It has long been unfortunate that China knows more about Western culture and history than vice versa. Beijing schoolchildren learn about ancient Greek philosophers in school, then go home and watch “The Big Bang Theory.” Ask an American teenager about Confucius or the “Wolf Warrior” movies, and you might start to worry that any upcoming cultural struggle between East and West is on unequal information footing. That is why, with U.S.-China relations at a new low point, it is so essential to read up on Chinese history, society and politics, so as to bridge that gap. To that end, our top pick this month is an eminently readable way to understand how China sees the arc of its history, its position in the rest of the world, and by extension their future role — invaluable perspectives at a time when the pendulum of power is once again swinging East.
The One to Read
Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World by Michael Schuman
When we talk of China’s “rise,” what we really mean is its return. China was a regional superpower for millennia — it just had a wrench thrown into the gears by its collision with the West in the nineteenth century. To understand the Chinese worldview today, we must go back to before the interruption. This is the conceit of Michael Schuman’s book: to tell the history of the world from a Chinese perspective, beginning with origin myths and ending with Xi Jinping. Schuman draws on Chinese sources — including historians, officials and poets — threading a convincing narrative of how the Middle Kingdom held onto power for so long, how it lost it, and how it wants it back. As he writes, “the Chinese have been following their own strand of world history, populated with its own characters.” It is time for us in the West to know it.
June 9, 2020 | Public Affairs. $18.99. | Buy
China 2049: Economic Challenges of a Rising Global Power by David Dollar, Yiping Huang, and Yang Yao
For all of the ink spilt on China’s authoritarian politics and policies, it is easy to forget the most fundamental fact of all regimes: if the economy goes south, the rest is moot. That is why this sage appraisal of the economic hurdles Beijing needs to successfully leap is such a vital read. Will China manage to transform from a manufacturing to an innovation and services economy? Can the demographic time-bomb be defused? Might the yuan become a viable reserve currency? It is refreshing to have considered answers from respected economists, rather than just provocative questions.
June 9, 2020 | Brookings. $39.99. | Buy
Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War by Bob Davis and Lingling Wei
“Superpower” may be the new buzzword when it comes to China, yet with all of its connotations of hegemony, there is no longer a unipolar superpower; this century is more likely to be defined by competition between major powers than the domination of any one. In this sharply-told narrative, two Wall Street Journal reporters lay out the inside story of the U.S.-China trade war and trace how relations between China and the U.S. — specifically Xi and Trump — have fallen to such alarming lows. An engaging read based on high-level interviews and close reporting.
June 9, 2020 | Harper Business. $32.50. | Buy
City On Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong by Antony Dapiran
The paperback release of this book couldn’t be more timely, with Hong Kong again in the headlines after the passing of a new national security law just in time for the 23rd anniversary of the handover from Britain to China. The book focuses on the anti-government demonstrations of 2019, analysing the motivations and tactics of protesters, yet sections delving into the city’s storied history of dissent shed new light on its present troubles. Beijing seems to have won this battle, but Hong Kong’s future is still to be fought over, and this primer sets out essential context.
June 23, 2020 | Scribe US. $20. | Buy
Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai by James Carter
Pivotal moments in history can tell us much about pivotal times today. In his new book, historian James Carter tells the story of one day in old Shanghai — November 12, 1941 — when a much-anticipated day of horse races in the International Settlement revealed tensions at the heart of a wartime city about to change forever. In this snapshot of the last days of Shanghai’s past, weeks before Pearl Harbor, we may even see a reflection of China’s current age, where the international entrepôt that the city and the nation once was is being lost again in favor of a more closed China.
June 16, 2020 | WW Norton. $28.95. | Buy
Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China by Covell F. Meyskens
Another chapter in China’s history that has been overlooked — until now — is the creation of a vast military industrial complex in 1964, dubbed the Third Front. In response to rising tensions with the U.S. and Soviets, China mobilized 15 million people and invested huge sums into a secret war machine, yet the campaign was not officially acknowledged for over 15 years. With revealing details, this history of the Third Front shows how the militarization of Chinese industry defined China’s role in the first Cold War — which hints at how that may play a part in what is shaping up to be the second one.
June 25, 2020 | Cambridge University Press. $39.99. | Buy
In Case You Missed It
Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow by Ben Bland
I would be remiss not to flag this short read by journalist Ben Bland as an addendum of sorts to the Hong Kong books already recommended in this column. Generation HK came out before the most recent dramatic developments in the Hong Kong story, but unlike other books, it delves into the lives of the young democracy activists who have shaped it and the identity issues at the heart of the debate. Just weeks after Joshua Wong and Nathan Law have dropped out of their grassroots organizations out of fear of arrest under new laws, it is worth a reread.
Dec. 1, 2017 | Penguin Specials. $11.72. | Buy
Recommended by Jonathan Chatwin, author of Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China
Red-Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey Through The Cultural Revolution by Li Zhenseng
The Cultural Revolution, as historian Jonathan Spence observes in his introduction to this book, is that unusual historical phenomenon: an event that seems to make less sense as more time passes. Yet Li Zhensheng’s photography in Red-Color News Soldier offers images that are far more immediate than any written explanation. Li, who died last month at the age of 79, was a newspaper photojournalist in China’s northeast during the 1960s. He was witness to rallies, marches, struggle sessions and public humiliations, and recorded what he saw in high-contrast, black-and-white images — then hid his negatives under his floorboards so they could be published later, albeit only outside of China.
Oct. 1, 2003 | Phaidon Press. | Buy
Alec Ash is the books editor for The Wire. He is the author of Wish Lanterns. His work has also appeared in The Economist, BBC, SupChina, and Foreign Policy. @alecash
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