Tag Archives: jeffrey wasserstrom

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A Tale of Two First Books: A Conversation with NPR’s Louisa Lim and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos

In 2008, I wrote in the Guardian that there had recently been a “notable acceleration” in the frequency with which “illuminating books of reportage” on China had been appearing. It had become routine, I explained, after writers like Peter Hessler and Ian Johnson had come onto the scene, for two or three engagingly crafted books a year to come out that were by journalists who had spent considerable time in China and had sharp insights to share about the country’s recent past and current situation.  Still, the year of the Beijing Games was special, since it saw Factory GirlsThe Last Days of Old BeijingOut of Mao’s Shadow, and Smoke and Mirrors all published within a single twelve-month stretch.  I continue to admire that quartet of books, but the proximity of their publication dates no longer seems so striking.  Why? Because we are mid-way through a three-week period that, when it ends, will have seen the appearance of not just one but two major additions to the list of powerful books on China by talented journalists. I mean, of course, Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (just out from FSG and garnering very strong reviews, such as this one in the Washington Post) and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (which is officially published by Oxford on June 4, but is already available as an e-book, and getting positive assessments as well, such as this write-up in Kirkus Reviews).*

I caught up by email with Osnos and Lim — both of whom will be speaking in Southern California soon and both of whose books are reviewed, in the same article, in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review — and they generously agreed to not only answer a question from me, but also to play interviewer as well as interviewee and ask each other one question apiece.  My query for each of them is simple: What is in your book that you are proud of having there, but that you had no idea you would deal with when you started writing or planning the project?

Here, in the order in which they will be coming out this way are their answers, with Evan Osnos (who’ll be doing two events at UC Irvine on May 27) weighing in first, and then Louisa Lim (who will be speaking at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on June 12) going next.   After that will come Evan’s question to Louisa and her answer; and then, closing out the interview, Louisa’s question to Evan and his reply. Continue reading

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Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

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Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.

Mao Buddha Kongzi Statues

Confucius, Mao, and the Little Red Book

All Photos by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve just returned from a trip to China that began with a week in Shanghai, where I participated in one literary festival, and ended with a few days in Beijing, where I had a small role in another bookish event of the same kind.  It was good to go back to those cities, which I’ve visited regularly since the mid-1980s, especially since temperatures were higher and smog levels lower than I’d feared they might be, and the panels at Shanghai’s M on the Bund and Beijing’s Capital M went as well as I’d hoped they would.  But as satisfying as returning to each metropolis was, I was particularly glad to be able to slip in a side trip to Qufu, a small city in Shandong Province, best known for its ties to Confucius, that I’d never been to before.  This visit has changed forever the way I think about the historical treatment of the ancient sage and how I think about a canonical modern Chinese text, Mao’s Little Red Book.

I decided to go to Qufu, which is still home to many members of the Kong lineage of which Confucius was part, as soon as I realized how simple it would be to fold this place I’d long been curious to see into a rushed itinerary.  Thanks to the opening of a new bullet train route, I could set off from Shanghai in the morning, get to Confucius’s hometown after being whisked along the rails for three hours, spend the afternoon seeing the main local sights (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and the massive Kong family cemetery that includes the philosopher’s tomb), and then continue on by rail to Beijing the same evening, getting to the capital two hours later.

Qufu had been high on my “to see” list for years due to my interest in the dramatic about-face the Chinese Communist Party has made regarding Confucius.  He is now treated as a kind of national saint but, to borrow from sports writing parlance, his posthumous career has had the ups and downs of a classic comeback kid. Most significantly, as Maura Cunningham and I note near the beginning of our China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, second edition, 2013), as recently as the 1970s he was “excoriated in a mass campaign that presented him as a man whose hide-bound, anti-egalitarian ideas had done great harm to many generations of Chinese men and even more damage to generations of Chinese women.”  How, I wondered on the train to Qufu, would sites associated with Confucius deal with the various reversals of fortune that have been experienced by the sage, who was out of favor among intellectuals in the 1910s, only to be exalted by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, before being reviled throughout the Mao years (1949-1976) and then surging back into official favor under the Chairman’s successors?  In symbolic terms, might Qufu be that most unusual sort of contemporary Chinese locale — a completely Mao-free zone?

