2020 China Books

2020 China Books (Part 4): History, Art, Literature11 min read

A fourth list of new China books – compiled by Brian Spivey


We have arrived at the fourth and final part of our 2020 China Books series (also read parts one, two, and three), showcasing books about China’s past that came out, or are coming out, in 2020 – and giving their authors, who wrote the blurbs below, an opportunity to suggest why readers might be interested in their book in this current historic moment. Art and culture in various forms features prominently in this list: from the literature of Yan Lianke to the global spread of Chinese antiquities; Chinese cinema to Maoism’s influence on modern and contemporary art; before ending with historical fiction on Ming courtesans, and literary nonfiction on China’s youth.  – Brian Spivey

Three Brothers
Yan Lianke, trans. Carlos Rojas
Grove Atlantic, March 2020

As with most large-scale natural disasters, in the current pandemic there exists a large gap between the official and actual death rates. Although many pandemic-related deaths are carefully tabulated and mourned in real time, the actual number of deaths is almost certainly significantly higher. Due to testing limitations, imperfect record-keeping, and general chaos at a time when health care systems are stretched to capacity, many deaths may not be linked to the disaster until long after the fact. Yan Lianke’s memoir Three Brothers emerges out of a similar interregnum between death and mourning. Near the beginning of the work, Yan describes how, after his father passed away in 1984, Yan resolved to express his filiality “by writing something about him, narrating his life and love of life – even if it was a short piece only about three hundred or five hundred characters long.” Yan concedes that for years afterwards he never even remembered to observe the anniversary of his father’s death, much less fulfill his promise to write an account of his father’s life. In fact, it was over a quarter of a century later, with the Chinese release of Three Brothers in 2009, that Yan was finally able to complete and publish the memorial he had promised to write. The result is not only a moving celebration of Yan Lianke’s memory of his father and three uncles, it is also an anguished meditation on the inherent difficulty of mourning.  – Carlos Rojas

The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures
Justin Jacobs
University of Chicago Press, July 2020

The world that we live in today is filled with things from China. Most of them are cheap manufactured goods that we bring into our homes. A hundred years ago, however, most people would have encountered the material productions of China within the halls of a museum, as art and antiquities. How did these priceless objects end up there? Was it, as is often assumed, the inevitable result of Western imperialist deception and plunder? The Compensations of Plunder challenges this assumption. It finds that most Chinese knew exactly what the foreign archaeologist was doing and how he was doing it. Not only that, but they even went so far as to provide voluntary and enthusiastic assistance to the exodus of treasures from China. The reasons why they did so have been lost to history, obscured by nationalist narratives of cultural sovereignty that were not shared by most Chinese in the early 20th century. This book reconstructs the original political, cultural, and economic context of the late Qing and early Republican eras that surrounded these expeditions and, in doing so, explains how China really lost its treasures.

Corporate Conquests: Business, the State, and the Origins of Ethnic Inequality in Southwest China
Pat Giersch
Stanford University Press, April 2020

Should you bother with a history of business, ethnicity and development in China? If you recognize the centrality of state-run and private corporations to producing inequality across China’s vast West and to aiding Beijing’s terrifying policies in Xinjiang, then the answer is yes. The book introduces three stories to bring the past of this particular present into sharper focus. The first is one of village entrepreneurs who struck it rich by building powerful transnational companies that reached deep into Southwest China’s diverse communities. The second is one of Yunnan Province’s interwar technocrats who, influenced by global ideas and local prejudices, created China’s most innovative state-run enterprises, but also imagined development as a civilizing mission for the allegedly alien peoples of the borderlands. The third is one of Yunnan’s ethnic Tai elites who followed anti-colonial movements and conceived an alternative future of inclusive economic and political development in a China that embraced diversity and empowered local communities. These stories unfolded from the 1870s to the 1940s and shaped the “new” China of the 1950s, including the Communist Party’s repertoire of uneven development and oppression.

Moulding the Socialist Subject: Cinema and Chinese Modernity (1949-1966)
Xiaoning Lu
Brill, January 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the Sino-US competition for global hegemony, we are inundated by images and stories that fuel patriotism and nationalism in public media. My book examines how cinema was deployed by the Chinese Communist Party during the formative years of the People’s Republic of China to legitimize its rule and to propagate its political vision. It focuses on areas where cinema and the Party’s social engineering intersected and interacted, and offers case studies from popular film genres, movie star culture and rural film exhibition practices. In the time of the pandemic, Chapter 2 may be of particular interest to the reader. It explores how the sports film genre created memorable iconographies and affective narratives to communicate the Party’s policies on the New Physical Culture (xin tiyu) in an effort to mould ordinary people into socialist laborers sound in both body and mind.

