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Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is said to have originated in advice his parents gave him as a school-age boy during the Mao era.)

The news was greeted with elation in Beijing. A member of the nine-man ruling Politburo, Li Changchun, immediately sent a letter to the state-sponsored Chinese Writers Association, of which Mo Yan is a vice-president, calling the prize “not only an embodiment of the flourishing progress of Chinese literature but also an embodiment of the continuing rise in the overall strength of our state and its international influence.” The official media exulted that, at last, a “mainstream” Chinese had won a Nobel Prize, for which “the Chinese people have waited too long.” A week later, officials announced plans to spend $110 million to transform Mo Yan’s home village into a “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone.”

Simultaneously, a storm of controversy welled on the Chinese-language Internet both inside and outside China. Did this writer, compared to others who might have won, deserve the prize? And should a prize of this magnitude go to a writer who is “inside the system” of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers—of whom Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (a “convicted criminal,” in the Chinese government’s view) is only the most famous example? A satirist named Wang Xiaohong tweeted her worry for the deceased Mr. Nobel, whom she imagined as squirming in his grave:

Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.

Satire aside, Wang Xiaohong is correct that Nobel Prizes are closely watched and coveted in China—even more, in general, than they are elsewhere. Like Olympic gold medals, they are viewed as signs of the world’s respect—which, over recent centuries, many Chinese have felt to be less than it ought to be. The insecurity that underlies this quest for respect appears in especially sharp relief in the case of the Nobel literature prize, where China in essence hands over judgment of its cultural achievement to a committee of Swedes. (One committee member, Göran Malmqvist, reads Chinese, but the others rely on translations.) China does have its own literary prize, the Mao Dun Prize, which Mo Yan won in 2010. But neither Mo Yan nor almost anyone in China would compare it to a Nobel. (Mao Dun was a writer of political fiction during the late 1920s and 1930s; he served as Mao Zedong’s minister of culture from 1949 to 1965, and has a reputation—deserved—for tedious prose. But the main reason for the second-tier reputation of the Mao Dun Prize is that it is a domestic, state-sponsored prize.)

* * *

In recent years China’s Communist rulers have been especially sensitive to Nobel prestige, and have had to deal with a frustrating historical record. Eight Chinese have won Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences, but six of these were citizens of Western countries (the US, the UK, and France) when they won their prizes, and the other two were citizens of the Republic of China on Taiwan.1 There have been two Peace Prize winners, but one, Liu Xiaobo, embarrasses the regime that has put him in prison, and the other, the Dalai Lama (who won in 1989), has lived in exile since 1959. (China’s rulers call the Dalai Lama a “splittist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but cannot conveniently say he is “not Chinese,” because that would acknowledge that Tibet might not be part of China.) After Gao Xingjian, a Chinese whose works denounce Communist rule in China, and who took French citizenship in 1997, won the Nobel literature prize in 2000, state-sponsored media in China said that the Nobel committee had “lost authority” and was “a small clique of so-called literary experts who harbor extremely unhealthful attitudes toward the Chinese people.”

Mo Yan’s prize required a sharp reversal of those judgments, and there is no sign that anyone in state media found this difficult to do. It is their job to promote the state, not to be consistent. Now it was the turn of the other side, dissidents and anonymous freethinkers on the Internet, to attack. Some criticized the Nobel committee, but their main criticism was of Mo Yan himself, primarily for some of his recent political choices. At the opening ceremonies of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2009, he read an officially vetted speech in which he claimed that literature should be above politics; but, when Chinese authorities ordered a boycott of a session where the freethinking writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling appeared, Mo Yan joined the walkout, later explaining that he “had no choice.”

In December 2009, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s unexpectedly harsh prison sentence of eleven years, Cui Weiping, a film scholar, conducted a telephone survey of more than a hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals to get their responses. Many, at personal risk, expressed disgust and told Cui she could publish what they said. Mo Yan, who also gave permission to publish what he said, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”

But most galling to Mo Yan’s critics was his agreement, in June 2012, to join in a state-sponsored project to get famous authors to hand-copy Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” in celebration of their seventieth anniversary. These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Beijing massacre in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation. Some of the writers who were invited to participate declined to do so. Mo Yan not only agreed but has gone further than others to explain that the “Talks,” in their time, had “historical necessity” and “played a positive role.”

At a news conference following the announcement of his Nobel Prize, Mo Yan asked that his political positions be kept separate from his writing. The Nobel “is an award for literature, not politics,” he said. Some of his critics on the Internet have flatly rejected this distinction. (One tweeted that “if a chef layered in feces presents me with a meal, it doesn’t matter how delectable the food is; I’m going to have trouble swallowing it.”) The deeper question, though, is how and to what extent a writer’s immersion in, and adjustment to, an authoritarian political regime affects what he or she writes. The issue is both subtle and important, and Mo Yan provides a useful example of it.

* * *

Mo Yan became famous in the late 1980s when the filmmaker Zhang Yimou made his novel Red Sorghum, a saga of life in rural Shandong during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, into a prize-winning film. Liu Xiaobo, who knew Mo Yan at the time, later wrote that one reason for the film’s tremendous success was that

it drew freely upon the themes of raw sexuality and adultery. Its theme song, “Sister, be gutsy, go forward,” was an unbridled endorsement of the primitive vitality of lust. Against the backdrop of fire-red sorghum in desolate northwestern China, under the broad blue sky and in full view of the bright sun, bandits violently abduct village women, wild adultery happens in the sorghum fields, bandits murder one another in competition for women, male laborers magically produce the widely renowned liquor “Six-Mile Red” by urinating into the heroine’s brewing wine, and so on.

All of this…not only sets the scene for marvelous consummations of male and female sexual desire; it creates a broader dream vision that carries magical vitality. That Red Sorghum could win prizes symbolizes a change in national attitudes towards sex: “erotic display” had come to be seen as “exuberant vitality.”

Mo Yan points out, correctly, that Red Sorghum took considerable heat from the authorities in the 1980s. Then, at least, he was no sycophant. The work not only defied sexual taboos; it portrayed a version of Chinese life under Japanese occupation that was radically at odds with official Communist accounts of heroic peasant resistance. Mo Yan, Zhang Yimou, and others were viewed as young rebels.

Oe Kenzaburo, the Japanese novelist and essayist who won the Nobel literature prize in 1994, said in his acceptance speech:

By sharing old, familiar yet living metaphors I align myself with writers like Kim Chi-ha of Korea and Zheng Yi and Mo Yan, both of China. For me the brotherhood of world literature consists in such relationships in concrete terms…. I am now deeply worried about the destiny of those gifted Chinese novelists who have been deprived of their freedom since the Tiananmen Square incident [i.e., the June 4, 1989 crackdown].

Oe could not know at the time how “destiny” would turn out very differently for the two young Chinese writers he admired, Zheng Yi and Mo Yan. Zheng Yi had drawn Oe’s attention for Old Well (1984), a romance set against the background of the centuries-old quest for water in a parched area of rural Shanxi province. Like Red Sorghum, the story had been made into a prize-winning film. Oe told me in 1997 that he liked Zheng’s “vertical orientation”—old wells penetrating deep into the earth and “spirit trees” stretching in the other direction toward the heavens. (Zheng was then working on a long novel called Spirit Tree, in which there was a touch of magic in his account of Chinese village life.) In 1989 Zheng Yi supported student protesters at Tiananmen, was listed for arrest by the government afterward, lived underground in China for three years, then escaped on a small boat to Hong Kong in 1993, and has lived in exile in the US ever since. He has continued to write prolifically, always in absolute candor about his criticisms of the Chinese government.

