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How to learn about China

A 52-book guide during coronavirus time

Illustration by David Vogin

How to learn about China
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Social isolation is a tremendous opportunity for self-education through books delivered by Amazon or others. Ever since my first trip to China 14 years ago I’ve tried to read a lot about the country—and what follows are brief descriptions of books I’ve found useful. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the world power from which a virus came and other threats are likely to come, now’s the time: I’m not suggesting that you read one per week over the next year, but I hope this article piques your curiosity.

Let’s start with the fascinating work that was our Book of the Year in 2016: Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road (Crown). Author Rob Schmitz lived on a Shanghai street called, in English, Street of Eternal Happiness. He used the lives of a handful of the street’s residents to explore modern China. By telling the stories of flower seller Zhao, accordion-maker and sandwich shop owner CK, Aunty Fu, and others, Schmitz explored the long-lasting effects of the Cultural Revolution, the power of get-rich-quick schemes, Chinese capitalism, marriage, and generational differences between those who “tasted bitterness” and the children of affluence.

Another vivid account is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) by Evan Osnos. In 2018 I bought in Shanghai a tin cup picturing a Chinese worker holding up a sheaf of cash and saying, “I love money.” Osnos describes those who love the new economy but also want freedom. Reporter Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon, 2004) is an older story of brave people who fought oppression at a time when China seemed to be opening up.

Those books are by American journalists looking in. To learn from Chinese looking out, you might read No Enemies, No Hatred (Harvard, 2012), a collection of essays and poems by Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize winner who went to prison for “incitement to subvert state power” and died in 2017. Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York Review Books, 2016) is a thoughtful victim’s view of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary savagery. One of the fatalities was Lin Zhao, an imprisoned poet and journalist who did not give up her Christian faith and wrote of her dissent from Communism in her own blood on cloth torn from bedsheets: Lian Xi’s Blood Letters (Basic, 2018) is a biography of the martyr.

That leads me to another group of books, those showing how our Chinese brothers and sisters in faith are faring. Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (Pantheon, 2017) shows how the atheistic propaganda that’s been compulsory in schools and mass media since China’s Communist takeover in 1949 could not kill the religious impulse that is part of our human nature. Chinese Christians gave patriotic respect to the Beijing government and the Communist Party, while practicing “cooperative resistance” to push for greater religious freedoms. The result was an exponential expansion of Christianity in China, to the chagrin of government officials.

Going back a few years, David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Salem Books, 2006) had an optimistic subtitle and good reporting of individual stories of house churches. Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang’s A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton, 2015) succinctly tells the history.

Liao Yiwu’s God Is Red (Harper One, 2012) shows how older Christians survived the Cultural Revolution: He’s not a Christian but says his interviews “exhilarated me, lifting me out of my drunken depression. The stories of heroic Christians ... have inspired me.” He lets his subjects tell their own stories, including praise of missionaries who introduced the gospel to their villages. But persecution has increased once again in the past several years, and that’s why WORLD’s reporting, including our weekly online “Snapshots of China,” has been so valuable.

Imprisoned poet and journalist Lin Zhao did not give up her Christian faith and wrote of her dissent from Communism in her own blood on cloth torn from bedsheets.

Ralph Covell’s Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese (Wipf and Stock, 2004) describes past periods of Christian or semi-Christian advance in China: Nestorians during the first millennium, Jesuits midway through the second, and evangelicals over the past two centuries. Chan Kei Thong’s Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China (China Publishing Group, 2006) shows how Christianity is not “foreign”: The ancient Chinese worshipped a Supreme Being like that of the God of the Bible, and the 4,000-year-old Chinese sacrificial system paralleled the Bible’s.

NEXT, WE NEED SOME UNDERSTANDING of Chinese history. Going way back, Michael Schuman’s Confucius: And the World He Created (Basic, 2015) readably gives us basics on the Chinese sage who lived from 551 to 479 b.c. Princeton University Press published in 2018 a graphic novel of The Analects, which includes Confucian wisdom such as “If a gentleman is deferential and cautious, if he treats others with respect and propriety, then everyone will consider him his brother.” My bookcase also includes two similar Princeton graphic novels playfully illustrated by C.C. Tsai, Zhuangzi’s The Way of Nature and Sunzi’s The Art of War, which says, “A commander who has to win at any cost is likely to be cut down by the enemy.”

My only formal college course in Chinese history happened to be taught by Jonathan Spence, then an associate professor, now at age 83 one of the most distinguished Western historians of China. One of his books, God’s Chinese Son (Norton, 1996), is a gripping account of the mid-19th-century religious war triggered by supposed revelations given to a charismatic leader who mixed elements of Christian doctrine with ego-feeding power seeking. In the end, 20 million died. Spence has written many other good books, including The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin, 1985), an account of the 16th-century missionary’s China adventure.

