For years now, intellectually curious people who are about to head off to China—and happen to know that I teach and write about that country for a living—have occasionally asked me a variation of the same question: "Can you point me toward a good book to read in advance or take along on the trip, which will offer a perspective different from both that offered by a standard guidebook and that given by reports in the mainstream media?" And with the Beijing Olympics drawing near and interest in China rising for other reasons, the frequency with which I get asked this sort of question has picked up. Sometimes now the people doing the asking aren’t even planning to go to the PRC, but just want to know more about the place.
I’ve always liked to be asked the question, since it gives me the opportunity to steer people toward a piece of reportage, a memoir, a work of analysis, or a novel that has the potential to counteract simplistic and misleading ideas about China. And at the moment, I’ve got a special reason to welcome the "what should I read" question. It gives me a chance to answer: "Why China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times, of course." (That’s my latest book. It’s also my first that is playful and footnote free enough to have the potential to divert a China-bound traveler who isn’t an academic, and is short enough that someone going from Chicago to Shanghai or Bombay to Beijing could not just start but also finish it while en route.) But I don’t actually give that response, since it feels tacky to flog my own wares. Instead, I suggest a recent book I like by someone else. Oracle Bones, for example, an insightful and elegantly written book by Peter Hessler, which is part memoir, part work of analysis.
Coming up with books to suggest isn’t hard these days, since many accessible and interesting ones about China have come out recently—though some fall pray to simplistically romanticizing or (as is especially common just now) demonizing the PRC, which immediately disqualifies them from being worth recommending in my eyes. What’s tough at the moment (even tougher than resisting the temptation to plug my own book) is settling on just one book by someone else to recommend. As good as Oracle Bones is, for instance, when I’ve suggested it, I’ve sometimes immediately regretted that I didn’t tell the person instead to read journalist and oral historian Sang Ye’s China Candid, a wonderful collection of interviews with Chinese from widely varied walks of life. So, now I’ve decided that it’s silly to limit myself to just one book when dealing with a country as big, interesting, important, multifaceted, and misunderstood by outsiders as China. Surely, it makes sense to offer up a few books. Or better yet, take things further, in honor of the upcoming Olympics (for which athletes are training so intensely), and develop a twelve-step reading program. This is what I’ve done, organizing my scheme around a dozen titles that will help anyone serious about preparing to watch the Games (up close or on television) get in shape mentally. I’ve even put these readings into a month-by-month training plan that is outlined below. (I’m aware that most people will skip a month or two or even nearly all of the "assignments," yet I remain convinced that, even so, just as occasional visitors to a gym still see improvements in their health, the program will benefit these slackers.)
The books have been chosen with an eye toward liveliness, links of some sort to Beijing as a city or the Olympics as an event, and also stylistic and topical variety (just as athletes find it important to cross train, shifting gears periodically in any reading program is a good thing). A few are by academics. For example, I start things off with Jonathan Spence’s 1999 biography Mao Zedong, a life story of the founder of the PRC that is not just more sophisticated and less sensationalistic than the recent best-seller about the same figure by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, but also much shorter and far more fluidly written. Some of the readings are by journalists. May’s reading, for instance, is Ian Johnson’s carefully researched Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, which includes a moving account of Beijing residents being forced to give up their old homes to make way for urban development projects. And one’s a mystery set in Beijing, The Pool of Unease, by BBC journalist-turned-novelist Catherine Sampson. This seemed natural to throw in, both for the sake of bringing an additional genre into the mix and because my own reading en route to China is often a whodunit.