* * *

Mo Yan, in both politics and literature, chose a different path. Every serious Chinese writer and artist in the post-1989 era has had to face the choice of whether and how much to stay “inside the system.” Many, like Mo Yan, stay unambiguously inside, making larger or smaller accommodations to official guidelines even as they publicly preserve the fiction that they are doing no such thing. (At his recent news conference Mo Yan observed, deadpan, that “we live in an era of free expression.”) During the last two decades of economic boom, money has become another important inducement for staying within the system. Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker who did Red Sorghum, moved further and further “inside” until, in 2008, he was invited to choreograph the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and commented (apparently without irony) that only a state like China’s or North Korea’s could engineer such an extravaganza.

Most of the writers who choose to go “outside” the system—Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others—have accepted exile as the price for saying what they think, without adjustments. Ha Jin took the unusual step of departing not only China but the Chinese language; he writes only in English, in part to be sure that even subconscious influences do not affect his expression. Some who chose exile after 1989 later changed their minds and returned to China. Xu Bing, the installation artist, lived in New York from 1990 until 2008, then went back to China to be vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The distinguished poet Bei Dao also returned and now spends most of his time in Hong Kong. The regime welcomes the return of famous figures, because this helps to burnish its image. It offers them money, position, and more freedom than it allows to others—but never full freedom.

The main challenge for Mo Yan beginning in the 1990s was to find a literary voice that he could use in the long term. Red Sorghum had been a genuine breakthrough, but only because of the political situation of the 1980s, when Chinese writers could make their names by “breaking into forbidden zones.” Red Sorghum had broken into two: sexual libertinism and truth-telling about the war with Japan. But by the 1990s there were fewer forbidden zones awaiting break-in, and those that did remain (the 1989 massacre, corruption among the political elite, and topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang) were so extremely forbidden as to be untouchable. Mo Yan needed something else.

The voice that he has embraced has been called Rabelaisian, but it is even more earthy than Rabelais’s. The animal nature of human beings—eating, excreting, fighting, screaming, bleeding, sweating, fornicating—abounds, as do certain traits that animals eschew, such as bullying, conniving, and betraying. Sometimes, but not always, Mo Yan’s expression is ironic, and it includes flights of imagination that critics have compared to the “magical realism” of Gabriel García Márquez. (It is doubtful that Mo Yan has read either Rabelais or García Márquez; these are similarities, not influences.)

Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials. Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.

It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system.

* * *

Mo Yan has written panoramic novels covering much of twentieth-century Chinese history. “Rewriting history” has been a fashion in Chinese fiction since the 1990s; it holds great interest for readers who are still struggling to confront the question of “what happened?” during and after the country’s Maoist spasm. For writers inside the system, a dilemma arises in how to treat episodes like the Great Leap famine (1959–1962), in which 30 million or more people starved to death, or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1970), which took the lives of another two or three million and poisoned the national spirit with a cynicism and distrust so deep that even today it has not fully recovered. Today’s Communist leaders, worried that their power could suffer by association with these Maoist disasters, declare the topics “sensitive” and largely off-limits for state-sponsored writers. But a writer doing a panorama cannot omit them, either. What to do?

Mo Yan’s solution (and he is not alone here) has been to invoke a kind of daft hilarity when treating “sensitive” events. His Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996), which spans the entire twentieth century, follows the life of a man obsessed with female body parts. In Chapter Six the book gets to the Great Leap, when China’s rural economy collapsed because of the forcible interference of Mao’s agricultural policies, including his insistence that rice stalks be planted close together (farmers knew this wouldn’t work but risked their lives if they said so) and his advice that new species of plants and animals could be created by cross-breeding—for example, of tomatoes and pumpkins to produce giant tomatoes.

Mo Yan has great fun with the craziness but leaves out the disaster. Cross a rabbit with a sheep? Why not? A volunteer in Big Breasts speaks up: “Sheep sperm into a rabbit is nothing. I don’t care if you want me to inject Director Li Du’s sperm into the sow’s womb.” Everyone present then “broke up laughing.” Meanwhile there is no sign of a famine. When the breast-obsessed protagonist needs some goat’s milk, somebody just goes out and buys it. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), another Mo Yan panorama, stretching from 1950 to 2000, the victim of a public humiliation session during the Cultural Revolution is accused of having impregnated a donkey. The victim suffers wicked taunts for four pages, after which “the crowd laughed uproariously” as he is made to eat a turnip that represents a “fake donkey dick.”

Defenders of Mo Yan, both on and off the Nobel Prize committee, credit him with “black humor.” Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. For the regime, to treat them as jokes might be better than banning them outright. In a 2004 article called “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History,” Liu Xiaobo observes that “sarcasm…has turned into a kind of spiritual massage that numbs people’s consciences and paralyzes their memories.”

Is there more to Mo Yan’s thinking than he puts into print? For him, like all inside-the-system writers in China, we need at least to keep this question open. At a news conference on October 12, he answered a reporter’s question about his fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo this way:

I read some of his writings on literature in the 1980s…later, after he left literature and turned to politics, I haven’t had any contact with him, and I don’t understand much of what he has been doing since then. I now hope, though, that he can get his freedom as soon as possible—get his freedom in good health as soon as possible—and then be able to study his politics and study his social systems as he likes.

The statement was quickly hailed by some of Liu Xiaobo’s supporters. Here was the new Nobel laureate speaking up for someone whose very name had been banned from China’s state media. Moreover Mo Yan’s words were themselves quickly expunged from the domestic Chinese Internet, so the authorities must have been angered by them. Mo Yan had apparently produced a statement of conscience.

The statement certainly has value, but to me there is a more plausible explanation for it than courage of conscience. Police and propaganda officials in China stay in close touch with influential people, including both establishment figures and dissidents. There are “chats,” sometimes over tea, about what a person should or should not say or do in public. When something as spectacular as a Nobel Prize comes along, it is inconceivable that the recipient would not be summoned for one or more chats, and the question of what Mo Yan should say about Liu Xiaobo must have come up. It is an obvious question. Reporters from the world press were asking it almost from the moment Mo Yan’s prize was announced, and it will be even more unavoidable when he travels to Stockholm to collect his prize. (Chinese citizens on the Internet have raised the question, too. One tweeted that “if Mo Yan has guts, he will stand next to an empty chair when he speaks in Stockholm.”2)

* * *

One way or another, Mo Yan will have to have a shuofa—a “way of putting things.” And what way might be least damaging, from the regime’s point of view? If Mo Yan were to say to the world that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who deserves to be in prison, Mo Yan’s own image would plummet, and the glory of his winning of the prize—a glory that the regime wants to enhance and to ride upon—would also nosedive. On the other hand, if Mo Yan were genuinely to side with Liu Xiaobo, who has written many times that “going to prison for one’s words” is always and in principle wrong, that would not do, either. The optimum might be a mild middle-of-the-road statement about hoping that Liu gets released soon.