QufuTrainStation

 

Qufu Poster

My first fifteen minutes in Qufu were frustrating ones.  They were spent circling the train station with a friend, who was also shuttling between the Shanghai and Beijing literary festivals and had agreed to join me in some Confucius-themed sightseeing, trying to figure out a way to leave our bags in a safe place while venturing into the city.  My initial impression, captured in a couple of photographs I took during breaks from our quest to find lockers or a secure luggage room (the closest we got was a waitress pointing to a closet in her restaurant that she thought might be a good place to stow our bags), was of a city that was all about Confucius and had no room for Mao, and was unconcerned with the ups and downs of the former’s career.  Bigger than life in the station’s main hall was a statue of Confucius that gazed down on all visitors and was described simply as a revered figure from ancient times.  And when I stepped outside, I saw the same visage gazing down at me benevolently from a giant poster that placed Confucius between a needle-nosed bullet train (suggesting that Qufu is a place that honors venerable traditions but is part of a modern country) and a hillside (nodding to the city’s only claim to fame unrelated to the Kong family, which is its proximity to Mount Tai, a leading attraction for Chinese lovers of nature).

Mao came into the picture, though, as soon as we gave up on leaving our bags at the station and decided to hire a taxi with a decent-sized locked trunk for the whole afternoon.  Hanging from the cab driver’s rearview mirror was the same good luck medallion emblazoned with the late Chairman’s face that one sees in taxis across China.  As he drove us to our first stop, the Confucius Temple, he pointed to rows of buildings going up along the highway and cranes in the distance that were part of still grander development plans.  Qufu, the voluble man insisted, was destined to become a major tourist site and a bigger city, since travelers from Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as from all parts of China would want to come and pay homage to Confucius.  Was he sure, I asked, that the population and local tourist trade would grow enough to justify all the building underway?  Definitely, he said, nodding his head vigorously, and then offered two pieces of evidence to back up his confidence.  First, the Shangri-La luxury chain had recently opened a hotel in Qufu.  Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, had close ties to the area, so money was bound to flow into the region.

QufuTaxi

 

QufuCrane

Responding to my other questions, he said that he wasn’t part of the Kong lineage, to which an estimated 20% of the just over half-a-million people living in the greater Qufu are said to belong, but he was a local.  And as such, he was very proud to be from the same place as a great sage and hero of Chinese history.

I asked if he saw anything strange about saying that while having an image of Mao in his car, since the Chairman, an iconoclast from an early age, had despised Confucius throughout his adult life. The driver just bellowed with laughter.  I asked if he even knew about the anti-Confucius stance of Mao’s day, and he nodded and, still laughing, shouted out “Pi Lin, Pi Kong!”  This is the shorthand for the most famous anti-Confucius campaign of all, which took place in the early 1970s.  Making use of the term “pi” for criticize, it targeted both the ancient philosopher (“Pi Kong”) and Mao’s erstwhile heir apparent, Lin Biao (“Pi Lin”).  Lin, a People’s Liberation Army leader, had been seen as a devoted follower of Mao and staunch defender of Mao’s interpretation of Marxism and iconoclastic critical stance toward Confucian ideas.  When the tide turned against Lin, though, he was accused of having been a secret supporter of all things reactionary, including Confucianism, which provided the tortured logic for a double-barreled “Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign,” which threw alleged ancient and contemporary enemies of the revolutionary cause into the same vile category.

