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The Best China Books of 2023

recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The rise of China has led to an ever broader range of books about the country becoming available in English. There’s also a greater focus on its diversity, which the country’s Communist leadership likes to downplay. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, talks us through his favourite books of 2023, from painful historical episodes to the harsh policies targeting a largely Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang today—by way of two lighter books that focus on food and cooking.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

What was 2023 like for China books? Tell us a bit about how you made your selections.

It was an interesting year for books about China. For this list, I decided to think about it as the ‘best books’ to recommend to busy general readers, so I’m bracketing off books that are for specialist audiences.

There were some valuable books by specialists for specialists. There was The Sounds of Mandarin by Janet Y. Chen, which is about how the Communist and Nationalist parties both tried to figure out what standard Chinese should sound like. It’s a fascinating project to even wrap your mind around. Margaret Hillenbrand at Oxford has a wonderful new book about precarity in China. There are a lot of interesting scholarly works – I could go on and on.

For broad, general interest books, two stellar journalists with long-term China experience, Ian Johnson and Tania Branigan, have new books out, both of which are really well written and explore important issues. So I’m recommending those.

I also chose two charming, very different books about food. That probably balances out the fact that of a lot of my reading is about very dark and depressing subjects. There is a lot to be depressed about, related to the changes not only in the People’s Republic of China, but also in U.S.–China relations. There are a lot of interesting books about international relations, which I’ve steered clear of in this list.

There also continue to be good books coming out about Hong Kong, a place that I care deeply about. Among the Braves, which was published last month, for example, is an impressive book on protest there. But I steered away from it for this list because I have highlighted Hong Kong books pretty regularly in the past.

I did include the most beautifully written book about Xinjiang I’ve come across, not just during this year but ever, which is by a Uyghur poet. The repression in Xinjiang keeps seeming, finally, to be getting global attention, but then other crises come up and it gets shuffled to the back of people’s minds. There are reasons to try to keep bringing it to the front of them.

Let’s go through the books individually. As you’re a historian let’s start with the one about historians. This is Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future by journalist Ian Johnson. Tell me what the book is about and why it’s so appealing to read.

It’s not about formal historians, which I think is interesting given its title. This actually came up at one of Johnson’s book launch events, the one at UC Irvine where I teach. One of the questions from the audience was from my department’s historian of Vietnam and she wondered why Johnson didn’t talk about academic historians.

Johnson noted that he talks about a couple of historically minded academics, just ones in other disciplines. In a sense, he’s talking about a particular kind of documentarian, but that’s not as nice a word to use in a title. His book is about people who are trying to document things that have happened that the party-state is trying very hard to sweep under the rug and to get people to forget about. I’d also say that even though he skips over discussing historians per se, he has crafted a powerful book that definitely qualifies as a work of history as well as of journalism.

It’s about engagement with history. It’s about recent history, the period since the Communist Party took power, although there are also interesting stories to tell about the politics of history in earlier periods. It’s very focused, and what drives it, in part, is how compelling the profiles of the individuals involved are—people who are making these very risky moves to unearth stories from the past that deserve to be told. These people are not really what we think of as dissidents: they’re people who are trying to work within the system, but within the crevices in the system.

“I decided to think about it as the ‘best books’ to recommend to busy general readers”

One of the most important things about the book is the way it pushes back against any idea of a brainwashed population that has either completely accepted official lines or given up on the idea of being able to push back against them. It captures a sense of the struggle to keep alive alternative views of the past that’s happening inside of the PRC in these very daring ways. It also connects with efforts outside of the PRC, including by young people from China who are doing things like posting images of things that are banned on the internet inside their home country. Posting them outside of China allows them to filter back into the country.

At the end, he brings up the ‘White Paper’ protests that happened just over a year ago. Slogans were put up on a Beijing bridge in a lone act of protest in October 2022. The banners were taken down, but images of them were posted on the internet and on campuses outside China and then circulated back into China. Those slogans came up when people took part in the protests, which were specifically against a zero-COVID policy that had gone on too long and been accompanied by abuses but were also used to express other concerns about repressive and autocratic actions of many kinds. The book is very interesting about how even things that are almost suppressed and circulate in these underground ways can keep alternative visions from being extinguished.

Johnson includes some very interesting comparisons with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet bloc in general, during the Cold War. He refers a lot to Central and Eastern European parallels and precedents. These are things that Chinese intellectuals think about as well: Václav Havel, Hannah Arendt and others are looked to as models.