One phrase in Mo Yan’s statement adds special plausibility to this interpretation. He repeats the “freedom” phrase in order to stress that it be freedom in good health. Does Mo Yan know about Liu Xiaobo’s current state of health? I doubt it. Only Liu Xia, his wife, has seen him in recent months, and she is bound to strict silence on pain of cut-off of her visiting privileges. Mo Yan may simply be taking into account the fact that the health of other dissidents has suffered, sometimes very seriously, while in prison. But we do know that the Lius are likely to be under pressure from the regime to accept exile from China. Dissidents in exile cause much less trouble to authorities than they do at home. The blind rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled last April from house arrest in Shandong to the US embassy in Beijing, is now in New York, where he causes the regime much less headache than he did when he was in either Shandong or Beijing.

And what may this have to do with “good health”? The favorite euphemism of the regime when it ships dissidents overseas is to say they “are seeking medical treatment.” In June 1990, for instance, when the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi was released to go to Britain (Chinese authorities insisted he spend at least six months in “a third country” before going to the US), “medical treatment” was the regime’s pretext in negotiating with British diplomats. Fang tolerated the word-game even though there was nothing at all wrong with his health. Was Mo Yan’s “in good health” phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s “seeking medical treatment abroad”? I don’t know. But it seemed one possible explanation for why the phrase popped up in Mo Yan’s statement.

The fact that Chinese censors expunged Mo Yan’s comments from the domestic Internet is fully consistent with this interpretation. The target of the “release in good health” word-game (if that’s what it is) may be not the Chinese people; it may be the international community, the ones who will receive Liu Xiaobo, if he is exiled, and the ones whose good impressions of the new Chinese Nobel laureate the regime dearly wants to preserve.

Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.


  1. These two, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, later became US citizens as well as very “friendly” to the PRC.
  2. Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize certificate was placed on an empty chair in Oslo in December 2010, after which authorities banned the phrase “empty chair” from the Chinese Internet.
Topics: 
Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published...

Reviewed in This Article

Red Sorghum
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin, 359 pp.

The Garlic Ballads
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 290 pp.

Big Breasts and Wide Hips
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 532 pp.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 540 pp.

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This article was first published in the December 6, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

Ian Johnson
Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising...

Paddling to Peking

Roderick MacFarquhar
For Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, 1971 was the best of years and the worst of years. He revealed his opening to China, but he connived at genocide in East Pakistan. Fortunately for him, the world marveled at the one, but was largely ignorant of...

The Brave Catholics of China

Ian Johnson
Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above...

China’s Way to Happiness

Ian Johnson
Richard Madsen is one of the modern-day founders of the study of Chinese religion. A professor at the University of California San Diego, the seventy-three-year-old’s works include Morality and Power in a Chinese Village, China and the American...

China: Reeducation Through Horror

Ian Buruma
Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale,...

China: Five Pounds of Facts

Jonathan Mirsky
No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the...

The Surprising Empress

Jonathan Mirsky
In the mid-1950s, when I was a graduate student of Chinese history, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was invariably condemned as a reactionary hate figure; Mao Zedong was admired. In the textbooks of that time, leading American scholars...

Dreams of a Different China

Ian Johnson
Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially...

How to Deal with the Chinese Police

Perry Link
A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of...

Unhinged in China

Ian Johnson
In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to...

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”

Perry Link
The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal...

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?

Jonathan Mirsky
“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies...

Old Dreams for a New China

Ian Johnson
Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular...

China: When the Cats Rule

Ian Johnson
In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture...

The Man Who Got It Right

Ian Buruma
1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The...

Censoring the News Before It Happens

Perry Link
Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to...

Faking It in China

Ian Johnson
One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In...

Chen Guangcheng in New York

Jerome A. Cohen, Ira Belkin
Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of...

China’s Sufis: The Shrines Behind the Dunes

Ian Johnson
Lisa Ross’s luminous photographs are not our usual images of Xinjiang. One of China’s most turbulent areas, the huge autonomous region in the country’s northwest was brought under permanent Chinese control only in the mid-twentieth century...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’

Roderick MacFarquhar
1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost”...

Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War

Jonathan Mirsky
For much of the past century, U.S. relations with Tibet have been characterized by kowtowing to the Chinese and hollow good wishes for the Dalai Lama. As early as 1908, William Rockhill, a U.S. diplomat, advised the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that “close...

Will the Chinese Be Supreme?

Ian Johnson
During the turbulent Maoist era from the 1950s to 1970s, China clashed militarily with some of its most important neighbors—India, Vietnam, the Soviet Union—and embarked on disastrous interventions in Indonesia and Africa. But by the 1980s, Deng...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?

Jonathan D. Spence
An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden...

Dancing in Empty Beijing

Ian Johnson
The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of...

Blogging the Slow-Motion Revolution

Ian Johnson
Huang Qi is best known in China as the creator of the country’s first human rights website, Liusi Tianwang, or “June 4 Heavenly Web.” A collection of reports and photos, as well as the occasional first-person account of abuse, the site is updated...

The Old Fears of China’s New Leaders

Jonathan Mirsky
I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the...

Beijing’s Doomsday Problem

Ian Johnson
Over the past ten days, China has been riveted by accounts of what authorities say are its very own doomsday cult: the church of Almighty God, which has prophesized that the world will end today. Authorities have said the group staged illegal...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven

Ian Johnson
In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined

Ian Johnson
Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for...

Who Was Mao Zedong?

Roderick MacFarquhar
In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he...

An Honest Writer Survives in China

Ian Johnson
A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to...

Han Han: ‘Why Aren’t You Grateful?’

Ian Johnson
When looking for Chinese reactions to the anti-Japanese riots that took place in late September, it was probably not much of a surprise that the Western press turned to Han Han, the widely read Shanghai-based blogger. In characteristic form, Han...

China’s Lost Decade

Ian Johnson
It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’...

Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

Ian Johnson
This is a story that sounds familiar, that we think we know or can imagine: old houses torn down for luxury malls, ordinary people poorly compensated, an intimate way of life replaced by highways and high-rises.All of this is happening in Shanghai—...

Beijing’s Dangerous Game

Perry Link
Over the past few days, angry crowds in more than thirty Chinese cities have trashed Japanese stores, overturned Japanese cars, shouted “Down with Japan,” and carried banners that demand Chinese sovereignty over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the...

Jesus vs. Mao?

Ian Johnson
In the intellectual ferment leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, a much-watched series on Chinese television called River Elegy became closely identified with the hopes of China’s reformers. The six-part series, which used the Yellow River as...

News from the Dalai Lama

Jonathan Mirsky
“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful...

The New Olympic Arms Race

Ian Johnson
You can follow the Olympics two ways. First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

Perry Link
The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

Perry Link
The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the...

The People’s Republic of Rumor

Richard Bernstein
A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised,...

China’s ‘Fault Lines’

Ian Johnson
Yu Jie is one of China’s most prominent essayists and critics, with more than thirty books to his name. His latest work is a biography of his friend, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, that was published in Chinese in Hong Kong a few weeks ago...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots

Ian Johnson
The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in...

China: Politics as Warfare

Jonathan Mirsky
Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone...

Why the Dalai Lama is Hopeful

Jonathan Mirsky
“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London Wednesday.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful...

‘In the Current System, I’d Be Corrupt Too’

Ian Johnson
Bao Tong is one of China’s best-known political dissidents. In the early to mid 1980s, he was director of the Communist Party’s Office of Political Reform and the policy secretary for Zhao Ziyang, the party’s former general secretary. Just before...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?

