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East Is West

East Is West

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 the clearing, as it was known, which was where Corporal Endo had taken K’s sister. But I wasn’t halfway there when I met them coming back, singly and together and in small groups. The men. It was the men. Twenty-five of them, thirty of them. I had to slow as they went past. Some were half-dressed, shirtless, trouserless, half-hopping to pull on boots. They were generally quiet. The quiet after a great celebration. They were flecked with blood, and muddy dirt, some more than others. One with his hands and forearms as if dipped in crimson. Another’s face smudged with it, the color strange in his hair. One was completely clean, only his boots soiled; he was vomiting as he walked. Shiboru carried his saber, wiping it lazily in the tall grass. His face was bleeding but he was unconcerned. He did not see me; none of them did. They could have been returning from a volleyball match, thoroughly enervated, sobered by near glory.

This is very fine, the animal quiet after the kill, the innocent, almost childlike air of the young men who have just had their sport, and the emotional paralysis of the observer, a Korean-Japanese soldier who had loved the girl. He would never allow himself to lose control of his feelings again, for love, like sex, or murder, was too dangerous. Hata—that is his name—was born a Korean, and adopted in Japan by Japanese parents. They were kind to him, gave him a chance to get on in life, and do them proud. He felt obliged to them, and to Japan, and to his superior officers, just as he would feel obliged later to America, where he ended up living, in a genteel little Westchester town named Bedley Run. “Doc” Hata (he ran a surgical instruments store), always polite, always obliging, wished to pass through life as much as possible without being noticed, like a man gliding under the surface of a suburban pool, “silent and unseen.”

Hata might easily have turned into a literary cliché, the polite, quietly inscrutable Oriental gentleman with a guilty wartime secret. He could have been no more than a name tag stuck onto an idea. Although Lee overdoes the literary metaphors a bit, reviving, for example, the image of Hata swimming in his pool, mimicking a kind of oblivion, long after the reader has got the point, his main character is fully alive, if that word applies to such a bloodless man. Alive but culturally at sea. He is Korean-Japanese-American, but does not really bear the characteristics of any of these—the mark, perhaps, of permanent dislocation.

* * *

The story begins in Bedley Run, the kind of well-mannered, plush, constipated place that the Taiwanese director Ang Lee caught so well in his film The Ice Storm, based on Rick Moody’s novel. The model for Moody’s town was New Canaan, Connecticut. This is the same kind of place. Hata, as the pillar of the local community, the master of gracious thank-you notes and a million polite but always distant attentions, has built himself a secluded suburban fortress, set in a neighborhood of antiquated stone walls, whitewashed horse fences, and fine properties hidden behind tall trees.

Hata is a committed bachelor. Only one woman, named Mary Burns, a well-bred, well-dressed, discreet, handsome, no longer very young country club woman, almost cracks his shell. They have a rather sedate affair, sleeping together “with a genuinely pleasing, if sober, conviviality.” But Hata eases his way out of any commitment in the end, and remains “sovereign.” Again, Lee imagines this with a mastery of understatement. They sit by the fire one day, Hata and Mary Burns, enjoying the warmth of the fire and their cups of tea, and Hata suggests that she might move in with him. And then:

When I spoke the words she had to stop sipping and put down her mug. Her usually placid expression broke open first in shock and then pleased wonder, and I knew I had slipped most horribly. In the ensuing quiet I had already sensed that cold pitch of gravity and dissolve, as though something was dying in a corner of the room, invisibly and wordlessly. I didn’t actually retract my suggestion, then or in the following days, nor did I repeat it, simply hoping instead for a gradual expiration. Of course, the whole thing did expire, and without further discussion, and almost exactly in the manner one would have wished.

As a kind of substitute for love, Hata showers people with kindness. This is because he is terrified of failing people. He has the ever-ready smile of the outsider, buying his acceptance through ingratiation. But it also helps to keep others at a distance, for it makes him more unassailable; the man who never needs help himself, but always dispenses it to others—hence, too, perhaps, the sobriquet of “Doc,” even though he was never a medical doctor. As his adopted daughter, Sunny, Korean-born like himself, tells Hata in a fit of rage, he burdens people with his generosity. And when terrible things happen to other people—fatal crashes, heart attacks, last-minute abortions—he feels as though he is a harbinger of death, which makes him even more solicitous, piling on ever greater debts of gratitude.