Confucius Tomb Plaque

 

Qufu Temple

When we made our way through the city’s three major sites, the main focus of the texts aimed at tourists, from booklets to plaques, was simply the glories of Confucius and the rich legacy of the lineage to which he belonged and the imperial era he is often used to represent.  There was not any mention, at least in any text I saw, of the fact that Confucius had only been revered during part of the People’s Republic’s history.

Every now and then, though, the recent past would come into view, since both some official gift shops and many of the unofficial booths selling trinkets near to the key sites contained objects associated with Mao and his era in powers.  Inside the Confucius Mansion, for example, there was a shop selling various decks of cards: some featuring Confucius, others celebrating emperors, and still others honoring Mao. Meanwhile, between the Temple and the Mansion, there were different but equally promiscuous displays of statues, with Confucius, the Buddha, and Mao all jumbled together.

Qufu Playing Cards

 

Mao Buddha Kongzi Statues

Of all the curious juxtapositions of objects, though, there’s one that stands out most to me as I look back on my Qufu afternoon, which I spotted at a souvenir stall displaying, among other things, a lot of small books with red covers.  A set of four red booklets in particular caught my eye. Two were differently packaged versions of the classic Little Red Books containing Mao’s selected sayings; but the other two were similarly designed and titled copy-cat texts, made up, in this case, of quotations by Confucius.

The side-by-side placement of Little Red Books associated with Mao and Confucius seemed curious for so many reasons that it is hard to know where to begin in attempting to unravel or even describe them.  To try to sort them out, I spent some time on the plane ride home perusing an advance copy of Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, a wonderful anthology edited by Alexander Cook that Cambridge University Press is publishing next month.  The chapters in the volume, by talented scholars based in different countries and different disciplines, explore everything from the way the eponymous text was created and distributed within China to the meanings it took on when it made its way to foreign countries such as India, Italy, Albania and Peru.

Little Red Books

Here are two things the chapters by Cook and his collaborators suggest might be worth considering while pondering the apparent contradiction of different sorts of little red books placed beside one another on that table in Qufu.  Lin Biao, before being castigated as a closet Confucian, took a special role in promoting Mao’s Little Red Book and wrote a preface to the best-known edition of it.  And while the titles and even design features of the newly created Little Red Books of Confucian sayings imitate features of Mao-era creations (note the round images of the authors on some books), the original Little Red Books of quotes by Mao were themselves inspired in part by pamphlets and booklets from earlier times that brought together aphorisms from the Analects and other classical Chinese philosophical texts.

I thought that Qufu would be the sort of place I’d only want to visit once, but the more I ponder what I’ve come to think of as my Little Red Books photo, the more certain I am that I’ll need to go back there again.  I will want to see if the cab driver’s prediction of great things for the city comes true.  I may even see what it’s like to stay in a Shangri-La in Confucius’s hometown.  And I will definitely do something I foolishly forgot to do on my first visit: buy one of the copy-cat Little Red Books that has a picture on its cover of, and words inside by, a philosopher Mao thought of as having ideas that were the polar opposite of his own.

* To learn more about some of the topics brought up in this post, see the following three works:

1) Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Culture of the Great Leader. Page 33 of this pathbreaking work edited by Geremie R. Barmé contains a discussion of a Confucian “Little Red Book” published in Qufu in the early 1980s; page 86 has a photograph of one.

2) A Continuous Revolution–Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture.  This book by Barbara Mittler, which recently won the American Historical Association’s Fairbank Prize, has discusses connections between Confucian and Maoist texts and practices and has a good treatment of the Anti-Confucius, Anti-Lin Biao Campaign; see especially page 193.

3) “To Protect and Preserve: Resisting the Destroy the Four Olds Campaign, 1966-1967.”  This chapter by Dahpon David Ho in The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (a volume edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder) contains a fascinating and detailed account of Mao era activities in Qufu, including pitched battles between those trying to deface and those fighting to defend the Kong family cemetery.

CI21C Taiwan cover

Censorship, Translation and the Chinese Market

“To me the choice was easy…I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, statement made during a Chinese book tour.