Ian Johnson
Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their...

Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

Ian Johnson
It’s a Sunday afternoon and Beijing’s biggest bookstore is preparing for a major event: the launch of a new book by a bestselling American author, who will be on hand for the occasion. Six-foot banners on the sidewalk out front announce the talk,...

London: The Triumph of the Chinese Censors

Jonathan Mirsky
When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, April 16, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

Perry Link
Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet...

Debacle in Beijing

Ian Johnson
The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?

Perry Link
The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year...

Bringing Censors to the Book Fair

Jonathan Mirsky
When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese Communist Party’s...

‘Worse Than the Cultural Revolution’

Ian Johnson
Tian Qing may be China’s leading cultural heritage expert. A scholar of Buddhist musicology and the Chinese zither, or guqin, the sixty-four-year-old now heads the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an institution set up by the...

A Master in the Shadows

Jonathan D. Spence
How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to...

China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Jonathan Mirsky
Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always...

China’s Falling Star

Ian Johnson
In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make...

Learning How to Argue

Ian Johnson
One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August...

The Chinese Are Coming!

Richard Bernstein
The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

Simon Leys
Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international...

Is Democracy Chinese?

Ian Johnson
Chang Ping is one of China’s best-known commentators on contemporary affairs. Chang, whose real name is Zhang Ping, first established himself in the late 1990s in Guangzhou, where his hard-hitting stories exposed scandals and championed freedom of...

Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong’s Quiet Return

Ian Johnson
Lift up your head Calm your eyes Look far away, as far as you can Look beyond the walls What do you see?The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of ChinaFile.org and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review'...

Banned in China

Jonathan Mirsky
In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China...

China Gets Religion!

Ian Johnson
This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the...

Do China’s Village Protests Help the Regime?

Ian Johnson
Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public...

The Real Deng

Fang Lizhi
When a scientific experiment uncovers a new phenomenon, a scientist is pleased. When an experiment fails to reveal something that the scientist originally expected, that, too, counts as a result worth analyzing. A sense of the “nonappearance of the...

My ‘Confession’

Fang Lizhi
From reading Henry Kissinger’s new book On China,1 I have learned that Mr. Kissinger met with Deng Xiaoping at least eleven times—more than with any other Chinese leader—and that the topic of one of their chats was whether Fang Lizhi would confess...

Making It Big in China

Jonathan Mirsky
Jianying Zha describes China as “way too big a cow for anyone to tackle in full.” Therefore, Ms. Zha says, she omits “the rural life, the small-town stories, the migrants working in huge manufacturing plants…continued poverty in parts of interior...

Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

Ian Johnson
With worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest, China’s leaders have a lot on their plates these days. And yet when the Communist Party met at its annual plenum earlier this week, the issue given...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

Ian Buruma
Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage,...

China’s Tibetan Theme Park

Richard Bernstein
In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing...

China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

Robert Barnett
Much of the talk about Vice President Joe Biden’s four-day visit to China last week centered on the man who hosted him: Xi Jinping, expected to become the country’s next president in 2012. Biden’s office has said that the principal purposes of his...

‘I’m Not Interested in Them; I Wish They Weren’t Interested in Me’

Ian Johnson
Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with...

Murdoch’s Chinese Adventure

Jonathan Mirsky
During a Parliamentary hearing last week in London, the Murdochs, father and son, riveted television audiences with their combination of wide-eyed, hand-on-heart innocence (James), and long silences and “Yups” and “Nopes” (Rupert). After the elder...

China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

Jonathan Mirsky
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-...

The High Price of the New Beijing

Ian Johnson
One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye...

The Past and the Future

Fang Lizhi
Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether...

Kissinger and China

Jonathan D. Spence
It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign...

China’s Glorious New Past

Ian Johnson
I first went to Datong in 1984 and was immediately taken by this gritty city in China’s northern Shanxi Province. Along with half a dozen classmates from Peking University, I traveled eight hours on an overnight train, arriving in a place that felt...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

Jonathan Mirsky
On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

Amartya Sen
The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10...

Recharging Chinese Art

Jonathan D. Spence
Retirement was not usually a concept of pressing concern to Chinese emperors. Succession and survival were normally quite enough to keep them occupied, and death—when it came—was often unexpected and frequently brutal. But Emperor Qianlong, who...

China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Ian Johnson
Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into...

On the Sacred Mountain

Pico Iyer
A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of Mount...

How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions

Perry Link
Chinese authorities have done what they can to stop news—and worse, from their point of view, any influence—of Tunisian and Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. They have been worrying especially about what social media like Twitter and...

The Secret Politburo Meeting Behind China’s New Democracy Crackdown

Perry Link
In an NYRblog post on February 17 (“Middle East Revolutions: The View from China”), I discussed Chinese government’s efforts to block news of the democracy uprisings spreading across the Middle East and speculated how China’s rulers might view those...

Middle East Revolutions: The View from China

Perry Link
Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the People’s Daily...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

Roderick MacFarquhar
When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had...

China: From Famine to Oslo

Perry Link
Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy...

Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims

Ian Johnson
Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the seventy-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the government-run Xinhua news...

At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair

Perry Link
On December 10, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which the government of China had a few days earlier declared to be a “farce.” The recipient was a friend of mine, the Chinese scholar and essayist Liu Xiaobo...

Unveiling Hidden China

Christian Caryl
Napoleon famously described China as a sleeping giant that would shake the world when it finally awoke. Well, now the giant is up and about, and the rest of us can’t help but notice. 2010, indeed, could well end up being remembered as the year when...

A Hero of Our Time

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize because he...

How Reds Smashed Reds

Jonathan Mirsky
July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate...

A Very Superior ‘Chinaman’

Richard Bernstein
Charlie Chan, the fictitious Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, makes his first appearance in the movie Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) looking out the window of an airplane while flying over the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We next see him, looking...

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson
Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting...

‘A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link
It would be hard to overstate how much the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on October 8 has meant to China’s community of dissidents, bloggers, and activists. Not only has it lifted their spirits tremendously; many also view it as a...

A Hero of the China Underground

Howard W. French
As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’s student movement, people like...

The Question of Pearl Buck

Jonathan D. Spence
The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by...

Jailed for Words: Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize because he...

Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

Richard Bernstein
Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding U.S. relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust public...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

Ian Johnson
In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of...

Booming China, Migrant Misery

Richard Bernstein
At the beginning of September, a Beijing criminal court announced a decision that called attention to the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances of millions of migrant workers in China who have left their countryside homes to work for low...

Waiting for WikiLeaks: Beijing’s Seven Secrets

Perry Link
While people in the U.S. and elsewhere have been reacting to the release by WikiLeaks of classified U.S. documents on the Afghan War, Chinese bloggers have been discussing the event in parallel with another in their own country. On July 21 in...

The Message from the Glaciers

Orville Schell
It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most...

Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama

Perry Link
Following is an English translation of an Internet dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens that took place on May 21. The exchange was organized by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual known for his writing on Tibet and for theorizing...

Brutalized in China

Jonathan Mirsky
She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone for every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.“She” is Granny Lin, a fifty-one-year-old Chinese woman who has...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

Jonathan D. Spence
Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a...

Locked Out: Beijing’s Border Abuse Exposed

Perry Link
On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a Chinese citizen...

