Category Archives: The China Blog

LARB’s China Blog covers the life, culture, politics and literature of China. It is edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, please visit our China Blog tumblr page.


Watching Big Brother: A Q&A with Chinese Political Cartoonist Badiucao

By Sophie Beach

The invaluable China Digital Times website, which has a regular “Drawing the News” feature and publishes related illustrated e-books is releasing a new collection today — Watching Big Brother: Political Cartoons by Badiucao. Along with a rich sampling of works by the artist, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in Australia, the ebook includes an interview with Badiucao (a pen name) conducted by Sophie Beach, executive editor of CDT. The Los Angeles Review of Books has been given exclusive rights to run an excerpt from that interview for “The China Blog.”

SOPHIE BEACH: You have been the subject of Twitter smear campaigns in recent months. Who do you think is behind these attacks, and what was your response? Has it changed your attitude toward your drawing? Has it changed your approach to being active on the Internet?

BADIUCAO: In recent years, I have been subjected to large-scale Internet attacks twice. I believe these attacks are linked to the Chinese government’s control of the Internet, for two reasons: First, both attacks happened after I had drawn cartoons in support of human rights activists who had been imprisoned, and the drawings had been picked up by Amnesty International and the international media. Second, all the slanderous attacks against me use show the political positions of the Chinese government—the language used by the attackers is full of clichés and their user profiles seem to be automated fake accounts. This shows that these attacks are not from individuals, but are organized systematically. The goal of this kind of attack is not just to threaten me, but possibly to pollute search results for “badiucao,” and to block the visibility of my cartoons online.

The first time I faced an online attack, I was terrified. I had previously received sporadic threats, but never this type of coordinated attack. Some “fifty centers” [a nickname for people paid by the authorities to post comments on line] wrote several essays to specifically “expose the ugly soul of hypocrisy under my skin.” From this essay I could see that they had very carefully examined my words and collected specific personal information about me. When it reached this degree, I slowed down my drawing.

But then, I felt I couldn’t control my creative impulse. I also understood that the only way to overcome the fear of such attacks was to make them public and to continue to draw. It is like when facing the threat of terrorists: once you compromise, the other side will only intensify. The second time I was attacked, I could face it calmly. I even saved all the words and articles attacking me, to keep as a witness. In the future I hope to use them as creative materials.

Since we last spoke, fellow cartoonist Rebel Pepper has been living in exile in Japan after being attacked in the official media in China. Do you think there is any space currently for political cartoonists living in China, or is it just too dangerous?

I believe that the Chinese space for political cartoonists in the mainland has already closed.

In the era when Weibo [a Chinese counterpart to Twitter] first launched, online satirical cartoonists were very active. We could see Kuang Biao, Dashixiong, and dozens of other cartoonists commenting on current events.  But now, I almost never see domestic cartoonists’ work.

But I don’t think we can be too hard on cartoonists for not fulfilling their full duties because the threats they face are real. Like the incident with Rebel Pepper; if you have no way to get away, you may have no choice but to shut up.


Read more about this image at China Digital Times.

Over the past year or so, you have drawn several portraits of human rights defenders that have been very well-received online. They are a departure from your previous, more narrative drawings. Is this a direction you plan to take your work in the future, away from the political “cartoons” and into more traditional drawing and painting styles?

This year, I drew several portraits of rights activists who had been detained.

I had three reasons for doing this: First, this year, the suppression of human rights activists was more severe than in years past. In the first half of the year the pressure was concentrated on NGOs and journalist groups. The second half of the year saw the crackdown on rights lawyers. It seems that after the authorities cleaned up competition inside the Party, they had a hand free to interfere with social dissent. Moreover, authorities used CCTV confessions as propaganda. Second, for those who have been on Twitter a long time, they understand Chinese rights activists and when these familiar people encounter problems, it can inspire a strong sense of solidarity. Third, from analyzing the two attacks on me, I have learned that authorities are very concerned about international media attention on the suppression of human rights activism. This encouraged me to continue creating portraits of China’s prisoners of conscience. Cartoons and portraits can create a unified visual symbol, which can help spread the message and attract sustained attention, in order to create pressure from public opinion. Maybe this pressure can improve the situation for those who are imprisoned, as well as comfort the family members of the persecuted.

But, this will not cause me to give up paying attention to and finding inspiration from current events. Showing solidarity for human rights activists and commenting on current events are not in conflict with each other; they both offer excellent opportunities to profile China. However, if you only have activists’ portraits without their background stories or a depiction of China’s overall environment, my work will become dull and weak, and even risks becoming a simple and emotional propaganda tool.

As for my own development, I will not stop creating cartoons. Cartoons and the Internet are already a part of my life. Drawing cartoons has helped form me and my identity.

Of course, I am now trying to use more artistic means to express myself: print-making, oil painting, sculptures, installations. Different media signify different forms of expression, and different platforms (for example streets, galleries, museums) mean different audiences. I hope to become as diverse an artist as Banksy or Ai Weiwei.

释永信 拷贝

Read more about this image at China Digital Times.


    新华社记者 张瑞华 摄

Everyday Life in Mao’s China: A Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens

By Tong Lam

In addition to teaching at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, historian Covell Meyskens also curates Everyday Life in Mao’s China, a website filled with photographs and other images from 20th-century China. In this interview, Meyskens discusses the project with historian, photographer, and regular China Blog contributor Tong Lam.

TONG LAM: I noticed that you have been posting a lot of old PRC photographs on your blog. Could you tell us more about this project? What are your goals?

COVELL MEYSKENS: In the early 20th century, Paul Valery predicted that one day in the not too distant future, it would be possible for someone to access information from all over the world without having to travel anywhere. With the arrival of the digital age, this prediction has become our reality. The possibilities that this condition has opened up for contemporary scholarship are truly exciting. A few months ago, I began my first venture into this realm, when I created the website Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

The website came about largely by accident. Over the past few years, I had collected a number of digital photos of the Maoist period, but I had not made much of them, except as illustrations in my dissertation. Then, last fall, I began to show some in my courses to spur discussions. A few lively class sessions later, I realized how useful it would be to have a website where people could access all sorts of images of China under Mao.

So, as a public service, I founded a website on life in Mao’s China and started posting photos and paintings from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s. I have chosen this broader timeframe in order to encompass China’s transition both into and out of socialism. So that people can more readily locate images about certain topics, I am careful to appropriately categorize all postings. I also try as much as possible to include their date and location.

Where did you obtain these images? Did you collect them from the internet? Or did you scan them from old magazines, newspapers, or even from the archive?

All of the images are from the internet. The majority of images are from websites based in China, though I have found some on websites from other countries as well. I normally search for images using Mandarin, so most end up being from Chinese or Taiwanese sites. Some of the images come from Chinese archives, which have digitized and made public some of their visual holdings. These images are particularly interesting, because they tend to be more candid than pictures made for national media outlets like Xinhua. From what I can tell, work teams or local journalists appear to have produced most of this type of image. So, for instance, when a work team went to inspect a railroad or city, sometimes they would bring a camera in tow and take images. In archives, I have not come across these photos attached to documents. The only photos I have seen are ID type images attached to personnel files. This is perhaps because of the way that archives file materials. I am not sure.

