All posts by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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Satire, Cyberspace and the 25th Anniversary of the June 4th Massacre

I learned several weeks ago that China Digital Times was about to publish Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream in Cartoons, an e-book featuring material by a satirist whose work I had enjoyed seeing displayed on their site. When I got my advance copy, I began looking through it eagerly, expecting to be amused or moved by cartoons that I hadn’t seen before as well as appreciating the chance to look at some old favorites again. I wasn’t disappointed. And an added plus was making my way through the accompanying explanatory material provided by Sophie Beach, a central figure at CDT, on topics ranging from the derivation of the cartoonist’s name to the symbolism of some of the harder to parse panels.

It was nice to learn as well that the proceeds from sales of the e-book, which was published on May 12, were to be split between the cartoonist and CDT. It’s a site worthy of support, as it’s one of the key online ventures that I rely on—as do many others interested in Chinese current affairs—to keep up to speed on how China is being covered by the media and on how the Party tries to scrub the web clean of the many things it fears or simply dislikes. Continue reading

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A Tale of Two First Books: A Conversation with NPR’s Louisa Lim and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos

In 2008, I wrote in the Guardian that there had recently been a “notable acceleration” in the frequency with which “illuminating books of reportage” on China had been appearing. It had become routine, I explained, after writers like Peter Hessler and Ian Johnson had come onto the scene, for two or three engagingly crafted books a year to come out that were by journalists who had spent considerable time in China and had sharp insights to share about the country’s recent past and current situation.  Still, the year of the Beijing Games was special, since it saw Factory GirlsThe Last Days of Old BeijingOut of Mao’s Shadow, and Smoke and Mirrors all published within a single twelve-month stretch.  I continue to admire that quartet of books, but the proximity of their publication dates no longer seems so striking.  Why? Because we are mid-way through a three-week period that, when it ends, will have seen the appearance of not just one but two major additions to the list of powerful books on China by talented journalists. I mean, of course, Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (just out from FSG and garnering very strong reviews, such as this one in the Washington Post) and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (which is officially published by Oxford on June 4, but is already available as an e-book, and getting positive assessments as well, such as this write-up in Kirkus Reviews).*

I caught up by email with Osnos and Lim — both of whom will be speaking in Southern California soon and both of whose books are reviewed, in the same article, in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review — and they generously agreed to not only answer a question from me, but also to play interviewer as well as interviewee and ask each other one question apiece.  My query for each of them is simple: What is in your book that you are proud of having there, but that you had no idea you would deal with when you started writing or planning the project?

Here, in the order in which they will be coming out this way are their answers, with Evan Osnos (who’ll be doing two events at UC Irvine on May 27) weighing in first, and then Louisa Lim (who will be speaking at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on June 12) going next.   After that will come Evan’s question to Louisa and her answer; and then, closing out the interview, Louisa’s question to Evan and his reply. Continue reading

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Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

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Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.

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Confucius, Mao, and the Little Red Book

All Photos by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve just returned from a trip to China that began with a week in Shanghai, where I participated in one literary festival, and ended with a few days in Beijing, where I had a small role in another bookish event of the same kind.  It was good to go back to those cities, which I’ve visited regularly since the mid-1980s, especially since temperatures were higher and smog levels lower than I’d feared they might be, and the panels at Shanghai’s M on the Bund and Beijing’s Capital M went as well as I’d hoped they would.  But as satisfying as returning to each metropolis was, I was particularly glad to be able to slip in a side trip to Qufu, a small city in Shandong Province, best known for its ties to Confucius, that I’d never been to before.  This visit has changed forever the way I think about the historical treatment of the ancient sage and how I think about a canonical modern Chinese text, Mao’s Little Red Book.

I decided to go to Qufu, which is still home to many members of the Kong lineage of which Confucius was part, as soon as I realized how simple it would be to fold this place I’d long been curious to see into a rushed itinerary.  Thanks to the opening of a new bullet train route, I could set off from Shanghai in the morning, get to Confucius’s hometown after being whisked along the rails for three hours, spend the afternoon seeing the main local sights (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and the massive Kong family cemetery that includes the philosopher’s tomb), and then continue on by rail to Beijing the same evening, getting to the capital two hours later.

Qufu had been high on my “to see” list for years due to my interest in the dramatic about-face the Chinese Communist Party has made regarding Confucius.  He is now treated as a kind of national saint but, to borrow from sports writing parlance, his posthumous career has had the ups and downs of a classic comeback kid. Most significantly, as Maura Cunningham and I note near the beginning of our China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, second edition, 2013), as recently as the 1970s he was “excoriated in a mass campaign that presented him as a man whose hide-bound, anti-egalitarian ideas had done great harm to many generations of Chinese men and even more damage to generations of Chinese women.”  How, I wondered on the train to Qufu, would sites associated with Confucius deal with the various reversals of fortune that have been experienced by the sage, who was out of favor among intellectuals in the 1910s, only to be exalted by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, before being reviled throughout the Mao years (1949-1976) and then surging back into official favor under the Chairman’s successors?  In symbolic terms, might Qufu be that most unusual sort of contemporary Chinese locale — a completely Mao-free zone?

