Staff Picks

Back-to-School Staff Picks8 min read

Another round of recommendations from the China Channel


After our previous fall and winter staff picks, we bring you a summer selection of reading, watching and listening from our extended masthead, in time for the new academic year. From a book about unfairly forgotten China hands, to contemporary Chinese music and a documentary about Buddhist mountain hermits, we hope it inspires you to widen your cultural horizon. – The Editors


Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Eve of a Hundred Midnights by Bill Lascher

China in the middle of the 20th century attracted a large number of extraordinary Western writers.  Among the lesser-known now but most talented ones is Annalee Whitmore (aka Annalee Jacoby, the name she used when she co-wrote the reportage classic Thunder Out of China with Theodore White, and Annalee Whitmore Fadiman, the one she used throughout her final decades). Bill Lascher’s Eve of a Hundred Midnights: The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and Their Epic Escape Across the Pacific is an engrossing read – a dual biography of Annalee and her first husband Melville Jacoby – that follows them from their childhoods, through their time at Stanford where they barely knew one another, to the roads that led them to the Chinese wartime capital of Chongqing, and from there to other parts of Asia. The book is the work of an assured storyteller with a knack for scene-setting and character sketches, who got special access to materials such as some strikingly candid letters. An ideal book to pair with it is The Wine Lover’s Daughter, a lovely memoir by Anne Fadiman that I read late last year and reviewed for the TLS, which is mostly about the author’s father, Annalee’s second husband Clifton Fadiman, but includes an excellent chapter about her mother.

Anne Henochowicz: The World of Entertainment, Second Hand Rose

Second Hand Rose (二手玫瑰) electrified the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. on their US tour in 2014. I was already a fan of their Peking opera glam rock, but I fell even harder for them as I watched the band own the stage in red floral-print naval uniforms, while the buzz-cut Liang Long bounced around in hoop earrings, bright red lipstick and false eyelashes. He had the confidence and swagger of RuPaul, but the outfit and the makeup were no mask for second-rate music. Classically trained in the capital’s operatic style, Liang Long brings his virtuosity to catchy songs with edgy themes and dark corners. “Two little bees / flit among the flowers,” he croons in the eponymous song in their 2006 album The World of Entertainment (娱乐江湖), the opening lyrics of a classic children’s song. “Here and there they fly / love is all in vain // Everyone is wandering / no one avoids the knife / one knife cuts you down / I kill you, then myself…” The Atlas has a seated hall, but Second Hand Rose urged the audience to get up and dance in the aisles. Give them a listen on Spotify or YouTube and just try to sit still.

Alec Ash: Amongst the White Clouds, a documentary film by Edward A. Burger

Released in 2007 and garnering a small rollcall of awards, this documentary is a haunting introduction to the hermits of Zhongnan mountains in Shaanxi province, where recluses, ascetics and monks have escaped the rat race for thousands of years, and continue to do so. Inspired by Bill Porter’s classic book Road to Heaven, filmmaker Edward A. Burger lived among the clouds (an image which transforms into a beautiful metaphor for enlightenment at the end of the film) for five years, with a Buddhist master. Full of lingering long shots and punctuated with the images and sounds of nature, the film is a meditative contemplation of why these hermits have chosen to turn their backs on modern life, and the happiness and struggles they find in that choice. It’s not only full of contemplation and philosophy, but a fascinating window into a different experience of China. “Why are people in this world so busy,” says one of the monks, “busy their whole life for nothing. But when [we die], we let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?”