The Chinese have good evidence of how Europe and the United States took advantage of them in the 19th century. The first chapter of James Bradley’s The China Mirage (Little, Brown, 2015) and the second chapter of Zheng Wang’s Never Forget National Humiliation (Columbia University Press, 2012) tell the sad story of how Europeans forced China to accept opium, with British ships bombarding China’s coast in what became known as the First Opium War. When Chinese officials pushed back in the 1850s, the Second Opium War made China’s humiliation complete.

Some Americans profited from that immoral pressure: Opium contributed mightily to the great fortunes of families with names like Delano, Russell, Cushing, Low, Forbes, and Green. But other Americans became missionaries, and many Chinese responded to Christ’s call. Carol Lee Hamrin and Stacey Bieler edited the three volumes of Salt and Light (Wipf and Stock, 2009-2011) that feature 27 chapter biographies of Chinese Christians who were doctors, teachers, editors, artists, financiers, ministers, social activists—even a general. When Hamrin and Bieler gave talks on the books in Beijing and Hong Kong, the first 10,000 copies in Chinese sold out.

Some intellectuals fought Western racism by developing their own. How China Sees the World by John Friend and Bradley Thayer (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) shows how some Chinese channeled Charles Darwin and argued racial groups were “either superior or inferior, modern or primitive, with the yellow and white races more advanced and civilized and the brown, black, and red much less so. … Within the Han-centric perspective, the Chinese are more cunning and virtuous than the rest. The United States, in contrast, is easily manipulated, although strong and violent just like an adolescent.”

Others in China used a different Western invention, Communism, to fight foreign intervention. The result was brutal. Sun Shuyun’s The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth (Doubleday, 2006) shows that the ruthlessness of Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders began early: As in the Soviet Union and Spain during the 1930s, Chinese revolutionaries were often more in danger when bucking the party line than when on the front lines.

Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (Bloomsbury, 2016) shows how Mao treated comrades Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and others the way Josef Stalin murderously treated Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and others. The Cultural Revolution followed the “Great Leap Forward” and preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre, but they were both displays of—to quote Dikötter’s last sentence—“brutal force and steely resolve, designed to send a signal that still pulsates to this day: do not query the monopoly of the one-party state.” (And within that, as Xi Jinping now shows, the one leader within the one-party state.)

James Palmer’s Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes (Basic, 2012) is a well-written history focused on 1976, the year Mao Zedong died after killing tens of millions and the Tangshin earthquake killed tens of thousands. Chai Ling’s A Heart for Freedom (Tyndale, 2011) explains how she became a student leader in the democracy movement that Communists brutally ended in Tiananmen Square. Chai went into hiding, escaped to the United States, earned a Harvard MBA, gave birth to three children—and became a Christian fighting for the victims of China’s one-child policy.

MOVING TO THE PAST DECADE, sympathetic explainers of China include Harvard professor Noah Feldman, whose Cool War (Random House, 2013) saw a mutually advantageous U.S.-China relationship. China’s institutionalized transitions of power through 10-year generational shifts impressed him, and he thought China was moving toward the rule of law and protection for human rights.

Three books published in 2015, Lyle Goldstein’s Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (Georgetown), Thomas Christensen’s The China Challenge (Norton), and Daniel Bell’s The China Model (Princeton), suggested steps for cooperation rather than challenge: Bell even argued that “China has evolved a model of democratic meritocracy that is morally desirable and politically stable.” Graham Allison’s Destined for War (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) is a political scientist’s plea that China and the United States find a way to avoid that “destiny” by clarifying vital interests and increasing understanding.

Two other books are also sympathetic toward China’s regime. Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution (Oxford, 2018) is “a work of cool-headed analysis,” according to Foreign Affairs, but some imperialistic Xi Jinping initiatives warm Economy’s heart: “The BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank offer important opportunities for Chinese businesses, while providing significant new public goods for the rest of the world.” (Last fall in Senegal I learned how China is grabbing Africa’s natural resources.) Bradley Gardner’s China’s Great Migration (Independent Institute, 2017) shows—the subtitle says—How the Poor Built a Prosperous Nation.

Daniel C. Lynch’s China’s Futures (Stanford, 2015) shows statements by Chinese elites display two diametrically opposed strands of thinking. Many economists think China “must change and change quickly or else face a severe crisis,” but many international relations specialists “evince an almost mystical belief in the inevitability of China’s rise, coupled with the certainty of America’s decline.” Powerful Patriots by Jessica Chen Weiss (Oxford, 2014) shows how China’s leaders are riding a nationalist tiger.