In any case, another source of images is personal blogs, the biggest treasure trove probably being Sina blogs. Quite a few elderly people in China have written online memoirs on Sina blogs and formed online memoir communities, where people with common experiences exchange and comment on each others’ memoirs. Some people have also uploaded images onto their blogs. Some of these photos come from other sources, such as Xinhua, but individuals also post images that they took on their own. One really large genre is photos taken by sent-down youth, who probably due to their relatively privileged access to basic appliances, were to able to use cameras to document quite extensively their lives in rural China.

As you know, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mao and the Maoist era. Within academia, scholars from a wide political spectrum have been debating the meanings and significance of this period. Do you see yourself contributing to this debate?

Many documents from Maoist China are very programmatic. They are bureaucratic objects. They are about how effectively local areas have carried out some task set by higher levels in the bureaucracy, such as collecting leftover scrap metal, achieving a production target, or teaching correct safety procedures. Their writers focus on telling upper administration about how they are handling whatever administrative assignment they have been charged to do.

Of course, there are also cases where local officials decide not to allow upper levels of government to see into local life and occlude from view certain problem areas or willfully neglect to respond to certain queries by upper administration. Report writers might also employ the reigning wooden language of the day, a dissimulation tactic that also provides very little insight into the happenings of a local area. Occasionally, a bureaucrat might bring up other issues outside the assigned purview of discussion, but bureaucratic documents normally concentrate their descriptions and analyses on a fairly defined range of topics.

I’m not surprised at all that these images as well as their intentions could be very diverse. Instead of speculating on their intentionality, for me at least, it is just wonderful to look at the everyday life, material objects, social and rural spaces, and so forth. These images are telling stories that cannot not be easily captured by texts.

Yes, images are a different sensory apparatus than texts. They allow readers to visually experience time and space in a way that is much different than a text. A document on a given factory might spend pages talking only about whether workers were meeting production targets. On the other hand, a few images can provide a window onto what sort of everyday routines and activities workers engaged in, what clothes people wore, what their hair looked like, how their workplace was arranged, what sort of machinery it had, how people led work singalongs, what sort of tools laborers used, how well a factory workshop was lit. To cover such a wide variety of topics in a text, a bureaucrat would have to write a rather lengthy detailed report and would probably risk being reprimanded for not staying on point and not following proper report writing guidelines.

To look at the same question from a different perspective, some of the images on the EDL website are Potemkin images, which like the famed Soviet village present an ideal representation of socialist life for visitors to experience. In the case of photos, these are images where it is fairly obvious that a photographer has asked for people to arrange themselves in a particular place in a certain way and in which the people in the photos almost always smile, even when they are engaged in practices that would have probably involved a much wider range of emotions than happiness.

This tendency to have one emotion dominate the visual realm of socialist cultural production suggests that there was probably an official rule that everyone in photos distributed in the mass media had to look like they were enjoying what they were doing, as if everyday life was an experience of constant happiness in a country, like Maoist China, where people were in theory incessantly working for the creation of a socialist universe of experience not just in China, but in the entire world. Historians of visual images from Maoist China may have uncovered such a rule already, I do not know, but even if such a rule did not exist, the abundance of smiling faces in Maoist era mass media implies that there was at least a tacit expectation that photographers knew that a good socialist cultural worker would airbrush cheer onto nearly every visage approved for wide distribution.

To be fair, staging for documentary purpose is hardly unique to socialist photography. Many, if not most, of the iconic scenes that we see in poster shops are staged or at least reenactments of something that the photographer had encountered earlier. I guess your point here is that those socialist stagings are rather formulated. But are there also photographs that do not fit into this genre?

There are definitely counter examples, even for such icons of Maoism as Lei Feng, who apparently rode a motorcycle through Tiananmen Square. Other images show that the State wish — fantasy of socialism incessantly lighting up every face with positive feelings was patently not true. For instance, this photo contains a family reading Mao’s works at home. No one in the family looks particularly happy, enthusiastic, or excited, as the dominant ideology prescribed them to be when reading Mao. Nor do they appear to be especially enlightened, even though they are imbibing the great beacon of international socialism — Mao Thought. Instead, most of the figures in the picture look rather bored or amused that someone is taking their picture. Their minds seem to be not there, but elsewhere. They are not occupied with contemplating Mao’s words, nor are they engaging in a lively discussion to more fully understand Mao. They seem instead to be distracted.

The Potemkin style of course was not restricted to images. It had a sort of analogue in the world of documents. It is the kind of document I referred to earlier which consists almost entirely of wooden political slogans, like “lift high the great red flag of Mao Thought” and other bureaucratic phrases that are almost completely abstracted from a specific place or time. These documents erase locality, subtract out geography, and make all China appear as a simulacra of the reigning ideology at any given moment. They make it seem that there is only one China that is the nearly the same everywhere. How a specific political campaign played out at a mine in Sichuan was exactly the same as how it was unfolding in rural Hubei or a Beijing market.

Scholars of China use another type of simplifying language, when they, for instance, describe the few years after the Great Leap Forward (1961–1964) as a period setting the stage for the Cultural Revolution, all the while occluding from view the plethora of social practices various groups engaged in, such as kids riding a hobby horse, professional gamers playing in an international Go competition, families taking portraits, city folk attending a Lantern Festival, a reporter making a newscast from a flood zone, a family going to a pastry shop in Shanghai or taking a stroll in a park, an old man receiving a telegram in Lhasa, thousands of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest, holiday revelers setting off May Day fireworks in Tiananmen, engineers designing a public bus for Beijing, or an artist painting a dam.

Every historian admittedly has to choose a topic, time period, and location to examine and characterize. But, for a historian to become aware of the panorama of practices current at any given time in Maoist China, she has to read a rather large volume of files from a number of different sections of the government, an endeavor that takes a huge amount of time and requires a high level of access to archives that is not likely to be possible in the CCP’s current drive to keep out of view the archival secrets of its past and not reckon with them in anything but political fables.

To attain the same level of scope, a handful of images sometimes suffice. For instance, another genre of photos on the EDL website is young people during the Cultural Revolution engaging in leisure activities such as celebrating the birth of a child, visiting the Leshan giant Buddha, or palling around with friends in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1967 and 1968, a time typically remembered as full of violent political factionalism, not a time for knitting a sweater, practicing martial arts, holding a wedding, or taking a selfie. Historical photographs also show the violent side of the Cultural Revolution in a different light. For example, they contain the kinds of weapons people had, ranging from machine guns to improvised tanks, and what they did with them, which included a whole host of activities, from posing for class photos and parading martyrs around the city to elementary school red guards and students standing by memorials for their classmates who had died in factional struggles.

This last batch of photographs that you are showing here are indeed fascinating. For me, many of these images seem to tell stories that are beyond the narrow confines of politics of the moment. These are also images of young men and women coming of age. These are images of joy, sorrow, love, narcissism, and so forth. It seems that their emotions really do reach out to us — the spectators of these photos. The bottom line is that we need to read photographs against and along the grain. In short, your project encourages to use the Chinese socialist photographs, including those propaganda ones, seriously. This, by the way, reminds me of all the mockery of the propaganda photographs coming out from North Korea these days. Perhaps there are other ways to read those photographs as well.