In terms of the official narrative that the Chinese Communist Party puts out, can you give an example of how that differs from these underground historians’ accounts?

One is the acts of horrific violence in the 1950s that there’s no place for in the official record – things like the killings of not only landlords, but people who were connected to landlords’ families, or people who were presented as rightists.

When people talk about the suppression of memory in China, people outside of China often focus on the Cultural Revolution – a specific moment – and Tiananmen Square, the massacre of June 4th near there. Those are two different examples. With the June 4th massacre, there’s an effort to blot out the very fact that it took place. With the Cultural Revolution, there’s an effort to minimize the horrors of it to quite specific things and then move on.

The underground documentarians in Sparks are also interested in other periods that are suppressed: earlier purges and struggle sessions that ended up with people being beaten up or killed or pressured into suicide, which came before the Cultural Revolution. These get less attention from even critics of the Chinese Communist Party because they fall out of these few moments that loom large in foreign and exile historical accounts.

It’s not that there aren’t academic historians and others who are writing about those things outside of China, but to be inside of China and trying to keep alive the suffering of people in the 1950s is a key part of this.

I’ve never read about historiography in a Chinese context, so I liked that element, even though these are not formally historians. He does mention Sima Qian.

Yes, the grand tradition of the historian as a daring figure. Sima Qian was long before, but there are academic historians who’ve tried to carve out those spaces, too. If Johnson were going to bring in an academic historian, he could have written about Sun Peidong, who is a historian of the Cultural Revolution and taught courses at Fudan on the Cultural Revolution, presenting it as a complicated historical moment in China, for as long as she could. She was pressured to leave, in part by nationalistic students who objected to what she was doing, but also by the constricting space in China. She left to go to Paris and now is teaching at Cornell.

There are also examples of people who are using their fiction to do similar things. Fang Fang, the author of Wuhan Diary (which was nonfiction), has a novel coming out next year in translation (with the talented Michael Berry doing the honors)  that’s set in the early 1950s, about the violence of the land reform period. Yan Lianke has written novels–many available in English in very fine Carlos Rojas translations–about these kinds of things as well. Fiction is mentioned in passing in Johnson’s book, but it’s not a focus.

When I was listening to one of his talks, I thought a work of fiction that could fit into his book is Lu Xun’s classic short story “Diary of a Madman.” The madman, who may see things clearly, imagines the official record of the Chinese past – the Confucian, prettified version of the past – and interspersed within each line are horrific descriptions of people eating people. It’s this idea of a counter-history of brutality that gets left out of the sanitized version of a history. You have these competing versions of an official version of the past and a counter version.

It links up to a lot of interesting things in Chinese culture.

And does the Communist Party really object if you talk about horrible things that happened in the 1950s?

One of the recurring themes in official histories by new ruling groups, which we saw before the revolutionary period, is you want to emphasize the things that were done that caused suffering before you took power, and then figure out a way to emphasize the successes after that.

For the Communist Party, while there’s a willingness to accept that mistakes were made, there’s an attempt to say that’s not the main theme. Part of the goal of the underground historians is to show, just by presenting the sheer accumulation of suffering, that to present this as a minor theme in the history of post-1949 China is to make a mockery of any notion of a truthful account.

On that note, let’s go on to Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution, by Tania Branigan, which has really made waves this year, including the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK’s premier nonfiction book prize. Tell me more about it and why you think this is an important book about China.

It’s another beautifully written book and it also deals with issues of contested memories. It has a much tighter focus, temporally. It goes up to the present, but it is continually going back to what is remembered and forgotten about the period from 1966 to 1976, which is now talked about as the Cultural Revolution decade. In that sense, it’s a micro study – it zeroes in on this one moment. It makes sense to read these two books together. Not surprisingly, they’re being reviewed together occasionally (a good example is Yangyang Cheng’s excellent essay in a new venue called China Books Review that is edited by someone you’ve worked with a lot, FiveBooks.com alum Alec Ash), or a review of one will bring up the other. There are overlaps and intersections between them.

Branigan’s book came out first in the UK and got a lot of review attention. It’s gotten less review attention in the United States, where it came out later. Not only has it been getting prize nominations in the UK, but in North America it won the prestigious Cundill History Prize. (The prize has been around for about a dozen years and is administered by McGill University in Montreal. Two books about China have won the prize before: Julia Lovell’s book on Maoism and Stephen Platt’s book on the Taipings).

