Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Is There Enough Chinese Food?


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 importance to the rest of the world.

Even those with more than an incidental interest in China are justifiably confused about the topic. Their understanding has been shaped by writers whose widely publicized works give oddly different versions of Chinese peasant life. Some may remember Franklin King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, a book that praised the virtues of China’s traditional organic agriculture. Then at least two generations of Americans became acquainted with the hardships of a prototypical peasant family in Pearl Buck’s best seller The Good Earth, which is filled with descriptions of backbreaking labor and rough, garlic-flavored gruels.

In the early 1970s, after two decades of suspended Sino-American ties, the first wave of American visitors to China brought back uplifting reports of plentiful harvests, with photographs of well-nourished, rosy-cheeked children gathered in communal kindergartens under the obligatory portraits of the Great Helmsman. These travelers did not suspect that beyond the rehearsed dances in show communes was a countryside the size of a continent in which tens of millions of peasants were almost starving. Nor did they suspect that only a dozen years before their visit, Mao’s lunatic Great Leap had plunged China into the greatest famine in human history. Some thirty million people died in three years.

* * *

The blindness of those reports, and the falsity of countless official statements about an ever better state of farming in China, were exposed by Deng Xiaoping’s radical rural reforms. His efforts to abolish communal farms began gingerly in 1979 and gained momentum rapidly during the early 1980s. There would not have been any need to abandon the practice of communal farming had it been as rewarding as portrayed by Communist Party communiqués and by underinformed Western visitors.

In fact, even with strict food rationing, a quarter century of collective farming resulted in a system that could produce barely enough food to provide China’s people with no more than a subsistence-level diet, based on low-quality rice and other staples. And for at least 100 million peasants, it did not provide even the necessary minimum.

Under the privatization program that began in 1980, the land still belonged to the state, but the peasants were free to plant crops and to breed animals more or less as they wished. Within five years China’s per capita supply of calories amounted to nearly 90 percent of that of Japan. Moreover, this rise was accompanied by impressive gains in quality. Rice became whiter, which is much preferred in China; traditionally rare delicacies ranging from fat ducks to fragrant ginger became commonplace; pork was no longer eaten only on a few festive days; and newly dug ponds began filling with carp.

When food rationing was eventually abolished, the Chinese press repeated the boast long made by (commonly rotund) officials at meetings abroad: China feeds one fifth of the world’s population from just one fifteenth of the world’s arable land. Indeed, 1984 was the largest grain harvest in Chinese history; the next year the country actually became a net exporter of grain.

* * *

During the 1980s unprecedented numbers of Americans visited the country, but only those who strayed from the usual rounds of the big cities and famous sights saw the misery and continuing malnutrition in the deforested and heavily eroded hills of Gansu and Ningxia in the arid northwest, or in the decrepit villages clinging to steep, eroded hillsides in the subtropical valleys in Guangxi in the south and Yunnan in the southwest.

It could easily be argued that such inequities must be expected in any country of China’s size and stage of economic development. After all, even in the United States, as a Harvard study concluded, hunger—which is defined as a chronic shortage of nutrients needed for growth and good health—affected about twelve million children and eight million adults, or about a twelfth of the country’s population, during the late 1980s.1

Although grain harvests in China did not grow in size for several years after the record 1984 crop, the average per capita food supply continued to increase slightly in quantity and appreciably in quality. Consumption of once-scarce plant oils—mostly from rapeseed, sunflowers, peanuts, and soybeans—more than doubled during the 1980s. (During the 1970s they were rationed at as little as half a liter a month per family, or about one tablespoon per day: try to stir-fry two meals for four people with that.) Retail sales of pork and poultry more than doubled, and the output of fish nearly quintupled.

A good harvest in 1990 surpassed the 1984 yield by almost 10 percent, and yet another record was set in 1993. Even a casual observer had to be impressed by the quantity and variety of food piled up in markets and displayed in the many newly opened stores. A more careful observer could not fail to notice a great deal of waste of food in China’s largest cities, particularly in the mess halls of China’s workplaces.

