In the Journals: Journal of Asian Studies, February 2012

The February 2012 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies opens with a trio of short articles exploring major trends in China-related publishing over the past decade. The essays, which differ widely in topic, are connected by a concern with how authors and readers understand China’s past and imagine its future.

Julia Lovell, a professor of history and translator of Chinese literature, surveys the contemporary fiction scene in China in her essay, “Finding a Place: Mainland Chinese Fiction in the 2000s.” Lovell considers the market forces—most notably the rise of Internet publishing—that have altered the landscape of the Chinese literary market. No longer supported financially by the state-run Writers’ Association, authors have experienced a new freedom in experimenting with topic and style, but are also conscious of a new need to market their work in an increasingly competitive and chaotic environment. Though Western audiences still expect to hear of books “banned in China,” Lovell argues that “much of the fight has gone out of attempts to censor literature.” She writes: “Fiction seems to enjoy considerably more freedom than television or film, particularly when discussing the recent past.” The article also includes a list of major fiction authors and their best-known works.

“Sino-Speak: Chinese Exceptionalism and the Politics of History,” by William Callahan, a specialist in international politics and Chinese foreign policy, focuses on a crop of books dealing with the “rise of China” that see China’s future written in its imperial past. Authors such as Martin Jacques (When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order) and David Kang (China Rising: Peace, Power and Order in East Asia) argue that China’s rise on the global scene cannot be understood in terms of convergence with the West. Instead, they expect China to follow a unique path informed by its history—or, in Callahan’s interpretation of their views, the stories told about that history. Callahan terms such national myths “Sino-speak,” explaining that this narrative asserts “epic History to explain China’s inevitable rise as a rejuvenation, one that returns China to its rightful place at the center of the world.” The marked over-simplification of that “epic history” is more than just an academic concern. Belief in Sino-speak can result in government officials and policymakers, both inside and outside China, seeking to shape relations according to a mental image that bears little resemblance to reality.

Finally, professor of Chinese Christopher Lupke offers JAS readers “Reflections on Situating Taiwan in Modern Chinese Cultural Studies.” Academic departments tend to relegate Taiwan to a separate sphere of Chinese studies. Lupke feels that this limits understanding of ways in which Taiwan is part of a greater Chinese cultural sphere. Though “modern China” is often equated with the mainland, Lupke cites several scholars who have written works successfully integrating Taiwan into broad discussions of modern China. Literary scholar David Der-wei Wang’s The Monster That Is History, for example, covers authors from the mainland, Taiwan, and elsewhere in the Sinophone world, and is organized by theme not geography. A narrow focus on the mainland, Lupke argues, ignores the messy reality that “the entire Chinese-speaking East Asian milieu is extremely complicated, contradictory in some ways, not easily dissected, and that political borders do not always mark the terminus of scholarly inquiry.”