The SupChina Book List — time period: Mao to Tiananmen
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Paul Theroux (Putnam, 1988)
Riding the Iron Rooster is a fine antidote to the colonialist travelogues of the first half of the 20th century, as well as the self-serious immersive reportage books that came to dominate in the first half of this century. Theroux spent a year crisscrossing the country by rail, going as far as Xinjiang in the west and the Shandong coast in the east, often accompanied by government minders. As in all of his travel writing, he is unfailingly human, at turns prickly, lascivious, poetic, or just plain fed-up. If you were lucky enough to take a trip by train in the days before high-speed rail, you will find yourself nodding along in recognition. The off-the-cuff conclusions Theroux tosses out might read as offensive now (he writes off Hong Kongers as philistines and suggests there might be some truth to the idea that Tibetans were descended from a “sexually voracious ogress”), but he has plenty of venom left for the Western tourists, journalists, and businessmen that were flocking to China in the 1980s, and his boorishness is undercut by a natural inquisitiveness that leads to genuine exchanges with the people he meets along the way.
— Dylan Levi King
96. Iron and Silk
Mark Salzman (Random House, 1986)
Mark Salzman was among the first generation of Americans to teach in China, in the 1980s, when he was in Changsha. His was by no means the average waiguoren (foreigner) experience; Salzman was already fluent in Mandarin (and conversational in Cantonese) when he arrived, and he was an expert in wushu. He’s a sharp observer, and he tells his story through vignettes that are both beautiful and brief — actually, there is something Daoist in his economy. The China that he depicts is something of a lost world — it’s hard to grasp how poor and isolated places like Changsha were at this time. After China, Salzman went on to a great career as a novelist and memoirist, with an impressive range of subjects. But he never returned to China after filming the movie version of Iron and Silk in 1989.
— Peter Hessler
Huò Dá 霍达, translated by Guan Yuehua (Panda Books, 1992)
It’s a sad fact that many important novels of the late-1980s and early-1990s, a golden age for contemporary fiction, remain untranslated, or received subpar or abridged translations. The Jade King, or Funeral of a Muslim, as the title is also sometimes rendered, is one of those books. Huo Da’s novel is a family epic based on her own upbringing as a Hui Muslim in China’s capital. The story of Han Ziqi, an orphan raised by Hui and tutored in the carving of jade ornaments, ranges from the late Qing Dynasty to the end of the Cultural Revolution, and from Beijing to London. Shortly after The Jade King’s release, it did receive an abridged translation, but the book remains virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, despite its enduring popularity in its home country, where it has won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, sold close to five million copies, and been adapted for film and television.
— Dylan Levi King
Yán Liánkē 阎连科, translated by Julia Lovell (Grove Press: Black Cat, 2008)
Set during the height of Mao Zedong’s personality cult, Serve the People! is a deceptively simple story of a passionate affair between the wife of a general and an orderly. As the Cultural Revolution rages, the lovers find excitement in breaking taboos and Mao’s busts — only to surrender to the historical forces that have swallowed up and spat out individuals throughout China. Published in 2005, the book was immediately banned for its political undertones as well as its raunchiness — which naturally increased its demand. Aside from Serve the People!, Yan Lianke is also gained notoriety for The Dream of Ding Village, a novel depicting the AIDS crisis in rural China. A prolific writer of novels, novellas, and literary criticism, he has won several prizes, including the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize.
— Masha Borak
Xinran (pen name for Xuē Xīnrán 薛欣然), translated by Esther Tyldesley (Chatto and Windus, 2002)
If you’ve ever flipped through FM stations in a Chinese city late at night, you’ve likely heard this: a woman’s voice, coming down a phone line, sharing private pain and unimaginable suffering. Xinran helped pioneer the format on her Words on the Night Breeze program, and the stories in The Good Women of China are mostly drawn from letters she received while hosting the show. Xinran does her best to pry open the trapdoor to what still goes unspoken. The stories she collects of rape, incest, domestic violence, forced abortion, kidnapping, and suicide are shocking — but even more shocking is the seeming mundanity of the brutalization of women and girls, sometimes by less extreme but far more insidious means. Perhaps Xinran could be faulted for trying too hard to pin the case on political and social chaos under the Communist Party; still, the stories she relates — including her own — are timeless and depressingly universal.
