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Books On And About China

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Books on and about China

I’ve no idea how interested people are, but I thought I’d do a post on the favourite books I’ve read on China.


It’s an amazing country and its rapidly increasing role in the world means it’s definitely worthwhile learning a bit more about it and its huge history and culture.


General history


The best coffee table type book which tries to cover the full 5000 years or so of China’s history is Patricia Ebrey’s Cambridge Illustrated History: China. It’s got lots of photo’s, maps and pictures and is an interesting read.


A slightly shorter time period is covered in Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors which gives a reign by reign record of every one of China’s emperors from 200 BC to 1919, along with maps, cultural references, etc.


For an introduction of more recent history, the definitive read is The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence. Spence is one of the most respected historians of China and has written many books on various time periods. The Search for Modern China starts in 1600 and goes through to the end of the 1990s. Its a huge detailed book, but written with real pace and prose, I wasn't bored by it or felt I was just reading a series of facts; Spence manages to give a proper narrative drive to his subject.


Another slightly different history is Nigel Cameron’s Barbarians and Mandarins which is a history of westerners travelling in China; it discusses such travellers as Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci and the opium smugglers of the Victorian era. It’s a fascinating book, really one of my favourites out of all the history books I'm recomending; I loved the stories of Jesuits and adventurers travelling with the Mongols across the steppes to distant Cathay.


Another history which is one of the best books I’ve read this year is Rana Mitter’s A Bitter Revolution. It uses the lens of the literary and protest movement called May Fourth which started in 1919 and is still influential today to examine the history of 20th century China. It’s a fascinating book and takes a different approach than conventional histories through using how a philosophical movement has changed as the society changed from Feudal to Republican to Anti-Japanese War to Civil War to Communism to Reform.


I also really enjoyed reading When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. It covers the period when China was by far the most powerful country in the world in the early 15th century and sent Treasure fleets out to explore India and the African Coast. Levathes book isn’t as speculative as 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies and is more academically respectable; its also a thumping good read!


A similar really good basic history which gets in to some of the more minor details of history is The Pirate King: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements. Coxinga's father was a smuggler and pirate who traded with the Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch up and down the coast of China. When the Ming Dynasty fell to the Qing (nomads from the north descended from the Mongols) his son led the resistance against the invaders while funding it via continuing the smuggling and piracy. He eventually fled from China to Taiwan and over threw the Dutch who'd established a colony there; when the resistance against the Qing eventually failed Taiwan was amalgamated into the Chinese empire. This history and Coxinga's place in the histories of Taiwan and China are VERY political today as Taiwan attempts to maintain an independent existance from the mainland.





The Chinese Classics are huge long stories running to multiple volumes. There are quite a few versions of these books available, I've linked the versions I've read, enjoyed and can vouch for the readability of the translations, but some of the Beijing Foreign Press editions are hard to come by and expensive ... I'm pretty certain the other editions available via amazon are also pretty good, but I've not read them so I can't be certain.


The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin is the most famous classic. It’s a beautiful literary book and a fascinating story about a huge decadant and decaying family in Qing Dynasty China – around the 1760s. The main plot is a love story centred on Bao Yu, the young favourite of the family, and Dai Yu, a beautiful orphan brought to live with these distant relatives. But some of the sub plots are what make the book … especially the manipulative Wang Xi-Feng as she takes her lovers and schemes against her husband’s mistresses. The Penguin Classics translation is very readable, but runs to 5 volumes each of 300 or so pages; ie it’s a long project to read them all, but very worthwhile.


The older classics are the Three Kingdoms, The Outlaws of the Marsh (also called the Water Margins … remember the TV show in the 1980s?) and the Journey to the West (the TV show Monkey). These books are much less literary; you don’t read them for many insights into the soul! But they are thumping reads of adventure and daring do!!


I’ve not read Monkey, but can recommend the other two. They are both attributed to Luo Guangzhong. The Beijing Foreign Languages Press Three Kingdoms is translated by Moss Roberts and runs to 4 volumes while their Outlaws of the Marsh is translated by Sidney Shapiro and also runs to 4 volumes. So they are also pretty big reading projects.


