A reading list for the new year, focused on ChinaAs our northern neighbour makes further inroads into Nepal and the world, here are a few books that help decode modern China.
As a tumultuous year for our neighbourhood comes to an end, for Nepal, it’s been a year marked by a bilateral high and a superpower tussle in Kathmandu’s power corridors. The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping was the peak of ‘brand Nepal’ in many ways; the visit is expected to kick-start several dormant agreements, as well as bring in more tourists, greater investments, and more people-to-people exchanges.
So for my year-ending column, I want to give a brief overview of a few books that help decode modern China. As with all reading lists, the caveat remains: this is not a complete list. It does not include works of fiction, which often provide searing insights into any society much better than nonfiction—in the case of China, I’d recommend the crime novels by Chinese-American writer Qiu Xiaolong. This list also focuses less on the rise and rise of the Chinese economy and more on society and culture. And, by virtue of me not knowing Mandarin, it is restricted to books written or translated into English.
The first is China: A History by John Keay, a comprehensive one-volume and eminently readable account of the three-millennia-old history of the Chinese civilisation. Keay is a British historian who has written several one-volume histories on countries such as India and Indonesia, and on the Silk Road. Beginning from the Chinese myths about creation, Keay takes us on a 3,000-year journey stretching from Qin Shi Huangdi, ‘the first Emperor’, the ‘first to impose a fragile unity on the whole of “core” China’ in accessible language. Anybody who wishes to learn about China needs to begin from this text.
On the other hand, Keay’s book stops with the founding of the modern People’s Republic of China. To understand the years since, one must turn to Chinese writer Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. Although Yu is known more as a fiction writer, China in Ten Words builds on his life with essays on ten ideas—‘People’, ‘Leader’, ‘Reading’, ‘Writing’, ‘Lu Xun’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Disparity’, ‘Grassroots’, ‘Copycat’, and ‘Bamboozle’—to provide readers with a canvas of how the country evolved. Consider this excerpt from ‘People’:
‘During the Cultural Revolution, the definition of “the people” could not have been simpler, namely “workers, peasants, soldiers, scholars, merchants”—“merchants” meaning not businessmen but, rather, those employed in commercial ventures, like shop clerks. Tiananmen, you could say, marked the watershed between two different conceptions of “the people”; or to put it another way, it conducted an asset reshuffle, stripping away the original content and replacing it with something new… To use a current buzzword, “the people” has become nothing more than a shell company, utilised by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.’
Yu makes some pithy observations that reveal the Chinese universe within them. He breaks down China’s transition from a closed socialist economy to a capitalist economy with Chinese characteristics, and ascribes China’s ‘breakneck growth’ to its lack of political transparency. He is most knowledgeable on the Cultural Revolution, having experienced it closely, and is often scathing in his critique. But what shines through is a thorough understanding of the society he has seen evolve.
If you want to, however, know the length and breadth of China—it is, after all, the third-largest country in the world by area—you must turn to Ma Jian’s excellent travelogue Red Dust and Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake. Both were written in the early 80s, and follow similar paths down to Lhasa. But while Seth took the road down from Xinjiang to Lhasa, hitchhiking on the Qinghai plateau, Ma travelled from Beijing to the west, came back east, and then returned once again. Seth’s 1981 journey saw him travelling as a student, while Ma’s 1983 journey begins with him appearing in the black books of the Public Security Bureau, and him buying a train ticket to Urumqi, in Xinjiang. This is the time of Deng’s ‘four modernisations’ campaign, as well as the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution, under which Ma is reprimanded.
Both Seth and Ma’s books offer a wide view of China, in all its natural and diverse bounty. The desolation of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau gives us a sense of how vast, how extraordinary the country is, all the while never losing a sense of what it means to be living in China’s periphery regions. One wonders if it would be possible to write similar travelogues today.
If there is one book, however, that captures the Chinese joie-de-vivre, it is British chef Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. It came highly recommended, and I chuckled as I read through what is essentially a food adventure across the country, coupled with a nostalgic sense of how Chinese cities are losing their heritage in the face of concretised development. Dunlop was the first westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, and her memoir is a love letter to Sichuan cuisine (one I particularly veer towards too). She traces the historical love for delicacies among emperors and revolutionaries, and deconstructs why food is an essential part of Chinese society: ‘The banquet in China is a social institution. If you are hosting a dinner for family members and friends, it’s an expression of love and generosity. For clients and colleagues, it might be a demonstration of wealth and power, and a chance to “win face”—that peculiar Chinese concept that expresses a person’s social and professional dignity.’
Print space restricts me to these five books, but there are several others I have missed. American journalist Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China breaks down the resurgence of religion in the country after Mao. I’ve previously written about What China and India Once Were, a must-read if you’re keen on history. Chinese intellectual Wang Lexiong and Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya’s The Struggle for Tibet is a fascinating conversation on issues about modern Tibet, while journalist Abrahm Lustgarten’s China’s Great Train is a revealing account of how the Qinghai-Tibet railway was constructed. Then there is Ezra Vogel’s monumental biography of Deng Xiaoping. If you want to learn more about the new Chinese internet economy, Duncan Clark’s Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built should be on top of the list.
That’s about it—I’m sure there are several other books I have missed, so any recommendations are welcome. Happy reading, dear readers, and may your new year be filled with books.