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Qufu Poster

My first fifteen minutes in Qufu were frustrating ones.  They were spent circling the train station with a friend, who was also shuttling between the Shanghai and Beijing literary festivals and had agreed to join me in some Confucius-themed sightseeing, trying to figure out a way to leave our bags in a safe place while venturing into the city.  My initial impression, captured in a couple of photographs I took during breaks from our quest to find lockers or a secure luggage room (the closest we got was a waitress pointing to a closet in her restaurant that she thought might be a good place to stow our bags), was of a city that was all about Confucius and had no room for Mao, and was unconcerned with the ups and downs of the former’s career.  Bigger than life in the station’s main hall was a statue of Confucius that gazed down on all visitors and was described simply as a revered figure from ancient times.  And when I stepped outside, I saw the same visage gazing down at me benevolently from a giant poster that placed Confucius between a needle-nosed bullet train (suggesting that Qufu is a place that honors venerable traditions but is part of a modern country) and a hillside (nodding to the city’s only claim to fame unrelated to the Kong family, which is its proximity to Mount Tai, a leading attraction for Chinese lovers of nature).

Mao came into the picture, though, as soon as we gave up on leaving our bags at the station and decided to hire a taxi with a decent-sized locked trunk for the whole afternoon.  Hanging from the cab driver’s rearview mirror was the same good luck medallion emblazoned with the late Chairman’s face that one sees in taxis across China.  As he drove us to our first stop, the Confucius Temple, he pointed to rows of buildings going up along the highway and cranes in the distance that were part of still grander development plans.  Qufu, the voluble man insisted, was destined to become a major tourist site and a bigger city, since travelers from Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as from all parts of China would want to come and pay homage to Confucius.  Was he sure, I asked, that the population and local tourist trade would grow enough to justify all the building underway?  Definitely, he said, nodding his head vigorously, and then offered two pieces of evidence to back up his confidence.  First, the Shangri-La luxury chain had recently opened a hotel in Qufu.  Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, had close ties to the area, so money was bound to flow into the region.

QufuTaxi

 

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Responding to my other questions, he said that he wasn’t part of the Kong lineage, to which an estimated 20% of the just over half-a-million people living in the greater Qufu are said to belong, but he was a local.  And as such, he was very proud to be from the same place as a great sage and hero of Chinese history.

I asked if he saw anything strange about saying that while having an image of Mao in his car, since the Chairman, an iconoclast from an early age, had despised Confucius throughout his adult life. The driver just bellowed with laughter.  I asked if he even knew about the anti-Confucius stance of Mao’s day, and he nodded and, still laughing, shouted out “Pi Lin, Pi Kong!”  This is the shorthand for the most famous anti-Confucius campaign of all, which took place in the early 1970s.  Making use of the term “pi” for criticize, it targeted both the ancient philosopher (“Pi Kong”) and Mao’s erstwhile heir apparent, Lin Biao (“Pi Lin”).  Lin, a People’s Liberation Army leader, had been seen as a devoted follower of Mao and staunch defender of Mao’s interpretation of Marxism and iconoclastic critical stance toward Confucian ideas.  When the tide turned against Lin, though, he was accused of having been a secret supporter of all things reactionary, including Confucianism, which provided the tortured logic for a double-barreled “Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign,” which threw alleged ancient and contemporary enemies of the revolutionary cause into the same vile category.

Confucius Tomb Plaque

 

Qufu Temple

When we made our way through the city’s three major sites, the main focus of the texts aimed at tourists, from booklets to plaques, was simply the glories of Confucius and the rich legacy of the lineage to which he belonged and the imperial era he is often used to represent.  There was not any mention, at least in any text I saw, of the fact that Confucius had only been revered during part of the People’s Republic’s history.

Every now and then, though, the recent past would come into view, since both some official gift shops and many of the unofficial booths selling trinkets near to the key sites contained objects associated with Mao and his era in powers.  Inside the Confucius Mansion, for example, there was a shop selling various decks of cards: some featuring Confucius, others celebrating emperors, and still others honoring Mao. Meanwhile, between the Temple and the Mansion, there were different but equally promiscuous displays of statues, with Confucius, the Buddha, and Mao all jumbled together.

