Ten on a Topic: China

Its History, Its People and Culture, and its Designs for the Future

In his most prophetic and frightening statement in his book, On China, Kissinger cites Immanuel Kant’s argument that perpetual peace will come to the world in one of two ways: “by human insight or by catastrophes of a magnitude that leave us no other choice.” And, he says, we are at that juncture. Those words were written a decade ago, and yet are as true today as they were then, and possibly more important than ever that we try to build our understanding of this vast country on the other side of the world. 

And so, I offer a list of ten books on the topic, acknowledging that no ten books can possibly capture all of the nuances of the topic, but reading them can provide an excellent overview. The list below is diverse, from two books on the long history of China to treatises on two narrower subjects, the Opium Wars and the Great Wall. From there the list continues with four books on the Chinese people and their culture, as told through personal accounts of Chinese writers and astute observers of the Chinese, to two works of narrative nonfiction—one a classic of English literature and the other a popular and enduring Chinese fable. 

One of the more interesting things I learned about China while reading from this list was the concept of “permanent revolution.” That is, China’s history is one of a succession of periods of civil war and disunity followed by a reconstitution of its country, and of both an inward looking closed society and one eager to adopt (and steal) foreign ideas. And if Yu Hua, author of China in Ten Words, is correct, the pendulum swings wider with each cycle. If this is true, knowing more about China can only help us prepare for the future.

Following my comments are those from Justin Niehoff a friend who has a considerable grasp or the topic. He earned his doctorate in cultural anthropology (University of Michigan, 1984) with a focus on Chinese society. The dissertation for his doctorate was based on research he performed during his residence in Taiwan.

(Note: unless noted otherwise the comments that follow are my own.) 

General Background and History

  • On China by Henry Kissinger (Penguin Books, 2011)

In On China, Kissinger comes as close as anyone can to providing a foundation for understanding the Middle Kingdom. As someone who spent much of his life brokering conversations between Chinese and American heads of state, he has a unique perspective. In the 500 plus page doorstop-of-a-book, he delves into the long history of China and the ups and downs of the Sino-American relationship, giving us a vision of where our two countries and ideologies might evolve. The work includes portraits of key figures in Chinese history, from Confucius, to Sun Tzu, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin.

Interestingly, a July 2021 news headline I read shortly after finishing Kissinger’s book noted another contentious meeting between Washington and Beijing had proved unsuccessful. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said the relationship was at a “dead end” and risks “serious consequences.”

  • The 100 Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015)

Michael Pillsbury’s book picks up where Kissinger’s left off. As background he echoes many of the points Kissinger identified. Pillsbury writes that the Chinese are skillful, masterfully so and have persuaded the West their coming rise (Xi’s nation) will be peaceful and will not come at others’ expense, “even as they adhere to a strategy that is the opposite.” Pillsbury quotes Confucius: “there cannot be two suns in the sky nor two emperors on the earth” and builds out the long-game, or China’s 100-year marathon (begun with Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1949) to become the world’s dominant economic and political player.

If China succeeds, by 2050 the world will be a very different place—in Pillsbury’s view, the US dollar will no longer be the leading currency, free speech (even as we know it today) will be eradicated by an ever present technological capability that can monitor and reign in communication across the globe, and pollution will contaminate the skies.

We are late to the game, as China is on the verge of success and increasingly belligerent toward the West. Our best hope, Pillsbury writes, will depend on our acknowledging the problem—seeing China for what it is, not what the Chinese want us to see, ending the theft of American technological assets, and supporting the moderate voices within China’s leadership. 

Again, a contemporary headline supports Pillsbury’s views. On August 13,  Navy Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of the US Strategic Command, gave a dire warning about China’s rapidly increasing military capability, saying, “The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking.” (Frank Fang, The Epoch Times)

  • The Opium War: Drugs Dreams, and the Making of Modern China  by Julia Lovell (Harry N. Abrams, 2015)

Julia Lovell, a British scholar, professor, translator, and author, writes extensively on China, its culture and history and its desire for a place on the world stage. In The Opium War, Lovell provides a very readable account of the war between China and the west as she attempts to right the skewed Chinese and Western versions of the war’s genesis, conduct, and aftermath.