“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family.”

Rebecca Karl, author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.

“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing.
[All quotes appeared in Andrew Jacobs, “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China,” New York Times, October 19, 2013.]

Here are some questions that students, friends, and people who introduce themselves to me after I’ve given a public talk on China often ask:

Are you sorry that none of the books you’ve written have come out in Chinese editions?

How much would you be willing to let Chinese publishers cut from your books, if told that allowing some things to get intentionally lost in translation was what it would take for these works to be sold on the mainland?

Would you balk at cutting a few sentences, be fine with deleting a whole chapter, or perhaps even be okay with trimming segments here and there throughout a book?

How strongly would you push back if asked for other sorts of changes, like allowing your book to have a dramatically different title in the Chinese edition?

I’ll likely get asked things like this more often now, thanks to Andrew Jacobs, whose recent article on the publication of Western works in mainland China has generated a lot of buzz. It’s no surprise that the article has caught the interest of China specialists. Many of us are fascinated by the challenge of sorting out what has and hasn’t changed about Chinese publishing and censorship in recent years. Jacobs draws attention to both novelties of the present (not long ago, books dealing even in part with sensitive issues simply would not be translated) as well as things that are holdovers from past times, such as the paranoia about protecting Party officials’ images that led to a reference to Deng dropping a dumpling being cut from Vogel’s book, and a text about a mayor and a mistress ending up one of the very few things excised from Meyer’s. And Jacobs focuses on three different sorts of members of our tribe: sociologist Vogel (whose Deng biography is selling briskly in China), historian Karl (whose book will likely be published soon by Hunan People’s Press), and journalist Meyer (whose book was retitled Zaihui, Lao Beijing, or “See You Again, Old Beijing,” in an effort, Jacobs writes, to make an often dismayed look at destruction seem a “nostalgic love letter”).

What is more notable is how much interest in the article there has been beyond specialist circles. On October 23, for example, the Guardian ran a follow-up article, “Author Bows to Chinese Censorship of his Deng Biography,” which zeroed in on Vogel’s relatively easy acceptance of modifying his work so that it could appear in China. The next day, “The Banal Reality of Censoring Books in China” appeared on the History News Network website. This article began with HNN editor David Walsh describing the battle Karl fought — and won — to keep Hunan People’s Press from going forward with their initial plan to present her book to Chinese readers as a straightforward biography of Mao, with an altered title to match.

Reading these three articles on censorship has made me appreciate anew a basic fact about the questions regarding translation, accommodation, censorship and so forth I sometimes get asked: at least for me, these queries usually cannot be answered as simply as people would like. And the same will be true now if I’m asked whether, like Vogel, I’ll be happy if “90 percent” of one my books can make its way into the Chinese market. It all depends, I’ll say, on which book we are talking about.

In the case of China’s Brave New World — and Other Tales for Global Times, which is comprised of separate though thematically connected essays, I was ready at one point to try to get a version published on the mainland that was only about 70% as long as the original, with several chapters that would clearly have created problems left out. (A friend found a publishing house that initially seemed ready to go forward with the book in that form, but then higher ups within it had second thoughts and the plans to bring out the translation were scrapped.)

With my first book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, which is mostly about pre-1949 events but has an “Epilogue” (perhaps making up 7% of the text) stressing parallels between those struggles and upheavals of the 1980s, on the other hand, I would view cutting out 10% as far too much. I would rather it not be published than come out sans that “Epilogue” and also stripped of passing comments in other chapters about the clear links and parallels between the “good,” in Chinese Communist Party eyes, protests that helped it rise to power and the “bad” ones that challenged its legitimacy in 1989.