The Three Kingdoms is a historical novel about the collapse of the Han Empire (220 AD) and its replacement by three Kingdoms which battled against each other. It’s a huge sweeping book with a cast of thousands but with 4 main characters: Liu Xuande who becomes one of the Three Kings; Guan Gong and Zhang Fei who are his two comrades in arms … Guan Gong the idealised honourable warrior and Zhang Fei an unrestrained psychopath; and finally Cao Cao the scheming general who brings down the empire. The book was one of Mao Zedong’s favourites and the blurb on the back says “The novel offers a startling and unsparing view of how power is wielded, how diplomacy is conducted, and how wars are planned and fought; it has influenced the ways that Chinese think about power, diplomacy and war even to this day.” Need I say more! Definitely a boy’s book!


The Outlaws of the Marsh is more down to earth and consists of loads of subplots concerning the outlaws as they become renegades and flee the control of the 12th century Song Dynasty. The personalities are fascinating, but sometimes extremely violent and misogynistic. I didn’t like the book quite as much as the Three Kingdoms, but the rawness of some of the characters does make for a great read.


I’ve not read any of the really modern Chinese books: famous examples include Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui. Her books have been banned in mainland China for “spiritual pollution” and depict the individualistic and nihilistic life of modern day China. Dai Sijie’s Mr Muo's Travelling Couch is definitely on my wish list as an example of modern Chinese literature; a returning exile, trying to bribe a judge to release his old lover, is ordered to find the judge a virgin. It received some very good reviews and is an example of magical realism in the tradition of Rhusdie or Marquez.


The last work of literature I’ll recommend are the short stories of Lu Xun (also known as Lu Hsun). He’s a May Fourth era writer (the 1920s) when China was struggling to understand the collapse of empire and its weakened place in the world assailed by colonialism and western and Japanese aggression.


Lu Xun’s short stories have a melancholy and thoughtfulness that really touched me. I can’t find his most famous collection a Call to Arms in English, but a lot of the stories are included in The New Year Sacrifice and other stories. They are haunting and beautiful stories, but often tragic … “Medicine” where a father is made by a quack Traditional doctor to feed his pneumonia suffering son a bread roll soaked in the blood of an executed prisoner sums up the tragedy of China in the early 1920s


Poetry and Religious


Those of a romantic bent should definitely try reading some Chinese Poetry. Obviously poetry in translation looses something, but can still be very beautiful.


Yip Wai-Lim's Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres sounds very academic, but its not really and gives beautiful examples of Chinese poetry between 600 BC and 1400. The book includes hand written chinese calligraphy, a literal translation and a poetic translation of about 150 poems, many of which I find incredibly beautiful, the descriptions of nature and the peace it can bring are a true inspiration.


A short penguin classic is Li Po and Tu Fu, like Yip's book there is a mix of Chinese Calligraphy and translations. Tu Fu was a Confucian scholar producing works full of the longing of an official posted far from his wife and the sadness of a country racked by war, but also some poems have the peace of a scholar content with his work. Li Po was a Daoist revelling in the joys of wine women and song. The pair complement each other producing often short poems that are full of life and the world.


Talking about Daoism the Dao De Jing (also know as the Tao Te Ching, Tao Teh Ching etc etc Chinese transliterations are a real problem!) is a wonderful short book about the mysteries of the world and how we should live in it. The web also has a wonderful site with multiple and very different translations … just try out a couple and feel the mystery!


Well thats about it ... I've got through that lot (and a lot more) in the last 15 years or so ... hope some people are interested; China's quite a place and its only going to affect us more and more! Enjoy the read!

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Did anyone see the TV program last night on China's first emperor?


It was a pretty good two hour special mixing talking head academics with drama.


The stories in the program were almost entirely based on the ancient book "The Records of the Grand Historian" by Sima Qian. This was written 2100 years ago and has survived as one of the best records of what China was like so long ago.


