Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of nine books on China, including Mandate of Heaven (Touchstone, 1995).
"Perhaps the best way to understand contemporary China is to read an author who never wrote a word on it: Primo Levi. In books like The Drowned and the Saved (Vintage, 1989) and The Reawakening (Touchstone, 1995), Levi writes about the difficult necessity of remembering the past, of memorializing the past, of continuing to reflect on the past. The Chinese, however, are currently gripped by a numbing bout of historical amnesia. There is an expression commonly used whenever anyone mentions the past: Bie shuole! which roughly translates, 'Let's just not talk about it.' To understand this deficit of attention to memory, one might well read Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Free Press, 1997), by Jasper Becker. Becker reconstructs in agonizing detail the famine during the early Sixties in which twenty to thirty million people died--a famine that the world didn't hear about for several decades. In illuminating this vital episode in China's brutal revolutionary period, Becker helps us understand how hard it can be for a people to reckon with a past so filled with self-destructiveness."
Merle Goldman, professor of Chinese history at Boston University and author of Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era (Harvard, 1994).
"There is no more pleasurable and accessible way to learn about the tumultuous and revolutionary events in China's twentieth-century history than to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Anchor, 1992), by Jung Chang. It is a compelling memoir of three generations of Chinese women: the grandmother, a concubine, who lived through the warlord period of the Twenties and Thirties; the mother, who grew up during the Sino-Japanese war and helped to bring the communists to power in 1949; and the daughter, the author, who grew up in the era of Mao Zedong and became a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (19661976). The author's parents, who were true believers in the revolution, endured humiliation and torture, and her father became insane. Unlike her grandmother and parents, whose fates were determined by events beyond their control, the author, at the close of the century, has been able to determine her own life. It is a family saga that vividly evokes China's twentieth-century history."
Roderick MacFarquhar, professor of history and political science at Harvard University and author most recently of The Coming of the Cataclysm (Columbia, 1997), volume 3 of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution.
"Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, 1995), by Alastair Iain Johnston, is a radical reinterpretation of Chinese attitudes toward warfare. It contends that the Chinese are no less concerned with the use of military power than any other civilization--a point that scholars have traditionally disputed because, as Johnston demonstrates, they misread the Chinese classics." For a sense of the contemporary ramifications of these arguments, MacFarquhar recommends Mao's Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949 (M.E. Sharpe, 1992-2000), a series of translations of and commentaries on Mao's complete works, edited by Stuart Schram. "The fourth volume of a projected ten is currently in press. As a compendium of the basic ideas that led to revolution in China, it should appeal not just to the specialist reader but to anyone with an interest in the Third World and in revolution--indeed, to anyone interested in twentieth-century history itself."
E. Bruce Brooks, research professor of Chinese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-author of The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors (Columbia, 1997).
Brooks recommends what he calls "a breakthrough tool": The ICS Ancient Chinese Texts Concordance Series (Commercial Press of Hong Kong, 1992), a concordance of the standard texts of classical China complied under the supervision of D.C. Lau of Hong Kong University. "The concordances superintended by William Hung in the Thirties gave scholars access to a limited inventory of texts. The Lau project, sixty years later, builds on that foundation and will eventually include ninety-three titles in both conventional and electronic format. If I were limited to a week with one book, I would spend it with one of these--perhaps the writings of the school of Mencius, with their arresting focus on human rights issues, or one of the classic military treatises--not to learn what someone else sees in the text but to see how far I can find my own way into it. This series prepares the ground for the breakthrough scholarship of the next sixty years."
Angela Zito, assistant professor of religion at Barnard College, co-editor of Body, Subject, and Power in China (Chicago, 1994), and author of Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in 18th-Century China (Chicago, forthcoming).
Zito hails the work of Craig Clunas. "In Superfluous Things (University of Illinois, 1992), Clunas explores manuals of connoisseurship that detailed the proper accoutrements for a literate Ming dynasty gentleman. He then demonstrates how these handbooks became valued accoutrements themselves. His Fruitful Sites: Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China (Duke, 1996) treats the Ming garden as a similar site for accumulating both economic and moral value. Agricultural spaces originally intended to satisfy household needs, gardens were later modeled after paintings--objects of luxurious consumption in their own right. Both these studies of anxious seventeenth-century elites combine a rare sensitivity to local Chinese practices with an insistence on their relevance to the rest of the world. Clunas's books are genuine contributions to overcoming stereotypes of an aestheticized, timeless Orient."
Lionel M. Jensen, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke, forthcoming).
Jensen particularly values works that break with the long tradition of portraying China as the inscrutable antithesis of the West. "James L. Hevia's brilliant account of a famous Chinese-British encounter in the eighteenth century, Cherishing Men From Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 (Duke, 1995), undermines the notion of a primitive China rolled over by a sophisticated West by emphasizing the ritualistic, cosmological components of England's imperial project and the instrumental rationality inherent in China's resistance to it. For compelling social history, you can't beat Philip A. Kuhn's Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Harvard, 1990), which has the breathtaking turns of the best detective fiction. It interprets the Chinese state's brutal investigation of a reported epidemic of 'soul stealing' in the south of China as a hysterical response to the fear of class revolt as the middle kingdom entered its modern period: The national economy had reached a point where increased production could not solve growing disparities in income--a state of affairs Kuhn compares to Lester Thurow's interpretation of the contemporary United States as a 'zero-sum society.'"
Michael Schoenhals, director of the Lund University Center for Asian Studies in Lund, Sweden and editor of China's Cultural Revolution, 19661969: Not a Dinner Party (M.E. Sharpe, 1996).
"Past Western writings on the Cultural Revolution," Schoenhals says, "relegated working men and women to a dimly lit part of the historical stage. The perspective adopted by academic writers and journalists alike put Mao firmly at the center, interacting almost exclusively with intellectuals, military men, and professional politicians. In their groundbreaking Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution (Westview, 1997), Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun boldly shift that conventional perspective and put China's urban workers in focus. As a result, their book succeeds like no other in clarifying what drove ordinary people to political activism, in illuminating the complex social history of the Cultural Revolution, and in challenging some of our most cherished beliefs about state-society relations in Mao's China."
Elizabeth J. Perry, professor of government at Harvard University, author of Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor (Stanford, 1993), and co-author of Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution (Westview, 1997).
Perry recommends a work that questions "the once-dominant structural explanations of the origins of Chinese communism." R. Keith Schoppa's Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China (California, 1995), she says, "sets a new standard for histories of the Chinese revolution. This beautifully written book chronicles the life and death of one of the more enigmatic figures of revolutionary China, the activist Shen Dingyi. In telling the story in a most unlikely form--that of a murder mystery--Schoppa shows us just how uncertain and contingent the course of the Chinese revolution really was."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.