Dumplings, Dictators, and Daoists — Six Book Recommendations

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I wrote the first draft of this post on the final day of 2016, and then revised it on the first day of 2017, so it is fitting that it will be divided between backward looking and forward looking halves.  In the opening half, I will provide micro-reviews of two worthy but dissimilar 2016 books.  They explore, respectively the cuisine of the Jiangnan Region of China that includes the cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, and the puzzle of how China’s Communist Party keeps outliving predictions of its imminent demise.  I thought at various points that I would work extended discussions of these 2016 publications into piece I was writing, but that never happened.  I am glad to at least be able to give them short shout outs here. 

In the forward-looking half of the post, I will make even briefer presentations of twice as many books.  Two of these are very early 2017 publications (a work of recent history that just came out, a novel that will be available next week), while the third won’t be published until March and the fourth appears in April.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into advance copies of the two January publications, and I read full drafts of the impressive March and April ones last year.  In 2016, I reviewed quite a few books — for venues such as the New York Times, the FT, the American Scholar, and the TLS — and I hope to do more reviewing of this sort throughout 2017.  I know, though, that I won’t be reviewing any of the 2017 titles I discuss below, since they are all by people who are old friends, sometime collaborators, or fit into both of these categories.

Part 1: Looking Backwards

Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China, is someone whose writing on Chinese food I’ve admired for years.  When coming across her pieces in periodicals, I found her knowledge impressive and her passion for dishes and restaurants infectious.  But before getting my hands on Land of Fish and Rice (Norton, 2016), I had never read one of her books, despite having had friends recommend them to me.  I now look forward to reading the earlier ones, but I’m glad to have started with her latest, which comes with a mix of well told stories and easy to follow recipes and is full of beautiful photographs.  This is because it deals with a regional cuisine that has special meaning for me.  The first place I spent time in Asia was Shanghai, meaning that my early encounters with Chinese food in China, whether in the homes of friends or at local restaurants (this was back in the mid-1980s, before there were many in the city), tended to involve Jiangnan dishes.  I grew addicted to soup-filled xiaolongbao dumplings and other local specialties Dunlop’s book discusses.  I had thought I would write a double review that paired discussion of Land of Fish and Rice with an assessment of a book based on an exhibit of woodblock prints from Jiangnan, but I ended up just writing briefly about that catalogue on its own, so I am glad to celebrate the food-related publication here.  For fuller sense of what Land of Fish and Rice offers, check out the author’s ChinaFile video, which contains some mouthwatering images.

The other 2016 book I never got around to reviewing is political scientist Bruce Dickson’s The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival. This Oxford University Press volume is full of astute comments about the mixture of techniques, including but far from limited to repression, which the Chinese Communist Party has used to stay in control during a period when many similar organizations have fallen.  Particularly interesting is the use the author makes of public opinion surveys, which provide imperfect but still useful windows onto how ordinary people view political arrangements and think about various concepts.  I thought at one point that I would pair discussion of Dickson’s book with China’s Future, a book that his George Washington University colleague David Shambaugh published about the same time, which focuses on points of weakness rather than strength in the current Chinese political status quo.  In the end, though, I treated Shambaugh’s book on its own in a review for the Wall Street Journal.  You can, though, read a concise and well-turned Foreign Affairs dual assessment of the two works by Andrew Nathan by clicking here.

Part 2: Looking Forward

Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, which just came out this week from Harvard University Press, provides a gracefully written narrative of the unusual experiments with mixing economic forms that facilitated China’s economic boom.  For an early very positive review of Gewirtz’s nicely crafted and carefully argued debut book, see this starred one in Publisher’s Weekly.

Next week, Henry Holt will publish Lotus: A Novel, the first book-length work of fiction by Lijia Zhang, the author of a compelling memoir about growing up in Nanjing and working in a missile factory.  Whereas Unlikely Partners deals with elite figures, Zhang, who places a sex worker at the center of her novel, focuses largely on those who have been left behind in material terms as China has risen.  An excerpt from the book, as well as advance praise from a dizzying array of notable writers, can be found here.

The two books I’d encouraged readers to watch for in the months to come, which are both elegantly written and accessible works aimed at general readers, are Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (due in March) and Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao (out in April).  Both authors have published highly regarded books already, while also distinguishing themselves in short-form and long-form journalism.  You can see French talking about some of the historical and geopolitical themes he addresses in Everything Under the Sun in this recent video that he and I did at Columbia University.  Johnson’s new book looks at the revival of various religious traditions, including indigenous ones such as Daoism, but one way get a sense of what he is up to is to check out this episode of the estimable Sinica Podcast he guested on that focuses on Catholicism, which is obviously a religion that was brought into China, but has a centuries long history there to keep in mind.

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