2020 China Books

2020 China Books (Part 1): China and the World10 min read

A list of new China history books, freshly relevant for our times – compiled by Brian Spivey

This is part one of a series we are calling ‘2020 China Books.’ The series showcases books about China’s past that came out, or are coming out, in 2020. We want to provide not just a more thorough accounting of the most up-to-date research and thinking about China’s past, but also to give authors an opportunity to suggest why readers might be interested in their book in this current historic moment. With that in mind, we gave authors who published or are publishing books in 2020 the same prompt:

“This is a difficult time for books about China’s past to be coming out, due to the intense nature of the current news cycle. Can you think of any aspect of your book that might make it especially appropriate reading right now for one of two reasons. Either because of the light it sheds, either directly or indirectly, on a pressing issue of the moment? Or because it might offer a reader a complete diversion from thinking about contemporary crises?”

We received dozens of responses from a wide range of authors. As much as we could, we organized responses by theme. A benefit of compiling these responses has been to see more clearly the broad questions and frameworks animating historical work about China. China’s “rise” on the global stage has clearly stimulated many to think about how China and the Chinese people have related to the world throughout history. The ten books below are all loosely united around this theme of China and globalization. They show how China has changed and been changed by the world through a variety of registers: capitalism, commodities, global trade, ideology, human migration, art, and more. – Brian Spivey

The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began
Valerie Hansen
Simon and Schuster, April 2020

As we wrestle today with one fall-out from globalization, the Covid pandemic, we have to wonder when globalization started and how it came about. My book shows that there were checks on globalization in the past that no longer exist today. Because of frequent shipwrecks, no country – even those importing goods in large quantities – could afford to stop production of any individual item. Even so, globalization created inequities from the very start – as we can see from uprisings against expat merchants in the Chinese port of Guangzhou in 879, in Cairo in 995, and in Constantinople in 1182.

Maoism: A Global History
Julia Lovell
Penguin Random House, September 2019 (paperback, August 2020) 

In these times, it is crucial to get behind the portrayals of China as a monolithic enemy currently emerging in political discourse, and engage with the complexity of this extraordinary country. Maoism: A Global History takes a deep dive into an earlier phase of intense exposure for China’s international image. It traces the spread of Mao’s ideas across the world: from southeast-Asian guerrillas to West-coast hippies, Italian terrorists, Peruvian philosophy professors and Nepali school teachers. The Maoism that emerges from this history is not a Cold War borg, exported irresistibly and identically all over the world. Instead, it is a diverse, contradictory set of ideas that took root in the dusty yellow cliffs of northwest China, the tea plantations of north India, the sierras of the Andes, Paris’s 5th arrondissement, the fields of Tanzania, the rice paddies of Cambodia and the terraces of south London – and that transformed in unpredictable way the destinies of states they have encountered.

Global Entanglements of a Man Who Never Traveled: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Christian and His Conflicted Worlds
Dominic Sachsenmaier
Columbia University Press, May 2020 (now in paperback)

My book deals with Zhu Zongyuan, a seventeenth-century Chinese Catholic convert who never left his home province. While he was in close contact with Christian circles, he continued playing many roles as a Confucian scholar in his local society. Such multiple spiritual and institutional belonging could cause great tensions. The book shows that already during the seventeenth century, global integration carried many promises, but at the same time could amount to formidable challenges. And like in today’s world, not only the mobile parts of society experienced challenges of this kind.

Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India
Andrew B. Liu
Yale University Press, April 2020

My book is about the global competition in tea between modern China and colonial India. I wanted to emphasize that China has been more deeply integrated within global circuits of trade and capital than is often imagined, especially in its role as an exporter of goods to Euro-America. Though not identical, these routes largely mirror and overlap with the conduits through which the coronavirus spread so rapidly this winter, from Wuhan – a manufacturing hub in central China, which was also a major tea market in the nineteenth century – to the rest of Asia, Europe and eventually all corners of the globe. In my inquiry into the history of capitalism in Asia, I found it was necessary to move beyond stereotypes of a timeless and inward-looking culture and instead imagine the global and dynamic links between China and the rest of the world. The same lesson applies to our current attempts to understand this pandemic.