Art, Global Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Ed. Jacopo Galimberti, Noemi de Haro García and Victoria H. F. Scott
Manchester University Press, January 2020 (US)

The West is currently taking stock of and re-evaluating its relationship with the East, and coming to terms with the ascendancy of China on the world’s stage. Art, Global Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution is the first book to explore the global influence of Maoism on modern and contemporary art after 1945, providing a survey of the history and substance of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s impact around the world from Maputo to Mexico. Containing 17 case studies, written by emerging and established scholars both inside and outside art history, it also features a variety of rare images not widely known in the West, demonstrating the significance of visual images for understanding the protean nature of this powerful worldwide revolutionary movement. – Victoria H. F. Scott

Utopian Ruins: A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era
Jie Li
Duke University Press, December 2020

Living through historical times raises the urgent question of how to witness, document and archive the present for future memory. Moreover, as monuments are removed in many parts of the world to reckon with racism and colonialism, it is time to rethink how we commemorate the past, and what memorials might take the place of toppled statues. Taking up writer Ba Jin’s call for a Cultural Revolution Museum, Utopian Ruins: A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era traces the creation, preservation and elision of memories about China’s socialist past by envisioning a virtual museum that reckons with both its utopian yearnings and cataclysmic reverberations. Assembling each chapter like a memorial exhibit, the book highlights corporeal traces, police files, photographs, documentary films, factory ruins, memorabilia collections and other material relics. These exhibits constitute a botanic garden of memories seeking to do justice to the Chinese Revolution’s unrealized dreams and unmourned ghosts.

How China Escaped Shock Therapy: Marketisation beyond Neoliberalism
Isabella Weber
Routledge, Winter 2020 (publication page forthcoming)

My book shows how China escaped wholesale liberalization in the 1980s as a result of fierce debates among economists and political leaders. The state-led market economy shaped in the critical first decade of reform has led to China’s deep integration into the global economy, which enabled the spread of Covid, but also laid the foundations for China’s relatively successful domestic containment of the coronavirus. As a result of the escape from shock therapy, China’s state-market relations are distinct from the strict market state separation envisioned by wholesale liberalization. A key mode of economic governance that emerged in the 1980s is market regulation through the state’s market participation. This same logic came into play in China’s full-out mobilization against Covid that started in late January. At the heart of China’s mobilization was the state commerce system which managed to organize a massive expansion of medical supplies produced by private and public enterprises. Thereby the state acted as market participant: it pledged to be a buyer of last resort for all medical supplies relevant to the fight against Covid and also mobilized its SOEs. (Cover photograph by Adrian Bradshaw)

Tales of Ming Courtesans
Alice Poon
Earnshaw Books, June 2020

Tales of Ming Courtesans is a heartbreaking story that traces the destinies of three of the late-Ming era’s most renowned courtesans, from the seamy world of human trafficking and slavery to the cultured scene of the decadent Nanjing pleasure hub. Betrayal, heartache, tenacity and hope all come together in a novel that brings to life a cataclysmic phase in China’s history and highlights the challenges faced by independent-minded women. With otherworldly scenery of 17th century Jiangnan and unique courtesan-literati romance woven into an immersive story of female friendship and struggles against subjugation, this novel provides not only a much-needed escape from our distressful world crises. It also provides food for thought about our human condition at a time when power is increasingly used in a draconian manner to subjugate others. In terms of the latter, the book serves as a symbolic reminder that the human spirit is most resilient in the darkest of hours, and that hope and solidarity will empower the oppressed and in the end instigate positive change.

China’s New Youth: How the Young Generation Is Shaping China’s Future
Alec Ash
Arcade, June 2020

At a time when the present is ever more uncertain, it has never been more critical to understand the future. In the case of China, that future is its young people: the generation who will be running the country in a decade or two, and who already set new social trends which are changing their nation. As editor of the site, it’s a bit incestuous to tag the paperback rerelease my own book on the end of the list here – but this new edition (with a new title, previously Wish Lanterns) has a new preface and afterword, updating the lives of the six characters I follow, and a foreword by Karoline Kan, author of Under Red Skies. 2020 is another inflection point in China’s history, as the combination of Covid and the policies of Xi Jinping result in a more closed, xenophobic, illiberal nation. This work of narrative nonfiction is a reminder that there is a potentially different future beyond that, when the next generation takes over. ∎