I was slightly surprised that they actually toned down the stories. Sima Qian reports that Lao Ai, the old queen's lover who rebelled against the Emperor and was eventually pulled to bits between two horses, became the Queen's lover because of the size of his dick! Sima Qian reports he did a rather unusual party trick with it and a chariot wheel!!!


Anyway rather than making dick jokes I thought I'd pass on details of Sima Qian's book which is available from Amazon."The Records of the Grand Historian Qin Dynasty".


The sections on the assassins of old China and the individual biographies of the heros and villians of the time are fascinating, though I admit quite alot of it is hard going! If your interested; enjoy! It'll open your eyes to an alien world and culture.

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As I keep reading up on China I'll keep posting stuff in this topic ... probably bore most of you to death, but anyway ...


I've just finished reading Wild West China by Christian Tyler.


It's all about China's far western region of Xinjiang (xin is pronounced a bit like shin as in the bit of leg below the knee, jiang sounds pretty much as its read!). Xinjiang is a huge area to the north and west of Tibet in the far west of China with a population of around about 18 million people; about the same as Australia. Unlike Tibet which most people have heard about, the conflict and desire for self determination in Xinjiang hasn't captured the public imagination. On a side note if you want to read about Tibet try out The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama by Melvyn C. Goldstein. It’s an excellent book which examines nationalism, self determination and the cultural and political conflicts between the Tibetans and Chinese over the Roof of the World.


The reasons why Xinjiang isn’t so well known are complex; there's no Dalai Lama like figure, plus as an Islamic region its religion doesn’t capture the western imagination as much. Then there is the simple fact that the region has been ruled by despots for millennia; they aren’t as romantic as Tibet's ruler monks.


Tyler says he’s writing a neutral history, but he admits he’s angry about the treatment of the indigenous Uighur people by the Han Chinese and thinks the facts speak for themselves. Modern Chinese Historiography is very distorted and exaggerates Han Chinese influence. It basically makes out that Xinjiang has been a part of China for millennia. The reality is much more complex with only the most powerful and successful Chinese Dynasties being able to send in troops and colonists for intermittent periods. Examples of this are the Han Dynasty in the first few centuries before and after Christ and the Tang Dynasty in the 8th and 9th centuries. These periods of Chinese rule were pretty unstable and for the majority of the last two or three millennia the cities of Xinjiang have pretty much ruled themselves. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that the Qing Dynasty really started integrating Xinjiang in to China proper in any meaningful way and even then it was a wild area of exile and adventure. With China’s weakness in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries it was touch and go if China would remain in control or if an independent East Turkestan would emerge. The Communists have now tipped the balance firmly in China’s direction with a regime that can be violent and repressive and this has been backed up by massive immigration of Han Chinese. This has seriously altered the demographic balance with the area changing from being 5% Han to 50% in just a few generations.


Xinjiang was a central part of the silk route. After leaving China proper the caravans would pass through the badlands of Gansu and then into Xinjiang. Then there were two routes through the huge Taklamakan desert, generally described as the most extreme desert in the world. The routes would pass through various Oasis towns until meeting again in Kasgar and then could either go south through the Karokorum mountains to Pakistan and India or west to the deserts of Central Asia and the Oasis towns of Samakand and Kokand and on to Europe.


Tyler in explaining the history of the region shows that that the Oasis cities of Xinjiang were more a part of Central Asia than China, but the growing influence of China with its visiting merchants, imperial soldiers and colonists slowly tipped them into the Chinese sphere of influence.


When the sea routes opened up the orient the Silk Road died and the Deserts started swallowing up towns which had lost their purpose, but then came the Great Game played between Russia and England over the control of Central Asia. England wanted to defend India from Russian expansion and the game was played out throughout Central Asia. Peter Hopkirk has written a truly excellent history of the Great Game – I couldn’t recommend it more, it’s a brilliant, entertaining and informative book. He’s also written about early western encounters with Xinjiang in Foreign Devils on the Silk Road; a book I’ve not yet read.


Nowadays the Great Game is starting up again but this time the antagonists are Russia, America and China and the issue is oil! Central Asia is sloshing with it and whether it goes North to Russia, South to Iran, West to Europe or East to China is a very very big issue! Xinjiang not only has its own oil supplies, but is also the entry point for oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan.