Chinese Diasporas: A Social History of Global Migration
Steven Miles
Cambridge University Press, April 2020

The sudden, drastic reduction in geographical mobility that most of us have experienced in the past few months serves as a reminder of just how important and prevalent such movement had become by the early twenty-first century. Chinese Diasporas – a concise, integrated history of internal and external Chinese migration from the sixteenth century to the present day – traces the development of this important component of our interconnected world. In the crisis that we are currently facing, as various states begin to reopen their economies, decisions to go back to work, or to find new work, are being made at the individual and family level. Such decisions, weighing potential risks and benefits of leaving home, were also the driving force behind Chinese migration. Chinese Diasporas places Chinese migrants and their families at the center of its narrative, showing that the Chinese diaspora in fact consisted of distinct diasporic trajectories, from specific emigrant communities to targeted destinations both within China and abroad.

The City of Blue and White
Anne Gerritsen
Cambridge University Press, May 2020

The Covid pandemic has made two things abundantly clear. One: we live in a globally connected world, shaped and now damaged by the global movements of not just things but people. Two: while almost everyone has been affected by this outbreak, our experience of it is an intensely local affair. That is precisely the point I seek to make in my study of the ceramics produced in Jingdezhen in south-central China from the 11th century until today. It is a global story: the desire for China’s blue-and-white porcelain reached populations almost everywhere in the early modern world. But to make sense of that global story of the production and consumption of millions of pieces of porcelain, we need to take account of local factors, such as regulations that governed local production, determining which items were requisitioned by the imperial state, and which could go onto the open market; or the recruitment of skilled local workers to staff the kilns. Reading about ceramics production in Jingdezhen offers a diversion from our contemporary crisis as well as a better understanding of how these two factors, global and local, shape the lives we live.

The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography
Brian Dott
Columbia University Press, May 2020

In times of increasing animosity between governments, it is important for us to step back, remember our interconnections, and increase mutual understanding. Food sharing can serve as an important cross-cultural bridge between peoples and individuals. The culinary links between the Americas and China date back to the 1500s, when crops such as maize, peanut, sweet potato and chile pepper first arrived in Asia. Chiles are a welcome, colorful and flavorful presence in many gardens, cupboards, markets and grocery shelves around the globe. Understanding the important roles of chile peppers in Chinese culture furthers connections, empathy and recognition – reminding us of the meals we have, can or could share together, and learning from each other’s traditions. 

Great State: China and the World
Timothy Brook
Harper Collins, March 2020

If Great State has relevance to the current situation, it comes in an entirely unintended, innocent way. The reader will find a great pandemic in Chapter 3, which explores the question of whether the Black Death in the 14th-century struck China (it likely did) – with a manageable dose of genetics thrown in for those interested in the medical science behind mass infection. We also learn a great deal about China’s tumultuous relationship with the world, starting in the 13th century and going right up to the present, which renders the current round of mutual acrimony and flag-waving on both sides of the US-China relationship as only the most recent episode in a long history of power politics and calculated misunderstanding.

Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World
Michael Schuman
Public Affairs, June 2020

Superpower Interrupted tells the story of the world as seen through Chinese eyes, revealing along the way the role China has played in global affairs for thousands of years and, perhaps more importantly, how the Chinese have perceived their proper role in the world around them. In this Chinese version of history, China was always a superior civilization, deserving of an exalted position at the apex of the world. Today, after two centuries of weakness, the Chinese are striving to return to their rightful place as a great power. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, when the balance between East and West could be shifting, this Chinese worldview will guide today’s leaders in Beijing as they aim to surpass the United States and restore China’s customary superpower stature in a post-pandemic world.∎