In 1984 I set off for China to teach English for a year. Before I left, the organization that I was working for sent me a book to read. It was the first book about China that I remember reading. Just as that one year in China has turned into a 28 year sojourn, so too that one book also turned out to be the start of my literary journey. Since then I have pretty much read every book about China that I can get my hands on.
In an effort to track that journey I put together a list of books that have been particularly helpful to me in my attempts to make sense of the Middle Kingdom. Over the course of this week I will post more information about the books and their significance in my journey.
Please note that this list obviously reflects my interests, which run in the direction of political and social history. I acknowledge the absence of great Chinese literary works.
Pre 1984 (before I went to China)
The China described by this Canadian journalist was pretty much the China that I encountered in 1984. China was drab beyond description; everything was grey – the buildings, the clothes, the sky. There was no visible commercial activity: no stores, no shops, no street sellers, no beauty parlors, no restaurants, and no cars. Because the work units still controlled nearly every aspect of an urban dwellers’ life and suspicion of foreigners ran deep, Chinese were not allowed to befriend foreigners. If Chinese I knew wanted to invite me to their homes, they first had to seek permission from their work unit. As you can imagine, it rarely happened.
1984 – 1986 (while working in Henan)
In 1984, China was only 8 years from the end of the Cultural Revolution, a ten year period of chaos that had enveloped the country from 1966 until the death of Mao in 1976. This book is a memoir of a young man who came of age in China during those tumultuous days. I remember reading this book in China and being astounded at the brutality that had taken place so recently. It helped me understand the significance of what China was emerging from, and gave me a glimpse into the suffering that my own students and their families had experienced.
White was a correspondent for Time Magazine who covered war-time China in the 1940’s. What gripped me most about this book was his account of the famine in Henan Province in 1943-1944 in which 10 million people died in the very province where I was now living. His description of the streets of Zhengzhou were horrifying, and haunted me as I explored the city on my bike.
What I hadn’t known before reading this book was the extent of US military involvement in China prior to 1949. This book tells that story, beginning with the arrival of General Stillwell in 1911. It is an eye-opening account of American attempts to influence the building of a new China following the collapse of imperial rule.
When the Japanese took over northern China in the 1930's one of the things they did was round up the foreigners in the region and incarcerate them in a prison camp in Weixian, Shandong Province. Gilkey tells the story of life in the camp. The Japanese essentially told them, "We'll man the walls, but you are responsible to organize yourselves into a functioning society," something that proved challenging for several thousand prisoners from different countries, social classes, and religions. This book would be suitable for use as a textbook for all of the following subjects: history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and political science. For a long time, I faithfully read this book once a year.
Have you read any of these?