuang just happened to have a gift to present to Cowan — not the standard Mao pin that other foreigners received, but a silk-screened portrait of Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. The next day, Cowan approached Zhuang and gifted him with a t-shirt printed with a peace sign, American flag, and the words “Let It Be.” The lines of communication thus opened, Mao sent a message to the head of the Chinese delegation and ordered him to invite the Americans to China — on a trip that would begin in only 36 hours.

The State Department scrambled to figure out what, exactly, was happening. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had in fact been secretly working on establishing contact with the PRC, and they were eager to see the trip go forward, though not officially endorsed by the U.S. government. (The American ping-pong team was less a squad of national champions than a rag-tag group of above-average players who had managed to self-fund their journey to Nagoya.) Finally, a U.S. Embassy official in Japan informed the American manager that the U.S. government was “open to athletic exchanges” with the PRC and would not consider it against policy if the team made the trip.

A remarkable week followed, as the American team toured Beijing and Shanghai while pursued by crowds of curious Chinese and a few excited foreign reporters. Although the Chinese press downplayed the trip, treating the Americans as one more visiting athletic delegation, the rest of the world was watching. The Chinese team played carefully, winning some matches and losing others, always keeping the score close. Glenn Cowan was the star of the show, envisioning the pile of endorsement deals he anticipated would be waiting for him upon his return to the U.S. (Sadly, the ping-pong excitement that the trip sparked soon faded, and Cowan was diagnosed with mental illness not long after; he died in 2004.) Watching from Washington, Nixon and Kissinger saw the possibilities that the trip had opened. Only months later, Kissinger embarked on a secret mission to Beijing, where he arranged Nixon’s February 1972 trip, described in Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.*

It’s probably no coincidence that Griffin’s and Macmillan’s books share similar subtitles. Both Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Nixon’s China trip did change the world, jointly helping to reestablish U.S.-China relations and ending two decades of deeply entrenched hostilities. But while Nixon has gotten all the glory for opening up China, Griffin shows that the Chinese were controlling the game all along. In both ping-pong and diplomacy, the Americans were woefully outmatched.

* For more on ping-pong diplomacy and the Nixon-Mao meetings, see the website of the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR), an organization that played a crucial role in the diplomatic breakthroughs of the early 1970s. Particularly interesting are the photos and videos of the second round of Ping-Pong Diplomacy—the visit to the U.S. by Chinese table tennis players in 1972 that the NCUSCR coordinated.

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The Other Shore: On Virginia Pye’s River of Dust

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Virginia Pye wrote her debut novel, River of Dust, in only 28 days. But as she recently explained during a session that I moderated at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the book was a hundred years in the making.

Pye’s family has a long history in China. Her grandparents served as missionaries on the dry, dusty North China plain in the early twentieth century, an inhospitable environment that challenged even the staunchest believers in the missionary enterprise. Pye’s grandmother suffered two miscarriages before a daughter was finally born, only to die as a young girl. Reverend Watts O. Pye died a year later, leaving Virginia’s grandmother a widow who remained in China to raise her only surviving child, Lucian. Lucian grew up in the mission compound, then departed for college in the United States. (He would later become a prominent political scientist and leader in China studies.) Her grandmother stayed until she could not stay any longer, reluctantly leaving after Pearl Harbor put the United States at war with Japan.

For decades, Virginia Pye admits, she wanted nothing to do with this family history; a child of the radical 1960s, she distanced herself from her grandparents’ involvement in colonial missionary work. Only when she was cleaning out her father’s papers as he moved to an assisted-living facility did she discover Reverend Pye’s letters and journals, in which he described the stark beauty of rugged North China and his observations of daily life among the Chinese. A self-proclaimed “sucker for a good writer,” Pye found inspiration in these old documents and drew on her grandfather’s lyrical writings to create the setting for River of Dust.

Although River of Dust contains echoes of her grandparents’ lives, and snippets of Reverend Pye’s writing, the book is a work of fiction. Set in 1910, it follows an American couple as they grapple with the challenges of reconciling the ideals of missionary work with the reality of life in North China. Reverend Watson and his young wife, Grace, arrived in China with a clear vision of their role and confidence in the absolute correctness of their worldview. But the kidnapping of their toddler son and their desperate search for him turns the Watsons’ world upside down. Reverend Watson spends more and more time away from the mission compound as other foreigners whisper that he has “gone native,” while Grace, weakened by grief and a risky pregnancy, withdraws further and further into her own interior world.