Qufu Playing Cards

 

Mao Buddha Kongzi Statues

Of all the curious juxtapositions of objects, though, there’s one that stands out most to me as I look back on my Qufu afternoon, which I spotted at a souvenir stall displaying, among other things, a lot of small books with red covers.  A set of four red booklets in particular caught my eye. Two were differently packaged versions of the classic Little Red Books containing Mao’s selected sayings; but the other two were similarly designed and titled copy-cat texts, made up, in this case, of quotations by Confucius.

The side-by-side placement of Little Red Books associated with Mao and Confucius seemed curious for so many reasons that it is hard to know where to begin in attempting to unravel or even describe them.  To try to sort them out, I spent some time on the plane ride home perusing an advance copy of Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, a wonderful anthology edited by Alexander Cook that Cambridge University Press is publishing next month.  The chapters in the volume, by talented scholars based in different countries and different disciplines, explore everything from the way the eponymous text was created and distributed within China to the meanings it took on when it made its way to foreign countries such as India, Italy, Albania and Peru.

Little Red Books

Here are two things the chapters by Cook and his collaborators suggest might be worth considering while pondering the apparent contradiction of different sorts of little red books placed beside one another on that table in Qufu.  Lin Biao, before being castigated as a closet Confucian, took a special role in promoting Mao’s Little Red Book and wrote a preface to the best-known edition of it.  And while the titles and even design features of the newly created Little Red Books of Confucian sayings imitate features of Mao-era creations (note the round images of the authors on some books), the original Little Red Books of quotes by Mao were themselves inspired in part by pamphlets and booklets from earlier times that brought together aphorisms from the Analects and other classical Chinese philosophical texts.

I thought that Qufu would be the sort of place I’d only want to visit once, but the more I ponder what I’ve come to think of as my Little Red Books photo, the more certain I am that I’ll need to go back there again.  I will want to see if the cab driver’s prediction of great things for the city comes true.  I may even see what it’s like to stay in a Shangri-La in Confucius’s hometown.  And I will definitely do something I foolishly forgot to do on my first visit: buy one of the copy-cat Little Red Books that has a picture on its cover of, and words inside by, a philosopher Mao thought of as having ideas that were the polar opposite of his own.

* To learn more about some of the topics brought up in this post, see the following three works:

1) Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Culture of the Great Leader. Page 33 of this pathbreaking work edited by Geremie R. Barmé contains a discussion of a Confucian “Little Red Book” published in Qufu in the early 1980s; page 86 has a photograph of one.

2) A Continuous Revolution–Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture.  This book by Barbara Mittler, which recently won the American Historical Association’s Fairbank Prize, has discusses connections between Confucian and Maoist texts and practices and has a good treatment of the Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign; see especially page 193.

3) “To Protect and Preserve: Resisting the Destroy the Four Olds Campaign, 1966-1967.”  This chapter by Dahpon David Ho in The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (a volume edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder) contains a fascinating and detailed account of Mao era activities in Qufu, including pitched battles between those trying to deface and those fighting to defend the Kong family cemetery.

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Marking Time in China and the West — A New Year’s Post

“A spectre is haunting the world: 1914.”  So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.

— Gideon Rachman, “Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?” Financial Times blog

Today’s China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago.

 — Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference December 31, 2013

You can learn a lot about how globalization has changed the world from thinking about how time was reckoned in different places a century or so ago, at the moments of the past flagged in these two quotes, and how it is marked now.  For example, in 1900, as UCLA doctoral student Maura Dykstra and I note in a chapter we’ve just finished for a forthcoming world history volume on the Fin-de-Siècle, few Chinese thought of themselves as living on the cusp of two centuries. Neither the date “1900” nor the concept of a “century” meant much in a setting where years were still generally described in terms of the reigns of emperors and movement through 60-year cycles that involved combinations of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the five elements. Flash forward to the present, and in China, as in nearly all other places, people think of themselves as living in a year called “2014” that belongs to the second decade of the 21st century.

Holidays tell a similar story, in ways that are interesting to ponder this week, with the biggest American celebratory season just completed and the biggest Chinese one about to begin.  Very few people in the China of 100 or 120 years ago thought of December 25 as a day of any special importance or associated January 1 with the start of the year.  Now, however, while lunar New Year celebrations remain most important, images of Santa Claus proliferate in China’s cities in late December, and Chinese friends who email me on January 1 are sure to wish me a Happy New Year.  Things have reached the point where I’m sure it seemed thoroughly unremarkable when the spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry ended the December 31, 2013 press briefing quoted from above by wishing the journalists who had come a “Happy New Year” and telling them that, after a day off for the next day’s holiday, the first 2014 session would be held on January 2.