What Beijing Fears Most

Perry Link
On December 29, four days after being sentenced to eleven years in prison for “subversion of state power,” the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo filed an appeal to a higher court. For many familiar with the Chinese regime, the decision seemed quixotic: it...

The Trial of Liu Xiaobo: A Citizens’ Manifesto and a Chinese Crackdown

Perry Link
One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more months, on the...

Copenhagen: China’s Oppressive Climate

Perry Link
As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference will depend...

Specters of a Chinese Master

Jonathan D. Spence
1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the...

China: The Fragile Superpower

Christian Caryl
Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s highly-scripted trip this week provided little to support that claim. As The Washington Post...

The Empire of Sister Ping

Richard Bernstein
The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at 47 East...

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell
I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary...

The Enigma of Chiang Kai-shek

Jonathan D. Spence
Back in 1975, when he died in Taiwan at the age of eighty-seven, it was easy to see Chiang Kai-shek as a failure, as a piece of Chinese flotsam left awkwardly drifting in the wake of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary victories. Now it is not easy to be so...

Obama’s Bad Bargain with Beijing

Perry Link
As the echoes of China’s spectacular military parade on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama administration, in quieter settings in Washington, D.C., were telling representatives of the Dalai Lama that the president was not going to meet...

China at 60: Who Owns the Guns

Perry Link
The most striking feature of China’s October 1 celebration of sixty years of Communist rule was the spectacular and tightly choreographed military parade in the center of Beijing. The display of crass militarism—paralleled only by parades in...

China’s Dictators at Work: The Secret Story

Jonathan Mirsky
Prisoner of the State is the secretly recorded memoir of Zhao Ziyang, once holder of China’s two highest Party and state positions and the architect of the economic reforms that have brought the country to the edge of great-power status. The book...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Jonathan D. Spence
{vertical_photo_right}Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its...

‘A Hell on Earth’

Pico Iyer
“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain indifferent.”...

The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Richard Bernstein
Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by...

The China We Don’t Know

Jonathan Mirsky
In the late 1990s, Chinese peasants in the village of Da Fo, many of whom between 1959 and 1961 had survived the twentieth century’s greatest famine, felt free enough to install shrines to Guangong, the traditional war god of resistance to...

China’s Charter 08

Liu Xiaobo, Perry Link
The document below, signed by more than two thousand Chinese citizens, was conceived and written in conscious admiration of the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, where, in January 1977, more than two hundred Czech and Slovak intellectuals...

An Asian Star Is Born

Christian Caryl
Ian Buruma’s life would itself make a nice subject for a novel. His father was Dutch; his mother was British, from a family that emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; as an undergraduate in the Netherlands he focused on Chinese...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

Jonathan D. Spence
It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

Orville Schell
The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus...

Why Didn’t Science Rise in China?

Jonathan D. Spence
In response to:The Passions of Joseph Needham from the August 14, 2008 issueTo the Editors:In his illuminating essay on Joseph Needham [ NYR, August 14], Jonathan Spence notes that early in his career Needham posed the question: “What were the...

How He Sees It Now

Jonathan Mirsky
It is open season on the Dalai Lama and not just for Beijing, for whom he is “a monk in wolf’s clothing,” or for Rupert Murdoch, who dismissed him as a “very old political monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” During his trip to London in May, when...

Casting a Lifeline

Francine Prose
Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai

1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to...

Thunder from Tibet

Robert Barnett
1.Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet...

Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation, by Some Chinese Intellectuals

Wang Lixiong
At present the one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media is having the effect of stirring up inter-ethnic animosity and aggravating an already tense situation. This is extremely detrimental to the long-term goal of safeguarding national...

He Would Have Changed China

Perry Link
In trying to make sense of their country’s turbulent modern history, Chinese intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one or another accidental event had happened differently? For decades...

He Won’t Give In

Jonathan Mirsky
On June 4, 1989, having heard that the Tiananmen demonstrations had been lethally crushed, Kang Zhengguo, a professor of literature at a university in Shaanxi province, pinned a piece of paper to his chest displaying the words “AIM YOUR GUNS HERE.”...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly...

The Amazing Wanderer

Christian Caryl
1.I could tell you a lot of potentially useful things about Colin Thubron’s latest travel memoir—for example, that he’s a gifted linguist, a dogged reporter, and an elegant writer. For a start, though, perhaps it’s enough to point out that his shoes...

‘Ravished by Oranges’

Simon Leys
How can we be informed? Chesterton famously observed that when we read in today’s newspapers that one window-cleaner fell to his death, our general understanding of window-cleaning is distorted; the information that 35,000 window-cleaners actually...

China’s Area of Darkness

Jonathan Mirsky
The very first anonymous star on the CIA’s wall of honor at Langley, Virginia (the agency rarely identifies its dead heroes), refers to Douglas MacKiernan, the agency’s man in Urumqi, the capital of what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous...

The Dream of Catholic China

Jonathan D. Spence
From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with soldiers...

Mission to Mao

Roderick MacFarquhar
“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto...

Chinese Shadows

Perry Link
In 1920 a young Chinese poet named Guo Moruo published a poem called “The Sky Dog,” which begins:Ya, I am a sky dog!I have swallowed the moon,I have swallowed the sun.I have swallowed all the planets,I have swallowed the entire universe.I am I!After...

Court Favorite

Jonathan Mirsky
At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the National...

Why They Hate Japan

Ian Buruma
1.Those who think that the Japanese are a little odd will have been confirmed in their prejudice by the behavior of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro during his June visit to the United States. The social highlight was a trip to Graceland, home of...

China’s Great Terror

Jonathan D. Spence
Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

Pu Zhiqiang
The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of...

China: The Shame of the Villages

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Published fifteen years ago, Chinese Village, Socialist State, as I wrote at the time, not only contained a more telling account of Chinese rural life than any other I had read; it also produced a new understanding “of the methods by which the...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

Perry Link
Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the...

Portrait of a Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
1.It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an...

China: The Uses of Fear

Jonathan Mirsky
Instilling deadly fear throughout the population was one of Mao Zedong’s lasting contributions to China since the late Twenties. In the case of Dai Qing, one of China’s sharpest critics before 1989, fear seems to explain the sad transformation in...

Chinese Shadows

Ian Buruma
There are many reasons for getting tattooed. But a sense of belonging—to a group, a faith, or a person—is key. As a mark of identification a tattoo is more lasting than a passport. This is not always voluntary. In Japan, criminals used to have the...

China: Wiping Out the Truth

Perry Link
Somehow poison got into the food at a snack shop in Nanjing, China, on September 14, 2002, and more than four hundred people fell ill. After forty-one of them died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in...

Passage to China

Amartya Sen
1.The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers...

Taiwan on the Edge

Jonathan Mirsky
The events in Taiwan since March 19, the day before the presidential election, can be seen as a Taiwanese version of the long wrangle between Al Gore and George W. Bush more than three years ago. No matter how the election is resolved, something...

The Party Isn’t Over

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Early in the years following China’s post-Mao reforms, a Chinese sociologist told Princeton’s Perry Link, “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such a condition the fish never...

Chiang’s Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
1.During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the Gestapo and the SS under Hitler...

The Hong Kong Gesture

Jonathan Mirsky
On September 5, in an astonishing victory for liberty in Hong Kong and an equally unexpected defeat for Beijing and its hand-picked chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong government withdrew a proposed new law against subversion and treason...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison

Jiang Qisheng
“What I did, what landed me in prison, was really quite simple—I just said in public what my fellow citizens were saying in all those other nooks.” —Jiang Qisheng

A Little Leap Forward

Nicholas D. Kristof
The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a...