Other books show how that tiger’s sharp teeth may yet bite millions of China’s people, and us. Guy Sorman predicted a severe crisis in The Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the Twenty-First Century (Encounter, first published in 2008). He said the dazzle of 200 million upwardly mobiles in big cities blinds Americans to the lives of the 1 billion poor Chinese. Bill Gertz’s Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy (Encounter, 2019) says the new Cold War is well underway, and the United States is losing to a 21st-century empire even more evil and dangerous than the Soviet Union.

Jude Blanchette’s China’s New Red Guards (Oxford, 2019) describes, as its subtitle says, The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong. But it’s not exactly back to basics: Carl Minzner’s End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise (Oxford, 2018) describes the “eye-popping contradictions for the vanguard of the proletariat,” with 160 of China’s wealthiest in the Communist Party Congress or the national legislature. Their total worth—about $221 billion—is 20 times greater than the total worth of equivalent U.S. officials.

Minzner says we are seeing “the closing of the Chinese dream,” as colleges admit urban youth with expensive private tutors and freeze out rural or migrant students who have “spent winters shivering in an unheated, dilapidated classroom.” Xi Jinping has cracked down on “a generation of crusading and muckraking journalists,” but as reporters report less, poor workers protest more: “Direct action” includes “blocking roads and construction projects … mobilizing hundreds of supporters to encircle government buildings and engage in defiant, face-to-face negotiations with officials.” Furthermore, “China is now graying more rapidly than any other major economy in history.”

Minzner shows how Xi has cracked down while simultaneously becoming known as “Papa Xi,” as Stalin was known as “Uncle Joe.” But Scott Rozelle and Natalie Johnson, in China’s Invisible Crisis (Basic, 2019), argue that Chinese Communism is not an unstoppable force: They say the countryside (where two-thirds of Chinese live) more resembles Africa, with millions of children suffering from anemia, intestinal worms, and uncorrected myopia. And others have it even worse: Ethan Gutmann’s The Slaughter (Prometheus, 2014) examines mass killing and organ harvesting in China, with a focus on the rise and partial fall of the Falun Gong movement.

FINALLY, HERE ARE NOTES on six novels and two scholarly books. Qiu Xiaolong, who grew up in Shanghai and now lives in St. Louis, has written 10 mysteries featuring Chen Cao, chief inspector of a special unit of the Shanghai police tasked with investigating crimes involving high-up Communist Party officials. The two in my bookcase, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake and Shanghai Redemption (Minotaur, 2013 and 2016), paint a grim picture of a society searching for meaning while “Big Bucks” and high party officials grab what they can.

Mystery-lovers will also enjoy Elsa Hart’s City of Ink (Minotaur, 2018) and two other novels set in 18th-century China. They feature detective Li Du, a mid-level bureaucrat with a mysterious past, and his sidekick, a wandering storyteller who enthralls local crowds. Within China a mystery/detective trilogy by Zhao Haohui has sold well: The first, Death Notice (translation published by Doubleday in 2018; some graphic violence and language), has a special investigative squad trying to apprehend Eumenides, a vigilante who murders criminals who have escaped punishment. It has an anti-corruption theme that goes well with Xi Jinping’s war on corruption—but since corruption is so widespread, selective prosecution is a way to get rid of his rivals.

Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home (Tyndale, 2001) is a page-turning tale of persecution that showed how an atheistic American businessman, visiting his Chinese roommate from college, saw the light amid Communist attempts to mandate a heart of darkness. Jonathan Freedland’s The 3rd Woman (Harper, 2015) has Chinese soldiers stationed in a future Los Angeles and other West Coast cities to collect the debt the United States owes China, in a reversal of 19th-century European intrusions in China. (Warning: a sex scene and some vulgar language.)

Finally, two academic books: The scholarly essays in God and Caesar in China, edited by Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin (Brookings Institution, 2004), laid out the Chinese government’s attempts two decades ago to control religion, the interaction of Catholics and Protestants with state regulators, and the impact of religious concerns on U.S.-China relations. The analyses provided useful background on Christian resilience at that time.

Timothy Conkling’s published dissertation, Mobilized Merchants–Patriotic Martyrs: China’s House-Church Protestants and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance (CreateSpace, 2013), explains the chess game Chinese churches needed to play. Some local government officials were oppressors, but others warned house churches that a central government official was visiting, so it would be wise to skip Sunday school for one week. (The recent crackdown, though, has been more severe.)

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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This is a great list of books, and I will consider reading some.  But I want to recommend a book that I found very enlightening regarding all aspects of China’s global approach: Michael Pillsbury’s “The Hundred-Year Marathon” (Holt).  It’s a book that can keep you up at night, but not in a good way.