All this would seem to fit in with a way of thinking about the cultural aspects of globalization that might be categorized in the Friedman Flattening variety. This approach, which I’ve named in honor of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his most famous book, The World is Flat, assumes that the dominant trend has been the smoothing out of differences.  One way to symbolize this is to invoke the interchangeability of the Big Macs served up wherever the Golden Arches soar, from Beirut to Boston and from Bristol to Bangalore.

In addition, while the flattening of the world is often seen as going along with Americanization, flows from East to West can also be worked into this Friedman Flattening vision. After all, circa 1900, very few Americans, except those of Chinese ancestry, paid attention to the lunar New Year or the zodiacal animals associated with it; whereas now many people across the U.S. are aware that the Year of the Horse is about to arrive.  As the image above shows, the tie between the animal and the year is even recognized by the U.S. postal service.

There have always been alternative views of contemporary globalization, including one that, turning again to alliteration and the name of a famous author, might be called Pico Proliferation.  This approach, named for Pico Iyer (someone I happen to know, so I don’t think he’ll mind the familiarity of playing off of his first rather than last name), emphasizes how highly differentiated experiences remain even as fads, fashions, films, and goods move ever more rapidly around the world.  To go back to McDonald’s, contra the Friedman Flattening view that a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac, a Pico Proliferating one stresses that ordering and eating this burger can mean something totally different in Tokyo as opposed to Toledo, Managua as opposed to Munich.

Ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu — And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Iyer’s seminal 1988 travelogue-cum-analysis of cultural flows in globalizing times, I’ve known that my allegiance in this debate is firmly with Team Pico.  I’ve periodically found ways to illustrate this in my writings, such as a recent memoir-infused commentary on the strange life in global circulation of the song “Hotel California”.  This hit by The Eagles, as I note in my article for BOOM: A Journal of California, is popular in far-flung parts of the world but often understood in distinctive ways.  In Asia, for example, it tends to be thought of as a celebratory rather than cynical take on my home state — in spite of lines likening those residing in the eponymous building to being “prisoners” (who can “check out any time” they like, but “can never leave”) and a menacing reference to a “beast” being stabbed with knives.

Returning to time and holidays, I said above that the information I began with about China circa 1900 and today would seem to fit in with a Friedman Flattening vision, but on closer inspection there are Pico Proliferation dimensions aplenty.  Take Santa Claus, for example: while he is now very well known in China, as journalist Max Fisher and others have noted, the jolly old elf is almost always portrayed there playing a saxophone, for unknown reasons.

There are also differences, as well as convergences, relating to chronology, since in China, while centuries are now noted and seen as significant markers, this has not replaced but rather been added to the idea that 60-year cycles are important.  In 2011, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date.  More recently still, last year saw events commemorating what would have been Xi Jinping’s father’s 100th birthday and also lavish marking of the passage of 120years (a rough equivalent to a bicentennial, as it meant the completion of two cycles) since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping relates to how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective.  In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I.

In China, though, as the second quote that begins this post indicates, which finds the government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, just as there are two kinds of New Years marked, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play.  Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict.  The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme).  When the official spokesperson made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies.  “Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China.  This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people.”  It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought “to a standoff” in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then.  Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters.  More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.

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Another Dozen China Gift Book Ideas (This Time to Buy for Yourself)

I recently joined with three other “China Blog” contributors to compile a list of 12 gift suggestions for readers seeking books to give China-savvy or China-curious friends and family members.  This is a sequel inspired in part by how tough I found it to limit myself to just the trio of titles we were each allotted, and in part by the thought that it might be useful to give those same readers some ideas on how to use Amazon gift cards or holiday checks to expand their own libraries of books on China.  Even limiting myself to 12 titles proved tough, so I imposed a few arbitrary rules of selection: no repeats from the other list, only works written in English and published in 2013, and only accessibly written titles – so scholarly ones could make the cut, but not if clearly intended just for specialists.  I also ruled out books about China’s future, since I tend to avoid these (sci-fi novels excepted), although one recent prognosticating work, In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade, while not making it onto this recommended list, has managed to slip onto my personal to-read one.  I’ve grouped the books into six pairs:

War Stories

1) Emma Oxford’s At Least We Lived: The Unlikely Adventures of an English Couple in World War II China offers a well crafted account of the author’s parents’ experiences in Hong Kong, from which her father made a dramatic escape as Japanese forces took control, and Chongqing, where her adventurous mother journeyed to work while in her mid-twenties.  It tells a story of love in the midst of battles and air raids, drawing heavily on the author’s access to family letters.

2) Tobie Meyer-Fong’s What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China provides a poignant look at the aftermath and memories of the violence associated with the Taiping Uprising (1848-1864) and its suppression.  Just out in paperback, its virtues were described well in “The World’s Bloodiest Civil War,” a review essay published in this publication last May.

