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.

Commemorating an Anti-Authoritarian Provocateur: Reflections on Wang Xiaobo (May 13, 1952–April 11, 1997)

By Sebastian Veg

Wang Xiaobo, an important Chinese literary and intellectual figure who died of a heart attack 20 years ago this week at the age of 44, remains largely unknown to the reading public outside China.  Only a few novellas and one important essay of his have been translated into English.  In China, by contrast, his popularity reached unprecedented heights in the late 1990s, and he was even included posthumously (with five other “emeriti”) on the first list of China’s 50 “most influential public intellectuals” published in 2004. Even now, his books are still reprinted and widely read: Changjiang Literature and Art has just published a new seven-volume selection of his writings to mark the anniversary of his death. Continue reading

Swimming in Hong Kong: An Interview with Stephanie Han

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

I met Stephanie Han at a literary event in Hong Kong back in 2014, but we didn’t get much of a chance to talk due to traffic delays, linked to the Umbrella Movement’s ongoing occupation of the financial district, making me arrive late. We connected a few months later when I Skyped into a memoir-writing class she was teaching on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. I only really got to know her, though, via a different sort of virtual encounter: reading and becoming absorbed by Swimming in Hong Kong, her new collection of short stories. Comprised of tales that previously appeared in periodicals and anthologies, it is published by Willow Springs Press. Here are some questions I emailed her, along with the answers she sent back. Continue reading

Awakening, Returning, and Looking Forward: An Interview with Ian Johnson

By Ting Guo

It is March in Beijing. Many local friends tell me that it is the loveliest month here, as one can see, smell, and feel the change of seasons coming after a long smoggy winter: The day is warm and the golden sunlight streams brilliantly on a blue sky — so blue that it seems as if it had been washed by the Dragon King, the deity for water and weather in Chinese folk beliefs. Plum and apricot blossoms and willows glow with life. Indeed, the divide between all the four seasons is more distinct here in the north than in Jiangnan, the southern region by the Yangtze River where I grew up, echoing loudly the 24 solar terms. After the Rain Water (yushui 雨水) reaches Equinox, then it arrives Clear and Bright (qingming 清明), the day when people sweep the graves of their ancestors. Ancient solar terms such as these figure centrally in Ian Johnson’s new book, Souls of China, which includes sections named for them, one of the first things that intrigued me about his approach to the topic of the revival of religion in the PRC. Continue reading

Follow the Money — Silk, Silver, and 16th Century-Style Globalization

By Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales

Lost travelers, when asking for directions at a country store in the backwoods of northern New England, are likely to be told — or, at least, so goes the myth — “You can’t get there from here.” We can’t get to an understanding of China and its place in the world of the 21st century if the understanding of where we are today is determined by a historical narrative that starts in mid-18th century with the rise of Anglo-American dominance. Continue reading

Reflections on Silk Roads: An Interview with Peter Frankopan

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Oxford historian Peter Frankopan’s much-praised book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, first published in the UK in 2015 and just out in paperback in the United States, is already available in various languages other than English and is getting reviewed and talked about in the press on several continents.  One tangible indication of its reach is that, when I flew home from the Shanghai International Literary Festival Sunday, one of the last things I saw in China was a Chinese language edition of it displayed in a Pudong airport shop, while one of the first things I saw once back in America, as the photograph accompanying this interview shows, was the English language edition prominently featured on the shelves of an SFO bookstore.  Silk Roads is a sprawling, engagingly written, comprehensive effort to pull the loci of world history east to the networks of political, economic and cultural exchange that have connected Europe with Asia for centuries. For Frankopan, these early trading routes form the basis for understanding the geopolitics of our time.  I caught up with him via email to quiz him on various things relating to the present as well as the past. Continue reading

The Upside Down World: Shadows of Cold War Ghosts in Stranger Things

By Ting Guo

With Stranger Things, Netflix produced an original science fiction drama that went viral. But for me, it is also offered up a political drama that illuminated elements of our persistently divided world — and how we might save ourselves from it. Here, in what is admittedly more a series of fragmented reflections than a full account of the series and all of the ways it can be linked to the Cold War and its aftermath, are my thoughts, while watching it in Indiana, reflecting on the present moment and on how different my 1980s was from that shown in the movie and that remembered by American viewers of the same show. Continue reading

The Subtle Brilliance of Mr. Donkey

By Josh Freedman

Moviegoers in China pull no punches skewering the big-budget, low-quality offerings that dominate at the country’s theaters. Famed director Zhang Yimou, known for socially critical films, “has already died,” according to the top review of his widely-panned epic The Great Wall on the popular site Douban. Nearly all of the most-liked user reviews are similarly unforgiving: “Zhang Yimou finally unloaded the burden of being an artist, glamorously turned around, and told his former self, ‘goodbye!’” Continue reading

How to Be a Good Communist

By Austin Dean

Last summer, a bookstore in the Shanghai Pudong Airport listed an unlikely bestseller: To be Turned into Iron, the Metal Itself Must Be Strong: How to Be A Member of the Communist Party. It is hard to believe the book was flying off the shelves. Perhaps the rankings were manipulated; maybe all 88-million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to buy a copy. Still, no matter how it got to the top, the book, though part of an old genre, has much to tell us about something quite new: the ongoing anti-corruption crackdown under CCP head and PRC President Xi Jinping. Continue reading

Of Exports, Envoys, Boxers, and Books — Midwestern Links to the Middle Kingdom

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The first English language publication to include a detailed profile of Mao Zedong, Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, was by a man born in Kansas City. The historian often described as the doyen of Chinese studies in America, The United States and China author John King Fairbank, hailed from South Dakota. When Nobel laureate Mo Yan, James Joyce Award-winner Yu Hua, the acclaimed novelist Wang Anyi, and the celebrated poet Bei Dao visited the United States, one place they each spent time was Iowa City, whose celebrated International Writing Program has hosted many other leading Chinese writers as well. And yet, when the topic of historical ties between China and the United States comes up, the tendency is to focus not on states far from either coast, but those that stand beside an ocean. As a result, when Donald Trump announced that he wanted Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to be his Ambassador to China, the coverage occasionally veered in a man bites dog direction, as though tapping someone from the heartland to go to Beijing was a geographically eccentric move. Many journalists found it natural to list reasons — Branstad’s frequent visits Beijing, Xi Jinping’s visits to his state, the millions of metric tons of soybeans that Iowa ships to China each year, etc. — why this Midwesterner was actually a logical choice to represent America in the Middle Kingdom. Continue reading