There is certainly more to learn from photos of North Korea than how ridiculous the regime is. In general, ridicule tells much more about the biases of the person giving the insult than about the insulted. I haven’t examined a large number of propaganda images of North Korea, but I am fairly sure that they provide avenues into understanding much more about life under the regime than how contemptible the [Workers’ Party of Korea] is. Contempt is only one mode of analysis. There are many others.

Image: “The Village Listens to the Radio, Beijing Suburbs September 1954,” from Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

Uncle Joe

Say Uncle

By Austin Dean

Who is Xi Jinping? What does he think? What does he want? How popular is he? Much writing on Chinese politics in the past three years has grappled with these questions.

Answers often rely on comparisons with Chinese history. Xi is the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping; there is a Maoist tinge to his rule; he shows much more personality than the Chinese leaders who immediately preceded him; his traveling with a stylish “First Lady,” Peng Liyuan, brings to mind the time when Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling hit the road together in the 1930s and 1940s; his proposal for a new national security council harkens back to the Grand Council of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Such are just a few of the nods to China’s past that have been used to help place Xi in perspective.

What has been done more rarely is to place Xi beside a past leader of a different place. That’s what I want to do here, through the admittedly idiosyncratic entry point of nicknames. Xi is known as “Uncle Xi” (one way to translate “Xi Dada”) — and this brings to mind two former Communist leaders, the Soviet Union’s “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) and Vietnam’s “Uncle Ho” (Chi Minh).

First, some background on Xi’s moniker is in order. The Chinese leader was not always Uncle Xi. When he started his term in 2012, a fan club emerged on weibo, the Chinese counterpart to Twitter, whose members referred to him as “Our Pingping,” an informal appellation using a doubling of the last character of his name. A little while later the fan club played with alternative nicknames and landed on Xi Dada. The government propaganda bureau may have been behind the creation of this fan club or it might have had no involvement. In either case, both some Chinese netizens and the official party apparatus quickly adopted the term. Even Xi seems to have embraced it. When Xi visited Beijing Normal University, a school for teacher education, one student asked him if he could call the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party “Xi Dada” and Xi reportedly responded in English, and with a smile, “Yes.”

Uncle Ho

Xi Peng

There are cartoons that show Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, who goes by the equally affectionate nickname, “Peng Mama,” as a happy couple. There is even a song talking about the love between them. The overall image is of a leader who is more accessible and relatable than his predecessors.

Of course, there are limits to how familiar one can be with this uncle. One 9 year old wrote a letter to the leader, which his father shared with friends and which eventually got picked up by a local newspaper, suggesting that Xi should lose weight. “There’s no need to be as skinny as Obama,” the boy wrote, but “like Putin is good.” That was too far. The story disappeared.

Let’s turn now to the other Communist uncles, beginning with Stalin. Franklin Roosevelt took to calling him “Uncle Joe” during World War II when Washington and Moscow were allies in the fight against the Axis Powers. At the Tehran conference in 1943, FDR tried to get through to Stalin at a personal level by making a series of mocking comments about Winston Churchill, drawing a smile from Stalin. Then “he kept at it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him ‘Uncle Joe.’ He would have thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came over and shook my hand.”

The nickname stuck. To ring in the New Year in 1945, FDR’s family and friends drank champagne that Stalin had sent from his birthplace in Georgia. Although the guests thought it “too sweet” and “awful,” they still made a toast to “Uncle Joe.” By the Yalta conference in 1945, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, remarked that “All Russia knows you [FDR] call him Uncle Joe.”

Stalin might have had a hand in the creation of the “Uncle Joe” image as well. As Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm […] he constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to be a charming man, he was irresistible.” Lord Beaverbrook, an English diplomat, echoed this view describing Stalin as “a kindly man […] he practically never shows any impatience at all.”

The moniker did not stay at just the elite level. In 1943, the movie “Mission to Moscow” painted Stalin and the Russians in a favorable light. As historian Walter Hixson points out, American propaganda at the time portrayed Stalin as “tough but friendly.” Of course, the figure of Uncle Joe did not last much beyond World War II. It was tied to a specific time and place.

There are differences here. The Uncle Xi moniker began domestically within China and has not become widespread outside the country, despite an unfortunate propaganda video involving a group of foreign students who use the term continually in expressing their affection for the Chinese leader. The Uncle Joe label started outside of Russia and from the beginning got more play internationally, including from the lips of other leaders. It’s hard to imagine President Obama referring to Uncle Xi as FDR referred to Uncle Joe.
Others might point out that the Uncle Joe discourse obscured the brutal nature of the Soviet regime, just as the Uncle Xi narrative glosses over the more authoritarian aspects of the current Chinese administration.

What, then, of Uncle Ho? That was not the Vietnamese leader’s only nicknames. Revolutionary activities required anonymity, so he had more than one nom de guerre. In fact, Ho Chi Minh wasn’t even “Ho Chi Minh” until he was nearly 50 years old.

Unlike Stalin, Ho Chi Minh became Uncle Ho, as Xi became Uncle Xi, in a purely domestic context. Another difference is physical. While Stalin was solid with a thick mustache and Xi is rotund, Ho was thin, almost frail, with wispy facial hair. If Chinese netizens fret about Uncle Xi being too plump, Vietnamese might have worried that Uncle Ho was too abstemious.

Uncle Ho always left an impression, particularly on foreign interlocutors. As one remarked later, “Ho was a courtly, urbane, highly sophisticated man with a gentle manner and without personal venom.” That is not too far from some foreigners’ descriptions of Stalin.

What most sets the Uncle Ho nickname off from the Uncle Joe one is its endurance. In Vietnam Ho’s image, “ever serene and benevolent — is ubiquitous, even in the south where bitterness festers among those who lost the Vietnam war.” In part, the nickname lives on because it has to. Without it, “people would find it easier to envisage a time when the Communist Party wasn’t in power.”

Perhaps the important question is whether Xi’s avuncular nickname will go the way of Stalin’s and fizzle out or be more like Ho’s and live on. How long will Xi Jinping be Uncle Xi?


Darth Vader and the Triceratops—A Q & A with Maggie Greene on “Stars Wars” in China

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

There’s been a lot of commentary lately about the challenge that Disney faces marketing the new Star Wars film in China, due to comparative lack of familiarity there with the story and characters.  When the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films premiered on the mainland, things were very different, since they began appearing at a time when Chinese and Western popular culture were increasingly entwined.  They also included characters from books that many Chinese had read in translation.  By contrast, the Star Wars films do not ride the coattails of books that are well known in China, and the previous movies in the series have only rarely made it into Chinese mainland theaters.  When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, it was not shown on the mainland for years.  This was hardly surprising, given how cut off from the flow of Western popular culture China was throughout the Mao years, and for a decade or so after that period ended.  Mao may have already been dead when American viewers first met Leia, Luke and Han Solo, but China was still, “for all intents and purposes,” as Julie Makinen put in a recent Los Angeles Times article on the topic, “in a different universe.”  

