2020 China Books

2020 China Books (Part 2): Shanghai and Borderlands11 min read

A second list of new China history books not to miss – compiled by Brian Spivey

This is part two of a series we’re calling 2020 China Books, showcasing new or forthcoming books about China’s past and giving their authors an opportunity to suggest why readers might be interested in them at this current historic moment. Part one was themed around China and the World. The books in this second list (all blurbs written by the authors) are emblematic of two enduring themes in literature about Chinese history: a fascination with Shanghai – the “Paris of the East” – and a desire to understand China at its fringes. Both subjects are appealing in their apparent exceptionalism. Shanghai’s unique cosmopolitanism and energy have fascinated writers and travelers for more than a century. Meanwhile the people living in borderland regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Manchuria have their own rich and complex histories. By placing these exceptional and peripheral regions and the experiences of China’s minorities at the center of their writing, the authors below do the important work of providing a more capacious understanding of what constitutes China’s history.

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

James Carter 

W. W. Norton, 2020

The people of Shanghai were surrounded by signs that their way of life was about to change. The rules that had defined their world for generations were about to change, and they would never return. Globalization made Shanghai what it was. In today’s world, where “the end of globalization” is a common headline, it is worth considering whether Shanghai in 1941 is a relic of an age that has finally ended, or a world with lessons – good and bad – to learn about how we can re-engage with the world. In an era when we are all isolated, a step into wartime Shanghai gives us a glimpse of Art Deco dancehalls, a crowded, multinational grandstand, and a cosmopolitan cityscape where you can rub elbows with a dozen nationalities before breakfast.

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

Jonathan Kaufman

Penguin Random House, June 2020

At a time when China, for good and ill, is deeply connected to the world, The Last Kings of Shanghai explains how it got that way. The book tells the story of the lives and fortunes of two rival (Jewish) business dynasties – the Kadoories and the Sassoons – who stood astride Chinese business and politics from the Opium Wars to the present day. The families journeyed to China almost 200 years ago from Baghdad, and were among the first foreigners to settle in Shanghai. They took over the opium trade and then branched into real estate, banks and factories. They became billionaires, helping to build Shanghai and open China to the world. They also worked together to save 18,000 Jewish refugees who landed in Shanghai in the late 1930s, fleeing Nazism – then lost almost everything when the communists took over. A story of opium smuggling, family rivalry, political intrigue, and the rise of China. And it’s all true.

Intoxicating Shanghai: An Urban Montage

Paul Bevan

Brill, April 2020 

Intoxicating Shanghai offers a diversion from the current news cycle in a number of ways. It is a deliberately unconventional book, offering a break from the strict world of modern-day academia. The translations of four stories by Hei Ying, Mu Shiying and Liu Na’ou that punctuate the main text offer escape – on the most basic level – as a diversion from the main text of the book itself. In conjunction with the varied chapters, which concern the realms of art, literature, popular music and cinema, these stories take the reader into the exhilarating world of the pictorial magazine, in which Chinese artists, writers and publishers metaphorically rubbed shoulders with their counterpoints from Europe, America and Japan. Loosely based around one year, 1934 (“The Year of the Magazine”) the book explores a montage of ideas, images and sounds that were current in the transcultural melting pot of Shanghai during the Chinese jazz age.

Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution Tsering Woeser (ed. Robert Barnett, trans. Susan Chen, photographs by Tsering Dorje)

Potomac Books, May 2020

Just as pandemics can trigger popular anger and violence, fueled by populist leaders with promises of instant solutions and retribution, so too can social movements. In her book Forbidden Memory, just released in English, the celebrated Tibetan essayist Tsering Woeser shows what happened in her country in the 1960s, when millions were persuaded that a panacea had been found for a global ailment, in this case social inequality. Using hundreds of recently discovered photographs taken by her late father, this photo-essay shows for the first time the mass humiliation and torture of Tibetan lamas, monks, officials and intellectuals during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, together with the sacking of their cultural heritage by Tibetan and Chinese activists. Through interviews with many involved in those events, and detailed study of the photographs, Woeser traces the complex entanglement of blame, guilt and remorse, breaking the official silence that until now had managed to prevent the publication of even a single image of these events. (Robert Barnett)

China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II

Kelly Hammond

The University of North Carolina Press, November 2020

China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire has a little bit for everyone. It has contemporary implications for the ways that we think about the place of Muslim minorities who live in the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, there are some good escapist stories that follow individual Muslims as they navigate their relationships with the Japanese Empire during World War II. For example, Chapter three is a close reading of a hajj journal written by one of the Sino-Muslim men who went on a Japanese-sponsored pilgrimage to Mecca in 1938. From the perspective of the Japanese Empire, the men were supposed to help to smooth over diplomatic discussions concerning the possibility of securing an oil concession in Saudi Arabia. But, the journal is also full of quotidian trials of traveling by train, boat, car, and camel on the brink of war in Europe from Beijing to Mecca.