* * *

But in the summer of 1994 Lester Brown, president of Washington’s Worldwatch Institute, published an article arguing that China was rapidly losing the capacity to feed itself. According to Brown’s analysis of the record, China’s grain output had reached its peak and would drop by at least 20 percent by the year 2030.2 China’s increasing prosperity would move the country toward consuming more expensive foods—much as has happened in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan since World War II—as consumers demanded more and more meat, plant oils, and sugar.

Since China’s population, which is currently just over 1.2 billion, will almost certainly surpass 1.5 billion by the year 2025, Brown wrote, the country will find it impossible to satisfy its huge demand for food with its domestic production alone. China’s food deficit will put an unbearable strain on the global food market because its growing imports, which could potentially be much larger than today’s entire global grain export capacity, will push up prices of grains, oils, and meat worldwide.

In Who Will Feed China?, a short book subtitled Wake-up Call for a Small Planet, Brown offers an expanded but fundamentally unchanged version of his 1994 conclusions. His analysis of China’s food prospects rests on a series of assumptions about what, to him, appear to be irrevocable trends: China’s consumers are “moving up the food chain,” the country is losing arable land, running out of water, and exhausting its opportunities for further major increases in yields.

Moving up the food chain—that is, eating less grain such as rice or wheat but consuming more meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, plant oils, fruits, and vegetables—is a pattern found in all modernizing countries that have rising personal incomes. China is no exception. Since 1980, major increases in per capita consumption in all of these categories have brought the Chinese dietary pattern closer to that of East Asia’s richest economies.

Because China has only a limited amount of grazing land, it does not have North America’s option of producing large amounts of range-fed beef. Because most of the world’s major fishing grounds are already heavily overexploited, China cannot follow the Japanese path of securing a large share of high-quality animal protein from the sea. Consequently, China’s meat, whether from farm animals of farmed fish, will have to come overwhelmingly from the use of feed grain. Rising consumption of beer and liquor will further increase the demand for grain, above all for barley, sorghum, and rice.

The amount of farmland is decreasing throughout the world, but the decrease in China has been particularly sharp. Rapid modernization after 1980 greatly increased the annual rate of loss through a combination of new rural and urban housing construction, unprecedented growth of manufactures for export, and highway expansion. New peasant housing is rarely built on previously built-up sites; new factories usually take over highly productive land around cities and towns, and government policies promote the American rather than the Japanese approach to intercity transport. Instead of building bullet trains, the Chinese are constructing concrete freeways.

* * *

Because Brown believes that China’s losses of farmland will follow established East Asian patterns of decline, his conclusions are extremely bleak. Since World War II the three rich East Asian nations have lost almost half of their farmland, with average declines of 1.2 percent a year. Should China follow the pattern, its farmland will be reduced by half by the year 2030.

Moreover, Brown notes, in the countries that were densely populated before intensive industrialization began, extensive losses of farmland have been accompanied by widespread abandonment of small marginal plots, and by the declining use of crop rotation, which is vital to keeping soil fertile and yields high. Grain lands are being converted to the more lucrative cultivation of vegetables and fruits. Official statistics show that the practice of reaping several harvests from the same field has been growing in China during the early 1990s, but Brown believes that it is just about to begin a relentless decline. Two other trends are already evident: vegetable acreage is now about 2.5 times what it was in 1980, and reports of abandoned marginal farmland have been increasingly common as peasants leave in search of better economic opportunities in towns and cities.

Even if China could slow the rate of growth by which it is losing farmland—a virtual impossibility in Brown’s view—its future harvests will be limited by water shortages and by the difficulty of raising average crop yields. He predicts a worsening of the water shortages already so evident throughout northern China as growing cities and industries compete with agriculture for water. Even an increase in the region’s supply through a huge transfer of water from the Yangtze river to the northern regions will not, he concludes, relieve the north of severe shortages of water. And while he allows that future crop yields may rise, he believes that this will happen so slowly that year-to-year changes will be hardly perceptible.