Emotional debt and emotional chilliness poison Hata’s relationship with Sunny, a serious blow, for she is his closest connection to another human life. Although the father-daughter relationship is well described, it is the one element in the story that sometimes feels contrived. Sunny’s role in the story is too obvious. The mechanics are too plainly visible. She is Hata’s penance for not being able to save the Korean “comfort woman.” He will save her instead. But obligation is not the same thing as love; in fact, one rather cancels out the other. Hata felt obligated to the Japanese parents who adopted him, but was incapable of loving them. Sunny cannot love him either, but refuses to be obligated. So she breaks free, by tearing down all the carefully constructed walls of his American-Oriental gentility. She goes off to live on the wrong side of town, in a derelict house full of lowlifes, petty thieves, and dopeheads.

One night Hata goes looking for his rebellious daughter, and sneaks up on her among the squatters, just as she is dancing half-naked in front of two drunken men, one a greasy punk named Jimmy Gizzi, the other a black man with an afro, who kisses her body as she sways to the music. Nothing suggests that Sunny is being forced. She is the mistress of her own degradation. For once, Hata’s feelings threaten to get out of control. He can hardly bear to watch, and wishes he could feel nothing for the girl. But then he slinks off, without having revealed his presence, soundlessly, “my blood already trying to forget, growing cold.”

There is a reconciliation of sorts between father and daughter. She has a child, after an earlier pregnancy ended in a late abortion—another smudge on their relationship, since Hata himself had insisted upon and actively assisted in that abortion. Her former black lover is the absent father. Hata feels a tenderness for the boy that he has never experienced before. But Sunny pretends to her son that Hata is just an old friend. Never having felt part of a family, she cannot pretend to have one now. Hata sometimes dreams of being reborn to “a brand-new life, fresh and hopeful and unfettered.” But all he and Sunny can hope for now is to take comfort in each other’s presence, for they are doomed to be among life’s orphans to the end. Hata finally sells his sheltered fortress by the pool, and decides to travel, perhaps far away, across the ocean, and come back to a place that is “almost home.”

* * *

Chang-rae Lee is an Asian-American, and his novel is about an Asian-American. This is not as exotic as it sounds; the story of America has often been told by immigrants or outsiders of one kind or another. The second book under review, by Ha Jin, is a more unusual piece of work. For Jin (“Ha” is a pen name which suggests a Manchurian connection) grew up in northeast China, served in the People’s Liberation Army, and only came to the US in 1985, when he was twenty-nine. His novel is set in China, during the 1970s. You might say it is a Chinese novel written in English.

The main character of Jin’s story is curiously similar to “Doc” Hata, except that he is a real medical doctor in the Chinese army. Like Hata, Lin Kong is an emotionally repressed man, always wanting to stick to the rules, and waiting for life to begin. Like Hata, he is afraid of letting anybody down and in the process lets almost everybody down. And yet the setting of the story could not be farther removed from the hushed gardens of Westchester.

Lin Kong works in an army hospital in the bleak, sooty, industrial northeast of China. As a young man he was pressed into a marriage with an uneducated village woman, who was so backward that she still had bound feet. He had agreed for traditional reasons: the match was arranged so that his wife could look after his sick mother. He had done the right filial thing. Naturally, love did not blossom; but that was not the point. Equally naturally, he began to have deeper feelings for his head nurse, named Manna, and she for him. The 1970s still being puritanical times, however, they could do nothing about it. Men were not even allowed to be seen with female comrades outside the hospital compound unless they were engaged or married. And so, year after year, during his leave, Dr. Lin returns to his wife’s village to ask for a divorce, and year after year she first consents and then refuses.

According to another hospital rule, a man can divorce his wife without her consent only after seventeen years of separation. After the eighteenth year Lin and his head nurse are able to marry at last, but by then it is already too late. They have waited too long. He can’t satisfy the younger woman’s passion. Disillusion seeps in. She gets seriously ill, and does not expect to live long. He feels guilty about the way he has handled his life, and yearns for the more comforting presence of the old peasant wife and their loving daughter, Hua. They would like him back too. So he waits for Manna to die, and longs for the day he will finally be able to go “home.” And just then Manna gets better again.

* * *

It is a bleak story told in cool and only occasionally awkward English prose. Jin describes a society caught between the constraints of half-surviving traditions and the even harsher chains of Communist rule. The dampers on Lin’s emotional life are not all of his own making. To live as a Chinese under Mao, and remain a decent, feeling human being, was an almost impossible task, for ethics were turned upside down: it was good to denounce your loved ones, and indeed bad to indulge in love at all, unless it was for the Party and the Chairman. Jin only deals with the political horrors of Chinese communism obliquely. The Cultural Revolution is already over when the story unfolds. And the fear of doing the wrong thing, of falling foul of Party rules, of thinking the wrong thoughts, and so on, has been internalized by his characters. They—especially Lin—are constantly watching their backs without even realizing it.