Or, rather, I’d only consider going forward with a version like that if the press in question agreed to a condition I can’t imagine it would: marking each cut with an ellipsis to show that something in the original was no longer there, and putting a warning on the cover, like those you see when R rated movies are shown on an airplane, noting that the work has been modified for presentation in this particular setting. Without something like that done, I would worry that the book could too easily be read as supporting notions that I don’t agree with. For example, such cuts would eliminate the parallels I draw between protests of the 1940s, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Nationalist Party government of that era, and those that erupted four decades later, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party government of that time.

It might seem that at least one question mentioned at the start of this post would lend itself to a straightforward answer — the one about whether I’m frustrated that none of my books has come out in a Chinese edition yet. Of course, since I share Karl’s desire to be read broadly, I’d love to have all my books available in as many translations as possible, and since I write about China, reaching Chinese readers is particularly desirable. Still, this question needs clarification and contextualization, even though neither of the books just mentioned has been translated into simplified characters by a Chinese publisher, and the same goes for the other two books I’ve written, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The most important thing to note is that there is a Chinese-language version out of China in the 21st Century, just not a simplified-character one. A complex-character translation of the book’s second edition, which I updated in collaboration with fellow LARB “China Blog” regular Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published this summer. It’s now readily available for sale in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some copies could already be making their way into the hands of readers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, even if this edition can’t be sold in mainland bookstores. So, it’s not quite true that there are no “Chinese editions” of my works. It’s not even accurate to say none of them can be sold openly in the People’s Republic of China, since Hong Kong is now a part of that country, albeit one where distinctive rules on publishing apply — something demonstrated by such things as there being a Hong Kong translation of Vogel’s biography of Deng that I’ve been told includes passages snipped out of the mainland edition.

Finally, what about sticking to your guns on titles? I admire Karl’s determination not to have her Mao book, which is very different in aims and scope than a standard biography, recast to seem like it was just that. I can also see, though, why Meyer might have felt differently about The Last Days of Old Beijing becoming Zaihui, Lao Beijing. If you are interested in making a living as an author in the present era, there’s a need to pick your battles, and he also might well have felt that going along with the title change provided him more leverage in working to keep parts of the book’s content he cared about from being cut. Added to this, there’s a basic difference between Karl and Meyer’s past experiences with publication, since the former’s articles have most often been published in scholarly venues, the latter’s in magazines and newspapers. If you write for general interest rather than academic venues, you simply get used to having titles other than the ones you came up with placed above your work. In my relatively amphibious career, I try to keep this in mind, so I can roll with the punches when my articles for non-scholarly periodicals are retitled (though ones that seem to me to veer too far from my original meaning certainly annoy me) yet ready to push back if anyone tries to get me to give up on a title I like for something I’ve written for an academic journal.

As for books, I was so happy to see one of my books finally come out in a Chinese-language edition of some kind, that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even consulted about what China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know would be renamed. And just in case any Chinese publisher is reading this post, I’d like to make it clear that I’m open to having Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 retitled. It’s hardly a “nostalgic love letter” to the city that is its focus, but it does have a sense of old patterns returning in novel forms in the metropolis; so, especially if Meyer’s work sells as well as it should (it’s a really good book), I’d even be willing to consider Zaihui, Lao Shanghai. Hell, with a title like “See You Again, Old Shanghai,” someone might even bid for the movie rights.

* For more on the Chinese translations of The Last Days of Old Beijing — in the plural, since Taiwan and mainland editions have both come out — and the author’s experiences touring to promote these books in Asia, check out Michael Meyer’s “See You Again, Old Beijing,” an engaging and thoughtful memoir cum commentary published in SLATE. Also of interest are two “Letters to the Editor” inspired by Jacobs’s article that have appeared in the New York Times. One of these, from China specialist John Israel, recounts an interesting experience the author had with a sensitive issue of translation. The other is from the President of Ohio Wesleyan University, noting that Vogel “passed on all rights to income from mainland China sales” of his Deng biography to that school, his “alma mater.”  The proceeds are to be used to establish “a permanent endowment to support Ohio Wesleyan students engaged in international study, with a preference for research and travel involving East Asia.”