Two if by Sea

1) Timothy Brook’s Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer is a short, complex book by an erudite scholar with an elegant writing style, whose narrative moves from efforts made by Chinese border guards to keep him from taking a seemingly ordinary map out of China in the 1970s to his much later efforts to unravel the mysteries of the very old eponymous cartographic creation recently discovered in an Oxford library.  Of topical interest is the book’s discussion of Pacific islands that different nations claim as their own.

2) David Igler’s The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush is an ambitious and richly detailed look at the way travel and trade via the sea connected the United States and China, as well as the neighbors of each and the islands in between them, from the mid-to-late 1700s to the mid-1800s.  Not a China book per se (and full disclosure: by a UC Irvine colleague), but one with much to offer those fascinated by any or all of the countries that ring the Pacific, and an important part of a new surge of work on that ocean, as David Armitage shows in the essay “From guano to Guantamo,” a TLS cover story focusing on Igler’s book and a related one by Gregory T. Cushman.

Cosmopolitan Currents

1) Henrietta Harrison’s The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village weaves together three centuries of stories from and about a small community in North China, deftly paying attention to local, imperial and later national, and even global forces and factors.  The author makes use of everything from Vatican archives to interviews with North China villagers, as she brings to life the ways that imported and indigenous beliefs and practices became entwined in a village that has been both Chinese and Catholic now for many generations.

2) Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh’s The Lius of Shanghai makes extensive and effective use of a large cache of letters that were exchanged between members of a prominent Chinese business family.  It is another work, like the last one, which is tightly focused in one sense yet expansive in another, in this case due to how robustly cosmopolitan Shanghai was in the early 1900s, when many of the letters were written, and the fact that the family’s members left the city to spend time in other parts of China and also in the West.

China from the Bottom Up

1) Peter Hessler’s Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West is a sort of bonus book for fans of this extraordinary writer, who finished a celebrated trilogy on China and then moved, first to Colorado and then to Cairo. This collection, which is made up of previously published, albeit reworked, material is not exactly something that turns his China oeuvre into a quartet, since it also deals with other places (Nepal, Japan, the United States), but with this special a writer, we will all happily take what we can get, and the book is a wonderful read for all the reasons I spelled out in the review of it I did for the Atlantic’s website.

2) Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz’s Restless China is the third in a series of edited volumes that shares with all of Hessler’s works on Chinese themes a focus on how ordinary people in that country are living through and helping to shape extraordinary times.  My personal favorites of its many fine chapters are ones that look, in turn, at the writer (and racecar driver) Han Han, a female folk healer, and the fun that online commentators have with coded terms and word play, but for more about the book’s contents and qualities, see “Jittery Nation,” a savvy review of it that my Asia Section co-editor Megan Shank did for this publication.

Digital Dilemmas

1) Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel finds the poetry-writing Shanghai detective back in action in the same morally murky milieu that has featured in so many of the previous installments of the series.  As usual, the Shanghai-born though now St. Louis-based author’s greatest strength lies less in his plotting than in his skill at evoking the feel of daily life and political tensions in his native city, and his knack for finding interesting ways to connect crimes to topical concerns, which in this case includes the shifting political and cultural role of the Internet in China.

2) Jason Q. Ng’s Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (and Why) is a book whose pleasures and smarts I have already written about in not just one but two places, having penned a brief review of it for the TLS and discussed it as well in a commentary on the complex nature of Chinese censorship systems I did for Dissent magazine.  The TLS review is behind a pay wall, so I won’t link to it here, but I will point readers interested in details about the book to look up the Dissent essay that’s freely available online.

Party Time

1) Peh Shing Huei’s When the Party Ends: China’s Leaps and Stumbles After the Olympics surveys major Chinese events from the spectacles of the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo to the Bo Xilai scandal and the rise of Xi Jinping.  It should appeal to readers fascinated by elite politics and its author, who did good reporting from Beijing for the Singapore Straits Times before moving back to Southeast Asia, knows when and how to enliven top-down views of China with human interest stories and engaging personal touches.

2) Rowan Callick’s The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Elite covers much of the same ground and has many of the same strengths as the last book, though it is less interested in Chinese mega-events (the “Party” in Peh’s title refers in part to the 2008 and 2010 spectacles) than in the Leninist organization that continues to run the country (“Party” in this work’s name just refers to that ruling group).  For American readers, who are most often exposed to works by journalists who come to China with ideas about it shaped by their having learned about it first while living or studying in the United States or the U.K., one thing that both of these final titles offers, since Callick is based in Australia and spent a long stint covering Beijing for the Australian, is an alternative perspective on Chinese affairs, influenced by viewing the topic from a different geographical and geopolitical vantage point.