Because Brown considers all these trends to be virtually unstoppable, his conclusion is that China is heading toward catastrophe. As incomes rise, China’s demand for feed grain to produce meat and fish will keep growing—from less than a quarter of the country’s grain output in 1994 to half, or even more, the proportion typical for industrialized countries. Since there will be no conceivable way to satisfy this demand through domestic grain production (which will be actually declining), the only recourse will be vast, and increasing, imports of grain. This will lead not only to a global increase in food prices but—because Brown does not see any possibility for a major expansion of export supplies—also to world shortages of staple cereals.

Brown predicts that China’s purchases will lead to such a tight market for grain that major exporters in North America, Australia, and Europe could be forced to put limits on foreign sales in order to prevent domestic prices from skyrocketing. On the other hand, if China is not able to rely on the global market during the coming generation, where will it get its grain once it loses half its farmland and at least a fifth of its harvests?


How valid is the reasoning behind these apocalyptic predictions? Lester Brown is, of course, a professional catastrophist, a persistent doomsayer who has been turning out forecasts of dire food shortages, crippling energy crises, and planetary environmental collapse since the early 1970s. Only Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich can rival him in his long record of prophesying doom. Brown notes with satisfaction in the foreword to Who Will Feed China? that his latest doomsday scenario has brought him more attention than anything he has published. No small achievement.

To Lester Brown, problems, setbacks, and complications are not merely normal facts of managing—or often just muddling through—an unruly and ever-changing reality. Rather, they tend to be harbingers of an immense global trauma. In the short run this gets him attention—but in the long run he has, much like his confrere Paul Ehrlich, repeatedly been shown to be wrong.

A single example will illustrate this point. In 1974, when OPEC’s oil price increases were for a while dramatically misinterpreted by energy “experts” as unmistakable signs of the world’s running out of fossil fuels, The Futurist magazine noted that Brown “refuses to own an automobile and uses public transportation, so that more energy can go into food production.” Brown’s fear of oil “running out” was so great that he urged us to conserve precious energy for only the most essential of all uses, growing food.

Even readers completely uninterested in energy matters know what in fact happened. A generation after Brown’s sacrifice, the world’s crude oil ratio of reserves to production is at a record high level of nearly fifty years (i.e., even if we didn’t drill a single new exploratory well and invested in no new oil-field development, there is enough crude oil to last us nearly half a century at the 1995 rate of consumption). Adjusted for inflation, oil prices are barely higher than they were before OPEC’s first extortionary hike.

* * *

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Brown’s China predictions as just another scare. Concerns about China’s long-term food production capacity are valid, and many knowledgeable people, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, are far from optimistic in their long-term assessment of it. What is so exasperating about Brown’s treatment of this topic is his masterful use of highly selective evidence. Who Will Feed China? displays a skill he has been perfecting for more than two decades.

For example, he effusively acknowledges the help provided him by China experts at the US Department of Agriculture, and he cites their surveys of China’s agricultural progress; but he cannot spare a single short paragraph simply to summarize the careful reply to his dark predictions by Frederick Crook, a leading Department of Agriculture analyst. Brown approvingly quotes my analysis of China’s water shortages; but he fails to mention that I demonstrate at some length that China has much more farmland than the government officially acknowledges, a vital point that is also made very clearly in recent USDA publications.

Brown concludes that China’s large and still growing trade surpluses with the US will allow the country, if its leadership so decides, to buy up all of America’s future food exports. What he does not tell his readers is that China’s overall foreign trade has been mostly in the red during the past fifteen years of economic reforms. The country has already accumulated sizable deficits in both its trade and budget balances, and it can continue to modernize only if it constantly increases its growing imports of costly high-tech products. This is hardly a basis for the unlimited purchase of foreign grains whose prices, according to Brown, are to rise steeply in the tightening global food and feed market.