And yet…there was one curious intersection of the early Lucas and early post-Mao universes back in 1980 that historian Maggie Greene discovered via, of all things, collecting lianhuanhua, a genre of illustrated story books.  She first wrote about her find in 2014, in a piece for her own website titled, naturally, “A Long Time Ago in a China Far, Far Away…” This led to all sorts of websites, such as iO9, and news services including the BBC describing her find, running excerpts from her post, and/or interviewing her.   Reminded of this while reading news coverage of the latest Star Wars film opening in China, I persuaded Greene to respond to a few questions.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Can you describe in a few sentences what you found and how you found it?

MAGGIE GREENE: In the spring of 2011, I was living in Shanghai while researching my dissertation. I always enjoyed hitting the Sunday book fair at the Confucian Temple (Wen Miao 文庙) to see if I could find anything of use to my work on traditional opera in the 1950s and 1960s. Many sellers had heaps of vintage lianhuanhua — “linked picture books,” little comic books, basically — which are generally very cheap ($1 USD or less), so inexpensive and easy to collect. I asked one seller if he had anything related to my research subjects, and he pulled a few out — including this one. It took me a beat to realize what it was: a 1980 lianhuanhua adaptation of Star Wars. It was so incongruous, and the price was right (about 8 RMB), I simply couldn’t leave it behind.

What is your favorite page from the comic?  Why?

There are almost too many to mention! Many discussions of the comic have gone to some lengths to show the source material — such as a cameo appearance of the Yamato from the mid-1970s Japanese anime Space Battleship Yamato — for some of the stranger parts. Learning about those has been one of the neatest things of following up on where the post has been linked. But if forced to pick one, I would probably say Darth Vader and the triceratops. Darth Vader’s pose apparently goes back to an illustration by the fantasy and sci-fi artist Frank Frazetta — where the triceratops came from is anyone’s guess.

What is strangest about the way people and objects from the Star Wars universe are presented in this text?

I think what fascinates me most is how many sources the artists drew from. The lianhuanhua may not have been licensed, but this is really creative “bootlegging.” I like to think of it as a visual remix of a wide variety of sources. I’ve seen some references to comic panels being taken from 1940s comic books, which is pretty amazing if you think about it, especially when combined with the diversity of other materials found in the comic.

How would you define the lianhuanhua genre, for those unfamiliar with it?

Lianhuanhua are little books — most are about the size of your hand — that consist of pictures with captions, originally designed for children or less literate adult readers; they originated in the early 20th century. Generally, traditional stories from mythology, operas, novels, and the like were the sources, although after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party also used them to promulgate socialist virtues and political lessons. Many of the ones I own are exquisitely drawn, so while the text is not necessarily very sophisticated, they are beautiful little pieces of popular art in their own right.

Is there anything important you think has been missing from the reporting on The Force Awakens opening in China — other than allusions to this text, if it indeed hasn’t been mentioned (it may have somewhere I haven’t seen)?*

I think many reports have missed the historical background of Hollywood in China. A number of articles I’ve seen refer to this global film market as if it is some new phenomenon. It’s not! During the Republican era (1911-1949), major cities like Shanghai and Tianjin had a robust market for Hollywood films, and not just for Western residents. Major newspapers carried advertisements for scores of American films being screened — many quite current. Flip through popular magazines like Linglong, and you will see photos of Western film stars like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Shirley Temple, stills from contemporaneous Hollywood films, even sheet music for Marx Brothers musicals! Western films were even put in service to domestic issues — I once saw a very late 1936 ad for a Hollywood Western that made clear allusions to the threat of a Japanese invasion. My students are often surprised by how “globalized” the world was “way back then,” since we often treat this as [if] it’s something that only came about in the 1990s or after.

You noted in your post that this kind of thing isn’t your main focus. Is there any link, though, between your Star Wars post and, say, what you do in the classroom?

Well, as a cultural historian, I use a lot of visual sources in my teaching and like meditating more generally on the refashioning and reshaping of culture over time (and this adaptation certainly counts as “refashioning”!).

How about your research and writing?

I do think these seemingly trifling bits of culture can often reveal a lot about society at specific moments; in that vein, I have an article coming out in Cross-Currents this month on mahjong’s changing position from the late 19th century to 1949. My main task at the moment, however, is pretty far removed from the realm of the Force. I’m preparing a manuscript based on my dissertation entitled “The Sound of Ghosts: Cultural Reform and Censorship in the People’s Republic of China.” In it, [I] examine the relationship between intellectuals, artists, and the state in the 1950s and 1960s, largely by tracing debates and policy regarding classical literature on supernatural themes — particularly ghosts. A commenter on the original blog post expressed surprise that a story about “fighting tyranny” would’ve been so casually published in early 1980s PRC — something that didn’t surprise me at all when I thought about it. In a follow-up post, I connected this kind of story and historical moment to the literary products I study — most of which are stories about fighting tyrannical social systems or corrupt and callous government officials. Will Star Wars have the staying power of something like Tang Xianzu’s famous opera The Peony Pavilion (1598)? I guess our descendants will find out!

*Interviewer’s Note: Since conducting this Q&A, I have seen that at least one publication, TimeOut Beijing, has brought Greene’s find into their discussion of the Chinese opening of The Force Awakens— in a piece with some nice illustrations from the original text.

Qin Hui cover

Out of Autocracy, Off the Shelves

By Jeremiah Jenne

It is an unfortunate axiom of publishing in China that the best way for your book to gain international attention is to have the Chinese government make it unavailable to domestic readers. Such is the fate of Out of Imperial Autocracy (Zouchu dizhi), the latest book by the eminent public intellectual and economic historian Qin Hui, published earlier this year.

International coverage of the ban has focused on the book’s treatment of constitutionalism in modern Chinese history. It is a timely topic. The question of whether the Chinese Communist Party should be subject to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China has become a third rail for writers and academics in the Xi Jinping era. The banning of the book so close to the government-promoted “Constitution Day” holiday, as well as the recent trial of free speech advocate Pu Zhiqiang, have put China’s constitution in the spotlight. But while Qin Hui does discuss constitutionalism, he does so in the context of a much larger and wider-ranging assessment of the political transformations in China from the late-19th into the early-20th centuries.

Out of Imperial Autocracy is a collection of essays on modern history, many of which appeared previously in mainstream publications in China on the occasion of recent centennials: The 1911 Revolution, the outbreak of World War I (1914), and the beginnings of the New Culture Movement (1915). Articles on the Taiping Rebellion and Sino-Japanese relations round out the collection. The result is nothing less than an overview of Chinese modern history by one of China’s most celebrated intellectuals and gifted polymaths.

Given the wide range of topics reconsidered, Qin Hui’s perspectives on constitutionalism may not be as objectionable from the point of view of government censors as some of the other positions taken in the book. What is interesting is why these arguments are now sufficiently controversial to have the book removed from the shelves when most had already been published in one form or another.

In recent years, China’s leaders have made it clear that they are in an all-out ideological war against the intrusion of Western values into the Chinese political system. The banning of Qin Hui’s book, and the continuing pressure on academics in China, is evidence that the government is not only looking out for views that radically depart from party orthodoxy, but is now no longer willing to tolerate any view that does not seamlessly fit with set narratives on a range of issues, among them history. In the past year, there has been a concerted campaign by Party publications and officials attacking “historical nihilism,” defined broadly as, “anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression.” As the party continues to rebrand old ideological terms, think of it as Anti-Revisionism 2.0.

