Reviews

Dialect Adventures

Colin Jones reviews Dialect and Nationalism in China: 1860-1960 by Gina Anne Tam

In 1961, Yuen Ren Chao sat down in Berkeley to answer a question: ‘What is correct Chinese?’ Chao – one of China’s first and most brilliant scholars of modern linguistics – had grown up in Jiangsu in the 1890s; his first words were spoken in the idiom of the communities linked by the waterways of the Grand Canal. In the course of his education, he learned Mandarin, the official language of the Qing court. He also mastered the conventions of the classical writing style. This not only connected him to a literary tradition that stretched back into antiquity, it also gave him a shared language with the scholastic elite across the empire. The speech they used in daily life differed tremendously depending on the region, but as Chao recalled, “every literate person had to write the correct characters, form the right sentences in the classical language, and pronounce in their reading according to the tradition.” If their pronunciations sounded nothing alike, that was a small matter: “The actual sounds were beneath the concern of most literary scholars.”

 

Reviews

Do No Harm

Christopher Magoon reviews Classical Chinese Medicine by Liu Lihong 

As anyone who has lived there can attest, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remains a force in modern China. Call in sick and hear blame from your colleagues for drinking cold water. Find yourself with a stomach ache and prepare for wrinkly herbs from eager good Samaritans. The Chinese government is also bolstering TCM: pouring money into Chinese medicine centers, censoring critical articles, even jailing skeptics.

In China, modern medicine and TCM coexist mostly peacefully. Nearly every public hospital I’ve visited in China – big and small, urban and rural – has a TCM ward, nestled between the floors of modern services such as neurology, surgery and pediatrics. Most patients in China shift back and forth between traditional and modern medicine, with a seemingly intuitive understanding of the strengths and limitations of each. For chronic pain or fatigue, they lean on TCM; when they need an appendix out, they see a modern surgeon.

As an American physician who has spent significant time in China, I have been curious about the workings of TCM.  So I was glad to see that Liu Lihong’s best selling work Classical Chinese Medicine (思考中医) had been translated into English, published last summer. I was excited to dive into a TCM’s philosophy, evidence and theory, designed for the modern reader. Or as the book jacket sells it, “concrete and inspiring guidance on how to effectively engage with ancient texts and designs in the postmodern age.” What I found, unfortunately, was a slipshod polemic woven through a tedious overview of a two thousand year old textbook.

Reviews

A Map of Shanghai’s Neglected Crannies

Kevin McGeary reviews a new story collection, The Book of Shanghai

In 2019, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed titled ‘Welcome to Shanghai: Capital of the Future.’ In it, the author describes his experience of visiting the city as like “walking through the looking glass into the future.” Citing the city’s “muscular” building strategy, colossal scale, citizens’ entrepreneurial energy, and (of course) China’s ancient history, much of the article would not have been out of place in The Global Times. While he says London and New York are “the world’s current leading cities,” some of his arguments as to why Shanghai is primed to overtake them are strong.

Yet fiction leaves more room for exploring the conflict between how a city sees itself and how the world sees it. At its best, literature can capture both the appealing and the abhorrent aspects of a particular time and place. As editor Jin Li mentions in his introduction to a new collection of fiction based in the city, The Book of Shanghai, unlike Beijing, Xi’an or nearby Hangzhou, Shanghai did not become a major city until after the first Opium War when the colonial powers used it as a port. From its hey-day in the 1920s, Shanghai was an important hub through which an ancient culture entered the modern world.

Reviews

The Party, the Power and the Praxis

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Dream by Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown’s productivity puts the rest of us to shame. Just in the past few years the Professor of Chinese Studies at King's College London has published CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016), China's World: What Does China Want? (2017), which I reviewed in these pages, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (2018) and The World According to Xi (2018). All have received strong plaudits, too, making Brown a one-man cottage industry informing, educating and entertaining us about modern China.

Last year he published China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and The Secret Sources of its Power. Looking at the title, I wondered if the book might perhaps retread parts of CEO, China and The New Emperors. (How else could he maintain this output?) But I was wrong. China’s Dream is a deep analysis of the culture of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how it uses this to maintain power. If the renowned The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2012) by Richard McGregor established the skeleton of the CCP and its links to the broader Chinese state, Brown’s book is an attempt to put flesh on those bones. It does this by a deep-bore examination of the party’s moral and ethical stances, as well as its use of culture to maintain a remarkable hold on power and sustain its appeal to Chinese citizens – whether urban or rural, Party members or the broader masses.

Reviews

The Life of Laowai

Quincy Carroll reviews An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

A common explanation for the dearth of quality fiction set in modern China is that nothing invented by the mind of a foreigner could ever compare to the everyday stories out in the streets. China is complex, dynamic, at times bewildering, and in the 18 years since the release of Peter Hessler’s River Town, global audiences have exhibited a sustained appetite for factual, firsthand accounts of life in the Middle Kingdom. During that same time, many writers have tossed their hats into the ring to varying degrees of success. Yet there has been a noticeable lack of attention paid to what some might argue is the most curious subject of all in China: the laowai or foreigner living there. This is by no means an appeal for more navel-gazing memoirs about Asia as seen through the eyes of the West, but rather a call for more stories critically examining the attitudes and motivations of those who have come to make China their home. Tom Carter’s recent work, An American Bum in China, a true-to-life account of Iowan Matthew Evans’s “bumblingly brilliant escapades” from Guangdong to Shanghai to Yunnan to Hong Kong, tackles these themes head-on, and upon reading, even the most ardent defenders of fiction will be forced to admit: you just can’t make this stuff up.