It’s not a happy story, but Pye tells it skillfully, her complex plot drawing me in so completely that I stayed up far too late one night finishing the book so I wouldn’t fall asleep wondering what happened to the Reverend and Grace. Because she had her grandfather’s words to guide her, Pye has been able to offer a fully formed view of life on the North China plain, one that incorporates both its small beauties and large tragedies.

We find it difficult now to look on the missionary work of a century ago as anything but arrogance, borne out of a conviction that Westerners could “fix” the Chinese by introducing them to Christianity. The missionaries in River of Dust undoubtedly see the world from a high-handed and often condescending perspective. But they also have a deep appreciation, even love, for China and the Chinese in their community. Like Virginia Pye’s own ancestors, her characters question their assumptions about the differences between East and West and find their previously rock-solid convictions on shaky ground.

In many ways, I think Pye could not have written River of Dust if she hadn’t previously rejected, and later become engrossed in, her grandparents’ missionary work in China. If she’d been an uncomplicated supporter — or uncompromising opponent — of her family history, her novel would have been far less nuanced and sensitive. By coming to the story via a circuitous route, however, she enjoyed the benefit of a balanced perspective that lacked any particular ideological agenda. For a story this subtle, a century is not too long to wait.

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A Short Look at the Long Literary History of Spies in Asia

By Paul French

One of the most noteworthy books set to hit the U.S. market next week is Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne’s English translation of bestselling Chinese espionage author Mai Jia’s latest thriller, Decoded, which was published in other markets last year and has already generated a good deal of interest in the U.K.  This is just the latest development in a broader publishing tale: the resurgence of interest in Asia generally, and China specifically, as a settings for stories of intrigue.

One sign of this phenomenon has been the appearance of recent thrillers with present-day Asian locales, such as Charles Cummings’s Typhoon (2010) and Ridley Pearson’s The Risk Agent (2012).  Both of these were set in a contemporary Chinese milieu where shopping malls proliferate, post-socialist but still Communist surveillance mechanisms are in play, and industrial espionage is a feature of the international business scene.  Scandi-crime top sellers Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell have recently made brief excursions to East Asia.  A China of the near future features in the thrillers Dragon Strike (1997) and Dragon Fire (2000), both by Humphrey Hawksley.  And even Asia as it was, rather than as it might soon be, can still cast a spell, as shown by David Downing’s choice of pre-WWI Shanghai as the place where the plot of his recent Jack of Spies (2013) unfolds. Old Shanghai has long held a special allure for espionage writers, and other recent books prove that its attractiveness endures:  cases in point range from Adam Williams’s trilogy The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure (2004), The Emperor’s Bones (2005) and The Dragon’s Tail (2007), to Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain (2002), or Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) — all of them set in the city between the 1920s and 1950s.

Given this recent interest in China and Asia among writers interested in spies, this seems a good time to look back at some of the Asian adventures conjured up by greats of the espionage writing game of earlier generations. Here is a sampler of choice works, a mix of novels by famous past masters and noteworthy books, by now little known, but in their time influential or at least popular contributors to the genre:

The 1930s saw China emerge as a destination for espionage in novels. Now almost forgotten, but popular at the time, was Francis Van Wyck Mason’s The Shanghai Bund Murders (1933) — full of warlords, gunrunners and damsels in distress. Van Wyck Mason, a Bostonian novelist, had a long and prolific career spanning 50 years and 65 novels. His mysteries were filled with characters from the American government’s intelligence services, a world he knew well, having lived in Berlin and then Paris, where his grandfather had served as U.S. Consul General. As a teenager he served in first the French, and then in the American army as a Lieutenant during World War One. After the War he attended Harvard where he was mistakenly arrested for homicide after borrowing a dinner jacket; he was wrongly identified as a waiter wanted on murder charges. He published his first book in 1930 featuring his proto-James Bond character Captain Hugh North, a detective in G-2 Army Intelligence. This was his seventh in the Hugh North series and he eventually ends up solving the Shanghai Bund murders and nailing the western gunrunning baddies who were clearly based on the many westerners running guns along the China coast at the time.

Shady foreigners in Peking who might just be involved in espionage also feature in Vincent Starrett’s Murder in Peking (1946). Set before the war, murder strikes an elegant foreign dinner party in Peking. During the course of the investigation the enquiries move in and out of the Legation Quarter, into the temples of the Purple Mountains where the foreigners picnic, and through the backstreet hutongs of the city. Starrett visited China many times and knew Peking well, and it shows.