Meanwhile, Ian Johnson’s book got a lot of review attention in the United States. It is partly a function of his being based in the United States and the book coming out at the same time in both countries.

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But I’m struck that there’s a particular value of Branigan’s book within the UK for a very specific reason, which relates to Wild Swans. That’s a book that came out in 1991 and is about the suffering of the author’s family during the Cultural Revolution. It was a global bestseller, but it looms especially large in shaping the understanding of China within the UK where its author Jung Chang is based. People whose view of China was shaped by reading that family memoir have an idea that it’s possible to think of the Cultural Revolution as an event with a fairly simple dividing between people who were victims and people who were victimizers.

Other memoirs about the Cultural Revolution have had that impact as well. Life and Death in Shanghai is another one that reinforces the idea that you can think about it as a time when there were people who committed violence and those who suffered violence.

What Red Memory does very powerfully, as many specialist works on the Cultural Revolution have done before it, is to show that one of the deeply disturbing things about that decade was that people could begin on one side of the perpetrator-victim divide and end up on the other or flip back and forth between them.

It’s a real mistake to try to divide up the people who suffered and the people who caused suffering because it was often members of the same family who were affected in different ways, and there were individuals who were victims and victimizers during different parts of their lives. Efforts to simplify this complicated event creates real problems for understanding China.

We’re seeing official uses of a simplified version of the memory of the Cultural Revolution in officially promoted Xi Jinping biographies. They talk about his time in the countryside as a time that gave him a particular connection to ordinary Chinese. It’s another way of turning it into a simpler story than it is.

Do you agree with her statement that you can’t understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution?

I think it’s true. People who are reaching their seventies or eighties have lived through an incredible set of events, of extraordinary periods and changes in China during the course of their lifetimes. Younger people have also lived through incredible changes. They haven’t had a way to put it into a full perspective by the truncated version of any discussion of what happened during this decade. It really is a crucial decade to come to terms with.

You often hear that after the Holocaust, nobody wanted to talk about it. It’s not only a function of official repression; it’s so painful that the individuals themselves don’t want to talk about it. Whether they were victims or victimizers, it’s a subject to avoid.

With the Cultural Revolution, there are a small number of narratives that you are allowed to talk about briefly and then move on. It’s not this thing that you can’t even mention, but rather, there’s a desire not to dwell on it.

The one time I lived in China for an extended period was in 1986 through 1987. There would be foreign travelers I would meet, who would say in a hushed way, ‘My tour guide mentioned how his family had suffered during the Cultural Revolution.’ I’d say, ‘It’s not surprising that they mentioned it but didn’t go into the details. Tell me when somebody says their family did well during even part of the Cultural Revolution.’

The taboo is about talking about being swept up in it. It became okay to say, ‘That was a dark period. That was bad.’ However, to probe into the details and to get at the fact of how many people had something to feel ashamed about, something to be disturbed about – that’s where a richer perspective is needed, to give a sense of how the event affected people in many different ways, in many different places.

Let’s move on and talk about Fuchsia Dunlop’s Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food. She’s written a number of books about Chinese food. What’s this one about and why is it special?

She calls it Invitation to a Banquet, and it has this sense of reveling in the pleasures of Chinese food, and also reveling in – and this is what I’m drawn to most about it – the variation within Chinese cuisines, a term that decidedly should at times be used in the plural even if there are situations in which it can be used in the singular as well. Some of her individual books have zeroed in on a region. I love her book about Jiangnan cooking. She’s famous for one about Sichuan food.

In each of those, implicitly, there’s this idea that it’s a problem to imagine there’s something called ‘Chinese food.’ It’s the same problem as if you say there’s something called ‘European food’ or ‘Western food.’ Sometimes, in China, you’ll see a menu that says ‘Western dishes.’ Your first reaction is to think, ‘But these dishes have nothing to do with each other!’ If you had gone into a Chinese restaurant in the US or in the UK before the rise of regional restaurants, you would have said, ‘These dishes don’t go together.’

Invitation to a Banquet moves across time, across thousands of years, and it moves across the country and goes outside of China. It begins with her talking about her first encounters with something called ‘Chinese food’ while growing up in England. This food was very different from anything that she encountered when she got to China.

In one way, this book is a celebration of food. This is a period when the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is celebrating anything about the country it can brag about, from its monuments and philosophers from the past to its recent technological accomplishments. You might imagine that this book, which celebrates a part of the culture, would fit in with that, but in a way it challenges it. Not directly, in the way that Johnson and Branigan’s books do, but because it emphasizes the diversity, the variation, and even the limitations of imagining that there is something enduring that you can put your finger on as Chinese-ness through the ages.