Spence’s Mao Zedong (Penguin, 1999) is doubly appropriate to read this month. It is natural to begin things with a book on the past (Mao lived from 1893 to 1976), and in China the first day in October is when ceremonies are held to commemorate the moment in 1949 when Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic. Spence manages to give us a thoroughly human as opposed to demonic Mao (early chapters even quote from some of the love letters the future leader wrote in his youth) who accomplished important things. But he does not minimize the venality of Mao’s actions at certain moments (such as his ordering brutal purges of rivals). Nor does Spence gloss over the horrific consequences of some of the campaigns Mao launched late in life, such as the ill-conceived Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s (that was responsible for an astronomical number of famine deaths) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Since Spence provides us with an essentially top-down introduction to China’s Communist era, structured around one unique and uniquely powerful individual, it is useful to turn next to a work that foregrounds the experiences of ordinary people: China Candid: The People of the People’s Republic (University of California Press, 2006). The work of a Chinese writer now based in Australia, who publishes under the pen name of Sang Ye, this book introduces readers to a Beijing student who relocated to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (and much to the dismay of his friends and relatives still does not want to return to the city), a woman who works for a bureau of consumer affairs, an executioner, a prostitute, a fiercely nationalistic hacker, and many other colorful characters. By turns moving, depressing, disturbing and funny, their interviews with Sang Ye are presented with the questions edited out, so that readers feel as though they are being talked to directly. With the Olympics approaching, the chapter that makes don’t miss reading is "Unlevel Playing Field: Confessions of an Elite Athlete," a no holds barred indictment, by an insider, of the Chinese sports establishment.
The end of the year is always a time for backward-looking assessments of the recent past. This makes it fitting for this month’s reading to be historian Timothy Cheek’s Living with Reform: China since 1989 (Palgrave, 2007). This short overview of China since Mao’s day carries forward up to the present the history lesson begun by Spence. (Don’t be misled by the reference to 1989 in the title, as Cheek has plenty to say about the period between Mao’s death and the protests of that year.) In addition, since Cheek pays as much attention to social and cultural issues, ranging from the changing role of women in Reform era China to new belief systems, as he does to high politics, the book also helps place into context the individual life stories at the heart of Sang Ye’s book.
Since 2008 seems likely to be remembered, at least in China, as Beijing’s year, it makes sense to start it off with a reading focusing exclusively on the city. And, fortunately, a sweeping survey of the city’s past that is scholarly yet readable has just appeared: Lillian M. Li, Alison J. Dray-Novey and Halli Kong’s Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City (Palgrave, 2007). This book, which comes with a generous number of photographs and footnotes that point readers who want to know more about particular periods to the best specialized studies, is an ideal choice for January reading.
Li and company approach history via a straightforward narrative, but this month’s selection, Oracle Bones: A Journey between China’s Past and Present (Harper Collins, 2006), continually moves back and forth from the country’s rapidly changing current state to its distant past, as Hessler recounts his growing fascination with the earliest evidence of Chinese writing and the scholars who study these inscriptions. The book is liberally sprinkled with extended quotations from the author’s conversations with and letters from people he has gotten to know in China. Gracefully written and thoughtful, it seems particularly appropriate to read this month because of its fine chapter on what it was like to be a Westerner in Beijing in February 2001, when the capital was striving to win the right to host the 2008 Games.
With the Olympics less than six months away, a book focusing on Chinese sports is called for, and, luckily, just such a work is due out in February: Susan Brownell’s Beijing’s Games (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). This promises to be a very special collection of essays by an anthropologist who is uniquely qualified to weigh in on the topic of the Games. She has done well over a decade of ethnographic work on sports in the PRC (beginning with the dissertation research that led to 1995’s University Chicago Press book, Training the Body for China, her first major publication) and has worked closely with the IOC and the Chinese representative to that body (whose life history she translated into English). In addition, she has the rare distinction for a foreigner of having competed successfully in a Chinese track meet, earning fame in 1986 as "the American girl who won glory for Beijing University." Though I haven’t read her new book, which will deal with everything from the links between sports and nationalism to recurring patterns in Western coverage of Chinese athletics, I’ve seen and been impressed by early versions of some of the pieces it will contain. And if it is like her first book, it will not just be based on solid research but also written clearly and with verve.
While Brownell’s book will prepare readers for the athletic side of the Olympics, the reading for this month, art historian Wu Hung’s Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (University of Chicago Press and Reaktion Books, 2005), will prepare them for the opening and closing ceremonies. This is because the author—using an experimental format that shifts between scholarly analysis and digressions into his own memories of going to and watching events held in Tiananmen Square—has very interesting things to say about the state-sponsored spectacles of the past, such as National Day parades, that are sure to influence the 2008 summer ceremonies. He also, not surprisingly, deals with Beijing’s largest gathering area as the site of protests. And this makes the book an ideal reading for April, since some of the most important Tiananmen protests have taken place in that month, which was both the time of year when a series of large 1976 demonstrations took place and when the 1989 upheaval that ended with the June 4th Massacre began.