CI21C Taiwan cover

Censorship, Translation and the Chinese Market

“To me the choice was easy…I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, statement made during a Chinese book tour.

“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family.”

Rebecca Karl, author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.

“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing.
[All quotes appeared in Andrew Jacobs, “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China,” New York Times, October 19, 2013.]

Here are some questions that students, friends, and people who introduce themselves to me after I’ve given a public talk on China often ask:

Are you sorry that none of the books you’ve written have come out in Chinese editions?

How much would you be willing to let Chinese publishers cut from your books, if told that allowing some things to get intentionally lost in translation was what it would take for these works to be sold on the mainland?

Would you balk at cutting a few sentences, be fine with deleting a whole chapter, or perhaps even be okay with trimming segments here and there throughout a book?

How strongly would you push back if asked for other sorts of changes, like allowing your book to have a dramatically different title in the Chinese edition?

I’ll likely get asked things like this more often now, thanks to Andrew Jacobs, whose recent article on the publication of Western works in mainland China has generated a lot of buzz. It’s no surprise that the article has caught the interest of China specialists. Many of us are fascinated by the challenge of sorting out what has and hasn’t changed about Chinese publishing and censorship in recent years. Jacobs draws attention to both novelties of the present (not long ago, books dealing even in part with sensitive issues simply would not be translated) as well as things that are holdovers from past times, such as the paranoia about protecting Party officials’ images that led to a reference to Deng dropping a dumpling being cut from Vogel’s book, and a text about a mayor and a mistress ending up one of the very few things excised from Meyer’s. And Jacobs focuses on three different sorts of members of our tribe: sociologist Vogel (whose Deng biography is selling briskly in China), historian Karl (whose book will likely be published soon by Hunan People’s Press), and journalist Meyer (whose book was retitled Zaihui, Lao Beijing, or “See You Again, Old Beijing,” in an effort, Jacobs writes, to make an often dismayed look at destruction seem a “nostalgic love letter”).

What is more notable is how much interest in the article there has been beyond specialist circles. On October 23, for example, the Guardian ran a follow-up article, “Author Bows to Chinese Censorship of his Deng Biography,” which zeroed in on Vogel’s relatively easy acceptance of modifying his work so that it could appear in China. The next day, “The Banal Reality of Censoring Books in China” appeared on the History News Network website. This article began with HNN editor David Walsh describing the battle Karl fought — and won — to keep Hunan People’s Press from going forward with their initial plan to present her book to Chinese readers as a straightforward biography of Mao, with an altered title to match.

Reading these three articles on censorship has made me appreciate anew a basic fact about the questions regarding translation, accommodation, censorship and so forth I sometimes get asked: at least for me, these queries usually cannot be answered as simply as people would like. And the same will be true now if I’m asked whether, like Vogel, I’ll be happy if “90 percent” of one my books can make its way into the Chinese market. It all depends, I’ll say, on which book we are talking about.

In the case of China’s Brave New World — and Other Tales for Global Times, which is comprised of separate though thematically connected essays, I was ready at one point to try to get a version published on the mainland that was only about 70% as long as the original, with several chapters that would clearly have created problems left out. (A friend found a publishing house that initially seemed ready to go forward with the book in that form, but then higher ups within it had second thoughts and the plans to bring out the translation were scrapped.)

With my first book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, which is mostly about pre-1949 events but has an “Epilogue” (perhaps making up 7% of the text) stressing parallels between those struggles and upheavals of the 1980s, on the other hand, I would view cutting out 10% as far too much. I would rather it not be published than come out sans that “Epilogue” and also stripped of passing comments in other chapters about the clear links and parallels between the “good,” in Chinese Communist Party eyes, protests that helped it rise to power and the “bad” ones that challenged its legitimacy in 1989.

Or, rather, I’d only consider going forward with a version like that if the press in question agreed to a condition I can’t imagine it would: marking each cut with an ellipsis to show that something in the original was no longer there, and putting a warning on the cover, like those you see when R rated movies are shown on an airplane, noting that the work has been modified for presentation in this particular setting. Without something like that done, I would worry that the book could too easily be read as supporting notions that I don’t agree with. For example, such cuts would eliminate the parallels I draw between protests of the 1940s, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Nationalist Party government of that era, and those that erupted four decades later, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party government of that time.