* * *

Brown’s book, to use Chinese imagery, badly needs an infusion of yang, light and possibility, to contrast with his unmitigated yin of darkness and decline, especially since he ignores or hardly mentions factors that undermine his views. Most important, there are no fundamental biophysical reasons why China’s crop yields should not be rising much faster than at Brown’s “scarcely perceptible” rate. To begin with, virtually all China’s official statistics on crop yields seriously underestimate the total amount of land under cultivation. This is partly because the government relies on reports from peasants who underestimate the size of their property in order to pay lower taxes. And, in addition, the government likes to keep its estimates of arable land low so that food production per acre will seem high. It claims only about 95 million hectares are being farmed, or a mere 0.08 hectare per capita. Among poor and populous countries (those with more than 100 million people), only Bangladesh’s mean is as low; the official Indian average is about 0.2 hectares. But in reality, as revealed by satellite monitoring carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as by detailed sample surveys throughout the country, China’s cropland amounts to at least 120 million hectares, and most likely 130—140 million hectares, or 25 to 45 percent more than the officially admitted total.

This does not mean that all official crop reports are underestimated by about one third. The government’s estimates are in fact fairly reliable for rice from the central and eastern provinces; but they may be up to 50 percent too low for crops in hilly interior regions, where the reports of the amount of land being cultivated have been notoriously unreliable. China’s current average staple grain yields are still below the average for Korea or Japan; the country’s potential to raise its crop productivity is therefore higher than the official figures would lead one to believe.

* * *

This conclusion is underscored when we see that many of China’s inefficient agricultural practices could be improved by a more realistic pricing system that would favor better management and would reward technical innovations. Agricultural efficiency in China (and not only there) can usefully be compared to the efficiency with which energy was being used throughout the world during the early 1970s. Fuel and electricity prices were so low that they discouraged any serious steps to make energy consumption less wasteful.

Gradually, China should realize enormous benefits from the use of irrigation and nitrogen-based fertilizers, the two most expensive tools in modern farming. About two thirds of China’s irrigation water is wasted, mostly because it is not realistically priced: peasants get it as cheaply (often at less than a tenth of the real cost) as do the heavily subsidized farmers of California, who are also notorious wasters of water.

Much water could also be saved without high capital investment if crops were more appropriately matched to terrain and climate and if the amount of the water used for irrigation were diminished by using low-cost sensors to limit excessive flows. (Inexpensive electrical resistance meters can do the trick.) Better-lined canals could prevent seepage. Raising the average irrigation efficiency from today’s 35 percent to about 50 percent a generation from now (a level still far below the rates achievable through today’s best irrigation techniques) would expand China’s agricultural water supply by 40 percent without tapping any new sources.

Improvements in the efficiency of fertilizers should come first of all by gradually shutting down the thousands of small fertilizer factories making ammonium bicarbonate. This compound—still about a third of China’s total output of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers—is highly volatile; even before it is applied to fields, a large fraction of it is lost because of shoddy packaging and careless distribution and storage. As a result the actual use of nitrogen is substantially lower than official statistics imply—and so the potential to raise yields by using more fertilizer is consequently higher.

* * *

Many other measures could be taken. Much attention is paid to increasing food supply, but too little is said about opportunities for reducing waste once the crops are grown. China’s performance has been particularly poor in this respect. A recent five-year survey by Chinese agricultural economists of grain losses in the leading cereal-producing provinces found that about 15 percent of the crop is lost annually during harvesting, threshing, drying, storage, transport, and processing.

Moreover, if we take account of the waste in hundreds of thousands of labor-unit mess halls, and the losses from inefficient animal feeding and from wasteful fermenting of alcohol, we can almost double the figure for crop loss; we can therefore estimate that the equivalent of fifty million tons of staple grain is being wasted. Reducing this waste by just one third would boost annual grain availability by almost twenty million tons, more than the annual total of recent grain imports.

Producing pork more efficiently would have to be central to any such effort. Most of China’s pigs are still not fed a well-balanced diet but live on various kinds of locally available plants, which are usually deficient in protein. Not surprisingly, Chinese pigs take at least twice as long to reach slaughter weight as American pigs (twelve versus six months) and even then their carcasses are, on the average, 40 percent lighter. And the hundreds of millions of chickens roaming China’s farmyards take three times as long to reach a slaughter weight lower than that of American broilers. The use of mixed feeds and better breeding would lower China’s current ratio of feed to meat from more than four to just over three for pigs, and from much above three to just over two for chickens.