AsiaWorld

Ian Buruma
To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-...

How the Chinese Spread SARS

Jonathan Mirsky
Communist China’s long obsession with secrecy is one cause of the present SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis. This passion for secrets—protected by lies—can involve events more than forty years ago, and it is heightened by a conviction...

China’s Psychiatric Terror

Jonathan Mirsky
1.At its triennial congress in Yokohama last September, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) overwhelmingly voted to send a delegation to China to investigate charges that dissidents were being imprisoned and maltreated as “political maniacs”...

China’s New Rulers: What They Want

Andrew J. Nathan, Bruce Gilley
Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of...

Taking Rights Seriously in Beijing

Ronald Dworkin
Last May I was invited to China for two weeks, first to take part in a two-day conference at the law school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, and then to give several public lectures there and in other cities. The Tsinghua conference was arranged...

China’s New Rulers: The Path to Power

Andrew J. Nathan, Bruce Gilley
Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of...

There Were Worse Places

Jonathan Mirsky
In the mid-1980s I made occasional trips to Harbin in Manchuria to report on the Orthodox White Russians who lived there, the remnant of a community that had fled from the new Soviet Union after the revolution. There were once so many of them that...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier

Perry Link
In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police...

Inside the Whale

Jonathan Mirsky
Ian Buruma is a powerful storyteller and much of his story about Chinese rebels is very sad. This sadness persists throughout his long journey, starting in the United States, where he met most of the well-known dissident Chinese exiles, and ending...

China’s Assault on the Environment

Jonathan Mirsky
In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning North and South, and a Natural Barrier becomes a thoroughfare...

On the Road

Pico Iyer
Books that “follow in the steps of” a well-known traveler are more and more ubiquitous these days, but many of them are slightly suspect. Following in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessor can look a little like a gesture of defeat,...

Un-Chinese Activities

Jonathan Mirsky
In the first week of November 1728, China’s Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned between 1723 and 1735) ruled over something like 200 million people and the vast territory that Beijing today claims as the People’s Republic. He had plenty on his mind. He...

Writers in a Cold Wind

Jonathan Mirsky
Early in 1979 the Chinese officials in charge of culture declared that the Maoist ban on nineteen traditional classics and sixteen foreign works, including Anna Karenina, was lifted. On the day the books became available at a Beijing bookshop, a...

Tibet Disenchanted

Ian Buruma
The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these...

‘Taiwan Stands Up’

Jonathan Mirsky
Politics in Taiwan is a deadly business, sometimes literally. Chen Shui-bian’s first public act, on the morning of his inauguration as president on May 20, was to carry his wife in his arms to their waiting car. In 1985 she had been run down by a...

Found Horizon

Ian Buruma
Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United...

China’s Dirty Clean-Up

Sophia Woodman
Every year, millions of China’s poorest and most vulnerable people are arrested on the streets of the nation’s cities merely because the way they look or speak identifies them clearly as “outsiders,” not native to the city in question, or because...

A Lamas’ Who’s Who

Jonathan Mirsky
A one-l lama, he’s a priest. A two-l llama, he’s a beast. And I will bet a silk pajama, There isn’t any three-l lllama. —Ogden NashThe only Tibetan lama most Westerners knew of until recently was the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the genial Nobel Prize...

East Is West

Ian Buruma
Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward...

Divine Killer

Ian Buruma
“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man,...

Misfortune in Shanghai

Jonathan Mirsky
Connoisseurs of traditional Peking opera would have enjoyed the recent meeting in Shanghai sponsored by Fortune to consider “China: The Next 50 Years.” The audience of approximately three hundred CEOs of US and other companies and over a dozen...

China in Cyberspace

Ian Buruma
It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever...

Room at the Top

Pico Iyer
The last time I was in the Himalayas, I met a young, highly Westernized Tibetan who, misled perhaps by my Indian features (born in England, I’ve never lived in the subcontinent), started talking to me about the strange ways of the exotic foreigners...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

Orville Schell
Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to...

The Dalai Lama on Succession and on the CIA

Jonathan Mirsky
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into Indian exile. He is sixty-five and some day even god-kings must die. But in the eyes of Tibetans he is also the fourteenth incarnation of the first Dalai Lama, who died...

Message from Shangri-La

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 6, 1939, on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Hugh Richardson, who is now ninety-three and the West’s foremost living Tibetanist, saw the arrival in the city of the five-year-old boy who in early 1940 would be installed as the...

Talking with Mao: An Exchange

Henry Kissinger, Jonathan D. Spence
In response to:Kissinger & the Emperor from the March 4, 1999 issueTo the Editors:No China scholar has influenced my own thinking more than Jonathan Spence. My comments on his review of The Kissinger Transcripts edited by William Burr [NYR,...

Kissinger & the Emperor

Jonathan D. Spence
From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

Ian Buruma
Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack...

Democratic Vistas?

Jonathan Mirsky
In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said: Democracy without...

Goodfellas in Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to kill...

Talking with Wei Jingsheng

Jonathan Mirsky
Speaking to a small group in London this January, nearly two months after he was expelled from China, the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told his somewhat startled listeners, “The earliest human rights movement in the world was the ‘People’s...

The Mark of Cain

Jonathan Mirsky
1.In Hong Kong’s China Club, fashionable people have lunch beneath pictures of Mao Zedong after a drink in the Long March Bar. Most of the members are refugees from Mao or the children of refugees. In Russia, or Germany, or Cambodia, there is surely...

Lost Horizons

Pico Iyer
Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering in just...

Betrayal

Jonathan Mirsky
It is unusual in British political life for a high official to leave his position and immediately reveal in his own words or through an intermediary what in his opinion really happened while he was in office. Furthermore, unless he has been roughly...

Selling Out Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine modeled after the London Tatler, I was reminded of a story I once heard about the Rothschild house in Paris. When Victor Rothschild visited the Avenue de Marigny...

Peking’s Choice

Jonathan Mirsky
The recent sentence to six years in prison of one of Tibet’s supreme monks shows Peking’s determination to dominate all events in the region and bring to an end a period of intense confusion within the Chinese Communist Party. For a brief time the...

Peking, Hong Kong, & the US

Jonathan Mirsky
No recent book has blown a bigger hole in the proposition that the US must follow a policy of “positive engagement” with China than The Coming Conflict with China. It is a mark of the wound they inflicted on Peking that the authors, ex-reporters in...

What Confucius Said

Jonathan D. Spence
1.The first Western-language version of Confucius’ sayings—later known as the Analects—was published in Paris in 1687, in Latin, under the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with a brief dedication to King Louis XIV, thanking him for supporting...

Demolition Man

Roderick MacFarquhar
Deng Xiaoping was eulogized by his colleagues as the “chief architect” of China’s reform program and its opening to the outside world.1 This was misleading. Deng was no master builder. Unlike his patron, Mao Zedong, and fortunately for his...

China: The Defining Moment

Jonathan Mirsky
The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in...

The Risks of Witness

Jonathan D. Spence
With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance. In this...

The Hope for China

Fang Lizhi, Perry Link
1.“Some people,” declared Mao Zedong in 1959, “say that we have become isolated from the masses.”1 By “some people” Mao meant Peng Dehuai, a subordinate who had dared to criticize Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” which was just then creating in China the...

