Staff Picks

End of Summer Reading14 min read

Staff picks from the masthead of the China Channel


Another year behind us, and a second year of the China Channel. It has been a full and exciting year, and we’re taking a summer break next week before returning in September. First, another round of staff picks to kickstart your back-to-school reading list, from Chinese characters to Chinese cooking. Thanks for following us, and do become a patron if you want to see us continuing to publish in 2020. – Alec Ash


Anne Henochowicz – Contributing Editor
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy
John DeFrancis (University of Hawaii Press, 1984)

Whenever I hear a cringe-worthy comment about “pictographic” Chinese characters or on the “dialect” of Cantonese, I summon the spirit of the late John DeFrancis and begin my counterpoint. I first encountered Professor DeFrancis, one of the most innovative and influential modern scholars of the Chinese language, through his book The Chinese Language: part primer on spoken and written Chinese, and how the writing system spread across East Asia; part take-down of every myth and mystical notion about the language.

The Chinese Language expands on DeFrancis’ earlier report on The Singlish Affair, a linguistic intrigue during World War II that perfectly illustrates how the character system works and the contortions required to force the writing system on such disparate languages (unrelated to Chinese) as Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and even English. Sparing no civilization, DeFrancis lays bare the absurdity of linguistic colonialism, be it Etienne Aymonier in the 19th century proposing that Vietnamese children learn only in French starting from the first day of school, or the Japanese architects of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” who transliterated the Gettysburg Address into Chinese characters as proof of how easy the transition away from alphabets would be for the Western world. DeFrancis didn’t just set out to debunk myths and deflate egos – by “demythifying” the Chinese writing system, he decouples it from spoken Chinese, freeing us to explore the language in its true, living form.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom – Founder and Academic Editor
Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution
Helen Zia (Penguin, January 2019)

When this well crafted book was published earlier this year, I gave it an enthusiastic review in the Wall Street Journal, calling  it “an engaging work of high-quality popular history.” I wrote that it had much to offer “general readers with little knowledge about the city’s intriguing past,” and had even won over a specialist reader (me), who began it “in a suspicious state of mind,” due to its lack of Chinese language sources. I was struck by the skillful way the author, a veteran journalist with a fascinating personal connection to the topic, wove together tales of individuals to create a work that provided the “reading pleasures of a well-turned set of interconnected short stories.”

I stand by what I wrote, but I feel that reading Last Boat now could be a more meaningful experience than reading it months ago was. This is because of what has been happening in Hong Kong, a city whose history has been entwined with that of Shanghai for a long time. Zia includes memorable scenes of Hong Kong as it was seven decades ago, at a time when it served as a safe haven or transit point for many people fleeing Shanghai because they feared the way that city would change once under Communist Party rule. Now, of course, there are some residents of Hong Kong who worry about how the city they love is being reshaped by that same organization and those beholden to it. Many are engaging in bold acts of protest, rather than fleeing, but some have left. Others are pondering, as various people Zia interviewed once did, how exactly might leave and where they might head if things get worse.

Alec Ash – Executive Editor
Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century
Orville Schell and John Delury (Random House, July 2013)

Through lengthy historical profiles of eleven iconoclasts who changed China – all reformers or revolutionaries in one way or another – this wonderful book is a must-read that shows China’s national road from Qing to today, driven by the same quest for fuqiang, wealth and power.

The book begins with Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen, two 19th century scholars who warned of the growing power gulf between China and the West, pioneering the ziqiang or “self-strengthening” school. Reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao (as well as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang) obsessed over reforming China – met with mixed response by Empress Dowager Cixi, the last ruler of the Qing. Next are Sun Yatsen, guofu 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, integral to the May Fourth Movement of the early Republic. More familiar figures then include wartime leader Chiang Kaishek, two chapters each on Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, before closing with Zhu Rongji, who oversaw China’s economic miracle in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Liu Xiaobo who protested the lack of political reform throughout.

The individuals profiled are helpfully collated with chronologies, quotes and multimedia resources at Asia Society’s ‘Wealth and Power Book Project’ here. If you don’t want to wade through a 500 page book, I can’t recommend this site highly enough: half an hour spent on it will give you a clear and concise overview of a century and a half of China’s modern history and the visionaries who shaped it, connecting the unfinished thread to the present day and Xi Jinping: China’s latest reshaper, who would surely be the final chapter in any new edition of the book, and whose legacy is open-ended but is sure to be just as lasting on China’s future.