With its geopolitical importance, any desire for independence amongst the native people of Xinjiang is going to come to naught. The PRC government is simply not going to allow it and repression and violence is the result. Some Uighur’s have become radicalized: a few of them were captured in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban and there have been terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and Beijing. For the rest their religious practice is very closely monitored, their indigenous culture treated with suspicion and their towns and cities taken over by colonists from China.


China has created a huge semi-militarized organization to defend Xinjiang and help Han migration. It’s called the Bing Tuan (Chinese for Soldier Group), or more accurately the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp. It’s a masive organization with over 2.5 million members and acts totally autonomously of the local Xinjiang government: it reports directly to Beijing. It’s built and controls entire cities and brings in Han Chinese to settle them. Many of its first members were captured troops who'd fought on the wrong side in the civil war and were sent into internal exile as a result; on a personal note I've a friend who's the daughter of such exiles. China’s concerns have meant they’ve pumped in huge amounts of investment into the area: mainly in roads and railways to speed troop movements and enable minerals and raw materials to be taken out of the area. As a result Xinjiang is reasonably wealthy compared with the rest of China. But there is massive inequality with the rural Uihgurs not benefiting from the mines and oil refineries built to exploit the mineral wealth of their land. Naturally all of this creates resentment amongst the local population.


Wild West China is an interesting but quite sad book. It documents a people who have lost their identity and have become peripheral to a huge neighbour which is insistent on controlling their land. Their political leaders and history hasn’t enabled them to adapt to this onslaught and their future is very uncertain. For the 9 or so million Uighurs and other ethnic groups living in Xinjiang the risk of being swamped by the Han is very real and the geopolitics of the area could make them the play things of the great powers. As oil politics become more and more relevant its likely the world will hear more and more about Xinjiang and I’d recommend Wild West China as an excellent introduction to this troubled region.

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I’ve just finished reading Red Dust by Ma Jian. I’m not exactly certain what to make of it. It’s a travelogue or memoir of Ma Jian’s wanderings around China in the early 1980s. This was a time when China was beginning to open up – The economy was being liberalized with booms in Guangzhou and Shenzhen down near the border with Hong Kong filtering out over the rest of the country. The economic reforms were producing huge changes throughout the country – previously people had been assigned to work units who controlled every aspect of their life – now people were starting to be able to escape this control and find an independent living. However these economic changes were not being matched with political change and in the 1980s the level of political repression is almost unimaginable for people for in the west.


Ma Jian is a dissident intellectual – a poet and a painter – he’s got long hair, paints nudes, and writes poetry about despair – at the very least these crimes of "Spiritual Pollution" could result in him being imprisoned, and its not impossible he could face execution.


As the atmosphere in Beijing gets steadily more repressive Ma Jian abandons his job and travels China. With little money he sleeps in doss houses, begs for money, occasionally cheats, and sees the under belly of the country, while meeting up with other dissident painters, poets and free thinkers to share their thoughts on the country’s future.


The despair of the truly poor and the peasants trapped by the corrupt system come over very strongly; along with their comradeship to people in a similar situation. Ma Jian comments that poverty gives people compassion and so they are willing share what little they have. I find it strange that he is continually able to freeload meals and the money for a bus ticket to the next town from people earning next to nothing.


Ma Jian in some ways is not a particularly attractive character – he hates the oppression and corruption of the communists, but milks the system – using forged travel documents and invitations to gain access to Government Guest Houses. He regrets and despairs about the collapse of his marriage, but strings along a series of women and records a one night stand and sharing the mistress of a friend.


The writing isn’t particularly descriptive and I think the translator has struggled with the sparse style of Chinese – it often reads like a repetitive list: ‘I did this, then that, then went there, the light of the sun on the mountains was beautiful, I then went there and met so and so.’


However within this there is a stark insight into the reality of China in the 1980s and within the nihilism of Ma Jian’s life there is an attempt to find something spiritual within the mundane. These insights come imbedded within the simplicity and repetitiveness of his style – I imagine in Chinese, due to the nature of the language, this would be more obvious – in English it can be hard to find especially when he suddenly refers back to an incident mentioned in half a sentence two chapters back.