Wartime China is the setting for any number of novels but the most widely read at the time, and one for which espionage is at its heart, is Jan Maclure’s Escape to Chungking, published in 1942 and a popular book in Britain in what would nowadays be called the ‘YA’ market. It’s a sort of World War Two Kim with 14-year-old Christopher, or Kit, discovering that his mother is party to hidden military secrets in Japan. Kit finds his mother’s friend nearly dead after trying to take secrets to the British and is handed a package containing the formula for a new kind of explosive before the friend dies. He takes this on a long journey from Japan to Chungking to deliver the secrets to the Chinese government battling Japan from the head of the Yangtze. The author remains a mystery, with no other books listed under her/his name, but was obviously someone who knew China, Japan and Asia well, as the descriptions of the Chinese countryside, as well as Tokyo, Singapore and Malaya, are spot on.

I inherited my mother’s old wartime book club copy that she read as a young teenager in Blitzed London and in these days, when it’s fashionable to say that China was a forgotten element in World War Two, the bestselling success of Escape to Chungking perhaps indicates a greater awareness of the war in China than many assume.

Murder and espionage in pre-revolutionary China became popular themes, and remained so until the Bamboo Curtain fell and the idea of a white spy running round Mao’s China became impossible to imagine. Authors could not get access to research and writers looked elsewhere — to other countries and other historical events — for inspiration.

Pre-revolutionary China would have been perfect territory for “Greeneland”, but it was not to be. Early in his career, Graham Greene did pen a play featuring spies and kidnapping in Manchuria, but never finished it, didn’t like it and destroyed it. He had been fascinated with China since he was a boy and read the now long forgotten Captain Charles Gilson’s The Lost Column, a book published in 1909 about the Boxer Rebellion. After school Greene joined British-American Tobacco in the 1920s and enrolled in Chinese language classes at London’s School of Oriental Studies, where his teacher was none other than a young Chinese writer sojourning in the capital, Lao She. Of course Greene did eventually return to Asia in the masterpiece that is The Quiet American (1955) where, around the time of Dien Bien Phu and the French retreat from Indo-China, the hard bitten English hack Fowler drinks away his career on Saigon’s rue Catinat, until he encounters the mysterious American, Alden Pyle.

That early retreat from empire in Indo-China was to inspire other writers, not least Nicholas Freeling, the creator of Amsterdam’s Commissaris Van der Valk, who in Tsing-Boum! (1969) uncovers a murder in sleepy Holland that takes him back to the disaster at Dien Bien Phu and trouble with the French intelligence services.

China was closed but South East Asia and Hong Kong were still accessible to writers, and one master of the spy genre, Eric Ambler, ventured across the region, taking in the newly free state of Indonesia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong in Passage of Arms (1959). The clients are different after the war but western gunrunners are still active and the British and American intelligence services still want to be part of the action. Ambler’s descriptions of Hong Kong are particularly acute. Speaking of Hong Kong, of course, it’s worth re-reading James Clavell’s under-appreciated follow up to his best seller Tai-Pan (1966) — Noble House (1981), where the taipan of Struan’s trading company, Ian Dunross, finds himself in the 1960s struggling to maintain the family firm from interference by Soviet, American and British spies.

We can’t not acknowledge Ian Fleming and Bond, despite being so well known. Fleming himself knew Asia reasonably well. Of course his brother, Peter, was an inveterate traveller to China and wrote his own bestselling books on the country (News from Tartary (1936) and One’s Company (also 1936)). Less well known, though recently republished, is Fleming’s collection of travel articles for The Sunday Times, Thrilling Cities (1963), where he visits Hong Kong, Macao and Tokyo, among others, in 1959-1960. Profitable research time!

We end our short trip into the earlier years of Asian espionage writing, with a true classic — John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the only outing by George Smiley to Asia and the second book in the Karla Trilogy. Hong Kong as the western listening post on Red China, British intelligence determined to hang on and still count in an American-dominated Cold War espionage world, opium still a valuable commodity to China and a truly memorable description of little known Vientiane. Any (male) visiting espionage fan to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club will have stood at the club’s urinals and looked out the windows over the view that greeted the gangly twenty-seven-year-old, and badly hungover, Vietnam War reporter Luke as he stands in the same spot, watching a typhoon approach to engulf the Colony, in the opening pages of the novel.

China and Asia are still “sweetspots” to western espionage authors and now, it seems, they are being joined by a new crop of Chinese spy writers. Long may the tradition continue!