— Dylan Levi King
Nien Cheng (Grove Press, 1987)
The 1980s witnessed a publishing boom in English-language (or translated) China memoirs that focused on individual experiences of political campaigns from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution. Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai stands out in a crowded and exceptional field that includes Wu Ningkun’s A Single Tear, Yue Daiyun and Carolyn Wakeman’s To the Storm, Gao Yuan’s Born Red, and Yang Jiang’s A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters. When the Cultural Revolution began, Nien Cheng worked in a senior position at the British Shell oil company in Shanghai with the blessings of the Shanghai Communist Party, which also had allowed her and her late husband — a former Kuomintang diplomat who was invited to work with Shanghai’s new government — to keep their grand house and servants. Overnight, she became an accused British spy and enemy of socialism. Condemned to six and a half years in prison, she endured physical and psychological torture and deprivation. Her beloved daughter, meanwhile, committed suicide. Cheng is a sharp observer and a gifted storyteller; her fierce intelligence, wit, and courage are evident on every page. When the book came out, some critics carped that her status as a wealthy bourgeois rendered her story “untypical.” I’d argue that her strength of character, her unbending spirit, and her search for justice make it universal.
— Linda Jaivin
82. Taipei People
Pai Hsien-yung (Bái Xiānyǒng 白先勇), latest English edition translated by the author and Patia Yasin (The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018)
The title of Pai Hsien-yung’s collection of short stories of mainlanders in exile is a clear nod to James Joyce’s Dubliners (a more overt nod when their Chinese titles are set side by side). Like Joyce, Pai uses his naturalistic portraits of urbanites in service of a larger story about exile, nostalgia, cultural stagnation, and nationalism. Pai’s Taipei people are not really from Taipei, but are merely stuck there. There are septuagenarian generals recalling the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 and professors reminiscing about the failures of the May Fourth Movement, a war widow running a noodle shop for city clerks homesick for Guilin noodles and Kuomintang aristocracy pausing over their shark’s fin soup to sing a few bars from the opera The Imperial Favorite Drunk with Wine. Just like them, Pai Hsien-yung was obsessed with a cultural China that no longer existed, but Taipei People is also thoroughly modern — as complicated and contradictory as Pai Hsien-yung’s own identity…
Pai was the son of a Hui Muslim general in the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, and he was moved around mainland China before his family fled, first to Hong Kong and then Taiwan. He later emigrated again, heading to America in the 1960s, where he started to seriously work on Taipei People while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a legendary program that has been home over the years to writers like Joy Williams, Yiyun Li, and Raymond Carver. Considering the events that were about to come on the mainland and Taiwan, with the madness of the Cultural Revolution and the collapse of KMT autocracy, Taipei People is even more tragic, 50 years after its original publication.
— Dylan Levi King
Cáo Wénxuān 曹文轩, translated by Helen Wang, illustrated by Meilo So (Walker Books, 2015)
Bronze and Sunflower, a 400-page novel aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, takes us back 40 years to a poor Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution. Sunflower has arrived with her artist father and other educated townsfolk, at the May 7 Cadre School (in reality, a labor camp), where the adults will clear the land, build houses, and run a fish farm. The lonely seven-year-old eventually makes friends with a mute boy called Bronze from the nearby village, Daimadi, and together they share hardships and adventures both in the village and further afield. While village life is viewed through slightly rose-tinted spectacles and there are scant details about what it’s like to grow up dirt-poor and hungry, there is plenty of wry humor; for instance, the villagers are nonplussed by the newcomers in the May 7 Cadre School, who have “their own language, their own activities, and their own ways of doing things.” Many young readers will find this an engrossing read. Cao Wenxuan won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2016 for best children’s writer, and Helen Wang won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation for her translation of Bronze and Sunflower.