Despairing of his chances of getting a divorce, and feeling guilty about Manna becoming a hopeless spinster on his behalf, Lin introduces her to his unmarried cousin. The cousin is an artist and shows Manna his drawings for a children’s book. They are of a battle in which Vietcong troops wipe out Americans. One illustration shows a black soldier and a white officer yelling “help!” after being impaled on bamboo stakes. But he explains that the publisher has rejected them. He was told that Americans were no longer the main enemy. Now they wanted pictures criticizing Confucius, in line with the latest political campaign. Manna asks him why he doesn’t draw what he likes, and he says: “It’s so hard to predict the wind. If I take up a project now, by the time I’m done with it, it will probably be out of fashion.”

This is well observed. Jin doesn’t belabor the fact that getting the “fashions” wrong could mean serious trouble in China. But the tyranny of propaganda is clear, and so is its whimsical, even absurd nature. And yet the conversation sounds entirely normal; it is the way people talk even in abnormal circumstances. Indeed, it is the surface normality of his characters that makes the novel so arresting, the sense that “normal” life goes on, despite all the political madness. For human feelings can be repressed, sublimated, or distorted, but never eradicated entirely. Despite the official puritanism, the earthiness of Chinese life still emerges—in jokes among the nurses, or open talk among the officers. There are two descriptions of sexual acts in the novel, one brutal, the other loving. Both show different sides of repression.

* * *

Manna is raped by a fellow officer of Lin’s. He is everything Lin is not, a violent, macho figure with a raw appetite, who always goes for and gets what he wants, the kind of brute who will survive under any system. He ridicules Lin for not having sex with Manna. And so he rapes her, pushing her face down on the bed. She struggles, and he grunts: “‘Shut up! My cock is designed to blast into an old virgin like you.’ As he was speaking, he pressed his organ into her, thrusting away like a dog.” She decides not to say anything, for fear that no one will believe her anyway. After all, women had sex with officers and Party bosses all the time, in exchange for favors. Sex is just another currency. The rapist, one is not surprised to hear, goes on to get very rich, when money-making has become the latest Party line.

The other scene takes place at the hospital’s theater. The doctors and nurses gather to see an opera about the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 (wicked Japanese imperialism is always a worthy subject). Manna has kept a place for Lin beside her. Such indiscretion frightens Lin, but he sits down anyway and accepts a candy from her hand. “City girls, they’re so bold, he said to himself.”

The lights dim, fierce battles take place on stage, and her hand finds his in the dark.

Gently her fingertips stroked his palm, as though tracing his heart and head lines. He touched her hand and felt it was warm and smooth, without any callus…. She pinched the ball of his thumb a little, and in return he felt her pinkie, twisting it back and forth for a while. Then she caressed his wrist with her nail…. The two hands remained motionless for a moment, then turned over, engaged in a kind of mutual massage for a long time. Lin’s heart was thumping.

…When the curtain fell, all the lights came on and people continued shouting “Down with Japanese Imperialism!” Lin gazed into Manna’s eyes, which were gleaming intensely, her pupils radiant like a bird’s. Her moist lips curled with a dreamy smile as though she were drunk. Slightly dizzy himself, he stood up and hurried away for fear that others might see his face, which was burning hot.

To find this kind of erotic charge in Western literature you would have to go back many years. The lifting of social restraints in our society has been a liberation in many ways, but it has also caused a kind of literary, and indeed cinematic, inflation. We need greater and greater shock effects to feel anything much at all. Perhaps part of our intense interest in a novel such as this one, or indeed Chang-rae Lee’s, is that they have revived something that was once the stuff of drama in so much of our literature, namely the tension between social duties and human feelings.

The Japanese call them giri (obligation) and ninjo (human feelings). Kabuki plays, as well as many Japanese films, up until about ten years or so ago, and indeed popular songs, revolved around the contradiction of the two, and often ended in suicide as the only way out. The suicidal theme is played with in Chang-rae Lee’s novel in a subtle way: “Doc” Hata often dreams of oblivion: “…If I could trade all my years to be at some early moment and never go forward again, I would do so without question or any dread.” Of course, Westchester, or indeed Communist China, is not Japan. Giri and ninjo are played out in different ways in different places and different times. But what is so convincing about the novels under review is not their “Oriental” atmosphere, but quite the opposite: we can still recognize ourselves in characters and predicaments that might seem, superficially, exotic.

