Best Books on China

This is the time of year for people to list their best reads in the past twelve months. I have recommended two books on China: The Four Books and The China Dream. I have reviewed these books below.

I am about to start ‘The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China‘ which looks promising. I also plan to read Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts‘ though it is about Korea.

However, for anyone who wants a quick introduction to China I recommend ‘The Dynasties of China‘ by Bamber Gascoigne. Good insights. Have you read any good books on China recently?

The Four Books

One of the surprising things about Yan Lianke’s novel, ‘The Four Books,’ is that the author ‘currently lives and writes in Beijing.’ You would expect that a book which give a harrowing account of life in Chinese re-education camps in the early days of the Communist rule would not only be banned but its author would either be in exile or back ‘re-educating’ himself.

It says a lot for China today that the writer is free, even though sales of his book might be discouraged. Could it be that the literary value of the books is recognised and the government is happy to celebrate its being awarded the Franz Kafka prize in 2014 and being a finalist for the Man Brooker in 2013? It could also be a sign that the government is now able to acknowledge its past and is confident that people accept that it has moved on to a happier age.

Like all great pieces of literature, the book resonates on two levels: how a group of individuals survived in a north China re-education camp and how humans in general react to a seemingly meaningless life.

The ‘criminals’ were intellectuals imprisoned as a backlash to the ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign of 1956. Physical force or torture are never evident, it is about psychological control and how human respond when meaning disappears from the lives they are living.

Surprisingly, the accounts of human frailty display an unexpected sense of humour directed both at the ‘criminal’ inmates and the impersonal ‘higher-ups.’ While the value of the book is that it is thoroughly Chinese, the influences of Western culture and Christianity are also evident. The theme of the narrative reflects the author’s own version of the Sisyphus story –the fate of people condemned to rolling a stone up a hill every day only to see it roll back again in the evening. The only reasons to persevere in such a situation is to find some spark of joy or hope in what one is doing, and conceal it so it cannot be taken from you.

The China Dream

Would you like to know China’s dream for the next century?
It was written down by a Chinese army strategist (Liu Mingfu) in 2010 and given the stamp of approval in a speech by President Xi Jinping in November, 2012.

The dream (or is it a plan?) is to replace the USA as the world’s ‘Champion Nation’ in the coming decades. The new Chinese hegemony, replacing that of the USA , would be based on benevolence and not on naked force .
Liu claims that, unlike the U.S., China was never expansionist or aggressive. It will gain dominance, not by exerting military power, but by the righteousness, virtue and peacefulness to which its history witnesses. However, a strong military capacity would be essential to making the dream a reality. He quotes the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, as saying that the people of China are the most numerous people on earth, the most civilised and the most harmonious.

You might not agree with all this but his reflections on the uses of power for persons gain in world history do lead to some interesting insights.
A notable omission in his discourse is nations such as Russia, India and the Islamic families. For Liu there is only one contest: China v the USA and the Chinese eventually will prevail culturally, economically and militarily.