Brian Spivey – Assistant Editor
Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
trans. Ken Liu (Tor Books, February 2019) 

Broken Stars is an anthology of sixteen stories by fourteen contemporary Chinese science fiction authors, each chosen and translated by Ken Liu. The anthology is then capped with three essays written by Regina Kanyu Wang, Mingwei Song, and Fei Dao about the development and current state of the genre from their perspective as authors.

As the China Channel has well-covered, some truly excellent Chinese science fiction writing has been translated and published in recent years. Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first novel) is arguably the most famous work of contemporary Chinese sci-fi, but it is by no means the only one. Nathaniel Isaacson’s review of Broken Stars over at our big sister LARB prompted me to read it. And I’m so glad that I did: all the superlatives I’ve heard about the quality of Chinese sci-fi ring true. The sixteen stories, which run the gamut of sci fi subgenres, are entertaining and brilliantly creative. For the China watcher, these stories offer critical perspectives on contemporary Chinese society and politics (as Alec Ash has pointed out in NYRB), but they are also meditations on issues of global importance, such as the development of artificial intelligence and our entrenched social media addictions. For those who are interested in satisfying their curiosity about this developing literary realm, Broken Stars is a great place to begin, while for more experienced readers is also a diverse menu from which you can expand your palate.

Nick Stember – Contributing Editor
Resisting Spirits: Drama Reform and Cultural Transformation in the People’s Republic of China
Maggie Greene (University of Michigan Press, August 2019)

Popular culture under Mao usually falls under the “so bad it’s good” category. Although the author of this recent monograph is no stranger to material of that sort, the strange case of supernatural socialist realism might be better described as “actually good, no really.” At the heart of Maggie Greene’s work is the question, “What happens when you try to take the ghosts out of ghost stories?” It’s a question with real significance for the Maoist period, because writers and artists constantly found themselves caught between the desire to tell a good story, and the ideological demands of not just the state, but the larger utopian socialist project that they saw themselves and their work contributing to. And as Greene shows, while the lingering spectre of the Cold War has conditioned us to think of 1949 as a hard line between two distinct cultures, when you look at what was actually going on at the time, it was anything but.

Not only is this a great story, it’s one that has particular relevance today. Seemingly as far removed from Maoist China as you can get, events like Gamergate and OscarsSoWhite have shown that storytelling still has deep political significance, even in relatively open societies like the 21st century US. Last but not least, I’m happy to report that Maggie Greene happens to belong to that special tribe of code-switching academics who write for non-specialist audiences with equal capacity. Thankfully, University of Michigan Press has likewise had the foresight to issue an exceedingly reasonable paperback edition (to compliment that fancy-fancy hardback), with further savings for those of us who worship by the flickering light of our Kindles at the digital altar of almighty Amazon.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham – Advising Editor
Diamond in the Dunes
dir. Christopher Rufo (2014)

Years ago, I heard about a short documentary film that told the story of Uyghur baseball players in Xinjiang. I made a mental note to find out if it was streaming online, which I predictably forgot to do. But reading about the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang recently reminded me to look up the movie, which led me to historian Jim Millward’s 2015 LARB review of Diamond in the Dunes, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Diamond in the Dunes follows Xinjiang University student Parhat, who has left his widowed mother in their rural hometown to pursue his education. Parhat faces an uncertain future, and seems to have the weight of the world resting on his narrow shoulders. His previous schooling has been substandard; his Mandarin is shaky; and he’s in love with a girl who has a boyfriend but who toys with Parhat’s emotions when she’s short of cash.

Parhat’s only real source of joy is playing baseball with the other members of the university team he captains, although even that pastime is fraught with inter-ethnic tension between the squad’s Uyghur and Han players. He appears to hold the team together by sheer force of will, steering them through months of practices for a “season” that lasts only a single game, when the Xinjiang students travel 30 hours by train to face off against their nearest competitors, a far superior and better outfitted team in Qinghai.

Diamond in the Dunes was filmed a decade ago, long before the CCP began the large-scale internment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. It’s impossible to watch it now and not wonder what has happened to all the young men on the screen. With access to Xinjiang now heavily restricted and monitored, it’s impossible to envision anyone making a similar documentary today.