In the early 1800s, Chinese goods, notably tea, porcelain, and silk, were in high demand by Great Britain leading to a massive British trade deficit. Ostensibly, to reduce the trade imbalance the British began exporting opium produced in British controlled poppy fields in India and Bengal and selling the illegal substance to China. A second goal of the British was to ensure continued profit for its powerful trading groups. Demand for opium soared much to the detriment of the Chinese people—although in Lovell’s eyes not nearly as dramatically as has generally been portrayed. Finally, in 1830, the Qing dynasty banned the substance and set up a blockade to keep British ships carrying opium from entering Chinese ports. The British Navy easily won over the less militarily prepared Chinese and in the treaty signed in 1842, the British empire took control of Hong Kong and gained access to the interior of China for exploitation of both trade and missionaries. Hostilities between the two nations continued nonetheless resulting in a second war from 1856 to 1860. 

The Opium Wars are often cited as an inflection point in China’s history–the beginning of the country’s modern era. From the Chinese point of view, the next hundred years were a period of humiliation and exploitation by the West ending only with Mao’s rise to power. Actually, the Opium Wars have been all but forgotten by the West, whereas in China they are still taught in Chinese schools and kept at the top of mind by its leaders from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. The latter, wary of dealings with the West, uses the lessons of the Opium Wars as propaganda to influence dealings with the West.

  • The Great Wall: The Extraordinary Story of China’s Wonder of the World  by John Man (Da Capo Press, 2008)

Part archeological dig, part history, part travelogue, The Great Wall demonstrates how little most of us know about what The Great Wall is, where it is, and when it was constructed. And, as myth-buster, Man writes, it can’t be seen by the naked eye from the moon, nor was it a deterrent for invading hordes of barbarians. 

Two thousand years ago, the people to the north of what is China today were not invading forces. They were agriculturists, but the climate (limited water, harsh winters, but plentiful grass) led to population by nomads. They had few possessions outside their horses to help round up herds. . . . They were few and posed no threat to China but China was in an expansion mode and began moving into the farmlands, pushing the “barbarians” further north and west. Walls became common structures, walling off one enclave of souls from another. And some like the first emperor, Zheng (of the Terracotta Army) erected long expanses of rammed earth barricades. 

As Man travels the length of “the wall” from the far reaches of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, he discovers areas where no wall is present and some where the wall was nothing more than a raised hump in the ground. Nothing that would have deterred an enemy of mounted horsemen. He concludes his journey at the most prominent and famous sections, near Beijing and writes, “The wall was never the unity its name suggests. . . . The wall is no longer a border or barrier, but firmly in China’s embrace. . . . It has risen above the mess of politics, strategy, and controversy into an ethereal realm of ideals and symbols, pure heritage.”

People and Culture

  • China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston (Vintage International, 1977)

A compilation of stories of men in author Maxine Hong Kingston’s family, her great grandfather, grandfather, father, and brother. Together the men represent four generations of Chinese Americans, and Kingston explores the challenges they faced as they adapted to life in America. The stories are part biography, part memoir, part nonfiction, part imagination and all are imbued with a heavy dose of Chinese folklore and Kingston’s vivid memories.

The book opens with disturbing portraits of the Chinese tradition of foot binding and an imagined father returning home from a day’s work. These vignettes which appear throughout the work are purposefully disjointed and mostly fictional. They occur in an unknown time and in an unknown relationship to the author so they are jarringly out of place. But, they educate the reader in different aspects of Chinese heritage. 

The challenges give the reader a sense of how wide cultural divides can be and how difficult it would be to adapt to a foreign land—whether of Americans or Westerners in China or, as Kingston writes, of Chinese in America.

  • The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu (Pantheon Books, 2002)

China goes to great lengths to project images of its happy egalitarian populace, an image at odds with the portraits author Liao Yiwu shares about 27 people who lead some of the most wretched existences imaginable. Although beaten and imprisoned for writing on controversial topics, Liao persevered. In 2002, he received a literary award from the Independent Chinese Pen Center. After a few of his stories were smuggled to the West and published in The Paris Review, Liao was recognized by human rights groups for his work. 

The portraits in the book are Liao’s recollection, transcribed notes, and recordings of interviews made beginning in the 1990s. The results are at time hard to read—full of vulgarity and word choices that seem out of place (the translation uses modern phrases like “out of it” or “damn right” when trying to render the corpse walker’s or the public restroom manager’s illiterate language). Reading past (or through) these awkward spots, however, provides a unique window deep into China, past the iconic sights and orchestrated parades to the humble and defiant people in the countryside.

Two stories in particular offer a triumphant view of the spirit of those at the bottom rung of China’s society. Miss Chen, a Falun Gong practitioner, was repeatedly arrested and horrifically tortured, but continued to practice and disseminate Falun Gong literature after escaping from a reeducation camp. Wu Dingfu said, “One minute the party seems to relax its political control. Once you let down your guard, they come out to get you.” He lost his son during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, but, officially, Liao says, the soldiers never opened fire on its citizens.