I’m familiar with China’s recent history, plus the form of literature called Scar literature that emerged in the 1980s – usually these were about the damage done to people by the Cultural Revolution: what makes Red Dust unusual is that he brings the genre into the reform era showing that the Scars continue to be caused even as China opens up.


Nowadays the repression is less direct – jeans, avant garde poetry and painting have been subsumed by the regime – have your spiritual angst, but don’t organize or threaten our power. The success of the Communist Party in doing that and so eviscerating the dissident movement is one of the noteworthy parts of modern China – the dissidents are allowed their Christies sales and appear on the BBC or Channel 4 to discuss art, but they don’t challenge the system.


Ma Jian’s work is earlier, but you can sense how the future will unfold. I’m not sure how someone who has little knowledge of China will related to a twenty year old story about an alien culture that no longer really exists – swept away in the cultural tornado that is rushing through China. I’ve also no idea if my knowledge of the recent history, and the literally genre has helped or hindered my reading.


Red Dust was a worthwhile read, but as a memoir and not a work of fiction it cannot be a rounded story – given China’s transitional state this isn’t a large problem – the book leaves questions unanswered and ponders what the future will bring – published in English in 2001 we can partly see what has occurred since Ma first wrote – the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the continuing reforms, and the continuing repression of the Communist party. That foreknowledge haunts Ma’s despair about what is happening to the country – and added to the books undoubted power.




Edited to add this link to a blog which I thought quite cleverly summed up China's changes over the past 30 or so years via 3 pictures. The first an image of Mao and his chosen successor, the second the Goddess of Democracy created just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the third a sculpture of the Super Girls - the winners of China's first Pop Idol competition! Ma Jian is writing in the period between the first two pictures - but his disident art has eventually been replaced by the Super Girls and not much disent!

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Some excellent suggestions and reviews of good reading on China. I couldn't hope to match your use of English or your descriptions of the books here but one I'd recommend to you is '10,000 miles without a cloud' by Sun Shuyun.


I bought it a few years ago after reading a few pages of it that were published in the Guardian magazine. It had me hooked. Part travel story, part auto-biography, part historical. The book covers three distinct threads from the view of the author. Sun Shuyun grew up as a child in China during the cultural revolution. having an atheist father in the red army and sharing a bedroom with a devout Buddhist grandmother she struggled to know where she belonged. After moving to America she go more interested in her Grandmothers beliefs and this book is partly a pilgrimage to find those roots. She looks at the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) who in the 7th century travelled from China to India in search of Buddhist teachings. In 18 years he travelled over 10,000 miles there and back. The Chinese only really know him now as the main character in the "Monkey King" (remember "Monkey" on British TV years back?). This guy was amazing, he brought back to China thousands of Buddhist Sutra's and kept meticulous records of ever where he travelled during this time.


Sun Shuyun follows in the mnks footsteps and re-traces his journey while exploring her own up-bringing. So this book is threefold - a history book looking at Xuanzang's travels and adventures, a travel guide to the places he visited and an exploration of growing up during the chinese cutural revolution.


I found it a fascinating book and hope others will too, just need to remember who I lent it to so I can read it again!!!!!! :-)

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I read China Shakes The World and What Does China Think quite a time ago and I haven't had time to review them until now. As many months have passed since I put them down, I admit this will be a slightly hazy review, but maybe that isn't such a bad thing - only the lasting points the books have made and the thoughts they have left with me will remain!


China Shakes The World is a good journalistic account of today's China and how it is commercially affecting the world. During his time as the F.T.'s Beijing correspondent James Kynges interviewed and travelled extensively around China, meeting many rags-to-riches entreupreners who have built China's burgeoning corporations. He also followed their influence around the world as Chinese companies have bought up (and repatriated) entire steel mills in Germany and squeezed out small scale machine shops from the American rust belt. It's a slightly light-weight book, often reading like a newspaper article, also there was little discussion about the opportunities China offers the outside world, rather concentrating on the downside of shut down companies unable to compete. In many ways its a western dominated book full of worried Americans - I can't remember a single interview with a Japanese businessman who's ridden the huge wave of business opportunity as China has overtaken the US as Japan's biggest trade partner.