Dunlop writes about how dishes that have come to be thought of as quintessentially Chinese were influenced by flows from other parts of the world. You get an idea that the Silk Road wasn’t just about Chinese influences flowing out, but it was actually also about what we now think of as China being shaped by things flowing in from Central Asia. She talks about thinking of this cuisine as a cosmopolitan creation, the blending of influences from different parts of what we now think of as China with influences from places outside what we now think of as China.

It’s quite personal, isn’t it? She weaves in her personal experience of studying in Sichuan.

There’s a lot of memoir. This is somebody from outside of China, with a very simple idea about it, being awakened to its depths and spending a lot of time hanging out with and listening to people with expertise, which isn’t so different from what Ian Johnson did. Dunlop includes vignettes about Chinese chefs that she’s met or studied with, and blends these with travelogue and memoir.

In Isabel Hilton’s wonderful review of the book in the Financial Times, she said there’s an almost pornographic quality to some of it. Dunlop is so good at evoking the sensual experience of eating food that it becomes almost food writing as a form of erotica.

Let’s go on to Clarissa Wei’s Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation. This is ostensibly a book of recipes or a cookbook, but it’s also very much about Taiwanese identity.

 What’s interesting about reading these two together, as I did, was that Clarissa Wei – who’s lived largely in Taiwan but grew up in California – writes that when she was a kid, people whose families had come from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or mainland China could talk about a shared connection to Chinese culture, but that has changed over time. It’s become more politically fraught to identify with these different places, but also, there’s an awareness of how artificial the idea of a singular Chinese culture is.

Like Dunlop’s book, this book is a love letter to a cosmopolitan cuisine, but to a more specific one, associated with an often overlooked or underappreciated setting. It makes the case for appreciating Taiwanese food as something that can’t be thought of as a subset or distillation of Chinese food. It is a cuisine in which some dishes are heavily influenced by versions that existed in China, but for centuries Taiwan has had a separate historical trajectory, which has sometimes been tightly connected and sometimes at most only loosely connected to the Chinese mainland. It has been influenced by indigenous traditions and by other parts of the world, especially Japan, and includes versions of ingredients that aren’t found on the mainland.

You have a blending of influences from different parts of the Chinese mainland by immigrants who come from different places at different times. The end result is a radically distinctive cuisine, even if you think you recognize some of the dishes.

It shouldn’t be that hard a concept to recognize if you think about Europe and how different dishes that seem somewhat similar are when they’re made in places across different borders. There’s a blending of what we think of as Chinese food with all kinds of other dishes that have much more to do with local, Japanese or other influences.

Wei clearly has an interest in thinking about this as a story not only about food, but also as a gateway into thinking differently about Taiwan – not thinking of it as a place temporarily separated from China, but as a place with its own history going back for centuries and which has also been a self-ruled country since the late 1940s.

The subtitle of the book is “Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation,” and this is one reason that a mainland edition of this book would not work. It made me hunger for a comparable book about Hong Kong, using food to capture how different Hong Kong is than just something that’s a subset of China.

She does spend quite a bit of time at the beginning talking about how China and Taiwan have had separate histories for a very long time now.

I was waiting to see if she would refer to Din Tai Fung, which is a quintessentially Taiwan restaurant chain that has now become a global one. Its trademark dish is xiaolongbao – which I think of as Shanghai-style soup dumplings, though some claim they originated in other parts of the Yangzi Delta region. She has a nice way of talking about how that fits into the story of Taiwan cuisine.

She doesn’t say it, but it’s almost as if we were to say McDonald’s isn’t an American restaurant because the hamburger doesn’t originate in America, you can find its roots elsewhere. There’s a way in which the story of food is about flows between cultures, which are complicated. Whenever you’re talking about something that’s related to one place, you often can find a more interesting global story about it as it travels.

Let’s move now to Xinjiang. Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is by Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet who eventually escaped to the United States. This is his memoir of when he was still living in Xinjiang. What story does Izgil tell in the book?

It’s a very personal story, framed partly around looking back at get-togethers that he had with other artists and intellectual figures involved with film and poetry, and the way that the space for them to live kept on narrowing. They had to become more and more cautious. And then, some of them began disappearing into camps. He is intensely aware that he was one of the lucky ones who managed, along with his family, to get out at a time when the space was disappearing.