Liao consoles himself with the realization that others like him oppose the communist party in any way they can and believe justice will sooner or later be done—even if, the Tiananmen Father says, “we probably won’t live long enough to see the day.”

  • The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson (Pantheon Books, 2017)

Ian Johnson has lived in China, taught courses in religion there, and is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of a book about suppression of the Falun Gong movement. His grasp of the state of religion, better described as the faith of the Chinese people is evident in his book, The Souls of China. From the reopening of the country after the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Johnson expounds on the growth of the country’s five major religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), Islam, and a large body of followers who adhere to folk religion or traditional beliefs. 

He notes the explosion of temples, mosques, and churches as the Chinese realize the new prosperity and focus on materialism has left them wanting, and in response they turned to religion seeking answers to what makes a good life. 

China’s official identity is a multiethnic state where all peoples, beliefs, and traditions are equally respected. And yet, the world knows of its heavy hand in regulating and indeed controlling religious movements, such as the Falun Gong faithful. The winners, Johnson says, are likely to be the traditional religions (Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religion). 

The words of Wang Defeng, one of the people Johnson comes to know, articulate Johnson’s point that faith is a better term than religion for the belief systems of the Chinese. Wang says, “‘My faith is here,’ he said, touching the center of his chest, symbolizing the Confucian ideal of the golden mean. ‘It’s not here,’ he said touching his heart.” 

  • China in Ten Words by Yu Hua (Anchor Books, 2012)

The book consists of ten essays, each of which explore a single word that is part of the Chinese vernacular and central to the Chinese culture. The result is both a memoir of its author, Yu Hua who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and social commentary.

No ten, twenty, or one hundred words can convey the breadth and depth of the culture of any country, let alone China. Yet, Yu Hua’s essays offer uncanny insight nonetheless. He entertains as he educates and sheds light on the topic as only someone can who has been an eyewitness to China from the Cultural Revolution to the present. The ten words are: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Kun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. When taken as a whole, the essays leave the reader with a better understanding of China than many longer works or academic texts.

“People,” Yu Hua writes, was synonymous with Chairman Mao—for Mao was the people and the people were Mao. But, after the Tiananmen incident, the word came to symbolize the united front formed by those who championed the idea of freedom. “Leader,” too, was synonymous with Mao, but as China evolved, the concept of leader was replaced with leadership to encompass the distributed power embodied in an endless network of committees. From these first two words, which are perhaps all encompassing of what follows, Yu Hua covers “reading” (when the only text allowed were writings of Mao) and “writing” (as he engineers his own career from dentistry to author), and “Lu Xun” a classical writer and right hand to Mao. Then “revolution,” the country’s permanent state, once under Mao’s Cultural Revolution and ongoing in China’s extraordinary investments in infrastructure and education, and “disparity” which despite revolution highlights the gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural, yet still in a “grassroots” movement, the Chinese people use whatever means and ingenuity they have to try to rise in society. The last two terms, “copycat” and “bamboozle” are foreign but popular terms used to convey the rampant production of cheap knockoffs for financial benefit in the former case and the boasting and puffery of bamboozling to put something over another, for fun or profit. Both terms Yu Hua states are indicative of a culture that has become frivolous. 

Narrative Nonfiction or a Novel

  • Monkey (The Journey to the West) by Wu Cheng-en and translated by Anthony C. Yu (Cardinal Books, 1959)

Monkey, published in English in 1942 from the larger work, The Journey to the West, is original to the 16th Century. Nevertheless, the characters from the tale are as familiar today as they might have been in ancient times as evidenced by their use in an advertisement for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The book is perhaps best compared with and equally important to literature and understanding contemporary society as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the late 14th Century. Both are examples of “quests,” or fables, written in a combination of prose and verse spanning thousands of pages, and both tell of a pilgrimage. In the Monkey’s case Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a stone and given magical power learns through a series of challenges both the cultivation of the self, from Daoism, and humility, from Buddhism. In the full work, he is one of the beings to accompany the historical figure of a monk, Tripitaka, on his travels to India (the West) in search of Buddhist scriptures. 

The primary value of Monkey, for purposes of this summary, is as a means of understanding the very foreign and highly complex Chinese culture, how three “religions” (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) can live in harmony in the minds of the Chinese people, and evidence—at least in Chinese culture—that the pursuit of fame and money is at odds with well lived lives. Further in Asian studies, today, Monkey is regarded as a means to understand China from the Silk Road to the Belt and Road.