Jason Ng – Advising Editor
Swordsman II (东方不败)
dir. Tsui Hark (1992)

With so much going on in Hong Kong this summer – the anti-government protests each week getting more violent and worrisome than the last – we can all use a bit of escapist entertainment to take our minds off heavy politics, if only for an hour or two. These days it’s hard to imagine there was a time when tear gas and armed thugs weren’t on everyone’s lips in Hong Kong, when anger and frustration weren’t the only emotions in our hearts. The 1990s seem like an eternity ago. It was a simpler, happier time when it was acceptable – and didn’t make one appear callous – to prattle on about movies and music.

This brings me to my recommendation: Swordsman II (1992) directed by Tsui Hark. The film is based loosely on Louis Cha’s wuxia novel The Laughing Wanderer. Tsui borrowed his main characters from Cha’s epic but took liberal artistic license to reimagine them as lovers who are well ahead of their times, or even ours. The story centers around an upstanding swordsman, Linghu Chong (Jet Li), who falls in love with Dongfang Bubai or “The Invincible East” (Brigitte Lin), a villain bent on world domination. East is more than meets the eyes. Over the course of the film, the audience watch this anti-hero transform from a military strongman into a beautiful but no less formidable vixen. It turns out that to master the world’s most powerful martial arts, East had to give up his masculinity by castrating himself.

The gender-bending, role-reversing plot made the film an unlikely hit in the box office. But with skilled storytelling and sympathetic characters, not to mention some of the most thrilling action sequences in film history and Brigitte Lin’s consummate acting (her role is silent for most of the film, but she acts with her eyes), Swordsman II has cemented its place in Canto cinema. Rarely does a sequel outdo its predecessor so spectacularly, even though Swordsman (1990), by the same director, is a solid movie in its own right. Swordsman II is a testament to Tsui Hark’s bold and outside-the-box thinking and his readiness to challenge social conventions.

Mengfei Chen – Advising Editor
WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai
Wong Kar Wai and John Powers (Rizzoli, 2016)

This book is structured around six conversations between the legendary Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai and John Powers, a film critic at American Vogue. The two hopscotch around Wong Kar Wai’s beloved home city of Hong Kong, visiting the locations of some of his most iconic scenes, among them the snack stand where, in Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s manic pixie dream girl meets a lovelorn cop played by Tony Leung; and the noodle shop from In the Mood for Love where Maggie Chung’s Su and Tony Leung’s Chow poignantly pass each other in one of many missed connections. It also features interviews with Wong’s collaborators, including cinematographer Christopher Doyle (also interviewed on the China Channel by Nick Stember), and hundreds of lush, gorgeous photos and stills from his movies.

Olivia Humphrey – Assistant Editor
Normal People: A Novel
Sally Rooney (Hogarth, 2018)

My summer pick (forgive me) strays away from China. Sally Rooney’s Normal People: A Novel  is a book that’s stayed with me since I finished it a couple of months ago. I read it during a short camping trip, and it made me terrible company – this is the sort of book where the consequences of being antisocial appear better than the repercussions of putting it down. If you only have time for one quick fictional read this summer, you could do a lot worse. Set largely in Dublin, Normal People is a marvellous and understated mediation on class dynamics and attraction. It is a love story underpinned by Marxist sentiment and a brutal, funny commentary on the pressure to perform in a certain way within academic spaces. There’s been some great journalistic writing on Normal People, and I particularly like how The Atlantic’s Annalisa Quinn argues that Rooney politicizes the novel by “showing how relationships can function like miniature states, and how political principle can work on an intimate scale.”

Lev Nachman – Editorial Assistant
Chinese Cooking Demystified
Steph and Chris (YouTube)

These turbulent news days, food is often a source of comfort. For aspiring Chinese food fanatics and home cooks such as myself, the most valuable resource I have discovered for recreating Chinese food abroad is the YouTube channel “Chinese Cooking Demystified.” The channel covers everything from the classics such as sweet and sour pork (山楂咕噜肉) to more local specialties including Cantonese stuffed peppers with fish (釀青椒). Their videos cover more than just recipes, they also teach cooking techniques such as “Tofu Frying 101”, or the history behind certain dishes or ingredients, like why Shaoxing wine is such an important ingredient in Chinese cooking. I have even (with varied success) learned to make my own jianbing (煎餅)for breakfast. The videos are made by two independent creators, Steph and Chris, a couple based in Shenzhen who make all the videos in their apartment. Although the videos are simple, the quality of their content is better than any other Chinese cooking instructional video or book I have seen or read. ∎