Staff Picks

Christmas Staff Picks9 min read

Your holiday shopping sorted – by the China Channel editors


That time of year is rolling around again, like an old yule log. ‘Tis the season to shop, and however you celebrate the festivities or don’t, it’s a good moment for another round of recommendations with a China twist. So here they are, from the China Channel extended family with warm wishes for a happy holidays and speedy Amazon delivery:

Alec AshChinese Philosophy comic strips

Ancient Chinese philosophy is one of those inviting mysteries that is both inscrutable and gives the illusion of simplicity. So I was delighted to discover a series of Taiwanese comic books that make it easy to follow the thought of the old masters, plus with funny pictures. Published in the nineties, these books by Cai Zhizhong have – according to the back of one of them at least – sold over 40 million copies, accounting for three out of for comics sold in Taiwan. I was first put onto to it by Anne Henochowicz recommending Zhuangzi Speaks, and have since read Laozi Speaks, Confucius Speaks and Sunzi Speaks, leaving Mencius, Han Feizi and the Zen masters to complete my collection. Each book begins with the story of the philosopher’s life, followed by a comprehensive greatest hits of their thought and parables – think Zhuangzi and the happy fish, Laozi and the overflowing cup, Sunzi and, erm, lots of dead enemies. Better still, most editions are bilingual, so you can follow along in English and check against the Chinese, with the original classical Chinese in the back notes. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Laszlo Montgomery’s History of Chinese Philosophy podcast series – which just covered Daoism – that we have been syndicating.

Maura Elizabeth CunninghamContemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text

My Chinese reading skills are strongest in the language of Communist Party propaganda, which is filled with stock phrases and repetitive constructions. That knowledge has served me less well when I’ve attempted to simply pick up a Chinese novel and read it on my own, and I’m sure that many others find themselves similarly adrift when confronted with more-literary grammar and less-common vocabulary. So if there’s an advanced Chinese-language student on your gift-giving list, I recommend you wrap up a copy of Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text, translated and edited by Ailu Mu and Mike Smith. Each of the volume’s “short-short” works of fiction (averaging 1,500 characters) is presented with Chinese characters on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right, followed by vocabulary lists, questions for analysis, and a biographical note that places the author within the landscape of contemporary Chinese writing. The book is primarily intended as a course textbook, but is also an ideal interim step for those of us who are no longer taking Chinese classes but still need some extra scaffolding when attempting to broaden our range beyond Party-speak.

Eileen Cheng-yin Chow: Into English and Book from the Ground

“Between melting and freezing / the soul’s sap quivers,” as T.S. Eliot puts it, quite captures my mood right about now. Fortunately, there is nothing more cheering to the soul than a beautiful book – aside from two beautiful books, of course – and I will be indulgent here and recommend two that I imagine would be most lovely to either gift or to receive. Both concern language – though neither is, strictly speaking, about (just) Chinese. The first is Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, a world poetry anthology edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, centered around the gorgeous and revelatory conceit of presenting each of its thoughtfully assembled 25 poems four times over: in its original language, then through three translations, followed by astute commentary elucidating the distinctions between the various renderings of each poem. Included among the poetic vignettes in this volume are James Hightower, Stephen Owen and David Hinton grappling over the “fields and gardens” of the 4th century Chinese poet-recluse Tao Qian; as well as Kai-yu Hsu, Michelle Yeh and Hugh Grigg contending with the nuances in how Xu Zhimo, the emblem of the early twentieth century “romantic modern” Chinese poet, says his farewells to his student days in Cambridge.

My second suggestion is a book that, aside from its title, has no words at all. Book from the Ground, by the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, is a novel entirely “written” in emoji – which makes it either entirely appropriate or entirely inappropriate for everyone in your life – depending on how they choose to read its contents. Either way, it will confound and delight all those feeling a bit weary in “the dark time of the year.”