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier 

Benno Ryan Weiner

Cornell University Press (June 2020)

As with Muslims in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang and activists in Hong Kong, the struggle between Tibetans and the Chinese state is intimately connected to the manner in which it was first incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. In The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, Benno Weiner argues that the Communist Party’s goal in the 1950s was not just to build a state, but to create a nation. Using the Amdo region of the Sino-Tibetan frontier (now mainly within Qinghai province), he shows how policies meant to gradually convince Tibetans that they were members of a wider political community lost out to a revolutionary impatience that demanded more immediate paths to national unity and socialist utopia. The attempt to rush Tibetans and others into communes led to large-scale rebellion in 1958, which was brutally put down with tens of thousands arrested and many thousands killed. Rather than a voluntary union, Tibet was integrated through the use of state violence – a violence that persists in the memories of Amdo Tibetans and continues to hamper the Party’s efforts to convince diverse peoples on the edges of a former empire that they have a stake in the Chinese nation.

Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia

Eric Schluessel

Columbia University Press, October 2020

Land of Strangers, at its heart, is a book about what happens to ordinary people under aggressive new political regimes – how they cope with and navigate that new terrain. That perspective often gets lost in discussions of contemporary Xinjiang, where the international discourse is dominated by elite political actors pushing grand narratives. Land of Strangers is also about a program of cultural assimilation that took place at the turn of the 20th century. That program has resonances with the situation in Xinjiang today, yet what happened a century ago is not a direct ancestor of the current crisis. There are resonances between the project to turn “Muslims into Confucians” then and to “Sinicize Uyghurs” now; both projects were and are aimed as making a “normal” subject. However, the basic concepts behind the projects are different, and so are the technologies – not to mention that the current Chinese state is vastly more powerful and capable than the Xinjiang government of the late Qing.

The Profits of Nature: Colonial Development and the Quest for Resources in Nineteenth-Century China

Peter Lavelle

Columbia University Press, March 2020

Crisis in China? Few periods of Chinese history can compare to the 19th century in the number and severity of crises that threatened the country. This book traces the story of the Chinese state’s response to crises arising from environmental disasters and domestic insurgencies during the high tide of imperialism. In pursuit of greater wealth and power, statesmen and subjects established new institutions and initiatives to accelerate natural resource exploitation, forging new patterns of colonialism in Xinjiang in the process. Ultimately, these changes helped give rise to the modern Chinese state and created legacies that endured throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st.

Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border

Soren Urbansky

Princeton University Press, January 2020

Discrimination, social stigma and blame are recurrent phenomena during outbreaks of contagious diseases. During the current coronavirus pandemic, we can see that some traditional narratives against the Chinese are resurfacing around the world – particularly in the way Chinese are depicted as medical scapegoats. In Beyond the Steppe Frontier, I show how the Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911 (which in fact originated in Russia) defined borders in what was hitherto a largely porous borderland. The plague altered life on the Sino-Russian frontier, severely affecting relationships between people. Policies of segregation during the epidemic produced estrangement along ethnic lines. The Russian press, calling for stricter controls, furthered this process of alienation by depicting migrant workers from China as carriers of the disease. In this sense, to many local Russians being Russian often meant no more than condemning the Chinese.

Manchuria: A Concise History

Mark Gamsa

I. B. Tauris, February 2020

I wrote Manchuria: A Concise History because I needed a book like this, but couldn’t find one. I was teaching (in Hebrew) a seminar on Manchuria at Tel Aviv University and had to prepare informative surveys for my classes. Twenty such texts – introducing students to periods in the history of the region we now call Northeast China from the 17th century to the present – eventually became the chapters of this book. Alongside my students, I had to educate myself about Manchuria since I was working on a history of Chinese-Russian relations in Harbin (Harbin: A Cross-cultural Biography, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press). Read the book if you are curious about the vanished place name “Manchuria,” which was the homeland of the Manchus and a territory contested by the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese – or if in these days of halted travels you remain an optimist and have in mind a trip to that distinctive part of China. ∎