  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (Cardinal Books, 1959)

A classic work written in the 1930s by Pearl Buck who spent forty plus years in China. Through the multi-generational saga, the book tells the story of Wang Lung and his rags to riches life in China in the 1920s until Wang’s death some sixty plus years later. We follow the young farmer as he learns the lasting value of land and comes to own some of the richest farmland in his area—and thereby staves off starvation and ruin. But we also see the darker side of the feudal society, its rigid class system, hierarchical and patriarchal society, its disrespect for women, and sinister use of opium. The unusual phrasing and lilting style in which Buck writes are perhaps tinged with the sounds of the Chinese language with its many nuances and are effective at ensnaring the reader. We root for Wang and his love of the land, the “good earth” from which he rises. 

Near the end of Wang Lung’s life, Buck writes, “… he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers.”

Lifelong Learning

China is as vast a subject as the country is wide. Its landmass is the third largest in the world, its recorded history stretches back some 3,000 years, and its 1.4 billion people exceed that of any other country. Being uninformed about China—whether considered friend or foe—is to know a smaller earth and have a narrower view of customs and cultures. All at a time when the world is more connected than ever.

To lend a deeper perspective, I turned to Justin Niehoff. I agree, he said, the subject of China is vast, both because its population is so large and diverse, but also because its known history is so long. As a consequence, there is no easy way to study the country by sampling a few sources or overviews. I found the best strategy to be a twofold approach: reading overviews or historical accounts written by Westerners and classical and modern literature written by Chinese writers. Some of the works of classical literature are challenging for Westerners because they are short on plot and have an absolutely huge list of characters. However, even those qualities help convey a sense of the Chinese world view.

Additional Topics of Interest: I suggest two important trends in Chinese history, underrepresented in the list of books above:

  • For most of its history, China was very inward-focused. By that I mean its government or its elites were not interested in expansion of influence or control over neighboring countries or in acquiring vassal states. This is in stark contrast to the current government of China which is actively attempting to expand influence and business connections in many parts of the world, and in expanding its military sphere of influence.
  • China has a very violent history, and that history ranks highly among those estimated by the number of deaths, despite the fact they are civil conflicts of which few westerners have heard. 

Learning About China: To learn deeply about China requires learning the Chinese language.  This is a difficult task for Westerners for a number of reasons, although the primary challenge is gaining competency in the written script.  Learning to speak “tourist” Chinese is not terribly difficult – I learned it in a year of an introductory college course.  However, then to layer in the other complexities, especially in memorizing the characters it takes several more years. When comparing written Chinese with French or Spanish, languages that many of us have learned, the main problem is that the Chinese characters stand for meaning and not for sound.  So, you can look at the characters for a simple sentence that you could already understand, but have no idea what the characters sound like unless you had memorized them before.  

Looking Forward: As noted above, China has moved for the first time in its history into an expansionist mode. It now has great ambitions, and at some point those ambitions will come into conflict with the US, which has been filling a role as the main protector of the Pacific/Southeast Asian regions since the end of WWII and the retreat of England. The first point of conflict is likely to be Taiwan . . . and brings into question the role the US might play if China invaded Taiwan. The other issue is the relationship between China and Russia. Russia and China have had an on-again, off-again relationship for over a hundred years. . . . While they have different political and economic goals, a closer alliance between these two nations could create a much more potent adversary for the US. I am not optimistic about a rapprochement. We have both become dependent on each other in different ways. . . . yet, we share few common goals.

Lifelong Learning: As a retired academic and committed reader, I find continuing to learn and reflect in retirement to be the ultimate pleasure. This includes China, but is much broader in scope. On the most academic side of the ledger, I have been working on an ethnography (anthropology-speak for a descriptive book) about a Japanese bank for which I worked in the 1990s. I am also reading (at the same time) several books which I find interesting, but not directly relevant to my ethnography project. Most recently, I started Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman, a sociologist. Just before that, I finished Anthro-Vision by Gillian Tett, a trained anthropologist who is now a senior editor for The Financial Times. But there is a non-academic side, a just-for-fun side, of the ledger as well. I recently read Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey. I also enjoy reading autobiographies of well-known rock-n-roll stars.  The best one of these I have read recently is Life by Keith Richards.

One thought on “Ten on a Topic: China

  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    The problem is that we are so ignorant about China and its history. I have only read Simon Winchester on “Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China” which was fascinating. Chinese and the history are neglected together with the more recent repression and the complex cyber wars so rapidly developing. Thank you for these suggestions.


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