It might seem that at least one question mentioned at the start of this post would lend itself to a straightforward answer — the one about whether I’m frustrated that none of my books has come out in a Chinese edition yet. Of course, since I share Karl’s desire to be read broadly, I’d love to have all my books available in as many translations as possible, and since I write about China, reaching Chinese readers is particularly desirable. Still, this question needs clarification and contextualization, even though neither of the books just mentioned has been translated into simplified characters by a Chinese publisher, and the same goes for the other two books I’ve written, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The most important thing to note is that there is a Chinese-language version out of China in the 21st Century, just not a simplified-character one. A complex-character translation of the book’s second edition, which I updated in collaboration with fellow LARB “China Blog” regular Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published this summer. It’s now readily available for sale in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some copies could already be making their way into the hands of readers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, even if this edition can’t be sold in mainland bookstores. So, it’s not quite true that there are no “Chinese editions” of my works. It’s not even accurate to say none of them can be sold openly in the People’s Republic of China, since Hong Kong is now a part of that country, albeit one where distinctive rules on publishing apply — something demonstrated by such things as there being a Hong Kong translation of Vogel’s biography of Deng that I’ve been told includes passages snipped out of the mainland edition.

Finally, what about sticking to your guns on titles? I admire Karl’s determination not to have her Mao book, which is very different in aims and scope than a standard biography, recast to seem like it was just that. I can also see, though, why Meyer might have felt differently about The Last Days of Old Beijing becoming Zaihui, Lao Beijing. If you are interested in making a living as an author in the present era, there’s a need to pick your battles, and he also might well have felt that going along with the title change provided him more leverage in working to keep parts of the book’s content he cared about from being cut. Added to this, there’s a basic difference between Karl and Meyer’s past experiences with publication, since the former’s articles have most often been published in scholarly venues, the latter’s in magazines and newspapers. If you write for general interest rather than academic venues, you simply get used to having titles other than the ones you came up with placed above your work. In my relatively amphibious career, I try to keep this in mind, so I can roll with the punches when my articles for non-scholarly periodicals are retitled (though ones that seem to me to veer too far from my original meaning certainly annoy me) yet ready to push back if anyone tries to get me to give up on a title I like for something I’ve written for an academic journal.

As for books, I was so happy to see one of my books finally come out in a Chinese-language edition of some kind, that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even consulted about what China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know would be renamed. And just in case any Chinese publisher is reading this post, I’d like to make it clear that I’m open to having Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 retitled. It’s hardly a “nostalgic love letter” to the city that is its focus, but it does have a sense of old patterns returning in novel forms in the metropolis; so, especially if Meyer’s work sells as well as it should (it’s a really good book), I’d even be willing to consider Zaihui, Lao Shanghai. Hell, with a title like “See You Again, Old Shanghai,” someone might even bid for the movie rights.

* For more on the Chinese translations of The Last Days of Old Beijing — in the plural, since Taiwan and mainland editions have both come out — and the author’s experiences touring to promote these books in Asia, check out Michael Meyer’s “See You Again, Old Beijing,” an engaging and thoughtful memoir cum commentary published in SLATE. Also of interest are two “Letters to the Editor” inspired by Jacobs’s article that have appeared in the New York Times. One of these, from China specialist John Israel, recounts an interesting experience the author had with a sensitive issue of translation. The other is from the President of Ohio Wesleyan University, noting that Vogel “passed on all rights to income from mainland China sales” of his Deng biography to that school, his “alma mater.”  The proceeds are to be used to establish “a permanent endowment to support Ohio Wesleyan students engaged in international study, with a preference for research and travel involving East Asia.”

china nobel laureates

Rabindranath Tagore, Pearl Buck, and Mo Yan: China and the Nobel Prize

The title of this post lumps together three writers I’ve begun to think of as a trio, though I can certainly understand why some readers might think of them as having precious little in common with one another. Only the first was a major poet, after all, only the second wrote a novel that became a major Hollywood movie, and only the third’s career has involved navigating the challenges of writing in a Communist Party-run state. Tagore published such a prodigious amount that his page count leaves even those of the other two very productive writers far behind; only Buck was a woman; and only Mo is alive. Lists of contrasts like these could be extended almost indefinitely. And yet, thanks to my recent activities as co-editor of the LARB’s Asia Section and a writer working on a book about China in 1900, respectively, I’ve been ruminating a lot lately on two very different connections between them.