Space does not permit looking in depth at all of the argument presented in this collection, but a few topics have attracted particular attention in the press and by reviewers.

If one thread can be traced throughout the collection, it is the question of how to proceed away from the imperial autocratic system and toward a republic in the early 20th century. Qin Hui argues that in Chinese history, there have been only two significant political transformations. The first was the move from the feudalism of the Zhou Period (1122-256 BCE) to the autocracy of the state of Qin (256 BCE-220 BCE), which marked the beginning of the imperial system. The second was in 1911, when a Republican revolution swept the Qing Dynasty from power and brought that same system to an end after nearly 2000 years.

The first transformation, from Zhou to Qin, lasted nearly 100 years. For Qin Hui, there is little coincidence that China today remains caught in the grip of the equally momentous second transformation that began just over a century ago.

Qin Hui concedes that the the 1911 transition out of autocracy did not fulfill the ideals of the revolutionaries insofar as a constitutional government failed to take hold in China. But was it a total loss? Viewed in demographic terms, the revolution avoided the calamitous population drops of early dynastic transitions. In the realm of foreign affairs, between 1911 and 1945, China went from being under the thumb of foreign treaties to a member of the UN Security Council. Surely, Qin Hui argues, that must count for something?

In fact, in one of the more controversial sections, Qin Hui argues that when the Chinese people famously “stood up” with Mao Zedong in 1949, it was not against foreign imperialism, as later PRC interpretations have emphasized. Instead, he contends, the people were taking a collective stance against the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists promised a system more in keeping with the ideals of the 1911 revolution, a move away from autocracy of the Nationalists and the corruption associated with their one-party rule. The appeal of the Communists, ironically, was the fulfillment of a 30-year dream of democracy.

Looking back then, the political fate of the 1911 revolution was not predetermined by cultural or historical circumstance. In today’s revolution-averse ideological climate, many scholars argue the revolution failed because it tried to do too much, too fast. Qin Hui feels that gradual reforms were unlikely to dislodge imperial autocracy; he argues that constitutional monarchies develop out of feudalism, as in the case of the British parliamentary system or the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Entrenched autocracies, such as those found in Russia and China, require revolutions. But are revolutions any more radical than reforms or political evolution? Perhaps not, answers Qin Hui. The 1911 Revolution was relatively bloodless by the standards of Chinese history and world revolutions, while the founding of a constitutional monarchy in Japan resulted in bloody civil wars and ultimately led to an aggressive militarist state.

Qin Hui can find autocracy and Legalism lurking everywhere. It can even bring together strange bedfellows in modern Chinese history, like the pseudo-Christian rebels of the Taiping kingdom, whom Qin Hui sees as carrying on the anti-intellectualism of the Qin period, and the vehemently anti-Christian pro-regime insurgents of the Boxer Uprising, who were rebels in support of the imperial order.

Systems matter. The transitions of Chinese history, whether from Zhou to Qin two millennia ago or out of autocracy in 1911, succeeded or failed based on the suitability of the systems for that historical moment.

Qin Hui focuses on systems because in his estimation systems can be judged as being either superior or inferior, whereas cultures, whether comparing ancient and modern or Eastern and Western, cannot be judged the same way. As he explains,

You may play basketball, and I may play ping-pong. The sports themselves cannot be defined good or bad. We cannot say that basketball or ping-pong is superior to the other. But the rules of the game can be judged good or bad. If in the rules of a sport, only one side gets to serve, or the referees may also participate as players, or if one team is allowed six players and the other team only three, no matter if we are playing basketball or ping-pong, then we must hold these rules to be of poor quality.

The Chinese Communist Party considers itself locked in an existential ideological struggle with the West. It regards even the idea of universal values as anathema to its own ideological survival. As a bulwark against these attacks, party ideologues have deployed shields of cultural and national exceptionalism. Their argument is that China exists as it is because that’s the way it was meant to be. Qin Hui’s separation of culture and systems knocks against the very foundations of this tautology.

While such arguments do not have the sex appeal of a scholar calling openly for the Party to submit to constitutional rule, the ability to disrupt entrenched historical narratives presents just as grave an ideological challenge. In China, history is taught as a set of facts. The answer is “A” or “B.” The idea that history can be composed of multiple — and often competing and contradictory — perspectives counter to the CCP’s attempts to control public opinion.

While copies of Out of Imperial Autocracy are still to be found by laboriously browsing through China’s e-commerce platforms (searches for the book by title invariable come up empty or say the book is out of stock), Qin Hui and his publishers have confirmed that the book is banned for now. Qin Hui has a way of simplifying complex narratives while complicating seemingly simple assumptions. Hopefully his book, a tour-de-force by one of China’s most intelligent, engaging and challenging intellectuals, gets the readership it deserves.

China Story Yearbook 2014

A Q&A with Jeremy Goldkorn

By Liz Carter

Jeremy Goldkorn is a researcher, writer, speaker, and podcaster on Chinese politics, economics, and society. He moved to China in 1995 and stayed in the country for 20 years, during which time he covered developments there for a number of prominent media outlets and founded Danwei, a popular media tracking website that grew into a research firm and was later acquired by the Financial Times. Involved with the Australian Centre on China in the World since its inception in 2010, he has been part of the three-person editorial team, the other members being Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, who have edited each of its China Story Yearbooks. Via email, he answered some questions about the recently published Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny, as well as his own take on recent developments in China.

LIZ CARTER: You’ve been involved with China Story Yearbook since its first edition. Can you talk a little bit about how it got started, how you got involved, and what it brings to discussions of China in media and academia? What do you think people have to gain by looking at years in review, as opposed to just following the news on a regular basis?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: The China Story Yearbook is a project of the Centre on China in the World at Australian National University. Both the China Story project and the Centre were founded by the noted Sinologist Geremie Barmé.

The intention of the Yearbook is to provide a historical record of the events, intellectual discussions, politics, economics and everyday life of each year covered. Although most of the writers are scholars and academics, not all are, and the intention is to make the work accessible to anyone interested in China.

Looking at a year in review allows for a broader view of current events than following the daily torrent of news does and allows us to expand on themes that are important to understanding China but may not make it into a news story.

How do you see the overall climate of the Chinese internet (specifically social media)? 

Although there are an extraordinary number of people on the Chinese Internet saying an extraordinary range of things about all kinds of subjects, the space for those who differ from the Party line of Xi Jinping’s propagandists seems to be getting smaller by the week.

Do you have any ideas about how this might change in the next year or two?

I don’t see any reason to believe that current trends will change. The recent “World Internet Conference” was merely the latest example of the government’s growing confidence in presenting censorship in a positive light: the Chinese internet is a great place to buy stuff or to be entertained, but there is no indication that the strict controls on it will be loosened.

Regarding the portion of the Yearbook you wrote about “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” do you think the crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents is the new normal? If so, how can media covering these issues adapt without sounding like they are beating a dead horse?

