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.

The Trial of the Gang of Four — As History and Current Events

By Liz Carter

Forced confessions, show trials, and crises of legitimacy. These are topics covered in Alexander C. Cook’s important book, The Cultural Revolution on Trial: Mao and the Gang of Four, which Cambridge University Press published in November. They are also issues China has been facing recently, as Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate power and bolster faith in the Communist Party. Cook’s primary purpose is not, however, to offer a cautionary tale about history repeating itself, but to put forward a novel framework for understanding historical trauma, its roots, and its repercussions. Continue reading

On China’s Great Books: An Interview with Frances Wood

By Paul French

Retirement from her post as the Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library in London seemingly hasn’t done much to slow down Frances Wood’s output. She’s never been anything less than prodigious, and she has now assembled a collection of writing from China, going as far as 1,000 BCE and the anonymous Book of Songs (Shi jing) and finally finishing with Dai Houying’s Stones of the Wall (1981), which set during the Cultural Revolution. Titled Great Books of China: From Ancient Times to the Present (published by BlueBridge in the U.S. and Head of Zeus in the U.K.), her latest work contains over 60 excerpts, presented in rough chronological order, from novels, poems and philosophical works, each introduced by Wood to set them in context and explain their importance. The collection is at once a serious study of the progression of Chinese writing for the scholar and, for those less scholarly inclined, a fine miscellany to dip into at random given a free hour and a glass of something warming. Continue reading

What’s New in Studies of Early 20th-Century China?

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

It’s easy to imagine a book on the trafficking of people in China around a hundred years ago that begins with a chapter that cites various anthropologists and scholars in other disciplines, while placing the Chinese historical phenomenon into comparative and theoretical perspective. It’s also easy to imagine a different book on the same subject opening in a totally different, more literary manner. This other book might begin with the author stitching together material from archival sources, such as confessions, to create a tale about real people that reads like a short story. What I could not have imagined a week ago was a book that did both of these things, but I can now. What made the difference was picking up University of Chicago historian Johanna Ransmeier’s Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China, which was recently published by Harvard University Press. Continue reading

In the Last Days of Old Shanghai

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

For well over half-a-century, novelists have been setting tales in 1930s Shanghai, an unusually cosmopolitan city that was divided into foreign-run and Chinese-run districts and known for its bustling port and decadent nightlife. Talented Chinese authors, such as Zhang Ailing (1920-1995) who published in English as Eileen Chang, set stories in the metropolis while the era of the Japanese invasion of China (1932-1945) and eight-year occupation of Shanghai that began in 1937 were underway.  A writer now probably best known in the West for writing the stories that inspired the film “Lust, Caution,” Chang was the author of novels such as Half a Lifelong Romance and The Fall of the Pagoda, both set in Shanghai, as well as the translator of Han Bangqing’s The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, an older volume that chronicled the city’s red-light district in the late 19th century. Continue reading

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