Finally, there is the possibility of more intelligent nutritional choices. Per capita meat consumption in Taiwan, a country whose average purchasing power is at least five times China’s mean, has leveled off at about sixty kilograms a year, with pork accounting for about half of the total. At more than twenty kilograms a year per capita, China’s recent pork consumption has been almost as high as Taiwan’s. A great deal of feed could be saved if most of the additional demand for meat were to be met, as in Taiwan, by broilers rather than by pork. More high-quality animal protein could come from fish, whose intensive farming will also require good mixed feeds. Cold-blooded carp are much better at converting feed to meat than warm-blooded domestic animals.

Milk is, of course, the best animal source of high-quality protein. Each kilogram of concentrated feed can produce one kilogram of milk—twice as much food energy as if the same food were given to the most efficiently grown broilers. It is true that the Chinese, like most other East Asians, have a very high incidence of lactose intolerance, so that they have difficulty digesting large quantities of fresh milk. But this should not be a barrier to a shift in diet. People can still beneficially drink significant amounts of whole milk, and, in any case, fermented dairy products are not difficult to digest. (Yogurt has less lactose than raw milk, and ripe, hard cheeses contain only traces of it.) Japan’s experience shows that neither widespread intolerance of lactose nor the traditional absence of milk from a nation’s food culture are obstacles to healthy consumption of dairy foods. Japan’s per capita consumption of dairy foods rose from none at all in 1945 to well over fifty kilograms a year now. (China’s mean is two kilograms.)

* * *

What should be clear is that, contrary to Lester Brown’s alarming analysis, a number of gradual improvements could potentially result in impressive gains. The most important are more efficient use of water and fertilizers; reduction of the vast amount of post-harvest waste; improved production of pork; reliance on broilers to supply most of the additional demand for meat; expanded output of farmed fish; and increased consumption of dairy products. This combination can go far to meet the country’s future nutrition needs without requiring enormous imports of foreign grain, as Brown predicts. All these improvements will require extensive reforms, but none seems beyond the capacities of the Chinese.

Though the facts Brown presents are largely correct, he dwells almost exclusively on only half of the central issue, China’s weakening capacity to feed itself. By largely neglecting the other half—the steps China can take to resolve its problems—he distorts a very complex reality. The facts he leaves out suggest that China—and the rest of the world—has at least a plausible hope for a well-fed future.

  1. J.L. Brown, “Hunger in the US,” Scientific American (February 1987), pp. 37-41.
  2. Lester R. Brown, “Feeding China,” World Watch (September-October 1994), p. 10.
Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He...
Reviewed in This Article

Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
by Lester R. Brown
Norton, 163 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 1, 1996 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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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 of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


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 Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


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 earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


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 many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


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 Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


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” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


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 City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


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 eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


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 and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


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 Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


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 allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


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 follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


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’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“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 about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


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 smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


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, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


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 northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


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 professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


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 rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


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

Debacle in Beijing


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 effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


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 prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


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 just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


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 sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


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 how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


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 affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of 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's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


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 way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


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, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


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 Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


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 viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


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 policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


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 clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.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 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


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 few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.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 vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


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 beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


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 the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


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 humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


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 intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


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 Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


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 Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


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 finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


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 pistol, and killed Professor...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


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 script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


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 dissection of the fresh...

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 Argentina. His message—that...

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 about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“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, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


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 leadership began to seek their own...

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


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 Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


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 trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


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 question about the hard-line...



1.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-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


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 from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.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 football club before noisily...

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...

Divine Killer


“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, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.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 died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.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 make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


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 their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.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 up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


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 Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


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 the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


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 on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


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 finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


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 relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


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 Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


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 army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


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 students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


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 is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


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 officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


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 struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


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 moment...

Our Mission in China


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 voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


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, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


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 far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


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 the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


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 war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


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 hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


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 in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


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 impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


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 twenty years ago. It was still...