I very much felt the issue of comparative advantage was ignored, and the problems due to competition from China over emphasized verses the opportunities, new markets and advantages produced by chearper goods produced by China's factories. That isn't to say he's protrayed China's companies as super efficient market destroyers. His case studies show how the chaotic booming world of China's businesses is full of problems such as patent and copyright theft, over centralized autocratic management, ecological damage and profit-destroying competition from ill-allocated capital.


I cannot pretend that China is not shaking the world and there are huge uncertainties about whether this will have negative overall effects - whether ecological, economic, or political - or positive ones, but in the end I found Mr Kynges book failed to give a full picture. The glimpses he gave were fascinating detailed thumbnail portraits of a part of the dilemma we face over China's rise, but the view given was incomplete and too driven by a journalist's management of the stroy to fit his readers expectations. That disappointed me and limited the successs of this readable and enjoyable book.


A similar problem is also apparant within Mark Leonard's What Does China Think, which tries to give an insight into the range of political thought existing in today's China. Although Mr Leonard does provide an excellent summary of some of the political debates raging in China (debates which I do think will surprise the casual observer of China used to the media cliche of a totalitarian state) the book only really touches upon one segement of China's political economy.


China now approximately does have what could be described as an official opposition. AS long as academics and lawyers acknowledge the primacy of the Communist party and the "unsuitablility" of multiparty democracy they can within certain bounds push widely differeng policiy prescriptions. The difficulty they face is that the acceptable bounds that their ideas are allowed to range within are not explicitly delimited by the Chinese Communist Party, which is also fickle with its tolerances. The winds can change and a university professor, laywer or journalist, who previously was feted at institutions and think tanks, and given grants to travel abroad, may suddenly loose his job, his state provided flat, and even his liberty.


Mr Leonard does not really discuss this. Dissidents and those out of political favour are not interviewd, rather than avoiding covert and overt survailence to meet his contacts at some safe house Mr Leonard visits University Politcs and International Affairs departments, meets Editors at trend-setting journals and is invited to interview in favour lawyers in Beijing corporate headquarters.


This necessarily limits the book and Mr Leonard never acknowledges this, seemingly totally drawn into the facade of radicalism existing within China's political elite. Maybe that is over harsh, but these academies and think tanks are a world away from the activists working at the coal face, met with the thuggish oppression of a state either indifferent, or unable to control, the violence its agents use to surpress disent. None of this is mentioned, not even the fragility of the careers of the academics he interviews, if they overstep the bounds. Such an omission creates an almost fatal flaw in a book attempting to analyse China's political situation.


All this said, What Does China Think will be enlightenning to anyone whose knowledge of China's politics only comes via Amnesty International's appeals for activists under house arrest, or the Telly coverage of beaten up petitioners. Its a short, readible accessible book, which I do recommend.


The Chinese Communist Party is such a monolith, and has such overaching influence throughout Chinese society that there is great scope to debate its policy direction. For those deemed acceptable there is quite alot to debate and, with its abandonment of Communism, the Chinese Communist Party is basically open to almost any policies which it sees as improving its abilility to stay in power.


Mr Leonard breaks his analysis up into two axes - the first is a classic left right divide between the New Left and New Right factions. Then internationally at one extreme there are the NeoComms - to be contrasted with American NeoCons - and at the other the Liberal Internationalists.


In many ways these two axes are really one, with the only real difference between the NeoComms and the New left (or between the New Right and the Liberal Internationalists) being whether their focus is domestic or international.