Jason Y. Ng: Cantonese Love Stories

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, Penguin publishes six booklets that comprise their inaugural “Hong Kong series,” each offering a unique perspective on the former British colony. I recommend Dung Kai-cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories – also reviewed in the China Channel – not only because it’s the sole fictional work in the ensemble, but also because of its brutal honesty and grim authenticity. Translated from the original Chinese, the twenty-five vignettes make up a collage of chance encounters, uncanny coincidences and inevitable breakups, all delivered with a hefty dose of wordplay and pop culture references from the 1980s and 90s – the city’s Belle Époque. Dung’s lovers are never happy, always lost, but ever unfazed by the vicissitudes of life, which sums up rather accurately how many Hong Kongers feel. You may not always understand the point of the stories, but you’ll agree that few authors capture Hong Kong’s je ne sais quoi quite like Dung.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place

As one of this publication’s two “academic editors,” a part of me feels I should go with a scholarly book I have read and enjoyed in the last year or so. There have been plenty of those, from three I blogged about back in May for the LARB blog to a long awaited title published this summer: Tom Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter. Instead, though, I’m going to follow Jason’s lead and draw attention to a work on Hong Kong. My choice is an anthology that he couldn’t recommend himself for the simple reason that he was one of the people who pulled it together, sharing editorial duties with the talented quartet of Tammy Ho, Mishi Saran, Nicholas Wong and Sarah Schafer. Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place includes non-fiction, fiction and poetry by a wonderfully varied set of contributors, ranging from journalist Ilaria Maria Sala, to activist Joshua Wong, to former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, who has recently been writing thoughtful articles linked to episodes of the Little Red Podcast for this site. There are some lovely pieces in the collection, and it makes for an especially appropriate gift for people on your list who are passionate about free speech, as buying it helps support the recently relaunched and much needed in the current climate Hong Kong chapter of PEN.

Olivia Humphrey: Finnish Saunas

I’ve spent lots of time over the last few months in Helsinki, using the excellent Slavic collection at the National Library of Finland. The home of Father Christmas himself! After three years in Southern California, the most Christmassy thing ever to me is a biting cold that brings blood roaring to the cheeks, and a ton of snow to marvel at in the morning and mutter slushy curses at in the evening. The best compliment (or antidote) to this weather in a Finnish sauna. Finns are rightly passionate about saunas. Take a cosy space, add the sublime smell of hot wood, throw in the liberating sensation of wearing nothing but your birthday suit (optional, naturally), sweat away your stress and a top-drawer night of sleep is practically guaranteed. If you ever find yourself in Finland, here’s a list of excellent potential places to get your sauna on. There’s a rooftop Finnish sauna that’s just opened for the winter season on top of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. And if you’re elsewhere, one of these international options might be closer.

Anne Henochowicz: “Snow cake” rice cracker biscuits

I celebrate Christmas according to Jewish tradition: by eating at a Chinese restaurant and maybe catching a movie. But if you’re stuffing stockings, I imagine snacks would be a welcome addition. I am a big fan of “snow cakes” (xuebing), puffed rice crackers with a mysterious white sugar coating sprinkled on top. Have you ever tried eating a Chips Ahoy and a Pringle at the same time? It’s kind of like that, minus the chocolate. In my Beijing days I worked prodigiously through many a bag of Want Want Shelly Senbei (the Taiwanese manufacturer uses the Japanese name for the crackers, senbei, but I don’t know where “shelly” comes from). They’ll be the perfect accompaniment to your holiday celebrations, whatever those may be.

Nick Stember: Ai Weiwei’s Xmas Door Gods

Despite churning out yuletide bric-a-brac for the export market by the metric ton, Christmas has been slow to gain traction in China. Concerned educators famously banned the holiday in Wenzhou a few years back, after stylish Han nationalists staged protests with signs reading “Resist Christmas / Chinese People Don’t Celebrate Foreign Holidays.” But all is not lost for the Santa-seeking sinophile! To add some holiday flavor to your computer, I present Ai Weiwei’s Christmas ‘door gods,’ from 2012:

For the uninitiated, ‘door gods,’ or men shen 门神, are a staple of Chinese culture, dating back to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 CE), when tradition held that the gods Shen Tu and Yu Lei held watch over the gates of hell, lassoing errant demons caught in the branches of the celestial peach tree and throwing them to wild tigers. To ward off evil spirits in the new year, peach wood carvings of the door gods would be placed on either side of the main entranceway, with rush ropes festooned above. To complete the picture, tigers were painted on the door leaves. By the Song dynasty (1127–1279), colorful printed door gods had replaced the carvings, a – sometimes tongue-in-cheek, if Chinese Superman and Batman have anything to say about it – tradition that continues to the present day.

It’s hard to think of anything that says Christmas more than Santa and Ai Weiwei guarding the gates of hell. Note the festive alpacas and jolly river crabs decorating the bottom edge, the sunflower seeds scattered throughout, plus Twitter on Ai’s side, while his handcuffs are freed. Future generations may look back on this illustration as an early example of Chinamerican Christspringmas Festival decorative arts. ∎