How China Lost Taiwan

Jonathan Mirsky
1.For foreign correspondents who had been present in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the events of the night of March 17, 1996, in the plaza in front of the Taipei city hall, showed more clearly than any other what the China-Taiwan crisis is...

One More Art

Simon Leys
1.The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.1Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the...

River of Fire

Jonathan Mirsky
In her introduction to a collection of Karl Marx’s newspaper dispatches on China, Dona Torr conceived a charming fantasy in which Marx speculates thatWhen our European reactionaries have to take refuge in Asia and at last reach the Great Wall of...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Vaclav Smil
1.Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its...

The Beginning of the End

Ian Buruma
Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among...

In China’s Gulag

Jonathan D. Spence
Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects...

Jumping Into the Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians and the population,” the Emperor Qianlong ordered in 1793. This is one of the many pointed epigraphs in China Wakes, and it shows what Chinese rulers knew for centuries: that, for the emperors,...

The Underground War for Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
During the night of November 21–22, 1928 a steamer moored at the docks in the Chinese section of Shanghai, and a group of harbor coolies, flanked by a squad of thirty armed guards, began to unload chests onto the dock. Alerted by a tip some weeks...

Unmasking the Monster

Jonathan Mirsky
In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the...

The Bottom of the Well

Jonathan Mirsky
Do Chinese women, as the Communist Party has held for decades, “hold up half the sky?” Or, like the frog at the bottom of a well in a famous Daoist legend, do they see only a little blue patch? Why is it that tens of millions of them are said to be...

Remembrance of Ming’s Past

Jonathan D. Spence
To many readers in the past, The Plum in the Golden Vase has seemed an inchoate mass of a story. Even if it was clearly “about” a wealthy urban merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing, his six consorts, and numerous other sexual companions, it was also full of...

The Prodigal Sons

Jonathan Mirsky
What do Xi Yang, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Juntao have in common? Yes, they are all “counter-revolutionary elements, subversives, splittists, black hands”—whatever Peking cares to call them—and all three are familiar with the Party’s prison...

The Old Man’s New China

Perry Link
The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human rights. So how...

The Battle for Hong Kong

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Hong Kong—The first weekend of the Year of the Dog, February 11–13, was not a good one for those of us who live in Hong Kong. The annual fireworks display, sponsored by the Bank of China (in Peking fireworks are banned), was muffled in mist. In...

Where the East Begins

Jonathan D. Spence
Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the visual arts in the West. Beginning...

The Chinese Miracle?

Jonathan D. Spence
Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of...

Unjust Desserts

Jonathan D. Spence
Can there be any justice in today’s China? It is the deepest question that the film director Zhang Yimou has asked so far. His best-known earlier films, sexually supercharged, suffused with violence or the threat of it, always found some politically...

The Party’s Secrets

Jonathan Mirsky
Not long after Mao Zedong died in 1976, one of the editors of the Party’s People’s Daily said. “Lies in newspapers are like rat droppings in clear soup: disgusting and obvious.” That may have been true of the Party’s newspapers, which Chinese are...

Deng’s Last Campaign

Roderick MacFarquhar
China had its own form of grueling political campaign this year, which ended when the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party (CCP) took place in October. There, too, the issue was “change” and the main concern the economy. But in China the...

Squaring the Chinese Circle

Jonathan Mirsky
“China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”1 This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most people who have studied, read about, or traveled and lived in China. In the late sixteenth...

The Other China

Jonathan D. Spence
On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into...

Blazing Passions

Geoffrey O’Brien
In a coincidence of programming in New York City a selection of the commercially most successful Hong Kong movies of the 1980s ran at the same time as a retrospective of work (some of it only marginally released in its country of origin) by the...

Literature of the Wounded

Jonathan Mirsky
In Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, Bette Bao Lord’s memoir of her three years in Peking as the American ambassador’s wife, she recalled that “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding...

John King Fairbank (1907–1991)

Roderick MacFarquhar
John Fairbank, who died on September 14 at the age of eighty-four, read virtually all serious Western works on China. Reviewing them, principally for The New York Review in the last several years, was for him one way of keeping abreast of China...

The Anatomy of Collapse

Roderick MacFarquhar
In Moscow, 1991, as in Beijing in 1989, eight hard liners made a last-ditch stand to preserve communism. Yet in both cases, the Communist party was left on the sidelines and no appeal was made for support in the name of Communist doctrine. Politics...

China on the Verge

Jonathan D. Spence
During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also a...

The Myth of Mao’s China

Jonathan Mirsky
In China Misperceived Steven Mosher strikes back at the profession, clan, or family of China watchers that cast him out. The official reasons have never been made public, although his university, Stanford, hinted at academic misconduct when it...

Brutality in China

Merle Goldman
At the same time that President Bush is speaking up against Saddam Hussein’s human rights atrocities, he is appeasing China’s octogenarian leaders on the very same issue. In order to persuade China to cooperate in the United Nations actions against...

Lost Horizons

Jonathan Mirsky
Except for the Chinese Communists, who call him names like “the wolf in monk’s robes,” or “the criminal Dalai,” virtually everyone speaks well of the Dalai Lama. The latest incarnation is the Fourteenth in a line that began in 1351 and exists...

History on the Wing

John K. Fairbank
Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American...

The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page

Simon Leys
1.In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling...

The Chinese Amnesia

Fang Lizhi
The following was written while Fang Lizhi was staying in the American Embassy in Beijing, before his release last June.In November 1989, during the fifth month of my refuge inside the American Embassy in Beijing, I received two letters from New...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

John K. Fairbank
When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from...

In A Cruel Country

Jonathan Mirsky
In her disturbing memoir of three and half years in Beijing, Bette Bao Lord, the author of the novel Spring Moon and wife of Winston Lord, the American ambassador until just before the Beijing killings, retells a traditional story which is wholly...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that I arrived in Hong Kong to take up a job. The prime ministerial fall; which preceded a fierce quarrel with Deng...

The Empire Strikes Back

Jonathan Mirsky
“President Bush still regards you as his friend, a friend forever,” Brent Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping in Beijing on December 10, six months and seven days after Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square. In Washington, the...

Keeping the Faith

Fang Lizhi
I am proud and deeply moved to have this opportunity to speak with you here today; but at the same time, I am also filled with a sense of sorrow and shame. I am moved because you have chosen to honor me with the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights...

Vengeance in China

Merle Goldman
While China’s leaders try to assure the outside world and themselves that “everything is back to normal,” the national problems that existed before the June 4 crackdown have become much worse. China’s students and intellectuals were already...

Stories from the Ice Age

Jonathan Mirsky
Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese...

China Witness, 1989

Jonathan D. Spence
In response to: China’s Spring from the June 29, 1989 issueTo the Editors:The absolute cynicism displayed by the current Chinese leadership as they present their version of this spring’s events in Beijing and other cities offers a special challenge...

After the Massacres

Simon Leys
A historian of contemporary China who is considering the events of three years ago, of ten years ago, of twenty years ago, must feel dizzy: each time, it is the same story, the plot is identical—one needs only to change the names of a few characters...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

John K. Fairbank
To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their...

The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean

Simon Leys
Since the Beijing massacres, the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: “Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

Roderick MacFarquhar
When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It...

