Historian James H. Carter recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books on a new “biography” of the “The Books of Changes,” an important Chinese classical text. Asia Editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom caught up with Carter to ask him a few questions about, naturally enough, China and biography.
JW: You began your review of Richard Smith’s new “biography” of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) with some ruminations on the whole notion of biographies that don’t focus on individuals. If there were one other book with a tie to China you think especially worthy of a “biography,” what would it be - and who would you like to see write it?
JHC: It’s hard to eschew “actual” biographies - ones about people - because there are so many lives in China’s past that are so rich and resonant. Zhang Xueliang, who began life as the son of China’s most powerful warlord, and saw his homeland overrun by Japanese troops after his own commanders ordered him not to resist, played a key role in kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek and forcing him to cooperate with the Communists before living for decades under house arrest in Taiwan (eventually dying - at age 100! - in Hawaii), seems a more than deserving subject.
If I were going to suggest a “non-traditional” subject for a biography, I think I’d still stick with a human being: Lei Feng, the propaganda hero of Mao’s regime. He only lived to be 20 years old, as I understand it, but his life “after death” has been fascinating. I’m not aware of a biography of Lei Feng in English, or even an in-depth study on Lei Feng in history, myth, and legend. I can’t think of anyone better to write on this than Geremie Barme, at Australian National University (or perhaps Jeff Wasserstrom!)
If you insist on me giving a book that needs a biography, I’d suggest Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Maura Cunningham wrote a review of this not long ago for the Asia Society’s new ChinaFile site, in which she looked at its strange history and the ups and downs of its author’s reputation, from the Nobel Prize to derision to rehabilitation. It’s a valuable book to understand because it informed so many Westerners’ views of China. As to who should write it, it depends on whether the approach was from the Chinese or the American side, and whether to look at it as literature or as an instrument of its times. Jill Lepore would surely do interesting things with the topic, and writes beautifully.
JW: I know that reading biographical works on China - as well as other kinds of books, including the Judge Dee historical mysteries - helped hook me on Chinese history. Was that true for you as well? And if so, is there a particular biography you read early on that played a special role in leading you to a career as a Chinese historian?
JHC: My interest in history grew from reading series of biographies, but I don’t think there was a particular connection to China until I was in college. I’ve always thought history at its best showed the way big trends and patterns shaped, and were played out in, the lives of individuals.
My first course on Chinese history, at the University of Richmond, included three books that were all biographical in nature, though none of them were strictly speaking biographies. Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance was the first scholarly book on China I ever read, and the characters in it - the Wanli Emperor and the loyal official Hai Jui (who would later indirectly fuel the Cultural Revolution) - made clear the crises facing the Ming in ways that still resonate with me.
The other two were both by Jonathan Spence, and led me to want to study with him when my career path turned that way: The Death of Woman Wang remains fresh and innovative more than 30 years after it was published. And the unconventional “autobiography” Emperor of China: Self-portrait of Kangxi introduces the reader in a very intimate way to one of Qing China’s most important rulers. All these books showed me the importance of individual people even (especially?) in an empire as large as China.
JW: If a friend who had never gone to China was about to head there for the first time, what biography or biographies would you include in a list of five accessible books you’d encourage her to read before setting out?
JHC: I think I’d cheat a little and choose some books that are collective biographies. If I can’t include Chinese Characters, the book you and Angilee Shah recently co-edited (and in which I have a piece) I’d include Sang Ye’s China Candid, providing windows onto the lives of many people living through China’s multiple transitions.
A book I really enjoyed teaching was Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me, about a British ne’er-do-well who winds up as a policeman in Shanghai’s international settlement in the 1920s and ’30s. Although it focuses on a Westerner, of course, Shanghai is itself one of the book’s main characters, and interactions between and among Chinese and Westerners (and others) is one of the central stories of the 20th century.
Although the Cultural Revolution memoir genre is crowded and uneven, I’d recommend Ma Bo’s Blood Red Sunset. I like it because it’s insightful about what it means to be human, not just what the Cultural Revolution is like. I find reading that book to be humbling and overwhelming, and I learn something about myself each time I read it.
Blood Red Sunset often reads like a novel, but an actual novel would be another choice: Ha Jin’s Waiting. It focuses on the life of one man, in the 1960s, so I think it qualifies. It imparts something about China’s recent history but, like Ma Bo’s book, its real strength is teaching something about what it means to be human.
Last I’d pick Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls. My mother read this and said it made her think for the first time about what is behind the words “Made in China.” Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it shows the lives of migrant workers in exquisite, sometimes heart-rending, detail. And there’s a lot of Chang’s personal story in it as well.
JW: Your last book, Heart of Buddha, Heart of China, was a biography of sorts, using the life of a Buddhist monk as a window onto big shifts in Chinese history. Will your next book be one as well?
JHC: Indirectly. I am working on two projects right now. One is a history of the development of the modern world, for classroom use. That book, which I am co-writing, emphasizes individuals, so there are many stories in there that try to connect big processes to individual lives.
The other book is set in 1941 at the Shanghai Race Club, the horseracing track that is now People’s Square. In 1941, before the US and Britain entered the Pacific War, Shanghai’s international settlement continued to function as territory even as the rest of the city (and much of China) was occupied by Japanese soldiers. I find the horseraces there to be a powerful lens to examine the relations among the different elements of society - wealthy and poor, Chinese and European and Japanese, merchants and laborers - in an exciting and somewhat bizarre setting.
If the book comes off as planned, it will focus on a single day (May 7, 1941), when the track championship was run for the last time before the track was taken over by the Japanese. Since I’m early in the research, I don’t know exactly what I will find, but my expectation is that individuals’ stories will do a lot of the work in telling the story.
James H. Carter is Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University, and the author of Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a 20th-century Monk (Oxford, 2011) and Creating a Chinese Harbin (Cornell, 2002). He has written on urban history, biography, religious history, and Sino-Western relations, focusing on the experiences of individuals. He is Editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China and fellow of the National Committee on US-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program.