— Nicky Harman
Yáng Jiàng 杨绛 (born Yáng Jìkāng 楊季康), translated by Judith M. Amory and Yaohua Shi (Hong Kong University Press, 2007)
The novel Baptism takes readers deep into Beijing’s 1950s literary scene, during the beginning of Mao’s purges and the unraveling of societal trust. It traces the ruination of a social class: scholars who were a source of national pride found themselves suddenly lampooned as a national embarrassment. Yang Jiang portrays self-serving relationships between colleagues, friends, and spouses, showing how individuals were manipulated into abandoning genuine expression in favor of performative political genuflection. As one character notes in the face of an allegation of theft, “These days morality has to hide its face, and dishonesty rules!” Yang’s characters write contrived self-criticisms, wrestling with how vivid, dramatic, and incriminating their confessions should be, knowing that striking the right tone is essential to their survival.
Yang Jiang and her husband, the author Qian Zhongshu (Fortress Besieged, No. 34 on our list), were both consigned to “reform through labor” in the 1960s, a period she documented in her memoir A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters (a later translation renders it as Six Chapters From My Life “Downunder”). At that time, Yang was punished for working on a translation of Don Quixote, which she finished in 1978. She died in Beijing 38 years later, at age 104.
— Johanna Costigan
67. To Live
Yú Huá 余华, translated by Michael Berry (Anchor, 2003)
Yu Hua is known for stories that capture an uncanny mix of comedy and tragedy in the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. His seminal novel To Live chronicles the life of Xu Fugui, a hapless witness and participant in some of contemporary China’s most iconic historical junctures, from the tail end of imperial China through the Cultural Revolution. The scope and tone of the novel resembles Forrest Gump, another famous work of fiction whose titular character stumbles through decades of tumultuous change. To Live is a story full of heartbreaking tragedy that is deliberately devoid of maudlin sentimentality. By juxtaposing unadorned, matter-of-fact language against senseless horrors caused by rash decisions made by China’s political pantheon, Yu paints an extremely sympathetic portrait of China’s humble 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng — “the people”), of their resilience and resignation. Though Fugui’s life is marred by loss and trauma, his capacity to accept the enormity of the suffering in his life will leave the reader in awe.
— Frankie Huang
Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press, 2014)
The protests and bloodshed around Tiananmen Square in 1989 is well documented, but The People’s Republic of Amnesia is about much more. There was a second massacre in Chengdu, for instance, one of the many cities around China where protesters flocked to the streets in support of the demonstrators in Beijing. Lim also delves into the battle between those who want to remember June 4 and those who want it forgotten in lieu of the story of China’s remaking ever since. The most poignant tales come from the Tiananmen Mothers, a collective of aging parents who have been campaigning tirelessly for the government to officially recognize their children’s deaths on the night of June 3 and early morning of June 4. With riveting firsthand accounts of those who stood on both sides of the violence, Lim’s book ensures that at least for her readers, this date won’t be forgotten.
— Amy Hawkins
Běi Dǎo 北岛, edited by Eliot Weinberger, with translations by Bonnie McDougall, David Hinton, and Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2010)
Bei Dao began writing poetry during the Cultural Revolution, founded the first unofficial literary journal in the People’s Republic of China in 1978, became one of the country’s best known poets in the ’80s, and then was in exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989; he moved to Hong Kong in 2007 and has been allowed to travel in mainland China following a stroke in 2012, and remains one of the best known poets writing in Chinese today — and one of the leading lights of Chinese literature. The Rose of Time presents the most moving and innovative selections of his oeuvre up to 2010, from the “I — do — not — believe” of “The Answer” from the ’70s to his more recent “Black Map,” with the lines “I go home — reunions / are one less / fewer than goodbyes.” For an entryway either into Bei Dao’s own output over the last four decades or where contemporary Chinese poetry is, The Rose of Time is indispensable.
— Lucas Klein
Lìjiā Zhāng 张丽佳 (Atlas, 2008)
Much has been written about the personal tragedies experienced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the 1989 student demonstrations, but there is too little about the lives of individuals during the intervening period. Socialism is Great! is one of the few English-language memoirs that bridges the gap. Chinese author Lijia Zhang came of age working in a Nanjing rocket factory in the 1980s as the country was emerging from the tatters of the Mao era and starting to embrace a more capitalistic and open society, albeit under still-draconian social controls. Like many of her generation, this small opening allowed Zhang to break with the ideological constraints that had defined her parents’ cohort and embrace more individualistic desires. From a growing fascination with Western culture to forbidden sexual rendezvous, Zhang gives an honest and beautifully written reflection of life in a society that wasn’t quite ready for a free spirit like her. Regardless of one’s interest in China, this book is a wonderful coming of age memoir, but it’s especially valuable for the China enthusiast. In reading, one gets a feel for the sorts of experiences and influences that gave 1980s youth just enough that many realized they wanted even more, and those desires began to outpace what their government was willing to allow. To wit, the book concludes with Zhang becoming a protest leader in the 1989 student movement.