I believe this is the new normal. I think the only way to cover such issues to make sure that each case is handled as an individual case with an individual story rather than a mere statistic. But there is no way to avoid the fact that readers of news about China will get what one might call oppression fatigue.

What brought you back to the US? And what is it like watching China from here, as opposed to Beijing?

Not back: I am from South Africa. Arriving in the US for me is a little like going to China was: I have to adapt to a whole new culture, much of which I do not yet understand.

I am quite enjoying observing China from afar, but I do love going back. I was in Beijing in September for the first time since I left in February and I enjoyed it very much.

When compiling the 2014 Yearbook, what events or trends reviewed gave you the most cause for optimism, and which were the most distressing?

In the last half decade, the Chinese government has done a complete turnaround on environmental problems and now recognizes the threats of global warming, pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices and other dangers to the earth. That is a great cause for optimism.

On the other hand, the Party has over the last few years made clear that they explicitly reject individual rights such as freedom of expression as hostile foreign ideas: it’s hard to feel good about that.


Consolations of History: A Q&A with Yan Geling

By Alec Ash

Yan Geling is a Chinese novelist, born in Shanghai, who lives in Berlin and travels frequently to China. Her novel The Flowers of War was made into a film starring Christian Bale, and she has won wide acclaim both inside and outside of China. Her new novel in English, Little Aunt Crane (translated by Esther Tyldesley) is a wonderfully empathic story of a young Japanese girl, Tatsuru, who stays behind in China after the end of World War Two. Tatsura becomes the second wife of a Chinese heir, and befriends the first wife Xiaohuan during the decades of political tumult that follow. It’s an enjoyable read and a fresh narrative perspective on Chinese history. I asked Yan Geling some questions on email about her process, intentions, and themes.

ALEC ASH: How did you first begin to learn about Japanese colonists left behind in China after the end of World War Two, and why did you want to write about it as a subject for your novel Little Aunt Crane?

YAN GELING: Years ago, one of my childhood friends told me a story about twin brothers in her class who intrigued her. Her classmates discussed them behind their backs, saying that there was a woman in their house besides their mother who seemed to have a mysterious position in their family. This woman would kneel down to tie the boys’ father’s shoelaces and make everybody take off their shoes before entering the house. Later my friend and her classmates discovered that this mysterious woman was not a Chinese but a Japanese who was sold to this family in a sack during the Japanese retreat from China, and she was the twins’ natural mother. I was amazed by the story and couldn’t help imagining how all of them had lived in secrecy and harmony in a Chinese neighborhood. After I moved to the U.S., I told the story to many friends in artistic and literary circles, and they all thought it was good material for a novel. One of my author friends even bought me a kimono to encourage me to write it, but not until 2007 did I muster enough courage to create a novel whose main female character was Japanese. What also made it possible to carry out expensive research in Japan was that my husband was reinstated in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat, and we moved to Taiwan in 2006. By then our financial situation allowed me to hire interpreters to help me do research in a village in central Japan that had been divided in two, with one half of its farmers going to Northeast China as colonists in the early 1930s.

History is hugely important in understanding contemporary China, especially its fraught relations with Japan. What can Tatsuru and Xiaohuan’s friendship teach us about China today?

I don’t know. I don’t think a novel has a function or a mission such as teaching somebody something. Instead, I think a novelist, by writing a story in the most vivid way, with poetry of language and by sharing it with the public, is willing to discover the truth about the story together with the readers. I have written stories about women suffering during wars and after wars, because I think that no matter who wins or loses, women on both side are the ultimate victims. Their bodies are the last part of a defeated country to be conquered, to be violated. They are the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers whose lost lives leave voids in the women’s lives, too deep to be filled. In this sense, Xiaohuan and Crane (Tatsuru) have a shared understanding and sympathy with each other beyond their own knowledge.

In both this novel and in The Flowers of War, finding humanity in the midst of chaos is a recurring theme. So much of China’s recent past has been a litany of horrors, yet you focus on small acts of kindness and bravery. Does this mean you’re an optimist?

I think the Chinese are a people of survival. We are all wonderful survivors. We have risen in population during the last century, a century in which wars and famines have happened all the time. We have survived natural and political disasters almost every other year during the last sixty years. Without optimism I don’t think my people could live until today. I have gone to poor rural areas in China and seen destitute people joke and jest and laugh. I can imagine Chinese at the bottom of society, surviving like them over thousands of years. They must have a good sense of humor to go through hardship, and they must have learned how to steal whatever small pleasure they can to hold on to their dear life. I can’t imagine that any people could survive so many centuries of sorrow if to live only means to suffer. They have learned to steal joy, however little, out of the overall suffering.

You served with the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution as a dancer in an entertainment troupe from the age of 12. What were some of your other experiences in the PLA, and how did they influence your writing later?

I think my becoming a writer has much to do with my tough upbringing, including my experience in the army. When the Cultural Revolution took place, I was seven, and it was human nature playing itself out before my eyes. Unfortunately, I was too young for that. And because my father, a writer and a freethinker, had an unpopular political status, I was ostracized and felt very marginal in the army performing troop. It bothered me at the time, but I discovered later that I benefited from it when I started to write. I believe all artists and writers should be independent from the mainstream, so they won’t take the values system or moral standards of the mainstream for granted. On the contrary, they should make it their duty to question and doubt the way of life and way of thinking of the mainstream. Now I am glad to live overseas as a Chinese writer, to remain independent and critical of both sides.

Who are some of your favorite Chinese authors, both in the past and today, and why?

I never use the word favorite when it comes to literature, because I like too many authors whose styles are very different from one another. I like Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber. I also like my contemporaries, such as Mo Yan, Wang Anyi, Yu Hua, and Jin Yucheng.

For another sample of Yan Geling’s writing, read Disappointing Returns, an extract from her latest novel in Chinese, translated by Dave Haysom on Read Paper Republic


Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part Two

We started with a simple plan. We’d get six people to suggesting a pair of books apiece, making a dozen in all — maybe a baker’s dozen, if one person couldn’t resist slipping in a third title. In the holiday spirit of excess, though, things got out of hand. As three of the four core members of the old China Beat team came together to make their suggestions, we couldn’t resist seeing if the final member of the quartet, Kenneth Pomeranz, would chime in too. Only one of us managed to limit ourselves to two titles.

Anyway, here’s the list which, combined with last week’s, is now well beyond a dozen, baker’s or otherwise:


Kate Merkel-Hess

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

This is the 2014 Ken Liu translation of a 2008 book that was a bestseller in China and stands out as a prime example of the country’s lively science fiction genre. It is classic SF — multi-page tangents on math, physics, and technology dot the text, and crucial components of the book take place in a virtual online world — but it is the context, and its presentation, that I found so stunning. The book, the opening installment of a trilogy, toggles between the stories of secret scientific installations during the Cultural Revolution and the present day, and while the Cultural Revolution is key to the set up, the politics of the period are never the point of the book itself. Liu, like many sci-fi writers, creates stories where the vastness of space and (mini spoiler!) encounters with alien life raise questions about our shared humanity and what it means. But in the science fiction that most Western readers are familiar with, those encounters take place against a Western backdrop. The Three-Body Problem neatly displaces us, while, indeed, successfully demonstrating the universality of appealing sci-fi themes and questions. For those who get hooked, the second Three-Body Trilogy book is available in English (it came out last summer as The Dark Forest, with Joel Martinsen doing the translation) and the third, Death’s End, is slated to be published in 2016 (with Liu back as the translator).