Letters from the Other China

Fang Lizhi
During the student demonstrations that swept China toward the end of 1986, the brilliant astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who was then vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, emerged, through his speeches to student groups, as the...

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jonathan Mirsky
Just before the recent demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, which shook the Party to its foundations, a rumor ran through the capital: Mao Zedong’s body, embalmed and mounted in the ugly Memorial Hall which disfigures Tiananmen Square...

China’s Spring

Orville Schell
To stand, in early May, atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which guards the entrance to the Forbidden City, and look across the vast crowd of people jammed into Tiananmen Square was to have a historically new sense of what Mao called “the broad masses...

The Chinese Intellectuals and the Revolt

Perry Link
The Beijing revolt of 1989 has caught the world’s attention, but the malaise that led to the emergency is broader and deeper than any of its conspicuous slogans can suggest. For foreigners like myself who live in Beijing, it was already clear nine...

Mao and Snow

John K. Fairbank, Jonathan Mirsky
In response to:Message from Mao from the February 16, 1989 issueTo the Editors:Edgar Snow was set up by Mao and mugged by the Cold War. I first met him in 1932 in Peking and kept more or less in touch during the next forty years of his life. I think...

Message from Mao

Jonathan Mirsky
In Kansas City, Missouri, the family of Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China was to introduce Mao Zedong to the world, employed a black washerwoman, Crazy Mary, who hated one of her Chinese competitors. To enrage the man she taught young Edgar to...

China’s Despair and China’s Hope

Fang Lizhi
Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

Nathan Gardels
Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party...

Roots of Revolution

John K. Fairbank
The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

Roderick MacFarquhar
Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the...

China on My Mind

Jonathan D. Spence
Almost forty years have passed since John King Fairbank’s first book, The United States and China, was published in 1948. A careful blending of Chinese institutional history with diplomatic history, the book proved immediately popular among...

Surviving the Hurricane

Judith Shapiro
At a time when the new freedoms of the post-Mao years are in jeopardy, many issues of intense concern to Chinese can freely be discussed only abroad. Of these, among the most important is the Cultural Revolution, about which Nien Cheng has written...

Turbulent Empire

Jonathan D. Spence
Among the great and enduring questions in the study of Chinese history are these: In an agricultural country of such extraordinary size how was the land farmed and what were the patterns of ownership and tenancy? How was the rural revenue extracted...

The End of the Long March

Roderick MacFarquhar
In Peking last September, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, pensioned off the surviving generals of the Long March. Fifty years after their epic exploit, these old soldiers finally agreed to fade away. Deng must hope that the legend has now...

Our Mission in China

Jonathan D. Spence
This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the...

China: Mulberries and Famine

Jonathan D. Spence
Near the beginning of the Chinese “Classic of Historical Documents” (the Shujing), where the doings of early mythic rulers are being described, there is a brief passage that stands out among the others for its precision and clarity. The focus of...

China: How Much Dissent?

Jonathan D. Spence
In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy...

His Man in Canton

John K. Fairbank
In the Chinese united front of the mid-1920s, the Soviet agent Borodin has been a protean figure. Bringing Leninist skills, arms, and advisers to Canton, he seemed to be the priceless ingredient that finally catalyzed Sun Yat-sen’s revolution...

Take Back Your Ming

Jonathan D. Spence
Until very recently the great expanse of the Ming dynasty, which ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, was largely uncharted in Western historiography. The dynasty was seen either as having come at the end of a great tradition that had been dominated by...

Forever Jade

Jonathan D. Spence
A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total rejection...

Why Confucius Counts

Jonathan D. Spence
One would be hard pressed, surveying any of the political cultures in human history, to find a parallel for the continuity, longevity, and vitality of Confucianism. This moral and ethical system was given initial shape in the fifth and fourth...

The Chinese Dream Machine

Jonathan D. Spence
Simple-looking questions make good starting points for books; for simple questions are usually very hard to answer, and if the author is skillful enough he elaborates the simple question until it is overlaid with hovering qualifications, doubts, and...

Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Simon Leys
In the sixth century BC, at the time the Tso Chuan refers to, China’s social hierarchy had only ten degrees. We have progressed since then: the Maoist bureaucracy today has thirty hierarchical classes, each with specific privileges and prerogatives...

Chinese Shadows

Simon Leys
In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their...

Sitting on Top of the World

Harold L. Kahn
Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor...

Traveling Light

Martin Bernal
With the exception of Joseph Kraft’s short work, all the books on China mentioned here have been padded. Barbara Tuchman includes a fascinating historical essay. Galbraith has animadversions on San Francisco, Paris, TWA, and many other matters, and...

Rules of the Game

John Gittings
On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as...

Up Against the Wall at Tsinghua U.

Ross Terrill
Some Chinese refer to their lives before and after the Cultural Revolution as if that storm of the Sixties were a religious conversion. Like John Bunyan writing with enthusiastic horror of his unregenerate days, the cadre or craftsman today says he...

A Shameful Tale

John Gittings
On the contents page of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs1 the new shape of American diplomacy is writ large and in italics. In this prestigious house organ of the international affairs establishment—and by coincidence it happens to be its...

Who’s Who in China

Martin Bernal
Written Chinese is extremely difficult. Before the revolutions of the twentieth century, the literary language was a barrier protecting the Confucian elite. Anyone who could jump over that barrier by passing the official examinations immediately...

Bringing Up the Red Guards

John Gittings
Everyone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“‘P'an T'ien-shou’ is a...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

John Gittings
In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to...

How Mao Won

Martin Bernal
In response to:Was Chinese Communism Inevitable? from the December 3, 1970 issueTo the Editors:Although pleased by Martin Bernal’s laudatory reference to my piece criticizing Chalmers Johnson’s thesis concerning the reasons for the Communist triumph...

Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?

Martin Bernal
It is likely that, even now, many people in America and Britain still hold to the simple formula that people are good and communism is evil. And, just as good cannot support evil, people cannot support communism. Therefore any political movement...

Mao and the Writers

Martin Bernal
By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only offered...

Report from the China Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
Since the Communist victory in 1949 there has been very little contact between Americans and Chinese. Although a tiny community of aging Americans continues to live in Peking, no American, except for Edgar Snow, has traveled widely in the People’s...

Still Mysterious

John K. Fairbank
Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live...

A Mao for All Seasons

Martin Bernal
{vertical_photo_right}A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis...

Pekinology

Martin Bernal
Mr. Pye is disarming and sensible in his description of his method. From the start he makes it clear that The Spirit of Chinese Politics is an “interpretive and largely speculative essay.” He refuses to cite specific examples to strengthen his case...

The Great Wall

John K. Fairbank
China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different...

Puritanism Chinese-Style

Martin Bernal
Specialists in the USSR and East Europe have both helped and hindered modern Chinese studies. Many scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz came to the serious interpretation of Chinese Communism from Slavic studies. On the other hand, less sensitive East...

Chinese Checkers

Martin Bernal
In Response to:Contradictions from the July 7, 1966 issueTo the Editors:Martin Bernal in his review [July 7] describes Franz Schurmann’s brilliant new book Ideology and Organization in Communist China as “easily the most provocative work…yet seen on...

Contradictions

Martin Bernal
Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time extensively...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution

John K. Fairbank
The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon...

Down There on a Visit

Martin Bernal
In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the...

Mao’s China

Martin Bernal
To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of...

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

Martin Bernal
Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has...