Jeffrey Wasserstrom: 2008's Best China Books

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine, the author of"Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments" (just published by Routledge), and a co-editor of the forthcoming"China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance." He blogs regularly at The China Beat and The Huffington Post.]

In this look back at some of the best accessible China books of 2008, just think of me as your personal, a bundler of titles that go well together.  For my approach here will not be the usual one of focusing on single works, but rather that of creating thematic pairs of books that are particularly effective when read together.

My pairs will be a bit more adventuresome than those often found on the real Amazon sites.  For example, I won't suggest, as Amazon's UK site does, that purchasers of former journalist Catherine Sampson’s latest whodunit, "The Slaughter Pavilion" (Macmillan), should also order the same author's 2007 "Pool of Unease" (Macmillan), her first novel to include action set in the PRC, where she now lives.  Nor will I encourage, as does, purchasers of Michael Meyer’s "The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed" (Walker Books), an excellent book of reportage, should also pick up Leslie T. Chang’s "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" (Spiegel and Grau), about which the same thing can be said.

I've no quarrel with people going from one Sampson mystery to another, or buying Meyer and Chang's books, each of which I reviewed very positively in Newsweek last year. But sometimes there's more to be gained by crossing lines between genres or reading side-by-side authors who seem at first to have little in common.  I'll illustrate this by suggesting off-beat companions for these three very fine recent China books: Philip P. Pan’s "Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul a New China" (Simon and Schuster), Rana Mitter’s "Modern China: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford), and Lynn Pan’s "Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars" (Long River).  The result will be a set of book pairs that might be called: “China Noir,” “China Past and Present” and “China Cosmopolitan."

China Noir.  Philip Pan’s "Out of Mao’s Shadow" grew out of the stories he filed while covering China for the Washington Post (he’s since moved on to the Moscow bureau), and it is a carefully researched work of political journalism.  The obvious thing to pair with it would be another nonfiction study of Chinese politics.  I’ll suggest here, though, that it goes very nicely with the British-born and now Beijing-based Catherine Sampson's "Slaughter Pavilion," a crime novel, albeit one whose author used to cover China for the BBC.  There is much that differentiates the books from one another, beyond genre.  Philip Pan offers up set of only loosely connected tales, for example, while Sampson’s narrative threads end up tied together.

Still, there are important intersections between the books.  Each draws on a deep familiarity with the PRC.  Corruption and repression figure in both.   And though Philip Pan insists that he remains hopeful about China’s future (due to the faith he has that brave individuals, like several he profiles, can make a difference even when the odds are stacked against them), each author stresses the dark side of recent trends.  Read together, they make a powerful brief for a bleak view of the PRC.

China Past and Present.  Several worthy 2008 books provide a more upbeat assessment of the present and "Modern China: A Very Short Introduction" can be placed in this category.  Its author, Oxford historian Rana Mitter, does not view contemporary China through rose-colored glasses, but after finishing his latest book, readers will likely feel more positive about the PRC’s prospects than will those who have just put down "Out of Mao’s Shadow" or "Slaughter Pavilion."  One of the book’s most interesting features is the emphasis that Mitter puts on continuities between the Republican era (1912-1949), especially the part when Chiang Kai-shek was in power (1928-1949), and the Communist period.  While noting breaks and ruptures, he emphasizes enduring goals (modernization), strategies (nationalistic rhetoric) and flaws (authoritarian tendencies) that connect Chiang to the Communist Party leaders who’ve run China since 1949.

This makes Modern China particularly interesting to read beside Frank Dikotter’s "The Age of Openness: China before Mao" (University of California).  Dikotter also links the Republican era to the Communist one.  But his thesis is that much was basically right about the country during the decades immediately preceding 1949 (China was far more open to currents from the West then, he insists, and far less tightly controlled), and has been basically wrong ever since (especially but not only when Mao ruled).

Each book is short and lively.  In addition, each makes effective use of intriguing examples—even though these sometimes are used to buttress arguments that specialists may feel, as I did occasionally with "Age of Openness" in particular, are made a bit too starkly, pushed a bit too far, or overstate the novelty of the author’s position.

Chinese Cosmopolitanism. Lynn Pan’s "Shanghai Style" has all of the strengths of the author’s previous publications, several of which have also focused on the city in which she was born (before it was under Communist Party control) and now again calls home (after a long period spent based in other places, including London and Hong Kong).  The prose is lovely: especially the opening conjuring up Old Shanghai effect on first-time visitors. And the claims are backed up by meticulous research: even though, as in most of her others book (some published under the name of “Pan Ling”), she eschews the standard trappings of academic publications.  Her main theme in "Shanghai Style" is that architects, painter, cartoonists, and other artistically minded Chinese residents of the city, during the heyday of its era as an international treaty-port, embraced and developed a very special aesthetic that was both locally and nationally rooted and robustly cosmopolitan.

A particularly good book to pair with it is literary critic Xiaobing Tang’s "Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement" (University of California). This is because woodcuts are the most important visual form that flourished in China between the wars that Shanghai Style ignores. She does so intentionally, noting in her last chapter that they are a special case: though the woodcuts were often produced in Shanghai and were influenced by international currents, they were not shaped by the same distinctive local aesthetic that influenced the other genres of visual culture that concern her.

Pan and Tang's books fall at very different points on the popular-to-academic spectrum of serious publications, with the footnote-free Shanghai Style standing at one end, the theoretically minded "Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde" near the other.  Still, both have much to offer specialist and non-specialist readers alike, in part because each has been beautifully produced and comes with many evocative illustrations, showcasing the works of internationally minded Chinese creative figures of the first half of the 20th century.

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