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer

When I was in college in the late 1990s I spent a semester studying Chinese in Manchuria, so I was looking forward to Michael Meyer’s new book, which chronicles his time living in a little village in Manchuria called Wasteland. The book is part love story, part ethnography, and part history. Meyer ends up in Wasteland because it is the hometown of his wife, Frances, but for much of the book she is working as a lawyer in Hong Kong, only visiting infrequently, as Meyer navigates the sometimes-confounding social dynamics of a close-knit village.

Interwoven with Meyer’s stories of life in Wasteland and his reflections on the changing nature of rural China are his investigations of the rich history of Manchuria. As he shows, a place that many readers will probably initially view as a backwater has actually been a critical crossroads in some of the modern world’s most important stories. Meyer is also the author of the well received 2008 book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, and taken together, the two volumes demonstrate his fascination with the way that the past is entwined with present and future. For a historian, that’s a comforting and natural way of looking at the world, but in the hands of a storyteller like Meyer it is also evocative and moving, a reminder of the way we live with the past and also change it.


Kenneth Pomeranz

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform, by Meg Rithmire

Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft, by Stephen Halsey

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, by John Osburg

There’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but my first choice is almost too easy: Amitav Ghosh’s superb Flood of Fire. As a novel, it’s completely engrossing; as a history of the 19th century opium trade, it’s remarkably accurate and comprehensive; as a vivid reminder of the human dimensions of those events, and the fact that the participants cannot be reduced to just victims and villains (or just Britons and Chinese), it is unsurpassed. You can read it without having read the first two books in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, but if this gets you to read them, so much the better.

For highly readable and important academic work on China, three new or at least newish works by younger scholars come to mind. First, Stephen Halsey’s Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft reminds us that for all the battering China took in the late 19th century, it was never formally colonized. Building on lots of other recent scholarship, Halsey shows that the last decades of China’s final dynasty, the Qing — sometimes written off as a long succession of failures — should instead be seen as an important period of innovation in Chinese statecraft, resulting in a military-fiscal state with many resemblances to those of early modern Europe. Of course, the dynasty ultimately fell anyway, but Halsey shows that the influence of its efforts lingers: among other things, in a distinctive understanding of sovereignty, which colors Beijing’s internal and external policies even today.

My other two books should particularly interest those who want a deeper understanding of the contemporary Chinese economy, and sense that economics alone won’t provide it. John Osburg’s Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich is an excellent ethnography of elite businessmen (and a few women) in Chengdu. Osburg focuses on the endless “night work” of these entrepreneurs: the entertaining of customers, suppliers and other contacts without which they could not succeed. The book shows vividly how connections are made through providing others with drinks, parties, and sometimes women; how those connections matter, and why it’s too simple to call it all “corruption.” You also hear the participants in this world, both men and women, reflect on the toll this system takes, what “merit” and “competition” mean within it, and how they might like to see things change, both in their own lives and in Chinese society.

Meanwhile, to see how one very important feature of China’s economy came to have its distinctive shape, read Meg Rithmire’s Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism: The Politics of Property Rights Under Reform. (This one is brand new, and I confess I haven’t read all of it yet myself.) Excepting a few petro-states, China today is almost unique in the degree to which government relies on revenue from state-owned assets, rather than taxes on private transaction; the biggest single such asset is the land itself, which can be leased for long periods, but not privately owned. This often-overlooked fact shapes Chinese development in many, many ways, and Rithmire provides an eye-opening account of the evolution and implications of land policy in three big Chinese cities, from the onset of reform in 1978 forward.


Maura Cunningham

Spy Games, by Adam Brookes

Dragon Day, by Ellie McEnroe

The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill

There’s nothing more satisfying than settling in at the end of a dark winter day with a hot cup of cocoa (or something stronger) and a thick spy thriller. Help someone in your life realize this by giving them two or three juicy volumes to enjoy while the snow falls outside and the fire roars. I recommend the latest offerings by Adam Brookes and Lisa Brackmann, who both write compelling spy novels with a China twist — though their books should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good thriller, regardless of their level of China knowledge.

I reviewed both recent books in previous posts for the China Blog: Brookes’s engrossing Spy Games (reviewed here) continues the story of world-weary journalist Philip Mangan and his international exploits, while Brackmann wrapped up her phenomenal Ellie McEnroe trilogy with Dragon Day (reviewed here). To ensure that your gift recipient gets the full arc of both stories, bundle the new books with copies of their preceding ones — Night Heron (Brookes) and Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (Brackmann).

I’ve got one more suggestion, which stays in Asia but is not China-focused and came out some time ago, though I only recently discovered it: The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill. I just finished reading this first book in a 10-volume series, which is set in Laos in 1976 and follows the adventures of Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 70-something reluctant coroner with a wry sense of humor. With nine more books to go in Cotterill’s series, my winter reading list is set.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When True Love Came to China, by Lynn Pan

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, by Rian Thum

The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, by Nile Green

My first reading suggestion is Lynn Pan’s extraordinary When True Love Came to China, which is available in Asia now and will be out in other markets this spring. Pankaj Mishra singled it out in the Guardian as one of his books of the year, describing it as “a rich and gripping account of how the first generation of modern Chinese intell­ect­uals and writers discovered the pleas­ures — and sufferings — of romantic love.”

I’ll also let someone else tell you what is so good about my second selection, Rian Thum’s The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, a beautifully crafted work. In his review of the book for this publication, Central Asianist Nile Green writes that while Thum’s book offers much to the reader seeking a better understanding of contemporary problems in Xinjiang, at its “core it is not political study” and goes beyond “the familiar ideologies of modern times toward older ways of knowing and belonging.” The result he says is a “humanist project” of “empathy and magnitude” which explores “the experience of the past in a society few have tried to understand in its own terms.”

Following some of my colleagues in slipping in extra works and moving beyond books that focus on China, I’ll close with a shout out for Green’s own new book, The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. Original in format and gracefully written, it could be described with many of the same adjectives its author used to refer to The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, for it, too, is deeply empathetic and humane. And while it does not engage with Chinese history, I look forward to teaching it someday beside Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat or Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu, memorable books by China specialists that take us back in time and move between Europe and another part of the world in a similarly engaging and creative fashion.


Holiday Book Ideas from China Bloggers and FOBs (Friends of the Blog), Part One

This first post in a two-part series continues a tradition of holiday gift suggestions that began at China Beat (2008-2012) — a blog that currently lives on as a Twitter feed (@chinabeat ) and is in the process of being archived by the Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska.

In this edition, we focus on 2015 publications dealing with Chinese themes. We have given contributors leeway to slip in titles that came out before this year, but they have only read recently. We also invited them to suggest books that veer partly or completely away from China, yet have elements that make them particularly interesting to anyone interested in knowing more about the country. While asking for two book ideas apiece, we sometimes got more than we bargained for.