Let’s begin with the LARB side of things and the more obvious of the two ties between Tagore, Buck, and Mo — namely, that all three are Nobel laureates. How does the LARB come in here? Well, I’ve been working with Megan Shank, my Asia Section co-editor, on commissioning and now editing a series of short essays on China and the Nobel Prize. Mo Yan’s 2012 win, in addition to dramatically increased global interest in his fiction, inspired some readers around the world to try to find out more about Chinese literature in general.* Soon, the 2013 winner will be announced, putting a new author in the limelight and perhaps leading to new or renewed international attention to the literary landscape of his or her nation. Initially, though, there will be a window of time when last year’s and this year’s winner and their respective countries will be compared and contrasted. We see this as a last opportune moment to use Mo Yan’s win to increase awareness of various writers with links to China who have been, could have been, should have been, or might someday be literary laureates. We’re currently editing an essay on Buck, who became a laureate in 1938, and we’ll be grandfathering into the series the interview on Mo Yan I did with Sabina Knight almost a year ago. We won’t be commissioning a piece on Tagore. But as the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize (exactly a century ago this year) and someone who met with leading Chinese writers while touring China and giving lectures ten years after becoming a laureate, his name is sure to come up somewhere — certainly, if nowhere else, in the introduction that Megan and I write for the e-book based on the series.

What then of the other tie between Tagore, Buck and Mo? Well, they will all be mentioned in the book I’m currently writing, which will tell the story of both the anti-Christian Boxer Rising and the invasion by armies marching under eight foreign flags that quelled it. Tagore, who followed the events in question closely, was dismayed at the brutality of the foreign invasion of China. Buck was part of a missionary family living in China that fled to escape from the Boxers. And the Boxers figure centrally in a recent Mo Yan novel, Sandalwood Death. At most, in past histories of the Chinese crises of 1900, you will find only one or two of the three authors listed in the index, but all members of the trio will make it into mine.

Of course, this is partly because most previous writers on the topic finished their books before Sandalwood Death had been written, but it also reflects some distinctive if not always unique aspects of my book’s approach. One thing I’m concerned with, for example, is how Chinese events of the time were understood in other parts of the world, including India — enter Tagore. I’m also fascinated by the rich afterlife that China’s 1900 has had in popular media, from early silent movies that included reenactments of Boxer attacks on Christians, to an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with a scene that takes place in Beijing in 1900, to a fascinating new pair of graphic novels that has just made the YA long list for the National Book Awards.** It is only natural, in light of this interest in fictional representations of the Chinese events of 1900, that I will be finding room in my book to talk about Mo Yan, who along with writing Sandalwood Death has told of growing up in a region where the Boxers had once been active, and as a result hearing stories about the insurgents in his youth. And it also makes it natural for me to discuss Pearl Buck, both as an author who wrote about the Boxers and the foreign invasion, and also as a character in a novel: Anchee Min’s Pearl of China, which includes discussion of her family’s experiences during the Boxer crisis.

It’s possible that some other laureates beyond Tagore, Buck and Mo will end up alluded to or quoted in my book. I still need to check, for example, if Gao Xingjian has ever written about the Boxers. Since I am interested in connections between the international conflicts underway in South Africa and China circa 1900, and since Winston Churchill was an eyewitness to the Boer War, he’s another laureate who may get mentioned. The same goes for Rudyard Kipling, whose Nobel Prize win preceded even that of Tagore, making him the very first laureate with significant ties to Asia. As Robert Bickers, the leading historian of British imperialism in China, has noted, Kipling’s poem “Recessional” meant a great deal to the Britons who were trapped, along with other foreigners, in Beijing’s legation quarter in 1900.

What is certain, as opposed to just possible or likely, is that two writers who have been described by some as having been unfairly passed over for Nobel prizes will make their way into my book. One of these is Mark Twain. A strong critic of imperialism, he wrote that, since the Boxers were just trying to get control of their country, if he had been Chinese, he might well have become one. He also had scathing things to say about the hypocritical way that Westerners, including participants in the often brutal campaigns of revenge that followed the lifting of the siege of the foreign legations, could carry out acts of savagery and say they were justified because “civilization” needed to be protected. The other great author who didn’t win a Nobel who will figure in my book is Lao She, the subject of a forthcoming contribution to Megan’s and my LARB series. How could he not get discussed? The Boxer crisis had a more profound impact on his life than it did on that of any other famous writer. His father was a soldier who was killed during street fighting in the capital. The author, who was born in 1899, was just an infant when that happened, but he remembers growing up hearing his mother tell stories about “foreign devils” who “were more barbaric” that the monsters in “any fairy tale.” Her stories, he claimed, had special power since they were not made up, but were instead “100 per cent factual” tales of events that “directly affected our whole family.”

* For a wonderful example of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, leading a reader to immerse herself in not just his work, but also that of many other Chinese writers, see Anjum Hasan’s “Chinese Whispers: Contemporary Chinese Fiction through an Indian Lens”, which just appeared in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture.

** The twinned graphic novels, which tell the story of China in 1900 through the eyes of two youths — a boy who became a Boxer (his version of the story is titled Boxers) and a girl who converted to Christianity (her version is title Saints) — are by Gene Luen Yang. Published September 10 by First Second, they are available both separately and as a single volume combined work, titled Boxers & Saints.