Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at University of California – Irvine, a co-founder of The China Beat, the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and the author, most recently, of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (2009) and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (forthcoming in April). Today he writes on five books about China that you ought to take note of in 2010.
2008 was a very special year, not just for China but also for English language publishing relating to the PRC—something that I flagged in an essay last year for the now about to disappear Far Eastern Economic Review. As I suggested there, 2008 saw a bumper crop of smart and engaging books about China, many of which dealt with Beijing (not surprisingly) yet some of which dealt with other places (an important case in point being Lynn Pan’s Shanghai Style).
2009 saw excellent publications on Chinese themes come out as well, including the new collection of Lu Xun stories — just not quite as many. So, which year will 2010 resemble most? It is obviously too soon to know, but based on the advance copies of forthcoming works I’ve been reading lately, I’ve got a sense that the coming year might turn out to be, like 2008, an unusually interesting year for China books.
So, rather than do a retrospective list of worthy 2009 titles, when Shanghaiist asked me for a “top five,” I decide to devote it to a list of titles that readers of this blog might want to keep their eyes out for — either to buy or borrow from a library or from better-heeled friends. Each is a work that I’d be happy to see my own 2010 book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in April, paired with in a “buy these two together” promotion:
1. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Written by Marie-Claire Bergère, one of France’s leading specialists in Chinese studies, this is the English language edition of her general survey of the city’s past, which came out in French in 2002. What makes the book special, aside from the author’s deep knowledge of the local past and accessible writing, is that it deals with both the pre-1949 and post-1949 eras in a comprehensive manner, rather than sticking on just one side of the divide (as many books do) or jumping from the glory days of the treaty-port era (circa 1930) to the runaway reglobalization of the metropolis that began with Pudong’s development (circa 1990). It is great that Stanford is bringing it out in paper and hardcover simultaneously, and that they were able to engage as skilled a translator as Janet Lloyd, who among other things previously translated the same author’s well-crafted biography of Sun Yat-sen.
2. Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory. This is Peter Hessler’s third book, and all that I need to say to those who are already fans of his writing is that it strikes me as his most effective and affecting yet. There’s an old line about an actress being so talented that you’d be happy to buy a ticket just to hear her read aloud from the phone book. This book brought a literary counterpart to that image to mind. Hessler is such a keen observer and so deft at wringing meaning from the texts he encounters that the book would be worth the price if all it contained were his analyses of such seemingly unpromising materials as driving tests, road maps, and the contracts used by car rental companies. It is even better, though, when it deals with personal relationships, such as that between the author and the “last child” of a village near the Great Wall, as opposed to documents.
3. The Wobbling Pivot, China since 1800: An Interpretive History. I won’t say much about this lively survey by Pamela Crossley, which is due out at the end of February, since my endorsement of it is already being used to advertise it. What is perhaps most worth stressing, where followers of this blog are concerned, is that it while it is by a Qing specialist and deals largely with the past, it sheds considerable light on contemporary Chinese dilemmas—something that is clear from the excerpt from the book that we ran at China Beat.
4. Chinese Politics: State, Society, and the Market. This book, which is edited by political scientists Peter Gries and Stanley Rosen and is an updating of sorts to their excellent 2004 publication State and Society in 21st Century China (also from Routledge and with contributions by some of the same authors), is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the complex changes underway in the PRC. Like the two editions of another Routledge franchise, Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance, edited by Mark Selden and Elizabeth Perry, Gries and Rosen show how valuable it can be to bring together, in one place, essays by a combination of senior and up-and-coming scholars who are tracking developments in China. This particular book’s strengths include the interest the editors demonstrate in showcasing and placing into context debates on some big topics (such as the meaning of protest), rather than seeking to present a consensus view. Readers of this blog may find particularly valuable Patricia Thornton’s take on digital politics.
5. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. This forthcoming book by Joyce Appleby, a prominent historian who is best known for studies of the United States that are both erudite and compulsively readable, is not about China—except in part. And yet, sometimes these are just the sorts of books that one needs to have at hand when seeking a new perspective on the PRC or trying to get beyond a tired way of thinking about the country. (I know that one of the most insightful discussions of the PRC I came across in a 2009 publication was that found at the end of Bruce Cumings’ Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, where the author asks his readers to embrace the “heretical” notion that the U.S. and China, so often presented as radically different kinds of countries, actually have a great deal in common with one another.) I’ve just start reading an advance copy of Appleby’s latest book, which stresses the need to think of capitalism as a cultural system as much as an economic mode, but I have already learned a great deal from this lively work that is helping me think through issues associated with China.
Once again, with 2009 not yet over, it is impossible to say what kind of year 2010 will be for books that either deal directly with or indirectly shed light on China. But since all of the five worthy titles alluded to above are due out in the year’s first three months, there seems good reason to be optimistic.