— Eric Fish
Maurice Meisner (Free Press, 1999)
If there is a reason why the late Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China, originally published in 1977 and now in its revised third edition (Mao’s China and After, 1999), was and is still widely assigned in history and political science courses on China, it is that Meisner maintains an evenhanded and dispassionate stance when tackling episodes and personages in PRC history that tend to excite passions. Meisner’s command of detail and knowledge of the arcana of the Communist Party bureaucracy doesn’t interfere with his ability to identify what really matters, and his personal politics — he was a lifelong leftist — don’t soften the blows when he delivers them.
— Kaiser Kuo
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (Harvard University Press, 2006)
This is the book to recommend whenever you come across someone tossing out comparisons between the Cultural Revolution and present-day political campaigns, internecine Twitter battles, or campus free speech wars. Mao’s Last Revolution is the book on the Cultural Revolution, and it manages to overturn both the official Communist Party narrative of bad elements co-opting the campaign as well as received wisdom in the West, which has Mao and a couple of buddies leading a campaign against their foes. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ weighty tome is sharply written and draws on documents and sources previously unavailable to scholars. Mao’s Last Revolution reveals the extent of the chaos between 1966 and 1976, with top leaders turning on each other, factions within the Party rising and falling, a near-civil war that saw the People’s Liberal Army clashing with youth militias, “revolutionary masses” fiddling with nuclear weapons, and sustained violence that continued even after the arrest of the Gang of Four.
— Dylan Levi King
Ráo Píngrú 饶平如, translated by Nicky Harman (Pantheon, 2018)
Rao Pingru was 87 when he began to write the story of his life, focusing on his long marriage to his recently deceased wife, Meitang. In the absence of surviving photographs, he taught himself to paint, and so it is that Our Story is illustrated with his charming, quirky pictures.
Born in 1922, Rao received a Confucian education, and acquired an abiding love of classical Chinese poetry. As a young man, he fought in the anti-Japanese War (he paints the bloody battles vividly), escaping death by a whisker on several occasions. When peace came, his father arranged his marriage to Meitang. Rao gives us fascinating glimpses of the life they led in the late-40s and early-50s: their travels around China, local food specialities (illustrated in great detail), and his desperate attempts to find a job. Eventually, the couple settled in Shanghai, where he worked as an editor and they raised five children — before he was sent away to do reform through education during the Cultural Revolution. In the last part of the book, Rao describes in heartbreaking detail how he cared for Meitang as she battled diabetes and dementia, and mourned her death.
Rao became a TV celebrity when Our Story was first published in Chinese. He is now 97, and recently appeared at the Shanghai International Literary Festival.
— Nicky Harman
Fāng Lìzhī 方励之, translated by Perry Link (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)
A world-renowned astrophysicist and a tireless advocate for freedom and democracy in China, Fang Lizhi was labeled “the biggest blackhand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests by Chinese authorities, and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy after the crackdown. During the 13 months he and his physicist wife spent at the embassy before they were allowed to leave China, Fang wrote a memoir, recounting his life with grace, candor, and disarming wit. From his boyhood in wartime Beijing to surviving Mao-era campaigns, from pioneering modern cosmology amid political pressure to championing human rights on the path of dissent, Fang’s formidable intellect and humane spirit shine through every page. Masterfully translated by Perry Link, a longtime friend of Fang’s, and published after Fang’s death in 2012, the book is a rare first-person account of life in the People’s Republic during its tumultuous first four decades, an important examination of science’s role in an authoritarian state, and a compelling lesson in universal values as fundamental as the laws that govern the stars.
