2020 China Books

2020 China Books (Part 3): Modern Chinese History9 min read

A third list of new China books on modern history – compiled by Brian Spivey

This is part three of our 2020 China Books series (read parts one and two), showcasing books about China’s past that came out, or are coming out, in 2020 – and giving their authors an opportunity to suggest why readers might be interested in their book in this current historic moment. The books in this third post cover an eclectic range of subjects related to China’s modern history. The Chinese Party-state features prominently, whether as marshal of nationalist narratives that seek to elide China’s linguistic diversity, as censor of information, as producer of data and statistics, as legatee of nationalist and revolutionary movements, as third pole in the Cold War, and as capitalist economic reformer. Understanding the many faces of the Party-state allows for a more nuanced understanding of China in the 20th century. Of course, the state is not the whole story: many of the books emphasize the history of non-state actors such as commercial artists, publishers, authors, and diasporic medical communities.  – Brian Spivey

Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960
Gina Anne Tam
Cambridge University Press, February 2020

President Trump made headlines when he insisted upon calling the virus responsible for our current pandemic a “Chinese virus.” The use of the term is meant to lean into American nationalism; its ambiguity as both a national and an ethnic referent uses imagining China as a monolithic “other” to frame American nationalism. There is a long history of imagining China as a monolith from the outside, and indeed, it is a narrative that the Chinese Communist party frequently capitalizes on today to buttress its own sense of nationalism. My book reveals the historical formation as well as the historical contests to this narrative from the inside, by showing how China has imagined itself. It explores how forces within China and outside it have sought to maintain it as a homogenous concept that can easily connote ethnicity and nation, while other forces have sought to emphasize its heterogeneity and flexibility. In other words, when you consider the narrative of a monolithic China from the inside, it becomes clear it is, and never has been, the only narrative.

Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China
Louise Edwards
University of Washington Press, April 2020

Covid-19 presents fundamental challenges to the strength of democratic institutions and values the world over. Basic individual freedoms of movement and gathering are being curtailed to contain the spread of a deadly virus. These actions remind us that democracy and civic spirit are habits that are practiced on an everyday basis and cultivated attributes that build from myriad social interactions and media. Maintaining democratic sensibilities is challenging even in long-standing democratic nations, so how do you nurture these values in localities where they previously did not exist at all? Citizens of Beauty explores the ways that leading commercial artists in China during the 1910s and 1920s helped promote democratic values in China among a population that were subjects of an emperor and had been so for centuries. In their drawings of “beautiful women,” artists produced illustrations for newspapers, posters and magazines that promoted qualities they regarded as crucial to creating a democratic civic consciousness: individual civic action, equality, productive labor, patriotism and an adventuresome spirit. The modern women they drew helped make democracy sexy.

Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China 
Margaret Hillenbrand
Duke University Press, March 2020

Negative Exposures explores how a culture of shared secrecy – rather than simply of censorship and amnesia – has shaped the way in which China processes taboo and troubled episodes in its modern past, from the Nanjing Massacre to the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Knowing what not to know is a core skill acquired by citizens, willingly or otherwise, who do not speak of past things out of fear, guilt, pragmatism, or the palliative effects of silence. But the restive past refuses to be muzzled, and it often breaks cover in cultural forms, most especially via aesthetically repurposed photographs of key people and events. Many fear that the Chinese state’s almost compulsive, kneejerk will to secrecy led to the loss of crucial early weeks in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also become apparent that Chinese people, both in Wuhan and elsewhere, felt the familiar pressure of “knowing what not to know” as the disease took hold. In this sense, photographs of the whisteblower Dr. Li Wenliang, that appeared on social media after his death, are novel instances of seminal images which murmur truth to power.

Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China
Arunabh Ghosh
Princeton University Press, March 2020

Can we ensure timely delivery of data while also guaranteeing its accuracy? As the global spread of Covid-19 is reminding us, this balance is not an easy one to strike. Greater precision in one is all too frequently offset by a drop in precision in the other – Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applied to data collection. As I show in Making It Count, statisticians in 1950s China were faced with much the same dilemma. The choices that were made then, that are being made today, are not self-evident. Numbers provide one of the most powerful ways of knowing in the world, but the methods we choose and the results they generate are never neutral.

Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China
Covell Meyskens
Cambridge University Press, June 2020

The United States has recently placed great power competition with China and Russia at the core of its national security strategy. In Mao’s Third Front, I tell the story of the last time that the security interests of Beijing, Washington and Moscow came into intense conflict. The book shows that in 1964 the Chinese Communist Party made the momentous policy decision of responding to rising tensions with the United States and Soviet Union by building a top-secret massive military industrial complex in the mountains of inland China. Mao Zedong named this the Third Front. It received more government investment than any other developmental initiative of the Mao era, and yet this huge industrial war machine, which saw the mobilization of fifteen million people, was not officially acknowledged for over a decade and a half. Drawing on a rich collection of archival documents, memoirs and oral interviews, my book provides the first history of the Third Front campaign and elucidates how the militarization of Chinese industrialization linked millions of everyday lives to the global Cold War, merging global geopolitics with local change.

China’s Revolutions in the Modern World
Rebecca Karl
Verso, January 2020

Have you ever wondered why the Chinese Communist Party has presided over one of the most successful capitalist economies in the world over the past several decades? Have you wondered, that is, what the historical antecedents are to the contemporary moment in China? I wrote China’s Revolutions in the Modern World as a brief history of the successive revolutionary movements that have propelled China from the mid-19th century to the present – not as a march of the inevitable rise of China to world dominance, but as a series of ever-expanding and ever-constrained historical possibilities. The narrative challenge was to explore how these possibilities were unevenly shaped and pursued, through mass mobilizations, global ideologies, capitalist modernizationism, struggles over state formation, and more.

Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China
Fei-Hsien Wang
Princeton University Press, October 2019

Intellectual property piracy and tight information control in China have been prominent in today’s conversations about the norms and practices in global politics and economy. Pirates and Publishers offers insights into these highly contested issues by reconstructing an intertwined history of copyright, piracy and censorship in modern China. Challenging the conventional myth about China’s half-hearted adoption of copyright under foreign pressure, it reveals that Chinese publishers and authors actively practiced and appropriated copyright – at times cleverly manipulating the state’s obsession with censorship – to protect their livelihood. In the name of “catching up” or “national interest,” however, promoting copyright and committing piracy were (and still are) not mutually exclusive in China. Although Chinese cultural actors were able to self-regulate copyright in the first half of the twentieth century, such vibrant civic and market mechanisms were eventually overwhelmed by the state’s growing power and obsession with control after 1949.

China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New  Nationalism
Rana Mitter 
Harvard University Press, September 2020

When Xi Jinping talked about China getting past the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, he used one analogy in particular: the “People’s War” (renmin zhanzheng) against the virus. This phrasing would have struck a chord with the millions in China brought up on stories of Chairman Mao’s “people’s war against the Japanese” during World War II. But it is just one example of a phenomenon that’s developed over the past thirty years: the growing public memory of World War II in China as a means of interpreting the present. As China grows to global power, and finds itself at odds with the world much of the time, it has become keener to stress that it was the first signatory of the UN Charter, as a result of its wartime contributions to the Allied cause. TV and movies still teem with 1940s tales of wartime daring, reminding a contemporary generation that consumerism and growth are not the only factors that shape the nation. But the new remembering has also created parallel memories – not least the rehabilitation of the war efforts of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who did much of the fighting, in their former strongholds such as the wartime capital of Chongqing. This year marks the 75th anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan). China’s Good War tells the story of why, as we move further away from it, World War II matters more than ever to the shaping of modern China.

Global Medicine in China: A Diasporic History
Wayne Soon
Stanford University Press, October 2020

Global Medicine in China: A Diasporic History contextualizes the current fight against Covid-19 in China and Taiwan in their longer histories of fighting pandemics. The book sheds light on how the Overseas Chinese medical personnel in China and Taiwan drew on transnational resources and fellow members of the diaspora to fight epidemics in Chinese East Asia from 1910 to 1970. They created mobile delousing and treatment units to reach underserved communities, established quarantine bureaus and facilities to prevent outbreaks of diseases, and monitored infection rates by refining the collection and collation of medical statistics. Finally, the book argues that Chinese and Taiwanese politicians, doctors and nurses’ longstanding debates over the length and quality of medical education, the extent of state intervention in medical care, and the promises and perils of international medical cooperation continue to shape current debates on the best ways to effectively suppress Covid.