This month’s selection also has an art history angle: Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: The Posters of the Cultural Revolution (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). It is a lavishly illustrated volume edited by historian Harriet Evans (who contributes a chapter on representations of women in propaganda of the Maoist era) and media studies specialist Stephanie Donald (whose chapter looks at portrayals of children). Much as China has changed since Mao’s death, there are some aspects of the visual culture of that time that endure, just as the posters of the 1960s and 1970s (which as shown in this book were widely varied in style and tone) often reworked genres and themes inherited from the pre-Communist past. This means that the book retains a contemporary relevance, helping readers decode the symbolism of current propaganda drives, state-sponsored spectacles, and sometimes even Chinese advertising. Containing essays by prominent scholars in different disciplines (including literary specialist Chen Xiaomei, who writes here of growing up surrounded by the images displayed and analyzed in the book) and a chapter by a longtime China correspondent (the Guardian’s John Gittings), Picturing Power is a fitting reading for May, since many say that the Cultural Revolution began with speeches Mao gave during that month in 1966 (though, like so many things about the upheaval, when exactly it started and ended continues to be a matter of debate).
This month will see the arrival of the nineteenth anniversary of the June 4th Massacre, and hence is an appropriate one in which to read Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon, 2004). The book does not provide a new account of the 1989 protests, but it does offer a superb, textured analysis of sources of discontent and patterns of state repression (including efforts to quash the Falun Gong sect) of the 1990s and early twenty-first century. (Readers looking for a new account of the 1989 protests should turn instead to another excellent recent book by an American journalist, John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China—a publication that could easily have been included in this program, but which I passed over mainly because, the short section on the Massacre aside, it focuses largely on Nanjing rather than Beijing.)
To get up-to-speed on a variety of issues not yet covered during the final run-up to the Games, it makes sense to read something that deals with a broad range of topics. My choice is a volume edited by historians Timothy Weston and Lionel Jensen, China’s Transformations: The Stories Beyond the Headlines (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007)—though lively alternatives for those who want to stick with reportage after reading Wild Grass, would be Duncan Hewitt’s Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China (Chatto and Windus, 2007) and Rob Gifford’s China Road (Random House, 2007). Most of the contributors to China’s Transformations are academics who know how to write for a broad audience, but there are also two chapters by journalists and one on the politics of the internet by human rights activist Xiao Qiang. The topics covered range from pollution, to popular nationalism, to the differences between what "Chinese food" is and means in China as opposed to in foreign lands—a subject that might well intrigue those planning soon to set off for a stay in the country.
For the Plane
As noted above, my favored in-flight books tend to be mysteries, so I’m recommending Sampson’s The Pool of Unease (Macmillan, 2007)—and slipping it in here to also nicely bring the total number of books up to an even dozen. Some readers may feel that, at a few points, loose ends either get tied up a bit too quickly or are left dangling too long, but the writing is lively throughout, the characters memorable, and Sampson has created a storyline that allows her to deal with several important issues—and deal with them deftly.
While never forgetting the goal of entertaining her readers, for example, she gives them a valuable sense of the complicated nature of police corruption in the PRC, the tensions caused by the growing divide between those being raised swiftly and those being left behind by China’s economic boom, and the ethical dilemmas faced by foreign reporters who are protected in ways that their sources are not in a one-party state. And the book’s main narrative device—alternating between first-person chapters by British reporter Robyn Ballantyne, heroine of two previous crime novels, and third-person chapters that focus on a Chinese private eye, whom readers may hope shows up in future mysteries in the series—works wonderfully. There are evocative descriptions of both gritty parts of Beijing that most tourists won’t see and Chinese luxury hotels and villas, which can seem surreal located as they are in what is in many ways still a developing country. A final plus—or minus—is that, for those about to be jet-lagged, the book conveys all too well the difficulty that the heroine has adjusting to the time change during her first trip to China.