Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Long and the Short of It: Writings on Contemporary China (A Top Ten List for 2011)
LARB contributor and China matters specialist Jeffrey Wasserstrom offers multiple tiers of recommendation for year-end reading.
'Tis the season for best books lists, which—to invoke a Chinese saying—sprout up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. Just in case somebody asked, I was prepared to offer my own: 2011's best books on recent Chinese political and cultural developments. No one asked. And while I could go ahead and simply post my list anyway, it feels a bit late for holiday book buying. What might be more useful—especially for readers without a lot of time during the holidays—is to highlight some of the notable short form and long form news reports, reviews, and commentary pieces from the last year. The result is a Top 10 list that I hope will give readers an enlightening overview of how a variety of writers have been addressing the major events, trends and phenomena in the world’s most populous country. And if you have the time to plunge into a book just now, or are looking for that last-minute gift, I’ll mention one published in the last couple of years to pair with the article in question. (I’ve reviewed many of these myself, for venues such as TIME and the Asian Review of Books, but in each case, I’ll point readers to a review by someone else, so that they get a perspective different from mine about the work’s value.)
Though the list is eclectic, a fair number of the titles address collective struggles for change or profile individuals known for speaking out against abuses of power. This perspective is not coincidental (see my own China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know). Though TIME’s decision to name “The Protester” its 2011 person of the year was likely not driven by events in China—this was, after all, the year of Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—dissent is always a crucial theme when discussing China and its future....
1. “The Han Dynasty”: New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos’s profile of one of China’s most interesting and hard to categorize intellectuals: Han Han. (Abstract only; full article behind a paywall.)
The subject of this piece, Han Han, made his name as a novelist and racecar driver, but he is now probably most influential as a blogger with a massive following who has become increasingly political in recent years, writing posts that are often scrubbed away by censors soon after they appear—but not before being shared and reposted. Pair it with New Yorker contributor Zha Jianying’s book, Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, which limns the varied political choices being made by entrepreneurs and intellectuals, some of whom, like Han Han, are neither dissidents in the classic sense nor unquestioning supporters of the status quo (for more on the book, see David Pilling’s review).
2. “A View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit”: Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé’s essay, inspired by the famous gadfly figure’s detention last spring.
The piece, accompanied by photographs of the artist’s work, offers a deeply informed look at how exactly Ai Weiwei’s art and political stances have developed in recent years. Pair it with the artist’s own commentaries and online posts, published in book form earlier this year (for more about that volume, see Los Angeles Review of Books contributor Alec Ash’s “The Last Rant," a review of the compendium).
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