The name New Right is in fact now dated with this group loosing influence compared to their hey-day under Prime Minister Zhu Rongji during the presidency of Jiang Xemin. An important point to make is that the image of a big bang reformation repudiating the politics of Mao Zedong in the early 80s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping is in many ways a myth. Deng was the ultimate incremental pragmatist and his reforms and opening of the Chinese economy were show and stuttering with much caution and debate. Deng used a famous phrase "crossing the river, feeling the stones" and often reforms would occur piece meal, sometimes only implemented in one Province as competing factions haggled over whether, and how, they should be extended across the country. It was only mostly after the Tiananmen Square Massacre when Deng Xiaoping undertook his famous Southern Tour that reformers were able to consolidate their position under Zhu and Jiang. The failed uprising would not mark a return to communist economic ideology, rather after a premiership under Li Peng dedicated to reinforcing Communist authoritity, Zhu Rongji wanted to make his reforms irreversible.


This was the golden age of China's reforms with whole scale privatizations and reforms of State Owned Enterprises. But obviously compared to any economy under liberal capitalism there is still much to do. But the champions of this reform - the New Right - are aware that the tide is turning against them. Under the Presidency of Hu Jintao and his Prime Minister Wen Jiabao there is much more emphasis on social policy than continuing reforms, and the Champions of this are the New Left.


There is no doubt that the breaking of the Iron-Rice Bowl - China's system of craddle to grave social care mediated by the collective or state owned factory has had huge social consequences. Plus although the Communist Party only plays lip service to a socialist system it still claims to be the champion and protector of the people. The growing strain between the rhetoric and reality has resulted in growing calls for a return to communist values and in the rise of the New Left.


These intellectuals are unconvinced by further reform and rather desire a return to socialist policies protecting the poorer in society. The New Left cause crystalized recently over a revision of the consitution which recognized private property rights on an equal footing to public property. Many traditionalists saw this as a step too far, and opposition to the ammendment left the closed doors of party diliberation and entered public conciousness when a People's Daily (the CPC official Newspaper) opinion piece by an obscure academic criticized the changes. Although the CCP is clannish with various regional groups having leadership positions - such as the Shanghai clique lead by (maybe now dead!) former President Jiang Zemin - it is very rare for policy disagreements to create visible factions. For a previously unknown academic to criticize such a high level issue as a constitutional ammendment, and to have his criticisms published in People's Daily would be impossible without powerful support inside the party.


Rather than openly express disaproval the competing factions within the Party have used proxies to raise their objections stimulating various Beijing think tanks and institutions to become far more critical than previously.


The New Left is less anamoured with further opening up of China's economy, uses more dated Communist rhetoric and has a concentration on the poor and disempowered rather than the economic engine which has created China's boom. When turned outward this attitude is expressed by the NeoComms who have a much more bellocose attitude to the outside world and China's right to look to its own interests.


The New Right, with its liberal platform, see China gaining from joining the world system and locking in America via the rules based systems of the IMF, WTO etc. The NeoComms fret that China will also bind its own hands in such a relationship, worry that the US will cheat and sees no reason why China shouldn't cheat itself. Up until recently these attitudes were rarely expressed - Deng Xiaoping called for China to have a low profile internationally and to concentrate on economic growth.


As with the New Left's open dissent on a capitalist ammendment to the Consitution, the NeoComms rumblings reflect hitherto surpressed debates within the CPC gaining strength.


There is no doubt China is at a cross roads, as both these books show. For all their flaws I recommend them both as readable, enjoyable, if partial, accounts. China is so complicated that it is impossible to more fully explain its diversity without creating much longer books. Both therefore have compomised and attempted to highlight some of the more important issues.


With the current failure of the liberal economic model and a consequent slowdown the New Left internally and the NeoComms externally would seem to be strengthened. This may have profound consequences - after Tiananmen Deng Xiaoping rallied reform - no such figure exists now to clarify the policy direction and with only poor policy-making mechianisms to deal with debate this could create troubling political tensions.


No doubt the goings on in Mr Leonard's think tanks will be watched with ever greater detail to get a grasp of where China is going next, for where she treads will shake us all!

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The Great Chinese famine of 1958 to 1961 was the greatest famine ever seen - and even more tragically its causes were predominantly man-made due to political ideology. Collectivization of agriculture and unrealistic, ideological production targets meant China was unable to properly plan how to feed its huge population. The result was somewhere in the order of 30 to 45 million premature deaths.