— Yangyang Cheng
Mei Fong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
One Child follows the twists and turns of China’s most notorious social experiment: the planned birth policy instituted in 1980. Limiting families to a single offspring may have seemed prudent at the time, when China’s population was growing at alarming rates, but in reality, that decision carved out immense challenges for Chinese individuals as well as the world’s most populous country. For example, there’s Zhu Jianming, who had a reverse-sterilization operation just weeks after the death of his only child. His story illustrates the despair that accompanied the policy’s forced abortions and sterilizations. Yang Libing’s daughter was seized by family planning officials and placed on the global adoption market, a story that touches upon the corruption and human trafficking the policy fostered. And Liu Ting’s story is a harbinger of China’s future, when a generation will age out of the workforce amid a shrinking population. A former Wall Street Journal reporter out of Beijing, Mei Fong meticulously researched and documented these stories over the course of five years. One Child harkens back to an era that seems bygone — Chinese are now allowed two children — yet understanding the long-lasting effects of China’s social planning experiment is more important than before, as the country’s status grows ever larger on the global stage.
— Lenora Chu
Margaret MacMillan (Penguin, 2006)
Richard Nixon sat with an ailing Mao Zedong for only one hour on February 21, 1972, neither man saying anything surprising or interesting. But that meeting was a “geopolitical earthquake,” according to Winston Lord (then an aide to Henry Kissinger), and the following seven days, when Nixon visited three Chinese cities, may well have been “the week that changed the world” (Nixon’s words). Margaret MacMillan brings all this to life in Nixon and Mao, deploying biographical sketches and rich anecdotes against the backdrop of Chinese history, the Cold War, America’s relationship with its Asian allies, and Vietnam. She notes that while the time was ripe for the U.S. and China to come together, both sides took significant risks to make it happen. “Asia will be at the center of the world again,” MacMillan writes. “Yet there will be no peace for Asia or for the world unless those two great Pacific powers, the United States and China, the one supreme today and the other perhaps tomorrow, find ways to work with each other. To understand their relationship we need to go back to 1972, to the moment when it started anew.”
— Anthony Tao
Julian Gewirtz (Harvard University Press, 2017)
The three decades of China under Mao have been extensively written about by scholars and laymen, dissected by historians and theorists, and they still loom large in the Western imagination of China. But as China marks the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening, the nuts and bolts of that economic revolution are far less better understood. Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners tells the story of the Chinese economists and their foreign counterparts who helped build the foundation of the socialist market economy. Zhao Ziyang — Deng Xiaoping’s economics majordomo — oversees a vast economic experiment, struggling against the hardliners and trying to corral the reformers while also figuring out how to incorporate the prescriptions and theories of Western economists like James Tobin, János Kornai, and Lawrence Klein.
— Dylan Levi King
37. The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester (Harper, 2008)
The “man who loved China” is Joseph Needham, an eccentric young biologist — and adventurer, nudist, accordionist, chain-smoker, etc. — who arrived in Chongqing during the Second World War and was instantly entranced. He spent the next decade producing what would become a 15,000-page, 24-volume encyclopedia called Science and Civilisation in China, an authoritative account of a country no Westerner had ever known with such depth or clarity. As author Simon Winchester giddily relays, “Needham slowly and steadily managed to replace the dismissive ignorance with which China had long been viewed — to amend it first to a widespread sympathetic understanding and then, as time went on, to have most of the western world view China as the wiser western nations do today, with a sense of respect, amazement, and awe. And awe, as fate would have it, was in time directed at him as well.” The Man Who Loved China is a delightful read about a distinguished scientist whose manic energy leaps off the pages.
— Anthony Tao
Wáng Ānyì 王安忆, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan (Columbia University Press, 2008)
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is an exquisite and melancholy novel that is part of the “roots-seeking” (寻根 xúngēn) movement of post-Cultural Revolution China. It explores the meaning of Shanghainese identity by tracing the life of a young Shanghai woman over four decades, from post-World War II to reform and opening up. It probes the longtang, the crowded, maze-like alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods, where the protagonist, Wang Qiyao, was born. Qiyao is aware of her own beauty and seeks fame, but must endure the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history — to say nothing of the men she loves. The novel won the 5th Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000 and was later adapted into a movie and TV series.