Nick Stember: The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera by Dung Kai-cheung, translated by Yau Wai-ping

Over the last couple of years, literary fiction has been taken over by what journalist Jonathan Sturgeon calls “autofiction” – sprawling epics starring thinly-veiled author surrogates, including Murakami’s shelf-busting 1Q84 and Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s even more voluminous blockbuster My Struggle, which has earned the author both opprobrium and comparisons to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. In Chinese, meanwhile, the genre has a longstanding advocate in the form of Dung Kai-cheung (董啟章), whose 2005 novel The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera was released last month, translated by Yau Wai-ping. The novel recounts the turbulent history of Hong Kong through the memories of an author who struggles to maintain control of his characters, and in the process touches on Hong Kong’s nascent nationalism. Another work of Chinese autofiction, meanwhile, from the mainland, might be Jia Pingwa’s novel Ruined Capital (贾平凹《废都》), which tells the story of a debauched literary icon caught up in a legal case.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Female Experts on China

My recommendation is a handful of links, all designed to make #MansplainingChina a thing of the past and spotlight the expertise of women. Several groups have initiated impressive online directories of female experts: Women Also Know Stuff (which focuses on political science scholars) has a China page, as does Women Also Know History, and there’s a huge list of female experts on Greater China available via the NüVoices website. The directories are primarily meant to serve as resources for conference organizers, journalists, and editors who want to feature more women in their work but don’t know who to ask. Even if you aren’t putting together a panel or looking for expert sources, though, I recommend checking out the directories so you’re more aware of women working in the China field – it’s likely you’ll find new people to follow on Twitter and new books to add to your to-read pile. And women, don’t be shy about submitting your own name for inclusion on the lists!

Jason Y. Ng: The World According to Ah Chung, by Yim Yee-king

The World According to Ah Chung by Yim Yee-king is a refreshing collection of watercolour drawings by one of Hong Kong’s beloved cartoonists. Better known by his pen name Ah Chung, Yim was a self-taught painter who started out doing political cartoons, and over the years evolved into a freestyle comic artist. This collection includes over a hundred of Yim’s paintings, all done with his signature bold brushstrokes and effortless chiaroscuro technique. To top it off, he adorned each artwork with a calligraphic line inspired by his personal brand of Zen Buddhism.

Yim’s paintings resonate with me not only because they embody much of the so-called “Hong Kong spirit” – perseverance, resilience and optimism – but also because the artist’s life reminds me of my father’s. Both men came to Hong Kong from southern China with nothing to their name, and built a career as a newspaper illustrator. They were active in the same period, from the 1960s to the early 1980s, before moving to North America in search of a quieter life. Yim passed away last Sunday at the age of 87, but his legacy is rich and his mark on Hong Kong’s popular culture indelible.

Olivia Humphrey: TransAsia and the World podcast

I’m a recent convert to podcasts, and a China historian friend recently turned me on to TransAsia and the World, an exciting project on transnational history produced by four graduate students at University of Wisconsin–Madison. There are only a handful of episodes up at present, a mix of editor introductions, interviews with faculty at Madison, and a roundtable special on the North Korea crisis. Notably, the interviews do an excellent job in demonstrating how historians’ various specific specialisations – diaspora studies, intellectual history – cross over and speak to transnational approaches to Asia. My favourite is the interview with Shelly Chan, associate professor of History at Madison. Professor Chan’s work looks at the histories of Chinese men and women who now live in other countries and investigates, among other things, how they maintain ties to home. These podcasts get at questions that are relevant beyond the world of academia. How useful is the category of the nation in an interconnected world? How has the nature of an international boundary changed? How was China shaped by migration? How is mobility gendered? Trust me, there are worse ways to pass the time in traffic.

Lev Nachman: Taiwan Bar

Besides binging the occasional Taiwanese drama on Netflix, my favorite online creator which I watch for hours at a time is a fantastic Youtube channel called Taiwan Bar. The series covers Taiwanese history, culture and politics, all with adorable animations and pop culture references. It’s based in Taiwan, but they also cover plenty of topics from across the Strait and around East Asia. It’s fun to watch, full of good information, and feels more like an animated podcast than a TV series. Taiwan Bar is a few years old now, but recently they have starting re-releasing episodes in English. It is a great resource for students and experts alike! A couple of my favorite episodes include their animated retelling of the Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) conquest of Taiwan and a multipart series on the history of tea production