Yang Jishen's Tombstone is currently the book of the week on Radio 4 - see here.


Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine covers the same ground.


I highly recommend both books - and if you are busy the Radio 4 serialization will cover the highlights in 15 minutes each day this week, available on iPlayer for another week.

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It's interesting, that while some of the books CH suggests are banned in China, they can still be downloaded within China to a E-reader made by a leading on-line bookseller.


Unfortunately, that E-reader is not available in China.


It's also unfortunate that many titles are not yet in E-book format.


"The Party" by Richard McGregor is a good read. All about how the leadership works (maybe).


"Poorly Made in China" by Paul Midler. I can really relate to this book.


"Mr China" by Tim Clissold: I found this interesting as it was written by an investment banker. You can get an idea of how investment bankers work rather than China. It's a bit dated now.

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Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine covers the same ground.



This is a good book. It can be a bit dry at times, but it gives an excellent insight into the method of Government at the time.

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Lots about China in the new Royal Doulton catalogue. Cracking read if you like that sort of thing.

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I really enjoyed Rana Mitter's A Bitter Revolution, it tells the story of China from the end of World War I to the Present Day via the May Fourth Movement, a Literary and Protest Movement which grew out of Chinese Intellectuals disgust of China's treatment in the Versailles Treaty.

Mitter has now written a book about China's terrible experiences during World War II - China's War with Japan: 1937-1945 The Stuggle for Survival.

Mitter gives a precis of the period in this New York Times' Piece:

China’s resistance to Japan is one of the great untold stories of World War II. Though China was the first Allied power to fight the Axis, it has received far less credit for its role in the Pacific theater than the United States, Britain or even the Soviet Union, which only joined the war in Asia in August 1945. The Chinese contribution was pushed aside soon after the conflict, as an inconvenient story in the neat ideological narrative of the Cold War.

Though far weaker and poorer than the mighty United States or the British Empire, China played a major role in the war. ...The costs were great. At least 14 million Chinese were killed and some 80 million became refugees over the course of the war. The atrocities were many: the Rape of Nanking, in 1937, is the most notorious, but there were other, equally searing but less well-known, massacres: the bloody capture in 1938 of Xuzhou in the east, which threatened Chiang’s ability to control central China; the 1939 carpet bombing of Chongqing, the temporary capital, which killed more than 4,000 people in two days of air raids that a survivor described as “a sea of fire”; and the “three alls” campaign (“Burn all, loot all, kill all”) of 1941, which devastated the Communist-held areas in the north.

These strains placed immense pressure on what by then was a weak and isolated country. ... When the Allies won in 1945, China’s contribution to the victory was rewarded with a permanent seat on the Security Council of the new United Nations, but little more. After a civil war, the Chiang regime fell to the Communists in 1949, and Mao had little reason to recognize its contributions to the defeat of Japan. China’s wartime allies also did little to remind their own people of its role in their victory: The Nationalist regime — which fled to exile in Taiwan — was an embarrassing relic, and the new Communist regime was a frightening unknown. For the West, China had gone from wartime ally to threatening Communist giant in just a few years.

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Ice Roads Used to Build Forbidden City


BEIJING, CHINAMoving the massive stones used to build Beijing's Forbidden City in the 15th and 16th centuries required more than sheer manpower. According to medieval Chinese texts, teams of workers moved the stones on sledges in the depths of winter. Now a team of modern engineers says those workers likely dragged monoliths weighing more than 100 tons on ice roads lubricated with water.


Source: http://www.archaeology.org/news/1488-131105-beijing-forbidden-city-ice-roads

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Rana Mitter has produced for the BBC about as good a primer on Chinese History as you can get.

Called Chinese Characters it tells the history of China via 20 biographies of famous people from Bruce Lee to Matteo Ricci and Wu Zetian to CiXi.

While Kate Adie has recently looked at the events of the 3 and 4th of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square.  Idealism crushed under the totalitarian jackboot and now being written out of history by the Chinese Communist Party trying very hard to prove Lu Xun's maxim that "Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood" is untrue.

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