* * *

Minority voices have become popular in modern literature. Many large bookstores in Britain and America have special sections for gay or black books, which range from fiction to political or cultural theory. One will find Edmund White’s novels on the gay shelves, and James Baldwin’s on the black ones. Such categorizing can be dubious: Was Christopher Isherwood a “gay author” or a novelist who happened to have been homosexual? At any rate, minority voices often sound fresh, simply because they were not heard before, at least in the mainstream marketplace. Even mediocre writers can be of interest as messengers from unfamiliar cultures and social milieux. Some minority writers, especially from the Asian continent, deliberately play up the exoticism of their imaginary worlds, creating, in English, a kind of Orientalist universe, full of lurid and dreamlike imagery—not a “white” fantasy, perhaps, but a fantasy nonetheless. Others conform to our (and maybe their own) expectations of what other cultures are supposed to be like. This tends to be the case particularly when the authors are culturally at home in the West, even if their parents or grandparents were not. The very British writer Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two novels about Japan, full of delicacy and Oriental restraint, before moving on to Western subjects. He knew little about Japan, apart from what he managed to glean from the movies and his immigrant parents, but to start off with “Japanese” novels in English was a smart career move. The Oriental reputation, however, can stick.

The critical reception of Ishiguro’s first “English” novel, The Remains of the Day, about an English butler, was striking. Reviewers often described the butler as a geisha-like character, and his emotional constipation and sense of duty as very “Japanese” (as though all Orientals were emotionally challenged). Here, too, categorizing can be a problem. I have seen Ishiguro’s books shelved among Japanese literary classics in bookshops all over the world. Perhaps Ha Jin’s novel will become a “Chinese” classic. And yet such classifications do these fictions a disservice. For Jin is more than a cultural messenger. And Ishiguro is hardly a messenger at all. What Jin, Ishiguro, and indeed Chang-rae Lee have done, given their oddly angled perspectives, is reopen subjects which most Western authors can only treat with irony: marriage, family relations, the boundaries set by social obligations. It is no accident that Ang Lee, the Taiwanese filmmaker, was so good at dramatizing a Jane Austen novel. Her world is in some ways akin to the one he grew up in. And so is the world described by Ha Jin.

The difference between Jane Austen and authors writing about Asian subjects is, however, that her readers knew the society she described intimately. Irony was her main comic tool, but irony is only possible when references are shared. The same is true of wordplay and the use of slang: these can only be understood by readers who share a great deal of cultural knowledge. Much of Alfred Döblin’s masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, will be missed by those who cannot read German, and more specifically, the 1920s working-class Berlin version of German. The fact that it still holds up in translation is proof that it is indeed a masterpiece. But it is the kind of book Jin would be unable to write.

Ishiguro’s last novel was deliberately set in an unidentified country, a kind of generic West, which might have been anywhere. Amin Malouf, a Lebanese writer who lives in France and writes his novels in French, claims that he never uses wordplay or slang, because he is not French and wants to be understood in any language. In this kind of global literature there is little room for the linguistic and cultural playfulness that breathes so much life into books such as Berlin Alexanderplatz or indeed Joyce’s Ulysses. The fact that cultural references are either not shared or deliberately rejected by writers like Ha Jin or Kazuo Ishiguro explains the lack of irony in their novels. But you can get too much of irony and in-jokes. The so-called “Hampstead novel,” a well-trodden and often well-crafted British genre describing the social world of upper-middle-class Londoners, choked on them. And the same may be true of currently modish “New York novels,” which rarely stray very far from a small patch of urban landscape between Columbus Circle and Tribeca. By stripping their stories of irony, cultural allusions, and exotic ornament, writers with complicated backgrounds can restore a classical purity to our languages, and even bring us a little closer to the ground of our shared human condition. To pull this off with a Korean-Japanese-American character in Westchester is hard enough; to do it with a story set in the grimy northeast of China is a high achievement indeed.

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Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in Maro...

Reviewed in This Article

A Gesture Life
by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead, 356 pp.

Waiting
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 308 pp.

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This article was first published in the March 23, 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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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...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

Perry Link
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 “...

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...

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...

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...

‘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,{vertical_image} 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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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: 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...

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...

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...

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,...

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...

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...

‘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...

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...

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,...

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...

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...

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 socialist...

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
veryone 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 counterrevolutionary...

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...