James Carter:

Of my two selections, the first “one” is actually three: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, the last of which (River of Fire) is published this year.

Full disclosure: I’ve not finished the trilogy, but the reason I recommend it is that (in addition to being great fiction) it breaks the “China vs. the West” dyad by showing the global nature of the opium trade and the realignment of economic and political power in the 19th century. The connections among India, China, and Britain are clear and nuanced, but also important are the roles played by East Africa, North America, and Southeast Asia.

My second selection is Howard French’s China’s Second Continent, which was published last year but I just taught this summer. I was really pleased with how it explained to students a lot about not only China and Africa, but the USA. as well. The book does a remarkable service to the diversity of African countries and the range of Chinese people living and working there. More than one student made comparisons about China’s imperialistic behavior in French’s book and the behavior of Europeans and (especially) Americans in China today, or at least recently.


Alec Ash

A Perfect Crime
A Yi (trans. Anna Holmwood)

I’ve already interviewed the author of this novel for the blog, but can’t resist giving it another mention here. A Perfect Crime is perhaps best billed as China’s L’étranger, and it’s utterly fascinating — a visceral and (be warned) pessimistic engagement with Chinese society from a cop turned novelist. It’s readable in a single sitting, but you might finish that sitting a bit shaken up.

Point of Origin
Diao Dou (trans. Brendan O’Kane)

More contemporary Chinese literature for my second recommendation, as fiction is often the best way to get Chinese voices where non-fiction is castrated. Brendan O’Kane brings us a collection of stories from a less well-known author (also published in the great collection, Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China). Surreal, satirical, surprising. Fingers crossed that “Diaodou-esque” becomes an adjective.


Paul French

2015 was a good year for China-related photography books and exhibition catalogues. The Met’s China Through the Looking Glass exhibition was a lavish feast of costume, ceramics, and objets for those interested in how China has influenced the imagination of western costumiers, artists, and filmmakers. The catalogue was equally lavish with photography from Platon and essays by curator Andrew Bolton and artistic director Wong Kar Wei, among others. For those intrigued by chinoiserie, it is essential to study a copy page-by-page with a mulled wine.

The number of beautifully conceived and self-published photography books concerning China is growing apace. Shanghai-based James H. Bollen (who’s photography book inspired by JG Ballard’s memories of Shanghai, Jim’s Terrible City, was the subject of a Q&A last year on this blog) has just published Wallpaper — The Shanghai Collection. Bollen has captured the remaining fragments of Shanghai’s condemned old buildings, revealed by the remorseless wrecking ball that continues to afflict the city. Photographs of shredded wallpaper, abandoned posters, calendars, and all manner of decorative ephemera are juxtaposed with apt quotes from William Morris’s 1870s lectures on Hopes and Fears for Art — ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ A good new year’s resolution I think.


Documenting Public Space in China

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Americans tend to expect privacy in their public spaces. My enjoyment of a park is, in some ways, contingent on not being bothered by anyone else’s loud music, conversations, or sports activities. Riders in Amtrak’s quiet cars are infamous for shaming those who violate the rules of the rails (just ask New Jersey governor Chris Christie). And I’m instantly on guard whenever a fellow passenger on the Bolt Bus or an airplane attempts to strike up a conversation (though I’ll admit that some of those encounters have turned out surprisingly well). Even when surrounded by others, we Americans expect to be left alone.

Public spaces in China simply don’t work the same way, as documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki demonstrates in two of his feature films, People’s Park (2012) and The Iron Ministry (2015). The former is a real-time exploration of activities in Chengdu’s central People’s Park; the latter splices together footage from three years of Sniadecki’s train rides in China. Both films demonstrate that people in China use public spaces in a fundamentally different way than Americans do: the park is a massive outdoor living room, the train a rolling restaurant/bar/hotel/community center. Privacy? Solitude? Personal space? There’s no such thing.

A Harvard-trained anthropologist who is affiliated with the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki does not produce your standard talking-heads-style documentaries. In People’s Park, Sniadecki and fellow filmmaker Libbie Cohn created a “digital homage” to the renowned Song-dynasty scroll painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival; the film explores the park in one uninterrupted 78-minute take, meant to mimic in 21st-century fashion the experience of walking and viewing the 17-foot scroll. To achieve this effect, they first had to get to know the park, its people, and its rhythms; the two spent many days walking around and talking with the retirees who frequent the space. Once they had formulated a list of things to feature and noted the times at which those activities usually occurred, Sniadecki and Cohn constructed an itinerary that would get them to all the places they wanted to cover at the moment when the most action was happening. They carried out the filming itself by taking turns sitting in a wheelchair, armed with a small video camera and a set of microphones, while the other pushed the chair at a snail’s pace along the park’s paths.

The results of all this prep work — and 23 separate attempts at capturing the single take without mishap — are stunning. People’s Park leads the viewer on a slow tour of the lush green space, moving through different zones of activity as conversations ebb and flow around the camera. There are no subtitles or captions; the content of the discussions is not important. At points, Sniadecki and Cohn stop to linger in a particular spot, showcasing the ballroom dancers, singers, and artists who use the park as their performance venue. The highlight of these interludes is the closing dance sequence, which is unexpected and enormously fun.

Although Sniadecki and Cohn cite Along the River during the Qingming Festival as their inspiration, People’s Park reminds me just as much of an earlier China documentary, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 Zhongguo (Cina), which also features long, slow takes of people’s everyday lives and their interactions in public spaces. Similarly, The Iron Ministry brought to mind another, more recent, feature documentary, Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009). Fan’s wonderful film has a more noticeable structure and narrative than Sniadecki’s, but the two share an interest in the common experiences of millions of travelers on the Chinese railway network. The Iron Ministry offers peeks at nearly every class and type of train running in China today, from hard-seat on the rusting old “iron roosters” of the 1980s to the quiet hum of the high-speed rail (I’ve written here before about the contrast between the different types of service.)

As in People’s Park, Sniadecki emphasizes the sensory environment of the train — especially its sounds — but The Iron Ministry is less experimental than the earlier film. It’s also more interactive than People’s Park; Sniadecki can be heard asking people questions, and small bits of conversation are translated in subtitles. Passengers discuss Tibet and modernization, China’s policy toward minorities, the challenges of finding a wife when you don’t own a home, and the changes one cutesy young woman hopes to make in her life by moving to Hangzhou.

People’s Park and The Iron Ministry are both challenging and heavily theorized films, the documentary equivalent of an academic monograph. For anyone who has lived in or studied China, they will surely resonate; both contained more than a few moments that brought back memories for me. Audience members without a China connection or interest in documentary filmmaking might find these works less accessible, but my hope is that viewers don’t let themselves be intimidated, as both films are well worth the investment of time and focus. Sniadecki’s immersive, sensory-intensive approach comes as close as I can imagine is possible to replicating the experience of walking through a Chinese park or riding in a hard-seat train carriage. For an American who prefers a comfortable buffer of personal space at all times, these activities can bring on an episode of sensory overload. But taking a deep breath and pushing through it is usually worthwhile; you never know when you’ll stumble upon a mass dance performance that completely revises your understanding of what a park is used for. And after a few good conversations on a Chinese train, you’ll never choose the quiet car again.