— Kimberly Jin
Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳, translated and edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, Adi Ignatius (Simon and Schuster, 2009)
In 1987, it was possible to believe that the liberal reforms which had pulled China out of the Mao era would continue indefinitely. Zhao Ziyang was a big reason for that optimism: He was elevated to General Secretary of the Party that year, at the relatively young age of 68. But you probably know what happened next: Impatient with the speed of the reforms and upset at the proliferation of corruption, students took to the Beijing streets in April 1989, culminating in a bloody crackdown two months later that not only derailed China’s progressive course, but ruined a generation of the country’s best and brightest.
Zhao Ziyang was merely the most prominent of Tiananmen’s victims, spending the last 16 years of his life under house arrest. But that time wasn’t passed in complete silence: He secretly recorded his recollections in a set of tapes, 30 in total, each about an hour long, and had friends smuggle them out. Four years after his death, transcriptions of those tapes were published as the book Prisoner of the State, giving the public its first truly intimate look inside the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
In his journal, Zhao recounts, in agonizing detail, the battle within the walls of Zhongnanhai between himself and conservative rivals, and how tantalizingly close Zhao’s faction actually was to persuading Deng Xiaoping to pursue a different course of action…if only. If only, for instance, Zhao had not been called away for business in North Korea in late April; if only Li Peng hadn’t published a scathing People’s Daily editorial under Deng’s name while Zhao was gone; if only martial law had not been declared, which only invigorated the demonstrators; and so on. There is an alternative reality in which the Tiananmen protests are not violently suppressed, and China does not go on to fill its moral vacuum with hard-hearted materialistic pursuit. We realize, reading Zhao’s memoir, how close we were to that reality — and in the process understand the possibility that people like him still lurk behind the opaque curtains of the central government. Even in death, Zhao remains a source for hope.
— Anthony Tao
Xiǎolǔ Guō 郭小橹 (Grove Press, 2017)
Xiaolu Guo was introduced to Anglophone readers by Cindy Carter’s translation of Village Of Stone in 2005. It was impossible not to read the autobiographical novel of a girl escaping to the city without wanting to know more about the author’s own life. Guo returned to the autobiographical with her first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, which was based on her own expatriation to London in 2002. Turning to memoir made perfect sense, but few Chinese writers, with the exception of old-guard heavyweights and those in exile, ever produce novel-length memoirs. That makes Guo’s Nine Continents even more special. She writes of her childhood, growing up in miserable poverty in a fishing village in the 1970s before escaping to follow her dreams at Beijing Film Academy, then in England, and her experience of motherhood and return from self-imposed exile. Guo’s story of overcoming her background to seek her dreams is — especially in China — not unique, but her perspective is one we are rarely given access to; and her talents as a writer make this an essential story of the Chinese experience.
— Dylan Levi King
21. Wild Swans
Jung Chang (Harper Collins, 1991)
This book will always have a special place on my shelf. I was 12 years old when I first read it, probably too young for some of its content — it is known as “scar literature,” after all, part of a category of books penned after the Cultural Revolution in which authors shared the pain suffered by the people during the 1960s — but it gave me my first glimpse of a culture and history I knew nothing about. I’m sure that’s the case for many readers: It is now a global phenomenon, having sold more than 13 million copies in nearly 40 languages. Wild Swans is often categorized as nonfiction, but it reads like a literary novel. I absolutely recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about China’s tumultuous 20th century, as told through the eyes of three generations of Chinese women who survived it.
— Manya Koetse
John Pomfret (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)
Early in John Pomfret’s wildly ambitious 700-page masterpiece on the history of U.S.-China relations is an observation that sets the theme for the entire book: “If there is a pattern to this baffling complexity, it may be best described as a never-ending Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. Both sides experience rapturous enchantment begetting hope, followed by disappointment, repulsion, and disgust, only to return to fascination once again.” Indeed, many of the characters throughout the nearly 250 years of U.S.-China interaction can be found today, from the idealistic missionaries seeking to “change China” to the Chinese students with American educations who return to become their country’s political and business elite.
And that’s what makes The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom such a captivating read. Its thoroughly researched stories of riveting individuals throughout history put today’s U.S.-China relationship in much-needed context, particularly as that relationship falls under increased strain. Pomfret writes what is at its core a turbulent love story of two nations whose passions swing violently between desire and loathing. It’s a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship, but a relationship that defines our present and future — and one that makes for a fascinating book.