He tells his story through these amazing vignettes. He talks about a group of poets and other intellectuals getting together, and there’s this intense watchfulness of any signs of any growing connection to Islam, which would then put them in a category of potential terrorists. They’re aware they’re being watched, and so they make a point of drinking alcohol during the get-together, just because simply to not drink alcohol starts to become interpreted, by people who are looking for any excuse to get you, as increased religiosity. It’s very strange.

When people talk about Xinjiang now, there are references to all kinds of dystopian fiction, and 1984 gets talked about a lot. Darren Byler, an anthropologist who worked there, talks about how one of the first people he met in Xinjiang brought up the Hunger Games. Another one is Minority Report, where people in an imagined dystopian future get arrested before they’ve done anything because of the imagined clues that they will be doing something. This memoir captures that in a very personal way. There’s a Minority Report side to the idea of that group saying, ‘Let’s make sure there are bottles of alcohol clearly visible at our meeting, so that people won’t put us in this other category.’

“A poet in exile is a poignant thing”

The rationale for the harsh detention camps created across Xinjiang was that they were ‘vocational’ institutions where people were being put so they could be offered skills, and they could be educated. If you look at the figures in this book, what you actually had was the intellectual and artistic and educational elite ending up in these places. That really undermines the official story about these detention camps being about education, something also undermined by the harsh treatment of leading Uyghur academics.

Joshua Freeman is the translator, and he wrote a wonderful introduction to the book. He’s translated a lot of Uyghur poets, including Tahir Hamut Izgil, the author of this memoir. Poetry has an important place in Uyghur culture; it’s a highly respected art form. I think there’s something very powerful about making the poetry from Xinjiang available to the world. It gets you out of the box of thinking of the population of a place only in terms of oppression and resistance. It gives us a sense of the real lives being led there, the dreams and aspirations.

Some of the poems have to do with oppression, some have to do with attachment to the landscape and things like that. A poet in exile is a poignant thing. If the poetry is rooted in a local language and meditations on a local landscape, and you’re set apart from there, it makes the human catastrophe relatable. I think the way that people relate to something comparable with Tibet is via the religion and the figure of the Dalai Lama and an idea of spiritualism. I think with this book, the power, in a sense, comes from having a poet’s life at the center of it.

Freeman begins by writing that if you had taken an Uber in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, you would have had no idea that the person driving it might well have been this extraordinary poet. When you hear about his life, and the lives of his friends – Izgil was involved with filmmaking, and he and others in his circle were studying modernist literature in Beijing and introducing the works of other writers to the Uyghur population – you are taken far away from the stereotypes of a faceless suffering, as well as far away from Beijing’s story of everybody in Xinjiang being a potential terrorist. It explodes both of those tropes.

Coming back to Red Memory, do you think that’s a good book to read if somebody hasn’t read about the Cultural Revolution before? Does it take it from the beginning or do you think it’s one to read if you’re already a bit further along?

That’s a challenge with both Sparks and Red Memory. Both authors try very hard to give you enough information that you can have a sense of what’s going on without having read anything else, but, in both cases, there’d be value in reading them together with something that gave you a brisk walkthrough. I’d suggest a book that I recommended in a previous interview: Linda Jaivin’s The Shortest History of China. If you were going to read one book along with those, that would be valuable. That’s not the official version so it fits in, interpretively, with these others.

If anybody were very interested in US-China relations, has anything come out recently that you would recommend?

Susan Shirk’s Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise is very valuable. It’s an accessible book by a political scientist and came out in 2022.

A book that I was tempted to recommend but didn’t (in part because it’s co-authored by a student that I co-advised) is Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat, by Lev Nachman and John Sullivan. It’s short and accessible. It goes well with Made in Taiwan. It talks about the way that Taiwan often is approached as a geopolitical problem and gets beyond that.

If we’re talking not just about books, Evan Osnos had a long piece in the New Yorker recently about his return to China post-COVID that deals well with US-China relations. And though I’ve largely been focusing on Thailand and Hong Kong lately for a book project, I have a very short piece on US-China relations coming out any day now myself. It’s part of a Wall Street Journal year in review series. Historian that I am, though, I manage to talk not just about 2023, as I am supposed to, but also about an earlier year when it similarly looked like US-China relations were in free fall but then in the autumn heads of the two countries had a surprisingly cordial summit meet up.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 13, 2023

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.