— Elliott Zaagman
Liú Cíxīn 刘慈欣, translated by Ken Liu (Tor Books, 2014)
Liu Cixin was born in 1963, and came of age during some of the most chaotic years in China’s recent history, which no doubt shaped him as a writer. As the first Chinese author to receive the prestigious Hugo Award, Liu has single-handedly put Chinese science fiction on the international map, winning a legion of fans that includes the likes of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. In The Three Body Problem, the first of the Remembrance of the Earth’s Past trilogy, Liu weaves familiar science fiction tropes with the devastating events of the Cultural Revolution (even as Liu insists his works are not commentary, but escapism from reality). The result is a searing epic that explores the brutal psychological trauma caused by dehumanizing political struggle, amplified by the existential dread of an encroaching alien civilization with annihilation on their minds. The stakes are high from the onset, as important military officials meet in secret, scientists die mysteriously, and conflicting motives clash. As the novel progresses, Liu unravels the horrors and tragedies of the past and present, all to build up to a moment of judgment that will determine the fate of humanity. To read The Three Body Problem is to be gripped by terror and wonder at the world Liu has created, and be awed by the wide scope of his fatalistic imagination.
— Frankie Huang
Orville Schell and John Delury (Random House, 2013)
Through lengthy historical profiles of 11 iconoclasts who changed China — all reformers or revolutionaries in one way or another — this wonderful book shows how China traveled the road from the Qing Dynasty to today, driven by the same quest for 富強 fùqiáng: wealth and power.
We are introduced at the start to Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen, two 19th-century scholars who pioneered the 自強 zìqiáng, or “self-strengthening school,” and warned of the growing gulf between China and the West. Then there are the reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao (as well as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang), whose efforts were met with mixed responses from the Empress Dowager Cixi, the last ruler of the Qing. Next are Sun Yatsen, the 国服 guófú (or “father of the nation” — and its first president, if only for 45 days before military leader Yuan Shikai took over), and New Culture intellectual Chen Duxiu, who was integral to the May Fourth Movement during the early days of the Republic. More familiar figures then emerge, including Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu Rongji — who oversaw China’s economic miracle in the 1990s and early 2000s — and Liu Xiaobo, who protested for political reform and was punished severely for it.
The individuals profiled are helpfully collated with chronologies, quotes, and multimedia resources at Asia Society’s “Wealth and Power Book Project,” which gives a clear and concise overview of a century and a half of China’s modern history and the visionaries who shaped it. China’s pursuit of power and prestige continues today with Xi Jinping, China’s latest reshaper, who would make for a fine epilogue in a new edition of Wealth and Power — a man whose legacy is open-ended but sure to create a lasting imprint on Chinese history.
— Alec Ash
Geremie R. Barmé (Columbia University Press, 1999)
In the Red is arguably the best work of cultural criticism about post-Mao China. It comprises 12 interweaving essays that present a wide-ranging history of urban Chinese culture in the first two decades of the reform era. Sinologist Geremie Barmé, who was personal friends (or frenemies) with most of the key figures in this story, explores both how Beijing constructed a “velvet prison” to beguile intellectuals into self-censorship, and how artists, scholars, and writers approached their work under an increasingly marketized authoritarianism. Some suffered for their ideals, others profited from “packaged dissent,” still more lent their services to marketing a regime in desperate search of a meaning. The book is consistently engaging and provocative, as Barmé’s striking prose exemplifies the possibilities for sophisticated analysis without the obtuse academic jargon and somniferous theoretical excursions that asphyxiate much cultural scholarship. Present-day readers — perhaps those perusing the work on their iPhones or Kindles — will notice that the internet had not conquered China by 1999, but Barmé’s incisive observations remain enormously insightful for understanding Chinese cultural politics.
— Neil Thomas
Jonathan Spence (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990)
This classic, first published in 1990 but with second and third editions published in 1999 and 2013, remains the go-to single-volume history book covering China from the end of the Ming through the Reform Era. Aimed at general readers and students, the book is at once accessible and erudite, and it may be many years before it is dethroned as the volume most frequently recommended to readers new to the study of modern China. It takes its place alongside other excellent books by Spence, including The Gate of Heavenly Peace, To Change China, and The Chan’s Great Continent. Spence based the book on lecture materials for his popular intro to modern China class at Yale.
— Kaiser Kuo
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